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Wannabes and Maybes

Gov. George W. Bush is not running for president, at least not until the exploration is complete.

Gov. George W. Bush is not running for president, at least not until the exploration is complete.

Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, who would succeed Bush should the governor a), decide to run, and b), win occupancy in the White House, says he's perfectly happy where he is now.

A handful of Republican senators have served notice that there should be no unseemly House-like "Speaker" race to succeed Perry, should that come to pass, but also say in turn that they would be honored to have the support of their colleagues for that position, if it comes to that.

And if that's not enough action based on speculation, the Republicans in the House say that they're not signing pledge cards for House Speaker J.E. "Pete" Laney, D-Hale Center, or for anybody else until after the elections in November 2000. They've signed a letter saying their goal is to elect a Republican majority and not to knock Laney out of his chair on the dais.

Here we go, playing "If, If, If" again. The latest round of the game was started by Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, who made a subtle but unmistakable move to lead the Senate if the current occupant of the lieutenant governor's office has to move on to become the governor. His letter to the other 30 senators says, in essence, that there's been a lot of speculation, that he's been asked what he would do, that he's concerned about the effects of the speculation on the Senate, that he finds consideration of him as a candidate flattering, that he would like to serve if called, that he won't campaign for the office and that he won't make any promises or commitments on the subject.

It's actually sort of a masterpiece, putting Ratliff in the race, snagging the high ground and keeping everything in play all with just one letter.

Excuse Me, Did I Bump into Your Presumption?

Ratliff's letter was followed, for anyone who asked, by a statement from Sen. David Sibley, R-Waco, another Senate leader often mentioned in lite gov speculations. He says he hasn't asked for support, nor been asked for support, that it's premature to talk about it, and that the state already has Perry in the job. Oh, and he adds that he'd be interested in the job if the office becomes vacant.

All of this made it to reporters, and Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, picked up his morning paper and read the headline "Ratliff Voices Interest in Perry's Job." By the end of the day, Bivins was in the game with a letter that mimicked Ratliff's: There's speculation, it could be disruptive, the Senate should have a "campaign-free" process, and, um, Bivins would be deeply honored to have the job.

The running joke now is that if senators were to elect a new lieutenant governor using a secret ballot, the result would be a 31-way tie.

We wrote last week about House Republicans signing a so-called "Memorandum of Commitment" that has them agreeing not to participate in a speakers race, to run for speaker, or to commit to a candidate before the November elections. The original idea was to get signatures from the handful of Republicans who are actively interested in succeeding Laney, but the memo attracted more than 60 signers. And then, on second thought, a few members decided to pull their names off.

Some House members -- four freshmen leading the way -- signed and then tried to get their names off. But they were talked back onto the list of signatories by their more tenured colleagues, who said it wouldn't look good to jump in with the rest of the GOP and then jump back out. One House Republican put it succinctly: "It's going to be hard to be part of the (GOP) leadership if you're not a part of winning the majority."

Which Horse is Charismatic?

The last several races for lieutenant governor were outside jobs with no senators in the hunt, and most of the handicappers we know have never seen the Senate equivalent of a speakers' race. In fact, the last lieutenant governor who had even been a senator, Preston Smith, left the lite gov's office in 1969 when he was elected governor. (Smith was promoted from the Senate after Ben Ramsey quit the lieutenant governor job to become a railroad commissioner in 1961, but the state simply went without a lite gov between Ramsey's resignation and Smith's election.)

The betting hasn't really started yet, but the touts are out and can make arguments for any of several senators to succeed Perry if Bush gets elected president and Perry moves into the Mansion.

The early line favors the Senate's "Holy Trinity" of Bivins, Ratliff and Sibley. They were the go-to Republicans under Bullock, and did fairly well in Perry's debut session.

Of the three, Ratliff generally gets ranked as the favorite, at least in the early stage, on the theory that he's one of a couple of Republicans who could pull some votes from Democrat senators. If this really does unfold like a race for House speaker, and if the Senate remains as balanced on a partisan basis as it is now, the next lite gov will be elected by a coalition of Republicans and Democrats.

