Here's a question somewhere in the minds of people watching the congressional race between Democrat Chet Edwards of Waco and Republican Arlene Wohlgemuth of Burleson: Is the average voter in Brazos County more likely to vote for an Aggie or a Republican?
It's important because Aggieland is the biggest unclaimed lode of votes in the newly drawn congressional district. Wohlgemuth's base is Burleson and suburban Fort Worth; Edwards' base is Waco. The southern voters don't have a local candidate, and in a place where business people list their graduation years in their Yellow Page ads, school colors come into play. Both candidates are playing up their ties to Texas A&M University in a county neither has ever represented in Austin or Washington, D.C. Brazos lost its incumbents and landed in CD-17 in congressional redistricting.
Edwards is the Aggie in the contest, and advertises himself as a conservative among Democrats. Wohlgemuth is the Republican, making sure voters know her kids went to A&M. Some Edwards backers would have you believe that school ties are more important in the county of Texas A&M University than partisan ties. It's worth talking about, but the short answer is that Brazos County is more Red than Maroon when it comes to voting.
Former Texas Comptroller John Sharp, a Democrat and something of a professional Aggie, got only 41 percent of the vote in Brazos County when he ran for lieutenant governor in 2002; Republican David Dewhurst, a Houstonian who went to college in Arizona, beat him by almost 4,700 votes.
Still, Sharp outperformed the other Democrats on the statewide ballot in the county that year, and his school credentials might have contributed. He's the only one in the bunch who broke 40 percent — most didn't break the 30 percent mark. Right above Dewhurst and Sharp on the ballot, Rick Perry (with both red and maroon credentials) got 71 percent of the vote and beat Tony Sanchez by 12,408 votes in the governor's race. Below them, Republican Greg Abbott was drumming Democrat Kirk Watson in the race for attorney general, getting 9,744 more votes in a race that featured no Aggies.
In 1998, the tight Aggie vs. Aggie contest between Perry and Sharp went solidly to Perry in Brazos County. He got 59 percent of the vote there while pulling 50.04 percent statewide. (The next race on the ballot that year featured non-Aggies John Cornyn and Jim Mattox, and similar numbers in Brazos County. Cornyn got 58 percent of the vote; Mattox got 208 votes more than Sharp did.)
Something else to throw into the mix: Those Brazos County voters are geo-centric. In the three-way Republican primary for congress earlier this year, Brazos County gave 60.5 percent of its votes to Dave McIntyre, a local candidate who's never held elective office, over Dot Snyder of Waco and Wohlgemuth, the first a former school trustee, the second a state legislator. Wohlgemuth and Snyder won their home territories; Brazos County gave Wohlgemuth 54 percent of the vote in the runoff. If either candidate appears to be more local than the opposition, that could be worth some votes.
• Add U.S. Commerce Secretary Don Evans to the list of George W. Bush pals and associates trooping to Texas to campaign for Republican congressional challengers. He endorsed Wohlgemuth's challenge to Edwards, the Waco Democrat who currently represents the president's Crawford home in Congress. Earlier in the week, House Speaker Dennis Hastert came through on Wohlgemuth's behalf (he made Texas stops on behalf of several other challengers the same day). Hastert's line is that Bush needs the support and the votes in Congress the Texas Republicans would bring. Edwards responded to that one by saying he respects Hastert, but opposed the speaker's support for a budget "that cut veterans' benefits by $28 billion in the same week of the onset of the war in Iraq."
The Texas Farm Bureau's AGFUND endorsed U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Lubbock, throwing its weight against longtime ally Charlie Stenholm, D-Abilene, in that closely contested race.
Stenholm is the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee. The political action committee of the Waco-based Farm Bureau has backed him for years, and even gave him an award 18 months ago for "meritorious service." The group's then-President Donald Patman said at the time that Stenholm "can only be described as one of the giants of Texas agriculture." The group said it was awarding its highest honor for only the 21st time in seven decades. That was in December 2002, right after voters gave Republicans control of the Texas House for the first time since reconstruction. Within months, that new Legislature redrew congressional districts in Texas, pairing Stenholm and Neugebauer in a district dominated by voters with a history of favoring Republicans.
The GOP has put on a full-court press. Vice President Dick Cheney and U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, among others, have come to Texas to raise money for Neugebauer and to label him George W. Bush's preferred candidate in the race.
