Skip to main content

It's Not Easy Being Green

Though their agency went through the "exercise" of writing a shrunken budget, the board at the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department is unanimously backing an $84 million annual increase in state funding.

Though their agency went through the "exercise" of writing a shrunken budget, the board at the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department is unanimously backing an $84 million annual increase in state funding.

That agency turned in a proposed budget (the jargon for it is an LAR, for Legislative Appropriations Request) that includes a 10 percent cut from current spending. That's what Gov. Rick Perry and the Legislative Budget Board told them and almost all other state agencies to do. But while their budgeteers were working on that, the agency's board — a panel dominated by Perry political backers — was already building the case for a bigger budget.

And they landed a report recommending new spending right in the middle of a debate over parks funding, privatization, and the use of dedicated funds from licenses and fees that has seeped into the governor's race.

In April, the TPWD board appointed a panel headed by former Senate Finance Chairman John Montford to figure out how to get enough money to maintain the state's existing parks, to figure out which ones might best be in other hands, to look at "public-private partnerships" and to find funding options to acquire new state and local parks, particularly near big cities.

The recommendations from that panel include dedicating all of the state's sales tax on sporting goods to TPWD while leaving all other funding in place. That would add about $84.4 million to the agency's annual budget. They want permission to issue the rest of a bond package already approved by voters, which would bring in $46 million for repairs and maintenance projects.

About a fifth of the money raised by the sporting goods tax goes to parks; the parks folk want the entire tax dedicated to parks. Montford and TPWD Chairman Joseph Fitzsimons both said they don't know of any lawmakers who are against helping the parks, but they know they're competing with everything else in the budget. 

The task force report is available online from the Parks & Wildlife folk.

Several projects are at desperation stage, notably the Texas State Railroad in East Texas. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell picked up on that example, and park funding in general, to tee up on Perry. He's called on Perry to use money in the Texas Enterprise Fund — an economic development fund spent at the discretion of the governor — to bail the state park system out of its immediate troubles. He's been critical of state budget-writers who left money from license plates, hunting and fishing and other "user fees" languishing in accounts to balance the budget instead of spending them on the parks and other things intended by consumer/licensees. And he blames Perry — who didn't write the budget, but did sign it into law — for causing the problem in the first place. Perry's staff says he supports increased funding for parks, but won't use the enterprise fund to bail them out.

Bell said the Montford report doesn't go far enough and makes a mistake by "leaving privatization on the table." In a press conference that followed the presentation of the report, Montford and Fitzsimons downplayed the possibility of privatization of parks (leaving it open for things like concessions). Their report didn't address immediate problems like the railroad. Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, showed up at the commission's meeting to warn that the railroad could lose its rights of way if it suspends operations while it's getting its funding together.

Other lawmakers, like Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, have called for a moratorium on sales of other parkland by TPWD or other agencies, like the General Land Office (Gallego is the co-chair of Bell's campaign). That follows discussions of land sales in the Big Bend area and near Eagle Mountain Lake in Fort Worth. The Montford panel recommended some "transfers" of properties, but suggested they follow a blueprint in the agency's "land and water resources" plan. The Black Gap property near Big Bend is in GLO's hands; the Eagle Mountain Lake properties include some state park land, but it's also in GLO's portfolio.

In that LAR we mentioned higher up, agency officials complain that their budget has been cut twice in the last two budget cycles (each lasts two years). They've cut operating hours at some parks, added fees at others, and transferred some into local government hands. The impact of another 10 percent cut, as requested by state budgeteers, would be "critical," they say.

Unappreciated Appreciation

With Election Day less than three months away, Gov. Rick Perry named a 15-member "Texas Task Force on Appraisal Reform" to look into the links between rising property values and higher property taxes.

Tom Pauken of Dallas, former chairman of the Texas Republican Party and a candidate for various offices over the years, will chair the panel. He's now a mediator/attorney and helped start up an online news publication called Dallas Blog. Pauken, a stalwart of the conservative wing of the GOP, split with that bunch over tax reform earlier this year to back Perry's proposal for higher taxes on business to pay for cuts in local property taxes.

