The Texas Legislature is back for a politically interesting and potentially fractious session, but the folks directly involved in the 77th session began with a focus on other things.
The prime concern of a fair number of lobbyists in Texas has nothing to do with getting bills filed or heard or passed or killed. With eight days to go before the Texas State Society's Black Tie & Boots Inauguration Party, some of them are finding that their clients judge their worth by their ability to obtain tickets to the home state gala for incoming President George W. Bush. Lawmakers were pushing buttons, too, trying to nail tickets and rooms and all that.
Some of them lucked out. A couple of them are even members of the Texas State Society and had first crack at tickets to the ball. This won't do you any good now that the BT&B bash is sold out, but membership is only $20. That looks dinky compared to the numbers on the eBay Internet auction site, where a sneaky person of our acquaintance found prices up to $3,000 for a pair of tickets.
Here's a poster child for this inauguration: Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, booked several hundred rooms in Washington weeks ago, survived booking a bunch of seats on the now-bankrupt Legend Airlines, and finally worked out a contract with ZZ Top to play at the party he is sponsoring. All this trouble for a series of overbooked formal parties in a freezing East Coast city where hotel operators demand and get four-night minimums and where half the political people in Texas will be later this week. It's a mob scene, but it's a hoot for the winners, and the Legislature can wait.
Under the Big Top
Opening Day in Austin was no such shindig. It was more like the succession of a new set of officers in a big corporation. It made news, alright, but the crowds of high school bands and people in peculiar garb and Protesters of Lost Issues and other assorted strangeness has been replaced by hometown folks and tourists in suits and jeans. The circus came to town, but the clowns and animals stayed home.
Gov. Rick Perry had no inauguration, settling for an oath and a speech over the holidays. Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff had no shebang, moving from election by the Senate to naming committees to hiring staff. House Speaker Pete Laney won his fifth two-year term in office without a peep.
Perry and Laney went out of their way to talk about bipartisanship. They aren't particularly close, and Perry's help for Republican candidates got Laney's goat during the elections. But with everyone in Austin watching the relationship closely, they're at least making noises about getting along.
Perry's big three will be transportation, higher education and the Border. He'll also submit a budget and roll out a criminal justice package in the next week or so.
Ratliff says he won't have the kind of agenda Lite Guvs usually have, since he wasn't elected statewide and considers his own set of priorities about equal to those of the other 30 senators. He has said he'd like to see pay raises for state employees and some state assistance for teacher health insurance. But those are things he was pushing when he was the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and he's not asking the Legislature to do something that wasn't already on the wish list.
Laney, the lone Democrat in high state office, usually limits his agenda to generalities, but this year, he ticked off a list of issues he thinks the Legislature will address and added a couple of his own to the rest. He asked lawmakers to develop a rural policy to deal with problems in the less populated areas of the state. He repeated his call of two years ago for campaign finance reform and said elections would be cheaper if primaries were closer to general elections.
Bureau of Clarification & Backfill, House Div.
Speaker Laney wasn't talking about moving the Texas primary elections back to the month of May, where they used to be. Asked after his speech what he was proposing, he said elections in either August or even September would suit him. Laney's pitch was that a short election season would be cheaper than the current one, one of the longest in the U.S. He contends that a shorter and less expensive cycle would lessen campaign finance abuses, at least as a matter of degree, and what's why he included it in his call for campaign finance reform.
We heard some blowback from consultants throughout the philosophical spectrum, though mostly on the GOP side. Their first take: It would cut into business (that's the same thing Laney was saying, but from another perspective). Their later, reconsidered take (several called back after sleeping on it): They might make less money during races, but would make more money during the season when people are preparing for races. On balance, though, they don't seem persuaded.
