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Government, On the Rocks

It probably tickles the Yankees when a little ice shuts down the Texas government this way, but until the cabin fever set in, it offered a nice break from the head-banging that went on during the first week of the legislative session.

It probably tickles the Yankees when a little ice shuts down the Texas government this way, but until the cabin fever set in, it offered a nice break from the head-banging that went on during the first week of the legislative session.

Not everything stopped. Oaths have been taken. The Senate is organized, at least on paper. House members have made their committee requests and wait to see what the recent race for Speaker of the House did to their chances. The last special election runoff is out of the way. The governor's task force on appraisal reform is still in the field — they're still tinkering with their recommendations and report, but will be ready soon.

The last three startup elements for the 20-week session will be over soon: House committees, a budget bill, and a State of the State speech from the Guv. It's always this way; at this point a few years ago our headline was "On Your Mark, Get Set, Get Set, Get Set..."

More historical lint: Tom Craddick has been speaker for two sessions before this and named his committees on the last Friday in January both times.

Whole Lotta Swearin' Goin' On

They moved inside because of winter weather and the ice on the outdoor stage and scaffolding, and they started 20 minutes later than they planned, but Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst have been sworn in for new four-year terms and the state government selected by voters in November is now in place.

The weather not only forced the ceremony inside — it scotched plans for an inaugural parade. Don't worry over the barbecue, though. It was served outside in heated tents and what was left went to charity. And the gala scheduled for Tuesday night held indoors at the Austin Convention Center. The big news there was rocker Ted Nugent's Confederate battle flag shirt and his rant about Mexicans and immigration.

The swearing ceremony started with Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, calling the Senate to order, and breaking the gavel on this third whack. Dewhurst was sworn in first, with his hand on Sam Houston's Bible and with Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson administering the oath.

"When you elected me the first time it had to be in part an act of faith. But this time, I trust I've earned your confidence and I thank you for your support," he said.

He touted some of the achievements of his first four years in office — mentioning tort reform, school finance, and "pro-family legislation... protecting our families, the unborn, and the vulnerable."

He highlighted one program — his push for a "Jessica's Law" like one passed in other states, introducing the father of the Florida girl whose death inspired the legislation.

The law would make the death penalty an option for people who repeatedly commit sexually violent crimes against children. "Literally, two strikes you're out, forever. Our message is this: There’s tough. And then there’s Texas tough. And if you’re going to commit an unthinkable crime against a child, we’ll show you what Texas tough means."

He said he'll push legislation requiring criminal background checks for public school employees, random testing of high school athletes for steroids, and requiring defibrillators at public schools.

Perry's address was more sermon than platform — a talk with few specifics but with references to international troubles, AIDS, immigration, religious zealots, slavery, morals, public service and social obligation, poverty, family. Without being specific, he said the government should work on this to-do list (and he and his have promised details later, maybe in a State of the State speech later this month):

"Together, we must work to make our border more secure and our neighborhoods safer. Together, we must find solutions to the high rate of the uninsured and to the high cost of health insurance. Together, we must commit to excellence in higher education as it prepares the workforce of the future. Together, we must ensure that property tax relief is not only substantial, but long-lasting. Together, we must pass budget reforms that protect the taxpayers. And together, we must engage in a debate and a dialogue characterized by civility and consensus."

He talked about his family and then briefly about the state of the state: "As we gather today, there is great reason for optimism in Texas. We have a record budget surplus, jobs are at an all-time high, children’s test scores are improving, home and medical insurance costs are decreasing, school finance is out of the courts and school property tax rates are on the way down. On top of that, the Aggie basketball team is ranked in the top ten in the nation. Apparently, Texas isn't the only place that's frozen over."

He talked about international affairs, noting conflicts in the Middle East, threats from religious fanatics, rogue states and terror cells, anti-U.S. sentiments in Europe and Latin America. He talked about the war on drugs, suffering from AIDS, particularly in Asia & Africa, and about ethnic cleansing and genocide in the Sudan. That section spurred talk that Perry is interested in national office. He has publicly resisted that kind of talk, recently telling the Associated Press that he's "not interested" in going to Washington, D.C.

We've posted both addresses online. Dewhurst's is here. Perry's is here.

