Will there be a special session other than the one on school finance? And will it really start on June 30? And will the subject be government reorganization? The budget? Franchise taxes? The 10 percent rule for college admissions? And is congressional redistricting the only reason to come back, with whatever else just thrown in to provide a cover story for what voters might see as a political session?
Gov. Rick Perry hasn't called legislators back yet, though we expect an announcement soon. He has said that there will be a special session later in this cycle on the subject of school finance. He has not said that will be the only special session. He has not said it won't be the only special session. And he hasn't shown his list of what issues other than school finance might be important enough to him to call lawmakers back before their regular session in January 2005. Neither is he through vetoing bills, and a veto in just the right place could easily create a need for some instant legislating.
The Houston Chronicle, crediting unnamed Republican legislative sources, reports Perry will call a summer session with government reorganization as the "other" issue. Congressional redistricting, by that account (and by every single other version we've heard) would be the second issue.
Redistricting is also the only issue that brings with it an immediate concern about timing. If they're going to do the maps before next year's elections, they have to build in a few months for the U.S. Department of Justice and the federal courts to bless their new plans. At the beginning of the legislative session, government reorganization was touted as one of the best ways to save money in order to balance the budget without a tax increase. The bill died at least twice along the way before finally sputtering to a stop on the last weekend of the session. By then, the money wasn't needed -- budgeteers had figured out how to make the numbers work without the remodeling job.
Other ideas that have been mentioned as potential disguises for a special session on congressional redistricting also suffer from urgency deficits. The Legislature didn't find a way to recapture the corporations that found a legal hole in the franchise tax. As a result, they missed out on $220 million to $350 million in taxes that Perry and others exempted from their No New Taxes pledges. They lost another $100 million or so when the comptroller said she was downgrading the current tax. If companies know they can cut and run, she said, they'll do it, to the tune of another $100 million. Still, without the franchise tax "fix," the budget balanced.
Lawmakers also deadlocked -- because of a filibuster by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas -- on changes to the law that gives the first crack at universities to Texas high schoolers who finish in the top 10 percent of their classes. Colleges claim they're overrun with top-10 students whose overall test scores aren't as good as those of some non top-10 students who can't find room on the admissions list. Put another way: Students in the top ten at one school might be less qualified for college than those in the second or third 10 percent at another school. That could be a subject for a special session, but it would take some explaining to make an emergency of it.
A couple of weeks ago, the speculation centered on three issues that had not been approved by the Legislature: the budget, tort reform, and insurance regulation. The first has to pass. The other two were declared emergencies in January and didn't make it to the finish line until the last possible day. An ethics bill was on the list on the session's last weekend. But all four issues were approved by lawmakers. Unless Perry vetoes one of the bills (or, in the case of the budget, one of the bills that provides the money to make it balance), those are off the list of special session possibilities.
An Ethics Bill, the Old-Fashioned Way
For a few hours on the last weekend, it looked like campaign and officeholder ethics legislation could be the subject of a special session. The House passed a bill after members watered down a committee version in a series of meetings in a conference room off the hall behind the House chamber. The Senate diluted that version in a series of meetings in a conference room off the hall behind the Senate chamber and then passed its adaptation.
Four of the House conferees -- three Republicans and a Democrat -- wouldn't sign the conference committee report handed to them by Rep. Steven Wolens, D-Dallas. That led to a temporary train wreck -- including some profanity-laced histrionics at a press conference late on the last Saturday night of the session. Wolens blamed House Speaker Tom Craddick for undercutting him and said Craddick was busting the bill in order to force a special session that could include congressional redistricting. Craddick said later that the four conferees were even madder than Wolens and felt they'd been cut out of a negotiation that got them a bill they didn't like and couldn't sign.
On Sunday morning, they looked over their creation and saw that it was not good.
They went back to work. Four new provisions were added, and then patched, and the House and Senate each passed an ethics bill. The House literally did it after the buzzer, first suspending an end-of-session rule that hasn't been breached for years. For history buffs, this was the first major ethics bill passed by lawmakers since 1991. That year, members voted on a bill at the very end of the session even though nobody had seen it. They were finding new items in it for weeks.
One late addition to this year's bill requires candidates to reveal how much cash they have on hand in their accounts. And the provision is retroactive, snagging anyone who's been dragging the sack and still has to file reports, even former officeholders.
Sharing the Pain
The real controversy, though, stems from another late addition to the bill: City council members in cities with more than 100,000 citizens and school board members in districts that have more than 5,000 students would have to fill out the same personal financial disclosure forms now used by state officials. It grabs city managers and city attorneys, too.
