Remember the burning map that used to open the TV show Bonanza? That might as well have been the plans for new political districts in Texas. At our deadline, it was impossible to say with any hope of certitude whether legislative redistricting plans were alive or dead. They weren't moving, but they had time to move if lawmakers found a compromise, and if they hurried.
Congressional redistricting was safer to call. With the standard proviso that nothing is dead until the session is over, the hurdles for congressional redistricting legislation appeared too high, and the desire to work on congressional plans appeared too low. Talk was centered on special sessions and what various courts might do. And only one legislative move on congressional districts was likely: Rep. Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock, said he would draw a map and try to get a committee vote on it.
The chance of such a map getting through the House Calendars Committee and to the full House is slim. But it at least has a spark of life in it; since no other plan got a vote from a legislative committee in either chamber, a Jones map has more (albeit teensy) weight than anything else on its way to court. It would give the courts a starting place if they'd rather not start with their own blank sheet of paper for drawing a map of 32 congressional districts for Texas.
A special session is possible. As we've said, the Legislative Redistricting Board gets to draw statehouse lines if lawmakers don't do it themselves. The House passed its own plans only to get them stuck in the Senate. And the Senate was, at our deadline, unable to move its plans. But congressional (and State Board of Education) maps will be drawn either in special session or by the courts.
The governor says he hasn't made up his mind about whether to call a session. It's like what Darrell Royal said about passing when he was coach at the University of Texas: Three things can happen and two of them are bad. If Rick Perry calls a session, he could get a map he likes (good), a map he hates (bad), or a locked up Legislature that produces no map at all (ugly).
How to Build a Stalemate
A special session under current conditions would fail. The Senate is suffering from vapor lock over its own plans, and doesn't appear any more likely to compromise on the congressional setup than on its own. In fact, partisans from either side could freeze Senate action if the game goes into extra innings; the prospect of politicians using tax money to hold a special session in the middle of a hot summer isn't an enticing prospect, particularly if there's no reason to expect results.
Usually, there is a "blocker bill" on the Senate's calendar. It generally deals with a meaningless subject, but it takes two-thirds of the Senate to hop over that and consider other business. That's the Senate's famous two-thirds rule, and it increases the power of minority blocs in the 31-member body.
When a governor calls a special session, he or she issues a "call," listing the subject that will be considered during the session. If there is only one subject, the Senate can arrange to have a calendar that contains no blocker bill. That effectively does away with the two-thirds rule. Republicans in the Texas Senate currently have a one-vote advantage, so they would benefit. But Democrats have more than enough members to deny the Senate a quorum. They could bail–just like the Killer Bees did 22 years ago–and the Senate wouldn't be able to do anything until and unless they returned.
It's possible to put a blocker bill on the calendar even when there is only one subject on the governor's "call." The bottom line: If they don't have a deal beforehand, either side could block action in the Senate–probably without provoking voter ire. Why call a special under those circumstances?
Without a Special Session, Who Wins?
Now comes word that Texas Republicans in Congress and a good number of elected Republicans in Austin would just as soon take their chances in the courts as in the Texas Legislature. They and their allies believe the Texas map could and might be appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and that that panel would vote with the Republicans. Some folks on both sides of the partisan line were betting that Republicans would see the Legislature as their best forum to draw the kind of map some congressional Republicans were hoping for–one that offsets losses the party expects in redistricting in other states, notably California. That was based on uncertainties over which judges might get the case and how they might wield their political crayons.
Another angle is that Texas Democrats got caught sleeping: They could probably have passed a map more to their liking out of both of the legislative redistricting committees and perhaps even off the floor of the Texas House, where Democrats have a slight majority. That would give them better standing in court, even if the judges turn out to be as favorable to Republicans as some GOPs seem to think. But the clock has expired on a floor vote in the House, and such a vote in the Senate would require several senators to perform political acrobatics.
