The U.S. Bureau of the Census prefaced the Republican Party's national convention with a bummer of a report that says, among other things, that Texas has the highest percentage of uninsured people of any state and that the median income here dropped during the first years of this decade.
Teachers looking to the Legislature for relief from a new $42-per-year charge for administration of Health Reimbursement Accounts were left without a resolution and only a few days to go before the bills came due. The Teacher Retirement System has to hit its own budget or charge the teachers.
Advocates for full restoration of the Children's Health Insurance Program watched the Legislative Budget Board spend $591 million without solving their problem and without making changes to cover more than 147,000 kids who would have insurance today if the rules hadn't been changed a year ago.
And budget hawks who wanted the state to hold the line on ballooning expenses in health and human services saw lawmakers restoring benefits, delaying politically uncomfortable changes and easing off some of the belt-cinching done during the last regular legislative session.
The LBB decided not to dip into the second year of the state's two-year spending plan for money. That quiet decision left the panel without enough money to restore the Children's Health Insurance Program to August 2003 levels. They also left a $320 million hole in the budget, but since the money to cover that amount is already coming in, they're not particularly worried about it.
What they did do was look over a $561 million plan from health and human services agencies that covered reimbursements to Medicaid providers and cost overruns in drug and other benefits. They moved some money to pay for care for children with special health needs and they restored maternity benefits for Medicaid recipients. All told, the state made about $591 million in adjustments.
CHIP could be restored for about $92.7 million in state funds. That would let families reapply once a year instead of every six months, skip an assets test that denies coverage to families with low incomes but some assets, and obtain benefits like dental and vision insurance. But the members of the LBB weren't willing to move that money around. They filled a hole in Medicaid and some other issues, but left CHIP and a $320 million Medicaid deficit for later. Democratic lawmakers said the LBB left more than $200 million on the table, but the numbers can be mashed around to accomplish almost anything, if you follow the example set by lawmakers over the last ten years.
That's not a wisecrack: When they're trying to buttress programs and short of cash, Texas lawmakers can (and do) borrow from the second year of a budget to pull money into the first year, then come back and patch things later. The state's fiscal years begin on September 1, and regular legislative sessions – where budgets are written – begin seven months before those two-year budgets run out. It's not unusual for budgeteers to "borrow" money from the last months of a budget to fill gaps, then to come back in regular session and pass emergency appropriations bills to cover those borrowings. Put another way, it's possible to spend the money needed for Month 24 now, so long as you find a way to pay for that month before you get there.
Aside from adding a disputed number of kids to the insurance program designed for the working poor, the increased spending would have provided political balm for state leaders and for candidates who find themselves in districts where the cuts are unpopular. CHIP has become a sort of a political poster child for state cuts in health and human services, and provides the basis for charges that state leaders made some budget decisions that went beyond fiscal responsibility, into meanness.
Teachers Put on Hold
Gov. Rick Perry wanted lawmakers to move $18 million in tax money to TRS to pay the HRA administrative fees. That would have protected the teachers but had people asking why taxpayers should pick up the bill. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick left the issue off of the LBB's agenda, effectively killing Perry's proposal. Now, Dewhurst says TRS should pay the administrative costs out of its own budget for the rest of the calendar year, with the promise that lawmakers will revisit the problem in January. That would keep the burden off the teachers for now, but it would force the agency to come up with about $4.5 million to cover the tab until the regular legislative session. The program could be ditched next year; lawmakers prompted by angry teacher groups say the HRAs, which are new, should be abolished.
Numbers You'll Hear in Campaigns
According to the state's Health and Human Services Commission, the Medicaid rolls have swollen from 1.76 million in July 2003 to 1.9 million in July 2004. CHIP enrollments over that same time period have dropped from 509,182 to 361,464. Put another way: Where CHIP covered 22.4 percent of the kids in the two programs a year ago, it now covers 15.9 percent. That's a rotten deal for the state, because $1 of Medicaid coverage costs the state about 40 cents, and $1 of CHIP coverage costs the state about 25 cents (that's not precise, but it's in the ballpark). The catch is that kids who qualify for Medicaid must be covered, by federal law, and the benefit levels are largely set by the federal government.
