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Unhappy Campers

Residents of the Lone Star State aren't happy about the way things are going, with 70 percent saying the country's on the wrong track and 78 percent saying the country is worse off economically than it was a year ago.

Residents of the Lone Star State aren't happy about the way things are going, with 70 percent saying the country's on the wrong track and 78 percent saying the country is worse off economically than it was a year ago.

A new Texas Lyceum Poll finds them in a little better humor about their personal economic situations, and more optimistic about their kids' economic chances.

And their concerns have changed. In a Lyceum poll a year ago, Iraq and The War were at the top of their list. Now it's the economy.

The economy is the most important issue facing the country, with 33 percent putting that at the top of the list. Next came gas and oil, 20 percent; Iraq and The War, 14 percent; then leadership, politics and gridlock, 6 percent; security, 4 percent; and immigration, 4 percent.

A year ago, Iraq and The War led, at 39 percent, followed by immigration, 10 percent; the economy and employment, 6 percent; politics, leadership and government, 6 percent; and lack of values and morals, 4 percent.

The economy is the most important issue facing the country, with 33 percent putting that at the top of the list. Next came gas and oil, 20 percent; Iraq and The War, 14 percent; then leadership, politics and gridlock, 6 percent; security, 4 percent; and immigration, 4 percent.

A year ago, Iraq and The War led, at 39 percent, followed by immigration, 10 percent; the economy and employment, 6 percent; politics, leadership and government, 6 percent; and lack of values and morals, 4 percent.

The Texas Lyceum, which sponsored the poll, is a non-partisan leadership group that started a three-year polling effort last summer, keying some questions to conferences put on by the group (church and state last year, transportation this year) and including some to track changes in public opinion over time.

The group polled 1,000 Texans, by telephone, from June 12-20. The margin of error on the poll is +/- 3.1 percent. They're releasing the poll over three days, and this is the transportation bit. The details are available on the Texas Lyceum's website, as are the results of their 2007 poll.

Disclosure Being Good for the Soul: Our editor helped kick around the questions that were asked in the poll and wrote the Lyceum's poll summaries to explain all of those numbers that resulted. Now you know.

Poll: Texas Tightens Up

The Texas Lyceum Poll has the difference between the presidential candidates in single digits, and the race for U.S. Senate in a dead heat.

Republican John McCain led Democrat Barack Obama by 5 points in the poll, with 43 percent to Obama's 38 percent. Independent Ralph Nader and Libertarian Bob Barr barely registered, getting one percent each.

The poll has Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn just two points ahead of Democrat Rick Noriega. That's the closest the two have been in a poll this year (an earlier survey by Rasmussen Reports had a four-point margin; a later poll by that same outfit put it at 17 points).

Undecided voters were numerous in both races: 17 percent haven't made up their minds in the presidential contest, and 24 percent didn't name a favorite in the Senate contest.

The results might be attributable to the proportions of Republicans and Democrats among those surveyed. When the pollsters cut the pool of adult Texans down to likely voters, the groups were about equal in size. Conventional wisdom — based on recent elections — is that Republicans start with a seven- or eight-point advantage in Texas Elections. But even if you spot McCain and Cornyn that difference, the numbers here are tighter than in some other recent surveys.

"About an equal percentage of Republicans and Democrats qualified as 'likely voters.' This outcome suggests unusually high enthusiasm among Democrats, as Republicans typically have a party identification edge over the Democrats on Election Day," said Daron Shaw, the pollster and a University of Texas prof. "The Democrats need to maintain this greater intensity to be competitive in 2008."

"As we've seen throughout the 2008 campaign cycle, political polls are taking snapshots of a rapidly shifting electorate in an unstable economic and political environment," said Jim Henson, Director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, who assisted in the survey.

A spokesman for Cornyn, Kevin McLaughlin, said it's the first poll he's seen that didn't weight the results according to party preferences, and said he's not buying the result: "Believe this at your peril." In a pitch sent to potential donors within hours after the poll was released, the Noriega campaign boasted that they're "on Cornyn's heels" and that the incumbent is "vulnerable."

Rich Man, Poor Man

On the eve of a major fundraising deadline, a new poll says incumbent U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and Democrat Rick Noriega are tied, statistically, among likely Texas voters. But Cornyn is still far ahead in the money race.

Democrats hope a nationwide mood for "change" will enable Noriega to take down a vulnerable incumbent, although they're ceding the spending contest to Cornyn. Republicans are comfortable relying on superior firepower to achieve victory for Cornyn, who they say has proved himself to be in lockstep with the majority of Texans.

