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Very Busy Signals

Nothing like a proposal to cut $262.8 million from a state program to get negotiations going.

Nothing like a proposal to cut $262.8 million from a state program to get negotiations going.

The Public Utility Commission staff recommended that 66 percent cut to the state's Universal Service Fund (we first wrote about the case last summer), which was set up ten years ago to subsidize phone service in high cost areas of the state (like rural areas were customers are far apart and expensive to reach with wire lines).

The USF has a couple of parts; the staff would cut the fund used to reimburse four large companies for their costs in those areas, to $132.1 million annually from $394.9 million. The money comes from a 4.4 percent tax on every phone bill in the state. The biggest beneficiary — AT&T — has been the loudest advocate for leaving the fund alone. The amount each company gets now is a trade secret redacted from the PUC's public filings. The staff recommendation would pay them only $3.3 million a year, and a spokesman for the company referred to that as a 98 percent cut (do the math, and they're getting about $165 million a year now). In the staff proposal, AT&T would go from being the biggest beneficiary of the fund to the smallest. The PUC's been hearing from a handful of lawmakers, too, who take the phone company's side and say they don't want the fund cut.

AT&T's competitors — the loudest are cable and telecom affiliates of Time Warner — say the USF provides AT&T in particular with more money than it needs to serve those high-cost areas. AT&T's starting position was that it actually needed more than it was getting and that the high-cost areas were financial losers for the company.

The three-member PUC is scheduled to hear the case next month. But the staff recommendation — issued while we and maybe you were distracted by the elections — prompted a round of negotiations that could change what goes to the commission. As we went to press, everyone involved in the case — with the exception of AT&T — was working feverishly on a settlement that would lower the amounts paid each year to the four big companies (the others are Verizon, Windstream Valor, and Embarq). AT&T is asking the commission to throw the talks to a mediator.

The question now — we're reading between the lines — is how much will be cut from the fund overall, and how much will be cut from whatever is paid to each of those four companies to provide service in high-cost areas. The staff proposal that whacks AT&T's annual cut would give Verizon $15.4 million, Windstream $100.2 million, and Embarq $13.1 million.

The commission could look at that request for a mediator within the week. And next month (assuming there's no delay), the commissioners will take a crack at the whole case, or whatever is left to decide after the current negotiations end.

Is She Really?

Have you heard the one about Carole Keeton Strayhorn considering a run for mayor of Austin?

She says, sort of, that it ain't so. Or that it could be. Actually, we didn't get a Yes or No answer.

Strayhorn is a former state comptroller, Railroad Commissioner, Insurance Commissioner, mayor, school board president and congressional and gubernatorial candidate.

She admits she still watches the City Council on public access TV from time to time, but says she hasn't given any thought to running for mayor.

But she gets asked, in emails from friends and supporters, and has conjured a standard response: "When I became mayor 32 years ago, I was the first woman mayor in Austin and the youngest woman mayor [of a major city] in the United States. If I won it back, I would be the second woman mayor of Austin, and the oldest woman mayor [of a major city] in the U.S. I haven't looked up the age thing, but I don't think anyone would want to fight about it."

Strayhorn finished third in the gubernatorial race in Travis County last year, getting 13.7 percent of the vote to Democrat Chris Bell's 45.1 percent and Rick Perry's 26.4 percent (Kinky Friedman got 13.5 percent).

Strayhorn is busy raising money and support for her new Our Texas Grandchildren foundation, a non-profit geared to help foster children in the state. She and two others — Jim Stinson of Houston and Joyce Covington of Brenham — are the only directors so far. She's also signed up two state senators for what will be a larger "statewide leadership advisory council" — John Carona, R-Dallas, and Rodney Ellis, D-Houston.

That charity is her answer when people ask what she's up to. "This is my pro bono ad infinitum," she says.

Florida 2.0

The Democratic caucuses in Texas are looking more and more like a scene for a battle between lawyers for the Party and the presidential campaigns.

The Clinton campaign's attempt to stall the delegate counting from the Texas caucuses failed; the Texas Democratic Party plans to go forward as planned.

The Democrats say they'll hold their county and senatorial district conventions at the end of the month and tally the delegate voting that took place in Democratic precinct caucuses on Election Night.

