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Something for Nothing

It's the kind of Special Deals for Politicians saga that can taint the whole institution: Texas lawmakers are accused of lying about their employees to obtain benefits to which those workers would not otherwise be entitled.

It's the kind of Special Deals for Politicians saga that can taint the whole institution: Texas lawmakers are accused of lying about their employees to obtain benefits to which those workers would not otherwise be entitled.

Some of the employees are former lawmakers; some are just favored staffers. The full-time designation qualifies workers for free health insurance that costs part-time employees hundreds of dollars each month. As it turns out, former state officeholders and state employees who want to pad their retirement benefits don't have to work full-time; a part-timer can get a full year's credit toward retirement with a minimal workload.

Political consultants — the kind of kids who grew up throwing spitballs from the back rows of their classrooms — will boil it down to something simple and sinister, and it won't be about the struggles over who's the speaker of the House. It'll be about padding benefits for former lawmakers and other employees who don't actually do the full-time work required of everyone else who gets those bennies.

The flap started with stories in the Austin American-Statesman, which pointed to three cases where current lawmakers were designating part-timers as full-timers, thus enabling those workers to qualify for health insurance usually reserved for people who put in 40 hours a week. The salaries were low, but the potential benefits were high. And in Austin, it's turned into a game of political tag centered on insider concerns, excuses, questions, and accusations.

• From the accused: "Everybody does it, and has for years. Why is this coming up now?"

• From foes of the Speaker: "All three legislators named in the first stories — Reps. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, and Craig Eiland, D-Galveston — have been vociferous critics of House Speaker Tom Craddick. Who fingered them?"

• From some insiders, some outsiders, and sooner or later, from investigators and auditors: "The personnel papers that made those and similar schemes possible were approved by each House member and turned into Craddick's House Administration Chairman, Rep. Tony Goolsby, R-Dallas. Who in that food chain is to blame?"

• From Craddick's office: "We didn't know this was going on, and want to stop it from happening again."

• From his foes: "How is it possible that management didn't know? Goolsby himself hired short-term employees — lobbyists, even — in a way that qualified them for state benefits."

While the accusation and recrimination machine is churning, open record requests from political people and reporters are flying; this will involve the whole Legislature before it's over. Craddick has asked the House General Investigating & Ethics Committee to look into it, as well as the State Auditor's Office. Travis County prosecutors have inquired with state officials about the workers, the falsified work forms, and so on.

In the case of state pension benefits, it turns out that someone who wants to game the system doesn't have to lie. They just have to read the free handbook from the Employees Retirement System and follow the instructions.

For former legislators who served for at least eight years, each additional year on the state payroll is currently worth $2,875 annually, once they start collecting their pensions.

Those pensions are based on years of service multiplied by 2.3 percent of a state judge's salary, which is currently $125,000. Former lawmakers can start collecting their pensions at age 60 if they served for at least eight years in elected office, and at age 50 if they served for at least 12 years. (They have options as to how they get their benefits, but those are the basics.) A 65-year-old former lawmaker with 16 years in the Legislature, for instance, would be eligible for an annual pension of $46,000. If she worked for a state agency for two years on top of that, the annual benefit would increase to $51,750.

The regs say the beneficiary gets credit for a month as soon as that paycheck is recorded and the retirement benefit deducted from it. If our imaginary former lawmaker is on the books for $200 monthly, and allowed the $12 deduction for retirement each month, the benefits would accumulate. As long as she's on the payroll when the monthly checks are cut, she gets the pension bennies for that month.

She doesn't even have to work full-time.

The Other Senate

State Sen. Florence Shapiro is getting ready to set up an exploratory committee to run for the U.S. Senate in anticipation of U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's resignation or retirement, sources said this afternoon.

Shapiro, a Republican, has been in the state Senate since 1993 and was a Plano city council member and Mayor before seeking state office.

She wasn't immediately available for comment.

Hutchison hasn't gone anywhere yet. But she's talked about running for governor in 2010 and has told supporters that leaving the federal office early is one option she's considering.

An early declaration from Shapiro would accomplish a couple of things: It allows her to start raising federal campaign money and puts her at the top of the speculation list of possible successors to Hutchison, at least for now.

