Week three. Speaker race, over. House, kumbayahed. Two-thirds rule, guarded condition. Senate, patching things up. Revenue estimate, ouch. Base budget, tight. President, sworn in, twice.
All but one startup ceremony is over: Gov. Rick Perry's State of the State speech is set for Tuesday of next week. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst hopes to name Senate committees by mid-week. The House's rules will be available for viewing early next week, with a vote, maybe, at mid-week. And no promises of when House Speaker Joe Straus will name committees. History, which isn't reliable, is that they're in place in the first week of February, or so.
But who's in a hurry? With the exception of eminent domain legislation, Perry hasn't showed his hand on priorities — those will come Tuesday — and hasn't proclaimed any emergency issues that would allow bills to be considered in the first 60 days of the session. The rush will be on, later. But not now.
Dewhurst's Do List
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst starts the session with a "short list" of priorities. Dive right in:
1. The budget. "This [the first version, laid out this week] is just a preliminary draft... we will not have as much money as we thought we were going to have" because of the pessimistic revenue estimate from Comptroller Susan Combs. Dewhurst touted his efforts last session to put some money aside to cover the structural deficit started in 2006, when the state promised to pay local school districts more than its new business margins tax can produce. He wants to do that again. "We've got to maintain our balances... or we're going to be looking at some large deficit numbers in 2011 — that's not what I want to do."
2. Some sort of property tax reform. The Legislature has knocked down property tax caps — local governments argue that the state is trying to cut off their revenue without any regard to costs of services. Taxpayers can force rollback elections when taxes go up eight percent or more; Dewhurst would like that lowered to five percent.
3. Improvements in public education. He and some senators (Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, and Florence Shapiro, R-Plano) want to revisit school finance formulas this session though there are questions of whether the Lege will go along when there's not an immediate crisis. The draft budget includes $2 billion in new spending beyond what's needed to cover enrollment growth, he said. And he wants to create a testing system that tracks individual student's "growth and achievement" as they go through school, that "goes beyond just standardized testing," and he wants to "kill TAKS" — the state's standard test — and replace it with end-of-course testing.
4. Higher Education "needs more flagship universities... this is a decade-long process... it is also important that we consider carefully tuition increases... we can't afford to price people out of college." He said money will be too tight to do all he wants, but said more money should go into funding formulas for colleges.
5. Texas Department of Transportation. Dewhurst wants to a revolving fund levered to build new roads. He noted the $5 billion in bonds authorized but not yet sold for transportation. He said he's been pushing TXDOT for a list of priority projects that started large and is now whittled "down to $20-25 billion. That's doable."
6. The Lite Guv wants to trim the number of uninsured Texans, which he puts at 5.6 million, including 900,000 children. "We have dramatically increased CHIP (Children's Health Insurance Program) enrollment," and need to sign up more kids. Dewhurst said healthcare is too expensive, which he attributes in part to "cultural differences... some of our cultures wait until they're really sick until they come in for medical attention." He also said "American is the only country in the world that pays doctors on the basis of the number of procedures they perform... not on wellness... I'm totally convinced that our model is unsustainable." And he says he'll propose a pilot program to illustrate the point and try to encourage "transformational change."
7. Clean air and the environment. He said, essentially, that the Legislature needs to add to what it's already done.
Dewhurst, laying all of this out at a lunch for the media, scattershot his way through other topics, saying "a fair Voter ID bill is important," that immigration is really a federal problem that could be helped by more Border Patrol officers, "You know how many cops we have on the Border? 16,000. You know how many cops they have in New York City? 50,000..." He plans to announce committee assignments "mid-week next week" [eds. note: His estimate two years ago turned out to be VERY optimistic]. He won't support indexing the gasoline tax, calling it "the last thing you want to do" when times are tough. Dewhurst expects the federal bailout to send $15 billion to Texas for Medicaid, public education, infrastructure and "some flexibility on how to spend it," but he wasn't specific about how much money would go to each of those things.
Two years after vetoing legislation limiting government's power of eminent domain, Gov. Rick Perry wants to include something similar in the state constitution. Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, and Rep. Rob Orr, R-Burleson, authored the version he's endorsing.
Two years ago, the issue came up in the form of a proposed state law — strongly backed by the Texas Farm Bureau, the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and other groups that have been at the front of property rights fights — that passed the Senate unanimously and in the House by a 125-11 vote.
