Political journalists are often called fight promoters — people who'll try to start a contest where there isn't one — but the state's senior senator and the governor are making the job easy. They're even giving us facts to play with, and starting the fights without much prompting from the likes of us.
U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison says the state of Texas is leaving hundreds of millions in federal health insurance dollars on the table and says the number would be even higher if she and others in Washington hadn't moved the deadlines for Texas and other slow-moving states. She also indicated more federal dollars will go elsewhere if the state program isn't beefed up to use the federal money. She made the remarks on Valley Newsline with Ron Whitlock, a news show on KRGV-TV in Weslaco.
In the interview, she seemed to lay the blame on Gov. Rick Perry, but CHIP was a product of the previous administration. Last year, Perry and the Legislature scaled the program down, blaming the cuts on a budget crunch that also forced cutbacks elsewhere. But with money available to restore those cuts, the Legislative Budget Board decided last month not to spend the $92.7 million it would take to restore CHIP to last year's benefit and eligibility levels. The state has to spend money to pull in the federal money, and Hutchison told Whitlock that the smaller CHIP would mean more of the federal money earmarked for Texas would lapse and go back into the national treasury. (The interview is available online at www.valleynewsline.com/archives/ 2004/082904.html.)
This got rolling when Whitlock asked Hutchison about CHIP and specifically asked her what she could do "to get your brethren in the state capital to come on board and help solve this problem?"
She responded by saying the state has left money on the table for CHIP, not drawing down the federal funds available for the program in the time frame set up by the feds. Part of that is old news: Texas lawmakers weren't in session when the feds first allowed CHIP, and some of the money available to the state couldn't be pulled in until the state set up a program. Hutchison and other Texans in Washington, D.C., got the deadlines extended so the state wouldn't lose access to all of that money; out of $1.4 billion that would have lapsed, the state ended up getting $752 million into the program.
Even so, some of the federal money — $666.5 million — lapsed. In the interview, she said Perry was governor at the time. That's not correct, as was quickly pointed out by the governor's folks: When CHIP was started in Texas, Perry was lieutenant governor and George W. Bush was governor. Bush even bragged on starting the program while he was running for president the first time. Hutchison also took a current events angle, saying the state's current setup isn't bringing in all of the federal money that's available.
"They are leaving hundreds of millions of federal dollars to which they are entitled on the table and by not acting, they are not then allowing these children to be covered," she said. "They are not then putting the money into the healthcare system that we need to have in the Valley and in the rest of Texas. It's really tragic that Texas had the money and wouldn't call a special session to go ahead and put the program in place, to get it going in time to get enough children signed up to use our federal allocation, and we know that Texas needs that money."
Without some changes, she implied the state is still leaving kids uninsured and still leaving money in Washington. "I hope that Texas will get the children signed up so that they will use that money that is legitimately theirs and does not come out of any state funds or any state taxpayer dollars. In fact, state taxpayers are entitled to that money because they've already paid it in federal income taxes."
You've Gotta Give to Get
Perry's staff responded by saying Hutchison left out a pesky item about the state budget and suggesting she should be spending time bringing home more of the federal gasoline tax money paid by Texans. Right now, the state gets about 90 cents in road money for every dollar Texans pay in gas taxes. Perry thinks it should be higher; Hutchison aides point out that the return was around 70 cents when she first started working on the problem.
The senator did leave out an important point. For instance, she made it sound like the state just needs to ask to get that federal CHIP money, when in fact it has to spend money to bring those dollars in (it's about a 3-to-1 match, so a dollar of state money produces about $4 worth of health coverage). She did find a weak spot in the gubernatorial armor, though, by hitting CHIP spending. Cuts in that program have become a political lightning rod and a kind of shorthand for "mean" cuts in spending. And the criticism isn't just from Democrats, or just from Hutchison; Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn has been louder and harsher on the subject, giving Perry grief for months.
