Skip to main content

Numbers and Letters, Sticks and Stones

Statewide offices are full of ambitious people, and governors of Texas have been historically besieged by people who want their jobs, or their power. Bob Bullock, first as comptroller and then as lieutenant governor, was a special pain in the necks of Gov. Mark White and then Gov. Ann Richards. For Gov. Bill Clements, the bad news regularly arrived from the offices of then-Attorney General Jim Mattox. And for Rick Perry, it would appear that the thorn bush is rooted at the Lyndon B. Johnson State Office Building, headquarters of Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts Carole Keeton Strayhorn.

Statewide offices are full of ambitious people, and governors of Texas have been historically besieged by people who want their jobs, or their power. Bob Bullock, first as comptroller and then as lieutenant governor, was a special pain in the necks of Gov. Mark White and then Gov. Ann Richards. For Gov. Bill Clements, the bad news regularly arrived from the offices of then-Attorney General Jim Mattox. And for Rick Perry, it would appear that the thorn bush is rooted at the Lyndon B. Johnson State Office Building, headquarters of Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts Carole Keeton Strayhorn.

Strayhorn's latest salvo was done with numbers: She added up all of the fines and fees and "out-of-pocket" expenses laid upon Texans during the last legislative session, and came up with a total of $2.7 billion. That, from a group of lawmakers who said they were against any new taxes.

To be semantically correct about it, there aren't any new taxes of any significance in the comptroller's list. And she included some things you might not have put on there yourself, like the Legislature's cuts to a $1,000-per-year-per-teacher bonus that had been instituted two years earlier. Strayhorn calls that an out-of-pocket item, just as she includes higher insurance co-payments and premiums for state employees and educators. By Strayhorn's reckoning, the biggest burden — over $1 billion — falls on educators. The next biggest hit is in health care, and the biggest number she puts in that category is the $431 million from cuts to state employees' health care plans.

Some things you'd expect aren't on the list at all. Strayhorn says it's too early to put a number to deregulation of college tuition. No one knows yet just how much schools will raise their prices, or when they'll do it. She didn't put a number on vehicle emissions fees that are being imposed in some parts of the state and she didn't include the money that's expected to come in from the new point-system surcharges that will go on traffic violations starting next week.

The whole list of new fees and such is on her state website: www.window.state.tx.us.

What you won't find there is a political rationale for all this, but Strayhorn's fellow officeholders offered that. The reactions from the Pink Building came fast and furious. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told reporters it "looks like the Republican primaries started early this year," and when asked what primary he was referring to, told reporters to go ask Perry.

House Speaker Tom Craddick said the comptroller's comments "continue a pattern of misguided messages that seem intended more to stir up trouble than to increase public confidence in state government." Later on, he made an interesting point, saying the comptroller was not criticizing lawmakers for cutting some of the things she blasted them for adding two years earlier.

Perry fired off a statement fit for a campaign, saying some of the fees began with Strayhorn's own suggestions and saying she didn't raise questions during the session. He referred to her calls earlier this year for video lottery and a cigarette tax to help balance the books, calling it "$2 billion in higher taxes and more gambling to fund bigger government."

Finally, Attorney General Greg Abbott copied a letter to reporters — Strayhorn hadn't received it as of our deadline — questioning her reference to a fee on people trying to collect money from deadbeat dads. "As has happened before, you are both factually and legally incorrect," he wrote, before going on to explain how the fees work.

She shot back a letter of her own, saying she'd got the information from legislation that passed this session, from the fiscal note attached to it, from conversations with his staff, and from a reference to a $10 locator fee that will be charged, starting next week, for some people (those without full benefits) trying to locate missing parents.

Rest Stop

At a Texas stop in the 1980s, the late bluesman Willie Dixon was trying to explain his business to an audience full of young people. "There are all kinds of different kinds of blues," he said. "There are the blues you get on Monday when your woman leaves you, and the kind you get on Thursday, when she comes back."

The Democrats who went to New Mexico haven't come back, but the second special session of the Texas Legislature is over, and the tune is changing.

The Senate Democrats who left the state for New Mexico promised not to return until they had either a promise from the governor that congressional redistricting is dead, or a promise from the lieutenant governor that he would reinstate the two-thirds rule that requires a supermajority of senators to pass a bill. Gov. Rick Perry is sticking to his own promise, which is that he'll call the Legislature back again and again until they pass a map. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, however, is hinting that he might be willing to put the two-thirds rule back in place.

