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Siege State

Cops, firefighters, crime reporters, habitual criminals and the guys who drive the Roach Coaches to sell sandwiches, donuts, coffee and sodas at crime scenes have all seen things like this before. So have the veterans of maximum-security day care centers. Somebody's holed up in a building making demands. They swear they won't quit until they get what they want. They have hostages and say they'll hold the hostages indefinitely in pursuit of their goal. Nothing is changing from day to day.

Cops, firefighters, crime reporters, habitual criminals and the guys who drive the Roach Coaches to sell sandwiches, donuts, coffee and sodas at crime scenes have all seen things like this before. So have the veterans of maximum-security day care centers. Somebody's holed up in a building making demands. They swear they won't quit until they get what they want. They have hostages and say they'll hold the hostages indefinitely in pursuit of their goal. Nothing is changing from day to day.

Congressional redistricting still hasn't passed. Lawmakers are looking at a map that's less than a week old (it's different from the new maps they already consumed), and Democrats and Republicans still don't have a deal that will let them go home, either because they have a new map or because they can't possibly get enough people together to replace the map that's now in place.

There have been conversations about the protocols for and histories of such standoffs. We wrote about the so-called Bullock Precedent, when a previous lieutenant governor zipped through a redistricting plan without employing the Senate's sacrosanct two-thirds rule. There's the precedent of the Killer Bees — the senators who walked out and denied a quorum until another lieutenant governor — Bill Hobby — quit his effort to zip through an election bill the walkouts didn't like.

The repeating lines of the day are these. From Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst: If lawmakers come back for another special session on redistricting, it'll be without a blocker bill and without the need for a two-thirds vote to bring up a bill for consideration. Democrats will be run over. From House Speaker Tom Craddick: We're just waiting on the Senate. From Gov. Rick Perry: We have work to do, and chances of another special session if this one fails are pretty good. From various Democratic senators: The Senate can't officially convene until two-thirds of the members show up for work, but only a long holdout — the toughest kind — would prevent Republicans from pushing another congressional map through the Lege. From various legislators of both parties: What are we getting for this?

All Options Are Open

The headline above was the refrain of the week, coming from both Democrats and the Lite Guv's office after they and he met to talk about the standoff. By the end of the week, Dewhurst was saying he "sensed" some motion, some change in the mood of the place that might let a deal come together. He's still calling for a pro-Republican map, but is trying to tell the Democrats in the Senate they'll get less of a beating if they cooperate than if they hold out.

Democrats are mulling their options. They still have a letter with 12 signatures saying they are inalterably opposed to changing the congressional map in Texas. One option is to walk out, like House Democrats did to kill redistricting during the regular session. Another option considered by at least some of the Democrats is to work on a map to see how small a change the Republicans would consider acceptable. (Refresher: Democrats have 17 of the 32 seats in the delegation, and Republicans think the GOP ought to have three or four of those in their ledger). They can pursue that and go back to the walkout strategy if it doesn't work out. Another idea that's been kicked around is riskier: Let the Republicans draw as strong a map as they dare, in the hope that they'll over-reach and pass something that will fail in court, leaving the current plan in place.

One more: If lawmakers return for a second special session without a "blocker" bill in place, a redistricting bill could be passed by a simple majority; only 16 disgruntled senators would be needed to change the rules that govern the Senate. One of those rules gives Dewhurst most of his powers.

Paybacks are Hell

The Texas Senate voted to snatch performance reviews of state agencies and public schools from Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn and give those duties to the Legislative Budget Office, taking away her most visible and popular program, much of her ability to manipulate the state budget and one of the best PR devices ever put in the hands of a government official.

Senators didn't stop there. They also voted to let the State Auditor examine settlements in state tax cases where there was more than $10,000 difference between what the comptroller first demanded and what the taxpayer finally paid (a common result). And they said the Legislative Audit Committee could publicly reveal the names of the taxpayers and the amount of "relief" they got when the audits are complete. Other than making for interesting reading, those newly opened records would allow an open comparison between tax settlements and political contributions that isn't possible now; most tax records are private. Lawmakers on that committee wouldn't have to make the records public, however; the legislation would let them do it, but not make them do it.

