If you've been thinking nothing much was going on during this session of the Legislature, you've got loads of company. But take a look at the calendar and get ready for a very fast month.
There are about six weeks left in the regular session. When you account for the procedural restrictions that limit activity at the end of the session, there are four solid working weeks available.
The budget is headed for a conference committee that will settle about $2 billion in differences between the House's lowball budget and the Senate's more expensive proposal. Still to be plugged in are final numbers for the state's Medicaid spending, for a school employee health insurance program and for a state employee pay raise, the three big-ticket items on the Legislature's wish list.
As usual, the Senate has been kicking out bills at a steady clip and the House has been working most of the big items slowly through committees and only now is bringing them to the floor. In the week ahead, the House will pick up the pace, voting on campaign finance reforms that include stricter reporting requirements for candidates; exempting mentally retarded murderers from the death penalty; debating the hate crimes bill that stalled in the Senate two years ago; and cracking open Sunset bills for big agencies like the Railroad Commission and the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. On the Senate side, the potentials on the calendar include judicial selection (including non-partisan retention elections for judges), controversial revisions in investments of the trust fund for public schools, clean air legislation, a set of proposals that would level health care costs for women and men, and some more Sunset bills, including the Department of Parks & Wildlife.
While they're busy chewing on all of those issues that could easily become fodder during the next elections, redistricting has been in the oven long enough and is now ready to serve. Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, produced a working map to start the conversations and arguments on the East End of the Capitol. On the House side, Rep. Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock, planned to put out a working map at the same time. But the House Redistricting chairman's plans were sideswiped; he wanted urban delegations to work out their maps among themselves and turn them over in time to be incorporated into a statewide map. But those delegations didn't produce.
Lawmakers from El Paso and Tarrant counties turned in plans. But Republicans in Bexar County haven't signed off on the plan submitted by that county's Democrats. Harris County lawmakers have a Republican plan and a Democratic plan that are different but possibly reconcilable. Travis County's delegation has two plans–one from each party.
And in Dallas County, there are at least four maps floating around with absolutely nothing like a broad consensus within the delegation. Republicans have a plan, and Democrats apparently have three. The nub: Rep. Domingo Garcia, D-Dallas, and some others think the county should have two more Hispanic seats in the Texas House. Those would come at the expense, probably, of Anglo Democrats and, in some maps, of Black Democrats. The latter causes some legal problems for the cartographers, but the idea of cutting into at least one Black seat is out there for argument. All of the aforementioned Democrats are incumbents and therein are the makings of a feud.
Jones told everybody to turn in whatever they've got, and he's hammering together a working plan for all to cuss. That should be ready within the week, and both chambers are loosely aiming at having redistricting bills on the floor in the first week of May. The House will catch up–by tradition, the House and Senate vote on each other's plans at exactly the same instant.
Easier for Republicans?
The spin du jour from the GOP's redistricting organization is that this is hard, what with the Voting Rights Act and the Texas constitution and all of the complexities those two chunks of law present. But things are even tougher for the Democrats, the Republican story goes, because they also have more incumbents to protect, especially those in areas of the state that haven't kept up with Texas' overall growth. They say that's why the House maps weren't ready as promised before the Easter break.
Rep. Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock, remains confident that he can assemble a map that satisfies a comfortable majority in the House and passes the legal tests and that, he says, is all he's trying to do. He does have some whittling in front of him. It looks almost certain that Harris County will get 24 House seats instead of the 25 it has now. Some of the maps turned in by regional delegations don't pass legal muster, generally because they cut too many county lines and a Texas legislative map is supposed to minimize such cuts (there are two county cuts in current law, and it's possible to draw a new map with only one cut; more than that could be easily challenged).
