Legislative negotiations are usually scripted like madcap romance movies: Boy meets Girl, Girl ditches Boy, Boy and Girl smooch and ride off into the future. Before the closing lip-lock, there's always a big fight that looks like viewers will go home unhappy with popcorn stuck in their molars. If it's from Hollywood, though, you always get your kiss.
If there's a legislative deal to be made on redistricting, the self-congratulatory press conference will be preceded by snarls and announcements of deadlock and low dealing. We say that because it's often true. Also, because the snarling and low talk is well underway, and the governor is trying to sell the idea that Monday is a hard deadline for anyone who wants to end this without pushing back the March primary elections.
Count from the first days of the year (and, probably, from the moment when the election results last November made size of the Republican victory in Texas clear). Redistricting is in its tenth month. GOP leaders had been talking privately for months about getting enough votes to do some map-making. Once they won and it was clear they probably had the votes, they started talking about getting congressional maps drawn and out of the Legislature. In early conversations this year, they were even telling people like us that they'd like to get the issue out of the way before the hole in the state budget had overtaken the regular session.
As we go to press this week, the Republicans are still haggling, loudly and unpleasantly, about a map. Some are worried about the deadlines, and others are worried that, under the pressure of deadlines, the cartographers will make mistakes that are fatal to new maps in court. House members say the senators need to move toward the House version of a West Texas map. Senators say the House members won't talk about any of the rest of the state, and so it goes.
Many of the things still in play at the end have been in play all along:
• Squishing the West Texas districts around in a way that gives Midland a better chance of dominating a congressional district while not slighting Abilene, San Angelo and Lubbock. It's like a waterbed, where a push here creates a wave there. Several senators linked their votes — promising to stick together until they're all happy — but the House is emphatic about the Midland seat. A House map of West Texas drawn by a non-combatant — Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson — was "accepted" with some changes by senators but was then rejected by House leaders who said they hadn't seen it. Then House leaders said they were close to a deal while senators on the other side of the talks denied any progress was being made.
• Redrawing the Dallas-Fort Worth area in a way that's politically toxic to U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, D-Dallas, and that creates a new seat that could be won by somebody like state Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Carrollton. Lawyers, fearing violations of the federal Voting Rights Act, killed earlier maps designed to accomplish those things. Frost represents a largely minority district that's tough to redraw.
• Splitting a Central Texas district held by U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, in a way that doesn't make politically interested business people along I-35 scream about diminished influence.
While lawmakers sound increasingly short-tempered about the talks, they were also showing signs of progress. They left it like this: The conference committee on redistricting continued to meet, and legislators were told to come back for a vote on Sunday unless they got a call from management telling them that they wouldn't have a deal ready by then.
Throw Grandma from the Train
Three areas dear to the comptroller of public accounts are on the wrong end of the firing range: performance reviews of schools and state agencies, independent auditing, and an administrative law division that handles the initial court hearings in tax cases. That last one is probably out of trouble, but lawmakers aren't happy with their chief financial officer and there's plenty of time to make changes.
Carole Keeton Strayhorn angered the three boys in charge in the Pink Building, and a mess of the 181 members of the House and Senate, too, with a steady drumbeat of criticism about the way those folks have handled state finances. Rep. David Swinford, R-Dumas, achieved something akin to peace in an earlier special session by getting everyone to agree to study this stuff. After that was in place, Strayhorn held a press conference to say lawmakers had balanced the budget and avoided taxes only because they raised $2.7 billion in fees and other "out of pocket" costs for regular Texans. Legislators were introduced to the idea of defending huge fee increases when they get home — many of them to seek reelection — and they weren't at all happy. Swinford said later that the small amount of remaining good will for the comptroller evaporated with that pronouncement.
Businesses, traditionally allies of the comptroller, stuck their fingers in, but not really on behalf of the comptroller. They got legislators to kill provisions that would have made state tax audits of companies public — at the discretion of legislators. And they got a protection added, so that legislative reviews of the comptroller's work don't become new audits of the taxpayers involved. Lawmakers talked about moving the administrative law section of the comptroller's office — the state's tax courts, basically — to the State Office of Administrative Hearings. Business groups didn't register a protest, but that idea is now on the back burner.
The audit reviews, as changed to suit business lobbyists, remain. And lawmakers on the verge of taking away the performance reviews say those high profile programs distract her from her core job of collecting taxes. They say privately that those programs help the comptroller maintain a very high profile and to bash lawmakers for spending money while she's trying to save it.
