The legislative session is reaching a point that's as reliable as the lunch horn in a factory: That moment when it appears that everything is definitely-for-sure-absolutely-certainly going to fall to pieces. Or not.
The House-Senate wrangle over the budget is underway, but only one of the bills that goes into that mix has actually passed both houses. The rest of the mess — either three bills in total, or five, depending on whether you include school finance and taxes — is still in the pipeline. The House passed the last two bills, and also a "supplemental" appropriations bill that includes a lot of non-supplemental spending. Those three await Senate action. A fourth — a House bill that includes something like $1.2 billion in budgetary hat tricks to help balance the spending — is still in the House.
Relations between the Speaker and the Lite Guv are tense, compounding the regular troubles that come with the end of every session. An example: Dewhurst said he talked to Craddick about un-sticking worker's compensation insurance legislation; Craddick responded by saying Dewhurst must have been talking to someone else. Another: Dewhurst, told of Craddick's comments that the House had problems with a key component of the Senate's tax package, told reporters the House will pass whatever Craddick wants it to pass, implying the problem wasn't with the other 149 members there. A semi-retired politician we know said the two are "talking through the newspapers." That's not a description of a good political relationship.
Aides to Gov. Rick Perry say he's been working behind the scenes, but his public comments on the direction of legislation have been mild. He's not using the bully pulpit to push any agenda, but his chief of staff, Deirdre Delisi, recently asked lobbyists happy with the House's version of school finance and taxes to put up the money for an ad campaign promoting it. That was reported in The Dallas Morning News, and it's not clear now that it will go forward. (It wasn't clear before the reporting, to be fair, because the business people with the money had questions about the content of the ads and the propriety and politics of getting involved.) Perry could probably accomplish the same marketing run with a series of press conferences. Whatever the promotional efforts, the governor has to decide how to get the two halves of the Legislature working together before he can ask voters to support the union. And that's a problem right now.
Tax de Deux (or Three)
The Senate's version of the tax bill is still percolating, to put it most politely, and it's unlikely the public will get a peek until next week.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told a herd of reporters that the Senate's school finance/reform bill could be out of committee early next week with a possible floor vote late next week, but he didn't promise anything. The tax bill that raises state revenues enough to cover the costs of buying down local school property taxes will be right behind it, he said, without saying, "Scout's Honor." The Senate Finance Committee could see a bill on Monday, he said; if they're quick about it, a floor vote could follow quickly behind the school finance bill. That would leave about four weeks in the regular session for reconciliation of expected big differences between what the House passed earlier and what the Senate is willing to approve.
Dewhurst's line is familiar to anyone who has been following this: "We're looking at a flat low-rate tax where everybody is in the same boat... I don't think there's a will here in the Senate to increase sales taxes as much as the House did." He wouldn't go further into detail on the Senate plan or into what components of the House plan are unacceptable to the upper chamber. Senators and lobsters who've seen the plan, or pieces of it, say it's still got a business activity tax — the rate hasn't gelled — and a half-cent sales tax, and a 50-cent increase in the tax on a pack of cigarettes, and a tax, probably, on alcoholic beverages. They've got the comptroller's office running numbers in an effort to avoid the embarrassment the House suffered after it voted out an unbalanced tax bill. That's a form of insurance, but it slows things down. And business groups are lobbying for something closer to what the House already passed. They like the idea of choosing the lower of two business taxes, and many would come out better with the House plan than with almost any alternative being considered on the other end of the building.
The House is trickling revenue legislation out of committees to rest in the Calendars Committee, where agendas are set. The state property tax bill is sitting on the runway, and proponents of casino gambling are hoping to move their legislation into the takeoff queue.
That first bill is, as we've written, a provocation aimed at the Senate. It's a centerpiece of the Senate's plan, and the House, according to Speaker Tom Craddick, is probably against it. Voting it down in the House would undermine the Senate's current efforts and force the upper chamber to come up with something else; holding it ready merely threatens to undermine those efforts.