Laney isn't endorsing a particular bill, so this is open ground. Other states are all over the board. Presidential primaries around the country are all held between late January and the first week of June. That's how it worked last year, anyhow. But several states have separate dates for presidential and downballot primaries. Some prefer late primaries but hold presidential primaries earlier in the year so they can have a say in who gets nominated. Congressional and other primaries, according to the Federal Election Commission, commence in the first week of March (Texas is in the second week) and continue into late September. Hawaii's primaries last year were on September 23. Louisiana has a weird system that doesn't compare to anybody else, so we're leaving it out of this roundup. There is no real norm for state primaries: Six do it in March, one in April, eight in May, 11 in June, one in July, eight states have August primaries, and 14 have primaries in September.
BC&B, Senate Committees Div.
When it was all over, Lt. Gov. Ratliff pruned the number of Senate committees by one less than he originally planned. He killed Veteran Affairs and Military Installations. That didn't take, so he offered to reinstate it as a subcommittee. That didn't take, so it is, once again, a committee. Sen. Carlos Truan, D-Corpus Christi, was chairman last session and will be chairman again this time.
BC&B, Gubernatorial Div.
The Hate Crimes bill that prominently failed to win Senate approval two years ago is back, and for the second time in a row, it's a problem for the Governor of Texas. The bill's the same, the issues are the same, but the governor is different. Gov. Perry did a series of one-on-one interviews with reporters during the first week of the session, and stayed purposefully vague in answering questions about enhanced penalties for crimes based on various types of discrimination.
We asked if he'd sign the bill passed by the House two years ago, and the governor ducked, saying he wants to wait until he sees a bill from the Legislature. He told another paper that he wasn't optimistic about the issue's chances. Another paper came out with the impression that he wasn't wild about having gays and lesbians in the bill, but was stopping far short of veto talk.
The Houston Chronicle asked a little different question, got a little different answer, and then reported that Perry wouldn't support a bill that listed homosexuals as a group that would be protected. That was the hang-up last time, but then-Gov. Bush never had to act since the bill failed in the GOP-controlled Senate. The Chronicle didn't back down, but did write a story quoting Perry folks saying the Guv's remarks had been misinterpreted.
Perry got a direct question on the subject at a press luncheon the next day and was back on message. He'll take a position after he sees what the Legislature does; he and his staff, he said, won't lobby it one way or the other. Separately, a group of lawmakers supporting that legislation met with Perry to talk about it. They didn't share the results, but they didn't leave the meeting in a snit, either.
Death Penalty Reform Gets GOP Attention
Within the next few days, Gov. Perry plans to make one of those "Only Nixon could go to China" moves by unveiling a package of criminal justice proposals that could have come from any number of liberal Democrats in the Legislature. He's not coming out against the death penalty, but he is responding to criticism that criminal justice in Texas is unfair. Perry and other Texas Republicans, notably Attorney General John Cornyn, have been looking at the weaknesses exposed by the presidential campaign, and they've been working on reforms. Cornyn says the problem isn't with the death penalty, which he supports, but with the administration of it. He and others find it hard to defend a system that has seen innocent people convicted and freed and had the state defending cases where lawyers literally slept through trials.
We haven't seen Perry's final package, but items under consideration and discussion include:
• Post-conviction DNA testing. This would get rid of arguments over whether DNA testing should be allowed or used in this case or that one by making the testing automatic in cases where genetic evidence is available. The issue is not very controversial and should get bipartisan support.
• Life without parole. A life sentence in Texas only guarantees four decades in prison. It's possible that a teen right out of high school could murder someone and be free before reaching retirement age. Death penalty opponents contend that a lifelong life sentence would be preferable to death and would serve the purpose of keeping capital murderers behind bars forever. Some prosecutors say creation of a sentence of life without parole would all but wipe out the death penalty. Some of them don't want to do that, but it would put Texas laws more or less in line with federal laws and statutes in 33 other states. It's a creepy issue to subject to costing arguments, but before this is over, you'll hear that it costs more to house and feed a lifer than to use the death chamber. There's a creepy counter-argument, too: If lawyer time and fees are included, lifers can be cheaper.
