Looking for a Fast Car
We'll have to wait a month or more to see how state legislative leaders handle a budget that's bound to grow 30 percent or more.
We'll have to wait a month or more to see how state legislative leaders handle a budget that's bound to grow 30 percent or more.
The really, really condensed version: School tax fixes from last spring will likely force lawmakers to spend money faster than is allowed under a constitutional cap on growth.
They can vote to bust the cap. They can cut spending they think is necessary. Or they can put the choices off until January while their employees try to find them a fast car out of here.
The Legislative Budget Board, given those options, chose Door Number Three. They'll wait until January to vote on the allowed rate of growth and on the dollar value of the part of the budget that's limited. That panel, headed by House Speaker Tom Craddick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, is also hoping there's a way to ease the pain of a vote by a conservative Legislature to spend money faster than personal incomes in the state are rising.
That's a characterization built on incomplete information. Without the state spending money to lower local school taxes, lawmakers wouldn't be in much danger of busting the cap.
With that tax swap, there's almost no way for them to avoid it. But that's politically unpalatable to some members, and so the ten folks on the LBB are trying to find a way to sugarcoat the bitter pill.
Two points of interest. The part of the budget that's subject to the cap now stands at $55.5 billion (that's a moving target, so if and when you see a new number in a few months, don't squawk at us). They've got five estimates of how much personal income will grow over the next two years, ranging from 13.1 percent to 17 percent. The lower number would put the cap on discretionary general revenue spending at $62.8 billion; the larger one would put it at $65 billion.
The increased costs of doing what the state does now are estimated by various budgeteers at $4 billion to $8 billion. The school tax swap will cost around $11 billion in the next budget, according to some estimators we trust.
Scribble it on the chalkboard. The spending cap, depending on the growth rate, would allow $7.3 billion to $9.5 billion in new spending. School finance is $11 billion — well above the high estimate — and growth in public school enrollments, welfare and health programs, prisons, and other existing services, would add $4 billion to $8 billion. If lawmakers decided not to make cuts, and if this back-of-the-envelope figuring is in the ballpark, the Texas Lege is on the way to spending $15 billion to $19 billion more than it currently spends in discretionary funds, an increase of up to 34 percent.
They can safely and honestly blame the school deal, and say the spending cap was sacrificed to lower local taxes. Some members are comfortable with that. Some aren't.
There's an addendum to this: Some number-crunchers think the "sweeteners" included in the school tax package last spring would be enough to bust the cap if they're included with the normal growth in the budget. Add those things — teacher pay, etc. —to the $4 billion to $8 billion expected (by some) for normal growth in enrollments and caseloads and such. It's as much as $3.9 billion, and it's part of what got the school mess solved last year, but it might be considered outside the easy formulation of "we busted the cap to cut property taxes."
One suggestion we've heard would be to split the budget, voting for a normal growth package, then voting on a second spending bill that included the busted cap and the school finance stuff. It might turn out to be easier to vote it all together: Incumbents could attribute the growth to the tax cut, and challengers would be burdened with doing the math for voters with short attention spans.
The LBB will wait until January to see if there's an easy out, or at least an easier one.
Department of Elections, and Corrections
In some editions last week, we merged two election dates. The special election runoff in CD-23 between Republican U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla and Democratic former U.S. Ciro Rodriguez will be on December 12. The special election to replace state the late Rep. Glenda Dawson, R-Pearland, will be on December 19 (and a runoff could follow, if nobody breaks 50 percent). We implied the elections were on the same date. Sorry, sorry, sorry.
Now to election business. The state's routine request for federal review of its special congressional election runoff date has run into a hitch because that's also an important feast day for Catholics. And the League of United Latin American Citizens — LULAC — has filed papers with the U.S. Department of Justice saying another date would be more appropriate. DOJ has no deadline for a decision.
Early voting — barring something from the feds — will start on Monday and run through Friday of next week. The election would be on the following Tuesday, meaning nobody gets a chance to vote during either of the two weekends between now and the election. Who benefits from that, if anyone? We honestly can't say, but some Democrats wanted a Saturday election date, so there's a clue. And Bexar County tried to open early voting, um, early, letting people vote on the Saturday and Sunday before the Monday start. The state shut that down, saying the law doesn't allow localities that flexibility.
