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Wobbly, but Still in Motion

The specifics keep moving around, but House management still wants to see the tax and school finance bills on the floor for debate by March 7 or 8. That means the committees in control must move the bills next week.

The specifics keep moving around, but House management still wants to see the tax and school finance bills on the floor for debate by March 7 or 8. That means the committees in control must move the bills next week.

They'll be looking at school reform and formulas on one hand — that's HB 2 — and general business taxes, etc. on the other — that's HB 3. Other legislation that's in the mix for that week would amend the constitution to cap increases in appraised property values, and to allow a state property tax.

Timing of some other pieces of the puzzle is less certain, including gambling, the budget itself, and various measures turned out by the LBB and the budget panels to save money or "enhance" revenues to make the whole thing balance without ruining the promise that school finance can be solved with no net tax increase.

The tax bit has been banging along, with Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, and the House Ways & Means panel that's holding seminars on different kinds of taxes while they work with real numbers and proposals in the background. They put out a bill and announced it dead in the same motion a few weeks ago, freeing them from defending any taxes or fees until they must.

Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, took a different path, introducing a school finance bill and defending it, a day at a time, while his Public Education Committee hammers away on details. Grusendorf hopes to get a bill out early next week, and spent part of every day this week with a new press conference explaining and/or defending some aspect of the bill. His riff: The bill pulls more kids into the so-called "equalized system" than anything in years. It puts $3 billion in new money into the schools (that's a huge arguing point between supporters and opponents of the bill). It's got some interesting features, too, like the idea that taxpayers should be able to sit at home and poke through their school district's financials, on the Internet or on paper, to see if they like the way every penny was spent. That'd be a revealing feature at any level of government, and one that doesn't appear to exist anywhere, unless you've got a lawyer and an armful of open information requests.

But detractors say the House plan doesn't really fix school finance if you include agreements to hold districts harmless for existing inequities. It increases the distance between the amount of money available for kids in most districts and those in a few very wealthy districts that, under a provision attributed to Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, would not have to share more than 35 percent of the money they raise locally. Each district in the state would get a funding increase of at least three percent; opponents say inflation would quickly dissipate that amount and leave the districts where the courts say they are now, without enough money to meet the standards set by the state government.

Gov. Rick Perry joined Grusendorf in one press conference, calling the bill a good starting point and saying there's plenty of time to work on the details. He also called on the opponents to step up and offer proposals if they don't like this one; House Democrats indicated they'll make a proposal in the next week or so. Asked if he's still against a payroll tax, he sidestepped: "Any tax that stops the development of job creation in Texas is a bad idea. That's a broad and still a very true statement... There's a lot of time to go, and to try to blanket-statement what you're for and what you're against at this particular point in time, I think, is really kind of premature."

No Side Bets

It's hard to negotiate a finance bill with school districts that don't want to do anything in the Pink Building that jeopardizes the winning hand they've been playing at the courthouse.

The lawsuit filed by the schools back in 2000 is on its way to the Texas Supreme Court, which has set a schedule that probably won't allow oral arguments and/or a decision until after the current legislative session. A state district judge in Austin ruled last year in favor of the school districts — against the state — on just about every element of the suit.

The Supremes have agreed to take the case without intermediate appeals, but their fast track doesn't match the Legislature's. Lawmakers are trying to cobble together a school finance fix that will be in place when schools start next year. Some officeholders — the governor prominent among them — would like to have a school finance fix installed when it's time for possible opponents to make decisions about the 2006 elections.

The school districts are watching and they are apparently giving plenty of feedback to their local legislators. But their lawyers caution than no single district can make deals on behalf of the whole group, and the group as a whole can't negotiate while the case is pending. On the whole, the districts don't seem to like the legislation proposed by Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, because they don't think it puts enough money into schools to educate kids the way the state wants them educated.

But the frustrating bit for some House folks is that the districts don't seem willing — because of the promise held out for them by the courts — to come in as a group and work out a deal. Some lawyers for the districts say the Lege hasn't offered anything that includes enough money to provide an adequate education to each kid in the state. That makes it easier for the school folk to shake their heads. The attorneys are encouraging districts to keep watching and to make suggestions when they can, but say privately that they won't show up at the table unless more money is put into the formulas, and the formulas are jiggled to get more money to more schools.