By that same measure, some handicappers like Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown of Lake Jackson on the Republican side, and Ken Armbrister of Victoria among the Democrats.

But it's early in the game. The lobby has yet to weigh in. And Bush hasn't been elected president yet. Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, dismissed the lite gov talk this week with what is likely to be a rallying cry for senators on both sides: "Keep your power dry."

A Reminder of the Summer of 1988

On the eve of his coming out party, when George W. Bush leaves the Yellow Rose Garden for the colder precincts of Iowa and New Hampshire, the governor announced a tax promise that evoked his father's 11-year-old pledge of "Read My Lips: No New Taxes."

President George Bush famously ate those words in cutting a budget deal to get through a recession. The governor made a similar promise in a 1994 letter. Some Democrats accused him of breaking that promise with his 1995 proposal to increase sales taxes while cutting property taxes. Bush said he kept his word, since that plan didn't increase government revenues. But even with those bits of history -- maybe because of them -- the governor has now put a similar pledge on paper.

The elder Bush's promise was made in a speech to the GOP national convention. The governor's forum was a letter to the leader of an anti-tax group.

In his letter to Grover Norquist of the Americans for Tax Reform in Washington, D.C., Bush says "I will oppose and veto any increase in individual or corporate marginal income tax rates or individual or corporate tax hikes... I will also oppose any further reduction or elimination of income tax deductions and credits, unless offset dollar for dollar by reducing tax rates."

The letter says taxes cut into the economy and into people's pocketbooks. Bush says he will unveil a plan to cut taxes sometime later.

Bush, at our deadline, was starting his out-of-state fundraisers and was preparing to take off, with a national press retinue that fills a commercial-sized jet, for his first campaign runs through the early primary and caucus states. And he's paying attention to what they're interested in, "they" being the press and the political types who make up his audience right now. The same press release that announced the tax pledge also announced Bush's intention to honor the "first in the nation" status of the New Hampshire primary. He'll stay out of any state that plans to hold a primary any earlier than a week after New Hampshire.

The New Hampshire promise preceded the tax promise in the news release.

Exploratory Political Notes

Bush's schedule starts to fill out, which means Lt. Gov. Rick Perry could make some serious money over the next year-and-a-half. The number two in the executive branch gets the governor's paycheck when the governor is out of the state... The governor picks up two more governors -- George Ryan of Illinois and Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin -- and another U.S. senator -- Christopher "Kit" Bond of Missouri -- in his quest for endorsements... Their machines might be of immediate assistance: Bush is doing private fundraisers in Chicago and St. Louis before his forays into the handshake worlds of Iowa and New Hampshire. And now that he and his staff no longer have to hold out the threat of a special session, other parts of the schedule are starting to fill in. At the end of June (after the June 20 deadline for signing bills), Bush will make a run through California, hitting seven cities from San Diego to Fresno in three days... Bush might not be going to Louisiana anytime soon, because of his promise, noted earlier, to stay out of states that are trying to leapfrog New Hampshire. But the Republicans in Louisiana are looking at Internet balloting and thinking about holding a presidential preference vote online. It might not happen this year, but the proponents say it would keep lines down and increase turnout. Detractors say it could disenfranchise Republicans without computers and would present an open invitation to computer hackers of the innocent and not-so-innocent varieties... If you are the native son, U.S. Rep. John Kasich of Ohio, you can't like this: Bush finished first among presidential potentials in a recent Ohio poll, with 39 percent, followed by Elizabeth Dole, with 20 percent, followed by Kasich, with 10 percent.

Plain Old Political Notes

Take Regina Montoya off your list of suspects for the CD 5 race against U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas: She's in. Montoya filed papers, is raising money, and says she'll make an official announcement later. She's the second Democrat to file with the Federal Election Commission, and there are a couple of others still looking at the race. Republicans say Sessions will knock off challengers; Democrats contend it's a winnable district for them. Two Democrats who narrowly lost statewide races last November -- John Sharp and Bill Hobby -- both won in Sessions' district.