Some of those local officials are hopping mad about it, and the Texas Municipal League, which represents cities, and the Texas Association of School Boards are both asking the governor to veto it. TASB says the provision will affect people in the 155 largest school districts in the state. TML officials say officeholders and executives in 26 cities will have to file. Both say the provision snuck up on them -- that's true enough, since it wasn't in any version of the bills that went to conference committee -- and say it will prevent people from running for local offices by removing their privacy.
Some other provisions of note: Candidates have to report the employer and occupations of donors who give more than $500; lawmakers can't practice before state agencies; and lawyer/legislators have to reveal when they've asked courts to delay cases during legislative sessions.
In its final form, which the members didn't see until well after they voted, the ethics bill passed the Senate unanimously, and only eight House members voted against it.
On the last day -- the day when only corrections are allowed -- Rep. Will Hartnett, R-Dallas, tried to amend the ethics bill to require financial disclosures from the parliamentarians for the House and the Senate. Hartnett argued that parliamentarians have more power than House members, and call the balls and strikes during legislative debate. A number of members went to the back microphone to say the parliamentarians offer counsel to the Speaker of the House and to the lieutenant governor and that the bosses are responsible for those calls. The idea was shot down on a division vote: Steve Collins in the House and Walter Fisher in the Senate can keep their personal finances private.
House Speaker Tom Craddick opened an end-of-session breakfast with reporters by saying he'd like to see the government reorganization bill resurface in a special session. And he would like a chance to redistrict appellate courts in Texas.
His touts for the session: Tort reform, medical malpractice, a $117 billion budget that got bigger in total funds while lowering the general revenue spending that comes solely from state taxes. Craddick said he expects "immediate rate reductions" as a result of the insurance regulations passed by lawmakers. He said the consolidation of health and human services agencies spearheaded by Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson, will have a lasting impact on state government.
Deregulation of higher education "will be the salvation" of universities that suffered from prices capped by lawmakers who simultaneously held down the schools' state funding. While he didn't call for a special session, or predict one for anything but school finance, he said again that he thinks Texas' congressional districts don't fairly represent the state's Republican majority.
Craddick said the House ended on a bipartisan note, but he also blamed the Democrats for splitting the aisle and making the House more partisan. He disagreed sharply with the idea that he and his lieutenants in the House were "ramming things through," and he attributed the tension evident throughout the session to growing pains. "We'll see a lot smoother session next time," he predicted.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst's version of the session was similar on the issue front, though he spent more time talking about the budget and the work done in the Senate to cover spending without taxes. He said many of the "non-tax revenues" that ended up in the budget were on the Senate's roadmap early in the session, "relaxing some of our Democrats" off of calls for higher taxes. He said they figured out how to fill a $5 billion shortfall only to see the comptroller double it. His reaction at the time? "I paid money to be here. Wow! Who's smart in this place?"
Dewhurst said he was under considerable pressure from grassroots Republicans to cut Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, out of the leadership. And he praised Ratliff's work on tort reform and medical malpractice. That and other issues almost didn't work out: "Through [the last] Sunday morning, we still had live grenades bouncing around on the floor that could have destroyed the place."
And he spent a fair amount of time defending health and a human service cuts in the budget, saying the cuts are not nearly as severe as the worst estimates indicate. Forecasts that 169,000 kids will be ineligible for the Children's Health Insurance Program will prove to be wrong, he said.
On the way out, he said he plans to keep his current job for eight years.
She's Not Singing Yet
Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn says this year's budget is an unusually complicated mess and says it will take her a while to figure out whether there is enough state revenue to cover the spending outlined in it. She has to look at other legislation to see how much money was saved or raised and can be applied to the budget. And she has to look at the budget itself to make sure it works right. Something she doesn't like: A provision that lets the governor and the Legislative Budget Board move spending around when the full Legislature is not in town.
The LBB already has the legal power to move money within the budget, so that a shortfall here can be patched with leftover money there. But Strayhorn says the new budget apparently gives them the ability to appropriate new money that's not included in the current bill. Her lawyers are pondering that, and she even hired a University of Houston constitutional specialist to help them ponder.
Strayhorn says no comptroller she knows of took more than 10 days to certify a budget, but she says there's no time limit in the law. Fast-forward that to a potential bottleneck: She has to certify the budget before the governor can sign it, and the governor's veto power -- including his line-item budget veto -- lasts for only three weeks after a session. Anything he doesn't sign becomes law.
U.S. Representative No. 435
While nobody was looking, Lubbock Republican Randy Neugebauer was winning a seat in Congress by the skin of his teeth. When the counting was over (these are uncanvassed results from the Secretary of State), Republican Michael Conaway of Midland was only 587 votes behind out of 56,505 votes cast. Conaway won the early voting by several hundred votes, but Neugebauer made up the distance and flipped the result on Election Day. In four counties, more people voted in the runoff election than in last month's 17-candidate preliminary. Three of those -- Ector, Midland, and Lubbock -- are the most populous counties in the district (the fourth was Cochran County).
