Democrats in the Texas House are starting to look like the Christians who appeared in the Roman Coliseum–they speak their faith quickly and to an inattentive audience, and then the lions eat them.
The floor fight over the state budget lasted three days, repeating the pattern set when the House looked at a sweeping rewrite of the state's civil justice laws a couple of weeks ago. The Republicans got every amendment they wanted and sunk every one they opposed.
They ran the table the same way on the main budget bill for the two years that start in September and on a supplemental bill that's supposed to cover the $1.8 billion deficit in the current budget.
The supplemental bill includes a raid on the state's Rainy Day Fund to pay for deficits in existing programs and to fund a new program, a $295 million economic development fund in the governor's office. If it remains in the budget, the governor could use it to sweeten the pot for economic development deals without legislative oversight. Controversial? The House passed it by a 113-33 margin, well over the two-thirds vote required for that sort of a raid on the Rainy Day fund.
The Senate isn't wild about having that in the supplemental bill. Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, said his Senate Finance Committee might put the new program in the regular budget, leaving only existing programs in the emergency spending bill.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Talmadge Heflin, R-Houston, held his budget together through hundreds of amendments. The bill didn't lose any water, but a couple of the amendments put lawmakers between their loyalty to House leaders and their desire to get reelected. Two of those stood out and could cause problems for lawmakers who voted against changes.
• Rep. Barry Telford, D-DeKalb, offered an amendment that would have taken unspent money in the Texas Legislative Council's operation and used it to lessen cuts to the health insurance program for retired teachers. The House voted down a motion to table the amendment, then turned around and killed it when House Speaker Tom Craddick weighed in. That second vote fell mostly along party lines, with two Democrats voting with the Republicans to kill Telford's amendment and ten Republicans voting with the Democrats to keep it.
• An amendment by Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, would have created a contingent appropriation to restore the $1,000 per year health coverage payment to teachers and other school district employees. The proposed budget cuts that payment to $550 for teachers, nurses, counselors and librarians, to $300 for support staff and to $200 for part-timers in school districts. It's a lot of money, but there are a lot of recipients, and they might just vote. The amendment failed by only nine votes, again with Craddick weighing in to defeat it. Every Democrat in the room voted for it, along with nine Republicans.
On almost every other amendment offered up by the Democrats, the votes weren't even close. Heflin generally held 80 to 100 votes, while the Democrats could muster only 40 to 70. When it was time to vote on the final bill, the tally was 100-45. Only one Republican voted against the bill (Delwin Jones of Lubbock) and 14 Democrats voted for it. The legislation now goes to the Senate, where Bivins and his committee will replace it immediately with their own work, which spends more money than the House version and spends it differently. They'll send five senators to work out the differences with five House members, and the actual budget will come from that negotiation. In about two weeks, they'll start talking seriously about what to spend and where to get it. Everything else is prelude.
Watch that Clock
House members griped for days about the pesky Democrats who filed more than 400 amendments to the proposed state budget and then talked for three days. The less experienced folks in the House called it a waste of time and said the Democrats were just trying to get attention. That's not false, but it's not the big story. The bitching from the more experienced hands was more to the point: The Democrats were killing a lot of legislation.
When they return from the Easter break, state legislators will have three weeks of work before end-of-session deadlines begin to kick in. House bills have to clear their committees–and the Calendars Committee–by 10 p.m. on May 13, and the 15th is the last day the House can consider those bills on the regular calendar. From then on, it becomes more and more difficult to get things going. And because the Senate moved its deadlines back this year, the calendar will start to work in favor of the Senate as next month progresses. By spending so much time talking about their amendments, the House Democrats were taking big bites out of the House's work time.
• Legislators aren't the only people arguing about the state budget. On one side of 11th Street, which runs along the South side of the Capitol grounds, a coalition held a press conference this week telling lawmakers they should hold the line on state spending, cutting programs to fit revenues instead of raising more money to keep current programs intact. On the other side of the street at almost the same time, another coalition was telling reporters in a room at the Capitol that they've launched an advertising campaign to promote a $1-per-pack tax on cigarettes. That would cut smoking rates in the state, which fall as prices rise, and would raise $1.5 billion in state revenue. Group one included the National Federation of Independent Business, the Texas Association of Business and Citizens for a Sound Economy. The other included the Texas PTA, the American Cancer, Heart, and Lung Associations and Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.
