The governor's budget might be more than a doorstop this session. The three Republicans who'll be running things in the Pink Building seem to be on the same page, saying they'll team up on one starting budget instead of doing the usual thing. The usual thing: The governor presents a budget. The Legislature ignores it. The Legislative Budget Board prepares a budget, and that's the working document for budgeteers for the rest of the session.
The LBB, however, isn't yet under the control of the top legislative leaders who'll be in charge next time. Lt. Gov.-elect David Dewhurst and Speaker-presumptive Tom Craddick don't have the reins yet, and the legislative folks have been at work on their budget for months and months. The new guys might get what they want, and they might not. That's the underlying reason for the tension between the legislative budgeteers and those on the governor's staff. Gov. Rick Perry's folks wanted good data from the LBB so that they could do an end run and put their own spending plan together. That's apparently on schedule for delivery next month.
We'll dignify the two lines of gossip on this by calling them "prevailing theories." In one version, the conservatives, led by Perry, Dewhurst and Craddick, would put out a flat, bare-bones budget. Any shock from spending cuts would be up front and any changes made during the session to that sort of a budget would have a good chance of being positive, since those changes would be in the form of spending more than a bare-bones budget would allow. Instead of headlines with words like "slash" and "chop," you'd read headlines with words like "restore" and "save." On the other hand, you've got the current services budget, pushed by the likes of current Speaker Pete Laney and Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, who currently control the LBB. A budget like that would attempt to show the costs of doing for the next two years what the state is doing now. Changes to it would likely come in the form of cuts to current services, which could make conservatives look like Ebenezer Scrooge.
• The Texas Conservative Coalition won't put out a whole budget, but apparently will spell out some of the things that could be cut out of current services to avoid a tax bill or something shocking during the legislative session. Expect to see that plan about a week before the start of the legislative session. Early word: They hope to make cuts that don't make them look like parsimonious bloodsuckers but that also help them keep their promises not to raise taxes.
• Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, who holds the keys and the steering wheel and most of the gasoline for the coming session–she's in charge of the numbers, and numbers are the centerpiece–won't let loose of a revenue estimate until next month. Her shop is not hinting at what that will say, and also isn't saying whether it'll come out before or after some of the serious budget plans hit the streets. It's been months since she made a pronouncement on the issue, but her last guess was that spending plans and revenue production would be about $5 billion apart. Other estimates go higher from there; the bigger the difference, the better the chance of noticeable and serious cuts in services or of noticeable and serious increases in taxes.
• Remember Ross Perot's bit about crazy aunts in the attic? Here's one: The budgeteers are quietly putting together an emergency appropriations bill to cover the holes in the current budget. That's something that'll happen early in the session and isn't related to what you've been hearing about the next budget. Estimates of how much more the state needs to spend to make this budget balance range from a low of about $400 million to a high of about twice that.
Robes and Crayons
All the heat around redistricting usually focuses on legislatures and congress and city councils and county commissioners. But some judges are elected in districts, too, and they're as jealous of their turf as anyone in the legislative branch of government. And there's a fight brewing.
The Texas Supreme Court–asked to do so by the Legislature–has drawn new lines for the appellate courts in Texas, and the griping is already underway. If lawmakers pass it, it would be the first overall revision of the maps in 75 years. It adds a new court in the Rio Grande Valley, consolidates the two appeals courts in Houston, adds justices on three courts and cuts one judge from each of four other courts. In 22 counties, the Supremes got rid of overlaps in jurisdiction.
Overall, the plan keeps the same number of appellate judges–80–the state has now.
Houston would gain a spot: The consolidation of the two courts will result in one court with 19 justices where there are now two courts with a total of 18. Dallas would increase to 15 from 13 justices, and Beaumont's court would increase to four from three.
Courts in Amarillo, Austin, El Paso, and San Antonio would each lose one justice, but the Supremes' plan leaves the question of how to handle those displacements to legislators. They'll have to figure out how to pick which judges are ordered to move from one court to another and how the next set of elections should be adjusted, if at all.