Comptrollers have a lot of power, particularly in tough budget years, and lawmakers generally tread lightly when they're messing with the power that controls the power of the purse. But Strayhorn and the Legislature have been battling since just after the November elections, and now that her part of the state budget is wrapped up, the Senate decided to challenge those powers.

Strayhorn said she is "deeply disappointed" and said she hoped "cooler heads will prevail" when the bill gets to the House. She added this: "I believe the lieutenant governor is misguided and I hope this is not some form of retribution for my efforts to be a staunch defender of taxpayer dollars and an honest 'tell it like it is' watchdog for the people of Texas."

The audit provision apparently would allow the state auditor to dive into a company's books, following the same trails followed by auditors from the comptroller's office, to see if the first team did its job properly. Groups like the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association were quick to cry 'foul', in part, because of the prospect of a second auditor coming around to businesses that have already suffered a previous audit. They're also unhappy with the semi-public records. It's not unusual to have a big difference between the first amount demanded by the comptroller and the amount actually paid after an audit. The first amount, in many cases, is only an estimate, and it's often wrong. A taxpayer might look to the public and the media like they got a honey of a deal when, in fact, all they got was a rotten estimate followed by a realistic audit.

Peace, Love and Understanding: A Short History

Just because they're mostly Republicans doesn't mean a cutback in the number or the ferocity of the political battles among state officeholders. Almost every animal at the kennel is a dog, but they still fight. This particular fight started between the elections and the legislative session, when the comptroller doubled her estimate of the size of the state's shortfall, to $10 billion, and blamed it on a legislative spending binge two years earlier — a party, she called it — that left no dime behind. The relationship was only beginning to sour, particularly on the Senate end of the building.

During the session, as the budget was written, senators questioned her ability to accurately predict the state's income and said they'd write the budget in a way that forced her to cough up money they suspected she was hoarding for political reasons. If she was wrong on the short side, they suggested she — not they — should have to make painful mid-budget cuts.

After the session, the comptroller told lawmakers and the governor — with the cameras rolling — that the Legislature's budget was written in red ink. The numbers were relatively tiny, but they were red, and she said she wouldn't certify it. The number crunchers and the lawyers came up with some face-saving changes. She backed down and said it would balance. The Guv signed it. And then the Senate snuck up and pulled away one of the comptroller's best toys. The performance reviews — dubbed e-Texas by Strayhorn — have been used to make state budgets balance since 1991, and have provided comptrollers with reams of favorable press clippings.

Kick the Comptroller: This Ain't the First Round

Things got bad enough during the session that legislators spiked the comptroller's top two priorities. One, designed to put some state money into helping kids go to community colleges and tech schools, was easy to defeat, since there wasn't any money around and it was an expensive proposition.

The other, though, illustrates the problems in this relationship: Lawmakers refused to remove the property tax division from the state comptroller's office, even after Strayhorn offered a sweetener and said the state could save millions by making that division a stand-alone agency. Property tax is a political albatross. The state doesn't set rates or specific property values, but has to certify the work done by local appraisers. When values go up quickly, or don't drop fast enough, the locals get to blame the comptroller, whose only job is to make sure the appraisers in each part of the state are treating property owners equally. For all that, it's an operation that could easily be made a separate agency. It's not even in the comptroller's building.

It's the sort of swap that's commonplace when budgets are being written and when comptrollers and legislators are getting along reasonably well. This time, lawmakers put the kibosh on it.

When they aren't working on redistricting, lawmakers are spending a fair amount of time this session repairing budget trouble made evident at the end of the regular session. In the middle of that, the comptroller hopped up again, this time to say that — with a tweak here and a patch there — the state could free $700 million to $800 million that could be used to restore cuts made during the session.