Some of the legislators looking at this have suggested that the kids who left CHIP are now covered by Medicaid, but HHSC says it's not so. By their estimate, only 25 percent of the kids who left CHIP are now covered by Medicaid. About 40 percent didn't reenroll in the program – the reasons are murky, but they're working on it – and 18 percent or so didn't qualify again, either because they grew up or their family incomes rose or they ran into new eligibility standards.
The bottom line, from management: More kids are covered now under the two programs than were covered two years ago. And from the health care advocates: More would be covered now if the programs were restored, and the state still has the highest uninsured rates in the country.
Plug in a couple of numbers from the Census Bureau, starting with the caveat: They go through 2003, before the changes in the state's programs were apparent. By their reckoning, 24.6 percent of Texans were uninsured during the first three years of the decade (it's a three-year average), and 22.6 percent of the children in the state didn't have health insurance coverage. The national average was 15.1 percent. The state's poverty rate (families of four with annual incomes of less than $18,660) rose a percentage point to 16.3 percent, and the state's median income over that period dropped $1,600, to $40,170. Half of all Texans made more than that and half made less.
Then, It Got Political
After the LBB had done its work, Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn jumped at a new "means test" that is just now being added to the CHIP eligibility standards. Calling it a "mean test," she said Gov. Rick Perry should put it on ice. There's a precedent: Perry delayed implementation of a co-pay for CHIP families just before it came time to kick out the non-payers. Strayhorn referred to a Dallas Morning News story about Perry moving staff from his budget to another, the better to show his spending was in line. "If you can magically manage to keep two maids, a cook, and a porter on your staff at the Governor's Mansion while claiming that they are not part of your budget, certainly you can figure out a way to continue insuring the health of these children," she said in a letter to Perry. Perry's spokeswoman said Strayhorn herself had recommended some CHIP cuts and says she "flip-flops so much on her own record she makes John Kerry dizzy."
Whack, Whack, Whack
Before she started hollering about CHIP and porters and such, Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn tried to lay a toll-road controversy in Austin at the governor's feet. Without putting too fine a point on this, we'll mention that the March 2006 Republican primary is 18 months away.
Strayhorn's shop developed a form letter to send to people who write in complaining about toll roads, and also shot copies to the press to gin up some interest in the issue. The letter is aimed at people unhappy with state efforts to convert some highway projects from tax-supported to toll-supported financing. In Austin – the Guinea Pig for the toll-road financing – a regional board set up by a new state law approved putting tolls on several extensions and expansions of existing roads. Initial proposals would have converted a couple of existing roads to toll roads, but the uproar was loud and the plans were modified. Still, some residents – mainly in the suburbs where the new or bigger roads go – are unhappy. In particular, they're incensed about putting toll roads where free roads now exist.
"To me, making drivers pay a toll on a road that is already funded is double taxation," Strayhorn's letter says. And she slaps Gov. Rick Perry, though she doesn't write his name: "I believe the Governor is misguided when he does not listen to the people of Texas who are opposed to his massive toll road plan." Perry's not for putting tolls on existing roads, his aides say, but thinks it's a local issue that ought to be decided, as in the Austin case, by local officials. And there's a grey area here where the highway people are trying to maneuver: If an existing road is expanded, say, from a four-lane with a yellow stripe down the middle to a real live divided highway, is that a new road or an existing one?
Sidebar: The other Republican often mentioned as a potential rival to Perry – U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison – is also pooh-poohing the toll road plan, but without directly smacking the Guv.
Strayhorn also says it's an example of why she's in favor of initiative and referendum, which would allow Texans to amend the constitution without going through the Legislature. (It was a popular Republican idea several years ago, but Strayhorn got a cool reception when she brought it up at the state GOP convention earlier this summer).