CD 14 Democrat Loy Sneary has not made an official announcement, either, but he is raising money for a rematch with U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Surfside. Sneary held a funder in Washington and follows in about a week with another one in Austin, co-sponsored by eight Texas congressmen and an assortment of state legislators and others. He expects that race to cost about $1.5 million.

U.S. Reps. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, and Larry Combest, R-Lubbock, found their names on the Associated Press' junket list, a dubious and extremely well-publicized distinction. That news service, which gets picked up by almost every newspaper in the state, periodically looks at travel by members of Congress, and both were mentioned. Granger, according to AP, went on an $8,366 trip to Greece at Lockheed-Martin's expense; Combest and his wife were treated to a trip to Boca Raton, Florida, by the Futures Industry Association, the trade group for the commodities futures industry.

State Rep. Robert Puente, D-San Antonio, will seek reelection next year. He was one of several folks who thought about running for the Senate seat now occupied by Sen. Gregory Luna, D-San Antonio. Luna missed the last half of the legislative session because of diabetes-related health problems. Puente's decision to try to stay in the House narrows the speculation on the Senate race. Rep. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, has told friends she will run. And Rep. Leo Alvarado, another San Antonio Democrat, is also the subject of campaign talk.

The first party-switcher of the season might be Murry Cohen of Houston, one of the dwindling number of Democrats with a place in the appeals courts there. He was under consideration at one time for a seat on the federal bench, but his brother-in-law, Gary Polland, apparently helped convince Cohen to switch. Polland is the chairman of the Harris County GOP. Cohen, one of four remaining Democrats on the Houston-based 1st Court of Appeals, is up for reelection this year.

Judges Like Judges More Than Lawyers Do

Remember last year's survey of public opinion about Texas courts and the legal profession? Well, the punishment gluttons who did that have now completed another survey, this time asking lawyers, judges and court personnel for opinions. Generally speaking, those folks think their business suffers from some perception problems, and it turns out that the profession's opinion of itself is similar, in some areas, to general public opinion.

They generally think elections should be non-partisan and generally don't like the idea of judges getting their first crack at the bench through a gubernatorial appointment. Only one in ten lawyers and one in five judges said the present system of judicial selection is the best method.

Judges put judicial selection behind the backlog of cases on their list of priorities; attorneys had the same two top priorities, but in reverse order.

The survey was done for the State Bar of Texas, the Texas Supreme Court and the state's Office of Court Administration, all three of which are interested in increasing trust and confidence in lawyers and the courts. But they've got a ways to go, even in their own ranks.

For instance, 84 percent of judges have positive overall impressions of judges, a view shared by 69 percent of their staff and 55 percent of lawyers. Four out of five judges think the courts are honest and ethical; just over half the attorneys agree. The lowest ratings on that question came from minorities, women, rural judges and lawyers, and new lawyers.

Here's one that'll make everyone happy: 70 percent of judges think judges work hard. Less than half of their employees agree with that, and only 28 percent of lawyers say the people on the bench are hardworking. Three in four judges feel the courts follow the law in their rulings; only 36 percent of attorneys hold that same view. The writers of the report say attorneys' opinions on that subject covered the range from very positive to very negative.

They agree on some things. Judges, court personnel and lawyers agree that court cases are not concluded in a timely manner. Only 19 percent of attorneys, 38 percent of judges and about a third of court staff said those trains run on time.

Judges themselves believe there are biases in the courts. Only 42 percent said poor and rich people get treated the same way in court. Attorneys felt more strongly: Only 19 percent said rich and poor get the same treatment in court.

Attorneys are less likely to think that males and females get the same deal in court; only 14 percent of female attorneys said men and women are on level ground in the courtroom.

Judges are split right down the middle when asked whether campaign contributions affect their decisions. In contrast, both court personnel and attorneys think those contributions have at least some influence on the way judges rule.

