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Unexpected Endings

A House committee bungled its votes on divorce and abortion bills, killing a couple of the session's most controversial issues.

A House committee bungled its votes on divorce and abortion bills, killing a couple of the session's most controversial issues.

House State Affairs Chairman David Swinford, R-Dumas, called for a vote with six of the nine members of his committee gathered around his desk on the House floor. There were three bills up for approval, and each got four Yups and two Nopes.

But you have to have a hard majority to move a bill. That's five votes in this case. And because the two legislators who voted no won't change their votes, two of the bills are finished and the third is alive only because its Senate twin passed.

The so-called "trigger bill" that outlaws abortion in Texas if the Roe v. Wade decision is overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court won't go to the full House. That legislation, HB 175, had other problems — keep reading — but Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, hoped to get it to the floor of the House for a debate.

Next was another Chisum bill — one that made it to the floor only to be sent back to committee on a point of order. He wanted to make marriage more durable by making divorce more difficult, slowing the time between breakups and legal divorces, and allowing couples to speed up the proceedings by going through counseling or by proving there'd been violence at home. The conflict resolution training, he and other supporters figure, would keep couples together. Opponents said it would create an unreasonably long wait — two years — before couples could split. The bill, HB 2684, made it to the floor earlier this month but a rules violation sent it back to Swinford's committee, where it died. Chisum said he hopes to attach the bill as an amendment to something else before the session ends.

The third bill killed in Swinford's committee lives on, but only because the Senate's version passed. It would require doctors to report abortions and details about them to state health officials, and would require the state to put out an annual report on the statistics. Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, is still playing because the Senate narrowly okayed SB 785 by Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano. That's on its way to the House.

The goof gets House members off the hook on two big controversies; they don't have to vote one way or the other on those issues. That inspired some speculation that somebody was trying to protect the House from voting on the bills, but Swinford insists he screwed up and that he had intended to vote all three measures out of his committee.

Two Democrats — Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, and Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth — voted against all three bills. At least one and maybe all three members who missed the vote — all of them Republicans — could have been counted on to provide the fifth vote to move the bills to the floor. But the only way to repair the vote is to get someone on the prevailing side to allow reconsideration.

Veasey said he'd been asked, but he said no. He's winning.

A Price Tag on Roe v. Wade

It would cost more than $500 million annually in state and federal funds to make abortions illegal in Texas, according to an estimate from the Legislative Budget Board.

That's the price tag that agency put on a so-called "trigger bill" that would make abortions illegal in Texas if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns its decades-old ruling in Roe v. Wade.

Put another way — a less delicate one — that's the legislative estimate of how much money the state's taxpayers save because of Texas' current abortion laws.

It would cost around $200 million annually in state funds and another $300 million in federal funds if abortions were illegal in the state, according to the LBB's fiscal note on HB 175. That's based on the cost of the state medical and aid services those children would require if they were born, and doesn't include schooling and other programs.

The arithmetic is macabre. The analysts took the state's abortion rate from 2003 and estimated the number of abortions that would take place in the future based on that rate and the number of child-bearing-age women in the state in the future; their calculation is that there will be 78,718 abortions in 2008, rising to 82,828 by 2012. They assumed 20 percent of pregnant women seeking abortions would go out of state if abortions were illegal here, and that another one percent would have abortions here based on health of the mother or the fetus. The other 79 percent? More babies would be born; for the year 2010, they estimated 64,224 more births.

Where's the cost to the government? Medicaid and other services. More than half of the births in Texas — around 55 percent — are paid for Medicaid (or were in 2005, the year used for the estimate). The analysts assumed some percentage of those kids would be eligible for Medicaid and other aid programs and services beyond their first birthday. They didn't include costs like public schools and the like.

In the first full biennial budget after such a change in law, the LBB estimates the state would spend $416.5 million in state funds and another $591.4 million in federal funds on those programs. The total tab, which would rise each year after that, starts at $1.01 billion.

