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From Roadkill to Road Warrior

About a year ago, the people in the highway business in Texas were fresh off of a legislative victory. They had killed a bond program that some thought would endanger future funding of roads. They feared, among other things, that the interest on those bonds would eat into money that would otherwise be spent on roads, and by extension, on road builders.

About a year ago, the people in the highway business in Texas were fresh off of a legislative victory. They had killed a bond program that some thought would endanger future funding of roads. They feared, among other things, that the interest on those bonds would eat into money that would otherwise be spent on roads, and by extension, on road builders.

Now there's a proposal in the works to use $100 million or more in state highway money to pay for an even bigger bond program ($1 billion or more), and this time, the contractors might not fight back. Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, whose State Affairs Committee is looking at creative financing for highways, says her proposal would use state funds instead of federal funds, would not be targeted at particular areas of the state and would not cut into what's already being spent on construction.

Read that back through the lenses of a road contractor: Federal money would continue to get spent now on contractors and not on bond interest, the Texas Department of Transportation would continue to decide what projects to build, and current cash flows would be protected.

The trick to the proposal is in tampering with the so-called Fund Six, which is what the state's accountants call the highway account. That $2.4 billion a year is supposed to be used exclusively for transportation, but in previous times of tight budgets, the definitions got stretched. An example: The Texas Commission on the Arts gets $700,000 out of the fund because, the argument goes, art attracts tourists and tourism is part of TxDOT. The Historical Commission, for similar reasons, gets $500,000. The Departments of Health and of Mental Health and Mental Retardation get $2.5 million and $1 million, respectively, the first because emergency medical services use roads and are involved in public safety, the second for road maintenance at state schools and state hospitals.

Cutting that sort of stuff out of the fund is tricky, but could free up to $150 million or so for straight highway spending or for something like Shapiro's bond proposal. And with state revenues on track to end the budget cycle with a chunk of change left over (estimates range from $500 million on up), it's possible that there would be enough money to do the Fund Six deal and continue to pay for all of those other programs out of general state revenue.

Pave As You Go

Shapiro's proposal, which will be one of the things batted around when her committee meets this month, would not direct the money to a particular part of the state. Last session, a proposal by Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, widely supported by officials along the Texas-Mexico Border, would have created a bond program using future federal highway proceeds for debt service. That passed the Senate, along with a companion constitutional amendment, but died in a House committee. Part of the appeal to the Border folks was that it sent much of the bond money in their direction. They have long argued that current funding formulas for highways and other state services are weighted to the advantage of the big cities to the north. Shapiro says that proposal isn't necessarily dead, but it's definitely not part of what she's proposing.

Another financing deal being kicked around would have the state build toll roads that didn't completely pay for themselves. The state would build such a road knowing that tolls would pay only part of the costs instead of all of them. It's not the regular setup, but the current pay-as-you-go system covers less than half of what the engineers would like to have for transportation, and they're willing to look at almost anything that stretches their funds.

Democrats in Cowtown; GOP in Sweat City

Let's see, who's on this agenda? No Kirks, either starting with Ron or ending with Watson. Nobody named Sharp. No Hobbys. Hmm. Gene Kelly won't talk, or dance. Ben Barnes, who's recently tried to rekindle the basic political urges of Democrats in Texas, will do a drive-by, but won't be on the official agenda. U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson made the program, but he's not a Texas Democrat. As we went to press, even Speaker Pete Laney, the state's highest-ranking Democrat, was only penciled in as a speaker at the state party's convention in Fort Worth.

The Republicans will go without their headliner, but they can draw from a stable of statewide elected officials to draw crowds to their speeches. That state pep rally will at least have well-known people leading the cheers. The GOP will also be trying out a new technogizmo, broadcasting part of their convention from their web site, at www.texasgop.org.

The Democrats are in rebuilding mode, trying to hold a state convention in a year when their main goal is to hold ground on the middle and bottom of the ticket. The Republicans, with a national candidate but no statewides in serious danger in November, actually have a similar rig. Both parties are trying to win the Legislature, where the Republicans hold a one-vote Senate advantage and the Democrats hold a six-vote lead in the House.

