Now that he's been briefed, Gov. Rick Perry isn't sufficiently impressed with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst's school finance plan to push it during the regular session. Perry has been putting off the school finance issue since early in the session—he said then that legislative leaders weren't experienced enough to pull it off. Now that Dewhurst is gathering Senate support for a fairly specific plan, Perry says there's not enough time to deal with it during the regular session.
Dewhurst isn't backing down. He's been working for weeks on a plan that would wipe out half of the local property tax for schools and replace it with an expanded sales tax at the state level. The state would pay more of the costs of public education, rich districts wouldn't be sending money to poor districts, and the Robin Hood system of finance that Republicans hate so much would be gone.
Perry says this and any other plan that comes along "needs careful study," and says he'll get together with Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick after the legislative session to work on school finance. When they've got a deal, he'll call a special session "to immediately enact that plan."
Dewhurst has been working alone on the school finance concoction, getting some headlines and taking the lead on the second biggest issue in state politics (behind the current budget mess).
He caught his leadership colleagues off guard by working on it in detail, talking to senators, to outside experts, to lawyers and trying to get something together before the end of the session. He's also been getting considerably better press than his cohorts, and they entered the session thinking they'd be dragging him over the line to save his political tail. Quietly, that's led to sneers about how Dewhurst is hot-dogging the issue, jumping out in front of the other two ahead of schedule.
The Dewhurst plan, which has been public since early this month, also irked some House members who thought it stepped on their turf. Tax bills have to start in the House. Dewhurst wires around that by making the tax bill a constitutional amendment that would take care of the local property tax and the sales tax increase in one swell foop, if voters approved. It also wires around the governor, who doesn't have the power to sign or veto constitutional amendments.
From his end, Dewhurst says he wants to get a quick solution to the problem: He said as recently as this week that he'd like to get a run at the plan before the legislative session ends. That appears less likely now that both Perry and Craddick have gone public with tepid reactions. But after their reactions, he jumped out with a statement saying he and Perry agree that Robin Hood should end but that he still thinks they should do something now.
Passing a constitutional amendment during the current session would allow voters to consider it later this year. If they approved, a new school finance system would be in place for the 2004-2005 school year. Waiting for a special session would make it difficult to get a plan in place before the 2005-06 school year. Dewhurst suggests doing the first part now, then holding a special session to work on school accountability and performance. If that wasn't enough to twist some noses, he even evoked George W. Bush, saying he agrees with the president that the state should pay more of the costs of public education while letting locals manage the details.
Dewhurst's school finance plan hasn't faced the acid test of printouts that show each legislator how each local school district fares under a particular scheme. And passing a school finance plan in the remaining weeks of the current session would be an astonishing legislative feat even with all three of the Pink Building's big shots pulling together.
A Family Fight Over Money
School finance isn't the only source of tension in the Pink Building. The House and the Senate and the governor still have different ideas about how to cover the difference between spending proposals and the amount of revenue they expect to have.
Gov. Rick Perry did a couple of "hold the line" press conferences—one at a Dallas home with some taxpayers and one at the Governor's Mansion in Austin with a mix of conservative groups—to try to gather support for a budget that requires no new taxes. He said in the process that he hasn't seen a credible threat that a tax bill could get through the Legislature and onto his desk, but this is show biz.
Where it comes to government is in what Perry will take: He still doesn't want to see any delayed payments or other accounting gizmos. Taxes are out, except for the ones he's already said he'd accept—primarily a revision to the state franchise tax that would attempt to tax corporations who reorganized simply to avoid those taxes. (That legislation sounds easier than to accomplish than it actually is, and the tax folks in the House, the comptroller's office, and on the outside are still cutting and pasting to try to get something that won't make businesses scream foul.)
The Senate is still looking at payment delays and other accounting gimmicks, on the theory that they don't hurt anybody, don't alarm taxpayers and voters in a serious way, and help balance the budget. The comptroller is still making noises that she might not certify some of those things if they show up in the budget. And the House budget has at least one big deferred payment—they moved the last Foundation School Fund payment of the budget cycle into the next biennium, thus appearing to spend more than $1 billion less than they're actually spending.
Preparing for the Final Parley
Add some new pieces to the puzzle and you've got the layout for the negotiations over the next few weeks. Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn says the House's budget is out of balance. They need to find $2.9 billion in new money or new cuts to make the thing work (that number includes the emergency appropriations bill that fills a deficit in this year's budget). They have several bills in the pipeline that could help. A reorganization of eleven health and human services agencies into one (or four, if you count the sub-agencies separately) includes enough cuts in programs and other areas and could produce savings and cuts totaling around $1 billion. It was under consideration on the floor of the House as we went to press. And legislation still cooking in the House Government Reform committee is supposed to contribute another $1 billion or so to close the gap.
