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Rick Perry won his first attempt at statewide office in 1990, in part because Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower didn't answer commercials being run by the Republican upstart. 

Rick Perry won his first attempt at statewide office in 1990, in part because Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower didn't answer commercials being run by the Republican upstart. 

Perry, who switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party shortly before entering that race, was considered an underdog. Since then, that upset has been part of the cautionary lore of Texas politics: Don't let your opponent go unanswered. Uninterrupted soloists get all the attention. Defense might win football games, but it doesn't win elections against aggressive challengers.

With that experience, it's a little surprising to see Perry go about his business without answering a radio attack launched by Carole Keeton Strayhorn. It's running all over the state. It looks a little light — you won't hear it every four minutes or anything — but it also goes on until mid-November. In the initial effort, Strayhorn paints herself as a tax-fighter and Perry as an anti-education tax-lover, trying to stake out a position to the right of his. It's running on the sorts of radio shows frequented by conservatives, and by the time you read this, it'll have been running for almost a week without a reply from the incumbent.

Perry aides don't say they'll respond, but they indicate they won't let her sing solo for too long. We're guessing from vague comments that they'll put something on the air in the vicinity of Labor Day, that it'll be a positive spot and that they'll ignore what Strayhorn is saying unless they think it's getting traction.

Meanwhile, the indication from the challenger's camp is that there is plenty of room to change the ad copy along the way. You can distill hints from the back-and-forth between the campaigns. Perry's camp is tagging Strayhorn as a Democrat in Republican clothing, noting money she's taken from trial lawyers who historically back Democrats and some of her positions that they say don't line up with the GOP's conservative base.

Strayhorn's first commercial tries to put her to the right of Perry on taxes. Ask her folks what they think of Perry attempts to paint her as a Democrat, and they shoot back with this, which sounded suspiciously like a future commercial: "Carole Strayhorn was running as a statewide Republican when Rick Perry was a Democratic member in the Texas House, and she was chairing women for George (H.W.) Bush while he was the Texas co-chair for Democrat Al Gore." 

Was That a Starter's Gun? 

Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn starts the GOP's gubernatorial primary season with a statewide radio run attacking Gov. Rick PerryYou can hear it by clicking here. And here's the script:

ANNOUNCER: This is the Texas conservative commentary. And now, one tough grandma, Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn.

STRAYHORN: Some politicians think it's easier to tax than to lead. Now, you might expect that kind of thing from a big-taxing liberal in Washington. But here in Texas? From a Republican governor? Well, tax increases are exactly what we've gotten. First, Gov. Rick Perry raised taxpayer charges and fees $2.7 billion. Since then, Perry called our Legislature back into special session six times. Twice, just begging them to pass the largest tax increase in Texas history and not one penny for education. No wonder our Republican Legislature had to tell him no twice. I'm Carole Keeton Strayhorn. One tough grandma. One tough tax-fighter for Texas.

ANNOUNCER: Join the fight. Republican for governor, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, at carolestrayhorn.com. Political ad paid for by Friends of Carole Keeton Strayhorn. 

No Experience Required 

Don Willett, a lawyer with the attorney general's office who worked on faith-based programs for George W. Bush, is the newest member of the Texas Supreme Court.

Willett has never been a judge, and he and Gov. Rick Perry (who appointed him) and AG Greg Abbott (who introduced him) painted that as both normal and desirable, pointing out that the chief justices of both the U.S. and Texas Supreme Courts didn't do any bench time before getting their current jobs. 

The AG's office represented the state in district court and before the Supreme Court on school finance. Willett says he studiously avoided any involvement in the case while he was working for Abbott, but he also says he'll recuse himself to protect the court's opinion in that case from attack. As a legal matter, he'd be able to take part in the ruling even though he wasn't on the court when it heard arguments in early July. With his decision to stay out, eight judges will make that decision. Staying out has a side benefit: He won't have to answer for anything the court does when he faces voters next year. Four of the court's justices will be on the ballot: Willett, Nathan Hecht, Phillip Johnson, and David Medina.

Willett helped Bush — both in Austin and later in Washington, D.C. — with faith-based initiatives that merge church and government social services. He also wrote a pointed attack on Texas courts for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, calling for an end to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals — the state's highest criminal court. Asked about his previous work and the job ahead, he told a roomful of reporters and supporters that his personal views won't merge with his work as a judge: "A judge's supreme duty is to interpret and apply law and not create it. I know policy-making. I know judging. And I know the difference."

Willett has been under consideration for a spot on the court for some time, but others got the nod from Perry in those earlier instances. One problem was that Willett, a conservative, lived in the Senate district of Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, and Barrientos expressed some misgivings. Traditionally, if an appointee's home senator objects, they can't win confirmation from the full Senate. Though the timing of the appointment means the Senate probably won't get a look at the appointment (there's an election between now and then), tradition is tradition. A new home solved it: Willett and his wife and child have now moved to another part of Austin that's represented by Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio. He says they moved because they needed more room. Even so, the relocation has the advantage of removing a speed bump. 

