Expect a photogenic skirmish for the benefit of the TV cameras when the Republican Attorneys General Association, or RAGA, gathers at the end of the month at the Barton Creek Resort in Austin. Texas AG John Cornyn is one of the founders of the GOP group and is a member of its executive committee. With the group holding its spring conference in a presidential candidate's back yard, a couple of non-profit outfits -- Texans for Public Justice and the Center for Public Integrity -- are taking shots at him and the group, calling it everything from a bad idea to a protection racket.
To try to get national press folks interested, they initially played up the group's plans to hold a reception at the Governor's Mansion, as well as a private briefing the AGs and their donors/guests will get from Karl Rove, the governor's political guru. But at least part of that slam was bogus: The participants won't be seeing Gov. George W. Bush. It's not on his agenda (he won't be in Austin, aides say), and he was never on the organization's agenda for the event. The Governor's Mansion is often used for events that don't involve anyone in the state's first family, and the RAGA reception scheduled for March 30 is apparently one of those events. In fact, the group moved that reception to a less controversial venue -- the Austin Club -- just to spare everyone the trouble.
Rove is on the agenda, as is North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer. RAGA's official list of things to do includes seminars called "High Tech and Telecommunications: The Role Attorneys General Play in Industry Issues", "Preserving Religious Freedom & Protecting Individual Rights", and "The Business Community and Attorneys General: Working Together to Protect Communities and Consumers."
... But Who Will Be There Remains a Question
In a January invitation to the Austin conference, Cornyn wrote that the group "was born out of concerns arising out of recent industry-wide lawsuits that seek to promote public policy changes via the courthouse rather than the statehouse." And he said the group "provides a great opportunity for conservative business and community leaders to meet and discuss this and other concerns." The group's second goal is to get more Republicans elected to AG posts. Right now, 12 of the 43 elected attorneys general are Republicans. RAGA's first meeting, held in South Carolina last fall, drew six of the dozen or so Republican AGs in the U.S. and 70 other participants.
The combination of topics and attendees is where the real controversy sits, after you get past the idea that the governor might be involved. RAGA was formed last summer by Cornyn and other Republican AGs who were tired of what they saw as a Democratic tilt at the National Association of Attorneys General, or NAAG. But where NAAG is a non-political group, at least on paper, RAGA is a subsidiary of the Republican National Committee. Sponsors join at four levels, giving anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000 to the group. The contributions go to the RNC, earmarked for RAGA. They are reported as contributions to the RNC, which are disclosed to the public. But there is no way to know who among the RNC's donors is focussed on RAGA: It's easier to find a stranger at the airport.
That's the source of one criticism leveled at the group by the folks on the other side. With no way to know who is giving to the group, there is no way to know whether there is or is not a connection between the money and later actions taken by the AGs. The contributors get private access to the lawyers at the conference, again without anyone outside knowing who's inside, giving opponents of the group another opportunity to carp. Put another way, the AGs aren't disclosing enough information to show they weren't doing anything untoward.
Disclosure for One, Disclosure for All
Right or wrong, Cornyn and the other AGs didn't provide themselves much cover on this. They're not saying who their donors are, who the attendees at their meetings are, or what was said in the meetings. And they are under no legal obligation to reveal any of that. But they'll continue to take shots from their critics. And the media, which can't resist stories about secret stuff, no matter how mundane the stuff, will continue to run with it.
The misdirected effort to pull in the governor, and with him the national media, didn't work, at least not immediately (there are some national reporters scuffling around on the story). But the back-and-forth over the GOP lawyers will probably continue.
Speaking of cover, it's not too thick on the other side of the fight. Isn't it ironic that the people screaming for disclosure here won't disclose where their own money comes from?
Texans for Public Justice doesn't have any legal requirement to disclose anything about where its backing comes from and the director, Craig McDonald, says that's constitutionally protected under Freedom of Association. True enough. But the attorneys general aren't breaking any laws, either, and he contends their books should be open. McDonald says the difference is that he holds no public office and thus has no power over state policy, as Cornyn and his fellows have. For their part, the public officials say they're not doing public business at the meetings and have no obligation to open their private talks to friendly or unfriendly outsiders.