That's important, but was predictable given the GOP's push for redistricting here and for a bigger margin in the U.S. House. But the Farm Bureau's endorsement was a huge victory for Neugebauer and a big surprise to Stenholm's campaign. Making the announcement, the group's current president, Kenneth Dierschke, called it a "difficult decision" involving two "friends of agriculture" but said the group's county affiliates in the congressional district preferred Neugebauer. Stenholm, a three-time winner of the American Farm Bureau's "Golden Plow Award" given to particularly friendly members of Congress, said he was disappointed but is still counting on the support of individual members of the Farm Bureau in the district.
• In the four other high-profile contests involving Texas Democrats threatened by redistricting, the Texas Farm Bureau split its support between Republicans and Democrats. AGFUND, the group's political action committee, likes U.S. Rep. Max Sandlin, D-Marshall, over former judge Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, in CD-1, and U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, over state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson, in CD-17. They went with Republicans in CD-2, favoring former judge Ted Poe of Houston over U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Beaumont, and in CD-32, where U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions of Dallas is paired with U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, also of Dallas.
• After the news that U.S. Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, has contributed to the campaigns of several members of the House's ethics committee, the Democratic Party chairs in four states — including this one — signed a letter asking the Republican head of that panel to name an independent counsel to investigate DeLay. U.S. Rep. Chris Bell, D-Houston, filed an ethics complaint against DeLay earlier this year, and the House committee is trying to decide how to proceed.
Several members of the committee have been beneficiaries of DeLay's political organization. That's not unusual, since he's in the House leadership, but it led to Democratic questions about the Republicans' willingness to vote for an investigation of Bell's grievance. Bell is on his way out of Congress — a freshman victim of redistricting — but Texas Democratic Party Chairman Charles Soechting is trying to keep the issue alive. His letter includes signatures from his counterparts in Iowa, Montana, and Nebraska. Each of those states has at least one DeLay-supported-Republican on the ethics panel.
• The Dallas race between U.S. Reps. Martin Frost, a Democrat, and Pete Sessions, a Republican, is mainly a ground war at the moment, and there has been some, um, interfacing. In an email to supporters, the Sessions gang accused a Frost staffer of following them and pulling down door hangers. He says he didn't, but that he tried to stop them from pulling down Frost signs at the apartment complex where the Frost staffer lives. They say they didn't.
The state won't cancel insurance if families in the Children's Health Insurance Program aren't making monthly payments, at least not right away. Those co-payments were supposed to start at the beginning of the year, but the Texas Health and Human Services Commission delayed implementation to give people more time to figure out the new rules. Now, with the co-pays slated to start in September, Gov. Rick Perry is asking HHSC to hit the brakes.
Families not making the monthly payments are supposed to be dropped from the program. State legislators, trying to cut costs during the last regular session, added the monthly premiums for the (relatively) wealthier families eligible for CHIP. More than 20,000 kids would lose their insurance if HHSC enforced the payment plan by cutting off insurance for nonpayment on September 1. Perry is asking the agency to delay that "disenrollment" until the state has a better handle on why they're not up to date on their payments. To be cut off, a family would have to be at least three months behind in its payments, which range up to $25 per month. Perry suggested the payments could be linked to a new benefit — dental insurance, for instance — that might give families more incentive to pay up.
The move got the governor some rare "atta-boys" from groups that were incensed by cuts made last session to the insurance program. State leaders have been playing defense on health and human services, stuck with the combined complications from cuts, consolidation of a dozen agencies into four large departments under one commission, trouble with contract oversight and investigations of holes in the state's safety net for child and elder abuse and welfare in Texas.
The CHIP cuts also have a potential political angle. Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson, the House sponsor of legislation consolidating the agencies, and of budget provisions trimming various programs in health and human services, is running for Congress. Stumbles and complications at the state level are potential issues in her challenge to U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, and he's already been after her about cuts to CHIP. Perry's stand-down request could help her.
Following the Money
State legislators working on a contract dispute in CHIP say they can't get answers to their questions about why HHSC started self-insuring part of the program while continuing to make premium payments to a company for that same insurance.
