They say good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.
The fall political season in Texas hit a snag right at the starting gate, as candidates dropped the usual stuff and replaced it with storm warnings and assistance and all that jazz. But some of that has — dare we say it — political benefits. There's something to be said for reminding people why they elected you. And there are reasonable people in office who saw the political aftermath of the FUBAR approach by local, state, and federal governments when Katrina hit.
With that in mind, what follows is a scattershot version of what some state officials are doing about the storm. It's not complete or comprehensive; the idea is to give you a quick survey of what political and government people were up to as Hurricane Ike crossed the Gulf of Mexico.
Gov. Rick Perry suspended the collection of state and local hotel and motel taxes for two weeks and he backdated that to the beginning of the week... Mandatory evacuations were underway in a slew of counties: Brazoria, Galveston, Jefferson, Orange, Chambers, and parts of Harris and Matagorda. Voluntary evacuations were on in Hardin, Jackson, and Victoria counties... The state put 7,500 members of the Texas Guard and 500 state troopers in place for the storms, helped move people in hospitals and state schools and prisons in the projected storm path... Utility crews went on notice... A "strike team" for hazardous waste problems that might develop went into place...
Almost 300 school buses from outside the storm area were sent by the state and by Dallas ISD to help move people. That's part of a contingent of around 1,350 buses available for this... The state's Department of Transportation was ready to convert highways for evacuations (which can mean running cars on both sides of the freeway in the same direction to get out of heavily populated areas like, say, Houston)... The Texas Supreme Court canceled hearings on legal aid services for the poor... Texas Parks & Wildlife canceled public teal and alligator hunts along the coast and in East Texas. That agency put 200 game wardens in place to help out and had the rest of them — 300 more — on alert...
President George W. Bush put FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security on the case, allowing them to assist financially and otherwise in 25 specified counties. The state's own disaster list covers 88 counties that might be affected... The Texas Banking Department said state-chartered banks can ignore state laws about holidays and close up for the storm — that's against the law without a waiver...
Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, replaced his regular email about official activities with a list of things to do when a hurricane is coming and evacuation directions... Rep. Juan Garcia, D-Corpus Christi, suspended campaign stuff (it's a tough fight against former Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi) to visit the South Texas Nuclear Project and emergency operation planners in and near his district, and like Ellis, his newsletter to constituents and political supporters came complete with evacuation instructions. Hunter, who just started a radio and TV ad campaign, suspended it with the storm coming... Rep. Solomon Ortiz Jr. went with hurricanes in his constituent emails, dropping any mention of other state business...
Texas Railroad Commissioners Victor Carrillo, Elizabeth Ames Jones and Michael Williams got into it with a reminder to secure propane tanks and appliances in the storm path... Comptroller Susan Combs, who'd planned to announce her new prepaid college tuition plan in Edinburg, moved that to Austin since South Texas was preoccupied with storm prep... Attorney General Greg Abbott announced "Operation Safe Shelter," in which his office will tell people running storm shelters whether any of their residents are in the state's sex offender database...
And another well-known state operation — the University of Texas at Austin — moved its football game against Arkansas from this weekend to September 27. That gets them out of the way, maybe frees Austin rooms for evacuees, and saves the Razorbacks a trip through heavy weather (it's just an example, too; the storm already wrecked high school, college and pro schedules in a number of sports from football to soccer to baseball).
Now they wait. And there's a special section on the governor's website if you want complete or specific info about the state's hurricane prep.
Stolen Records at the Texas Lottery
A former state employee is under investigation for removing personal records of state lottery winners and lottery employees while he was working at the Texas Lottery Commission.
The person worked at the Texas Lottery Commission and then for the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, where the information theft was discovered. His name wasn't released, but officials at that agency responded to questions about the matter by referring to an ongoing investigation by Travis County prosecutors.
But a spokesman for the comptroller's office confirmed the investigation. "The Comptrollers office is working with the Travis County District Attorneys office on a criminal investigation of a former employee who possessed confidential personal identifying information that was obtained while previously employed at another state agency," said R.J. DeSilva. "It is a felony violation of state law to possess this information without consent."
Sources say the electronic data was taken from the Lottery and uncovered by an internal audit at that agency. The employee went on to a job at the comptroller's office, and the problem apparently came to light when he used state computers there to store the data.