One last thing while we're on that contest. U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, endorsed Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, in the runoff. That's significant in two ways. They ran a bitter race against each other two years ago. And Cuellar's bipartisanship has rankled Democrats here and in Washington, D.C., who don't think he's loyal to the party. In this contest, he's sticking with the donkeys and shunning Bonilla, a San Antonio Republican.
• John Gorman will join the growing crowd running for Glenda Dawson's spot in the Texas House. He's been active in Republican politics for years at the local level and was campaign treasurer for Jerry Patterson's 1992 Senate campaign (Patterson's now the state's land commissioner). Three other candidates signed up earlier, including Democrat Anthony DiNovo, a doctor who lost to Dawson a few weeks ago, and Republicans Mike O'Day and Randy Weber. All four are from Pearland.
Hide and Seek
Texas law says officeholders have to report gifts they receive, but not the value of those gifts, according to the state's Ethics Commission. That includes checks: They have to be reported, but the amount does not.
The ethics folks say they're not necessarily in favor of that weird form of disclosure, but say they're following the law passed a few years ago by the legislators to whom it applies.
Here's a sign of just how weird this is: Officeholders have to report the receipt of gifts of more than $250, meaning they have to know the values they're not required to report. As Charles Dickens' Mr. Bumble said: "If the law supposes that. . . the law is a ass — a idiot."
The ethics commissioners don't necessarily agree or disagree with that assessment, but they're recommending a change in the law. And at least four legislators have already filed bills that would require disclosure of the amounts on checks along with the receipt of the check as a gift.
Not everybody reads the law as they do. Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who's got the job of prosecuting public officials who stray from the straight and narrow, wrote the commissioners before the vote to say their interpretation "would render it perfectly legal to report the gift of 'a wheelbarrow' without reporting that the wheelbarrow was full of cash."
This started, you'll recall, when Houston builder Bob Perry gave two checks totaling $100,000 to Bill Ceverha, who was on the Employee Retirement System's board at the time. Ceverha had just lost a civil suit stemming from his job as treasurer for a political action committee that helped Republicans in 2002 House races. Democrats who lost sued over the PAC's conduct and Ceverha, as treasurer, was on the hook for damages. The lawsuit accused the PAC of failing to disclose $600,000 in corporate contributions.
He reported receiving two checks from Perry, but not the amounts. The two disclosed the amounts voluntarily when the issue arose in public, but Democrats and some of Austin's good government types squawked to the ethics commission for a formal ruling.
They got it in the commission's last meeting of the year. Commissioners said officeholders don't have to include amounts when they report getting checks as gifts.
A quick note: The commission didn't get to whether checks are legal gifts in particular situations and didn't talk directly — at least in public — about Ceverha's case. If you were wondering, it's still illegal, for instance, to stuff lawmakers' pockets with cash.
Outsiders ought to be careful when they tinker with the internal politicking in the Texas House. And the state representative who asked the Ethics Commission to say that says she hopes it will have a "chilling effect" on lobsters and others who are meddling in the race for Speaker.
Before the Thanksgiving break — when rumors of a challenge to House Speaker Tom Craddick were more active — Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, asked the TEC about lobbyists she said were pressuring members to support "a named Speaker candidate." In her letter, she asked whether promising committee positions for support — or retribution for supporting other candidates — would constitute legislative bribery.
She also asked whether that sort of thing should be reported to the authorities and whether evidence — voice mails and emails — should be reported.
In its opinion, the commission says it would depend on the facts of a particular case. But the opinion says the conduct she described "is intended to influence a member in casting a vote for or against a speaker of the House of Representatives." That's potentially out of bounds, but the commission stopped there. Their opinion letter says outsiders should "exercise caution in these matters." As for reporting it, there's no legal obligation to do so.
"It affirmed what I thought — 'Yeah, this is a big no-no,' " Farrar says. She's not sure what, if anything, she'll do next, but she says the exercise of asking for and getting an opinion has apparently put a stop to what alarmed her in the first place.
