If this was a television drama, Gov. George W. Bush might have been ordered to give a deposition to tell what he knew about the Texas Funeral Commission's efforts to fine the nation's biggest funeral home operator. But it ain't TV and he wasn't so ordered. The state's attorneys argued that he didn't have any special knowledge that would shed light on the whistle-blower case, and that was that.
Lawyers for Eliza May say she lost her job as executive director of the Texas Funeral Commission after proposing fines against Houston-based Service Corp. International. Her suit will now proceed without the governor, but members of his staff at the governor's office might have to testify before it's over. The remaining risk to the governor, if there is any, will come from what they and others involved in the case say when they're deposed.
That doesn't mean Bush is free from barking lawyers, or that he won't eventually get bit by one of them. As he was getting off the hook in the funeral case, Bush was being sued by another set of attorneys, this group representing environmentalists who -- according to state police, who also were named in the lawsuit -- blocked the entrance to the Governor's Mansion during a protest earlier this year. In fact, the number of lawsuits that could entangle the governor was part of his defense. Attorney General John Cornyn said the state attracts ten new lawsuits a day, and said no governors would have time to govern if they had to testify in cases that didn't personally involve them.
Democrats, Republicans and Hispanics
We haven't seen many punches thrown at Gov. George W. Bush from the national Democratic Party (or from the Texas Democratic Party, come to think of it). In fact, it's early for that, since they are biting their fingernails over their own presidential primary contenders. But some of the state parties elsewhere are starting to come out of hibernation; California Democrats have started taking digs at Bush, particularly aiming at his much publicized support from Hispanic voters, an indication that Democrats in the Golden State are worried about Bush's ability to pull votes from that bloc.
Their latest screed shoots at Bush for not taking a position on California's Prop 187, designed to slow the flow of immigrants into that state from Mexico. The ballot measure was backed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson, and the ads for it were produced by Don Sipple, who at the time was also producing commercials for both Bush and Wilson. Bush has said he opposes the idea behind Prop 187, but he didn't say anything during the 1994 election cycle when the issue was up for a vote in California. Bush, you'll recall, was running against Ann Richards at the time.
The shot from the Democrats -- written Art Torres, a former state senator who now chairs the California Democratic Party -- landed on the eve of Bush's speech to the Latino Business Expo in Los Angeles, an appearance the Bush advance team touted as the scene for the first of three "major" policy speeches on education. An earlier attempt to scratch away at the governor's Hispanic support also came in right in front of a Bush appearance before a largely Hispanic audience.
Related subject, more or less: Univision, the Spanish language television network headed by former Clinton cabinet member and San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, is holding a non-partisan political conference in mid-September (in Washington, D.C.) to showcase the electoral power of the Latino vote. Why? Well, where does a national candidate advertise a message for Latino voters? Univision's pitch quotes wizards from both parties, and contends Hispanics constituted a big enough bloc in the last elections to swing victory margins in California, Texas, New York and Florida.
It Depends on How You Define Employee
The comptroller's office got a waiver of sorts on the new budget item that requires agencies to include contract or temporary employees when they're tallying up the size of their workforce, but they're cutting anyway. The agency had 317 contract workers at the end of August, but let go of 50 of them -- mostly clerical workers -- at the beginning of this month.
There's more of that to come, according to spokespeople for Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander. The agency has 2,642 regular full-time equivalent employees, or about 176 fewer than it is allowed. The plan is to gradually get the combined number of regular state workers and contract workers under the cap. The 50 job cuts will save the state about $1 million annually.
Other big agencies are still putting their numbers together. Some places will have a smaller work force at the end of the exercise, while some will end up moving jobs from one basket into the other. For instance, most of the contract workers at the attorney general's office work in the child support division. Attorney General John Cornyn cut 51 temps in that shop (taking the total to 77 from 128), and plans to trim it down to a total of 22 over a period of time. But the same lawmakers who wanted a handle on the number of temps also wanted that division beefed up, so the departing temps are being replaced, at least in part, by 114 permanent state workers that were included in the AG's budget.
