House Speaker Tom Craddick isn't showing any preference for school finance plans, but he's been quietly meeting with members to talk about some of the possibilities. Nobody wants to talk out loud until Election Day, which should tell you that there's no way to fix or even patch the state's school finance system without a tax bill.
Craddick's presentation – he flew to Dallas, Houston and San Antonio to meet with members – is basically a rundown of all the taxes on the table, how much each would raise, how much relief from local property taxes each could buy, and so on. He's also trying to get a sense of what taxes would cause the least amount of acid indigestion from House members.
The possibilities list includes things you've heard or read about for months and some new things that might never see the light of day. Some things, like the split property tax roll that would have sent business property taxes to the state and residential property taxes to local districts, have already seen the light of day but might never see it again.
The new toy in the package is casino gambling. Traditionally, that's been a no-no for conservatives in Texas, but Craddick's folks have run some numbers on how much the state would make if it allowed, say, 30 casinos to open. Those would be less pervasive than you might think, with clusters of five or six casinos in major cities, like Dallas and Houston. The three Native American tribes in Texas – the Tiguas in El Paso, the Kickapoos in Eagle Pass and the Alabama Coushattas in East Texas – would be allowed to run casinos, too, and the state wouldn't compete in their areas. Estimates of how much money the casinos would generate vary, starting at about $500 million a year and rising from there. Video Lottery Terminals – which are a whole lot like slot machines – would generate more money, but the estimates apparently don't include details on how much each form of gambling would poach on the others, or whether VLTs would be allowed both in casinos and at race tracks. Details like that can change the numbers dramatically.
Casinos and VLTs would require voter approval. Aides to Gov. Rick Perry have said he's willing to consider VLTs, but say casinos aren't on his wish list. Since they'd be created with constitutional amendments, neither issue would stop at the Guv's desk on the way to voters. Craddick's legislative focus groups were cold to the idea of expanding sales taxes to include food and medicine, but some Republicans seem willing to consider sales levies on some services that are not currently taxed. Business activity taxes and Value-added taxes – BATs and VATs – are still getting some attention. They'd raise a lot of money at relatively low rates; BATs seem to be getting more attention at the Capitol, and could raise enough money to make a serious and noticeable dent in local property taxes (The rule of thumb: It costs about $1 billion to lower property taxes across Texas by a dime).
House members who've been to the sessions say Craddick didn't tip his hand – if he has a preference at all – but say he made it clear that a tax bill would probably be the only way to work on school finance. State leaders – with Perry out front – are still saying they want to have a special session on school finance this spring, if the House and Senate and governor can reach some kind of consensus first. Agreement up front would avoid a replay of the three-session fight over congressional redistricting, which started without a plan and dragged through protests and infighting while lawmakers tried to put together a map that could attract enough votes. If they have to do a tax bill, they want to get it over with in a hurry – by agreeing before they call the Lege back to Austin.
They Should Have Called it 'Be Early'
Our first peek at what is now the state's "Be on Time" college tuition program came when Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst was running for office. He wanted to forgive the interest on student loans for students who finished college in four years with at least a "B" average. It would give students an incentive to get out of college on time, solving a problem for the schools, clearing the way for new students, and he would presumably be popular with people who would remember who came up with it. As it now exists, the program forgives the entire loan amounts when kids finish on time with good grades. But the last Legislature, short on money, under-funded that program and the Texas Grants program, an existing program aimed at many of the same students. They covered part of the problem by using money saved by refinancing some education bonds. But the number of eligible students is growing faster than the available funding. It's expected to worsen, as schools with deregulated tuition raise their prices. The amount the state sends to cover grants and forgiven loans will grow, too.
