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While We Were Out

Legal arguments about how the Texas House should run have picked up, but it's still too early to tell whether Attorney General Greg Abbott will weigh in and whether, if he does, it'll make any difference in the final outcome.

Legal arguments about how the Texas House should run have picked up, but it's still too early to tell whether Attorney General Greg Abbott will weigh in and whether, if he does, it'll make any difference in the final outcome.

Abbott asked lawmakers and others to send briefs on a series of questions asked by Republican Reps. Byron Cook and Jim Keffer. They want to know whether a speaker has to recognize motions by members, whether he's a state official in the Constitutional sense or just an officer of the House, whether he's got to be replaced if he's removed during a session, and whether impeaching a speaker (or a president pro tempore in the Senate) costs him his seat in the House as well as the speakership.

Abbott's got an out on at least part of that, if he wants it, taking advantage of what you might call the Las Vegas Rule: What happens in the House stays in the House. The constitution says the Legislature gets to make its own rules about how it operates; most of that isn't subject to outside review. That could mean that it's up to the House whether Speaker Tom Craddick has to recognize motions, or can be replaced in mid-session, or whatever. If it's in the rules, he does, and if not, he doesn't.

The constitutional question about whether he's a state official is more interesting, at least to the lawyers. If Craddick's job (or any speaker's) is purely an inside deal with no constitutional protection, his fate is subject to that same Las Vegas Rule: Whatever the House says, goes. If he's a constitutional officer, like the governor or the attorney general, the House might not have the ability to depose him once he's been elected at the beginning of a session. That's the sort of thing that could be in an Abbott opinion, if he wants to get involved.

It's not clear it would matter if he does, though something with no legal impact could still have a political bounce. Keffer said when he asked for the opinion that he wants to know what the speakers' powers are so members can decide whether to change them. But the members can make changes with or without Abbott, and the ire raised at the end of the session will put the rules at the center of a race for speaker at the beginning of the next session no matter what he does.

Keffer's request is still pending, and Abbott, who's collecting briefs for a few more days, has a couple of months to chew on it.

Hitting the Books

Add House Speaker Tom Craddick to the crowd that thinks the state's community colleges should be getting the $154 million lopped from their budgets by Gov. Rick Perry.

Perry vetoed that amount, saying the community colleges were illegally using the money to pay for health insurance for employees whose salaries aren't paid by the state. (The schools contend it's legal to use it to pay for health bennies for employees who are eligible for state-funded salaries whether they're actually paid by the state or not).

It's apparently not a crisis issue for a year — the schools can get through the next 12 months before they come up short, according to state budgeteers who say the veto applied to the 2009 fiscal year. But legislators who approved the state budget have been hearing from the local schools and are clamoring for a patch that'll get the money back into higher education.

That's the catch-up. Now comes Craddick, who sent a letter (copied to the press) to Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, saying he thinks the schools should get the money, agreeing in part with Perry that there are some issues about state and local funding, and promising a solution to the mess is on the way: "it is my intention to act quickly so community colleges will be able to plan accordingly and avoid any negative consequences, such as tuition increases for students or property tax rate increases for homeowners and businesses."

Dunnam had earlier written to Craddick, and to Perry, urging them to undo the effects of the veto. And Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has already said, via his own letter to senators, that the Legislative Budget Board should do something to replace the money lost to the veto. This puts the two legislative leaders more or less on the same page.

You can trace this back to a 2005 performance review done by the LBB (which took over that process from the comptroller) that said the state could "realize significant savings" if it applied "proportionality" to public community colleges. The idea is that the state should pay the same share of salaries and benefits; in the community colleges, it's paying a larger share of bennies than of salaries, and the amount of the mismatch is $154 million.

The numbers are old, but the LBB's report indicated the biggest public community colleges were (and presumably still are) the biggest beneficiaries of the disproportionate funding. In dollar terms, they'd take the biggest hits. Using numbers from the budget proposed at the beginning of the 2005 legislative session, the LBB listed 50 community college districts that were getting up to $11 million more than they would under a proportional system. The leaders, in dollar terms, included Dallas Community College, Alamo Community College (San Antonio), Tarrant Community College (Fort Worth), and three in the Houston area: Houston Community College, North Harris Montgomery Community College, and San Jacinto College.

Perry's apparently not against the colleges getting the money, but opposes them getting it for disproportionate benefits instead of instruction or something else. In his veto message on the state budget, he wrote bluntly: "To get money for these employees, community colleges falsified their appropriations requests."

