The dramatic peak of the 77th legislative session came several weeks ago, when the House was trying to redistrict itself and the Senate was trying not to self-immolate on the hate crimes bill and its own redistricting maps. The end of the session, by contrast, seems as gentle as a receding tide.
Opportunities for serious head-banging and chest-thumping were ubiquitous during the final week, but the combatants were not inspired to fight. The budget ballooned to $113.8 billion at the last minute without loud screams from shocked conservatives. Health insurance for teachers and other school employees remained in play as the House and Senate negotiated, without any hair-pulling from teacher groups or anyone else. Major air and water bills went to the wire amidst quiet lobbying by everyone from industrials to greens. Bills that would have attracted flocks of cameras and herds of pencils in past years–radioactive waste dumps and same sex marriages–died relatively peaceful last-minute deaths watched only by close family members in the House Calendars Committee.
But the strangely uneventful session is leading up to a watershed election cycle. The 2002 contests have preoccupied Texas politicians since the most prominent member of their club moved to Washington, D.C., last year. With a very few exceptions, Texas politics is suffering from a dramatic shortage of established brand names, that is, names known to most voters, at the state level. Put another way, there are few politicos in state office whose very presence on the ticket makes serious opponents swoon with fear. That lack of giants creates uncertainty about who'll be in office in two years.
And there's that little matter of redistricting. Each of the 181 offices in the state Legislature will be on the ballot next year. Talk to the graybeards and they'll tell you that up to a third of the current lawmakers won't be back. There could be significant turnover throughout state government.
Only one statewide office–land commissioner–is certain to change. The other offices are being defended by incumbents, but David Dewhurst wants to run for lieutenant governor, and from the number of people mentioned as possible candidates to succeed him, you would think he already has the most powerful spot in state government.
Actually, the upper-ballot races have forced a crowd to seek Land. Gov. Rick Perry won't get a serious primary challenge. And with two folks already more or less committed to run–Marty Akins and Tony Sanchez Jr.–other Democrats are looking elsewhere on the ballot. Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff will face Dewhurst in the GOP primary, and maybe Supreme Court Justice Greg Abbott. Democrat John Sharp will make another try for that job, and U.S. Selective Service Administrator Gil Coronado, another Democrat, is weighing it, according to the San Antonio Express-News, so that's crowded. Republicans won't challenge sitting Attorney General John Cornyn or Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, and most Democrats seem unwilling to mount a challenge against either incumbent. Austin Mayor Kirk Watson has been encouraged to run against Cornyn, but hasn't said what he'll do.
If you're a skittish, risk-averse politico, all of those names force you to look further down the ballot and that might even generate interest in a race that usually doesn't get any public attention at all. Look at who's being mentioned as land commission candidates. On the GOP side, it's lobbyist and former Sen. Jerry Patterson and Rep. Kenn George of Dallas. The list of Democrats includes Texas Freedom Network founder Cecile Richards, whose mom is former Gov. Ann Richards; Sherry Boyles, former executive director of the Texas Democratic Party; Molly Beth Malcolm, the state party's chairman; Ann Utley, a businesswoman and Richards appointee; and Watson.
Rylander Unannounces for Lite Guv
Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander wasted a headline opportunity with her double announcement that (a) she had no more money to give the state's budgeteers, and (b) that she'll be running for reelection to her current post in spite of long-running speculation, fueled by her allies and subordinates, that she will be a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor next year. She made the political announcement during the financial press conference, we're told, so that the financial stuff wouldn't appear to be influenced by politics. That last sentence will make sense if you read it slowly.
This is standard fare: Texas comptrollers are accused of having political motives for their numbers whenever the numbers differ from what legislators and other officeholders want and/or expect. They usually ascribe a political motive; in fact, they did that to Rylander two years ago when, at the beginning of the legislative session, she pulled about $800 million off the table. At the end of the same session, she miraculously found about $800 million more than she had predicted would be available. Some of the budgeteers squeaked about it, but she brushed them off and nobody thought much about it after a few weeks had passed. This time, Rylander was here to say that there really, really, really isn't any more money available. No bluff, just fact: For the first time in years and years, the state comptroller didn't have a secret stash of moolah to present to budgeteers during the last few weeks of the session. Rylander said a couple of weeks ago that there wouldn't be new money and that legislative actions could force her to pull back some of the money she had promised earlier.
