The 20-week legislative session is down to its final three weeks. The big legislation with the hard edges and the sharp corners—even the emergency insurance bill—is still pending. The House has only a few more days before its rules block consideration of any legislation that hasn't already been through the Senate.
It's crunch time.
Several House bills critical to the House's own budget remain unresolved. Speaker Tom Craddick says the budgeteers are watching a list of measures that would save money or raise money or somehow provide funding for the two-year budget. Each bill that dies turns a screw on a budget that already drips a big negative newspaper headline with each change. The Senate budgeteers, less dependent on the House bills and with an agenda of their own, have or will have the remaining House finance measures in hand at this time next week. The bargaining levers, because of the differences in House and Senate rules, fall in favor of the Senate as the session nears its end.
The big issues that were on the table during last year's elections and at the beginning of the session are, for the most part, still in play:
• The state still has that pesky $10 billion difference between the money available and the cost of the services Texas now provides. Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn will put out some final numbers soon. Business franchise taxes are due May 15—comptrollers generally peg their end-of-session spending forecasts to those results. Expect to hear something in the third week of May. Budgets in tough times often come down to hard choices between a handful of sickening cuts and a handful of disgusting fundraising measures. Usually, the comptroller's forecast starts the drama.
• Two huge government reorganization bills—one focused on health and human services and the other on everything else—are still in the pipeline. They include cuts and remodeling of large chunks of government; without them, lawmakers will have to find $1.5 billion or so.
• Remember that $100 million governor's race and all those ads about skyrocketing homeowners and automobile insurance costs? Gov. Rick Perry labeled that an emergency issue due for quick action. The Senate got a bill out a while back, but the issue got stuck in a House committee that has only now squirted out a result. That's on the full House's plate now (but as a Senate bill could wait a week for consideration while House members move out their own bills).
• Tort reform, out of the House—fully intact but with plenty of run-over Democrats in its wake—has been on the slow road in the Senate. It'll come out, but not with a lot of time for new tricks.
• Ethics legislation is now out of the House and off to the Senate. Don't forget there's a grand jury in session talking about the campaigns that got a lot of these lawmakers to Austin in the first place.
• The Senate sent its hot-potato school finance bill to the House for consideration. The House doesn't want to get steamrolled by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst & Co. and doesn't want to look like it killed a property tax cut. They want more time, and want to mess with schools in a special session.
• The House is ready to send a hot-potato redistricting bill to the Senate. Eleven senators could block a vote. Washington is calling daily to keep the pressure up. The later it gets, the greater the chance Democrats will mount filibusters to stop it.
• Throw this in, for spice: Gov. Perry vetoed 82 bills after lawmakers left last year. He has shown, in effect, that he's not afraid to use the gun in his hand. As time shortens, his negotiating power rises.
It Looked Bigger in the Advertisement
At one point, House budgeteers were looking to Rep. David Swinford's HB 2 for $1 billion or more and hoping that what he did with a combination of reorganizations and cuts and wizardly tricks would produce that much money to fill the hole in the state budget. But his bill, which passed out of committee on May 1 and still hadn't been handed to members or to the public a week later, comes up short of the goal. The fiscal note from the Legislative Budget Board says the bill is good for $560 million over the next two years. General revenue money in the committee bill totals $442 million.
Most of the money would come from a cut in non-teaching personnel in public schools. Public schools would have to follow state-set ratios limiting the percentage of school district central office people and principals and cafeteria workers and bus drivers and office help and janitors and such—everybody who isn't a classroom teacher. That's a recommendation from Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn. Districts' funding from the state would be based on the ratios. And since those aren't state employees, they don't have to list the number of people the recommendation would put out of work. Other provisions in the bill would cost about 1,100 state employees jobs next year. After five years have passed, the fiscal note says, the bill would shrink the state payroll by 2,522 people.
The legislation would raise licensing charges for landscape architects, interior designers, land surveyors, and property tax consultants. It would put state employees into smaller cubicles, cutting the amount of office space per employee to 153 square feet to 135 square feet.