It carries some risk, too. Hutchison and her supporters might take it as presumptuous, for what that's worth. If Hutchison does step down early, and Gov. Rick Perry appoints a successor, his choice will amount to either an endorsement for or against Shapiro.

The state Republican Party convention is about a month away, so she'll get some feedback from the regulars pretty soon. As for campaign finance, Shapiro ended last year with $853,580 in her state account. But state law is more lenient than federal law, and not all of that money would transfer to a federal race (Hutchison, who'd be going from the stricter system to the more lenient one, could move all of the $8,520,717 in her federal account to a state race).

Cutting Contest

State budgeting starts with a twist this year, with officials telling agencies to begin with current spending and to add in a two percent pay raise for state employees. Then? Show how they'd cut ten percent from that.

The letter from the governor's office and the Legislative Budget Board is a bit different this time, and the politics are weird. In recent years, they've started by telling agencies to come with in pre-cut budgets — spending plans that have to be increased to get agencies to 100 percent of what they think they need to do their jobs. That lets lawmakers add to the bare bones, looking like 181 tooth fairies in the process. This time, they're telling the agencies to come in with full budgets that the Legislature can then cut. That would make them as popular as an orphanage manager in a Charles Dickens novel, but you can probably expect the budget that gets filed as the session begins to reinstate the tooth fairy opportunities.

The people in charge want to see what it'll take to cover caseload and enrollment increases in federal entitlement, education, pension, and adult prison agencies. The rest of the agencies have to write budgets that are no bigger than the ones they've got right now. In all cases, the agencies have to list, on one hand, the items they'd cut if asked, in order. And on the other hand, the items they think they need that don't fit in current spending.

Pair this with what House Speaker Tom Craddick said last week about having $15 billion in available funds, and the next budget might be relatively painless to write, especially compared to other states, where revenues are down and budgets are tight. Comptroller Susan Combs raised a flag about that $15 billion, saying it's more like $10.7 billion. They're looking at the same number, but at different times in the budget. It's $10.7 as of last year, but Craddick thinks it'll hit $15 billion by the time the next budget starts.

Agencies have to submit budget requests in July and August. This week's letter is the first step.

Get a Calculator

Want to know where House Speaker Tom Craddick found the $15 billion he's labeled as "surplus" funds?

The Speaker told a South Texas audience the Legislature will start its next session with $15 billion unspent and in the bank.

Lawmakers knew they'd left money on the table last session. Budgeteers said they were spending less than they had available out of caution, since they didn't (and still don't) know how much money the new business margins tax would bring in.

But the numbers are boosted further by high oil prices and the taxes based on them, and from higher-than-expected sales tax revenues over the last year and more.

Look at the back of Craddick's envelope: He's starting with numbers released by Comptroller Susan Combs last year that included two significant bumps. First, she said the state had, through the end of last August, brought in $2 billion more than her earlier projections (the ones used by lawmakers writing the budget). Second, the economic good times had swollen the Rainy Day Fund to $5.7 billion, up from her estimated $4 billion. And there's the $3 billion set aside for property tax relief in the current budget. Those add up to $10.7 billion.

If you assume, as Craddick apparently does, that the numbers will continue on this trajectory, you can add $4 billion to $5 billion to that number by the end of the budget period in August 2009.

A pile of money that big will inspire two camps: Those who think particular programs are underfunded and ought to be brought to full strength, and those who think the available money should be refunded to taxpayers. Advocates for Texans without health insurance will be in the first bunch. Put Gov. Rick Perry in the second bunch; his spokesman told reporters that Perry will probably call for tax cuts and, perhaps, cash rebates to taxpayers.

State agencies have to bring their proposed budgets to the Legislature in July and August. At that point, you'll start to get an idea of how their spending proposals match up with the revenue projects. That's when you'll see the actual difference between what's needed and what's available. If you want precision in language, that's when you'll know whether there's really a surplus in the state budget or a deficit. For now, without seeing what it would cost the state to do what it's already doing (not to mention areas where it might want to add to spending), Craddick sees that as a $15 billion bouquet.