The challenger's task is two-fold: 1) Show voters that reelecting Cornyn isn't a good idea; then, 2) Prove he's a viable alternative, says Democratic strategist Kelly Fero, who worked for Mikal Watts, a San Antonio Democrat who dropped out of the race before the primaries, and for Ron Kirk, who opposed Cornyn in 2002.

Cornyn has already accomplished Step One for Noriega, says Fero. Surveys indicate "unstable terrain" beneath the incumbent's feet, he says (talking before the latest poll was unveiled).

A brand-new poll by the non-profit, non-partisan Texas Lyceum shows Cornyn just two points ahead of Noriega, 38 to 36 percent, well within the margin of error for the poll. A large portion of voters are undecided, 24 percent.

But Step Two requires money, and Noriega is far behind the incumbent.

In the Cornyn camp, consultant Todd Olsen says his guy's going to have plenty of resources to launch a devastating air campaign. At the rate he's going, Cornyn might eclipse the $9.8 million he raised during his 12-point victory over Kirk.

Last time he reported, in April, Cornyn had $8.7 million in the bank, enough to pay for five or six weeks of television. For now, Olsen says, they're working the ground game: Cornyn and campaign staffers have already knocked on more than 50,000 doors.

The Democrats didn't find much to celebrate in Noriega's last fundraising report, which showed the Houston state representative and Afghanistan veteran with only $329,293 at the end of March (Noriega's 2007 reports weren't so hot, either, as he was unable to capitalize on relaxed fundraising restrictions when facing the fabulously wealthy Watts).

Fero did an analysis for a potential candidate at the beginning of 2007, estimating a Democrat would need to spend $17 million to be competitive with Cornyn. However, because of the national mood, Noriega "can get it done with less money than that," he says. He tossed out the figure of between $10 and $12 million. He says there's a good chance Noriega will get monetary help from the national party if he's "within nine or 10 points" of Cornyn in September.

"He's not going to be the candidate with the most money, but he needs enough money to have a conversation with voters," Fero says.

Texas GOP spokesperson Hans Klingler says it will be "very tough" for an "underfunded" Democrat like Noriega to defeat Cornyn, though he says the presidential election presents "a lot of x-factors."

"The challenge exists for all Republicans in this very different, historical, dynamic setting," Klingler says.

Noriega's spokesperson, Tony Gray, says they're counting on Barack Obama's support in urban areas to help bring out the city folk in November. In the meantime, Noriega is stumping in less-populated and/or traditionally Republican areas like Far West and East Texas. For example, Noriega just concluded a tour through Odessa-Midland, Big Springs and Lubbock. Gray says Noriega will spend the Fourth of July in El Paso with Democratic legislators U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes and state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh.

While out west, Noriega also planned to track down the one person in Loving County who voted for him in the primary, Gray says. (Gene Kelly — not the dancer — won 15 of the 21 votes cast there.)

With limited funds, Noriega has been trying to get coverage from newspapers and broadcasters to attack Cornyn on things like veterans' benefits. "Rick's been pounding him left and right everyday. He's being aggressive in the press," Gray says.

The heightened enthusiasm among Democrats — the bloom of voting in the primaries is the evidence — will make up for the money gap that will exist between the candidates, Gray says.

Throw in rising energy prices and a worsening economy, and "the conditions are right for the perfect storm," says Gray. "Everybody's talking about kitchen table issues. Even the well-heeled are bitching about the price of gas."

Olsen disagrees, saying the current environment is ideal for a forward-looking incumbent like Cornyn.

"You can't go on the assumption that the climate is any less positive for Republicans who vote the way John Cornyn votes on issue after issue," he says.

And he ridiculed a suggestion by Noriega, as reported in Midland media outlets, that the U.S. obtain energy independence by obtaining more oil from Iraq. Gray says the comment was taken out of context, and Noriega was referring to promises made by the George W. Bush administration that money from Iraqi oil would pay for the invasion. (Judge for yourself in this YouTube video.)

Olsen says the campaign will use sophisticated micro-targeting to identify and turn out likely Cornyn voters, no matter where they live. They're using the Washington, D.C., firm Target Point, which worked along with Olsen's firm on Rudy Giuliani's presidential bid.

What it comes down to, says Olsen, is that Noriega is just plain wrong on the issues, and Cornyn is right.

