On the biggest issue of the legislative session, lawmakers and their leaders went home empty-handed.
Gov. Rick Perry says that will make for a long and uncomfortable summer for legislators, but he's ignoring a truism about politics and business: The head guy gets the credit when things are sweet and the blame when they're not. Texans blame governors when their lawns turn brown, just because they can. If the failure to deliver school finance reform and property tax cuts incites voters, Perry will have a difficult time ducking the blame.
The governor was visible — really, publicly visible — three times during the legislative session and he went zero-for-three. First, he worked House members to win passage of appraisal caps. A few weeks later, he worked the phones and talked to members in his office in support of public vouchers for private schools. And on the last Saturday of the legislative session, with less than 72 hours left on the clock, he tried to broker a deal on school finance and taxes.
He had some wins along with the losses. Perry has already signed two major business bills — one limiting asbestos lawsuits in the state and the other reworking worker's compensation insurance coverage for people injured on the job. A bunch of stuff went to the wire, and some of it didn't make it to Perry's desk. Some things he favored — like the proposed constitutional ban on gay marriages — go straight from legislators to voters without a stop at the governor's office. Perry has until the end of the day on Sunday, June 19 — Father's Day — to decide whether to sign bills, veto them, or let them become law without his signature. Some highlights from the last week of the session:
• The turf war between SBC and Verizon, on the one hand, and Texas cable companies, on the other, ended without legislative action. That's a win for the cable guys and for the Texas cities that joined them to try to block statewide franchise agreements that would allow the phone companies to compete for TV in the same way the cable companies compete for phones. It was a rare loss for the phone companies, and it's one of several issues that might be revived if the governor decides to call a special session.
• What had been a parental notice law in Texas is now a parental consent law. The governor said in his State of the State speech that he would sign it if lawmakers sent it to him, but he's following what seemed then to be lukewarm support with a tour: He'll sign the bill at a church in Fort Worth surrounded by supporters of the measure. The measure requires a parent's written permission before a minor can have an abortion, and leaves current law in place allowing judges to bypass that approval under certain circumstances.
• The state changed the option for sentencing capital murderers. Juries and judges had the option of life or death, and under existing law, convicts serving for life become eligible for parole after 40 years. The Legislature changed it: Now, a life sentence in a capital case won't carry the prospect of parole.
• The "emergency" issue of the session — a designation meant to clear the way for fast legislative action — didn't get resolved until the last weekend when lawmakers agreed to spend $200 million beefing up child and adult protective services. The intent is to lower the number of cases handled by each caseworker and to thereby get better services to clients. Critics call it a step but say the new, lower caseload levels remain dangerously high. Some of the work was privatized, too — an idea that has proponents and opponents apprehensive for different reasons. Some think the private sector will do a better job; others fear it will be less accountable. And a provision added to the bill in the House — which would have barred gays and lesbians from being foster parents — was stripped in the Senate and agreed to on both sides. It's out.
• Several things that generated public interest died with the school package, including compacted school years that start after Labor Day and end around Memorial Day, higher salaries for educators, and November elections for school boards, throwing those pols in with the other pols in Texas.
• Public employees will get a four percent pay raise in September (a minimum of $100 each) and a three percent pay raise a year later ($50 per month, minimum). They'll get an additional $20 per month in longevity pay for every two years on the job, and $10 per month if their work is considered hazardous duty.
• Jurors will see their daily pay rise to $40 per day from $6 per day, and the state will reimburse the counties for that expense.
• Students will get a say, but not a vote, on the boards of regents at the University of Texas, Texas A&M and other public colleges. Those panels will now include a student member without voting power.
• The so-called cheeseburger bill is a bit of preemptive tort reform that prevents you from suing fast food restaurants and manufacturers if eating their products turns you into a litigious fat person.
• Vouchers were voted down by the Texas House, where they were thought to have their best chance, after heavy lobbying by proponents including Gov. Rick Perry and by longtime voucher proponent James Leininger of San Antonio, who helped finance the rise of conservatives to dominance in Texas politics.
