Blame Irving. The combination of a slow count in Dallas County and an impending excuse to back off (that'd be Thanksgiving), there's not much happening at the moment in the race for Speaker of the Texas House.
But the fact that you haven't a lot of new stuff — like the announcement of someone claiming to be the winner — means that our headline is safe for the fourth time since voters chose their House members.
The numbers from Irving, where Republican Rep. Linda Harper-Brown has her mitts on a 20-vote lead, won't be in until after the holiday. That outcome — along with another recount in HD-11, in East Texas — will determine the makeup of the House. If it remains in Republican hands — right now, it's at 76-74 — you can keep the Democratic candidates out of the race for the top job. If Democrat Bob Romano pulls a chad out of his hat, it'll be 75-75, and you can tear up your tote sheet and start working on your speaker numbers all over again. Or it could all go the Republicans' way, with Brian Walker overcoming Rep. Chuck Hopson, D-Jacksonville, and the GOP getting a 77-73 edge.
Alongside the Irving recount is a battle over how to count so-called "emphasis ballots." The question is how to tally when someone votes a straight ticket and then emphasizes that vote by also voting for a particular candidate on that ticket. If Dallas County election officials follow the instructions from the Texas Secretary of State, those votes are recorded one way if cast on voting machines, the other way if cast on optical ballots. Both were used in this contest. Lawyers for Romano's side say the emphasis ballots on electronic machines should be counted for the benefit of the candidates. The lawyers for Harper-Brown say those voters liked everyone on the ticket except for the HD-105 candidate.
That's a question for the courts. In the meantime, the recount there starts on Monday. In HD-11, they'll start next week, counting the votes in all four counties. Hopson got out of that contest with a 102-vote advantage out of 52,847 votes cast.
We caught a boomlet for Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, over the weekend and at the beginning of Thanksgiving week. He's a Craddick supporter — one of the 13 Republicans who signed a pledge supporting the incumbent. The theory behind the wave: Chisum, a former Democrat, is well liked in the House and might be able to put together a bipartisan deal if Craddick can't get the votes. Against: He's part of the Craddick administration and traded too much against the budget (he's the appropriations chairman) in the 2007 session.
Add him to the list of announced and potential Republican candidates for the post, which includes Byron Cook of Corsicana, Craddick, Dan Gattis of Georgetown, Delwin Jones of Lubbock, Jim Keffer of Eastland, Edmund Kuempel of Seguin, Bryan McCall of Plano, Tommy Merritt of Longview, Jim Pitts of Waxahachie, and Burt Solomons of Carrollton.
But if you're bored after you've gorged on turkey and all that, think about this: How many Democrats will stick together, and in what configurations, if Craddick is out of the running? The Democrats have signed most of their cohort to an anti-Craddick pledge, but they're free to vote as they will if he's off the ballot.
Something to look forward to, fellow political junkie.
Short of the Target
While $195.7 million is not nothing, it's not enough to bring the state's new business tax up to expectations.
Aides to Comptroller Susan Combs say the business margins tax will bring in about $4.7 billion, or about $1.2 billion less than her office estimated (and that number was about $900 million lower than the estimate made by her predecessor, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, when the tax was originally passed). The $195.7 million is the amount collected from taxpayers who filed extensions. Those had to be in the mail by last week, and while they're still trickling in, officials don't expect any giant checks to arrive. This is it.
The tax was created in a special legislative session in 2006. The mission had two objectives: To replace the existing business franchise tax, and to provide some of the money needed to "swap" higher state taxes for lower school property taxes. The state's big corporations had cracked the code on the old franchise tax and were aggressively exploiting its loopholes to the state's chagrin. And the school tax swap was a semi-successful attempt to lower the largest component of local property taxes — semi-successful because increases in appraised property values gobbled up some of the benefits.
Strayhorn said it would bring in $6.8 billion in the current budget cycle. But Combs, after seeing the results of taxpayer surveys, cut that estimate to $5.9 billion.
Even that was optimistic. Lawmakers might fiddle with the tax — that'd be normal. And they're hopeful that a first-year loophole will, when it's gone next year, fill some of the gap between what was expected and what has come in.
"It's not going to reduce the tax relief," says Warren Chisum, the Pampa Republican who heads the House Appropriations Committee. "And if property values increase [as expected], our spending goes down."
[State school funding increases when local taxes raise less money, and decreases when local tax revenues rise.]