• Indigent defense in capital cases. A controversial issue because of the price tag and because lawyers are tricksters. Some murderers don't have the money to defend themselves in court. Lawyers are appointed by the state to defend them. Their abilities are sometimes suspect, as in the famous case of Calvin Burdine, who appealed his sentence on the grounds that his court-appointed lawyer slept through part of his trial. Cornyn wants to beef up the standards for lawyers hired to represent indigent defendants, giving capital murder suspects a better shot in court. The innocent would have a better chance of walking away, and those found guilty would, at least theoretically, lose a line of appeal, since it would be more difficult to claim insufficient counsel. The trickster factor we mention is the "justice denied" fear of some prosecutors and victims' groups that the lawyers paid by the state will clog the system with delays and with arguments over technicalities. The controversy on this is a matter of money: It costs a lot to hire those lawyers, and counties don't want the state forcing them to do that. The alternative is to have the state pay, and that could run into some serious money.
A number of lawmakers have been pushing death penalty reforms for a couple of sessions, and new bills from them will likely be the vehicles for Perry and others. But the packages won't completely overlap. For instance, Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, has been pushing a ban on death penalties against mentally retarded killers. But with a case still pending in the federal courts—one involving a convict named Johnny Paul Penry—Cornyn and Perry and others will probably leave that issue alone. Former Gov. George W. Bush vetoed an earlier Ellis bill on mentally retarded killers, and legislation to provide indigents with better lawyers also tanked. That has Republicans in an uncomfortable spot. They don't want to get painted as bloodthirsty maniacs, and they don't want to look like they disagree with Bush. They also fear being too closely allied with Democrats who openly criticized the former Guv's positions during his presidential run.
Hiding the Biscuit
Don't get squeamish now that the word is out that lawmakers have only $300 million to fiddle with while they're writing the budget. We double-checked our previous scribblings, and we're sticking with that earlier estimate that budgeteers have about $1.5 billion in discretionary money this session.
It is daunting, however, to look at the size of the numbers. The short form is that the Legislature's starting budget leaves just under $1 billion of the available revenue unappropriated. Lawmakers expect an emergency spending bill of around $700 million, and that would leave $300 million. Worry, but don't over-worry, because there's a rabbit in the hat: The budgeteers parked money in various appropriations in the budget. There's some extra dough—and a lot of it—in public education budgets. There's more tucked away in a contingency account in the back of the budget.
The financiers are telling the truth, however, when they say the big surpluses of the last two cycles are gone. This is a smaller amount of discretionary money than they've had, and they're trying to manage the demands for that smaller pile of extra cash.
That'll influence a number of proposals coming out this month and next. For instance, Gov. Perry is on the verge of showing what's in his budget. At our deadline, he wasn't ready to detail the contents of that, but he did indicate that it won't include any hugely expensive initiatives. Look instead for smaller initiatives that could still generate interest. For instance, Perry has already said he wants to double the Texas Grants program, which provides scholarships to state colleges for Texas students who otherwise don't have the money to go to school. He's expressed support for a highway bond program touted by Dallas County Judge Lee Jackson and Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, that would cost around $100 million a year without messing with the highway contractors' sacred Fund 006 money. He's pushing a math program that would pay teachers an extra $5,000 a year if they beef up their math skills and get in place to teach kids what they've learned. The tab? About $40 million.
Employee groups are pushing for raises for state employees. Particular areas have had problems for a while: computer programmers are an easy and oft-cited example. But good managers have been leaving, and other employees, too. In one agency, we're told that secretaries have been hired away and then paid bounties for former co-workers they could lure to follow them into the private sector. The Texas Public Employees Association says the turnover rate in state agencies is over 18 percent per year, and argues that that won't turn around unless pay scales rise. But Lt. Gov. Ratliff and other lawmakers are tinkering with pay raises targeted at the highest turnover areas, simply because of the expense of raising the salaries of everyone working for the state.
Legislators in the Senate and in the House are making a priority of getting some state money for teacher health insurance. They'd like to pay for all health insurance for teachers, but the prices are probably out of reach. Instead, they're talking about paying a fraction of the costs as a starter.
