The last act, usually, of the "fixin' to fixin' to" phase of every legislative session is the governor's State of the State speech. They're hard to remember, for the most part, because the Legislature has a tradition of listening politely, clapping a lot, and then ignoring some or all of the items on a given governor's wish list. But some of it gets into the wiring, and into the ears of lawmakers and even, sometimes, the public.
Gov. Rick Perry has said generally what he wants, but has trickled out the specifics so he can make news next week with his health insurance proposals.
He said a few weeks ago that he wanted budget reform.
He's made some of the particulars known now, using a speech to the Texas Association of Business to say he'll ask for "a stronger spending limit" on state government than the one now in place. He wants to exclude from that calculation any money used to lower local school property taxes. It's a tax cut and not a spending increase, according to the governor, who blames an "only in Austin" mentality for any other conclusion. Just for exercise, then: It's a local tax cut made possible by the state's agreement to pick up more of the tab for public education. The state is increasing what it spends on education so that local school districts can get by with less tax money. That's why the budgeteers call it a state spending increase.
Perry wants the Legislature to restore line items to the budget so governors can get in there with veto pens and voters can get in to scrutinize what's going on with tax money. (The Legislature dumped line items to thwart gubernatorial vetoes. Instead of listing each item an agency might spend money on and the dollar amount that goes with it, budgeteers list one amount for the whole agency and include "informational items" as detail. The net effect is that some particulars are shown, but not in a way that exposes them to the scrutiny of the capitol's middle office. Perry is asking for more power over the budget, as he has in the past.)
Perry wants agencies to post their actual spending — in plain language — on the Internet where anyone can see it. Comptroller Susan Combs was first out of the box with this, posting the last two years of spending by her agency — under her predecessor — within a couple of weeks of taking office. Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams wants his agency to do that, too, and added a suggestion that budget growth there be limited to match increases in inflation and growth in the number of oil & gas wells under the agency's purview. Now Perry has joined in, posting spending from the last three months of last year. And he wants other government agencies to do the same.
And he joined legislative leaders' call for undoing a series of accounting tricks that come into play whenever the state is short of funds. It's the sort of accounting people do when they're on their own in the adult world for the first time — holding checks to the next week or month, or digging through the sofa cushions for quarters. In the government's case, the numbers are bigger. For instance, they delayed a monthly payment for public education by one day, pushing it into another budget period and giving themselves a one-time accounting boost of more than $1 billion. Perry, House Speaker Tom Craddick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst want to pay that and similar items back, setting things back in balance. That'll shrink the burgeoning state surplus, but it'll reload the accounts for the next time things are dreary in the budget world. He also wants lawmakers to start using licensing and user fees for their original purposes, so things like State of the Arts license plates will pay for the arts, and park fees will go to parks, and so on. Those fell by the wayside for the same reason: The state was pressed for money in 2003 and 2005, for instance, and it was easier to raid those funds and delay payments than to raise taxes.
He wants to address immigration plans in part by spending money to beef up policing on the U.S. side of the border. Perry wants the Lege to put $100 million into policing activities along the state's international border, hoping to cut crime there. Some of that crime, the argument goes, is attributable to the nation's lax enforcement of immigration laws.
Gov. Perry ended the week by laying out his higher education plans. He'd do away with the Border Initiative and other "special items" in higher education budgets but would pump that money back into other areas of higher education. He wants to add $362 million to college financial aid programs, "fully fund" higher education formulas that were short-sheeted in the current budget, and increase overall state spending on colleges and universities by about 8 percent.
He'll deliver his State of the State speech on Tuesday.
House Committees Named, Cussed and Discussed
Enemies got the strap and allies got the cake. The Democrats who helped reelect House Speaker Tom Craddick were rewarded, while the people who challenged him — and those who had prominent spots and helped the challengers — got busted.
Reps. Brian McCall of Plano, Jim Pitts of Waxahachie, and Robert Talton of Pasadena, all Republicans and challengers, won't be chairing committees this session. Pitts had the most powerful committee in the House — Appropriations — and lost it by challenging the speaker. He won't even be on the panel this time, much less in the chair, though Craddick aides say Pitts was offered a membership spot there. Talton lost the chair in Urban Affairs.
