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Easter Bonnets or Hard Hats?

Lawmakers will get ready for the Easter break by kicking the budget out of the House and lining up for copies of the redistricting "working" maps they've been promised by the two chairmen in charge of political cartography. Even without redistricting, the remaining seven weeks of the session will be kinda hairy. Still on the list of things to do: The House-Senate conference on the budget, teacher health insurance, Medicaid funding, campaign finance reform, major water and air bills, a number of Sunset bills affecting major agencies, a handful of controversial criminal justice bills, transportation bills and any number of things we've left off. There's a stack of stuff to do and not much time to do it. But the focus isn't on that stuff: It's on the maps.

Lawmakers will get ready for the Easter break by kicking the budget out of the House and lining up for copies of the redistricting "working" maps they've been promised by the two chairmen in charge of political cartography. Even without redistricting, the remaining seven weeks of the session will be kinda hairy. Still on the list of things to do: The House-Senate conference on the budget, teacher health insurance, Medicaid funding, campaign finance reform, major water and air bills, a number of Sunset bills affecting major agencies, a handful of controversial criminal justice bills, transportation bills and any number of things we've left off. There's a stack of stuff to do and not much time to do it. But the focus isn't on that stuff: It's on the maps.

There is already a Senate plan making the rounds has the chairman's name on it, and he confesses to ordering it up, but Sen. Jeff Wentworth says that map is meaningless and was done more for a speaking prop than anything else. It got everyone worked up and stammering, but he's the first to say it does some terrifically wacky stuff. F'rinstance: It somehow manages to give Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, a district that can fairly be called rural. Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, ended up with 57 counties in his district.

Wentworth says the map was done by feeding some rules into the state's computer program—rules like "Give every member a district and don't pair them," "Protect minority districts." The computer spat out eight to ten maps and the results were about what you would expect if you drew a political map with no political input. Nobody liked it. Nobody was expected to like it. But some took it seriously at first.

Serious maps will be public in a week. Wentworth and his House counterpart, Rep. Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock, have told legislators to hand in their wish lists and desires by noon Monday, April 9. The two chairmen will then give members "working plans" to take home and worry about during the Easter weekend. They'll start hearings after the break and hope to have plans ready for floor votes in the House and in the Senate by the beginning of May. That explains why, if you were walking the halls of the Capitol last week, you saw so many legislators and staff members hovering over hot, steaming personal computers. They were working on maps in anticipation of the deadline.

That'll start the real business of redistricting. Members will start working deals almost immediately, and in fact, many already have. Examples? Rep. Zeb Zbranek, D-Winnie, is openly fearful that he's about to be living in the same legislative district with Alan Ritter, D-Nederland. Tom Uher, D-Bay City, doesn't particularly want to go into GOP territory for the extra people his district requires.

Now that the size of the workload is apparent to everyone, Wentworth says all but three senators have agreed to support his proposal to remove the next redistricting—ten years from now—out of the regular session of the Legislature. Instead, lawmakers would gather for a special session in 2011 and take no more than 60 days for the decennial squabble. If lawmakers failed to agree on new maps by the end of that special session, it would all handed to the five-member Legislative Redistricting Board.

Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, who remains a senator, hasn't signed on and won't because of his position. Sens. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, and Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, are the only two senators who haven't signed up, Wentworth says, and neither has said 'No'. That proposal could be out of committee before Easter. As for the other House, Wentworth says he hasn't polled but one member: He says House Speaker Pete Laney, while not endorsing the idea, seemed amenable to it.

Redistricting Tidbits

Here's an oddment: Although they are holding hearings on the subject, few in the Legislature seem to be devoting much time to the drawing of congressional maps. They don't have to complete those maps during the regular session, as they do with legislative maps, and their attention is focussed on their own business first. One rumor going around has state lawmakers telling their federal cousins that a congressional map could and should be done in a special session sometime this summer.

And in the same breath, the story goes, they are telling the folks from Washington, D.C., to undo a one-year-old law that requires state and some local candidates to file campaign reports with the Internal Revenue Service. That law, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, supposedly was intended only for members of Congress. But nobody has moved to fix it, and state lawmakers bring it up almost every time they talk to the folks whose maps they will soon be drawing.

