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Keep Your Peepers on that Back Burner

The prospect of a special legislative session in an election year is making some Texas lawmakers nervous, especially because the subject — school finance — is a hazardous political substance. On the surface, special committees and other experts are studying complete revisions of the state's current school finance mechanism, involving everything from studies on how much it takes to educate an average student to a particular level, to a diagnosis of what's wrong with the current tax system, to whatever else can be attached to the school finance question. A full remodeling would require some new state taxes to replace the local property taxes causing much of the outcry. And a growing number of school districts are signing onto the latest legal challenge to the Texas school system, which could go to court next summer if lawmakers haven't applied enough patches by then.

The prospect of a special legislative session in an election year is making some Texas lawmakers nervous, especially because the subject — school finance — is a hazardous political substance. On the surface, special committees and other experts are studying complete revisions of the state's current school finance mechanism, involving everything from studies on how much it takes to educate an average student to a particular level, to a diagnosis of what's wrong with the current tax system, to whatever else can be attached to the school finance question. A full remodeling would require some new state taxes to replace the local property taxes causing much of the outcry. And a growing number of school districts are signing onto the latest legal challenge to the Texas school system, which could go to court next summer if lawmakers haven't applied enough patches by then.

While that's all going on with the education experts in the Legislature, other members are talking about temporary fixes that could stave off legal challenges to the system and political challenges to the incumbents who vote on this stuff.

Instead of voting on a tax bill that in some imaginations would reach $15 billion in size, they'd prefer a $2 billion to $3 billion fix. They could end the so-called Robin Hood system, where richer districts send money to poorer districts to close some of the gaps between rich and poor, push down property tax rates, at least temporarily, in the districts that have been doing the exporting, and use the new money to replace what the poor districts would lose because of Robin Hood's demise.

The funds for that could be raised without unpalatable tax hikes. Lawmakers would simply follow a suggestion made months ago — in a different context — by Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn. She proposed raising cigarette taxes by a dollar a pack and asking voters to approve a new kind of gambling: Video Lottery Terminals, or VLTs. The cigarette tax polls well, even among Republican voters. It doesn't apply to everyone — only smokers. Over time, it would help cut smoking rates, if past price hikes here and elsewhere are any indication. And if people don't want to pay the tax, they can quit smoking. Groups pushing the idea have been flashing polls for a year that say, basically, that the general hatred for taxes doesn't extend to this particular levy.

VLTs are a little trickier, especially after Attorney General Greg Abbott weighed in earlier this year and said lawmakers can't allow the games without a constitutional amendment approved by voters. That's two hurdles in one: Constitutional amendments require two-thirds approval from both the House and the Senate, and then voters would have to nod as well. Plug in some conventional wisdom: If turnout in that constitutional amendment election is low, the people voting will tend to be more conservative. Though it's not uniform, many conservatives don't like gambling. The money they'd be wanting from VLTs could be harder to get.

According to the numbers released by the comptroller last May, the cigarette tax would raise $1.5 billion over a two-year period. The VLTs — and the numbers for this will vary depending on just what is being proposed and how widespread the terminals would be — would bring in $712 million by the comptroller's estimate. Strayhorn's estimate is based on allowing the new games only at existing Texas racetracks. Some track owners are talking about building large rooms, like the lobbies in Las Vegas hotels, around the games. And some are proposing adding the hotels while they're at it. If you scratch around, you can find smart people who think VLTs will produce much more or much less money. But it's an easier vote than a big tax bill, and could buy lawmakers some time on school finance.

Grading the Redistricting Maps

Nobody's offering a daily blow-by-blow on congressional redistricting, but it's not over yet. U.S. District Judge T. John Ward put the lawyers on notice that he'd like to talk about a trial in Austin in the week of December 8. He's one-third of a three-judge panel that will hear the case, and Ward is holding a status conference next week on the redistricting cases that have been filed so far (they've been consolidated into one case). The three judges are from all over Texas; Ward's order to the lawyers suggests Austin for the trial location "given the resources located there." He didn't name any resources, but the venue would give the court easy access to the computers used to draw maps.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice is reviewing the Texas maps for violations of the Voting Rights Act. They heard from congressional Democrats who don't like the plan for all of the reasons we've been writing about for the last several months, and have several more weeks to go before they reach the 60-day deadline for their ruling. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott told a gathering of Dallas Republicans this week that he expects a ruling pre-clearing the Texas plan within the week or so of December. The federal judges aren't bound by DOJ's ruling and, we're told, don't even have to wait for it. Nevertheless, if Abbott is right, the DOJ could rule just before a December trial.

