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Four Dems in Ohio

The spin engines went into overtime when four Texas Democrats went campaigning in Ohio for Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush. The official message was a two-parter. Bush's folks touted the bipartisan nature of the deal, strumming a chord they're playing to try to contrast Bush as a non-partisan and his opponent, Democrat Al Gore, as a partisan. Secondly, since Gore's attacks on Bush's record have begun to gather some steam, the four were there to fly the flag and say they were ready to punch anyone attacking the Lone Star State.

The spin engines went into overtime when four Texas Democrats went campaigning in Ohio for Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush. The official message was a two-parter. Bush's folks touted the bipartisan nature of the deal, strumming a chord they're playing to try to contrast Bush as a non-partisan and his opponent, Democrat Al Gore, as a partisan. Secondly, since Gore's attacks on Bush's record have begun to gather some steam, the four were there to fly the flag and say they were ready to punch anyone attacking the Lone Star State.

Bush's fellow travelers included Sen. Ken Armbrister, D-Victoria, the Democrat that Republicans say they would most like to recruit to their side of the aisle (he has said he's not interested in switching) and a potential candidate for lieutenant governor if Bush is elected president and the succession game begins. Armbrister, who has never been particularly partisan himself, can safely argue he's just going along with the governor's support in his own Senate district.

The group was rounded out by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rob Junell, D-San Angelo, and former state Reps. Hugo Berlanga of Corpus Christi and Mark Stiles of Beaumont. All three contributed the maximum $1,000 to Bush's campaign last year, and Stiles says he gave Bush $25,000 for the governor's reelection bid in 1998 . Their support for Bush isn't news inside Texas. It's interesting to note that the three men were the first co-chairs of the Texas Partnership, the organization set up to keep Democrats in the majority in the Texas House.

But Democrats here and elsewhere got out their knives when they found out the quartet was going to Dayton to talk up the governor. Junell has been mentioned off and on for several years as possible judicial material, and Democrats were quick to dismiss him as an appointee shopping for an appointer. Whatever the case, he was one of the first Democrats to endorse Bush for reelection in 1998 and for president last year; Democrats who acted surprised to see him with Bush were faking it.

Armbrister, they sniffed, is trying to keep Republicans happy in case he gets into that succession game in the Senate if Bush is elected.

Berlanga and Stiles, who both worked on Gore's 1988 steering committee (along with then-Democrat Rick Perry, who's now the Republican lieutenant governor) are both out in the world trying to make money now, and the folks trying to discount their support for Bush were quick to pounce on that. The Ohio Democratic Party pounced hardest, saying Berlanga and Stiles had business reasons for their appearances. Berlanga, they pointed out, is now a lobbyist. They tore into Stiles for state contracts his concrete company won while he was in the Legislature. They left the other two Democrats, who still hold office, alone.

Texas Democrats downplayed the appearances, saying without naming anyone that some Republicans are against Bush and that, basically, every Party has a pooper. Republicans stayed with Bush, saying he won't run a partisan show if he's elected president.

Privately, some Republicans in Texas are griping about Bush's appearance with the Texas Democrats. Scratch around a bit and you'll find Republicans who say Bush's bipartisan schtick severely shortened his coattails in 1998 and was one of the reasons Republicans didn't do better on the lower half of the ballot. Republicans swept the top offices in the state, but in legislative races, showed only fractional improvements in a year when they hoped to take over the Legislature. When Bush and the Democrats appeared in Ohio, some Texans in the party suggested the same thing could happen to Congress if Bush wins the presidency: This bipartisan stuff might cut his Republican coattails.

Aid Where You'd Least Expect It

The coils of the boa constrictor holding Texas Health Commissioner William "Reyn" Archer III continue to tighten, with several minority groups and others, inside and outside Texas, pushing for his resignation. But Democratic Texas minority legislators are taking unexpectedly temperate positions, slowing a rush to judgment. Some deplored the remarks while defending Archer, while some stayed on the sidelines. And Gov. George W. Bush says he's "comfortable" with his health chief and thinks Archer is doing a good job.