Second, McDonald says, disclosure might have a chilling effect on his contributors, some of whom apparently don't want to publicly defend their support of his group and its potshots at mostly Republican public officials. The RAGA argument, while not identical, is close: They want to be able to talk frankly with people who aren't frightened away by the fact that they have to publicly sign up.
You have to wonder whether that new 8.25 percent discount will boost condom sales. We're about to find out, thanks to a mistake by the governor's staff that let the boss sign it into law.
Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander says prophylactics will be tax-free in Texas starting on April 1, because they're on the list of things the Legislature and Gov. George W. Bush put into the tax break on over-the-counter medicines last year.
About a year-and-a-half ago, when Bush was merely a Texas governor running for reelection and looking for popular ways to cut taxes, he held a press conference at a South Austin drug store announcing he'd like to exempt over-the-counter drugs and health supplies from the sales tax. He was asked whether birth control pills would be included. Those are prescription medications that are already exempted, he said. He was asked whether condoms would be among the tax-free items. Nope, they shouldn't be included in the exemption, he said.
But when it came time to put it into law, the Legislature took a shortcut around devising a list of what should qualify. Instead, lawmakers wrote the tax break to include everything on a list put out by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That federal list includes prophylactics (a category that includes surgical gloves and masks, as well as condoms and other preventatives).
That was apparently done with no malice to the governor or anyone else: Lawmakers were out to write a bill that would get through both chambers, and chances are always better for legislation that doesn't include a list of specific items that opponents can grab hold of. Anyway, it won overwhelming approval from the Legislature and went to the governor for his signature.
His staff looked, didn't catch the fact that the bill broke their boss' earlier promise, and passed it along. The governor signed it. And by the time Rylander got her hands on it, it was clear that condoms should go untaxed, by order of the governor and the other denizens of the Pink Building.
We're Shocked to Find Politics Here!
Wouldn't it be amazing if every Republican and Democrat in state office sat out a race to determine the partisan majority of the Texas Senate in the elections leading up to a redistricting session? C'mon, the SD-03 race between Republican Todd Staples and Democrat David Fisher is what politicos live for. It's got high stakes. Big bucks. Partisan squabbles. Good barbecue. What's not to like?
Even so, the letters we scribbled about last week, from Lt. Gov. Rick Perry and Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander to various lobsters and others who might want to play, inspired an answer from the Democrats in the Senate. But the Democrats are already concocting plans, have already held a couple of fundraisers and as a group plan to help Fisher any way they can. And the Republicans, who haven't been in the Senate Caucus business as long as their counterparts, are formulating plans to help out on Staples' side of the fight. They'll all be involved soon, bickering like terriers.
The Democrats' letter, addressed to Perry and signed by Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos of Austin on behalf of a list of ten senators, backs into a loose accusation that Perry's letter was intimidating. They don't actually say that, just that others who read the letter "found it rather intimidating." More intimidating, by far, have been the meetings various lobbyists and politicos have had with the Perry gang. The word from those meetings, as we've reported before, is "We're keeping score."
This could get more interesting as time passes. Perry and Attorney General John Cornyn are hosting a fundraiser for Staples in a week or so. Prices range up to $10,000 for that event. And we've been reminded that two years ago, the Democrats in the Senate jumped into races against incumbent Republican senators, a legislative no-no for years. One of the three targets, Sen. Michael Galloway, R-The Woodlands, didn't make it back to Austin after being beat by David Bernsen of Beaumont. You can't hang that result entirely on the Senate Democrats, but suffice to say that Republican elephants never forget. The GOP Caucus stayed out of contested races two years ago.
Yet another twist on all of this: Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D- San Antonio, got some quiet help from the Lite Guv's office in the last two weeks of her unexpectedly tough primary race against David McQuade Leibowitz. She was named to a workers compensation panel that helped her in some quarters, and some calls went from Perry's political office to various quarters asking for help for her after people learned Leibowitz was on his way to spending about a half-million dollars. But she's one of the ten Democrats on whose behalf Barrientos signed his letter. She says now she would rather not have compared Perry to Tom DeLay, as the letter does. Not on that list of Democrats following the words "On behalf of" were Sens. Ken Armbrister of Victoria, David Cain of Dallas, Eddie Lucio of Brownsville and Mike Moncrief of Fort Worth.
