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Window of Opportunity

Aides to Gov. Rick Perry tell us he hasn't changed his tune on the likelihood of a special session. Perry told a reporter in Tyler that he doesn't see any reason to call members back if they can't reach a deal in the next few weeks, but didn't back down from his plans to call one if there's any way to do so. By the time that news reached the mainland, it had morphed into a story saying Perry had lowered the alert level on a special session by a couple of notches, and was maybe even leaning against it.

Aides to Gov. Rick Perry tell us he hasn't changed his tune on the likelihood of a special session. Perry told a reporter in Tyler that he doesn't see any reason to call members back if they can't reach a deal in the next few weeks, but didn't back down from his plans to call one if there's any way to do so. By the time that news reached the mainland, it had morphed into a story saying Perry had lowered the alert level on a special session by a couple of notches, and was maybe even leaning against it.

Forget that. He still wants a special, and a solution, by the end of August, and he's still watching lawmakers to see whether they're any closer to concord than they were a month ago.

That situation hasn't changed significantly, however. Perry still doesn't want a broad-based business tax that would finance a cut in local school property taxes. Lobsters hired to flog slot machines are working and talking, but there's no indication yet that 100 members of the House and 21 members of the Senate think that's a good idea for financing schools. And so on. The Legislature hasn't arrived at consensus, and nobody we've talked with can even see it from here. Keep it on simmer.

Squeezed Between Donkeys and Elephants

Meanwhile, options for when a special session might be held are narrowing. According to his aides, Perry told the Tyler folks that a session could fit into the window between the two national political conventions. This isn't a prediction, sports fans, but the dates he's referring to are July 26-29, when the national Democrats convene in Boston, and August 30-September 2, when national Republicans convene in New York City.

If you're looking for a hole in the schedule that's big enough to accommodate a legislative session of up to 30 days, and if you're trying to get something done by the end of August (more on that in a second), that's one of two possibilities. The other is to call a session starting about five minutes from now in the hope of pulling something together before the Democrats disembark for Boston. And that loops back to the problem Perry referred to in Tyler: There's no deal at this time, and no justification for calling lawmakers to Austin yet.

August has another potential advantage for a special session planner: Teachers and administrators will be starting up another school year and not many of them will have time to come sit in the legislative galleries or march on the Pink Building to ask for pay raises and smaller class sizes and other expensive changes and reforms. Whether they'll be around is not the top consideration, certainly, but it was one of the reasons the first special session on school finance two months ago was called before the end of the school year. And it was part of the conversation about whether to call another in June as that first effort came up short.

A post-August special appears unlikely. Perry, aides say, still wants a school finance fix that would require a constitutional amendment, and still thinks such an amendment ought to be on the November ballot. To make that date, lawmakers would have to pass something by the end of August.

Constitutional amendment elections don't have to be on uniform election dates; remember the Prop 12 election last September limiting damages that can be recovered in civil lawsuits. And lawmakers could have a special session in, say, September, to put an amendment on the ballot in December, or in October for January, and so on. But the people in the Guv's shop say he wants school finance on the November ballot, because more voters — drawn by the presidential race and five pitched congressional races — will show up then.

All the President's Men

They don't want their names on this, but people close to Don Evans, the George W. Bush pal who now heads the U.S. Department of Commerce, say he's not likely to run for governor in 2006, if ever. (He finally called the Houston Chronicle his own self to put out the word that he won't be on the 2006 ballot.) And they really don't want their names on speculation about who started the rumors in the first place. A 2006 race for governor would pit him against Rick Perry, an incumbent who is also the co-chair of the Texas effort to reelect Bush to the White House. It's the wrong sort of news to make right now.

Evans, from the oil bidness in Midland, plans to stay in Washington, D.C., as long as it's good for Bush. He's not making any other plans until after the election, in any case, according to sources close to him. We called around Midland a bit, too, and they seem as surprised by the rumor as anyone. Several of the GOP's stalwarts in the Permian Basin said they first heard the rumor not from Evans or Republicans, but from reporters asking about it. For now, spike that bit of chitchat.