The new lines on redistricting maps are already getting attention from politicos who want to be in the legislative freshman class in 2003. Former Comal County Judge Carter Casteel, a Republican attorney and former schoolteacher, says she plans to run for the Texas House next year. Her current representative, Ed Kuempel, R-Seguin, probably won't represent Comal County after this cycle, because he lives next door and the populations have bloomed in the Austin-San Antonio corridor. That would give Casteel a new incumbent. More to the point, it will force an incumbent House member–possibly Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville–to run in Comal County, where Casteel is better known that anyone, save Kuempel, in the Texas House. For the record, Casteel says she's not after anyone in particular, but will run against whoever gets the district. There's one person she won't run against–Kuempel–but the numbers make it almost certain that he won't represent the county.
Down to the Wire
Two controversial executive branch agencies remained on the chopping block going into the last week of the session and you're welcome to your own guess as to how many parts will fall off.
The Texas Department of Economic Development would get carved up under either the plan approved by the House or the plan proposed in the Senate. Briefly, both would wipe out the current members of the agency's board. Depending on the negotiations between the House and Senate, the result will either be a new board or an agency director who answers directly to the governor.
The Smart Jobs program might stay and might go, but that probably won't matter right away. The program's horrific accounting, which led to a highly critical auditor's report in late 1999, had legislators wanting to take the money out of Smart Jobs. But the economy might do that for them. The program gets its money from unused funds in the state's Unemployment Insurance program. With the increase in layoffs around the state, chances for an overflow that would fund Smart Jobs isn't likely. The Senate would put Smart Jobs in close orbit to the governor's office; the House doesn't give the governor control. The House passed its version; the Senate will look at it before Sine Die.
The General Services Commission, the Legislature's other designated teething ring this session, is also on the bubble. The Senate kicked this one to the House, and the House is looking at a version that would rename the agency and send some big pieces of it elsewhere in the executive branch. They're talking about taking away telephones and real estate and leaving the agency in charge of buying supplies and equipment for other government agencies.
Another 18 Months of Hate Crime Talk
Gov. Rick Perry surprised some of his supporters–and some of his detractors–by deciding to sign the hate crimes bill he had attempted to derail a few days earlier. He said at the signing that he still has reservations with a law that increases penalties for crimes against particular categories of victims. But he said the state needs a hate crimes law, and it's got his name at the bottom of it. Perry's other options were to do nothing, letting the law take effect without his signature, or to veto it outright.
Signing the legislation, which was pushed for several sessions by Sen. Rodney Ellis and Rep. Senfronia Thompson, both D-Houston, probably solves as many problems as it creates for the Guv. It takes an issue away from potential Democratic opponents Tony Sanchez Jr. and Marty Akins.
But it creates some problems for Perry, too. Most Republican legislators voted against the law. There's already a conservative central Texas radio host trying to get Republican protesters together to heckle Perry at public appearances there. The Texas Christian Coalition and the Texas Eagle Forum both said Perry had let them down. And the GOP's website (www.texasgop.org), while praising and hazing other legislative and gubernatorial actions, remained completely silent on hate crimes.
But Perry probably won't have problems from his right. The only internal threat he's encountered–a rumor that U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison would run–was pushed aside when she said she won't. And she wouldn't have been running as a conservative alternative to Perry anyhow. Perry's signature took the edge off of attacks that were being directed his way. And in the final analysis, voters won't remember that he resisted the idea of a group-specific hate crimes law before knuckling under and signing it. The signing by a Republican governor does create some anxieties for down-ballot Republicans. They'll have to decide for themselves whether to disparage the law or the guy at the top of the ticket. Every statewide candidate has to answer some kind of uncomfortable "Do you agree with the governor?" question during a campaign. Hate crimes will be one of the vehicles for that query in the 2002 primary and general elections.
The first place to look for that will be in the lieutenant governor's race, particularly if both Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff and Land Commissioner David Dewhurst enter that contest. Without Perry's signature to consider, Dewhurst could easily shoot at Ratliff in a Republican primary, using hate crimes as the wedge issue. Ratliff voted for it, see, and Dewhurst's simplest play is to paint the semi-incumbent as too liberal for Republican primary voters. Now he can't do that without sideswiping the governor. It might not matter to him, but it's worth considering.