Aides indicate privately that sending the money through the regular "formula funding" for the schools would probably suit their boss.

One more note: The Senate's Subcommittee on Higher Education will meet next week (Tuesday, 7 August) to talk about possible solutions.

Not Ready for Prime Time

State election officials are putting a new computerized voter registration system through a "stress test" to see if they can get it to work fast enough for a presidential election year.

Secretary of State Phil Wilson says the $14 million system doesn't have the zip it's supposed to have; it fell short in the May elections — not a major test of its capabilities — and he's worried that it isn't up to a presidential election year in 2008.

For five days next week, elections officials, IBM and Hart InterCivic — the contractors who built the new system — will put the system through its paces, trying to push it to the point of breakdown to see what needs fixing before the real elections next year.

The new system is the result of federal voting laws that require states to have statewide voter registration systems. Texas has historically left most of those chores to its 254 counties. The new system puts all Texas voters into one database with their driver license and social security numbers, preventing people from registering in more than one county and speeding up (or attempting to speed up) checks on whether people are eligible to vote.

Most but not all of the new features work, according to Wilson aides, and much of what does work works slowly. They and county officials will road-test it through next week and then pull together a list of what needs fixing and when the fixes are due.

A Familiar Face

Texas Republicans named former Rep. Talmadge Heflin of Houston the new executive director of the state party.

He'll replace Jeff Fisher, the former political consultant who held the post for the last two election cycles (and who'll remain in the background as an "advisor" to the Texas GOP. Heflin was in the House for 22 years and was chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee when he was upset by Houston Democrat Hubert Vo in 2004 in an election that came down to a couple dozen votes and an election contest in the House. He lost a rematch last November (54.3 percent to 45.7 percent), and has since been working as a policy fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin.

Heflin will continue in that post while serving as the GOP's executive director.

Executive directors usually come from consulting or political operative ranks. Fisher did a stint as Van Zandt County Judge, but he's also got experience running campaigns.

Heflin doesn't have that. But he's a fiscal and social conservative; in fact, his top credential — $10 billion in cuts to the 2004-05 state budget while he headed the budget committee — is also the main reason Democrats blasted his appointment to this gig. State GOP Chair Tina Benkiser touted that in a press release announcing she's hiring Heflin, saying he "helped close a $10 billion budget shortfall without raising taxes." Her Democratic counterpart, Boyd Richie, touted it, too. His version: "When Heflin had to choose between making the special interests pay their fair share or cutting the heart of the state budget, Heflin cut 200,000 children off of CHIP, forced students to use out of date textbooks in classrooms, and proposed a tax on groceries."

The chairman of the party is usually the one who meets with reporters and the public, while the E.D. grinds away at political stuff. It looks like this could be a partial flip; Heflin's more comfortable with reporters and other unseemly political creatures than Benkiser, and she's arguably got more campaign experience.

Heflin says "it would make sense" to stay on through the 2008 elections, but he didn't commit to a particular tenure. "It's not something I plan to be doing for the rest of my life, although at my age, it could be for the rest of my life and me not know it," he says.

Contenders, Real and Maybe Real

State district Judge Susan Criss, a Galveston Democrat, will run for the Texas Supreme Court. She's challenging Justice Phil Johnson of Amarillo, a Gov. Rick Perry appointee who has never run statewide. On her website, Criss calls herself "the blogging judge;" she's got one on the campaign site and another one called "As the Island Floats"...

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, will apparently face former Webb County Judge Louis Bruni in next year's Democratic primary. She's held that seat since 1987...

Tim Turner, a former State Republican Executive Committee member, a member of the Texas Medical Board, and a former candidate, is considering a run against Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte. Turner's a Republican; Jackson's already got Democrat Joe Jaworski gunning for him...

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, got her fill of rumors about her intentions; she announced that she'll soon announce that she's running for reelection to the Senate. Local gossips had her looking at county posts, but she's not interested. One line in her announcement stood out: "Others who continue to discuss running for Senate District 26 should be clear; if they run in that race, they'll be running against me."...

Jeff Humber will be in the Republican primary to replace Rep. Anna Mowery, R-Fort Worth. She's retiring and about 500 people have been thinking about getting into that race. Humber, a health care exec, said in his announcement that he wants to work on affordable and accessible health care if elected.

Switch Hitter

Roger Williams, who was running elections for the state until earlier this summer, is now running elections for the state GOP.