Freshly peeved lawmakers responded by threatening to take over her most popular program and by foreshadowing a political inquiry into how she does business. That bill is on its way to the House for consideration.

Reorganizing Government in 30 Days or Less

While the redistricting bill was in ER, the government reorganization bill was slipping in the direction of a dangerous coma. And just as people were looking at the clock to note the time of death, the Senate revived it, tinkered with it, and sent it back to the House.

In addition to leveling a direct attack on the state comptroller, the Senate bill is a collection of major and minor changes in the way Texas does its business. In the regular session, it was written in a way that allowed lawmakers to attach almost anything to it. They did so, and the bill collapsed under its own weight. For the special session, Gov. Rick Perry listed — separately — each item he wants to see in the bill. His list includes several provisions that would increase his management powers. For instance, he'd be able to tell state agencies who their executive directors should be. He'd name a new insurance commissioner — or reappoint one, anyhow — every year instead of every two years. (The Senate only convenes once every two years, which raises the possibility that the state's insurance regulators could serve every other year without facing Senate approval.)

The House took Perry's hint, filing a different bill for each item the governor seeks. The rules prevent bills from having more than one subject, and if they're narrowly described in the first place, it cuts down on hijackings, unintended additions, and other monkey business. The Senate ran with one bill, however, corralling all the House bills into one pen. It's a Christmas tree once again.

It's also changed from its original billing. What's been knocked in major papers as a power grab by Perry is now also a power grab by the Legislature. The Senate version gives the comptroller's review to the Legislature, and gives lawmakers a perch on her shoulder to watch over audits. They gave the governor the power to name the presiding officer on boards, but gave the Senate some oversight. And they gave the governor, and especially the LBB, greater latitude when dealing with budget issues while the rest of the Legislature isn't in town. They'd be able to meet by phone, so long as the meeting was posted and the public got to listen in. Senators would even up the number of board members on the Texas Legislative Council, leaving the Speaker in charge, but splitting the votes evenly between senators and representatives. That would cure a perennial complaint about the House's control over that agency, which drafts legislation and serves as a specialized in-House law firm for lawmakers.

The Map of the Moment

The Senate's Jurisprudence Committee passed out a redistricting plan on a straight-party 4-3 vote that almost everybody we've talked to believes is a dead plan.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said as much in his post-session press conference that day, saying he's always "got an exit strategy" in his mind, and has one now. He added a moment later that he does not have a map of his own. But he still wants to find something that Democrats can swallow — maybe with clothespins on their noses — that won't make Republicans scream. Dewhurst is in a spot between the bipartisan Senate he leads and the activists in the GOP he courted for years before running for office. The senators have worked together surprisingly well for his first half-year on the job, and the activists have rumbled a few times but remained quiet.

That said, the only map to work from is the one presented by Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, to the committee, which passed it along to the Senate, which will give it a ride before the special session ends on Tuesday. In raw terms, it would put 22 Republicans and 10 Democrats in the Texas congressional delegation, forcing ten Anglo Democrats into situations where they either have to run in hostile territory, run against an incumbent, move, or quit and stay home.

The map creates four new districts, three of which are dominated by minority voters. One, in Harris County, is 37.9 percent Black and 33.2 percent Hispanic. Another open district, also in Harris
County, would be 65.8 percent Hispanic. The third runs from the Texas border, in Hidalgo and Starr Counties, all the way up to Travis County, and 69.2 percent of its residents are Hispanic. The last of the open districts runs up the Dallas-Tarrant border up into Denton County, and 63.5 percent of the people in that district voted for statewide Republicans, on average, in the 2002 general election.

That last district is created by taking apart CD-24, now held by Martin Frost, D-Dallas, and scooting voters around to knock him off and to create a new spot for a Republican. It's one of several spots on the map that caught the eyes of Democrats who'll be going to court to challenge whatever the Legislature passes (assuming something passes). They think it illegally manhandles minority voters in his district and in the district now held by U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas.

