Ever dent the fender driving a new car off the lot? The coalition of school boards and school administrators formed to lobby state government to spend more money on public schools is looking, unexpectedly, for professional help. Public Strategies Inc., the Austin-based public affairs firm that had been doing the group's polling, public relations and marketing – an effort that put them on the wrong side of the governor – dropped out less than a week after the coalition was publicly announced, citing conflicts between the school clients who want more money and clients who hired the firm to work on the tax bill that would fund that and other state spending.
The Texas Association of School Boards and the Texas Association of School Administrators are working together to lobby for more money for public schools. Specifically, they say schools need more money for teachers and to maintain low class sizes. They say combined state and local spending on public education in Texas is $745 per student lower than the national average. The state pays around 38 percent of the costs of public schools, on average, and state law limits what districts can raise with local taxes. The school trustees and managers say they're boxed in, and say local taxpayers are tapped out on property taxes. They're carrying around polling and focus group data – gathered for them by PSI – to buttress their argument. Texans tell pollsters they favor spending more money on schools. When you ask them whether they're willing to pay more for schools and other government services than they're paying now, the answers get murkier. And when you ask Republicans in the Lege and in high state offices what they think about tax bills, you get scowls.
TASB and TASA announced their program the same week Gov. Rick Perry was announcing his own school proposals. He wants to give schools incentives for better performance and wants to change the focus of the battle over school finance to educational excellence instead of taxes. In fact, Perry announced part of his plan at a state convention of public educators; he got a tepid response, especially when he suggested the state would match local spending for a teacher performance bonus. That didn't go over well with a crowd that had been talking about financial trouble.
Their announcement didn't go over any better with the Perry folks. They were (and are) trying to change the focus of the debate, and the school folks are in the way of that. When the school establishment started banging on his proposals, he banged back. In a speech at the Texas Public Policy Foundation's conference in Austin, Perry said his opponents just didn't understand his proposals. And he sent a message to the people helping them. One part of Perry's package is to simplify public school financials for the public. You can look at the books now, but you have to grok the language of public education wonks and accountants; it's not designed for transparency. Perry said taxpayers should know what percentage of dollars makes it to classrooms, and what's classified as a classroom expense. He gave a number of examples, one of which got enthusiastic applause: "They deserve to know whether school districts are using tax dollars directly, or indirectly, to retain high-priced lobbyists and PR firms to extract more taxes from the very same taxpayers who are picking up the tab."
That speech started about a half-hour after TASA and TASB announced their project. Eight days later, PSI quit, citing conflicts of interest between those and some of the firm's other clients. The coalition, called Invest in Texas Schools (www.InvestInTexasSchools.org), is in the process of hiring a replacement, and they say they'll press ahead. They're not planning to lobby one way or another on tax issues; their sole interest, they say, is to get more state money into public education.
Sorry, Wrong Number
Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn is stamping out chitchat that she's working on an $80,000 homestead exemption to give Texans relief from property taxes, and she directly blames the governor's top aide for starting that specific version of the story. "People have told me directly that they have met in small, closed-door meetings with Mike Toomey and have been told that they better support Perry's split-roll tax or they're going to be saddled with Strayhorn's $80,000 homestead exemption... That is flat fiction. I have never looked at a number like that. Period."
That's not to say homestead exemptions aren't on the glass tray under the microscope. Strayhorn's staff has, in fact, been looking at increasing the state-mandated homestead exemption as one way to cut residential school property tax bills. She won't say whether she plans to go ahead with that proposal, or what dollar numbers her aides have been analyzing. She has said she expects to roll out some school finance plans before any special legislative sessions on that subject.
Privately, Toomey has been asking lobbyists for businesses and for trade groups to get behind the split roll, which would put a higher tax burden on business property taxpayers and a lighter burden on residential property taxpayers. He won't talk about it publicly, and Gov. Rick Perry has said he'll talk about revenue later, after he's had time to try to sell his education incentive program to Texans. Perry wants a little room here – he told reporters that just because his aides are talking about something doesn't mean he himself is for it. That makes it marginally harder to sell legislators on a particular tax bill, but Perry doesn't want to get tagged as the Man Behind the Curtain; he's leaving that to Toomey.