It would create a new state agency called the Private Correctional Facilities Commission, require the state prison system to contract for another 5,000 beds, and removes the 1,000-bed restriction on the size of a private prison. Another provision would take the politically dangerous property tax division out of the comptroller's office and create the free-standing State Board on Property Valuation.
Not all of the provisions are designed to save money or shrink government, at least not directly. One would give the governor the power to change the organization and operation of any agency at his or her discretion. That's currently a legislative prerogative. Another gives the Commissioner of Insurance a one-year term instead of a two-year term, which would also make it impossible to wait for Senate consent to the appointment (they only meet every two years). It would give the governor the power to choose who on each state board should be the presiding officer, and to fire them at will. It would allow state agencies to pay one-time recruitment bonuses of up to $5,000 to new employees.
Will the Senate Buy it?
Goo-goos—a dated term for good government types—were generally positive about the ethics bill that got out of the House, even after it was worked out, delayed, torn apart and reassembled in back-room, closed-door meetings that involved some 80 members of the House. That roving gang of lawyers we warned you about—there are 49 of them in the Texas House—deleted provisions preventing them from voting on legislation lobbied by their profit-sharing partners. They watered down prohibitions on lobbying by lawmakers' children and business partners. Lawyers who delay trials during legislative sessions would have to report the continuances, but not the compensation.
But there are pluses. The bill would require candidates for state offices to reveal how much cash they have on hand in their political accounts. Candidates would have to list employers and occupations campaign donors of more than $1,000 (or make a reasonable effort to do so). A loophole that limits disclosure by out-of-state political action committees would be closed. Local candidates for public and party offices in big cities and counties would have to disclose their personal finances. Judicial candidates would have to report their campaign money electronically, like other state candidates. Lawmakers would be barred from representing clients before state agencies, whose budgets they control.
One provision was added under duress. Rep. Ron Wilson, D-Houston, agreed not to kill the legislation with a point of order in return for a requirement that lawyer/legislators report any income from referring cases to other lawyers. That could get the lawyers working against the bill again.
One of Indian gaming's best chances died when Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, raised a point of order that killed an amendment to the lottery sunset bill. Ratliff said he told others that he would filibuster the legislation if the amendment was added, or if another that would introduce video lotteries to Texas was tacked on. If he had to filibuster, he said, it would leave him "unable to do much else for several days." However, he disputes the rumor that he threatened to sit on the tort legislation that remains in his Senate State Affairs Committee. The tort bill is the big thing on his plate and a delay wouldn't necessarily help it, but the two things weren't connected in his conversations, he says.
He's expecting to have a revised tort bill up for consideration by that committee next week, and the Senate leadership is hoping to get it to the full Senate within a week. And here's a follow-up to something we wrote earlier: Ratliff initially said he was not convinced that putting caps on certain kinds of damage awards in lawsuits required a change to the Texas Constitution. But his bill has "hard" caps in it—the dollar amounts are specified—and that, he says, will require an amendment. It'll be part of the package when the legislation goes to the floor.
The hard caps in the bill are for non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases. But the Texas Medical Association is unhappy with the current version. They commissioned a study that contends liability insurance premiums would drop only five percent if the bill passes. With that in their mitts, they now want Ratliff to make some changes, lowering the overall limits on damages, extending the legal protection to every medical professional sued for malpractice, and apply the limits to claims that have already been filed, instead of just those claims that roll in after the law is changed. They also want a shorter statute of limitations, so that doctors won't have liability hanging over them for so long.
A House is Not a Home
Three hours after it was publicly introduced, a congressional redistricting map won the approval of a House committee and began its ride to the floor of the House, where opposition is expected to be both noisy and ineffectual: Republicans hold 88 seats to the Democrats' 61, and this is a partisan issue. The Republicans are still tweaking their plan, but the committee's version had these features:
• Doubles: Four Democrats find themselves paired in two districts under the House committee's map. U.S. Reps. Gene Green, D-Houston, and Nick Lampson, D-Beaumont, would be paired, and Max Sandlin, D-Marshall, and Jim Turner, D-Crockett, would share a district.