Another proposal, floated by Republican senators and shot down, apparently, by other Republican senators, would have had the Lege voting out a new congressional map now that would not be used for elections until 2006. The Republicans would get a map that would elect around 19 GOP candidates to Congress (up from 15 now) and the Democrats would get a delay. The two-thirds rule would be back in place and ¡Viola! the clouds would part and the birds would sing again!

At press time, that one was seriously ill. And the Democrats had been handed a couple of demoralizing defeats. First, a Travis County court tossed out a state suit, saying it didn't have jurisdiction over what looked like a legislative matter. That's actually what the Democrats asked the court to do, but the court did it in a way that left crowing room for the GOP and got everybody worried about whether it would have any effect on a federal court hearing later on.

Blue Donkeys

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice handed a win to the GOP on the eve of the federal hearing, saying in a letter that the Senate's decision to dump its two-thirds rule is "an internal legislative parliamentary rule or practice — not a change affecting voting." That was one of the questions before the federal court, and the timing of the DOJ's letter angered the Democrats into some harsh words. They had asked for a meeting with DOJ officials to discuss the issue before a ruling was issued, and never got their meeting. Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, called it the "Department of Injustice" and said the ruling was based on politics more than law. Gerald Hebert, a former DOJ attorney who is representing the Texas Democrats, said the "Bush-Ashcroft Justice Department is the most politically corrupt ever to administer the Voting Rights Act."

But the next day, the judge seemed to agree with Justice, though he didn't say so explicitly.

The federal court hearing lasted about 90 minutes and left the Democrats with just a thread of hope. This is the case, remember, where the Democrats are asking the courts to rule that changes in the Senate rules and in the very act of taking up redistricting now are violations of the Voting Rights Act. They also wanted U.S. District Judge George Kazen to bar the Republicans from arresting Democrats if they returned to Texas. Republicans wanted the restraining order denied, and it was, and they wanted the case dismissed. Kazen doesn't seem too high on the Democrats' arguments, but he said the ruling on whether to dismiss ought to be done under the umbrella of the Voting Rights Act, which requires a three-judge panel.

That'll be the next step. The poobahs at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court appointed one of their own — Judge Patrick Higginbotham of Dallas — and U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal of Houston to join Kazen on that panel. Kazen's a Jimmy Carter appointee. Higginbotham is a Ronald Reagan appointee who's been on the 5th U.S. Circuit for 21 years, and was one of the judges on the panel that drew the current congressional maps for Texas two years ago. Rosenthal was appointed to the federal bench by George H. W. Bush and put on her judicial robes 11 years ago.

Oh, Yeah — There's an Election Underway

It's kind of interesting to watch people get nervous about the low turnout for an election that was designed from the get-go to draw a small number of voters. The proponents of the limits on medical malpractice and other negligence awards in Texas courts picked September 13 for their constitutional amendment because they thought it might fail on the regular November date. Why? That's the day of the mayoral elections in Houston, and Democrats are likely to vote in higher percentages then than in a boring old election in September on a bunch of amendments to the (yawn) constitution.

Now, early voting is underway, and both sides are jumpy about the possibilities. They've got ads starting on television. They've got the mailing operations set to rapid-fire. The folks pushing for Prop 12 started with rallies, and they're running television ads saying doctors will be forced out of business if they can't get a leash on legal expenses. Those ads feature a waiting room filling with people as the doctor who's doing the talking slowly becomes transparent and then disappears.

The other side's pitch is that the amendment would limit damages in all kinds of cases, not just those involving medical malpractice.

Newspaper editorials around the state tilt against the amendment. But the sponsors of this proposal are betting that conservatives will make up a disproportionate share in a low-turnout election, and that the conservatives will vote against trial lawyers. Funny bit: The Dallas Morning News caught Fleishman-Hillard giving $25,000 to the pro-12 forces. The company owns Allyn & Co., which is doing the polling and the mail and the TV ads for the anti-prop-12 people. Ouch.