Generally speaking, the budgeteers ordered the state agencies to get their combined state and contract employees under the caps set by the Legislature.
This is the newest round in an old and probably ongoing fight. Lawmakers say they haven't been able to get a true count of how many people it takes to run state government because agencies don't turn in usable numbers that combine government-hired temporary agencies, self-employed computer programmers working on contract and other similarly situated workers. The contractors and temps have let the agencies keep hundreds of employees around to do the work without putting them on the books as part of the state's workforce. Preliminary counts earlier in the year showed the big agencies were generally the biggest culprits. Lawmakers want a straight up count, and the State Auditor's Office is supposed to produce the first such tally in the next few months.
The bye given to Rylander's office allows her to farm out employees and go over the cap if she does an analysis -- case-by-case -- showing that going outside saved money. The governor's office, the appellate courts, colleges and universities, and a few smaller agencies also got waivers.
You Have the Right to Sing the Blues
Talk about a set of lyrics waiting for a five-seven chord: Rylander raided Antones, the famous Austin blues club, for back taxes one Friday ago. There's nothing really out of the ordinary about the raid -- the comptroller's office does those all the time. But Rylander took a page from the book of the late Bob Bullock, who as comptroller started Bullock's Raiders to go after tax scofflaws. She showed up at showtime (but after the ten o'clock news) with TV crews and reporters in tow, sent in her enforcers and walked away with $8,200 from the club's cash registers. The owners, who owed more than $22,000 in liquor taxes, came in a couple of days later and paid another $15,000 in back taxes, which gets them to about what they owed on Independence Day. They're working on a payment plan on their July taxes, which are late. And yes, the show went on. Bluesman Monte Montgomery started another set after the raiders went home.
While we're on the subject of the comptroller, Rylander considered but ultimately didn't go for Texas Monthly's pitch to include the comptroller's Fiscal Notes publication in the wrapper with the statewide magazine four times a year. The agency and the magazine went back and forth on the idea for several months after publisher Michael Levy suggested it. But the cost -- in the several-hundred-thousand-dollar range -- put the agency off.
Political News, Gossip and Speculation
Former state Rep. Sergio Muñoz, D-Mission, is talking about a rematch with Rep. Kino Flores, also D-Mission, but it might not take. Muñoz also talked about a comeback in the last election cycle, but never actually signed up for the race. And Rep. Art Reyna, D-San Antonio, says he's sticking with Flores and doesn't know why Muñoz came to his fundraiser last month... Rep. Helen Giddings, D-Dallas, is the president-elect of the National Order of Women Legislators. That group has more than 1,000 members from around the country... There is a "maybe" candidate in CD 11, where U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, will be defending. Rodney Gear of Bell County has been talking about running in the GOP primary. Ramsey Farley of Temple has already announced... Add Noble Willingham to the CD 1 contest against U.S. Rep. Max Sandlin, D-Marshall. The name's probably not familiar, but if they put his mug on TV, some voters will recognize him as a character on the show "Walker, Texas Ranger," and as a character actor in dozens of movies. Willingham, who's from Mineola, will run as a Republican... Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, appointed by Gov. Bush and running for election to statewide office for the first time, pulled in endorsements from the state's two national GOP committee members, Cathy McConn and Tim Lambert. McConn is herself a candidate, running in a crowded GOP primary to succeed U.S. Rep. Bill Archer, R-Houston, in CD 7... Gov. Bush raids a political family -- the Delisis -- for policy help, pulling Deirdre Delisi away from Lt. Gov. Rick Perry's staff... It'll be October before Bush announces how much money he raised during the third quarter, so the $50 million figure reported by the Dallas Morning News will be an old and presumably low number. They didn't put the big number in the headline, though: The paper quoted Bush associates as saying the campaign could report total fundraising of $60 million, which would mean they're on a $7 million per month fundraising pace even after the first blast last spring.
The Burgeoning Appointments Industry
The governor's staff is busy with appointments, what with this being the year-end and all, but Gov. George W. Bush isn't the only state official naming people to this and that.
