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Low Expectations

Remember potential energy? That was the bit in high school science class where you found out about the stored power of a bowling ball at the top of a staircase. The political equivalents of that teetering bowling ball are piling up. Lots of stuff could come bouncing down the stairs in the next few days and weeks.

Remember potential energy? That was the bit in high school science class where you found out about the stored power of a bowling ball at the top of a staircase. The political equivalents of that teetering bowling ball are piling up. Lots of stuff could come bouncing down the stairs in the next few days and weeks.

• A federal grand jury's decisions about the CIA leak investigation — which has embroiled some politicos who did their teething in Texas — are expected to be public soon.

• U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, is pushing for a fast trial with a new judge in someplace other than the state capital. He's racing, in some sense, against the ambitions of congressional colleagues who are temporarily holding his seat open.

• More in the realm of marbles than bowling balls, but already in motion: Candidates are making final decisions about what they'll do next year, and the list of bids for reelection, challenges, resignations, retirements and whatever else will trickle through the end of the year.

• The combatants in the war over a proposed constitutional amendment on gay marriage are in full battle and might turn that into a closer election than some polls indicate. Light turnout elections are often decided by true believers on both sides. This one could be more dependent on organization — who turns out their voters — than by the views of voters who are drawn to the polls by other issues and happen to vote on the amendment while they're there.

• The Texas Supreme Court is overdue on its school finance decision. Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson told a group on September 9 that the ruling would be out in two week's time; that was seven weeks ago. The court's actions are usually announced on Fridays, but they don't have deadlines and could announce a school finance decision — once it's made — whenever they feel like it. A ruling could trigger anything from another special session on school finance to another round of hearings in trial court.

• And any minute now, Gov. Rick Perry is going to announce the members of a task force who, with former Comptroller John Sharp, will try to come up with a tax plan that raises more money, makes everybody happy, and offers a way out of the state's school finance jam.

Judging DeLay's Judge

Another judge — C.W. "Bud" Duncan Jr. of Killeen — will decide whether Judge Bob Perkins' support of Democratic candidates and causes should disqualify him from presiding over U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay's trial on conspiracy and money-laundering charges. DeLay's lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, wants a new judge and a new locale for that trial. Lawyers for DeLay's co-defendants haven't joined in, but would get a new judge and venue anyhow if DeGuerin is successful.

DeGuerin says he wants Perkins off the case because of the judge's contributions to Democrats, particularly to organizations like MoveOn.org, which he says is directly opposing DeLay, and to the Democratic National Committee, since transactions between Texans for a Republican Majority PAC and the Republican National Committee are at the heart of the money laundering charge against DeLay.

"This is not about Democrat or Republican judges," DeGuerin said after the hearing. "The judge has every right to be a Democrat or a Republican — that's not what it's about. It's about Judge Perkins having actively supported people who were in opposition to Congressman DeLay. Since this case has been in court, he's made six monetary contributions to either the Democratic Party in Texas or the Democratic National Committee. In addition, he made contributions to one of the candidates who TRMPAC supported. It just doesn't look right."

DeGuerin's own contributions put him mostly -- but not completely -- on the Democratic side of the ledger. And the list includes a contribution to a Democrat who hoped to unseat DeLay in the 2002 elections. DeGuerin gave $1,000 to Frank Briscoe Jr.. Briscoe didn't make it out of the Democratic primary, losing to Tim Riley, who managed only 35 percent of the vote against DeLay that year. There's a back-story; Briscoe's father, Frank Briscoe Sr., was the Harris County District Attorney who gave DeGuerin his first job out of law school. Another member of that family — a cousin — is former Gov. Dolph Briscoe, also a Democrat.

DeGuerin has given $11,200 to state candidates and PACs since 2000, according to the Texas Ethics Commission, including $2,000 to Republican judicial candidates. He gave $450 to the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, which is generally associated with Democrats. The balance went to Democratic statewide candidates like Kirk Watson, John Sharp, Charlie Baird, and to a handful of Houston legislators and judicial candidates.

