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Don't Say 'Boom'

Until this is over, it'll be impossible to say whether legislative leaders sent their tax and education bills to conference committees or to bomb squads.

Until this is over, it'll be impossible to say whether legislative leaders sent their tax and education bills to conference committees or to bomb squads.

The former would bring back legislation designed to pass both the House and the Senate on the way to the governor's desk. The latter would take these politically explosive devices out to the middle of the parking lot, put them in heavy black boxes, and destroy them so that the political shrapnel harms no legislators.

Either way, there's a tangled obstacle course ahead for the last week of the session. Finance, education and taxes are tied up in a combination of five bills, including the two mentioned above. Several of the sunset bills designed as reviews of state agencies are axle-deep in the muck, several of them overladen with semi-relevant and non-relevant ideas that died in other legislation. And lawmakers still have a week to tinker with a couple of hot-button issues that, for all the work on money and schools, could dominate the public's impression of the last 140 days.

End Games

The next week — the last of the legislative session — is a kind of legal funnel where fewer things are possible each day. Favorite projects that have survived this long will live or die in the next ten days. And many dead ideas will be resurrected, permanently or only for a moment, as amendments to live bills. The contest goes not to the swift or the strong, but to those who pay attention.

Saturday (May 21) is the last day House committees can vote out Senate legislation, and the last agenda listing Senate bills for House consideration has to be printed and handed out by Sunday night. House bills that didn't get to the full House for consideration died last week. The last local calendar (for narrow and non-controversial bills) comes out on Monday. The House has to be done with Senate bills by midnight next Wednesday.

Friday (May 27) is the last time a bill can be sent from the House to a conference committee. And the negotiations over House and Senate differences have to be worked out by the end of business on Saturday, May 28, or those bills are dead. The last day to vote on those conference committee reports is Sunday, May 29.

The last day of the legislative session, which used to be a grand collision of lawmaking and other debauchery, is on Monday, May 30. But the only excitement is that everyone goes home at the end: All lawmakers can do that day is fix small technical mistakes, and then go home to consider their 140 days of work.

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A Quintet, or Maybe a Trio

Three bills have to pass and they're linked to two that might be in trouble. The budget is the only thing the Legislature absolutely has to do during a session, and it's been moving at about the normal pace. The House and Senate are trying to wrap up negotiations in time to get the thing printed. That takes about five days, and with calendar deadlines looming, they need to be done this weekend.

The House stowed more than $1 billion of its next budget in the supplemental appropriations bill — HB 10 — along with the money needed to fill gaps between what was budgeted for the current period and what was actually needed. When the session is over and you're trying to figure out the final numbers for the current budget and for the next one, you'll need to look at the supplemental bill. The Senate is holding it for now, because it can be used to correct mistakes made in the main budget bill.

The House also passed a Fiscal Christmas Tree that began as a so-called "cleanup bill" for the comptroller's office and then became a repository for taxes and fees and delayed payments and other financial stunts to make the budget balance. Because of its contents, it can technically be called an "omnibus tax bill," which is an important designation if the school-attached tax bill gets into trouble and lawmakers need an escape route. It's referred to as HB 3540, and like HB 10, the Senate is holding that one back for last minute repairs to the big bills.

When you're talking about "the budget," lump those three bills together. If everything else falls down and those three bills pass, the question of a special session is left to Gov. Rick Perry's discretion. If they don't, lawmakers would have to reconvene to keep the state running.

Two bills in the same group don't have to pass, but together form the key legislation of the session. One, HB 2, is a split product that changes several high-profile education laws while replacing a chunk of local school property taxes with state money. The companion is a tax bill — at the moment, the biggest one in the history of the state — that would pay for the first one. It's called HB 3. Both have been sent to the conference committee/bomb squads; for either to pass, the House and/or the Senate will have to drop some proposals and accept some of what was done on the other end of the building. No particular insight there, but time is short, the distance is long, and the parents are crabby.

Keeping Score: Only a few people have good numbers now, but before the House and Senate vote on the big bills in the finance package — the budget, the school finance bill, the tax bill, the supplemental budget bill, and that "clean-up" kitchen sink bill — they'll see hard numbers from the Legislative Budget Board and the Comptroller. The comptroller will put numbers to the tax bills — HB 3 and HB 3540 — to tell lawmakers how much they're raising and from what. They'll also include "equity notes" that tell who's paying more and who's paying less under the plans approved by conferees. The LBB will put bottom-line numbers on the other three bills, telling lawmakers how much money they're spending and on what. Put the five sets of numbers in one pot, and it's all supposed to balance.

