Since last Texas Independence Day, when Gov. George W. Bush publicly confessed for the first time that he'd like to dive into this presidential hoopla, Texas politics has been about "Ifs."
If Bush moves up, then Lt. Gov. Rick Perry will become governor. If that happens, the Texas Senate will pick one of its own 31 members to preside in Perry's place. The speculative soup thickens when the conversation turns to 2002, the first election year after redistricting. If Bush has departed for the White House, will the Republicans who now hold all of the statewide offices ascend in orderly fashion or fight each other? Ahem. Would Perry draw a primary opponent, someone like U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison? Would one or more current statewide officeholders -- John Cornyn, Carole Keeton Rylander, or David Dewhurst, for example -- run for lieutenant governor against whichever senator replaces Perry? Which senator would that be?
But there is an "If" that most people haven't talked about, not even for the exercise: What if Bush were to lose the race for the White House?
It would have a stabilizing influence, for one thing.
When the Democrats swept the 1982 elections with a new slate of officeholders, there was a fair amount of speculation about who would rise and who would fall over the following years. But in 1986, with the guy in the top job seeking reelection, they all corralled their ambitions and sought reelection. Only after Mark White lost the keys to the Governor's Mansion in the 1986 contest did the Democratic politicos below him cut loose and openly brawl. When White attempted a comeback in 1990, the old hegemony was gone: Two cohorts from that harmonious 1982 ticket, Attorney General Jim Mattox and Treasurer Ann Richards, ran against White in the primary.
What happened then could happen again: Without a governor in place as a political keystone, the apparently solid wall could collapse. But with Bush still in the Mansion in 2001, there would be no interim scuffle, and the 2002 elections would have a completely different complexion.
Where a Bush win would put Perry in the drivers' seat, Hutchison would arguably be the biggest beneficiary of a Bush loss. Reason it out: If Bush leaves at the beginning of 2001, Perry moves up and can then run for reelection as an incumbent in 2002. Hutchison or anyone else would have to come at him as a challenger. If, on the other hand, Bush loses and then decides not to seek reelection in 2003, Hutchison would be able to run for the governor's office without facing an incumbent. Hutchison is on next year's ballot, so far without formidable competition, and her term would then run to 2006. Assuming she is still a senator after next year's elections, she would get a free shot at the governor's race, returning to her post in Washington, D.C., if she lost.
There has been a fair amount of gossip about whether Hutchison and Perry would run against each other. One rumor that's particularly strong, especially in Dallas GOP circles, is that the two have cut a deal that would eventually make Hutchison the governor and would put Perry in her seat in the U.S. Senate. Perry says that the two have never talked about a future governor's race, and says rumors of that or some other kind of pact between the two are flat wrong.
While he's on the subject, he adds that he has no interest in moving his family to the District of Columbia, where senators work, at least not until his daughter, now in seventh grade, is out of the nest. And for further clarity, Perry says he will run for reelection to whatever office he holds in 2001, whether it's on the East End of the Pink Building, or in the middle.
The Texas GOP's Slow Trigger Finger
One in a stack of press releases flying off the fax from the Bush campaign announced that Lt. Gov. Rick Perry will head the governor's Texas campaign. (The announcements elsewhere in that stack hold news from other parts of the U.S. Of particular interest: Bush got the endorsement of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a source of endless campaign curios for politicos of both parties looking for popular crime-fighting ideas, like making inmates live in tent cities and wear old-fashioned prison stripes. He's also sheriff of U.S. Sen. John McCain's home county.)
Perry's name had been bandied about in conversations about who would head the state GOP's coordinated campaign next year. That assignment would arguably have been more useful to someone who wants to run for reelection in a couple of years (wherever he's sitting, it'll be a reelection campaign). He will instead lead the statewide effort for the state's other GOP: Team Bush. Honorary co-chairs will be U.S. Sens. Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison and former Gov. Bill Clements.
Although they had planned to have it all worked out by now, the state GOP has not yet named the people who will head its various election efforts. Now that Perry is out (if you're directing a federal campaign for an individual, even if it's only on paper, you can't also direct a soft-money campaign that might benefit your particular candidate), they need to pick another politico to chair the big campaign. That can wait a while, since the overall push won't start until after the primary elections in March.