The Senate is unveiling a budget that has a bottom line within spitting range of the House's, but the Devil is in the details: Though they spend about the same amount, they don't spend it the same way. And the sources of funding are quite different. Where the House is relying on budget cuts made in several large non-budget bills, the Senate is more prone to use deferrals and other so-called "non-tax revenues." Several of Strayhorn's e-Texas proposals are still pending. Some of those save money that can be applied to the budget, but only if they pass. The biggest one—a video lottery proposal that would bring in about $1 billion annually when it matures—is controversial. And Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio, has asked Attorney General Greg Abbott for an opinion on whether it's legal.
And outside groups are gathering, both for and against the state's spending plans. Perry, as noted, is marshalling the support of conservative groups who want to cut the budget and hold the line on taxes. Just about every group that benefits from something in the budget is lobbying for their program. The House budget would cut about 11,000 state jobs and more than 40,000 private sector jobs. (That latter number is an estimate based on interviews; the state doesn't keep track of how many people are employed outside of its payroll by its program. One part of the House budget cuts home health care, a move that would end the work done by about 40,000 private sector home health care workers. Patients would go to nursing homes, which would presumably have to hire some people, but it's hard to get a bead on how many.) Anyhow, all of those people are lobbying for their jobs as the Senate gets ready to vote on a spending plan and start the real bargaining over the budget.
A Late Play for Republican Maps
Attorney General Greg Abbott says the state Legislature ought to cut the state into 32 districts, each of which could elect its own person to Congress. But there's nothing in state or federal law, he adds in an official opinion, which compels lawmakers to do that.
That's just fuzzy enough to renew the fighting, but the folks who want the Texas House and Senate to redo the maps are almost out of time.
Abbott was asked by Rep. Joe Crabb, R-Atascocita, whether the Texas congressional delegation should keep running in the districts drawn by federal judges two years ago, or whether the Legislature had an obligation to get out the crayons and the knives and have a try at it. The hope of one corner was that Abbott would tell the Legislature to get to work and draw a map; in the opposite corner, combatants were hoping he'd say the court map would do until redistricting takes place again in 2011.
Two years ago, the Texas Legislature was absorbed with redistricting, but only of the Texas Legislature. The congressional delegation didn't stick together—what the Republican members were telling Texas legislators publicly differed from what they were saying privately—and lawmakers in Austin were busy enough losing blood over their own districts to bother losing blood for members of Congress. So they drew maps that flipped the Texas House, increasing the Republican content from 72 members to 88, and the Texas Senate, increasing the number of Republicans to 19 from 16.
The congressional maps went untouched—or at least weren't voted out—and a three-man panel of federal judges drew the map now in use. The congressional delegation got two new seats because of the state's growth, but the Republicans are out-numbered 15 to 17 there. They think they should have at least 18 seats, based on their count of Texans' votes in the last elections, and they want the Texas Legislature—with its new Republican majorities—to draw them a more favorable map.
Crabb, the head of the House Redistricting Committee, asked Abbott for an opinion last February, and now, with less than six weeks left in the session, he's got half the answer he wanted. The Legislature can draw new congressional maps, but doesn't have to. It is assigned that duty in the U.S. Constitution, but there is no punishment if lawmakers don't become mapmakers.
Fast-Track Hearings and Quick-Draw Artists
Crabb, and later in the day, U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, took that last bit as the starting point for their spin, saying the Legislature ought to honor the constitution. "We don't have to do it, but either the Constitution should be followed, or it shouldn't," Crabb said. "...Why should we be selective about when we follow the Constitution?" He plans to get his committee started on congressional maps, but says he's starting with no maps—none, he says, from DeLay or anyone else—and that he's not sure there is time left to take testimony, draw maps, and get something to the full House and Senate for a vote. He won't honor a request from Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, to hold hearings around the state, he says, because there isn't enough time. If they don't suspend any rules, Crabb would have to hold hearings, draw maps and get a bill to the floor and out of the House by May 13.
Raymond, who's on Crabb's committee, sent his chairman a letter asking for copies of any maps Crabb or anyone else in management has received from DeLay and the Texas Republicans in Congress. Crabb says he's seen no such maps and so can't turn them over. Raymond also took the opportunity to reiterate his opposition to any redistricting this session.
As is has been since the first of the session, the real question about redistricting is in the Senate. If the Republicans all voted to bring up a redistricting bill, they would need two Democrats to vote with them. And the nose counters in the upper chamber are not confident they could hold all of the Republicans. House Speaker Tom Craddick said earlier in the session that he didn't see a reason for the House to bring redistricting to a vote unless it appeared to have a chance in the Senate.
After the Abbott opinion and a visit with DeLay and Gov. Rick Perry, Craddick said he supports doing new maps for Congress and will let the full House vote on it if the committee votes out a bill. Crabb will start hearings within a week.