"The most important thing is going to be who can address the rising cost of healthcare, because that is such a growing concern for people who vote," he says.

—by Patrick Brendel

A Financial Traffic Jam

Texans want relief from traffic congestion, but reject the two most common proposals to pay for it.

Higher gasoline taxes are out of the question. Asked in a new Texas Lyceum Poll how they feel about increasing gas taxes, 72 percent said they oppose the idea — including 60 percent who said they "strongly" oppose it. They made it clear they don't like toll roads, either: 66 percent oppose tolls on new roads, and 69 percent oppose adding tolls on existing roads.

But an overwhelming majority — 84 percent — said traffic congestion is either "very important" or "somewhat important" compared to other issues facing the state.

Some highlights from the poll:

• They're plainly thinking about the costs of driving and about the environment. Most (66 percent) said they would strongly consider buying a hybrid or fuel-efficient automobile. More than half (63 percent) said they would consider carpooling and a majority (53 percent) said they would consider taking public transportation to work or to school.

• Just over half (51 percent) said they would strongly consider not taking a vacation this year; almost as many said they wouldn't consider that option. Some are thinking about living closer to work or school: 37 percent said they'd consider an eventual move to shorten their commute, while 62 percent said they wouldn't.

• Texans are supportive of spending more money to fix and upgrade roads, to build new roads and highways, to build up rail and energy efficient mass transit.

• Most don't drive on toll roads, with 8 percent saying they ride regularly and another 29 percent saying they right occasionally.

• Texans are open to rail development, with 76 percent saying they'd support regional rail systems connecting adjacent cities like Dallas and Fort Worth or San Antonio and Austin.

• Texans drive a lot, and alone: Most — 68 percent — said they drive themselves to work. Another 8 percent ride with someone else; 3 percent walk or ride a bike to work or school; 2 percent use mass transit. Most — 74 percent — said they're in the car for less than an hour. Another 12 percent spent 90 minutes or more commuting every day; almost half of that group spends more than two hours on the commute. And one in twenty said they work at home, avoiding the commute altogether.

• By a wide margin, Texans prefer to have design of new roads and highways in state rather than in local control. Those planners will have to walk carefully, though: 51 percent of our respondents said they oppose the state using its power of eminent domain to secure right of way for new transportation projects.

Hang Up and Drive

We'll keep this one short, in case you're reading it on a Blackberry in traffic.

Although 44 percent admitted in the new Texas Lyceum Poll that they use their cell phones while driving, a substantial majority of Texans — 60 percent — would "strongly" or "somewhat" support a ban on cell phone use while driving. More than two in five would "strongly" support that ban. Just 23 percent strongly oppose such a ban, joined by 14 percent who would somewhat oppose such a prohibition.

Under the Mark

The state's new business tax has brought in $4.2 billion so far; that's less than the $5.9 billion it's supposed to bring in this year, but state tax collectors are hoping later payments will bring the total for the year closer to their estimates.

The new margins tax was due ten days ago and Comptroller Susan Combs says 133,000 payments have been received so far, from about 500,000 taxpayers who've filed returns. That number includes 46,000 extension filers — businesses that paid estimated taxes but haven't finalized their returns or their payment amounts. Those taxpayers have to settle up, variously, on August 15 and November 15.

"It is still too early to tell what the final franchise tax revenue number will be for this fiscal year, as the first year of a revised tax can be somewhat unpredictable without a previous roadmap," the comptroller's office said in a press release (a release that didn't quote either the comptroller or any staff member by name). "We expect more revenue to be collected in August and November as extension filers settle up their reports."

Right now, the comptroller has deposited about 71 percent of what she predicted the new tax would produce. The old tax generally produced 85 percent of its revenue in two weeks, but that was a different tax and the first year of this new tax was expected to bring the money in more slowly. Money that arrives in November will count toward next fiscal year — not this one.

Companies have to pay the new tax on the margins of their choice, either 1) gross receipts minus payroll, 2) gross receipts minus cost of goods sold, or 3) 70% of gross receipts. Retailers and wholesalers are taxed one-half percent on their margins; everybody else pays a full percent. And there are deductions (on a sliding scale) for businesses that have sales of less than $1 million annually. But there are a number of reasons they'd be paying less now than they might owe later, or in years to come. We detailed those previously in this story.

