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Friendly Fire

When Gov. George W. Bush took office in 1995, he was half-surrounded by Democrats in statewide offices and could reasonably expect to fight some skirmishes now and then. Now that he's surrounded by Republicans, you might think those days are all in the past. But from the governor's standpoint, the education task force announced by Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander rivals at least some of what the Democrats did in his first four years in the Mansion.

When Gov. George W. Bush took office in 1995, he was half-surrounded by Democrats in statewide offices and could reasonably expect to fight some skirmishes now and then. Now that he's surrounded by Republicans, you might think those days are all in the past. But from the governor's standpoint, the education task force announced by Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander rivals at least some of what the Democrats did in his first four years in the Mansion.

Rylander set up a "task force" to look at, among other things, the numbers underlying the state's much heralded school accountability system. There's good reason to look, what with recent anecdotes about schools fudging numbers and miscounting dropouts for reasons of impropriety or incompetence. Rylander's panel also aims to try to push more education money into classrooms.

But questioning the system publicly potentially puts the state's only presidential candidate in a box. He's touting education all over the country, saying (with plenty of backing from educators) that Texas schools are improving dramatically. Now, a member of his own party and his own executive branch is raising questions about the very report cards that provide the basis for his boasts.

That's trouble enough, but Rylander also made her announcement within days of opening arguments of a trial that has the education community's full and undivided attention: The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, or MALDEF, is suing to try to make the state stop using a standardized test called the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, or TAAS, as a graduation requirement. They contend the test is biased, creating an unfair barrier for minority students.

That's one reason why emissaries from the governor, both houses of the Legislature and the Texas Education Agency asked Rylander to back off. They were also miffed on protocol matters: They didn't find out about the task force until the comptroller's office asked for approval to reimburse expenses for its members. "Members of what?" was the first response.

School Problems Attract a Crowd of Rescuers

Rylander also expected -- and got -- some light criticism from folks who said she was duplicating efforts already underway. For instance, she wants her group to look at dropout rates and at the numbers reported to the TEA on dropouts. That's also one subject of an interim study by the Senate Education Committee. In fact, the committee's chairman, Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, is planning a hearing in October on the dropout issue. His panel will hold meetings in Houston, Dallas and Midland over the next year to look into that and various other education issues.

He's not alone. The Legislative Budget Board is looking at the problems with counting dropouts. The system now in place is easy to misunderstand and, apparently, easy to manipulate. At best, the state can't get good, solid, comparable numbers that would reveal how each school and each school district is doing. Put simply, nobody can tell exactly how many kids drop out, how many move on to other districts, or how many quit and come back.

The TEA is auditing 14 districts to find out how their numbers are put together and whether those numbers are reliable. And the Austin school district, as has been widely reported, faces criminal charges for tampering with its numbers.

Rylander and her supporters argue, with some justification, that there is a problem to be investigated and that a third party should do it. Lawmakers in both the House and the Senate don't disagree, but some took her initiative as a slap at their own efforts at oversight.

The Other 48 Cents

Rylander waited until the middle of September to announce what she is calling the Public Education Integrity Task Force, but the group met in late August to talk about what it will do. That's where the request for reimbursement came from. The session also prompted some conversation about whether the group is subject to the state's open meeting laws. The meeting wasn't posted, the public wasn't invited, and the opinion of the lawyers at the comptroller's office is that, as an advisory body, the group can meet whenever it wants, without notice to the public.

Rylander pulled together a respected group of people, including Barry Thompson, chancellor emeritus of the Texas A&M University System, as chairman. Members include Roy Barrera Jr. of San Antonio, a former district judge and candidate for attorney general who now practices law; Wilhelmina Delco, a former speaker pro tempore of the Texas House who also served on the Austin ISD board with Rylander in the 1960s; Michael Levy of Austin, publisher of Texas Monthly; Thaddeus Lott Sr., a nationally recognized educator from Houston who currently runs several charter schools; Beatrice Lucio Rodriguez, a principal in Brownsville; and Jeri Stone, executive director of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association.