Behind the Scenes
Strayhorn was uncharacteristically quiet, at least publicly, as the legislative jaws closed on her pet programs. Behind the scenes, she was calling legislators, pushing them hard to vote with her instead of with their own leaders. She sent them notes asking for support, asking them to call her if they had any questions. Those notes, sent while the issue was being negotiated, were paper-clipped to a pile of newspaper editorials, some of which praised the cost-saving programs and others that implored legislators to leave the programs alone. And plans to swat her — popular with the lieutenant governor and the governor — have become a lever in redistricting. David Dewhurst wants to move performance reviews but the Senate map doesn't suit Tom Craddick. Craddick can go along, or not, with the comptroller-bashing, but wants the senators to go his way on the maps.
Fighting and jockeying among the state's top officials has been around forever. But Strayhorn is doing something that hasn't been seen since Attorney General Jim Mattox left office in 1991: She's angering everyone in officialdom while playing to the public outside the Capitol. That can win public support for an official, but can cost in the financial department. Mattox ran for governor in 1990 and lost a rough primary runoff race to Ann Richards. Later, without the advantage of holding office, without the support for former colleagues who he'd crossed along the way, and with a big loss on his resume, he lost a U.S. Senate primary to Richard Fisher, who lost, in turn, to Kay Bailey Hutchison. Political donors often base their decisions on the likes and dislikes of their most powerful friends. Many of those powerful friends are mad at the comptroller, and over the long haul, that could affect her ability to raise money for a race for higher office.
That said, it's hard to find much effect yet. She had $1.9 million in her campaign account at the end of August, according to a memo she added to her latest finance report. That's not enough for a high profile state race, but it's a start, and her fundraising appears to be healthy.
Don't Make Them Stop This Car
The numbers are still coming in for this year, but a year ago, more than half of the state's school districts — 600 or so — had property tax rates between $1.46 and $1.50 per $100 in property value. That second number — $1.50 — has the mojo. It's the state cap on local property taxes and if enough districts set their tax rate there, lawyers start calling it a "de facto state property tax." A state property tax is unconstitutional in Texas, a pesky little problem lawmakers might fix next spring.
But there's talk, led by Gov. Rick Perry, of delaying a fix to school finance until lawmakers have agreed on a scheme. The loose plan was to call a special session in April or May to work out a new school finance system.
But with talk of more delays, the state's biggest school districts are joining a lawsuit challenging the state's method of paying for schools, and their lawyers hope to take the issue to court next summer. The Houston school district is considering the lawsuit. Dallas and Austin, the second- and third-largest districts, have already signed on.
Their problem, in a nutshell, is that they have some of the most expensive students to educate, some of the highest property tax rates, and some of the lowest percentages of state funding for their school systems. Somethin's gotta give, and they're hoping the prospect of a lawsuit and a court order that might follow will prompt the Legislature to do something.
A tangle of committees and panels is looking at the problem and lawmakers are still working to get proposals together by next spring. If they don't come up with something substantial by then, the school districts are ready to do school finance the way it was done 12 years ago — with the backing of courts ordering lawmakers to patch it up.
Drink While They Drive
At the Texas Motor Speedway, people in the grandstands can't drink beer unless they bring it themselves in coolers. They can't buy it on the premises, nor can they buy alcoholic beverages in other spots around the track for drinking in the grandstands.
If the operators wanted, they could ban coolers and only allow beer sold on site, but that's apparently a flagrant violation of NASCAR culture. People camp overnight at the track when races are on, and they bring their own hooch. It's a weird little thing in the state's weird alcoholic beverage code, and the operators of that venue set out to change it.
They asked Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound for help (we'll come back to that), and eventually got another senator to get the law changed. The Legislature took care of it during the regular session and, for the moment, you can either bring your own or buy it there. They say they're the second-biggest sporting venue in the U.S. — behind the Indianapolis Speedway — and have to compete in an industry where everybody else allows both coolers and beer sold on site.
But Nelson's aides say the track folks "went around her," and she set out to get revenge. Their version: Nelson wanted the track to first get a sympathetic resolution from Denton County Commissioners and then she'd carry their revisions to the booze laws. They didn't get that resolution, and she thinks they went behind her back to get what they wanted during the regular session.
Now that we're in special session, she got a provision added to the government reorganization bill — without much discussion or a single-barreled vote from either the Senate or the committee that handled it — that would put the law back like it was before this year. Track officials who've asked her for meetings have been told that she's all booked up for the next couple of months.
The amendment didn't get into the House bill, and negotiators from the two chambers were still working on the bill when we went to press.
An Election Five Months Off
The Texas Association of Business lost another round in court. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals won't stop a grand jury investigation of the trade group's political advertising during the last election cycle. TAB's attorney says he'll appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Andy Taylor's argument is that the ads were protected political speech and that the grand jury inquiry is, in effect, a violation of the group's First Amendment rights. Separately, he's asking a federal district court to step in.
Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle contends the ads were financed by corporate money, and that that's illegal if the ads were intended to get certain people elected and not just to explain or argue issues. The prosecutors also want to know if TAB's advertising was coordinated with other efforts to get those 22 candidates elected; if so, the corporate money poisons the pot. His argument in court was that the grand jury has a right to investigate whether those allegations are true.