Party Animals, Donkey Division

Texas Democrats elected a new chairman and will have another opportunity to fight over leadership next June at their state convention. San Marcos attorney Charles Soechting emerged from a field of five candidates to take the chair left open by the resignation of Molly Beth Malcolm. Nobody won on the first ballot of the State Democratic Executive Committee, but Soechting led. State Rep. Garnet Coleman of Houston got seven votes the first time around and then withdrew his name. On the next ballot, six of Coleman's votes went to Soechting, one went to former Land Commissioner and gubernatorial candidate Garry Mauro. Soechting ended up with 34 of the 63 available votes and Mauro got 23. Mary Moore of Bryan had four votes, and David Van Os of San Antonio had two.

The voting followed short speeches by the candidates. Although Mauro said he wanted to stop the party's infighting, he said after the votes that he'll run for a full term as party chairman in June. Malcolm stepped down after more than five years at the helm to spend more time with her family and, presumably, to let someone else run things during next year's primary elections.

Soechting has been the party's general counsel for the last two years. He's a former state trooper, Navy veteran and Hays County Democratic Party chairman. In private life, he's a trial lawyer, running a branch office of O'Quinn, Laminack & Pirtle. Republicans leapt at that one: John O'Quinn, the name partner, is one of five attorneys who each earned hundreds of millions winning the state's $17.1 billion tobacco settlement. Soechting bit back, sounding like a partisan when reporters asked him what he wants the party to do: "We are going to be after the rats that have run things into the ground."

Party Animals, Elephant Division

Republicans, meanwhile, are having the same sort of fun one week later. GOP Chair Susan Weddington quit to run a non-profit started by the governor, and the State Republican Executive Committee will vote in someone to serve the rest of her term (the GOP also has officer elections next summer, after the primaries and before the general election). As with the Democrats, only the members of the committee — a woman and a man from each of the state's 31 Senate districts — and the chair and vice chair can vote. Weddington's already gone, leaving 63 votes; 32 wins it. Supporters of Tina Benkiser, a Houston lawyer, claim she's got more than 40 votes locked up. But Gina Parker, a former party treasurer from Waco (and also an attorney) was still plugging away as we went to press. She's backed by national committeeman Tim Lambert of Lubbock, among others.

Candidates, Real and Tentative, on Parade

Matthew Marchant, a Carrollton city councilman whose father is Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Carrollton, says he won't run for the state House if Dallas County Commissioner Jim Jackson makes the contest. The elder Marchant is eyeing a run for Congress if the new districts drawn by legislators hold up in court. That would leave open his House seat, and Marchant the younger was looking at it. Jackson, a veteran of Dallas County politics, is looking, and as long as he's in the hunt, Matthew Marchant is out. If Jackson decides against it, however, Marchant's name could reappear. The elder Marchant, meanwhile, is waiting to see whether he'll draw opposition. On the list: Bill Dunn, who ran for a Tarrant County office and has been making noises about joining the congressional pack.

• U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, decided to join the fight for CD-25, a new congressional district that stretches from Austin to the Texas border. He's still hoping to win the court fight and keep the Travis County district he's got now, but his old district now stretches to Houston and favors conservatives. Doggett was second into this race; he'll face state Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Mission, in the Democratic primary in March.

• The newly drawn CD-10 has some more candidates, and if the new congressional maps hold up, this could be the most crowded GOP primary. Houston Republican Ben Streusand, CEO of Home Loan Corp., has jumped into the race. He's active with the Texas Mortgage Bankers Association — he's the political action committee chair — and has been a GOP convention delegate. He calls himself "a close advisor to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Gov. Rick Perry on mortgage banking matters." And he's hired Jim Arnold, a former aide to Perry, as his general consultant.

Former BFI lobbyist Ann Hodge — who's now president and CEO of the Katy Area Chamber of Commerce — is also looking at that race. Hodge, who chairs the Texas Workforce Investment Council, hasn't declared her candidacy, but friends say she's kicking tires...