Another Bushie, however, really is looking at statewide office in Texas. Matthew Dowd, the former Democratic strategist and consultant who now is one of Bush's top campaign advisors, says he's focused on the president's reelection for the next four months and won't make up his mind about his own politics until after he and his family are done in Washington and have moved back to Austin. They'll do that after the election, win or lose, and Dowd says he's thinking about consulting (outside of politics) or doing some teaching.

Dowd says, however, that he'll spend some of that post-election time considering a run for statewide office. That's it: He's not interested in serving in the Legislature or on a city council or school board. He's not directly talking into the microphone about a particular office. The Austin American-Statesman, which originally broke the story, quoted his friends saying he wants to run for comptroller of public accounts if that's an open seat. He didn't dispute that when we talked with him.

He'd be the second Republican in that race. Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs, who's also a solid member of Team Bush, has been working on the 2006 GOP comptroller race for months, on the assumption that Carole Keeton Strayhorn will be on her way out of that office and running for something else. She has no guarantee of a freebie in the GOP primary, and Dowd's interest just underlines that fact, but she's got a long head start in the fundraising department, and a better Republican pedigree. Lots of Texas Republican officeholders used to be Democrats, but most of them didn't have to wrestle their way out of tough GOP primaries to get to November like Dowd would. Suffice to say he'd have some 'splaining to do.

Some in Perry's camp said the stories — the Evans story, in particular, along with gossip that Karen Hughes, after more than a decade as a spinner for the party in general and Bush in particular, will come home to run for governor — are being floated by reporters and others who don't like Perry. Those folks, this line goes, are boosting the rumors to make it seem some Republicans are unhappy with the governor and want to replace him. Others blame Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who's been kicking Perry for more than a year; it's hard to see why she would want a more crowded field.

Less talked about: People are thinking about what will happen after the November elections. Who will come home, and what will that mean in Texas politics? The great thing about that parlor game is that Bush doesn't even have to lose for the dominos to topple: Presidents elected to second terms retool all the time, and people get tired of Washington, D.C., on a regular basis. Who'll scratch "GTT" on their East Coast door after the November election and come home, and what will that mean in the ranks of, variously, lobsters, political hacks, candidates, and wonks? It's a normal summer game, and also a testing ground: The feedback from this kind of gossip tells the players how things might turn out. Suppose, for instance, someone in Washington mentioned his or her interest in this office or that one, and the idea caught on. That'd be something to write home about.

The First Ruling Didn't Count

The vote-counting court battle between Democrats Ciro Rodriguez and Henry Cuellar is going back to the appeals court that ruled on it last week, this time for a review by the full contingent of judges. The 4th Court of Appeals in San Antonio will decide whether Rodriguez should be allowed to present more evidence to a trial court in his bid to prove that Cuellar won the Democratic primary only if bogus votes are counted.

A trial court cut off the argument a few weeks ago, saying Rodriguez's lawyers missed the deadline for their complaints. A three-judge panel last week ruled in his favor, voting 2-1 to flip that ruling and send the case back to the lower court. Cuellar asked for reconsideration of that ruling by the full court, and got it. Some lawyers took that as an ominous sign for Rodriguez; it would be unusual for a court in agreement with the rulings of its three-member panel to come together en banc to endorse that ruling. The one dissent in the case, written by Justice Paul Green, was passionate, by legal standards, and apparently caught the attention of other justices on that court. The three-judge panel included both of the court's two Democrats. The partisan count on the full court is 5-2, with Republicans in the strong majority.

Even if he wins at this stage, Rodriguez will have to prove that enough of Cuellar's votes are illegitimate in order to throw the result his way. As it stands at this writing, Cuellar, a former Texas Secretary of State and state representative from Laredo, is 58 votes ahead of Rodriguez, a congressman and former state rep from San Antonio.

