One of those things bubbling in the back of the current state budget is a list of contingent appropriations—unfulfilled items on the last Legislature's wish list. The list includes things like a pay raise for state judges and a 3 percent pay raise for state employees. It works like this: If the state is bringing in more tax money than she predicted, Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander is supposed to watch until there's enough extra money to fund the first thing on the list, and when there is enough, to tell the Legislative Budget Board about it. And so on.
That first item is Texas Grants—a type of financial aid for some Texas college students—and it would cost about $10 million. Next is $10 million for so-called formula funding at Texas junior colleges. Each of those items would cost $10 million whether the state funded them now or six months from now. But some items on the list—like the two big-ticket pay issues mentioned above—get cheaper as time goes by. Sort of. At the beginning of July, there will be 14 months left in the current two-year budget cycle. At the beginning of September, 12 months will remain. It costs less to pay a 3 percent pay raise for 12 months than for 14 months. The same goes for judges.
That means it gets easier to fund contingent appropriations every month. Chew on that one: As time passes, taking care of those wish list items gets cheaper and cheaper.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, the asterisk please: If the contingency appropriations are funded in the current budget cycle, the starting line for the next budget will move, and in the wrong direction. Lawmakers would be obligated, more or less, to keep up the pay scales set in the contingent appropriations. The base pay for state employees starting in September of 2003 would be 3 percent higher, and that's a boodle of money. It would cost more than $200 million over a full two-year budget to fund the raises for judges and state workers. Budgeteers already are staring into a $5 billion hole, more or less, when they compare what they think they'll have for the next budget and what they'll need to spend, given current obligations.
The chance of a raise for state employees drops dramatically when the full Legislature comes to town in January. Until then, the Legislative Budget Board would make the decision based on how much money the comptroller says is available. If that comes before the elections, there will be a lot of pressure to go ahead and grant the raise. Once the full Lege is here, however, the LBB loses some of its juice and budgeteers will have other things to add to the mix. That would dilute the argument for funding the contingent appropriations.
Another sneaky little item could compete for any new money that shows up on Rylander's radar screen: Spending on health and human service programs—including things like children's health insurance—is running a little hot. Lawmakers will come to Austin in January to start their session, and they'll have three things in hand at that point that they don't have now. They'll have Rylander's official estimate of how much money will be available to spend in the two years starting in September 2003. They'll have a better idea of which agencies are ahead of budget, which are behind, and by how much, and they'll have a better picture of state revenues in the current budget.
If they haven't done anything with contingent appropriations by then, they might be able to bring in some extra money without automatically having to spend it. But they'd be crossing state employees in the process. And they'd be messing with their own retirements, which are based, in part, on a formula that includes the salaries of state district judges.
The state of Texas is spending $3.8 million a month on salaries for state workers who are simultaneously collecting $2.8 million a month in retirement.
We wrote about this almost a year ago, when only a few state employees were taking advantage of a new law. But now the list of those workers runs for pages and pages, and more sign up each month. They'd probably be dopes not to. If you work for the state long enough, you can retire at a relatively early age. The retirement is based on your age plus the years of service, and once the total hits 80, you're eligible to leave with full benefits. That means a state employee who started working for Texas at age 20 is eligible to retire with benefits at age 50. A lot of baby boomers are in that age bracket, and some state officials were worried that the talent pool would drain as they retired, began collecting their retirement pay and started new jobs with other employers.
The law, passed last session, was designed to help the state hang on to some of its longest tenured and (sometimes) most valuable employees. Letting them double-dip now, the reasoning goes, just lets them do what they were going to do anyway, while keeping them on the state rolls. Before that, the system encouraged long-term employees to quit—it was the only way to get a regular paycheck along with a regular retirement check.
The agencies also have the choice of whether to hire people back or not. To start collecting two checks, state workers have to quit their agency job for a short period and then get hired back. The agency doesn't have to hire them back, but most make sure the deal will work before they jump.
