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Ducking Opportunities to Stumble

Unless there's a sudden change of heart, George W. Bush won't be speaking to the state GOP convention in Houston. That's not news. But in the rush of coverage, nobody stopped to try to figure out why the candidate decided to ignore his own tribe.

Unless there's a sudden change of heart, George W. Bush won't be speaking to the state GOP convention in Houston. That's not news. But in the rush of coverage, nobody stopped to try to figure out why the candidate decided to ignore his own tribe.

There was a faction talking, with a fair amount of fact to back up their view, about the Guv thumbing his nose at a faction of his party he's not crazy about. Another faction leapt to his defense, saying it won't be harmful to the campaign if Bush skips the hoedown. That could also be true.

But pretend you're an advisor to the governor's presidential campaign. You're sitting in a scheduling meeting with the media staff and the campaign manager and all those folks, and the next item up for consideration is the upcoming GOP state convention.

Whoever is gonna make the final recommendation to the boss looks at you and says, simply, "Why in the world would we send him into that mess?" And why would they?

Try to find an advantage in making such an appearance. And don't forget to worry over the gazillion reasons to instead hide under Sam Houston's four-poster bed back at the Mansion.

• National and local reporters covering the event in the governor's home state would see him speak to a crowd of supporters that is just crazy about him. They would also get to talk to whatever sign-carrying protesters were standing outside the event, which is certain to attract people who don't like Bush, and people who want to be on TV. Anything interesting they had to say would end up in reports somewhere near the phrase "Even in his own state, Bush has detractors..."

• The national spotlight would turn, inevitably, to the platform under consideration at the convention. Pick something a consultant would not want a candidate to talk about, and it's probably in that candidate's party platform. Bush already will have a few days of coverage on whether he supports the national platform that will be approved later this summer. Why go through the paddle line twice?

• The party faithful are what's called a "red-meat crowd." Go in and fire them up, and you become a content provider for the Democrats. They'll pick out everything that appealed to the carnivores and hold it high to fire up the vegetarians. Go in and play it safe, on the other hand, and you get Republicans bemoaning a watered-down campaign. Plus, why go talk to the hometown crowd unless the object of the talk is to get them all lathered up? With just five months to go, there is little time left in the presidential campaign for courtesy appearances.

• Bush and other moderates have had a rough time at previous state conventions, the last several of which were controlled by social conservatives. In 1996, the state party threatened to take national delegate status away from U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison to protest some of her votes; this year, because of a rule change, Bush won't have any say in which Texans do and don't go to the national GOP convention. Why reward the people who produced that trouble with an opportunity to produce more? And why open the candidate to questions about all that bad blood, even though things might be different now? It's not so much that anything would happen, but the risk of it is reason enough.

Back now to the fantasy meeting: Bush can get on television, if he wants to, just about anywhere in the country. His campaign has a particular talent for reducing the risks in public appearances, limiting unpleasant questions, controlling the environments where Bush is photographed or filmed, even approving signs carried by people at rallies. Why mess with Houston, where the risks are higher and the rewards of an appearance are so elusive?

Fiddling with Test Scores

Texas public school students didn't have to supply as many correct answers to pass the TAAS test this year, a change put in place to compensate for what educators say was a more difficult test.

The state raised the standards on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, more commonly called the TAAS test, which is given to public school students to see how they're doing. And for the first time, this year's tests were based entirely on something called Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS. That's the name of the standard curriculum approved by the State Board of Education three years ago. In the process of getting the test fully synchronized with the standards, the test got harder. To compensate, the state lowered the number of correct answers needed to pass the test.

There is always some adjustment to the raw scores on tests. The Texas Education Agency, which puts the TAAS together, buries some questions in each test that are used not to evaluate the students, but to evaluate the tests. After they look over the results of those particular questions, they can adjust the scoring so that they're not tainting the results with unintentionally easy or difficult questions.