Businesses that pay the brunt of property taxes – the capital-intensive outfits as opposed to those whose money is mostly tied up in labor costs – don't like split roll plans. They want all taxpayers to remain linked, the better to prevent future legislators and school boards from cozying up to homeowners (more voters) while soaking businesses (fewer voters) for future tax increases.
The proposal for a bigger property tax exemption for people's homes – whether it belongs to Strayhorn or, maybe, to one of her aides – accomplishes some of the same things for lawmakers while leaving businesses a little more protection. The tax load would still shift to businesses – since, as a class, they wouldn't get the homestead break. But all property taxpayers would still pay the same rate, so school boards and the Legislature wouldn't be able to raise, say, the business rate while patting residential taxpayers – voters – on the head. It doesn't help renters, but that's a common trait of each property tax cutting program we've seen or heard about.
Stow This for Later Strategy Sessions
Partisan politics is usually not the best filter for figuring school finance problems. Voting has more to do with what a particular formula will do to each legislator's district than with directions from prominent Republicans and Democrats, and the coalitions formed in the Lege often cross party lines.
Party affiliation has more to do with tax bills; in the past, Republicans let the Democratic majority hit the green lights while most of the elephants were voting red (it's a tendency – not an iron-clad rule). A special session on school finance puts Texas Republicans in the position of building consensus for revenue-raising legislation for the first time. That's why it's so hard; they weren't elected to move in that direction and it's not their nature.
But they'll not only have to do it, they'll have to bring in the other side. Either of the front-running changes in property taxes would require a constitutional amendment, requiring two-thirds approval from each chamber in the Lege, followed by approval from a majority of voters. Video Lottery Terminals won't be legal in the state until and unless voters amend the constitution to allow those gambling devices. That effectively puts a two-thirds rule in place in both houses of the Legislature during a special session. That gives the minority party more power, maybe, than it would otherwise have. The Republicans can't pass a plan without support from some Democrats. But it also makes it easier for the majority to blame a failure on the minority. If Democrats kill a plan, the Republicans can tell voters they tried, but the donkeys blocked the way.
East: Business v. Lawyers, Round 6,329
Whoever wins the runoff for Texas Senate in SD-1 will have some explaining to do on his first post-election visit to VFW halls in Northeast Texas. Republican Kevin Eltife and Democrat Paul Sadler are each being attacked on television by veterans: Sadler for a vote on an election bill affecting troops, and Eltife for "allowing" that attack on Sadler.
Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which endorsed Eltife but is running commercials of its own, has turned out a TV spot that makes the same attack on Sadler the group made in the first round – citing his vote on an elections bill governing ballots from Texas soldiers stationed overseas. The legislation would have restricted how those votes are cast, gathered and counted, and the bill came up at a time when the political futures of a couple of House Democrats depended on those votes. Texans in the armed forces would have had to show they were residents of a given county before being allowed to vote in local elections there. Advocates said it would take fraud out of those votes; opponents called it a burdensome rule that would suppress voting by Texans in the military.
TLR used the issue in mailers sent out before the first voting in the special election. In the runoff, the group has turned it into a television ad featuring a man identified onscreen as "Darin Cowart, Desert Storm Veteran." He talks about God, children, "the Greatest Generation," and the military before mentioning his own service. He then says Sadler voted to deny troops the right to vote in local and state elections (on screen, the words are "Sadler Voted to Deny Troops Right to Vote"). He closes with this line: "When you say no to Paul Sadler, you're saying yes to our troops." The spot never mentions Eltife, and the folks at the Eltife campaign say they had nothing to do with it.
Sadler is responding with a soldier of his own, a Vietnam Vet named Major Max Shumate. Shumate says Sadler voted to protect the right to vote by extending the voting period to ten days, allowing faxed ballots and email. He tags his version with "This is one old soldier who'll be voting for Paul Sadler, because in East Texas, the truth counts." Another voice at the end of the commercial repeats Shumate's earlier line about special interests supporting Eltife, saying they've spent more than $500,000 on their campaign. TLR's ads don't mention Eltife, and a spokesman has said repeatedly that there is no coordination with the campaign. The tort group is in the race, they say, because Sadler is a trial lawyer getting most of his campaign money from trial lawyers, and to TLR, that's the enemy.
