Supporters of the Children's Health Insurance Program must feel like kids on a hotel balcony with Michael Jackson: Odds are against actually being dropped, but a safety net would be nice.
If you're a process lover, creative and in a good mood, you can find a bit of sunshine in the House Appropriation Committee's move to kill CHIP—but only if you think they won't actually do it.
Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, made the proposal, saying the CHIP program is less important than nursing home care and prescription drugs for 464,000 people who are both elderly and poor. He's all for CHIP, but says with only enough money to fund one program, he thinks the first need is more urgent. And he also said he won't vote for the final appropriations bill if his own proposal is still in it.
That's the same answer you get in a conversation with Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson—the member of the House leadership team who seems to be driving health and human services funding issues. Like Eiland, she's trying to get money for CHIP, and doesn't want to see the current proposal in the final appropriations bill. For now, she says they're just defining the problems.
Where's the silver lining? If you take all of a budget cut and concentrate it in one popular program, chances are against it actually taking place. If you cut several programs instead, you end up with a package of under funded and inefficient programs, but with little public outcry. If you're making the case for CHIP (or for education, or for prisons, or for roads), it's better to focus the decision—and the attention of lawmakers and the public—on a particular thing than to spread the bleeding so that it hobbles your government but remains less visible to voters.
CHIP is Just the Loudest of Several Screeches
Rep. Ray Allen, R-Grand Prairie, took his pitch on prisons to the governor's aides, and boiled it down to this. Make the cuts that have been suggested, and you get 50,000 prison inmates looking for space in county jails that don't have 50,000 beds available and that charge $40 per day per inmate when they do. Motels would be cheaper, but the inmates just won't stay in their rooms.
And the budgeteers working on education have heard the pledges from top leaders who say that education is their first priority. They've repeated the pledges themselves. But to save money, they've proposed cutting the state's $1,000 per year funding for teacher health insurance in half, while also limiting the number of people eligible for those funds. Another piece of legislation would add money to what school districts get for each student (while also putting an expiration date on the state's school finance formulas), but that wouldn't go to teachers. And the author says he won't try to get a debate from the full House until he's sure of a way to pay for what he's doing.
Meanwhile, the hunt for new money is quickening. She's not saying what'll be in it yet, but Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn has her staff working on a supplement to her e-Texas report. She's betting lawmakers will be willing to look at some of the tougher ways to save money, and says she hopes to have a report out by early April. Her first set of recommendations, if adopted by lawmakers, would yield $1.7 billion in new general revenue with a combination of budget cuts and revenue enhancements. Rep. Ron Wilson, D-Houston, filed a tax bill. He says the content of it isn't important and won't stick, but says the bill would be the vehicle for a general tax bill should his Ways and Means Committee need to prepare one. In the meantime, he's gathering information on what various taxes and fees would bring in, and on how much money is currently being lost to the state because of various exemptions to sales and property and other taxes.
Early predictions from the tort reform lobby: The omnibus bill with all their goodies in it could take two days of debate in the House on its way to a less certain future in the Senate, and if things go slowly, the vote on a constitutional amendment they want might not happen until the third day. That would give them an extra afternoon and evening to count noses on the amendment, which needs 100 votes to pass. The tacticians backing that measure decided to combine almost all of this session's tort reform into one bill. Their gamble: The accumulated supporters would outfight the accumulated enemies of various provisions of the legislation.
Procedurally, they wanted to treat it like an appropriations bill—an unsurprising indication that it's got the support of House Speaker Tom Craddick. Proposed amendments to the legislation were to be filed by 5 p.m. Monday (March 17), which would have helped the sponsors sort the friendlies and the bogies and prepare their arguments. But the first noise started on Thursday.
A Majority of Ten
Calling a point of order (how's that for jargon?) is unusual in the Texas Senate, but Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, called one on an amendment by Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, this week. And it was declared "well taken and sustained." A point of order is like calling a foul in legislative terms. Lucio, trying to add an amendment to a chamber of commerce bill, was adding something that related to a different subject. It looked like it might fit, and he tried it, but West called him on it and said his amendment amounted to a change of subject. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst called it in West's favor, and that was that. Unusual in the Senate, but not unprecedented.
House members, on the other hand, call points of order all the time. But they rarely do it to uncork a surprise like the one Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, and a small band of Democrats pulled Thursday.
Dunnam was objecting to a deadline. The House leadership wanted to impose a Monday afternoon deadline on amendments to the tort reform bills on Tuesday's calendar. He and Calendars Chair Beverly Woolley, R-Houston, went back and forth on the subject. His argument is that the sponsors of the tort bill—favored by Republican leadership in the House, in the Senate and in the governor's suite—wanted the deadline so they could see all of the lines of attack on the tort bills before the fight was underway on Tuesday (that's roughly what we were told by the tort reformers themselves). Woolley said that members on both sides needed to look through the complex bill and the number of amendments expected so they would be ready for debate.