The judges can be just as hard on the attorneys. Only 36 percent said attorneys come to court prepared, and 82 percent said some attorneys unnecessarily prolong cases. Just one judge in six said most of the attorneys who come to court are "highly skilled."

The 76th Legislature By the Numbers

Don't think there are enough new laws on the books now that the Legislature has left the Pink Building for another 84 weeks? Want the final count?

Here, then: Lawmakers passed 1,638 of the 5,908 bills they filed, or 28 percent. That compares with 1,502 bills passed two years ago, when 5,741 were filed. That pass rate was 26 percent.

Want to see how your favorite chamber compared to the other one? Senators filed 1,911 bills and passed 662 of them, or 35 percent. That's 47 fewer than they filed in 1997, but 45 more than they passed two years ago. House members filed 3,855 and passed 959 for a rate of 25 percent; last session, they filed 245 fewer bills and passed 89 fewer of them into law.

Haven't had enough? The average House member filed almost 26 bills this session and passed just over six of them into law. The average senator filed almost 62 bills and passed more than 21 of them.

Money, Money, Money

School districts are trying to figure out how to handle the $3,000 pay raises directed to teachers by the Legislature. There's apparently enough wiggle room in the formulas to prompt Gov. Bush and several legislators to warn the districts not to fool around and cut teacher benefits or other compensation while they're giving them the pay increase from the state.

While that's playing out, some state employees -- working outside the employee unions and associations, interestingly enough -- are looking for ways to increase their own chances for bigger pay raises in the future. As in the last couple of budgets, they're in line for small pay hikes.

But they make a complaint similar to that leveled by teachers: Texas state employees ranked 26th in average pay in 1997, making $2,567 a month. (Californians made the most, pulling in an average of $3,676 per month; Oklahoma state employees, at $1,997 monthly, made the least.)

Timing is Everything

Attorney General John Cornyn weighs in with a new ethics policy for his employees, saying among other things that they shouldn't give him contributions. It also prohibits some things that are already prohibited by law, such as using their public positions for personal gain. Top employees lose their jobs if their spouses are registered lobbyists, and attorneys at the AG's office are barred from working on matters they worked on as private attorneys before they joined the state.

Right on the heels of that announcement came reports that Cornyn and his first assistant, Andy Taylor, issued a legal opinion that could be of benefit to SCI, the Houston-based chain of funeral homes. The Austin American-Statesman raised questions about Taylor's previous job -- he was a partner at the firm that represents SCI -- and about the propriety of the AG putting out an opinion at the request of a company that is being fined by another state agency on related issues.

Taylor's old firm says he didn't represent the company when he worked there, and Cornyn's office defended the whole thing, saying Taylor stayed out of meetings between the AG's office and SCI representatives. The company and the Texas Funeral Commission are locked in a fight over $445,000 in fines levied against SCI, and the former head of the commission is suing the state for firing her, alleging that firing came because she levied the fines.

Random Bits and Oddments

The school finance bill signed by the governor this week with fanfare and front page stories and all that show biz will give teachers their $3,000 pay raise in September, and will give property tax payers an average break of $60 annually. But averages can lie: Austin residents will get little or no tax break, while some districts will get a lot. What's a lot? Look at Asherton, a small town near the Texas-Mexico border in Dimmit County. The annual tax break there for the owner of a $100,000 house will be $422... Minors supposedly cannot buy, possess or use tobacco in Texas, but they're spending $39 million a year on smokes and chews, according to the Texas Department of Health. They surveyed 13,029 students in 181 schools, and came indirectly to the conclusion that Joe Camel was less popular than the Marlboro Man or whatever the mascot of Newports is. According to TDH, 70 percent of the minors smoked Marlboros, 9.6 percent smoked Newports, and 9 percent smoked Camels... Anonymous letters from lobbyists are even more fun than some of the mail we get from Texas prison inmates. To wit: Somebody shot us a list of what they called "Anti-Austin Lobbyists," gave the pay ranges those 25 lobbyists reported to the Texas Ethics Commission and added up the numbers on the high end of those ranges. They got $1.68 million, or roughly what the City of Austin paid its lobby team... Remember Flo Ziegfield's "Just Spell the Name Right" Rule: The Republican Party's end-of-session wrap-up claimed GOP successes for education, tax relief and other issues, but they flunked part of the test, misspelling the last name of Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, more than half a dozen times. Give him his due: Each mention was for a bill they were happy about.