A Rebate in Every Pot

Put Gov. Rick Perry in the group that wants the state to refund some of the money it has collected from taxpayers. He added an emergency item to the legislative agenda, saying it ought to be legal to give rebates to state taxpayers.

The governor also wants quick action on property tax relief for elderly homeowners, who were passed over during the special session on school property taxes.

Lawmakers can't pass legislation during the first 60 days of the session unless it's designated an emergency by the governor. That designation doesn't force them to do anything; it just allows them to act if they want to act.

Perry telegraphed his emergency declaration of the break for elderly homeowners. And while he scorned talk of a $14.3 billion budget surplus — it's about half that amount, he says — he also foreshadowed the rebate move, naming some conservatives outside the government who were, as he put it, on the right track.

Some of those folks have been calling on the Legislature to refund money that's in the treasury but not needed to pay for promised cuts in local school property taxes. That puts new spending on the block, forcing lawmakers to choose between a tax refund and spending for new and existing programs. It makes it easier for budgeteers to say no to financial supplicants, but that's a relative thing: It's tough to tell people you don't have the money when there's $7 billion to $14 billion billowing out of your purse.

Perry also wants to exclude the state's tab for the local tax cut from constitutional spending limits. The constitution limits growth in the state budget, saying it can't exceed projected growth in personal income. Barring a new law, that means they'd have to vote to bust the spending cap in order to pay for the school property tax cuts. That's awkward, twice: Some conservatives don't like the fast growth or the appearance of it, and others foresee trouble if they limit county and city spending while they unleash their own. Perry made the fix a legislative emergency item.

The Last Seat in the Legislature

Mike O'Day beat Randy Weber in the HD-29 runoff election to replace the late Rep. Glenda Dawson, R-Pearland. Weather put an asterisk on this one. It's hard to say whether it affected one side more than the other, but the Election Day turnout was lower than early voting — blame the near-freezing temperatures for that. Total turnout was 6,212; early voting brought out 3,579 voters or 58 percent of the total. It's usually only a fraction of the Election Day vote.

O'Day won however you slice it. He won in both Brazoria and Matagorda counties. The district includes a part of the former and all of the latter. The early vote went 60.6 percent his way; Weber pulled 39.4 percent in the pre-Election Day voting. It narrowed a bit, but O'Day ended up with 57.2 percent to Weber's 39.4 percent.

Both are Republicans; both are from Pearland. In the first round last month, O'Day got 48.9 percent of the vote and Weber got 28.1 percent. Two other candidates — Republican John Gorman and Democrat Anthony DiNovo — split the remainder. With 7,324 votes cast in that first special election, O'Day was just 154 votes short of an outright win.

Gallegos on Liver Transplant List

Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, says he is now on a waiting list for a liver transplant and can't travel regularly between Houston and Austin during the session. He's asking Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to do for him what the Senate did for the late Gregory Luna of San Antonio — delaying votes on major legislation until he's available.

"My physician has placed me on a waiting list to be a recipient for a liver transplant," he said in a written statement. "He has long anticipated this possibility ever since I became sober almost a year ago... At this 'stand by' stage of the process, my physician cannot allow me to travel far from Houston, so I will temporarily be unable to be in the Texas Capitol."

He doesn't know when or whether a liver will become available, but said recovery after a transplant will take almost three weeks. Gallegos said he and his staff will get his bill amendments and other issues into the hands of helpful colleagues, and then he asked Dewhurst to postpone controversial legislation until he gets back.

"... I have submitted a letter to Gov. Dewhurst formally requesting that key legislation be delayed for suspension of the rules and Senate floor debate until my return," he said.

Luna and then-Lt. Gov. Rick Perry had a one-issue deal: the senator asked Perry not to hold a vote on public school vouchers without giving him a chance to leave the hospital so he could be there to vote. And a couple of years later, Perry asked Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, not to push for a hate crimes bill without all the members in attendance

Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, needn't have worried over the two-thirds rule; Gallegos' need to stay within a liver's throw of Houston means the Republicans have all the votes they need.

If they can stay together.

Under most circumstances, it takes two-thirds of the Senate to bring legislation up for debate. If everyone's in the room, that's 21 votes. But the rule applies to two-thirds of the senators in the room — not two-thirds of those on the roster. When one is gone, the magic number is 20.