• Video lottery machines died in the Senate, where they were thought to have their best chance. Conventional wisdom is that some form of expanded gaming — probably including VLTs — could pass in the Senate, but not in the House. It'll get another run if and when school finance comes back. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst thinks the Senate would pass a gambling bill of some kind. House Speaker Tom Craddick thinks the outlook in the House is bleak. He says not even the proponents — with their salesperson's tendency to imagine support that's not there — were convinced it would fly. The formula for passing gambling measures here and elsewhere is simply stated, if not simply executed: Show lawmakers an expensive problem, an ugly tax bill, and then offer slot machines or casinos or lotteries or whatever as a less offensive alternative.
• Capping the taxable increase in property values looked like a winner in Republican primaries, but had no juice on the floor of the Texas House. Cities and counties kicked hard in their opposition, saying the state shouldn't limit their revenues while it's simultaneously increasing their duties and expenses. Even with some protection added against state mandates, appraisal caps fell short. What got to the floor was a five percent cap on annual increases in taxable values. Current law caps growth at 10 percent. Both the pros and the cons think a different rate — seven or eight percent — might win approval next time.
• State budgeteers scrounging for money raided a fund that helps poor Texans pay utility bills. The beneficiaries of that program will see a 10 percent increase in rates come September.
Had Sir Isaac Newton been interested in political science instead of physics, he might have devised this Law of Political Gossip: Mouths in motion tend to remain in motion and mouths at rest tend to remain at rest.
At the end of a legislative session, political jaws are at full speed, and rumors and low talk generally take a few weeks to drop to an acceptable summer pitch. Some things we've heard and done a little checking on:
• Gov. Rick Perry says he will call a special session if he can broker a deal between House Speaker Tom Craddick, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and the 180 other people who formulate legislation before it gets to the governor's desk. And he has steadily added pressure, telling a group in Tyler he wants to have lawmakers back in session this month, and telling a group in San Antonio that he's not "throwing in the towel on this issue." But there's no evidence of new talks and no hard reason at this point to say the House and Senate are closer to a solution than they were a week or a month ago.
Dewhurst has said repeatedly that he wants to keep pushing and that he thinks the House and Senate were "very close" on school finance and had only a few (big) issues to settle on the tax bill. Both he and Craddick said the two pieces of legislation were linked, though there were some late efforts to pass the school reforms without the tax bill. Craddick ultimately hit the brakes on that idea, but budgeteers say one bill without the other would have been financially unbalanced and probably wouldn't have worked.
Craddick's message might seem a little vague, but if you think back, he's been consistent. The Speaker said before the legislative session that he wanted to wait for a ruling from the courts before pushing a solution on school finance. During the session, he pushed a hard vote on the issue through the House — both the school bill and its companion tax bill survived with five-vote margins — but he also told legislators he just wanted to keep the process going and that he wouldn't force their votes at the end. When the session ended, Craddick pointed out to reporters that the glum results had precedents: "We haven't passed school finance reform since 1948 that wasn't in a special session or when we were under some type of court order to get it done. School finance has been here since the Alamo. We had a hard time; the Senate had a hard time. We worked at it. We just couldn't get it accomplished." In post-session interviews, he implied that close votes didn't leave much room for bargaining: What worked in his chamber wouldn't sell in the Senate and what worked over there wouldn't sell in the House.
Perry hopes to gin up enough support among legislators to push Craddick toward a deal and a special session. But he started 2004 by saying he'd call a special session when he sensed "consensus" and then watched the Legislature implode when he called that session a year ago. If he wants a deal, he'll have to get Dewhurst and Craddick to sign in blood before calling lawmakers back, and they'll have to have support from their members. Only a few lawmakers have openly pushed for a special session on school finance (including, in a press conference on the last day, the freshmen Democrats in the House). The pressure of being back in Austin didn't work a year ago and with the Texas Supreme Court holding hearings on school finance on July 6, legislators have more reasons to wait for the courts before acting.
• Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who raised such a ruckus two years ago when she said state lawmakers approved a budget bigger than the state's purse, will turn in her report on the current plan sooner than later. She's got at least two good motives for the pace. It gets her out of the fights over whether the $139.4 billion budget is too big; conservative groups are raising Cain about the spending increase (from $117.4 billion two years ago), and Gov. Perry has until June 19 to figure out whether and where to use his line-item veto to trim it. Second, it completes her official duties related to the session and thus frees her to say political things — like whether she wants to run for another office, or reelection. After she's through with the budget, her political cuffs are off and she can say what she wants with less crosstalk about her political ambitions interfering with her official acts.
• Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Perry and maybe even Strayhorn will be in the same vicinity next week when Priscilla Owen gives up her spot on the Texas Supreme Court to be sworn in as a judge on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Hutchison's appearance in Austin has been widely taken as "proof" she's ready to announce her political plans. A safer bet: She'll wait for Perry to finish his vetoes — the next three weeks mark the seasonal peak of a governor's official powers — and then start drizzling out the political stuff. Hutchison doesn't have to rush an announcement to be viable; political donors and supporters are already on notice, for whatever that's worth, that she's considering a challenge to Perry. And with the Legislature's collapse on school finance, she doesn't want to interrupt the headlines the governor is getting right now.
Act Surprised When You Read This
In the first official announcement of the 2006 election season, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs says she wants to be the next comptroller of public accounts.
She first expressed an interest in that in May 2004 after conversations with the current occupant of the office — Carole Keeton Strayhorn — and she said then and now that she doesn't think Strayhorn will run for reelection. But she's changed one thing: Where she initially said she would not run against Strayhorn, she now says she's running next year no matter what. She still thinks it will be an open seat and isn't directly challenging Strayhorn, but she's in it for keepers. Strayhorn wouldn't comment on the prospect; a spokesman said she was busy with the budget certification and "she's not going to stop that important process to answer questions about other people's political ambitions."
Combs, a former state representative and a one-time assistant district attorney in Dallas County, made her announcement in a hotel meeting room packed with friendlies. She'll push three things, she said, if elected: accounting for money in public schools and making sure it's getting to classrooms; getting data to local communities to help them generate economic development; and streamlining government. She slid past a question about school and government performance reviews that were stripped from the comptroller's purview last year, saying she'll talk about that more if she's elected. Her website is up, at www.susancombs.com. And she's got art:
Combs' political folks caught reporters when the event ended to edit one of her answers to a reporter's question. Combs said she would not accept campaign contributions from tax consultants and taxpayers with contested cases before the comptroller's tax courts. She said she would get a list of people involved in those cases and wouldn't accept their money. She answered a follow-up question by saying that to do otherwise wouldn't be wrong, but that taking such donations "diminishes the trust people have in their publicly elected officials." When she was gone, her advisors said the fence would go up if she's elected, but not before then. She'll accept those contributions, they said, during the current campaign.
Combs is the only person in the race so far. Amarillo banker DonPowell — currently the head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and a former regent at Texas A&M — has been mentioned. He was on the road and unavailable to comment. Also on the "mention" list: Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, and Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt.
Susan Combs made her announcement at 10 a.m. At 11:16 a.m., before the TV lights had cooled off, Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, emailed reporters an announcement saying he'll be announcing his candidacy for agriculture commissioner in mid-July.
A day earlier, Rep. David Swinford, R-Dumas, announced his intention to run for reelection instead of the ag job. Swinford, whose political consultant, Bryan Eppstein, also consults Staples, said on his way out that he'd back Staples for the job. It's all Kabuki Theater anyhow, but reassemble that: First, a guy says he won't be running for a job that will become officially available the next day, and endorses a candidate who gets in after the current occupant announces the official availability of the deal. Fiction is a far less rewarding pursuit than political reporting, we think.
Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, has expressed some interest in the ag job, too, but also wants to be considered for a congressional seat. Maybe. His congressman, Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio, wants to run for U.S. Senate if Kay Bailey Hutchison decides not to seek reelection next year.
Staples' move has started stirrings — some reported here and some new — in SD-3. If you include everyone who's seriously kicking tires and everybody who has people kicking tires on their behalf, your list will have at least five names on it. Texas Transportation Commissioner Robert Nichols, a George W. Bush appointee at TXDOT who was reappointed by Gov. Rick Perry, is being touted by some folks close to the governor himself. State Rep. Roy Blake Jr., R-Nacogdoches, is a well-regarded freshman lawmaker whose father held the seat years ago; he's made some calls. Three potential candidates have been in the hunt a little longer: Frank Denton of Conroe, David Kleimann of Willis, and Bob Reeves of Center have previously said they're interested.
Former Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, left the Texas House to run for the U.S. House. He lost, and Blake got his desk. He's been calling around for support for a return to the House if Blake moves on.
The other statewides? It's still not clear what Carole Keeton Strayhorn wants to do next, or Hutchison. Attorney General Greg Abbott has said he isn't interested in running for U.S. Senate, but he's been mentioned as a candidate for lieutenant governor should David Dewhurst move to another race. Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams is a possible candidate for AG if Abbott moves out. Dewhurst could stay where he is, but political speculators think he might run for U.S. Senate if Hutchison doesn't. Abbott and Dewhurst and Combs and Williams have all endorsed Perry for reelection and generally don't get mentioned in ruminations about the top race. Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson is running for reelection and staying out of the domino business; his official announcement will come on June 23.
Texas judges won't get the pay raises they were hoping for, but there's a silver lining, sort of: State lawmakers won't have to explain why they feathered their own nests while they were spiking school finance, teacher pay raises, and local property tax cuts.
Those two things are tied together. You figure a lawmaker's pension by multiplying a district judge's salary times the number of years the legislator was in office, then by 2.3 percent. Judges have been shorted in the pay department, in part, because of that link: Lawmakers can get dinged at home for voting more money for themselves. But rather than separate the two things, legislators voted to give judges a 23 percent raise (with a raise of equal proportions in their own retirements). Differences between the House and Senate versions collided during the last days of the session, however, and ultimately, the bill failed.
Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, says judges sometimes make less than "the first-year lawyers who carry the big lawyer's briefs," and Texas Supreme Court Justice Wallace Jefferson spent the majority of his State of the Judiciary speech to lawmakers lobbying for higher pay.
The issue got tangled up with funding for defense attorneys for indigent defendants. Duncan, Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, couldn't resolve their differences on the last day, and all three issues went down (in his anger at the two senators for what he thought were hijinks on their end, Keel pushed the issue off the House's agenda; and a daylong effort to resuscitate on the last day of the session fell short). All three of the state's top leaders said the judicial pay issue could be on the burner if a special session is called on school finance.
Wallace Jefferson, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, says he didn't threaten to help find opponents for legislators who blocked judicial pay raises and says Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, misunderstood him.
Keel says the judge was perfectly clear: "What he's saying now, I would have heard, believe me. This was a results-oriented conversation."
Keel told the Houston Chronicle — and later, repeated to us — that Jefferson delivered a political threat against him and Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, in a phone conversation during the session's closing weekend. "He said if the judicial pay raise failed to pass that he would see to it that I'd have opposition and Ellis would have opposition... I told him 'This is as inappropriate as it would be for me to call you about a matter pending before the court involving the Legislature,'" Keel says. The bill died that night after Keel made it a point of honor (for reasons having nothing to do with Jefferson) in a speech to the House; efforts to fix it a day later failed.
Jefferson, meanwhile, says Keel misunderstood him.