Lubbock's voters outnumbered the Odessa-Midland voters, and Neugebauer got 71 percent of the votes cast in his home county. All told, he won in 11 of the district's 19 counties. Neugebauer will replace U.S. Rep. Larry Combest, R-Lubbock, who resigned last month. And Conaway could be back on the radar screen soon if the Legislature tackles redistricting; several maps have been drawn to get the Permian Basin its own Republican member of Congress.
Free-Range Workers Cost More
The government reorganization bills died during the session, but they had many offspring. And the Senate sponsor, Houston Democrat Rodney Ellis, is touting those offspring as evidence that government reorganization shouldn't be the reason for a special session. By his tally, the $450 million savings in his bill, with one large exception, was included in other legislation that did pass. The loser was the "liar's affidavit" that would have required people selling cars to use the blue book values for computing sales taxes instead of listing their sales prices. The theory is that without a third party watching, people fudge the numbers, to the tune of $172 million every two years. The Senate approved it; the House killed it with force and told their conferees not to bring it back from their negotiations with senators. What did pass, according to Ellis, included much of what the budgeteers needed to cover their spending plans: $101.5 million from joining a multi-state lottery; $91.2 million from delaying contributions for employee and teacher retirement systems; and $30.5 million for an idea likely borrowed from chicken farmers -- lowering the amount of office square footage per state worker to 135 square feet from 153 square feet.
Green Eggs & Ham
The Texas Senate has approved judicial appointment and retention schemes four times, but the House apparently doesn't like the idea. It died again this session, and again never made it to the floor of the House. Chief Justice Tom Phillips of the Texas Supreme Court has been pushing the idea; he and other supporters say it would shake off some of the taint judges now accumulate by taking campaign contributions from the same lawyers and interests who come before the courts once the elections are over. Voters, polled endlessly on that subject, think judges are influenced by such contributions and that they make their rulings accordingly. Under the system that can't seem to get a shot in the House, the governor would appoint judges and voters could then dump anyone they didn't like. The vacancy created by such a public firing would be filled by appointment, and so on.
• Texas House Democrats still don't like congressional redistricting and have asked Gov. Rick Perry to leave it out of the call of any special sessions this year. In their letter, they write, "excessive partisanship related to congressional redistricting was the low point of a very difficult session." It was signed by 55 legislators.
• The rules wizards tell us that lawmakers called back in a special session can't override the vetoes of bills that passed during the regular session. Once they hit that Sine Die gavel at the end, the Legislature's power is over. If a governor called a special session while he or she was still vetoing bills, that governor's actions would be out of the Legislature's reach.
Flotsam & Jetsam
The Legislature is gone, but the rumor machine takes about two weeks to lose its momentum. One of the latest, knocked down for your convenience: Tom Phillips has no plans to retire anytime soon from his job as chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court. Phillips won reelection last year (he'd considered leaving at one point before diving into that) and says he isn't going anywhere soon. His current term runs through the end of 2008. Before Phillips snuffed it, the rumor reached full flower, with speculation Harriett O'Neill or Priscilla Owen would be the governor's pick to sit in the middle chair on the high court. Owen is on the federal hook at the moment, waiting for the U.S. Senate to act on her nomination to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
• The 10 percent rule passed the House but died, as we said, on a Senate filibuster. It would limit the number of seats claimed by top-10 students to 60 percent of the incoming classes at the University of Texas and Texas A&M University. The schools would have been allowed to save 40 percent of the seats for students who didn't finish in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating classes. And the suggestion that it might be the reason for a special session -- it's among the issues in the speculative mix -- set off the minority caucuses in the House. The Mexican-American Legislative Caucus and the Legislative Black Caucus both want the law left alone. They argue that the issue ought to be studied, if anything at all, and say it's not the sort of emergency that would justify a $1.7 million special session.
• In the interest of calming one of the tribes out there, we perform this bit of corrective surgery: The state's revenue estimate did indeed get a boost from the federal tax cut pushed by the Bush Administration. But the administration fought the provision that sent the money to the state. The credit for that goes to Congress, which inserted that help for states into the tax bill.
• It remains illegal to kill horses for human consumption in Texas, and the two companies that still do that will apparently have to find another line of work. Lawmakers from Northeast Texas had carried the legislation to make that legal -- the horsemeat was being consumed in other countries -- but a noisy little campaign finally stopped the legislation. That leaves a Texas Attorney General opinion that said the plants weren't allowed under current law. And the folks who mounted the opposition to the Texas law are now moving the show to Washington, D.C., to support legislation that would make it illegal to kill horses for human consumption anywhere in the country.