Secretary of State Elton Bomer trotted out a list of a half-dozen "colonias ombudsmen" to fill positions created after Bomer visited some of those settlements and suggested the state put fulltime people in place to improve conditions. He's calling them appointees, but they're $35,000 per year employees who'll watch over colonias in Cameron, El Paso, Hidalgo, Maverick, Starr, and Webb counties. More than 100 people applied for the new jobs.
Now that the new fiscal year is underway, Lt. Gov. Rick Perry has begun naming interim committees. The story so far:
• Joint Interim Committee on Health Care Mandates: Sens. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, Steve Odgen, R-Bryan, Frank Madla, D-San Antonio, Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, and John Carona, R-Dallas. That panel will look at the benefits state law requires health care plans to offer. House members on the panel will be named later, and the lawmakers also set aside $250,000 to fund assistance from the Texas Department of Insurance.
• A Blue Ribbon Task Force (they really named it that) will look at the uninsured in Texas, and Perry got to pick three of the nine members (three will be chosen by House Speaker Pete Laney, D-Hale Center, and three will be chosen by Gov. Bush). Sens. David Bernsen, D-Beaumont, Chris Harris, R-Arlington, and Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, will be on that panel.
Perry also began making interim assignments to standing committtees, lining up lists of studies for the Human Services, Health Services and Natural Resources panels. They'll have a year -- reports are due next September -- to produce reports for the Senate.
Bush made some appointments of his own, naming Kathleen Cardone of El Paso to the new 388th Judicial District Court. She's a former district judge who has most recently been working as a mediator. Bush also filled another new slot, naming Robert Kern of Sugar Land to the bench in the 387th Judicial District Court. Kern is an attorney who had been in private practice.
The Pothole Way, Way Down the Road
Maybe it's too early to think about fiscal problems two years down the road, what with the new budget taking effect just a few days ago on September 1. But some of the number-crunchers in and around state government have been looking at what happened to the state's spending plans during the last legislative session and they see a potentially huge hole in the budget two years from now.
Budgeteers started, as always, with proposed budgets from the House, the Senate and the governor's office. By the time they were finished in May, they had approved a spending plan that was over $1 billion bigger than the fattest of those three proposals. If you include property tax relief, spending jumped by $6.3 billion over the previous biennium (as against increases of $4.2 billion and $4.8 billion, respectively, in the previous two budget cycles). Property tax relief cost between $1 billion and $1.4 billion, depending on your assumptions about how much school districts will spend. Even if you assume the high number, state spending still rose by nearly $4.9 billion.
No real surprises so far: We and most others have noted that lawmakers had a ton of money when they got to the Pink Building this year, and that they spent all of it.
But the budgeteers apparently ignored their own mantra and spent some one-time money on long-term programs. By one estimate we've seen, the $55.2 billion general revenue budget includes a little over $51 billion in recurrent revenues. That means about $4 billion of the general revenue used in this budget was one-time money. That number includes a starting balance in the state treasury of $3.6 billion. That balance will be spent in the budget that just left the starting blocks. It follows that, if the economy runs at the current pace for two years, the balance available for next time will be, um, zero. (That almost never happens, but keep reading.)
Also included in the spending plan is $475 million set aside from the state's tobacco settlement as an endowment fund. It will be used as an endowment, sure enough, but budget writers put the total amount into the general revenue budget to make things balance. That means that if the general revenue balance ever slips below $475 million, you'll know that the state spent the tobacco money lawmakers had intended to set aside.
Add those two figures up, and you get around $4 billion. When the Legislature comes back in 16 months, they'll throw the state's cash balance (already hundreds of millions better than the comptroller predicted during the session), natural growth in revenues (businesses with higher sales pay more taxes, etc.) and natural growth in programs (increased enrollments and caseloads, etc.) into a pot to find their starting point.
That brings us back to the pothole: If current forecasts are right about the state's budget picture in two years, budget writers will have enough recurring money to cover most of the recurring budget needs. All but about $4 billion.