Is That a Hat? Is That a Rabbit?
Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, says he'll hit the streets with a new tort reform bill on Monday and plans to hold still more hearings once that is public. He hasn't told either side exactly what he's up to, but has said he doesn't think there should be a separate set of laws for every different kind of civil action, and isn't completely convinced of the need for a constitutional amendment that would allow certain kinds of damages to be capped by the Legislature. It's just vague enough to make the players nervous, in other words.
In the meantime, both sides are trying to get voters' attention with advertising, urging people to call their senators and representatives to register support for one side or the other. The trial lawyers are running television ads. Texans for Lawsuit Reform is sending direct mail to voters in South Texas and other parts of the state. You can have a look at one of the mailers on the website of one of their consultants: www.jdoner.com/downloads/English2.pdf. It starts off with "Are you sick of trial lawyers running our health care system?" and moves on from there. Another looks like a Monopoly game, only it's called Lawsuit Lottery. In each case, they list the name, address and phone numbers for the recipient's legislators suggest making a call.
The trial lawyers did a poll that contends people are confused about what tort reform means and suggests they're not for all of the particulars in the legislation passed by the Texas House. The info from that poll is being used, in part, to drive the messages in their television spots.
And there is some polling on the other side, too. The Fort Worth-based Eppstein Group did a survey in March that showed 69 percent of voters would favor a constitutional amendment limiting the amount that could be paid for emotional pain and suffering in any lawsuit. Almost everybody polled—91 percent—said medical malpractice insurance is a problem and three-quarters said they'd favor limits on what lawyers get paid for winning lawsuits. Asked about the sizes of damage caps they'd support, 40 percent said $250,000 was "about right," 20 percent said it was too high and 26 percent said it was too low. That survey included 1,001 registered Texas voters.
A poll of doctors done for the Texas Medical Association found that two-thirds said they had turned away high-risk cases for fear of lawsuits. They're lobbying for damage caps, limits on attorney contingency fees and telling juries about other benefits available to a victim who's in court.
The Election Following the Next Election
The special election runoff to replace the late Irma Rangel, D-Kingsville, in the Texas House will take place three days after the people in that area go to the polls to vote in local elections. The first election put Republican James Matz of Palm Valley and Democrat Juan Escobar of Kingsville into a runoff, and the date for that contest was set after the counties canvassed the votes from the first election. Based on when the counting was completed, the earliest date available for the runoff is May 6. Local elections are on May 3, and local politicos are buzzing about whether the odd date and the presumably lower turnout is going to benefit Matz, who has higher name ID (he's been a county commissioner, a city councilman and a mayor) than Escobar, a former Border Patrol agent who has been on two different school boards.
On Tap: Ethics
The ethics bill coming up next week in the House doesn't include an issue that bottled up similar legislation two years ago, but there will be an amendment requiring candidates to list the employers and occupations of donors. The good government types say that's the only way to tell one Joe Sixpack from another guy with the same name, and to tell how industry money is floating around in political contests. Some candidates aren't crazy about the paperwork or the disclosure.
Flotsam & Jetsam
While everybody else is messing with budgets and insurance and torts, the Republican Party of Texas is chewing on some of its own for pushing a new way of electing judges. Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, is close to a vote in the Senate on creating retention elections for judges and will probably have it out of that chamber by the time you read this (as we went to deadline, he'd gotten tentative approval and had the votes for final approval). Similar legislation in the House is still in committee.
It would let governors appoint judges and then let voters throw out anyone they think is a bummer. Some judges don't like the idea, and the political parties don't, either. Publicly, party types (the GOP has been loudest) call it an attack on voters that will make elections even nastier. Privately, it looks to some of them like an erosion of local party power. And they're fighting hard. At one point, GOP party leaders told an affiliated group of local party chairs they could be thumped for supporting Duncan's position. It's in conflict with the party platform.
• Texas might follow Illinois on an insurance law designed to cut the number of uninsured drivers by asking for proof of state-required insurance and fining people $250 if they don't have a policy and don't get one within 30 days. Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, says the Illinois law brought the percentage of uninsured motorists down to 5 percent from a high of 20 percent. It makes a little money, too. The first year it's really up and running, it would bring in about $8 million in fines. After insurance compliance rates improve, that drops to a point where the fines bring in just a little more than the mailings cost.
• It's unusual to have the duplicate bills come up in both chambers of the Legislature, and even weirder to have them on the floors of the House and Senate at the same times. The so-called "virtual charter schools" bill was up in both at the same time this week, with a confident House sponsor in Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, and a cautious Senate sponsor in Florence Shapiro, R-Plano. Shapiro got her bill out after tiptoeing through opponents. At almost exactly the same time, the House was killing Grusendorf's bill with prejudice, knocking it down and then tabling it to make sure it never comes back. Except as Shapiro's bill. The legislation would let students take private school courses on the Internet paid for with public school funds; the company pushing it has former U.S. Education Secretary Bill Bennett as its front man.