Some courts would get more geographic territory, some less. The court based in Eastland would cover 55 counties instead of 23, and courts in El Paso and Texarkana would also get more turf. Nine appellate courts would have less geographic territory to cover. That list includes Austin, Amarillo, Beaumont, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, Tyler, and Waco.
The justices drew the maps using an index mixing populations and caseloads for each part of the state. They figured out what the ideal index should be for each of the 80 appeals judges in the state, and then looked at what the judges were actually carrying. Taken alone, the indexes don't mean much, but look at the differences: Harris County got an index of 15,902 while Loving County's was 2. The average justice should get an index of 980.5. In practical terms, the system said each justice in Beaumont–with the highest indexes–had three times the load of each justice in Eastland–the lowest.
The new South Texas district takes in several counties that have been fiercely competitive in other redrawing contests: Cameron, Hidalgo, and Webb. Courts in Corpus Christi and in San Antonio and El Paso would take the rest of the Borderlands and South Texas.
Trouble in South Texas
The first open shots fired at the courts plan came from Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, and from MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Both made the same complaint, saying the court's plan won't fly under civil rights laws that govern these things.
The court takes a layout that now elects six justices (including five Hispanics, at the moment) for the Corpus Christi court in a district that is 68.6 percent Hispanic and makes two districts out of it. But the cut leaves one district–Corpus–with three judges elected in a district that's 48.9 percent Latino, according to Oliveira, and a new court with three judges elected from a district with an 88.5 percent Latino population. The second district would elect Hispanic judges, he contends, but the first would not. Oliveira praised the court for the start, and for creating a new Valley district. But he said he'll work to change it to get rid of what he contends is a "packing" problem.
MALDEF contends the Supreme Court's plan also "bleaches", or dilutes, Hispanic voting strength in the San Antonio district, cutting it from 48 percent to 42 percent. By their reckoning, the registered voter strength in the Corpus court would drop to 39 percent from the current 54 percent.
Since it is only a recommendation to the Legislature, the Supremes didn't run their plan by the U.S. Justice Department or do any formal analysis of it on the basis of race or party. But the plan, which won unanimous approval from the all-Republican court, will have to pass federal muster, and that's where the detractors expect to get their leverage.
Vote Early, Vote Often
It'll take three elections to replace Rep. Ron Clark, R-Sherman. He left to become a federal judge, but word of that came in too late to take him off the ballot in November. He won and said he wouldn't take the job. Gov. Rick Perry called a special election for last week, and now that has produced the need for a runoff between the Democrat who lost to Clark a little over a month ago and a Republican who didn't run until Clark was out.
That Republican, Sherman attorney Larry Phillips, got 3,015 votes and finished first. Donnie Jarvis, an attorney from Van Alstyne, finished second with 2,383 votes. Three Republicans–Harry Reynolds, Kiki Osterman and John Hefton–brought up the rear, but their doom may be Phillips' boon. If you look at it by party, Republicans got a total of 6,781 votes, or 74 percent of the total. Jarvis got only 35 percent of the vote in the regular election against Clark–who had stopped actively campaigning. To win this runoff, he'll have to rely on weird turnout and/or turncoats.
That runoff is set for Tuesday, January 7–one week before the Legislature convenes.
And After That, Another Election Across the State
The election to replace U.S. Rep. Larry Combest, R-Lubbock, will probably take place while he's still in office. Combest, elected in November to another term that will start next month, has already announced plans to retire from the House at the end of May. That's set up a scramble of wannabe successors in Lubbock, Midland, and Odessa, and it looks like their election will be held a month before the incumbent leaves.
The next date available on the election calendar for such an election is May 3. Combest hasn't submitted his resignation yet, but when he does, it'll trigger a special election on that date. (And if he changes his mind about quitting after the governor has accepted his resignation, he'll have to run in the special election.)
