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Campaign Finance: Some Assembly Required

A new law requires candidates to file their campaign finance reports "by computer disk, modem, or other means of electronic transfer." A little twist in the law requires the Texas Ethics Commission to post the reports on the Internet for all of Texas to see, but to first strip out street addresses of contributors, ostensibly for reasons of privacy and piracy. The law also says people can get the reports by showing up at the ethics agency and requesting them.

A new law requires candidates to file their campaign finance reports "by computer disk, modem, or other means of electronic transfer." A little twist in the law requires the Texas Ethics Commission to post the reports on the Internet for all of Texas to see, but to first strip out street addresses of contributors, ostensibly for reasons of privacy and piracy. The law also says people can get the reports by showing up at the ethics agency and requesting them.

Simple enough. But hitches in the new law could take some of the value away from having records available online or in any electronic form. The biennial paper chase is still alive and well.

Agency chief Tom Harrison has asked Attorney General John Cornyn to sort through this piece of legal semantics: The new law says addresses should be stripped out when records are electronically delivered, which clearly takes the Internet into account and also covers records sent by the commission to a requester via email. In dispute is whether handing someone a computer disk is the same as making the report "available electronically." Some would argue that a disk is a magnetic storage device, and that the addresses should be included. Others say disks, which can't be read except on a computer, are covered by the electronics argument and that the addresses should be redacted.

The question has stirred up the political parties, consultants, lawmakers, do-gooders and others who variously want more disclosure or less, or who want disclosure in this form or that one.

To most of the people in the fight, this boils down to an argument about mailing lists, and about trying to balance proprietary interests in information against full disclosure of who pays for politics.

Campaign finance reports delivered on paper must include addresses, along with a mess of other data. That won't change, and the state will also require that information in campaign reports is filed electronically. People who walk in would still be able to see all of that information on paper. The question is whether they can get it on computer disks. And which media are available to political consultants and others who aim to compile mailing lists?

Right now, list companies send crews to the ethics commission after every filing period to enter thousands of names and addresses manually into laptop computers. Delivering the records electronically would cut their costs and speed things up, but wouldn't necessarily change whether they were eventually able to use the information. On the other hand, people who raise money for campaigns and who are in the direct mail business have proprietary interests in their lists, which are expensive to compile, clean up, and maintain. They would prefer a system that makes things harder on list thieves, and leaving out the addresses would certainly help in that regard. Some folks are conflicted, since they compile lists (disclosure is good) and then offer them for sale or rental (disclosure is bad).

Not everybody who's interested in the address information wants to use it for mail. Some are interested in plain old campaign finance. Some who pushed for electronic filing say the addresses are needed so that people examining the records can tell whether this "Robert Jones" is the same as that "Bob Jones." Addresses can also show whether everyone in a given law firm gave at the office. Cutting information, they say, makes the reports themselves much less meaningful to voters and others interested in where the money behind public officials originates.

By law, Cornyn has up to six months -- until the end of May -- to answer Harrison's question about when addresses are public records. That doesn't mean it will definitely take that long, just that it's allowed. The new system is supposed to be ready for electronic filing in time for the July reports.

Postage, Paternity and Politics

The father-and-son/legislator-and-lobbyist connection between Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, and his son Thomas Ratliff, could easily have become news without the overlay of a lieutenant governor's race. In fact, the two have been notably careful with the possible conflicts of interest that could arise ever since the younger Ratliff joined the lobby.

In spite of their care, they stumbled on a state contract for postage meters, and the fact that the elder Ratliff is in the hunt to lead the Texas Senate is giving the tale a larger life than it might otherwise have had. And it's fueling speculation -- fairly or not -- that the story itself was engineered by folks who prefer other contestants in the race to replace Lt. Gov. Rick Perry if Gov. George W. Bush wins the presidency and Perry wins a battlefield promotion to governor.