We've been told — reliably, but anonymously — that the governor's aides went to legislative budgeteers last month to make the case for restoring cuts made last year to the insurance program. You can find legislators who think that's a fine idea, and you can find some who are running for reelection on the argument that they held the line last year on spending. The first group would like a fix, and the second group doesn't want to back down on a tough vote, at least not before the elections.
One Quiet Grandma
Strayhorn surprised some observers — count us among them — by skipping the Republican Convention and staying in Austin. She'd have otherwise been part of the NYC fight card that ended up with only Perry and Hutchison on it. But the comptroller is coming into her season, and the silence is unlikely to last. She said she was staying in Austin to handle agency business at the end of a busy fiscal year, instead of going to New York to do some politicking.
The state's fiscal year ended this week. Expect some numbers soon showing what's happening on the revenue side of the state budget, with various taxes and such as that. At a glance, the numbers are good: The state should have a decent pile of money on hand at year end and some taxes, like sales and severance, to name a couple, have been growing remarkably fast.
Sometimes, comptrollers have used the year-end moment to give some clues about how much money lawmakers can expect to have in the purse during the next session. Two years ago, Strayhorn was talking about a $5 billion hole in the state's pocket. That grew and when it came time to make an official announcement in January, she said the state was $10 billion short of what it would cost to keep doing the same things the same way and accounting for growing school and assistance enrollments.
There's no requirement that she say anything, and history gives you a mixed result, depending on the particular comptroller in question and what he or she had for breakfast. Say, for now, that the opportunity is there for a pronouncement should she wish to make one.
Strayhorn did let one bit of news dribble out during the Republican convention: The State Auditor's draft audit of her agency doesn't have any bad news in it. Earlier this year, she said the auditor had finished the audit, shown it to her agency's executives (that's normal), and then had pulled it back and said it wasn't going to be released. Her version: Political enemies were pushing the auditors to find something nasty to hang her with. She wanted to make the draft version public, asked the attorney general for an official opinion, and got an answer: It's public. With that in hand, she released the draft audit, and on the basis of it, declared her agency got "a clean bill of health."
The ruling from the AG had an interesting note in it: The audit was public, in part, because the comptroller didn't object to making it so. The auditor, who didn't want it released, had no say in the matter.
The Fog of War
Former Texas House Speaker and Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes told an audience of young Austin Democrats that he regrets helping George W. Bush and others "who had family names of importance" get into the National Guard to avoid serving in Vietnam during the late 1960s and early 1970s. That doesn't contradict his earlier comments on the subject, but opens a whole new can of worms.
During Bush's initial campaign for the presidency, Barnes said he helped Bush — whose father was then a congressman from Houston — to get into the Guard. The argument of that moment was whether or not the elder Bush had pulled the political lever that kept the son flying planes in the States instead of Indochina. Nothing Barnes is saying now appears to contradict what he was saying then. But Barnes, an early and ardent supporter of U.S. Sen. John Kerry, has added a riff, saying he now regrets helping people stay out of the war.
Barnes made the comments at an Austin event in late May. A group of Austin Democrats who aren't officially affiliated with any of the campaigns put the video clips on their website in late June, but few noticed until late last week when a flurry of emails in the Texas political community publicized the site (www.Austin4Kerry.org). They were overwhelmed by the crowd wanting to see Barnes' comments, and got another outfit to make the stuff available on a more robust website, at this address: www.GreaterDemocracy.org.
Barnes, sans coat and tie, is holding a microphone and talking to an outdoor audience gathered in Austin on May 27. His whole quote goes like this:
"I got a young man named George W. Bush in the National Guard when I was lieutenant governor of Texas and I'm not necessarily proud of that, but I did it. And I got a lot of other people in the National Guard because I thought that was what people should do when you're in office — you helped a lot of rich people. And I walked through the Vietnam Memorial the other day and I looked at the names of the people that died in Vietnam, and I became more ashamed of myself than I've ever been. Because it was the worst thing I did, was help a lot of wealthy supporters and a lot of people who had family names of importance get in the National Guard, and I’m very sorry of that and I'm very ashamed and I apologize to you as voters of Texas."
