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Stick a Fork in It

Gov. Rick Perry finished off a tumultuous session by vetoing 49 bills — well short of record of 82 vetoes he set after his first session as governor — and cutting about $650 million out of the Legislature's state budget.

Gov. Rick Perry finished off a tumultuous session by vetoing 49 bills — well short of record of 82 vetoes he set after his first session as governor — and cutting about $650 million out of the Legislature's state budget.

The veto that got the most attention took out an eminent domain bill pushed by his fellow conservatives. HB 2006 would have limited governments' eminent domain powers, which has been a hot issue since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a condemnation done on behalf of private sector developers. Perry said in his veto message that the legislation would have been a windfall to lawyers who handle condemnations. He also objected to a provision that would have forced governments to pay for the lost economic value of land they didn't acquire, if the acquisition itself is what led to the diminished value. He said he'd support a bill without those provisions.

Perry got kudos from fiscal conservatives for signing bills that'll put more detail about government spending online, but one of the biggest expenses — salaries — remains undetailed. Comptroller Susan Combs has been adding agencies to her website as their spending is available in online form. It's interesting reading, but you can't find out — by that route, anyhow — what the state is paying its employees, and whether they're paying too much, too little, or just right. Each agency has a line item for "salaries," and that's that.

The full list of vetoed bills, along with the Guv's veto messages is available on his website.

Snip and Sign

Perry vetoed $650 million from the Legislature's state spending plans and then signed the rest — a two-year, $151.9 billion budget. And he complained that much of the money spent in the budget was out of reach of his veto pen. He cut $570 million from the budget itself and cut $76.6 million from HB 15, the supplemental appropriations bill.

Perry's press release and the proclamation detailing the cuts are available in our Files section.

He praised most of the budget, saying it increases spending on education, human services, criminal justice and the environment. But he complained that it's not transparent and that it ignored opportunities to increase tax relief with some of the $7 billion lawmakers left unspent.

Perry got most of his veto savings with two bullets. He killed $297.2 million in Medicare "Part D" funding, saying that cost should be borne by the federal government. Perry (some of his counterparts in other states are on the same page) says Texas is being penalized for the way it operates the program and says the so-called "clawback provisions" that force the state to spend that money should be repealed. His other big-ticket item includes a swipe at community colleges. The governor, accusing them of using state money to pay health and other benefits for employees who aren't on the state payroll, cut $154 million in group insurance contributions from their budgets, saying they can get the money from unexpended balances in other accounts and by dipping into other parts of their budgets.

Perry directed particular attention to so-called "special items" in the higher education section of the budget, saying lawmakers spent $1.2 billion "on pet pork projects" outside the regular funding formulas. Of that amount, $123 million was within reach of his veto pen; he axed $35.8 of that.

He said he's "more gravely concerned" about college funding than he was when he proposed his own spending plans in February, saying the Lege subverts an "objective professional process" when it tosses formula funding worked out by the schools in favor of local considerations and political pressures. Special items now account for 19.5 percent of higher education funding, he said.

"The funding process used by the legislature to write this appropriations act is antiquated, unfair, and keeps Texas from adequately competing at national and global levels," Perry said in his veto proclamation. "Texas is shackled by provincialism, preventing the creation of the workforce and laboratory innovations needed to meet the demands of the Twenty-first Century economy. This must stop."

Perry criticized legislators for their sloppy fiscal notes — the price tags put on legislation before it comes to a vote in either chamber. He listed several examples of bills that should have had price tags and didn't, and bills with price tags that clearly didn't match their real costs.

The supplemental bill would spend a total of $426.2 billion over the two-year budget period (that amount isn't included, usually, when people are talking about the size of the state budget, nor is the money the state's spending on public education as it takes on costs now borne by local taxpayers). Perry's office didn't immediately say what items in that bill he vetoed to get $76.6 million in cuts there.

Seeking a Second Opinion

Two committee chairmen from the House want Attorney General Greg Abbott to tell them -- in an official way -- whether House Speaker Tom Craddick's reading of the House's rules is correct. Craddick ended the session saying members can't challenge him without his permission.

Reps. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, and Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, want Abbott to answer four questions:

• Is the Speaker of the House a "legislative officer" who can be replaced according to House rules, or a "state officer" who can only be removed as described by the Constitution?

• If a Speaker (or a President Pro Tempore in the Senate) is constitutionally impeached, does that cost the officeholder their seat in the Legislature, or just their leadership gig?

• If a Speaker is removed during a legislative session, does the House have a legal obligation to name a replacement or do they have to leave the seat empty?