Unlike the Senate map unveiled this week by Sen. Jeff Wentworth, who heads that chamber's redistricting panel, Jones' map will almost certainly pit some incumbents against incumbents. Hopeful estimates we've heard from the Democrats run as low as five, meaning ten members would be pitted against each other in five races. Estimates from others on both sides of the partisan fence run the pairing numbers up to a dozen or more races. Whatever the number, Jones and Wentworth both have a piñata problem: The first maps out of the chute will surely start the discussions and will surely be shot full of holes within no time at all.
Maybe Better, Maybe Worse, Certainly Different
Wentworth's map cuts the number of chopped-up counties to ten from 33 in the current map. Most of the confetti is in large urban counties that are bigger than one Senate district. One, Smith County, still has three senators in the new map, but Wentworth said that was his reading of local sentiment. The map he kicked out would give a district to each current incumbent in the Senate: There are no pairs on the map, so there are no automatically dead senators. There are, however, a number of endangered senators if you believe the partisan numbers that came with Wentworth's drawings.
On Wentworth's map, 20 of the 31 Senate seats voted with Republican statewide officials in the 1998 and 2000 elections and two more split the elections, voting with the Democrats in 1998 and with the Republicans in 2000. The downside to that statistic is that George W. Bush was on both ballots. In the first case, he had a weak opponent in Democrat Garry Mauro, and in the second race, he was a native son candidate with unpopular opposition in the form of Al Gore. Bush ran up the numbers and Republicans say that makes the statewide averages suspect.
Wentworth also ran numbers that show how each senator's current district voted in the 2000 elections and how the proposed district would vote. The Republicans still don't like the raw numbers, but the trends are interesting anyhow. Six districts currently held by Republicans would see an increase in the number of Democrats (though none could reasonably be called a Democratic district). Eight districts now held by Democrats would see an increase in Republicans. And several Democrats would have to push stones uphill to win if the 2000 numbers are repeated. Several of those Democrats are looking at numbers that ought to make them nervous: Ken Armbrister of Victoria, David Bernsen of Beaumont, David Cain of Dallas, Mike Moncrief of Fort Worth, John Whitmire of Houston, and Judith Zaffirini of Laredo. Statewide Republicans dominated their proposed districts in 2000.
RELATED: Wentworth and Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, both put wings on proposals to do the next redistricting–ten years from now–in a special session. Both bills got out of their respective committees and are headed for the full Senate and House. There are some differences, like the length of the special legislative sessions, but both bills would require a constitutional amendment and both would prevent lawmakers from messing with legislative districts during regular sessions.
Better Than Another Apple
Start by saying that every school employee in the state of Texas will get $1,000 to spend on insurance or take home as pay and you've probably already begun stacking the deck in favor of a House insurance plan unveiled before the long weekend. Rep. Paul Sadler, D-Henderson, would put the smallest districts in the state into a group insurance plan and would allow the larger districts to come in several years from now. Those small districts each have fewer than 500 employees, but make up about 80 percent of the school districts in the state in terms of numbers. His scheme require the districts to pay $150 a month for each employee's insurance (that would be phased in over a six-year period to ease the pain to districts that either don't offer insurance now or don't spend that much on it). And it would have the state kicking in at whatever level lawmakers can stomach; Sadler gave them a menu of options ranging from $50 to $100 per month per school employee. Teachers and other employees would pay some, too, with the $1,000-a-year from the state easing the way. Dependants would not be covered unless the employees paid the ticket. And school employees could opt out of the insurance and use their $1,000 for other insurance or whatever they please.
That plan would cost a minimum of $1.07 billion and a maximum of $1.4 billion, depending on how much of the insurance premiums the state wants to pay. Sadler invited members to tinker and tear apart the plan; one of the first things to go will be a provision that keeps districts that pay a lot for insurance at their current levels. School districts paying more than $150 per employee for insurance want to come down to that level, if that's the standard for their peers.
Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, is working on a plan that would create five levels of insurance for school employees. Like Sadler, he would require the school district and the employee to pay some of the freight. Unlike Sadler, Bivins laid out his source of money: He'd pay for his plan, at least in part, by tapping into gains made on investments in the state's public education trust fund. The Senate's budgeteers have left about $1 billion to fund school health insurance; on the House side, Sadler is hoping to have around $1.5 billion, but hasn't said where that will come from.
The commentary from the teacher groups has been negative, but not harshly so. Several groups have said they'd like to see dependent coverage; the Legislature doesn't seem to want to spend that much money. Also, some fear that their school districts will offer less insurance under a state plan than they offer now. Sadler and Bivins are still talking, and both want statewide plans. They'll hold hearings on the proposals while the budget folk settle their differences.
More Reform Than the Governor Wanted
Gov. Rick Perry says he doesn't like the idea of a moratorium on executions. But he won't have any official say over the proposal that unexpectedly spurted out of the Senate's Criminal Justice panel. It's in the form of a voter referendum, and those don't require the approval of the governor, so Perry will have the bully pulpit but no veto stamp. The moratorium sponsored by Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, would halt all of the state's executions until September 2003.
That's not to say this is a slam dunk: It takes two-thirds of the Legislature to put an issue on the ballot for voters to consider, and Shapleigh's moratorium squeaked through committee on a 4-3 party-line vote that bodes ill for its chances before the Republican majority in the full Senate. A separate bill, which would require the governor's approval if it gets through the Legislature, would set up a commission to study the death penalty process in Texas during the moratorium.
Perry has said that he doesn't think any innocent people have been convicted and executed in Texas. But unlike his predecessor, he has backed several changes to the way the state administers that punishment. He signed the so-called DNA bill into law, making it possible for convicted killers to obtain DNA tests that could prove their innocence. And he says he supports proposals raising the standards for lawyers who represent indigent defendants in death penalty cases and creating a new penalty of life without parole in capital murder cases. Those last two bills are moving; the full Senate approved indigent defense, and the life without parole bill is in line for a place on the House calendar.
Populists Trade Horses, Too
Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, says flatly that he did not swap a vote on redistricting for a favorable vote on his own legislation that would force utilities to pay consumers a pile of money. And while we're on the subject, let it be known that he resents the question.
The re-regulation bill that passed two years ago lets electric utilities charge customers to cover expected losses on power plants that are no longer worth what the utilities invested in them. The idea was that competition would encourage companies to build lower-cost plants and that the utilities would get stuck with higher cost generators and no way to pay for them. Thus, the legislation lets them charge customers for those so-called "stranded costs."
But those costs are upside-down in the current market. The generating plants are worth more than the utilities invested, and Turner's legislation says the deal should work the other way: The utilities should pay the overage to their customers. He says that could amount to a total of $4.9 billion being repaid to customers of certain utilities over a couple of years. Opponents, who thought they had this bottled up in committee, say it's too early to tell what the value of the plants will be and say Turner's bill could destabilize the industry at a critical point in its evolution into a competitive business.
In spite of that resistance, Turner got the bill out of the House State Affairs Committee with a voting bloc that unexpectedly included Reps. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, David Counts, D-Knox City, and Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock. Within very little time at all, the halls of the Pink Building were full of rumors that Turner and Craddick had swapped a redistricting vote for an anti-utility vote. But Turner says he and Craddick have never talked about redistricting and says he got the Republican's vote by simply asking for it. He added, for what it's worth, that what goes around comes around, and that he appreciated Craddick's vote. As for Jones and Counts, you'll have to rewind back a few weeks to that bill that would exempt a big chunk of West Texas from the new utility regulations. Turner is supporting that legislation, and the two West Texans voted with him on his.