Though he's been vociferous about the lack of any need for new education studies, Thompson said he thinks the panel can come up with some recommendations that will improve the state's accountability system. He said he doesn't want to pre-judge it, but says he's heard a lot from educators about problems with the way school districts collect and report numbers to the state.

Rylander also said she wants to find out what happens to the other 48 cents in every dollar spent on education that doesn't go directly into classroom teaching. Part of it, according to the education wonks we've talked with, goes to school construction and facilities maintenance, part to feeding school children and moving them around in buses and other kinds of transportation. Still, Rylander suggests that too much of that half-dollar is going to administration and says her task force will look for ways to trim those costs. The group will put out a report in August 2000.

Hey, We're Just Enhancing An Outstanding System

Gov. Bush's synchronization with Attorney General John Cornyn is a little better; the two announced a criminal justice grant to the AG's office to step up enforcement of the state's gun laws. Bush wanted to do it without calling for new laws and without blaming the state government and his own administration for not doing everything possible up to now, so the line was: The laws are adequate. The state has not been lax in its enforcement up to now, but is stepping up its efforts.

The governor, asked why he waited until now, dumped on former Attorney General Dan Morales, saying he and Morales just never had a meeting of the minds on the issue. Cornyn "is an attorney general I feel comfortable working with," he said. The governor lessened the partisan twang by inviting all four U.S. Attorneys in Texas, Democrats and Republicans alike, to announce the project.

Their offices will be directly involved, with each getting a state-paid employee to concentrate on crimes involving guns. The $1.6 million grant will be used for a one-year public awareness campaign costing $360,000, and to hire eight prosecutors for two years who will work out of Justice Department offices in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. The publicly funded program, based on a program in Richmond, Virginia, has been in the works, Bush and Cornyn said, for several months.

It was announced a week after the church massacre in Fort Worth and a week before a similar program was to be announced there. The Fort Worth program will include a privately funded $745,000 public awareness campaign. The state's campaign will depend, in part, on the willingness of billboard owners and television station managers to donate space and time to public service announcements. Most of the money will be used to produce advertising material, not to pay for exposure.

Luna Resigns

Aides to Sen. Gregory Luna, D-San Antonio, said at our press time on Thursday that he would resign his seat in the Texas Senate, setting up a special election for that post on November 2, when San Antonio voters were set to go the polls to decide a stadium issue and vote on 17 constitutional amendments. There is no suspense to this next part: Rep. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, will announce at the end of the week (Friday, October 1), that she is running for the SD 26 seat.

Van de Putte has had her eye on that spot for most of the year, but held back on an announcement to see, first, whether Luna would recover from what has become a prolonged bout with diabetes and related ailments, and second, whether he would seek to keep his seat in 2000.

The illnesses have kept the senator out of his Capitol office for months, including the last half of the legislative session. Supporters in San Antonio have recently been saying that Luna would definitely not seek to hold the seat in the next election cycle. Van de Putte says she has raised about half of the $500,000 she thinks a Senate race would cost in San Antonio, and says she will run no matter when the election is held. A special election in November of this year would still be followed by a 2000 race; the first winner would finish Luna's term and the second would get a full term of her or his own.

Zaffirini's Other Shoe Drops; Nixon's Foot Remains Aloft

We told you this was probably coming, but we didn't know what kind of show it would be. Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, (SD 21) made a surprise announcement of her reelection bid at a local meeting on education, and got Reps. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, and Tracy King, D-Uvalde, to announce at the same time. Zaffirini, who was first elected to the Senate in 1987, had pledged to serve no more than 12 years. But she says supporters pushed her to reconsider. She also wants to help redraw redistricting lines for the Legislature and the Texas delegation to Congress next year. That said, she's on the trail and already is formulating plans for three fundraisers. Cuellar, one of a couple of possible successors to Zaffirini, said earlier this year that he was encouraging her to run again. At this writing, none of the three candidates has drawn a challenger.