He's spent more money on Republicans at the national level, starting with former client U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Since 2000, according to the Federal Election Commission, DeGuerin contributed $3,400 to Hutchison's Senate campaign account. He contributed $1,000 to then-Judge Ted Poe's successful campaign for Congress last year. Poe knocked off Democratic U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson of Beaumont, who has since moved to run against DeLay in next year's election (DeGuerin was a Lampson contributor back in 1996). The defense lawyer also gave to Democrats: He contributed $1,000 to former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk's unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate. He gave the $1,000 to Briscoe, a Democrat, in 2002. And he made a $1,000 contribution to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2002.

DeGuerin has also asked that the trial be moved out of Austin, where he contends a three-year barrage of stories about the 2002 election investigation has poisoned chances for a fair trial. Asked where he'd like to go, he pointed to one of the state's most reliably Republican terrains and the site of his victorious defense of Hutchison: "It would be nice to be in Fort Worth."

Second Thoughts

Kelly White, the campaign treasurer for Austin Democrat Donna Howard, might abandon her candidate to run for the House herself. She says she's "not ready to talk about that in the media," but other candidates in the race, and various party officials, say the prospect of a special election in HD-48 might transform White from aide to candidate.

White, an Austin Democrat who missed being a state lawmaker a year ago by less than 150 votes, signed up this year as the treasurer for another candidate, Donna Howard. White lost to Rep. Todd Baxter, R-Austin, and Howard is one of three Democrats campaigning for the chance to challenge him. But Baxter surprised the Democrats last week by saying he won't run for reelection, and in fact will quit the House on November 1.

Republican Ben Bentzin was in the race within a day and so far has been able to keep other Republicans from joining in the contest. Baxter's resignation will force a special election — the timing of which is up to Gov. Rick Perry.

That sets up some interesting campaign puzzles. If the governor calls a quick election, Bentzin has a chance to split the votes with the three Democrats now in the contest: Howard, Andy Brown, and Kathy Rider. One theory among the apparatchiks is that Bentzin would get the 50 percent of the vote that Baxter got, and that the Democrats would split the other 50 percent. If Bentzin gets more than half, he'd win straight up.

An election with that many folks in it could also result in a runoff. Democrats fear that could be timed to coincide with the March primary elections. Their worry is that the Republicans, with a gubernatorial primary between Perry and Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, the GOP will have the better draw in March. If more elephants than donkeys go to the polls, Bentzin might benefit from the increased traffic, swamping whatever Democrat makes it into the runoff. That's pretty interesting, and it prompted much of the scheming about White and Howard and Brown and Rider, but it's wrong. Officials with the Texas Secretary of State say you can't hold a special election — or a runoff election — on a primary election date.

If the election is earlier than later, the Democrat with the best combination of name identification, grassroots support and money would have the best chance. And since she ran before, some plotters would pick White to bear the standard, though she's endorsed Howard and told friends and supporters in emails that Howard would make a better representative than she would. The candidates caucused over the weekend with local party officials to talk about the situation. They didn't come to any resolution. And White, in spite of having her name in play, went ahead with a previously planned fundraiser for Howard at White's house.

Gov. Perry hasn't announced his decision on whether to call a quick special election (by designating it as an emergency) or to wait until the next uniform election date, in May. In either case, there will also be primary elections for that seat, followed by a general election in November 2006. The special election winner will serve until the end of next year, and then give up the spot to the winner of the general election.

Dazed and Confused

Read this sentence: "This state or a political subdivision of this state may not create or recognize any legal status identical or similar to marriage."

That's the second sentence that would be added to the state constitution if voters approve the gay marriage ban next month, and opponents of the measure say it amounts to a ban on marriage itself. They're calling it a "drafting error" in the legislation and saying voters who believe in marriage should vote against the amendment. They're saying it loudly, too, using phone-calling equipment to deliver that message to voters all over the state.

Now read this: "Marriage in this state shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman. This state or a political subdivision of this state may not create or recognize any legal status identical or similar to marriage."