Put another way: They haven't seen anything from the Legislature yet that's more attractive than what they think they might get from the courts.

More Money, Same Taxes

The Legislative Budget Board took over performance reviews from the Texas comptroller's office last year, and the easiest $1.5 billion of their recommendations is already folded into the state budget. The first run-through by Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, and his merry-band of efficiency seekers came up with almost $1 billion more. But that's not a solid list, and it's $2 billion short of the goal.

Isett and others on a subcommittee looking at efficiency and operations are trying to find the money to cover the difference between what the state spends on education now and what it wants to add. In the House, that number is $3 billion. The other stuff you hear about is the money raised by a state tax bill to cover the costs of buying down local taxes. The magic words are "no net tax increase" and that means new money has to come from something other than taxes. Fees are allowed. Gambling, if it's palatable to enough lawmakers, is allowed. Taxes are not allowed.

The biggest single item is a new "quality assurance fee" on nursing homes, which would raise $452.5 million in general revenue. The nursing homes aren't screaming outright because some of that money — about $100 million — would be used to draw federal money that would be used, in turn, to pay higher rates to nursing homes. The state would get more money and so would they. All that's needed is a go sign from the federal government, which has approved similar programs in two other states. Another proposal would require employees in state-funded skills development programs to pay half the costs themselves. Another would reduce the interest rate the state pays on overpaid taxes. They'd get $10 million from a new real estate "transfer fee."

They're still kicking things around, but the menu they're working from is the LBB's performance reviews, available on that agency's website.

School Starts in June

The state's highest civil court will hear the school finance case, but not until the legislative session is over. The Texas Supreme Court moved an inch on school finance, with a notice of "probable jurisdiction" — another way of saying the court will accept the state's request for a direct appeal from district court, skipping the appeals in between. That was expected — the news here is in the timetable.

The court set a briefing deadline of 40 days for appellants, 40 days for appellees, and 20 days for replies. Attorney General Greg Abbott's office offers the English translation: The state's briefs are due March 30; the plaintiffs then have until May 9, and replies are due May 31. No date has been set for oral arguments. A point of reference: The regular legislative session ends on May 30. If the briefs come in on schedule, the court can't hear the case until June, after the regular session has ended.

The lawyer briefs on jurisdiction in the case are available online from the Supreme Court, and the filings will be available as they come in at this same location.

Other Courthouse News

While lawmakers edge closer to floor fights over school finance and how to pay for it next week, the third branch of government will be busy with election and First Amendment issues.

• The 2002 elections finally go to court Monday. The first of several civil suits related to Republican efforts to win a majority of the Texas House will go before an Austin judge; those subpoenaed to testify include House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland. Several losing Democratic candidates are suing former Rep. Bill Ceverha of Dallas, who served as treasurer of Texas for a Republican Majority, a political action committee that helped win enough Republican seats in the Texas House to elect the first GOP speaker since Reconstruction. The lawsuits contend the Republicans illegally coordinated campaign efforts with those of third-party groups and used corporate money to pay for services and goods where corporate money is prohibited.

Travis County grand juries have been working for two years on related criminal charges; they've indicted three individuals and eight corporations and continue their work. Separately, prosecutors and three of the indicted corporations have negotiated agreements that trade the corporations' cooperation for dropping the indictments.

• Attorney General Greg Abbott is going to court next week, too. He'll personally go to Washington, D.C., to tell the U.S. Supreme Court why it's constitutional to have the Ten Commandments carved into a tablet-shaped chunk of granite on the grounds of the Texas Capitol. It's been there for 40 years, but the other side contends that the presence of that Biblical text on state property violates the separation of church and state.

The State of the Judiciary is... Broke

Wallace Jefferson, the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, spent the first half of his first speech to the Texas Legislature telling lawmakers they need to raise salaries or get used to high turnover and a lower grade of judges.

Jefferson, who left a San Antonio law firm to wear the black robes of a judge, said judges who leave the courts are leaving, in part, because the pay is so much better for private-sector lawyers than for judges. "... if we ask judges to sacrifice too much, Texas will be left with without the experienced judiciary that it surely deserves. Today, we are asking too much," he said. He said Texas ranked 5th in judicial pay in the 1980s, but has dropped to 39th now.