The group posted the video clip — there are several others of Barnes talking on other subjects — in late June. It apparently surfaced now because Jim Moore, an Austin writer doing research for a column, found it while looking online for something else. Moore, who's written two books critical of Bush and of Karl Rove, sent out a mess of emails, and the thing mushroomed into a national story.
Giving at the Office
The Texas Ethics Commission will get another crack at an issue that came up six years ago and then quietly went away: Is it legal in Texas for a political action committee affiliated with a corporation or a union to make contributions to other political action committees?
If you ask political fundraisers in Austin, they'll tell you the corporate money is okay so long as it's used for administrative expenses. Just what constitutes administrative expenses is up for grabs — that's what the grand juries in Austin have been studying since the 2002 elections. If you actually read state law, however, it looks like corporate money can't be used. At least that's the position of Fred Lewis, an Austin lawyer who heads Campaigns for People, a campaign finance group.
The question came up in 1998, and whoever requested it — that's a state secret — withdrew their request after a draft opinion was prepared. The draft, which never came to a commission vote, says corporate money can't be used for administrative expenses of a PAC unless it's the corporation's own PAC. That could be read to mean that PACs accepting corporate money for their own expenses could not contribute to unaffiliated PACs, such as those set up by legislators to protect themselves and their colleagues from challengers. The old request is dead, but Lewis has revived it, asking the commission six years later for an official position on the question. It won't be on TEC's September agenda, but they're meeting again in October, and draft opinion could be ready by then.
Almost Enough to Buy the Double Latte
We'll write more about this as we sort it out, but for now, the short form: It looks like taxpayers — and not educators — will be picking up the tab on administration of new health reimbursement accounts set up by legislators last session. The $2.50 monthly fee goes from each of the 600,000 teachers and others covered by the Teacher Retirement System to Aetna, which is setting up and administering the program. The charge would have hit teacher paychecks around the middle of the month; instead, state leaders have told TRS to pay the fees itself and to count on budgeteers to settle up with them in January, when the Legislature returns for its regular session. The annual tab is $18 million, so TRS could be out as much as $7 million, at least temporarily.
There's a policy issue there, and a business issue, and we'll return to those in another edition; legislators, TRS officials and Aetna are still trying to untangle things. As for politics, there's one more hit coming: Those mid-September checks will reflect the Legislature's decision to cut a $1,000 annual stipend for teachers in half.
Flotsam & Jetsam
Ralph Nader won't be on the Texas ballot. U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel, a George W. Bush appointee, said the state's tough requirement for independents who want to get on the ballot is legal. Nader missed the state's deadline and didn't file enough valid signatures. Secretary of State Geoff Connor said 64,076 signatures from voters who skipped the primaries are required; Nader brought in more signatures than that, but not enough valid ones.
• It's all over but the counting: Texas lawmakers set out to save $1 billion by merging a dozen state agencies into five divisions under the new(ish) Health and Human Services Commission, and as of September 1, that merger is accomplished. Now all they have to do is make it work, which remains a work in progress. Several major state agencies disappear — at least in name — into the new mega-agency, including the Department of Human Services, the Department of Health, the Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation. The state's Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse is part of the fold. So are the former Departments of Aging, and of Protective and Regulatory Services.
Where there were a dozen agencies, there are now four names to remember, each of them one level below HHSC on the food chain: Department of Aging and Disability Services, Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services, Department of Family and Protective Services, and the Department of State Health Services.
• The legislation that merged those agencies also sent money to Attorney General Greg Abbott to investigate Medicaid fraud, and early numbers are in. The AG says the number of employees in that unit has increased to 110 from 36 and will be at 140 in a couple of months. They've opened eight field offices. They've doubled the caseload. And they've identified $27 million in illegal overpayments.