Strayhorn says she's an advocate of toll roads, but only projects that start out with that kind of financing and not for projects, like those in question, where another form of financing is already in place. Her agency produced a report a couple of years ago that outlines some hybrid ideas – like putting tolls on existing roads – and suggests they're worth consideration.
Stuck in the middle are the highway builders who say the only way the state can build roads fast enough to support growth is to add to existing forms of financing with tolls, bonds and other tricks that haven't seen wide use in Texas' pay-as-you-build system.
Politics Ain't Beanbag
When is a gubernatorial appointment a metaphor for a raised middle finger? Lookit: Gov. Rick Perry named Jana Howden to Texas Department of Transportation Motor Vehicle Board. That's the outfit that regulates the new and used car business. The new board member is married to Robert Howden, a former aide to Perry who left state government to work for the Texas Automobile Dealers Association. At the time, TADA was trying to get back into the Guv's good graces after backing his opponents – directly and indirectly – in 1998 and in 2002. But Howden was roughly passed over when TADA chose a new executive director, and he left. Now, Jana Howden, a paralegal and a community volunteer, will help the state regulate the car business.
For what it's worth, some of the governor's political people say they didn't have the Texas Association of Realtors in their gun sights and don't want to paint Bill Stinson, who recently left that organization, as one of the bad guys. They've had their differences. TAR backed Perry's opponent, John Sharp, in the 1998 race for lieutenant governor and then stuck with him against David Dewhurst four years later. They endorsed Perry in his 2002 bid for governor. The Realtors have since made up with the winners, and Stinson is out building his own lobby shop with no ill wind from the middle offices of the Pink Building.
Revenge of the Bone Cracker
Democrat Mark Breding, a Quitman lawyer, has dropped out of the contest for HD-5. In a letter to Party officials, he said he'd moved his residence to Smith County, which is close-by but also not in the district. That disqualifies him from the race. In his place, county Democratic officials from the district got to pick a replacement candidate: It's Dr. Bob Glaze, a Gilmer chiropractor who held that spot in the Texas House for six terms. He lost it two years ago to Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, in a year that saw Republicans gain control of the Texas House for the first time since Reconstruction.
Glaze, who was on the state's Board of Health for several years before running for the House, says he didn't intend to run again after losing two years ago. But the Democratic chairmen from the four counties in the district started talking to him several days ago, and when Breding made his departure official, they voted to run Glaze in his place. It's late in the game, but Glaze says he's got enough money set aside for a race – he thinks it'll cost over $100,000 – and says he's not just a placeholder candidate. "It'll have my full attention," he said.
Hughes' win two years ago was relatively narrow. He was one of almost two dozen Republicans running in areas that were redistricted to squeeze out incumbent Democrats, and his win was an upset in the eyes of many Democrats and quite a few Republicans. Hughes got 52.4 percent of the vote last time; the average statewide Republican got 59 percent of the vote in the district. With those voting tendencies, his own incumbency, and George W. Bush on the ballot, Republicans think Hughes should win this time. Democrats see hope in some cracks in the numbers: U.S. Rep. Max Sandlin, D-Marshall, won in HD-5, and the lieutenant governor race between Republican David Dewhurst and Democrat John Sharp was closer in HD-5 than it was statewide.
Glaze thinks voters are "unhappy and confused" about what's going on in Austin, with "the performance of the Legislature, the fact that nobody gets along, the governor and the comptroller at odds with each other... all the partisanship and disunity." He'll try to appeal to voters as a voice of experience and says the issues of interest locally are the economy, health care delivery and schools.
If the letters to the editor in your local paper look like someone in a political campaign cooked them up, it might be because the campaigns are encouraging supporters to become writers.