Paper, but not Plastic
That new campaign finance law passed by the Legislature moves the state in with the Jetsons while leaving the public living with the Flintstones. The bill left some wiggle room in the question of when and in what form the state could provide the addresses of political contributors to the public. Specifically, the Texas Ethics Commission wanted to know whether information should be available on diskettes and in-house computers that the agency is barred from posting on the Internet.
Attorney General Cornyn says no. You can see the addresses of donors as long as the agency doesn't deliver them electronically. Lawmakers wanted address information kept off the Internet, partly for reasons of privacy, partly for reasons of commerce. Some donors don't want their addresses posted on the Internet. And companies that maintain and sell political mailing lists didn't want the fact of filing a campaign finance report to move their proprietary lists into the public domain. The absence of the addresses makes it tougher to tell whether a given contributor, Jane Doe, is the same as the Jane Doe mentioned elsewhere in a report. But the AG says he had to do what the Legislature said, and they said the information shouldn't be electronically available to the public. One oddity in that ruling is that the complete information will be on computers at the agency since candidates will be filing electronically. But in the public sections of the agency, the addresses will be stripped out.
Dollars, Lawsuits, Endorsements
Need more evidence that you can't see local politics from within the political bubble in Austin? Take a look at the runoff in CD-07, the race to replace U.S. Rep. Bill Archer, R-Houston. As most people in Houston and Austin expected, it's down to state Rep. John Culberson and businessman Peter Wareing, but not everything is breaking as Culberson's promoters in the state capital predicted.
The primary was an eight-way race that had six candidates you could seriously list as players, either because of their money or their support in the community. The betting line was that Culberson and Wareing would make the runoff and that -- here's where the magic was weak -- most or all of the losers would fall in behind Culberson.
Not so fast there, bucko.
Culberson got the nod from Wallace Henley, a church minister who finished fifth in the primary. But GOP activist and national committeewoman Cathy McConn, who finished third, and attorney Mark Brewer, who finished fourth, are holding hands with Wareing. Ron Kapsche, who finished sixth (garnering 3,105 votes after spending an estimate $1.1 million) hasn't weighed in. Neither have we heard from Gene Hsiao and Susan Malfer, the contestants in seventh and eighth places.
Wareing's folks say McConn has already cut radio spots for him, read a message onto tape that can be played on the phone for voters, handed over her database and her helpers -- the whole bit.
Wareing, who's never held office, has spent about $1.7 million so far in the race and is apparently willing to burn some more: He's already got runoff ads up on television, cutting Culberson for tax votes in 1987, when then-Gov. Bill Clements and legislative leaders and budgeteers were raising taxes to offset the damage done by the oil crash (the final tab on that tax package, $5.8 billion, is still the state record). The Wareing folks say Culberson voted for sales and gas tax hikes; he's been saying he's never voted for a tax hike in all his years in the Texas Legislature.
It's hard to see how this will translate for primary voters, but it made Culberson feel better: He won a court fight with an Amarillo group that passed out defamatory fliers about him on Election Day. He later claimed that the scheme was put together by a consultant associated with one of the losers on Election Day, but it's not a great issue to pursue during a runoff.
When it comes down to it, a low turnout in the runoffs is probably better for Culberson than for Wareing. There's a runoff election between Bill Callegari and Aubrey Thoede for the Texas House seat Culberson is abandoning, and that should help him in the part of the congressional district that overlaps the legislative district. Stay tuned.
