Texas budgeteers are poking around in the seat cushions for $700 million in loose change to try to avoid a politically hazardous vote on spending during the first few weeks of the legislative session.
The state's sources of money aren't producing income in the forecasted amounts. Overall, the budget picture is downright rosy and there's plenty of money on hand. But revenue dedicated to particular types of spending – like education – is slower than expected. Undedicated revenue steams are flowing better than predicted. To offset slower income in one area, the money folk simply replace it with the better-than-expected revenues from other areas.
Put simply, this is not a math problem. It is, however, a political problem.
In an attempt during the 1980s to hold the line on spending, lawmakers limited growth of non-dedicated spending. That part of the state budget can't grow faster than average personal incomes of Texans. The rest of the budget can grow like kudzu without causing problems, but that one type of spending is limited. Every two years, the Legislative Budget Board picks a forecast of personal income growth – this year's number is 14.09 percent – and uses it to set a cap on general revenue spending.
That's all fine and good unless the forecasts blow up, as they have this year on both the income and spending sides of the equation. Lottery income is short, but sales tax income is doing well. An emergency pay raise for prison guards added to spending. Worsening numbers from the health and human services agencies are doing even more damage: Medicaid caseloads, prescription drug prices and utilization rates were all on the low side.
Health and prisons spending blowouts total about $700 million. To cover that pothole, lawmakers will look at an emergency spending bill early in the session. All of that money will come out of general revenue, and there's plenty to cover it. But the state is already bumping the spending limit. That means lawmakers have two choices: Either vote to ignore the spending cap, or fiddle around with the spending and revenue amounts in the various kinds of accounts to make the political problem disappear. The second option is the more difficult of the two, but makes for better politics. Door number one is quick and probably more painful.
They're looking in several places. First, they'll sweep agency budgets for unspent balances, taking back general revenue money that was set aside but that hasn't yet been spent. Second, they'll look for dedicated money that can be used for non-dedicated spending; that happens when dedicated money is set aside for dedicated spending, but isn't actually spent. It can sometimes be swept back and used for non-dedicated purposes. (Hey, we told you up front that this wasn't a math problem.)
They're also building armor in case they have to bust the spending cap. Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, and Rep. Rob Junell, D-San Angelo, the chief budgeteers in the Legislature, would like to remind everyone that general revenue spending is high because of tax breaks approved by lawmakers in 1997 and 1999. And because of teacher pay raises approved by lawmakers in 1999. They want folks to remember that the only reason spending jumped is so the prisons would be safer, with experienced guards, and so that people who really need medicine and aid from the state could get that care.
What they don't want anyone thinking about is the direct mail and other advertising that could be used in the next political cycle against incumbents who vote to let state spending grow faster than family budgets. That's bad juju, and explains why so many budgeteers have had a hitch in their britches since realizing last summer that revenues could mess up their spreadsheets.
Senate: Inventing a New Game
A small gaggle of senators haggled for about two hours on how a vote for a presiding officer would work; they'll propose a set of rules to the rest of the Senate, get something approved by the Committee of the Whole, or COW, and then commence to voting, if and when there's an opening.
They're sticking to the idea of a secret vote, but it'll be done in an open meeting on the Senate floor: Senators would meet in open session in front of the public and the lobby and the media, but they won't be compelled to reveal their choices.
The proposed procedures and the conversations about them make a semantic distinction between voting and balloting. Voting, as the term is used here, is an open thing, like a vote on any other issue in the Legislature. Balloting is a closed thing–just like on Election Day, when only the voter knows what happens in the booth and when it's up to the voter to talk or be quiet about what's on the ballot.
Anyhow, the proposal would have three elected Senate employees (Secretary Betty King, Secretary-designate Patsy Spaw and Parliamentarian Walter Fisher) counting votes and scratching out the names of the lowest vote-getters. The shortened ballot would go out for another vote, get shortened again, and so on, until only one senator–the new presiding officer–was left.