Archer, you'll remember, slipped into hot water in an interview with The New York Times in which he said family planning doesn't go over well with Hispanics: "If I were to go to a Hispanic community and say, 'Well, we need to get you into family planning,' they say, 'No, I want to be pregnant.'"

That caused some folks to blow their stacks. Archer responded, as we noted last week, by making the rounds in the Pink Building, apologizing both privately and publicly for his remarks. Then, the Houston Chronicle dusted off a story it had decided two years ago not to run, quoting Archer's comments at a conference: "We need to figure out why it is when blacks were more segregated and had less opportunity that they did better on cultural measures than they do in that sense today." He also said Blacks "don't buy" institutions like marriage, and suggested they are more loyal than honest.

The paper said it spiked the story the first time because a couple of black leaders interviewed then said that they were willing to give Archer the benefit of the doubt. The paper revived the story after the comments to the Times were published.

Archer is still hanging in there and says, through an aide, that he has no plans to resign his post. Still, this is piling up. There has been a protest at the Governor's Mansion. The Hispanic Caucus in the U.S. House has called upon Archer to quit. Others, including the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, or MALDEF, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Austin Area Urban League and others say Bush should force him to quit (the governor doesn't have the statutory power to do that, but in practical terms, all he would have to do is pick up the phone). The latest call for his ouster came from some of the groups above, assembled by the Texas Freedom Network for a press conference after the Chronicle story.

Quick to Draw, Slow to Pull the Trigger

Texas legislators initially reacted by saying, quite publicly, that Archer's comments were out of line, awkward, racist, you name it. But they stopped short of calling for his resignation. Several, including Reps. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, and Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, and Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, said in the days that followed the two stories that Archer's comments were indefensible, but that they know the commissioner and are convinced he is no racist. The day after that, the House Mexican American Caucus met at the Capitol with Archer so the group could talk to him once and for all and then decide what, if anything, they wanted to do about it. Going in, there was a faction wanting to leave the matter as it stands and another wanting to add to the pressure for Archer's departure. As it turned out, only a handful of legislators came to the meeting. Archer apologized again. Nobody brought up the subject of resignation. And that's where they left it for now.

A footnote: Some of the same groups calling for Archer's head on a platter had been making similar demands about Chuck Williams, the Marshall police chief who came under fire for his comments on blacks in a legal deposition. Williams, a Bush appointee, did quit his assignment as chairman of the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officers Standards-Education. But he remains on the board. We called the agency to check that out, and they're referring calls, curiously, to the governor's office. That's where Williams' semi-resignation letter went. And the folks at the Guv's office say that he quit the top job, but not the commission.

Property Values, School Finance and Medicaid

Texans are getting notices of their property values about now and in many parts of the state, the increases are pretty large. That means, if you flunked out of Property Tax 101, that tax bills for counties, cities and schools will be going up. And if you remember School Finance 101, you know that the state will reap some of the benefits unless lawmakers intervene.

The way the school finance formulas work, local districts "earn" state money based on the amount of money raised locally. What follows is a dramatic oversimplification: Districts that raise more money locally get less money from the state.

Because of the increases in property values and the resulting increases in local money for schools, the state won't be spending as much on public education next year as lawmakers budgeted, or at least not in the same way. The early estimate is that around $300 million that would have gone into the state's share of school funding won't go there, according to some of the budgeteers we've talked with. A better estimate will be available later this summer, when the state knows more about local values and local tax rates, and a final number will be known in about a year, when the state "settles up" with districts over how much state money each district should get.

When money is left over like that, part of it is automatically earmarked. The state has to use the money to pay up to one-half of the costs of local option property tax exemptions, which includes fewer than a third of the school districts in the state, but includes some big ones, notably Houston and Dallas. The tab for that is around $120 million. There's also an optional provision that says, if the money's available, Texas Education Commissioner Jim Nelson can increase the state's share of certain local debt payments. That option would cost about $80 million, according to current estimates.