The high numbers alone probably killed the bill's chance of becoming law, though it died in committee because of a mistake described elsewhere. And it's unusual that the LBB hit it with the big price tag, since the sponsor is Appropriations Chairman Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, who shares oversight of the LBB with his Senate counterpart. Chisum said he's not concerned about the fiscal note and said the flip side of the argument is that the state is saving money by allowing abortions. He'd rather pay, he said.

The Senate's Budget Team

The Senate's Five Budgeteers will be Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, John Whitmire, D-Houston, and Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands. Ogden chairs the Senate Finance Committee; Zaffirini is the vice chair.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst announced his picks more than a week after the House team was named, and a day after the Senate passed its version of Jessica's Law; the two bills had become politically entwined despite the differences in subject matter. Jessica's Law is Dewhurst's pet issue this session and he wanted votes. Republicans in particular were lobbying for a conservative makeup on the budget conference committee.

In the end, a conference committee seat that might have belonged to Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, went to Williams, who is regarded by some Republicans as the more conservative of the two. A handful of those conservatives lobbied against reappointing Averitt and Duncan — both of whom were on the committee two years ago — in favor of someone further to the right. Dewhurst, asked by a reporter whether whining is the best way to get on the conference committee, said he considered several possibilities before making his decision about who gets to play. "Whine to the lieutenant governor? I don't know that I've ever heard Sen. Ogden, or Sen. Williams, or Sen. Duncan whine to the lieutenant governor."

The five senators will start talks this week with their counterparts from the House: Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, chairman of the Appropriations Committee; Dan Gattis, R-Georgetown; Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, vice chairman of appropriations; Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham; and Sylvester Turner, D-Houston.

The Legislative Budget Board has posted a simplified side-by-side comparing the two bills. The bottom lines are $2.1 billion apart, largely because the Senate included money to pay for increased health and human services for children to satisfy terms of a federal lawsuit settlement. The upper chamber also included across-the-board cuts in state government to pay for that settlement, so their budget would still be bigger without the court orders. The difference in general revenue spending — that's most of the state money in the budget — is $592.7 million. So they're close. But there's plenty to fight over.

Some key differences in the bills: The House voted for across-the-board pay raises for teachers in place of incentive pay; the Senate wants to build prisons that the House didn't include; the House included a "Quality Assurance Fee" on nursing homes that senators regard as a politically dangerous "granny tax"; and the two bodies disagree on how often people should reapply for benefits from the Children's Health Insurance Program, which is both a policy and finance decision. The Senate put more money into school buildings, while the House spent more on education technology. The House would raise the state's contributions to teacher retirement by $160 million and state employee retirement by $58 million. The Senate has more money in state employee health insurance programs. The Senate wants more for community colleges and health-related higher education.  The House put more into medical grad schools and border security. The Senate has more money on criminal justice for teens, including fixes for the Texas Youth Commission. The Senate included money for water and air plans, the House has contingency funding for the film industry.

Shots Across the Bow

Legislators agreed on a ban on gubernatorial orders to vaccinate pre-teen girls against human papillomavirus, or HPV. That legislation goes next to Gov. Rick Perry, whose mandate is being challenged here. Perry wants girls vaccinated against HPV before they enter sixth grade (unless their parents, for whatever reason, opt out). His order, issued as the Legislature began the session, angered some conservatives (HPV is a sexually transmitted disease, in addition to being a leading cause of cervical cancer) as well as some legislators, who don't think the Guv has the power to force the shots or to order the state to pay for them.

That sends the bill to the governor with plenty of time for lawmakers to overrule him if he decides to veto it. And the votes are there: The Senate approved the bill 30-1; the House concurred with a vote of 135-2. It takes two-thirds to override a veto.

The version sent to Perry includes a four-year ban on mandates from the governor to vaccinate Texas girls against human papillomavirus. Perry wanted to make the three-shot vaccinations a condition for girls entering the sixth grade in Texas public schools. The House's version of the state budget has another version of the ban in it; it says none of the money in that spending plan can be used to pay for vaccinations ordered by Perry.

