If you've been watching closely as the Legislature ran aground, you've been spun enough. We'll make our autopsy report brief. The highlights:
• The Texas Legislature can't solve big issues except under duress. With no orders from the state's high court to fix school finance or else, they got stuck. It has always been this way: Texas lawmakers needed prodding from judges to reform state schools and state hospitals and prisons and, four times now, public education.
• Politicians are, for the most part, faithful to their principles. As the saying goes, they dance with who brung 'em. A significant number of these legislators ran as tax-haters, and they continued to hate taxes when they were presented with an opportunity to vote for them. They wanted to cut property taxes, and many of them wanted to cap increases in appraised values, but they suffered from vapor lock when asked to approve the new or higher state taxes that would make those local revenue cuts possible. In particular, when the size of the property tax cuts fell, the pains outweighed the gains.
• Personalities can poison a project. House Speaker Tom Craddick, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and Gov. Rick Perry were unable to agree among themselves at almost every point in the drama, and without consensus among those three — or, instead, a healthy fear of a common fate for failure — it was unreasonable to expect the other 179 people with votes to come along. As the session drifted during the last ten days, they resorted to finger-pointing and made the state Capitol seem, at times, like the world's most extravagant day care center.
• The price of the failure to act is small unless the status quo is unbearable. You'll see exceptions in the March primaries and in races where lawmakers are trying to win promotions — say, from the House to the Senate — but most lawmakers won't be punished for the summer follies. Voters react more to action than to inaction, and what the Texas Legislature just produced was the status quo. We've heard endless variations of this line: Better no bill than a bad one.
School finance now rests with the Texas Supreme Court, which heard the case in early July and can rule whenever the judges feel like it. They could produce a decision this fall or next spring or later. If they make their decision this fall, Gov. Perry could call another special session — this time with the pressure of a court decision and a deadline from the high court for a solution — either before or after the March primaries. Calling one before the primaries would put some lawmakers under pressure to get a result, and could interrupt anyone trying to bring attention to their efforts to unseat incumbents in the legislative or executive branches.
Teachers at the bottom of the state's pay scale actually lost money during the special sessions this summer. State budget writers gave them a raise during the regular session, but it was vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry and wasn't replaced when the rest of public education funding was restored this summer. Perry signed an education bill this month — replacing the public education funding he vetoed at the end of the regular session — but in the veto-resurrection process, some teachers lost a pay raise.
The state budget passed during the regular session changed school formulas to allow a pay increase for teachers making the state's minimum pay. Most districts add to the minimums. But for those that don't — and for those who tie pay directly to the state schedule — the increase in funding would have meant an average raise of 2.76 percent. A first-year teacher's minimum would have risen to $24,910 from $24,240. Number-crunchers at the Texas Education Agency figured a second-year raise at about 1 percent; teachers would have received the first amount starting this month and the second raise in a year.
In replacing the public school funding that Perry vetoed, lawmakers changed some formulas, and in the changing, took away the increase in minimum teacher pay they had promised.
The Dotted Line
Gov. Rick Perry isn't saying, directly, whether he'll sign the bills that got through the special legislative session. But he did add those issues to the Legislature's agenda, and he hasn't said anything snarky about the versions that came out.
Bills waiting for his signature include a 23 percent increase in judicial pay and legislative retirements (including Perry's, as a former House member), new restrictions on when cities, counties and other governments can use their powers of eminent domain to condemn and purchase private property, and legislation that lets phone companies get into the television business without the restrictions that currently apply — through contracts — to cable TV companies.
The cable guys say the phone companies won't be fettered by local franchise agreements and instead will be able to get statewide franchises that don't necessarily include sometimes costly extras like local access channels and local programming. The cable folks, as we've noted, intend to go to court to try to get themselves and their competitors on level ground.
Meanwhile, a new report from Texans for Public Justice puts numbers to the legislative arms race between those factions.
In its latest Lobby Watch, that group says the phone companies spent between $5.4 million and $10.9 million into 209 lobbyist's contracts. They spent $1.6 million — through political action committees — during the 2004 election cycle that put the current Lege in business. Of that amount, $176,000 went to Perry's campaign. San Antonio-based SBC Communications alone paid 123 lobbyists between $3.3 million and 6.8 million. The company's PAC gave $126,200 to Perry, and contributed a total of $1.2 million to him and other candidates in the 2004 election cycle.
The cable companies and trade groups, on the other hand, paid 44 lobsters between $890,000 and $1.7 million, contributed $358,776 through PAC spending that included $25,000 to Perry. The phone companies got stiffed during the regular session and through the first of two special sessions, but look who's squawking now. TPJ's full report is online at its website: www.tpj.org.