There's another benefit. By quitting, even for a short time, the employees can collect their accumulated compensatory and vacation time. Some take lump sums for their retirement, too: In the month we looked at, a couple of state workers took lump sum payments of more than $90,000 while they were collecting their regular paychecks.
Suppose for a moment that the gossip is correct and that Texas Railroad Commissioner Tony Garza is on his way to a presidential appointment to be the USA's ambassador to Mexico. The succession game that would ensue might or might not result in an election.
If Garza were to quit his job today, the political parties would appoint candidates to put on the ballot in next November's election and the winner of that contest would take office in January to fill the remaining two years of Garza's term. Gov. Rick Perry would get to appoint someone to serve from the time of a resignation until the post is filled by an election.
But if Garza resigns after September 3, there would be no election. After that date, the parties don't have time to put new nominees on the ballot. State law would then let someone appointed by Perry to serve the rest of Garza's term without having to go through a pesky election right away.
Garza hasn't been appointed ambassador, and depending on which waft of smoke you catch, is either a sure thing or not (there's a real question over whether someone who isn't personally wealthy can afford such a posting, since ambassadors customarily take the costs of parties and such out of their own bank accounts and not out of taxpayer funds). He's also a rising star in the state GOP, and not everyone thinks it's a good idea to lose him to a non-elective gig in Mexico City.
But that uncertainty has failed to dampen speculation about what might happen. Some of the names in circulation (what you are about to read is not a prediction) are Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, Massey Villarreal, who is currently the chairman at the Texas Department of Economic Development, Rep. Judy Hawley, D-Portland (who's not running for reelection this year), and Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano.
Appointing a legislator would force a special election to replace them, unless it all happened before that magic date in September. If Garza left and a lawmaker resigned to replace him, the parties would be allowed to put nominees on the November ballot. If it happens later, the lawmaker's replacement would be elected in a special election.
Abbott on Abortion, Take Two
Former Supreme Court Justice Greg Abbott, a Republican who wants to be the next attorney general of Texas, modified his position on abortion twice last week, but says the position he's taking now "has been unwavering throughout my personal life and political career."
Abbott says he is opposed to abortion except when the life of the mother is in jeopardy. In cases where a woman is pregnant as the result of a rape or incest, Abbott says he does not believe abortion should be one of her available alternatives.
His version, in a written statement: "I believe deeply in the sanctity of life, including the life of the mother. Whenever a mother’s life or health is threatened or endangered, measures should be taken to protect the mother. Regarding instances of rape and incest, which constitute less than 1 percent of all abortions and are admittedly very difficult situations, I further believe life must be preserved."
Abbott told The Dallas Morning News earlier this year that he was against abortion in all cases, including pregnancies resulting from rape, incest, or those that threaten a mother's life. In an interview with us at the end of May, he said that earlier report accurately reflected his views. The answer Abbott wanted to give, he said, was that the personal views of the attorney general don't matter so long as he follows the law. Finally, he stated flatly: "I am pro-life." We later asked an aide to make sure we were getting it just right, and were told that we were. Then we wrote: "Republican Greg Abbott says he is pro-life—against abortions in any circumstances—and has filled out candidate questionnaires that, as a political matter, lock him into that position." Neither Abbott nor his aides—we talk regularly to that and other campaigns—gave any indication of any problem with our story. (There weren't any corrections, or apparently any calls for them, in the Dallas Morning News, either.)
Then, about a week ago, the Associated Press reported in a story on women as an important voting bloc in this year's elections that Abbott makes an exception to his pro-life stand when the life of the mother is in jeopardy. Asked his position on abortions in cases of rape and incest, Abbott was quoted as saying, "I don't know." Three days later, he put out the written statement talking about his "unwavering" and long-held position.
That lines up with the writings of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. And there is—if you squint—a bit of semantic wiggle room in the difference between the terms "pro-life" and "anti-abortion." Abbott didn't say he's against abortion in all cases, but that he's pro-life. But it's also true that Abbott didn't clarify his position or make that distinction in terms until he'd already talked about it a couple of times and after his opponent, Democrat Kirk Watson, began making an issue of it.