Card 'em

Now that the House voted to require voters to show photo identification and a voter registration card to vote, that's off to the Senate, where an absent senator at the right moment could decide the outcome. The House tally was a party-line affair, nearly, with the Democrats in the room voting against it and all but two Republicans voting for it. The two Republicans who sided with the Democrats were Reps. Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock, and Tommy Merritt, R-Longview. The bill passed, 76-68.

Now it gets really interesting. When the late Sen. Greg Luna, D-San Antonio, was dying, he got then-Lt. Gov. Rick Perry to agree to a deal: Perry would give him 24 hours notice if the Senate was going to vote on a voucher bill carried by then-Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo.

Fast forward to the present day: Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, has asked Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst for the same deal on the voter ID bill. Gallegos, who had a liver transplant earlier this year, has sporadically attended this regular session. And in the Senate, business is business: If a senator who can block your bill isn't in the room, it's time to ask the Lite Guv to let you bring that bill up for a vote.

Dewhurst is giving the Luna precedent a narrow reading. He wrote to Gallegos in January, saying he's "happy to provide you with 24 hours notice one time for a vote on a single piece of legislation you designate in writing."

Dewhurst said he "can't imagine" a scenario — other than on redistricting issues in special sessions — when he would waive the Senate's rule that requires a two-thirds vote of the members present before a piece of legislation can come up to a vote. (There are some legal workarounds, but they're politically unsound.)

A Short-lived Tax Bill

So much for the Brimer Theory.

Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth, managed to amend a transportation bill to include a clause indexing state gasoline taxes to inflation. The big deal — as pointed out by Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano — is that tax bills have to originate in the House.

Brimer's gasoline tax amendment — added to omnibus transportation legislation authored by Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas — drew nays from Shapiro and Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville. Sens. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, did not vote. But everyone else voted for it.

According to "The Brimer Theory," tax language can originate in the Senate so long as it does not constitute the main body of the bill.

"Are you sure?" asked Shapiro.

"I don't have to be sure," answered Brimer.

"It will be an interesting parliamentary discussion," Carona said. "But one worthy of having."

Not mollified, Shapiro said, "I'm not in the business of spending time debating whether it's their turn or our turn. I think the Constitution — it's pretty clear on this issue."

Shapiro did succeed in blocking a second tax amendment by Brimer that would have allowed Dallas and surrounding counties to bust the sales tax cap (currently at 8.25 percent) and raise it to 8.75 percent to fund roads. Not wanting any amendment that would preclude his bill from passing committee unanimously, Carona asked Brimer to withdraw that one.

Senate Parliamentarian Karina Casari-Davis weighed in on Brimer's two amendments, telling Carona before the meeting that the gas tax should not originate in the Senate, but the sales tax cap buster could. The committee held up a vote on the bill to go to session — giving Brimer enough time to ruminate, chew a cigar or two, and change his mind.

"It's been overridden by the Parliamentarian. It was a short-lived theory," he said. "Sounds like a Brimer theory," laughed House Ways & Means Committee Chair Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, when told about Brimer's initial reasoning.

Brimer said the gas tax amendment won't be included in SB 1929 when it goes to the full Senate, and said he was trying to prompt the House to improve transportation funding. Keffer said he's not aware of any desire in the House to either increase the statewide gas tax or the sales tax in the Metroplex.

Carona's bill, covered here last week, includes the two-year private toll road moratorium prescribed by Nichols' SB 1267, already approved by the Senate.

It restricts non-compete clauses in road contracts, requires transparency in bidding, includes a landowners' bill of rights, gives local authorities more power to control road projects and creates rural planning organizations like the ones already in place for cities.

The bill also allots $25 million in money from TERP (a clean-air initiative) to start fixing the morass called Tower 55, a major rail intersection in downtown Fort Worth. Brimer, backed up by Union Pacific's Ron Olsen, said trains from all four corners of the compass have to wait their turn to cross Tower 55, idling all the while, blocking automobile traffic and constituting hazardous playground equipment for nearby elementary school kids. Ellis added an incentive program for people to buy hybrid vehicles.