• The Texas Observer has been around for 50 years, whether you like it or not. And for those who like it, they've put together an anthology of what they consider their best stuff. The book signing is set for next week at Book People in Austin. They promise at least six former editors will be there.
• Not everybody's been following the mess that is the Houston Crime Lab, but it could become a state issue. Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, is starting hearings in October. While he's doing that, some legislative leaders are talking about a state crime lab that would replace or supplement local operations in Houston and elsewhere. That might make quality control easier, but it would involve fiercely guarded law enforcement turf. One version: The state would do all of the forensic work and would charge city and county and other law enforcement operations for the work they do.
• Subliminable Advertising: Did anyone else notice that, when George W. Bush was introducing First Lady Laura Bush to the GOP convention from a remote location in a ballpark in a battleground state, each of the softball players batting in the background wore number 43? That's Republican shorthand for Bush, the 43rd president. We counted three batters with that number on their jerseys.
Toomey Makes a Rumor Come True
Mike Toomey is resigning as chief of staff to Gov. Rick Perry and will return to the lobby. That's effective immediately; he won't be back in the Pink Building, at least not as a state employee, after Labor Day. No replacement has been named, but that announcement could come early next week when Perry and other top aides are back from the GOP national convention and the three-day weekend. Toomey, a former House member, has cycled back and forth between the public and private sectors: He was chief to Gov. Bill Clements after leaving the House, then left to lobby before coming back as Perry's top guy a couple of years ago. His departure has been a steady rumor since the end of last spring's special session on school finance. Whoever replaces him will be Perry's third chief since the governor succeeded George W. Bush.
Waller County District Attorney Oliver Kitzman is quitting that job in mid-September, citing personal reasons. He told the Associated Press his departure has nothing to do with a voting controversy at Prairie View A&M University. That controversy was spurred by his official view that students attending the school weren't automatically eligible to vote in local elections. He backed down, but not until he was accused of trying to intimidate predominantly Black voters on that campus, a charge that resulted in several lawsuits — the most recent of which was filed a couple of weeks ago — and in national news coverage of the issue.
Kitzman wasn't on this year's ballot, but his resignation gives both parties a chance to put candidates up for the remainder of his term. The parties have until Friday to get names to the Texas Secretary of State; those folks will be running for what's left of Kitzman's term. Also: Gov. Rick Perry, if he wants to, can appoint a new district attorney who would hold office until the election is over. No news yet on that front.
Political People and Their Moves
Anne Heiligenstein will be the new deputy executive commissioner for social services at the state's Health and Human Services Commission, replacing Gregg Phillips, who abruptly resigned earlier this summer. She's been the head of policy and projects for First Lady Laura Bush, on the policy staff for then-Gov. George W. Bush, and was an exec at the old Department of Human Services before that. She'll start in about a week...
Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn has been messing with her agency's org chart again. Jesse Ancira Jr. gives up the title of general counsel and becomes associate deputy comptroller with a finger in agency management, tax policy and fiscal operations. Tim Mashburn becomes general counsel (he'd been in the administrative hearings section of the agency, where tax cases are decided. And Betty Ressel — who used to run the agency's performance reviews of public school districts before the Legislature took over that function — will be special assistant for technical assistance, watching over property tax and local government assistance...
Sarah Hicks is the new staff director for the Senate Finance Committee. She has been working for Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, and now that he's the chairman, she's moving over. Hicks went to Texas A&M, naturally enough, and topped it with studies at the George Bush School of Government and Public Service there...
Colleen Forest is leaving what used to be called the Department of Human Services (now folded into the Health and Human Services Commission) for the private sector — she's moving to Strategic Partnerships, an Austin-based consulting firm...