From a Boil to a Simmer
Don't expect to see a tort reform bill on the floor of the Senate this month, and don't be surprised if the Senate leaves out the constitutional amendment passed by the House. We will quickly add, on that second bit, that they haven't decided not to amend the constitution. The jefe on this deal–Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant–says he is not yet convinced the amendment will be needed.
Ratliff says his State Affairs committee will hear another week of testimony after Easter and that he'll uncork a rewrite of the House bill some time after that. Pull out your calendar and have a gander–his timetable won't leave a lot of time for fiddling with the Senate's final result. If the civil justice bill gets to the full Senate in a couple of weeks, as Ratliff is currently predicting, it'll come into play with only three weeks left in the session.
As the Senate's hearings hum along, the Texas Trial Lawyers Association unveiled a poll that says Texans don't like a lot of the stuff in the House-passed version of the tort legislation and don't think changes to the civil justice system ought to be the state's top priority anyhow. In that poll, the state budget, homeowners' insurance costs and the school finance system ranked ahead of tort reform. Lawsuit abuse, according to that poll, ranked sixth on voters' priority list. The respondents said they would prefer giving courts more power to toss frivolous lawsuits and penalize the filers, over a cap on "the life of retired Texans, children and full-time parents, regardless of how badly they were injured." The same poll found 77 percent of Texas voters agree that tort reform means making HMOs and insurance companies more accountable for their actions.
The polling was done by Dallas Republican consultant Rob Allyn, who until the poll was unveiled was ducking questions about whether he was working for the state's trial lawyers. Most of the Republicans at the top of state government got there, in part, by bashing trial lawyers and some of their eyebrows went up when they heard he was working against them. TTLA says the poll shows Republicans are reading the public wrong on tort law changes. Texans for Lawsuit Reform and others on the tort reform side say the poll is skewed by biased questions.
The Case of the Purloined Case
We're not going to accuse any particular person of stealing anything, but generally speaking, somebody stole a briefcase that contained some redistricting maps from a committee room in the state capitol in Austin. A few days later, Texas reporters in Washington, D.C., began cranking out stories about a congressional map that they were told had been delivered to House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, by U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, and was under consideration in Austin.
The bag that disappeared belongs to Scott Sims, who works for Craddick on redistricting issues. It did, in fact, contain some maps and other wonders. It was also dear to him for personal reasons, and he wants the bag back, even if all the goodies inside don't find their way home.
He might get both: The Austin folks think they have a line on who took the bag. Sims left the bag in the committee room while he helped other aides carry charts and other stuff back into their offices. The Texas Capitol is bursting with surveillance cameras, including active lenses in committee rooms and in hallways. And the capitol cops have video and still photographs of someone walking away with Sims' bag, evidence that has been shared with the Department of Public Safety for further pursuit.
Meanwhile, Craddick's aides say the boss didn't get anything from DeLay. He had seen the map that was later revealed in Washington, D.C., by the Democrats, and he didn't like it. It splits Midland from Odessa, for one thing, and that all but guarantees that Midland–that's Craddick's hometown, kids–would be represented in Congress by someone from Lubbock and that Odessa would be represented by someone who hails from El Paso or San Antonio or South Texas. If DeLay did, in fact, draw it for Craddick, he wasn't mindful of his audience.
Other parts of the map don't cost Republicans any sleep at all: It would pair U.S. Reps. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, with Jim Turner, D-Crockett, and would pair Nick Lampson, D-Beaumont with Max Sandlin, D-Marshall. The other Democrat on the GOP's target list, Charlie Stenholm of Abilene, would find himself in a district newly biased in favor of the Republican suburbs of Fort Worth. What the Republicans didn't kill in the Democratic primaries, they'd hope to kill in the general elections.