• Contrary to Austin rumors, Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, says he enjoyed his first legislative session, is raising money, and fully intends to run for reelection next year. The rumor had all three items reversed, but he invokes the Venerable Twain: "Rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated."

• Democrat Katie Hubener says she'll challenge Rep. Ray Allen, R-Grand Prairie, in next year's elections, and she's using his party's state comptroller against him. Part of Hubener's pitch is that lawmakers raised fees while saying they were avoiding new taxes: "Texas families are paying for more yet they're getting less. Even Republican Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn says so." She's referring to Strayhorn's blast at lawmakers a few weeks ago, when the comptroller said the Lege had raised $2.7 billion in fees and other "out-of-pocket" expenses to make good on its no-tax pledge.

• Last year, Charles "Doc" Anderson finished third in a three-way Republican primary for a House seat. There was a runoff, and the GOP nominee, Holt Getterman, went through a series of self-inflicted mishaps and misadventures and lost to Democrat John Mabry, D-Waco. Mabry's still on the GOP's target list — Republicans insist he's a fluke and that the seat belongs, at least on paper, to the GOP — and Anderson will be back in March, trying to deny Mabry a second term.

• Nacogdoches Mayor Roy Blake Jr. will run for the Texas House seat opened up by Rep. Wayne Christian's decision to run for Congress. That's HD-9. Blake is a Republican.

• Rep. Dan Ellis, D-Livingston, has drawn a reelection opponent. Republican John Otto of Dayton says he'll run against Ellis next year. Otto is on the Dayton City Council, used to be on the school board there, and is the only candidate we know of who used to be a head drum major at Texas A&M University, or anywhere else, for that matter (call in with corrections if you've got 'em — we're curious). Otto's an accountant.

DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS: We called Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer a freshman last week and that ain't at all right. The San Antonio Democrat is in his second term, and was Democratic Freshman of the Year back in 2001. Sorry, sorry, sorry.

Flashback

Former state Rep. Ted Kamel, R-Tyler, wants to come back to Austin and says he's leaning toward a run for his old seat next year. That chair is still occupied, however, by Rep. Leo Berman, also R, also Tyler, who beat Kamel in the Republican primaries back in 1998. Kamel says a rematch might be an exciting race and says he is only interested in a House race, while Berman's name keeps coming up in the context of open congressional seats and a potentially open seat for state Senate.

Kamel is now teaching school and running a couple of small businesses on the side. He'd have to quit teaching to take state office, and that's giving him pause. He'll decide around Thanksgiving.

Berman says he's running for the state House, says his voting record "is perfect for my district," and says he'd welcome a rematch with Kamel: "All he has to do is pay his filing fee." Berman says he looked at the new congressional district but decided to stay put. He's a former Army liaison to Congress and says he knows the ropes in Washington, but says a federal contest would take a year of grueling campaigning and fund-raising and would cost in the neighborhood of a million bucks.

As for the Senate race, he says his part of Smith County is represented in the upper chamber by Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, who isn't going anywhere. Another part of the county is covered by Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, who publicly announced he was unsure whether he will stick around for the final two years of what he says is his last term in the Senate. Berman would have to move to run in that district.

Kamel served eight years in the House before losing to Berman in the 1998 Republican primary. Berman tagged him for supporting then-Gov. George W. Bush's state tax overhaul, saying it would have been devastating to doctors and other professionals. And he got after Kamel — who originally promised to stay in Austin for no more than eight years — for reneging on his term-limits promise. Watch that one: Berman, who made the same promise, says now that it's a bad idea. "It makes no sense for us to send another freshman to Austin every eight years," he says. He'll honor the pledge if he wins another term, he says, possibly putting his name on the ballot but declining to campaign. First, he'll have to beat Kamel, who he beat 6,877 to 5,760 five years ago.

Political Shorts

The ten Democrats targeted by the Republicans in congressional redistricting have political bank accounts that run from pocket change to millions. The reports on file with Political Money Line show the U.S. representatives from Texas in various states of financial repair: Max Sandlin of Marshall ended September with $200,309 in the bank. Jim Turner of Crockett had $1.14 million on hand. Ralph Hall of Rockwall: $26,111. Nick Lampson of Beaumont: $278,742. Lloyd Doggett of Austin: $2.24 million. Chet Edwards of Waco: $381,593. Charlie Stenholm of Abilene: $297,936. Martin Frost of Dallas: $402,017. Chris Bell of Houston: $159,512. Gene Green of Houston: $400,481.

