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The House will vote on a statewide property tax proposal before the Senate gets to it, a vote likely to kill a key provision of the Senate's school finance package.

The House will vote on a statewide property tax proposal before the Senate gets to it, a vote likely to kill a key provision of the Senate's school finance package.

House Speaker Tom Craddick doesn't think the statewide property tax has the 100 votes it needs to pass the House, but he said it is likely to come up for a vote within the next two weeks. A No vote would be one way to tell the Senate to work on something else.

The last time the House caught flak for a tax bill, the members voted overwhelming to silence the critic — Gov. Rick Perry, who'd called their version of a payroll tax a "job killer."

Ultimately, there was no solution to school finance in that round, partly because House leaders didn't want to stick their necks out for another whack from Perry. The Guv got the message and has been walking politely on eggshells this year; offered several chances to comment on a new House tax package that once again includes a payroll tax, he has tiptoed, saying he wants to see what the Legislature finally produces and doesn't want to prejudge their efforts. With the possible exception of gambling, he's stuck to that.

The tension this time is between the House and Senate. The House, with few votes to spare, passed a huge tax bill that gives businesses a choice between a variant of that payroll tax and a variant of the current franchise tax. Senators, led in this by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, have publicly "agreed in principle" to a statewide property tax and a business activity tax as key parts of a school finance fix. (Both the House and Senate plans include some smaller levies and increases in current taxes and fees.)

The House's tax writers looked at a BAT without moving forward with it. And Craddick doesn't think his members will support a constitutional amendment creating a state property tax for schools.

Many local school districts and officials don't like the state tax for fear it would remove their control over tax revenues. Supporters say it would get the state out of one of the knottiest problems with school finance: State property taxes are unconstitutional, but the state Legislature wants to dictate, more or less, what rates local districts can charge, which is unconstitutional when most districts bump against a state-set cap on rates. Going the other way — by giving the locals full control — creates big disparities in how much money is available for schools, and too much difference between what's available to the Haves and the Have-Nots is what started the school finance war in the first place, three decades ago.

The House's plan has a new cap on local school property tax rates (it would lower the current $1.50 cap to $1) but allows districts to raise more money for local use so long as local taxpayers approve. The Republican education wizards in the House say that additional local money gives the districts the "meaningful discretion" the courts have used to decide whether or not a state cap on rates is, in effect, an unconstitutional state property tax. 

The Senate wizards grumble some, but don't flatly disagree with that. Instead, they say a statewide property tax for schools would remove all doubt; it would be in the constitution, and to get there, voters would have to approve. That shields the tax itself from attack on constitutional grounds in the courts, and shields politicians from their vote for a new tax, since that idea would have to be ratified by voters themselves. Senators add a sweetener for the school districts by allowing them to add local taxes for local "enrichment" spending.

The Senate has laid out a slowdown strategy that would have a tax bill coming to a vote in that chamber in the last month of the session, leaving little time for major negotiations over House and Senate differences. In the worst light, that's a take-it-or-leave-it approach. In the best light, it gives lawmakers a chance to zip through a tax bill before lobbyists gnaw it to death.

The House, by voting on a state property tax before the Senate gets its shoes on, would send a signal. A Yes vote would clear the way for a solution to school finance sure to clear the Senate and immune to a gubernatorial veto (governors don't get a crack at constitutional amendments). A No vote would tell the Senate to drop the idea, and could either push that body toward the House plan, or could push both chambers to the impasse they reached a year ago, when they failed to work out school finance in a special session.

Twins, Barely

The Senate rolled out its own version of the education reform bill and it barely resembles its House counterpart. They might be twin bills, but they're fraternal -- not identical. Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said she hasn't done a side-by-side of her bill and the House's, and doesn't plan to. You'll have to wait until they go to conference to see that, apparently. The legislation is 300-some-odd pages long, but there's a cheat sheet put together by Shapiro's staff (click here for PDF version).

Some high points from the Senate version:

• Relies on a statewide property tax and allows local enrichment of up to 15 cents over a six-year period.

• Teachers would get a $1,000 pay raise; their health stipend would be raised back to $1,000, and they'd be free to use that as they please.

• Public vouchers for private schools are not included, and Shapiro said she doesn't have plans to add them later.

• Adds $3.2 billion in new funding for schools; financing for that will presumeably be included in the Senate's version of the House tax bill now pending in Senate Finance.

Shapiro laid out her version of the bill but hasn't started taking testimony on it; she hopes to have it to the full Senate for a vote later this month. The other half of that issue — how to fund the tax cut — is in a tax bill the Senate hopes to vote out in the first or second week of May

These Kids Today

Back in the day, people who got sufficiently frothed at a politician would fire off a letter to the editor, or write an op-ed piece, or maybe lobby a reporter or editor for a story. Really cranky voters would turn into candidates and try to knock off the object of their scorn.