Local campaigns are not what statewide conventions are good at, at least not when you're looking at the part of the schedule that has pols standing in front of crowds. The pomp's not the thing this year. Instead, outsiders should watch the conventions for signs of legislative ground wars to come. For the party regulars, the real fights will be over delegate seats in Los Angeles, where the Democrats hold their national convention, and in Philadelphia, where the Republicans hold theirs.

• Guess who's not coming to dinner? Invitations to the reception opening the Democratic state convention asked recipients to contribute anything from $35 (a "sustaining member") to $10,000 (a "Texas Legend") in return for tickets to the convention, admittance to various functions and so on. At least one of the invitees didn't go: Land Commissioner David Dewhurst, who can safely be called a hard-core Republican, got -- and ignored -- an invitation at his state office just north of the Capitol.

Al's Not Here, Man

The American Health Care Association is running television and newspaper ads telling people that the Clinton Administration is holding down Medicare reimbursement and liability rates and thus squeezing nursing homes and the people in them. The ads offer up a toll-free number (888-882-2442). Call it and you hear a screed about the rates. They say the administration could spend $19 billion more a year on Medicare without looking to Congress, that 1,651 nursing homes are in bankruptcy, and that about 175,000 patients are affected. Then, the recorded voice asks that you hang on while you're connected with the campaign offices of Democrat Al Gore. (The pitch is that Gore and Clinton have the power to act, have not done so, and should be asked to do so by voters.)

So far, that's a pretty normal piece of Washington-style Astroturf lobbying. But the AHCA apparently couldn't find a phone number for the Gore campaign in Texas, so they forwarded all the calls to the Texas Democratic Party. The same thing happened elsewhere; in Missouri and Pennsylvania, calls were routed to the state Democratic parties as well.

The folks at the Texas Health Care Association -- the state affiliate -- apparently didn't know what was going on until they started fielding angry calls from the Texas Democrats. They, in turn, asked the national folks to divert the Texas calls to the White House, which supposedly can do something about the Medicare problem. A spokeswoman for the AHCA wasn't aware of that request, but did say the Pennsylvania problem was solved when someone found a Gore campaign office there.

Death Takes a Holiday

Suppose you're a screenwriter. You've put a Texas governor into a presidential race. You've tinkered with his long-held position on the death penalty and had him grant -- through a state senator from the other political party and with just 20 minutes to spare -- the first 30-day reprieve of his five-plus years in office. Then you add in the attorney general, an ally of the governor. You have the AG's folks arguing that one Death Row inmate got a fair trial in spite of the fact that his lawyer fell asleep. Then, a short time later, they are arguing that another man's death sentence should be set aside because prosecutors relied on a witness who used the race of the killers as one indication that the killers presented a continuing threat to the public.

That's good stuff, but do you really think Mr. Speilberg is gonna let you get away with that sloppy plot? Only if he's interested in shooting a documentary on Texas in the first week of June 2000.

Gov. George W. Bush granted the reprieve so that a convicted killer could get a new DNA test as one last shot at proving his innocence. Attorney General John Cornyn is appealing the sleeping lawyer case to prevent the death penalty conviction from being overturned. In a lower appeals court, one of his staff attorneys missed a deadline and forced the state to defend the case before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. There, his folks argued that the lawyer's naps in court were a "trial error" that didn't affect the outcome. And they pointed out that courts have upheld verdicts where the lawyers were drunk, on drugs, or grievously ill.

Cornyn's decision to turn the other case upside down was a calculated risk for the Republican officeholder because it also called into question the sentences of at least eight other condemned inmates. Those are the nine who are known to have had that kind of testimony presented in their sentencing hearings. There could be others whose sentenced involved similar testimony from that or other expert witnesses; trust the criminal defense attorneys around Texas to find them.