Put state Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, firmly into that race. He previously announced an exploratory committee (which held his place while he was oversees on Naval Reserve duty) but now says he'll run for sure. His treasurer, Kent Hance, once beat a guy named George W. Bush for a congressional seat that included a chunk of the Combest district. Isett's current House district partly overlaps the new congressional district, but his old House district had other parts of it and he's counting on relatively high name identification on the Lubbock end of the district as a base. By the numbers, it's almost certainly a Republican seat; the question is whether Lubbock voters will overpower voters from Midland, Odessa and Big Spring who might be more amenable to someone from the Oil Patch than to someone from the South Plains.
Staffing in the East Wing
Lt. Gov.-elect David Dewhurst is staffing up. He's bringing Julia Rathgeber, Milton Rister and Kate Cosgrove to the government office from the campaign office, joining Karina Casari, mentioned here last week. Rathgeber, who had a similar job when Bob Bullock was Lite Guv, will direct policy. Rister, once a top political aide to Speaker-presumptive Tom Craddick and also worked for Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, will direct research, and Casari will direct legislative policy. Cosgrove will be deputy to a press secretary who has not yet been named.
Dewhurst followed that with an announcement of three more hires, saying Leslie Ingram, Richard McBride and Diane Smith would work in his administration. McBride, who spent years doing political and government work for former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, worked in the General Land Office under Dewhurst and was a consultant to his campaign. Ingram, a former scheduler for Gov. Rick Perry, worked in the Dewhurst campaign as scheduler and will keep that job in the lieutenant governor's office. And Smith, who worked at GLO as a deputy commissioner and other state agencies before that, will be Dewhurst's director of administration.
Only 35 members of the next Texas House of Representatives were in office in 1991, the last time the Legislature faced a budget mess of any magnitude. Put it the other way: 115 members of the next House have never seen a gnarly budget or the serious prospect of a tax bill. The Senate is more seasoned: By our quick count, 18 senators were either there or in the House in 1991 when the last budget shortfall forced the spending cutters and the revenue raisers into the trenches in a serious way.
We bring it up because of quiet discussions among House members about seniority. The Senate handles seniority issues informally, through tradition and history and moxey and all that. In the House, seniority appointments to committees are in the rules. Those rules say, basically, that half of the regular members of each committee have to be picked on the basis of seniority. That includes the Appropriations Committee, which will write the next budget.
And why are House members talking? Because roughly half of the most senior members of the House are Democrats who have pretty good clout under Speaker Pete Laney. Now that Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, appears to have a lock on the speaker's gavel starting next month, Republicans and Democrats alike are wondering whether the new administration will leave rules in place that empower some of the big wheels in the old administration.
The top returnees, in order: Craddick; Paul Moreno, D-El Paso; Laney; Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston; Irma Rangel, D-Kingsville; Ron Wilson, D-Houston; Al Edwards, D-Houston; Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock; Steve Wolens, D-Dallas; Talmadge Heflin, R-Houston; Ed Kuempel, R-Seguin; Harold Dutton, D-Houston; John Smithee, R-Amarillo; Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville; Bob Hunter, R-Abilene; Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington; Ken Marchant, R-Carrollton; Barry Telford, D-DeKalb; Warren Chisum, R-Pampa; Tony Goolsby, R-Dallas; Pat Haggerty, R-El Paso; Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville; Fred Hill, R-Dallas; and Sylvester Turner, D-Houston. Everyone else who'll be in the House next year wasn't in the House until after 1990. (Eight of them were in office in 1981; two in 1971.)
Laney changed the seniority rules to appease some of the elders in the lower chamber who felt they should get better spots because of longevity, and a number of them were Republicans. Now that the Republicans are in charge, they haven't decided whether to leave it alone or tinker.
National Recognition, Desired or Not
The Washington Post's year-end list of political winners and losers includes some Texans in it. In the winner's column: President George W. Bush and his political guide, Karl Rove. Bush took the number one spot for raising money and campaigning heavily before the November elections–the contests that, as the newspaper put it, let him enter "the second half of his first term in a stronger position than any president in decades. Rove was listed second, for enhancing his "guru legend."