No vote totals would be announced. A senator could be in the middle of the pack on the first vote and eventually win, or at the front of the pack at first and eventually lose. The only times senators will know where a candidate stands is when that candidate's name is crossed off or when that candidate wins the keys to the corner office and the parking space next to the steps on the East End.
The first ballot would have 31 names on it, preventing the need for nominating speeches that would force members to publicly declare allegiance to a particular candidate.
The group that put all that together was called in by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, the Senate's president pro tempore. It included the six candidates generally considered to be in the race as well as Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, to represent the Republican Caucus, and Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, to represent the Democrats.
As with everything else in American and Texas politics at the moment, timing is an issue. Senators don't want to miss the vote, obviously, but they also want their last holiday before the session begins. They're comparing calendars to see who'll be out of pocket on what dates so they can throw a session together in a hurry. Ellis would call them in after Bush has resigned as governor and after Lt. Gov. Rick Perry has resigned to become the new governor.
The Senate could meet at any point within 30 days, which means, technically, that they don't have to do anything until the first day or so of the session that begins on January 9.
Miscellaneous Legislative Notes
Remember the 18-18 vote for chair of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus?
Someone in that 37-member group didn't vote, and the rest were evenly split between Reps. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, and Vilma Luna, D-Corpus Christi. After that draw, the two agreed to step aside and let a third candidate jump in.
That initially drew interest from a half-dozen members of the caucus, but Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, decided to run and everyone else appears to have jumped out. He's circulating a signature sheet that has far more that half the members' signatures. Among the signers are Luna and Oliveira.
• Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, has been president pro tempore of the Senate since May 31, 1999. That puts him third on the chain of succession behind the Lite Guv and the Guv. When the governor is out of state and the lieutenant governor is out of state, he gets the top job. With George W. Bush running for president, Ellis has been the state's top officer for all or part of 44 days.
Blue Dogs Won't Decide the Presidency
U.S. Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Stamford, told the Abilene paper that he'd vote for George W. Bush if the presidential race were to go to Congress, in spite of the fact that he's a Democrat. And there have been several accounts, inside the state and outside, about other conservative Democrats who might cross the line for Bush if it comes to that. So we did a little poking to see whether it matters.
Bush won in 29 states. Al Gore won in 20 states and the District of Columbia. At this writing, as in the last, oh, 40 editions of this newsletter, Florida is undecided.
Republicans have the majority in 28 state delegations in the U.S. House of Representatives. Democrats have majorities in 17, including Texas. Four delegations–Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland and Nevada–are tied. And Vermont's one representative, Bernard Sanders, is an independent.
What makes the Stenholm vote newsy is that Texas voted for Bush, but is represented in Congress by 17 Democrats and 13 Republicans. If the presidential vote went to the U.S. House, each state would get one vote. States that lock up with tie votes simply don't cast a vote.
It's not likely for any number of reasons, but it's possible, if you're full of beer, to imagine the Texas delegation voting along party lines and ignoring the fact that Bush won the state with 59.3 percent of the vote, or by a margin of 1.37 million votes. If they did, however, it probably wouldn't matter (which is one of the reasons they are unlikely to fade the heat for their party).
Texas isn't the only place in the U.S. where voters went one way on the presidential race and another with their congressional delegations. Bush got 23 of his victories in states with Republican delegations, but also won in five states that have Democratic delegations, including Arkansas, Mississippi, North Dakota, Texas and West Virginia.
Gore won in four states with Republican delegations, including Delaware, Iowa, New Mexico and Pennsylvania. He got a dozen of his wins in congressionally Democratic states.
How about the four states with even numbers of Democrats and Republicans in the delegation? Gore won in three, Bush in one (Nevada). Vermont, the independent, went to Gore.