A couple of the districts on the Senate map add minority voters to Republican districts; the watchful Democrats think too much of that creates problems under voting rights laws. And they don't like the "finger" districts — three districts that begin on the Texas border and reach into the Hill Country to the north. Border senators say those districts might not be winnable by Border candidates and fear they could be represented by people who know nothing of their region. It also splits Webb County, killing any chance Laredo has of winning a seat in Congress.

Republicans aren't all keen on this thing, either. First, there's that pesky West Texas problem. The map makes Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, happy by including Midland and Howard counties in a congressional district with Lubbock County. That's the exact configuration anointed as a deal-killer by some aides to House Speaker Tom Craddick, who wants a congressional seat for his hometown of Midland. The map leaves a possibility of survival for several Democrats the Republicans want to defeat, like Charlie Stenholm of Stamford, Chet Edwards of Waco, Gene Green and Chris Bell of Houston, and Lloyd Doggett of Austin, to name a few. Some, like Green, Bell and Doggett, would have to move their Texas residences into new districts, but they could win.

On paper, the map creates 22 districts where Republicans should prevail, based on the results of the statewide races last November. Remember, too, that George W. Bush will be on the ballot in 2004, and his popularity in Texas could create coattails for the Republicans in the next spot on the ballot (there's no U.S. Senate race in Texas in 2004 unless somebody quits or dies). But Democrats could possibly hold those five districts, and then the Republicans would only hold 17 seats in the delegation.

Car Wreck

The new executive director of the Texas Automobile Dealers' Association will be Bill Wolters, a longtime employee of that association. The news, however, is right here: It won't be Robert Howden, a top aide to Gov. Rick Perry hired by the trade group earlier this year and chosen unanimously by the car dealers' search committee for the top job a couple of weeks ago.

The car dealers were on the wrong side of the top races on the ballot last year, picking Democrats Tony Sanchez and John Sharp over Republicans Perry and David Dewhurst. (The Republicans won, if you've been out.) Their picks stemmed from a couple of Perry vetoes at the end of the 2001 legislative session. After he won, Perry told the dealers that Gene Fondren, the association's chief for years, should be run out on a rail and replaced with someone who could deal directly with the new regime. They declined that offer, but Fondren hired Howden in March. Most folks assumed he was the heir apparent and that the association would soon be back in the governor's good graces.

The group got its major legislation — an auto body shop bill — past the Lege and the Guv this session. Perry vetoed a couple of lesser bills, but added them to the list of things open for consideration during the special session, which runs through Tuesday.

In June, Fondren announced he was stepping down after 31 years at the helm. The search committee started up, considered Howden, Wolters and others, and then voted 7-zip for Howden. Internal politicking began in earnest — at one point, Howden offered to pull his name out of the running and then decided to go the distance — and the executive board of the group decided 10-3 that Wolters, who's never been on TADA's lobby team, should run the show.

That's a win for the insiders at the association, but it puts the group politically back where it was on the day after the elections. Fondren, who went to bat for Howden, took some licks himself: The executive board briefly considered a suggestion that he be fired.

Howden, who was head of the Texas branch of the National Federation of Independent Business before going to work for Perry, is on vacation and says he'll decide what's next when he gets back.

Flotsam & Jetsam

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison would beat Gov. Rick Perry by 12 percentage points in a head-to-head Republican primary race for governor, according to Democratic consultant Jeff Montgomery of Austin. Montgomery, who has been doing statewide polls on political issues for the last two years for his own information and amusement, asked 1,031 adult Texans about some of their preferences earlier this month. Among the results: Perry would start a general election against Democrat John Sharp with only a two-percentage-point advantage. Perry left a favorable impression with 34 percent of the respondents, a neutral impression with 39 percent, and a negative impression with 25 percent. And he asked the respondents — who were not screened into voters and non-voters, but polled together — what they think about the "unusual special session" on redistricting. Only 30 percent said they support the effort, while 45.5 percent said they oppose it. But Perry's better off among his own folks; self-identified Republicans said they support redistricting, and by a two-to-one margin. Among Democrats, 70.9 percent said they oppose the effort to redraw congressional lines.