The basic outline of the story, which broke in the Wall Street Journal's Texas Journal, is that the senator wrote a letter asking the state auditor to take a closer look at a set-aside program that pushes state business to companies that hire disabled workers. He used as an example a state preference for Francotyp-Postalia, a company that makes postage meters that are then modified and repaired by Southeast Keller Corp., a Houston company with several disabled employees. On the other side of the fight is Pitney Bowes, which has -- with the exception of little blips like the Texas deal -- a virtual monopoly on the postage meter business. Sen. Ratliff says he jumped into the fight after Joe Bill Watkins, another lobbyist for Pitney Bowes, approached him. He says that he didn't know until after the fact that his son was lobbying for that company, too.

Sen. Ken Armbrister, D-Victoria, also wrote a letter questioning the deal and wondering whether the Houston company qualified for the set-asides. He asked the state agency in charge to stop using the set-asides until after it had satisfied that concern. Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, weighed in and said the Texas Council on Purchasing from People with Disabilities should hold a special meeting to look at the postage meter deal. Lt. Gov. Perry weighed in on the eve of the Journal's story praising the council for agreeing to reevaluate the contract.

The elder Ratliff is one of a handful of senators generally thought to be in contention for the job of presiding officer if Perry moves up. This story probably doesn't hurt him in that effort, in part because of the number of senators who leapt to his defense and said they think he's an ethical man. At the same time, this is a small group of contestants and voters, and anything that nicks one candidate helps everyone else who's interested in the corner office. The Capitol has been abuzz for weeks over who's zooming who at any given point. There is a group of commonly mentioned contenders, including Sens. Armbrister, Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, J.E. "Buster" Brown, R-Lake Jackson, David Sibley, R-Waco, and Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio. But if they or their aides, surrogates, agents or friends in the lobby were involved in making news of Ratliff's conflict, they left no fingerprints.

Saving David Long

Gov. Bush was campaigning last week, so it fell to the lieutenant governor to make the decisions when it came time to execute David Long, who killed three women with a hatchet in 1986.

That was complicated by the fact that the murderer had tried to kill himself a few days before his appointment with the state's executioner, presenting Perry with the peculiar duty of making sure Long was safe and alive until the state was ready to kill him. That's why Perry and prison officials temporarily held up Long's transfer to the building where he was supposed to be killed. When Long was first supposed to be moved, a doctor watching over him wouldn't sign the forms saying he was safe to transport. While they were working out a transportation method acceptable to the doctor, Long's appeals were failing. Finally, Long was flown with medical supervision from the hospital to the death chamber, where he was given a lethal injection.

Heated GOP Primary: Houston Edition

Those squawks and screeches issuing from Houston's CD 7 are coming from candidates convinced that dirty tricks are under way in the form of push polling and telephone whisper campaigns. Rev. Wallace Henley and Rep. John Culberson, both of whom are running to replace U.S. Rep. Bill Archer when he retires next year, say they've been victimized by "what if" questions posed to voters. "What if you knew Culberson's license to practice law had been revoked and that he hasn't paid his income taxes?" "What if you knew Henley had been involved in political dirty tricks when he worked in the Nixon White House?" (Henley says he didn't do anything of the kind. Culberson says he does have his law license and is up to date on his taxes, but the license apparently did lapse for a time when he failed to pay his bar dues. The Texas Supreme Court says now that his license is current.)

Neither candidate points directly to another contestant in the race as spreading the rumors. Both say they heard about the questions from supporters who got calls asking, first, who they supported, and second, whether they would continue to support a particular candidate if they knew this or that about that candidate. Culberson questions a poll done by Peter Wareing, another candidate in the race, saying several constituents have told him that the nasty questions came during the same week that, as it turns out, the Wareing poll was in the field. And both he and Henley did press releases condemning the dirty tricks and imploring the others in the contest to play nice.

Culberson also refers to radio ads that he says ran during the Rush Limbaugh show on Houston affiliates that accused him of voting for higher taxes and for "Hillary Clinton's health care plan." Those have since been pulled down. He doesn't point his finger on that one, but says "someone is out there adding to the atmosphere." And he pulled out a campaign pledge for everyone in the race to sign, which they all did, in part because he unveiled the pledge at a candidate forum while they were all in the spotlight. It says, for what it's worth, that the candidates will stick to issues and facts "without personal or false attacks on individual candidates or their families."