The state won its suit against the Voting Integrity Project, which claimed that early voting in Texas made it easier for people to vote more than once. That group has now appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court, but time is short and chances aren't good that the issue will be decided in time to affect this year's elections. (The group argued, essentially, that the state's early voting violated the idea of a "federal voting day", but the judge said the ballots are only counted on that one day, and ruled that the election is when the ballots are counted, not when the votes are cast.)
But the clock's already ticking on the November elections, which will feature a slew of constitutional amendments and some peppery local issues. Ballots can start being mailed in two weeks. Early voting (in person) starts on October 18, and the election is on November 2.
A couple of the statewide issues might generate campaigns of a sort. One amendment would increase the size of a homestead protected in bankruptcy, and another would broaden the second-mortgage laws. Both issues have the makings of warmly argued (constitutional amendments hardly ever get hot) contests.
Random News Bits
Here's a strange bit of state law: Until a couple of days ago, the state's attorney general was prohibited from going after a deadbeat dad (or mom) for unpaid child support after the child in question reached the age of 22. The law doesn't require people to pay child support for kids of that age, but the old law kept the AG from chasing the deadbeats for the child support they missed before their children became adults. The Legislature killed that prohibition, effectively ending the statute of limitations and freeing the attorney general to chase the deadbeats. It also puts an end to a scam where deadbeats whose kids were close to coming of age would disappear until the kids reached the 22-year mark; the non-payers would then be free from the AG's prosecution.
• The Texas Network -- the new San Antonio-based television news service -- is already branching out. That outfit will start offering its own wire stories to Texas newspapers soon, first for free and later for pay. They're also planning to provide some radio services. The enterprise is not a 24-hour network: The crews produce several half-hour news programs that Texas television stations can buy and air. That same concept, basically, is what they'll provide for newspapers and radio stations.
• The Texas Christian Coalition put out its legislative scorecard, but didn't rank lawmakers on all that many bills, and didn't give many lawmakers perfect scores. The group tallied votes on 13 bills in the House and 10 in the Senate covering issues like tax relief, abortion, drinking and gambling. When the tallying was done, the group gave perfect ratings to 28 of the 181 state lawmakers. That's up from five lawmakers in 1997.
• U.S. District Judges John Hannah Jr. and Robert Parker, both injured in an automobile accident on their way back from a conference in Houston, are mostly out of the woods. Hannah was hurt, but should be getting out of the hospital by the time you read this. Parker was hurt much more seriously and has a longer recovery in front of him. They were hit head-on by another car that was trying to pass. The driver and passenger in the other car were killed.
Bureau of Unpopular Trades & Professions
Labor unions and the Texas Trial Lawyers Association have been allies on any number of issues over the years. Now that TTLA is building a new edifice next door to the Texas Capitol, you'd expect the lawyers to hire a union contractor. They didn't: Austin Commercial of Dallas is building the new offices. But most of the work does turn out to be in the hands of union crews. Austin was hired on to manage the project, and the lawyers made sure the unions knew about the bids going out to subcontractors. They won several, including the iron work and the electrical work. In spite of the manager's name on the sign, folks with the building and trade unions say they consider the building to have a union label.
Different people react in different ways to trial lawyers. Some bash 'em, accusing them of laughing all the way to the bank. As it turns out, some of them do laugh all the way to the bank in spite of their lack of popularity. An alert reader forwarded an invitation to a "Bell Ringing Ceremony" thrown by the Dallas law firm of Sommerman, Parham, & Mitchell. Recipients were invited to come celebrate the fact that the firm "successfully wrestled from our esteemed and learned opponents over $10.1 million in seven settlements and verdicts over the last six months."