And now, for the conclusion, based on our own Fuzzy Math. With Florida not counted, Gore got 267 electoral votes and Bush got 246. Gore's total includes 41 electoral votes from states that have Republican delegations in Congress, and another 40 votes from states that have evenly split contingents. The Bush total includes 53 votes from states with Democratic delegations and 4 from evenly split Nevada. If the presidential race went to Congress, Bush would win almost any way you cut it, even though the overall numbers in Congress are close to even. Based purely on the partisan/state splits, he would win 28 to 17 in the U.S. House. If the delegations mimicked their own voters, Bush would win 29 to 20. If states with split personalities, like Texas, couldn't settle up and vote, Bush would win 23 to 12. That's the number of Republican-represented states where he won, against the number of Democrat-represented states carried by Gore. There's no squeeze play: For so-called Blue Dog lawmakers like Stenholm, there would be almost no percentage in voting for Gore.
Who Doesn't Want to be a Millionaire?
The team that lobbied for the City of Houston last session has pulled itself out of the running for that contract, saying it's too late to do the needed prep work in the remaining 30 days before the legislative session begins. Lobbyists Stan Schlueter, Mike Toomey and Dick Brown are all on the team that's bagging it. They submitted their qualifications, along with several other groups, at the beginning of September and the city still hasn't awarded a contract, a time lag that has some members of the City Council griping, not to mention some of the bidders for the contract. That said, the city hasn't generally signed its lobsters until November or December. The complaint this time is that they also haven't spelled out what their lobbyists should be working on. It's a hefty contract, too: Schlueter, who's been doing the city's lobbying for eight years, led a team two years ago that got a contract worth nearly $1 million. Still in the running this time are teams that include former House Parliamentarian Bob Kelly, Gordon and Rob Johnson, Demetrius McDaniel, and Phil Cates.
A Letter to Potential Santa Clauses
As the fundraising season comes to an end for state officeholders, former Comptroller John Sharp hit the mailboxes with a letter seeking advice and donations from former supporters. He doesn't say what office he might seek, but says he still wants to be in some public office. (That has become part of the normal bag of tricks; former Sen. Jerry Patterson is raising money without specifying what office he's seeking, at least in writing. Patterson has said he'll run for land commissioner as long as the current land commissioner, David Dewhurst, doesn't seek reelection. And Rep. Kenn George, R-Dallas, has been raising money for statewide office, telling people he wants to be comptroller unless Carole Keeton Rylander seeks reelection. He's hinted he would run for another office in that case, but has also downplayed the idea when asked directly.)
Sharp, who ran for lieutenant governor in 1998, writes that he would have won that race and that Paul Hobby would have won his race for comptroller but for Gov. Bush's coattails and a lower than average turnout in South Texas. He says the outlook will be better in two years and says friends and "even some who couldn't support me in 1998" are encouraging him to run in 2002. He takes a general swipe at the current lineup of Republicans: "It is as if innovation and creativity have disappeared and too often been replaced with stark partisanship and holding office for the sheer sake of... holding office." And he says he needs money to make a race and asks, without saying who he might take on, for "a generous contribution." At the bottom, there's a reminder that the ban on contributions during a legislative session doesn't apply to people who don't hold office.
Reporting deadlines do apply, however: He and others who are raising money will file reports in mid-January on money raised since their last reports. For people who were in the last election cycle, that'll be for the last two months of the year; for others, it'll cover incoming and outgoing cash for the last six months of the year.
More than One Way to be Ethical
Railroad Commissioner Charles Matthews says he would have no problem imposing a new set of ethics rules at the agency, but wants to know what they are before he votes on them. That's why he was the holdout when the other two commissioners voted to tack part of the state's Code of Judicial Conduct onto the agency's Sunset report a week ago.
To recap: The state's Sunset Commission recommended an update to RRC's ethics guidelines for staffers. Commissioner Tony Garza wanted the same rules to apply to commissioners, and a discussion commenced over judicial and semi-judicial functions of the agency. Matthews suggested putting the commission under the same rules that apply to the (also) quasi-judicial Public Utility Commission. But Garza and Commission Chairman Michael Williams voted to "refer to the Code of Judicial Conduct as the ethical guideline" for changes to the rules.