Texas Grants pay for 150 hours of school over six years. Projections done for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board show almost 29,000 students who are eligible for Texas Grants won't be able to get in next year. In the second year of the two-year budget, that number jumps to over 49,000 students. The glass-half-full version: 68,000 students are in the program now, at a cost of $164 million; 61,000 will be in next year, at $159.5 million; and 60,000 will be in the program in the following year, costing $164.5 million. The kids who don't get Texas Grants might be able to get Be on Time awards, but there's not enough money in the pot to cover all of them, and the problem could be bad at some schools and non-existent in others. The state allots grants to the schools, which maintain their own lists of students who are eligible. A popular school will tend to have more candidates than it can handle, while some grants at other, less popular colleges, could go wanting. The best estimate now is that about 4,900 fewer kids will get Be on Time awards for the next school year. That number includes the first year of tuition increases, and also assumes the cuts will be made by shorting new admissions – not by cutting out students who are already in the programs.
What happens if you let in all the eligible students? The price in the current biennium would top $1 billion, and about 242,000 kids would be signed up for both programs in 2005. In the next biennium, it would reach $1.8 billion. For the two years after that, $2.7 billion.
That's a problem for future budgeteers. Here's the problem for current officeholders: Students and parents will start finding out in a couple of weeks that they will get – or won't get – into the programs. Texas Grants will go first to the students with the most financial need. Be on Time money will go out on a first-come, first-served basis.
How Much is Enough?
You're a policy wonk, and you don't have your own copy of the state's adequacy study? Fret not, and hie thee to the Internet. It's at www.capitol.state.tx.us/psf/reports.htm.
The short form? The study done for the Legislature concludes it would cost about $6,200 to educate the average student to the state's standards, and the current system is spending about $6,500 per student. On the face, that looks like savings are in order, but the study also says some districts will need $226 to $408 million to get up to those standards. Costs of education are higher in very small districts – those with under 500 students – and the best economies of scale start when a district has about 25,000 students. They spend a fair amount of time talking about what it costs to hire a teacher in this kind of district and that one, and for educating this type of student and that one. There's a 29 percent difference in what you have to pay comparable teachers to get them to work in particular schools. And if the state changes its funding formulas to reflect that, the researchers conclude, it'll be good news for metropolitan areas, and bad news for rural ones.
You've Got Mail & Other Campaign Tricks
The Associated Republicans of Texas are battling an anonymous letter-writer who is challenging their accounting and asking their board to audit the books to see why more of the group's money isn't going to campaigns. Here's one hint: Guess who paid the lawyers who filled the left side of the courtroom during the congressional redistricting hearings? The return address on the letter is in Austin, but nobody there is working, save maybe the groundskeepers: It's the state cemetery.
• Anonymous mail is also plaguing the frontrunners – or, at least, the front-spenders – in CD-10, where a pack of Republicans is running to go to congress on behalf of people who live between Austin and Houston. Mailers trying to tag Mike McCaul and Ben Streusand as Democrats in Republican clothing showed up in mailboxes during early voting. They're credited to a dormant group called Citizens for Education, and mailed under a Houston permit whose owner admits doing the mailing but refuses to name the customer. Both of the attackees appear to have solid Republican credentials. But the mailer hits McCaul, a former federal prosecutor, for "working under Janet Reno in the Clinton Administration" and goes after Streusand for donations to two Democrats – Bob Gammage, who ran against Ron Paul in 1976, and Ken Bentsen, who ran against Republican Tom Reiser in 2000. One blast against McCaul is that he "implemented the Hate Crimes Act, which gives preferred status to homosexuals." He didn't pass it, just enforced it. The campaigns say they don't know who sent the mailers. They suspect a particular opponent, but so far, the fingerprints are missing.
• Former state Rep. Mark Stiles, D-Beaumont, is hitting former House Speaker Pete Laney's former committee chairs for contributions to Laney's reelection campaign. Stiles, who headed the Calendars Committee, said he wasn't prompted by anything or anyone in particular, but his letter lays down some markers. "Beginning in 1993, the people of our great state were blessed to have leaders at the highest levels of state government who were committed to putting Texas first... in my opinion, this cooperation of leadership continued uninterrupted for the next ten years..." It ends with a veiled challenge: "Your financial help now will be a very visible way of showing your support for a man that had confidence in your leadership abilities." Laney, who's running for reelection, said he didn't know about the Stiles' letter in advance. He'll face Republican Kent Sharp of Big Spring in November.