In this modern world, you put together a low-cost 30-second ad, hopefully with a funny edge to it that will prompt people to tell their friends. You post it on your Internet site, put a fundraising button next to it, and cross your fingers. If you raise enough money, you put the ad on real TV, getting a reaction that used to be possible with a simple letter to the editor, etc.

That's the model for many of the ads running against U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (see last week's issue, and the next item), for the MoveOn and Swift Boat Veterans ads that made such a splash during the last presidential campaign, and it's gonna be a feature, probably, of the next round of campaigns here.

And in legislative fights. An edited version of Rep. Gene Seaman's semi-famous tirade on Viagra is the basis for an ad by an outfit called PracticeWhatYouPreach.org, which is rampaging against legislative proposals to make same-sex marriages illegal in Texas. Their website says they're not a gay rights group, but that divorce and domestic violence pose greater threats to marriage than gays do.

The political action committee wants to run the Seaman ad, called "Tool" on television in the Republican's hometown of Corpus Christi.

The DeLay Dogpile

One of the same groups that ran TV ads last week pestering U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, has changed media.

The Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for America's Future bought a full-page ad in the Washington Times that features the headline "The New Face of American Conservatism?" and pictures of Dwight Eisenhower, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and DeLay. The first three pictures are in a straight line; DeLay's appears to have "slipped" below the line. The text starts with "Once upon a time... CONSERVATIVES STOOD FOR HONEST GOVERNMENT... Now, their chosen leader is the symbol of money corruption in Washington."

The TV ads ran a week ago in and around DeLay's home base, but the newspaper ads are confined for now to the Beltway. A spokesman for the group said they're planning to bang the drum in other places over the next few weeks.

See the full ad here.

Why Shoot a Judge?

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn started a brushfire Monday with comments — part of a speech on the Senate floor — suggesting a connection between recent courthouse violence and judges who are "making political decisions yet are unaccountable to the public."

Cornyn, a former trial judge, Texas Supreme Court justice and state attorney general, was taking issue with the U.S. Supreme Court in particular, and with judges of a certain kind on that and other courts. Aides said afterward that Cornyn's comments were taken out of context — that he's a defender of the courts — but you'll be seeing this in the papers for a few days.

The part that made news, in full:

"I believe the increasing politicization of the judicial decision-making process at the highest levels of our judiciary has bred a lack of respect for some of the people who wear the robe. That is a national tragedy.

"Finally, I don't know if there is a cause-and-effect connection, but we have seen some recent episodes of courthouse violence in this country — certainly nothing new; we seem to have run through a spate of courthouse violence recently that has been on the news. I wonder whether there may be some connection between the perception in some quarters on some occasions where judges are making political decisions yet are unaccountable to the public, that it builds up and builds up to the point where some people engage in violence, certainly without any justification, but that is a concern I have that I wanted to share."

Cornyn has been mentioned recently as a potential nominee for the federal appellate bench. One recurring bit of gossip has President George W. Bush appointing him to the U.S. Supreme Court; other, also related and unsubstantiated political gossip has the president picking Cornyn for a lower federal appeals court. The two are allies in Washington and were in Texas, and Cornyn was another of Karl Rove's clients until Rove gave up (almost) every campaign but the big one.

We asked Cornyn's office what was going on — we're in Austin after all, outside the big bubble and inside the little one — and they sent a copy of the senator's full comments (a copy of all 8 pages of it can be found here). He goes on for quite a bit, but it would be hard to call it a pro-judiciary speech. He took another run at it the next day, saying his remarks were being spun by political enemies and that he does not have it in for his former colleagues in black.

Cornyn's tempest hit a fast boil, in part, because it followed on the heels of comments made by U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land. Speaking after the death of Terri Schiavo, DeLay blasted the judges who refused to order doctors to reinser the Florida woman's feeding tube. "We will look at an arrogant, out-of-control, unaccountable judiciary that thumbed their nose at Congress and the president," he said. "... The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior."

21... 20... 19...

Life without parole got through the Senate once, and that was before the courts made it so hard to execute killers who were underage or mentally retarded. Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, thought he had just enough votes to bring the issue up for debate, but the measure was knocked down before the warm-ups were over. And it was knocked down again the next day, when Lucio thought the right combination of ayes and nays were in the room.

Lucio didn't point to any particular member, but said one of the crucial votes came from a senator who had told Lucio he needed to talk to local officials first. They never talked after that, and Lucio found out when he brought up the legislation that that senator — it later turned out to be Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler — had decided to vote No. Lucio said another male senator — he wouldn't identify him — had indicated he'd vote to consider the bill if it appeared that would be the prevailing vote. The Houston Chronicle reported later that that second voter was Sen. Jon Lindsay, R-Houston.