A Majority in Austin is More Important to Washington
Legislative efforts are higher on the GOP's list of urgencies, but no announcement is pending there, either. The Republicans hold 72 of the Texas House's 150 seats and have their eyes on winning at least four more seats to gain a majority. The urgency stems from the fact that the next Legislature will handle redistricting. That is of special concern to the congressional delegation; while Republicans dominate the Legislative Redistricting Board in Texas, the congressional plans don't go through that filter. They go straight from the Legislature to the governor to court. That's why U.S Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, has been touted as one of the leaders of a campaign to gain GOP control of the Legislature next year. Previous efforts have been led by the House Republican Caucus chaired until recently by Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland. But current chairman Kenny Marchant, R-Carrollton, wants to leave electoral politics to the party and others on the outside, while the caucus does policy.
The Rs and the Ds don't have a secret non-aggression pact -- it just looks that way. No Democrats have leapt forward to run for either the Railroad Commission or the statewide court seats. And few Republicans have visibly jumped into the legislative races. Filing starts in about six weeks and ends on January 3, and both camps say they'll have slates of terrific candidates ready in time for the deadline.
The problem for Democrats is that they don't have a ready group of candidates to throw into those statewide races; potential candidates who are current members of the House are being encouraged to stay, for instance, as Democrats try to preserve their narrow majority there.
The problem for Republicans is that they're already stretching the limits of the current redistricting plan, which marginally favors the Democrats. Some of their campaign wizards wonder privately whether they've squeezed the current maps for all they're worth and whether they'll have to wait for new districts to be drawn before they'll have a chance at a majority. Their chances of a majority large enough to overthrow the House leadership is even slimmer, since some Republicans are already beholden to Speaker Pete Laney.
Also, the Republicans have been focused on the Senate, where their majority of one is in danger because of the free-for-all brewing in SD 3. Whether or not Sen. Drew Nixon, R-Carthage, wants to keep his seat, there will be a Republican primary followed by a well-funded general election. Both the Republicans and the Democrats think they can win the seat, and control of the Senate is the prize.
With No Central Effort, Consultants Rule
Don't assume that nothing is going on just because it hasn't been visible or because nothing has happened back at the downtown offices of the two parties.
The Texas Partnership, which has been running the political fundraising equivalent of an assembly line for the last several weeks, expects to have raised over $500,000 for 50 Democratic incumbents by the end of this month. That's not a party organization, but was set up by Democrats in the House to counter biennial efforts from the GOP to take over the lower chamber. And the fundraising operation, run by Emily Chick and Holly Mace, has given some Democrats a head start over Republicans, who have been slow to announce their candidacies for the House.
The Republican efforts so far have been more the work of consultants than of the party. The Associated Republicans of Texas is doing its normal spadework and director Norm Newton says he's got some prospects in a couple of races that he's not ready to announce. But when you look at announcements, what you have is a list of potential rematches. Not all of them are committed, but you can see the rationale by looking at their performances in last November's elections. Eddie Shauberger lost to Zeb Zbranek, D-Winnie, by 3,579 votes in HD 20; Ben Bius missed by 793 votes in his HD 18 race against Dan Ellis, D-Livingston; Randy Leifeste fell short by 1,223 votes against Bob Turner, D-Voss, in HD 73; and Debe McGuire lost by 2,780 votes to Tom Ramsay, D-Mount Vernon, in HD 2.
The plusses for GOP repeaters are residual name identification and the drawing power of two popular Republicans -- Bush and Hutchison -- at the top of the ticket next year. On the down side, there are the overall results from last year, when a GOP sweep of statewide offices translated into only a four-seat pickup among the 16 seats the GOP targeted in the House. That's a .250 batting average -- not bad in baseball but a tad odoriferous in light of the other results last year. Some say it's another indication of what kind of job the Democrats did on the Republicans with the 1991 redistricting maps. Others, inside and outside the party, say they need to take care not to spread resources too thin (there was some crabbing about the high number of targets a year ago), and to recruit better candidates.
