One way to attract attention: Start chattering about the governor's inclination to break his 82-bill veto record. That's the signal watchers in the press and lobby are getting from Gov. Rick Perry, and it has bred a mini-industry of speculation about what might be and might not be on the chopping block. We've heard talk — thoroughly unsubstantiated and mentioned here only to illustrate the point about speculation — that Perry might whack the legislation fixing problems and making adjustments to the state's new business tax. So-called "special items" for colleges and universities in the state budget — that's where they make appropriations for specific projects and programs outside the regular operations of the schools — are on the gossip channel. And the governor has yet to sign a watered-down highway bill that went to him after he vetoed a stronger version in the final days of the session.
The Texas Legislative Service that we use to keep up with legislation says Perry is looking at 955 House bills and 526 Senate bills right now. That's not an unusual number, but it does present a lot of opportunity for speculation.
The chitchat about the tax bill is interesting. An anti-tax hawk could say it includes a gross receipts tax — a bleep-worthy phrase among those folks and business folks and economic development wonks. But the effect of the "clean-up" bill would be about the same as current law, except that it lowers the maximum tax a firm would have to pay if the state taxes its gross receipts. (Here's the legal artwork: A gross receipts tax applies a rate to a company's top line — its overall sales or billings. The Texas tax is a gross margins tax, which puts a levy on receipts minus the taxpayer's choice of payroll or cost of goods sold. It limits the tax rate, however, to 0.7 percent of gross receipts. For businesses with small payrolls and no costs of goods sold, that's essentially a 0.7 percent gross receipts tax.)
A veto of that bill would also kill provisions designed to lower the tax for businesses that make less than $1 million annually — they're tax rates are bracketed depending on gross receipts. Banks and securities companies want the new legislation because it straightens out a provision that could cost them millions on transactions that cross state lines. And a veto would preserve a multi-million loophole for certain companies that lease property. Read that to say that many of the state's apartment owners would love to see Perry kill the bill.
Cracking Open the Ledgers
It's not clear that normal people want to see what the government is spending their money on, but it's clear the politicos want to give them the chance to look. Comptroller Susan Combs has a new section on her agency's website that shows, in almost as much detail as you'd like, where tax dollars are going. It starts with a macro view that lists the state's agencies and how much money each of them gets. Click on an agency, and you're deeper in the ledgers.
During the first eight months of the current fiscal year, for instance, the Texas Education Agency spent $16.4 billion. Most — $13.8 billion — was for "intergovernmental payments." That's what they call the money the state sent to local schools (they've got a rudimentary translation service, but the government lingo is pretty thick). At the moment, the numbers go only one layer deeper. The next click on TEA's numbers take you to $10.7 billion for "school apportionment-foundation program." That's gov-speak for "sent to the public schools," though it's not all the money that went there and it's not clear what it was spent on. It doesn't exactly tell you what was spent on pencils and paper and what was spent on the coffee service at the administration building, but it's more than you could get before now.
Spending at the comptroller's office (the main one of three budget lines for that agency) hit $165.7 million by the end of April. Of that, $101 million went for salaries and wages. And you can find out that the agency spent $3,870 on hazardous duty pay and another $11,182.24 on "termination pay — death benefits." But you can't click on " Salaries and Wages-Classified and Non-Classified Permanent Full-Time Employees," for instance, to get a listing of who was paid how much. Those are public records, but that part of the new Internet-based system doesn't drill down that far.
There's another way to get some detail without sending in an open records request, though. A section called "A Closer Look" lets you poke into specific spending on goods and services at some agencies (they're adding more agencies as they go). Comb's office, for instance, spent $41.82 on safety helmets in fiscal 2007, $176 on suggestion boxes, $668.30 on rubber bands of all sizes, $6,291.74 on pens, and $297,640.47 on various kinds of paper. We tried to go for a cheap accounting joke, but couldn't locate a line item for green eyeshades.