Finally, they called for a vote. Dunnam asked House Speaker Tom Craddick for "strict enforcement of the rules," preventing members who were present from helping absent buddies by voting for them. When the votes were tallied, Woolley won handily, 86 to 10, with one—Craddick—voting "present".
While the winners were congratulating each other, Dunnam went to the microphone and called the foul, pointing out that only 97 members of the House had voted. It takes 100 members to make a quorum in the House, and he pointed that out. That means the Republicans didn't have the votes to impose the deadline. Rather than stand at ease, or push for a recount, or issue an order to House members to get back in their seats, Craddick adjourned until next week.
A footnote that probably doesn't mean much: Craddick said the House was adjourning on a motion from Dunnam. Dunnam says he made no such motion.
Consequences, Intended or Not
Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, scheduled a special speaker—Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman—to come talk to the Public Education Committee about Grusendorf's voucher bill next week. Friedman will be there, but the bill won't—it didn't get referred to his committee because Craddick was so quick with the gavel after Dunnam's surprise. Grusendorf says he'll figure out a way to let Friedman talk to the committee anyhow.
Sticks and Stones
A Republican lawmaker is laying the groundwork to spend more money during the next two years than the state officially expects to take in. That has a little to do with the state budget, and a lot to do with the battle between the Senate and the comptroller.
Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, is on the Senate Finance Committee and asked Attorney General Greg Abbott for an official opinion on two questions. First: Is it true, as the state constitution seems to say, that the Legislature can vote to appropriate more money than the comptroller says the state will bring in? Second: Since the constitution seems to say that overriding the comptroller's revenue estimate is only allowed in case of an emergency, who gets to decide what makes an emergency? The new AG plans to take public comment for about 10 days and plans, aides say, to rule soon.
Ogden is one of a handful of senators who has questioned the accuracy of Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn's estimate of how much revenue the state will collect over the next two years. The senators blasted her top aides in a Finance Committee hearing a couple of weeks ago, more or less saying they hid the ball on the worsening state economy and its effect on the state budget. When she said deep cuts in her own budget would endanger state revenue, they heard a threat. And some say privately that she's jacking with the numbers to further her own politics. They were more congenial when she came over, but the tension and the mutual distrust remain. Ogden's letter looks to some like an end-around maneuver, to others like a splash of cold water aimed at the chief bean counter.
The public reaction from the comptroller's office to Ogden's request was mild. The state's number crunchers don't like the idea of somebody challenging their numbers, but they have both history and political spin on their side. They say the Senate is mad about the numbers, but that the numbers simply reflect the economy. They flatly and loudly deny any political motives on the comptroller's part, and they have dismal numbers to back them up.
The history: The Legislature has never, ever bucked the comptroller's numbers and mustered the four-fifths votes needed to spend more than the state's financial folks say is available. The spin: Why would a Republican legislator want to back the first deficit spending measure in the history of a balanced-budget state? Privately, they're saying they'd take the dare.
Four-fifths of the House is 120 votes. Put another way, any thirty lawmakers could kill the deal in the lower chamber. The partisan split in that body is 88 Republicans and 62 Democrats. In the Senate, it would take 25 votes to spend more than the comptroller's forecast, and seven to block.
The lieutenant governor's staff has been playing with the tax numbers reported by the comptroller's office, and they've got their boss claiming that there is $700 million more money available than the comptroller will admit. The keepers of the actual revenue, however, say they don't see the same lights at the end of the tunnel. They see a locomotive: Sales tax revenues in February were down 2.5 percent from the previous year, which was down from the year before that. While they're not changing their numbers, they're not optimistic, either.
This won't kill any rumors, but we'll tell you anyhow. Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn hasn't told anybody she'll be lowering her already dismal forecast of the state's revenues, and says she doesn't have the information yet that would provide a full answer. She has, however, laid the predicate for a darker forecast, pointing out the continuing decline in sales tax revenues. The Capitol version of the rumor is that she'll trim another $3 billion to $5 billion from the amount she said would be available to spend during the two years that begin in September. Put the rumor in this category: We can find any number of people who "know" it's so, but not one who has heard it directly.
The Republican win in November spawned predictions of success for legislation that stalled in the past. Great theory, but it hasn't been tested.
This week, the House State Affairs panel will start hearings on several issues dear to social conservatives. The "Defense of Marriage Act" would bar the state from recognizing same-sex unions granted here or elsewhere.