Random Political Notes
Judge Tom Price of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals filed paperwork with the Texas Ethics Commission indicating he's looking at a run for presiding judge of that court. Price, who didn't return calls, would get a free shot at the top spot since his term doesn't end next year. If he goes ahead with a race, he'd be running against Sharon Keller, a colleague on the court who has already said she wants the P.J. office. Keller, who like Price is from Dallas, will be in the "up or out" position, since her term on the court ends next year. The current top jurist on the state's highest criminal court, Michael McCormick, has said he won't run for reelection.
• When last we heard about Pat Barber, the Colorado City lawyer was fighting for the right to have billboards telling motorists they have the right to "just say no" to vehicle searches by police. Now Barber, a former prosecutor, is running for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Barber, a Republican, did the billboard campaign a year ago in response to "voluntary" searches of travelers' cars conducted in the name of a multi-county anti-drug task force.
• The perils of direct mail have visited themselves upon U.S. Rep. Ken Bentsen, D-Houston. His campaign sent a fundraiser notice to Tom Reiser, a Republican who plans to challenge Bentsen in next year's elections. U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt is the headline act for the funder, and Reiser fired back a letter offering his view that the people of the district don't want those sorts of politicos representing them. He saved his best line for the end of the snooty missive: "P.S. Stronger letter to follow."
• Last year at this time, there were officially 11.5 million voters in the state. Put another way, about 82 percent of the state's voting age population was registered to vote. Between then and now, about 1 million so-called "suspense voters" were purged from the rolls (those are people who apparently moved or died or something and didn't leave forwarding information). But new registrations have almost made up for the purge: The official number now is 11.4 million voters, or 80 percent of adults.
Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?
Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant -- convinced that highway money is being eaten away by inflation, increasing traffic and fuel efficient vehicles -- has proposed raising the state's gasoline tax. Contrary to what you might have read, he's not putting a specific amount on the idea, but he does say that it would take a nickel increase just to cover what inflation has taken away.
That would bring in better than $1.2 billion a biennium, but it would kick the tax rate on gasoline and diesel fuel to 25 cents per gallon from 20 cents now. (The comptroller's office estimates that a nickel increase starting September 1 of this year would have raised $602 million in the first incomplete year and $682 million in fiscal year 2001.) Not all of the money from a tax increase would go to roads; a quarter of the revenue from motor fuel taxes goes to public education.
And some of what goes to the transportation department over the last several years has been diverted to the state highway patrol in legislative raids on the dedicated highway money.
Texans only paid a nickel a gallon in state taxes as recently as 1983. Eight years and one crashed economy later, the rate had quadrupled to its current level. Ratliff argues that the roads need help and the gasoline tax is the fastest way to get it. One point he makes is classic Ratliff: Cars are increasingly fuel efficient, meaning that while they might be using the roads as much as they always have, the gasoline revenue per car is down. Eventually, he argues, that stacks up in road use that is not covered by revenues. Ratliff, who's also the head of the Senate Finance Committee, also says not enough of the state money for roads is really available for state projects; most of it is used on federal roads since that kind of spending attracts matching federal highway dollars.
The chairman of the Texas Department of Transportation, David Laney, says the agency's inventory of needs is several years old and is probably out of date. As a rough rule of thumb, however, he says TxDOT is funding about 40 percent of the projects it considers, and says there is a constant question about whether the state is keeping up with all of the road maintenance it should be doing. Both officials say new money is needed both for big projects and for items that are more normally cast aside, like county and farm-to-market roads.
The rate was last raised in 1991 as part of the last omnibus tax increase before the current economic boom. The political impetus at the time was the bust: State officials were forced to raise taxes or kill programs, and they raised taxes. Now, Ratliff says, the impetus is bad roads. The only way to build local roads, farm to market roads, bypasses and the like is to raise revenues for those projects.
He's betting chambers of commerce around the state and other business groups are ready to accept the idea of increased gasoline levies.
Laney says flatly that he doesn't think a gasoline tax increase could get through the Legislature right now. Ratliff sounds a little like he sounded when he first proposed a new constitution for the state, saying it ought to be done, but turning down the chance to immediately assess the chances.