Until We Meet Again 

Gov. Rick Perry ended the special session by asking the Legislative Budget Board to do what can be done in education and other areas without the help of the full Legislature. And he said he won't call lawmakers back until they find "the collective will to finish." 

He wants the LBB — a panel that includes the lieutenant governor, the speaker, and four members from each legislative chamber — to approve $295 million in funding for textbooks and to increase minimum pay for about 8,000 teachers. That pay raise was included in the budget written during the regular session, but Perry vetoed public education spending in the budget to spur lawmakers to fix school finance. They didn't do that, but they put the public education spending — with some changes — back into the budget. One of the changes took the raise away from teachers who'd been promised more money.

Perry wants the LBB to spend $200 million on increased reimbursement rates for nursing homes, and $13 million to raise the monthly allowance for patients in those homes to $60 from $45. That's what they used to get; the amount was cut during tight fiscal times two years ago and the current Lege didn't restore the funding. The money is used for things like toothpaste and other personal needs.

Perry wants as much as $76.2 million for trauma centers.

And he asked for $48.5 million to fund operations at the Irma Rangel School of Pharmacy at Texas A&M-Kingsville and the Texas Tech Medical School in El Paso. That's a shot at Speaker Tom Craddick and other House leaders who denied that funding so far this year, and Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (see his letter, elsewhere in Notebook) both want the money. In Perry's words, "it is high time the state kept its commitment to these institutions." 

Some Dollars Are Bigger Than Others 

In school finance, everything is connected to everything. For instance, minimum salaries for teachers have been tied to formulas that are supposed to level out differences in property wealth between school districts. And you know by now that those teachers were in line for a small raise after the regular session, that the raise got whacked when Gov. Rick Perry vetoed education funding from the budget, and that it wasn't revived when the education budget was reassembled.

The teacher pay issue — which affects about 8,000 teachers in Texas — is resolved. Perry wants the Legislative Budget Board and the Texas Education Agency to take care of that.

Here's something that didn't get fixed. Those teachers were originally getting that pay raise because of a formula change. The state currently guarantees each school district that it will be able to raise $27.14 for every penny increase in its tax rate. If local property values don't produce that much juice per squeeze, the state makes up the difference with what the wonks call "guaranteed yield." The target laid out by the state (and by the courts) is to make sure at least 85 percent of the students in Texas are going to schools that can raise at least that much money for their tax efforts. When property values rise, the state raises the yield number to make sure that at least 85 percent of the students are in what's termed "the equalized system." It begins to sound like a Jacques Cousteau documentary, but stick with us.

State budgeteers, in the regular session, raised the guaranteed yield number to $29.12. (Why? Go backwards: Start with the poorest district in the state in terms of property values and go up the list until it includes 85 percent of the students. Calculate the property value per student in that district, and it's about $291,200. One penny of tax applied to that tax base would raise $29.12.)

Perry vetoed the public education section of the budget, effectively killing the increase in guaranteed yield (and temporarily, the increase in minimum teacher pay). When it was replaced, the guaranteed yield changes had been deleted by legislators. Those schoolteachers went on alert, but they were just the canaries in the coalmine. Without the increase in yield, the state will have fewer than 85 percent of the students in the equalized system.

This has been going on for a while. The current yield of $27.14 was set in 2001; it was the estimate of what would be needed to pull 85 percent of kids into the system in the 2002-03 school year. Because property values have been rising faster than enrollment, the average property value per student has risen. And more and more students find themselves in districts where a penny in locally raised tax money stretches further than average. The estimates vary. Officials with the Texas Education Agency say simply that the number is below 80 percent. And those in the education consulting business, like former state Rep. Paul Colbert of Houston, say it's around 75 percent. A one percent change, according to TEA, represents about 55,000 students.

Both say that the newest and biggest entry into the unequalized system is the Houston ISD. With the special sessions over for now and the budgets in place, the state's largest school district — with almost five percent of the state's public school students — is now outside of the equalized system. And the Texas Supreme Court is considering the state's appeal of a court ruling that says, in part, that the state isn't giving the same deal to all of its students. 

Orders from Austin 

In the wake of the Legislature's failure to kick out anything on school finance, Gov. Rick Perry is pushing the Texas Education Agency to try to force school districts to spend at least 65 percent of their money on direct classroom expenses like, say, teachers. 