And another: Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, could be in a "protected" district. His Senate district is one of ten where minorities make up the majority of voters, and there is a case to be made that it's a minority opportunity district (a district that could be won by a minority candidate) that ought to be tinkered with gently. Of the ten majority-minority districts in the Senate, there are three—Whitmire's and Sen. Rodney Ellis' in Houston, and Sen. Royce West's in Dallas—where no single ethnic group is in the majority. Ellis' numbers are close: 49 percent of the residents are Black and 24 percent are Hispanic. In West's district, Hispanics account for 41 percent and Blacks for 40 percent. And in Whitmire's district, 37 percent of the residents are Latino and 29 percent are Black. Whitmire is an Anglo; Ellis and West are African-Americans. One other Anglo, Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, was elected from a protected district: 78 percent of the residents in his area are Hispanic. And one minority, Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, represents a district that's 54 percent Anglo.

Department of Funky Statistics

Republicans use a statistic called Optimal Republican Voting Strength to figure out where they should concentrate their efforts in legislative elections. They stir together some past election results, make some assumptions (good candidate, well-run race) and come up with a number that shows how strong or weak the GOP's chances in a given area might be. The originators of these numbers say they aren't intended to predict the outcomes of races, but also brag of a fairly high correlation between the ORVS and the actual results. Some political consultants take it further, using the ORVS numbers to show prospective candidates and clients why they should jump into legislative races. But ORVS and other such statistics make only so-so crystal balls. ORVS numbers are right about three times out of four. Make some minor adjustments and they're right about five times in six.

If you go purely by the numbers—something that the number wizards will tell you is a dumb, dumb idea—you get some weird results. To wit: According to the 2000 ORVS charts, the GOP should be able to win 18 of the current 30 Texas seats in Congress, 19 of the 31 seats in the Texas Senate, and 89 of the 150 seats in the Texas House. In fact, the GOP has managed to get 13 in Congress, 16 in the Senate and 72 in the House. One gear-head we respect contends that Republicans actually over-perform; he says the current maps should give Republicans only 70 seats in the House and not 72. A Democrat argues that the GOP should be able to win 82 under this map.

You'll hear some Republicans tussling over this during the redistricting fight. Political consultant Todd Smith (not to be confused with Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless) is circulating a paper attacking the ORVS numbers as fundamentally flawed. But Democrats use similar numbers to target races—they're only flawed if they're used to predict the future. The actual problems for Republicans have been twofold. The Democrats have had the advantage, in most cases, of incumbency. Democrats like House Speaker Pete Laney and Appropriations Chairman Rob Junell hold some of the districts that get the highest GOP rankings on the ORVS spreadsheets. In competitive races over the last decade, such as in districts left open by retirements of incumbents, Democrats have done a better job at picking candidates and running their races than the Republicans have.

The Next School Finance Crisis Begins

After weeks of foreshadowing, there is now a lawsuit challenging the state's school finance system on the grounds that the state is taking too much money from wealthier districts on behalf of poor ones.

And the point of attack is just as expected: The four Dallas County taxpayers who filed the suit say the state's $1.50 cap on school property taxes amounts to a statewide property tax. Districts aren't allowed to tax more than that for maintenance and operations, but as costs rise, more and more of them charge the maximum amount. If everyone is charging the same rate, and the rate is set by the state, the reasoning goes, then the state has effectively set everyone's tax rate. That's unconstitutional.

The taxpayers in the suit are suing their own school districts—Dallas ISD and Highland Park ISD—but not to take a slap at the districts. Their lawyers say that's just the way you file these things and that the litigants aren't trying to hurt their own school systems. Highland Park already ships local property money to the state; the suit claims the district will send almost 60 percent of what it raises locally to the state for distribution to other school districts. The Dallas ISD doesn't send local money to the state, but is on the verge of having to do so. They filed suit in state district court in Dallas County.