• Remember the New Mexico Attorney General who popped off when Texas Republicans were searching for missing Democrats? Patricia Madrid's quote then: "I have put out an all-points bulletin for law enforcement to be on the lookout for politicians in favor of health care for the needy and against tax cuts for the wealthy." Apparently, the Democrats liked it: Patricia Madrid is the featured guest for a Dallas Democratic Forum this month at the home of Dallas trial lawyers Fred Baron and Lisa Blue honoring the House members who ran to Oklahoma in the face of a congressional redistricting vote.
• The Texas Department of Public Safety put the remaining documents from its search for the Killer Ds on its website (www.txdps.state.tx.us). The agency destroyed some of the evidence of its search for the missing House Democrats after they came back, claiming that since there was no criminal activity, there was no need to keep the records. But some documents remain and you can look through them at the website. Once you're there, click on News, then on Press Releases. There's a link near the top of that web page titled "Investigation at the Direction of the Texas House of Representatives, Office of the Sergeant-at-Arms" that will take you to a full set of the documents that weren't destroyed in the first few days after the Democrats came home.
• The family and friends of the late Dallas Morning News political reporter Sam Attlesey have started raising money for an endowed chair in the college of communications at the University of Texas. If they raise the money needed -- a minimum of $25,000 -- it'll provide an annual grant to students at upper levels of the school who want to be political and public policy reporters when they graduate. Contribution forms are available from the dean's office.
Political People and Their Moves
After the Legislature left town, Gov. Rick Perry appointed two new judges. Carmen Rivera-Worley of Denton -- where she now runs the civil division in the district attorney's office -- got a spot on the 16th District Court. The remaining term runs until the end of next year. He appointed Dallas attorney Robert Henry Frost to the 116th District Court for a term that runs that same length. Both escaped the Senate confirmation process during the regular session, but they'd have to win Senate approval during a special session, if one is held before their election dates, to keep their jobs.
In the Not Exactly An Appointment category, the Guv named Dallas County Commissioner Jim Jackson the presiding officer on the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, which oversees county jails and the people locked up in them. Jackson's been on the board since 1999.
Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, is he new chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus. He was elected to succeed Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont...
Found in contempt: Jack Douglas and Cathy DeWitt of the Texas Association of Business, for refusing to testify before a Travis County grand jury. The judge said he won't put them in jail, pending their appeals. The grand jury wants to look at TAB's campaign spending and whether the association illegally used corporate money for campaign spending. TAB contends its First Amendment rights are threatened and wants to block the inquiries and the contempt orders...
Voters in an Anglo area of San Antonio put an African-American Democrat on their city council, electing Art Hall by 50 votes to an open seat. Hall is a lawyer and investment banker and a former mayoral candidate there...
U.S. Senate Democrats nominated Austin attorney Ray Martinez to a spot on the federal Election Assistance Commission. Martinez headed the Every Texan Foundation, a non-profit that was supposed to register 500,000 new voters by last year's elections. That group was nonpartisan, but was loosely tied to former gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez Jr. and his efforts to bring minority voters to the polls who'd never taken part before. The nomination is one of four made to President George W. Bush, who'll make the actual appointments...
Errors of Place: Republican Sen. Jane Nelson lives in Lewisville. We put her in her old house in Flower Mound last week... Separately, there's no telling what those Arizoniacs would do if they had to spell Waxahachie or Watauga -- but the way they spell Fort Huachuca is not the way we did on our last attempt. Sorry, sorry, sorry.
Quotes of the Week
Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who won't sign the final budget certification numbers until later in the summer: "It ain't over till the fat lady sings. I may not be as fat, but it ain't over."
Attorney Buck Wood, who represents poor school districts, giving the Austin American-Statesman his opinion of a lawsuit from rich districts that challenges the state's school finance system: "If we thought we could have won this kind of suit, we would have filed it."
Lubbock City Councilman Gary Boren, telling the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal he won't stay in office if the state enacts ethics laws requiring him to make public his personal finances: "If it happens, I go."
White House spokesbot Ari Fleischer quoted in The New York Times on his decision to quit that job: "I have a real life outside this business, which is one of the reasons that I'm willing to leave this business. I believe in real life."
U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, in congressional testimony quickly disavowed by the White House: "I see no need for any tobacco products in society."
Rep. David Swinford, R-Dumas, telling the Houston Chronicle what he thinks about coming back for a special session this summer: "I'm about sick of the whole deal right now, but I'll be ready."
Texas journalist and author Jim Moore, quoted by the BuzzFlash.com website: "Compassionate conservatism in Texas is where they ask you if want green Jell-O or red Jell-O before they stick the needle in your arm and execute you."
Texas Weekly, Volume 19, Issue 48, 9 June 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.