The caucuses could produce more votes for Barack Obama — who lost the popular vote in the Texas primary — than for Hillary Clinton, who won.

Her campaign — questioning the security of the ballots — wants to verify signatures on the precinct vote sheets before counting.

"As you are no doubt aware, there are significant questions about whether the precinct conventions were conducted in accordance with the Party’s Delegate Selection Plan and Rules," they wrote, over the signature of former Texas Land Commissioner Garry Mauro. "On the night of the caucus itself we brought many instances of these irregularities to the attention of the State Party. The campaign received in excess of 2,000 complaints of rules violations, indicating widespread violations of the Party’s rules..."

Clinton's folks complain in the letter that the TDP is leaving it to the campaigns to verify the signatures themselves, but leaving them far too little time to complete the job.

In their reply, signed by TDP General Counsel Chad Dunn, the Democrats say only precinct chairs have the legal right to qualify voters. The job's already done, and the proper spot for appeals, they say, is to the credentials folks at the party's convention. They also contend they don't have the legal right to move the conventions set for the end of the month; those dates are locked in by state law.

Still Counting, Part 1

Round Two of the Texas Democratic primaries comes a week from Saturday, in senatorial district and county conventions.

That's the next step in their delegate selection process. They'll collect and tally the results of the precinct conventions that were held in polling places on Election Night and send that stuff to the Texas Democratic Party. The results won't be final, though, until they're accepted at the party's state convention in Austin in June.

The places aren't all picked (they'll be posted on the party's website), but here's the breakdown: The conventions will take place at the county level in counties where the state senator serves more than one county. In counties that have more than one senator, the conventions can be held (it's not required) in senatorial districts. Those multi-senator counties are Bexar, Brazoria, Chambers, Collin, Dallas, Denton, El Paso, Galveston, Fort Bend, Harris, Hidalgo, Jefferson, Montgomery, Smith, Tarrant, and Travis. The other 238 counties will have county conventions.

The conventions are open to everyone, but the people selected at the precinct conventions do the voting. And depending on who shows up and who doesn't, the results could be different on March 29 than what they appeared to be on March 4. Delegates elected next Saturday go on to the state convention.

Still Counting, Part 2

The number separating Republicans Doug Miller and Nathan Macias is now 29 (The vote canvass in HD-73 added six votes to Miller's total and 15 to Macias'). That difference comes out to just about one vote in a thousand.

Now they'll start the recount requested by the incumbent, Macias, who won in a squeaker two years ago and is trying not to lose in another. There are four counties and all sorts of voting methods from paper to electronic to optical scanning to local mixes. The count will go this way: Bandera County on Monday, Kendall and Comal on Tuesday, and Gillespie — where most of the complaints started — on Wednesday. The winner will face Democrat Daniel Boone and Libertarian Saannon Beckett McCracken in November.

Renter's Remorse

Former Rep. Toby Goodman, R-Arlington, was fined $10,000 by the Texas Ethics Commission for using campaign funds to pay rent to his wife for a house in Cedar Hill, where the couple stayed while Goodman was doing legislative work in Austin.

That's allowed if the officeholder doesn't own the property, if the rent is at market rates, and if there's no benefit to the officeholder. But in Goodman's case, the commission said the rent was higher than market. And while Goodman's wife was the sole owner of the house, he and she were both on the mortgage. Because of that, he was a beneficiary of the payments. And because the rent was higher than other houses nearby, "there is credible evidence that the payments constituted a conversion of political contributions to personal use."

When this came up during the 2006 election cycle, Goodman said he was relying on a TEC advisory opinion answering questions from Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth. The agency said it's legal to rent from a spouse if the officeholder has no interest in the property and doesn't stand to benefit. Several lawmakers, including Brimer, had such arrangements at the time.

Campaign Volleys

The state GOP says Rep. Hubert Vo, D-Houston, accepted and didn't report corporate contributions to his campaign; they've complained to the Texas Ethics Commission and to Harris County prosecutors.