Political Notes and Miscellany
The GOP primary in HD-11 went to a recount as we went to press. Kenneth Durrett lost by less than 60 votes to Paul Woodard Jr. in that race to replace Rep. Todd Staples, D-Palestine. Durrett, who's mayor pro tem in Jacksonville, hedged his bet, filing for reelection to the city office even as he asked for a recount on the state office. He says he checked that with any number of lawyers first... As we noted last week, HD-48 Republican Scott Loras picked up the endorsements of all the losers in that GOP primary race as he heads into a runoff with Jill Warren. But what we didn't know then is that Joe Anderson, another candidate in that race, got the ball rolling on the endorsements. He thought he stood a good chance of getting into a runoff with Warren and told other Republicans he would like to have their endorsements if that came to pass. In return, he offered to do the same for them if they finished second. Anderson finished third and jumped in behind Loras... Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, hired Jim Arnold to run his reelection race against Democrat Joe Evans, Nacogdoches County Sheriff. Arnold is steering four runoff races and trying to shake off the loss of his main client, homebuilder Les Tarrance, in the 3rd district Senate race. A couple of those runoffs could be tough. Warren, mentioned above, is a client. So is Bob Deuell, the Greenville doctor seeking the SD-02 Republican nomination against Richard Harvey, and Ramsey Farley, who's in a runoff against Rodney Geer in CD-11. The winner will get to run against U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco.
A NIMBY Goes Statewide
If you try to pipe gasoline through neighborhoods full of suburban minivan-driving soccer moms and dads who are nervous about underground pipelines in their back yards, you can get the attention of public officials who want to mine those votes. Case in point: Connecting gasoline supplies in Houston with gasoline customers in El Paso via pipeline has raised enough outcry along the route to pull Republicans on the local and statewide level into an issue that might normally have been the sole property of environmentalists and Democrats.
The Longhorn Pipeline project proposes to link that supply of gas with that demand by adding new sections to a 50-year-old crude oil pipeline. That's under federal review. It's also got the full attention of activists and now neighborhood groups and others who don't want gasoline running through populated territory or over environmentally sensitive areas.
What started as a Not In My Back Yard issue in Austin (fueled by publicists and others hired on one hand by the pipeline owners and on the other, by the folks on the delivery end who don't want new competition) spread to other areas along the line and got the attention of public officials and wannabes. It showed up this year, understandably enough, in mail from Republican candidates for HD-48, the Austin House seat currently held by Democrat Sherri Greenberg. The pipeline cuts across suburban Southwest Austin, which is the growing part of that district and the location of a potential vein of Republican support, and it's one of the few issues that has the attention of otherwise happy and prosperous voters on that end of town.
Now you can add Land Commissioner David Dewhurst to the list of Republicans pushing the issue. He's in it because the General Land Office has to approve easements for the eleven instances where the pipeline crosses state land and riverbeds. He says he won't grant the easements until he's satisfied about the safety of the line. He says it's not safe now. But he doesn't say what it would take to satisfy him that the line is safe. Dewhurst says the issue is particularly important since the pipeline runs through urban and suburban areas of Houston and Austin.
Easements weren't required until 1993, according to Dewhurst aides, and were never sought nor granted for older sections of the pipeline until November 1999, when the owners came to GLO to ask for permission to cross several rivers, creeks and streams. Those are the easements Dewhurst is sitting on, and the line can't be used until he grants the easements or is forced to do so by the courts.
Here's an oddment: Easements for the new portions of the pipeline -- the leg that connects the Permian Basin country and El Paso -- were approved in 1998, while Democrat Garry Mauro was the top dog at GLO. That was before the environmental issue heated up, but the easements he granted clearly allow for jet fuel and gasoline to be piped across an expanse of West Texas.
News and Political Briefs
Here's a claim that's too labor-intensive to try to prove or disprove. The consultants for Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams claim his margin of victory was the largest of any contested statewide downballot candidate in any GOP primary in 20 years... The Harris County GOP can't take Jim Barr off the ballot, but they're against him. He was removed from his position on a state district court, a decision he appealed and lost all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The party says simply that he's not qualified... Lockheed Martin IMS is the apparent winner of the contract for a centralized child support system that's required by the federal government. The dollar amount of the contract for the so-called "State Disbursement Unit" won't be public until the negotiations are complete about a week from now. If the company and the AG hit a deadlock, he'll turn to American Management Systems, the number two finisher in the bidding. That centralized system for collecting and paying out child support is supposed to be in place -- gulp -- by April 1 (originally, it was a year earlier, but the state asked for more time and got it). Cornyn says his office is running a system with state employees to meet that requirement and will gradually hand it off to the contractor.