Members of the House General Investigating Committee, following up on a report from the State Auditor, say they haven't found anyone in the agency who is able and willing to tell them who made those decisions and why. They were hoping to talk to Jason Cooke, the CHIP chief who left the agency earlier this summer; he answered their request with a message that he might be willing to meet privately with the members of that committee later. The panel, headed by Rep. Kevin Bailey, D-Houston, will probably also call on Don Gilbert — Cooke's boss during the period in question — to talk about what happened. Bailey said the agency's handling of the contract was either "corrupt or incompetent," but said he didn't yet know where to assign the blame.
The state auditor's report said the state spilled up to $20 million in "unnecessary or excessive payments" to Clarendon National Insurance Co, a company hired to handle CHIP business in some parts of the state. An actuarial consultant working for CHIP at the time told the House panel that he warned them several times that the payments to Clarendon looked excessive, but said he wasn't in a decision-making position and couldn't answer questions about who decided what and why they decided it. The company, though asked to testify (they weren't subpoenaed), didn't send anyone to the hearings, and Bailey said the committee is still talking about what to do about that.
The company quietly sent some lobbyists to watch; those folks handed out fact sheets to reporters defending the company and saying the words of the auditors have been "anything but fair." According to that two-pager, the company saved the state money and has been treated like a "piñata" for its trouble. They close by saying they'll take part in "full and fair legislative and administrative reviews of the contract and of our performance."
The problems with school finance aren't exactly what they were the last time we were in court listening to arguments, but the tune is familiar.
If you generalize the arguments a bit, the people suing the state say the amount of money going into the system isn't enough to produce the results demanded by the Legislature. That's partly because the state's share of the load — now down to 38 percent of the total cost of public education — is too small. And it's partly, they argue, because the state's $1.50 cap on local school property tax rates limits what the locals can do to close the gap. That buck-and-a-half, they argue, has effectively become an unconstitutional statewide property tax. And the system doesn't provide enough money to give Texas kids the education they're promised in the constitution.
They contend any district at $1.45 or more is so close to the limit that it should be counted among the "capped" districts that no longer have "meaningful discretion" in setting taxes, and they showed a series of slides to demonstrate the growth of districts at that mark. By their calculations, 59 percent of the 4.3 million students in Texas are in districts that have $1.50 property tax rates, and 81 percent are in districts at or above $1.45. In sheer numbers, 48 percent of the school districts in Texas are at $1.50 and 67 percent are at $1.45 or more.
Another of the groups suing the state is focusing its arguments on the $1,700 per student funding gap that results from the state's "hold harmless" agreements with richer districts. Every time the school finance formulas are written, some districts are allowed to keep locally raised money they were already bringing in. They're not forced to cut spending to comport with the new law. As it stands, they're raising $1,700 per student more than the poorest districts, and some of the school districts want that gap — it comes to $33,000 per 20-student classroom — narrowed or closed. They say it affects everything from what they can pay teachers to what they can spend on supplies.
The state's version: The property tax cap isn't a de facto state property tax. Not all districts tax that much, and not all of the districts that do so can prove all of the money raised goes directly to the constitutionally required education of those kids. In addition, the districts will have to prove that any deficiencies in the educations they're providing relate to dollars spent; to prove one of their arguments, they have to show that the lack of funding is what is keeping them from getting their students to the finish lines set down in state education law.
The trial is expected to last into September, and the judge — John Dietz of Austin — has tried to frontload it to speed up the appeals process when he's done.
Old and New Faces at Texas GOP; Appointments
While we were lounging around on summer vacation, Milton Rister was leaving the state Senate, where he most recently headed Senate Research, to become executive director of the Republican Party of Texas. Rister was the party's political director once upon a time, and also worked for the House Republican Caucus — the head of it was Tom Craddick, now the Speaker — and for Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, before going to work for Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst...
Alexis DeLee is joining the Texas Republican Party as communications director, replacing Ted Royer, who left the GOP for a communications job in Gov. Perry's office. DeLee previously worked in Austin for HillCo Partners, a lobbying/public affairs firm, and after that, for Elizabeth Christian & Associates Public Relations...
Appointments: Gov. Rick Perry named three directors to the board of the Angelina and Neches River Authority. Kenneth Darden of Livingston, a Baptist pastor who runs a youth program called The Abundant Light, is joining that panel. Two other board members are being reappointed: Karen Barber, vice president of a welding company in Jasper, and Dominick Bruno, vice president of a Jacksonville bank...