Another bill up for consideration would require "informed consent" by a woman seeking an abortion. It would require patients to say they had read through information required by the law before an abortion could be performed. And a third would make it a crime to kill an unborn child. That legislation exempts abortions, but has stirred both sides in the abortion debate to action—you'll see them there to argue over the bill.
Meanwhile, Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, filed a public school voucher bill that's on a fast track for its first committee hearings.
It would allow kids to participate if their school districts have more than 40,000 students and if a majority of their classmates are eligible for federal school lunch benefits. Only kids from poor families would be allowed to take part; one of the requirements is that the student's family makes less than 200 percent of what the feds say is poverty-level income. The state would pay for transporting the kids to private schools, if needed, and the private schools taking part would have to agree to send the kids through state-required achievement tests.
That legislation has some topspin on it: Grusendorf included three other chairmen as co-authors, and his announcement included attaboys from House Speaker Tom Craddick and Gov. Rick Perry, both of whom have said they want a pilot voucher program in Texas. And there is someone on the other end of the court: Within hours of the bill's filing, the 35-member Coalition for Public Schools had rallied its members in opposition. That's a group that includes several education trade groups, some labor groups, and a collection of civil libertarian outfits.
Turnabout is fair play: Rep. Peggy Hamric, R-Houston, chairs the House Administration Committee, and if you believe there is no power in that position, you've never been a House member in need of a parking place or a decent office inside the Pink Building. As it turns out, Hamric also has some power over the thermostats in the House chamber, which has traditionally been kept cold enough to remain comfortable for a man with a coat and a tie and a tendency to sweat. Women in the House are now in the comfort zone: Hamric moved the thermostats up, so that it's comfortable for someone wearing a business suit with a skirt. And how do we know? Because men whine, too.
• With unfriendly Democrats out of the frame, House Speaker Tom Craddick and Attorney General Greg Abbott cut a deal that allows the state to pay attorney fees to the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. That's money due to the lawyers who handled redistricting for MALC. A federal panel ordered the state to pay them, since they prevailed on three House seats they argued to change. But former AG John Cornyn refused to pay, contending the MALC win was too narrow to make a full victory. He was chasing appeals until he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Craddick announced the settlement and said he was helped in getting it by Reps. Norma Chavez, D-El Paso, Kino Flores, D-Mission, Vilma Luna, D-Corpus Christi, and Robert Puente, D-San Antonio. That list didn't include MALC's leader, Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, but he was a Pete Laney supporter in the speakers' race and the other four helped Craddick. The only Republican Hispanic in the House, Rep. Elvira Reyna, D-Mesquite, was also missing from the announcement.
• Upcoming: The Texas Legislative Conference, an annual hoo-hah done by the New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce, will be on Friday, March 21. The speaker lineup includes Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, House Speaker Tom Craddick, and a mess of others. And they'll hand a "Texan of the Year" award to one Karl C. Rove, formerly of Austin.
Better Living Through Reorganization
The state rolled a bunch of health and human service agencies together more than a decade ago in search of sense and extra money, and now, with the worst budget mess since 1991 staring them in the face, they're going to try again. Hoping to save up to $200 million in the process, some state representatives have been working with the governor's office and the new head of the state's Health and Human Services Commission to merge eleven state agencies into three.
Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson, has been working with the governor's staff for several weeks on the plan, which would eliminate eleven agencies, along with their boards and their executive directors, and merge them into three agencies that would then report to HHSC. The boss at HHSC would continue to be a gubernatorial appointee, as would the heads of the three new agencies. None of the new agencies would have appointed boards, but they would have "advisory councils" to keep them apprised of concerns of advocates for various services they provide. Some services, like CHIP, would remain in the parent agency, HHSC.
The comptroller earlier recommended a reorganization of health and human service agencies, and said it would save just under $10 million annually in general revenue spending and a little more each year in federal dollars spent on the Texas programs. That plan would create four new agencies in place of the eleven now in place. (Those eleven include the Departments of Health, Human Services, Protective and Regulatory Services, Mental Health and Mental Retardation, and Aging; the Commissions for the Deaf and Hearing Impaired, for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and on Alcohol and Drug Abuse; the Texas Rehabilitation Commission, the Council on Early Childhood Intervention Services and the Health Care Information Council.)
Wohlgemuth's version has one less agency and, she hopes, more savings. With money tight, she says, the state will have to cut prevention programs to keep treatment programs alive. That means less money to prevent problems and more money once the problems develop. She says treatment is more expensive over time, but cheaper up front.
She'll add details in a week or so, and expects the legislation to be handled by the Appropriations Committee rather than by any of the committees that specialize in health and human services. She's also trying to match what her reorganization would do with what she's doing to the section of the budget that deals with those agencies.