And two Democratic chairmen who helped the challengers — Reps. Craig Eiland of Galveston and Allan Ritter of Nederland — lost the chairmanships, respectively, of Economic Development and Pensions & Investments. Rep. Senfronia Thompson, the Houston Democrat who was the first candidate in the race to challenge Craddick, won't be in the leadership but wasn't there before. Her committee assignments were unchanged.
Eight chairmen who returned won't chair the committees they chaired last session. Kevin Bailey, D-Houston, and Rick Hardcastle, R-Vernon, each got new committees. The four folks above got busted. And so did George "Buddy" West, R-Odessa, who voted with Craddick's challengers on a procedural issue that was read widely — and apparently by the speaker — as a referendum on his leadership. West, from the Permian Basin, no longer heads the House Energy panel. That went to Hardcastle, who's from North Texas. Norma Chavez, D-El Paso, lost her committee chairmanship but got peachy assignments on Appropriations, Calendars, and Financial Institutions.
None of the 68 members who voted against Craddick on that procedural motion will go to the periodic dinners for committee chairmen where the House's business is plotted. But look at what happened to the 15 Democrats who split from the opposition to support Craddick. Ten are now committee chairs. One is the speaker pro tempore — theoretically the number two in the House, though it's mostly ceremonial. Six are on appropriations, including the vice chair. Four made the Calendars Committee, including the vice chair. Four are on both appropriations and calendars, which puts them in position — if they handle it right — to mete out favors and slights to other Democrats who weren't on the team.
Those fifteen Democrats are on demerit lists with some of their fellows, but their support for Craddick paid off this week. The names: Bailey, Chavez, Joe Deshotel of Beaumont, Dawnna Dukes of Austin, Harold Dutton of Houston, Kino Flores of Palmview, Helen Giddings of Dallas, Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City, Tracy King of Batesville, Eddie Lucio III of Brownsville, Ruth Jones McClendon of San Antonio, Aaron Peña of Edinburg, Robert Puente of San Antonio, Patrick Rose of Dripping Springs, and Sylvester Turner of Houston, who'll keep that Speaker Pro Tempore title for another two years.
Demographics and Party: Seven of the 40 committee chairs are women. Thirty are Republicans and ten are Democrats. There are fewer women among the vice chairs — five — and Republicans are slightly less dominant, holding 25 of the 40 seats. Women held 10 chairs two years ago, and seven vice chairs. Republicans, with 54 percent of the membership in the House, hold 75 percent of the chairs, and 62 percent of the number two slots. Two years ago, when six more seats belonged to the GOP in the 150-member House, Craddick put Republicans in 30 chairs and 32 vice chairs. There are four African-American chairs and one vice chair; three Hispanic chairs and five vice chairs. Two years ago, there were three African-Americans in chairmanships and one in a vice chair; five Hispanics in chairs and three in vice chairs. Finally, there was one Asian vice chair two years ago (Martha Wong, R-Houston, held two vice chairmanships); now there are none.
Download a copy of the list here. Or go to the House's web site, where you can browse through the committee pages and see (with pictures) who's where and what their committee is supposed to be doing. Here's the leadership team, listed by Committee: Chairman; Vice Chairman.(Names in italics indicate new assignments.)
• Agriculture & Livestock: Sid Miller, R-Stephenville; Charles "Doc" Anderson, R-Waco.
• Appropriations: Warren Chisum, R-Pampa; Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City.
• Border & International Affairs: Tracy O. King, D-Batesville; Stephen Frost, D-Atlanta.
• Business & Industry: Helen Giddings, D-Dallas; Gary Elkins, R-Houston.
• Calendars: Beverly Woolley, R-Houston; Norma Chavez, D-El Paso.
• Civil Practices: Byron C. Cook, R-Corsicana; Mark Strama, D-Austin.
• Corrections: Jerry Madden, R-Richardson; Scott Hochberg, D-Houston.
• County Affairs: Wayne Smith, R-Baytown; Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin.
• Criminal Jurisprudence: Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg; Allen Vaught, D-Dallas.
• Culture, Recreation & Tourism: Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville; Edmund Kuempel, R-Seguin.
• Defense Affairs & State-Federal Relations: Frank Corte Jr., R-San Antonio; Juan Escobar, D-Kingsville.
• Economic Development: Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont; Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.