Perry, in announcements in Dallas and Houston, indicated his preference for limits on property tax growth, saying local governments should have to ask voters when they want more money. "If people are going to pay more in taxes to local government, it ought to come because of a vote and not the appraiser's note," Perry said in a written announcement of the task force. He put his orders in a proclamation (link here) and said he wants a report by early January, in time for the Legislature's regular session next year.

The others on the 15-member board include: Lubbock City Councilman Gary Boren of Lubbock, vice president of an employee staffing company; L. Curtis Culwell, superintendent of the Garland Independent School District; Harris County Judge Robert Eckels; Hidalgo Mayor John David Franz, who is a lawyer in real life; Bob Garrett of Tyler, a homebuilder and president of Fair Management and Fair Oil Company of Texas; Robert Garrett, owner and broker with Coldwell Banker First Equity Realtors in Amarillo; John Nichols of Freeport, tax director for Dow Chemical Co.; San Antonio attorney Rolando Pablos, who headed a private group that promoted Perry's tax plan before and during the special legislative session earlier this year; Brooke Leslie Rollins president and CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank in Austin; Timothy Roth, a professor of economics at the University of Texas at El Paso; Calvin Stephens president and chairman of SSP Consulting in Dallas; Michael Stevens, who chairs a real estate and development firm in Houston; Brazos County tax assessor-collector and chief appraiser Gerald "Buddy" Winn of Bryan; and Avis Wukasch, a Georgetown real estate agent and chairman-elect of the Texas Association of Realtors.

Pauken, who had high praise then and now for John Sharp's committee on the business/property tax swap, hopes to emulate its success. But that panel had two advantages over the new one: A court order to change school finance forced the Legislature to act, and the group wasn't meeting in the last 75 days of a heated race for governor. He's optimistic anyhow: "The system is not fair. It's not working right... if we come up with a common-sense approach, I think the Legislature will do something."

The push-back on appraisal and revenue caps has come mainly from the local governments that would be regulated by them. Appraisal caps often result in disparities between the tax values of similar properties. Values are reset when properties sell, and newly sold properties can end up on the books at higher values than, say, their next-door neighbors.

Texas already has a form of revenue caps for cities and counties: If overall taxes — the value of all property times the tax rate — increase by more than a given amount, voters can step in. Frank Sturzl at the Texas Municipal League says the state already controls the appraisal process and says if there's something wrong with it, they ought to fix it. But he says new limits on local governments could reduce services or, more likely, cuts in capital projects and long-term maintenance of roads and buildings and other infrastructure.

Cities get, on average, 34 percent of their revenue from property taxes and another 27 percent or so from sales taxes. Counties, most of which don't receive sales tax money, are even more dependent on property taxes. And most property taxes don't go to either government: Most go to schools, and the state's funding formulas regulate the pressure on those taxes. When the state pays a bigger share, the heat's off the local schools; when the state backs off, tax pressures go up, and that shows up in property tax rates. The current political die was cast during a series of years when state demands on schools were rising and state funding — as a share of the total — wasn't keeping up. The tax bill passed earlier this year is supposed to address that.

Both TML and the Texas Association of Counties have been watching, apprehensively, for several years as Perry and other officeholders have called for caps. Appraisal caps have failed to win legislative approval several times. Revenue caps haven't been tested as much, politically speaking, and at this date, seem less likely to fail. But it's not clear they're a good bet, either.

Perry has pushed caps for several years, as have lawmakers, particularly from the Houston area where this has been a hot button issue in political clubs and on talk radio. But Pauken and a spokeswoman for the governor say he isn't telling the task force what to produce. And Perry's spokeswoman goes further, saying they're not trying to solve a problem with local government spending — the problem is with appraisals and "stealth tax increases."

Pauken says the panel will meet for the first time in mid-September. They'll go around the state for public comment and write a report for lawmakers in time for the beginning of the regular session in January. Some early ideas that'll be in the mix: accountability of local appraisal boards and the possibility of putting more elected people on them, requiring public records of property sales to include prices, as is done in all but a dozen states including Texas, and lower caps on valuation increases on individual properties, so that gentrification and other quick changes in property status don't force residents to move to cheaper neighborhoods.

Fuzzy Lines

The governor's newest task force is talking about limits to one of the two taxes it doesn't levy. And a research outfit that works for legislative conservatives has issued a short report that's critical of state efforts to leash local governments and officials.

The Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute starts its newest paper with a call for "clarification" of the roles of state and local governments. Before they're out of the first paragraph, they've delivered this line: "Conservatives must acknowledge that meaningful local control is an important way to limit the power of centralized government, and that it is not the role of the state to protect local taxpayers from themselves by attempting to limit the ability of locally elected officials to raise revenue for local services and projects."

To be fair, the TCCRI paper preceded the announcement of the state task force by a week, so they weren't sniping.

But they're clearly singing a different song. They take aim at duplication of services between various levels of government, mandates from state government that aren't accompanied by the money to pay for them, "excessive state involvement" in local issues and operations, and regional councils of government (COGS) set up to coordinate planning and projects that crosses city and county lines. They go from there to question the overlapping governments in urban areas, and end by recommending a study "to clarify the roles of the state and units of local government" with the idea of eventually rewriting the state constitution and the Local Government Code to keep each government's nose out of the other government's business.

Spelling Bee: Sekula-Gibbs

Sugar Land Mayor David Wallace has decided to be the mayor of Sugar Land. Half a week after local and state GOP officials met and endorsed Houston City Councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs as their favorite write-in candidate for congress, Wallace announced he'll get out of the way.

Sekula-Gibbs won a straw poll of party officials who met privately last week to build a following for a single write-in candidate in CD-22, where U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay's departure left his party without a candidate on the ballot.

Wallace had registered as a write-in with the Texas Secretary of State. Sekula-Gibbs had not. But Wallace and his backers were against the closed gathering to select a favored candidate. Sekula-Gibbs campaigned for the backing, and she emerged the winner.

Now Wallace has folded. In pulling out, he said he'd been encouraged to stay in the race by supporters, but said his campaign advisors agreed that having more than one write-in candidate in the contest would doom all the Republicans trying to beat Democrat Nick Lampson, who's got the advantage of having his name on the ballot.

And he quoted Texas GOP Chairwoman Tina Benkiser as saying she has a "commitment from Washington" of $3 million for a GOP write-in candidate, so long as there's only one Republican in the contest. Benkiser's press release on the subject lauded his decision without mentioning the financial promise. Candidates can file through the end of the week; it'll be clear then whether Sekula-Gibbs is the only Republican in the contest.

Write-ins, Without Pencils

All four of the counties in CD-22 use the same electronic voting machines.

Voters who want to vote for the Democrat will just choose the block next to Nick Lampson's name. Those voting for the Republican will choose "write-in" on their screens and then will use a dial to select each of the 18 letters for Shelley Sekula-Gibbs. There's apparently no hyphen character, so a space will do. (The counties all use eSlate machines from Austin-based Hart InterCivic. There's a demo, if your computer will cooperate, on their website. One of the contests on the sample ballot has a blank for write-ins, and you can see how it works.)

Since she's a certified write-in candidate, her name will appear in the voting booths, so voters without a memory for spelling will have some help. Straight-ticket Republican voters still have to write in her name. She's not on the ballot as a Republican, and that party rather famously has no official candidate in the CD-22 contest. Election officials say they'll be judging write-in votes by "intent." If it's clear the voter was supporting Sekula-Gibbs, it'll count. If it's fuzzy, it won't. And just entering something in the write-in blank won't be enough. It's legal in Texas to vote for yourself, or for your favorite celebrity, family pet, or cartoon character. Those votes won't count for Sekula-Gibbs or anyone else, certified or not.

A Donor Gets the Bug

Lukin Gilliland Jr., a San Antonio businessman who's been a busy Democratic activist and donor for years, is jumping into the CD-23 race, saying he'll challenge U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio, and that he's "seeding" the effort with $500,000 of his own money.

Gilliland (and, possibly, his dad, who's also a Lukin) has contributed nearly $30,000 to candidates for state office so far this decade, according to records on file with the Texas Ethics Commission. Most were Democrats, but the Gillilands broke ranks for a couple of San Antonio candidates: Supreme Court Justice Paul Green and state Rep. Joe Straus.

