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Mass Preoccupation

When Rep. Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock, went to the front microphone in the House to talk about redistricting numbers the other day, you could have heard a pin drop. The chairman of the Redistricting Committee had nothing dramatic to say; he was keeping members up to date on the U.S. Census Bureau's plan to deliver numbers any day. He said it'd take several days to load the data into the computers so that the political cartographers can get to work. He finished; everyone exhaled.

When Rep. Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock, went to the front microphone in the House to talk about redistricting numbers the other day, you could have heard a pin drop. The chairman of the Redistricting Committee had nothing dramatic to say; he was keeping members up to date on the U.S. Census Bureau's plan to deliver numbers any day. He said it'd take several days to load the data into the computers so that the political cartographers can get to work. He finished; everyone exhaled.

Once the numbers get here, political revelations will come in waves.

First, legislators want to know where roughly 500,000 Texans are living. The Census folks have already said there are 20.9 million people in Texas, and that's about half a million more than anyone expected. Until the detailed numbers are in hand, nobody knows where those extra 500,000 people actually live. For a little perspective on this, congressional districts will have average populations of 651,619 after redistricting. State Senate districts will have 672,639 (the first time those have been bigger than congressional districts), and state House districts will have 139,012 people. Half a million people is the equivalent of three House districts.

With those numbers in hand, everyone will see once and for all which political districts are short of population, which ones are overcrowded, and which parts of the state will likely gain and lose clout when the new lines are drawn. At the statehouse level, lawmakers will be looking for regional trends in that first wave of numbers. How many seats really and truly will move from rural areas to urban or suburban areas, from West Texas to the south or east, and from the cities to the burbs? It will also provide most of the information that will ultimately decide where two new congressional districts will be added. Contenders include the suburbs to the north of Dallas-Fort Worth, those to the north of Austin and into Central Texas, the burbs around Houston, and the high-growth areas in South Texas.

While politicos pore over those figures, the redistricting wizards will be loading up the detailed information that is used for the finer details of map-drawing. Block-by-block information from the 2000 Census should be up and running within a week or so after the feds release the Texas data. Once that information is available through to members on computers, the fighting can commence. As we went to press late Thursday, the Census Bureau had Texas on the list of states that were supposed to get their information during the week of March 5, but it hadn't yet arrived.

Getting the Musicians on the Same Sheet of Music

Gov. Rick Perry called together some of the state and national players who want Republicans to take control of the statehouse and the congressional delegation in this round of Texas redistricting, told them to run in the same direction and stay out of each other's faces, and told them that political consultant Ted Delisi would coordinate their efforts.

Among the participants: state Party officials, the Associated Republicans of Texas, the chairmen of the House and Senate Republican caucuses and folks representing some of the other groups involved in redistricting on the GOP side. Not in the meeting, notably, were the Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Redistricting Committees, the aforementioned Rep. Jones and Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio. Also on the absent list, though they'll be playing soon enough: Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, Attorney General John Cornyn, Land Commissioner David Dewhurst and Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander. With Laney, a Democrat, those four Republicans make up the Legislative Redistricting Board that will draw the lines if senators and representatives can't come to agreement.

Building a Treasury and Rallying Allies

Perry's machinations have the potential to draw a bunch of loose strings together.

ART is in charge of raising redistricting money (more on that further on) for the coordinated effort, the Texas GOP is charged with keeping the grassroots moving together; everybody has a job. That cuts down on dissent. Perry has got a letter on the street asking supporters to gather together on March 24; some Republicans think he'll take that opportunity to push some of the high-dollar folks in the GOP to choose between him and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

She's been making noises for weeks about running for governor if he stumbles, and one way he can punch a hole in that idea is to ask for commitments right away and try to shut her out. That plays right into redistricting, because it would free Perry from conflicting demands from opposing sets of Republican elders. Without Hutchison's candidacy as a hanging threat, Perry would be free to follow his own counsel. Hutchison, on the other hand, could keep her options open either by forming an exploratory committee in the next couple of weeks, or by drawing a line in the sand by describing a minimally acceptable redistricting plan and challenging Perry to match or better it. That might sound lucid and it might sound delusional, but some of the wiser folks in the GOP are thinking about just those strategies.