Perry picked a quartet for the board of the Lavaca-Navidad River Authority, which works on water issues on rivers and streams in Jackson County. They are Kay Frels of Edna, who runs the Jackson Chamber of Commerce; Ronald Kubeka, who's in the agriculture business in Palacios; John Cotten, owner of a furniture store in Ganado; and Jackie Fowler, manager for YK Communications in Ganado.
Flotsam & Jetsam
After teacher groups spent several days vigorously stirring the pot, Gov. Rick Perry said he will ask the Legislative Budget Board to find $18 million to cover administrative costs of health reimbursement accounts at the Teacher Retirement System of Texas. If the state doesn't pick up the tab, teachers covered by the accounts will each be billed $42 a year, which amounts to 8 percent of their benefits from the program. Under Perry's plan, they'll pay $1 per month. Teacher groups that have been encouraging members to write letters to protest the policy applauded the governor, but also questioned why there are any administrative fees at all. Most teachers, they say, get their benefits through tax-free cafeteria plans where the fee isn't incurred.
• Paying for highways with locally approved toll roads is a new idea, and it's politically risky. The regional mobility authority in Austin is trying to put some tolls on new roads, and people who thought those were going to be free are warm about it. Early proposals would have had the state charging tolls on roads that are already paid for. After residents affected by that blew up — starting websites and all sorts of protests — the idea was whittled down to one that puts tolls on some new roads.
But there's a fly in that soup: Democratic challenger Mark Strama found a spot in Austin Republican Rep. Jack Stick's district where people might have to pay tolls on a short stretch that's now free. Stick is one of the elected officials on the mobility panel that voted for the tolls, and ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom, it's a campaign issue.
Strama fired off a letter to Gov. Rick Perry asking him to fix it (through the Texas Department of Transportation) and that was pending as we wrote. It's a new issue and still has a lot of kinks; we mention it here because similar authorities will have similar powers elsewhere in the state.
• More summer polling from Austin-based Montgomery & Associates: Texans are split over whether locally raised property tax money in rich districts should be shared with poor school districts, but three of five Texans haven't heard a better idea. The poll of 1,022 Texas adults (no screen for registered or for active voters) was done in the last week of June.
The pollsters told respondents that some property tax money now flows from wealthier districts to poorer ones and then asked if the state ought to stop doing that. Almost half — 48.7 percent — said that Robin Hood element should be left alone, while 41 percent said it should be dumped. African-Americans, Hispanics, self-described Democrats and liberals tended to be more in favor of the current system, while Anglos and Republicans were more likely to want a change.
Asked whether the system has raised property taxes and unfairly exported money from some districts to others, or whether it's not perfect but no better way has been proposed, 32.6 percent agreed with the first statement and 60.5 percent with the second.
• They sound like the other team: House Democrats say the wide participation in the state's sales tax holiday is evidence that "Texans are actively seeking relief from this regressive tax." They want the state to either cut sales tax rates or lengthen the annual tax-free weekend if and when tax reform comes up next legislative session. Several proposals to patch the school finance system included either higher sales tax rates or expansion of that levy to purchases that aren't taxed now.
• Make it official: Waste Control Specialists, the outfit that wants to operate a low-level radioactive waste dump near Andrews, in West Texas, has applied for its permit. The company filed 4,000 pages with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, along with a $500,000 license application fee.
• Nelda Laney is back in the ornaments business. When her husband, Pete Laney, was Speaker of the House, Laney oversaw creation of a new Capitol Christmas ornament every year. The proceeds went to the renovation and upkeep of the Capitol, and that program continues in the hands of Nadine Craddick, spouse of current Speaker Tom Craddick. Laney is starting another, similar deal, and the first ornament is going on sale. Proceeds will go to Keep Texas Beautiful and the first annual ornament is that group's seal. You can get details at their website: www.ktb.org.
•Department of Corrections: Henry Cuellar, Jim Hopson, and Ciro Rodriguez are in CD-28. We put them in the wrong district in some editions last week. Sorry, sorry, sorry.