The former Texas Secretary of State is heading up the 2008 coordinated campaign for the Republican Party of Texas, a fundraising gig that'll return him to regular contact with the people who pay for campaigns.

Williams was appointed by Perry after serving as a national fundraiser for President George W. Bush. In between, he was the state's top election official, a political but nonpartisan job. It's not unusual for folks in either party to go back and forth like that, but it's a weird tradition.

Here's a copy of Williams' latest money-raising letter (on a second page, readers are prompted to donate $20,000, $25,000, $5,000, or "I/we cannot commit at that level today, but enclosed is a contribution of...").

Shut Up and Eat Your Vegetables

Most Texans will ignore the 16 proposed amendments to the state constitution on the November ballot. And after a drawing by Texas Secretary of State Phil Wilson, they'll ignore them in this order:

• Prop. 1: "The constitutional amendment providing for the continuation of the constitutional appropriation for facilities and other capital items at Angelo State University on a change in the governance of the university." (HJR 103)

• Prop. 2: "The constitutional amendment providing for the issuance of $500 million in general obligation bonds to finance educational loans to students and authorizing bond enhancement agreements with respect to general obligation bonds issued for that purpose." (SJR 57)

• Prop. 3: "The constitutional amendment authorizing the legislature to provide that the maximum appraised value of a residence homestead for ad valorem taxation is limited to the lesser of the most recent market value of the residence homestead as determined by the appraisal entity or 110 percent, or a greater percentage, of the appraised value of the residence homestead for the preceding tax year." (HJR 40)

• Prop. 4: "The constitutional amendment authorizing the issuance of up to $1 billion in bonds payable from the general revenues of the state for maintenance, improvement, repair, and construction projects and for the purchase of needed equipment." (SJR 65)

• Prop. 5: "The constitutional amendment authorizing the legislature to permit the voters of a municipality having a population of less than 10,000 to authorize the governing body of the municipality to enter into an agreement with an owner of real property in or adjacent to an area in the municipality that has been approved for funding under certain programs administered by the Texas Department of Agriculture under which the parties agree that all ad valorem taxes imposed on the owner's property may not be increased for the first five tax years after the tax year in which the agreement is entered into." (SJR 44)

• Prop. 6: "The constitutional amendment authorizing the legislature to exempt from ad valorem taxation one motor vehicle owned by an individual and used in the course of the owner's occupation or profession and also for personal activities of the owner." (HJR 54)

• Prop. 7: "The constitutional amendment to allow governmental entities to sell property acquired through eminent domain back to the previous owners at the price the entities paid to acquire the property." (HJR 30)

• Prop. 8: "The constitutional amendment to clarify certain provisions relating to the making of a home equity loan and use of home equity loan proceeds." (HJR 72)

• Prop. 9: "The constitutional amendment authorizing the legislature to exempt all or part of the residence homesteads of certain totally disabled veterans from ad valorem taxation and authorizing a change in the manner of determining the amount of the existing exemption from ad valorem taxation to which a disabled veteran is entitled." (SJR 29)

• Prop. 10: "The constitutional amendment to abolish the constitutional authority for the office of inspector of hides and animals." (HJR 69)

• Prop. 11: "The constitutional amendment to require that a record vote be taken by a house of the legislature on final passage of any bill, other than certain local bills, of a resolution proposing or ratifying a constitutional amendment, or of any other non-ceremonial resolution, and to provide for public access on the Internet to those record votes." (HJR 19)

• Prop. 12: "The constitutional amendment providing for the issuance of general obligation bonds by the Texas Transportation Commission in an amount not to exceed $5 billion to provide funding for highway improvement projects." (SJR 64)

• Prop. 13: "The constitutional amendment authorizing the denial of bail to a person who violates certain court orders or conditions of release in a felony or family violence case." (HJR 6)

• Prop. 14: "The constitutional amendment permitting a justice or judge who reaches the mandatory retirement age while in office to serve the remainder of the justice's or judge's current term." (HJR 36)

• Prop. 15: "The constitutional amendment requiring the creation of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas and authorizing the issuance of up to $3 billion in bonds payable from the general revenues of the state for research in Texas to find the causes of and cures for cancer." (HJR 90)

• Prop. 16: "The constitutional amendment providing for the issuance of additional general obligation bonds by the Texas Water Development Board in an amount not to exceed $250 million to provide assistance to economically distressed areas." (SJR 20)

Made it to the end? Congratulations. There are a couple of points of interest on that list. The $3 billion in cancer research bonds will have a campaign behind it; that's a favored program of the governor, mucky mucks from both parties, and cyclist/cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, whose celebrity has attracted political attention. But it got a late number — 15 — and it's behind three bond proposals and next to another one. The Legislature is asking voters to approve a total of five bond packages — for cancer, roads, water, education and construction — totaling $9.75 billion.