• Tuition deregulation at state universities isn't as dead as it looked just a few days ago. The University of Texas and others want to set their own tuition. That's not in the state budget, but the House is moving a bill by Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, that would raise the rates a fixed amount during the next two years, then set the universities free to charge what they want. We scribbled about this a while back, but it's worth repeating: Students with Texas Tomorrow Fund contracts won't be affected by tuition increases. That'll eventually cost the state something—it has to cover the difference between the actual price of tuition and the price the student locked in with their contract—but it gets parents off the hook.
• Rep. Kent Grusendorf's much-touted legislation that would put an expiration date on the state's Robin Hood school finance system was bush-whacked in its first appearance on the House floor. Rep. Ron Wilson, D-Houston, knocked it down on a point of order that looked pre-arranged, or at least unusually quick. It can be resurrected later, after the error on a committee witness form is patched.
• CLARIFICATION: Some close readers in the insurance bidness didn't agree with what we wrote about the Senate insurance bill's rate regulation provisions last week: They don't like them. Now let us take care here, because they are not clear about what they want. The Senate bill would require companies to give notice of changes in premium rates to the Texas Department of Insurance. If the regulators did nothing within 60 days, the companies would be allowed to charge the new rates. On the other hand, regulators could question the rates and ask the companies to justify them. That, some companies say, is too much regulation, and they don't like it. They have other problems with the Senate bill, but that covers their beef with our item last week. Sorry, sorry, sorry.
Political People and Their Moves
Rick Crawford, a Republican former legislator kicked out of the State Preservation agency by the new board members there, won a $10,000 settlement from the state after filing suit over his firing. The board includes the governor, the lieutenant governor and the speaker of the House. Crawford, who oversaw construction of the Capitol extension and the Bob Bullock State History Museum, was close to the old administration in the House, but not to the new one...
Lawyer-lobbyist Robert Miller is quitting his civic gig on the board of Houston's Metropolitan Transit Authority after six years there. He told the Houston Chronicle he no longer has time to do that and his day job, too...
Another Houston politico, Ned Holmes, is jumping into a new job. Gov. Rick Perry appointed Holmes, a real estate director and former chairman of the Port of Houston Authority, to a term on the Texas Parks & Wildlife Commission...
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn officially opened his state headquarters office in Austin, with Jennifer Lustina, who has been helping with his politics for several years, as state director, and Beth Cubriel as state field director...
Every legislative session seems to generate a classic piece of videotape. The newest entry: Rep. Robert Talton, R-Pasadena, being interviewed by KXAN-TV's Rich Parsons about legislation barring anyone but married couples from being foster parents. Talton twice slapped away the microphone—over Parson's stern protests—without answering or offering up a "No Comment" before storming off. KXAN, an Austin station, offered it up to NBC affiliates statewide.
Quotes of the Week
Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, quoted in the Tyler Morning Telegraph: "There's not any way in the world that I could ever support a budget like the House passed out."
Gov. Rick Perry, putting some daylight between him and budget proposals prepared by his staff at the beginning of the legislative session: "That was a lot of different people's ideas that were being pitched up. I never saw that document. It never got to my desk."
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, quoted in an El Paso Times story on his effort to rework school finance: "Our goal is to reform school finance without adding to the tax burden of hard-working Texas families. Robin Hood as we know it will be dead, and we will cut property taxes by 50 percent without changing how our schools are governed. Our guiding principle will be that schools be funded centrally and governed locally."
Bob Richter, spokesman for House Speaker Tom Craddick, on Dewhurst's school finance plan, quoted in the San Antonio Express-News: "It's like rolling a body out of the morgue and saying this is going to be our wide receiver next season."
Peggy Venable of Citizens for a Sound Economy, in The Dallas Morning News, on the need to cut state spending: "We never saw a tax hike we liked."
David Bostis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, in a Houston Chronicle story on increasing numbers of African-American women heading city governments—and the declining numbers of black men in those jobs: "If you look at the demographics of the black population, you see a higher percentage of black women than men getting college degrees. You see more black women than men voting, and you also see a greater level of civic activism behind the scenes."
U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pennsylvania, talking to the Associated Press about the challenge to the Texas sodomy law pending in court: "If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything."
University of Texas Chancellor Mark Yudof, quoted by The Wall Street Journal on the perils of trying to compete with private schools while tuition at UT campuses is capped: "We're much like a Russian grocery store: long lines, low prices and not much food."
Texas Weekly: Volume 19, Issue 42, 28 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.