The conversation in the halls is mostly about House committee assignments and who'll get what. The underlying political tension is between Democrats who think Speaker Joe Straus should reward them for making up 80 percent of the vote that put him in the corner office, and Republicans who think he needs to consolidate power within his own party in the closely divided chamber to have any chance of hanging on to the controls.
It's a dance: Straus has 76 Republicans, including himself, and 74 Democrats. He was elected by acclamation, but you're nuts if you're using that list to keep score: The first list, the one that put him over the top and turned out former Speaker Tom Craddick, was the one with 15 Republicans and 70 Democrats on it.
Democrats are relying on the "dance with who brung ya" maxim. Republicans are telling anyone and everyone that the Democrats really want control of the House and will push to get a majority and unseat Straus and put one of their own in the corner office. They hope Straus will put Republicans in the most powerful positions to secure GOP support he'll need to keep the gavel for more than one legislative session.
No pressure, right?
The kids in the House have to watch out for blasting caps lying around.
One in particular is the new rule for knocking off a speaker: It only takes 76 signatures to reboot. That was symbolically important to Democrats, in particular, who bridled at Craddick's control of the House and who wanted to put the institution back in the hands of the members — to move the power from the dais to the floor (that's also reflected in the makeup of the committees and in rules, for instance, that did away with "CBOs" from each substantive committee who served on appropriations). A calmer contingent wanted to put that power on the floor but to cool things off by requiring, say, 90 votes or 100 to depose a speaker. They didn't have the votes.
Another blasting cap is cultural. Half of the 150 state representatives don't have any experience outside the contentious Craddick years, when partisan fighting was the normal state of affairs and conversations about power and control were as common as talk of policy and governance.
What did they learn from that war? That it's a competitive place where fighting and backbiting is the norm? Or that they want to try something different?
With a new regime in place, what's the culture going to be? Were the last six years instructive, telling members How Things Work and setting the tone for this session? Or were they a cautionary tale, moving the House along to something different?
Setting committees the first time is a daunting piece of politics. It tells each politician where she or he stands in the order of things. It tells them who outranks them and who they outrank. And it's damned hard to change, once a speaker has set down the names in the first round. Two years from now, if he's still speaker, Straus will be doing this again. But he'll be bound — like David Dewhurst was in the Senate — by what he's done before.
Aides to the speaker think the committee list will come out next week. If they follow tradition, they'll wait until members are on the way out of town — the better to cool off after they see the new order of things. Then the session can really get started.
The governor's list of items that should be considered in the next six weeks includes budget issues, hurricane aid, wind insurance, state school problems, and security equipment.
The Legislature can't vote on bills during the first 60 days of a legislative session unless the governor declares an emergency. Gov. Rick Perry's emergency list is out:
Legislation to provide supplemental appropriations to state agencies and institutions related to hurricane response and recovery associated with the hurricanes of 2008;
Legislation to assist public and private entities with recovery from the hurricanes of 2008;
Legislation to reform the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association (TWIA) and legislation to fund the Catastrophe Reserve Trust Fund related to TWIA;
Legislation to improve state schools and centers operated by the state of Texas; and
Legislation to appropriate funds to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for the purchase and use of screening and detection devices for contraband and personnel, as well as comprehensive security equipment.
Who Wants to Be a Billionaire?
The head of UTIMCO resigned during a contentious Senate Finance Committee hearing, later ending his appearance by telling the assembled senators that his successor would probably be happy to meet with them next month.
Robert Rowling, a Dallas billionaire serving as appointed chairman of UTIMCO — the University of Texas Investment Management Co. — was, along with the fund's president, taking populist salvos from the senators for bonuses paid to investment managers at a time when the fund's investments were losing money. Bruce Zimmerman, the CEO, got a $1 million bonus in November — part of a bonus package given to him and other execs there. Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst fired off a letter this week to show their displeasure; the Senate committee followed with an excoriating hearing.
"You can have my job," said Rowling, who's also on UT's Board of Regents, in response.
Rowling said the bonuses were awarded on the basis of UTIMCO's performance through the end of June — when its investments were performing well. While that deal was made in the summer, the actual bonuses were awarded, however, two or three months after the stock market and the economy tanked. He also said UTIMCO had managed to lose less money in the market fall than comparable funds. But the state's political leaders had no stomach for that. "There are not three people in the state who think that was a smart thing to do," said Finance Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan.
Senators softened up later, asking Rowling if he really intends to resign. He said that he does. Asked if he would come back next month to talk about it, he told the committee his successor — whomever that is — would probably be happy to do that.
Addendum: Rowling is a big Republican donor, giving almost $1.5 million to state candidates since 2000. The list includes $157,934 to Dewhurst, $282,262 to Perry, $275,000 to Attorney General Greg Abbott, and a total of $27,000 to four members of the committee that chewed his tail: Bob Deuell of Greenville, Kevin Eltife of Tyler (whose questions prompted the resignation during the hearing), Jane Nelson of Lewisville, Tommy Williams of The Woodlands, and a Democrat, Judith Zaffirini of Laredo.