It's fair to wonder why a guy making $115,000 a year is griping about his paycheck. By way of comparison, the average resident of the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area made $40,915, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. But while top judges make almost three times what average Texans make, they say they could double or triple their salaries by leaving the bench for jobs in the private sector.

Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn had her staff do some work on this for a report issued in December. The average judge on the state's top appeals courts — the Supremes, the court of criminal appeals and the 14 regional appellate courts — lasts less than one term on the job, according to the comptroller. She recommended a pay raise, but stopped short of blaming salaries for the high turnover and said lawmakers should get someone to develop "reliable data" on the reasons appeals judges don't stick around and to find out whether that's really a problem.

The National Center for State Courts did a survey in October 2003 and found the average judge at Jefferson's level was making $130,221; the low-high numbers were $95,000 and $191,483. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist was making $201,000 at that point. And the pay in Texas was the lowest among the ten largest states in the U.S.; California was first, followed by Michigan, New Jersey, Illinois, and New York.

The comptroller looked at some other state jobs, too. The Texas chief justice makes less than 103 state psychiatrists, 10 agency commissioners, 66 doctors, 10 agency directors and executive directors, and six agency lawyers. But it's cheap at the top: Among statewide elected officials, only Gov. Rick Perry made more than Jefferson in 2004.

And then there are the lawyers. The average Texas lawyer made $117,870 in 2003, according to the Labor Department. A 2001 study done by the State Bar of Texas found private practice lawyers with 21 to 25 years of experience were making an average of $147,916 each year. At the time of that study, the average Supreme Court justice in Texas had been a licensed lawyer for 23 years. Big law firms paid the most, a median of $250,000. Average first-year salaries for grads of the University of Texas law school have been over $100,000 for the last several years.

Several bills have been filed to raise the pay of judges. Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, and Rep. Vilma Luna, D-Corpus Christi, would raise state district judge pay to $125,000 by September 2006. Intermediate appellate judges would get 110 percent of that, or $137,500, and pay for top appeals judges would peg at 120 percent, or $150,000. They'd also unlink the retirement pay of legislators and the pay of district judges. Instead, the retirement pay of lawmakers would be pegged to the governor's salary.

The pitch for pay was part of Jefferson's first "State of the Judiciary" speech to lawmakers. His predecessor, Tom Phillips, used the forum to promote changes to judicial selection — reforms driven generally by the idea that it's unseemly for judges to run for office using money that comes in large part from the lawyers who argue before them. Jefferson didn't mention the subject.

After pay, he talked about technology, indigent defense and access to justice. He said he wants to increase public access to electronic court records and wants to make arguments in cases before the Supreme Court available on the Internet, through some of the same streaming video tricks that now make it possible to watch legislative proceedings. You can get a copy of the whole speech at this link.

Off and Running

The first two bills out of the House were all about two things dear to Texans: Cars and privacy.

The first, from Rep. Brian McCall, R-Plano, requires dealers to tell drivers if they're getting a car with a "black box" that monitors speed and other driving habits in a way that could be used by insurance companies and cops and lawyers later. The House likes the limits, sending the legislation to the Senate on a 142-0 vote.

The second, handled by Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, would stop cities from using cameras to monitor compliance at red lights. Some cities have been using photos from those cameras to fine drivers who run the lights. They say it reduces accidents and makes money. The House tentatively voted 109-30 to kill the cameras.

A Threat to Secret Admirers

Issue ads funded by undisclosed corporate and private contributors would no longer be allowed under legislation pushed by a group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers and an array of public interest groups.

Reps. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, and Todd Smith, R-Bedford, would narrow the definitions of which administrative expenses can be covered by corporate or union money and would bar them from contributing to PACs that aren't directly related to them. It would prohibit "issue ads" that attempt to steer voters to a particular candidate or away from another, but only during the last 60 days before a general election.

Other People's Work, Pilfered

This is a blatant rip-off from The Dallas Morning News, but you should watch this as the governor's race develops. That paper analyzed contributions to Gov. Rick Perry, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, and Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn and found some ulcer inducing situations. For instance, 40 percent of the people who gave to Perry also gave to Hutchison. They'll have to choose a favorite or hide under the bed if she runs against him next year. More than half of the contributions reported in Perry's latest disclosure filings came from 100 donors. Strayhorn is so far the lone member of that trio getting money from nontraditional sources: Ordinarily Democratic trial lawyers gave her $160,000 in the last report, for instance.

