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A Break for Prison Guards

Texas prison guards who've been on the job for more than three years will get a pay hike of $138 a month on top of the $100 a month given all state employees during the last legislative session. That means their pay will rise a total of $2,856 annually, almost as much as the $3,000 pay hike the Legislature gave to Texas teachers last year.

Texas prison guards who've been on the job for more than three years will get a pay hike of $138 a month on top of the $100 a month given all state employees during the last legislative session. That means their pay will rise a total of $2,856 annually, almost as much as the $3,000 pay hike the Legislature gave to Texas teachers last year.

The stopgap pay raise will affect 16,350 correctional officers, food service workers and laundry service managers who have more than three years on the job. The food and laundry folks are included because they have the same training and many of the same risks faced by correctional officers, even though their duties are different. They'll get annual raises ranging from $1,548 to $1,920.

Prison guards' pay tops out at $26,724 after 21 months on the job. That's it. Without a promotion, that's the top pay for a prison guard in Texas.

The temporary raise will add $1,656 a year, bringing the total to $28,380, and the Legislature will take another look at the whole situation next year. The push from guards has been for parity with the national average of $33,480 a year. The 1,782 sergeants at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will get annual raises of $965, to $29,345 a year, to maintain the gap between their pay and that of the people they supervise. All told, the raises will cost the state about $35 million for the rest of the biennium. It would cost about $30 million annually after that if left in place.

The mechanism for the pay raise is a gubernatorial order that lasts until the biennium is over. The governor is creating a new job classification that's set up for prison guards with more than three years on the job. That's all but about 6,000 of them. The people in the new job class get the raise, but both the classification and the money that goes with it expire at the end of the biennium. The Legislature will be back before then, however, and they can set up a permanent pay scale to take things forward. Everybody else in the package -- sergeants, laundry and food service workers -- will get their raises in the form of merit pay from TDCJ, meaning, apparently, that they won't be on the two-year plan.

And Not a Bad Boost for a Senate Candidate, Either

The pay raises mean a lot to the guards, obviously, but they also mean a lot to Rep. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, and David Fisher, the Silsbee Democrat who faces Staples in this year's race for the state Senate. They're fighting over a part of the state that's packed with prisons. Staples, who's on the Appropriations committee and is vice chairman of the Corrections committee, was feeling particular heat; his opponents in the GOP primary started a refrain that's gained some currency with the guards, asking why he didn't take care of the problems during the last legislative session.

His answer is that a pay raise for guards got swallowed in legislative efforts to get a $3,000 annual pay raise for teachers and a $1,200 annual raise for all state employees, including guards. He began calling for another $100 last February, and renewed that call earlier this month, saying the governor should call a special session on the subject if there was no other way to get it done. But budgeteers from the House and Senate have been working on the problem for several months, and actually came up with a bigger pay raise than Staples was seeking. Some of the folks pushing numbers around considered larger raises, but there was some sentiment to keep the size of the prison pay hike below the size of last year's well-publicized raise for educators.

The guards still have the lingering problem of what happens after the next biennium, however, so the issue -- already important in the Senate race -- will still be there to fuss over.

All This Law and Order Stuff Gets Expensive

The money for the raises comes out of the agency's budget, spending money now that was not meant to be spent until next year. The logic is that the Legislature will be in session before then and can make an emergency appropriation to cover that and other unbudgeted prison spending. Budgeteers already let the agency spend more than $80 million to cover immediate needs for more prison beds.

That is soon going to be a sore subject. What follows is a very preliminary number and nobody particularly wants to claim ownership of it, but it's firm enough to worry about: The state might need 15,000 more prison beds over the next five years. The rules of thumb have probably changed a tad, but the last time Texas built prison space, the cost per bed was in the range of $25,000. If all of the 'ifs' are correctly placed, that indicates a looming price tag of $375 million.