Perry supported it until lawmakers made some changes. He objected at the end because the law made concessions to landowners he thought were too expensive, compensating them for altered access to their property and for permanent changes in views and traffic patterns resulting from government projects. Without those things, he said two years ago, he'd have signed it.
A constitutional amendment has to pass both chambers of the Legislature with two-thirds support. Unlike a law, it goes to voters for approval or disapproval and not to the governor.
The issue came up — lightly, so far — in a fundraising letter sent by U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison to potential supporters. She's planning to run for governor, against Perry, and played the property rights issue against Perry's expansion of toll roads and state highway projects.
While we're sort of on the subject of the governor's race: Perry is scheduled as a featured speaker at an anti-abortion rally in Austin on Saturday. The "Texas Rally for Life" is billed as "a peaceful commemoration of the tragic 1973 Roe v. Wade decision."
And Hutchison will be in Austin this weekend to meet with supporters and policy folks who are helping her "exploratory" bid for the state government's highest executive office.
The Fight Behind the Fight
Behind the partisan hullabaloo over the Senate's two-thirds rule lurks an actual public policy debate over voter ID. But Democrats and Republicans each claim the other's policy brief is hollow and strictly partisan.
Democrats say voter ID will suppress voting among minorities, the elderly, and the disabled, and that the result is more harmful to their candidates than to Republicans. Republicans say their legislation has safeguards in place to keep that from happening. Academic research offers contradicting results when it comes to turnout and voter ID, so both parties have some numbers to back up their side. Republicans say voter fraud is a big problem. They've got some numbers, but few that illustrate serious in-person voter fraud. Democrats contend the level of fraud is too small to risk keeping any eligible voter from the polls.
Supporters say requiring voters to show a photo ID would restore integrity to a broken election system where, they contend, it's too easy for dead people or non-U.S. citizens to vote, and for people to vote more than once. But it's tough to tally up votes of the non-breathing and the undocumented, which is why some in the GOP say raw numbers are hard to come by.
"Looking back at signatures and voting records, its easy to establish if something didn't look right," says Rep. Betty Brown, R-Athens, the lead author of the House version, HB 125. "After the fact it's so hard to determine, and there's no way to prove it. That's the problem with prosecuting — there is so little definitive evidence. Our DA's are busy pursuing murders and rapists. They don't always have time to stop and prosecute someone who's voted illegally."
Brown points to a 2008 case where 4,000 dead people were still on the voter rolls in Harris County. One of those voted in the primary. Paul Bettencourt, then-Harris County tax assessor and voter registrar, testified before Congress in 2006 that 35 non-U.S. citizens had applied or registered to vote. Brown says it's too easy for someone to just take a voter card to the polls and vote as someone else.
Jerry Strickland, communications director for the office of the attorney general, says the AG has found 30 voter-fraud suspects in the past few years, and 22 have been prosecuted. The crimes range from voting in a dead person's name, voting twice, and filling out registration cards for people who don't exist.
The Texas GOP's executive director, Eric Opiela, cites some examples of fraudulent voter activity. In Nov. 2007, state auditors found that more than 49,000 ineligible voters, mainly felons and dead people, were registered throughout the state. No one found evidence of votes cast by those voters.
He also points to a 2008 case in the Alice area where one canvasser filled out 50 mail-in ballots belonging to politically apathetic friends and family in support of an uncontested Democratic candidate for district attorney. That case was prosecuted under existing law.
Keeping non-U.S. citizens from the polls is certainly an element in the legislation, though Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, emphasizes that finding and prosecuting undocumented workers is not. Still, Cathie Adams, an election judge in Dallas and leader of the conservative Texas Eagle Forum, says undocumented workers are a threat to election integrity. Opponents of the Voter ID legislation argue that undocumented workers are happy to stay far away from the polls — and any place associated with the government. But Adams contends that, as undocumented workers begin to have children in the U.S., their stake in government grows, along with the chance they'll start voting.
Along with their assertion that voter ID will solve in-person voter fraud, Republicans say they have a key argument in their favor. A nonpartisan poll done by the University of Texas at Austin shows 52 percent of Texas "strongly support" voter ID and 18 percent "somewhat" support it. (Here's how they got the sample.) Plus, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled favorably on voter ID legislation in other states.