Some educators squawked at the idea (which was also included in some versions of the school legislation that stalled this summer), but it apparently polls well and it's hard to say you want to put a smaller percentage into indirect costs. But it's all in how you define this stuff. Using TEA's current definitions, 64.8 percent of school funds go into the classrooms of Texas. If you jiggle the numbers as the governor's office does (using National Center for Education Statistics methods), it's 60.4 percent.

Perry told Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley to dispatch a task force to figure it out, and indicated he wants a new rule in place, enforced, by the beginning of the 2009-10 school year. The task force drew criticism from conservatives, like Americans for Prosperity. That group said the work of the task force is unneeded since NCES has already done the work, and they were unhappy that the group picked by Neeley is made up entirely of educators, who they see as the biggest obstacles to the program.

Anyhow, that task force will presumably work out definitions for all this, and also compile a list of exemptions for districts that for some good reasons can't comply. Transportation costs in rural areas, for instance, have confounded reformers in other states. Special Ed kids sometimes need things that aren't considered classroom costs. Food services don't count, and neither does security. It's a hairball, in other words.

Out of curiosity, we looked at TEA's most recent data on employment, to see whether people working for the schools were working in the classrooms or elsewhere. According to the agency, 63.8 percent of all public school employees in Texas are counted as "instructional staff." 

The November Ballot 

The headline item on this ticket — a proposed ban on gay marriage and anything like it — is Prop 2. The order of the nine proposed amendments to the constitution was determined in a drawing by Secretary of State Roger Williams. They're listed here with the bills that go along:

Proposition 1 (HJR 54) "The constitutional amendment creating the Texas rail relocation and improvement fund and authorizing grants of money and issuance of obligations for financing the relocation, rehabilitation and expansion of rail facilities."

Proposition 2 (HJR 6) "The constitutional amendment providing that marriage in this state consists only of the union of one man and one woman and prohibiting this state or a political subdivision of this state from creating or recognizing any legal status identical or similar to marriage."

Proposition 3 (HJR 80) "The constitutional amendment clarifying that certain economic development programs do not constitute a debt."

Proposition 4 (SJR 17) "The constitutional amendment authorizing the denial of bail to a criminal defendant who violates a condition of the defendant's release pending trial."

Proposition 5 (SJR 21) "The constitutional amendment allowing the legislature to define rates of interest for commercial loans."

Proposition 6 (HJR 87) "The constitutional amendment to include one additional public member and a constitutional county court judge in the membership of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct."

Proposition 7 (SJR 7) "The constitutional amendment authorizing line-of-credit advances under a reverse mortgage."

Proposition 8 (SJR 40) "The constitutional amendment providing for the clearing of land titles by relinquishing and releasing any state claim to sovereign ownership or title to interest in certain land in Upshur County and in Smith County."

Proposition 9 (HJR 79) "The constitutional amendment authorizing the legislature to provide for a six-year term for a board member of a regional mobility authority." 

Never Mind 

The Texas Parks & Wildlife Commission unanimously backed out of a mess, voting not to sell a chunk of the Big Bend Ranch State Park. The prospective buyer was John Poindexter, who owns the Cibolo Creek Ranch nearby. 

The terms of the deal were never disclosed — officials from the agency said the offer came from Poindexter to them and not the other way around. No competitive bidding took place, and until the sale hit the papers, even some prominent locals had no idea it was in the works; public hearings weren't held until after the papers spoiled the secrecy.

Defenders of the proposal said the money from the land sale could have been used to buy privately held pockets of property within the state park. In effect, they said, the deal would trade accessible land for inaccessible land. The "panhandle" property Poindexter wanted to buy includes the old Sauceda ranch headquarters and visitor center, which was used for a time as the state's main office in Big Bend. 

Beyond Rescue 

Tuition revenue bonds didn't make it out of this year's Legislature and can't be added to the agenda for the Legislative Budget Board. The LBB — an agency run by a panel of ten lawmakers including House Speaker Tom Craddick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst — is being enlisted to apply patches to other things left unfixed by the full Legislature, and some TRB supporters were hoping that outfit could bail them out, too.

Fuggetaboutit.

State law prevents colleges and other agencies from using state money to pay debt service, unless the Legislature specifically says otherwise. Gov. Rick Perry didn't add the TRBs to the legislative agenda for the special session, and Craddick and Dewhurst couldn't agree on them during the regular session. The schools that wanted to borrow to build new facilities and then pay off the loan with student tuition won't be able to do so until and unless the full Legislature says so. 

Political Notes 

Add the Independent Bankers Association of Texas to Susan Combs' endorsement list. The agriculture commissioner is, so far, unopposed in either party in her race for comptroller.

• Combs was the headliner for an Austin fundraiser/organizer for MavPAC. That's a group of 11 relatively young Republicans who each raised at least $50,000 for George W. Bush's last presidential campaign. That classed them as "mavericks," thus the name. Houston businessman Chad Sweet says the group is trying to raise $100,000 to support Republican candidates running for non-federal offices next year, and says they're halfway toward that first-year goal. Perry was their guest star at a Houston event earlier this summer, and they'll try to win friends and influence people in Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso and elsewhere over the next few months.