But even the people who came up with the numbers aren't betting on them yet. The official numbers will be out in a month or so, and could vary either way. The Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council is working on a final report that will incorporate numbers from the prison system, the Texas Youth Commission and all of that. The folks there assure us the current numbers could change quite a bit over the next few weeks, but they're also giving quiet heads-up calls to some legislators. The estimate made last year projected a need for nearly 9,300 new beds by the 2003 fiscal year; that was in addition to almost 4,000 beds that the state was renting under contracts with counties around Texas.

What's to blame? That'll be in the final report, but while crime is sliding, parole rates are dropping and inmates are serving longer prison terms. There are fewer people going into the system, but they're not coming out as quickly as some of the forecasters had hoped.

Primary Colors

Dallas Rep. Domingo Garcia and the Texas Freedom Network are squabbling over Garcia's contention that the non-profit group did some work for his opponent in the Democratic primary last March. This dates to last year, when Garcia and some of his delegation colleagues started shooting at each other: Some Dallas Democrats accused him of recruiting Hispanic candidates to run against incumbent Anglos. He, in turn, blamed others for doing the recruiting, but the folks who got angry helped recruit Diana Flores to run against him. He won easily with 61 percent of the vote.

When that was out of the way, he wrote a letter accusing Samantha Smoot, head of TFN, of supporting his opponent and of doing opposition research against Garcia. He said his vote on the hate-crimes bill last session was misrepresented (he had to hand-write his vote into the journal after his voting machine malfunctioned, he said), and questioned why he was singled out from other Democrats who also voted for a school voucher amendment that failed: "Why did you select a Latino as a target? Is your group a part of a racist political agenda that is no better than your right-wing opposition?" He also said supports "public school choice, not money for private vouchers."

Smoot, whose group has made a centerpiece of its opposition to vouchers, replied with a letter of her own, saying TFN didn't do any such research for Flores, but admitted the group does share its research on voting records and political donors and "official activities of officeholders." She said TFN didn't endorse anyone in the House races.

She also defended claims that Garcia supports private school vouchers, saying he was on the board of a now-defunct group (Putting Children First) that supported vouchers, that he introduced voucher legislation and that he had "spoken at numerous voucher lobby events."

Finally, she demanded an apology for his question about whether the group is racist and called it "a dumbfounding accusation from one who attempted to recruit a race-based slate of opponents to run against his colleagues." As an aside, she added that his defeat by a Latina would have increased the diversity of the House by replacing a man with a woman.

Throw Smart Jobs from the Train

If the bosses at the Texas Department of Economic Development want to keep Smart Jobs in the agency, you couldn't tell it from their appearances before a testy Sunset Commission. The agency and the Legislature, not to mention the lobby, seem intent on keeping tourism inside TDED, or at least away from the Texas Department of Transportation.

But Smart Jobs, the biggest part of the agency in dollar terms, is also the source of most of its problems with the Legislature. Nobody inside is openly saying they want to dump it, but the defense is forming around other assets. The tourism industry has jumped in to help with that effort, but no similar groundswell has arisen in defense of the job-training program.

The Sunset staff recommended stripping both programs away from TDED, moving Smart Jobs to the Texas Workforce Commission and moving tourism to TxDOT. That second recommendation makes little hairs stand up on the necks of people from trade groups for restaurants and hotels and the like: They aren't convinced the program would get the same level of attention if it was grafted onto an operation mainly concerned with highways. They also like the idea of having people from the tourism industry on the governing board, something that's less likely if the tourism program went to TxDOT. The Sunset panel will hold a meeting later this summer to vote on recommendations for TDED and several other agencies it's looking at.

Separately, the eco devo agency is backing away from the idea of suing an outgoing employee, former legislator Randall Riley. TDED spokesman Jerry Valdez says the agency does have a litigation concern involving Riley, but says it has to do with a Smart Jobs contract he handled while he was the deputy executive director of business development.

Valdez says the agency got a letter from the contractor threatening a lawsuit, but the letter he produced had to do with the contractor's complaint over TDED's slow response to an open records request and not to the Smart Jobs contract. Executives with the contractor, Kemil Inc. of Houston, say they've never so much as talked to an attorney about their options regarding TDED and their Smart Jobs contract and haven't threatened to sue.