Rep. Ron Wilson asked House Speaker Pete Laney to let him use the desk usually occupied by Rep. Paul Hilbert, R-Spring, (whose battle with cancer has kept him home for most of the session) so Wilson won't have to sit with Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio. Why's that? Because Wilson added an amendment to a piece of legislation that was then tentatively approved by the House. On final reading the next day, often a formality, Wilson was out of town. Corte, his deskmate, stripped Wilson's amendment off of the bill. That triggered a couple of moves. Wilson asked for a change in the seating arrangements. Corte blamed a couple of lobbyists who had nothing to do with the whole mess. They patched everything up, with two exceptions: Wilson's shopping for a new desk buddy. And it put wind beneath the wings of a Wilson bill that makes it a Class C misdemeanor for a lobbyist to represent clients whose interests conflict. After the mix-up with Corte and the accusations about lobsters that went back and forth, that legislation has been added to the House calendar.
Do It Yourself School Finance
After another gaggle of school districts jumped into the lawsuit over the state's school finance system, the author of those formulas said he'd call on the grumblers to help fix things. Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff and House Speaker Pete Laney have promised to pull together a group of lawmakers and others to do a boots-to-bandanas overhaul of the state's school funding system. And Ratliff says now that he wants to make sure that the panel includes some of the people who are suing the state. If nothing else, they'll have to blame themselves for whatever goes wrong with the next solution.
Got a Legal Problem? Fix the Law.
Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown, R-Lake Jackson, filed a late bill that would allow Gov. Rick Perry to move records from the lieutenant governor's office to the governor's office. That's a move that took place four months ago, and there's nothing in current law, Brown says, that would prevent Perry from moving anything from one office to the other. So why have a law written exclusively to cover cases involving "a lieutenant governor who vacates the office of lieutenant governor to complete the unexpired term of the governor." Brown says he doesn't know of anything in particular that would have precipitated the legislation and says basically that it's just a bit of housekeeping.
Perry aides don't say exactly what problem they're trying to fix but admit they asked for the legislation. On his way out, George W. Bush moved a mess of records out of the governor's office, and Perry did the same when he moved to the center offices in the Capitol. The new bill creates an exemption that would give belated legal permission for taking the records.
• Coming soon to a legislative body near you: Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, won committee approval for legislation that would prohibit the cloning of human beings in Texas. The proposed penalties are fierce: Up to $10 million in fines and up to 99 years in prison.
• The House Insurance Committee approved something called the "Texas Contraceptive Equity Act" by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston. It would put women's contraceptives on equal standing with men's contraceptives and helpers like Viagra when it comes to insurance coverage. Fun fact: Viagra is apparently covered under more insurance policies than contraceptives. The bill also adds other contraceptives to the list that now usually includes only birth control pills.
Flotsam & Jetsam
• The House's $109.7 billion version of the next state budget is $2 billion smaller than the Senate version that passed a couple of weeks ago, and you already know some of the big differences. The Senate put in four times as much money for employee pay raises and almost twice as much for Medicaid. The upper chamber also would spend $250 million more on higher education than the House. Neither bill includes money for school employee health insurance, and only the Senate bill includes that provision that would let the Legislative Budget Board tap the state's Rainy Day fund if a crisis should arise while the rest of the Legislature is out of town. That could be included in a final bill, but right now, it's only in the Senate's version. That's off to conference, and that could have a twist to it this year. Instead of each chamber sending five members of their committees to the haggling table, they might each send seven members. That idea itself is still in the haggling stages.
• The Texas Supreme Court has a new website that lets you search the text of the court's rulings. It also has a free notification system that'll flag you, by email, whenever the court staff enters filings or new opinions into the system. It also has a section that'll tell you stuff you used to have to beg out of the busy court clerks, such as parties to a case, case numbers, the names of the attorneys and the history of the case in the courts. It's at www.supreme.courts.state.tx.us.
• For Sale: A 750-acre ranch outside of Marble Falls. The livestock has been sold off. The whitetail deer were given to a friend of the owner. There are two houses included in the deal, and the name of the spread is the Cimarron Ranch. Oh, and if you pay the $9 million to $10 million the owners want, you might be helping to fund the next Democratic gubernatorial primary. The ranch belongs to Marty Akins, the former trial lawyer and UT quarterback who's running for governor. The spin from his aides is that the boss is too busy running for office to operate a ranch.