Charles Tull, a firefighter and school board president, will run against Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van, in the GOP primary next March. He lives in Wills Point and heads the Edgewood ISD board, and is a lieutenant in the Mesquite Fire Department. Tull told local reporters that the Legislature's failures on school issues prompted him to run.

• State Rep. Joe Nixon, R-Houston, officially announced his campaign for state Senate next to the headquarters of the Harris County Appraisal District. He said property tax relief and appraisal caps will be the main issue in the race. But he wants to end bilingual education in favor of "full immersion" teaching. He blamed the Robin Hood school finance formula on Democrats and called for its end and said he's against income taxes and gambling.

• Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, will chair Democrat Chris Bell's campaign for governor.

• U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Dallas, endorsed Gov. Rick Perry, the third member of the state's congressional delegation to do so. Perry has announced similar support from the majority of the State Republican Executive Committee and several Republican groups. Notably missing are the people who've been in Austin at Perry's behest: Members of the Texas Legislature. The governor listed eight House members as part of his steering committee back in February, but hasn't added to the list. He either didn't want to bug them while they were working on school issues, or they didn't want to be bugged. Separately, Perry picked up the support of HOMEPAC, the political action committee associated with the Texas Association of Builders.

• We had Donna Howard on the "reportedly running" list; she's in, and issuing press releases. She's a Democrat hoping to win the HD-48 seat now held by Rep. Todd Baxter, R-Austin. 

Political People and Their Moves 

Gov. Rick Perry named three new judges (in addition to Willett). Alan Waldrop, an Austin lawyer who's been around the Capitol on behalf of Texans for Lawsuit Reform, will join the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin. He's currently with Locke Liddell & Sapp. Lubbock County District Attorney William Charles Sowder of Shallowater will move to the bench in the 99th Judicial District Court. And Richard Price, an attorney with Frank R. Rivas & Associates in San Antonio, is Perry's choice for the 408th Judicial District Court there.

Robert Black — Perry's deputy press secretary — is going on leave starting next week so he can be the mouthpiece of Perry's reelection campaign.

Lisette Mondello is George W. Bush's choice to head public and governmental relations at the Department of Veterans Affairs. She's a former press secretary to U.S. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Alfonse D'Amato, R-New York, and is currently working as a "senior advisor" to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.

After 16 years with the Greater Houston Partnership, Anne Culver is resigning. She's staying on through mid-October as the head of government relations and regional planning.

Sarah Wheat is the new executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, replacing Kae McLaughlin, who left that outfit to be chief operating office at the ACLU of Texas. Wheat was NARAL's spokesperson before the job upgrade.

Deaths: Calvin Guest of Bryan, a banker and businessman who served as former chairman of the Texas Democratic Party and president of the local school board. He was 81. 

Department of Corrections: We put Marty Akins in the wrong contest in some editions last week. He ran for comptroller in 2002, losing to the Carole Keeton Strayhorn, known at the time as Carole Keeton Rylander. Sorry, sorry, sorry.

Quotes of the Week 

Former Texas Supreme Court Justice Deborah Hankinson, in The Dallas Morning News: "You will see language in every one of these opinions that says the system needs more than a Band-Aid, it needs to be totally revamped. The Legislatures, from the very beginning, have done nothing but put Band-Aids on it."

Pasadena ISD Superintendent Rick Schneider, in the Houston Chronicle about rising fuel and transportation costs: "As these costs escalate, we have to find additional revenue to pay for the service. The governor's mandate that 65 percent of all expenditures go toward direct instruction appears on the surface to overlook the essential support services that contribute to the student learning and achievement."

New Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett, asked whether he'll be impartial: "My judicial philosophy renders my political philosophy completely beside the point. Never in any manner, way, shape, or form will I permit my political views to have an ounce of an effect on how I rule as a judge."

Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, telling the Austin American-Statesman that Democrats wouldn't handle current issues like the Republicans: "The leadership is dealing with schools the same way it deals with its members: Management by cram-down. What you've seen in the House is top-down, we-know-what's-best, you-all-follow-along mandates on members. That's the same thing we're getting on school issues."

Rep. Corbin Van Arsdale, R-Houston, in The Dallas Morning News: "Whoever's driving the car gets blamed for it. It's like, 'Hey, why are we in the desert? We're supposed to be in Disneyland.' The constituents are not happy at this continual failure to come up with something." 


Texas Weekly: Volume 22, Issue 11, 29 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 info@texasweekly.com. For news, email ramsey@texasweekly.com, or call (512) 288-6598.

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