ART's fundraising letter went out late last month and says bluntly that it would be cheaper to raise and spend $2.5 million on redistricting now than to spend $50 million to try to win Republican control on a legislative map drawn by Democrats. One line you hear a lot from Republicans is that the Legislative Redistricting Board is controlled by their side and will be able to fix any wrongs done by the Lege, in particular by the House, which is controlled by Democrats. The letter by Houstonians William McMinn and Robert McNair takes issue with that. They write that the courts will look at the whole process and conclude, "The battle is very much up for grabs." (Don't forget it's a fundraising letter, and that fear sells better than solace.)

Of course there is a new name and a new acronym to remember: The Redistricting Education Partnership is what the Republicans are calling their coordinated effort. It includes ten organizations, has Delisi as executive director and lists Washington attorney Ben Ginsberg as counsel. Ginsberg was recently on TV a lot; he was one of the Bush/Cheney campaign's recount lawyers.

You Can't Come Home Again (Maybe)

Sen. Ken Armbrister, D-Victoria, got some ink here and elsewhere a few weeks ago by filing a bill that would make it illegal to turn a federal political campaign account into a state account. That's detrimental to members of the U.S. House and Senate who, for one reason or another, would rather serve in Austin than in Washington, D.C. The present case involves the junior senator from Texas, who has shown some interest in giving up being one of 100 senators for a chance at becoming the state's third female governor. Armbrister's bill is sitting in committee, while the companion version filed quietly a few days later by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, has legs on it. Thompson's bill was passed unabridged by the Elections Committee. That's not necessarily any indication that it's going all the way, but hey: It's motion.

Hutchison, in case you haven't heard it by now, isn't not running for governor. She said something to a Washington reporter from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, who took it to mean she'd given up dreams of coming back to Austin. The headline was firmer than the story below it: "Hutchison says she isn't going to run for governor." The top quote in the piece had her saying something she's been saying, more or less, all along: "I'm not thinking about it." The capper, in hindsight, was her last remark to the reporter: "Every time I say something, it gets worse. So I'm not going to say anything." The Hotline, a daily publication for hard-core (national) political junkies, featured the story prominently, putting this headline second only to the story about Dick Cheney's heart attack: "Kay Bails." Within a couple of hours, Hutchison's folks had the word out: She hasn't changed her position on the governor's race. And that position? She hasn't ruled it out.

A Pile of Cash, Assuming it's Usable

Sen. Hutchison's latest report to the Federal Election Commission listed her cash on hand at an impressive $4.6 million. That was raised, remember, in chunks of $1,000 or less, and ranked her fourth among all federal candidates in that financial category, behind Al Gore ($12.8 million), George W. Bush ($7.3 million) and Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama ($5.3 million).

Gov. Perry, the incumbent Republican, ended the year with $8.3 million on hand, which has always been enough money to scare opponents into other races or even other lines of work. He raised his money under state law, which has no donor limits.

If Hutchison can convert, she would also be free to ask contributors to add to what they gave to her federal campaign account. If she can't convert, she could always refund their money and ask them to contribute to the state fund, but there's always the chance that the money won't return.

One other thing, which we bring up only because a creative political financier could probably make something of it: Thompson's bill (like Armbrister's) prevents candidates from moving money from their own federal account to a state account. It does not prevent federal candidates from giving to other state races, as they are sometimes wont to do. Last year's battle for the Third District seat in the Texas Senate, for instance, saw federal candidates contributing on both sides. Anyway, the restriction would only prevent someone like Hutchison from moving money directly from one account to the other. Indirect moves and heaping contributions to other candidates wouldn't be affected.