"I talked to him that evening about the judicial pay bill and asked if there was anything he could do to get it through..." Jefferson says. "I told him that I and many other judges would find it difficult to run for reelection in 2006 if the issue wasn't addressed."
"What I believe he heard was that I and other judges would make it difficult for him to run... and I didn't say that." Jefferson says Keel was on the floor of the House at the time and that it was noisy. Keel hung up on him as soon as he said it. "I think it was a misunderstanding on his part."
Jefferson says it would be out of line for anybody to do what Keel thinks the chief justice did, and says he would "join Keel in condemning anyone, any judge, for making remarks like that."
He's not working up opponents for either politico, and says he will evaluate his own future — he'll be on the ballot next year, along with five and perhaps six of his colleagues on the court — and will decide later whether he's running. In the meantime, Jefferson says he hopes lawmakers might take up the issue in a special session, if they have one.
It doesn't look like Attorney General Greg Abbott will pursue that $3.9 million we told you about a week ago...
He says the state isn't a party to the lawsuit against Bill Ceverha and TRMPAC and can't collect money referred to in that case by state district Judge Joe Hart. And Abbott points out in a written statement — his aides would brook no questions beyond the statement — that there's no final judgment in the case anyway.
Hart ruled that Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee — and Ceverha, its treasurer — didn't report expenditures and corporate and non-corporate contributions that should have been reported in the 2002 elections. And he ordered them to pay five Democrats who lost to the Republicans TRMPAC was supporting. He also quoted a section of state law: "A... campaign treasurer... of a political committee who fails to report... a political contribution or political expenditure as required by this chapter is liable in damages to the state in the amount of triple the amount not reported that is required to be reported." The ellipses above are just as Hart used them. The amount in question is $1,297,940; triple that amount is $3,893,820.
We asked about it and a day later got a statement via the AG's press staff: "Judge Hart's ruling specifically states that it applies only to damages to be paid to the private parties to the litigation. The State of Texas is not a party to the civil lawsuit nor has there been any litigation or award of money owed to the State. There is nothing for the State to collect... the State will continue to rigorously review the facts and law regarding this matter as it proceeds and take the appropriate action."
Flotsam & Jetsam
Before the gavel fell on the end of the legislative session, Austin attorney Andy Brown announced he'll run against Rep. Todd Baxter, R-Austin, in HD-48. Brown is a former director of a group called the 21st Century Democrats and also an aide to former Speaker Pete Laney. Another Democrat, legislative consultant Hugh Brady, is also thinking about challenging Baxter.
• The ongoing quest to mine political pockets has a new twist; Austin consultant John Doner is cranking out lists of political contributors in each political district to tell candidates who in their area is giving, but to other candidates. A senator, say, can get the list to show who in his or her Senate district contributes to other Republicans, enabling them to hit up the donors themselves. Contributors who've given to one candidate will get targeted by others looking for dough.
• U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's latest fundraising letter — sent out two weeks ago — doesn't say what office she's seeking and doesn't mention elections. On stationery of her federal committee, she touches on issues like education, terrorism, and homeland security and ends by saying a contribution "will ensure that I can continue to be a leader for the conservative values we share." On the back is a chart that compares her rankings by various groups with those of five other Senate Republicans. She's tied with all of them on Christian Coalition and National Rifle Association rankings, ahead of all but one in American Conservative Union ranks, and got 97 percent from National Right to Life. Everyone else on her list got a 100 from that group.
• To our ongoing and completely unintentional nuptial reporting, add this: Donna Reynolds and then-Rep. Dick Reynolds were married in the House Chamber in September 1977, and they were apparently the first (or the first that anybody at that point could remember) to tie the knot there. TV even showed up, according to the bride. She writes that then-Speaker Billy Clayton is her cousin and granted permission.
• Mark Dallas Loeffler is back with new end-of-session movie posters, a biennial extravagance he's been practicing since 1997. Check it out: www.texascampaigns.net/QUANTUM/postermain.html.