State records aren't always clear about whether Senior or Junior is doing the giving. Federal records, which are free to browse through at www.PoliticalMoneyLine.com, usually make the distinction. On the federal level, his dad has contributed to several Texas and San Antonio Republicans, including George W. Bush, John Cornyn, Lamar Smith, and one Henry Bonilla. Gilliland the Younger has contributed at least twice to then-U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, another San Antonio Democrat who has also said he'll challenge Bonilla this year.

Gilliland would be the third Democrat in the race — former U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez and El Paso retiree Rick Bolanos have already signed up. Others are potentially in the wings. This is gonna be interesting. State Rep. Robert Puente, D-San Antonio, is signing on as Gilliland's treasurer. Rep. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, won the Democratic nomination for state Senate in March; his brother Albert has been talking about a run. So has former Mayor Ed Garza. Give it till the end of the day Friday and it'll all sort out. Gilliland hired the Austin-based Fero Hewitt Global as his general consultant.

Sidebar: Add Republican Grant Rostig of Dale to the pack in CD-25, another newly drawn district where the incumbent is Democrat Lloyd Doggett of Austin. And the Libertarians will have some candidates in the congressional races, too. Barbara Cunningham will be in the Austin race; she's replacing Rostig, who was on the ballot as a Libertarian but filed in the special as a Republican. James Arthur Strohm will run in CD-21, where Republican Lamar Smith of San Antonio is the incumbent. Democrats John Courage and Gene Kelly are also in that race.

Free Advertising, But No Guaranteed Audience

We've become accustomed to political campaigns treating their advertisements like trade secrets. Generally, political ads are kept under wraps until airtime, often not played for anyone outside the campaigns — except on radio and TV — and never referred to again until the contests are over and the ad makers are trying to win awards. That's the traditional model. Let people see it on TV or hear it on radio, but don't make the stuff generally available anywhere else.

The Internet is encouraging some selective thawing in that cold war.

Campaigns can put ads on the Internet now and let bloggers and others pick them up, and if they can stand having their opponents listen in, they get at least a chance that people will pass their stuff around and attract new supporters. Gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman has done that, trying to make his ads interesting enough to get a "hey, lookee" thing going on the Internet. When it works, it spreads a candidate's promotional stuff far and wide for very little money.

And now Barbara Ann Radnofsky, the Houston Democrat challenging U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, is leaving her ads out where reporters and political folk and bloggers and even normal people can get at them. See if it holds, but so far, she's got everything that's been on the radio (she hasn't run television ads). (They've also set up a way to comment; the tag line on their spots is begging for remarks, and somebody ought to call Brian Wilson.) Hutchison's ads aren't running yet, but she's got a longer video online that covers the biographical territory and serves as an intro for her when she's speaking at conventions and big gatherings.

Bio stuff and positive ads are available on other candidates' sites — Gov. Rick Perry's got 'em, for instance, as does Democrat Chris Bell. What's new this year on some sites is that some of the negative and comparative ads that have traditionally been held close are available online.

One other spot to check for political stuff — we've mentioned it here before, but there's new video all the time — is at www.YouTube.com. Try any (reasonably prominent) political name in the search blank, and you'll probably find something: It's a good spot to catch ads, random video from their travels around the state, and often, unexpected footage.

Flotsam & Jetsam

You can't prove it by talking to the budget folk right now, but states have more money on hand than they did a year ago, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

NCSL says the states finished the 2006 fiscal year with 25 percent more money than they had at the same point in 2005. The balances rose in 28 states and fell in 19. Some states stowed the money in rainy day funds. Others spent some or all of it, with education topping the list of things that got more money. And their poll of fiscal types from 49 states says the good times are temporary. Those folks think spending will increase 7.6 percent in 2007 while revenues grow by three percent. Their final report will be out later this year.

• Texas political consultant Matthew Dowd and a couple of other guys — Douglas Sosnik and Ron Fournier — have a book coming out on how marketers in business, religion and politics have navigated the consumer thicket. The big idea is that the nature of communities has changed and that consumer/voter/congregants have to be analyzed differently than before. Applebee's America will be out next month, but there's a funky little online quiz you can take to see how you fit in the world as seen by the three authors. It's a little rough: We tried it on a couple of known conservatives and a couple of known liberals, and the blues landed in the red jar. Give it a whirl, though — it's interesting.