The auditor's report wasn't immediately available. The Lottery issued a statement acknowledging the investigation for "alleged unauthorized possession of data by a former Texas Lottery Commission employee" and saying the information that was stolen involves "certain TLC employees, certain licensed retailers, and certain prize winners." It's not clear just what information was in the files, but lottery officials said they're sending letters to every "potentially affected parties."
One potential twist: The records were breached some time ago — the internal audit was apparently completed early this summer — and the people whose records were stolen are only now finding out about it. Not all prize winners are on record, but the lottery keeps information on people who win $600 or more for federal tax purposes. And records of employees and retailers potentially includes direct deposit and other banking information.
A Steep Hill and a Way to Climb It
The state's got a new way for parents to lock in current college tuition and required fees and to sock away money to pay for junior's higher education.
But with deregulated tuition rates and rising college costs, it's a lot more expensive than the plan it replaced. And it doesn't carry the same constitutional guarantee as the old program, either.
One year of prepaid tuition at a top public university in Texas now costs more than four times what it cost when the state's first such program started in 1996.
Even so, it could be attractive to people who want to freeze current rates and get a start on paying for college for their kids and grandkids. The new Texas Tuition Promise Fund lets families freeze tuition rates for state colleges and community colleges for students who are at least three years from entering college. Either the beneficiary or the purchaser has to be a Texas resident.
The original Texas Tomorrow Fund carries a constitutional guarantee. Purchasers who paid for four years of college get four years of college even if their investment doesn't cover the price. Because voters approved that guarantee, the state has to make up the difference. That plan was closed to new purchasers when the Legislature deregulated college tuition; the actuaries couldn't set priced based on rates they were unable to predict. In the new plan, approved by the Legislature in 2007, the universities have to make up any difference between the top-priced plans and actual tuition rates. But the schools are units of the state; the legal difference is that the Legislature isn't constitutionally required to give parents what they pay for, and neither are the schools.
There are three flavors in the new program, which is run by Comptroller Susan Combs and operated by a subsidiary of Oppenheimer Funds. Type 1 pays for credits at any public college or university in the state, even the most expensive one (whatever that is at the time). Type 2 pays the average cost of four-year public schools in Texas, which would cover all of the costs at many schools, but not at the most expensive ones. Type 3 covers average tuition and fees at public community colleges (two-year schools) in Texas. Details of this, the original plan that's no longer being offered, and the state's 529 education savings plan, are online at this link.
It's expensive as all get-out, but that's not the fund's fault — blame the Legislature and the universities who set the prices and funding for public higher education. Four years at a top-price school would cost $39,400 in a lump sum plan paid now for a kid born at the beginning of this month (it was under $9,000 in the original prepaid tuition plan).
At an average four-year school, it'd cost $27,060 (that would pay the average price to any school, and you'd keep what's left from a cheaper school and have to write a check for the remainder at a more expensive one). Two years at a community college, paid in a lump sum, would be $3,398. Buyers can pay over time: The wunderkind in our example would cost $351.57 a month from now until high school graduation on her way to a top-price school; the monthly payment for four years of an average cost university would be $241.46. And buyers could opt to pay for less than four years.
They can also use the plan's online calculator to figure out what colleges are most and least expensive. That four-year Type 2 contract, for instance, would get you four year at the University of North Texas, 4.57 years at the University of Texas at El Paso, 3.99 years at Texas Tech University, 3.45 years at Texas A&M University, and 2.89 years at the University of Texas at Austin business school.
The Legislature could add some things when it meets next year. Top of the list: Saving money for technical and trade schools, and funding a provision of the law creating state matching funds for poorer students who can't save enough to cover all of the costs of higher education.
Set the Table for Six
An Austin judge left the special election ballot in SD-17 alone — voters there will choose from four Republicans and two Democrats. And if nobody can get the votes they need to win in the first round, they'll face a runoff between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
That's potentially bad news for Democrat Chris Bell, who sued late last week to try to knock Stephanie Simmons off the ballot. He said she doesn't live in the district and can't run. A state district judge in Austin told her he wasn't convinced of her honesty about residency and voting in the wrong places, but left the ballot alone.