In the Post's political loser column, listed fifth (U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, was first), is this: "Texas Democrats: After being swept out of office statewide in 2000, Democrats thought they found an answer — a Hispanic gubernatorial candidate and a black Senate candidate. But the 'dream team' ticket died a costly death, and the GOP won across the board."
Department of Corrections
A legal eagle called after our last issue with this fix: There's a difference between punitive damages and non-economic damages, and we badly smudged it. Punitive damages, awarded to punish the bad actors in civil cases, are already limited in Texas as a result of the 1995 round of tort reforms passed by the Legislature. Non-economic damages, which include things like pain and suffering, are not. Some tort reformers want to limit those damages and that's what would be covered by the sort of constitutional amendment we scribbled about last week. Sorry, sorry, sorry.
Flotsam & Jetsam
Gov. Rick Perry's medical malpractice proposal includes a cap on non-economic damages and a limit on what plaintiffs can pay their lawyers, based on a schedule that ties the lawyer fees to the size of the award. It would set up special "expert" courts to hear medical malpractice claims and would give the state's insurance regulators more power over the companies that insure doctors against such claims. That issue will be included in the governor's call for emergency status for insurance reform. That status allows lawmakers to work on those issues during the first 60 days of the session; without the designation, lawmakers can hold hearings but can't vote.
• Also on the insurance front: The state's Third Court of Appeals lowered the amount of the settlement in the case that started all the noise about mold damage to homes in Texas. Melinda Ballard of Austin sued Farmers' insurance over a mold claim and won over $32 million in a jury trial. But the appeals court cut that and awarded actual damages of $4 million. The court said Farmers violated the state's Deceptive Trade Practices laws, but didn't commit fraud.
• Another change for the Texas Medical Association: Troy Alexander, director of that group's political action committee, TEXPAC, is leaving to work for Tom Craddick when Craddick becomes speaker next month. He'll focus on health issues. Alexander wasn't among those on the GOP chopping block–look who hired him–but Republicans are pushing the doctors for some new medicine. TMA backed some of the losers in the November elections–notably Tony Sanchez and John Sharp–and is reviewing its lobbying and consulting setup. Democratic consultant George Shipley, who was on the Sanchez team, says he expects to stay on in spite of backstage Republican efforts to set him free.
• The Texas Association of Business–sued by several candidates who said TAB's corporate-financed ads violate campaign finance laws against corporate politicking–is suing back. The trade group has maintained all along that its ads, which might look political to plain old Texans, were carefully constructed to meet the legal requirements. They're suing the candidates for the price of their defense if they lose the case.
• The Texas Supreme Court suspended Pearland Justice of the Peace Matt Zepeda, who is charged with cursing at and verbally abusing a couple of defendants being processed at the city jail there. The State Commission on Judicial Conduct, which asked for the suspension, is also investigating a charge that Zepeda directed a derogatory racial slur at one defendant and told the other he had no rights.
• A week before the inauguration of Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov.-elect David Dewhurst, Texas senators will host a tribute for Bill Ratliff, the lieutenant governor they chose from their own ranks. Ratliff was picked by senators to succeed Perry when George W. Bush left the Governor's Mansion for the White House. He'll return as a mere senator this session, but they'll toast him on January 14.
Political People and Their Moves
The list for a new director at the Texas Public Policy Foundation was short indeed: A week after announcing the departure of executive director Jeff Judson, TPPF named Brooke Rollins to that job. She was most recently the policy director for Gov. Rick Perry, and her resume says she was the first female president of the student body at Texas A&M University... Melinda Wheatley, a former VP at TPPF and a founder of several charter schools, is starting an Austin-based public relations and political consulting firm. She'll partner with graphics designer Cathy Howell... Edelman Public Relations adds Justin Keener to its Austin office. He'd been with Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano... Gov. Perry appointed Edward Torres to the Telecommunications Infrastructure Board, a panel that doles out money and plans for wiring up schools and libraries and similar institutions. Torres is founder and general manager of San Antonio City Tours... Ted Heydinger is the new executive director of Texans for Economic Progress. He's a former lobbyist for Dell Computer and, as a freelancer, for other clients, in Washington and in Austin... Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, adds Stacy Holley, who had been with Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington, as general counsel, and Josh Meeks as press secretary. They'll join a staff headed by Heather Harward, who worked on Averitt's campaign.