The Senate has 20 Republicans in it, and Gallegos has told Dewhurst he'll be out awaiting a liver transplant. He wants the lieutenant governor to call him on tight votes. Dewhurst has made empathetic noises but hasn't publicly agreed to do that.

If he does, a Democratic bloc could block legislation. If he doesn't, the Democrats are one vote short of an effective obstacle.

Patrick proposed killing the two-thirds rule so that simple majorities — Republicans, for instance — could move the Senate to act. He got stomped on a 30-1 vote. And Gallegos' absence doesn't make that a meaningless issue. Not all close votes are partisan. Some issues split along geographic or other fault lines, and it's easy to get one mixed bag of partisans battling another.

This isn't the first time this has come up: The little green book handed out every day the Senate meets has a chart that shows how many senators have to be around for the two-thirds rule to slip. When four senators are absent, only 18 votes are needed to consider bills. Seven missing? 16. And so on. If you're a senator with a small majority, you watch the body count carefully, and so do the lobsters sitting in the gallery above the Senate.

Senate Committees Named, with Very Little Violence

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst loosed his committee assignments on a Friday night — the deadest spot in any political week, if you listen to the marketing trolls — creating 15 standing committees and five subcommittees. Dewhurst has the same numbers of standing and subcommittees, but there's one change. Where there was a Finance subcommittee on Capital Funding for Higher Education, there's now an Intergovernmental Relations subcommittee on Flooding & Evacuations. And every returning senator who chaired a committee in the previous Legislature kept his or her position in the new lineup.

The 31-member Senate has five new members. Only one of the five senators they replaced — the late Frank Madla, D-San Antonio — chaired a committee.

• Dallas Sen. Royce West, a Democrat, lost the chairmanship of the Subcommittee on Higher Education, which went to Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo. He also lost the vice chairmanship of the parent committee, Education, to Republican Sen. Kyle Janek of Houston. But he's a chairman now, heading the Intergovernmental Relations panel.

• The other new chairman is Sen. Mario Gallegos, who heads the newly created Subcommittee on Flooding & Evacuations.

• Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington, is apparently still in Dewhurst's Doghouse. A senator since 1991, he's on some strong committees. But he doesn't chair any of them (and doesn't get the extra staff or office space that comes along with a chairmanship).

• El Paso Sen. Eliot Shapleigh's campaign assertion that he'd been assured a spot on the Finance Committee didn't come true. At a campaign forum during his reelection bid, Shapleigh said Dewhurst had promised him a spot on the budget-writing panel. Asked then, aides to Dewhurst ducked, saying the Lite Guv hadn't made up his mind about who would be on what committee. A spot was open at the time — it had been emptied by the resignation of Madla (who died a few months later in a fire at his home) — but it didn't go to Shapleigh.

• The Finance Committee — a highly coveted assignment — has three new members: Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler; Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay; and Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville. Two of those spots were opened by departures (Madla and Sen.-turned-Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples); the other belonged to Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth. Brimer had spots on Business & Commerce and Finance last session and now has spots on Government Organization and Natural Resources instead.

• There are 15 standing committees and five subcommittees. Republicans chair 10 of the committees and two of the subcommittees, leaving the Democrats with five and three, respectively. Women chair three committees and one subcommittee. Hispanics chair two committees and two subcommittees. Blacks chair two committees.

The lists, by committee and then by member, with chairs (C), and vice chairs (VC):

BY COMMITTEE

Administration: Brimer (C), Uresti (VC), Seliger, Shapiro, Wentworth, Whitmire, Zaffirini.

Business & Commerce: Fraser (C), Harris (VC), Averitt, Eltife, Estes, Janek, Lucio, Van de Putte, Watson.

Subcommittee on Emerging Technologies & Economic Development: Janek (C), Estes, Harris, Lucio, Watson.

Criminal Justice: Whitmire (C), Seliger (VC), Carona, Deuell, Ellis, Hegar, Hinojosa.

Education: Shapiro (C), Janek (VC), Averitt, Ogden, Patrick, Van de Putte, West, Williams, Zaffirini.

Subcommittee on Higher Education: Zaffirini (C), Averitt, Patrick, West, Williams.

Finance: Ogden (C), Zaffirini (VC), Averitt, Deuell, Duncan, Eltife, Fraser, Hinojosa, Janek, Lucio, Nelson, Shapiro, West, Whitmire, Williams.