But the $100 million that's left over gives the budgeteers some room to move on other issues. Some would like to keep it in education, possibly for teacher pay or benefits; some would like to use it to cover shortages elsewhere.

Shortages? That Medicaid shortfall we wrote about earlier this year is turning out to be more solid than some had hoped. Early numbers showed that caseloads were falling less slowly than expected when the Legislature drew up the current budget and that prescription drugs were costing more than budgeted. At the time, budgeteers were only about half worked up about that because the trend wasn't clear. Now, it's clearer, but still not final: If the current groove persists, the state will come up about $124 million short on its Medicaid budget this year, and about the same amount next year.

Add another $84 million or so to cover a separate Medicaid issue (to cover changes in federal matching fund formulas), and you have a serious number to deal with. Don't forget the money -- up to $100 million -- needed for prison operations over and above what's already in the budget. And keep in mind that lawmakers are still trying to work out a deal to raise pay for prison guards.

None of those things cause immediate problems, since the state is relatively plump with tax money generated by a healthy economy. They could show up early in the legislative session, though. The state is working through some of its budget adjustments by allowing agencies to "spend forward" -- to borrow money from next year's budget to pay for this year's overruns. The idea is that the Legislature can come in next January and add some cash to the back half of the agency budgets in question. Nobody seems particularly alarmed about it, but that could be a fairly sizable.

While we're on the subject of extra money rolling around, Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander says the state's colleges and universities will have about $40 million available for faculty merit raises. The money comes from the sale of corporate stock in the state treasury's unclaimed property inventory. Rylander says the state hasn't systematically tried to sell those stocks in the past. The owners can still turn up and claim their money, but the comptroller is allowed to liquidate assets and use the money for other things until the owners figure it out and make their claims. The money, which can be used only for faculty salaries, would amount to a 3 percent pay raise if it were spread evenly across the board. How it's actually divvied up is a matter for each school to decide.

Sudden Endings

After 25 years as the pre-eminent statewide voice for foes of abortion, Texans United for Life abruptly announced the resignation of its long-time director, Bill Price, closed its doors, and handed its remaining materials over to a related local group in Fort Worth, Greater Tarrant Right to Life.

In an unusually blunt April 20 letter from the directors, the group said Price's resignation was prompted by his "use of TUL funds for personal expenses without the authorization or the TUL Board of Directors." It went on to say that the non-profit organization was out of money and had "significant outstanding obligations." The bottom line, the directors wrote, is that Texans United for Life, formed just a couple of years after the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, is out of business.

The vice president of TUL, Kyleen Wright, is also the president of the local group that's taking over the materials and mission of the state group. She said they'll soon change the name of the organization and will pick up some of the state duties that had always been handed by Price and TUL.

No charges have been filed, and Wright said she wouldn't know more on that until a CPA has been through the organization's books. TUL was a federally tax-exempt organization.

Price, who was with the state group for 18 years, could not be reached for comment. He told the Austin American-Statesman, however, that he and the board differed over his use of health benefits for his wife, who has multiple sclerosis. "I didn't go out and buy myself a Mercedes Benz or that kind of thing," he told the paper.

Take This However You Please

Play this one way, and the numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau say that Texas government raises and spends money in a rarefied league that includes states like California and New York. Texas was third behind those two on both the amount of money it spent and the amount of money it extracted from taxpayers in 1998.

Texas pulled in $57.8 billion in revenue and spent $51.1 billion. Only California and New York, in that order, had bigger numbers. Texas was followed by Pennsylvania and Florida in spending, and by the same two states, in reverse order, on the revenue side of the ledgers.

Play the 'B' side of the record, and the same set of data said Texas pulled in the least amount of revenue per capita and spent less per capita than any other state that year.

Texas pulled in $2,925.52 in revenue for every citizen of the state that year and spent $2,584.30 per capita. The national averages were $4,062.13 and $3,447.45, respectively. States with low populations rose to the top of the per-capita numbers, with the exception of New York, which came in fifth in state government revenue per capita and third in spending per capita.