It's odd and remarkable that, with just over three months to go before the deadline for jumping into political races in Texas, there are only three House seats that the incumbents seem willing to give up. Ordinarily, by this time in the season, there would be a dozen or more openings. But only Reps. Van de Putte, John Culberson, R-Houston, and Todd Staples, R-Palestine, are on the diving board. Culberson is running for U.S. Rep. Bill Archer's CD 7 seat in Houston. Staples is giving up his House seat to run for the state Senate post now held by Sen. Drew Nixon, R-Carthage.

The Staples seat is -- so far -- the busiest of the House races. Add Paul Woodard officially to the race for that spot. He is a banker and a member of the Palestine school board, will face Kenneth Durrett in the Republican primary. Durrett lives in Jacksonville; his family owns Southern Multifoods, which in turn owns more than 100 franchises for fast food restaurants. The two may get more company; as we've previously noted, Jacksonville pharmacist Chuck Hobson is also looking at that job.

Some readers are too young to remember that record albums can scratch and play the same thing over and over, but we're not: Nixon has not decided -- or hasn't announced a decision -- on whether he'll run for reelection. But one of the potential candidates, Van Brookshire, has been making the rounds. He has the advantage of a last name that is on a lot of the grocery stores in the northern part of the district. He's not from the family that runs the stores, but the name is spelled the same. A little uproar in Montgomery County: A staff member to Les Tarrance (who is officially in the race) went to a Brookshire speech with a video camera, irking some of the audience members.

After Van de Putte's announcement, the race for her House seat could draw as many as four candidates. Robbie Vasquez, a municipal judge, has resigned that seat effective October 2, which clears the way for another candidacy (it's illegal to run for office from the bench). And another candidate, Mike Villareal, has been knocking on doors in the district. A couple of others are also looking, but aren't as far along in their planning.

An Expensive Time to Be a Lobbyist

One of the reasons for that very slight turnover in the Texas House (not to mention the Senate, where only two seats -- and maybe only one -- won't have an incumbent on the ballot) is that House Speaker J.E. "Pete" Laney, D-Hale Center, has been on a membership retention kick.

You can see it in the schedule at the Austin Club, where House members have booked all the rooms in the building so the hunters (candidates and their confederates) and the prey (lobbyists and others with purses and wallets) can do their own version of one-stop shopping. Just for example: During the four days that begin on Monday, September 27, the Austin Club will be the site of 15 fundraisers for various members of the House. Something like that happens the next week as well, again with House members of all stripes appearing with drinks and canapés in this room or that.

Lt. Gov. Rick Perry is going to the other side of downtown for his big fall fundraiser, holding a reception at La Zona Rosa, a club/concert venue in Austin's warehouse district. No word on the total they think they'll raise, but there is a long, long list of sponsors. The richest U.S. senator in the nation, Kay Bailey Hutchison, has $6 million in the bank and no particularly formidable opposition. That campaign bank account is unrivaled anywhere, according to the records at the Federal Election Commission, but she's doing a fundraiser in Austin on the first Monday of October.

Dragging the Sack the Bullock Way

Attorney General John Cornyn let the Austin lobby know that he'll follow in the footsteps of the late Bob Bullock, at least in one respect: He plans to do his fundraising once a year. When he was lieutenant governor, Bullock held an annual fundraiser that grew to the point where it vacuumed up more than $2 million each time. Nobody's saying that will happen to the AG, but he's planning to try it and see how it works out. Lobbyists who went to the meeting with Cornyn were handed pledge cards as they walked in, asked to fill in an amount and given the impression that there would be follow-up calls later on. Cornyn was coy about his future plans, telling the group that he likes being attorney general and plans to stay right where he is. He knows, however, that circumstances change and didn't commit to any particular course. That's as much an answer to unspoken lobby questions about what happens if Gov. Bush makes it to the White House as an expression of Cornyn's ambition. Some of the lobbyists we talked to said they're not reading much into it.

Speaking of the governor, we should make note of the new world record he's set: Bush breezed past the $50 million mark with a little time to go before the September 30 campaign finance deadline. That's a first for a presidential candidate and it means that Bush, who raised $37 million in the first reporting period, will follow that with at least $13 million in three months.