Most of what's left is important to somebody, but minor to most people. One would require record votes on final passage of most bills, so people would know how their legislators vote. The real gut votes — lawmakers will tell you if they're drinking — come in committees and on preliminary or procedural questions. Another would let judges serve out their current terms even if they hit mandatory retirement age. A third would allow lawmakers to exempt some disabled veterans from any property taxes. And there's a weed-whacker in there that would remove from the constitution the office of inspector of hides and animals.

Constitutional amendment elections don't attract most voters. The special constitutional election in May of this year drew only 5.3 percent of the voting age population — fewer than a million voters. The 2005 package, with its headline-grabbing same sex marriage amendment — pulled in 13.8 percent of voting age Texans, or just over 2.2 million. And 9.3 percent of those voting age folks came out for a September 2003 election on 22 amendments that included one limiting damages against doctors and others on the losing end of medical malpractice lawsuits. By contrast, 4.4 million voting age Texans voted in last year's general election for governor and other offices — that's 26.4 percent of VAP; and 7.4 million, or 46.1 percent of the voting age population, voted in the 2004 elections topped by the presidential race.

Election Day is Tuesday, November 6.

Better and Worse, All at Once

The number of Texas public schools in the top and bottom rankings increased in 2007; state education regulators say students improved while the tests got more difficult, increasing the numbers of "exemplary" schools as well as the number of "academically unacceptable" schools.

The Texas Education Agency's top rating went to 637 schools this year as against 564 last year. On the district level, 27 got the top rating, up from 19. "Recognized" ratings went to 2,345 schools and 214 districts; last year, the respective numbers were 2,826 schools and 337 districts, so fewer made it this year.

Nearly half of the state's schools — 3,718 — were in the "academically acceptable" category. That's up from 3,190 a year earlier. The number of districts in the category also rose, to 920 this year from 809 a year earlier.

The lowest ranking — which can put a campus or district in jeopardy of reorganization if it persists — went to 288 schools, up from 267 in 2006. Fifty-seven districts got bad marks, compared to 47 in 2006.

The number of schools in the top two tiers fell by 12 percent under the tougher standards, and TEA is, for now, ignoring dropout and school completion data until they're confident their numbers are good. Also, there are 676 schools that weren't rated this year, usually because they didn't have students who have to take standardized tests (pre-school, for instance). Roughly 1.6 million students are in exemplary or recognized schools in Texas, while about 2.8 million are in acceptable or unacceptable schools, according to TEA.

Here's the link where you can look up individual campuses and districts in the state (and for previous school years, too).

The school rating system now in use is four years old. A House-Senate committee is reviewing it between now and the next legislative session to see whether it's doing what they want it to do.

Telephone Poll

Texans don't like the Universal Service Fund and most want to abolish it, according to a survey done at the end of May for the Texas Cable & Telecommunications Association.

That's close to the trade group's position — else they probably wouldn't have shared it, right? — but differs on one point. The TCTA folks don't want to kill the fund. They want to shrink it.

The fund is a pool of money that's supposed to subsidize phone service in areas where it would otherwise be too expensive or where people can't afford it. Most of the money in the program goes to the biggest phone companies that provide most of the land-line telephone service in Texas. The cable companies think the phone companies get too much dough and fear the fund gives the phone companies an unfair advantage. The phone folks say it falls short of their costs and imply they could justify even higher subsidies.

While state regulators sort that out, the public is skeptical, according to TCTA. About two-thirds (65%) said they oppose the fund; 54 percent say it ought to be abolished; 35 percent say it should be shrunk. More than half — 54 percent — told the pollsters they weren't aware the fund exists.

Political People and Their Moves

Eric Bearse, who's been working for Gov. Rick Perry longer than all but one or two people on the governor's staff, is leaving to open a public affairs, political and speechwriting shop. Bearse has done all of those things for Perry, working in his campaigns, his government communications shop and writing Perry's fancy words for the last few years. He'll office with other Perry alums like Mike Toomey, Ray Sullivan, and Rossanna Salazar.