What's the Vigorish?
Declining industrial property values in the Deer Park ISD have cut the school district's revenues by 6 percent, and they have a question for the state of Texas: If they raise their taxes over the state's $1.50 cap, do they have to send any of the money to the state for use in other school districts? That's called recapture. Deer Park fits the definition of a wealthy school district, meaning it has a lot of property worth a lot of money, compared with other districts in the state. When that wealth is at or above a certain state-set value, the district has to start shipping some of its locally raised tax money back to the state, which then uses that money to bolster the budgets in property poor districts.
Deer Park, in spite of its drops in property values and revenues, is one of the exporters in the state's school finance system. But there is some question as to whether money raised above that $1.50 tax rate for maintenance and operations has to be shared (districts can raise M&O rates to $2.00, if they're big enough and their voters approve).
In his official "request for opinion" letter to Attorney General John Cornyn, Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown, R-Lake Jackson, says Deer Park is the only district in the state that is both subject to recapture and allowed by its voters to raise taxes to more than a buck-and-a-half.
From the trusty Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary here at Texas Weekly's Global Headquarters:
Craw-fish vi : to retreat from a position : back out.
The same spokesman for John Cornyn who said last week that "the issues over payments to the tobacco lawyers are resolved" now says he's sorry for the misunderstanding, but his boss is still after those lawyers. To catch you up: Cornyn, the state's attorney general, is running for U.S. Senate. He has been questioning the actions of his predecessor with regard to the state's tobacco lawsuit settlement for three years, implying some underlying criminal behavior. But Gov. Rick Perry put that predecessor, former AG Dan Morales, on his anti-crime task force.
That put Cornyn in a spot, and his camp now says the resolution referred to last week was limited to matters between Morales and Marc Murr, an attorney who forfeited his claim to any of the tobacco settlement money after questions were raised about his involvement. Murr's still involved in the next step, but it's a slightly different issue. Cornyn's legal team in the AG's office has filed a motion in state court in Houston to try to force depositions of some of the other outside lawyers in the tobacco case.
They want to know what those lawyers knew about Murr's involvement, and if and when they knew that his involvement might have reduced the state's share of the tobacco money. If they knew about his involvement, and if that involvement was detrimental to the state, and if they didn't tell their client about that problem, then they might be in trouble. But to know all of that, Cornyn's lawyers have to get the outside lawyers to talk about it, and there will be a hearing in Houston at the end of July to determine whether those outside attorneys will be ordered to sit down for questioning.
Guns Up For Patterson
It looked for a minute there like the National Rifle Association and the Texas State Rifle Association (its affiliate) were going to give high marks to both candidates for land commissioner and leave it at that. We should have known better: Both are endorsing Jerry Patterson in that race. We had an item last week saying the groups hadn't endorsed in that race and had given both candidates its top "A+" ratings. True then, but not now: They prefer Patterson, the author of the state's concealed handgun law and, because of that and his ongoing outspokenness on their issues, a longtime favorite of the gun crowd. Democrat David Bernsen, who's running against Patterson, got at least a partial victory in the deal. Bernsen's campaign says he'll be list on the groups' scorecards, along with his rating. But Patterson's name will be the one in boldface on their flyers—the indication of their endorsement.
• The Texas Conservative Coalition broke tradition and elected Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, as its chairman for the next legislative session. That group of legislators has historically alternated between Democrats and Republicans in its offices, with the vice chair moving into the chair's position at the end of each term. Last year, it was Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson, and next year was supposed to belong to Rep. Robby Cook, D-Eagle Lake. Instead, Cook will remain vice chair. Foul Play? Partisan Politics? Cook says no, and says it was his idea because he can't put in the time that job requires (he's also busy with the Legislature's rural caucus and a reelection bid). He'll remain vice chairman while Isett chairs. That caucus has 76 members, including 12 Democrats. And though it's mainly a House deal, there are five senators in the membership.