He and other state budgeteers say they've been expecting a shortfall of over a billion. And other numbers from the comptroller — sales tax revenues and income from oil and gas taxes — should make up for the shortcomings of the margins tax.
The guy who put the business tax together — Democrat John Sharp, the former comptroller who headed a special committee of business people for Gov. Rick Perry — says his panel was relying on the state's number-crunchers to tell them what it would raise. "We don't do revenue estimates — we took it to them and asked what it would bring in," he says.
The Bear Ate Their Schoolwork
State education officials want to know whether the drop in the financial markets will slow spending — or in the worst case, halt it — from the Available School Fund.
Texas has a Permanent School Fund that periodically flows into the ASF, which sends money to the state's school districts. In the current budget, that amounts to $716 million a year, or $1.4 billion.
Money's tighter now, what with the financial markets, and the State Board of Education wants to allot $579 million a year, or $1.2 billion, to then next two-year budget.
But first, they've got some questions, which they've sent along to Attorney General Greg Abbott. The main ones have to do with constitutional limits on how much money from the PSF can go to the ASF, what the timing of the payments should be, and whether the drop in the financial markets limits what the SBOE can move to the ASF for the state's public schools.
Like other state funds, the PSF was hit hard in Wall Street's financial earthquake, dropping to a balance of $18.5 billion at the end of October from $23.2 billion at the end of August.
The state constitution limits PSF distributions based on the balance in the fund over time, and on the returns on the investments in the fund. Without getting tangled in the details, the SBOE wants Abbott's advice on how the constitution and the formulas mesh.
Officials with the Texas Education Agency say this is the first time they've seen a market that forced questions about the limits on transfers from the PSF to the ASF. And one formula is based on balances in the fund over ten years time — a timeline that includes the current bear market and the dot-com crash in the early part of the decade. That combination could be hard on the budget.
Can you slap an electronic ankle bracelet on a kid who's been ditching class? Brazos County Attorney Rodney Anderson wants Abbott's official opinion. In the request, he asks whether a justice of the peace can order people to wear electronic monitoring devices if they admit they broke the law requiring them to go to school. In his letter to Abbott, Anderson contends it's legal. But he wants the state's opinion before going ahead with the program.
And then there's a fight over whether the property seized by Delta County's sheriff is subject to auditing by the county. We can't improve on the original request for Abbott's opinion — especially paragraph (g) — which you'll find here.
What's the Diff?
Suppose you don't care about percentages in elections, but you do care about raw votes.
Vote production for Republicans increased in 107 of the state's counties in this year's presidential race, compared with the 2004 numbers. The gains ranged from a couple of votes up to 7,155 (in Montgomery County).
Democrats lost the statewide race, but narrowed their total loss from 2004 to 2008 by 743,518 votes. A margin of almost a million votes (950,695) separated John McCain from Barack Obama; George W. Bush finished 1.7 million ahead of John Kerry in 2004. That's small consolation to Obama, but to strategists and schemers looking forward to the 2010 elections, it's significant. Democrats ran a weak statewide ticket against a strong Republican lineup in 2006 and got clobbered. Better candidates — and the absence of anybody named Bush on the ticket — narrowed the margins of victory. That's of interest to both sides.
Republicans improved their numbers, slightly, in Jefferson County — the only Democratic County that gave Kerry a bigger margin than it gave Obama. Democrats improved their lot in 147 counties, including 120 that were carried by the Republican standard-bearer.
The big numbers went in the blue column; Democrats had gains of more than 10,000 votes in 16 counties; more than 25,000 in eight counties; more than 60,000 in five counties.
The Republicans improved their raw vote margins in three of the state's 25 most populous counties: Montgomery, Galveston, and Jefferson. That happened even as the Republicans were winning in 16 of those same counties. In 2004, they won in 20 of them.
The difference in vote production illustrates the change from 2004 to 2008. In those top 25 counties, Bush racked up a 797,865-vote margin over Kerry. McCain's vote margin four years later in those same counties: 75,520.
You care about percentages? McCain outperformed Bush, on a percentage of the vote basis, in 100 counties in Texas. Obama outdid Kerry in the other 154. McCain's gains were concentrated in East and North Texas; Obama's biggest percentage improvements over Kerry were in South and Central Texas.
Political People and Their Moves
Jim Steinberg, who heads the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT Austin, is in line to be deputy of the National Security Council, according to ABC News.