That's the whole schmear, and proponents of the amendment say the two sentences taken together are clear. Gov. Rick Perry referred to the first spin on this as "disinformation," and Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, says the opposition has forfeited its integrity.

The anti-amendment calls feature the voice of a Presbyterian minister from San Antonio: "I'm Rev. Tom Heger. Rick Perry and the Legislature made a blunder in writing the gay marriage amendment. Don't risk it. Vote against it. They left off words that would have made sure it applied only to gays. A greedy insurance company, tricky divorce lawyer or a liberal Austin activist judge can easily use these words to overturn traditional marriage and cause people to lose health insurance, tax breaks and pensions. The status quo protects everyone's marriage. Don't risk it. Vote against it. God bless you. Read it for yourself at SaveTexasMarriage.com."

The proponents have websites, too, at TexansForMarriage.org and txmarriage.com. KellyShackelford, president of the Free Market Foundation, is among several writers on the first one who's calling the phone campaign misleading: "The calls from Save Texas Marriage are so deceptive that they are even ending the call saying God Bless You," he writes. " One of these starts out from a Reverend and says that Governor Perry messed up, and that there is a hidden liberal agenda. The group is even calling seniors who would typically support conservative legislation."

Political Notes

Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, looking for an idea that'll capture the fancy of voters, says lawmakers should come back for a quick special session to write $260 checks for every homeowner in the state. She says the money is in the till, and that it would provide tax relief to homeowners. The state has a surplus of about $1.2 billion — money that's been raised but that wasn't budgeted — and she wants to use that to fund her idea. None of the money would go to other property owners; people who rent homes and apartments wouldn't get any of the dough. Gov. Rick Perry, Strayhorn's opponent in next year's GOP gubernatorial primary, would have to call a special session to put wheels on her plan; his aides say that's not going to happen. They labeled it a short-term solution to a long-term problem, and said this is the third idea Strayhorn has offered for the surplus funds.

• Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson signed a lease that'll allow offshore testing by a couple of big wind towers in the Gulf of Mexico; the tests are designed to site an offshore wind farm. The first numbers run by the General Land Office says the project will bring in $26.5 million. The company on the other end of the contract — Louisiana-based Wind Energy Systems Technologies — wants to put 50 windmills on platforms about seven miles from the coastline. They'll be huge: 260 feet tall with blades about 55 feet long, all mounted on offshore platforms. The state will get a 3.5 percent royalty at first, escalating over the duration of the 30-year lease.

• Two Republicans are planning challenges to Rep. Mary Denny, R-Aubrey. Anne Lakusta, a real estate agent who was once the president of the Lewisville ISD board, and Ricky Grunden, a Denton investment advisor, both told local reporters they'll challenge the incumbent in HD-63. Denny has been in the House since 1993.

• Rep. Ruben Hope Jr., R-Conroe, says he'll be on next year's ballot, but not for the same job: He wants to be a state district judge, succeeding Olin Underwood, who has signaled his retirement. This is a reprise of sorts; Hope was close to resigning from the House during the legislative session earlier this year when it appeared Underwood would hang up the robes and create a vacancy. That didn't work out, but Hope says now he'll be on the ballot. Former Rep. Bob Rabuck told the Conroe Courier he won't be in the contest. Brandon Creighton, an attorney, says he will be in the contest. A couple of others are asking around about the race, including former Rep. Keith Valigura, R-Conroe, who served three terms in the late 1980s.

• Perry added to his endorsees list: U.S. Reps. John Culberson, R-Houston, and Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler; the Texas RN/APN PAC, which is tied to three nursing associations; the Texas DPS Officers Association PAC; the Texas Building Owners and Managers Association; and the Independent Bankers Association.

• The Texas Association of Dairymen endorsed Agriculture Commissioner Susan Comb's bid for comptroller, and will back Sen. Todd Staples' bid for the Ag job. Neither of those two Republicans has a visible opponent, though the filing deadline is still two months away.