• Mixed doubles: Two districts would pair Republican incumbents with Democrats in districts that, on paper, strongly favor Republicans. Another might result in a pairing, and might not. U.S. Reps. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, and Martin Frost, D-Dallas, would share a district. So would Democrat Chris Bell and Republican John Culberson of Houston. And Charles Stenholm, D-Abilene, could be paired with a Republican to be named soon. Two Republicans—one from Lubbock and one from Midland—made the runoff to replace Larry Combest, R-Lubbock. If the Lubbock candidate wins, he and Stenholm would have to arm-wrestle over the district. If the Midland candidate wins, he'd find himself in a new district that, on paper, has no incumbent now.
• Open seats: A West Texas seat includes all or part of 36 counties from the Hill Country to the state's border with New Mexico. It's dominated by Odessa, Midland and San Angelo, is about 62 percent Anglo and voted about 62 percent Republican in last year's contest for lieutenant governor. If the congressional runoff goes to Randy Neugebauer of Lubbock next month, this new district would be a pretty good fit for his second-round opponent, Midland accountant Michael Conaway. Dallas County dominates the other Republican open seat, which laps into Tarrant and Denton Counties. It's about 61 percent Anglo, and voted almost 70 percent for Republican David Dewhurst in that Lite Guv race. One of that district's prominent political residents is Rep. Ken Marchant, R-Coppell.
More House Remodeling
One Democratic open seat starts in Houston and runs through Chambers and Jefferson Counties. Blacks and Hispanics make up 73 percent of the district, though neither alone holds half the vote, and Democrat John Sharp carried the district with 74 percent of the vote while losing the statewide race for the number two office in Texas. Another includes all of Cameron and part of Hidalgo County—advantage Cameron. It's 80 percent Hispanic and voted 62 percent with Sharp, and it's a seat that could attract someone like Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville. Finally, the map would create an empty Harris County district where almost 70 percent of the population is Hispanic and where almost 70 percent voted with the Democrat in the Lite Guv race last year. Some Republicans hope to lure a vote from Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, with that seat.
• The list of endangered incumbents includes the first two pairings above, where four Democrats are tossed into two Republican congressional districts. In cases where Democrats are paired with Republicans, they're paired to the distinct advantage of the Rs. That's seven Democrats in trouble. And three more—Ralph Hall of Rockwall, Lloyd Doggett of Austin and Chet Edwards of Waco, would find themselves in elephant territory (Hall's already there, and votes reliably with the GOP).
• The net result, on paper: At least Ten Ds in the Texas delegation would come home. Democrats would win in three of the open districts, and the Republicans in Washington, D.C., would get a net of seven new seats. The Democrats with the crosshairs on them are all Anglo males (some in the Texas House have taken to wearing lapel pins showing a can of WD-40; the translation is White Democrats Over 40). Each of the congressional Democrats who is not targeted is either Black or Hispanic. The three open Democratic seats are minority seats. If the map passes and the results at the polls match the numbers on paper, Texas' congressional delegation will consist of 22 White Republicans and 10 Black and Hispanic Democrats. But not all of the minority Democrats in Congress are treated gently. An example: Ruben Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, would find himself in a district that includes his hometown near the Mexican border and also a chunk of downtown Austin. Another: Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, would have to continue to campaign at home, but would also have to campaign all the way to El Paso, where voters don't have any history with him.
And the Fight to Come
If you think the Democrats in the Texas Legislature like that, you are mostly incorrect. Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice (Texas is subject to the Voting Rights Act, and DOJ enforces it). He wanted the House to hold hearings around the state and had a couple of nasty exchanges with Redistricting Committee Chairman Joe Crabb, R-Atascocita, during the last two weeks, as Raymond pushed for more time. He announced his formal complaint at a press conference attended by about two dozen House Democrats, most of them Hispanics.
That's got the support of the Democratic Texans in Washington, D.C., and will be part of the basis for a court challenge if the redistricting plans make it into the law books.