• Henry Cuellar is pestering U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez with an oldie-but-goldie, sending out a press release every day on the number of votes Rodriguez is missing while he's in Texas defending himself against daily press releases from Cuellar. Rodriguez has missed 138 votes, total, and the Cuellar campaign makes it sound worse: "He is AWOL once again from the House floor and refuses to report to work." That, after Rodriguez had been in Texas for two days.
• The special elections for Senate are halfway official, and should be over by sunset: Gov. Rick Perry gave the oath to Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and he gets the leather chair for at least the rest of the year. If he wins the primary next week and the general in November, he'll have four more years ahead of him. And Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, should be sworn into that title shortly after you read this. Seliger, like most senators, came to Austin to swear, but Eltife wanted to do it in Longview (that's significant, coming from a former Tyler mayor), so Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, former Sen. Bill Ratliff and others went to the district to officially give him the title; his term runs though January 2007.
• U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, is the only Anglo Democrat in the Texas delegation to Congress who won his election on filing day, when nobody put their name on the list to challenge him. He's filed legislation outlawing mid-decade redistricting – redrawing congressional districts for political advantage when the law does not require new lines. The rest of the Democrats in the delegation – some of them in imminent political peril because of the new maps – are cosponsors.
• Add U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio, to the list of officials endorsing Republican Paul Green, who is challenging Texas Supreme Court Justice Steven Wayne Smith, who's also a Republican. Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn are also on that list. As we wrote last week, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is not: Smith is touting her "vote of confidence" in him.
Quick History for People on the Go
The Legislature periodically gets mad enough at Ronnie Earle to propose a clip job for his tail feathers. The Travis County District Attorney, a Democrat, has the same local crime-chasing duties the other DAs in Texas have. But he's also the only prosecutor in the state with state funding and special dispensation to go after foul deeds committed by – or suspected of – state officials.
Earle's investigation of the financing of 2002's Republican takeover of the statehouse has sparked calls for a shorter leash on the prosecutor. Some want to cut his funding. Others want to hand over the duties of chasing state officials to someone else – the attorney general, maybe, or to another local prosecutor, in Houston, or Dallas, or Henrietta. Anywhere but Austin.
The latest request to build a high fence around Earle comes from the Texas Republican Party, which contends his investigation of GOP finances during the last elections is fueled more by his Democratic Party affiliation than by his zeal for justice. They want the duties handed to Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, apparently on the theory that he wouldn't pursue the case. The Guv's office says Perry isn't against the idea, but they're not endorsing it at this point.
Similar proposals arise whenever Earle's actively sniffing around. Rep. Jack Stick, R-Austin (and a former Earle employee who apparently parted on terms that left the two unfriendly), proposed slashing the prosecutor's funding from the state budget last year. It never came to a vote, and the idea went back into dormancy until now. Similar proposals came up a decade ago, for instance, when Earle prosecuted U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican, and former House Speaker Gib Lewis, a Fort Worth Democrat. Whether it's a good idea or not or whether it will change or not – that's the Legislature's problem – we can tell you some of the reasons it hasn't changed previously.
For lawmakers and politicians, the office of the Travis County district attorney is the least dangerous place to put a state prosecutor. It has the advantage of taking those duties away from all the other district attorneys in Texas, some of whom are ambitious and could benefit, theoretically, from the downfall of some of the same state officials they might want to investigate.
One recurrent suggestion is to give the job of prosecuting high crimes and misdemeanors to the Texas attorney general. That always sounds good to friends of the current occupant, whoever that is when the idea arises, and sounds awful to opponents. Former Attorney General Jim Mattox was one of Earle's targets (he was found innocent of charges of commercial bribery). He was also a sharp thorn in the side of several prominent politicos, and they weren't about to let his office take over prosecutions of public officials.
Charles Soechting, the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, endorsed U.S. Rep. Chris Bell's reelection bid even though the Houston Democrat has an opponent who's served in office as a Democrat for years. Soechting says he's with Bell and against Al Green because Green accepted a campaign contribution from Gary Polland, the former Harris County GOP chairman and a former Republican candidate for state office. Some local Democrats were incensed about it, but Polland's $2,000 contribution sent Soechting over the edge. U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, is doing radio ads for Bell in that race.