• Does the Speaker have unlimited discretion about whether to recognize members' motions, including a motion to remove that Speaker?

Keffer says he just wants to find out what Abbott thinks: "If the Speaker is the Supreme Being, we all need to know that, and to make our rules accordingly... If they [Craddick and his lawyers] are right, then maybe we need to adjust our rules, and if they're not, we need to know that, too."

He compared it to a request he and Sen. Jane Nelson made earlier this year, when they asked the AG whether Gov. Rick Perry had the power to order HPV vaccinations for 12-year-old girls. Abbott decided Perry's executive orders were advisory and don't have the force of law.

Craddick's office issued a written statement attributed to his press secretary, Alexis DeLee:

"Speaker Craddick welcomes a review by the Attorney General. During the closing days of the session, Speaker Craddick sought the opinions of constitutional law and rules experts, and the advice was instrumental in the Speaker’s decision to move forward with the business of the session. The rules of the Texas House of Representatives do not provide for a motion to conduct a Speaker's race in the midst of a session’s business. Furthermore, the rules are clear with regard to the Speaker’s power of recognition. Speaker Craddick acted correctly under the House Rules, the Texas Constitution, and was consistent with traditions of parliamentary practice. But more importantly, the citizens of this state were well-served in that the important business of the legislature prevailed over the internal politics of a speaker’s race."

The Keffer/Cook letter to Abbott, along with their questions for Abbott, which they included as an attachment, is in our Files section.

Changing of the Guard, 1

Deirdre Delisi is resigning as chief of staff to Gov. Rick Perry on July 1. She'll be replaced by his general counsel, Brian Newby.

Delisi, married to a Republican political consultant and daughter-in-law of a state rep, has been a policy and political advisor to Perry since he ran for lieutenant governor in 1998, and just gave birth to twin boys, Will and David. She was Perry's campaign manager in the 2002 governor's race and worked as deputy chief of staff before getting her current job in September 2004. She also worked on policy for George W. Bush's first campaign for president.

Her departure isn't completely unexpected, and in fact, the speculation about who might replace her has been underway since before the legislative session ended. And to fill in the blank created above, her husband is Ted Delisi, a consultant, and her mother-in-law is Rep. Dianne White Delisi, R-Temple.

Newby's was one of several names we'd heard mentioned around the Pink Building, a list that also included Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Department of Transportation and an old friend of the governor's, and Robert Howden, a former Perry aide who's now a lobbyist.

Newby became Perry's general counsel in November 2004. He'd been a regent at Texas Tech and a lawyer with Fort Worth-based Cantey & Hanger. Perry also promoted a couple of staffers to fill in gaps created by Delisi's departure and that of Phil Wilson, the governor's nominee for Secretary of State. Kris Heckmann and Kathy Walt will become deputy chiefs of staff. Heckmann is Perry's policy director and a veteran of the Sunset Advisory Commission. Walt is a former reporter — at the Houston Chronicle, among other spots — who joined the governor as press secretary in December 2000.

Changing of the Guard, 2

Texas Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley says she'll resign at the end of the month after just more than three years in that post.

Neeley, a former teacher, administrator and school superintendent, has been commissioner since January 2004. She said in her announcement that she wanted to serve for five years. But she just scraped through a recurrence of skin cancer — she's cancer-free now — and wants to spend more time with her family. Neeley indicated in her notice to the agency staff that she decided to quit after finding out the governor wasn't going to reappoint her.

"I can compare my situation to that of a superintendent when a school board decides to take no action or not extend their contract," she wrote. "Anyway you look at it, the message is clear: when it is time to go, it is time to go."

Perry hasn't said who he'll name in her place.

Neeley got good marks from one of the state's teacher groups, which also took the opportunity to spank the governor and the Legislature. "As a veteran educator herself, Commissioner Neeley has tried to keep in touch with educators in the field who actually have to implement the policy edicts and inadequate budgets handed down from the governor and legislative leadership," said Texas AFT President Linda Bridges. "In the process, she has helped to round off some of the rough edges of those policies and make them more workable."

Zero Benefit

One of the governor's vetoes killed legislation that would have put several state employees into the "elected class" for retiree benefits, including the two House parliamentarians who quit in the last week of the session in a dispute over challenges to Speaker Tom Craddick.

That group included former House Parliamentarian Denise Davis and her deputy, Chris Griesel, who quit in the last week of the session when Craddick ignored their advice about whether he had to allow his colleagues to try to remove him from office. Craddick — taking advice from others he'd been conferring with — decided he didn't have to recognize members for so-called "motions to vacate the chair" and that his refusal to ignore them could not be appealed.