Government Organization: Ellis (C), Hegar (VC), Brimer, Gallegos, Jackson, Nelson, Whitmire.

Health & Human Services: Nelson (C), Deuell (VC), Janek, Nichols, Patrick, Shapleigh, Uresti, West, Zaffirini.

Intergovernmental Relations: West (C), Nichols (VC), Gallegos, Patrick, Wentworth.

Subcommittee on Flooding & Evacuations: Gallegos (C), Nichols, Patrick.

International Relations & Trade: Lucio (C), Patrick (VC), Estes, Fraser, Gallegos, Seliger, Uresti.

Jurisprudence: Wentworth (C), Hinojosa (VC), Carona, Duncan, Gallegos, Harris, Watson.

Natural Resources: Averitt (C), Estes (VC), Brimer, Deuell, Duncan, Eltife, Hegar, Hinojosa, Jackson, Seliger, Uresti.

Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs & Coastal Resources: Estes (C), Hegar, Hinojosa, Jackson, Uresti.

Nominations: Jackson (C), Eltife (VC), Hegar, Nelson, Nichols, Shapleigh, Watson.

State Affairs: Duncan (C), Williams (VC), Carona, Ellis, Fraser, Harris, Jackson, Lucio, Van de Putte.

Transportation & Homeland Security: Carona (C), Watson (VC), Brimer, Ellis, Nichols, Shapiro, Shapleigh, Wentworth, Williams.

Veterans Affairs & Military Installations: Van de Putte (C), Shapleigh (VC), Estes, Harris, Ogden.

Subcommittee on Base Realignment & Closure: Shapleigh (C), Estes, Harris.

BY MEMBER

Averitt: Business & Commerce; Education; Subcommittee on Higher Education; Finance; Natural Resources (C).

Brimer: Administration (C); Government Organization; Natural Resources; Transportation & Homeland Security.

Carona: Criminal Justice; Jurisprudence; State Affairs; Transportation & Homeland Security (C).

Deuell: Criminal Justice; Finance; Health & Human Services (VC); Natural Resources.

Duncan: Finance; Jurisprudence; Natural Resources; State Affairs (C).

Ellis: Criminal Justice; Government Organization (C); State Affairs; Transportation & Homeland Security.

Eltife: Business & Commerce; Finance; Natural Resources; Nominations (VC).

Estes: Business & Commerce; Subcommittee on Emerging Technologies & Economic Development; International Relations & Trade; Natural Resources (VC); Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs & Coastal Resources (C); Veterans Affairs & Military Installations; Subcommittee on Base Realignment & Closure.

Fraser: Business & Commerce (C); Finance; International Relations & Trade; State Affairs.

Gallegos: Government Organization; Intergovernmental Relations; Subcommittee on Flooding & Evacuations (C); International Relations & Trade; Jurisprudence.

Harris: Business & Commerce (VC); Subcommittee on Emerging Technologies & Economic Development; Jurisprudence; State Affairs; Veterans Affairs & Military Installations; Subcommittee on Base Realignment & Closure.

Hegar: Criminal Justice; Government Organization (VC); Natural Resources; Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs & Coastal Resources; Nominations.

Hinojosa: Criminal Justice; Finance; Jurisprudence (VC); Natural Resources; Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs & Coastal Resources.

Jackson: Government Organization; Natural Resources; Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs & Coastal Resources; Nominations (C); State Affairs.

Janek: Business & Commerce; Subcommittee on Emerging Technologies & Economic Development (C); Education (VC); Finance; Health & Human Services.

Lucio: Business & Commerce; Subcommittee on Emerging Technologies & Economic Development; Finance; International Relations & Trade (C); State Affairs.

Nelson: Finance; Government Organization; Health & Human Services (C); Nominations.

Nichols: Health & Human Services; Intergovernmental Relations (VC); Subcommittee on Flooding & Evacuations; Nominations; Transportation & Homeland Security.

Ogden: Education; Finance (C); Veterans Affairs & Military Installations.

Patrick: Education; Subcommittee on Higher Education; Health & Human Services; Intergovernmental Relations; Subcommittee on Flooding & Evacuations; International Relations & Trade (VC).