Flotsam & Jetsam
• This is sort of a no-brainer, what with a budget surplus in the billions of dollars, but Comptroller Susan Combs officially certified the Legislature's 2008-09 budget. There will be enough money to cover it, she says. Gov. Rick Perry hasn't finished with it yet, but his veto pen won't increase spending, so there's no trouble there. The time to watch the numbers, if you need to fuel your curiosity (or your paranoia) is about a year from now. The state's new business margins tax — a chief source of money for a state-funded local school property tax cut — comes due for the first time in mid-May next year. If the Lege got the numbers right, there's no need to sweat. If Combs says the numbers are low, they'll need to cut other spending or raise taxes. And if she says they've got more money than they need, you can expect calls for an election-year tax cut. Until then, Combs expects smooth sailing.
• The last edition of a Texas public TV program on politics and the Texas Legislature airs this weekend and features a take on how the Lege looks to an average Texan. That's the work of Eileen Smith, a former legislative staffer and the operator of a really funny blog called In The Pink Texas. Check local listings, or watch it on their website next week.
Nothing official, and this has that vague feeling of Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown, but Republicans in Dallas and Houston are increasingly convinced Kay Bailey Hutchison will run for governor in 2010. She considered doing it last year but held off and ran for a third term to the U.S. Senate. She did fine in November, but went from a nice perch in the majority party to a spot in the Senate minority because of political changes in other states. Now she's telling supporters to keep their powder dry. Here's another bone: Her supporters say she'd resign her Senate seat to make the race in a move that could provide some drama while convincing Republicans she really means to run this time. Note the non-timeliness of this: It's two election cycles away.
It's too early to talk seriously about what legislators will try to come back and which ones won't. Their feelings always change as they get further from a legislative session, and right now they're more familiar with the feeling of the hangover than of the party that led to it. Only one has publicly announced she won't be on the ballot: Rep. Anna Mowery, R-Fort Worth.
Still, you can find signs of political life out there. Democrat Joe Jaworski of Galveston is already knocking heads with Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, and got a rise out of the incumbent with a posting on his website. Jaworski swung at Jackson for voting in favor of a state budget that shortchanged indigent care at the University of Texas Medical Branch hospital in Galveston. Jackson swung back: He voted against the budget, several times, including the vote on final passage in the last hours of the legislative session. Jackson's volley came in the form of a reply to Jaworski's email list; he left the challenger with the phone number for the Senate office where you can find out who voted for what. Ouch.
The center of politics in Texas has moved to Dallas at the moment, where mayoral candidate Ed Oakley was offered — and accepted — an endorsement from the Dallas County Democratic Party at the same time some of the area's top Republicans are doing fundraisers and pulling for him. A friend cut us in on an email sent on Oakley's behalf that included Republicans like Mary Ceverha and Jeanne Phillips. Oakley's in a runoff with Tom Leppert.
• Texas lawmakers balked at moving up the presidential primaries next year — the elections will be in March, possibly after voters in other states have decided who'll get the major party nominations. But the Texas GOP will get a jump on other states, with a straw poll set up for the end of August in Fort Worth. They're taking reservations now from Republicans who want to participate. Their idea is to get as many of the candidates as possible and a mob of Republican voters to Cowtown for two days. They'll hang out on Day One, holding meetings and milling around and electioneering, and they'll have a non-binding vote on favorites on September 1 — the Saturday before Labor Day. It won't determine the winner, but if it comes off, it'll be a national story that the campaigns can't ignore. And it gives the candidates an excuse for a visit to one of the biggest donor states in politics. All but two are in, according to party folks: Rudolph Giuliani's not coming and John McCain hasn't decided.
• The boomlet over the only Texan in the 2008 presidential race is keeping bookies busy. Gamblers have cut the odds on Texas Republican Ron Paul, according to Gambling911.com. He was at 200-to-1 a couple of weeks ago, and they've got him at 15-to-1 now. That means, if this isn't your bag, that a $1 bet would now pay only (only?) $15 if the Texas congressman wins the GOP nomination. An earlier bet would pay $200. Before you blow the savings account, his improved odds still aren't great, at least in betting terms.
• Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards will drag the sack in Texas next week and plans a noontime stop at Scholz Garten, the beer garden and barbecue joint near the Capitol. It's a weekday lunch deal, but they'll have a cash bar. Beer has been used before to help separate money from political donors.
• Officially, now: San Antonio/Corpus Christi lawyer Mikal Watts is formally exploring a race for U.S. Senate against John Cornyn, who plans to seek a second term in next year's elections. Watts parked a page on the Internet, but doesn't have anything on it yet. His law firm's page is up and running, though. He started by putting $3.8 million into his own race, telling the Houston Chronicle he matched "to the penny" the amount of money Cornyn reported as his political bank balance.
• Friendswood Mayor Pro Tem Chris Peden will run in CD-14 for the congressional seat currently occupied by U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Surfside. Paul's running for president, but that doesn't prevent him from seeking another term for the spot he's held since 1997 (Paul also served in Congress for eight years ending in 1984). Peden bills himself as the conservative Republican in the race and says on his website that Paul, who runs and serves as a Republican, is a Libertarian and not a real Republican. Peden touts his votes to limit his city's power of eminent domain and his effort to make English the official language there.
Political People and Their Moves
The governor's chief of staff, Deirdre Delisi, gave birth to twin boys a week after the session ended. William Thomas and David Hudson were several weeks early, and they're little — about five pounds between the two of them — but they and mom seem to be doing well, according to the paternal in this drama, Republican consultant Ted Delisi. His mom — the new grandmother — is Rep. Dianne White Delisi, R-Temple.
Rep. Ellen Cohen, D-Houston, is resigning from her regular job at the end of the year. She's been president and CEO of the Houston Area Women's Shelter since 1990 and was a volunteer there before that.
Dan Bartlett, a counselor to President George W. Bush whose first big moment on politics came during a killdeer hunt in 1994, is leaving the White House to find work in the private sector. Bartlett, who's from Rockwall, was on hand when Bush accidentally shot the wrong bird during the 1994 governor's race. And for a few more weeks, he'll be one of the president's top advisors.
Brian Rawson is the new executive director at the Texas Department of Information Resources (and the chief technology officer for the State of Texas). He's been the interim E.D. there and was a division director before that.
Phil Sanderson is the new director of the bingo division at the Texas Lottery. He'll replace his old boss, Billy Atkins, who resigned late last year. Sanderson has been in the bingo division for 13 years.
Recovering: Gene Fondren, the former legislator and lobbyist (he as the longtime head of the Texas Automobile Dealers Association), after a stroke in late May. Fondren is of counsel to Hilgers Bell & Richards, an Austin law firm.
Deaths: Frank Miller, a regent at the Texas Tech University System and a founder of JPI Cos., an apartment development company based in Dallas. He was 55.
Quotes of the Week
Attorney Howard Wolf, a citizen member of the Sunset Advisory Commission whose comments critical of state liquor laws were omitted from a Sunset report by Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth, in the Austin American-Statesman: "The system is so corrupt that it cannot tolerate someone saying that the emperor has no clothes," Wolf said. "They have been allowed to perpetuate a system that has used government at the expense of consumers."
Robert Black, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry, telling the San Antonio Express-News that the Legislature's new highway bill doesn't include a moratorium on toll roads: "Of any kind, that we can tell. Unless there was something screwy that happened."
Freshman Rep. Solomon Ortiz Jr., in a press statement saying he will ask the governor to veto one of his own bills: "Today, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Corpus Christi Regional Transportation Authority (CCRTA) wrote me a letter indicating the board will likely withdraw its support for HB 2622. I agreed to file this legislation at the request of the CCRTA, based on the unanimous support of the board..."
Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, telling The Dallas Morning News that he'll accept the pay raise given him in the state budget, though a handful of other statewide officials are refusing theirs: "They're worried about looking good."
Texas Weekly: Volume 24, Issue 1, 11 June 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.