The Census numbers break down state-by-state spending in several categories. Number-crunchers can get the data at the Bureau's web site.

Political Notes, Oddments, Miscellany

That Todd Staples fundraiser in the middle of the month is only raising money for him indirectly, if you look carefully. The depository for this one didn't exist until recently: It's a political action committee owned and operated by the Republican Caucus in the Texas Senate.

The Texas Senate Republican Campaign Committee's treasurer is Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, who is also treasurer of the caucus, and they'll be raising money to help Republican candidates for the Senate. They will not -- we're told, most carefully -- be using their money against incumbent Democrats like Sen. David Cain of Dallas. But the Staples-David Fisher race is an open seat and the Republicans plan to play. The Democrats already have a similar committee.

Elsewhere on the fundraising front, that education organization started by Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, has begun its money gathering. The Texas Education Reform Caucus will start dragging the sack in Dallas and are putting together a fundraiser in Houston.

Money at the Starting Gate

For purely arbitrary reasons, let's call this the start of the general election and see how the money stacks up in a couple of federal races in Texas.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is ruler of the political world, non-presidential division, with $6.33 million in the bank as of her last report. Her opponent, Gene Kelly of Universal City, reported a balance of $50. Gosh, Kent Hance has $39 in the bank and he hasn't run a federal race in 16 years.

A couple of House members are also in the million-dollar league: Democrat Lloyd Doggett of Austin has $1.5 million in the bank and Joe Barton, R-Ennis, has $1 million socked away.

The money is getting interesting in some of the contested races. U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, closed his last report with a bank balance of $598,457. His challenger, Regina Montoya Coggins, was close behind, at $570,540. She out-raised him, but also outspent him during the primaries. She had an opponent; he didn't. Both political parties have targeted that race. The only other close race, in financial terms, is the CD-14 race where U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Surfside, faced Democrat Loy Sneary. Paul had $464,165 in the bank as of the last report to Sneary's $383,976.

U.S. Rep. Max Sandlin, D-Marshall, reported a balance of $103,833 to the $26,124 reported by his Republican challenger, actor Noble Willingham. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, has $622,176; his opponent, Ramsey Farley, has $9,780 after a relatively expensive Republican primary and runoff. U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, D-Dallas, has $717,745 on hand; his Republican challenger, who escaped a primary and runoff, had $6,162 in the bank at his last report.

Final numbers aren't in yet on the two most expensive primaries, but the numbers so far are staggering. The Republican primary to succeed U.S. Rep. Bill Archer, R-Houston, pulled two candidates over the $1 million mark and neither of them won. Incomplete finance numbers have spending in that contest at $5.7 million. That'll certainly climb by a million or so when everything is tallied. In the CD-24 race to challenge U.S. Rep. Ken Bentsen, D-Houston, the two Republicans spent 1.8 million, a huge number that is also not a final tally.

Tobacco, CHIP, and Spillovers

The state's tobacco settlement money is only as steady as smoking rates and the stability of the tobacco industry, and those are a little wobbly these days. The state will bring in $75 million less this year than expected, according to the comptroller's office, and could be another $15 million lower -- to a total of $90 million under projections -- if the industry's version of the settlement formula is right and the state's is wrong. Counties in Texas could lose up to $154 million off the amount they thought they were going to get. That said, the state would still bring in $600 million from the settlement during the two-year budget, even with the drop, and state revenues from other sources are still bringing in far more money than projected a year ago. Counties, even with the drop, would still get more than $1 billion from the tobacco settlement, even if the new worst-case numbers prove out.

The one state program funded by tobacco that can't be cut -- the Legislature made it so -- is the Children's Health Insurance Program. Now that CHIP has been up and running for a month, there are already rumors about the stout "Medicaid spillover" the state is about to suffer. That might turn out to be true, but you can't tell it from the numbers. Wanna know how many children are officially signed up for CHIP as of May 1? 30. That's because of the lag in the time between when people sign up and when they're put on the computer rolls as clients of the program. Another 500+ had been moved through the system at our deadline, but won't show up on the official rolls for weeks.