Vo's campaign manager says the contributions were not from a corporation and were properly reported. The party's complain says Vo held a fundraiser at Lot 8 Salon and that he accepted in-kind contributions in the form of supplies for that party. The complaint also says the business offered coupons to people who came to the fundraiser. Candidates in Texas races can't take corporate or union money, and the coupon stuff has prompted complaints against Vo before. Karen Looper, with his campaign, said the complaint has no merit: " Hubert Vo paid for the event in question. No in-kind contribution was made, none was reported, and our campaign report is true and accurate." Vo will face Republican Greg Meyers of Houston in the November election.

Randy Dunning picks up an endorsement from former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Flower Mound. Dunning's not running for Congress, but for the Texas House; he's in an HD-112 runoff with Angie Chen Button. One shot against her: She gave money in past election years to Democratic House incumbents from Dallas.

She's shooting back with endorsements from eight Republicans who served on the Garland City Council with her opponent. And her camp is sending reporters and others a press release, with footnotes, detailing odd votes and behavior from Dunning. Among other things, she says he's against public education, has likened DWI stops to "Nazi Gestapo tactics," and voted for two tax increases while he was on the council.

• You can say the same thing about contributions, as it turns out, about House Speaker Tom Craddick. He gave $250,000 to a political action committee that in turn gave money to Democratic incumbents in primaries this year. And his lawyers have U-turned — as reported by the Austin American-Statesman — on earlier statements that he wasn't in on the final destination of that money. His daughter and campaign advisor, Christi Craddick, wrote a letter directing the TexasJOBS PAC to dish some of the money to Reps. Kevin Bailey, Dawnna Dukes, Kino Flores, and Aaron Peña. All four are Democrats who've supported Craddick for Speaker. Bailey, Flores and Peña each got $50,000; Dukes refused the money. On Election Day, Bailey was the lone loser from that group.

• And that leads nicely to this: Four rivals of House Speaker Tom Craddick went to Odessa to endorse Rep. Buddy West, who's in a GOP runoff against former state District Judge Tryon Lewis. Reps. Delwin Jones, Jim Keffer, Edmund Kuempel and Jim Pitts all traveled to the Permian Basin for a campaign appearance. Lewis has said he'll support Craddick for another term as speaker.

Mindy Montford, running for Travis County District Attorney, got a nod from Rick Reed, who finished fourth in Round One. That race featured four assistant DAs running for the top job, currently occupied by Ronnie Earle, who decided not to seek another term. Montford finished second and now has Reed's help. Rosemary Lehmberg, who finished first, earlier got the endorsement of third-place finisher Gary Cobb. That DA is just like everyone else's, but with a little something extra: It's the first stop for prosecutions against misbehaving public officials and political scoundrels.

• Congressional candidate Pete Olson picked up an endorsement from the Eagle Forum PAC. He's in a runoff with former U.S. Rep. Shelley Sekula Gibbs in CD-22.

• The authors of the new (and so far, the only) biography of the late Bob Bullock will be and center at a panel discussion at the LBJ School next week. That'll feature the writers — Dave McNeely and Jim Henderson — and a mess of luminaries: Former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby, former House Speaker Gib Lewis, and current state Sen. Rodney Ellis. They'll talk about Bullock and his impact, and probably tell some stories. A signing of Bob Bullock: God Bless Texas will follow.

Political People and Their Moves

Rick Noriega starts his general election run with a new campaign manager and a new fundraiser. Mark Bell, a top staffer to former House Speaker Pete Laney, will run the campaign. Bell says the campaign will bring fundraising in-house, with former Ann Richards staffer Jennifer Treat handling those duties. Treat lives in Washington, D.C. and will work from there. Bell, who ran Laney's campaigns and was involved in a mess of races with the Texas Partnership while Laney was Speaker, replaces former state Rep. Sue Schechter, who'll still have a "major part" in Noriega's challenge to Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn.

Gov. Rick Perry appointed federal prosecutor Kenneth Magidson to fill in as interim Harris County District Attorney. Chuck Rosenthal resigned from that post and won't be replaced until the elections produce a successor. Magidson's an assistant U.S. Attorney and a one-time assistant DA in Harris County.

Perry named Stuart Messer of Memphis to the 100th District Court, replacing Judge David McCoy. Messer was district attorney for the five-county district that's also covered by that court.