Glenn Smith, a Democrat who managed the Tony Sanchez campaign for governor and before that consulted, and before that was a journalist, has his first book on the stands. "The Politics of Deceit: Saving Freedom and Democracy from Extinction" is billed as a swat at the way both sides conduct politics in America and what's wrong with it and how to fix it.
Deaths: Former U.S. Rep. and Texas Sen. Robert "Bob" Price, a farmer and rancher from the Panhandle, after a brief illness. Price, a Republican who won elections when that was a relatively rare thing in state politics, won his spot in the state Senate after losing the seat he held in Congress for ten years. He was 76.
Quotes of the (Convention) Week
Former NYC Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, recalling a line about voting against military funding after voting for it from the Democratic nominee for president: "Maybe this explains John Edwards' need for two Americas — one is where John Kerry can vote for something and another where he can vote against exactly the same thing."
Vice President Dick Cheney, at the GOP convention: "Sen. Kerry says he sees two Americas. It makes the whole thing mutual. America sees two John Kerrys."
U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, D-Georgia, in a spirited attack at the GOP convention on his fellow Democrat's votes against several weapons systems: "This is the man who wants to be the commander in chief of the U.S. Armed Forces? U.S. forces armed with what? Spitballs?"
U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, defending the invasion of Iraq: "Our choice wasn't between a benign status quo and the bloodshed of war. It was between war and a graver threat. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Not our political opponents. And certainly not a disingenuous filmmaker who would have us believe that Saddam's Iraq was an oasis of peace when in fact it was a place of indescribable cruelty, torture chambers, mass graves and prisons that destroyed the lives of the small children held inside their walls."
President George W. Bush, asked about the war on terror on NBC's Today Show: "I don't think you can win it. I think you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world." Later, after Democrats pounced on the first quote, Bush spoke at an American Legion event: "In this different kind of war, we may never sit down at a peace table, but make no mistake about it, we are winning, and we will win."
Former President George H. W. Bush, asked about former Sen. Bob Dole's swipe at the value of John Kerry's Purple Hearts, on CNN: "I don't follow this stuff as much as you think I might now. I'm 80, for heaven's sake."
U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air about a proposal to give embryos full constitutional rights, on who would prevail in cases where a mother's life is imperiled by a pregnancy: "If that child is a threat to your life, then you have the right to defend yourself."
From Jenna Bush, at the convention: "We spent the last four years trying to stay out of the spotlight. Sometimes we did a little better than others. We kept trying to explain to Dad that when we were young and irresponsible, well, we were young and irresponsible."
Texas GOP Chairwoman Tina Benkiser, quoted by the San Antonio Express-News about an event where reporters were unwelcome: "Due to the New York Stock Exchange rules we have been told that there is no media allowed." Ray Pellecchia, a spokesman for the NYSE, giving his version in the same story: "The event is by invitation only at the request of our guests."
U.S. Rep. Chris Bell, D-Houston, in an Amarillo Globe-News report on a speech there, telling a group that he's often confused for Harris County Judge Robert Eckels: "It got to be kind of a joke between us. But Robert is a Republican, so now when someone comes up to me and thinks I'm him, I just tell them to go to hell."
U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in The Dallas Morning News after aides to Gov. Rick Perry turned her comments on CHIP funding away as an attack on former Gov. George W. Bush: "I was not being critical. I think the governor got a little trigger happy."
U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, quoted in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on speculation that Hutchison will run against Perry, who will be seeking reelection in 2006: "I think we've got two great public servants — one in Washington, one in Austin. Texas needs all the help it can get, so my recommendation would be for Rick to stay in Austin and Kay to stay in Washington."
San Antonio Chamber Chairman Michael Novak, defending City Manager Terry Brechtel (who later decided, under council pressure, to quit), in the San Antonio Express-News: "Let's get the issues on the table and let Terry respond. Right now, it's like a rat on a Cheeto, and poor Terry is the Cheeto."
Texas Weekly: Volume 21, Issue 12, 6 September 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.