Bell Announces for Governor
Houston Democrat Chris Bell -- a local politician making his first statewide race -- kicked off his campaign for governor with a speech to 150 supporters and onlookers on the University of Texas campus. He called for a "moon shot" for Texas public schools and called upon voters to join what he calls a "new mainstream."
Standing in front of a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. and surrounded by friendly placards, Bell rolled out what he called a "pact with parents," that would include reformed sex education, parental controls on porn and violence and other potentially objectionable content in video games, financial education in schools (the Legislature is already working on it), and education reforms. He uncorked some other ideas in the speech, saying insurance companies should be forced to lower premiums in light of reports that their Texas rates are $4 billion too high, that the state should encourage stem cell research.
He didn't mention his battles with U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land — that was left to introductory speakers — but called generally for "political reforms to make our campaigns and our government more transparent and accountable." He suggested state limits on credit card interest rates and marketing practices. He wants to end tuition deregulation that was instituted by legislators two years ago and that resulted in higher prices at state schools (the schools wanted the change because legislators persistently short-sheet higher education).
Bell, a lawyer and a former reporter, was a former Houston city councilman and one-term congressman. He lost that second gig after the Legislature drew his district to his disadvantage, and he made a national reputation by filing an ethics complaint against DeLay. Bell broke a long-standing truce that protected members of the House from colleague's complaints. Congress admonished DeLay in a letter, but left some of Bell's complaint pending while prosecutors and grand juries in Travis County finish an investigation of the DeLay-founded Texans for a Republican Majority, or TRMPAC, and related matters.
Bell is one of two Democrats running for governor. Felix Alvarado of Fort Worth, a middle school principal and a political unknown, says he'll be on the ballot and that his sister, Maria Luisa Alvarado of Austin, is running for lieutenant governor. You can reach both of their websites at www.OneTexasForAll.com.
While Republicans Rick Perry and Carole Keeton Strayhorn have raised millions toward the contest, the Democrats aren't seriously in the money hunt yet. Bell reported raising $152,653 during the first six months of the year and spending $127,593. He had $10,741 on hand as of June 30. (Both Alvarados reported minimal activity; he ended with no money on hand, she with $99.72, and that's not a typo.)
Goobers and Other Seekers of High Office
Gov. Rick Perry's team is aiming steady fire at Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who plans to run against the Guv in the Republican primary next year. It's a purity test: Strayhorn supporters and some aides say they want to attract new voters into the GOP primary, the theory being that Perry is strongest with conservative Republicans who show up for every election, and that other voters — moderate Republicans, independents and disenchanted Democrats — might sway the primary in her direction.
Texas Republicans have welcomed Democratic votes in November elections, but some apparently think inviting donkeys to GOP primaries is bad juju. Jeff Fisher, the party's executive director, told the Austin American-Statesman it was a bad strategy: "It's one thing when a candidate tries to invite like-minded conservative Democrats and independents to make a lasting commitment to the Republican Party. It's quite another to encourage liberals to vote in the primary like a one-night stand."
That triggered a response from the Strayhorn camp. Brad McClellan, the candidate's son and campaign manager, fired off a letter to party officials boosting his mom's Republican credentials and demanding an apology: "My Mom, like former President Ronald Reagan, believes in the 'Big Tent' theory. If we are going to be the majority Party for years to come, we must encourage voters to join our Party. That the executive director would think it appropriate to attack the honor of a mother and a grandmother who is a Republican statewide elected official is astounding."
That tussle went another round, when Dr. David Teuscher, a Perry supporter on the State Republican Executive Committee, took Fisher's side. In a "private letter" to McClellan excerpted on Perry's website (www.rickperry.org), he called Fisher's comment "coarse," but also said that, "quite simply, the metaphor fits the situation." In a "public letter" that's also posted there, he accused Strayhorn of trying to lure liberals into the primary and asked her to cut it out and to stop consorting with trial lawyers and such.
Perry, asked for a comment, ducked: "It's pretty much politics, and I'll leave the politics to another time."
• Gov. Rick Perry picked up an endorsement from U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas. Sessions is the second member of the Texas delegation (21 Republicans, to lend his name to Perry's reelection campaign.
• If you ride your bicycle well enough for long enough, somebody will start a website like this: www.lance4president.com. Count his fingers.
• Kinky Friedman, who's trying to get on next year's gubernatorial ballot as an independent, got lucky playing the slots in New Orleans, winning $45,612.65. That dollar figure is fairly close to the number of signatures he'll have to get from registered non-voters to get on the ballot next spring.
Separately, singer Willie Nelson announced a fundraiser for Friedman at his home in the Hill Country. For $5,000 each, golfers will get to play a round with Willie and with former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura; another 100 spots are open for lunch guests at $1,000 a pop. That's on September 24. Details are on his website, at www.kinkyfriedman.com.