Craddick has local officials on his side; they don't like the idea of the state taking over most of the revenue end of school finance. But it has advantages: If schools are funded with a statewide tax instead of uneven local taxes in rich and poor districts, the inequities that keep landing the school system in court could be leveled out. And one key attack on the current system — that it's illegal for the state to tell local districts how much tax money they have to raise for schools — would evaporate.
Dewhurst, however, treats it like a House problem: "I believe Speaker Craddick can pass what he wants to pass, so we'll have to wait to see if he has the votes."
The second big item on the runway is a plain old gambling bill, and this is how they work: You advance the thing to a holding point, then check and recheck and recheck the votes on the floor of the House to see whether 100 mostly conservative politicos would prefer to violate their anti-gambling tendencies or their anti-tax tendencies.
At the moment, the House already voted for a big tax bill, and gambling isn't a priority. But behind the scenes, the gambling lobby, some of the Pink Building's revenue seekers and other interested parties are getting things in place in case the environment changes. If the Lege comes to a point where some kind of gambling appears to be the best solution to school finance, it'll have a chance. If not, gaming measures will die as they usually do, in a committee wanting for a vote. The boosters hope to have gambling legislation idling in Calendars by the end of next week.
Round Two of the wars to limit spending by local governments fell short in the Texas House. Legislation by Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, would have shaved the trigger on budget growth, requiring locals to seek voter approval of spending increases of more than five percent. Current law allows a voter referendum if a city council or some other local unit raises effective tax rates more than eight percent and if 10 percent of the registered voters sign a rollback petition calling for an election (it's six percent for school districts). Isett's bill would have lowered the rollback rate and the number of signatures needed for a challenge. Petitioners would have to get signatures equaling ten percent of the last gubernatorial election; if tax rates went up even more, petitions would need only five percent of that gubernatorial number.
But the House added an amendment that would let local governments exempt any tax increases attributable to state mandates that aren't funded by the state or federal governments. It set up a system where the comptroller would list those mandates each year, and also would allow local governments to show the comptroller items that didn't make the list. Isett, after that and a couple of other amendments were added, decided to wait until next week to try to win final passage for the bill.
Last week, Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston, fell short of what he needed to impose state caps on local spending growth. His bill, and Isett's, were backed by Gov. Rick Perry, who worked the House floor before the bills came up to try to win support. Aides to Perry say he'll make a campaign issue of it.
Sidebar: The House and Senate are banging out the differences in their budgets, but they started pretty close together, at about $139 billion in proposed spending over the next two years. If lawmakers successfully pass the school finance plans they're talking about, they'll add $11 billion or so to that total, which would put the state budget around $150 billion. Two years ago, with an economy-induced budget crunch, lawmakers approved a two-year budget that totaled $117.4 billion. Without school finance, the current plan calls for an increase over that plan of about 18.4 percent. With it, the number leaps to 27.8 percent. If those numbers were attached to a city or county in Texas, under current law, the spending plan would be open to a rollback election.
In Case of Emergency, Break Glass
The political chess players are talking about special sessions this summer, and many of them say it would be a bad idea.
The premise here is that school finance and tax talks could break down. Not that they will, but that they might. What would happen?
The state's school finance system has been declared illegal by a state district judge and the appeal is pending before the Texas Supreme Court. The justices asked the lawyers to file briefs, and that process draws to a close at the same time the regular legislative session comes to its end. They could hear the case within a week of Sine Die, if they're in a hurry. When they'd rule is anyone's guess, but a court in a hurry could put opinion to paper by the end of summer or early fall.
In the meantime, the House and Senate currently appear to be singing different songs on taxes and schools. If they're still apart at the end of the session, what good would it do Gov. Rick Perry to bring them right back? A special session a year ago on this subject produced nothing, and it doesn't do anyone any good to compound a failure. On the other hand, you can't get a deal if you don't force talks. Gov. Bill Clements pulled lawmakers back twice in 1989 to get a workers' compensation insurance deal, and called them back four more times in that same interim to solve another issue: School finance. Eventually, lawmakers gave him both bills to sign.
At Their Own Pace
The Supremes can move quickly, but they don't have to.