Georgia Partisans Strike Out

The U.S. Supreme Court sided with the Republicans in a Georgia redistricting case in a way that encouraged lawyers for Texas Democrats who are challenging congressional maps drawn here last year. The Democrats in Georgia corralled Republican voters into a few districts, making those areas solidly Republican while limiting the overall number of Republican districts. Lower courts said that wasn't kosher, and the Supremes agreed that that lines weren't drawn fairly. The Texas case, still on appeal, has so far gone in favor of Republicans and against Democrats. Texas Republicans and the state, which is defending the Legislature's actions, contend the districts fairly represent the voting patterns of Texas; Democrats say the districts were drawn to minimize unfairly the number of their party in the state's congressional delegation.

Still on the Trail

The Travis County grand jury that's been digging into campaign contributions and expenditures in the 2002 legislative races was supposed to go out of business at the end of June, but their term was extended. They've got another three months to poke around. That's the only visible action at this point, but District Attorney Ronnie Earle told the Austin American-Statesman he's concentrating on corporate donors to those races. It's a felony to use corporate money in a campaign, and Earle's comments prompted speculation that he had changed the direction of his inquiry from illegal coordination between campaigns and third-party groups to one of illegal corporate contributions.

One lawyer in the middle of this said that's not the case, that Earle's been working on the same stuff all along and hasn't changed his focus. Another — there's a posse of these people — suggested the prosecutors couldn't get traction on their original theory that third parties using corporate money illegally coordinated with Republican candidates for the Texas House. Several attorneys in this thing said the penalties are bigger for corporate contributions — where felonies are involved — than in looking at campaign spending, which often totes up nothing hotter than some misdemeanors.

The investigation started after the GOP took over the House in November 2002 and the Texas Association of Business boasted within earshot of prosecutors. The prosecutors began with questions about whether the ads, financed with corporate money, had been used for electioneering (as opposed to "education"), and went from there. This is the third grand jury that's worked on it.

Another Hole in the State's Safety Net

Gov. Rick Perry wants an investigation of the state's child protective services program now that a Hidalgo County grand jury has indicted the state agency that runs it. The governor, with a supporting chorus that included Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, House Speaker Tom Craddick, and an assortment of legislators, called on Health and Human Services Commissioner Albert Hawkins to expand an investigation that was already underway in adult protective services.

The child protective services complaints most recently surfaced in San Antonio after Rep. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, and others brought child deaths there to the state's attention. The Hidalgo indictments were issued by a grand jury that looked at a case where three girls were sexually abused by their stepfather — one, aged 13, got pregnant as a result — and physically abused by their mother. Both adults were indicted, but the grand jury also thought the agency failed to act forcefully enough after abuses were reported.

The adult program was already under investigation after elder abuse cases in El Paso were reported, along with evidence that the agency hadn't done it's job there, either.

• A national survey of judges who handle foster cases details their frustrations with overcrowded dockets and shortages of resources — money, caseworkers, homes for kids, etc. More than 2,200 judges around the U.S. replied to the survey (about 40 percent of those who were asked). They said their biggest frustration is a lack of available services for the families and children they see. Compared with their counterparts in other states, Texas judges are at the norm in advanced training, have fewer cases as a percent of their total dockets, and are less likely to specialize in foster care issues.

Ticket Splitters

The political affiliate of Texans for Lawsuit Reform issued a list of judicial and legislative endorsements that includes a handful of Democrats and a mess of Republicans. The group's list of House endorsees includes seven Democrats and 44 Republicans. The Senate list has only three names on it, all of them incumbents, all of them Republicans.

And the group included 3rd Court of Appeals candidate Jan Patterson, a Democrat, on the endorsement list. The court list was rounded out with nods to Scott Brister, a Rick Perry appointee to the Texas Supreme Court who's trying to win his first election to that court, and Bob Pemberton, a Republican who, like Patterson, is after a spot on the state appeals court in Austin.

In the five open House seats that made their list, the group is supporting Republicans over Democrats in every case. And they're also gunning for four Democratic incumbents. No Republican incumbents made it into TLR's target gallery.

• The seven Democratic incumbents the group likes: Mark Homer of Paris, Chuck Hopson of Jacksonville, Robby Cook of Eagle Lake, Dan Ellis of Livingston, Patrick Rose of Dripping Springs, David Farabee of Wichita Falls, and Mike Villarreal of San Antonio.