West: They Have Only Just Begun to Fight
Odessa businessman Bob Barnes, who finished fourth in the special election to replace Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, is telling supporters that the nasty runoff race has convinced him to run hard for election to a full term for that seat. The winner of the SD-31 runoff on February 17 will serve the rest of Bivins' term, through the end of the year. In March, there's a Republican primary for a full term to the seat, and the winner of that will, in all likelihood, win in November. It's a Republican district.
The runoff between Amarillo's Kel Seliger and Odessa's Kirk Edwards has turned into a punch-fest. Both are Republicans, and Edwards is running to the right, touting his endorsements by conservative groups and accusing Seliger of aiding and abetting Planned Parenthood. Seliger says it ain't so, but a speech he made when he was Amarillo mayor is being touted by the Edwards' camp as support for that organization. Seliger is hitting back with details about Edwards' business practices and ethics. Edwards' companies were involved in at least a half-dozen lawsuits over the last decade, and he filed an application for a political appointment, leaving blank the spot where he should have disclosed such suits. Edwards, according to the Amarillo camp, supported state Rep. Ed Kuempel, R-Seguin, in the race for Speaker of the House. Later, he contributed to the winner, Tom Craddick of Midland, which is Edwards' backyard. Don Sparks, a Midlander who finished a close third to Edwards, said early on that he won't campaign actively in March, though it's too late to take his name off the ballot. Barnes, who was encouraged the first time by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, senses opportunity in the chaos of the runoff. He wrote that he thinks Seliger will probably win, and implies that, in March, he'll be better positioned to run. Remember: Edwards will also be on the March ballot.
Like a Box of Chocolates
House Speaker Tom Craddick ignored the recommendations of the House Democratic Caucus when he named former Rep. Cullen Looney of Edinburg to a Democratic spot on the Texas Ethics Commission. Instead of choosing one of the 12 people recommended by the Caucus, he decided to pick the one person recommended by Rep. Ron Wilson, a Houston Democrat who joined the Craddick team early and who now heads the tax-writing House Ways & Means Committee.
Looney, a former House member who's a friend of Craddick's (and of former Speaker Pete Laney, a Democrat), is taking the spot that had been occupied by Tom Uher, D-Bay City, another former member closely allied with Laney.
The recommendations for such seats usually come from the Party caucuses in the House, but that's apparently more tradition than rule. Craddick sent a letter seeking nominees to each Democrat in the House, an aide said. He got eight responses.
The House Democrats, over the signature of Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, listed ten former legislators, a San Antonio city councilman whose twin brother is in the House, and former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk. The list included Julian Castro (whose brother, Joaquin, is in the House now), and former Reps. Patricia Gray, Sherri Greenberg, Christine Hernandez, Allen Hightower, Ann Kitchen, Mike Martin, Sue Schechter (who's running the campaign of Wilson's primary opponent), Dale Tillery, Uher, and Craig Washington (who also served in the Senate and the U.S. House).
Rep. Vilma Luna, D-Corpus Christi, recommended John Bell. Washington got a second nomination from Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston. Rep. Robert Puente, D-San Antonio, suggested Dr. Charles Cottrell. Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, wanted Dr. Dolores Lott. Rep. Glenn Lewis, D-Fort Worth, nominated Rev. Julius Jackson Jr.; and Rep. Jesse Jones, D-Dallas, suggested Barbara Caraway and Calvin Bluiett.
Craddick and Dunnam exchanged a series of letters while the process was underway, with Dunnam pointing out each time that the nominee traditionally comes from the Caucus list, and Craddick reminding him each time that the law says the nominees come from all Democratic members of the House.