• Elections: Leo Berman, R-Tyler; Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston.
• Energy Resources: Rick Hardcastle, R-Vernon; David Farabee, D-Wichita Falls.
• Environmental Regulation: Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton; Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills.
• Financial Institutions: Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton; Dan Flynn, R-Van.
• General Investing & Ethics: Larry Phillips, R-Sherman; Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe.
• Government Reform: Bill Callegari, R-Katy; Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie.
• Higher Education: Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria; Brian McCall, R-Plano.
• House Administration: Tony Goolsby, R-Dallas; Helen Giddings, D-Dallas.
• Human Services: Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs; Susan King, R-Abilene.
• Insurance: John Smithee, R-Amarillo; Todd Smith, R-Euless.
• Judiciary: Will Hartnett, R-Dallas; Mark Homer, D-Paris.
• Juvenile Justice & Family Issues: Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston; Craig Eiland, D-Galveston.
• Land & Resource Management: Anna Mowery, R-Fort Worth; Rob Orr, R-Burleson.
• Law Enforcement: Joe Driver, R-Garland; Thomas Latham, R-Sunnyvale.
• Licensing & Administrative Procedures: Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview; Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth.
• Local & Consent Calendars: Charlie Howard, R-Sugar Land; Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston.
• Local Government Ways & Means: Fred Hill, R-Richardson; Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe.
• Natural Resources: Robert Puente, D-San Antonio; Mike Hamilton, R-Mauriceville.
• Pensions & Investments: Vicki Truitt, R-Keller; Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio.
• Public Education: Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands; Bill Zedler, R-Arlington.
• Public Health: Diane White Delisi, R-Temple; Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker.
• Redistricting: Joe Crabb, R-Atascocita; Betty Brown, R-Terrell.
• Regulated Industries: Phil King, R-Weatherford; Wayne Christian, R-Center.
• Rules & Resolutions: Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio; Nathan Macias, R-Bulverde.
• State Affairs: David Swinford, R-Dumas; Ken Paxton, R-McKinney.
• Transportation: Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock; Larry Phillips, R-Sherman.
• Urban Affairs: Kevin Bailey, D-Houston; Jim Murphy, R-Houston.
• Ways & Means: Jim Keffer, R-Eastland; Allan Ritter, D-Nederland.
Pitts Accuses Craddick of Retribution
This ought to kill the theory in the lobby that Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, was a stalking horse for House Speaker Tom Craddick. Craddick punished his challengers when making his committee assignments, according to the challenger who made it to the end.
Craddick recognized the quislings on his leadership team by pushing them at least one rung down the ladder. But Pitts, the former chairman of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, said Craddick chose "retribution over reconciliation" and declared himself disappointed. He chaired the House's most powerful committee and turned on the guy who gave him the spot, then criticized the rebuke he'd earned. Politics is weird sometimes.
As evidence, Pitts offered his committee preference card, saying the difference between what he sought and what he got illustrates his complaint. His seniority requests were for Ways & Means, Higher Education and Transportation, and his personal preferences were for chairman of either Appropriations or Government Reform, or a spot on Calendars.
That's what he requested. Craddick named him vice chairman of the Government Reform committee and put him on the tax-writing Ways & Means panel. Both are on his sheet, though they weren't his first picks.
"Speaker Craddick had an opportunity to prove us wrong — to prove to us that he had heard the concerns about his leadership style and his tactics of retaliation and intimidation. I believe that he missed that opportunity with his committee assignments," Pitts said in a press release.
Alexis DeLee, Craddick's spokeswoman, said Pitts isn't telling the truth. "Rep. Pitts met and talked with Speaker Craddick several times about his committee assignments," she said, also in a press release. "Speaker Craddick offered Rep. Pitts a seat on the Appropriations Committee. Rep. Pitts declined that offer. His statements to the contrary are not an accurate reflection of the exchanges between the two of them."
House Democrats split precisely in half and Republicans were one vote short of unanimous, but that wasn't enough to pass a House rule allowing early introduction of and committee work on legislation.
The routine measure failed 108-34, after a group of Democrats made an issue of giving House Speaker Tom Craddick the ability to get legislation moving during the first two months of the session. Its failure could slow House business considerably, but it's unlikely to affect anyone who lives and works more than about three blocks from the Capitol.