Lawmakers knew this was coming in some form or another, and moved earlier in the session to take some of the sizzle out of it. Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, who authored the current system, and House Speaker Pete Laney said they will appoint an interim committee after the legislative session to take apart the school finance system and make recommendations to the next Legislature. Even with the lawsuit being filed, it's unlikely the Legislature will have to make revisions right now.

Snoop, Snoop

The state is investigating Tony Sanchez Jr.'s investigators, but it turns out that nobody filed a complaint to prompt that. The Texas Commission on Private Security acted on its own after reading the first story in the Houston Chronicle. They are now investigating Claude "Sonny" Hildreth to see whether he and his wife, Margie Hildreth, claimed to be law enforcement folks when they were asking state senators and others about Secretary of State Henry Cuellar. The Hildreths, you'll remember, were hired by Sanchez, through attorney Tony Canales, to investigate an anonymous letter that was sent to Sanchez. That letter isn't public, but supposedly lists various things that Sanchez would hear about himself if he decides to run for governor. They asked nasty questions about Cuellar in the process, creating at stink that led him and others to accuse them of slandering him.

Here's the particular detail that interested state regulators: They want to know if the Hildreths represented themselves as current FBI agents or employees. Both are former FBI ops, and the card Sonny Hildreth was leaving behind when he visited folks identifies him this way: "Retired Special Agent, Federal Bureau of Investigation." Jerry McGlasson, who heads the state agency, says his people are interviewing senators and others who talked with Hildreth, and said it'll be some time before the investigation of the investigators is complete.

Name That Building

Rep. Ron Wilson, D-Houston, found a place for his proposal to make it harder to sell naming rights to public arenas. He doesn't care for the practice, but wouldn't ban it. Instead, he wants voters to have a say in whether counties and cities and other governments can sell the names of the public buildings where professional sports are played. He stuck a provision onto a stadium financing bill; it would apply only to Houston, and because of the timing of the thing, mainly to the Houston Rockets. They don't have a new facility yet, but they're on the way to having one. If Wilson eventually gets his way, Houston will have to have yet another election about a sports facility. But it won't happen on this particular bill; the amendment was stripped before final approval by the House.

Interesting tangent: That arena financing bill, by Rep. Kim Brimer, R-Arlington, would introduce something new and different in Texas politics by making it illegal to deliberately lie or mislead voters in bond elections for arenas. Infractions would be misdemeanors—criminal offenses.

Staff Bloat and Eco Devo

There's a wicked little rumor going around that Gov. Rick Perry has been on a hiring binge, but the numbers don't support the gossip. Perry's office had 199 employees at the beginning of April. His predecessor had 198 employees as of April 1, 1999, according to the comptroller's office. Now there's an old trick where governors would hire people but put them on the payroll of the secretary of state, so we checked that, too. Henry Cuellar's office has 237 employees. Two years ago, those same exact numbers of people were working in that office.

That leads nicely to this: Some lawmakers suggested last year that a lot of what is now the Texas Department of Economic Development could and should be folded into the governor's office. That's the office companies call when they need help—witness the ongoing Boeing deal—and it makes a certain amount of sense for the governor to be the face on the state's marketing efforts. Then-Gov. George W. Bush was cool to the idea, at least in part because he wanted to hold the size of the office at or below the number that were employed by his predecessor, former Gov. Ann Richards. Another suggestion at about that time would have moved TDED into the secretary of state's office, thus keeping folks close to the governor but off of his payroll.

Perry has said in the past that he has no such reservations. He didn't run for office blasting anybody for bloated staffing, as Bush did, and isn't worried about adding to his duties or his employee roster. Put this one on the list as an idea that has come back to life. TDED is on the sunset list this year and lawmakers already want to move some of its duties to a new rural affairs agency. The governor's staff is also encouraging them to look at TDED's tourism functions, which some would like to see combined with tourism tentacles in other agencies, like transportation and parks and wildlife.

Stuck on the Shoulder

The so-called GARVEE bonds that would use federal highway money to pay off highway borrowing have once again passed the Senate and gone to the House Transportation Committee. Two years ago, the bonds died there, and indications are that the leaders in the lower chamber have about the same opinion of the program that they had back then: Unless something new and completely different crops up, road bonds aren't popular with those folks. GARVEEs are one of two major road bond proposals coming out of the Senate.