All that said, it's not clear that the House Redistricting Committee is going to mess with a new congressional map anyhow. Rep. Joe Crabb, R-Atascocita, chairs that panel and says he's waiting for a decision from Attorney General Greg Abbott. He asked Abbott some time ago for an official opinion on whether the Legislature must do its own congressional maps or whether it can leave the current maps–drawn by federal judges–in place for the rest of the decade. Remapping the Texas congressional delegation is within grasp in the House, where Republicans have a 27-vote edge over the Democrats. But it's iffy in the Senate; nose-counters there don't think a new plan would pass.
Always an Election Going On Somewhere
The nine-candidate contest to replace the late Irma Rangel, D-Kingsville, in the Texas House produced a runoff with a Democrat and a Republican. Juan Escobar of Kingsville, the Democrat, finished with 1,772 votes; Republican James Matz of Palm Valley (near Harlingen) finished 16 votes behind and the two will meet in a runoff to fight over the 3,180 voters who wanted one of the other seven candidates. The runoff date isn't set yet–they're waiting for canvassing and such–but it should come quickly. Escobar, the president of the Kingsville school board and a retired U.S. Border Patrol agent, expects to get the endorsement of Richard Valdez, who finished third in the race. Two others–Democrats Debra Winger and Eliud Garcia–are going with Matz, who is the mayor of Palm Valley, a former city councilman in Harlingen and a former Cameron County Commissioner.
• The other special election in the state–the contest to replace U.S. Rep. Larry Combest, R-Lubbock–will be held on May 3. Early voting is underway, however, and the Texas Association of Business used that as the trigger for its endorsement of state Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock. He wants to put "U.S." in front of his title. There are 17 candidates in the race for that district, which extends from Midland-Odessa to Lubbock. Expect a runoff. And if Isett pulls it off, expect another special election–to replace him in the Texas House.
An Exercise in Self-Regulation
While everybody was watching the budget or the insurance bill or tort legislation, the bill that regulates politicians moved out of committee on its way to the House. It would keep the Texas Ethics Commission in business for another 12 years, put some restrictions on legislators' business activities and makes it easier for state regulators to audit and investigating campaign finance reports.
Things on campaign websites would be considered advertising, and regulated the same way. The ban on political contributions would last until 30 days after a legislative session (see the next item). Candidates would have to report more information about real estate they hold and trusts that benefit them. The state would have to put campaign finance reports on the Internet within two business days.
Lobbyists would be barred from representing one client to the detriment of another client, and would be required to file notice with the state, under certain circumstances, if they have such conflicts but want to proceed.
Legislators would be barred from representing clients before state agencies (other than courts), except in some types of administrative hearings. They'd be barred, too, from voting on or getting involved in legislation that would be a particular benefit to their business, and from legislation that is being lobbied by a member of their families.
• State officeholders aren't allowed to raise money for their own campaigns during legislative sessions and for the 30 days before those sessions. But they can start dragging the sacks as soon as the final gavel falls on Sine Die. The Senate voted to add 20 days to the ban, barring the governor, other statewide officials, and legislators themselves from raising money during the three weeks after a session. That 20-day period is when the governor can veto bills. Two years ago, Gov. Rick Perry raised $1.2 million while he was in the process of vetoing 82 bills and scratching out some of the line items in the state budget. The senators aren't saying anything stinky took place, but they want the deadline extended just the same.
In spite of some early noise and some late grousing, the Texas Senate blessed Gov. Rick Perry's appointment to the Texas Department of Insurance. Commissioner Jose Montemayor will remain in that agency's top job, overseeing whatever new insurance regulations issue from the Pink Building.
The Senate has already passed a rewrite of some of the state's insurance laws and the House is working on it. The authors say the key features when they're done will include some form of rate rollback, restrictions on "credit scoring," where insurers use customer's credit histories to set rates and availability of insurance, and closer regulation of rates by the state. The Senate version includes new limits on redlining–setting rates based on geography and, critics contend, race and income. The companies say they don't redline.