Medicaid spillover is the term that describes what happens when children eligible for Medicaid come in to sign up for CHIP. The state is obligated to sign them up for Medicaid instead. One of CHIP's unknowns is how big the spillover will be and how much that will cost? So far, the state's only measure -- at least the only one being shared publicly -- is that 59,000 people either requested or sent in applications during the first month of the program. If the CHIP numbers are big, the thinking goes, the spillover numbers will be big, too.

Political People and Their Moves

It's starting to feel like the staff of the Senate is slipping out of the building, one person at a time, a seasonal change that, by our feeble memories, doesn't usually start until general elections are much closer. This week's installment includes Steve Kester, a legislative aide to Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, who will be the Austin-based state legislative and public affairs director for the American Electronics Association... Laura Reed, legislative assistant to Sen. Frank Madla, D-San Antonio, is leaving this month to hang out her own lobbying shingle. She says she has some things lined up but isn't ready to say what they are. Jason Anderson will take her place in Madla's shop... And Billy Phenix is the latest departure from the Senate Natural Resources Committee. He's off to the public finance section (municipal bonds) at the Austin offices of Akin, Gump, and might also be called in from time to time for legislative work... The Texas Dental Association has signed Susan Baumbach to run its political action committee and Jay Bond to be director of policy. Both are former Senate staffers; Baumbach was most recently with the Texas Health Care Association, and Bond, an old hand in the Senate, most lately worked for Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso... Matt Matthews, former staff to Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, has left the Texas Credit Union League to hand out his own lobby and political consulting shingle. He's based in Dallas... Kim Cook, until now an aide to Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, is moving into the Austin end of the state's Office of State-Federal Relations. He'll be the director of the Texas office, a position that's been vacant for a while... Mike Sheridan, the head honcho at the Texas Workforce Commission, is retiring after 30 years with that and its predecessor agency. He's leaving at the end of June, and the board will go hunting for a new executive director... Bob Norwood is retiring from the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, where he's been since it merged with his old outfit, the Texas Research League... Appointments: Gov. Bush named Manuel Justiz of the University of Texas at Austin to the State Board of Educator Certification, replacing Ken Claycraft of Huntsville... It would be big news, doncha think, if the GOP put a Democrat in charge of fundraising for its Victory 2000 campaign? They didn't do that: We hit that newsmaking "D" key in misidentifying U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, who is actually a San Antonio Republican, last week.

Quotes of the Week

Gov. George W. Bush, asked about Texas Health Commissioner William "Reyn" Archer III after a Houston Chronicle story revealing another set of remarks offensive to some minorities: "I am comfortable with him. I have nothing more to add. I think he's doing a fine job."

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, on why she's not joining the call for the health commissioner's resignation although she agrees that his comments to reporters were inappropriate: "If I didn't know Reyn Archer, I'd be calling for his head, too... He's not a racist."

Boerne Mayor Patrick Health, after a regional group endorsed state plans for a Clean Air plan for the greater San Antonio area: "I think we've reached a milestone. I'm not sure which mile it is."

U.S. Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Abilene, arguing that an end to the trade embargo on Cuba would open an important market for Texas farmers: "I do not like dictatorships, and I dislike communism. But you have to look at what works and what doesn't work."

Bush campaign attorney Benjamin Ginsberg, talking about the difficulties facing election regulators in the age of the Internet: "They are aware of the downside of stifling the potential of the Web by overregulation. At the same time, they see if they don't regulate the Web, huge amounts of what they currently are able to regulate as campaign expenses may soon be moving to the Web."

The 41-year-old Ohio state motto, struck down as unconstitutional by a federal appeals court that said it violates the separation of church and state: "With God, all things are possible."

Former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, on trial for allegedly rigging casino licenses while he was in office, repeating something he says he once told President Bill Clinton: "Hang in there because as long as you're alive, I won't be the most maligned, investigated person in the world."

Texas Weekly: Volume 16, Issue 42, 1 May 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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