While we're in Lite Guv territory, add a name to the list of possible candidates: Texas Supreme Court Justice Greg Abbott. The rationale behind that draft (and we can't tell whether it's driven by supporters, financiers or consultants) is that mainstream Republicans are uncomfortable with both Dewhurst, who's unproven in a major, high-profile political race, and Ratliff, who has that handicap and doesn't have the conservative lineage that's usually required in a GOP primary.
Abbott, a Houston attorney and district court judge who joined the state's high court in 1996, has said he would like to run for attorney general, but not against incumbent AG John Cornyn. Now, he's being touted as a Lite Guv alternative. Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander has also been mentioned as a candidate, but has been signaling supporters that she'll remain right where she is now.
• GOP Chairwoman Susan Weddington is no fan of Republican legislators who broke ranks and voted for the House redistricting plan. Now she's campaigning against them. Weddington appeared at a Longview barbecue and rally and took the opportunity to blast Rep. Tommy Merritt, the hometown Republican. She said "my job is to kind of look after the entire family" and admitted being uncomfortable, but she told them the party would help them if they wanted a change.
• The House and Senate generally stop to recognize high state officials who visit, but they make exceptions. The House stopped recently when former Gov. Ann Richards came over, but kept on with the business at hand when Gov. Rick Perry made his last couple of visits.
Two Inches Thick and Full of Money
The three big budget busters–Medicaid, state employee pay and school employee health insurance–all made it through the budget conferences more or less intact. They're part of the $111 billion spending plan that went to the printers in anticipation of a vote from the full Legislature.
Only the first of the two state employee pay raises in the proposed budget was funded, but chances are reasonably good for the second. Budgeteers gave employees the greater of $100 a month or a 4 percent increase in pay that will take effect at the beginning of the fiscal year in September. A second-year pay raise–the greater of 3 percent or $65 a month–works only if Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander says the money is available. The budget agreed to by House and Senate negotiators also changed the formulas for longevity pay for state workers. Instead of getting a bump in pay for every five years served, they would get a boost for every three years served.
The state will continue to pay health insurance premiums for state employees and 50 percent of the premiums for employees' dependents. That's in addition to raises that were put in the budget for prison guards and caseworkers in high turnover social services agencies: the Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, and the Department of Protective and Regulatory Services. The prison guards' unions were instrumental in their raises. The general raise for the rest of the state employees came after one group, the Texas Public Employees Association, decided to hire lobbyists at the beginning of the session instead of mounting the usual press release and demonstration campaign.
School employee health insurance was still the subject of House and Senate talks as we went to press. But the budgeteers went ahead and set aside $1.3 billion for whatever the conferees decide to do. A fix for Teacher Retirement System health care, funded with equity in the TRS retirement accounts, appeared to be an early victim of that negotiation. The negotiators decided to do away with that part of the plan, leaving retirees and their trust fund alone. The Senate plan would have required two constitutional amendments for funding; the decision to take out the retirees excises one of those amendments. The House plan wouldn't require any constitutional changes.
Whatever they decide to do, the budgeteers think the money is available, at least for the first two years. Some legislators have expressed concern about the costs in future years, and the principal complaint against the House plan is that it might prove more expensive.
With ten days to go, Medicaid was in the shakiest condition of the three big-ticket items, but that had more to do with legislative jockeying on measures that would make it easier for eligible Texans to join and remain in the program. The more expensive option would eliminate face-to-face interviews and assets tests and would allow customers in the Medicaid program to remain in it for 12 months at a time without having to renew. That would make Medicaid for children work just like the Children's' Health Insurance Program, or CHIP. The least expensive option would make assets tests simpler and would simplify forms, but would retain the face-to-face interviews and current renewal rules for people in the program. The budgeteers set aside about $122 million for Medicaid, which would finance something in between the two extremes.