Rowling has recently moved from insider to outcast in the governor's political world. He's been a major donor, was part of the Governor's Business Council, and was one of the people Perry picked for the committee that revised the state's business taxes before a special session in 2006. But he recently showed up, prominently, as a supporter of U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's bid for governor in 2010. And he was one of several UT regents who supported Dr. Francisco Cigarroa over former state Sen. John Montford — Perry's favorite — for chancellor of the UT System.
Cinch It Up
Legislative leaders are asking most state agencies to trim 2.5 percent from their budgets — about $500 million — for the last year of the current two-year budget. That's the year we're in now.
In their letter, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus asked state agencies to cut the general revenue parts of their budget requests for fiscal 2009. Some programs won't be part of the cuts, including public education, acute care Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program, and debt service on outstanding debts.
Dewhurst told reporters that budgeteers are only concerned, at the moment, about spending in the fiscal year that ends in September. The budget after that — the same two-year budget — isn't in the mix. And agencies have the option, he said, of pushing spending planned for 2009 into the 2010 fiscal year and beyond. They hope to hear from the agencies within the next two or three weeks. The Senate Finance Committee is already working on the next budget; the members of the House Appropriations Committee have not yet been named.
This is the second round of letters from state leaders about the budget. Gov. Rick Perry and others asked the agencies last year (look here and here) to show where they'd make cuts if asked to do so. Those earlier efforts were directed at the next budget. The cuts they're talking about now would fall in the current fiscal year. In addition to cutting spending, this would lower the numbers used to figure spending limits for the next two years, which are based on current spending and an agreed-to growth rate. Lower current spending, and you lower the limit for next time.
Texas horse track owners and interests want lawmakers to allow slot machines at their tracks — a move they say would help keep the horse industry alive while boosting government income during tough economic times.
One of the Laws of the (Legislative) Universe is that you can't do this sort of thing without an economic study. They've got one (click here to download it) that says their proposal would create 53,000 jobs in Texas, create $6.8 billion in economic activity, and would also pump cash into the state treasury at about the same rate as the state lottery.
Recent state history would put the odds on that last claim at one-in-three. Legalizing bingo and pari-mutuel gambling did nothing for the state budget; creating a state lottery provides a relatively steady and relatively small stream of money into the state's coffers (it's about $1 billion annually, or about five percent of what the sales tax produces).
And then there's the issue of House Speaker Joe Straus, whose family owns part of Retama Park between San Antonio and Austin. Straus has said he'll keep his mitts off the gambling issue. He went further in a recent interview on Texas Monthly Talks, saying that having him in the chair is probably more a setback than a boon to his family interests in horses and tracks.
The group behind all of this is Texans for Economic Development, which showed up in the last couple of election cycles with a pile of cash and a goal of making the Legislature friendlier to gambling policy.
"They had a successful election strategy, and the makeup of the Senate and the House are such that they have the votes this time," said Mike Lavigne, a spokesman for TED. You take that and the economic situation right now, and the fact that the group pushing for it is more unified than it's been in the past."
They want lawmakers to approve a constitutional amendment that would allow video lottery terminals — better known as slot machines — at existing racetracks. That wouldn't expand the footprint of gambling, and since it wouldn't allow card games or roulette wheels and so on, it wouldn't turn the tracks into full-blown casinos. That "footprint" defense can be found in speeches from Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst over the last few years.
A constitutional amendment would skip the governor's office on its way to voters, and give lawmakers the chance to explain their vote as a choice for voters rather than as support for gambling. The same scheme got the lottery through the Legislature in 1991, and nobody lost in the next election as a result of that vote.
But there is opposition — the antis are led by Texans Against Gambling — and the issue makes lawmakers nervous. They approved the lottery, like bingo and pari-mutuel gaming before it, in the face of tight budgets and the threat that higher taxes might be the only way for the state to go forward. You can still find political folk who claim that the lottery was the only thing that prevented the state from adopting an income tax in 1991 (they might have also been looking at the polls at the time).
The Betting Window
After a spokesman for "racinos" said the industry was coming off a good election cycle in Texas, we took a look at their contributions.
Texans for Economic Development — a political action committee started by horse track owners who want lawmakers to legalize slot machines at their tracks — gave $1.4 million to 133 candidates over the last two cycles (2006 and 2008). Most of that — $1.2 million — was in 2008. And much of that — $674,600 — was spent in the primaries and runoffs last spring.