But there is still a state Senate, and Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, claims to have lined up enough Senate votes to block redistricting. He's not sharing names, however, so there's no way to double-check his count, or—he might say—to know which arms to twist.
Just for Kicks
The GOP Mapmakers went out of their way to spank former House Speaker Pete Laney, a Democrat. Hale County, home to about 36,000 people, would be cut in half in the new map. Plainview would go into the Stenholm/Combest district. Laney's home of Hale Center would go to Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon... Doggett's new district would stretch from Austin to Katy, a Houston suburb. Pieces of Travis County would belong to four members of Congress instead of two... Locals in Tarrant, Harris and Dallas complain they'd be chopped up to benefit the suburbs.
Lots of Juice, but the Fruit Screams
House members worried about having to vote on the Senate's school finance bill might find their allies in the hallways outside: Each service that would be taxed under the new plan has at least one lobbyist, and some of them are loud enough and powerful enough to really hurt the plan. The numbers we're using are from the comptroller's "Tax Exemptions and Tax Incidence" report, which understates the amounts in the Senate bill. The comptroller numbers are based on the current state sales tax rate of 6.25 percent. The Senate bill would raise the rate to 7.25 percent, and the state would get to tax services at a 9.25 percent rate in places where local add-ons to the existing sales tax add two cents to the state rate. The numbers below are as much as 48 percent too conservative.
Newspapers, many of which have editorialized against budget cuts, are most eloquent in their opposition to taxes on advertising. Such a tax, which would also hit television and radio stations, and, come to think of it, high-dollar political campaigns, would raise $343 million over he next two years. Newspapers got lobbyists. The Senate plan would raise $976 million from a sales tax on construction labor in both new residential and nonresidential construction and from remodeling and repair. Builders got lobbyists. The sales tax on day care services would bring in $316 million. They don't need lobbyists. Ever seen a PTA meeting?
A sales tax on lawyers would bring in $806 million over the next two years. They, naturally, have already made some elegant arguments. One, which we also heard from a business lobster, is that a Texas lawyer doing national or international work would have to stop or move from the state, because the tax would price the work at 9 to 10 percent higher than out-of-state competitors.
Another $515 million would come from auto maintenance and repair, which is a component of rising insurance costs. The chunks of the new sales tax on services include $392 million from accounting and audit services; $571 million from architectural and engineering services; $203 million from public relations and management consulting; $208 million from contract computer programmers; $266 million from financial services brokerage; $363 million from real estate brokerage and agency; and $464 million from freight haulers. Several smaller industries that would get taxed: Barbers, beauticians, employment agencies, veterinarians, funeral homes, car washes and interior designers.
Political Arcs, Up and Down
The race to succeed U.S. Rep. Larry Combest, R-Lubbock, is down to two and the numbers favor the Lubbock entry, Randy Neugebauer, in the runoff. He finished first, Mike Conaway of Midland finished second, and two Lubbock candidates—state Rep. Carl Isett and former mayor David Langston, finished third and fourth. The population is on the northern end, and so were the votes.
• Juan Escobar will be the newest member of the Texas House. The former Border Patrol agent beat Republican James Matz to serve the rest of the term for the late Rep. Irma Rangel, D-Kingsville.
• Mike Moncrief, a former House member, senator and Tarrant County Judge, easily won his race for mayor of Fort Worth in the face of huge financial opposition from the wealthy and estranged part of his own family. Moncrief got 61 percent of the vote.
• Former Rep. Paul Sadler, D-Henderson, headed the Public Education Committee when he served. He headed special committee that chewed up and digested then-Gov. George W. Bush's tax bill in 1997, and was among Bush's regulars when the subject was education or state finance and some Austin handicappers think he might run someday for higher state office. But that wasn't enough for the voters of the Henderson Independent School District. Sadler lost a race for school board on May 3 by six votes. Dean McNew got 313 votes to Sadler's 307. A third candidate got 30 votes. That's been canvassed, and HISD officials say they haven't seen any requests for a recount Sadler told the local paper that there were "irregularities" in the election that ought to be ironed out by the school district.
