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October in December

Not knowing who will be governor is a relatively small problem for state government. Planning can proceed and most of the governor's power during a legislative session is loaded onto the back end anyhow, when vetoes can be delivered after the Legislature is out of time.

Not knowing who will be governor is a relatively small problem for state government. Planning can proceed and most of the governor's power during a legislative session is loaded onto the back end anyhow, when vetoes can be delivered after the Legislature is out of time.

Planning is tougher when there is uncertainty about who will lead either the House or the Senate, but it's not impossible. In 1993, when Pete Laney became the Speaker of the House, nobody knew who was going to be on what committee — or in favor or out of favor — until January. A couple of sessions later, he held the lobby and everyone else in suspense for weeks after several of his committee chairs decided to move on. Laney waited until well after the beginning of the session to reform his leadership ranks. Everyone grumbled, but continued their work.

Supposedly, that same model would apply now, where there's some uncertainty about who will be at the elevated desk in the Senate next session. If Florida decides to give the Ashley Wilkes role to Al Gore and the Rhett Butler role to George W. Bush, Lt. Gov. Rick Perry will become governor and some senator will be elected to replace him. That has understandably created uncertainty about the makeup of the Senate's committees and such, but it shouldn't be any more insurmountable than what has gone before in the House.

Why is it, then, that the normal pre-session bustle is so muted? Why is it, then, that inquiries about a trade associations' session preparations get a response of "We're waiting to see what happens in Florida?" instead of some description of how they're plugging along in spite of things?

One clue, maybe, was in Perry's post-Thanksgiving casting call. He gave employees who want to continue to work for him one week to apply for jobs on his gubernatorial staff. Perry's aides say he simply wants to be ready if Bush advances. Bush employees who want to remain on the gubernatorial payroll if Perry comes along are also being asked to shoot their resumes to the Guv-presumptive. As Lite Guv, Perry has 48 employees. The Guv's office has about 200.

Lots of political and government workers in the Capitol have no clue where they'll be working in six weeks. Some of them don't even know if it's proper to apply now for jobs that might or might not exist. If you know five Republicans in and around government in Texas, chances are good that you know at least one person who hopes or expects to be working in Washington, D.C., by the middle of next year. One of the others in the bunch expects or hopes to move into the job vacated by the one who's going to Washington. Put another way, the political and government classes are frozen, just five weeks before the beginning of the legislative session, right where they were poised in mid-October.

And pity the ambitious folk who would like to go to move up but who aren't sure yet what that means. Do you toss out the C.V. and risk alienating the current boss? Apply for more than one job, aiming a resume at the post you want and at something that hedges the bet in case the most-desired position goes to somebody else? Or how about just keeping the powder dry until Florida comes in and the rest of the dominos fall into place?

We stand prepared to slap the next person who compares this to the movie Ground Hog Day, but that description is widespread because there's so much truth to it. It's the same thing, day after day. The stall in Austin isn't just about what's happening to Bush and Perry and all the rest of the elected class. It's because so many of the people who actually make the wheels turn are totally distracted — frozen somewhere between hunkering down for the session and moving on to a new job.

It Really IS Like the College of Cardinals

How these things get lost in the shuffle is a mystery, but in all those stories about the Senate meeting as a Committee of the Whole (called the COW in the Pink Building), it barely got mentioned that senators have decided that their vote on a presiding officer will be secret. That means it won't be public at any point in the game. They never have to say what the score was, who got whose vote, or whether any blood was spilled in the process.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, is the president pro tempore of the Senate. If Gov. Bush resigns to become president (or for any other reason, for that matter), it would be Ellis' job to call the Senate into session to replace Lt. Gov. Perry. Ellis would have 30 days after the resignation to do that. There's a chance that the presidential race won't be over until mid-December or later, which would give Ellis the option of just waiting until the legislative session starts on January 9. He's told other senators he would be more likely to call them together within a week of a Bush resignation.

What happens when they close the doors is still under discussion. Senators have never elected one of their own to preside over the Senate — that's a job that ordinarily belongs to the voters. In the House, where there's a new speaker every so often, the procedures are well established. But in the Senate, everything has to be invented or at least researched and argued.