Perry put Carl Settles in charge of the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists and named four new members to that panel: Timothy Branaman, a Dallas psychologist and associate professor at Argosy University; Jo Ann Campbell, a psychologist with the Abilene ISD; Angela Downs, an Irving attorney and program manager with Mothers Against Drunk Driving; and Lou Ann Mock, a school psychologist and an associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine.

The Guv named Conrado de la Garza, president and owner of Bahnman Realty of Harlingen, to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. And he named Keely Appleton of Fort Worth and Richard Battle of Lakeway to the Texas Judicial Council. Appleton is a board member at Cook Children's Hospital; Battle is vice president of KeyTrak.

Edward Foster Jr. of Hurst joins the Texas Skill Standards Board. Perry found him in the Mansfield ISD, where he's director of career and technical education.

House Speaker Tom Craddick named Dr. Joseph Bailes of The Woodlands, Dee Kelly of Fort Worth, and Cindy Brinker Simmons of Dallas to the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute Oversight Committee, which will oversee the $3 billion in cancer bonds approved by voters last year. Bailes is an oncologist. Kelly's a Fort Worth lawyer and political player. And Simmons is a writer and the president of Levenson & Brinker Public Relations.

Ann Erben returns to state employment, this time at the Texas Workforce Commission as executive assistant to Tom Pauken, the newly named chairman of TWC.

Energy Future Holdings — you know it as the former TXU Corp. — formed a "sustainable energy advisory board" that'll be chaired by former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William Reilly. He's a member of the EFH board and the chairman emeritus of the World Wildlife Fund. The panel will include Texas Secretary of State Phil Wilson; Sam Jones, the former president and CEO of ERCOT; Karen Johnson, president and CEO of United Ways of Texas and former president of Entergy; Jim Marston, regional director of Environmental Defense; Ralph Cavanagh with the Natural Resources Defense Council; Reginald Gates, president and COO of the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce; and Steven Specker, president and CEO of the Electric Power Research Institute.

Going, Going... University of Texas System Chancellor Mark Yudof is the University of California System's top choice for chancellor. He's been at UT since 2002, and before that, headed the University of Minnesota System (and before that, was provost and law school dean at UT Austin). The head of the California search committee didn't name a specific salary figure, but in a statement, said this of Yudof: "He is expensive." The deal isn't yet final.

Gone... Austin American-Statesman Editor Rich Oppel Sr., after 13 years at the helm. He'll be replaced by the paper's managing editor, Fred Zipp.

Quotes of the Week

President George W. Bush, on the 5th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq: "Five years into this battle, there is an understandable debate over whether the war was worth fighting, whether the fight is worth winning, and whether we can win it. The answers are clear to me. Removing Saddam Hussein from power was the right decision, and this is a fight that America can and must win."

Lucianne Goldberg, a former New York book agent, talking to Bloomberg News about the pending musical career of Ashley Alexandra Dupre, made famous by her hookup with former NY Gov. Eliot Spitzer: "These people have somewhere between yogurt and milk as far as shelf life is concerned. They have to grab it fast.''

Former Texas Democratic Party Chairman Bob Slagle, telling the Austin American-Statesman that rumors about his health are exaggerated, and that there wasn't any need for party officials to honor him with a moment of silence: "Maybe they had a moment of silence for me because nobody could think of anything good to say about me."

Montgomery County District Attorney Michael McDougal, admitting in the Houston Chronicle that he used drug forfeiture funds held by his office to buy alcohol for a community event: "I'm sorry. Very sorry. I'm holding myself responsible."

U.S. Rep. Thomas Davis III, R-Virginia, in the Washington Post: "The House Republican brand is so bad right now that if it were dog food, they'd take it off the shelf."

Johnny Hart of Mission, quoted by The Dallas Morning News on the subject of fencing the Texas-Mexico border: "Build a wall around Washington, D.C."

Texas Weekly: Volume 25, Issue 12, 24 March 2008. Ross Ramsey, Editor. George Phenix, Publisher. Copyright 2006 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 (800) 611-4980 or email For news, email, or call (512) 288-6598.

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