Political People and Their Moves
Eric Woomer, chief of staff to Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, (and for Seliger's predecessor, Teel Bivins, before that) is leaving for Xcel Energy, the utility conglomerate that bought Panhandle electric company SPS. Woomer will lobby for the company out of a new Austin office. Seliger hasn't named his replacement, but did add some other hires: Rose Guajardo, from Rep. Pete Laney's office; Kirsten Knuth, most recently an aide to (former) congressional candidate Dot Snyder; and Christy Bertolino-Schmucker (pronounced Smicker, we're told), a former TV reporter, who will handle press for the senator...
Chris Traylor will replace Rose Hayden as chief of staff at the Texas Health and Human Services Commission early next month. Hayden, a veteran of the governor's office, and the Legislative Budget Board, is returning to her private consulting business. Traylor, who's been working on consolidation of a dozen health and human service agencies into one (or four, depending on how you look at this roll-up), was previously a legislative liaison with the Texas Department of Human Services...
Kent Mawyer is the new Criminal Law Enforcement Division Chief at the Texas Department of Public Safety, replacing Marshall Caskey, who retired earlier this year. Mawyer was Caskey's assistant chief...
Some catching up to do here: Jennifer Waisath got married and is now Jennifer Harris, and she's leaving the Secretary of State's office (it sounds like something from the files of the Federal Witness Protection Program, no?) to be the new head of strategic communications — a newly created position — at the State Bar of Texas. SOS hasn't yet named a replacement...
More changes for the Reynolds clan: Donna Reynolds left the offices of Rep. Corbin Van Arsdale, R-Houston, to join the Texas Department of Insurance as a "business development specialist" whose job is partly to attract more insurance companies to sell policies here. Her husband, Dick Reynolds, is leaving his government post, as executive director of the Texas Workers' Compensation Commission...
Deaths: Gary Watkins, a former Ector County Judge, three-term state representative and, most recently, state district judge, of cancer. He was 57.
Quotes of the Week
State District Judge John Dietz, asking attorneys in the school finance trial whether dropout rates are as high as they appear to be if you subtract the number of graduates in one year from the number of freshmen who were reported four years earlier by the Texas Education Agency: "Somewhere in that intervening four years, we lost 120,000 students. Could that be right? Am I reading that right?"
Rep. Mike "Tuffy" Hamilton, R-Mauriceville, talking about the school finance court case in the Beaumont Enterprise: "It should be us that decides it."
Assistant Texas Attorney General Jeff Rose, in opening arguments on school finance: "The bottom line is whether the system as currently funded meets the minimum mandates required by the Constitution. It is the state's position it does."
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, talking to the Texas Association of Counties, quoted in the San Antonio Express News: "If the courts rule that in fact we do have a statewide property tax... the Legislature's tendency, if you can understand this, is going to [be to] do the least amount to solve the lawsuit. [If] the courts rule for the state, folks, I couldn't move the Legislature with two sticks of dynamite."
U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, quoted in the Hood County News on whether she wants to run for governor in 2006: "I've not decided, but it's possible... It will come down to where I can best serve."
Political consultant Bryan Eppstein, talking to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on the 30th anniversary of Richard Nixon's resignation from the presidency: "Political scandals are like natural fires in a forest. They kind of weed out the bad, and you get down to where the good can come through."
U.S. Rep. Max Sandlin, D-Marshall, on presidential politics, in the Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel: "You won't see them in Texas. They know how we will vote."
Joshua Twilligear, campaign manager for Kent Sharp, who's getting help from political consultant Dave Carney in his challenge to Rep. Pete Laney, D-Hale Center, quoted in the Midland Reporter-Telegram: "I'll be honest, Dave knows what he's doing. He's the governor's top man. At this point, he hasn't really come up with any amazing magic bullet ideas."
Joe Lovelace, executive director of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Texas, quoted in the Lufkin Daily News on overcrowding and other conditions in state institutions: "State employee unions and local chambers of commerce jealously protect those state hospitals. It's a job thing. Anybody who tells you it's about good patient care, damn it, they're lying. Anyone who was serious about good patient care would step back and say, 'How do we do this better?'"
State Rep. Paul Moreno, D-El Paso, on occasionally taking the bus from the Austin airport to the Capitol, in the El Paso Times: "I like to be with my people. I like to go in there and smell armpits."
Texas Weekly: Volume 21, Issue 9, 16 August 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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