In fact, she took $18 million–a pittance, but a negative one–out of her revenue estimate after lawmakers ignored a tobacco tax bill she promoted. But her main message was that the state's economic indicators look green around the gills, and that the relatively fat revenue estimate she released almost six months ago wouldn't get any bigger. The budgeteers came out two days later with a $113.8 billion spending plan (as against the $97.7 billion budgeted two years earlier).
The Other Headline Would Have Gone Here
Even without her announcement about not seeking higher office, they would have had a difficult time arguing that Rylander didn't put enough money on the plate and that politics were behind it. Nevertheless, she took the opportunity to pull herself out of a possible GOP primary race against Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff and Land Commissioner David Dewhurst, both of whom remain interested in Ratliff's job. She said she'll run for reelection to the comptroller's job.
The standard rap against Rylander–one that almost got her beat during the 1998 election and that would have been used in 2002–is that she has a history of leaving each elected office she holds to either move up or try to move up. She made a point of saying she has run for reelection to two of the three previous political posts she's held and said this will make it three of four. She didn’t' repeat on Austin school board, but ran two reelection races for Austin mayor and one for Railroad Commissioner. She left that second job for an unsuccessful run for Congress and left the third to become comptroller. That's not the only reason for her to stay put: Some of her supporters think current spending and economic trends will force lawmakers to raise taxes or make painful cuts in two years. They'd rather have her outside of the Pink Building when that happens.
As we went to press, Ratliff was planning an announcement on the last weekend of the session, complete with some of the senators who elected him to succeed Rick Perry and some other endorsements. Before the event was even officially acknowledged, the Texas Association of Business and Chambers of Commerce put out an announcement endorsing Ratliff. That was odd for at least two reasons: They announced it during the legislative session, and they announced it before knowing who else will run for Lite Guv. Ratliff's spinners are already working that, saying it's evidence that groups like TABCC will see him as an incumbent seeking reelection (and not, as they feared, as a senators seeking an open seat). And it prompted his political consultant and pollster, Bryan Eppstein, to dust off a March poll done for several trade groups that showed Ratliff with a 35-13 lead over Dewhurst among GOP primary voters.
Team Ropers Saddle Up
David Dewhurst is ready to run for office. He's telling reporters he'll spend a boodle of his own money if need be. He's been out filming commercials on his ranch. And he's ready to throw some of them on the air–early as it is–when he announces his candidacy in a couple of weeks.
Dewhurst is running for lieutenant governor, though Republicans widely suspect he would switch to the U.S. Senate in a nanosecond if a seat came open there (so, probably, would half the Republicans and Democrats whose names you've seen in boldface). That speculation, which has followed Dewhurst like a hungry pup since he was elected, spiked again when U.S. Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont left the GOP. That leaves U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas without a chairmanship and, if you go for the stories, without a reason to stay in Congress. Gramm aides say he'll run hard for reelection and say the Jeffords switch makes his continued presence even more necessary than before. So there.
Here's another Dewhurst yarn making the rounds. He has supposedly filmed commercials that include someone dressed up as Robin Hood. The point behind that, whether it proves to be rumor or fact, is that the land commissioner is likely to hit Ratliff for authoring the school finance plan that's named after the bandit from Sherwood Forest. It's unpopular with a lot of Republicans. Ratliff says it was the only way to wrestle school finance away from the Texas Supreme Court (the guy with the collateral exposure on this is Attorney General John Cornyn, who as a justice on the court wrote the opinion that said Ratliff's plan was constitutional).
Clearing the Air
The commercials planned for June won't mark Dewhurst's first appearance in TV and radio spots this year. He narrated and appeared onscreen in public service announcements for his agency's beach-cleaning program that were paid for by the agency (and run free by television stations).