State law requires the TEA to make the questions on the TAAS test public every year after students have taken the test. That means that, every year, the state has to produce a new set of questions for the test, and has to have a way to compare results on a new set of questions to results on an old set of questions. That adjustment is usually a tinkering exercise.

Students who took the exit-level test in writing in October 1997 had to get 49 of a possible 80 points to pass. A year later, they had to get 48. In the most recent exit exams in October 1999, the drop to 42 points out of 80 was more dramatic. To pass the math portion of the test, the 1997 student had to get 42 of a possible 60 points, and that held true in 1998 as well. In 1999, passing the math test on the exit-level TAAS required only 32 points. A passing grade on the reading part of the test required 27 of 48 points in 1999, down from 34 in each of the previous years.

The passing rates on the TAAS test were up this year, according to TEA; 80 percent of students between the third and tenth grades passed their tests, compared with 78 percent last year. In all but one of the various tests given to students in those grades, the number of points required for a passing score was lower than in the previous year.

TEA says the shift is because the new test is based on tougher curriculum standards, but the results have to be compared to last year's, when those standards weren't fully in place, to see whether the students are improving or not. If they didn't do any adjustment, they say, they wouldn't know whether they were measuring the changes in the students' educations, or the changes in the tests.

Minor Parties on the Ballot

Coming soon, probably, to a ballot near you are political products sold under the brand names Green, Natural Law, and of course, Democrat, Libertarian and Republican. Off the shelves, in all likelihood: Reform and Constitution. The three biggest parties are there by virtue of their past support. They don't need petitions to prove there are living and breathing voters on their side. The others do, however. The Green Party submitted 74,000 signatures for approval and the Natural Law Party brought in 76,000. The Reform Party decided not to participate, and the Constitution Party showed up with 2,200 signatures. That's far below the 37,280 needed to get on the ballot.

The Secretary of State's office will check to see if all of the blanks are filled out on the petitions, and will then turn the ballots over to the counties, which will check to see if the signatures do, in fact, belong to voters who did not take part in the spring primaries and runoffs. Presidential candidate Pat Buchanan's petitions, handed over to the state last month, are also being vetted; he's running as an independent instead of on a party ticket.

The Libertarians are running a full slate of candidates in Texas, from statewide races down to some local judgeships. The Secretary of State has lists of the people running under various party labels (and a bunch of other election information, from past results to rules to other links) on its website, at www.sos.state.tx.us/function/elec1/.

A Three-Way Railroad Crossing...

The state's three railroad commissioners can't talk to each other except in posted public meetings. No two of them can so much as dine together unless they want to munch on sandwiches in front of a bunch of lobbyists at a gathering announced in advance in the Texas Register. That's the kindest explanation available for the differences on plugging wells. The issue comes up next week, and if the commissioners vote, they might be unanimous, or they might vote one-to-one-to-one.

This began several weeks ago, when Tony Garza proposed new rules for the W-1X program, which allows producers to shut down wells for a period of time without plugging them. The well owners pay a $100 bond, declare the wells dormant and wait, usually, for one of two things to make their wells worth reviving: higher prices or new technology that brings down production prices.

That's fine when it works, but sometimes, the wells in the program never come back and the state can get stuck with the tab. Operators can go broke and walk away, leaving the state with the plugging costs and little money to cover them. Or the wells can start polluting, causing more expensive problems. Garza's idea was to limit the number of automatic extensions to force owners and operators to take responsibility for wells, either by pulling them out of the program or making them show their wells deserved more time. But he presented that in a rush, putting it to a vote of the commission just days after the first public mention. The industry reacted quickly, vociferously, and negatively. The other commissioners, Michael Williams and Charles Matthews, sat silently and let his motion die.

But Williams, the chairman of the board, sent the idea to an industry working group, which has now made recommendations. The three-member commission will take a look this week, and the question is whether those recommendations or some variation of them can attract a vote from Garza, who wants to tighten things up, or from Matthews, who has told industry lobbyists he'd rather leave things as they are. Also in the mix are a revised plan from Garza, and some ideas from the Texas Independent Producers and Operators, a trade group whose board planned to vote on recommendations after our deadline.