Analyze This

House Speaker Tom Craddick named his conference committees in a press release that also included his grumble about the Senate's speed: "We passed HB 2 on March 9 and HB 3 on March 15. House members worked long hours to get these two bills to the Senate in a timely fashion, specifically so we would have plenty of time to work out any differences during Conference Committee. The short timeline is really going to put a lot of pressure on the Conferees as they begin working on this piece of legislation. We are dedicated to working around the clock to get the job done, but with only two weeks left in the session, we've got a difficult challenge ahead of us."

His picks included ten Anglo Republicans. Aside from the obvious conformities — only one of the ten, Rep. Dianne White Delisi, R-Temple, is a woman — the committees are built for a rumble with the Senate. Conference committees often include members who voted against a piece of legislation — the better to reach a compromise. But the winning margins for the two bills were tiny in the House, and Craddick obviously doesn't think the thin majority can be tampered with. He'd like to see the conferees send back essentially the same bill already passed by the House, and that's the way his team has played so far.

The tax panel includes Reps. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, chair; Warren Chisum, R-Pampa; Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth; John Otto, R-Dayton; and David Swinford, R-Dumas. All but Geren are rural lawmakers, and Keffer alone is a member of the tax-writing Ways & Means Committee that heard public testimony on the legislation, HB 3. The House barely squeezed out the tax bill; the final vote was 73-68 (nine Republicans and no Democrats were absent when the vote was taken; Rep. Al Edwards of Houston was the only Democrat on the prevailing side).

The conferees on school finance, HB 2, include Reps. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, chair; Dan Branch, R-Dallas; Delisi; Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands; and Bill Keffer, R-Dallas. They put together a side-by-side comparison of the bills as passed by the House and Senate to get an idea of the differences they must resolve. It's 315 pages long. The House vote on final passage was 75-69.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst named his conferees three days later, and his panels are a little more diverse, including 2 women, 2 minorities, and 3 Democrats. But like Craddick, he didn't send any dissenters to the negotiations.

On the tax bill: Sens. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, chair; Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth; Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay; Todd Staples, R-Palestine, and Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo. That bill passed the Senate 21-10.

On the school finance bill: Sens. Florence Shapiro, R-Dallas, chair; Ken Armbrister, D-Victoria; Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock; Kyle Janek, R-Houston; and Royce West, D-Dallas. All voted for the bill, which passed the Senate 27-4.

Dewhurst didn't let Craddick's crack go unanswered: "You have to raise an eyebrow when you read the press release. If school reform and school finance reform don't happen, it's not going to be the Senate's fault."

The two also snapped towels over the comptroller's estimate of the taxes raised by the Senate plan. They raised more than they needed with the tax bill, but fixed it the next day by increasing the amount of the local property tax cuts. Craddick pointed to the first imbalance and ignored the second. Dewhurst said publicly the two bills balanced; several senators reminded reporters that the House's bill came up about $4 billion short of what they voted to spend, according to the comptroller.

Into the Sunset

Several sunset bills are still in the air, and most of them have stowaways.

Notables include the workers compensation insurance bill. The play-by-play is straight out of Dr. Seuss. The House passed its bill. The Senate passed its bill. Then the House stripped the Senate bill and substituted the House bill. And then the Senate stripped the House bill and substituted the Senate bill. Bills so nice, they voted them twice. That's gone to conference, with several big differences in the bills. An example: The House, led on this by Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, wants to kill the Texas Workers Compensation Commission and fold it into the Texas Department of Insurance. The Senate, led by Todd Staples, R-Palestine, wants to keep two agencies.

Legislation continuing the Board of Medical Examiners turned into the vehicle for abortion legislation that would increase restrictions against third trimester abortions. That came out of a heated House floor debate that ended with a lopsided vote in favor of the final bill. The legislation also would convert the state's current parental notification law into a parental consent law. Parents would have to sign papers before a pregnant minor could have an abortion. A separate parental consent bill was passed by the Senate and is on its way to the full House, so that provision might come out of the BME sunset.

Legislation that would continue the Texas Education Agency got out of the Senate only after Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, repeatedly promised he would not accept any amendments that included vouchers as part of the deal. The House ignored that and put a pilot program in their version, allowing limited public money to be used for private schools.

Legislation continuing the life of the Public Utility Commission was temporarily undone by provisions designed to open the cable television business to phone companies. Very long story, very short: Cable companies want to sell you phones and phone companies want to sell you TV. Both have gone to the Legislature seeking advantages, bollixing up things like the PUC sunset bill. The PUC doesn't regulate television, and the provisions were, as a legal matter, out of place. Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, took that back to his Regulated Industries Committee for a quick retooling, and it's moving again, apparently without the video.