These sorts of things aren't unusual, but they're uncomfortable. The presidential match that featured George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot gave a lot of conservative Texans trouble picking between their friends. And there the partisan overlaps have been there before, too: An analysis of the 1990 elections in the late Dallas Times Herald showed a 25 percent overlap in voting support for Republican Hutchison and Democrat Ann Richards.

Stories That Don't Check Out

Kay Bailey Hutchison and Ben Barnes are not, not, not in political cahoots. Just ask 'em. Both deny rumors, traded among mostly Democratic political blogs, that Barnes is working on a Democrats for Hutchison effort that would assist in her effort to knock off Gov. Rick Perry in next year's Republican primary.

But Barnes says the rumors aren't true and that he hasn't talked to Hutchison for a couple of months. We get the same feedback from her end of the phone line.

Barnes speculated the rumor started in the Perry camp. The former lieutenant governor played a role in the recent flap that had Barnes saying he helped get George W. Bush into the National Guard to duck Vietnam duty back when Barnes was in state office and Bush's dad was a congressman. That story escalated and crawled up to CBS News, where a failure of fact-checking on other aspects of the story led to a humiliation for the network and an ugly ending to the career of Texan Dan Rather.

Barnes, to put it succinctly, would not be an asset to a Texas Republican candidate. The logic for the political pairing follows the adage, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend," but the two aren't working together.

Ring and Run

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison spoke at a Republican function in Houston, and while Gov. Rick Perry wasn't there in fact, he was there in force. Hours before the event, his political office released a list of Harris County supporters that included a mess of people in attendance.

The list from the Perry camp includes only two legislators, but it's fat with county Republicans and Houston's political contributor class is well represented, too. George Strake Jr., formerly campaign treasurer for Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, is on the list. So is Jared Woodfill, chairman of the Harris County Republican Party and thus, the largest Republican Party primary in the state. It's unusual to take sides in a family fight, but at the moment, Perry is the only declared candidate.

The names, as presented by the campaign: Peggy Hamric, State Representative; Beverly Woolley, State Representative; Michael Stafford, County Attorney; Charles Bacarisse, District Clerk; Jack Cato, County Treasurer; Paul Bettencourt, Tax Assessor Collector; Tommy Thomas, County Sheriff; Steve Radack, County Commissioner; Jerry Eversole, County Commissioner; Ron Hickman, Constable; Glen Cheek, Constable; Ned S. Holmes; Amy M. and James H. Lee; Philip L. Leggett, M.D.; Bill and Nancy McMinn; John L. Nau III; Lynden Rose; Mike G. Rutherford; Michael and Kim Stevens; H. Scott Caven, Jr.; Daisy and John White; James P. Wilson; Massey Villarreal; Pete Alfaro, former Mayor of Baytown; Dr. Juluette Bartlett-Pack; Larry Bowles; Bill Calhoun, Chair, Black Republican Council of Texas; Theresa Chang; Vickie Clements; Hector Delgado; Judith Ellis; Josh Flynn; Linda Gonzales; Kathy Haigler; Barbara Hauser; Jim Hotze; Dianne L. Josephs; Christy Kelley; Connie Sue Kelley; Sharon Martin; Charles Milstead; Jacob Monty; Clint Moore; Lilian Norman-Keeney; Dr. Jeffrey A. Ross; Marisa Olivares Rummell, Chair, Republican National Hispanic Assembly of Texas; Mike Stafford; Kenneth Stevens; George Strake, Jr.; Tim Turner; Leo Vasquez; Richard W. Weekley; Kaye T. Goolsby; Elizabeth Graham; James Graham; and Jared Woodfill, Chairman, Harris County Republican Party.

You've Got Mail

The Republican Governor's Association, a satellite of the national Republican Party, is throwing its support to Gov. Rick Perry in the next governor's race.