That's why Ellis asked Senate Parliamentarian Walter Fisher for a memo describing how the vote should be conducted. Fisher came back with a stem-winder that quoted Thomas Jefferson and the Texas Constitution and concluded, apparently to the satisfaction of Ellis and everyone else, that the balloting should be done in secret. He cited "constitutional intent and parliamentary procedure," and said the people who drafted the state constitution intended "to allow the use of a secret ballot in such elections in order to prevent harm in the relationships between the elected officers and those who voted against them." The idea that paybacks are hell has apparently been around for some time.

Okay, fine. So who's in on the secret? Do senators go to a non-public place and debate and squirm and hash it out in a way that lets them know what's up without letting the rest of the world in on it? Or do they conduct their balloting in a way that prevents any senator from knowing exactly how any other senator voted?

And if it's going to be a big, fat secret, how does a candidate's name get into the hopper in the first place? In the House, you can't collect a vote to become speaker without someone first nominating you for the job. If a senator has to be nominated, the nominator's preference isn't a secret. Why not just put together a string of supporters who will stand up for a given candidate, so that it looks like a majority after the sixth or seventh speech? Would that prompt a stampede for the candidate, or would it leave those six or seven people out in the cold if another candidate prevailed? And if candidates are allowed to put their own names in the hat, you're back to the original joke in this race, which is that it begins and ends as a 31-way tie vote.

And another thing, since we're forming pesky questions: If it's a secret, who counts the ballots? Do they announce the totals for each candidate as they go? How many rounds of voting will it take to narrow the list — usually put at six serious candidates — to one?

All of those questions are unanswered, but Ellis did get one more memo out of Fisher, on this question: What if the Senate can't elect somebody? Ellis, as president pro tempore, would act as lieutenant governor between the time that Perry moved up and the Senate picked a successor. He calls in the COW, and if they can't decide, they keep voting. If they can't pick a winner before the legislative session starts, the president pro tempore of the Senate acts as Lite Guv until a presiding officer can be chosen. When the session starts that pro tempore job belongs to Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington.

Political Tidbits, Other Oddments

Gov. Bush isn't the only guy from Texas working on his relationship with the Mexican government. Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, Secretary of State Elton Bomer and Railroad Commissioner Tony Garza are on their way south (or have already been, depending on when you read this) to attend the inauguration of President Vicente Fox, the former Coca-Cola marketing executive who broke the ruling party's hold on that country's top political office. Give Perry some points for humility: His press release on the subject noted that the Texans will be among 8,000 official dignitaries and potentates from around the world at the event. Bomer is the official emissary for Gov. Bush, who called Fox a few days back but opted not to go to the inauguration.

• The Texas Exodus that Republicans have been anticipating for more than a year hasn't really begun. After all, the presidential race isn't over. But the first foot is out the door. Clay Johnson, Gov. Bush's prep school classmate and more recently his appointments secretary, is off to run the transition office in Virginia. Johnson has been in charge at the governor's office since Joe Allbaugh left for Bush's campaign. Now, for what might be the last month of the Bush Administration in Austin, that role has fallen to Terral Smith, who heads legislative operations in the governor's office.

• Rep. Kenn George is busy, busy, busy, on his not-yet-declared race for Comptroller of Public Accounts. To recap, he has said he wants to run for that office and has said he would not run if Carole Keeton Rylander wants another term there. But he's ramping up. John Colyandro, Rylander's former chief of staff and political aide, has signed on as one of George's consultants, along with Dallas-based Allyn & Co., and Gary Bruner, who started working on the non-campaign several months ago.

Rylander has lately been saying how much she likes being comptroller, but George says he hasn't heard anything that tells him he's wasting his time considering a run for that office. Rylander is widely talked about as a possible candidate for lieutenant governor in 2002, if Rick Perry does not hold that job. She's got friends who think she should, and friends who think she shouldn't, but punch this into the calculator: The job of Lite Guv has only been open three times in the last three decades. If Perry gets a boost, a Republican senator will probably be in the job, and might want to run for a full term. But that wouldn't be someone with a proven ability to run statewide, and for someone like Rylander or Land Commissioner David Dewhurst, that's the next best thing to an open seat.