Lookit: More than a year ago, the Texas Association of Business asked the Texas Supreme Court to block lawyers prying into TAB's direct mail campaign in the 2002 legislative elections. The association said its advertising fell short of electioneering and said its donors' identities were protected from disclosure since those weren't election ads. The lawyers and candidates suing them contend the ads were designed to influence the outcomes of elections, both in their timing and content.
The Supreme Court hasn't ruled for TAB, but apparent indecision by the judges has put the case on ice (they and their employees can't talk about pending writs, so there's no way to know exactly what's going on over there).
A state district judge in Austin ordered TAB to produce the evidence sought by lawyers on the other side of a civil suit. TAB appealed to the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin, and lost again. And on the last day of January 2004, attorney Andy Taylor, TAB's lawyer, appealed to the Supremes. The high court asked for some briefs and the lawyers finished with that on June 1 of last year. Court observers we talked to say it takes five judges to get the panel moving on a writ like the one filed by TAB, and the Supremes have been working with as few as seven judges over the last months. Now they've got nine. One possibility — again, there's no knowing what's up — is that the judges have one justice writing a "per curium" on the writ. There's no deadline for that, or for the court to move on the TAB case. In the meantime, there's no discovery in the civil case.
This is Even Slower
Priscilla Owen's nomination to the federal bench cleared the U.S. Senate Judiciary committee for the third time (on a 10-8 party-line vote), but there's still a question about whether she can win full Senate support. Owen, a Texas Supreme Court Justice, is one of several judicial appointees who have been unable to win votes from enough Democrats to win confirmation from the full U.S. Senate. This is the filibuster fight the Republicans in the Senate have been talking about for the last several months. President George W. Bush wants to put her on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans and first appointed her for that post four years ago.
The Clerk Will Ring the Bell
Rep. Mary Denny, R-Aubrey, really is getting married this time. In the House chamber, during a break in the House calendar but while everybody is still milling around, on May 6. Rep. Joe Crabb, R-Humble, will be the presiding minister. The bride and her groom, Norman Tolpo, will have a reception after the event in the Speaker's Dining Room behind the Chamber.
Denny and Tolpo will be the second couple to get married in the chamber in recent years, but the first in memory to be married while the House is in session. Rep. Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston, and his wife Dawn were married on the last Saturday of the special session of the Legislature almost a year ago. Before that, you have to go back to the days when Gib Lewis, D-Fort Worth, was Speaker of the House. One of his aides got married on the dais during a break in House business.
Denny had a widely talked-about but quite erroneous marriage and honeymoon in August 2003, which remains the only fully incorrect three-sources-on-the-record story we've ever reported. (Mom's voice: "If everyone told you to jump off a cliff, would you do that?") This time, Denny is the sole source for our story, and we have a copy of the invitation to cover our backs:
Political People and Their Moves
Melinda Bozarth is the new general counsel at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. She's replacing Carl Reynolds, who left TDCJ for the Office of Court Administration earlier this year. Bozarth has worked for either the Texas prison system or the Texas attorney general's office (where she defended the prison system in court) since 1983. Most recently, she was deputy director of TDCJ's rehabilitation and reentry programs division.
Brig. Gen. Charles Rodriguez will be the new adjutant general of Texas. Gov. Rick Perry appointed him to that post, overseeing state and National Guard forces in Texas. he'll replace Lt. Gen. Wayne Marty, who is retiring. Rodriguez, a West Point grad, works at the UT Health Science Center in San Antonio, where he's deputy director of the Center for Public Health Preparedness and Biomedical Research.
The governor named three people to the board of regents at Texas Woman's University: Virginia Chandler Dykes of Dallas, an occupational therapist; Sharon Venable, an executive at the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce; and Lou Halsell Rodenberger of Baird, an emeritus professor of English at McMurry University. Dykes and Rodenberger are alums of TWU.
The Texas Public Finance Authority is getting three seats filled by the Guv: H.L. Mijares of El Paso, president of Mijares Mora Architects; Dallas investor Marcellus Taylor; and Linda McKenna of Harlingen, a nurse and exec at Valley Baptist Health System. Taylor and McKenna are new to the board; Mijares is a reappointment.