Remember the scandal that erupted when lousy oversight from the state's child and adult protective services agency resulted in deaths and injuries to the people they were supposed to be protecting? That was the only piece of legislation declared an emergency by Gov. Rick Perry at the beginning of the session, a designation that allowed lawmakers to work on that during the first two months of the session, when legislation can be introduced but not voted on. It's still pending, and it's also a vehicle for semi-related and controversial legislation. Budgeteers are working to set the amount of money they're willing to spend — it's floating between $200 million and $250 million, depending on your source. Meanwhile, lawmakers are haggling over a provision added in the House that would prevent gay Texans from being foster parents, and would require all foster parents to register their sexual preferences with the state.

Hot Potatoes

A proposal that would put the state's ban on gay marriage into the constitution was stalled by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and then undercut by Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen. Ellis "tagged" it, delaying consideration for a couple of days and allowing opponents to gather their arguments. Then Hinojosa said he had collected 11 senators who'll vote against the bill. If that group holds, it's enough to kill the amendment, which needs two-thirds to pass the Senate.

• Gambling is still banging around out there, but the sounds are fainter than before. The Senate got a chance to vote on slot machines and knocked them down flat before approving electronic bingo in places where bingo is offered now. Gambling opponents fear that will open the door to bigger and showier things. The House agreed, telling the school finance/tax conferees not to accept anything that contained e-Bingo. Lobbyists who wanted lawmakers to allow full-blown casinos — for fun, for economic development, and because it would solve some of the state's revenue problems without a tax bill — were shut down. They'll keep trying, and you could see another stab at video lottery terminals — VLTs, or slot machines, to us natives — when the Texas Lottery Commission's sunset bill goes by in the next week.

• We wrote a few weeks ago about judicial pay legislation, noting its link to legislative pensions and showing some of the math. That passed the House with no changes in the basic idea: Judges would get a 23 percent raise and lawmakers would get a corresponding jump in their pensions.

They get a district judge's salary multiplied by their years in state office multiplied by 2.3. Retired lawmakers who serve at least eight years can start drawing the pay at age 60. Retired lawmakers with at least 12 years can start drawing checks when they're 50.

The minimum legislative retirement now is $18,712.80 per year for a lawmaker with eight years in office. That would increase to $23,000 if the judicial pay plan goes through. And lawmakers with more years would add $2,875 for every year they serve to that base amount.

Oh, yeah: State district judges are now paid a minimum of $101,700. The pay hike legislation — promoted by Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson in his State of the Judiciary speech — would take that to $125,000.

• If you try to pin down a fast-moving legislative critter, it will bite you. So it is with the teacher retirement legislation spiked last week in the Texas House. We almost wrote it was dead, but pulled up for reasons now unclear. Lucky ducks: The Senate zipped it along, and it's on its way to the House. The legislation, by Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, is an effort to shore up troubles in the Teacher Retirement System. Teachers would contribute a little more, and would have to wait until age 60 to draw retirement. Supporters say it will keep the system solvent; teacher groups called it a cutback and noted that it passed the same day the House was increasing legislative retirements by jacking up judges' pay.

Department of Corrections: We tangled the "choose your poison" provision of the Senate proposed business tax last week. Here's what we should have said. Businesses will pay the lower of two taxes: A 2.5 percent tax on a company's earned surplus (taxable income plus pay to officers) added to its compensation for employees, with a deduction for the lesser of a 50 percent or $30,000 per employee deduction; or a 1.75 percent tax on payrolls, not to exceed $1,500 per employee. For that goof, as always, we are sorry, sorry, sorry.

Suds Sung Blue

The House left beer, spirits and wine off the list of items that would see new or higher taxes, but alcoholic beverages made it onto the Senate's list. The revenuers in the upper chamber want to raise the tax on those drinks by 25 percent, which would be the first increase since 1984.

That prospect prompted the folks at the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas to dig out one of their old gimmicks, a recording — a protest anthem in a country music vein — made during an earlier (successful) battle over alcohol taxes. We're including it for comic relief; the beer guys are passing around copies on CDs to members and others, hoping for actual relief. The singer/songwriter is Mack Abernathy, and the title is straightforward: Don't Tax My Beer. Click here for a listen.

The Bird in the Hand

He hasn't officially announced anything, but it's safe to scratch Rep. David Swinford, R-Dumas, off the list of possible candidates for Texas agriculture commissioner. He's been letting agriculture groups know he won't make the race next year.

Swinford was one of several people mentioned as possible replacements for the current head of the agency, Susan Combs. She's readying a bid for comptroller of public accounts. Initially, she said she was getting ready to run on the assumption that Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn would be running for another office. But Strayhorn's battles with her fellow Republicans in the Texas Capitol have raised temperatures to the point where Combs would probably muster some support even if the incumbent tries to stay put.

Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, wants to run for agriculture commissioner if it opens up; that's not official, but he's doing all the things you'd do to set up a run, talking to potential supporters, working on high profile legislation, and importantly, letting potential competitors know he'll be one of the obstacles they face.