The beneficiaries would also have included Senate Parliamentarian Karina Davis and Laura Medlock, who ran the Speaker's kitchen before being forced out of that job late last year.

The legislation — HB 3609 by Rep. Robert Talton, R-Sugar Land, and Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston — would have put several people into the elected class for state retirement. That would have elevated them from the regular pensions for state employees into the potentially more lucrative category legislators set up for themselves and other elected officials.

It was originally written for Medlock, after House members complained about the way she was terminated late last year. She worked 14 years for the state, retired, then returned to work for almost two decades. Because of that retirement in the middle, she wasn't eligible for additional retirement benefits and didn't contribute to the retirement system during her second stint. The bill would have allowed her to buy into the system for those years, and would have let her do it by deducting from her state retirement for the buyback instead of forcing her to catch up on the payments first. How she would have fared depends on who's talking. One bunch of experts tells us her benefits would have been in the regular employee class, not the elected class. Another bunch says the bill was written in a way that would allow her into the elected class.

The other three legislative employees were added as the bill worked its way through the Senate and the House.

The bill would have admitted the group into a small number of legislative employees who already won elected official benefits. To qualify, they have to have held two titled jobs as officers of the House or Senate for a total of ten years, and they have to have worked for the state for a total of 20 years. To make employees eligible, they had to have their names and titles recorded in the House or Senate Journals; Craddick did that for Medlock, Denise Davis, and Griesel, while Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst did it for Karina Davis.

Both chambers passed the bill with no dissent, but Perry spiked it.

Perry's veto message: "House Bill No. 3609 would entitle a select group of state employees to receive special retirement benefits which other state employees will not have the opportunity to receive. State law governing retirement benefits requires a state employee to work for a certain number of years while contributing to the pension trust fund in order to establish the requisite amount of service credit to receive retirement benefits. House Bill No. 3609 would allow a select few to receive increased benefits without meeting established state requirements." Perry signed a bill two years ago that did the same thing for some people, notably Nancy Fisher, Craddick's chief of staff. Her name and titles were put into the journal that year just minutes before the Legislature adjourned Sine Die. A spokesman for Perry said that one got by because it was part of an omnibus retirement bill that had to pass. The bill this session didn't have the same importance.

Political Notes

New polling from SurveyUSA.com has most Texans approving of the job done by U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and most Texans disapproving of John Cornyn, the state's junior senator. Her overall approval rating in the latest poll was 58 percent; 34 percent disapprove of the job she's doing. They're on the fence about Cornyn, with 42 percent approving the job he's doing and 43 percent disapproving. Gov. Rick Perry's numbers are split, too, according to that poll, with 49 percent saying they like the job he's doing and 46 percent saying they don't. President George W. Bush was far underwater in that survey, with 41 percent approval and 57 percent disapproval. Then again, the most prominent Texas politician never has to face voters again. Details: It's a poll of 600 adults that was conducted June 8-10 for KEYE-TV in Austin and WOAI-TV in San Antonio. The margin of error is +/- 4.1 percent.

• This is one of Todd Hunter's three months of popularity. He says the calls about whether he'll run for office each year tend to mass in May, June and December. The rumor this time is that the former state representative will run against freshman Democrat Juan Garcia of Corpus Christi in what, by the numbers, is a Republican-looking district. Garcia beat Republican incumbent Gene Seaman last November, but Republican candidates for state office easily won in the district. Hunter says it's too early to think about, that he's been contacted "many times" about making the race and that, "I haven't made a decision." He discounts it as noise at the moment and says people won't make real decisions until after Labor Day. "All these people are jumping out here in the summer — wait until August for things to settle down, and September for announcements."

• Former state Sen. John Montford, who left the Pink Building to be chancellor at Texas Tech and left that gig to be a mucky-muck at what's now called AT&T, has reportedly called around about a U.S. Senate race, though he wasn't immediately available to talk about it. He's a Democrat who served from Lubbock but now lives in San Antonio. He'd be the third candidate from that city, which claims U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, the Republican incumbent, and trial lawyer Mikal Watts, who moved from Corpus Christi to San Antonio. Watts, a Democrat, has an exploratory committee in motion.

Flotsam & Jetsam

The holdover list that included Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley currently has about 120 other spots on it, according to a listing kept on the governor's website. A number of state colleges and universities — Texas Tech and the University of Texas among them — are waiting for new regents. The Texas Department of Transportation has two seats occupied by commissioners whose terms have expired. One of those is former legislator Ric Williamson, who has become a lightning rod in the process of making the dirt fly on road projects — some of them terrifically controversial — around the state. Three spots are open at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, considered a plum assignment. There's one at the Texas Lottery Commission, three at the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, and several at various river authorities around the state. Now that the Lege is gone, the governor can make appointments and not worry about Senate consent until the next regular session, in January 2009.