And he was featured in commercials that ran in Houston earlier this month promoting clean air for the Business Coalition for Clean Air. That's a group started by the Greater Houston Partnership to get big businesses in the state's largest city working together on a clean air plan. They did a series of radio and television commercials that ran between March and mid-May. Dewhurst, who personally gave $150,000 for the program (which has a total budget of about $2 million) was featured in some of those spots. The commercials with Dewhurst on them–some running on paid time, some on time donated by the TV stations–ran earlier this month.
If you wanted to gripe about that, you'd say he got his face in front of more than a fourth of the state's Republican voters just a few weeks before announcing for statewide office. Jim Kollaer, executive director of the Greater Houston Partnership, says the group would never run spots for a candidate and said they wouldn't have gone up if Dewhurst had been a declared contestant. Six other commercials that ran earlier in the campaign feature other prominent Houstonians, drum majors from the bands at Texas Southern University and Rice University, and some actors. Those commercials are available for viewing on BCCA's website (www.bccacleanair.org/about/pic.html), but the ones that featured Dewhurst didn't make it onto the group's Internet site.
Kollaer said Dewhurst was talking to the group about helping with the program more than a year ago. In addition to the personal funds, he said Dewhurst agreed that the General Land Office would contribute $150,000 to $200,000 to be used for an informational booklet put out by BCCA. A spokesman for the GLO says that's not true–the money from Dewhurst was all that was promised, and no state funds were promised, spent or are forthcoming.
Loose ends: Some of the companies in BCCA spun off a group of their own and called it the BCCA Advocacy Group. That's not affiliated either legally or financially with BCCA or the Greater Houston Partnership, according to Kollaer. And that's a sensitive point because the advocacy bunch sued the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission over some related clean air issues.
Speak Loudly and Carry a Toothpick
The Texas Department of Economic Development, the state agency that could least afford to get on the wrong side of the state's budget-writers, apparently promised to spend $5.5 million in Community Development Block Grant money before getting permission to use those funds. That permission would have come, had it come, from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. That second agency would probably rank next on the list of agencies least likely to enjoy legislative forbearance for spending mistakes. But TDHCA called TDED on the infraction and sent copies of the letter to the Legislature. That same Legislature was in the middle of deciding the futures of a bunch of agencies, including TDED and TDHCA. That's a Maalox moment for someone, to be sure; they got a hot letter from Senate Finance Chairman Rodney Ellis and House Appropriations Chairman Rob Junell, promising yet another visit from the State Auditor.
TDED chief Jeff Moseley says his agency was working off of a "grandfathered agreement" with housing, and says they were also being aggressive about getting money to rural communities. He says they'll give the money back to TDHCA out of the next round of block grants, later this summer.
That just gave lawmakers who were already mad at TDED another reason to blow up. But it turns out to be harder to kill an agency, or to reorganize it, than you might think. The House started the session ready to scrape off the economic development operation and rebuild a new one. But their recommendations on what to do with the agency went to the Senate only this month. And in the Senate, the ideas for recasting the agency were quite different from what the House proposed.
Overlay it with individual political agendas. The Senate plan would have moved some functions to the governor's office, for instance. That splits people who want to help Gov. Perry from those who don't, even if they agree that TDED should be junked. The Smart Jobs program is a particular discomfort to legislators in both houses, and it was hard, maybe impossible, to build agreement on whether that program should be moved, funded, left alone, or shucked.
At the risk of writing something we'll have to retract in a week, the agency appeared headed for a two-year reprieve at our deadline. The Senate, unable to agree on a resolution, voted to put the matter off for two years. That left the option of killing the agency outright–the outcome if the two chambers couldn't agree on a resolution–or putting it off for two years. There's also a failsafe bill floating around out there that would automatically continue any state agency that's up for sunset review but couldn't get a resolution acceptable to both houses of the Legislature. TDED, when last we looked, was on that list for a two-year reprieve. But Smart Jobs was not.
What has Nine Digits and Starts with a Dollar Sign?