Lucky Skunks and Other Miscellany
This bit is from our Department of Fortuitous Timing: The University of Texas sent out invitations over the holidays to a reception honoring Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston. The idea was to toast him for his Texas Grants program (scholarships for students who went to high school in Texas) and other things he's done for higher ed. Then, when the invites were out and the RSVPs were rolling in, Ellis got a new job: chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Second Place honors go to lobbyist/publicist Bill Miller, who added Ellis and his wife to the list of hosts for a reception honoring the new dean of law at the University of Texas at Austin. Like UT itself, Miller made the addition before Ellis became the Senate's King of Money.
• It's more important internally in the Legislature than anywhere else, but for the records: Sen. David Sibley of Waco will chair the Senate GOP Caucus. His Democratic counterpart is Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos of Austin, who was reelected. On the House side, Rep. Ken Marchant of Coppell got a second term, with Harvey Hilderbran of Kerrville as the number two. House Democrats will vote in a few days; Rep. Patricia Gray of Galveston appears to have little opposition for the top job.
We are flabbergasted to report that—with the elections finally over and the new president ready to be sworn in, a new Texas Guv and Lite Guv in place, and the Legislature settling into its work—polling for the 2002 primaries has already started.
While Lt. Gov. Ratliff hasn't definitively said he'll run for a full four-year term in that job, he's signaling strong interest in running. This shouldn't come as any surprise, but he's not alone.
Land Commissioner David Dewhurst has been surveying Texans to find out what they think of him, of Ratliff, and of Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander. We haven't seen the poll itself—Dewhurst's folks acknowledge that it is theirs, but won't share details of either questions or answers. Several reports came this way, however, and apparently the pollsters ask straight-up name identification questions, then ask about characteristics of candidates, such as "Would you support a successful businessman over a career politician?"
Republican political hacks say Dewhurst is also in the early stages of assembling a team to run a campaign for Lite Guv. Officially, he's not yet running for anything: He's just an innocent ol' land commissioner doing a full day's work for the taxpayers of this fair state.
If Dewhurst runs, as we've noted, former Sen. Jerry Patterson, a Republican, wants to run for land commissioner. And Rep. Kenn George, R-Dallas, has expressed great interest in being the next comptroller (and has the help of a couple of the people who helped the current comptroller get elected). Earlier rumors had George also considering land, but he's telling Patterson—Patterson tells us—that he only has eyes for the comptroller job. George has previously told us that he's not considering a challenge to Rylander.
Flotsam and Jetsam
Random notes from an interview with Gov. Perry: If you were in doubt, he says he will definitely run for a full term... He doubts redistricting maps will come to a veto and says it would be out of line for the Senate to mess with House plans or vice-versa... Attorney General John Cornyn's lawsuit against Exxon Corp. drew some fire from tort reformers who apparently didn't want him to sue, and from Exxon, which castigated the AG for not calling before he filed suit. The lawyers didn't want to tip their hand, and point out that the issue—Exxon allegedly pumped oil out from under state highway right of way without paying for it—has been knocking around state government for seven years or more. By the way, there is no statute of limitations on that lawsuit, and the amounts in question aren't settled... The Association of Electric Companies of Texas commissioned a study by economist Ray Perryman that says deregulation in Texas isn't on the same track as California. The utilities don't plan to tinker with the Texas plan and would like to calm fears that the West Coast problems might spread. That's being passed along to lawmakers.
Political People and Their Moves (Eastern Migration Section)
President-elect George W. Bush continues to pluck talent out of Austin and other Texas cities. To wit: Margaret La Montagne, his education policy wiz, will be an assistant to the president for domestic policy... Bush's attorney, Harriet Miers, will be assistant to the president and staff secretary. She is co-managing partner of Locke Liddell & Sapp. Bush put Miers in the hot seat at the Texas Lottery Commission, and she steered that agency through two directors and a contract flap without getting any political mud on the Guv... Dan Bartlett, who was on the governor's state policy staff, will be an assistant to top advisor Karen Hughes... Scott McClelland, who worked on the campaign (and whose mom is Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, will be deputy press secretary... Brian Montgomery, who worked at a couple of state agencies after helping on Bush's 1994 campaign, will be director of advance, setting up events for the new administration... Laura Bush is taking Andrea Ball as chief of staff, repeating the role she had in Austin. The First Lady also hired Anne Heilingenstein, who was on her staff in Austin, to be her director of projects.