House Speaker Tom Craddick got where he is, in part, with a successful offensive against incumbent Democrats in the House. Knock enough of them off, replace them with Republicans, and bada-bing, bada-boom, you can elect a Republican Speaker. One campaign was called "76 in '96," trying to win enough seats for a one-vote majority. Then it was "8 in '98." Now that he's got the corner office, he's learning defense. Craddick has told some lobsters he's supporting this Democrat and that one because they're part of his team now. Officially, he says through an aide that he's not working against any of the incumbents in the Texas House. He's also doing some out-of-town fund-raising for members, traveling to El Paso for Rep. Pat Haggerty, who supported Pete Laney over Craddick in the speakers' race but who now needs help with a GOP challenger.
• Former Rep. Paul Sadler, a Democrat trying to win a Senate seat in northeast Texas, is using Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, in one of his TV commercials. An earlier spot also had then-Gov. George W. Bush, and former Sen. Bill Ratliff, the Republican Sadler hopes to replace. He might have picked the wrong endorser: pols we've talked to say the videos of Bush or Ratliff would be more effective right now in a district where tender feelings about redistricting dinged Perry's popularity.
• Marc Veasey, a Democrat challenging Rep. Glenn Lewis, D-Fort Worth, picked up endorsements from the Texas State Teachers Association and from the United Educators Association.
Flotsam & Jetsam
The Legislative Budget Board posted a meeting (for Monday morning) without the usual detail on what they'll be doing, but all the buzz is about what's not on tap: The Irma Rangel School of Pharmacy at Texas A&M-Kingsville. Gov. Rick Perry promised South Texans that funding is on the way for the school named for the late state representative, but some legislative leaders – particularly in the House – were miffed that he stole their thunder. The money for the school needs LBB approval.
• If you go to the website for the state's Comptroller of Public Accounts, you'll find that Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn isn't out of the performance review business after all. Legislators – particularly in the Senate – were peeved with her budget pronouncements during the last regular legislative session, and they punished her by taking away the broad authorization they'd given her to do school performance reviews and sweeping government agency reviews. But they didn't prohibit her from doing performance audits and special reports and such. She's working on a biting overview of the state's foster care program (also the subject of interim legislative committee work), and is asking people in that realm to fill out a survey. That survey is the lead item on her website.
• Rep. Jaime Capelo Jr., D-Corpus Christi, picked up a bundle of endorsements from health care groups and a bundle of cash from one in particular. Capelo is in a rough reelection race and is simultaneously in a legal fight over payments made to him and his law firm, and which belonged to whom (opponents bought billboards showing a copy of a $100,000 check that's in question). It's ugly, but he's got friends in Austin. Capelo, chairman of the House Public Health Committee, got a $50,000 contribution from the political action committee affiliated with the Texas Medical Association – they generally go to $10,000 only in the biggest races, and that's a big deal. Also, that group is one of 18 health care trade groups that gave him their endorsement. Capelo characterizes the race as a second fight over Prop. 12, the constitutional amendment limiting awards in medical malpractice and other lawsuits. He was for it, and says the trial lawyers who were against it are trying to knock him off.
• Arlene Wohlgemuth and Chet Edwards have been hogging the attention, but Republican Dot Snyder of Waco says she's out-raised the other Republicans trying to knock Edwards out of Congress. Snyder raised $217,000 so far, and says more than $150,000 of that came from people who live in CD-17. Wohlgemuth, one of two other Republicans in the primary, has raised 80 percent of her money "from big city interests located outside of rural District 17," Snyder says. Overall, she says she's raised more than twice as much as Wohlgemuth. Snyder also claims to have raised as much money in Johnson County – Wohlgemuth's base – as the hometown favorite.
• Annie's List, a political action committee that backs pro-choice Democratic women in state races, put out its first list of endorsements (the group, formed by former Rep. Ann Kitchen and former statewide Democratic candidate Sherry Boyles, was formed last year). They picked three challengers to incumbent House Democrats; two challengers to incumbent House Republicans, two incumbent House members, and one candidate for an open seat now held by a Republican. In the primaries involving incumbents, they like Veronica Gonzales over Rep. Roberto Gutierrez, D-McAllen; Alma Allan over Rep. Ron Wilson, D-Houston; and Nancy Archer over Rep. Dan Ellis, D-Livingston. Two Democrats with primary opponents will have their support: Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, who faces Patricia Rodriguez next month, and Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, being challenged by Sandra Martinez.