• Add a Democratic legislator—and a former chairman of that same Texas Conservative Coalition—to the supporters of Republican U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio. Rep. Bob Turner, D-Voss, wrote a letter saying he "was very surprised to hear" he had been listed as a supporter of his former colleague, Henry Cuellar of Laredo. He says that he didn't give Cuellar permission to list him, and says he's supporting Bonilla. Cuellar, in a written statement, blamed the mistake on a former campaign manager and says he's sorry it cost him Turner's support.
The Young Conservatives of Texas want a bunch of legislators who aren't coming back for another term to be thrown off the interim committees that have been doing research on issues in preparation for the next legislative session. The group says lawmakers aren't eligible to be on those interim committees unless they're elected or nominated to serve in the next session. If they're right, the lawmakers affected include Reps. Patricia Gray, D-Galveston, Rob Junell, D-San Angelo, Paul Sadler, D-Henderson, Kyle Janek, R-Houston, and Tracy King, D-Uvalde, and Sens. J.E. "Buster" Brown, R-Lake Jackson, and David Bernsen, D-Beaumont. Janek might be in a different boat, since he's not coming back to the House but did win the Republican nomination for Brown's Senate seat. The legislative lawyers we asked about the law say it's there, but House and Senate rules undo it. The Senate had a provision in its rules that made it possible for then-Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock to bust outgoing senators off of the interim committees. But the Senate did away with that in 1999. The House apparently never approved such a rule in the first place.
• The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee is touting a poll by a Washington, D.C., firm that shows U.S. Senate candidate Ron Kirk slightly ahead of his Republican rival, Attorney General John Cornyn. Kirk, according to the poll, is better known, but the ratios of favorable to unfavorable impressions of the two men is similar. That name ID number is skewed by Kirk's term as mayor of Dallas. An AG gets more press than any official except for the governor, on the statewide level, but mayors get saturation coverage in their home areas, and Kirk is better known in the huge Dallas media market than Cornyn. According to the poll, 87 percent of the voters in that market know of Kirk, as opposed to 55 percent who say they know of Cornyn. If you take the state as a whole, 63 percent say they know Kirk and 52 percent say they know Cornyn. But there's a bug in the soup: The pollsters, Bennett, Petts and Blumenthal, conclude that Kirk's doing well because Democrats usually only get 40.7 support in Dallas and he's already at 53 percent. What the DSCC isn't including: That's the same polling firm Kirk is using now and has used in each of his earlier races.
• Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams partly disowns an email sent out over his name by the Republican Party of Texas. Williams says he agreed with everything at the top of the letter, which asks "fellow Republicans" to write to Democrats in the U.S. Senate asking for confirmation hearings for George W. Bush's federal judicial appointees, particularly Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen. Williams says he didn't sign off on the part asking people to copy the letter to Democrat Kirk, who's running against Cornyn for a seat among those same senators.
• The ruling that the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional put every politician in America, or nearly every one of them, in the position of having to choose between flag and country on the one hand, and a federal court in California, on the other. Tough choice. Statements poured in from almost everyone running for office in Texas, calling the court decision an outrage and worse. The lone voice of support (that we heard) was from the Texas Freedom Network. And that turned into minor fodder the next day, because Democrat Kirk Watson, who's running for attorney general, helped raise money for the group. A couple of allies of his opponent, Republican Greg Abbott, called on him to shout them down, and he did. (One of the requests was from Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, who sponsored a bill last year that would have required the reading of the pledge in classrooms. It failed, but he says he'll bring it back.) Watson called the whole thing a "silly political game," but answered the question, calling the TFN position "ridiculous" and saying he was "surprised and disappointed by it."
• Some of the groups that make a living watching the state's budgeteers (and a couple that don't) are putting on a public conference on that subject in a couple of weeks. It was assembled by the Texas Lyceum, the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, the Texas Association of School Boards, the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT, and the Texas Association of Regional Councils. It's on July 12 in Austin, and you can sign up, if you please, at www.TexasLyceum.org. Speakers include several public officials who'll be messing with the state budget next year; admission is $150.