• And now, a Public Service Announcement: You might want to dump your cell phone for any number of reasons, but if it's just worn out or you have an old one lying around, you can dump it in one of the special bins around the Capitol and it'll get recycled for use by a domestic violence victim. That nationwide program has a gang of corporate sponsors; the folks bringing it here are Anita Perry, Sally Ratliff and Nelda Laney, the wives of the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker.
Political People and Their Moves
Suddenly retired: State District Judge George Hansard, after news reports that he was allowing prosecutors to help select defense attorneys for the poor. Those defenders were supposed to be appointed by the judge himself. After stories about that practice, Hansard wrote the governor a letter announcing his immediate resignation...
This is the busy season for appointments, what with all of the odd-year expirations and the Senate in town to run people through confirmation. Gov. Perry named Rudy Arredondo of Lubbock, Richard O'Connor of Dallas and Karen Mitchell Frank of Port Aransas to the board of the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation. Arredondo, a professor at Texas Tech Health Sciences Center, is being reappointed. The other two are new. O'Connor is a retired businessman; Frank is a pediatric nurse practitioner and the owner of a Dallas art gallery... Perry named Mission Mayor Noberto Salinas to the board of the state's Department of Housing and Community Development... The Guv tapped C. Robert Black of Horseshoe Bay and David Lopez of Austin and reappointed J. Robert Brown of El Paso to the Texas Tech Board of Regents. Black is a retired oil company executive and Brown is a beer distributor. Lopez is the Texas president for Southwestern Bell Telephone and heads their lobbying and regulatory operations... Finally, Perry named three new members to the Board of Regents at Texas Woman's University: Therese Bartholomew Bevers of Houston, Kenneth Ingram of Denton, and Annie Williams of Dallas. Bevers is a professor at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Ingram is a banker, and Williams started, and runs, the Dallas Black Dance Theatre... President Bush nabbed another one: Richard Nedelkoff, who has been working in the Texas governor's criminal justice office, is off to Washington, D.C., to be Director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance...
Press corps moves: Anna Tinsley, who was working in the Austin Bureau of Scripps Howard, a news chain that runs several papers in Texas, moves to her hometown to work for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram... Deaths: Former Hidalgo County Judge and state Rep. Renato Cuellar, a Weslaco Democrat, from complications started by diabetes. He was 73.
Quotes of the Week
Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, on whether he had cut redistricting deals with legislative leaders on either side of the aisle: "I am not on anybody's plantation. I got set free a long time ago."
Maria Elena Morales, a Democratic activist in Laredo, telling the San Antonio Express-News about a standard line of attack against male politicians there: "It goes to the macho image of men we have here. If a man's not married by the age of 30, he's gay. If he doesn't go out with every woman he meets, he's gay. And once he's married, he's expected to fool around. If he doesn't, he's gay."
Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Carrollton, in an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on the GOP's future recruiting needs: "To me, any opportunity for Republicans to be in the majority in this House lies in the next few years. If we are not successful in matriculating Hispanics and Blacks and minorities to run in Republican seats, then that majority will last maybe a decade."
Gov. Rick Perry, during a demonstration of a gizmo that sends a holographic image of a person to a remote location: "I don't suppose we're ever going to be able to transport barbecue over this."
Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, on the problem of trying to write a school health insurance plan without a bottomless bank account: "It seems like our choices are either to have a heart and lose control of the program, or not have a heart and maintain control of it."
Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, after the Senate approved legislation that sets standards for lawyers appointed to represent poor people: "As much as I'd like to say the state doesn't make mistakes, there's always the possibility. I'm convinced there's people in jail today because their lawyers ought to be in jail."
Texas Weekly: Volume 17, Issue 40, 16 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. For news, email email@example.com, or call (512) 288-6598.