One theory is that Bell has a better chance of winning on Election Day if he's the only Democrat and the four Republicans split the conservative vote. Another is that Simmons, who is Black, could benefit from a large turnout (if there is one) for presidential candidate Barack Obama. Another: It's Republican territory and it doesn't matter how many Democrats run because the GOP's candidates have an edge. Another: Bell's still the best-known name on the ballot. And one more: It doesn't matter all that much. Kyle Janek, a Republican, resigned from that state Senate seat earlier this summer. If recent history is a guide, Republican candidates should have the edge. But it's a competitive district, and a Democrat prevailed in a special election runoff last year in Fort Worth, on more reliably Republican turf. That raised Democratic hopes and Republican guards.
The four Republicans in the race are Austen Furse, Grant Harpold, Joan Huffman, and Ken Sherman. Huffman, a former judge, is the only member of that quartet who's had her name on the ballot before, and as of the last reports, she was the best-financed candidate in the race (highest cash on hand, at $750,182).
A poll done for Huffman's campaign has her leading the Republicans in the race. And it says Bell, who's the best-known candidate, is either unknown or disliked by two-thirds of the voters in the district. She's got Bell at 41 percent, herself at 12 percent, and everyone else lagging behind. The Huffman spin? It's a two-candidate race, and Bell is a "wounded duck."
Rep. Leo Berman, who's hinted at running for governor if state lawmakers don't address immigration issues, wants to know if making himself a candidate would knock him out of the House.
Berman sent a letter asking Attorney General Greg Abbott for his opinion on two questions. First, would declaring oneself a gubernatorial candidate during the first year of one's term (that'd be 2009) force one to resign from the House? Second, what about forming an exploratory committee; would that hurt one's legislative status?
Berman has pushed for stricter immigration laws and has been telling people for some time that he'll run for governor if the issue isn't addressed.
Flotsam & Jetsam
Lobbyists in Texas got paid as much as $348 million last year, according to the latest lobby spending report from Texans for Public Justice. That outfit says spending during the 2007 legislative session was up 15 percent from the 2005 session. By their count, 1,629 lobbyists had 8,166 contracts with 2,706 different clients. Utility lobby clients were the biggest on the list; TXU's corporate takeover earned lobbyists up to $14 million, and AT&T's lobby spending totaled as much as $10.2 million. The state doesn't require exact reporting from lobbyists. They report a range within which their contracts fall, and TPJ uses the maximum value in each range for its biennial reports. They counted 31 clients who spent a total of up to $69 million, or about one of every five dollars spent lobbying in the state. Likewise, 28 lobbyists made up to 19 percent of all the money spent, earning up to $67 million from their clients.
Texas Democrats are taking swats at U.S. House candidate Lyle Larson, a Bexar County commissioner who's promising to serve no more than six terms (12 years) if he beats U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio. The Democrats dug up a 1996 story in the San Antonio Express-News where Larson, now in his third commissioner term, said he'd serve no more than two terms there.
Todd Hunter, the former Democratic state rep running now as a Republican, has pulled together a "Democrats for Todd" group led by former Rep. Hugo Berlanga, who with former Rep. Judy Hawley, is the Hunter campaign co-chair. Berlanga and Hawley are both Democrats who served with Hunter. Berlanga's now a lobbyist. Incidental, but interesting: Hunter's signs in the district say he's conservative, but don't say he's Republican. No party label is listed.
Republican Greg Meyers picked up an endorsement from the Harris County Deputies Organization. Meyers, a Houston school board member, is challenging Democratic Rep. Hubert Vo.
Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, got the endorsement of a political action committee representing three nursing groups. The Texas RN/APN PAC is affiliated with the Texas Nurses Association, the Texas Association of Nurse Anesthetists, and the Coalition for Nurses in Advanced Practice. Oh, and she used to be a critical care nurse. She also picked up endorsements from PACs affiliated with the Texas Medical Association and the Texas Hospital Association.
Republican Pete Olson launched a web attack at U.S. Rep. NickLampson, D-Stafford, firing up NicksDCTricks.com. The home page reads, "Dedicated to a master political illusionist," and there are links to Olson's website and to his fundraising and volunteer sections at the bottom of every page.
Political matching programs seem to be multiplying. Now, Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, says he'll match contributions to the House Democratic Campaign Committee, up to $20,000.08. His pitch? That's the only organization trying to win a Democratic majority in the Texas House (they'd need to win five seats to do that) and protecting endangered Democratic incumbents. And Democrat Sherrie Matula, who's running against Rep. John Davis, R-Houston, is trying to raise enough money to get a $10,000 matching grant from Annie's List.