The ruling from the state's highest criminal court clears the way for a grand jury to get back to work. But the term of the grand jury that had been looking at the case ended, so another grand jury would have to be empanelled and presented with the same evidence. (That raises the risks of perjury for anyone whose story before a second grand jury doesn't match what they told the first one. The more you testify, the more chances you have to contradict yourself.)
Three officials from TAB refused to testify before the grand jury, setting off the court cases that are now on their way to the nation's high court. They can't be jailed for contempt, since the grand jury is no longer in session, but they each face $500 in fines. Taylor will hit up the Supremes next week, and the hearings with the other federal court are set for November 3.
The dragged-out court fight poses a gnarly little legal and PR question for the folks at TAB. Another election cycle starts in earnest in 60 to 90 days — that's the filing period for candidates looking for spots in the Texas Legislature next year. Will TAB use the same kind of mailers during the coming cycle, or not? On one hand, they're arguing that the mailers were legal and proper. On the other hand, why compound a question while it's being settled in the courts?
They'll probably hold off, for a stated reason and a second reason that's strategic. The stated reason: The fact that this is being contested in court suppresses TAB's ability to do it again in the primaries. The prosecutors would argue that TAB broke the law once, and should stop digging the hole they're standing in. The strategic reason: Most of the Republicans TAB was backing last year won their races and the effort isn't needed again right now.
Why Vote if the Choices Have Already Been Made?
Gov. Rick Perry told lawmakers they needed to have a redistricting plan to him by next week or push back the primary elections in March, thus allowing time for federal clearance of the Texas plan and expected court challenges before filing begins in December. But that has a deeper impact on Democrats, potentially, than on Republicans. Republicans pretty much know who their presidential nominee will be, and the timing of the primaries doesn't hold much suspense or excitement for them. But Texas Democrats say proposals to delay the March 2 primaries would suppress turnout in their primary, which they hope will draw one million voters.
The most exciting race — the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination — could be over by the time Texas Democrats go to the polls, they argue, unless the contests take place on the first Tuesday in March. If it stays on schedule, 17 states (including the district of Columbia) will hold primaries, caucuses and preference elections before Texas does. But March 2 is Super Tuesday, and Texas voters will be at the polls on the same day as voters in California, New York, Georgia, Ohio and nine other states. Delay it a week, the Democrats contend, and the presidential primaries will be all but over. Texas voters won't be excited, and they won't turn out in the same numbers.
This could also come up in a court fight over redistricting. The Democrats argue that the delay will suppress minority votes in Texas, a contention that parallels their redistricting arguments and the effects of redrawn maps on Black and Hispanic voters in the state.
Flotsam & Jetsam
Credit the San Antonio Express-News for looking this up: The Texas Legislature has been in session twice as long as Congress this year, and has broken the record for most days in session in a year, set back in 1959. The old record of 201 days fell by the wayside on September 17 and the clock is still ticking. The Lege met for 197 days in 1989, coming close to breaking the record while haggling over workers' compensation insurance reform. Congress has been in session for 104 days this year.
• Redistricting cost House Speaker Tom Craddick a trip to Europe. With a looming "drop dead" date for a map, and Republican legislators gridlocked over the lines, the Speaker spiked a trip to Spain he'd scheduled for this month.
• Add David Flores of Orange Grove (that's west of Corpus Christi and a few miles up the road from Alice) to your candidate list. The independent health consultant will challenge freshman Rep. Gabi Canales, D-Alice, in the Democratic primary next year.
• Add another planet to the constellation around the Texas chapter of Citizens for a Sound Economy. It's called the Center for Hispanic Advocacy and is headed by Jorge Uresti of Tyler. He bills it as "America's First Conservative Hispanic Think Tank" and has it up and running, of course, with a website: www.hispadv.org.
• Follow-up: The Texas Teacher Retirement System, which denied a pay bonus to some educators last month, is reinstating it and will put the money in checks going to those people by the end of the year. Librarians and counselors and others were defined as "administrative" employees in a TRS rule earlier this year and denied bonuses because of that designation. Teacher groups squawked, the Legislature stepped in, and the bonuses will be in checks before the end of the calendar year.
• Only insiders will care, but they'll care: The Texas Supreme Court, which has released new opinions on Thursdays for about 2 billion years (actually, just since 1994), is moving the releases to Friday. That works better with their new docketing system, apparently. We don't know that this plays into it, but the move will lower the court's visibility a notch: News of opinions moves to Friday nights on television and Saturday in the papers. Fewer people see those editions.
Political People and Their Moves
Sen. Florence Shapiro's chief of staff, Suzanne Sanders Bellsnyder, quit the government to work as a fundraiser for Republicans — the old boss is one of her clients — and has been replaced by Luke Bellsnyder, her husband. Mr. Bellsnyder had been at the Texas Association of Business, but before that worked on Shapiro's committee staff...