• The Republican Party of Bexar County emailed a notice to supporters that says the party is now taking applications and accepting resumes for judicial appointments and for others who want to be on state boards and such. Later on, they do admit that the appointments are made by the governor.
Political People and Their Moves
You probably know this by now, but we'll include it in the interests of closure: After we went to press last week, the Senate named these folks to work out the differences with the House over the budget: Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo; Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo; Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock; Steve Ogden, R-Bryan; and John Whitmire, D-Houston. The House gang includes Reps. Talmadge Heflin, R-Houston; Vilma Luna, D-Corpus Christi; Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie; Sylvester Turner, D-Houston; and Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson. Scoreboard: Republicans 6, Democrats 4. Boys 7, Girls 3. Houston 3, Dallas 0. Panhandle 2, South Texas 2, Central Texas (Austin-San Antonio) 0, East Texas 0, Far West Texas 0. Anglos 7, Hispanics 2, Blacks 1.
Appointments: Gov. Rick Perry named Russell Tolman of Cook Children’s Health Care System in Fort Worth to the Statewide Health Coordinating Council... Perry named four to the board of the Texas Agricultural Finance Authority, which helps with "economic development" loans to rural and agricultural businesses. Nacogdoches County Judge Sue Kennedy, and bankers Dal DeWees of San Angelo, Ruben Bosquez of McAllen, and Albert Lowry of Laredo (He's at Laredo National—not Tony Sanchez' bank) all got Perry's nod... and the Guv named Harris County Judge Robert Eckels and Taylor County Auditor Bridget McDowell of Baird to the board of the Texas County and District Retirement System, which runs benefit programs for employees of participating counties...
President George W. Bush tapped three Texans for federal judge jobs: U.S. Magistrate Marcia Crone for a court in Beaumont; and for positions in El Paso, State District Judge Frank Montalvo and visiting judge Kathleen Cardone. Those all require Senate approval.
Press Corps stuff: Move Steve Taylor from the Valley newspapers to a new online venture with the Austin-based Quorum Report. He'll be covering Valley issues for that online service. He got sideways with his old employer even though he was breaking some stories and making the papers a regular read—if not always a beloved one—in Austin... former Houston Chronicle Executive Editor Tony Pederson is moving to Dallas to head the journalism department at Southern Methodist University. He's lobbied in Austin over the years on open meeting and open records issues...
Deaths: Sam Bass of Freeport, a former state representative from Brazoria County and appellate judge (in Houston), after a traffic accident. He was 76.
Quotes of the Week
Rep. Joe Crabb, R-Atascocita, responding to a question from Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, about holding redistricting hearings around the state: "There are only two people I know of on the committee that speak Spanish. The rest of us would have a very difficult time if we were out in an area—other than Austin or other English-speaking areas—to be able to have committee hearings or to be able to converse with people that did not speak English."
Renea Hicks, a lawyer for Raymond: "If the House is intent on doing this, they need to do it right."
House Speaker Tom Craddick, quoted in a redistricting story in the El Paso Times: "To be blunt, on the Republican side, the leadership has changed and so has the agenda. The House Redistricting Committee will likely send a new redistricting bill to the floor in the next 10 days. The fight will be loud, and the Republicans will win."
Craddick, later, asked about an accusation in a press release from Dallas' senior congressman: "I don't know Martin Frost. I never met the man. And Tom DeLay is not my puppet master."
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, after Craddick quoted him saying the Senate could pass redistricting if the House could: "If the House passes a redistricting bill in which we have at least 21 senators in support, then we'll move the bill through committee and a vote on the floor. It's impossible for me to tell you whether or not there are 21 votes right this second."
Former Sen. Max Sherman, telling the Dallas Morning News that giving more power to Rick Perry will eventually benefit Democratic governors: There will be a time when there will be a Democratic governor. What's good for the goose will be good for the gander."
Texas Weekly, Volume 19, Issue 44, 12 May 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.