Political People & Their Moves
In spite of the fact that a lot of people credit Karl Rove with a major role in getting the current occupant into the White House, nobody's written a book about it. A couple of veterans of the political press corps in Austin—Jim Moore and Wayne Slater—are about to remedy that. They've landed a contract with a major New York publishing house to write a book about Rove, his relationship with George W. Bush and his part in getting Bush into the White House. Moore worked in television for 15 years, covering politics in Texas for KPRC and KHOU in Houston. Slater is the Austin bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. And both of them have covered Bush and Rove for years... The Austin chapter of Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse has been dormant, for the most part, since the tort reforms of the 1995 legislative session. But they're gearing up again to push for more reforms to the state's laws on lawsuits, and they've brought in a hired gun‚ former Senate aide Kirsten Voinis, to do their talking... After laboring in the Texas House since 1996, Mike Lucas is going to law school. The chief of the Houses Human Services committee, and a longtime aide to Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, is on his way to study law at UC Berkeley... Gov. Rick Perry appointed Louis Gohmert of Tyler to be chief justice of the 12th Court of Appeals, which is based there. He's been a state district judge in Smith County for nine years and is, like Perry, an Aggie. The Guv named Richard Roman, an El Paso attorney who was once an aide to U.S. Rep. Ron Coleman, a Democrat, to a court spot there. Roman will be judge of the 327th District Court. And the governor named Eddie Wilkerson of LaPorte to the Texas Workers' Compensation Commission. Wilkerson is an officer with the Pasadena Police Department, and is an officer in the Texas Municipal Police Association. He's an Aggie, too... Fundraising difficulties forced Texas Right to Life to lay off most of its full-time staff about a week ago. The organization had about a dozen full-time employees and has cut back—according to its former spokesperson—to three or four. The anti-abortion group has had trouble raising money since the September 11 attacks, she said.
Quotes of the Week
Democrat Tony Sanchez, in a joint appearance with Gov. Rick Perry before the Texas Association of School Administrators: "I do not want professional politicians to tell me what a budget should look like. They've been there too long, too many sacred cows. I want to look at our budget with fresh eyes." Perry, in reply: "You know that is just bunk. There is no way we are going to scrub the budget and find the answer to Robin Hood."
Federal appellate Judge Alfred Goodwin, ruling that the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional: "A profession that we are a nation 'under God' is identical, for Establishment Clause purposes, to a profession that we are a nation 'under Jesus,' a nation 'under Vishnu,' a nation 'under Zeus,' or a nation 'under no god,' because none of these professions can be neutral with respect to religion."
Catholic Bishop Edmond Carmody of Corpus Christi, in an Austin American-Statesman story on Catholic politicians like Tony Sanchez and John Sharp who say they're against abortion, but don't think the state should outlaw abortions: "That's being schizophrenic about it. That's saying, 'In my own home, I respect life, but when I'm in public office, I'm going to go with the pack.'"
Texas Republican Party Chair Susan Weddington, in a story on religion and politics in the Dallas Morning News: "The Democratic Party seems to hold to the idea that there is some sort of separation between church and state."
Ken Molberg of Dallas, a member of the State Democratic Executive Committee, talking to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about Dan Morales and Victor Morales, who lost their primaries but still haven't made peace with the winners: "It's just one of those massive irritations. It's like having a sticker in your underwear."
Lynn Milam, a Mississippi woman poisoned by arsenic, telling The New York Times how she reacted when police wrongly accused her husband (who also turned out to be poisoned) of trying to kill her: "I know the man. If he were going to kill me, he'd just shoot me."
Texas Weekly, Volume 19, Issue 3, 1 July 2002. Ross Ramsey, Editor. George Phenix, Publisher. Copyright 2002 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited. One-year online subscription: $250. For information about your subscription, call (800) 611-4980 or email biz@ texasweekly.com. For news, email ramsey@ texasweekly.com, or call (512) 288-6598.