Related, sort-of: Astros owner Drayton McClane Jr. will chair Rylander's fundraising efforts.

• Remember a few months back, when the state's railroad commissioners threw elbows over Steve Matthews? He's the son of Commissioner Charles Matthews, and works for Lone Star Gas. A case involving that company came up, and Commissioner Tony Garza raised questions about whether the elder Matthews should recuse himself. He said it wasn't a conflict, and refused to recuse. Garza put a letter of indignation into the record at the time and that was that. Nothing happened until the Sunset Commission's recent report on the Railroad Commission came out. It recommended some new conflict-of-interest rules for RRC staffers. It didn't include the elected officials, so Garza added that to the RRC's response to Sunset. The vote was 2-to-1 to put the railroad folks on record saying that the staff rule should also apply to commissioners. Matthews was the no vote.

• Ah, to be a fly on the wall. The National Association of Attorneys General — a group that includes all of the state AGs in the U.S. — is holding its meeting in Florida this year. They'll dine at the at the home of Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a Democrat, who gets to either attack or defend his state's methods of taking and counting votes.

• Follow-up: The Senate voted to make Patsy Spaw, currently their Enrolling and Engrossing Clerk, the next Secretary of the Senate. But they added "designate" to the back end of that title and convinced Betty King to continue as Secretary through the session. King, who announced her retirement several weeks ago, will actually retire at the beginning of the summer. And the Senate will return to the subject in January, when they'll vote on who should replace Spaw when her post opens up. Both King and Spaw were picked for their current positions in 1977.

Sunset: Water, Funerals, Oil, Banking, & Kids

The state's Sunset Commission has been plugging along while the rest of us were looking at Florida, knocking a couple of agencies, applauding advances in a long-troubled program, and generally stirring things up in the executive branch.

The agency's staff let loose a stack of reports to the lawmakers and others on the commission; after some tinkering there, the recommendations will go to the full Legislature, which will decide whether the agencies on the list should stay in business and, if so, in what form.

• The report on the Texas Water Development Board hit that agency in mid-stream. The highest-profile job at TWDB is to look at groundwater districts under a new law. Since that's happening for the first time, the Sunset folks mostly left it alone. They do say the agency should get a better inventory of which colonias developments are in need of what water or sewer service. The report says that many residents of those developments — most of which are on the Texas-Mexico border — still don't have water and sewer service because of project delays.

• Sunset ordinarily looks at government agencies every 12 years. But in their report on the Funeral Service Commission, the staff recommends some changes now and another examination in just two years. That agency created piles of headlines over the last couple of years: The executive director left in a dispute over fines she levied against Houston-based SCI, then filed a whistle-blower suit claiming Gov. Bush and other elected officials had improperly intervened on the company's behalf.

The report from Sunset hopscotched over the lawsuit, but does say the agency should revamp the way it investigates complaints, handles licensing and license revocations, and administers fines and sanctions against funeral operators in Texas. It says the state should give up on required annual inspections of all funeral homes and concentrate its firepower on homes that have problems or need more attention. It also taps into consumer complaints about prepaid funeral contracts, saying (among other things) that the state should allow consumers to get their money back when they cancel contracts and should give state banking regulators more power over those contracts.

• The Railroad Commission, according to Sunset, doesn't do enough with pipeline regulation to protect the public. They recommended changes, including a requirement that pipeline operators give testing and assessment plans to the RRC. The report says the RRC should set fees high enough to cover the costs of the Oilfield Cleanup Fund and should detail for the public how the money gets spent. They complained about the RRC's inability to get abandoned wells capped and said the commission doesn't give developers and landowners enough incentives to clean up oil field sites. After all that trash talk, they recommend the commission be reauthorized for another 12 years.

• Sunset recommended combining the banking and savings & loan departments of the State Finance Commission, saying there's no need for separate operations. They said those two departments don't give consumers enough chance to complain about problems, especially those dealing with privacy, a hot legislative topic. And they recommended giving the Office of Consumer Credit more power over auto dealer finance operations.