• The gubernatorial appointment machine is shut down until after the session ends. The Senate nominations committee held what was supposed to be its last meeting, and the governor's office has stopped sending over names. People who get appointed when the Legislature is in session have to get confirmed during that same session to hold onto their new positions. To avoid accidental busts, the governor and the Senate shut things down a couple of weeks early.
• Texans for Public Justice knocked out a new report ridiculing 66 elected officials for taking the "Luddite" exception to the campaign filing laws. Those officials told the Texas Ethics Commission either that they don't use computers to track campaign money or that they raise less than $20,000 a year. The list includes two senators, 34 House members, 20 state judges and 9 of the 15 members of the State Board of Education. If you have a computer, you can look at the report at www.tpj.org.
Bed Taxes and Medicaid Simplification
This part's true: Gov. Rick Perry has been saying since early in the game that he would not be in favor of tax increases. This part is a matter of dispute: Perry and his folks kept up with negotiations on a nursing home bill without sending any negative signals. That led senators to think the governor was on board with a plan for a $5.25 bed tax that would fund improvements in quality in Medicaid-financed nursing homes. Those negotiations produced a deal that included what's now become known as the "Granny tax"–that's the bed fee–a cap on the amounts that liability insurers would have to pay when nursing homes are sued, and a deal that said new state funding would have to go into staffing and patient services, and not into the owner's bank accounts. The Senate had a testy session and then voted that out. Once they were all on the record, Perry said he would veto the bill.
Sponsors of the bill, led by Sen. Mike Moncrief, D-Fort Worth, say Perry will bear the blame if the bill dies and any nursing homes close. Perry and others say there's enough money in the budget even without the tax and say the elderly patients can't spare the $1,900 a year in new taxes that would probably be passed to each of them by the nursing homes.
Only one group of homes that was being asked to pay the tax would not have received a direct benefit. Private pay homes, which make up a profitable but relatively small part of the nursing home business, don't have Medicaid patients. The bed tax would be used to attract federal funds, which could then be used only on Medicaid patients, so those homes wouldn't receive direct benefits. Some of them signed off on the tax deal anyway. Among their reasons: The tax would likely be passed on to their customers, and the overall deal would make liability insurance more available for nursing home operators and might even control the premium costs. Side note: The Texas Health Care Association complained that the Senate bill would require homes to carry liability insurance. That, they contend, would take away all the good done by bringing in new money with a bed tax.
The House hasn't voted on the bill yet, but has time to pass it without the tax and then to set up quick talks with Senate and House sponsors and budgeteers to figure a way to keep the nursing homes open and the governor's veto pen in its holster.
If that's not a big enough hairball for you, lookee here: Some conspiracy buffs have linked the nursing home bed tax to Medicaid simplification. They argue that the bed tax frees up enough money in the budget to cover the costs of Medicaid simplification, and that opening the Medicaid rolls by removing enrollment barriers will force the Mother of All Tax Bills two years from now. That's likely to be the first Republican Texas Legislature in modern history, and their suspicion is that Medicaid, along with pay and benefit boosts for school and state employees, was designed by scheming Democrats to put GOP lawmakers in a vise two years from now. Fear of future tax bills is being used as an argument against the nursing home bill and everything with which it is supposedly linked.
Changing the Texas Way of Death
Death penalty reforms have long been a cause for Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, Rep. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and others, but the public's attention was elsewhere. Unflattering national attention during the presidential elections last year got public attention, and politicos follow the public. Now, with Republican support, many of the reforms are close to complete. Gov. Perry already signed the DNA bill that makes it easier for inmates and their attorneys to use genetic evidence to overturn bogus murder convictions. The indigent defense bill, which sets quality standards for court-appointed defense attorneys and sets up some funding to pay for those advocates, appears to be in good condition, having passed both houses on its way to a sympathetic conference committee. Perry initially avoided the subject of capital punishment for the mentally retarded, saying he didn't want to interfere with the Johnny Paul Penry case that was on its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But that bill is meandering in his direction, pending negotiations between the House and the Senate. One bill that got an early nod from the governor–one creating a new penalty of life without parole in capital murder cases–got through the Senate before dying in the House.