The political sorting all depends on the outcomes. Bush's reprieve gave another 30 days to an inmate who could go free. That would give rise to a natural question about the certainty that other inmates already executed were really guilty. Alternatively, it gave 30 days to a man who might be entirely guilty. The question after that would be whether Bush should give the same reprieve to the rest of the inmates scheduled to die while he is governor.

For Cornyn, the outcome depends on how many times prosecutors in Texas have used testimony about race to prove that someone is enough of a threat to society to deserve a sentence of death.

Yellow Journalism

This item is bound to be one-sided, because it's partly about a news organization that didn't want to tell its version of the story. Jim Moore, a well-known television reporter for TXN, the Texas Network (and for Houston TV for years before that) has parted company with the James Leininger-owned operation over random drug sampling the company suddenly imposed a couple of weeks ago.

Moore says he refused to take the test, which was demanded of all employees in the Austin bureau. He also went immediately to a doctor's office to give a sample to prove, if he needs to, that he's not taking drugs. Moore says he'll go into the media consulting business, which is what he was doing when TXN, which aspires to be a statewide news network, lured him back into the newsroom.

He says the testing followed growing friction between the corporate and news sides of TXN, a statewide network unveiled a couple of years ago. Some of the employees have filed grievances with the Labor Department over overtime payments, and a group in one bureau wants to start a union. We called the network and an executive there said they wouldn't have any comment.

The drug testing has apparently knocked some employees out of work because they turned out to be using drugs. One was the operator of the machine that puts graphics up on the TV screen during a newscast. He got word that he was out of a job, then was asked if he would do just one more show. He did the newscast, and as a final act, put these words up on the screen: Legalize Now!

More Prisoners, More Jails

Last time we wrote about prison beds in Texas, it was just a rumor that the state would need almost 15,000 new spots over the next five years. Now, it's the official projection. The Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council puts out a report before every legislative session to give budgeteers and lawmakers the numbers they'll need to figure out prison spending.

In raw numbers, the prison population now is 151,700. It'll be 166,400 in five years.

Earlier reports said the state wouldn't need new beds before 2003, but by current estimates, the state will need to build or lease 14,662 new prison beds by August 2005, or to change pardons and paroles and other standards to lower the number of people in prison. Over the next 13 months, the state will need 3,503 beds, according to the new numbers. There are enough beds in county jails to handle that load, but the state will still have to pay to use them. Legislators are already working on it; a Senate committee several days ago began talking about low parole rates and their effect on the state's prison system. According to the new TCJPC report, tighter parole policies kept more than 2,000 people in prison than expected in the last nine months of 1999. More paroles, once granted, are being revoked. That rate jumped 19 percent during the first half of the year.

Orphaned Oil Wells and the Snicker Factor

The Texas Railroad Commission can't do everything it seems to want to do about orphaned wells and will probably ask the Legislature for more authority next year. That raises an odd prospect: The same people who went to the Legislature in early 1999 asking for tax relief -- oil operators, owners and regulators -- might be asking for higher fees for well operators and higher bonds or letters of credit to cover costs on wells left dormant. (Many of them will also be asking lawmakers for an outright appeal of the oil severance tax, but that's a separate deal.)

The commission's vote on well-plugging turned out to be a nice and tidy 3-0 (for a proposal assembled by Commissioner Michael Williams), with all of the commissioners cooing about the need to control pollution and to put a cork in the agency's fund for cleaning up spills left behind by bad or broke operators. But raising the amounts paid in bonds by operators who want to leave their wells dormant for a while could require more authority than the commission has. The industry folks we talked to said they're generally happy with the results.

This is still in the making; the commissioners told the staff to draft it up and told them what to have in it, so there is still some room for quibbling amongst the commissioners and plenty of time for the industry to get worked up if it so desires. If it all holds together, the new regulation will require dormant wells to be tested more often and will require operators to show they can cover the costs, through bonds, if their wells need plugging.

Separately, the serial drama featuring Tony Garza and Charles Matthews continued, with Garza shooting at Matthews for remaining in his seat during a case involving Lone Star Gas, a company that employs Steve Matthews, the son of the commissioner.