An Unflattering Imitation

Ooops. Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the Houston-based tort reform group, apparently didn't get around to registering the following web address: www.TexansForLawsuitReform.com (that group's web presence, in spite of its name, is located at www.TortReform.com) That left it open for Democratic political consultant Kelly Fero to buy, and he did. Go there, and you'll get the opposite of what you'd expect. Instead of messages promoting Prop 12 — the constitutional amendment allowing legislative caps on some court awards — you get messages denouncing that amendment.

Fero's site mimics the logo of the real group, and the most prominent message on his page is: "VOTE 'NO' ON PROP. 12!" The most prominent message on the real group's site is: "Summary of Omnibus Civil Justice Reform Legislation House Bill 4 As Enacted by the Texas Legislature."

In the banner at the top of the page, they define their mission as "working to restore balance and justice to the Texas civil justice system." On the parody site, that's morphed into this: "working to hold big corporations and their insurance lobbyists accountable for the damage they cause ordinary Texans and their loved ones."

A TLR spokesman reacted to the new site this way: "Who cares? We all know that sequels are never as good as the original, and this is no exception. Not only is it boring, but it looks like he broke the law to make a dud. He's rewarmed a crispy taco." The spokesman, Ken Hoagland, didn't say what law had been broken, but said, "he stole the name, didn't he?"

Fero launched a similar fusillade — a site called "www.EnronOwnsTheGOP.com" during last year's campaigns and got sued. That was a parody on the Texas Republican Party's website. Efforts to get him to yank it failed —it's still on the Internet.

Miscellany

The new law allowing parents to "conscientiously object" to immunizations for school-bound kids takes effect September 1, allowing them to join religious objectors and kids who can't take the shots for medical reasons. The schools aren't allowed to tell other parents or teachers, for that matter, which kids are immunized and which ones aren't.

• The headliner at next week's fundraiser for Houston city council candidate Beulah Shepard will be boxer Evander Holyfield. He also offered up some memorabilia for a silent auction to raise money for her campaign. Holyfield lives in Atlanta, but is a "part-time" resident of Houston.

Grasshoppers and Ants

Nobody knows for sure what the congressional lines will look like next year, but the money games have been underway for a long time, and some of the incumbent Democrats targeted by Republican mapmakers have stuffed their mattresses with campaign cash. Some, curiously, have not. According to campaign finance data compiled from public records by Political Money Line (www.tray.com), U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Dallas, led all congressional officeholders from Texas at mid-year, with $5.1 million stowed in her campaign accounts. Six of the ten people in front of her on the national list are running for president, to give you an idea of the company she's keeping.

The ten Democrats who've been on the GOP's redistricting target list at various times include U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Austin, who has more money than any of the other endangered Texas Democrats, with $2.2 million in the bank. Jim Turner of Crockett, had $1.2 million at mid-year. Martin Frost of Dallas had $396,508; Gene Green of Houston, $352,883; Nick Lampson of Beaumont, 317,418; Chet Edwards of Waco, $306,946; Max Sandlin of Marshall, 196,578; Chris Bell of Houston, 192,222; Charles Stenholm of Abilene, $191,427; and Ralph Hall of Rockwall, $6,038. Hall has a special status: He's a reliable vote for the GOP in spite of his Democratic label, and he's in an overwhelmingly Republican congressional district now. The GOP isn't wasting energy chasing him, since neither he nor his likely successor — some unnamed Republican, probably — cause the party much trouble.

The only Republican who is currently in what might be called a dangerous district — U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla of San Antonio — has been bulking up for a fight: He had $656,674 in the bank at mid-year. Only three other Texans in office listed more than $500,000 in political cash: Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, $655,012; Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, $651,345; and Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, $621,690. (Former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, R-College Station, filed a report at the end of last year listing $1.2 million in cash, and former U.S. Rep. Larry Combest, R-Lubbock, had $651,328 on hand at mid-year.)

Mid-year balances for the other U.S. representatives from Texas looked like this: Joe Barton, R-Ennis, $417,844; Jeb Hensarling, R-Dallas, $345,788; Sam Johnson, R-Plano, $331,025; Ruben Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, $327,501; Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, $294,534; Ron Paul, R-Surfside, $289,650; Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, $252,023; Michael Burgess, R-Highland Village, $174,681; Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, $166,362; Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, $153,033; John Carter, R-Georgetown, $141,800; Randy Neugebauer, R-Lubbock, $140,463; John Culberson, R-Houston, $115,265; Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, $104,626; Charlie Gonzalez, D-San Antonio, $94,522; Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, $71,838; Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, $30,497; and Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, $21,928. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn reported a cash balance of $95,396 at mid-year.