Matthews says the Code doesn't work for the RRC. One canon prevents judges from campaigning for other candidates for political office. That would have prevented Garza and Williams from taking part in pre-election GOP fly-around to support Republican legislative candidates (an escapade that irked Speaker Pete Laney and other Democrats). It also prevents judges from campaigning on issues that might come up before their courts, which is one of the things that makes judicial elections so boring: They can't talk about what they'll do if you vote for them, or about what their opponents are doing to offend your sensibilities. It would make for peculiar Railroad Commission races.
And finally, Matthews pointed out in a letter to the Sunset folks, it would force a commissioner to resign from office if he or she became a candidate for another non-judicial office. That was actually the subject of a piece of legislation last session. That was aimed at ending so-called "safe runs" from the Railroad Commission, where commissioners run for other offices at mid-term, thus ensuring themselves jobs whether they win or lose their races. The legislators and others on the Sunset panel will hear from the commissioners next week.
Flotsam and Jetsam
The Republicans have started a web site to help find some of the talent they would need if they suddenly need to run the country. While they're waiting for something definitive from Florida, they've cranked up www.BushCheneyTransition.com (call it confidence, call it preparation: The site name was registered two weeks before the election). It starts with a photo of the White House, a now-familiar statement from George W. Bush about winning Florida after a count and a recount and a recount, and a plea for money to help with transition efforts. Elsewhere, it includes forms to fill out if you want an appointment or a job, complete with disclaimers about long hours, the intense pace, and scrutiny from the press and the public. Applicants are warned that they'll have to disclose financial and other information that could eventually be made public and that, for the most part, they would have to stop doing business with the government if they get a posting of some kind. Contributions to that fund are limited to $5,000 per person and they're not taking money for this particular fund from corporations and political action committees. They've applied for non-profit status and the money, they say, won't count against people's $25,000 limits on contributions during this political cycle.
• An appeals court ruling that said the state's official misconduct statutes are too vague to enforce was thrown out by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which told that lower court to reconsider the case against Ross Margraves Jr., the former chairman of the board of regents at Texas A&M. He was convicted of using an A&M-owned airplane to fly to his son's graduation ceremony at Louisiana State University in 1993. He got four years of probation, was told to refund the cost of the trip and fined $3,000. His first appeal resulted in a reversal, partly because the jury tossed out some evidence, and partly because of that official misconduct law. Margraves contended he did some state business on that trip, but the jury said official business wasn't the reason for the ride.
• While we're on the subject of courts, the Calvin Burdine case will get a hearing from the full 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. A three-judge panel on the 5th Circuit ruled that Burdine didn't prove that his death penalty case went south because of the snoozing attorney, saying that it was unclear whether the lawyer (who's now dead) was asleep at critical moments in the trial or just during parts that didn't determine Burdine's fate.
Busted-up Senators and Other Moving Political People
This issue's Ailing Texas Senator of the Week is Troy Fraser, the Republican from Horseshoe Bay. He turned his BMW into a gnarled gob of plastic and sheet metal when he hit an oncoming van that went out of control on State Highway 71 and jumped into his lane. He and the other driver–the only people in the accident–were bruised but mostly unbroken, and both were treated and released from the Llano hospital. Neither vehicle survived... An update on last week's ATSW: Frank Madla, D-San Antonio, was readmitted to the hospital after complications from his ear surgery, but was supposed to be released after an overnight stay. He had ear surgery a week ago, and aides say he's doing fine... R.D. "Dan" Burck is now officially the chancellor of the University of Texas System. He had been an interim chancellor for a few weeks, due to job posting laws. The UT System also made some other appointments, naming Kerry Kennedy executive vice chancellor for business affairs, Tom Scott vice chancellor for governmental relations and Armando Diaz vice chancellor for community relations. The board of regents appointed Burck; the others were picked by him, then approved by the board... Adam Jones, who had been running the budget and planning department at the Texas Education Agency after several years working in budget jobs in the Legislature, will be TEA's new assistant commissioner for governmental relations. TEA Commissioner Jim Nelson also appointed Sheila Rosenberg to be senior director of adult education for the agency... Dennis Speight, who left Sen. David Bernsen's staff to work on the campaign of Rep. Dan Ellis, D-Livingston, will stay with Ellis. He'll be the new legislative aide in that House office. Christina Delgadillo, also previously with Bernsen, left to work on Rep. Allan Ritter's campaign. She'll move on to the private sector, working for the Crockett Street Economic Development Corp. in Beaumont.