Will They or Won't They? Only the Lawyers Know for Sure

They've been told in no uncertain terms that lawmakers would frown on them for suing, but don't be surprised if some of the state's property-rich school districts show up at the courthouse before the end of the month. They said earlier this year they were considering a challenge of the state's school financing formulas; as more districts get close to the state's $1.50 cap on property tax rates, they say, that cap functions more and more like a state property tax. State property taxes are unconstitutional in Texas, and so the cap and the school finance formulas that surround it are unconstitutional, they'll say.

Two other components to watch: Some of the school districts that were initially thinking about taking part in a suit have decided not to, in part to avoid legislative ire and in part because they want to see what happens when lawmakers undertake an autopsy/reanimation of the school finance laws later this year (after the legislative session is over). Second, there has apparently been some conversation between the rich districts and some of the property-poor districts, exploring the possibility of joining up on at least some parts of the litigation.

They might agree that the current system stinks, but in the past, there has always been a point in the argument where the wealthy districts and the poor districts just disagree: The poor districts have argued that the state's public school system is unfair because it affords some kids a better (more expensive) education than others; the wealthy districts have argued that it's unfair, in part, because the advantages of a parents' success can't be passed along to their children, but are instead pulled away to help educate kids elsewhere in the state. One side's Equal Access is the other side's Share the Wealth.

Lawyers for the both sets of districts are still talking to their clients about whether and when to move ahead. Some school boards got cold feet when lawmakers reacted angrily to threats of going to court. Some want to wait and see if they can work through all of this when lawmakers convene an interim committee next summer. Legislative leaders have said they want that interim panel to look into every corner of school finance, to take it apart and figure out a better way to do things. That's the same formula that was used on state taxes when then-Gov. Bush proposed cuts, and some politicos think it's a dangerous thing to try in a decennial, post-redistricting election cycle.

A Politically Hazardous Money Pot

The last few years have been good to the state's big funds, which is why lawmakers decided two years ago to tap into some of the gains of the trust fund for universities. It's why they're in the process of making—or trying to make—a parallel change in the trust fund for public schools. And it's why some budgeteers think there might be a way to get health insurance for teachers and perhaps some temporary help for public employees out of the gains in their respective retirement funds.

Don't go to the mattresses yet: They're not talking about raiding the funds for other purposes, and they're not at all confident they'll end up doing anything at all. But they're thinking and cranking some numbers and trying to figure out whether a couple of ideas are worth pursuing.

You'll hear more of this as the House and Senate knock around ways to build a health insurance program for public school employees. And we'll pass the caution to you that was given to us: They're exploring the possibilities and might end up doing absolutely nothing at all.

Enough with the caveats—here's what's going on in the laboratory.

The Teacher Retirement System has much more money than it needs to do the job it's supposed to do. In fact, there is a move afoot to raise the multiplier for retired teachers from 2.2 to 2.25. That's the number that goes into the formula used to figure benefits: Years of service X 2.25 X the average of a teacher's highest three annual salaries. Say a teacher retired after 30 years with an average salary of $36,000 for purposes of the equation. The upgrade in the multiplier would raise that teacher's monthly annuity check by $45. Lawmakers wanted to do that two years ago but couldn't find the money.

Now there's enough money, perhaps, to raise the multiplier and still have some funds left over to help with teacher insurance. A piece of that is of particular interest at TRS, because the health care plan for public education retirees is going broke. The crisis driving the teacher health insurance issue, if there is one, is the problem with TRS-Care. Costs of claims in that program are outrunning its revenue at a three-to-one rate. A legislative report published a few months ago says the program will cost the state an additional $389.8 million in the next budget. That's the amount of red ink the program would generate if the state didn't step in to help. If no changes are made, another $676.1 million in supplemental money would be needed in the following two-year budget.

The rationale for getting into the TRS surplus is to use money already set aside for retired teachers on their own insurance program. If nothing is done, the bailouts for TRS-Care could occupy the same spot in the state budget in a couple of years that Medicaid occupies today. On a longer-term basis, it makes sense for the state to put retired and active teachers into the same insurance pool, since it's easier to hold costs in check for a larger group.