...And an Attempt to Avoid an Accident

One way to fix the problem is to require larger bonds from the well operators, on the idea that if someone walks off and leaves a well to be plugged, their bond would be big enough to cover the costs. There is a legal question over whether the commission has the power to raise the bond requirements; that might have to be left for the Legislature.

Right now, the money comes out of an oil cleanup fund that gets its financial fuel from a fee paid by the industry. Sometimes, the agency can get an operator to reimburse those costs, but it often cannot. TIPRO's draft recommendations would increase the fees (to $400 for every non-producing well) to make the fund big enough to cover the costs the state is likely to encounter plugging orphaned wells. They've also recommended increasing the bonds (along with the Texas Land and Mineral Owners Association), but not instantly: They want to give the bonding industry two years to get set up.

Garza wants to stop relying on automatic well extensions and wants to put the program in place faster than the working group recommended. Additional extensions would require tests to prove the wells in question weren't polluting, and either higher bonds from operators or administrative hearings where operators could show they were on the up and up.

The state fund was used to plug 1,001 wells in fiscal 1999, including 832 from the W-1X program, at a total cost of $3.2 million ($2.6 million for the W-1X wells). RRC officials say they don't have any statistics that show whether wells are more likely to end up as a state problem if they're in the program for a longer period. TIPRO meets on June 5, the full railroad commission the next day.

Something to Argue About Over the Summer

Drew Nixon lost in all but three of the 17 counties in Senate District 3 four years ago, but he won reelection to the Texas Senate. It was only a 387-vote margin, but a win is a win is a win. In Montgomery County, Nixon routed Jerry Johnson thoroughly enough to make up for most of the losses elsewhere. Smith County, a portion of which is in the district, was the other GOP stronghold.

Two years before that, Nixon beat Curtis Soileau in eight of the 17 counties. The turnout patterns were different, but Montgomery County provided a big chunk of the Republican's margin.

And two years before that, when Sen. Bill Haley, D-Center, last won reelection, Montgomery and Smith Counties were alone in giving a majority to the Republican, Gene Shull.

One question now is how the voters will turn out and whether the Republicans can spread out from their two poles of support and win the district.

Conventional wisdom among GOP strategists is that their turnout will increase with George W. Bush at the top of the ballot. It helps that the congressional race with the biggest overlap in the Senate district -- the seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Jim Turner, D-Crockett -- is uncontested. That won't draw Democrats to the polls in the same numbers as a hot contest might. There is a hot contest on the north, but the CD-5 race between U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, and Democrat Regina Montoya Coggins only covers a small part of the Senate district.

House Districts on the Same Map

SD-3 covers a mess of Texas House districts, but several of those are uncontested. No serious challenges face Reps. Paul Sadler, D-Henderson, Clyde Alexander, D-Athens, Ron Lewis, D-Mauriceville, and Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin, in November. That won't bring Democrats to the polls.

The race to succeed Rep. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, is competitive. Staples is running for the Senate seat against Silsbee attorney David Fisher. In HD-11, Republican Paul Woodard is running against pharmacist Chuck Hopson in a contest that should, by most accounts at this early date, be pretty close. Democrats look at that one as a draw for their voters and say a good showing by Hopson could accrue to Fisher's benefit. Some Republicans try to argue that geography is stronger than party and that a good turnout for either candidate in HD-11 will benefit Staples, because those voters have seen his name on the ballot before. You pick 'em.

Three races on the Southern end of the district pit two Democrat incumbents and one Republican incumbent against challengers. Two are rematches. Rep. Zeb Zbranek, D-Winnie, will face Eddie Shauberger for the second time. And Rep. Dan Ellis, D-Livingston, will see Ben Bius again. Ellis won narrowly two years ago; Zbranek won handily. The biggest change on the ballot is that this is a presidential year and there's a Texan running for president.

The other race pits Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, against Nacogdoches County Sheriff Joe Evans, a popular local Democrat.