• Their five Republican candidates for open seats (with the name of the politico currently in place): Pete Snow of Texarkana (Barry Telford, D-DeKalb); Roy Blake Jr. of Nacogdoches (Wayne Christian, R-Center); Terry Arnold of Corpus Christi (Jaime Capelo, D-Corpus Christi); Eric Opiela of Karnes City (Gabi Canales, D-Alice); and Rob Orr of Burleson (Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson).

• And the Democratic reps they want to replace: Jim McReynolds of Lufkin; John Mabry and Jim Dunnam, both of Waco; and Scott Hochberg of Houston.

DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS: We passed along someone else's misunderstanding of a confusing situation and created general misinformation. Our fault, ultimately, and here's the right info: The winner of an open government relations job at Texas Tech — one candidate for which is Chas Semple of House Speaker Tom Craddick's staff — will not report to John Opperman, a Tech vice chancellor who's in that chain of command. Even some of the Techies had it wrong, but Opperman, who is on long-term loan to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, says the new hire — whoever it is — will report to Tech Chancellor David Smith and not to him. Sorry, sorry, sorry.

Flotsam & Jetsam

If the federal government makes state sales taxes deductible from federal income taxes, most people in Texas won't benefit, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities. Only 22.6 percent of Texas taxpayers itemize deductions on federal income taxes; the rest take the standard deduction, according to that Austin-based think tank. Their take is that the federal deal wouldn't make an increase in Texas sales taxes any more attractive. Everybody would pay the higher rate, but fewer than a quarter would get a benefit on the federal tax form. Legislation pending in Congress would make the tax deductible, and legislators here have said that would make a sales tax increase for school finance more palatable, politically, to taxpayers. Among the details in the CPPP report on this: The sales tax deduction was killed in the federal tax reforms of 1986, in part, because so few people took it. Proponents of the deduction say it's only fair for Texans to get the break, since residents of states that have an income tax get to deduct that. That group splits on the sales tax increase proposal. Some say it would make an increase easier; some say Texans ought to be able to put the federal break in their pocket rather than have to spend it right away on school finance.

• U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, pitted against U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, D-Dallas, in CD-32, started his air war 125 days before the election. That's expected to be an expensive race and television is one of the reasons: Dallas-Fort Worth is one of the most expensive media markets around.

• Democrat Mark Strama, who was in the Internet voting and elections business before becoming a candidate in HD-50, says he pulled in more than $10,000 in about 24 hours with an email appeal geared to the June 30 campaign finance deadline. That'll be in his mid-July filing.

• Legislators scrutinizing the state's hiring of a law firm with gambling expertise to work on legislation in the governor's school finance package canceled hearings on the subject after stories that some House Democrats want to try to impeach Gov. Rick Perry for bringing the firm in (that office contends the lawyers were hired by other officials after the state found it didn't have any expertise at writing laws allowing slot machines). The lawmakers looking at the legal contract didn't want to look like they were part of that, apparently.

• The task force on indigent defense has a proposal for adding public defenders to the criminal mix in Texas. Seven counties have public defenders now, but a consultant hired by the task force cooked up a plan that would be financed with contributions from lawyers and other criminal justice types. The task force was set up by lawmakers three years ago after a couple of prominent and famously botched cases involving court-appointed defense lawyers. Lawmakers gave the panel $1.7 million for pilot projects on criminal defense for impoverished defendants. A $65 fee on lawyers who belong to the State Bar will bring in twice that amount for indigent defense in the future. The full proposal is available online at www.courts.state.tx.us/tfid .

Political People and Their Moves

Texans Abroad: The U.S. Senate confirmed Lewis Lucke's appointment as U.S. ambassador to Swaziland. Lucke's from Austin, and has been in Iraq working for the U.S. Agency for International Development. The Senate also waved in another George W. Bush appointee, confirming William Brownfield's appointment as ambassador to Venezuela. He's a UT Law School graduate and a career foreign service employee...