Consumer groups want a bigger and more specific rollback and also don't want companies to raise rates without permission from the regulators. If they can't keep the system now in place, the companies want the version that got out of the Senate: New rates can go up with regulator's permission, or, if the regulators don't act, in 60 days after the companies make the requests.
• CORRECTION: We put the Texas Automobile Dealers Association on the hook last week, saying that group was among the official supporters of legislation prohibiting insurance companies from opening body shops. That ain't right. The coalition formed up to back that idea (which was here because Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst came out against it in strong fashion) include the Houston Automobile Dealers Association, the New Car Dealers Association of Greater Tarrant County, the New Car Dealers Association of Metropolitan Dallas, the San Antonio Automobile Dealers Association, and the Texas Automotive Wholesalers Association, but not TADA. Sorry, sorry, sorry.
Counting to One
SBC wants the Legislature to draw a line between broadband services it offers and regular old telephone services it offers to keep the new stuff out of the mitts of Bell's competitors. The company has a big network and current law says that, under certain conditions, it has to give competitors access to the network. That's a big oversimplification, but it gets the big pieces. The legislation SBC likes is sponsored by Rep. Toby Goodman, R-Arlington, and has more than 90 co-sponsors.
But one of the 50+ legislators who didn't sign on is Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford. He's the chairman of the House Regulated Industries panel, where the bill is in cold storage. And he says now that there's not enough time left in the session to give the bill proper consideration. King says it should be the subject of a study between the end of this legislative session and the start of the next one. AT&T officials quickly endorsed that idea, but said they remain wary that SBC supporters in the House or Senate will try to attach the idea to some other piece of legislation.
Sex, Gambling, Taxes, and Hutto's Hippo
The two Republican National Committee members from Texas–Denise McNamara of Dallas and Tim Lambert of Lubbock–have teamed up with the Texas Christian Coalition to oppose legislation that would allow casino-type gambling at racetracks in the state. They argue that the legislation is more than an expansion of the state lottery and that it would require the approval of voters–not just legislators. They mentioned specific bills in their statement, and didn't include Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn's proposal for video lottery games at tracks. But they seem to be against any expansion of gambling: "We have tremendous faith in our elected leaders to find a way to bridge the current shortfall without resorting to an expansion of gambling opportunities in Texas." Lambert, asked about proposals that weren't specifically mentioned, said he's not a gambling fan. "I think it's poor public policy to pursue gambling as a source of income for the state," he said. "We put people in jail for that sort of stuff."
• The Senate voted to make same-sex unions illegal in Texas. The supporters say the legislation–they call it the Defense of Marriage Act–is needed because civil unions are recognized elsewhere and the status of couples married elsewhere should be clear here. The opponents said the law won't do much, and could lead to discrimination against lesbian and gay couples.
• Gov. Rick Perry made his tax return public. He and First Lady Anita Perry reported adjusted gross income of $119,079. They gave $3,410 to charity. They owed $19,635 in taxes. House Speaker Tom Craddick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst filed for extensions.
• Rob Beckham, the Republican who ran for Congress last year against U.S. Rep. Charlie Stenholm, D-Abilene, is gearing up for another try. Beckham, also from Abilene, raised almost $75,000 during the first three months of the year and says people want him to run again. He lost last year, he contends, because he "just ran out of time and did not have sufficient resources" to match the incumbent. He's campaigning in the current Stenholm district, betting for now that redistricting won't change the territory. In November, with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and Gov. Rick Perry winning easily above and below him on the ballot, Beckham got 47.4 percent of the vote against Stenholm.
• The wheels of justice turn slowly. Hutto's hippo is on hold and the honchos in Hutto want the state attorney general to hurry up and give them some instruction. The mascot of Hutto, Texas (north of Austin), is a hippopotamus. Williamson County Attorney Eugene Taylor wants to know if it would be okay for the Hutto Economic Development Corp. to spend some of its local sales tax money on a $100,000 hippo–a fiberglass model that would be put in a prominent location. The city council is against it. Taylor also wants to know if the eco devo folks can go ahead in spite of the city council. They sent a letter to out-going AG John Cornyn in November. But that was a week after he was elected to the U.S. Senate, and he left it for AG Greg Abbott. But the hippo is apparently a hurry-up item for Hutto: an assistant to Taylor sent Abbott another request, reminding him of the request made "some time ago," noting that there has been no answer, and asking him to move it.