Republicans gained one seat in the Senate in this year's elections, while Democrats gained six seats in the House. We wanted to chart the long-term trend. The Red team remains in control, after rising from near insignificance at this point in 1969. Two notes: We're counting HD-29 as a Republican seat until and unless a Democrat wins it. Rep. Glenda Dawson, R-Pearland, died in September but won reelection in November. A special election to replace her is set for later this month. Second, you'll notice we're only counting 149 members in the House in 1969; Rep. John Poerner of Medina served that year as an independent (the last member to do so) before becoming a Democrat. (Click here or on either chart to download a copy in .pdf format.)
Political People and Their Moves
After two years as acting director of the Legislative Budget Board, John O'Brien is free of the first half of that title. The LBB voted unanimously to make him the director. He's the replacement for John Keel, who retired from LBB two years ago after a decade in the top post, then came out of retirement a few weeks later to become the State Auditor. O'Brien started with LBB in 1989 and became deputy director in 2002.
Mary Camp is the new director of the Legislative Reference Library, taking the spot left when Dale Propp retired earlier this year. Camp has been the assistant director for two years and worked in a variety of jobs in the Capitol before that, including stints with former Sen. Bill Sarpalius and former House Speaker Billy Clayton.
Jesse Ancira Jr., associate deputy comptroller, says he'll leave the agency at the end of the year. Ancira, the number three official at the state comptroller's office, has been there for eight years and says he'll choose from a handful of private sector opportunities. He'll stick around for the month of December, as Comptroller-elect Susan Combs and her transition team move into the agency. Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn gives up the reins in January.
Billy Atkins, who's been the bingo boss at the Texas Lottery Commission for 14 years, resigned from the agency this week. He worked in the Pink Building before becoming, officially, the charitable bingo operations director, including stints as an aide in both the House and Senate.
Becky Young, executive assistant to House Speaker Tom Craddick since he took that office, is leaving before the session begins. She hasn't said what's next. Young worked for Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, before joining Craddick.
The Republican Party of Texas has a new public face. Hans Klingler, a longtime political op on the GOP side, will be the state party's new political director and spokesman. The political half of the job had been handled by a couple of people — Jeff Fisher and Kevin Lindley, both of whom remain with the party. The communications bit belonged to Gretchen Essell, who's leaving.
Michael Quinn Sullivan, who's been the public voice of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, is leaving after five years. They'll announce a replacement next week — that's apparently in the final stages — and he'll announce where he's going.
Deaths: Former state Sen. Frank Madla Jr., D-San Antonio, who died in a house fire with his granddaughter and mother-in-law. Madla, a former schoolteacher, was a quiet but effective lawmaker who became one of the Legislature's experts on water issues and pushed to get a major college campus to San Antonio's South side. Madla was elected to the House in 1973 and to the Senate 20 years later. He lost a reelection bid in the March Democratic primary and resigned last summer. He was 69.
Former legislator Temple Dickson, D-Sweetwater, after years of trouble with lung cancer. Dickson served in the House for three terms, took a 16-year break, then won a seat in the Texas Senate, where he served for four years. He was 72.
Dudley Harrison, a former state representative from Sanderson, after a long struggle with cancer. He was a rancher, car dealer and quarryman before serving eight years in the House and then ten years as Terrell County Judge. He was 77.
Former state Rep. Frates Slick Seeligson Sr., a lawyer, rancher and four-term legislator from San Antonio. He was 83.
Quotes of the Week
Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, on the prospect a big one-time jump in state spending next year: "We're exceeding the spending cap so we can cut your property taxes. I think everybody will vote for that."
State Sen.-elect Dan Patrick, R-Houston, quoted in the Houston Chronicle: "I'm hearing some Republicans say we've got to move to the middle. If we do that, the Republican Party will be destroyed in Texas."
Patrick, asked by the Austin American-Statesman about rumors among lobbyists and political folk that he wants to run for governor four years from now: "That was never on my radar until they started talking about it."
Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, quoted in The Wall Street Journal on Southern Methodist University's bid for a George W. Bush presidential library and her preference that it go to the University of Dallas, in Irving: "The proposed SMU site is cramped, and the campus, though pretty, is already a traffic nightmare, even without a heavily visited presidential library in its midst."
U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, on Sen.-elect James Webb, D-Virginia, in The Washington Post: "He's not a typical politician. He really has deep convictions."
Texas Weekly: Volume 23, Issue 24, 4 December 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. For news, email email@example.com, or call (512) 288-6598.
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