So Much for Stealth
Between the mumbling about the legislative session, there's been some mumbling that former Comptroller John Sharp might join the Democratic race for governor. But if he puts a toe in the water, he'll have to splash. Sharp's last campaign finance report — filed in January — included a notice from his treasurer, Austin attorney Ray Bonilla, that it would be the last:
"I, the undersigned campaign treasurer, do not expect the occurrence of any further reportable activity by this political committee for this or any other campaign or election for which reporting under the Election Code is required. I declare that all of the information required to be reported by me has been reported. I understand that designating a report as a dissolution report terminates the appointment of campaign treasurer. I further understand that a political committee may not make or authorize political expenditure or accept political contributions without having an appointment of campaign treasurer on file."
That doesn't keep him out of politics or anything crazy like that, but means he'll have to file papers with the Texas Ethics Commission if he wants to explore or announce a run.
Texas is losing a state representative next week. Rep. Melissa Noriega, D-Houston, is giving the chair back to her husband, Lt. Col. Rick Noriega of the Texas Army National Guard, who was called up to serve in Afghanistan after the election. He came back at the beginning of the month and will take his spot back August 27; she plans to return to the job she gave up at the Houston ISD while she was subbing in the House. The two are also doing a few quick fundraisers with that outgoing-incoming bit as a peg. They've got funders set for early September in Houston and in Austin.
• Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, announced he'll run for reelection. He's the chairman of the House Regulated Industries Committee and sponsored the telecommunications bill that finally passed during the second special session. King's announcement is a counterpoint to rumors that as many as three dozen House members won't be back. That might happen, but such talk is more pessimistic at the end of a special session than a month later.
• Austin lawyer Mina Brees will run for the 3rd Court of Appeals seat held now by David Puryear. She's a Democrat, involved in civic stuff, and the mother of a couple of athletes: Drew, the quarterback for the San Diego Chargers, and Reid, a baseball player at Baylor. Her brother, Marty Akins, is a former UT quarterback who ran for comptroller, losing to Carole Keeton Strayhorn (then known as Rylander).
• Donna Howard, a former trustee with Eanes ISD in Westlake (an Austin suburb) is reportedly considering a challenge to Rep. Todd Baxter, R-Austin in HD-48. She wouldn't be the first. Andy Brown, a lawyer and former legislative aide, is running and several other tire-kickers have been seen on the lot.
• Duffy Doyle Crane, an Austin lawyer and Democrat who'd been considering a run against Baxter, dropped out. She sent an email to friends and supporters saying the time isn't right for her. But it also implies she'll be looking at public office again in the future.
Flotsam & Jetsam
Special interests of every stripe spent $953 million on state legislators and other state officials in 2004, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity, which tracks these things. They said that there were five lobbyists and spending of about $130,000 to work on every state lawmaker in the country, on average.
As usual, Texas was among the big shots. Of the 42 states for which they had numbers, we ranked second with total lobby spending of $162.1 million, or just over $895,000 per lawmaker. They didn't get the money, understand (or at least they weren't supposed to), but the people trying to win their support or their opposition spent that much in the effort. And that's the least they might have spent. Texas law requires lobsters to report their salaries only vaguely, showing a range where the numbers fall. The Center used the low number in the range for each report. There were, on average, eight lobbyists for every state lawmaker in Texas. You can look over the details at www.publicintegrity.org.
• The State Board of Educator Certification is being folded into the Texas Education on September 1, and Associate Commissioner Patricia Hayes will run what will now be a new division at TEA. SBEC's board will stay in business, but its rules and certifications still have to clear the State Board of Education.
• Students taking required courses on U.S. and Texas politics at the University of Texas at Austin are getting out of about $60 in textbook costs. Their textbook is online. And it's free to civilians, too, at texaspolitics.laits.utexas.edu. They've been tinkering with it for a couple of years, with good results, and say one advantage is that the book can be edited or amended or expanded without new printings each time.
Political People and Their Moves
Joe Wisnoski, a finance wizard at the Texas Education Agency, is one of those people who makes the whole thing work. Now he's retiring from his current post as deputy associate commissioner of school finance and fiscal analysis. Wisnoski, who did a total of 16 years at the agency — and 11 more in stints in the governor's office, the comptroller's office and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board — is leaving TEA at the end of the month. He's not sure what he'll do next, but plans to work.
Gov. Rick Perry named Neal Adams vice chairman of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, scooting him into a slot opened when Robert Shepard became chairman. Adams, a member of Perry's campaign finance committee, is a name partner in a Bedford law firm. Perry first named him to the THECB in 2001.
Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, is the new president-elect of the National Conference of State Legislators. She's the first Texan to take that position, and also the first Hispanic.
NCSL and its affiliates gave awards to legislative staffers from around the country who are particularly good at what they do. Rod Welsh, the Texas House Sergeant at Arms, got an achievement award from the National Legislative Services and Security Association.
Chris Uranga, former director of IT operations and computer security at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, ERCOT, pleaded guilty to charges of setting up fake companies to funnel contract money to himself and others. That's the first plea, according to Attorney General Greg Abbott, resulting from investigations of ERCOT that led to indictments against six men.
Carlos Marin of El Paso is President George W. Bush's choice to be Acting United States Commissioner of the United States and Mexico International Boundary and Water Commission. He's replacing Arturo Duran, who told the El Paso Times the White House asked him to resign.
Jerry Phillips is leaving the House after five regular sessions and, as he puts it, 5.5 special sessions, to become executive director of the Texas League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group. He's worked for several House Democrats, most recently as chief of staff to Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco.
Quotes of the Week, Leadership Special
Gov. Rick Perry, asked about the crumbling relations between the leaders of the House and Senate: "We do not need to be involved in attacks personally. We have a state to run."
House Speaker Tom Craddick: "If I was a teacher in the state of Texas I would not be real happy with the school superintendents and administrators... they could have had a pay raise. Teachers in this state have lost a lot of money."
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst: "I can't help but say I'm disappointed with the lack of action in the House on meaningful school finance reform."
Craddick: "I do not want the Supreme Court to write a plan for Texas. I think they can clear up this myth that's out there from the school districts that they're going to get five, seven, eight billion [dollars] a year. We don't believe that's going to happen."
Dewhurst: "One of the things that I will be sore on for a long time is the amount of influence special interests have in this Legislature."
Perry, in The Dallas Morning News: "There has been too much focus by the House and Senate on who gets credit, whose plan wins, who can go back and say we out-negotiated him, we won. The fact of the matter is nobody's winning. Everybody's losing."
Dewhurst: "The governor asked us to be here for 30 days. He hasn't asked us to stop."
Craddick: "We were called in for the 30 days, and I was the one that thought we ought to adjourn earlier, and no one else wanted to do that. So we're just going to stay the 30 days."
Perry, telling the Houston Chronicle that the time spent in Austin this summer wasn't wasted: "To say that would suggest that all government is a waste. Austin comes together and faces issues as a state. Am I frustrated that the Legislature has not been able to come to agreement on this issue? Yes. I'm totally unsatisfied."
Quotes of the Week
Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, in the Brownwood Bulletin: "A lot of people are offering criticism. They see a problem and they want a solution. Coming from the business community, I understand that. That's how I like to work. But government is different."
Later in that same story: "It appears property tax reduction is not a statewide issue. It's a big issue in some places, but not so much in others. Then when people find out what will happen with the tax shift to make property tax reduction work -- keeping it revenue neutral -- a lot of the glamour goes out of it."
North East ISD Superintendent Richard Middleton, in the San Antonio Express-News: "Those people — and the speaker especially — see public education as a liability, not as an asset. They don't see it as something that's worth keeping and nurturing and developing. They want to find anything else that's cheaper."
Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, quoted by News 8 Austin: "I can imagine, from the outside, people must be scratching their heads wondering what we're doing here because many of us on the inside are scratching our heads wondering what we're doing here."
Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, assessing the Legislature in the Tyler Morning Telegraph: "The buck stops here, with all of us, as elected officials. Every one of us shares responsibility for failure. I told my constituents we failed them on this issue in regular session and we have failed them again. To blame the education lobby or business lobby or anyone else for that matter is not right. All the finger pointing, blaming and political posturing should stop."
Larry Mattlage of Crawford, a neighbor of the president, on the anti-war protesters camped next to his property, in The Dallas Morning News: "They're just like company. If you had had your brother-in-law in your house for five days, wouldn't it start stinking after a while?"
President George W. Bush, asked about Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a dead U.S. soldier who's camped outside Bush's Texas property protesting the war in Iraq: "I think it's important for me to be thoughtful and sensitive to those who have got something to say. But I think it's also important for me to go on with my life, to keep a balanced life."
Comptroller and gubernatorial candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn, talking to the Greater Houston Pachyderm Club (a GOP group) about illegal immigrants, quoted by the Associated Press: "I sympathize with those coming over who want to put a roof over their heads. We can't turn them away from the hospital steps."
Democratic consultant Leland Beatty, talking to the Austin American-Statesman about candidates like Strayhorn trying to pull Democratic voters into the Republican primary: "You're changing people's behavior. You're trying to get the deacon to go to the porn movie."
Texas Weekly: Volume 22, Issue 10, 22 August 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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