Big recipients include Reps. Doug Miller, R-New Braunfels, $91,505; Joe Moody, D-El Paso, $50,000; Charlie Geren, D-Fort Worth, $45,000; Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, $40,000; Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, $25,000; Kino Flores, D-Palmview, $21,000; Valinda Bolton, D-Austin, $20,000; Chris Turner, D-Burleson, $20,000; Allen Vaught, D-Dallas, $20,000; Diana Maldonado, D-Round Rock, $20,000; Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington, $20,000; and the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, $25,000. They bet on some losers, too, notably former Reps. Juan Escobar, D-Kingsville, $40,000; Kevin Bailey, D-Houston, $30,000; and Dan Barrett, D-Fort Worth, $20,000.
And their biggest splash? Last spring, the PAC spent $249,363 to Fero Hewitt Global, a political consulting firm, to pepper Reps. Betty Brown of Terrell, Phil King Weatherford, and Nathan Macias of Bulverde with opposition ads in the Republican primaries. Brown and King prevailed; Macias lost to Doug Miller, who went on to win the seat in November.
House Speaker Joe Straus' father, Joe Straus Jr., has contributed to TED, but his donations total less than $10,000 since 2006, when the PAC was formed. Retama affiliates, on the other hand, put $84,000 into the PAC in 2007 — money TED spent on candidates and campaigns in 2008.
Palin Pitches Perry
Gov. Rick Perry touts an endorsement from Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in a flyer sent to members of the Texas Federation of Republican Women.
Palin doesn't vote here, and Perry can't raise political money while the Legislature is in session. But the TFRW has been particularly fond of U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison during his career, and Perry's campaign wants to stay in contention for those votes. The mailer asks recipients to sign up as a Perry supporter and included a bumper sticker along with Palin's Pitch.
Senate Committee Assignments
The Senate has the same number of committees and subcommittees as before — 20. But there are some changes. There were 15 committees and five subcommittees last session; the number now is 18 and two as three of the subs blossom into committees of their own.
Agriculture and Rural Affairs is now a full committee; a subcommittee on related material, under Natural Resources, is gone. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls chaired both the old one and the new one. Business & Commerce is intact, but its subcommittee was replaced by a new Economic Development Committee chaired by Chris Harris, R-Arlington. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, is vice chairman. Higher Education is now a committee of its own, chaired by Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo. It had been a subcommittee to Education.
Now the juicy part: None of those new committees are in the rules approved by the Senate; they're standing committees created by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, with the same powers as regular committees but without definite two-year lifetimes. The Zaffirini chairmanship got senators stirred up behind the scenes, but they never got to vote on a rule that would create (or not create) the committee over which she'll preside. The difference is invisible from the outside, but the members of the Senate Club know about it.
Chair changes: Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, will head Administration, which had been chaired by Kim Brimer, who lost his reelection bid. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, is now vice chairman of education; Kyle Janek, also R-Houston, resigned last year. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, moves up to vice chair of finance; Zaffirini is still on the committee but got a committee of her own this time. Patrick will be vice chairman of the higher education committee. He's off International Relations and Trade; Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, is now the vice chair there. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, is the new vice chairman of Jurisprudence, replacing Hinojosa there. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, replaces Williams as vice chairman of State Affairs.
The two new senators — Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, and Joan Huffman, R-Houston — were the only two senators who didn't get either a chairmanship or vice chairmanship.
ADMINISTRATION, Williams, Chair, Uresti, Vice-Chair, Ogden, Shapiro, Wentworth, Whitmire, Zaffirini
AGRICULTURE & RURAL AFFAIRS, Estes, Chair, Uresti, Vice-Chair, Hegar, Hinojosa, Jackson
BUSINESS & COMMERCE, Fraser, Chair, Harris, Vice-Chair, Averitt, Eltife, Estes, Jackson, Lucio, Van de Putte, Watson
CRIMINAL JUSTICE, Whitmire, Chair, Seliger, Vice-Chair, Carona, Ellis, Hegar, Hinojosa, Patrick
ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT, Harris, Chair, Eltife, Vice-Chair, Deuell, Watson, Zaffirini
EDUCATION, Shapiro, Chair, Patrick, Vice-Chair, Averitt, Davis, Gallegos, Ogden, Van de Putte, West, Williams
FINANCE, Ogden, Chair, Hinojosa, Vice-Chair, Averitt, Deuell, Duncan, Eltife, Harris, Lucio, Nelson, Seliger, Shapiro, West, Whitmire, Williams, Zaffirini
GOVERNMENT ORGANIZATION, Ellis, Chair, Hegar, Vice-Chair, Huffman, Lucio, Nelson, Ogden, Whitmire
HEALTH & HUMAN SERVICES, Nelson, Chair, Deuell, Vice-Chair, Huffman, Nichols, Patrick, Shapleigh, Uresti, West, Zaffirini
HIGHER EDUCATION, Zaffirini, Chair, Patrick, Vice-Chair, Averitt, Duncan, West
INTERGOVERNMENTAL RELATIONS, West, Chair, Nichols, Vice-Chair, Gallegos, Patrick, Wentworth
SUBCOMMITTEE ON FLOODING & EVACUATIONS, Gallegos, Chair, Nichols, Patrick
INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS & TRADE, