Strolling Through the Home Stretch

To imagine an intrigued and engaged voter, you first have to imagine an intriguing and engaging runoff race, and those are scarce this year. There are but a handful, and fewer still involve incumbents still fighting for their jobs.

To imagine an intrigued and engaged voter, you first have to imagine an intriguing and engaging runoff race, and those are scarce this year. There are but a handful, and fewer still involve incumbents still fighting for their jobs.

The last legislative incumbent at risk, Rep. Leo Alvarado Jr., D-San Antonio, pulled in 41.9 percent of the votes in the Democrat primary this year and faces Trey Martinez Fischer in the runoff. Fischer got 30.8 percent in March, but when an incumbent doesn't get more than half of the votes, there's some trouble afoot. Two years ago, Alvarado was unopposed and garnered 3,960 votes in the primaries. More people (5,978) voted in the four-way primary this year, but Alvarado's total dropped to 2,504. Fischer got 1,842. Alvarado pulled a higher percentage among early voters than on Election Day; Fischer pulled a better percentage on Election Day than he did in early returns, but just barely.

Late news in that race: The two candidates who fell out of the running in March, Andrew Ramon and Steve Avery, have endorsed Alvarado.

The two busiest races, at least if you're doing this tally by counting the number of bricks in the air at any given moment, are the two we wrote at length about last week.

In the first, Jill Warren and Scott Loras, running for the GOP nomination in Austin's HD-48 (now held by Sherri Greenberg, a Democrat, who's retiring), are bombarding mailboxes and phone lines in an effort to pull out a win. This is impossible to handicap, for a depressingly simple reason: During the first three days of early voting, fewer than 1,000 people voted in the two party's primaries. That's in an urban county that's supposedly got the greatest number of people with direct interests in state politics.

In the second, Rep. John Culberson and businessman Peter Wareing were fighting to the finish. Culberson scored points, at least in the papers and airwaves, with a charge that Wareing voted for then-Gov. Ann Richards over now-Gov. George W. Bush, a no-no in that very Republican district.

But Wareing returned with a late hit, pulling out old voting records to show that Culberson, who's professed absolute historical purity as a Republican, voted in the 1976 Democratic primary 24 years ago. Why is that worth bringing up? Wareing says he's not pointing it out because Culberson voted that way, but because he said he didn't. An earlier, similarly aimed shot from the Wareing camp -- that Culberson voted for a tax bill when he said he hadn't -- didn't hit the mark.

Competing Without Fighting

Elsewhere, the radar screen is short of drama on the night of the runoffs. There's only one other state race on the Democratic side of the ledger -- the one between non-dancer Gene Kelly and former one-term Rep. Charles Gandy. The Democratic brass has been pushing Gandy; the winner will face U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who's both popular and, in political terms, rich, with $6 million-plus in her campaign accounts. On the GOP side, three seats on the Court of Criminal Appeals are still up for grabs. But those are the least visible statewide races, and the advertising takes place in spots like the sports pages, where one urban candidate is buying space, instead of on statewide television. There's just one Harris County resident among those candidates, but because of the races there, Harris County will likely pick the winners. The two candidates for the GOP nomination in the state Senate's 2nd district -- Dr. Bob Deuell and businessman Richard Harvey -- are running without any friction. The third-place candidate in the CD-11 Republican primary endorsed Ramsey Farley over Rodney Geer. The winner will face U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco.

Continuing the Race for the Bottom in HD-48

The aforementioned race to replace Sherri Greenberg is ending up with a run of ugly direct mail and telephone calls. The Scott Loras campaign unleashed a late shot at Jill Warren for supporting Democrats and working for them in the past. None of that is new material, but the presentation might prove effective, lacing Warren for working for Democrats, supporting Paul Hobby in his comptrollers' race against Republican Carole Keeton Rylander (former Rylander aide Reb Wayne is running Loras' campaign) , and voting in Democratic primaries. They planned to follow with a mailer attempting to make Warren a poster child of the Austin lobby, an interesting pitch in a district where a healthy number of Austin's lobbyists live. Warren was also hitting the mailboxes, with pieces on some of Loras' writings (keep reading) and phone banks to turn out her voters.

We wrote about some of Loras' writings last week, and although he said then that he wouldn't take back a word of it, he turned around and took all of the words out of public view.

Loras asked the administrators at the Five Doves Internet site to pull down his stuff right after we went to press last week, after saying directly that he didn't mind having it out there on public display. They dutifully pulled it down. Loras contends his opponent was misusing the information. In fact, all Warren's aides had done was point out the materials without applying any real spin to them.

They apparently felt the writings required no spin from them: In one letter that Loras wrote to the website last September and then pulled down, he wrote about little green men. "After much research and prayer, I believe that 'aliens' are demons and are being allowed to have an important purpose in God's plans for the End Times. Many theologians agree with me. I do not believe what non-believers say about them because I believe these people are playing with demonic spirits..."

In an explanation sent later to reporters who had asked about it, Loras said he doesn't believe in aliens and that was why he applied those quotation marks when he was writing. But Warren's folks thought it was odd enough to point out and Loras turned into the content provider for some of Warren's end-of-runoff mail.

Loras also notes, correctly, that we misquoted one of his letters last week. What he actually wrote was "Jews as a whole are 'blinded' until the time of the end," which he says is a reference to the fact that Jews don't worship Jesus Christ.

The winner, if anyone's alive at this time next week, will face Democrat Ann Kitchen in the November general election. And judging from the mail at the end of the campaign, some of her opposition research has already been completed for her, no matter how this goes.

If you want to watch the results of that or any other contest on Election Night and can't find it on television (it probably won't even be there in many markets, the Secretary of State's office will be posting results on the Internet starting when the polls close. The address is elections.sos.state.tx.us.

No Race in Denton County After All

This was in the offing last week, but now it's done: Myra Crownover will apparently replace her late husband, Rep. Ronny Crownover, R-Denton, in the Texas Legislature. After Rep. Crownover lost a battle with leukemia, Gov. George W. Bush set a special election for Saturday, May 6. Denton County GOP Chairman Richard Hayes considered a run, but after talking to his fellow Republicans, he became an emissary instead of a candidate, asking Crownover if she'd make the race.

That all but makes her the next representative. She's the only person who filed for the special election, and the winner of that will only serve out the year anyway (Democrats and Independents could have run, but nobody else signed up before the deadline). Since the primary is already over and no Democrats were in it, the Democrats can't put anyone on the November ballot. The Republicans get to replace the winner of their primary with the candidate of their choice, and so Myra Crownover will be the only name on the ballot in the general election later this year.

Crummy Job. And the Pay Stinks, Too.

If you look at pay scales, the average state worker in Texas makes less than the average state worker in the U.S. as a whole. But it's not as bad as it first appears, unless you look at prison pay.

A number-cruncher we know -- Stuart Greenfield, who founded Adequate Compensation for Texas State Employees, or ACTSE -- produced a back-of-the envelope rundown. The state of Texas pays its average employee $2,781 per month, according to numbers he pulled out of the U.S. Bureau of the Census. That compares with the national average of $2,972, meaning the average state employee here makes $191 less per month, or $2,292 less per year, than the national average for state employees.

But you can blame more than half of that difference on the state's low pay for correctional officers, known outside of the bureaucracy as prison guards. If you take out prison employees, the average state employee here makes $2,919, as against $2,995 for his or her national counterpart. That's a difference of only $76 a month or $912 annually for non-corrections employees.

And what about those prison employees? Here, they make $2,118. Nationally, state prison employees make an average of $2,790 each month. The difference is $672 per month, or $8,064 per year. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what the prison guards are hollering about.

These are Census numbers, and other sources have different figures to mess around with. For instance, the Corrections Yearbook published by the Criminal Justice Institute says starting guards in Texas start out $556 below the national average and the top salary here is $7,680 less than the national average top salary for prison guards. That said, most of the sources offer similar results.

The state's budgeteers will soon allow the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to "spend forward" to bring up the pay of some employees. What that means is that the agency would be allowed to spend money faster than planned (as they have already been allowed to do for expanded prison operations), with some assurance that the Legislature would make up the gap when it returns in January of next year. To bring all of TDCJ's employees up to the national average would cost the state $250 million annually, but the spend-forward plan wouldn't call for that much money (and wouldn't give the guards national average pay, either).

Budgeteers and agency officials are putting together a temporary plan right now: Look for a deal that raises the pay of guards who've been on the job for a long time, and whose salaries grew to the top level before they'd been on the job for very much time at all.

This is, in a sense, a split issue. First, Texas pays prison guards less than other states. Second, it caps their top salaries much earlier (20 months instead of many years) and at a much lower rate (the $7,680 number mentioned above) than the national average. The guards want to be at the national pay level, and want more steps in their pay schedules than currently exist. Depending on what they get, that could add to the price tag. And it would require changes that can only be done at the legislative level.

Following the Money Online

This is the last set of elections -- knock on wood -- before the state switches most serious candidates for office over to an electronic campaign finance filing system. The Texas Ethics Commission has been putting that together with the help of private vendors who are writing software candidates can use, and they're unveiling the new setup in about three weeks.

With some exceptions, all candidates from governor down to the state's various appeals courts will have to file electronically. They can probably get off the hook if they raise or spend less than $20,000 in a year (it depends on the office sought or held), or by filing affidavits that say they don't use computers to handle campaign finances. If they do use computers, as most do, they'll be able to use free software from the state to produce reports, or use their own software if it'll kick out reports the state's computers can read. Candidates will get training from the ethics commission starting sometime in May. The contribution and expenditure reports due in July will be the first filed using use that new system, and campaigns will be able to send in their information on diskettes or over the Internet. The results, minus addresses, will be available for viewing on the Internet soon after the filing deadlines.

Plugging the Works of Previous Commissions

If you don't want to plug an oil well in Texas, or if you want to put it off for a while, you can pay the Texas Railroad Commission $100 a year and post a bond that would cover a fraction of the cost of plugging the well. That's called the W-1X program, and it allows well owners to avoid the cost of plugging their holes for years. The original idea was that wells could be shut down for a while during periods of low prices and then cranked back up when prices recovered (it costs a fair amount to plug a well and then redrill it). But thousands of the wells in the program haven't been returned to production, and the state has been left with the cost of capping 4,500 of them over the last decade at a net cost to taxpayers of about $18 million.

Railroad Commissioner Tony Garza, who's proposing limits on the program, says more than 15,000 wells have been in the program for over two years and that more than 6,400 wells have been on the list for more than five years. The exemptions were supposed to be temporary, but rules passed by the commission over the years allow unlimited extensions. (Until 1986, oilies had only 20 days to put a well back online or plug it.)

That's not the only problem: The bonds posted by the producers don't cover the plugging costs if the state is left to cork the holes. The state plugged about 1,001 wells during the 1999 fiscal year, 832 of which were from the W-1X program. It costs about $4,500, on average, to plug a well. The bond amounts are based on the idea that a producer probably won't plug all of the wells, and that the state, likewise, won't be left with that responsibility. The difference between that idea and reality is the $18 million figure above.

Garza unveiled the idea as he put it on the RRC's agenda, and the commissioners will vote in a matter of days on whether to limit the number of times well owners can get extensions. Two speed bumps that we know of: Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, doesn't like the idea and told his hometown paper that he'll round up a bunch of people who also don't like it.

Second, the RRC is still putting together the statistics that will prove or disprove Garza's idea that the program is out of hand. The questions they're answering are how many wells have gone through the W-1X program and back into production, and how long those wells remained in the program before they were back in business.

Earlier Voting, Expensive Voting, Unheeded Voting

You'll hear, however briefly, of attempts to move the primaries from March to May or March to September when the Legislature meets next year. Those biennial pleas will come from folks who want to drum up more voter interest in campaigns, or cut the costs of long campaign seasons, or who see advantages in the changes for whomever they'd like to advance.

But there will be at least one attempt, from Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington, to make the Texas primaries one week earlier than they were this year. Why? Because the presidential races ended the week before they got to Texas this year, and he thinks voters will be more interested if they're actually involved in picking the president. He'd put the state's elections on the Super Tuesday date that, at least this year, finally decided the two presidential primaries.

• Lawmakers have never been able to agree to reduce the number of elections, but there's new ammunition in the fight against what some call "Turnout Burnout": Elections cost a lot. According to numbers from the Secretary of State, the state pays more to provide polls for voters than most campaigns spend to get the voters there. In 1991, the state spent about $10 million on the primary elections, and 3.8 million Texans voted. That comes out to a little over $2.60 per vote. Final numbers won't be available until after the runoffs, but the tab this year will probably be above $6 per vote.

• Footnote: This landed on our fax machine on April Fools Day and these folks weren't predisposed to like him anyway, but the McLennan County Democratic Party passed a resolution calling for the resignation of Attorney General John Cornyn because of his participation in the Republican Attorneys General Association. We'll let you know if he quits.

A Long Shot on Campaign Finance

The campaign finance lawsuit filed by a group of would-be reformers earlier this week had two effects that make it hard to figure. First, it had all sorts of judges talking and clucking; it got their attention. Second, most of the judges we talked with said it was a long shot at best.

The suit, filed in federal court, contends the state's lack of limits on finance for judicial campaigns ends up doing unconstitutional harm to due process. Access to fair decisions comes into question, and there is little in the system in the form of a leash if a judge wanted to succumb to influence-seeking contributors. More to the point, the lawsuit is an attempt to right a situation where voters, lawyers and judges agree (according to the judiciary's own surveys) that campaign money influences the results in Texas courtrooms. The reformers say, essentially, that the appearance of fairness is as important as fairness, and that the Texas courts don't appear to be fair.

They didn't ask for a particular form of relief, instead asking the courts to tell lawmakers to come up with something better. But when asked, they said model systems include variations on just a few ideas. The first is a formal, mandatory system of recusal, where judges would have no choice but to take themselves out of the judge business when contributors appear before them. Next is a system -- often proposed and often defeated here and elsewhere -- that would allow governors to appoint judges who would then face voters in retention elections. Next, a ban on contributions from people immediately before, during, and immediately after they bring matters before the judges they'd like to help. And fourth, some system of publicly financing judicial elections.

The filing itself is short, and is, like everything else these days, available on the Internet. Take a look at www.citizen.org/litigation/briefs/pcvbomer.htm.

The lawsuit is buttressed, in part, by a study that's not public yet. One of the groups that filed the suit, Texans for Public Justice, is unfurling that study on courts and campaign finance within a week.

Oddments and Tidbits

The Texas Medical Association's PAC jumped into correction mode pretty quickly, with the PAC board voting to support Rep. Todd Staples in his quest for a place in the Texas Senate. The doctors had been with Les Tarrance, who lost the March GOP primary to Staples by a humiliating margin. That trade group is also giving a thumbs-up to Rep. Allan Ritter, D-Beaumont, over Mary Jane Avery. She's a doctor's wife, but he's an incumbent. In the runoffs, the docs picked Bill Callegari over Aubrey Thoede in the HD-130 race to succeed Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston.

• The following lands on your desk because the head of the Texas Association of Health Plans, former Sen. Jerry Patterson, R-Pasadena, is something of a gun nut: TAHP's "Friday Facts," a publication that goes to members of the group, included a recent item headlined "Trigger Locks for Docs." It goes like this: There are 700,000 physicians in the U.S., and "possibly as many as 98,000 accidental deaths caused by medical malpractice." When you boil down the statistics, Patterson writes, "physicians are at least 7,000 times more dangerous than gun owners."

• Texas labor and the University of Texas are partnering on a new think tank that will concentrate on labor and work-related issues like wage scales and workers' compensation. The Texas AFL-CIO is helping raise the money. The school, through the Ray Marshall Center for the Study of Human Resources, which is affiliated with the LBJ School of Public Affairs (try squeezing all of that onto a business card), will provide some of the intellectual firepower. The new outfit will be called the Texas Progressive Work Institute.