Green, a justice of the peace for 26 years, is allied, more or less, with state Rep. Ron Wilson, D-Houston. For different reasons, Soechting has taken sides in that race, too – against Wilson. The chairman said a few weeks ago that he was perturbed by Wilson's decisions to stay when other Democrats went to Ardmore and to work on a vote for the congressional redistricting plans pushed by the GOP. Wilson's rationale on redistricting: A new map would put more Blacks in the Texas congressional delegation. Alma Allen, a former school teacher who's now on the State Board of Education, is running against Wilson, with help from Rep. Garnet Coleman, Sen. Rodney Ellis, both D-Houston, and others. If Green, an African-American, can get past Bell, an Anglo, he would be one of the beneficiaries of Wilson's remapping goal of getting more minorities into Congress.
Rep. Jaime Capelo, D-Corpus Christi, has been on the endangered list for the entire election season, but he says in a letter to supporters that the election has turned in his favor and that with just a little more money, he can pull it out. He says late contributions to his opponents – there are two of them – have put him at a disadvantage and that late money will save the race. How serious is it, with only a few days left? He says at the end of the letter that he welcomes calls. On his cell phone.
• One week before Election Day, John Graves, a Republican running for Congress in CD-4, announced that he is opening a Tyler office.
• Yolanda Navarro Flores closes her campaign against Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, by suggesting the district attorney is investigating his residency in the district.
Be careful with those election results on the Texas Secretary of State's website, or what happened to us will happen to you: The number of voters listed for a given county don't necessarily match up with the district where the votes are being counted. If only part of the county is included in a congressional, Senate or House district, the number of eligible voters listed – when it's listed – will be for the entire county and not for the district you're looking at. For instance: In the SD-1 special election, the SOS provided Smith County vote counts for each candidate, and also listed the number of voters there. But SD-1 doesn't include all of Smith County. The posted results say there are 105,837 voters there, but only about 63,000 of those registered voters are actually in that Senate district. That's important if you're trying to figure turnout. So how do we know? We relied on the state's posted numbers a couple of weeks ago and told you turnout in Tyler was only 15.5 percent. That was based on what was listed as the number of registered voters. If you compare apples to apples, as we assumed the SOS was doing, the turnout was actually closer to 26 percent. State officials say they have no way to track head counts in partial-county districts; only local election officials can do that.
Political People, Appointments Division
Gov. Rick Perry named Ed Klein of Nacogdoches to the 420th district court for a term that will run through the next general election. Klein is currently the district attorney there; this is a newly created court, and he'll serve until November. Since the deadline for getting on the ballot already went by, the local party organizations will appoint the people who'll run for election to a full term on the new court...
Perry named Todd Blomerth of Lockhart to the 421st district court. He's been an assistant DA in two counties – Harris and Caldwell – and is now a partner in a local law firm. That post is also on the November ballot...
Another: Perry chose Beth Maultsby of Dallas to be the judge in the 303rd District Family Court. She's been an associate judge there for seven years, and she's now got the job until November...
The governor tapped Pamela Gough for a spot on the Midwestern State University Board of Regents. She's a self-employed investor from Graham, and got her college degree from UT-Permian Basin...
Dan Schaan of Houston and Mark Haerr of Plano will join the board of the Texas Online Authority, which runs the state's main Internet site. Schaan is an information technology and security wiz; Haerr is president or AMT Financial Consultants and a part-time professor at the University of Dallas...
Valeri Malone, an attorney from Wichita Falls, is Perry's pick for a chair on the state's Manufactured Housing Board. That's a stub appointment that lasts through January 2005...
LaFayette Collins, a Texas lawman with a name straight out of a Larry McMurtry novel, cleared a big hurdle on the way to a U.S. Marshal posting; he won approval from the U.S. Senate's Judiciary Committee and his nomination is on the way to the full Senate. His territory, if this goes through, would stretch from El Paso to Austin. Collins is currently on the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles...
• DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS: Rep. Robby Cook is from Eagle Lake. Rep. Timo Garza is from Eagle Pass. Rep. Robby Cook is from Eagle Lake. Rep. Timo Garza is from Eagle Pass. Rep. Robby Cook is from Eagle Lake. Rep. Timo Garza is from Eagle Pass.
Political People and Their Moves
Milton Rister, who heads research for Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, is moving to Senate Research, where he'll be the new director. Gina Martin will keep the number two spot there, and the reorganization of that wing of the Senate is still underway. Tammy Edgerly, who'd been the director of Senate Research, has a new gig at the Texas Legislative Council...
Cyndi Hughes, who has been the executive director of the Texas Book Festival since it started in 1996, is leaving to pursue something different. The new director is Mary Herman, who has worked with a mess of nonprofits on fundraising and events...
Bill Campbell will be interim director at the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation now that Karen Hale is retiring. He gets the steering wheel in the middle of a reorganization that will split the agency and put it under the control of the state Health and Human Services Commission...
Leah Erard, who worked for Sen. and Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff for several years, joins the government affairs office at the Employees Retirement System. That post opened when Missy Jackson retired last summer...
Joe Arabie moves from Baytown to Austin to take over a director of field education for the Texas AFL-CIO...
Pearland Justice of the Peace Matt Zepeda formally agreed to resign and to never sit as a judge in Texas again. If he avoids the robes, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct will refrain from prosecuting him for cussing, shouting racial epithets and berating people in the jail and in his courtroom...
U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison are recommending Texas Supreme Court Justice Michael Schneider for a federal judgeship; if President George W. Bush likes the idea and the Senate goes along, Schneider would replace federal Judge John Hannah Jr., who died last year...
Deaths: Kyle Thompson, former chief of United Press International's Austin bureau, editorial director of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, political advisor to several prominent Texas candidates, and a decorated veteran who was a Japanese prisoner of war for four years, an experience he turned into a book, A Thousand Cups of Rice. He was 81.
Quotes of the Week
President George W. Bush, talking to a group of ministers and religious workers, quoted in the Washington Post: "You can't, if you're a faith-based organization, say, 'Only Methodists allowed. You know, you can say, 'All drunks are welcome.'"
Gov. Rick Perry, quoted by the Dallas Morning News on his trip to the Bahamas with several campaign contributors and policy wonks: "We could have gone a lot of places. I don't think where we went has a thing to do with whether or not there was real, progressive conversation. And there was progressive conversation made. I'm glad I went."
Texas Supreme Court Justice Steven Wayne Smith, who beat a justice backed by Gov. Perry two years ago to win his place on the court, quoted in the Waco Tribune-Herald on Perry's help for Smith's opponent this year: "The governor's endorsement is simply a case of sour grapes."
Stanford economist Eric Hanushek, quoted in the San Angelo Standard-Times on how teachers respond to incentives: "A couple-hundred-dollar bonus doesn't do anything. You have to be talking about multiple thousands of dollars for top teachers. In a big state, it comes to big numbers."
Houston political consultant Allen Blakemore, on the grand jury investigation of Republican finances in the 2002 elections, quoted in the San Antonio Express-News: "The district attorney decides to take this to absurd extremes in order to provide salacious information to the journalists who are covering it. This should be a forensic accounting investigation, except forensic accounting is not very interesting to people who buy newspapers. So Ronnie Earle has decided to make it sexy."
Rep. Miguel Wise, D-Weslaco, quoted in the McAllen Monitor, after his opponent said he doesn't get out in the district enough: "I was elected to serve the interests of the state, not to kiss babies."
Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, telling the Fort Worth Star-Telegram why he's not worried that investigators think some of his campaign's legal bills were paid with corporate money that had been donated to a third-party political action committee: "I have to have knowledge that it was inappropriate for me to have a problem. I had zero knowledge, so I know I have zero problems."
Texas Weekly: Volume 20, Issue 36, 8 March 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.