• Political donors from Texas have so far given $26.7 million to federal candidates and 527 committees, according to campaign finance reports compiled by Political Money Line. House candidates have banked $5.4 million from Texas contributors. Senate candidates have received $4.1 million. Texans have given another $5.8 million to political action committees, $9.2 million to political party committees, and $2.0 million to 527 groups. Dallasites led the list, giving $5.7 million, followed by Houston, $5.4 million, San Antonio, $1.8 million, Austin, $1.8 million, and Fort Worth, $1.0 million.

• Dallas lawyer Tom Pauken — and a group that includes several refugees from The Dallas Morning News — is starting up a website to cover news and politics and such in Dallas. It's called Dallas Blog, and they're actually hoping to make the thing a going financial concern. And they're letting readers write, opening up the site where bloggers in and about Dallas can post their scribblings.

• The Texas Credit Union League is doing a campaign school for candidates November 8-9 in Austin. There's a day for Democrats and a day for Republicans. It's free, but you have to sign up for it, at www.tcul.coop/campaign_school.html. You'll also find more details there.

Department of Corrections: Early voting for the November elections began on Monday, October 24, and will run through Thursday, November 3. The law used to allow counties to open the polls on the weekend before the official startup, and we wrote it that way last week. It's no longer the case. The Monday startup applied to everybody.

And a Legitimate Quibble Building to an Explanation: A friend in the tax business begs to differ with two details from a story on corporate taxes last week, and he's right. One, we wrote that putting business taxes on partnerships and proprietor ships would amount to making them pay personal income taxes; that's certainly their contention, but it's not an undisputed fact, as we presented it. Two, not all of the businesses that have some form of limited liability pay corporate franchise taxes, and the way they duck the state tax is by morphing into one of the forms that gives them liability protection without exposing them to the tax. Sorry, sorry, sorry.

It Depends on What You Mean by "Instruction"

Making sure two-thirds of education money goes to the classroom isn't a math problem -- it's almost a philosophical problem. It's all about how you define instructional spending.

State leaders want educators to get 65 percent of every dollar to the classroom. The state has a definition of that, and the results are posted on the Texas Education Agency's website for anyone who wants to dig around and find it. The National Center for Education Statistics has a definition, too, and it's the one backed — at least for now — by Gov. Rick Perry and some others in state government. But there are big differences between what Texas has labeled as instructional spending and what the feds have chosen. Deciding on what to include has fallen to the TEA, and to task forces of school people and civilians assembled for the arguments.

We plowed through the state's own statistics a couple of weeks ago to look at this based on the state numbers. Since then, the TEA has ranked the state's schools as if the NCES standard was the law of the land. The results are, well, different. We charted their numbers under each of the two definitions for every school district in the state. You can get the listings — in Adobe Acrobat or spreadsheet form — in the Files section of our website.

Using the state's Academic Excellence Indicator System, the average district spends 64.8 percent of its money on instruction. Using NCES, that's 64 percent. Inside those averages are big differences. Use the state's numbers and all but three of the biggest school districts in Texas are over 65 percent; use the national numbers and 14 of the 25 don't hit the mark. Only 250 of the 1,037 school districts spend 65 percent or more of their money on instruction using the state definitions, but those districts teach 59.6 percent of the state's students. The state definition is kinder to bigger districts. More Texas districts make the grade using the national definition — 424 — but they educate only 38.9 percent of the state's public school students.

Why the swings in results? Both AEIS and NCES (which is part of the U.S. Department of Education) include salaries for teachers, aides, substitutes, special education teachers, physical education, and costs of instructional materials and equipment used in classrooms, textbooks, band instruments, computer labs and supplies, testing materials, and insurance for drivers' education vehicles. That's all in a category designed to include everything that deals with direct interaction between teachers and students. If you read the broad categories that are and aren't included, it's harder to see what the fight is about. The devil is in the details, some of which are listed here. TEA includes several things the feds leave out, in three broad categories.

•  Library and resource centers: Librarians, aides and assistants, people who run instructional media areas and equipment, those who write and produce those programs, and books and films and tapes maintained in a school library.