More Political People, More Moves
U.S. Rep. Ken Bentsen, D-Houston, will stay in Washington, D.C., when his term is up and Chris Bell takes over–he's going to work for Austin-based Public Strategies, Inc., a firm founded by a handful of former aides to his uncle, then-U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen. The younger Bentsen will be in the firm's Capital offices, but will also work with clients in New York City. PSI also hired Nick Voinis, most recently the spokesman for Lt. Gov.-elect David Dewhurst, to work as a director in its Austin offices. His resume looks like a statewide ballot, with former employers like Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison... Seasoned (which means she's been at it for a long time) political and business reporter Michele Kay is back, and now she's got a college degree. Kay, who also did political/government stints with John Cornyn and Carole Keeton Rylander, will be reporting for the Austin American-Statesman when the legislative session starts in January. That's a return to the paper where she worked before hitting the books at St. Edwards University... President George W. Bush will nominate Clark Kent Ervin as inspector general of the new Department of Homeland Security. Ervin has that title at the State Department now. He's a Texan–a former deputy attorney general, assistant Texas Secretary of State and political candidate... After March, the federal official hopping out of helicopters at natural and unnatural disasters will not be Joe Allbaugh. The director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency–and the former chief of staff to then-Gov. Bush–is leaving federal employment. He's one of three aides–Karen Hughes and Karl Rove are the others–who became known as the Iron Triangle during the presidential campaign. Like Hughes, who quit her federal gig earlier in the year, he says he'll be available to help in Bush's reelection campaign... With Mary Matalin quitting as a top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, another Texan is moving up. Catherine Martin, who has been the deputy, will be Cheney's assistant for public affairs. She went to Washington at the beginning of the Bush Administration to work for Commerce Secretary Don Evans. Before that, she was policy director for then-Attorney General John Cornyn... Leslie Pool, legislative director for Rep. Ann Kitchen, D-Austin, is moving over to do the same for Representative Dora Olivo, D-Rosenberg. Kitchen lost her post in the November elections... Deaths: Former Texas First Lady Jean Daniel, wife of the late former Gov. Price Daniel.
Quotes of the Week
Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, asked who he thinks he'll face in the special election to succeed U.S. Rep. Larry Combest: "Do you have a Lubbock area-sized phone book?"
Sen. Ken Armbrister, D-Victoria, telling the Fort Worth Star-Telegram he'll file legislation that would allow video lotteries at Texas race tracks, and that would tax that gambling: "The R's aren't going to propose a tax bill. And we aren't going to propose one. We heard the message the voters sent last month. So this is one place we might be able to get some revenue."
Karen Pavelka, whose husband Red Wassenich claims to have coined the bumper sticker slogan "Keep Austin Weird," telling The New York Times that the collection of smashed cutlery and teapots hanging in his kitchen is evidence that the two are soul mates: "The weird thing is before I met Red, I had a collection of melted things on the wall of my apartment. It was a match made in heaven."
Robert Ward of Kermit, Kentucky, quoted by the Associated Press after surviving for six and a half days on the leftover food in his crashed car: "I had some Border sauce that you get from Taco Bell. I like that stuff anyway."
The last words of James Paul Collier, executed earlier this month by the State of Texas: "The only thing I want to say is that I appreciate the hospitality that you guys have shown me and the respect, and the last meal was really good. That is about it. Thank you guys for being there and giving me a little bit of spiritual guidance and support."
Texas Weekly will return a few days before the legislative session.