Separately, Culberson pulls some more mileage out of a survey done for him by the Tarrance Group in September. In a memo to Austin lobbyists and others, he says the "recent poll" shows him well ahead of his opponents and contends there is a "distinct possibility" he could win the seven-person Republican primary without an April runoff. He takes a glancing jab at "others" who've been doing push-polling (see above). Culberson's poll showed him with a 16 point lead over his nearest contender; Wareing's poll, done by Baselice & Associates, was done later, and had Wareing and Culberson in a dead heat (when the margin of error is taken into account).

Heated GOP Primary: East Texas Edition

The congressional race is hot because the primary is everything in that heavy GOP district. The GOP primary in Senate District 3, which covers a chunk of East Texas that starts in Houston's suburbs and sprawls to the north, is hot because the GOP majority in the Texas Senate is probably at stake.

This week's towel-snapping starts with a pop from builder Les Tarrance, who let loose a poll showing him with a big advantage in Montgomery County, his home base. His pollster, Promark Research Corp. of Houston, says he has a 3-to-1 lead in name identification over Rep. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, in that county. He admitted he loaded the questions (saying he's a homebuilder from the county and that he has family all over the district), and came up with a district-wide margin of 55 to 18. Staples responds with numbers from a tracking poll (also with loaded questions benefiting the candidate) that shows him with a 5-to-1 lead over Tarrance.

Towel-snap number two comes from the Conroe Courier, one of the papers in the aforementioned Montgomery County, admonished the two candidates to play nice and said Tarrance had stepped slightly out of bounds with his line "a vote for Staples is a vote against Athens."

Which brings us to towel-snap number three. Staples' bunch fires back by noting that he voted to get a new district court in Athens. And he claims to have helped the current judge get his appointment. Presiding in that 392nd District Court? Carter Tarrance, Les' brother.

Hey, Pal, You Could Use Some Rest

The Texas Democratic Party starts this next deal off by saying that it is not aimed at any particular person. It's just a coincidence, doncha see, that former Rep. Gilbert Serna, D-El Paso, was indicted earlier this month on charges of taking kickbacks from employees in return for pay raises.

Party Chairman Molly Beth Malcolm says -- without mentioning anyone in particular -- that candidates facing felony criminal charges would probably be better off concentrating their attention on their defense and not taking on the added distraction of campaigning for office. That goes double for people who face charges as a result of their public service, she says. "A person is innocent until proven guilty. But it would be in such a person’s best interest to straighten out their personal situation before attempting to run for office," Malcolm said. "It also would be in the best interest of all candidates on the ballot to not have a distraction that could have a negative effect on them all."

After he was indicted by a Travis County grand jury, Serna questioned the timing of the charges, saying he was planning to announce his candidacy for the House seat he lost in last year's Democratic runoff election to Manny Najera, who went on to become the state representative from HD 75. The case against Serna started almost two years ago when the El Paso Times first wrote that he had offered some of his state employees pay raises if they would agree to give some of the money to him.

Political Notes, Oddments

Jill Warren is officially in the race for the HD 48 seat left open by the retirement plans of Rep. Sherri Greenberg, D-Austin. Warren, a Republican, has never run for public office, but she's been around political types for a long time. Her father was a judge in Huntsville; her brother, Jim Warren, is a former reporter who now lobbies in Austin; and she did time in the Capitol, working in the office of John Montford, when the Lubbock Democrat was in the Senate. Same race, slightly different name: Jeremy Warren, a Democrat who works for Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, has decided not to make the race. He'll endorse Ann Kitchen, another Democrat, in the contest.

Robert Sharpe, who has been plotting a challenge to U.S. Rep. Ken Bentsen, D-Houston, says he has "lost faith and trust with the leadership of the Republican Party." He has decided to throw in with presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, ditching the GOP for the Reform Party. Unlike Buchanan, Sharpe isn't remaining in his political race. He had planned to chase the GOP nomination in CD 25, but now says he'll leave that pursuit at the same time he leaves the Republican Party. In his announcement, Sharpe says his wife, Guinn Sharpe, has already signed on with the Reform Party, and has also been elected as that organization's Harris County chair.