Asked for some indication of the pending litigation concern he had raised, Valdez then offered a copy of the agency's letter to the company's bank, signed by Riley, saying that a payment voucher had been processed. He said that was sent against agency policy and "exposed us to a potential liability."

Orgies, Federal Grand Juries: Another Day in Government

If the Sunset hearing on TDED didn't live up to its billing for fireworks potential, the hearing that followed made up for it. The commission staff has recommended stout changes at the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. One board member, Dr. Florita Bell Griffin of College Station, gave a scorching 20-minute talk aimed generally at the agency's problems with the Legislature and more specifically at Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington, who is vice chairman of Sunset.

Bell started by saying she was in a hurry and didn't want to be interrupted while she talked, then tore into lawmakers for lobbying the agency, writing letters, making calls and making threats on behalf of constituents who wanted building contracts with TDHCA. She named several lawmakers she said had stepped over the line between making recommendations and applying pressure. Then, she read three letters from Harris to illustrate her point, reading what sounded like standard lawmaker-writing-on-behalf-of-constituent letters.

She accused him of trying to get a job at the agency for his daughter and, when he tried to ask her a question at the end of her testimony, snapped, "I have given my report. I am not going to be interrogated by you." Griffin, a Bush appointee who said she has been under federal investigation for the last two years, said she had been piling up research in her own defense and told the commission she has evidence of lawmakers having affairs with lobbyists and of homosexual orgies involving members of the Legislature. Harris said he'd rather not dignify the testimony with a comment.

Union Folk with Black Bags

At one point in the tussle over union doctors, the smart bettors stuck to the line that both the medical community and the insurance industry would be unhappy with the final results. Surprise, surprise, surprise: Attorney General John Cornyn came up with a set of collective bargaining rules that got only a muted response from the health plans and got unexpectedly strong praise from the docs, who said the new rules were more palatable than those that were originally proposed.

The last Legislature decided to give doctors a limited exemption from anti-trust laws so that the doctors (who can also be thought of as independent businesses) can get together and compare notes when they're negotiating with HMOs and other health plans over fees and such.

The legislation was driven by complaints that the health plans each deal with a large number of physicians, but negotiate with those doctors one-by-one or in small practice groups. Armed with the wealth of information that comes from watching over several medical practices at once, and with the ability to force patients from one medical practice to another by choosing which doctors they'll reimburse, the health plans were killing the medicos in those business transactions. The docs wanted, and got, the ability to team up and negotiate in groups.

The idea was watered down some in the Legislature and a little more in the rules that take effect next month, but Cornyn managed to satisfy the Texas Medical Association, which was the main proponent of what's known as the Union Doctor Bill. Doctors will have to apply to the AG for collective bargaining permission, giving up a boatload of information about their practices in the process. If he certifies them, they'll be able to deal as a group with health plans that agree to talk to them. Cornyn would be in a position to bless or damn the results of those negotiations, but wouldn't be directly involved in the talks.

In practical terms, it means doctors have a new threat at hand when they're dealing with health plans, and that alone might be enough to tilt things in their direction. That's the "fear of adult supervision" theory: The health plans will play fairer for fear that the alternative -- collective bargaining under the eyes of the AG -- would be worse.

This isn't over. The rules take effect next month. The first application from a group of doctors hasn't been filed, and so the first negotiations, subsequent fights and lawsuits haven't taken place. Some folks on the insurance side of the field say the doctors are still open to anti-trust challenges in spite of the new law and rules and that that could be the grounds for future lawsuits. For instance, the doctors have to get together as a group to agree to apply for permission to get together as a group. That alone, the health plans might contend, constitutes a violation of anti-trust laws. Also, Texas is ahead of other state and federal laws with this one, which makes the Texas law the point of attack for anyone who doesn't want to see similar legislation cropping up elsewhere.