Political People and Their Moves
Sen. Frank Madla, D-San Antonio, was elected President pro tempore of the Senate, a mostly ceremonial position that puts him third in the order of succession to the governor. When Rick Perry and David Dewhurst aren't in town, he's the man.
Pattie Featherston is the new chief operating officer at the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS). She started there in 1997 as the agency's director of governmental relations, and had worked in the Pink Building and the private sector before that.
Nobel laureate Dr. Alfred Gilman is the new dean of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. He's been chairman of pharmacology there for 24 years, and interim dean for the last year (since Dr. Robert Alpern left to head the Yale University School of Medicine. Gilman holds a number of "chairs" at the school, including the Nadine and Tom Craddick Distinguished Chair in Medical Science.
Press Corps Moves: Natalie Gott is leaving the Associated Press Austin Bureau for Chapel Hill, North Carolina, next month; her spousal unit got an assistant professorship at the University of North Carolina. And Lisa Faulkenberg, who worked for the AP in Austin before moving to the big office in Dallas, is coming back, but for new bosses: She's joining the Austin Bureau of the Houston Chronicle, filling a spot that's been empty for several months.
Quotes of the Week
Gov. Rick Perry, standing between Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick at a post-session press conference and putting the onus for a special session on them: "I'll continue to do everything I can to broker a deal between the House and the Senate. If they don't want to work to finish the job, they should make plans for a long, uncomfortable summer when they go home, when they meet those constituents and they explain why they didn't act on education reform and property tax relief."
Pat Carlson, chairwoman of the Tarrant County Republican Party, defending the legislative results in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: "School finance wasn't necessarily a priority of the conservative movement."
Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, quoted in The Dallas Morning News at the end of the session: "I can't tell you how angry I am. My constituents were expecting school finance reform, property tax reform and Robin Hood reform – and we couldn't deliver on any of it."
Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller, on the session: "Three times in three years they have failed to improve the way we pay for our public schools. Next year we'll find out if politics has a three-strikes rule."
Sen. Kip Averitt, R-McGregor, quoted by The Dallas Morning News on the prospect of the Texas Supreme Court ruling on school finance before lawmakers act on it: "That would be a pitiful shame, if we wait for judges to tell us how to do our job. But I guess if you look back at history, that's the way it always has been done in Texas."
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst: "It's not rocket science. The Texas Legislature can solve school finance. If we can send a man to the moon, we can solve school finance."
House Speaker Tom Craddick, on the upcoming Texas Supreme Court hearing on school finance and the prospects for a fix: "If we could some together, I think we ought to do it... but the closer we get to the July date, the harder it would be."
TRMPAC treasurer Bill Ceverha, quoted in the Austin American-Statesman after a judge held him personally liable for not reporting contributions and expenditures made by the PAC: "The system sucks. If they have any visions of collecting this money, Bill Ceverha doesn't have it and has outstanding legal fees."
Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio, quoted in The Dallas Morning News on the amounts awarded to Democrats who lost in 2002 and then sued TRMPAC over campaign finance violations: "Sounds like a pretty wimpy ruling to me. So what are these guys supposed to get, $25,000 each?"
Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, assessing the health of school finance/tax reform with less than three days left in the session, in the Austin American-Statesman: "I don't see how it's not dead."
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, on the state budget: "It's a conservative budget, a compassionate budget. It's a compassionately conservative budget."
Michael Quinn Sullivan of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, on the $139.4 billion state budget: "We are not seeing the same fiscal discipline that marked last Session's budget process... Too much money is being spent. This budget demonstrates clearly why Texans need true taxpayer protection in the form of a constitutional amendment that limits both tax increases and spending hikes."
Rep. Kino Flores, D-Mission, telling The Dallas Morning News that lobbyists are important to legislators: "Can you imagine the kind of B.S. we'd be passing without them?"
Texas Weekly: Volume 22, Issue 1, 6 June 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.
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