The Deciders

With Indiana and North Carolina out of the way, and Florida and Michigan still in political purgatory, the Democratic presidential candidates have nearly as many delegates at stake among the uncommitted superdelegates as in the remaining primaries

That's 223 superdelegates — including 10 in Texas — who haven't publicly agreed to support a particular candidate, and 274 delegates at stake in the remaining primaries in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oregon, Puerto Rico, Montana, and South Dakota.

Texas is just a small piece of that and most of the state's 35 superdelegates are committed. So far, they're split pretty evenly, with 13 pledged to Hillary Clinton 12 pledged to Barack Obama, and ten unpledged (including three who won't be selected until the state Democratic convention on the first weekend of June). As you'd expect, the phones of the people in the undecided column are very busy this week. And then there's the matter of those three delegates-to-be-named: They'll be appointed by Texas Democratic Party Chairman Boyd Richie and confirmed by the state party's governing committee. Here's the current list of where the state's superdelegates stand:



Unexpected Results

Two new polls — one done on the Internet and the other on behalf of Democratic bloggers — say the Texas race for U.S. Senate is closer than you thought. Both have U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, only four percentage points ahead of Democrat Rick Noriega.

The Research 2000 poll, done for the Daily Kos, has Cornyn at 48 percent and Noriega at 44 percent, with a 4 percent margin of error. That was a phone poll done last week. A Rasmussen online poll released earlier in the week had Cornyn at 47 and Noriega at 43; it had a 4.5 percent margin of error.

Most polls up to this point have reported a double-digit gap between the candidates, with Noriega stuck in the low 30s, and these new surveys don't reveal any changes that might underlie the new numbers. A recurring sour spot for Cornyn: Few recent polls show him getting more than 50 percent of the vote. That's not fatal, but it's a sign of potential trouble.

The results? Noriega immediately began touting the results in his fundraising messages. Cornyn's camp said the polls are flawed and that their guy still enjoys a sizable lead.

Verbatim

This email really got sent by a legislative liaison at the University of North Texas, and we have been assured — emphatically — that the lieutenant governor's office didn't have anything to do with it, although it's a charity tournament for legislators and lobbyists that's headlined by David Dewhurst. We've left everything except the phone numbers alone: punctuation, spelling, etc.

Subject: Lt. Gov. Tournament Confirmation

This email is to confirm your registration in the 2008 Lt. Governor's Golf Tournament. The Tournament is scheduled for a 1:00 pm Shotgun start May 27th at Colonial Country Club, 3735 Country Club Circle, Fort Worth Texas. If you registered for a team, this information is only being sent to you so please forward to your players. If you need to make any changes to your team please contact the Tournament Office at 817-xxx-xxxx. After the 24th of May you may call my cell phone at 817-xxx-xxxx. On the date of the outing the Colonial Golf Shop number is 817-xxx-xxxx. (Since the Club is closed that day the main number will not be answered). Registration begins at 11:00 am and lunch will be delivered to your cart prior to the tee time. That is the important info....the following are answers to various questions we have been asked.

Yes, Sen. Fraser, knowing that your golf game could have fallen apart Monday night although you have now played more consecutive days that Zaffirini has voted, the driving range will be open at noon that day. To Pat Haggerty, of course you are invited...just don't pull a mission impossible and tear off your mask to reveal that you are really Jerry Yost. To Seidlits if you can crawl down off that pile of money you made in the buyout you can play again with David Cain, just don't tell him that he is no longer a Senator...we are trying to let him down slowly.

To Mario Munoz, yes I understand, new job, new boss and after over 20 years at Capitol you have only had time to meet one legislator, yes he is playing and yes we will try to put you together. Yes, Goolsby you will again play as a single. To Rob Orr..someone has asked to play with you... being a Chairman is cool isn't it? To Time Warner we got your list of who you want to play with and the list of who you do not want AT&T to play with. To AT&T we got your list of who you want to play with and who you do not want Time Warner to play with. As soon as the pairing committee finishes with it's conflict resolution class we will get back with you. Yes, it is the good Rob Johnson (Lt. Gov's) that is playing.