The latest email sent to supporters of U.S. Rep. Charlie Stenholm, D-Abilene, asks them to start cranking out letters to the editors of their local papers. In a message titled "Help Charlie Stenholm get the message out," the campaign quotes from a couple of favorable letters already printed in the papers. It doesn't provide templates for the letter-writers, but gives them some guidelines (use short sentences, be concise, use the campaign's Internet address in the text of the letter, etc.) and they provide a list of newspapers in the district with street and email addresses the fledgling letter-writers can use. An excerpt from the email: "Supporters like you are working hard to get the word out about Charlie and to make sure this race is decided on the facts, not partisan spin. Now it's your turn. Charlie's message of independence and fighting for West Texas values is getting out, but we still need your help. Charlie needs you to write a letter to the editor today..."
Lest you get after him (alone) about fertilizing the grass roots like this, check around. Stenholm's campaign went out of its way, sending an email encouraging letter-writers, but several campaigns have added Letters to Editors guidelines and information on their Internet sites, and many of them include tips and phone numbers for contacting other media. U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Lubbock, encourages people to write their editors and to call in to radio talk shows, but doesn't give guidelines.
There's information on public-to-media campaigning on the website for Arlene Wohlgemuth, the Republican state rep who's challenging Chet Edwards for his spot in Congress. Under the headline "Fire up the Press," the Burleson Republican's website urges friendlies to start sending supportive letters to the editors of local papers, and she also gives some pointers and the email addresses of the papers in the district. Edwards has a similar section on his site.
A gang of Texas artists, writers, musicians and assorted entertainers – some well known, some not – are trying to pull together $140,000 for a full-page ad in The New York Times. Their message: They're from here and they're not for George W. Bush's reelection. Officially, they're calling themselves the Texas Arts Community and they're raising money through a website – www.txac.org. So far, they've got almost 300 names and say they're close to having the money for the ad (a copy of which is on the website). They're also planning some high jinks during the GOP convention that they call the Saltgrass Roots campaign. They're hooking up with other groups – BushWatch.org and DriveDemocracy.org, to name two – to provide running commentary while their rivals convene.
• Public Utility Commissioner-turned-congressional candidate Becky Armendariz Klein got a speaking spot at the National GOP convention. It's not prime time, but it's the big stage. She'll talk for a few minutes on Monday. She's the Republican candidate in CD-25, where the incumbent is U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin. She's not alone among the Texas congressional candidates. Also getting some podium time: U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions of Dallas, who's running for reelection against U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, D-Dallas; Louie Gohmert of Tyler, challenging U.S. Rep. Max Sandlin, D-Marshall; and Ted Poe of Houston, challenging U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Beaumont.
• Some Texas pols got to play with the big kids when Democrat John Kerry sent a team to Crawford to needle President George W. Bush about the Swift Boat commercials. Former Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia and Jim Rassman, a veteran who served with Kerry, went to Bush's place to deliver a letter asking him to get the group running the ads to stop it. In their corner: Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, who served in the U.S. Marines in Vietnam in the late 1960s.
And the counterpoint: They were welcomed to the state with a letter from a group of veterans that included Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Plano. Both served in Vietnam; Johnson was a prisoner of war there. In their letter, they said they were backing Bush and accused Kerry of touting his service in Vietnam and then kicking fellow veterans who don't agree with him. And then the presidential scrum moved on to the swing states.
• State Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson, on the eve of a debate with U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, in College Station, decided to go negative on the Ivy League school where the president got his MBA. In a press release detailing the time and place for the debate (there will be several, at various spots in the district), she listed political conservatives who've represented the Brazos Valley in Austin and in Washington, and said she was looking forward to the debate. "My record reflects the values of the Brazos Valley and mirrors the record of Brazos County's current Congressman, John Carter; Representative Edwards' record reflects the values he learned at Harvard, and more closely resembles the record of Massachusetts liberal, Barney Frank."
• Separately, Wohlgemuth announced she's started her television advertising, saying she's two weeks ahead of her own schedule and is also on the air before the Democrat started an air attack. And she implied she's up to stay, saying voters will hear more about her "every day between now and November 2." A few other candidates have gone on-air; most are waiting until after Labor Day, or if they're pinched for funds, for dates nearer to the election.