Swinford told us he thinks he'd be the best guy for the job and that he would announce his plans one way or another to his constituents in the Panhandle. But in conversations with various agriculture groups and their representatives, he's saying he can do more for farmers and ranchers in his present position in the House, where he chairs the important State Affairs Committee, and where he's currently one of the House negotiators on the tax bill.

Combs is holding organizational meetings later this month (though she and other current officeholders are barred from collecting contributions or commitments while the Legislature is in session). Strayhorn has indicated, vaguely and through aides and friends, that she'll announce her intentions in early summer.

Political People and Their Moves

U.S. Attorney Michael Shelby is quitting that post to take a stab at work in the private sector. Shelby, a former Harris County prosecutor and assistant U.S. attorney who narrowly lost a legislative race to Kyle Janek in 1992, was appointed chief prosecutor for the state's southern region by President George W. Bush three years ago. That district includes Houston and the Gulf Coast, and runs all the way west to Laredo. He told the Houston Chronicle he'll recommend his top lawyer, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Don DeGabrielle, to hold the fort while Bush looks for a new appointee.

Into the Washington Cuisinart: Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen, reappointed by President George W. Bush for a spot on the 5th U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans after two earlier busts by Senate Democrats. She joined the Texas court in 1995, and it second in seniority behind Nathan Hecht, who became a justice in 1989. If she gets through Senate confirmation, Hecht would be the lone remaining justice who was on the court when the Robin Hood system of funding for schools was found constitutional. And if Owen were replaced by appointment before the end of 2005, seven of the nine justices will be on the ballot next year either just after or just before they rule on school finance.

Quotes of the Week

House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, in a Houston Chronicle story on Gov. Rick Perry's concern that the increase in state spending this year will set a record: "It's kind of late... the first time I heard that was last week."

Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, after House Speaker Tom Craddick named all-GOP conference committees on taxes and school finance: "In terms of politics, he made it very clear it's a Republican tax bill."

Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, shutting down a public hearing and telling members of the conference committee on public education that deliberations would continue backstage: "Let's adjourn, and get to work!"

Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, in a Fort Worth Star-Telegram story on his committee holding their end-of-session dinner at the home of a lobbyist and paid for by companies the committee regulates: "It's just the custom around here."

Rep. Rick Hardcastle, R-Vernon, telling The Dallas Morning News that "the ag boys" were paying for the end-of-session steak dinner for members of his Agriculture and Livestock Committee: "We are the agriculture committee, and they are the agriculture lobby, so of course they want to take care of us... If I were paying for it, we'd be eating bologna sandwiches in my office."

Rep. Will Hartnett, quoted in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram after the House voted to raise judge's salaries and, because they're linked, legislator pensions: "We all work very hard, and we're underpaid. We're all losing money that we could earn in our own professions, and I think it's very appropriate. We work extremely hard for basically food-stamp pay."

Kathy Walt, spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry, on whether her boss, a former legislator, favors the bill: "Retirement is not a though in the governor's mind right now. This is not something the governor sought, asked for, or urged. If it had been a priority of the governor's, you would have heard him talking about it."

Hartnett again, this time during a floor debate on whether to restrict certain late-term abortions: "The bottom line is we're talking about murdering a perfectly viable functioning person. I don't think the risk of damage to a vital organ [of the mother] justifies reaching that level."

Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, addressing the members around the front microphone during that debate: "Do you know how many gentlemen up there have given birth?"

Rep. Pat Haggerty, R-El Paso, quoted in the San Antonio Express-News on the ineffectiveness of the state's DWI treatment programs: "All we do is drag them in once a month, take their $60, make them pee in a cup and send them home. And some of them don't even show up and nobody goes out to find them."

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, in a statement following threats he received after putting a temporary hold on a constitutional amendment that mirrors an existing state law that outlaws gay marriage: "While everyone who favors this is not a bigot, there clearly are those supporters who are."

Cathie Adams, head of the Texas Eagle Forum, giving the Austin American-Statesman her view on Ellis' block: "It's a last-gasp, desperate attempt to keep the voters of Texas from expressing their will on this issue. I don't think it's a controversial issue."

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, quoted by the Associated Press on her efforts to change a Washington, D.C., law that prevents residents from keeping fully assembled handguns in their homes: "I have always had a handgun in the drawer next to my bed, and I would certainly again have one if it were legal in D.C."

Rep. Brian McCall, R-Plano, talking to The Dallas Morning News about legislation dying because of deadlines: "This process was meant to be difficult, and I have no problem with that. Except on my bills."

Texas Weekly: Volume 21, Issue 47, 23 May 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 For news, email, or call (512) 288-6598.

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