• Texas House Republicans are going on a combination slumber party, retreat, policy conference and bonding session next month. The Republican Caucus is holding the first of what leaders hope will be an annual three-day retreat at Camp Balcones Springs, near Austin. They'll be listening to speakers, holding forth on their own, and also have been told to bring along some items to make the weekend more comfortable: bug repellant, fishing polls and swim suits.

Political People and Their Moves

Act surprised if this doesn't happen: Lobbyist Nancy Fisher is on the verge of signing on as legislative liaison for the beleaguered, besieged, and embattled Texas Department of Economic Development. She would be an addition and not a replacement. Former legislator Randall Riley has been dealing with legislative issues for the agency and he's staying, but in some other capacity... Michael Holmes of the Associated Press, one of the grizzled veterans of the Texas Capitol press corps (and he'll hate seeing that in print) is leaving for, gulp, Nebraska. Holmes has been watching the Pink Building and other parts of the state since 1984, but got a chance to head all of the wire service's news operations in Nebraska, where he went to high school and college, and will move to Omaha in a couple of months... Michael Kelley, legislative aide to Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, is leaving that gig to be the legislative liaison for the Department of Public Safety... Rhonda Myron, the legislative liaison at the Texas Department of Insurance, joins the Senate Committee on Economic Development, chaired by Sen. David Sibley, R-Waco. She'll handle insurance issues for that panel. Myron has been at TDI since 1977. Another well-known longtime inhabitant of TDI's legislative office, Frances Dudley, is also leaving, but says she hasn't decided what she'll do next. Kevin Brady, who has the same name as a Texas congressman but isn't one, will hold down the fort for now... Texas Rural Communities has hired Sandra Martinez, an analyst at the state comptroller's office, as its new executive director. She replaces Leland Beatty, who left the foundation late last year... El Paso Democrats kicked Mayor Carlos Ramirez out of the party because of his outspoken support for Gov. George W. Bush's presidential run. He can still vote with in their primaries, but this apparently will keep him out of the state convention as a delegate. Ramirez irked some of his fellows by campaigning for Bush in California and in New Hampshire... Appointments: Gov. Bush named Cathleen Herasimchuk of Houston and Nicholas Serafy Jr., a Brownsville businessman, to the board of the Texas Youth Commission. Herasimchuk is one of his former employees in the governor's office, and is now of counsel to a Houston law firm... Don Hansen is retiring from the Texas Hotel Motel Association and moving to Maine. He'll be replaced by Scott Joslove, who has been the in-house whizbang on economic development sales taxes at the Attorney General's office. April 17th... Lena Guerrero, a lobbyist who served on the Texas Railroad Commission and in the Texas House, learned she has two inoperable (but not necessarily untreatable) brain tumors. At press time, doctors were doing exploratory surgery to find out more about the problem.

Quotes of the Week

State Rep. Bill Siebert, R-San Antonio, reflecting on how his lobbying at City Hall hurt his bid for reelection: "You probably could have run a dog against me and the dog would have won."

BeautiControl Inc. co-founder Richard Heath, explaining to The Wall Street Journal that he and his wife are moving to a smaller place, a 13,000-square-foot home on 1.5 acres in Dallas: "We're certainly not moving into a home that's embarrassing to anybody. We're just making our lives easier."

Texas prison spokesman Glen Castlebury, commenting on Kenneth Dude Payne III of Tyler, who was given a 16-year sentence for habitual crime after being convicted of stealing a Snickers candy bar: "He's a pain in the butt to have in your neighborhood, but he's not dangerous."

Richard Hamner, a friend of Lena Guerrero's, relating her reaction to a doctor's diagnosis that an operation on her brain tumors could cost her both her speech and her mobility: "She said she could get by without walking, but not talking."

Dallas Water Utilities Director Terrace Stewart, disagreeing with pipeline owners and state regulators who say the MTBE-polluted water in Lake Tawakoni is still safe enough to drink: "We want the same quality water we had before. Until we get there, I'm sorry, but I'm not using the water."

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, asking an attorney in the gridiron prayer case whether students are compelled to go to games: "Is anybody forced to be a band member or a cheerleader?" And the answer from the attorney, Anthony Griffin: "When you're a teenager, yes."


Texas Weekly: Volume 16, Issue 39, 10 April 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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