Garza wrote a letter to be placed into the case record, raising questions about whether Matthews should recuse himself. In the letter and in comments during a commission meeting, he admitted the law is not clear on such conflicts. But he said the appearance is a problem that creates a "snicker factor" -- making the commission a joke in the minds of the public and the people it regulates and raising questions about its integrity.

Matthews said his son worked for the company for five years before Matthews was on the commission. He pointed out that he stayed in his chair during an earlier case when the company came in asking for $24.2 million and left with a rate cut of $8.6 million. He said neither he nor his son own stock in TXU, Lone Star's parent company. And he said accusations of conflicts of interest are part of being an elected official. For instance, Matthews said, commissioners are accustomed to being asked whether this or that regulated company gained because of contributions to campaigns. Finally, he said people should rely on his record. "People can make accusations, but they have to back them up."

The Wars Within the War on Drugs

All in one day, Gov. George W. Bush called for a $50 million federal program to step up drug enforcement along the border between the U.S. and Mexico, Vice President Al Gore defended what the federal government is already doing, and three Texas state senators said the federal government is sticking Texas with the tab for federal drug prosecutions.

Sort the politics as you will, but look at the news buried in there: district attorneys in Cameron, El Paso, Hidalgo, Hudspeth, and Starr counties will stop handling the federally referred cases next month, joining their counterparts in Webb and Zapata counties. The El Paso folks estimate the cases cost $8 million a year, and say they aren't reimbursed by the feds.

Sens. David Sibley, R-Waco, Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, and Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, want the feds to take over the task, or at least the costs. And they want the feds to pay up when the federal cases end with someone going to jail in Texas, another cost borne locally.

Invoking Scripture and Other Political Oddities

A conservative foundation/political action committee that has been knocking heads with Texas House members this year is getting knocked in return. This time the noggin in question belongs to Rep. Tom Uher, D-Bay City, who apparently got asked to be an honorary host at the Free Market Foundation's dinner. That's the group, headed by Richard Ford, which got sideways with several incumbent Republicans for opposing them in the Republican primaries. Uher, a Democrat, is the dean of the House and the Speaker Pro Tempore.

Uher's reply to the invitation is a zinger: "The Apostle Paul in both books of Corinthians admonishes us to follow and live in Christ. During the spring primary this year, the Free Market group failed Paul's directions; instead, your group attacked men of strong character and who are followers of Christ but who did not satisfy your worldly goals. You chose a course of power. I cannot lend my name to your endeavor."

• While we weren't looking, the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas, or CLEAT, put together a 15 percent pay raise for police officers that won approval from voters in Amarillo. Voters also approved a minimum pay scale that's now written into the city charter. CLEAT had a similar win last year in Wichita Falls, and won collective bargaining deals for cops in Alvin and McAllen. Most of that territory isn't generally considered union country.

• Just before Texas Republicans gather in Houston, Attorney General John Cornyn is holding a fund-raiser in Washington with price tags ranging from $250 to $5,000. He's got all but one member of the Republicans in the Texas delegation signed on (U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm isn't on the honorary host committee). The host committee includes a couple of GOP stalwarts who are also tobacco company lobbyists: Haley Barbour, former head of the Republican National Committee and a lobbyist for both RJ Reynolds, and Brown and Williamson, and Charlie Black, who represents Philip Morris.

• First, you had David Fisher holding a press conference on the steps of the Anderson County courthouse, where he wanted Todd Staples to show up and help pick dates for their debates in the Senate race in SD-03. Now it's the Republican's turn: He stood on the shores of Lake Conroe while Fisher was at a fundraiser in Houston. The point? Houston has, in the past, coveted water supplies in the district. Staples is against it and wants Fisher and Houston Mayor Lee Brown, a host at Fisher's fundraiser, to promise they're against "encroachments" as well.