Three things to keep an eye on that could become part of the bill: 1) a study of metropolitan planning organizations, suggested by Shapiro; 2) a limit on the number or total dollar amount of comprehensive development agreements entered into by the state; and, 3) a provision by Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, blocking TxDOT from "staking out" a road project indefinitely, preventing anyone else from building that particular road.

—by Patrick Brendel

Hunting Cornyn, and Money, Too

The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee has a poll that says U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, is beatable in next year's elections. And while they were sending that to reporters with one hand, their other hand was sending the same info to Texas donors, suggesting they send some money to the Washington, D.C. outfit to get some Democrats elected.

According to the DSCC, Cornyn would get 47 percent to a generic Democrat's 38 percent in an election held now. The pollsters — Hamilton Beattie & Staff — said voters are split when asked if they'd be better off with Republicans or Democrats in charge of Congress. About half think the country's headed the wrong way, while a third think thins are on the right track. Cornyn's name ID is 39 percent — three-fifths of Texans can't identify him (but probably know who Sanjaya Malakar* is). Of those, however, 41 percent have a favorable impression of the state's junior senator as against 19 percent who think negatively of him.

Their spin: Cornyn's vulnerable.

Cornyn spokesman David Beckwith said his guy's 2-to-1 favorable to unfavorable rating is a strong sign. "The national Democratic campaign committee is looking to sap Texas trial lawyers for their money to be used in other states. They know Cornyn is strong because they haven't been able to find anyone to run against him."

Other stuff of interest: Gov. Rick Perry is viewed favorably by 52 percent of the people surveyed, unfavorably by 39 percent. He's only unknown by 5 percent, compared to 33 percent for Cornyn. The survey (attached) indicates the firm tried out five other names on respondents but didn't share them with the press.

The poll was done April 11-15. Pollsters got responses from 800 self-identified registered voters who are "certain" to vote in 2008. They said the survey's margin of error is +/- 3.5 percent.

The poll comes on the heels of a fundraiser for DSCC at the San Antonio home of attorney Mikal Watts where the organization says it raised $1.1 million. Texas Democrats say they've had some assurances that money will be used in Texas if Cornyn has a viable opponent. A bunch of names have been floated, though nobody has publicly jumped into the race.

Cornyn, meanwhile, put out a list of the people who are helping him raise money around the state. It includes: John Nau, state finance chair, Houston; John Schweitzer and Karen Johnson, Austin; Robert Rowling and George Seay, Dallas; Kit Moncrief and Dee Kelly Jr., Fort Worth; Ned Holmes and Jim Grace, Houston; John Steen and Rob Finney, San Antonio; Herb Wade in Central Texas; Bill Hartley, Gaylord Hughey, Whit Riter in East Texas; Sam Susser on the Gulf Coast; Granger MacDonald in the Hill Country; Clyde Seibman in North Texas; Four Price in the Panhandle; Nick Serafy in South Texas; and Robert Brown in West Texas.

* Sanjaya was voted off American Idol after a baffling run of success that dominated Thursday morning office conversation for several weeks. Now get back to work.

Fresh Meat

Former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee would tie for second with U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona in a Texas Republican presidential primary held today, according to a survey by Austin-based Baselice & Associates.

His survey, done April 16-19, has former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the lead, with 24 percent, followed by Thompson and McCain with 19 percent each, former U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia with 12 percent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney with 8 percent and a mess of people with less than that.

Undecided got 12 percent, tied with Gingrich.

One interesting thing about the poll (831 respondents, +/- 3.4 percent margin of error) is how it compares with an earlier survey that didn't include Thompson. While he was going from zero to 19 percent, everyone but Romney was losing numbers, possibly to Thompson, possibly to each other. Compared with the earlier poll, Giuliani lost four percentage points, McCain lost seven, and Gingrich lost five. Even undecided lost some, falling from 16 percent in the earlier poll.

Flotsam & Jetsam

Sometimes, you'll see reporters bear down on their notebooks when they're expecting something to happen.