Political People and Their Moves

University of Texas Chancellor William Cunningham will leave that post at the end of next summer. He's the second of the state's top higher education execs to leave; Barry Thompson, chancellor of the Texas A&M University System, turns over the reins at that system this summer. Cunningham held the job for seven years, after seven years as president of UT Austin. He says he will work in the private sector and might return to teaching... Somebody at the Attorney General's office got the idea to stop hiring lawyers for a minute and hire a sportswriter. Seriously, they're adding Kevin O'Keefe, most recently of the San Antonio Express-News, to come over and do some communications and some policy work... AG John Cornyn has also added Mike McCaul to the staff. He was, until recently, part of the team investigating China and campaign finance for the U.S. Department of Justice... Marcy Goodfleisch leaves the Texas Lottery Commission, where she was communications director; she'll return to the consulting business she had before taking that job... New additions at the comptroller's office include Joyce Sibley, who will be chief of staff services, and Luis Saenz, who will be deputy executive assistance. Sibley was, until recently, assistant to Joe Allbaugh, chief of staff to the governor (Allbaugh leaves government for the exploratory campaign this month); Saenz was South Texas coordinator for U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, and worked for U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm before that... Railroad Commission Chairman Tony Garza picked up a leadership job in the Interstate Oil & Gas Compact Commission. He got the unwieldy title of second-vice-chairman-elect of the group, which represents governors of 37 oil- and gas-producing states... While Garza was slaving away in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, at the IOGCC meeting, Railroad Commissioner Charles Matthews was getting the Hats Off award from the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association, or TIPRO, in Galveston. In a way, that's the second time Matthews has won: TIPRO gave the award to the whole commission, including Matthews, in 1996... No matter what else he's got going on, Gov. George W. Bush gets to keep making appointments. That slowed at the end of the session, but picks back up now that lawmakers are gone. First out of the chute: Bush tapped Gerald Garrett of Austin to be the new chairman of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, replacing Victor Rodriguez, who quit to become Harlingen's police chief.

Quotes of the Week

Andy Kahan with the City of Houston's crime victims office, on an old law -- beefed up significantly by the Legislature this year -- that identified freed sexual offenders only by street name and zip code: "It worked if you lived in Mayberry or Hooterville, where people can pretty much figure out who is who, but not in a city."

Mississippi GOP Chairman Mike Retzer on the party's high hopes for George W. Bush's national campaign: "We all realize this all hinges on what happens in June -- when mom lets him out of the house to play."

Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander on his more famous opponent in the race for the GOP's presidential nomination: "Most voters in Iowa couldn't pick him out of a lineup."

Greg Talley of Putting Children First, a pro-voucher group, on the level of support they got from the state's chief executive: "I also think that while this issue is in Gov. Bush's heart, it's not in his soul. It may be something that he believes in, but it's not down there deep enough."

Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, set off a round of speculation this week with a letter about who might be the next lieutenant governor, if Bush gets elected and Rick Perry moves up. Like everyone quoted below, he urged fellow senators to keep this from becoming a campaign for the job, but said he's flattered to be considered a contender: "... should I be selected by the Senate, I would very much like to serve, and would be honored to do so." Sen. David Sibley, R-Waco, in a statement responding to Ratliff's letter: "If the office becomes vacant, I would be very interested in the position." Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, in his own letter: "If I am chosen, I would be deeply honored to serve in this position." And finally, Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown, R-Lake Jackson, in a conversation about the speculation: "Where I come from, you don't try on a man's suit until his body's in the casket."

Texas Weekly: Volume 15, Issue 48, 14 June 1999. Copyright 1999 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited.

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