What failed was a procedural vote and not a vote on the bill itself; the Senate can try again if and when they think they've got the two-thirds they need. Lucio said he'll keep track of any changes, and suggested he could also wait until the right senators are out of pocket; he needs two-thirds of the members in attendance, not two-thirds of the whole Senate. He was trying to take advantage of Eltife's absense when he made his second vote, but an aye was also missing that day, and Lucio will have to keep circling.

The policy argument made by Lucio is that Life without Parole — the policy wonks refer to it as LWOP — will actually make for tougher sentencing than current law. A life sentence in Texas means a killer must serve 40 years before being eligible for parole. Juries consider two questions after they find someone guilty of capital murder. First, does the killer pose a future danger? Second, were there mitigating circumstances?

If the answer to the first question is yes and the second is no, Lucio says both his bill and current law would give jurors the death penalty option. If the answer to both questions is Yes, then jurors now go to a life sentence (with possible parole after 40 years). Under his bill, Lucio says, their option in that second case would be life without parole. The same is true, he says, if the jury found the killer to be a continuing threat but couldn't decide on mitigating circumstances: Life under current law, LWOP under his proposal. If the killer doesn't pose a future threat or the jury can't decide that question, both current law and Lucio's bill would make life with parole the maximum sentence. In each case, he says, the jury's option would be at least as harsh as it is now and that in many cases, would give them a harsher option than is currently available. One example he gives: A 17-year-old murderer, under current law and given recent court decisions, can't be sentenced to death; the next best option gives them a chance at getting out of prison in 40 years. His bill would create the option of imprisoning them until they die.

Some prosecutors think LWOP would make juries more likely to lock up killers and throw away the key than to sentence killers to death. And some — Eltife indicated he might go for this — might be willing to support LWOP as a replacement to the current version of life in prison. Lucio said he won't go for that option.

Flotsam & Jetsam

Workers' compensation insurance might get a makeover this session and it might not. The House and Senate are in a whizzing contest over who should carry the issue. The agency that runs the system is in its sunset year — if it's charter isn't renewed, it's out of business. Last year, the Sunset Advisory Commission, headed by Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, studied the thing and made recommendations that are now wrapped into legislation authored by Solomons and passed by the House. But a Senate interim committee studied the issue, too, and legislation born there and sponsored by Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, was approved by the Senate and sent to the House. Lawmakers can't agree who should prevail. The House contends the Senate agreed to take Solomons' version back in January. The Senate cites a tradition that the first bill to pass on a given issue is the one that's used to carry the thing forward. Staples passed his bill first, and says it should be the vehicle. At the moment, neither chamber has agreed to hear the other's legislation, though there are some small efforts being made to break the logjam.

• Two things are new about appraisal caps: people are opening admitting they're in trouble in the House, and the House has put the legislation on the calendar for next week. Gov. Rick Perry said so to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and House Speaker Tom Craddick told reporters the proposals are being revamped to build support. Rep. Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston, wants to cap the annual growth in appraised property values. So does Perry, who pitched a three percent cap that has now morphed into a five percent cap. But Craddick said the latest idea is to leave city and county governments out of the legislation, focusing on property appraisal caps on schools and other taxing entities. Cities and counties have been loud in their opposition to the caps, and they've apparently convinced enough House members that the idea is faulty. Lowering the caps from the current 10 percent would require a constitutional amendment, and 100 votes in the House. Another alternative — capping the revenue growth allowed to local governments without public approval — would require only a simple majority and is still in the mix.

Kinky Friedman, trying to become the first independent gubernatorial candidate to get on the ballot since Sam Houston, is emailing supporters a "Save My Vote for Kinky" flyer, asking them to sign up friends who'll agree to register to vote, to skip the Democratic and Republican primaries next year (voting disqualifies petition signers), and to agree to sign the petition to put Friedman on the ballot. He can't collect signatures toward that candidacy until after the primaries, but he can corral names now for use later. He's also starting to make appearances in non-televised places. Friedman will do a "Spiritual Walk For Independence" on the University of Texas campus April 20.

• U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio, claims to have raised $780,000 in the first three months of the year, which would bring his cash on hand total close to $2 million. He wants to run for the U.S. Senate if Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas decides to leave that job. Hutchison is mulling a run against Gov. Rick Perry.

• A friend with an eye on the Texas Legislature cribbed the following from The New York Times, which was detailing how a new pope is elected. "In 1271, after the papal throne was vacant for three years, anxious Catholics locked up the indecisive cardinals in a crumbling building and put them on a strict diet of bread and water until they made a decision. For an extra dose of motivation, the roof was removed. After enduring rain and harsh sunshine, the cardinals finally elected Pope Gregory X."

• An addendum to last week's item on liberal groups hoping to swing U.S. senators from Texas and elsewhere against changing Senate filibuster rules: Both Texas senators — Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn — say they're for the rule change that would make it more difficult for the minority to block a president's judicial appointees.