Notes on the Art of Political Fundraising

In case you haven't been paying attention, Lt. Gov. Rick Perry wants the Republican to win the race for Senate District 3. He's sent letters telling the lobby to line up on his side, or the other side, to be counted. And at the big fundraiser for Todd Staples in Austin, he handed the candidate a check for $25,000 to reiterate his preference.

• The Mexican American Legislative Caucus picked up a $30,000 "commitment" from AT&T, some of which will fund a summer meeting in preparation for redistricting. The caucus, according to Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, might also use some of the money for a scholarship program.

• No rest for the weary: Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, called a hearing of the Senate Committee on Border Affairs on his home turf for the Friday before the three-day Memorial Day weekend. That's a joint hearing with the Senate's State Affairs panel headed by Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano. On Saturday morning, he's holding his golf tournament/fundraiser, a scheduling plan that caused some whining in the lobby, not because it was unusual for a legislator to schedule things that way, but because it eats into the three-day weekend.

If Not for Number One, We'd Be First

Texas ranks second nationally in technology jobs and ninth in the average pay for technology workers according to a study by the American Electronics Association. But number one -- California -- is way ahead with almost twice as many jobs.

The AEA says Texas added 132,400 tech jobs in the five years from 1993 to 1998, bringing the total number of people working in that part of the economy to 410,955. The top state, California, employed 834,700 people. Number three behind Texas was New York, with 328,800 high tech workers. There are, according to the study, about 5 million tech workers in the country.

High tech workers in Texas made an average of $60,265 a year. That's almost twice what the average worker in the state makes. The highest in the country was $105,700, which is the average tech wage in the state of Washington, where the biggest business in the sector is Microsoft. The average wage nationally for techies was $57,700.

They also found that Texas was the second-largest electronics exporter among the 50 states, with $24.9 million in exports. California was first, with $53 million in exports.

• The State of Texas spent $48.4 million in fiscal 1999, according to the comptroller's office. Where'd it go? Harris County, the state's largest, saw more state spending ($5.7 billion) than any other county. Second place, with spending of $5.6 billion, went not to Dallas but to Travis County, the seat of government. Dallas was third on the list; the state spent $3.5 billion there.

• Typo department: We added $50 million to $50 million and got a number with a "B" in it last week. The biennial impact of a ban on Internet access taxes in Texas would be about $100 million. Sorry.

Low Pay on the Border, Institutional Version

Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, has found another formula to fight, and this one might be simple enough to catch on as a political issue. The El Paso senator has made his political career out of trying to change funding formulas that favor other areas at the expense of El Paso and the Border, and that's usually taken him to things like highway funding.

Now it's taking him to health care. For complex reasons, which he is challenging, government health programs pay more for care in places like Dallas than in places like El Paso, even for the same operations and procedures.

Shapleigh is raising the issue with regard to Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP. Because people in El Paso use their health care less (called the utilization rate), their rates are lower than in Houston, where people use it more. According to Shapleigh, an El Paso doctor would get $360.31 for newborn patients each month, while the doctor's Houston counterpart would get $588.10. He's starting a push for equal pay. A couple of Senate committees are looking into it, as are some of the experts in the state's health and human service agencies.

Miscellaneous Political Notes

• Houston is becoming one of the favorite out-of-town fundraising spots for legislators. Add Sen. David Cain, D-Dallas, to the list. He had a funder hosted by Houston Mayor Lee Brown and former Mayor Bob Lanier, among others. Brown is also on the co-host list for a Houston event for Democrat David Fisher, running for the open SD-3 seat just south of Cain's SD-2 seat. Cain faces a challenge from Republican Bob Deuell of Greenville; Fisher will face Rep. Todd Staples, R-Palestine.

• Outgoing Rep. Sherri Greenberg, D-Austin, endorsed Democrat Ann Kitchen in the race to succeed Greenberg in HD-48. Kitchens will face Republican Jill Warren in the marginally Democratic district in November's elections. She did the endorsing at a fundraiser for Kitchens held, coincidentally, at the same time as House Speaker Pete Laney's fundraiser outside of Austin.