• Curriculum and instructional staff development: In-house and outsourced staff development personnel, travel for staff instruction, substitutes who fill in while regular teachers get training, certain tuition and fees and other costs of outside training for teachers, paid sabbaticals for instructors, and administrators who solely oversee curriculum.

• Student guidance and counseling: student testing, mental health screening, psychiatrists, psychologists and diagnosticians, guidance records and record-keepers, placement services, and parent/teacher counseling.

NCES doesn't include those things, but does include costs from three categories the state doesn't include.

• Extracurricular activities: Coach salaries (above what's already included for P.E.), assistants and trainers, insurance to cover student sports injuries, athletic supplies and equipment, referee and umpire pay, travel and lodging for traveling athletes, coaches and staffs, for band directors and debate coaches and the like, and band uniforms.

• Shared service expenses and salaries.

• Costs of juvenile justice alternative education programs.

Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley has a group of educators worrying over the definitions, and another group made up of people who aren't in that business. Gov. Perry wants TEA to come up with a 65 percent rule — with exceptions for districts with unusual problems like high transportation or special needs costs — that it can impose on public schools all over Texas.

Political People and Their Moves

Dave Beckwith is moving back to Austin as state director for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn. Beckwith, who has worked on and off for U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison over the years, is moving to Texas to lead Cornyn's in-state staff. He worked on Cornyn's Senate campaign and did a stint with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst before returning to Washington, D.C., for his most recent run with Hutchison. Beckwith and the senior senator used to be in the Houston press corps together — she as a TV reporter and he as a scribe with the Houston Chronicle. He'll be on Cornyn's payroll by the New Year.

Indicted: State district Judge Amado Abascal, for two counts of tampering with a government record. He's accused — in indictments reported in Travis County — of listing 15 contributors on his campaign finance forms who didn't give to his campaign. The $15,000 he attributed to them, according to news reports, was from people associated with an Eagle Pass casino.

Indicted: Texas oilman Oscar Wyatt Jr., who stands accused (by federal prosecutors) of paying kickbacks to Iraqi leaders who let him sell their oil through a United Nations assistance program.

Quotes of the Week

Harriet Miers, withdrawing her name from consideration for the U.S. Supreme Court, in a letter to George W. Bush: "I am concerned that the confirmation process presents a burden for the White House and our staff that is not in the best interests of the country."

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, talking about the federal investigation of the Valerie Plame leak, on Meet the Press: "I certainly hope that if there is going to be an indictment that says something happened, that it is an indictment on a crime and not some perjury technicality where they couldn't indict on the crime and so they go to something just to show that their two years of investigation was not a waste of time and taxpayer dollars."

Hutchison in 1999, at a press conference on investigations of the Clinton Administration: "I very much worry that with the evidence that we have seen that grand juries across America are going to start asking questions about what is obstruction of justice, what is perjury. And I don't want there to be any lessening of the standard. Because our system of criminal justice depends on people telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That is the lynch pin of our criminal justice system and I don't want it to be faded in any way."

Gov. Rick Perry, quoted by the Associated Press on recent campaign finance indictments: "I'm for Tom DeLay. I don't get confused about what's going on here. The fact of the matter is, I happen to think that this is an overzealous prosecutor who is working very hard to take a Texan off of the national stage who's been doing some great and good things for the state of Texas."

House Speaker Tom Craddick, talking tort reform in the Burleson-Crowley Connection: "We're seeing fewer lawsuits, and the trial lawyers are on the run in this state, which I think is great."

Gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell, in the McAllen Monitor on tests in schools: "TAKS testing is corrupting the curriculum and leading to the highest dropout rate in the country. When's someone's told they'll be left back in 10th grade, there's a high probability they won't return."

Judge Bob Perkins, quoted by the Associated Press about the Tom DeLay case: "Judges tend to be hesitant about taking real high publicity cases. It definitely complicates your life."

Gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman, quoted in the San Antonio Express-News: "If I lose this race, I already know what I'm going to do. I'm going to retire in a petulant snit."


Texas Weekly: Volume 22, Issue 20, 31 October 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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