It's a sign that the partisans have their stingers out. And it's probably a sign that, on issues that aren't important to most members — it's a procedural rule, after all — the House isn't ready to defy the speaker just for the sake of defying him.
The 34 Nays included 33 Democrats and Republican Robert Talton of Pasadena, one of four House members who jumped into the race for House Speaker in December. At the time of the vote, there were 33 more Democrats on the floor, and they voted the other way, along with 74 Republicans. Craddick stayed out and seven members were absent.
Democratic leaders said afterwards that they secured enough votes to prevent the other side from getting 120 votes, and didn't worry about holding all of the members in their party together. And they say they don't plan to block everything, but want a chance to say what gets through for early work and what doesn't.
Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, promised to revive the issue for another vote. And there's some history to rely on here: This happened to former House Speaker Bill Clayton, D-Spring Lake, and he got the governor to declare his favored bills "emergencies." That opened them, constitutionally, for consideration and action.
Taxes and Fees, Surcharges and Thee
Comptroller Susan Combs is asking Sprint to get rid of the line on its bill seeking customer "reimbursement" for the state's new margins tax.
The company doesn't intend to honor her request.
Combs says her office never signed off on the charge (it's not clear they have the power to do that anyway). And she's not happy that the rate charged on some customers' bills is higher than the highest rate for the new tax. The tax can't go higher than 0.7 percent of any company's gross receipts; on bills sent to Sprint and Nextel wireless customers, the company has set the reimbursement at 1 percent (it's at 0.6 percent on the bills sent to the company's wire-line customers).
A spokesman says the company will end up under-collecting the amount needed to cover the tax, and welcomed a review of the company's tax return when it's filed in 16 months.
This is the first public face-off over how the state's new business tax will actually be administered. Companies will owe the tax based on business done in their 2007 fiscal years, but it's not actually due until May 2008. They and the state's tax collector are feeling their way through a new minefield.
Combs also isn't happy that the company is seeking "reimbursement" for taxes it won't pay for more than a year.
The new comptroller wants the company to take the charge off its bills until the Legislature has a chance to take a look. If they won't do that, she's threatening "audit and collection action by this office and a possible injunction by the attorney general."
A company spokesman, John Taylor, said the company is reviewing the letter from Combs, that they'll continue to collect the surcharge, and that the comptroller doesn't have the power to regulate what the company puts on its bills. Sprint, he said, wants to be "open, honest and up front with everyone involved," and explained the charge to customers on their bills, on the company's website, and with live operators if people call in and ask about the fees. He said the Legislature already addressed the tax issue and didn't do anything to prevent what the phone company is doing. He ended with a line that'll probably appear, in some form, in the company's official response: "We are absolutely in compliance with state and federal law."
Two Kinds of Smoke
Two-thirds of adults in Texas think smoking ought to be banned in places where people work, eat, and drink, according to a poll done by Smoke-Free Texas, a coalition trying to put anti-smoking ideas into state law. That poll, done by Austin-based Baselice & Associates, found that 78 percent of non-smokers want a ban, 66 percent of former smokers want it, and 35 percent of smokers would favor it. Just over half — 54 percent — "strongly favor" such a ban. Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, introduced the legislation; the groups are still looking for a House sponsor. Sixteen other states already have bans in place.
• Tina Benkiser, the chairwoman of the Republican Party of Texas, recently criticized the leader of the House Democratic Caucus, Jim Dunnam of Waco, for pushing for secret votes in the race for speaker. Seems he was against them on another issue, she said. But a Republican we know spotted that one and sent along an example of the same flip-flop — from Benkiser. She was for a secret vote on whether the national GOP should have a "general chairman" tapped by President George W. Bush. That's not an official position, but denying it was a form of bucking the prez, and Benkiser and others angered Bush allies.
• Take Kirk Edwards off the candidate list if you're talking about possible challenges to Rep. Buddy West, R-Odessa. Edwards got an appointment to the board of directors of the El Paso branch of the Federal Reserve.
Molly Ivins, 1944-2007
In the Austin bureau of the late Dallas Times Herald, a rule was handed down from reporter to reporter, from bureau chief to bureau chief. It was spoken at least twice that we know of in front of Ivins herself. "If you have come into some off-the-record gem and could lose a source by telling the story over beers with other reporters, don't tell it in front of Molly. She'll use it."