Former Rep. Robert Puente of San Antonio is the new president and CEO of SAWS (the San Antonio Water System), a post he's filled on an interim basis for seven months.
Gov. Rick Perry named Austin dentist Richard Box to the Texas A&M University System's board of regents. He's an alumnus, and replaced J.L. Huffines of Dallas on that panel.
The Guv named Tammy Betancourt of Houston the presiding officer of the Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners. She's an exec at the Houston Building Owners and Managers Association. Perry also named three new members to that board: Ed Thompson, CEO of Thompson Wood Development in Tyler; Alex Meade III of Brownsville, a principal at P3 Economics; and Dave Lilley, CEO of Trinity Hughes Construction in Wichita Falls.
Perry appointed Zebulun Nash, who works for ExxonMobil Chemical Co. in Houston, to the Coastal Water Authority Board of Directors.
And he appointed new members to the Texas Low Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission and named Michael Ford of Amarillo and John White of Plano to the chair and vice chair positions there. Ford is a manager at B&W Pantex LLC, and White is the radiation safety officer at the UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. New members of the commission include Andrews County Judge Richard Dolgener; Bob Gregory, president of Texas Disposal Systems in Austin; Kenneth Peddicord, director of the Texas Engineering Experiment Station in College Station; and Robert Wilson, an attorney with Jackson, Sjoberg, McCarthy & Wilson in Lockhart.
Department of Corrections: Amy Herzog would probably like to retire, but she's young. Instead of sending her to the farm last week, we should have moved her from the Capitol to Vinson & Elkins, where she'll be a health policy analyst. Sorry, sorry, sorry.
Quotes of the Week
Austan Goolsbee, an economic advisor to President-elect Barack Obama, quoted by the Associated Press on the size of the bailout: "I don't know what the number is going to be, but it's going to be a big number. It has to be. The point is to, kind of, get people back on track and startle the thing into submission."
U.S. Rep. Louis Gohmert, R-Tyler, telling the Austin American-Statesman about his idea of substituting the bailout with personal income tax incentives: "Can you imagine the cars, the homes, the businesses, the stocks that would be purchased, the incredible surge in this economy if you just let people not pay taxes for this year?"
Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, quoted in the Midland Reporter-Telegram on the opponents to House Speaker Tom Craddick: "These Republicans running for speaker need a dose of reality because for them to get in there and mess up the deal plays into the Democrats' hands. Tom is the chosen one. He has the most votes. I don't want to be part of a team chosen by the other party. That's the road to disaster."
U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, talking to The Dallas Morning News about the selections of Texans John Cornyn and Pete Sessions to head Republican Senate and House political committees: "Sometimes people have Texas-phobia up here. But they never are averse to Texas money... When you get in the bunker, the only way out is to raise some money."
Cornyn, in that same article: "The one thing I would note is that when it comes to funds contributed to federal candidates around the country, there are four states that stand out: Texas, New York, California and Florida. Texas is obviously the biggest, reddest state of that group."
Luis Figueroa, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal and Educational Defense Fund, quoted in the El Paso Times on the state's virtual Border Watch, which uses cameras linked to a public website to spot illegal activity: "It's almost a state-funded vigilante program."
Pedro Torres, editor of El Diario, quoted by the Washington Post on the recent shooting of crime reporter Armando Rodriguez in Juarez, across the border from El Paso: "Many people assume he was killed by the narcos, but I am not so sure. He was killed by organized crime, I will say that. In Mexico, organized crime can mean the traffickers, the police, the government or the people in the office buildings."
State Rep. Joe Straus III, R-San Antonio, talking with The Dallas Morning News about his proposal to end straight-ticket voting: "There are people on both tickets who you know don't belong in public office. That should offend open-minded people from both parties. I can't imagine an argument against this."
Gov. Rick Perry, quoted in the Houston Chronicle on the shortcomings of federal efforts to help Hurricane Ike victims: "This is unacceptable when we have people sleeping in tents next to trailers with locks on them."
Albert Myres, an exec with Reliant Energy who's running a charity for Hurricane Ike victims, quoted in the Houston Chronicle on slow progress raising money: "That will give you the impact of the stock market. I don't think the concern has changed. I just think what's available to give has changed."
Republican consultant Todd Smith, telling The Dallas Morning News that several of his candidates fielded complaints during their campaigns about rising college costs: "It's going to be hard to ignore their unhappiness."
Texas Weekly: Volume 25, Issue 46, 1 December 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.