Political People and Their Moves

You wouldn't want to run your business like a political campaign, right? Texan Matthew Dowd, fresh off George W. Bush's reelection campaign, is teaming up with Doug Sosnik, a former aide to Bill Clinton, and Ron Fournier, a national political writer with the Associated Press, on a book about strategy and tactics useful to both political campaigns and business expansion. Their case studies: Bush, Clinton, and the Applebee's restaurant chain, which has been growing like a weed for several years. The book comes out in the fall. A blurb from the promotional materials tells you what they're after: "Aimed at political leaders, business executives and the people they covet, the book will be a survivors' guide to life in an era of transition." Dowd says the writing is still underway.

Former state senator and U.S. Rep. Jim Turner, D-Crockett, will make his daily bread as a lobster. Turner, who has said he'd like to run for office again at some point, will be working as a lobbyist and lawyer with the Arnold & Porter law firm. He says he'll spend most of his time in Washington, D.C., but some in Austin, where he's already been spotted lurking.

Pat Wood III doesn't want another term on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and will step down when this one's over June 30. The former chairman of the Texas Public Utility Commission told Washington reporters he'll head back to Texas.

Political consultant Bryan Eppstein of Fort Worth finished the Cowtown Marathon. The key word in that sentence is finished. He had two bypass operations two years ago, and whines about knee injuries that impeded him. But he walked the distance and got back in 5 hours 28 minutes.

Deaths: State District Judge Edward Aparicio of Weslaco, apparently of self-inflicted gunshot wounds. He was 48.

Quotes of the Week

Midland County GOP Chair Sue Brannon, telling the Midland Reporter-Telegram that U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison shouldn't run against Gov. Rick Perry: "It recently came out in the Reporter-Telegram that Kay said she had not heard anybody say Perry was doing a good job and didn't want her to run. I had 14 calls from people who don't want her to by 9 a.m. the next morning and told them all to call her office."

More from Brannon, in that same story: "She [Hutchison] told me she adopted two kids, 4 and 5, and doesn't want to raise them in Washington. I said, 'You knew that when you adopted those children, and a nanny is raising them anyway!' That's her main reason. They're in Dallas, and she said it's wearing her out going back and forth."

Hutchison spokesman Dave Beckwith, asked if his boss and Brannon had such a conversation: "No, they did not. Period."

Former GOP gubernatorial candidate Clayton Williams, after telling the Midland Reporter-Telegram he would back Perry financially in a governor's race against Hutchison: "When it's 50/50, I'll always support an Aggie."

Austinite Patty Edelman, testifying against vouchers before the House Public Education committee in the middle of the night as the panel's session neared its close: "I was sitting, listening to the radio earlier, and I heard this sucking sound and it was coming from here, and it caused me to get in the car and drive down here tonight so I could express my dismay... "

Gov. Rick Perry, in a Fort Worth Star-Telegram story on gambling legislation: "I would think everything's still on the table. With that said, I have said since the start of the session, and we got our revenue estimate, that gambling of any form and fashion has a higher hurdle to clear than it did six months ago, when the state had substantial deficit."

Perry spokesperson Kathy Walt, quoted by the Associated Press: "The fact of the matter is the governor has never been a proponent of gambling."

From Perry's official proclamation detailing issues approved for consideration in last year's special legislative session on school finance: "To consider legislation and amendments to the constitution that authorize and allow the placement and licensing of video lottery terminals at licensed racetracks and certain Indian reservations, providing that the revenue derived from such activity is dedicated to the Educational Excellence Fund, providing that the racetracks and tribes sign a contract with the state."

John Cole, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers, quoted in The Dallas Morning News: "There are people out there promoting the idea that public schools are bad. You'd almost forget that we have a president who ran on the idea that he had fixed the schools in Texas."

Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, defending his proposal to outlaw same-sex marriages: "It doesn't discriminate against a person. It discriminates against practices."

House Speaker Tom Craddick, after (a lot of) members started the sound of bombs falling in reaction to a spending proposal by Rep. Stephen Frost, D-Atlanta (which later failed 36-100): "Members, y'all can shoot fireworks on the Fourth of July. Would you please give Mr. Frost your attention?"

Rep. Al Edwards, D-Houston, quoted in the San Antonio Express-News: "There are just too many people being bitten by dogs, hurt by dogs, maimed by dogs. I don't exactly know what's wrong with the dogs these days that they bite people so much now."

Alex Brennan, owner of Brennan's of Houston, quoted in the Houston Press on problems with alcohol laws in Texas: "It doesn't make sense that just because I serve hard liquor, I pay a higher tax rate on beer and wine. I can get just as drunk either way.


Texas Weekly: Volume 21, Issue 41, 11 April 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 info@texasweekly.com. For news, email ramsey@texasweekly.com, or call (512) 288-6598.

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