The old franchise tax — replaced by this new levy in a special legislative session two years ago — brought in $5.7 billion over two years in the 2006-07 budget cycle. This one is supposed to bring in $11.9 billion — that's the comptroller's official prediction — and lawmakers set aside more than half that amount ($6.1 billion) to cover revenues lost to school property tax reductions, which were also ordered in that special session.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a critic of the tax (but also the guy in charge of the Senate when it passed), said the Legislature's decision to put aside some money looks smart in light of the numbers from Combs. "The preliminary numbers released by the Comptroller's office today further support the decision in 2007 to set aside more than $7 billion to continue the record property tax cuts in case the state's economy slows or the business tax doesn't perform as well as some estimated," he said. And he said it's too early to talk about changes to the tax, since the numbers are still coming in.

The new tax is the state's second-largest source of tax revenue (behind the sales tax), accounting for 14.7 percent of tax income in the current budget.

Court: No Death Penalty for Child Rape

States cannot execute child rapists in cases where the child was not killed and where murder wasn't attempted, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today.

Ruling in a Louisiana case that also affects Texas and seven other states that allow the death penalty in child rape cases, the court ruled 5-4 that capital punishment violates constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who championed that legislation, immediately criticized the court's ruling. "I believe, and the vast majority of Texans agree, that the death penalty is an appropriate form of punishment for repeat child molesters." A spokesman for the attorney general's office called it a "setback for Texas' efforts to punish repeat child rapists."

Dewhurst said the Texas law had a fail-safe provision — put there in case the death penalty wasn't legal — that allows prosecutors seek life in prison without parole.

The Texas law applies to child rapists with previous convictions on sex charges.

And there's a copy of the opinion available on the Supreme Court's website.

Guns R Us

The second amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects individuals' rights to guns, and not just for militia use, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court struck down a Washington, D.C., ban on firearms. The justices also said that other restrictions already in the law — who can't have guns, where guns can't be carried, and so on — aren't jeopardized by this ruling.

The ruling doesn't have any apparent effect on Texas law — it doesn't overturn anything that's on the books now. But it's expected to open questions about gun laws all over the country and those questions will come in the form of other lawsuits testing various ideas and filling out the details of the high court's views on what the 2nd amendment means.

And the ruling inspired comment from just about everyone at the top of state government, though it shouldn't make much difference in political races this year. Had the court gone the other way, you'd have seen a race for remedies and some spats about who's pro-guns and who's not. In political terms, in Texas, it just preserves the status quo.

Here's a copy of the opinion.

Political Morsels

Rick Noriega, who's challenging U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, was winning an online contest to get help from California Sen. Barbara Boxer's PAC for a Change as our deadlines passed. (Interestingly, Noriega is not mentioned on the PAC's list of close Senate contests.) The Cornyn political office sent out emails razzing Noriega for "throwing in with the most extreme liberal Democrats in the Senate." But a couple of days later, Cornyn's government office sent out an email talking up a new bill requiring financial disclosures of mortgages by members of Congress — co-sponsored by Cornyn and Guess Who?

• Texas Republicans say Democratic joshing of U.S. Sen. John Cornyn has turned into "ethnic and racist assaults," because the Democrats (and the comedians on The Daily Show) are making fun of the senator for wearing a fringed leather jacket in a promotional video. It's a Tamaulipeca jacket, "designed in the Hispanic tradition" for the Charro Days festival in Brownsville. The state GOP is after the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee for an email from a staffer there who said Cornyn "appears to have raided the wardrobe closet for the Kilgore Rangerettes." Cornyn's speech at the state GOP convention was preceded by a "Big John" video. Judge for yourself (the jacket at issue is at the 2:12 mark).

Chris Turner picked up an endorsement from the TexBlog PAC, and the bloggers running that say the endorsement comes with a $5,000 contribution. Turner, a Democrat, is running against Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, in HD-96.

Carol Kent, the Democrat challenging Rep. Tony Goolsby, R-Dallas, picked up an endorsement from Annie's List. That same PAC backed Goolsby's previous challenger in a relatively close race two years ago.

Wendy Davis' campaign released a poll showing her four points behind state Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth, in the SD-10 race. The challenger says that puts her in striking range of the incumbent, and notes that only two in five voters know who Brimer is. Brimer's campaign said it shows he's ahead of the challenger.

• The Texas Department of Agriculture is getting into the retirement racket. They've put up a retirement website inviting snowbirds and others who've entered their leisure years to come to Texas. The agency has given 13 retirement communities a "Go Texan" certification.