The other, cruising under the name "Texas Mobility Fund," went to the House two weeks back. That one would use general revenues to pay off road bonds. It's still borrowing, but money from that kind of fund could be used to build state highways; the GARVEE deal would apply only to interstates, because that's what the feds are interested in, and it's their money. The GARVEE bill that got out of the Senate would not allow bonds to be issued unless there was no effect on the ratio of state to federal projects in Texas. Even so, the mobility fund saw little dissent in the Senate while the GARVEE proposal got through with just one vote more than it needed.

Both have been sent to the panel chaired by Rep. Clyde Alexander, D-Athens. He's the co-author (with Rep. Kip Averitt, R-Waco) of legislation that would stick to a pay-as-you-go philosophy, funding new road construction by adding a nickel to the state's 20-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax. Three-quarters of that money would go to roads ($370-$400 million annually) and the rest would be dedicated to public education.

Alexander has another bill that's received less attention: It would dedicate the education portion of that gasoline tax increase to group health insurance for public school employees.

BOOM VICTIM: Austin's economic turbines are slowing down rapidly, but downtown office rents are still high. And if you're two blocks from the Capitol, with a view of that domed thingee at the end of Congress Avenue, rents can be really high. Just ask the Texas Democratic Party, which has moved out of the above-described space into cheaper digs further from the Capitol.

Panhandling in Washington

Four of the state's legislative leaders took off for Washington, D.C., in the middle of the week to try to get some forbearance and/or some help out of the Department of Health and Human Services. Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, House Speaker Pete Laney, Senate Finance Chairman Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and House Appropriations Chairman Rob Junell, D-San Angelo, think Texas is getting short-changed. Federal formulas, they argue, favor states with fatter Medicaid benefits. Texas has historically spent less on Medicaid and on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) than all but a handful of states; the feds give more of their money to the higher-spending states and the Texans don't think they're getting the federal help they deserve now that the state has increased—or talked about increasing—the size of its program. The four met with HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson; at our deadline, they weren't reporting any solid results from the meetings but said the feds agreed to help.

The Texas quartet also went to a meeting that you would assume, if you didn't know different, had taken place in Austin. They hooked up with the chancellors and other honchos from the state's top colleges for a meeting with U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, to talk about research funding.

Flotsam & Jetsam

It took its sweet time working its way through the legislative snake, but the DNA testing bill has now been signed into law. That is the first and most prominent of a group of criminal justice reforms that Gov. Rick Perry said he would like to see. He declared DNA an emergency issue to get lawmakers moving on it, but there were other bills in that package: Perry said he hoped for legislation shoring up indigent defense and allowing a sentence of life without parole in capital murder cases. Indigent defense is still moving; life without parole appears to be moving, but not quickly.

• The Texodus to the Bush Administration continues: Jeanne Johnson Phillips, the Dallasite who raised money for George W. Bush in his 1994 gubernatorial race and then again in his race for president (and who put together his inauguration ceremonies in Austin and in Washington, D.C.) will be an ambassador unless the U.S. Senate turns down her nomination. Johnson will be U.S. representative to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris. Bush is naming Allan Rutter, the transportation policy wonk in the governor's office, as the administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration. Rutter was a budget analyst for Texas governors in the 1980s before working at the Texas High-Speed Rail Authority. And El Paso Mayor Carlos Ramirez got the nod: He'll serve on the International Boundary and Water Commission for the U.S. and Mexico.

• Testy, testy, testy. Their race is two years behind them, but Land Commissioner David Dewhurst and former state Sen. Jerry Patterson still like to throw elbows at each other. In no particular order: Dewhurst wrote a letter to a veterans group (copying about two dozen others, including Patterson) to blast his 1998 primary opponent for surprising a group with his comments on legislation involving veterans cemeteries. In a letter back (copied to the same folks), Patterson says he wasn't testifying against the bill, but says he's heard that Dewhurst opposes it.