Seliger: Administration; Criminal Justice (VC); International Relations & Trade; Natural Resources.

Shapiro: Administration; Education (C); Finance; Transportation & Homeland Security.

Shapleigh: Health & Human Services; Nominations; Transportation & Homeland Security; Veterans Affairs & Military Installations (VC); Subcommittee on Base Realignment & Closure (C).

Uresti: Administration (VC); Health & Human Services; International Relations & Trade; Natural Resources; Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs & Coastal Resources.

Van de Putte: Business & Commerce; Education; State Affairs; Veterans Affairs & Military Installations (C).

Watson: Business & Commerce; Subcommittee on Emerging Technologies & Economic Development; Jurisprudence; Nominations; Transportation & Homeland Security (VC).

Wentworth: Administration; Intergovernmental Relations; Jurisprudence (C); Transportation & Homeland Security.

West: Education; Subcommittee on Higher Education; Finance; Health & Human Services; Intergovernmental Relations (C).

Whitmire: Administration; Criminal Justice (C); Finance; Government Organization.

Williams: Education; Subcommittee on Higher Education; Finance; State Affairs (VC); Transportation & Homeland Security.

Zaffirini: Administration; Education; Subcommittee on Higher Education (C); Finance (VC); Health & Human Services.

Political People and Their Moves

The Texas Senate's new Sergeant-at-arms is Rick DeLeon, who replaces Carleton Turner. The last guy had the job for 20 years.

Jeffrey Kloster, general manager and counsel at RunTex — that's an Austin sporting goods outfit — is joining the Texas Education Agency as associate commissioner for health and safety. That portfolio includes everything from childhood obesity to homeland security to campus safety. He was a government guy before he went to the private sector; one of his bosses was then-Rep. Rick Perry, D-Haskell.

TEA also named Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds senior advisor on statewide initiatives, replacing Christi Martin, who resigned. Reynolds' most recent gig was with the U.S. Department of Education.

Recovering: Former Gov. Mark White, after having a cancerous kidney removed at Houston's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. He's 66, and word is that the surgery was successful...

Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, after double-bypass surgery in Austin. The 51-year-old's surgery was also successful.

Quotes of the Week

Gov. Rick Perry, asked by the Associated Press about his national ambitions: "I have no interest in that. I am not interested in going to Washington, D.C., other than to the occasional meeting or to meet with a secretary or someone in the administration to help further Texas' business."

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, leaning over to Lakeway Church Senior Pastor Joel Osteen while the audience was applauding Gov. Rick Perry's "Imagine the Possibilities" inauguration speech: "Hey, Joel! You've got some competition!"

From a sermon by Catholic Bishop Charles Grahmann, quoted in The Dallas Morning News on strict anti-immigration laws adopted on one of that city's suburbs: "I often wonder if Joseph and Mary and Jesus would try to find a place in Farmers Branch. They would probably be told they would have to find another place."

Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, in the Tyler Morning Telegraph on local school property tax cuts funded by the state: "I was concerned people were going to get their tax bills and they would be furious that there was no tax decrease. The first 17 cents wasn't even felt. I am in real estate, and I get tax bills. I don't think I got one tax bill that was less than the year before. We may not feel much of the next round, the 33 cents, either."

Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, telling the El Paso Times why he filed legislation making it a crime to miss a parent-teacher conference at school: "It's intent is not to raise money; it's solely to improve parental involvement."

Eric Hanushek, a researcher who also works at Stanford University, quoted in The Dallas Morning News on studies showing masters' degrees for teachers don't improve education for students they teach: "They're worthless. Case closed. Next question."

Another researcher — William Sanders, formerly of the University of Tennessee — in the same story: "I did one study that compared graduates from 40 different schools of education, everything from tiny no-names to national powerhouses. Each school produced great teachers, mediocre teachers and lousy teachers in roughly the same degree."

Former U.S. Rep. Ken Bentsen Jr., who now lives — mostly — in Washington, D.C., in the Houston Chronicle: "I think we are the only people in the United States who summer in Houston."

Former Rep. Ric Williamson, now chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, on the Texas Legislature, in the San Antonio Express-News: "Those boys and girls pass the laws and we live with them and smile."


Texas Weekly: Volume 23, Issue 29, 22 January 2007. Ross Ramsey, Editor. Copyright 2007 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.

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