Big Lenders, Big Spenders

Phil Sudan, a Republican who lost two bids for Congress, is ninth in the nation for outstanding loans. He loaned his own campaign $3.8 million more than it returned. Tom Reiser, a Houston Republican, is in the same waters; he's got $2.2 million in loans outstanding to his own campaign. Peter Wareing, another Houston Republican, lists loans outstanding of $1.2 million to his campaign. Among incumbent Texans in Congress, Hensarling, R-Dallas, reported the biggest debt, listing $316,556 in loans outstanding. Neugebauer, R-Lubbock, elected earlier this year to Combest's spot, owes $220,000. Lampson, a Beaumont Democrat, lists debts of $126,620 in his congressional campaign account. Cornyn, elected to the U.S. Senate last year, listed $35,000 in loans outstanding in his mid-year report.

Toss out Neugebauer and the others involved in that election earlier this year, and Cornyn tops both the money-raising and money-spending lists during this election cycle, raising $706,599 and spending $639,790, according to Political Money Line. He, Bonilla and Frost were the only members of the delegation to raise more than a half-million dollars so far in this cycle.

Appointments Out the Yazoo

With the Legislature out of the way for the moment, Gov. Rick Perry unleashed a herd of appointees to offices high and low. Since they're not being picked during a special session, these interim appointments don't have to be taken up by senators until the next regular session, in 2005.

Geoffrey Connor is the new Texas Secretary of State after a couple of years in the number two spot at that agency. SOS is often a political stepping stone, but Connor says he doesn't have any political aspirations. He's a lawyer, and worked for Perry when the governor was a mere agriculture commissioner and then as general counsel at the state's environmental agency. Gwyn Shea, the previous secretary, left to become an aide to Perry. Luis Saenz, an assistant to Perry who also helped on the governor's campaign, was named assistant secretary of state. Before joining Perry, Saenz worked for U.S. Sens. Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison, for U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio, and for Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn.

Rolando Olvera, a former district judge who's now practicing law in Brownsville, will join the Texas Lottery Commission. Elizabeth Whitaker, who'd been on that board, resigned.

James Stewart Duncan, a retired engineering and architectural consultant from Houston, will get a spot on the Texas Building and Procurement Commission (the agency buys and runs state property).

Paul Hudson, the governor's in-house wizard on utility (and other) issues, will be the new Public Utility Commissioner, replacing Brett Perlman, whose term ended. Hudson worked at the PUC before joining Perry. That agency regulates communications and power companies in Texas.

• Former UT football star turned businessman Charles Sowell will take a place on the Texas Racing Commission. Sowell, a lawyer, is an executive with the McNair Group in Houston and vice chairman of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., a fancy way of saying he's tangled up with the Houston Texans and Reliant Stadium and all that.

Peter Holt, owner of the San Antonio Spurs and of Hold CAT — a Caterpillar distributorship — will join the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission.

A couple of Perry appointments are still on hold. He wants to name his general counsel, Bill Jones, to the board of regents at Texas A&M University — a cherished post in this administration — but doesn't yet have the approval of Jones' hometown senator, Democrat Gonzalo Barrientos of Austin, who has been in Albuquerque for a month. Another appointee in that soup is Larry Soward, a former Perry aide who just retired from his state job as an executive assistant to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and is hoping for a spot on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Putting on the Running Shoes

Eddie Saenz, an engineer from Edinburg, is proving the rumor correct: He'll challenge freshman Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, in the Democratic primary in March. Saenz says he doesn't have anything bad to say about Peña, then says the legislator for that area should spend more time working for the district and taking care of constituents. He's careful to say that he supports what Peña did when he joined other House Democrats and went to Oklahoma in May to block congressional redistricting. This will be the 43-year-old's first run for office; Saenz was the city engineer for Edinburg before leaving to start his own civil engineering practice. He's hired Brian Godinas, Bronson Del Rio and Oscar Ortega as consultants and hopes to land the same media consultant who worked for Peña's last campaign. Saenz hasn't raised any money yet, but thinks the race will cost up to $200,000.