Cap it with a fundraising letter written by four lobbyists on Patterson's behalf that caught the eyes of some Dewhurst supporters. You have to be looking for the slight, but someone found it for us: "Patterson is a great candidate, to boot. Despite being outspent 10 to 1 in 1998, he held his opponent to 51% of the total vote." That opponent would be the current occupant of the top job at the General Land Office. Patterson will likely run again for that office, but only if Dewhurst, as is widely expected, decides to run for lieutenant governor instead of for reelection.

Dealey Herndon, the governor's appointments director, hails from the family that controls the Belo Corp., which owns the Dallas Morning News, TV stations in Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and Houston, and scads of other stuff. She's one of Belo's 15 board members, which means she's well acquainted with one of the governor's recent appointees. Dr. Judith Craven of Houston, named by Perry (after a vetting by the appointments office) to the University of Texas Board of Regents, is a fellow Belo director.

Political People and Their Moves

First Assistant Attorney General Andy Taylor is leaving state government to return to the private sector. Taylor signed on at the beginning with Attorney General John Cornyn, ditching his partnership in the Liddell, Sapp law firm's Houston office. Taylor told Cornyn when he started that he would stick around for two years; when he leaves at the end of the current legislative session, he'll be about six months past that mark. He hasn't announced his destination in the private sector. And Cornyn hasn't named his replacement. Cornyn did announce a couple of other signings, however: Nancy Fuller will be deputy AG for general counsel and administration, and Edna Ramon Butts will be a special assistant AG, working on border and health care issues. Fuller has been running the agency's legislative office. Butts spent several years working at the Texas Department of Insurance; most recently, she's been with the Hughes & Luce law firm... Steve Munday, the long-time executive vice president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, resigned shortly after the trade group elected new officers at their annual convention. TSCRA is looking for a new exec, and says they won't consider inside candidates for that post. Munday was with the group for more than 25 years... Appointments: Gov. Perry named Pierce Miller, Adrian Arriaga and Christina Melton Crain to the Texas Board of Criminal Justice. Miller, a San Angelo banker and businessman, is being reappointed. Arriaga, who's in real estate and economic development in McAllen, and Crain, a Dallas attorney, are both new to the board... Deaths: Madge Keeton, matriarch of a remarkably successful horde of Texans, starting with her two children, Houston attorney Richard Keeton and Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander. Rylander has two sons working in the Bush Administration. Madge Keeton was married to the late Page Keeton, longtime dean of the law school at the University of Texas. She was 89.

Quotes of the Week

President George W. Bush, to former New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra at a White House event for baseball Hall of Famers: "Yogi's been an inspiration to me—not because of his baseball skills, but, of course, for the enduring mark he left on the English language."

San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown at his state's Democratic convention, on the president's syntax: "They elected the symbol of Ebonics to the presidency of this nation. There ain't no brother in Oakland, or anywhere else, that would run the phrase or mix up the words the way this cat does. It raises serious questions about whether he's really white."

John Logan, a University of Albany sociologist, quoted in The Dallas Morning News on minority population shifts in the latest Census: "Since 1980 and again in the last 10 years, we've seen a shift of all minority groups from central cities to suburban neighborhoods. In almost every case, that has been accompanied by increased segregation in suburbia."

Rodolfo de la Garza of the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, in an interview with the Austin American Statesman about Hispanic population growth: "In this country, people count and voters count. From a people perspective, the potential is being realized. From a voter perspective, it is not."

Mayor Pete Alfaro of Baytown, a city represented by four state senators, testifying before state lawmakers who are working on redistricting: "Whatever you do, please don't give us any more senators, if possible. We have enough."

Political consultant Dayton Duncan, on an Iowa proposal to fine candidates who lie during campaigns: "If it was strictly enforced, it would bring in more money than the video lottery."

Democrat John Sharp, who lost the 1998 race for lieutenant governor to Republican Rick Perry, caught speaking at a political roast by The Dallas Morning News: "I do not participate in roasts anymore as the target. I am humble enough. Anytime you are beaten by someone as stupid as I was beaten by, you are humble enough."

Texas Weekly: Volume 17, Issue 39, 9 April 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 For news, email, or call (512) 288-6598.

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