Political People and Their Moves
Here's one that'll make your head hurt. The Texas Legislature is currently meeting for the 77th time. According to his own family, George Christian, the U.S. Marine turned reporter turned gubernatorial aide turned presidential press secretary turned lobbyist and fixer, has made it through 25 of those sessions. He was commended for a lifetime of achievement by the Legislature the other day. We're still wiping our brows in awed disbelief... Elba Garcia, a Dallas dentist, finally won her city council race by nearly 100 votes, knocking out incumbent Steve Salazar in a race where the initial three-vote margin of victory expanded in a recount of the ballots. Salazar is a former law partner of Rep. Domingo Garcia, D-Dallas, husband of the apparent winner. Another former Garcia law partner, Roberto Alonzo, was in the Texas House until Garcia challenged him and won. But that wasn't Garcia's first crack at state government or the first weird overlap of political families in that part of Dallas. He lost a bitterly contested race back in the 1980s to Rep. Steve Wolens, also D, also Dallas. Wolens' wife, Laura Miller, is now on the city council, where she'll now be a colleague, like her husband in Austin, to a member of the Garcia family... Not yet announced, but widely talked about: Former Rep. Tom Schieffer, a George W. Bush buddy who was managing partner of the Texas Rangers while Bush was governor, is the president's apparent choice for ambassador to Australia... Press corps and relatives: USA Today is closing its Austin bureau, putting bureau chief Guillermo Garcia, on the streets. Garcia worked at the defunct Dallas Times Herald, at the Austin American-Statesman, and at the Public Utilities Commission before this gig... Michael Levy, the publisher and founder of Texas Monthly, has acquired a new piece of real estate. When his famously prolific emailing comes to its end, he'll be buried on Republic Hill, Section 3, Row V, Number 25. That puts Levy (and a future spouse, if there is one) on the same row of the state cemetery as Dallas County Judge Lee Jackson and Rep. Tom Craddick of Midland. Those strange and interesting burial plot listings are online at www.cemetery.state.tx.us... Mike Viesca, who had been in the press shop at the Texas Department of Transportation, moves to the AG's office, where he'll be a deputy press secretary for Attorney General John Cornyn... Deaths: Martin Dies Jr., former chief justice of the 9th Court of Appeals in Beaumont, a state senator from East Texas for eight years, and a former Texas Secretary of State (under Gov. Preston Smith), after a brief illness. He was 79.
Quotes of the Week
Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, on whether Gov. Rick Perry should call a special session to handle congressional redistricting matters: "If I were in his shoes, I might try to figure out what the prospect of success of a special session would be. It's not a very good idea to call a special session if you can't achieve or accomplish something. It's an expensive exercise."
Gov. Perry, quoted by the San Antonio Express-News on whether he's been lobbied by legislators on what to do with a redistricting bill: "No, no. My information is that I may not see any bill."
Rice University political scientist Bob Stein, quoted in the Houston Chronicle on why election reforms are petering out around the U.S.: "Not only is there no money for it, there's no political incentive to do it. Incumbent politicians don't want new voters to show up, because people who don't vote don't vote for incumbents."
Rep. Sylvester Turner, D- Houston, talking about a bill that would raise the allowable interest rates on small loans: "This is an ugly child which I would put a bag on and not look at it."
Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington, asked whether Gov. Perry had any problems with Harris' proposal of a $5 fee to finance trauma care centers: "If he was going to veto it, I'd hope he'd be man enough to tell me about it." Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who asked the original question, in reply: "I'm not speechless, but I'm pretty close."
Erin Rogers of the Texas office of the Sierra Club, on legislation that would allow federal low-level radioactive waste to be dumped in West Texas in addition to waste from Texas and two other states: "This is the kind of public policy you’d expect if we elected Homer Simpson governor."
Texas Weekly: Volume 17, Issue 45, 21 May 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.
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