Democrat Mark Strama is kicking tires for a race against freshman Rep. Jack Stick, R-Austin. Strama, a former chief of staff to state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and aide to then-candidate Ann Richards, went off into the Internet world, working at Rock the Vote, founding newVoter.com and ending up at Election.com, an Internet voting company. On paper, that's a swing district, but Stick won it handily last year, beating Democrat James Sylvester with 56 percent of the vote (a Libertarian got 3 percent of the vote). Sidebar: Strama's uncle, Dick Trabulsi, is a big shot with Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the tort reform group. TLR backed Stick in the last elections.

Political People and Their Moves

Cliff Johnson, a former legislator and lobbyist who's been working for Gov. Rick Perry for the last couple of years, is leaving government again and will return to lobbying. He hasn't signed up any clients, he says, but will probably work "on the same kind of stuff" he was doing before he joined Perry's team...

Jan Bullock, who signed up with Hillco Partners about 18 months ago, is leaving that lobbying and public affairs firm. Bullock, the widow of the late Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, didn't lobby, working instead on the public affairs side of the company...

Sabine Mora Romero, legislative director for the Texas Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, is leaving that post to become the new general counsel for the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C. Her replacement in the Texas job hasn't been named... Glen Castlebury is taking advantage of the early release program for state employees, retiring from his post at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice after nine years there, 20 with Bob Bullock, three working for a gang of House members, and a decade and a half in the newspaper business. Castlebury's last title in that string was special assistant to the executive director at the prison agency...

Move Jason Sabo from the Center for Public Policy Priorities to the United Ways of Texas. He's been working on issues affecting children and labor at CPPP, and will be policy director at United Way...

Gov. Perry appointed Pamela Foster Fletcher, a Palestine attorney and former prosecutor, to the 349th Judicial District Court; if she wants to keep that posting, she'll have to run for office next year...

Pardoned, by Gov. Perry: Ross Margraves, former chairman of the board of regents at Texas A&M. Margraves was convicted of official misconduct after taking a university plane to Louisiana for the weekend of his son's graduation from LSU; Margraves contended the main reason was school business, but his appeals finally failed. He was one of 60 people pardoned by the governor, including all 35 of the Tulia drug case defendants rounded up in a highly questionable series of raids.

Quotes of the Week

U.S. District Judge George Kazen, during a hearing on the Senate Democrats' latest anti-redistricting lawsuit: "The fact is, in a legislative body, you win some and you lose some. I know the senators represent people, but if they're in the minority, they're going to lose votes. That's how the country works. The majority wins."

Kazen, showing some sympathy for opponents of congressional redistricting in a year when it's not required by law while showing skepticism about their challenge: "I think it's a bad idea. But the idea that the mere thought of passing a redistricting bill is a violation of the Voting Rights Act is odd."

One more from the judge, who was telling lawyers for the Democrats why he was asking for a three-judge panel: "Your argument is not wholly frivolous."

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, quoted by the Associated Press: "There's something irrational about us being in a hotel for 30 days. And this group's talking about staying another 30 days. We get out here and start playing to our constituents, and this group has a hard time figuring out how to wind it down, because now they've built it up in our communities to the level that it looks like anything less than total victory" is unacceptable. Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, heard through a door by reporters: "Whitmire has poured us out." Whitmire, later: "There is no split in our solidarity."

Gov. Rick Perry, telling reporters his plans for a third special session: "I'll give the appropriate notice on the appropriate day."

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, in the Dallas Morning News: "If he calls another special session on Tuesday, then we will be prepared to stay another 30 days. If he calls another one after that, then we'll stay another 30. And if we're going to be here until Christmas, some of us are going to learn to ski."

Hudspeth County Commissioner Jim Ed Miller, talking to the Austin American-Statesman about the booming prices of water rights in West Texas: "You've heard that water runs downhill? Well, it runs toward money."

Margaret Amachigh, a foster parent quoted in an Austin American-Statesman story on budget cuts: "If my 7-year-old asks,' Can I do baseball? Can I do T-ball?' What are you going to tell him? 'No, I only get $20 a day for you and your $20 was up at 6 a.m.?'"


Texas Weekly: Volume 20, Issue 12, 1 September 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.


Support public-service journalism that gets the context right

Yes, I'll donate today