Everybody was just getting used to the idea of a $111 billion budget when–SHAZAM!–the high priests of budgetdom uncorked a $113.8 billion spending plan. It includes a long and interesting list of things that might happen and might not, depending on how the state's finances go during the next two years. The complete budget (big, but in searchable form) is online at www.lbb.state.tx.us.
At the moment, according to the comptroller's office, the numbers stink. But they're whistling their way through the tombstones, saying that economic indicators should improve in time for the Christmas shopping season. This is the first time in a decade that the state's composite economic indicators–a goulash of things like housing permits, oil prices and unemployment claims–has been negative. Even so, they don't want to call this a recession. They say, in fact, that it's not one.
We'll look at details later, but the top-level numbers will give you the gist. Health and human services spending will rise 17.1 percent, a $5.1 billion increase, to $35 billion. Education spending will rise $3.4 billion, to $48.6 billion. Of that, $33.2 billion will go to public education and the rest will go to higher education. Spending on business and economic development will rise $1.2 billion, to $13.8 billion. The total bottom line is an $11.8 billion increase, or 11.6 percent. Put the usual caveats on those numbers: They are changes from what was actually spent during the last two years and not what was budgeted two years ago. If you compare budget to budget, the increases are even bigger.
A Wet Firecracker is Still a Firecracker
We know of a Central Texas kid who, about 50 years ago, put a dead firecracker in his mouth and pretended to smoke it like a cigarette. Since it hadn't done anything when it was initially lit and tossed, he assumed it to be a dud. After a couple of puffs, he blew out a couple of teeth (settle down–the injuries weren't permanent) and won himself a place in the oral history of Comanche County.
So far, Senate redistricting has tracked the first half of that narrative line. It was supposed to be a big bang. It was ignited. People talked it up. Everybody got together in a circle and waited for a pop. Fidgeting turned to disgust and then blame and finally, to acceptance.
What was supposed to be a big bang became an anticlimax. The senators gave some speeches and held some press conferences, but nobody showed any real anger or passion about the chamber's failure to pass a redistricting plan. Instead, they all sounded like they were describing procedural moves in a courtroom drama. Which, in fact, they were.
Now it's time for the Legislative Redistricting Board, or LRB, to pick it up and have a toke. Sooner or later, we'll get to see if anyone needs an emergency dentist. Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, one member of that panel, said last week that she wants the five members to get together soon and get the maps drawn. They can call themselves into session or the Texas Supreme Court can do it. They'll start by electing a chair, and Attorney General John Cornyn has been lobbying quietly and through surrogates for that job. The other three members are House Speaker Pete Laney, and Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff and Land Commissioner David Dewhurst. (By the time the LRB convenes, those two will be fully declared GOP primary opponents.) Interestingly, they have to post their meetings a week in advance, and once they've decided to form up as a panel, they're subject to the Open Meetings Act.
The LRB was created to keep lawmakers from doing what they just got through doing. Once upon a time, legislators regularly ignored new census numbers and left districts like they were, regardless of growth. The addition of the LRB to the state constitution stopped that practice, and they've drawn maps every ten years since then. The LRB had to be called twice to settle differences in the maps, but this is apparently the first time the panel has started with blank pieces of paper. Since neither chamber got a plan all the way to the finish line, the LRB has got that option this year.
Flotsam & Jetsam
The campaign finance bill was still alive but unresolved with three days to go. The Senate's version included required identification of donor's employer and occupation, but the House version didn't. The House version included a requirement that non-profit groups reveal donor information when doing election-related mailings that were tilted to one candidate or another; the Senate version didn't.
The fight was over employer and occupation. And here's an interesting tidbit from Texans for Public Justice, a group that favors election reform (but that has fought against disclosing its own donors). The group says the average House member had only 146 contributions over $200 in the 1998 election cycle. The average senator had 382 such contributions in that election cycle.
• As the session ended, so did the enrollment period for the Texas Tomorrow Fund, the state's prepaid tuition program. The comptroller had 9,300 contracts as of mid-week, which was ahead of the 5,100 contracts at the same point the year before. That office expected a rush: Last year's final total was 12,400 contracts, marking the first year-to-year increase in the program's history.