• U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Beaumont, picked up a law enforcement endorsement from the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, or CLEAT. He's defending his post against challenger Ted Poe, a Republican who left his job as a state district judge to run against Lampson. The Democrat, whose district was redrawn to make reelection difficult, is also touting an A-plus rating from the National Rifle Association.
• Katy Hubener, the Democrat running against Rep. Ray Allen, R-Grand Prairie, in HD-106 picked up a Vermont endorsement; former Gov. Howard Dean added her to the list of candidates he's supporting. The Deaniacs have a website where you can see what they're doing here and elsewhere. The address: www.DemocracyForAmerica.com.
Political People and Their Moves
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison has been named Mr. South Texas 2005 by the Washington's Birthday Celebration Association. That's a big deal in Laredo and in that region of the state, and in spite of the name, several women have held the title. The group cited Hutchison's efforts on behalf of the area in water, economic development, cleaning up colonias and transportation...
People for the American Way, the self-styled progressive group based in Washington, D.C. (it was started by Norman Lear, the TV exec behind All in the Family and other shows), is opening an Austin office in mid-September and hired Deece Eckstein to run it. The group's website says it is particularly concerned about "the influence of the radical right and its allies who have risen to positions of political power." Eckstein is, for the next few minutes anyway, the chief of staff for Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and previously worked as a state insurance commissioner, a policy wonk for a governor, in the lobby, as a regular old lawyer, and as a Catholic Brother before that...
John Howard Jr. is on his way home, at least part-time, to work for Vinson & Elkins as an environmental lawyer and lobbyist. Howard worked in the policy office of then-Gov. George W. Bush until the Guv became the Prez, and then moved to Washington, D.C., where his most recent title was Federal Environmental Executive in the Bush Administration. He'll split his time between Austin and Washington...
Lyda Creus Molanphy, who's been working with George Shipley & Associates for 14 years, is leaving that shop to pursue other things and to spend more time with her two young kids. She was on board for everything from political campaigns for Ann Richards and Dan Morales and others to the wars between the state of Texas and the tobacco companies...
Gov. Rick Perry reappointed Shari Shivers of Austin to the State Pension Review Board, which watches public pension plans for signs of trouble...
The governor named René Peña of Floresville as district attorney for an area that covers Atascosa, Frio, Karnes, La Salle and Wilson Counties. Peña is on the ballot alone, and will run in November and start a full term in January. He's replacing Lynn Ellison, who resigned last month after losing to Peña in the Democratic primary – that's right, Perry appointed a Democrat – in March...
John Draper of Spring quit the San Jacinto River Authority after admitting he pleaded no contest to a charge of indecency with a child 14 years ago and served three years under court supervision.
Quotes of the Week
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, in The New York Times on why negative political ads work: "There appears to be something hard-wired into humans that gives special attention to negative information. I think it's evolutionary biology. It was the wariness of our ancestors that made them more likely to see the predator and hence to prepare. The one who was cautious about strange new food probably didn't eat it, they sat back and watched other people die."
Former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, testifying in court on school finance (and quoted in the San Antonio Express-News): "I don't particularly like for the state to be striving for adequacy. I think we ought to strive for excellence. Fact was, it was certainly my intent to provide a system where we continue to raise the standards to a level of excellence."
Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson, quoted in The Dallas Morning News about changes that lowered enrollment in the Children's Health Insurance Program by more than 147,000 kids: "We have curtailed a socialized medical program and the liberals don't like it."
Bob Rosenberg, a "door knocker" in Phoenix, telling The New York Times about the Democrats' aggressive efforts to turn out absentee voters two years ago, a campaign being copied by the national parties this year: "You can't stand over their shoulder and move their hand for them. But you can certainly suggest to them that this is the candidate that deserves their vote."
U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, at a town hall meeting in Muenster answering a question about immigration, quoted in the Gainesville Daily Register: "It's a little better than it was, but not as good as it used to be."
Texas Weekly: Volume 21, Issue 11, 30 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.