"This is clearly a bipartisan issue supported by large majorities of both Republicans and Democrats," says Opiela. "The only people opposed are Democratic legislators and party leadership who use it as a way to energize partisan activist groups and raise money."
Williams emphasizes that voter ID wouldn't be too cumbersome and shouldn't affect elderly, disabled or minority voters. You could show up to the polls with a utility bill and a library card, or a pilot's license and a piece of mail addressed from a government agency to your home, and you'll be OK. He also points to a University of Missouri study showing turnout in Democratic-leaning counties to increase slightly in Indiana after the state enacted voter ID.
Democrats don't like it.
"I think the most compelling argument [against voter ID] is what's being proposed is a solution to a problem that doesn't exist," says Boyd Richie, chairman of the Texas Democrats.
And there is some research showing Voter ID suppresses voting. A Brown University study found that between 1994-2004, states with Voter ID laws saw an increase in voter registration for Anglos of about 15 percent, but a decrease in voting by 10 percent. For Blacks and Hispanics, voter registration stayed the same, but voting decreased by 14 percent and 20 percent, respectively. Another report by Rutgers University and Ohio State University found voting in the 2004 presidential election decreased by about 3 percent in states with Voter ID laws. For Hispanics, that decrease was about 10 percent and for Blacks, 5.7 percent.
Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, who has served on the elections committee for two sessions, says anywhere between 150,000 and 500,000 Texans would be unable to comply with the voter ID bill, even with all the options like bringing utility bills or divorce decrees.
Sen. Mario Gallegos Jr., D-Houston, says it sends a bad message to Texans when lawmakers are fighting over voter ID, rather than working on health care, the economy or restoring Galveston after Hurricane Ike. He and Sen. John Whitmire, also D-Houston, say Democratic voter turnout is likely to drop at least 3 percent if the SB 362 passes, but Whitmire says it's unlikely to pass the House anyway. But House Speaker Joe Straus said recently on Texas Monthly Talks that he voted for similar legislation in the past and doesn't object to it coming up this session.
— by Karie Meltzer
How many votes does it take to win? Political districts start each decade, after redistricting, at equal population size. That doesn't mean the same people vote in each place, but that the same number live in each district. But wait a few years, add in growth, migration, voter turnout, competition, Election Day weather, and you get widely disparate results.
It matters mainly if you're watching changes in voting patterns or starting to work on the next set of redistricting maps that'll get drawn in two years. And for bragging rights, if you're a legislator. And for targeting, if you dislike a legislator. Think of it like this: At the top of the ballot, a candidate in 2008 had to get 4,038,536 votes to win. At the bottom, just 6,675. Lookit:
In CD-10, 333,083 people voted in the general election. In CD-29, less than one third that many — 106,794 — voted. U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, got 243,471 votes — the highest for any one candidate. U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, got 79,718 — the fewest for any winning candidate. He ran in CD-19 — the low-vote district. Fourteen candidates lost their contests with more votes than he got winning his. The average race for Congress (in Texas) drew 235,269 voters. U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, got 207,128 votes — the highest number gathered by anyone with a major-party opponent. And Larry Joe Doherty, a Democrat, got 143,719 votes while losing to U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul — that's the most votes collected by any congressional loser this time out. That race was in CD-10 — where the highest number of votes were cast. Nine people who got fewer votes that Doherty in other districts won, and took the oath of office earlier this month.
The numbers in Senate districts were similar: 296,160 in SD-10, at the top of the list, and 104,207 in SD-6, on the bottom. Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, came to Austin with the fewest number of votes for a winning senator, at 72,960. He's from SD-6. Four candidates lost Senate races with more votes than that. About 199,859 people voted in the average Senate race last year. At the top of the list: Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, who ran opposed and got 221,470 votes. Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, got the most votes of a winner with a major-party opponent. Former Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth, got 140,737 votes in his loss to Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth — that's the most votes collected by a losing Senate candidate. And they were competing in SD-10 — the Senate district where the highest number of voters turned out. Only 15 of the 31 Senate seats were on the ballot in 2008 — the terms are staggered. And Brimer finished right in the middle of the pack, with eight of the winners getting more votes than he got (including Davis) and seven winning with fewer votes.