• It doesn't make everybody happy, but Texans for Lawsuit Reform gave a "leadership award" to freshman Democrat Patrick Rose of Dripping Springs. Democrats were unhappy when he didn't stick with the party line on tort reform, and some Republicans are ticked at TLR for giving the prize to a Democrat in territory that could go Republican. Rose wasn't embarrassed: He accepted the award at a noon ceremony with everybody he could gather in attendance.

• The state agency set up to bargain with the federal government on Texas' behalf hired two lobby outfits for assistance, at a price of $15,000 per month, each, for 23 months each. The Federalist Group and Piper Rudnick will split $690,000 over the next two years. Both are based in Washington, D.C. Drew Maloney, one of the principals in the first firm, is a former aide to U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. One of Piper's honchos is another Texan — DeLay's immediate predecessor, Dick Armey. Legislative Democrats tried to kill this a couple of times on the theory that state-fed is supposed to be doing the lobbying itself and that taxpayer money shouldn't go to outside lobsters. But supporters of the contracts voted them down, contending the outside lobbyists will do a better job than state employees at getting federal money and other bennies on the road to Texas.

Appointments, Gubernatorial

 GOP stalwart Jim Francis of Dallas announced he'll soon leave his position on the three-member board of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Francis was put there by then-Gov. George W. Bush. He's not officially gone, but that will free up what's usually considered a plum appointment for politically connected Texans...

John Christopher Oldner of McKinney is Gov. Rick Perry's choice to run the newly created 416th Judicial District Court in Collin County. If he wants to keep the job, he'll have to win the first election for that court next year. Oldner is presiding judge of a County Court at Law... Perry chose Jack Marion Skeen Jr. of Tyler for an open bench: The 241st Judicial District Court in Smith County. Skeen is the criminal district attorney there and a former municipal court judge...

The University of North Texas is getting a new regent and two reappointed ones. Gov. Perry named Fort Worth lawyer Rice Tilley Jr. to that board. He's also on the board of trustees at Texas Wesleyan University, according to Perry's office. The Guv reappointed Robert Nickell, an independent investor from Dallas, and Gayle Strange, president of a Denton company. Nickell and Strange both have degrees from UNT...

Gov. Perry named Dory Wiley of Dallas to the board of trustees at the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, the board that oversees investments and management of the pension and insurance funds for Texas educators. Wiley is a CPA and managing director of SAMCO Capital Markets...

Perry named Richard "Casey" Hoffman to the board of the Texas Department of Information Resources. He's a lawyer and runs a company that collects child support for kids, and worked in the child support division of the AG's office when Dan Morales headed that agency...

Perry named Jerry Kane the presiding officer of the Texas Board of Human Services, and reappointed Teresa Wilkinson of Midland to that board. Kane is president of a beef processing company in Corpus Christi. Wilkinson is on the Midland City Council...

A Corpus Christi doctor and an Austin employee relations exec are Perry's newest additions to the State Board of Medical Examiners. Dr. Christine Canterbury, an ob/gyn, and Annette Raggette will join the board...

Perry named four people to open spots on the Texas Historical Commission: Thomas Alexander, a Fredericksburg writer who has published several books on Texas military history; Bob Bowman of Lufkin, who owns a public relations firm; San Antonio rancher Albert Hausser; and John Nau III, CEO of Silver Eagle Distributing in Houston and a former chairman of that commission.

Appointments, Legislative

House Speaker Tom Craddick named Reps. Peggy Hamric, R-Houston, Glenn Lewis, D-Fort Worth, and Vicki Truitt, R-Keller to the Sunset Advisory Commission, and tapped former Rep. John Shields, R-San Antonio, for a citizen spot on that board. Shields lost a bitter Republican primary for state Senate to incumbent Jeff Wentworth last year. Craddick tapped Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Denton, to chair the panel for the next two years, and left Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, on the panel, too. The list of agencies under fire during this two year run includes the Texas Lottery Commission, the Texas Education Agency (Shields is a former member of that agency's board), the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and the Public Utility Commission...