Political People and Their Moves
Two Texas public school teachers–Becki Krsnas of Fort Worth and Mili Henriquez of Houston–will each get $25,000 from the Milken Family Foundation, which awards 100 teachers in the U.S. each year for excellent work with students. Krsnas teaches fourth grade at Versia Williams Elementary in the Fort Worth ISD; Henriquez teaches third grade at Gallegos Elementary in the Houston ISD...
Sentenced to two years in federal prison and ordered to pay a $5,000 fine for trying to extort $280,000 from the Tony Sanchez gubernatorial campaign: Michael Morales, brother of former Texas Attorney General and Sanchez' Democratic primary rival Dan Morales...
Texas already has Edwin Edwards in one of its federal prisons. Now another Louisiana politico, David Duke, is a resident of the federal prison in Big Spring. The former state representative and Ku Klux Klan leader got a 15-month sentence for mail and tax fraud...
Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, will hold a title with the National Conference of State Legislatures that's similar to one of his Texas assignments. King, chairman of the House's Regulated Industries committee, will be on NCSL's panel on communications, technology and interstate commerce...
Attorney Andy Taylor is starting his own Houston-based law firm, leaving Locke Liddell & Sapp to specialize in election law and public policy litigation. Taylor was first assistant AG under John Cornyn...
Brig. Gen. Richard Box is the new head of the Texas State Guard, replacing Maj. Gen. Leroy Sisco. Box is a dentist and a Vietnam vet...
Little tiny political people and their moves: Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, had an excused absence from the last two days of the budget fight–his wife Melissa was giving birth to twins named Gray (after former Rep. Patricia Gray, D-Galveston) and Delaney (Eiland said the name is a Jimmy Buffett reference). The kids came early, weighing 3 lbs. 1 oz. and 2 lbs. 12 oz., respectively, but they and their mother are doing fine...
Quotes of the Week
House Appropriations Chairman Talmadge Heflin, R-Houston, quoted in the San Antonio Express-News on the cuts embodied in the House's version of the next state budget: "You always hear worst-case scenario. I think there'll be minimal impact."
Rep. Miguel Wise, D-Weslaco, a proponent of the idea that the state does too little for South Texas, dissing another region during the budget debate: "Let West Texans take care of West Texas."
Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, quoted in a Fort Worth Star-Telegram story on complaints that cuts in state programs will force counties to raise taxes and pick up the load: "If whatever we pass... results in a local tax increase, it's a tax increase. I don't care how we couch it."
Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, arguing for a new $295 million economic development fund under the control of the governor: "We can't tax ourselves into prosperity. We can't gamble ourselves into prosperity. The only thing we can do is put people to work."
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, quoted in a newspaper report on the $1.95 million sale of his Austin home, purchased five years ago for $900,000, to lobbyist and former Sen. Dan Shelley: "I lost money, and I appreciate the Houston Chronicle's concern about my economic welfare and its sympathy for my loss." Dewhurst said he didn't know who the buyer was until the sale was complete.
Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, quoted by the Houston Chronicle on legislation that would regulate minimum standards for lawyers in death penalty trials: "It will be helpful if the lawyer is not only competent, but awake, living and breathing. You know, those are just basic, due process requirements that most reasonable people, I think, support."
Rep. Kevin Bailey, D-Houston, chairman of the House General Investigating Committee, quoted by the Associated Press on problems at the Houston crime lab that have thrown doubt on loads of criminal convictions there: "We've got a serious, serious problem here that needs to be fixed. I don't think it's unreasonable to ask for a moratorium when people's lives are at stake."
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, quoted in The New York Times on the outbreak of looting in Iraq after most of the fighting stopped: "It's untidy. And freedom's untidy. And free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things."
Texas Weekly, Volume 19, Issue 41, 21 April 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.