The top-to-bottom difference in the Texas House was stark, with 13,348 people voting in HD-140, on the low end, and 103,536 voting in San Antonio's HD-122, on the high end. Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, won in the first; Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio, in the second. The average House race attracted 47,401 voters. Rep. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, got more November votes than any other House member, with 73,450; for Ana Hernandez, D-Houston, 11,881 was enough for victory. She got the lowest vote total for any winner. A large number of candidates — 63 — lost their races with more support than Hernandez got winning hers. The top loser — that is, the one with the most votes — was Republican Donna Keel of Austin, for whom 43,190 votes were not enough to defeat Rep. Valinda Bolton. There are 137 people calling themselves representative today who got fewer votes than Keel got.
Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Cathy Cochran was the top vote getter in the state, with 4,719,538 votes. Next was the Republican presidential ticket: John McCain and Sarah Palin pulled 4,479,328. All of the statewide Republican candidates outran the top-performing Democrats: Barack Obama and Joe Biden led the Blue Team with 3,528,633. Sam Houston, the top-running Democratic state candidate (he ran for Supreme Court) finished 3,492 votes behind his party's national ticket.
The presidential contenders attracted 8,077,073 votes. More than half a million were gone by the time they got to Congress — a total of 7,528,622 Texans voted in those 32 races. And nearly half a million more were gone by the time they got to the Texas House races. Those contests — 150 of them, contested and not — drew 7,110,093 votes. Almost one of every eight people who voted for president didn't vote for a state legislator.
Want to fool with the numbers for all of the statewide, SBOE, Congress, Senate, and House candidates? Here's our spreadsheet — knock yourself out.
Different Starting Lines
State lawmakers start with a split on the state budget, with the Senate planning to spend $171.5 billion and the House looking at $170.8 billion. And both plans would require the state to dip into its Rainy Day Fund to balance the budget.
The two houses generally agree on the starting budget and on which chamber will start the process. It's the Senate's turn to start this year, which means that's the bill budgeteers will work from. But the change in leadership in the House means there's not yet an Appropriations chairman there. So they start with different numbers.
Both startup documents are posted on the Legislative Budget Board's website; they're at the top of the first column on the left side of the page (and they're big!). The summaries are online, too: Senate, and House.
Both proposed budgets spend more than the comptroller says the state will have available, meaning that they'll dip into the Rainy Day Fund, that there are cuts to be made, or that the Legislature is counting on a revised and more optimistic set of numbers sometime between now and June 1, when the legislative session ends. Comptroller Susan Combs said last week that budget-writers will have $77.1 billion available for general spending, and a balance of $9.1 billion in the Rainy Day fund during the coming budget cycle. The Senate's budget, as presented, requires $83.8 billion in general spending. The House's is a little lower, at $83.4 billion. There's an accounting twist in one of those numbers; about $3 billion is available for public school/property tax spending and is in a special account. But it counts as general revenue, so add that to the $77.1 billion that's available for lawmakers to spend. Bottom line: This preliminary version of the budget would dip into the Rainy Day Fund for about $3.7 billion.
The Senate proposed higher spending than the House in two areas: They budgeted for settlement of disability claims related to a federal investigation of state mental facilities, and they fully funded pay incentives for public and higher educators.
Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, thinks it's a tight budget but doesn't expect cuts. And he's got some projects going: If he and others can pull together votes for a public school finance bill, there's $1.8 billion in contingent funding that could go to schools. He calls the money for mental health facilities "pretty ambitious" and hopes it will answer federal civil rights questions about Texas' state schools. Transportation could get money from $5 billion in bonds approved by voters but not yet sold or appropriated. And he and others are concerned about the economic blowout and what it could mean for teacher and employee retirement plans, and for a trust fund that's usually good for more than $1 billion in public education funding.
Don't be surprised if the numbers on both the spending and revenue sides wiggle around during the next four months, while legislators write the budget.
After a debate that brought national attention to Texas, the State Board of Education voted in favor of teaching evolution as an unquestionable theory rather than an imperfect hypothesis.
Since 1998, the school science standards —part of TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) — have included this phrase: "The student is expected to analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information."
Many science educators and parents have urged the board to delete those words, arguing they allow teachers to include discussion of creationism and intelligent design in the classroom.