• U.S. Rep. Bill Archer, R-Houston, has so far stayed out of the contest for the seat he is leaving in a year. To keep things level, he invited candidates to get their pictures with him for mail and other advertising pieces after one candidate used his photo in a mailer. But Archer's non-involvement at home doesn't mean he's through with campaign politics. He was guest of honor at a recent fundraiser in San Antonio for Elizabeth Ames Jones, who's challenging Rep. Bill Siebert, R-San Antonio, for his HD 121 seat. Janelle McArthur has signed on to raise money for Jones.

• Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, says he didn't go to a Democratic press conference last session knowing it was a Democratic press conference, but because he wanted the hate crimes legislation that was then pending in the Legislature to pass. He's trying to counter an effort by the Free Enterprise Foundation to recruit a Republican to run against him. The folks at Free PAC say Merritt isn't conservative enough (though they're not targeting seven other Republicans rated less conservative on their survey of voting records) and they'd like to get someone to run against him in the primary. Merritt acknowledges he got under the skin of some Republicans with legislation that would have taken railroad commissioners off the elective food chain by limiting their upward mobility, but he says his appearance at that press conference on hate crimes was about the issue and not about the politics. He wasn't told when he was invited to that press conference that it was put together by Democrats, he says -- that became apparent only after he got there.

Y2k List: Beans, Batteries, Bottled Water, Cash...

The General Services Commission posted Y2k warnings in state buildings and on elevator doors, saying the elevators would be shut down for a few hours before and after midnight on December 31, and saying that the buildings might have problems, too. The building notices said utility and communications services could be "interrupted for an indefinite period" when the clock rolls from 1999 to 2000, and that the buildings shouldn't be occupied in case of such an interruption.

Somebody in the governor's office apparently had no problem with the idea of warnings but didn't like GSC's signs and the wording on them. So the agency was ordered to pull the signs down. The Y2k elves are now working on signs acceptable to the people in the Pink Building. Have no fear: By the time midnight tolls on Friday, December 31, anyone who's still hanging around a state office building will be appropriately warned.

Meanwhile, the state's office of emergency management has put together public service ads for radio and television -- at a cost of about $150,000 -- basically telling people not to get all worked up about what happens at midnight on December 31. One of the ads features characters from the "Greater Tuna" plays, another features Texas Railroad Commissioner Tony Garza, and a third is a takeoff on science fiction movies from the 1950s. The state's advice? Keep enough canned goods, bottled water and flashlight batteries for a three-day-weekend.

This probably isn't the last word on this, but it's the last one this week: The Texas Department of Banking is joining other state agencies in pressing the Don't Panic button, saying banks are in good shape for Y2k. They also say you should make withdrawals only in the amount you'll need over the holidays. Then they say you should make those withdrawals early since automatic teller machines "are likely to see heavy usage." And they warn that if the ATM is out of money, it's probably because of those withdrawals and not because of a Y2k problem.

Measuring the Sizes of Yawns, Investments, and Lost Farms

The debates have been boring to more than just the politicos and pundits who get paid to watch; the public is already tired of the campaigns even though most voters haven't seen an ad or watched a candidate forum. An odd but intriguing project at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard will track voter interest or the lack of it weekly for a year. It's called the Vanishing Voter Project and it's set up to find out why voters are tuning out presidential politics. The folks in charge poll about 1,000 people each week. They're putting together what they call a voter involvement index by honing in on four components: whether people are thinking about the presidential race, talking about it, paying close attention to it, or following it in the news. The results for the first four weeks show that voters don't care much about the race, and that's apparently because the candidates haven't done much to generate interest or conversation. The latest weekly report from the pollsters said voters really, really disliked the debate format and that it inspired them, more often than not, to turn off their TVs or, at minimum, to get up and change the channel. Less than 20 percent of the people who watched part of the first Republican presidential debate watched all of it. You can track the results by signing up for weekly updates from the project. The Internet address is http://www.vanishingvoter.org.