• Some of the folks closest to the late Sam Attlesey have started a fund drive to set up a journalism scholarship in his name at the University of Texas at Austin. And like everything else in this world, there's a website for it (even though Sam himself was a devotee of a long-obsolete "Trash-80" from Radio Shack that was completely incompatible with the Internet). Once the fund is established, the scholarships will go to students who want to be reporters, and in particular, are interested in covering politics and public policy, like Sam did as the longtime state political reporter at the Dallas Morning News. Donations are deductible and there's more info on the website: www.FriendsOfSam.org.

Political People and Their Moves

As we went to press, Joe Gunn was enjoying the last Texas AFL-CIO convention that he will preside over. Gunn is stepping down as the state's top union man this weekend, and the delegates will elect someone else to move into his office. That's most likely going to be Emmett Shepherd, the Texas AFL-CIO's secretary-treasurer. When we checked, he was the only candidate for the job, but these things can be, well, union conventions...

Trey Newton, who's worked for Carole Keeton Strayhorn since she had a different title — Texas Railroad Commissioner — and a different last name, has decided to leave the comptroller's office. He'll start by using up a prodigious amount of comp time and will be looking after that. Both sides describe the split as amicable (she's his son's godmother)...

Jennifer Lustina, state director for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (and his campaign manager last year), has a newborn child and has decided to leave the federal government gig behind for a state job. She'll be the new protocol officer at the Texas Secretary of State's office as soon as she's off maternity leave. Cornyn hasn't named a replacement. And while we're at it, Gov. Rick Perry hasn't named Lustina's new boss; Gwyn Shea is leaving the SOS job to become an aide to the Guv at the end of the month...

Births: Alena Steele Ellis, 7 lbs. 11.5 oz., born to Licia Green-Ellis and Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston. Everybody's healthy.

Quotes of the Week

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, on the problem: "We pride ourselves in the Senate for our bipartisanship. We pride ourselves for our ability to come together, respect each other, and work together. Now, there's only one issue that I'm aware of that we ever take up that it's impossible to be bipartisan, and that's redistricting."

Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, telling the McAllen Monitor that state police can no longer do to absent lawmakers what they tried to do to the Ardmore Democrats in May: "DPS no longer can arrest a legislator. We would resist arrest. They would have to handcuff us and we would use physical force to defend ourselves, because they have no authority to do that."

Bob Richter, spokesman for House Speaker Tom Craddick, explaining in the Houston Chronicle why his boss' daughter, Christi Craddick, shows up as a paid adviser on her dad's campaign finance reports: "It's nothing to be ashamed of. She can't work in this town as a lobbyist anymore."

U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, quoted by Reuters: "I think all foreigners should stop interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq."

Gov. Rick Perry, asked whether and when he'll call a second special session if lawmakers don't pass a new map of congressional districts. "I would suspect it would be relatively soon. We've got work to do." Would he call it as this session ends? "That's about as quick as you can do it."

State Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, telling the Austin American-Statesman why he thinks Williamson County should be left whole and other counties in the vicinity should not: "Travis County is Democratic. That's why it gets split."

Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, on the districts that reach from the Border into the Hill Country: "What does someone in Bastrop have to do with NAFTA?"

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, talking to the Austin American-Statesman about a new House panel that will look for political bias in the rulings and actions of federal judges: "We think by pointing a spotlight on some judicial abuses that we will have a positive effect and be able to disinfect some of the judicial abuses that we've seen. This is the beginning of many steps, many news conferences and many reports."

An unidentified woman quoted by the Plainview Daily Herald after she and her two daughters saw some inmates being strip-searched (a partition had fallen) near the parking lot of a correctional institution near there: "It was hot, and they were out there for everybody and God to see. If I look at a naked man, I want it to be of my own accord."


Texas Weekly: Volume 20, Issue 7, 28 July 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.


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