• He's baaack. Mark Dallas Loeffler, a former Senate aide who's taken to consulting on campaigns and Internet design, has returned with his end-of-session movie posters. We can't really do justice to it with words; you gotta look. Featured officeholders include Sens. Florence Shapiro and Rodney Ellis in a Braveheart poster, Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff in a form you just can't imagine, Land Commissioner David Dewhurst, etc., etc., etc. He even did a tribute to outgoing Senate Secretary Betty King. The posters can be seen at www.quantumgraphicsonline.com.
Political People and Their Moves
Former state Medicaid director and health and human services wizard DeAnn Friedholm starts a new job at the end of the session; she'll be executive director of the Children's Defense Fund of Texas. That's affiliated with the national group of the same name. CDF has offices in Houston and McAllen, but Friedholm will remain in Austin, where she has been consulting for several years... Elton Bomer's short-term consultancy at the Texas Department of Health–a deal that has been stuck between "agreed" and "signed" for about a month–is finally going through now that it's in the state budget. Bomer, the former legislator and Texas Secretary of State, will focus on business and management practices that were criticized in a state auditor's report earlier this year. His former deputy at the Texas Department of Insurance, Stan Wedel, will stay on TDI's payroll while working with Bomer at Health... Mona Palmer Taylor, a GOP political consultant who started the Austin office of Allyn & Co., is leaving that firm to become executive director of the Governor's Business Council. That's a non-profit business group, loosely affiliated with the Guv's office, that works on policy issues. No replacement has been named at Allyn's shop... You might have missed this one, because it was hidden in the bottom of the stories about the Lite Guv's race, but Julian Read is acting as a spokesman and advisor to Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff. Reed has been mostly in the business PR racket for years, but spent his time in the political PR racket before that... Matt Brockman is the new executive VP at the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. He's from Maxwell, and used to work at the Texas Agriculture Commission when the head guy there was Rick Perry... Appointments: Gov. Perry reappointed Gerald Garrett of Austin and James Bush of Huntsville to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. Roy Garcia of Tennessee Colony, a senior prison warden, will replace Cynthia Tauss, whose term expired.
Quotes of the Week
Political analyst Charles Cook, in The Dallas Morning News, on culpability in the defection of U.S. Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont, who handed control of the Senate to the Democrats by leaving the GOP: "It certainly looks like the White House was heavy-handed. They treated the guy like he was a state legislator from Lubbock. They should have treated him with kid gloves."
Cynthia Tauss of Galveston, a member of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, telling the Houston Press about the job: "This has been a bigger dose of reality than I ever anticipated. My greatest fear has always been that my picture would be on the front page of the Houston Chronicle, saying, 'This woman let that person out, and he bombed City Hall.'"
Former President George H.W. Bush, speaking at a tech conference on how he felt when his eldest son won the White House, as reported in the Boston Globe: "You remember when your kid came home with two A's–and you thought she was going to fail? That's exactly what it's like."
President George W. Bush, speaking at his alma mater, Yale University: "To those of you who received honors, awards and distinctions, I say, well done. And to the C students, I say, you, too, can be president of the United States."
House Appropriations Chairman Rob Junell, D-San Angelo, explaining the 11 percent increase in the state budget: "I want to put this in context. The 900-pound gorilla in this budget is Medicaid... It will continue to be a 900-pound gorilla until we are willing to take on some things to hold it in check."
Nobel Prize winner Steven Weinberg, in his commencement speech at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a professor, on why UT isn't a world-class research institution: "Unfortunately, if you want to be elected to the state Legislature from Laredo or Alpine or Tyler, it's probably not a real good idea to tell the voters that if you elected you promise to send their tax money to Austin so that we can learn new things about the origin of the universe."
California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who is investigating civil and criminal allegations of collusion and price-gouging during his state's energy crisis, telling The Wall Street Journal how he feels about Ken Lay and his Houston-based Enron Corp.: "I would love to personally escort Lay to an 8 x 10 cell that he could share with a tattooed dude who says 'Hi, my name is Spike, honey.'"
Texas Weekly: Volume 17, Issue 46, 28 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.