On a spreadsheet, it makes a decent amount of sense, and it takes some of the load off the rest of the budget when lawmakers are looking for ways to pay for a health insurance program that would cover both current and retired public school employees.

On a political ledger, it's a harder sell. Retirees (present and future) don't want to give up any money that might be coming to them in retirement payments. Some of them would argue that the surplus in the fund should be distributed to the beneficiaries in the form of retirement benefits.

What legislators are kicking around would cover part of that—the surplus would go to the beneficiaries—but it would use some of it for insurance instead of retirement annuities. That's one of the pieces the budgeteers are still massaging, and fear of a bad reaction that could kill even the thought of using retirement money for health insurance.

Somewhere in another committee room, lawmakers are looking at a similar surplus at the Employee Retirement System and fiddling with ways to use some of that to offset costs of a pay raise for state employees. One idea that's been floated would let state employees skip their payments to the retirement system for some period, in effect giving them a bonus without cutting into their retirement accounts. The problem is that the scheme might require voter approval, and the return of the retirement deduction at the end of the bonus period would look like a pay cut. They're still tinkering.

Elections, Campaign Finance, Flotsam & Jetsam

Primary elections would be moved to the second Saturday in May under legislation filed by Rep. Debra Danburg, D-Houston, and the runoffs for those elections would be held on the second Saturday in June. The later elections were boosted by an endorsement from House Speaker Pete Laney at the beginning of the session, and the Saturday voting has long been talked about, especially among Democrats who think that a) It would lure more working people to the voting booths, and b) that those folks would vote with Democrats. Some Republicans have warmed to the idea on the theory that Saturday elections would make voting easier for time-crunched suburbanites who tend to vote with the GOP. Danburg's bill could also affect city elections in some parts of the state by moving a uniform election date that's now in May back to the fourth Saturday in March.

• Campaign finance will make it to the floor the Senate next week and to the floor of the House the week after that. The issue died for lack of breathing room at the end of the session two years ago and looks to be on a fast track. Both versions regulate out-of-state political action committees, require contributors to list employer and occupation, require more reporting from candidates in the final days of the campaign and restrict candidates' ability to repay personal loans made to their campaigns. Some of the folks who've been pushing for campaign reforms prefer the House version on most points, saying it's a tougher bill, but almost all expect the two versions to go to conference committee for final hammering after the houses are through with them. Here's a zinger from the House version: Candidates can't accept contributions or spend money during the time that their report is past deadline; if they were late, they would have to suspend everything until the report was filed.

• Put former Comptroller John Sharp into the Lite Guv's race. That's no surprise, since he's been talking about the race all over the state, but he sent a letter to supporters telling them he plans to run. Since he's not in office, Sharp is free to raise money during the legislative session. In a letter to a small group of supporters, he suggests early money will help keep other Democrats out of the race.

• Most of the state leadership has publicly downgraded the chances for voucher legislation this session, cooling the ardor of pro-voucher groups and individuals. But there are a couple of bills floating around out there that have the anti-voucher people stirred. Rep. Ron Wilson, D-Houston, has a repeater from last year that would bring vouchers to the state's four largest school districts (in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, El Paso, Fort Worth and Austin). And Rep. Mike Krusee filed a voucher bill that apparently would dovetail with a federal proposal from the Bush Administration. That would require Texas school districts to join a voucher program if any of their students get federal vouchers. The state vouchers would match the amounts on the federal vouchers under his proposal.

• Expect teacher health insurance ideas to get a lot of play in the next week or so. The House committee formed around that subject alone will begin talking about various plans and ideas, and Senate Democrats filed a $2.65 billion proposal that would allow small property tax cuts in many parts of the state. That bill, by Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, would pay for the insurance by tapping capital gains in the Permanent School Fund, using $800 million in surplus education aid and redirecting money from the Teacher Retirement System. School districts would pay the remainder.