• U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, won endorsements from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business — a setback to Republicans trying to put the president's home congressional district in the Red column. Both outfits opposed Edwards two years ago.

• Austin Democrat Donna Howard no longer has a Republican opponent, but she's unveiling TV spots anyhow. Howard beat Ben Bentzin in a special election for House and expected, until last week, to be in a rematch.

Department of Corrections: We made Chad Foster the mayor of Del Rio last week, no doubt surprising both him and that city's mayor, Efrain Valdez. Mr. Foster is the mayor of Eagle Pass.

Political People and Their Moves

Texas Health Commissioner Eduardo Sanchez will become director of the Institute for Health Policy at the UT School of Public Health in Houston in October. He'd already announced his departure from the Department of State Health Services; now he's got a destination.

Ann Erben (you might know her as Ann Quirk) signed on as staff director for the tax force on appraisals. She's done government time in the comptroller's office under Carole Keeton Strayhorn, as a legislative staffer, and has done a fair amount of political consulting on the Republican side for years. Plus she's an old pal of Tom Pauken, who's running the panel at Gov. Rick Perry's request. They're still getting organized; we're told more staff names will follow.

Former SBC exec Jan Newton is the newest board member at ERCOT — the agency that manages most of the Texas part of the electricity grid.

Jenny Young leaves the Texas Dental Association to join the Texas A&M System to head governmental affairs for the Health Science Center. She was at the Texas Medical Association before joining the dentists.

Speaking of which, Yvonne Barton left TMA to join Abbott Laboratories, where she'll work on government affairs in five states and Puerto Rico. She's replacing Daryl Dorcy, who got promoted to Abbott's national headquarters in Chicago, overseeing all of the company's regional lobbyists.

Chris Bell's gubernatorial campaign adds Heather Beckel Guntert as press secretary and Rowland Garza as state "Latino outreach director," and parts ways with political consultant Bob Doyle. Guntert worked in the Clinton White House and for Texas Democrats in the 1990s; Garza most recently worked for Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine.

The governor appointed Daniel Dierschke of Austin to the Farm and Ranch Lands Conservation Council, a panel that advises Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson. Dierschke's a farmer and cattleman.

Deaths: Retired Maj. Gen. Kathryn George Frost, wife of former U.S. Rep. Martin Frost of Dallas, of breast cancer. Frost was the highest-ranking female in the U.S. Army when she retired last year. She was 57.

Quotes of the Week

Texas politician-turned-lobbyist Ben Barnes, assessing the governor's race in an interview with Dallas Blog: "If Kinky weren’t in the race right now, Carole would be buying her inaugural gown."

Eric Thode, until this year the GOP Chairman in Tom DeLay's home county, quoted in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: "Theoretically, a write-in candidate can be victorious. And theoretically, someone could swim from Manhattan to the U.K. The odds are very long."

Gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell, on the governor's task force on property appraisals: "I am all for property tax relief, but I am not for tying the hands of municipalities."

Texas Highway Commissioner Ric Williamson, quoted in the Houston Chronicle on objections to the Trans Texas Corridor: "For every 14,000 people who congregate and protest, there are 1.4 million in downtown Dallas and Fort Worth that recognize congestion on 35 is a problem and somebody's got to do something about it."

Bill Hammond of the Texas Association of Business, asked how he'd influence Republicans who don't support a program that would allow non-citizens to work for Texas employers: "I would say that the path to redemption is always open to those individuals. They can begin to walk the path of righteousness and virtue all the days of their lives starting right now, at this moment in time, and our hope is that they will."

Fort Bend County Judge Bob Hebert, who endorsed David Wallace in CD-22, then switched to Shelley Sekula-Gibbs when Wallace dropped out, in Fort Bend Now: "I reminded her that Abe Lincoln said don't change horses in the middle of a stream. However, this is a little different, because my horse just drowned."


Texas Weekly: Volume 23, Issue 10, 28 August 2006. Ross Ramsey, Editor. Copyright 2006 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 (512) 302-5703 or email biz@texasweekly.com. For news, email ramsey@texasweekly.com, or call (512) 288-6598.

Support public-service journalism that gets the context right

Yes, I'll donate today