The HDCC has a couple of ads up on their web site, but doesn't have immediate plans to put them on the air. One slights the Republicans in charge in the state for their "opposition to clean air and clean water laws." It doesn't point at the Legislature or at the House; the ad is aimed at Republicans in general. The other lists "failures" of GOP officeholders on issues like children's health insurance, college tuition, insurance and utility rates. And it ends with the line Republican Wendell Willkie used when he ran against President Franklin Roosevelt in 1940: "Had enough?"
Officially, now that the conventions are all over: Barack Obama got 123 votes from Texas Democrats at their convention, to 96 for Hillary Clinton. Thus endeth the Texas Two-Step.
Political People and Their Moves
Brandy Marty is Gov. Rick Perry's new liaison to the Texas House. She's worked for the Guv, for several legislators, and as a teaching assistant in law school for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. She'll join David Eichler, her counterpart in the Senate.
Clay Brewer has been assigned to follow Mike Berger around at the Texas Department of Parks & Wildlife so he can figure out what Berger does every day. Berger, director of the agency's Wildlife Division, is retiring next month. Brewer, a regional director now stationed in Brownwood, will be acting director while a national search to replace Berger is finished.
And then there were none: John Moritz, the last reporter left in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Austin bureau, decided to take a buyout offer from that shrinking newspaper. That had been what other reporters regarded as a dangerous (meaning: competitive) gang of newsies. But R.A. "Jake" Dyer left in a round of layoffs earlier this summer and Jay Root split for the Associated Press. That leaves an empty office.
Bracewell & Giuliani hired former San Antonio Chamber CEO Joe Krier to help start a new Public Issues Management Group within the firm. Krier was at the chamber for 20 years. He'll be joined in that practice by Milam Mabry, who is moving to the firm's Austin office from its operation in Washington, D.C.
Gov. Perry appointed Frank Bryan Jr. of Austin, Karen Gordon of Port O'Connor, and Shari Waldie of Fredericksburg to the Texas Board of Physical Therapy Examiners. Bryan is an attorney. Gordon and Waldie are physical therapists.
The Guv named Charlotte Foster of Houston to the State Preservation Board. She's a retired petroleum engineer. While we're here, that board hired Dealey Herndon to oversee restoration of the Governor's Mansion. She's been involved in a number of restoration projects as a private contractor, and she was director of the agency during the restoration and expansion of the State Capitol in the early 1990s.
The state's new Cancer Prevention and Research Institute elected its officers: James Mansour, president of Telephone Management of Austin, is chairman; Malcolm Gillis, a professor at Rice University, is vice chairman; and Fort Worth lawyer Dee Kelly is secretary.
Quotes of the Week
Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas, quoted by the Associated Press after ordering a mandatory evacuation of Galveston Island: "This is a very hard call for me to make but our intent is to save lives. We believe it is best for people to leave."
Lauren Parker, a Galveston college student who evacuated for Hurricane Rita came three years ago, quoted by The Wall Street Journal: "I don't think it'll be that bad. I'd rather drown than wait in traffic."
Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, sparking several days of political conversation: "John McCain says he's about change, too. And so I guess his whole angle is, 'Watch out, George Bush. Except for economic policy, health-care policy, tax policy, education policy, foreign policy and Karl Rove-style politics, we're going to really shake things up in Washington. That's not change. That's just calling some — the same thing something different. But you know, you can't, you can put lipstick on a pig. It's still a pig."
Adele Morgan, a singer, songwriter, and friend of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's since grade school, quoted in The New York Times: "That's an Alaska woman for you. She can pee in the woods, then put on lipstick and go out to dinner."
U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Surfside, telling the Houston Chronicle his supporters wouldn't stand for an endorsement of Republican John McCain for president: "I don't enjoy getting 2 to 3 million people angry at me."
Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole, quoted in the Houston Chronicle about an FBI investigation of his use of campaign funds: "I've said all of my career the biggest problem is people want to help an elected official. And there is a point that you have to say, 'Stop. I can't do this. You're going to get in trouble. I'm going to get in trouble.'"
Texas Weekly: Volume 25, Issue 35, 15 September 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. For news, email email@example.com, or call (512) 288-6598.