Richard Alvarado of San Antonio is the new interim executive director of the Texas ACLU. He's the replacement, for now, for Will Harrell, who left that organization to work for the Texas Youth Commission. A search for a permanent replacement is underway.

Ron Hutcheson, a veteran Texas political reporter who did time in Austin and in Washington, D.C., is switching sides: He'll join Austin-based Public Strategies Inc., working in their Washington office. He was with McClatchy Newspapers, owners of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, his professional home for a couple of decades.

The Texas Railroad Commission is keeping up the tradition of putting the commissioner who's on the ballot in the middle seat. Michael Williams return to the chairmanship of that agency.

The Texas State Teachers Association hired Joe Patrick Bean, a former teacher and journalist, to handle public affairs. He was most recently the editorial page editor at the Victoria Advocate, and he also did time at the San Antonio Express-News.

State Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, was elected chairman-elect of the Southern Legislative Conference, a group made up of lawmakers from 16 states.

Appointments: Benjamin Sasse, an assistant prof at the LBJ School at the University of Texas at Austin, was tapped by President George W. Bush as assistant secretary of health and human services for planning and evaluation. That requires Senate consent.

Don McLeroy of Bryan is Gov. Rick Perry's choice to chair the State Board of Education. That's an elected post, but the governor gets to pick which of the board members serves in the middle seat. McLeroy, a favorite of the right and a foil of the left, has been on the board for eight years.

Randy Clapp, an attorney from El Campo, will put on the robes for the 329th Family District Court until the next general election. Perry appointed him to replace Judge Dan Sklar for that Wharton-based court. Samuel "Roger" Bridgwater III of Houston will take over the 178th District Court. He's a former prosecutor and until now was a private practice attorney, and he'll replace Judge William Harmon.

Perry named four new board members for the Department of Information Resources: Austin venture capitalist Cliff Mountain, who'll be the chairman; Harris County District Clerk Charles Bacarisse (a reappointment); Rosemary Martinez, vice president for business affairs at the University of Texas at Brownsville; and Robert Pickering Jr., CEO of LBI International in Houston.

Les Butler of Fort Worth and Kevin Jackson of Austin will join the state's Council on Purchasing from People with Disabilities. Butler is CPP of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission; Jackson is retired from the General Motors Corp.

Perry named Jesse Adams as presiding officer of the Texas Racing Commission. Adams is president of a tax-consulting firm and of Adams Land and Livestock. The governor appointed Ronald Ederer, a San Antonio attorney, to that board. He's a former U.S. Magistrate and a former federal prosecutor.

Bob Barnes of Granbury (formerly of Odessa) will join the Texas Mutual Insurance Co.'s board as a Perry appointee. That's the insurer of last resort for workers' comp insurance. Barnes runs a real estate and development company and is a former head of the Texas Restaurant Association. While he was at it, the Guv named Richard Cooper of Lubbock to preside over that board.

Cydney Donnell of Fredericksburg, a business prof at Texas A&M University, will take a seat on the Employee Retirement System board. Perry named her to a term running through 2012.

Finally, Perry named three directors for the One Star Foundation, which promotes volunteerism and community service: Beau Egert of Friendswood, who used to be on the One Star staff and now works for Luscinia Health; Pastor Charles Lewis Jackson of Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Houston; and actress Janine Turner of Colleyville.

Deaths: Dr. Robert Bernstein, Texas Commissioner of Health from 1980-91, who'd been battling leukemia and heart trouble. He was 87.

Quotes of the Week

Former U.S. Majority Leader Tom DeLay, speaking to a group of college Republicans and videotaped by blogger Max Blumenthal for The Huffington Post: "If you believe abortion doesn't affect you, I contend it affects you in immigration. If we had those 40 million children that were killed over the last 30 years, we wouldn't need the illegal immigrants to fill the jobs that they are doing today. Think about it."

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, talking to the Houston Chronicle about the BMW he leases with campaign funds: "There's no question there are a lot of nice automobiles around the Capitol, but that's not an issue that our constituents judge us by."

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, quoted in the San Antonio Express-News on why he thinks two convicted Border Patrol agents should be pardoned for covering up their shooting of a suspected drug smuggler: "If the Scooter Libby case is one the president believes was excessive, I have a hard time understanding why these two individuals don't warrant a similar review."

Democrat Rick Noriega, a state rep from Houston, making a pitch for his experience in an interview with the El Paso Times: "I think it's time we send people to Washington that have got a few knots on their head."


Texas Weekly: Volume 24, Issue 7, 6 August 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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