Some were paying attention when Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, asked colleagues to approve a calendar rule to keep the crows from pecking his tax bill to death. That's the legislation that "fixes" mistakes in last year's tax bill, and it's a potential magnet for lobbyists who want to score a tax break for their clients. But Keffer's mojo was good. He got his rule with a comfortable 109-26 margin. The reporters put their notebooks down, a good sign for Keffer.

That bill comes up next week. It would let about 60,000 businesses out of the margins tax by raising the annual gross receipts floor to $600,000 (it's currently $300,000; the National Federation for Independent Business is pushing for a $1 million floor and for a lower tax rate). It changes a mistake on taxes paid by property leasing partnerships, another for banks and securities sellers, and another big one for businesses applying prior year losses against their taxes.

• Legislators are for it, so far, but the Texas Association of Business says a two-year moratorium on new toll roads would be bad for bidness. They say a stall could hurt economic development.

Special Session — the weekly public television on politics and government — is doing a show on the status of bills you might be watching or cringing over. It's on Sunday in most markets, but check your listings for days and times.

Department of Corrections: House rules require only one member to ask for a record vote; we had it as three last week... One more rule thing (see what happens?): A two-thirds vote on legislation only gives that law immediate effect when there's no date specified in the legislation. If there's a date in there, that's the effective date. Sorry, sorry, sorry.

Political People and Their Moves

Bruce Gibson, a former state representative and until recently, the chief of staff to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, will become the director of public affairs for Dallas-based Ryan & Co. next month. That's the same tax-consulting firm that employs former Comptroller John Sharp, the Democrat who lost to Dewhurst in a hard-fought election in 2002. Gibson has been consulting and lobbying since leaving Dewhurst's staff before the legislative session. Most of Ryan's business with the state revolves around tax cases with the comptroller's office.

Rolling, after a wait of almost two months: Albert Hawkins, who — if the whole Senate goes along with its Nominations Committee — will have another term as the state's health and human services commissioner.

Gov. Rick Perry named Mike McCullough and George Schrader of Dallas to the Texas Woman's University board of regents. McCullough is a senior partner with the Thompson & Knight law firm. Schrader, a former Dallas city manager, owns and runs an investment company.

And he appointed April Nixon, a manager with the City of Arlington, to the Texas Municipal Retirement System's board of trustees.

Charged: Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, with driving while intoxicated in downtown Austin. His lawyer is former Rep. Terry Keel of Austin, who's also a former sheriff.

Deaths: Former state Rep. Jean Edmond Hosey, who served in the late 1950s and also practiced law with former Sen. A.R. "Babe" Schwartz of Galveston. He was 86... Mike Lopez, chief of staff to Rep. Paul Moreno, D-El Paso, after colon cancer surgery. He was 59.

Quotes of the Week

U.S. Sen. and presidential candidate John McCain, asked by the Washington Post why no senator has been elected president since John Kennedy: "Knowing most of the Senate, I can understand that."

Rep. Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin, talking to The Dallas Morning News about the number of religion-related bills filed this session: "I probably know more second verses to hymns than anyone in the Legislature, but I wouldn't want us to overreach."

Rep. Borris Miles, D-Houston, singing on stage at a party when someone threw red ladies' underwear at him, quoted by the Austin American-Statesman: "Those are some big panties."

Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell, presenting her voter ID bill and its requirement for photo identification to the House: "Polls show that voters are losing confidence in the integrity of our elections and that people are more likely to vote if they believe their ballot may be fairly counted."

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who cast the lone vote against Jessica's Law because of its provision for the death penalty, in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: "At some point, we have to draw the line between what is politically right and morally wrong."

Robert Kaiser, who runs a company that makes automated political calls, defending the robo-calls in The New York Times: "You might not think there would be a segment of the public that would want the calls, but there probably is."

Rep. Chuck Hopson, D-Jacksonville, telling the Houston Chronicle he doesn't bring his concealed handgun (he's got a license) on the floor of the House: "But if somebody starts shooting from the gallery, I wouldn't mind if someone was able to shoot back."


Texas Weekly: Volume 23, Issue 43, 30 April 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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