The Texas Medical Association did some polling and found Christian running ahead. The incumbent, according to the poll, has a 19 percentage point advantage over the challenger, and has leads of varying sizes in each of HD-9's four counties (he won in all but Jasper County in 1998, against Colin Strother). That poll was of registered voters and has an error margin, we are told vaguely, of fewer than five percentage points either way. The pollsters talked to 402 people by telephone.

Two years ago, Christian picked up more than two-thirds of his winning margin in Nacogdoches County, where Evans is counting on home support this year. Christian first won office in 1996, beating former Nacogdoches Mayor Judy McDonald. In that race, he lost two counties, but won narrowly in Nacogdoches and more convincingly in his home county of Shelby.

Evans is popular in Nacogdoches, the county that produces the most votes in that House district. Unlike McDonald, he has run countywide there (she was a citywide candidate). He should also do well in Jasper County, where Christian has never won on Election Day. In any case, it'll be contested, and turnout in that contest should play into the Senate results in November.

Bureaucrats, Dirty Air, Doctors

The Texas Public Employees Association does have some numbers, as it turns on, on the costs of their requests for more money for state employees. They are big numbers, too. Their proposal for restructuring the pay scales for prison guards would cost $121 million per biennium.

That's just a warm-up number. Their proposal for a 16.5 percent pay raise for state employees, including the benefit costs that would automatically increase with the salary bumps, is about $2 billion. That's before you tack on expected requests from the Employee Retirement System, which will soon be choosing between lowering benefits for state workers, on one hand, and talking lawmakers out of a bunch of money to keep benefit levels steady, on the other. That cost could easily be on the north side of $500 million. Prison guards got a temporary solution a couple of weeks back, but remember: That deal expires in September 2001 unless lawmakers do something first. That's enough of a noose to keep pay issues in the spotlight well into the legislative session.

• Starting with the 2004 model year, Texas will have a new emissions standard for new cars and trucks. The Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission took a pass on California standards for passenger vehicles, opting instead for a federal standard. On the same day, TNRCC said San Antonio, Austin, and Tyler-Longview-Marshall should start early ozone-fighting measures to try to stay off of the federal government's non-attainment list for air quality. That recommendation goes to Gov. Bush, who has until about this time next month to submit it to the Environmental Protection Agency. Some environmental groups are pushing for a tougher designation. The one chosen by TNRCC is allowed by the feds at the moment, but is being challenged in court. Some groups want the governor to put the three cities on the state's non-attainment list, which would force them into more stringent remediation for air pollution. As a gimmick, they sent the Guv some asthma inhalers.

• Here's another pending skirmish involving doctors, and naturally enough, a new acronym to go with it. Physician management groups, called PPMs in the medical business, are under fire from some docs who signed up with the companies hoping to get someone else to handle at least some of the business part of their medical practices. Now, particularly in rural areas, some doctors complain that the third-party managers are doing too little to help with managed care programs, doctor recruitment, and some of the other things they thought they were getting when they signed up. The docs are asking for help from the Pink Building. One tack they're taking: It's illegal for a corporation to practice medicine in Texas, and some doctors charge some PPMs, which are corporations, should be investigated by the state for doing just that.

Oddments

The federal fight over Texas' cherished homestead exemption appears to be over. Although these things have a way of changing, congressional negotiators struck a deal that limits the exemption to $100,000 for the first two years after someone owns a homestead. After two years, the limits are a matter of state law, which in Texas means no limit at all. The fight, up to now, has been between those who wanted a federal limit and those who wanted the feds to butt out altogether.

• Next session will see a legislative push from a new outfit called the Alliance Against Underage Drinking, a name self-descriptive enough to leave alone. The members are 44 different organizations including Mothers Against Drunk Driving and more than a dozen state agencies. They are starting the conversation with statistics on drunk driving by teenagers.