They Say it's Like Burning Money

The tobacco lobby warns that the federal lawsuit against their industry could cost Texas $301.7 million a year and could raise the price of a pack of smokes to $4.19 from $2.76. Part of the formula is fairly appealing to the anti-smoking folks, however. The economic study done for the industry assumes that the federal government could win a settlement worth $500 billion (or $20 billion a year over 25 years). That would cut into Texas cigarette sales, the economists suppose, by about 305 million packs each year. That would, in turn, hit the state's revenue stream with an $88 million hickey, but the public health folks wouldn't be all that upset: 305 million packs of cigarettes is almost 24 percent of the total sold in the state each year. If the idea is to make quitters out of smokers, that's probably a selling point. The economists go on to say that a federal settlement of that size would cut into the settlement already won in court by the state, sending up to $214 million annually to the federal government's piggy bank instead of the piggy bank in Austin. That's because the industry won a cap on what it will pay out in total on these lawsuits, and a federal settlement would cut into what various states have already one. That said, Philip Morris USA and others in the industry say the federal suit is without any merit. To cut that down to the basics, there is either a whole lot to worry about, or nothing at all.

A Pending Appointment Not Yet Made

Gov. Bush hasn't formally submitted the reappointment of Public Utility Commissioner Judy Walsh to Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin. So it's fair to say that Barrientos isn't formally holding it up. But he's in a box of a sort, since the consumer groups like Walsh and would like to see her stay, and the unions that represent employees of Southwestern Bell Telephone would like to see her go.

That's the basic floor plan, but the unions are uncharacteristically silent on the subject now that the issue has been in the Austin American-Statesman, and in the wake of a letter from PUC Chairman Pat Wood III to Joe Gunn, the president of the Texas AFL-CIO.

Wood wrote the letter to knock down some of what he read in the papers. (This is an area that requires some caution from the commissioners. There are only three of them, and since two form a quorum, they are barred from talking about most things.) So Wood started off by writing that, if Gunn's comments were incorrectly presented in the news articles, he could disregard the letter. Then he wrote a page-and-a-half on why he thinks Walsh's rulings at the commission have worked to the advantage of the unions. He noted that one company, Entergy, hired members of the IBEW to address Walsh's concerns about service quality. And he argued that Southwestern Bell's expansion into long distance -- which presumably would add union jobs -- is moving quicker here than in other states.

Wood's letter didn't shake anything loose yet: Walsh, who's term officially ended on September 1, will continue to serve until an appointment is made. The governor's office won't comment directly on the issue, simply saying they haven't made an appointment. The unions are silent. Consumer groups say they support Walsh. And aides to Barrientos say simply that the matter is under consideration.

Random Notes, Tidbits, Flotsam and Lint

•An addendum to our earlier item on SD 26: Sen. Gregory Luna, D-San Antonio, is resigning in time to put his seat on the November ballot. That means House members who want to seek the seat without risking their political futures can do so, since they don't have to resign to run. If they lose, they can sign up to run for reelection to their current seats in the November 2000 elections. That creates some problems for Rep. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, since she might draw opposition she would not otherwise have drawn. But others are at a disadvantage, too: She's been raising money for the race all summer, and presumably has more money in the bank than other aspirants.

• Add Darrell Clements to the list of folks trying to win a seat in the U.S. Congress. Clements, a Republican who is a criminal judge in Dallas, will run against U.S. Rep. Charlie Stenholm, D-Stamford, in CD 17. Clements' family is from the Rhome, area, which is in the district.

• If it seemed quiet on the gambling front, it's only because the attorney general's office has been tying up the phone lines working on the Hopwood case and the tobacco case and the governor's gun grant and such. AG John Cornyn is close to taking some action against the Tigua tribe of El Paso, which operates a gambling casino called Speaking Rock.

• Gov. Bush made political hay by becoming the first presidential candidate to put his contributions on the Internet in something close to real time (they're posted two weeks after the money rolls in). He also is the first to reveal his income and the sources of it before the deadlines for campaign finance disclosure set in the law. That was significant enough for the front page of The New York Times, and won the candidate praise for at least putting his money near his mouth. But some disclosure advocates still find room to complain; Bush's contributions are posted in a way that makes them impossible to search or to easily convert into a database. For that, you still have to wait for the official filings on October 15, which are then put on the Internet by third parties.

• Lobby for Hope, a group started last year to hit up lobbyists and others in Austin for money for charitable causes, is out on its second fund-raising drive. Last year, the group pulled in around $10,000, and their letters of appeal are going out again. This time, those letters are signed by Senate Secretary Betty King, who was one of the original members of the group.

Political People and Their Moves

The "other Texas Supreme Court" -- the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals -- is losing its presiding judge. Michael McCormick, who was first elected in 1988, says he won't seek reelection to the top spot on that nine-judge panel... Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander removes James LeBas, the state's chief revenue estimator, for what her aides vaguely call "poor managerial judgement." Michael Reissig, who preceded LeBas in the post, re-assumes the title for the time being... The University of Texas System raided the Texas Education Agency and hired Deputy Commissioner Felipe Alanis, who had been an in-house favorite for the TEA commissioner's job that went to James Nelson of Odessa. The intersection of public and higher education is getting a lot of attention from elected officials and educators, and Alanis will coordinate UT's programs in that area. Alanis will continue to advise Nelson from the UT post... Former Rep. Randall Riley has signed on to be the new legislative liaison for the Texas Department of Economic Development. He did two terms in the Texas House in the mid-1980s, then ran off to run a business in South America for a couple of years... Strategic Resources, a GOP consulting firm, moves from The Woodlands to Houston and hires Alison Ayres Bell as an account exec. Her spouse is Houston City Councilman Chris Bell... Brian Sybert has been promoted to natural resources director for the Texas chapter of the Sierra Club, a job that will have him spending a fair amount of time in the Capitol. He replaces Scott Royder, who moved to the Northeast after the legislative session... Peggy Fikac is leaving the Associated Press Austin Bureau after 12 years to head the Capital City offices of the San Antonio Express-News. That'll happen on October 11... U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, will be the first woman to get the Fort Worth Business Hall of Fame's outstanding business executive award... Appointments: Gov. George W. Bush names Julie Harris Kocurek of Austin as judge of the newly created 390th State District Court. She has been an assistant district attorney in both Travis and Jefferson counties. That's subject to Senate approval... President Bill Clinton has appointed El Paso attorney Enrique Moreno for a spot on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. That's subject to an obstacle course that starts and ends in the U.S. Senate... Lottery Commission Chairman Harriet Miers of Dallas won't have to sit for a deposition in a lawsuit filed by former Lottery Director Lawrence Littwin. A federal magistrate ruled Littwin has not shown a compelling reason for her testimony.

Quotes of the Week

Superintendent Bill Rojas, on the paranoia seeded by his reorganization of the Dallas ISD: "The only thing they have to fear is their competency or lack of it. If they lack it and can't quickly adjust, then yes, their employment status becomes very iffy. If you can't get respect, fear will do."

Bob Thompson, who gave employees $128 million from the sale of his Thompson-McCully Co., on why he didn't go to work that day: "I said, 'I know I'm a great guy.' I don't have to have anybody rushing up to me and saying 'Bob, you're a great guy.' Don't need that. Don't want that."

Land Commissioner David Dewhurst, telling owners of beachfront property that they should be compensated if they're forced to move: "I'm a property owner like you are and a property rights advocate like you are. If we all work together, I'm your newest and best friend. I always have been."

Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas President Ron DeLord, after Austin police discovered off-duty officers had been working for Brian Stearns of Austin, a convicted felon arrested recently on charges of securities fraud: "Any time a criminal gets arrested and you have police officers protecting him, it's going to raise hackles."

Denton County Sheriff Weldon Lucas, denying that he ever condoned the practice of fish shocking to provide food for his political rallies: "I have had campaign fish fries, but never with illegal fish. I would never use illegal fish to advance a campaign."

Mexican politician Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, criticizing the new phenomenon of barraging voters with TV ads in his country's politics: "Combine money, television and the large number of Mexican voters who are nearly illiterate, and you could elect a cow as president."

Texas Weekly: Volume 16, Issue 13, 27 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.

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