• Ficus trees are in the running, more or less, for three congressional seats in Texas. Michael Moore, a Michigan filmmaker and comedian, put the trees on the ballots in various races around the U.S. to illustrate his contention that there's no difference between Republicans and Democrats running for Congress. In Texas, he's proposing the trees as alternatives only to Republicans: U.S. Reps. Joe Barton of Ennis, Kevin Brady of The Woodlands, and Larry Combest of Lubbock. Moore says a vote for the trees is, groan, a "vote for growth," and adds, "a potted plant can do no harm." There is, of course, a website, at www.ficus2000.com.

Political People and Their Moves

He'll wear an interim title, but Tom Scott will take over as vice chancellor for governmental relations at the University of Texas System. He's been the associate vice chancellor. The top spot belonged to Mike Millsap, a former legislator who's leaving to become a freelance lobster. Scott has been at UT since 1988 and was a top aide to former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby before that. The system has an official posting up for the job without the word "interim" in the title... Donze Lopez has moved from the San Antonio Chamber's lobby job to handle government relations for Martin Marietta Materials. He'll remain in San Antonio, but will visit Austin to lobby the Legislature... Move Shannon Perez to the David Fisher Senate campaign in East Texas. She had been working for Stanford Research, an Austin outfit, on a contract with the Democratic House Caucus in Florida. Perez, who ran the campaign for Rep. Dan Ellis, D-Livingston, last cycle, dropped everything in Florida to come back and be the number two in the Fisher camp. Both the Florida House and the Fisher campaign are clients of another Austin political firm, Rindy-Miller-Bates... Press Corps Moves: Suzanne Gamboa, who's covered the Capitol for the Austin American-Statesman, is leaving the paper to return to the Associated Press. She'll be in Washington, D.C., covering the Texas delegation for the wire service. Michelle Mittelstadt, who previously had that job, now works for the Dallas Morning News... Louri O'Leary will take over as executive director of the Texas Federation of Republican Women in mid-June (after the state convention). That leaves an empty desk in government affairs at the Texas Association of Realtors... Kristin Bodenstedt Watkins has signed on as the new "political affairs manager" at the Texas Association of Business and Chambers of Commerce. She'll work on fundraising for the rest of the year, then lobbying when lawmakers hit town in January... Honored: Mike Regan, the state's associate deputy comptroller, was named Administrator of the Year by the Texas State Agency Business Administrator's Association... Keep him away from the scalpel, but Lt. Gov. Rick Perry got an honorary doctorate at Baylor's College of Medicine after giving the commencement address there. He was introduced by his father-in-law, a 1950 graduate...U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, and New York Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton will share a stage this month. They're both being honored by the Orphan Foundation of American for their work with foster children.

Quotes of the Week

Texas Democratic Party Chairwoman Molly Beth Malcolm, on why the state convention here didn't make it onto presidential candidate Al Gore's schedule: "It makes more sense that he would go to one of those states where possibly he has a real shot at winning."

Railroad Commissioner Charles Matthews, on questions raised by Commissioner Tony Garza over Matthews hearing a rate case involving the company that employs his son: "It's simply a non-issue. It's just one of these things that people that are not your political friends charge you with from time to time, and it's an unfortunate part of public service."

Texas Health Department spokesbot Doug McBride, telling the Houston Chronicle that the agency's bogged-down rulemaking process is what cut the number of state-funded clinics from 15 in 1997 to none starting in September: "We're not trying to avoid funding school-based health clinics, even though it may look to some like we are."

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, the state's top official when the Guv and the Lite Guv are elsewhere, on the 30-day reprieve that gives condemned killer Ricky McGinn time for more DNA testing: "I contacted the governor's office to let them know what my thought process was and then waited until they made the final decision. But I would not have agreed to execute Mr. McGinn."

Argus Hamilton, a comedian, on the exhumation of what might be a famous outlaw: "If the DNA tests prove he is Jesse James, Gov. Bush can have him executed."

Big Lake Mayor J.R. Dunn, on efforts to get some water in the hole the town is named for: "We are sitting here living in a town called Big Lake and we don't have a lake. We've got fish out there that are five years old and don't know how to swim in water yet."


Texas Weekly: Volume 16, Issue 48, 12 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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