• A poll commissioned by Texas companies that want a moderate approach to immigration reform found 59 percent of Texans want federal legislation that was described this way in the pollster's question: "The proposal would add resources to enhance border security, impose tougher employer penalties for hiring illegal immigrants, make English the language of the United States, create a temporary worker program, and create a process for illegal immigrants already in this country to gain legal status by paying a fine, passing a criminal background check and meeting other requirements." Just over a third — 36 percent — opposed that.

The poll by Austin-based Baselice and Associates found 75 percent of Texans think immigration law and policy needs a major overhaul. There were some partisan splits. Republicans were more likely than Democrats to want more patrols and fencing and technology on the border, and to favor sanction against employers who hire illegal workers. Democrats were more likely to favor the fine/amnesty idea, and they like the temporary worker program in about equal numbers. That said, respondents from both parties were in favor of all of those things, just in different intensities. The survey — available online — was done for a federation called Texas Employers for Immigration Reform.

• The comptroller's office will produce the quarterly lists of companies that do business with the government of Sudan. The state's two big retirement systems — for state employees and for teachers — will compare that with their investments and tell the companies whether they want to keep the business over there or the investments over here. Texas is the 17th state with legislation of that sort, according to the governor's office.

• Eureka! U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, wants to require weather radios in mobile homes, which are so often the wreckage after twisters that they're widely known as Tornado Magnets. (In the industry, all that stuff is called manufactured housing, so you won't step on any toes.) The radios would be required in all new manufactured housing.

Political People and Their Moves

President George W. Bush appointed State Demographer Steve Murdock to be the next director of the U.S. Census. Murdock, currently working out of the University of Texas at San Antonio (he was at Texas A&M University before that) is one of those rare people whose facts are highly regarded by everybody who's paying attention. He currently runs the Texas State Data Center and wrote about where the state's going in The Texas Challenge, an influential report that's become a regular reference for policy wonks in state government.

Emmett Sheppard, president of the Texas AFL-CIO, will retire at the end of his current term. The 64-year-old succeeded Joe Gunn in 2003 and will step down in August, when the AFL-CIO is supposed to elect its officers. Sheppard has been a union activist for 40 years and came to Austin in 1989 as the state legislative director. Becky Moeller, now the secretary-treasurer of the Texas federation, will run for president and is so far the only declared candidate for the post.

Add three names to the org chart at the Department of Information Resources. Casey Hoffman, most recently a deputy attorney general, will be executive assistant to DIR chief Brian Rawson. Cindy Reed and Ginger Salone have joined that agency as deputy executive directors. Reed is already at DIR, where she was running a division. Salone has been working in IT in the attorney general's child support division.

Daniel Womack, after five years with Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, is leaving to work for Commissioner Buddy Garcia at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Quotes of the Week

Rep. Beverly Woolley, R-Houston, asked by the Houston Chronicle whether her family's business would have benefited from vetoed legislation — that she sponsored — restricting eminent domain: "Maybe, maybe not."

Texas Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley, talking to The Dalllas Morning News about leaving the agency: "I wasn't quite ready to see it end, but I certainly respect the governor's decision. I am just sorry to see a 35-year career in public education end like this."

North Texas Tollway Authority chairman Paul Wageman, talking to a regional transportation council and quoted by The Dallas Morning News disputing state and private-sector opinions that NTTA's bid was inferior to another: "If you're not thoroughly confused, you're very smart people. It's really almost seemed otherworldly to me today."

Fred Lewis, an ethics and campaign finance reformer, quoted in the San Antonio Express-News on a property deal between Rep. Robert Puente, D-San Antonio, and a lobbyist: "I don't know if it was an arm's-length transaction. I don't know if he bought it at a fair price. I don't know if he sold it at a fair price. But let's just put it this way: It raises deep concerns when legislators are doing business with lobbyists, buying and selling things to them."

Rep. Sylvester Turner, a Houston Democrat who is running for Speaker of the House, in the Houston Chronicle: "I see myself attending a heck of a lot more fundraisers and receptions than I have in previous years. I will be popping up all over the place."


Texas Weekly: Volume 24, Issue 3, 25 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 biz@texasweekly.com. For news, email ramsey@texasweekly.com, or call (512) 288-6598.

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