Flotsam & Jetsam
There's a bill out there that would require state candidates to file campaign finance reports electronically. There's an exemption in current law; Rep. Jerry Madden's HB 999 would end it. Most of the people who didn't file that way didn't win, although you might question any cause-and-effect there. Among those who did win election in November are 29 who didn't file electronically, including two state senators and 27 state representatives. The top five, in terms of money raised, according to Texans for Public Justice: Rep. Talmadge Heflin, R-Houston; Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston; Rep. John Mabry, D-Waco; Sen. Jon Lindsay, R-Houston; and Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie. Candidates don't have to file electronically if they raise less than $20,000 or swear they don't use computers to track their finances.
• Law firms run the tax collection business in Texas, at least on the local, county and school district level. But Rep. Fred Hill, R-Dallas, has a bill that would let non-lawyers into the dunning business. It would also let the governments that hire the collectors share some of the collection fees.
• The Dallas Morning News reported House Speaker Tom Craddick dismissed a proposal from lobbyist Bill Miller that would have created an outside campaign/fundraising/grassroots organization to support House members sympathetic to the speaker. One facet of that would have been new: It would have raised money and been active in issues and politics year-round. Craddick whacked that proposal, and now is telling reporters he has no current plans for an outside organization to handle politics, support fellow House members, or any of that.
Political People and Their Moves
Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips said he'd be announcing the names of some prominent Texans who'll support his push for retention elections for judges. Sure enough, he's being backed by a new group called Make Texas Proud, headed by Ernie Angelo of Midland. Other names on the list: former Gov. Bill Clements, Republican Party activists Anne Armstrong and Penny Butler, and a mess of other Republicans. John Pitts Jr. is staffing that outfit. Three of Phillip's predecessors in the high court's center chair are endorsing the retention elections he has proposed: Jack Pope, Jack Greenhill, and John Hill. This has the makings of a family fight—the Republican Party of Texas is circulating petitions against Phillip's reform plans...
• Justice Priscilla Owen got her second Senate hearing, but will have to wait one week or two for a vote from the committee considering her nomination to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. She got busted in the same committee before the elections. Her enemies are still working, but they don't have the votes now that her former colleague John Cornyn is on the panel...
• Trial lawyer advocates aren't all Democrats after all. Former Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown, R-Lake Jackson, and Melinda Wheatley, best known as an advocate for charter schools and before that, as vice president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, have been signed by "Texans for Civil Justice." Wheatley said the group's members "have some issues" with caps on damages and some of the other provisions of the omnibus bill that's supposed to come up for a vote in the House within the week...
• Lottery spokesman and former Austin TV reporter Keith Elkins was the first casualty of the new regime; lottery director Reagan Greer let him go...
• Gov. Rick Perry named Cliff Mountain, an Austin investor, and William Transier of Houston, who's in the energy bidness, to the Department of Information Resources board... Sheila Beckett, executive director of the Employee Retirement System of Texas, won a National Public Service Award from the American Society for Public Administration and the National Society of Public Administration. Gov. Perry was one of her endorsers for that prize, a high honor in that field...
Quotes of the Week
Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Houston, quoted by the El Paso Times: "Where did this idea come from that everybody deserves free education, free medical care, free whatever? It comes from Moscow, from Russia. It comes straight out of the pit of hell. And it's cleverly disguised as having a tender heart. It's not a tender heart. It's ripping the heart out of this country."
Stickers worn by Hispanic legislators in response: "I'm from the pit of hell."
Rep. Ron Wilson, D-Houston, who supports using public money to send some students to private schools using vouchers, quoted by the Associated Press: "Many, many private schools are in place today which offer outstanding curricula, dedicated teachers and forward-thinking administrations. There should be a way for our children whose parents cannot afford to pay tuition to access them."
Court of Criminal Appeals Justice Cathy Cochran, denying the appeal of Death Row inmate Delma Banks Jr., whose innocence has been asserted by an array of federal judges and former law enforcement officials, and whose execution was temporarily stayed by the U.S. Supreme Court three days later: "After 23 years of litigation, review and re-review by this court and federal courts, he has had his fair share of due process."
Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, after he recommended killing the Children's Health Insurance Program in order to save nursing home and drug benefits for elderly Texans who now receive assistance, quoted in the San Antonio Express-News: "This is the best we can do — and it's terrible," Eiland said. "It makes you want to puke. Would you want to live in Texas under this proposed budget? No. I don't think they could stomach the things we would have to do."
Deputy Comptroller Billy Hamilton, after Senate budgeteers claimed to see trends that would add $700 million to the comptroller's estimate of available money, quoted by the San Antonio Express-News: "Wishing doesn't make it so."
Texas Weekly: Volume 19, Issue 36, 17 March 2003. Ross Ramsey, Editor. George Phenix, Publisher. Copyright 2003 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.