Political People and Their Moves

Ted Delisi has officially split with Hillco Partners and is operating as Delisi Communications. Among other things, that gets him out of a firm that lobbies the Texas Department of Transportation, where his spousal unit, Deirdre Delisi, chairs the board. Also: Heather Vasek, who had been with the Texas Association for Home Care, left to join Delisi's firm. They'll do some politics, some PR and some lobbying.

Mary Miksa is retiring from the Texas Association of Business at the end of the year; she's been at TAB for 18 years and said in an email to friends that she's lived through more than 900 Monday morning staff meetings.

After nearly 20 years in the Texas House (with Reps. Jerry Yost, Gary Walker, and Mike Krusee), Laurie McAnally is moving to the Texas Department of Transportation. She'll be working for Bill Meadows, the Fort Worth insurance executive recently appointed to the Transportation Commission.

R.A. "Jake" Dyer of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram is the latest victim of shrinkage in the news business in Texas and elsewhere in the U.S. Dyer is one of 150 people being laid off by that paper and the only one in what will now be a two-reporter Austin Bureau.

Gov. Rick Perry appointed:

George Deshotels of Matagorda and Robert Jones of Corpus Christi to the Texas Coastal Coordination Council. Deshotels is a Matagorda County Commissioner; Jones is pastor of the Messianic Fellowship Church and host of a morning radio show.

Alfred Chavira of Jacksonville, Julie Dowell of Bullard, Thomas Gann of Lufkin, and David King of Nacogdoches to the Angelina and Neches River Authority Board. Chavira is a contractor, Dowell is a retired police officer, and the two of them are being reappointed. Gann is president of Gann Medford Real Estate and King is director of human resources for Foretravel.

Nancy Porter of Sugar Land, John Steinmetz of Lubbock, and Mary Ward of Granbury to the Brazos River Authority Board. Porter is director of communications for Fort Bend ISD. Steinmetz is market president of Security Bank. And Ward is regional president of Southwest Securities FSB.

Jerry Daniel, a Truscott rancher and real estate investor; Clay County Commissioner Wilson Scaling II of Henrietta; Clyde Siebman of Pottsboro, an attorney; and veterinarian, farmer and rancher Cliff Skiles Jr. of Hereford to the Red River Authority Board. Skiles is being reappointed; everyone else is new.

• Dr. Kirk Aquilla Calhoun of Tyler to the State Health Services Council. He's the president of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler.

Sued: Former congressional candidate Gene Christensen, who lost to U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall in the GOP primary earlier this year. In the lawsuit, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott accuses Christensen of using money from his nonprofit charity to fund his political race and the Green Light racing team, a NASCAR outfit. They'll go to court next month.

Deaths: State Rep. George "Buddy" West, who has been battling kidney failure for some time, died at Hospice House in Odessa. He was 71. The Republican lawmaker was elected to the Texas House in 1992. He told his colleagues a year ago that he probably wouldn't come back for another session, then changed his mind and ran for reelection. But he had attracted three opponents in the GOP primary, and one — Tryon Lewis — defeated him. The governor ordered state flags to be lowered to half-staff. Services will be in Odessa and he'll be buried on Sunday at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.

Former Texas Supreme Court Justice James Baker, who'd been diagnosed last year with cancer. He was 77. Baker was an appellate judge on Dallas' 5th Court of Appeals for ten years before then Gov. George W. Bush appointed him to the high court, where he served from 1995 to 2002. He went back to Dallas and a job with the law firm where he was employed until now.

Quotes of the Week

Texas Public Safety Commissioner Allan Polunsky, on the fire that destroyed the Governor's Mansion: "This is likely not the finest hour for the department."

Frederick "Shad" Rowe, quoted in the Austin American-Statesman after Gov. Rick Perry had him removed from the Texas Pension Review Board: "I presumed I had built up enough credibility that I could 'tell it like it is' without worrying about politics. I believe underfunded public pensions and other expensive promises represent a fiscal time bomb. Those at risk — pensioners and taxpayers — deserve nothing less than total candor."

Steve Hildebrand, deputy campaign manager for Barack Obama, in Politico: "Texas is a great example where we might not be able to win the state, but we want to pay a lot of attention to it. It's one of the most important redistricting opportunities in the country."

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, asked by Newsweek who ought to be on Obama's list for potential vice presidents: "Chet Edwards [D-Waco] is a person that many of us think would be a good person to have in the mix. We want the House in the mix, as well."

Texas Weekly: Volume 25, Issue 26, 30 June 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 For news, email, or call (512) 288-6598.

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