• Think you had a pretty good year? The Teacher Retirement System of Texas started the last fiscal year with assets of $66.5 billion and ended with assets of $79.9 billion, almost triple the percentage increase of the previous year. On the other hand, the State Auditor's Office says TRS' insurance plan for retirees is still in dire straits and "will require legislative action to address long-term funding needs." They are reporting monthly to legislative budgeteers, and TRS management tells the auditors they will have enough money to make it through fiscal year 2001.

• More big numbers: Development gobbled up 1.22 million acres of Texas farmland (out of 16 million acres nationally) from 1992 through 1997, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That's an increase of 75 percent over the rate recorded during the ten years that ended in 1992. Looked at another way, the increased development left the state 94.5 percent undeveloped.

Political People and Their Moves

Lobbyist Frank Calhoun is hanging up his spurs, as he puts it, quitting Locke Liddell & Sapp after more than a quarter century with the firm (or at least with one of the firms that merged and morphed into the current organization). He told partners he wanted to pursue personal interests... Mark Rose, who's headed the Lower Colorado River Authority for a dozen years, is quitting to become president and CEO of Public Strategies Inc., the Austin-based public affairs firm founded and headed by Jack Martin. Martin will get out of the day-to-day stuff and let others take over. LCRA's board could name a replacement next month... Former U.S. Rep. Greg Laughlin, R-West Columbia, was also an Army Colonel; he's been awarded the Legion of Merit for his service... Press corps moves: Russell Gold moves from the main office of the San Antonio Express News to the Austin Bureau. Elsewhere in that same building, the Associated Press has now filled both of the two openings in its Austin outpost, transferring Connie Mabin into the state capital from Charleston, West Virginia, and hiring Chris Williams away from the San Antonio paper... The Harris County Hospital District picked John Guest to be president, leaving an open job at the University Health System in San Antonio. Jeff Turner, that outfit's COO, will be interim president while the system does a national search... Appointments: President Bill Clinton appointed former Texas Land Commissioner Bob Armstrong to be chairman of the Rio Grande Compact Commission. That commission regulates use of that river, which runs through three states... Gov. George W. Bush named Robert Lambert to LCRA's board of directors. Lambert is a retired accountant who now lives in Horseshoe Bay and works as an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin... The Guv named David Sampson, who heads the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, to chair the Texas Council on Workforce and Economic Competitiveness... Attorney General John Cornyn tapped former FBI Director William Sessions, who also served as a federal judge, to head "Texas Exile," a gun crime prevention program.

Quotes of the Week

U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, addressing Gov. George W. Bush in one of this month's three presidential debates: "You need more experience before you become president of the United States, and that's why I'm thinking of you as a vice presidential candidate. You should have eight years with me and, boy, you'll make a heckuva president."

Harvard Graduate School of Education head Jerome Murphy, on why some states, like California and Wisconsin, are slowing their aggressive efforts to end social promotions because it would mean flunking too many kids: "I'm of the view that backpedaling is smart when you are heading over a cliff."

IBM Chairman Louis Gerstner, on the same subject: "We understand the pain. And we're going to deal with it. But we're not going to deal with it by backing off."

Houston Democrat Doug Sandage, who said months ago he'd ride his bicycle across Texas to attract attention to his campaign against Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, on why he backed down: "Running a hopeless Lone Ranger campaign would invite coverage that could distort and discredit both the message and the messenger."

Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, on the debate over counting and sampling in the next U.S. Census, which will be used as the basis for redistricting in 2001: "I have a hard time following the logic that says sampling is more accurate than an actual count. I know the arguments on the other side. I don't think they're valid."

Union organizer and former parole officer Brian Olson, on the reason the Texas prisons are 1,700 guards short of their target staffing level: "Why stay in a prison, where you could get hurt violently, when you could work at Taco Bell for the same money?"

Warsaw, Poland, city official Eugeniusz Gora, on why the government is allowing people to open restaurants and other businesses in the public toilets that are scattered around that city: "Public bathrooms are not profitable. We wanted to keep public toilets but expand their activities because we didn't have the money to maintain them."


Texas Weekly: Volume 16, Issue 24, 13 December 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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