• Rep. Rob Junell, D-San Angelo, filed a bill that would require Texas Railroad Commissioners to resign if they wanted to run for other political offices and would bar them from taking contributions from people who work for companies they regulate. That came in too late to bounce off of the commissioners, but it would hit Michael Williams, the only African-American statewide officeholder in Texas, and Tony Garza, the only Hispanic currently holding statewide office.

• A critical word got lost in an item last week on lawsuit liabilities in nursing homes. We said exemplary damages don't apply in cases involving injuries to disabled or elderly persons. We meant to say that limits on exemplary damages don't apply in those cases. Limits would be added to the law under legislation file by Rep. John Davis, R-Houston.

Political People and Their Moves

A political firm with Texas roots has started up a policy shop in Austin that will focus on issues and policy without representing candidates of either the Republican or Democratic stripe. Strategy.gov (which looks like an Internet handle, but isn't one) is a creation of Strother-Duffy-Strother and has signed up some business with credit unions and AT&T. The firm hired Buddy Gill, who worked here years ago and then went to Washington, D.C., for a few years, and Brande Yarnell, who had been working for David Gold, a Democratic direct mail consultant. But, and we are repeating this about 16 fewer times than they did, the firm will not do political races...

Texas Exodus, cont.: William "Will" Farish III, a Houston investor and Bush family friend, got the president's nomination to be Ambassador to Britain. He's already connected: He and his wife hosted Queen Elizabeth during her visits here...

The photographs of all of the state's previous lieutenant governors hang in the big hallway behind the Senate chamber. The last one, if you haven't been back there, is a double-take in a frame. A picture of Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, is on the wall in line behind Rick Perry, who is now, of course, the governor. Ellis, then the senate's President pro tempore, had the job after Perry moved up and before the Senate elected Bill Ratliff to preside. His picture is up, he says, to honor his time on the job: "Seven days, seven hours, and 31 minutes"... A consortium of government auditing and accounting folks is giving one of its top awards to Texas State Auditor Larry Alwin. The group, called the Joint Financial Management Improvement Program, presents its awards next week...

Indicted: Juanita Yvette Lozano, on charges of stealing a debate tape belonging to the George W. Bush campaign, sending it to an advisor to Al Gore during the presidential campaign, then lying to investigators and grand jurors about the episode... Deaths: Henry Wade, who for 36 years was Dallas County's district attorney, of complications from Parkinson's Disease. He was 86.

Quotes of the Week

Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, talking about Border problems in a manner for which he later apologized: "We've got illegal immigrants clogging our hospitals, our emergency rooms, our schools, our courts and we're not even allowed under federal law to ask them whether they're citizens. We have to serve them with medical care just like you and me, and the federal government under the last administration has done precious little to stop that massive flow of immigrants from the other side of the Border. And Texas is the one that is getting the brunt of the problem."

Hidalgo County Judge Eloy Pulido, telling the San Antonio Express-News that Ratliff was merely repeating what he'd heard from local officials on the Border: "I commend him for it. This is something we live with down here."

Tela Mange of the Texas Department of Public Safety, on the flood of trucks coming over the Texas-Mexico Border: "We only inspect the ones that look really, really bad. Like, 'Oh, my God, how's that gonna stay together?' We're only taking the worst of the worst."

Mike Gummere of the Honey Creek [Ind.] fire department, on the deluge of reporters expected to hit the state for the scheduled May execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh: "It's a sad testimonial to the American public that this is all we have better to do, send 1,500 media people to come watch this. I think this whole thing is pathetic."

Senate Education Committee Chairman Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, on teacher health insurance: "I wish we could fund the whole enchilada, but I am quite concerned we will not be able to do that. However, I am open to creative ideas."

Joe Allbaugh, during his swearing-in as the new head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, giving the American people the proper description for what President George W. Bush referred to as his "stylish" hairdo: "By the way, this is a flat-top, not a buzz-cut."


Texas Weekly: Volume 17, Issue 35, 12 March 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 biz@texasweekly.com. For news, email ramsey@texasweekly.com, or call (512) 288-6598.


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