Gov. Perry named Valeri Malone, a Wichita Falls attorney, to the center chair on the board of the Manufactured Housing Division of the State's Department of Housing and Community Affairs and reappointed her to the board. He also named Michael Bray, an El Paso Realtor, and Kimberly Shambley of Dallas, an attorney and exec with Countrywide Home Loans, to that board.
Gov. Perry reappointed Richard "Link" Linkenauger of Greenville to the Sabine River Authority of Texas. He's the president of Link International, Inc.
Perry named Mike Click, CEO of Brownfield Regional Medical Center, and Houston attorney Hector Longoria to the Emergency Medical Advisory Council, a panel attempting to coordinate EMS efforts at all levels of government.
Carolyn Lewis Gallagher of Austin joins the ERCOT board as an independent member. That acronym is Electric Reliability Council of Texas, and they operate the state's electric grid. Gallagher, a businesswoman who's been on a mess of civic and government boards, was elected by ERCOT members after a national search.
Press corps moves: The Dallas Morning News moves reporter Pete Slover back to the state desk, which means he'll be covering legislative and political stories with an investigative bent. He's been working what newspapers call "projects" which means you disappear for long periods of time between stories. Slover is one of the reporters who popped the cork on misdeeds at ERCOT.
Quotes of the Week
Deirdre Delisi, chief of staff to Gov. Rick Perry, quoted in The Dallas Morning News on Perry's effort to get Texas companies to pony up $1.2 million to promote changes to school finance and the state's tax code: "We plan to take our message directly to the people of Texas."
Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, quoted in the Austin American-Statesman: "Since last session, I haven't seen the Senate prevail over the House very much. It seems like the Senate caved on everything. And while me and some of my colleagues wish that wasn't the case, because we felt the Senate's position was better, we wish the Senate would have the backbone to stand up to the House this time."
Darrell Azar, spokesman for the state's Department of Family and Protective Services, quoted in The Dallas Morning News on foster care in Texas: "We're not pretending we're doing an adequate job. We need more resources to do it better."
Rep. Robert Talton, R-Pasadena, arguing for a ban on gay or lesbian foster parents: "It's a learned behavior, and I think a child... ought to have the opportunity to be presented to a traditional family as such. And if they choose to be homosexual or lesbian, then that's their choice when they turn 18."
Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, talking about taxes with the San Antonio Express-News: "The word 'tax' gets people freaked out. Any modifier before it just changes the group."
Utah state Rep. Steven Mascaro, quoted in The New York Times after officials in Washington said a new state education law could endanger federal funding: "I don't like to be threatened. I wish they'd take the stinking money and go back to Washington."
U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, on Fox News Radio: "We've got Justice Kennedy writing decisions based upon international law, not the Constitution of the United States? That's just outrageous. And not only that, but he said in session that he does his own research on the Internet? That is just incredibly outrageous."
Spofford Mayor pro-tem Tootsie Herndon, quoted in the San Antonio Express-News on legislation that would dissolve her area's water district and merge it into San Antonio's: "Now, some of Kinney County's farmers and ranchers — water hustlers who think they're going to get rich by selling water — have gone to Austin and got a bill. This bill is all about politics, money, and greed."
Jack Cole, a former police officer who now campaigns for legalizing drugs, quoted in the San Antonio Express-News: "Right now, the drug lords, murderers, and terrorists out there are the ones who regulate drugs in this country. Government regulation is the only way to go, and that will only occur with legalization."
Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, telling the Austin American-Statesman she's never been offered an "inappropriate" legislative junket: "I've been here for 14 years. And I keep waiting for someone to ask just so I can be indignant. Either I'm not important enough or they think I'm goody-two-shoes. Nobody has ever asked me. And I don't play golf."
Travis Noteboom, a vendor at the National Rifle Association convention in Houston, telling the San Antonio Express-News he's against Internet hunting with a possible exception for handicapped hunters: "I just don't feel it's ethical for able-bodied people to click and boom."
Monty Embrey of the NRA, quoted in the Houston Chronicle on a convention booth where more than a dozen whitetail deer were mounted and displayed: "People don't get to see a collection of heads very often. It's a pretty big deal."
Texas Weekly: Volume 21, Issue 43, 25 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. For news, email email@example.com, or call (512) 288-6598.