This one's a plug, pure and simple. The Austin Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (there's an oxymoron in there somewhere) will hold its annual Gridiron Show at the Austin Music Hall on September 25 spoofing "The Man Who Would Be Prez" and anything and anyone else that's newsworthy and easy to make fun of. They've been promised special appearances by Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, political diva Liz Carpenter, and also -- we swear on a stack of AP stylebooks -- Leslie, a homeless transvestite who camps on the corner of Sixth and Congress in Austin and has become something of a local personality. The show is often silly, sometimes funny, and even better, frequently embarrassing to some of the actor/journalists who get involved. The proceeds from the $17.50 tickets go to journalism scholarships. Tickets are available at the door, at Star Tickets, or on the Internet at http://www.startickets.com. And this promotional blurb should settle all of our gambling debts.
Political People and Their Moves
The last ten years have seen the closings of three major newspaper bureaus in the capital. Now United Press International, once a hugely influential wire service, is closing its Austin office (along with most of its other domestic bureaus). That corporate move puts Mark Langford, who's been in UPI's Austin bureau since the mid-1980s, on the street... Other press corps moves: Renae Merle is leaving the Austin bureau of the Associated Press for the Dallas bureau of the Wall Street Journal's Texas Journal. Osler McCarthy, who worked as state editor and then as a Capitol and legal affairs reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, has become the first official spokesbot for the Texas Supreme Court. Funding for that public relations position was part of the new state budget... Margaret Lauderback moves from the offices of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison to head the new Austin offices of Technet, the California-based organization started by technology folks in Silicon Valley... Department of Planning Way Ahead: The Equity Center sent notice that its executive director and co-founder, Craig Foster, is retiring in May 2003. He'll be replaced by Wayne Pierce, now the superintendent of the Kaufman ISD, who'll start at the beginning of 2001. Pierce and Foster will work the next legislative session together, then Pierce will take over and Foster will go on part-time status for two years before he takes off to split time between Texas and Maine. (We'll do an update in four years to let you know if this works out)... Billy Howe, legislative aide for Rep. Bob Turner, is leaving the House to be an Austin lobbyist for the Texas Farm Bureau... Jackie Lain, attorney for the Texas Association of School Boards, landed (through a fierce competitive process) a yearlong White House fellowship. She starts this month with the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs... Sister Maria Gonzalez of San Antonio, president of the Mexican American Cultural Center, was appointed to the Census Bureau's Advisory Committee on Hispanic Population. That's one of four panels set up in 1995 to make sure minorities are correctly counted in the 2000 census... Convicted, on assault charges: San Antonio school trustee Sylvia Ward, who grabbed and shook Lydia Lorenzi, then president of the San Antonio Teachers Council.
Quotes of the Week
Dale Linebarger, chairman of the Democratic Party in Hays County, grousing about the defections of three elected county officials to the Republican Party: "I think if you look around the state, you've seen a number of people who have switched parties because they feel they can't win as Democrats and they'd rather save their skins than maintain their party allegiances."
Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson, who switched from the Democrats to the Republicans in 1994, in an interview with the Austin American-Statesman on the same topic: "Once you get to the point where half of your county officials are Republicans, the other half is going to switch."
Dick Dillow, manager of the Sunday House smoked turkey plant in Fredericksburg that burned down last week, on the aftermath: "When you're in a live business, your first concern is getting the live turkeys taken care of. The personnel issues I can't answer yet."
ACLU Regional Director Diana Philip, on a new Texas law requiring police to post photos of registered sex offenders in newspaper ads or on the Internet: "These defendants understood they were going to have to serve some kind of sentence, complete therapy, undergo community supervision, but nobody said that 20 years later their photos would be put on display for everyone to see."
Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht, writing in a case involving a child's use of a cigarette lighter: "There is virtually no condition upon any land with which a child may not possibly get himself into trouble. He may choke to death on a green apple, pick up a stick and poke it into his eye, or have his skull fractured by a rock found and thrown by his companion."
Dallas City Council member Laura Miller, saying she lost a committee membership because of her outspoken criticism of an arena development plan: "If I were a different person, I would shut up."
The message left on the telephone answering machine of newly appointed Texas Education Commissioner James Nelson of Odessa by his aunt, a longtime Democrat: "Jim. I saw you on TV. You need to smile more... and I didn't know you were a Republican."
Texas Weekly: Volume 16, Issue 10, 6 September 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.