• They had good news for one agency. In a special report, the Sunset staff said Attorney General John Cornyn's Child Support Division is making progress. Cornyn has called that operation his top priority, and lawmakers have been jumping up and down on AGs for years about problems.

The agency beat performance goals it set two years ago, collecting more than $1 billion in child support, identifying the fathers of 8,000 more children than two years ago, and bringing more money for every dollar spent than in 1998 or 1999. Sunset said the AG's computer operation, which was a disaster two years ago, still needs work but has improved.

And Sunset says the agency solved one of its most frustrating PR problems. People in the Child Support Division answer the phones now, which was a pet peeve for both lawmakers and Cornyn. Two years ago, fewer than one in five callers who asked to speak to a live person actually got to speak to one. Now, 95 percent get through.

Can't Wait for the Movie...

It won't be ready in time for Christmas, but one thing that's supposed to happen on the first day of the legislative session is the publication and availability of Too Much Money is Not Enough: Big Money and Power Politics In Texas, a new book on the ins and outs of campaign finance that features lengthy interviews with a mess of former lawmakers and lobbyists who have inside dope on how things work.

The book was written by Sam Kinch Jr., who stopped an illustrious newspaper career to start this newsletter and write it for 14 years, with Anne Marie Kilday, a veteran Capitol reporter who did time at the Houston Chronicle and the Dallas Morning News.

Among the interview subjects: U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, former House Speaker Billy Clayton, former Sens. Don Adams, Bob McFarland, and A.R. "Babe" Schwartz, and former Reps. Bob Davis, Robert Earley, Charles Gandy, Bruce Gibson, John Hirschi, Mike Martin (the Galveston Democrat), Parker McCollough, Paul Ragsdale, and Alec Rhodes.

The publisher of said tome is Campaigns for People, a nonpartisan outfit that's trying to win sweeping changes to Texas campaign finance laws. They'll charge $12.95 a copy.

As a tease, they offered up some quotes from the interviews that will be in the book.

From Earley: "So, sure, there were times when members of the Texas Legislature would come up to me on the House floor and say, 'Don't you know who you are screwing on that vote?' and it never was, 'You're screwing voters.' It was, 'You're screwing a money man.' And it changed votes."

From Martin, who was a legislative aide before winning a seat in the House: "There was a vote up in committee related to shrimping and it was a close vote, and my boss leaned over to me and said, 'Who's given me more money?'"

And from Schwartz: "Ain't no question about it. Anybody who accepts $100,000 from a PAC belongs, body and soul, to that PAC. And I would defy anybody to find me a vote, for any motion or committee action, where that person wasn’t a slave to that $100,000 contribution."

Money and Government, Other Morsels

Lawmakers set the cap on spending at 14.09 percent, meaning that a particular part of the state budget can't grow any faster than that estimate of the growth rate of personal income in the state. In practical terms, that means that the $44.8 billion in non-dedicated general revenue spending in the current budget can grow to no more than $51.1 billion in the next two-year budget. That's comfortable for now, but there are still some potential fender-benders ahead. Because of the mix of state revenues coming in — money is pouring into the non-dedicated revenue basket faster than it's pouring into the dedicated revenue basket — the state could get into a bind. For instance, lottery revenues are lower than budgeteers would like. That money is for education and nothing else. But when lottery income is low, it has to be made up with non-dedicated money. The state doesn't spend any more than originally intended, but it spends more non-dedicated money than intended. That could potentially bust the spending cap at some point in the future. There are, to be fair, a number of budget folk who say this is buncombe. That's true on the basis of numbers, but this particular spending cap is a political doodad and not a financial one. Even if the state doesn't go beyond its means, busting the cap can have political ramifications. That's why some folks are anxious about the revenue mix.

• The latest legislative batch includes a bill that would allow the people who were injured and the families of the people killed in Texas A&M's Bonfire collapse to get more than the $500,000 limit under current state law. Rep. Ron Wilson, D-Houston, told reporters he thinks the state should negotiate settlements with those folks. And his bill would waive that constitutional cap for this one set of cases alone. That caused some quiet crabbing from other legislators. The Bonfire victims are sympathetic, to be sure, and many members would like to see them compensated. But they wonder whether opening the door on this case will open the door on others that have nothing to do with the Bonfire.