Yes, Rick Donley we got your stuff and you can bring you punk a.. Champions golf game to a real course. Buster we still need your stuff, no we water Colonial from the Trinity River and you don't own it yet. To any elected official playing who desires to serve in Congress at some point..Lockheed Martin would like to play with you before you have a chance to vote to sell the F-35 to Taiwan. Winn glad to see Diageo is registered we will attempt to accommodate your request, the Committee drinks Crown Royal and Vodka. To former Rep. Dean Cobb, sorry you cannot be here, we are happy that you are the Chairman of the Travis County Grand Jury, but I bet the Hookers and Bookies are happier. Finally to Charlie Evans, please, please, please quit sending X-Out golf balls as your donation, it has gotten embarrassing. Hope everyone read this on their Blackberry.

Danny

Political People and Their Moves

Former Rep. Robert Puente is now the interim head of the San Antonio Water System. The president and CEO of SAWS, David Chardavoyne, resigned earlier in the day. A statement from the System's Board of Trustees said they were "acknowledging differences in management style and future direction."

Grant Harpold, a Houston lawyer and GOP precinct chair, says he'll run for the Texas Senate seat being vacated by Kyle Janek, R-Houston, early next month. He started with a swipe at the new business margins tax, and said his treasurer will be Harris County Attorney Michael Fleming. Janek hasn't officially resigned, but says he still plans to quit on June 2. No date's been set for the special election to replace him.

Greta Rymal is the new director of budget and fiscal policy at the state's Health and Human Services Commission. She was most recently the agency's federal liaison in Washington, D.C. Rymal replaces Ken Welch, who left to become CFO at the Teacher Retirement System.

Larry McKinney is leaving the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department after 25 years to run the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M Corpus Christi. He was director of coastal fisheries and senior director of aquatic resources at TPW.

Move Ryan Weisman, a former House and Senate staffer who left (for a bit) for New Orleans, into Sen. Kevin Eltife's staff. He'll be a legislative aide specializing in natural resources.

Chesley "Ches" Blevins joins the Austin office of Jackson Walker, where he'll work on regulatory and legislative environmental issues for mining and energy clients.

Dr. Josie Williams, a Paris gastroenterologist, is the new president of the Texas Medical Association. And the new president-elect is Dr. William Fleming III, a Houston neurologist.

Fort Worth attorney Roland Johnson was elected president-elect of the State Bar of Texas. He'll be president in about 13 months.

Gov. Rick Perry reappointed Fort Worth district Judge Jean Boyd to the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission and named three new members to that panel: B.W. McClendon, pastor of St. James Missionary Baptist Church in Austin; Scott O'Grady of Dallas, a motivational speaker; and Robert Shults, a Houston attorney.

Evan Smith, editor of the state's biggest magazine, pulled TW editor Ross Ramsey into a podcast with TM political writer/editor Paul Burka to talk about the ongoing race for speaker and other political doings. Hear it here.

Quotes of the Week

Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, accused of carrying a non-working employee as a full-timer on his state office payroll: "If there's a target here, it's me because of the issues I've had with the leadership. This is generated by one source and one source only, and that has to have come in a whisper from the speaker's office. I have nothing to hide."

House Speaker Tom Craddick, in the same Austin American-Statesman story: "If some legislators are paying employees with taxpayer dollars who are performing little or no work, that is an egregious misuse of state money. It must be stopped immediately and with full restitution made."

The opening lines of a letter to U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colorado, from Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster and Brownsville Mayor Pat Ahumada, after Tancredo repeated his line about putting the border fence north of cities like Brownsville: "We have received your most recent tirade masquerading as a press release. While we understand that half-truths and deception are the minimum low standard of the Washington drive-by attack, we prefer straight talk."

Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, quoted in The Dallas Morning News on abuse at state psychiatric hospitals: "You get what you pay for. When you financially dumb something down, you make services cheap, something's got to give. Unfortunately, it usually ends up being a mentally ill or disabled Texan."


Texas Weekly: Volume 25, Issue 19, 12 May 2008. Ross Ramsey, Editor. Copyright 2008 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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