This got squeezed out of last week's issue: Mike Lavigne, spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party, and Ken Bailey, the political director, are now running the joint in place of Nancy Williams, who stepped out of the executive director slot after last month's state convention. And Loi Taylor, who worked for Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, moves to the Party as an assistant to Charles Soechting, the chairman...

The Texas Public Employees Association picked Mike Morrissey, the governor's budget and policy director, as its "administrator of the year" for 2004. State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, was their pick for legislator of the year. There could be some strategery in the wiring: Both officials are elbow deep in the budget, and TPEA has been promoting a pay raise for state employees for months.

More Political People, More Moves

The besieged Electric Reliability Council of Texas — ERCOT — hired Thomas Schrader, a former utility executive from Wisconsin, as CEO. He'll replace Tom Noel, who retired last fall. ERCOT, which runs the electric grid in Texas, is in the middle of an investigation of its contracting practices. The council is also trying to resolve questions about the security of its network and issues related to electric utility deregulation...

Appointments: Assistant Texas Secretary of State Luis Saenz adds a title; Gov. Perry named him Border Commerce Coordinator to work on trade, transportation, water, utility and other issues with a focus on the Texas-Mexico border. SOS also has a new international protocol director: Romina Black, who'd been at the Texas Republican Party, is taking over the job left when Jennifer Lustina decided to leave state employment and start her own firm. Black's husband, Robert Black, is a spokesman for Rick Perry and also a former state party employee...

Earnest Gibson III of Houston is the newest member of the Texas Southern University Board of Regents. He's the CEO at Riverside General Hospital. He's an alum with two degrees from TSU...

George Murfee, a consulting engineer from Austin, joins the committee studying permit processing at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Their assignment is to streamline reviews of environmental permits...

Perry filled three openings for regents at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls. He reappointed Munir Lalani of Wichita Falls, a bank director and business owner who got his bachelor's degree at MSU. And he named Stephen Gustafson of Wichita Falls and Ben Wible of Sherman to the board. Gustafson is a beer distributor and another MSU grad, and Wible is a farmer and rancher who also heads his county farm bureau. He, too, has an MSU degree...

The governor named Mark Ellis of Houston and Ruth Schiermeyer of Lubbock to the state's Public Finance Authority, which handles bonds for state agencies that want to build. He's a financial planner and Houston city councilman. She's an insurance agent and a farmer...

Press Corps Moves: Eric Allen's back got more than a full dose of lugging a television camera, and the reporter/shooter for Channel 8 Austin has moved to the Association of Texas Professional Educators as their spokesman.

Quotes of the Week

Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, telling the Austin American-Statesman that his campaign finance investigation is focused on corporate donors and not on particular officeholders or consultants: "This isn't about [U.S. House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay. It's about corporate greed. They can always find another Tom DeLay."

Texas Christian Coalition Chairman Norm Mason of Sugar Land, in a Dallas Morning News story comparing average views there, in DeLay's home district, with views from people in U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's district in San Francisco: "It's beyond me how anyone who is honest, intelligent and informed can hold a liberal point of view as to what is best for America."

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, after being out-voted 8-1 on a redistricting appeal: "A substantial case can be made that Georgia's redistricting plan did comply with the Constitution. Ferreting out political motives in minute population deviations seems to me more likely to encourage politically motivated litigation than to vindicate political rights."

Dave Carney, a consultant to Gov. Rick Perry, on speculation about others getting into the 2006 race with his guy: "If you want to be in public service in Texas, you have to run in the Republican primary... but until the 2005 [legislative] session is over, the speculation about 2006 is premature."

Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard Law School, quoted in The New York Times after a court awarded $1.8 million to an artist sued by Mattel for doing parodies of Barbie: "Maybe now when an angry C.E.O. picks up the phone to counsel and says 'sue this guy', instead of saluting and sending the bill, the lawyer may say 'I have to warn you, this could boomerang.'"

Announcement of the Week: "Garland Republican Women sponsors All Ladies Handgun School.  Get Your Concealed Handgun License. $120 includes breakfast and lunch. Price is with your own gun, $5 discount if you are a Republican Woman from any club, $30 gun rental."


Texas Weekly: Volume 21, Issue 5, 5 July 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.


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