• U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, wrote a fundraising letter for U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, bashing Tom DeLay and then advertising the location of the funder as the offices of, among others, former U.S. Rep. Jack Fields of Texas. Murray writes that Rodriguez is in a race (with former Texas Secretary of State Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo), because of the "Tom DeLay-led redistricting fiasco" here in Texas. Location is apparently not a barrier to bashing, especially when it's a lobbyist's domain: DeLay has had fundraisers in the same spot.
Political People and Their Moves
Karen Hale, who's been at the helm at the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation for the last six years and in that field since 1980, is retiring at the end of the month. State lawmakers decided last year to merge a dozen agencies into just a handful, all under the umbrella of the Health and Human Services Commission. MHMR will be part of the new Department of State Health Services, and Hale said in an announcement that it's a good point for her to move on...
Dwight Harris is the new executive director at the Texas Youth Commission, replacing Steve Robinson, who retired. Harris is an inside pick; he's been at that agency – which is the prison and rehabilitation system for criminals under the age of 21 – for 22 years, rising from caseworker to deputy director...
Lawrence Collins, staff director of the Senate Finance Committee, is leaving government for private pastures. He's joining lobbyist Anthony Haley and others in a public affairs/Internet venture called www.integratedpublic.com. They'll combine lobbying and grassroots work and communications. The new chairman of Senate Finance, Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, hasn't named a new director for the committee...
On paper, David Beckwith is working for the U.S. Senate's Republican policy committee. That keeps him near U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who's eyeing a race for governor in 2006 (officially, she has said it's too early to make any decisions about future races). Beckwith, a formal journalist who now does political and government communications work, worked for Hutchison in the early- to mid-1990s, and has since taken turns with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, among others...
Dewhurst named Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, to a spot on the Sunset Advisory Commission... David Donaldson, Pete Kennedy and Jim Hemphill are joining the Austin-based Graves Dougherty Hearon and Moody law firm. The three First Amendment and media law specialists were at George & Donaldson, which dissolved last month...
Quotes of the Week
Dan Sanders, spokesman for United Supermarkets, quoted in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal after Texas Tech Chancellor David Smith and Tech basketball coach Bobby Knight had a verbal duel at the store: "This was not a major event as far as I'm concerned. It didn't inconvenience any customers, and it didn't destroy anything in the store."
Nancy Reed, who heads the faculty Senate at Texas Tech, quoted in The New York Times on Knight's behavior: "I think if a faculty member did this, they would be sent for psychiatric evaluation."
University of Houston communications professor Garth Jowett, quoted in the Houston Chronicle after Janet Jackson's star-studded breast put Texas on the national news map: "We are now going to see all sorts of prognostications of going down the road to hell for the next couple of weeks."
Claudia Stravato, head of Planned Parenthood of Amarillo, quoted in the Amarillo Globe-News after state Senate candidate Kirk Edwards tried to tie candidate Kel Seliger to that group: "My first question is, what difference does it make? This isn't the Taliban."
Jim Marcus, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, quoted in The New York Times on the trial of Scott Panetti, who is scheduled for execution in Texas: "Allowing a schizophrenic in a cowboy costume to represent himself in a death penalty case gives new meaning to the term 'frontier justice.'"
Gerald Birnberg, chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party, quoted in a Houston Chronicle story on U.S. Sen. John Edwards, who leads the Democratic presidential candidates in Texas fundraising: "Interestingly enough, it would appear that Edwards has a touch of Gore-itis. Edwards flies into town, then takes the money and leaves. I have seen no evidence of him spending it here."
Attorney Bob Davis, quoted in an Abilene Reporter-News story that said he billed the state $3,480 for meals – one entry was for $89 for a meal he said he ate alone – while working on redistricting: "Every now and then I ate big. I'm smaller now than I was. I'm on the South Beach Diet."
Texas Weekly: Volume 20, Issue 32, 9 February 2004. Ross Ramsey, Editor. George Phenix, Publisher. Copyright 2004 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.