Political People and Their Moves
The missing plume of smoke at the podium when the House began the new legislative session is attributable to Sharon Carter, the new House parliamentarian. She replaces the chain-smokin' Bob Kelly, who held the post for years. Carter, who started as a part-timer in the House in 1982, has been assistant parliamentarian since 1989... Transition notes, local version: Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff named Denise Davis as his general counsel. She had been lawyering at the Texas Judicial Council. He tapped Mike Morrisey, who was a budget wonk for former Lite Guvs Bob Bullock and Rick Perry, as his budget director. Patricia Hicks, who has worked for Ratliff since 1996, will be his research director, and Leah Erard, with Ratliff since 1990, will be his legislative policy director... Shirley Green is moving over to the attorney general's office as deputy director of communications. Check out her resume, which includes tours as deputy press secretary to then Vice President George H. W. Bush, a communications gig at NASA, back to Pennsylvania Avenue as a deputy assistant to former President Bush, and four years in the Texas governor's office working for that other Bush guy... Austin attorney Jill Warren, defeated by Democrat Ann Kitchen in a race for a seat in the Texas House, left the Silicon Valley law firm of Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison to become a special assistant to Attorney General John Cornyn. She's an intellectual property, business law and appellate specialist... Rep. Dianne White Delisi, R-Temple, was elected chairman of Women in Government, a national roundtable group of legislators. That group will be having a policy forum in San Antonio next month... David Weeks is starting a new partnership with lobbyist Buddy Jones and spinmeister Bill Miller, but says the new operation won't include his current corporate or political clients. Weeks, who does advertising production and placement, will handle new business through Hillco Media Southwest, but says he'll keep his current list of clients in his own firm. That list includes U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Gov. Perry, among others. Suzanne Hoffman Erickson will be president of the new firm... Eric Glenn scooted over to Humana in time for the session, leaving a hole at the Texas Association of Business and Chambers of Commerce. That hole was filled by Spencer Chambers, who had been the clerk of the House Administration Committee. Rep. Tony Goolsby, R-Dallas, who chairs that committee, is looking for help... Ross Fischer, general counsel to Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, has been appointed Kendall County Attorney at the tender age of 27. Hilderbran hired Josh Saegert, a former briefing attorney at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, to replace him... Appointments: Gov. Perry nominated Houston attorney George C. Hanks to the 157th Judicial District Court. Hanks, Perry's first judicial appointee, replaces David Medina, who resigned.
Quotes of the Week
Senate Finance Chairman Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, rolling out his first state budget: "Clearly, we have more problems than we have money."
Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau on George W. Bush's presidency: "It took his brother, his father, his father's friends, the Florida secretary of state, and the Supreme Court to pull it off. His entire life gives fresh meaning to the phrase 'assisted living'."
Marshall Wittmann of the Hudson Institute, quoted in the Washington Post on the president-elect's way of talking about what people are made of: "The heart will be the favorite organ of the Bush Administration. That's to distinguish it from the favorite organ of the Clinton Administration."
Union official Brian Olsen, on how seven Texas inmates managed to escape from prison: "Mistakes are made, but be that as it may, I am still under the belief that lack of staffing is at the root of the problem. Someone has to take some responsibility, and I think it's at the Capitol."
Gov. Rick Perry on whether prison guards are to blame: "They have a difficult job. They have a dangerous job... by and large, the people who serve in the prisons are very capable."
Gun show operator David Cook, on plans by some municipalities to ask the Legislature for permission to ban gun shows in public buildings: "They're not going to get it through. We have such a giant lobby down there, and nationally, that they're just spitting in the wind."
Texas Weekly: Volume 17, Issue 27, 15 January 2001. Ross Ramsey, Editor. George Phenix, Publisher. Copyright 2001 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.