You could read that as a slap, but you'd be a lousy analyst. Ivins was all about the stories and if the source was prominent, all the more reason to let fly. She had the idea that it would be cool if readers could hear the stories journalists tell after they leave the office and sit down with other journalists for beers and tales. And she knew that the stuff journalists didn't write was often better than what got into print. Also, she wouldn't be the one breaking the "off-record" promise.
She weaved high and low culture in her writing and in person, recommending a couple of books that made you feel like a sinking graduate student and then telling a joke or trying out a line that would make you spit your Cheerios across the kitchen.
She gave a simple wedding present to friends: Point out the most irritating relative or guest at the wedding — someone most unwanted who had to be invited — and she'd keep them busy for entire reception. The stinkers had a good time. Molly got new stories, an invite, and a pass on buying a gift. Couples got a present they'd remember instead of a plate.
She was known for those two voices everybody talks about — the one trained at Smith College and the one trained in bars and beer gardens. But the third voice was the one really familiar to friends and acquaintances and readers. It's the considerate and compassionate voice, the one digging for the roots of things. It was funny, because humor is a good tool for that kind of work. She really did care about life and politics and people and all that and wasn't just saying so. It was important to her, and because that was so clear, it was important to her readers.
Political People and Their Moves
Harris County Judge Robert Eckels is reportedly thinking about moving out of the public sector — for now — and into the private sector, a move that would make a statewide run in 2008 possible. If he wants to do that. One rumor has the former state lawmaker joining the Bracewell Giuliani law firm.
Ann Fuelberg got the Bob Bullock Award from the Government Technology Conference for her work as executive director of the Employee Retirement System of Texas. Bonus: She was a deputy comptroller when Bullock was comptroller.
Janna Burleson will head the newly created Texas Criminal Justice Statistical Analysis Center created by an executive order of Gov. Rick Perry. That'll be a clearinghouse for data on prison and other criminal justice issues, similar to an agency whacked in budget cuts four years ago. The Criminal Justice Policy Council died when Perry excised it from the state budget, saying its functions could be "transferred to other entities by executive order."
A newly appointed panel will try where other state efforts have failed, looking for ways to improve management and mission at Texas Southern University. The governor appointed former state Rep. Glenn Lewis, D-Fort Worth, to chair a panel with these members: Gary Bledsoe, Dr. Raymund Paredes, and Richard Salwen of Austin; Richard Knight Jr. of Dallas; and Judge Zinetta Burney, Larry Faulkner, Anthony Hall Jr., Howard Jefferson, Cynthia Spooner, and Albert Myres, all from Houston.
Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, will have a third term as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, is the new vice chair. And the Democrats reelected Reps. Terri Hodge of Dallas and Veronica Gonzales of McAllen as treasurer and secretary, respectively.
And Allison Castle rejoins Ross Communications after stints with former Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn and, most recently, with the Texas Credit Union League.
Quotes of the Week
U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, quoted in a Washington Times article her campaign later emailed to supporters: "If our party's nominee called me and said we are putting everything in the grid, and we think you are the best person, would I say no? I can't imagine that I would say no... Would I seek it or do something to promote it? Absolutely not."
State Rep. Rick Noriega, D-Houston, in the San Antonio Express-News: "If our graduation rates in the state are 60 percent, that's our public policy as a state. We as Texans accept that graduation rate, apparently. That's what we do, because that's what it is. Public policy is not what we say it is. It's not what is written. It's what's actual."
Sen. Steve Ogden, in the San Antonio Express-News, asked what he thinks about rebating surpluses to taxpayers: "Not much... The big issue to me in this session is to make sure that we set aside enough of the surplus to guarantee that we'll be able to meet our property tax promises in future years."
Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, in The Dallas Morning News after Gov. Rick Perry said the state needs to fix one of its biggest welfare programs: "Didn't they reform Medicaid in 2003?"
Molly Ivins, on one of her favorite things: "I believe politics is the finest form of entertainment in the state of Texas: better than the zoo, better than the circus, rougher than football, and even more aesthetically satisfying than baseball."
Texas Weekly: Volume 23, Issue 31, 5 February 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. For news, email email@example.com, or call (512) 288-6598.