"'Strengths and weaknesses' is a way to sneak creationism through the back door," Dr. Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education told the board at a public hearing. "It's a way of attacking evolution."
But some — board members, teachers and conservative groups alike — say the words allow academic freedom, that teaching evolution as the final word is censorship that quashes critical thinking.
"We need to allow teachers to discuss this with our kids," said board member Barbara Cargill. "Evolution is not tidy."
Cargill is strongly aligned with her colleague Cynthia Dunbar, who led the fight on keeping strengths-and-weaknesses. After the board voted 7-7 (member Rene Nuñez was absent), the language was thrown out and Dunbar pulled out her back-up:
"Students should analyze, evaluate and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning and experimental and observational testing, by examining scientific evidence supportive and not supportive of those explanations."
That went down, too, on an 8-6 vote.
— by Karie Meltzer
Political People and Their Moves
Blandina "Bambi" Cardenas, saying she needs to tend to her health, is resigning the presidency at the University of Texas-Pan American at the end of the month. She'll be replaced on an interim basis by Provost Paul Sale while a search is conducted for her replacement.
Dan Bartlett is going back to school, this time as an adjunct professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT-Austin and a fellow at the Center for Politics and Governance there. The former aide to President George W. Bush is a honcho at Austin-based Public Strategies.
Jesse Ancira will join House Speaker Joe Straus' policy staff. Ancira, former deputy comptroller, a CPA and former G-man, has been working for a tax consulting firm.
Don Green, the top budget nerd on the House speaker's staff for the last six years, is moving across the building, joining the policy staff of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. That staff already has a couple of high-level budget nerds; Green will help with that and with some of the duties that belonged to John Sneed, now at the State Preservation Board.
Sandy Kress, the Austin lawyer and education reformer who helped craft the No Child Left Behind Act, signed on with the Texas Association of Business to lobby on education issues, including school accountability measures that trade group is promoting.
ERCOT named Charles Manning Jr. its vice president and chief compliance officer. That's a new position. Manning was previously an exec with MEAG Power in Atlanta.
Alan Lowe will run the new George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas. He was formerly with the National Archives and most recently with the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy in Nashville.
Jennifer Chambers moves up to legislative director for Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock. She's covered health and human service issues for that office for the past decade.
Max Jones is the new in-house lobster at the Texas Nursery and Landscape Association. He's worked in the Texas House and the Texas Workforce Commission.
Robert Butler is the new executive director of the Libertarian Party of Texas. He's been a Washington political consultant and had the head job with the Ohio Libertarians. He'll replace Wes Benedict, who's going back into private business after four years at LPT.
Kirsten Gray becomes communications director at the Texas Democratic Party, replacing Hector Nieto, who left to work for Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth.
Commuted, but not pardoned: President George W. Bush commuted the sentences of Ignacio Ramos and Jorge Compean — two Border Patrol agents who shot a drug smuggler in the back and tried to hide evidence and lie about the shooting. Theirs had become a rallying point for some conservatives; Bush's action will let them out of jail while keeping them out of law enforcement in the future.
Deaths: Lane Zivley, a longtime advocate for state employees as the executive director of the Texas Public Employees Association for 25 years. He was 69.
Quotes of the Week
Former President George W. Bush, stopping in Midland on his way home to Crawford: "I tell people the days have been long, but the years are short... The presidency was a joyous experience, but as great as it was, nothing compares with Texas' sunset. And so tonight, I have the privilege of saying six words that I have been waiting to say for a while, "It is good to be home."
Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza, a former county judge, Texas Secretary of State, and Railroad Commissioner, in the Austin American-Statesman: "You're not going to see me on the ballot again. The opportunity for public service has been enormously satisfying, but I see myself moving into a different arena... I sense some closure to the public side of my life."
Gov. Rick Perry, telling The Dallas Morning News he'll ask for $750 million for transportation: "I don't know if you cut something or not, but you go find the money. I know we are going to have a tight budget, but you prioritize. What's more important – building transportation infrastructure in your area, or is some other thing more important?"
Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, telling the El Paso Times why the Senate so often meets in private: "I don't think we should be airing our dirty laundry, so to speak."
Texas Weekly: Volume 26, Issue 3, 26 January 2009. Ross Ramsey, Editor. Copyright 2009 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.