Political People and Their Moves
Though Florida's courts are still cranking away, Lt. Gov. Rick Perry tapped James Huffines Jr. to head his transition team to handle what he hopes will be a switch from his current office to the governor's office when George W. Bush moves on to Washington, D.C. Huffines, who's originally from Dallas, was appointments secretary during Gov. Bill Clements' second term (1987-1991), and is a principal and director of an investment banking firm in Austin... While he was biding his time and waiting for news from the State of Florida, Gov. Bush was making appointments, among other things. He named Frank Wingfield Bryan Jr. of Austin to the 403rd District Court. That's a new court. Bryan had been an assistant U.S. Attorney in Austin, and also used to work as an assistant general counsel for the governor. Bush named Roy Sparkman, a Wichita Falls attorney, as judge of the 78th District Court. He named Dr. Elvira Pascua-Lim of the Lubbock Regional Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center to the State Board of Medical Examiners. She'll replace Paul Meyer of Lubbock, who resigned... U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, is the new chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. She had been number two in that 38-member group. U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, will be one of that group's vice-chairs... U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, is the new vice chair of the Senate Republican Conference. That puts her fourth in the Senate GOP's pecking order... Alan Berg, the Austin reporter for Dallas' WFAA-TV, has left that post to start a documentary company. He'll start with a contract with KLRU, the public television station in Austin, and will also work on other projects outside of the daily news grind. Channel 8 moved Shelley Kofler into his spot in Austin, where she'll cover politics, government and whatever else raises its ugly head... Ken Herman, the Capitol Bureau chief for the Austin American-Statesman, is moving to Washington, D.C., to cover the beginning of, presumably, a Bush presidency, but he'll only be gone long enough to avoid the Texas legislative session. Herman says the gig on the Potomac will last about six months... Ruben Ochoa, who had been at the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission, is the new legislative liaison at the Texas Department of Economic Development... Chrissy Camacho, campaign manager for Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, is going to work for Rossanna Salazar at ROSS Communications now that the election season, at least for Williams, is complete... Deaths: Wayne Wyatt of Lubbock, general manager of the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District and a noted authority on water issues. He was 65.
Quotes of the Week
U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, on the congressional election results: "You're going to think I'm crazy, but I didn't see this as a tie election. This is something I've been working on for 22 years. I mean, we got it. The Republicans are the majority party in this country."
Gov. George W. Bush, asked on 60 Minutes whether his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, would have a place in a Bush Administration cabinet: "No... He needs to be in Florida doing the job of governor. He'll be happy to hear his name on national TV."
Phil Donohue, the former talk show host, at a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall, on the presidential results: "I have been in the Witness Protection Program for the last three weeks. I campaigned for Ralph Nader. I'm now living as a woman in Mississippi."
O.J. Simpson's reaction to live television coverage of a moving van taking Florida ballots across that state: "All I could think of was, now I know what people went through when they were trying to watch the basketball game and my Bronco was going up the freeway."
Liberty County Judge Lloyd Kirkham, telling the Houston Chronicle what he thinks of a pollution abatement program that partially includes his territory as part of the Houston metro area: "We produce 0.00 percent air pollution... I'm not picking on Harris County, but one intersection in Harris County or Houston can produce more pollution than all the cars in this county in one day."
Justice Anthony Kennedy of the U.S. Supreme Court, during a case involving a Texas woman who was hauled off to jail for not wearing her seat belt: "It's not unconstitutional for an officer to be a jerk."
Texas Weekly: Volume 17, Issue 24, 11 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. For news, email email@example.com, or call (512) 288-6598.