• There might be more of this sort of thing in the year ahead: Marc Palazzo, a Rhode Island transplant to the Lone Star State, is leaving Transactive Corp. for American Management Systems. That'll keep him in Austin. Watch for more shrinkage: Transactive, a GTECH subsidiary, handles the state's electronic benefit transfer system and has a contract through February. The company, which has been losing money for a long time on that business, wants out of all but a piece of it.

• We left someone out of a candidate count last week. We're not about to say who we left out when we said that the GOP's 1998 statewide ballot included a female. In fact, it included two.

Political People and Their Moves

Changes at the offices of Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander: She's named Andy Ruth to a position overseeing the Texas Tomorrow Fund, a loan guarantee program for the film industry, and the State Energy Conservation Office. Helena Colyandro, marketing director of the Tomorrow Fund, is leaving for another job. Her departure is not connected, agency officials say, to the continuing drop in sales at TTF, a decline that started during the John Sharp administration. Sales of the prepaid tuition contracts have dropped every year since the program began. Also departing Rylander's shop is her scheduler, Ainsley Williams... After several years working for Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, Chet Dombrowski has moved over to the Health and Human Services Commission. In his place, you'll now find Eric Woomer, previously with Sen. Mario Gallegos, Jr... Joe Woods, after several years under his own lobby shingle, has moved over to the Alliance of American Insurers, where he'll cover Texas and the four U.S. states that border it. He did some insurance-related work for the Texas Municipal League while he was freelancing... Assuming a hitchless merger between Dallas-based Central and Southwest Corp. and American Electric Power Company, Inc., Charles Patton will become the merged company's vice president for government affairs for Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. Tom Hagan, moved from Austin to Dallas a few years back, will move to the new headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, where he'll oversee all of the company's government relations, both federal and in 11 states... Press corps moves: John Gonzalez is sticking with the Houston Chronicle, but he's moving from the paper's Austin bureau to its office in his hometown of San Antonio. The paper hasn't named anyone to that Austin slot yet... David Weber, legislative aide to Rep. Gene Seaman, R-Corpus Christi, was elected to the board of the Texas Young Lawyers Association... Medical report: Former Railroad Commissioner and state Rep. Lena Guerrero is undergoing radiation and chemotherapy in California on two tumors in her brain that caused her to collapse earlier this year. Guerrero, now an Austin lobbyist, will be getting "proton beam therapy" for several weeks before coming home... U.S. District Judge Lucius Bunton III, creator of the West Texas "rocket docket" that zipped cases along at a clip that was foreign to other federal courts, is retiring. Bunton, appointed to the federal bench in 1979, is 75 and has been on senior status since 1992.

Quotes of the Week

New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, introducing Gov. George W. Bush to voters as a man who's not afraid to admit when he's out of the loop: "At one of these governors' conferences, George turns to me and says, 'What are they talking about?' I said, 'I don't know.' He said, 'You don't know a thing, do you?' I said, 'Not a thing.' He said, 'Neither do I.' And we kind of high-fived."

Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, on the presidential race: "I still believe strongly that I could walk in and steal this election in the 11th hour."

Green Party candidate Doug Sandage, who's running for U.S. Senate in Texas, on why his folks collected so many signatures: "I think the message is that the two big parties are merely ding and dong and voters need a third choice. I really think the desire for a third-party alternative, more than our party's environmental issues, got me more signatures than anything else."

D.K. Boyd, owner of the Frying Pan Ranch in Far West Texas, on the worth of what's beneath the dirt there: "Water is more valuable than oil and gas, and becoming more so every day."

Former Massachusetts legislator Andrew Natsios, a longtime critic of Boston's "Big Dig" traffic tunnel who now heads the troubled $13.6 billion project: "The question of whether we should have started it in the first place is academic. We can't just leave a giant hole in the middle of Boston."

Executive recruiter Randall Lowry of Houston, on what the drastic shortage of petroleum engineers means to the long-term health of the oil business: "The question, five or so years down the road, will be: Who is going to run this industry?"

Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, on the state of the capital city: "I live on South Congress and work on North Congress. It is often said there is too much prostitution on both ends."


Texas Weekly: Volume 16, Issue 47, 5 June 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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