In a letter signed by Gov. Kenny Guinn of Nevada and Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, the chairman and vice chairman, respectively, the group praises Perry for an "immensely successful term of office" and for his efforts in education and job creation. At this point, Perry doesn't have any primary election opponents, but U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn are scratching around on the GOP side and former U.S. Rep. Chris Bell is officially exploring a bid from the Democratic side. Kinky Friedman, the only other declared candidate, plans to run an independent campaign.

Even so, the letter, written to Texas Republican Party Chairwoman Tina Benkiser, ends with this: "We would like to assure you that the RGA is committed to supporting Governor Perry's reelection in every way possible in both the primary and the general election."

RGA's funding comes from the RNC. People donate to the national party, which can then funnel the money to the governor's association. And that has an added twist: While the RNC reports the sources of its money, the RGA doesn't. Contributors who earmark their RNC contributions for the governor's group (or to a similar group for GOP attorneys general) don't get tagged as donors to the smaller organizations.

Political People and Their Moves

Geraldine "Tincy" Miller of Dallas will chair the State Board of Education for two more years if the Senate goes along with Gov. Rick Perry, who reappointed her for that job. She's been on the SBOE for 20 years...

Lynn Switzer of Pampa will be the new district attorney in that part of the Panhandle, replacing her old boss, Rick Roach, who pleaded guilty to drug-related gun charges in a plea deal that got drug charges against him dropped. He could face up to 10 years in prison. Switzer was an assistant district attorney in his shop.

The Guv named Mark Borskey and Victoria Ford deputy directors of his legislative division, backing former Sen.-turned-lobster-turned-aide Dan Shelley in efforts to get the Lege to sync up with the governor. That's a new title for both, and a new role for Ford, who'd been in the governor's policy shop.

Perry named three men to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, including two who were already on that panel. Taylor County Commissioner Stanley Egger of Tuscola, who's also a bank director, is being reappointed, as is Dr. Michael Seale, an assistant dean at the University of Texas Health Science Center and the medical director for the Harris County Sheriff. The new appointee is Albert Black of Austin, a business and community relations coordinator for Child, Inc.

And he named four people to the board of the Lower Colorado River Authority: Ida Carter of Marble Falls, secretary and treasurer for an architectural firm, got reappointed; Woodrow Francis McCasland of Horseshoe Bay, managing director of Highland Lakes Bank; Linda Raun of El Campo, co-owner of Lowell Farms; and B.R. "Skipper" Wallace, the boss at Storm-Wallace-Helm, Inc., in Lampasas.

The Legislative Study Group reelected Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, as chairman. The rest of the brass: Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, and Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, vice chairs; Elliot Naishtat, D-Austin, treasurer; Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, secretary; and Dora Olivo, D-Missouri City, legal counsel.

Meanwhile, in sports news: Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, riding CDs from Heaven, finished 91st in his division in the National Cutting Horse Association World Finals in Amarillo. He blamed a badly behaved bovine for ruining his second-round time... and Gov. Perry ran in — and finished — Austin's Freescale Marathon, making the 26.2-mile run in 4:06:54...

Deaths: Ted Powers, a retired Associated Press photographer whose 48 years on the job included 17 years of shooting in, around and about the state Capitol. He was 83 and had his family include this in his obit: "Preceded in death by many, he will be followed by all of you."

Quotes of the Week

House Speaker Tom Craddick, in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, on polling: "If you ask, 'Do you want more money for education?' and they're going to say 'yes'. But if you ask if you ant more taxes to pay for it, they'll say 'no'."

Rep. Kino Flores, D-Palmview, quoted in the Austin American-Statesman on his efforts to expand gambling in Texas: "Would you rather have the opportunity to go play a game of chance and let the state keep $5 worth, or would you rather the state force you to give it five bucks?"

Midland City Councilman Bill Dingus, when told by The Dallas Morning News that the Texas Legislature doesn't record each member's vote on each issue: "I was unaware they didn't. I think that sounds kind of hillbilly."

Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, asked if he and others can pass a campaign finance bill without help from Speaker Craddick: "I think we can pass it without his opposition."

Two from Hunter S. Thompson, who shot himself last weekend: "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." And this: "Call on God, but row away from the rocks."


Texas Weekly: Volume 21, Issue 35, 28 February 2005. Ross Ramsey, Editor. George Phenix, Publisher. Copyright 2005 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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