• Here's a tidbit from Harvard's Vanishing Voter project: Hispanic voters are slightly less engaged in the presidential contest than other voters, but they're a lot less cynical about it. Ask voters if they agree that politics is "pretty disgusting" and 74 percent agree. With Hispanics, it's only 60 percent.

Political People and Their Moves

Sano Blocker, longtime lobbyist for EDS, is scooting up the food chain to manage the company's lobbying all over the U.S., and in Guam and Puerto Rico besides. Lisa Garcia is leaving the House's Mexican American Legislative Caucus to work on legislative matters for EDS in Texas and six other states. Garcia, who has also worked for Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, and Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, starts her new job June 1... Shane Phelps quit his post as deputy attorney general for criminal justice to devote his full time to his second race against Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle. Phelps said earlier this year that he would take a leave of absence to make the race. In his previous race against Earle, Phelps quit to run, but the law at the time required it. That's no longer the case, but Phelps decided a clean break would be better, anyway. Attorney General John Cornyn appointed Michael McCaul, a former U.S. Attorney who's been with the state for about a year, to replace Phelps... Andy Taylor, Cornyn's first assistant, had planned to leave at the end of the year, but he's changed his mind. Instead of returning to the much more lucrative private sector, he'll stay on with the state for a while... Campaigns and Elections magazine put three Texans on its list of rising stars in politics: state Democratic Party Chairman Molly Beth Malcolm, Bush campaign spokesbot Mindy Tucker, and Dina Habib Powell, a Texas legislative staffer who went to Washington and now directs congressional affairs for the Republican National Committee... Janice Cartwright, the former City of Austin lobbyist most recently employed at the Texas Water Development Board, has signed on with the Real Estate Council of Austin, where she's the new executive director... Judicial spankings: Justice Roby Hadden of the 12th Court of Appeals in Tyler got a "Public Warning and Order of Additional Education" from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. Hadden, according to the agency, made inappropriate comments to a female staff attorney then tried to apologize by sending flowers and the use of his credit card for lunch with a friend at his expense. A couple of months later, the commission said, he kissed his legal assistant against her will. As a result of all that, he has to take a sensitivity training course this summer... Appointments: Gov. George W. Bush named Juanita Vasquez-Gardner of San Antonio to the new 399th Judicial District Court and Victor Negron Jr., also of San Antonio, to the new 407th court. Vasquez-Gardner is an assistant district attorney. Negron is a private attorney. Both appointments require Senate consent.

Quotes of the Week

Jack Pitney, a former GOP consultant who now teaches political science at Claremont McKenna College in California: "During the Cold War, the voters applied an exacting personality test: Can we trust this person with the bomb? Now the test is different: Can we stand this person on TV every day for the next for years? In other words, do we reach for the clicker when his face pops on the screen? So far, [Al] Gore is flunking the clicker test."

U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Michigan, on legislation banning a per-minute fee on Internet access, a fee that exists only as a persistent and widespread rumor on the Internet: "What we are considering today is a fabricated solution to an imaginary problem."

St. Louis banker Michael Ross, whose political contributions were not so much in favor of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani as against First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, on what should happen to the money if the mayor drops out of the Senate race: "You could put Mickey Mouse in there and I would give him money. If he drops out, the money should go to his successor. Any other course would look bad and it would ultimately help Hillary out."

Mexico native Hortencia Cartlidge of Chicago, who volunteers to help other immigrants attain U.S. citizenship and who also works as an election judge, on the future of Hispanics in politics: "One day, it's not going to be the White House. It's going to be the Brown House."

Dr. Gordon McKee of El Paso, questioning the fee schedules proposed for the Children's Health Insurance Program which pay doctors on the Border less than their counterparts elsewhere in the state for the same work: "Why is a kid in Houston worth more than a kid in El Paso?"

Texas Weekly: Volume 16, Issue 45, 22 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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