Dirty Air and Big Potholes
It hasn't been completely buried under the recent presidential/environmental stories, but not a lot of attention has been paid to what happens under the attainment standards in the federal Clean Air Act. Partly because of a couple of recent court decisions, federal road projects stop during periods when the air doesn't mean certain standards, and the stoppages aren't just academic: They actually affect people. For example, Houston will be hit by a two- to three-month lapse in November, another in July and possibly another in December 2000, according to TxDOT and to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. They estimate those three lapses will cost the Houston economy up to $522 million. Several other cities are on their lists of problem areas, including (with potential costs and opportunities lost) Dallas-Fort Worth ($321.4 million), San Antonio ($246.5 million), Austin ($85.9 million), and Tyler-Longview ($28.1 million). El Paso and Beaumont are on the watch list.
Lawmakers are studying the issue for next session, but in the meantime, the agencies have recommended asking for federal forbearance while the state looks at long-term solutions.
Poll: Senate 26 Race Not Much of a Race At All
A fresh poll in the race to succeed Sen. Gregory Luna, D-San Antonio, has Rep. Leticia Van de Putte well ahead of her opponents. The Fort Worth-based Eppstein Group surveyed 410 general election voters in that district and found Van de Putte well ahead in a five-way race (which is what's on the ballot) as well as in a two-way race with Rep. Leo Alvarado Jr., who most folks were presuming would be in a runoff if there was one. Maybe, maybe not. The numbers: Van de Putte, 26 percent; Lauro Bustamante, 7 percent, Alvarado, 6 percent, Mark Weber and Anne Newman, the two Republicans in the race, both at 5 percent. Undecided voters account for 51 percent, and Van de Putte leads the pack with Democrats, Republicans, and general election voters.
In a two-way race with Alvarado, Van de Putte has a 32-11 advantage with general election voters, with 57 percent undecided. She has positive name identification with 34 percent of the voters and 17 percent negative. Alvarado's positives are 20 and his negatives are 16 percent, according to the survey. And Bustamante suffers from his family name, with positives of 24 percent and negatives of 26 percent; his cousin Albert was forced out of Congress and into prison by scandal. The poll, with a margin of error of 4.94 percent, was conducted from October 16-19.
Sometimes, the Crystal Ball is Right
If you have been spending your attention on profitless Internet startups instead of the good old oil business, you've missed a turnaround in prices. And the tax break given to the industry nine months ago -- when prices were flying down around treetop level -- has cost the state about $16.7 million.
At the beginning of the legislative session earlier this year, Gov. George W. Bush declared the problems of plummeting prices in the oil patch an emergency, thus freeing lawmakers to give immediate consideration to tax breaks for small, low production wells (without the governor's declaration, the matter would have remained ineligible for passage until later in the session). The Legislature responded with a bill that freed small wells (under 15 barrels per day of production) from the severance tax if prices stuck below $15 for three months running. Prices stayed down, and the industry ended up with three tax-free months. Then prices rose, just as the comptroller's wizards had predicted (in the face of derisive hooting from the House Ways & Means Committee, by the way), and the tax break expired without further cost. A similar deal was included for natural gas prices, which never fell below the trigger level for a long enough period.
Alumni Power; Doctors and the Union Label
• If your blood is maroon or burnt orange, you're probably on the list for a promo on Proposition 17, which would allow expanded spending out of the state's Permanent University Fund, or PUF. The constitution only allows interest and some smaller earnings from that endowment to be spent on colleges (mainly UT and Texas A&M); the amendment would allow the fund managers to send some of their capital gains to the Available University Fund as well. Proponents say it's too strict and too conservative now, and the schools could always use more money. Opponents say the amendment is a product of boom-time economics and worry that this will look like a bad idea in some future downturn. They're not using state money to promote it, but the promoters have about $750,000 in cash and in-kind contributions from various non-state affiliates to push the vote. They've hired Jim Arnold as general consultant, and he brought in Mike Baselice to do some polling, John Doner to handle phone banks and Rob Norcross of Public Strategies to do the direct mail.