Craddick put two House members on the panel overseeing the electric utility industry's transition to the newest version of state regulation. Reps. Todd Baxter, R-Austin, and Harold Dutton, D-Houston, will join the Electric Utility Restructuring Legislative Oversight Committee.

More Political People, More Moves

Von Byer, general counsel to Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, is the new director of the Senate Education Committee, which Shapiro chairs. Adam Jones, the previous occupant, is now at the Texas Education Agency. While we're on that subject, Sharon Jackson is TEA's new deputy associated commissioner for standards and alignment.

Political People and Their Moves

House Speaker Tom Craddick, who initially hoped to do without a chief of staff, named Nancy Fisher to that post. She's had that office from the start, and most of that job; now it's official (and it helps in the retirement account, too). Fisher was a lobbyist before this; before that, she was an assistant sergeant at arms, Calendars Committee Clerk to then-Rep.-now-lobster Bill Messer, a legislative assistant to then-Gov. Bill Clements, and deputy executive director of the Texas Racing Commission. Another Craddick staffer, Michelle Wittenburg, is also getting a new title. She'll be general counsel to the speaker and will give up her job at Holland and Knight. She took a leave from the firm "just for the session". The place must have grown on her...

Gov. Rick Perry is moving the boxes on his office org chart. Chief of Staff Mike Toomey will be spending most of his time on school finance, so Phil Wilson will add economic development and trusteed programs to his communications duties and will get a new title: deputy chief of staff. Perry is swapping Royce Poinsett from the general counsel's office to the policy staff, Katherine Arnold will move from policy to general counsel. General Counsel Bill Jones, recently named to the Texas A&M University board of regents by his boss, is joining the Austin office of Locke Liddell & Sapp, focusing on public law and on commercial litigation...

Veteran lobbyist and political consultant Reggie Bashur has a new high-profile client: Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Bashur, a former aide to Govs. Bill Clements and George W. Bush, already gives political counsel to Gov. Rick Perry and Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs, among others. Until recently, that stable of clients included Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn. They split when Strayhorn all but declared political war on Perry and Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick...

Jennifer Waisath is returning to the Secretary of State's office. She worked there when Tony Garza was the boss, went with him to the Railroad Commission, and then landed at Public Strategies Inc. when he became the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. She'll be communications director for new SOS Geoffrey Connor. Meanwhile, Ben Hanson moves from Gov. Perry's office to be general counsel to Connor.

Quotes of the Week

Bruce Mason, spokesman for the American Anglican Council, a group leading opposition to the Episcopal church's consecration of a gay bishop, in a Washington Post story on political conservatives who have funded AAC's efforts: "There has been lots of 'it's a vast right-wing conspiracy' stuff going about, alleging that we share finances and all that, which is not true. But it is true that we work closely together. Somehow when conservatives get together it's a conspiracy, and when liberals get together, it's working for justice. It's a total double standard."

Roy Casanova Jr. of San Antonio, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee, in an email obtained by the Houston Chronicle about the race for chair of the Republican Party of Texas: "Let us not wound each other over this. There are too many other battles to fight. I chose to be a fighter in God's army, not a 'victim.'"

Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who's been investigating whether political activities of the Texas Association of Business crossed the lines and used corporate money to influence last year's elections, reacting in the Austin American-Statesman to news that TAB would do the same thing again in the coming election cycle: "God Almighty! There's a detail they overlooked. They did not get the Legislature to repeal the law that makes that a crime!"

Garry Mauro, after losing the race to replace Democratic Party Chair Molly Beth Malcolm to Charles Soechting and saying he'll seek a rematch in June, quoted in the Austin American-Statesman: "If he shows some stuff, I'll reconsider. Anybody that can deliver the goods, I'm for."

Mary Moore, who also ran for Democratic Party chair, on her ill-fated bid for a state Senate seat a few years ago, when she lost to Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, by 11 percentage points: "Only in horseshoes does close count, because losing does suck."

Fixit: We quoted Gov. Rick Perry last week and got a word wrong on his feelings about the bitter special sessions this year. It should have gone like this: "My taste is sweet in my mouth."


Texas Weekly: Volume 20, Issue 20, 3 November 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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