Somebody take Elicia Brammer's temperature. In a private ceremony this week, Brammer, the political committee director for Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, married Mark Sanders, the comptroller's communications and political advisor. After the service, the newlyweds went back to their offices...
Sherry Boyles is officially running for chair of the Texas Democratic Party, after talking to people about it for a couple of weeks. Boyles, who ran for Texas Railroad Commission last year, joins an increasingly crowded field seeking to replace Molly Beth Malcolm in a special election on October 25.
Shirley Neely, the superintendent of the Galena Park ISD, won the Superintendent of the Year award from the Texas Association of School Boards. That's the largest "exemplary" district in the state, and she's been in charge for eight years...
Ken Towery, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the Cuero Record before his second career as a political consultant to the late John Tower and others, has given his papers to the state agency where the prize-winning story began. Towery's journalism revealed an extensive land fraud scheme at the Texas Veterans Land Board and ended when Land Commissioner Bascom Giles was sent to prison...
Deaths: Cayce Hardcastle, daughter of Rep. Rick Hardcastle, R-Vernon, of cancer. She was 18... George Ellis, who served on the 14th Court of Appeals in Houston for 12 years and was known for writing more opinions than any of his peers in the state, of heart failure. He was 70.
Quotes of the Week
Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, quoted by the Associated Press after initial negotiations with the Senate: "I'm fairly encouraged. Everybody's working real hard and making some progress. I don't know that we're going to get it done this week, but I hope we get it done during this session."
Bob Richter, spokesman for House Speaker Tom Craddick, on whether lawmakers would finish redistricting before the governor's "drop dead" date, in the Dallas Morning News: "I don't think there's a hard and fast reason they need to have this done this week or even next week. They can move this thing back a couple of weeks — the primary dates, the filing deadlines and all of that."
Past and future congressional candidate Michael Conaway, telling the Houston Chronicle how much Craddick, a fellow Midland Republican, wants a congressional district dominated by that city: "I know Tom is way set to get it drawn the way he wants to or it goes down. Tom's prepared to go either way — not have a bill at all or get it done the way he wants it done."
King, quoted by the Austin American-Statesman after a tiff with senators who said the House was going to blow that deadline and force lawmakers to delay the March primary elections: "I don't think it makes a hill of beans to 99 percent of Texans if the primary is in March, April, May, June or August."
Craddick, after those senators said they would accept, with some modifications, a map presented by one of the speaker's top lieutenants: "While the House leadership always welcomes input on any bill from any House member... Rep. [Arlene] Wohlgemuth is not a member of the House Redistricting Committee, has not participated to date in the House-Senate negotiations on redistricting and did not speak to me or for me — or the House — in drawing her map."
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, butting heads with House negotiators: "At this late hour, we need to come together on a map... and stop playing the Iranian cab driver negotiations where you get what you want and then you start adding on two, three, more requests."
Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, quoted in the Dallas Morning News on the legislative focus on redistricting and other issues: "The Legislature is spending their time climbing up hills when we have a mountain looming out there. And the mountain looming out there is school finance reform."
U.S. Rep. Charlie Stenholm, D-Abilene, describing how he answers attacks from Republicans who want to unseat him next year, in the Austin American-Statesman: "We hit back as hard as we can hit back, but with a smile on our face and a good Christian attitude. That's West Texas."
Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, quoted in the San Antonio Express-News: I'm having to take medication because my arms are all twisted out."
More Quotes, Less Redistricting
Charles Grissom, Paris (TX) High School's band director, talking to the Associated Press after a halftime show in Highland Park on Rosh Hashanah that included unfurling a Nazi flag while the band played Deutschland Uber Alles: "Our intent was never to cause any harm, to hurt feelings. It was to do something historical, to honor our veterans who kept the world free. We've apologized and have taken steps to rectify the problem... We were booed. We had things thrown at us. We were cursed ... We didn't do our homework."
Rep. Pat Haggerty, R-El Paso, telling the El Paso Times what he does at fundraisers for other House members: "You drink a free beer and eat a few nachos and act like you really care whether these people get re-elected or not."
Rep. Ray Allen, R-Grand Prairie, quoted in The New York Times on the state cutting calories fed to prison inmates as part of a cost-cutting move: "It was not our first choice to cut their food, but we had a $9.9 billion shortfall. Since we can't cut a single corrections officer, and their salaries are 80 percent of prison costs, there isn't much else left to cut."
Ted Costa, a California activist who started the gubernatorial recall drive there, quoted in the Sacramento Bee on what he's reaped: "I guess in California anything's possible. We may have to send the guys with white coats in afterward and say, 'Hey, Governor, come with me.'"
Texas Weekly: Volume 20, Issue 17, 6 October 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.