• Remember the union v. doctor fight during the legislative session? Doctors wanted to bargain with health plan operators in groups instead of one at a time; the health plans said the docs were trying to unionize. The doctors won. The bill passed. And the first group to apply for joint negotiation privileges? The Federation of Physicians and Dentists, representing about 85 doctors in San Antonio. But it's not union-bashing: They were turned down by the attorney general's office, which hasn't had time to write the rules required by the new statute.
Political People and Their Moves
The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank based in San Antonio, hired M. "Bill" William Lower as vice president. He was most recently an executive with Waste Management Inc., managing some environmental matters and working as a lobbyist for the company's mid-Atlantic subsidiary. Lower will manage research projects and do some "external relations" work for the foundation... Kenny McLeskey, one of the few people in state government who actually knows where all of the numbers are buried (and some bodies, too), is leaving the comptroller's office after 25 years to work for the Brazos Higher Education Service Corp., a company that makes student loans... Kevin Cooper, who had been the legislative contact at the Department of Public Safety, leaves that spot for the job of regional director in U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's Austin office... Jeff Kloster, who had been general counsel of the Texas Association of Health Plans, has been replaced by outside counsel: Tom Bond of Akin, Gump, Straus, Hauer & Feld. That firm will act as the agency's general counsel in the future... What happened to Billy Rogers, who was campaign manager for Democrat Garry Mauro's gubernatorial bid last year? He has an Internet site (http://www.prosportspage.com/) which offers sports news and information. Warning: If you're a fan of the Philadelphia Eagles, this isn't going to be your favorite bookmark... He's baaaaack: USA Today opens an Austin office, staffed by Guillermo Garcia, who worked for several Texas papers and for the Public Utility Commission before leaving the state a few years ago... Gov. Bush has appointed Kerry FitzGerald to the Fifth Court of Appeals, replacing Frances Maloney of Dallas, who retired. FitzGerald, a former associate municipal judge, has most recently been an assistant district attorney in Dallas... The legislation only called for a couple of legislators from each chamber, but Lt. Gov. Rick Perry and House Speaker Pete Laney added a couple of seats to their oversight committee on electric deregulation. Instead of six members, they named ten: Sen. David Sibley, R-Waco, and Rep. Steve Wolens, D-Dallas, co-chairs; Sens. David Cain, D-Dallas, Frank Madla, D-San Antonio, Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and John Whitmire, D-Houston; and Reps. Kim Brimer, R-Arlington, David Counts, D-Knox City, Debra Danburg, D-Houston, and Sylvester Turner, D-Houston.
Quotes of the Week
U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, aping Democrats who criticize his methods of raising money from lobbyists: "'We do it for the good of mankind, but DeLay does it for the money.' I'm doing it for the good of mankind. I'm trying to undo everything they've done."
Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, responding to negative reactions to his interview with Playboy magazine: "Have we gotten to the point where I couldn’t co-host Saturday Night Light Live and have some fun? You’re telling me when we get elected, all of a sudden we have to be Mr. Stone Man and change who we are? I can only be me, and I’m not going to change who I am."
Carl Reynolds, general counsel at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, on the tough-on-crime policies that have filled up the state's prisons: "At some point the state of Texas must realize it can't lock up everybody that it's mad at. Afraid of, maybe. But mad at, no."
Houston criminal defense attorney Dick DeGuerin, on court rulings that force the federal government to pay damages for certain actions: "The government will now have to respond as ordinary citizens have to respond when they harm somebody. That's with money. That's been shown to be the best deterrent. If you can bring Big Tobacco and Dow Chemical to their knees by giving actual and punitive damages, maybe it will be able to bring the FBI to its knees."
Texas Taxpayers and Research Association President Bill Allaway (who says the remark is stolen from John Kennedy, an analyst with that group), on the reliability of numbers: "The nice thing about figures is, if you torture them long enough, they'll confess to anything."
Paul Bosland, honcho at New Mexico State University's Chile Pepper Institute, on the school's development of a jalapeño pepper that is not hot: "To the locals, we've sold our soul to the devil."
Texas Weekly: Volume 16, Issue 17, 25 October 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.