Political People and Their Moves
After five years in shark-infested waters, Harriet Miers decided to call it quits as chairman of the Texas Lottery Commission. She first made a round of calls at the Pink Building to make some suggestions about the current sales slump (she points to several variables, including competition for gambling dollars and low jackpots in the current Lotto Texas game) and to telegraph a coming change in the games that lowers winning odds and raises jackpot sizes. Her replacement is another Dallas attorney, Betsy Whitaker, who'll serve out Miers' term, which ends next February. Bush moved C. Thomas Clowe of Waco into the chairman's job on the three-member board... We'll confess that we didn't know there was such a thing, but the state has a new climatologist. He's John Nielsen-Gammon of Bryan, and replaces John Griffiths of College Station, who retired... Bush also appointed two new members to the Texas Board of Criminal Justice. Pierce Miller, a San Angelo businessman, will finish off a term that ends next February; Mary Bacon, a visiting judge from Houston will serve until 2005. That's all subject, as usual, to Senate confirmation... Ashley Wadick is a new deputy land commissioner overseeing coastal management and other projects. Commissioner David Dewhurst tapped her to replace Andrew Neblett, who left for the private sector... Saralee Tiede jumped out of the customer affairs shop at the Public Utility Commission in search of something new. State law prevents that agency's employees from seriously looking at jobs in the utilities or related businesses while they're on the payroll. Tiede says quitting freed her to look... Sen. David Cain, D-Dallas, loses legislative aide Kristie Flippo Niemeyer to Time Warner Telecom, where she takes over regional public affairs... They said as they were writing Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush that Molly Ivins would provide the voice and the jokes and that Lou Dubose would supply the underpinnings, picked up during his coverage of Bush and the Legislature. When they said voice, they meant it: The review copies of the book aren't books at all, but tapes, with Ivins supplying the twang.
Quotes of the Week
Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, the lone vote against extending a moratorium against new Internet taxes through 2006: "It will lead to an immediate, immediate degradation of the State of Texas' sales tax revenue in an amount that I think would put the state on a path to an income tax. That's tragic."
Virginia state Rep. Paul Harris Sr., who voted with the majority, on Kirk's outspokenness on the issue: "I get the feeling that he is of the opinion that anything that moves should be taxed, and if it keeps moving regulate it, and if it stops moving, it should be subsidized."
Former El Paso Mayor Larry Francis, who is contemplating a comeback, on one of his reasons: "I have tried retirement and I have found you can only travel so much, build so many houses, build so much furniture and play so many rounds of golf."
Oil industry expert George Jasper with Robert W. Baird & Co., saying what you already know about rising gasoline prices: "People are going to have to pay through the nose for fuel."
Texas Tech University spokesbot Cindy Rugeley, who has worked for organizations that buy ink in barrels, in an interview with the Lubbock paper, which has been critical of Tech Chancellor John Montford: "John does not want to talk to you. He does not care about the Avalanche-Journal."
Former Anderson County Judge N.R. Link, a Democrat, explaining why he's supporting Rep. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, for Senate: "When you've got your neighbor running, you vote for him... unless he's got his cows in the wrong pasture."
Bill Sherman, a candidate for Board of Aldermen in Edgecliff Village, when asked by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram why he's running for office: "That's none of your business."
Boston snack bar operator Charlie Bianchi, on how his customers feel about a strike that's cut off supplies of Twinkies and Ring Dings: "They're ready to kill. They look at me with doubt in their eyes. They think that I forgot to place the order. It's always the coffee-slinger's fault."
Actress Julia Roberts, asked by US Weekly magazine what woman she would have sex with if she had to have sex with a woman: "Hillary Clinton 'cause I don't think she's getting her fair share."
Texas Weekly: Volume 16, Issue 37, 27 March 2000. Copyright 2000 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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