Political People and Their Moves

More bumps and grinds from the LBJ State Office Building, where Carole Keeton Rylander reigns as comptroller. Her communications director — Nick Voinis —resigned on the day after the Thanksgiving break and is on the hunt for a new job. Voinis previously worked for U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and for an insurance trade group. Mark Sanders, one of two special assistants to Rylander, will add Voinis' duties to his own. Rylander's executive assistant, Luis Saenz, has told the comptroller he's looking for other opportunities. She asked Saenz, the third occupant of that job during her two years in office, to stay on until he's actually ready to take another offer. We're officially told that neither of those nor other recent high-level departures have anything to do with each other. Attorney Debra Kress left the agency for a job at the University of Texas at Austin, and tax policy chief Jennifer Patterson returned to her previous post at Baker Botts. Joyce Sibley, Rylander's secretary, also went to a previous posting; she's working for Hutchison again. Rylander has hired a new press secretary (to go with three others who also have that title): Will Holford, who was most recently a reporter at the Odessa American. And Katie Stavinoha, who left the comptroller's press shop last summer, is now director of public information at the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation... Shannon Ratliff, a top aide during former Gov. Mark White's administration, brother of state Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, and one of the most respected litigators in the state, is leaving the Austin-based law firm of McGinnis Lochridge & Kilgore for the Dallas-based firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. Ratliff will work in that firm's Austin office... Kelly Fero, whose most recent political excursion was on John Sharp's Lite Guv campaign, is leaving Public Strategies so he can do out-and-out political consulting for Democrats. Fero, who's been an advisor and spokesman on a number of campaigns, will continue to do some contract work for current clients after he opens his own shop... Sorry, sorry, sorry: Tom Sellers is the state lobbyist for Conoco; we gave his job to the company's outgoing Austin lawyer Ron Schultz... House Speaker Pete Laney appointed Reps. Judy Hawley, D-Portland, and Robert Puente, D-San Antonio, to open positions on the Texas Legislative Council. Soon after, that panel met and finally picked an executive director, naming Steve Collins to the post vacated last summer by Bob Kelly. Collins, who had been TLC's general counsel, has worked for that agency since 1976... Recovering and doing just fine: Sen. Frank Madla, D-San Antonio, from surgery that is supposed to rid him of dizzy spells stemming from a misfiring nerve in his ear... Deaths: Henry B. Gonzalez, the tough and pugilistic (both figuratively and literally) former congressman from San Antonio, after a long illness. Gonzalez served on the San Antonio City Council and in the Texas Senate before winning election to Congress in 1961. He rose to chairman of the House Banking Committee, where he remained for six years. He retired from the House in 1998. Gonzalez was 84.

Quotes of the Week

Vice President Al Gore, on the post-election jangle: "I don't lie awake at night. I sleep like a baby. I am not tortured over 'what-ifs' at all. And in fact I believe we are going to win this election."

Gov. George W. Bush, on the same subject: "As I recall, the facts are these. Election night, we won. And then there was a recount and we won. And there was a selected recount as a result of different legal maneuverings and we won that. And I believe one of these days that all this is going to stop and Dick Cheney and I will be the president and the vice president."

Texas Senate President Pro Tempore Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, comparing a possible Senate vote on a presiding officer to the tradition of waiting for a puff from a chimney that signifies the selection of a new pope by the College of Cardinals: "If it's black smoke, it'll mean I won."

University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray, on what might happen to politicos (on any level) who overreach during redistricting: "Pigs do fine, but hogs get slaughtered. You try to be too cute and try to draw too many districts that you can win and you might get wiped out."

David Adelman, a tobacco industry analyst with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, on anti-smoking campaigns: "All the tobacco ads in the world have no impact when Julia Roberts lights up."


Texas Weekly: Volume 17, Issue 23, 4 December 2000. Ross Ramsey, Editor. George Phenix, Publisher. Copyright 2000 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited. One-year online subscription: $250. For information about your subscription, call (800) 611-4980 or email biz@texasweekly.com. For news, email ramsey@texasweekly.com, or call (512) 288-6598.


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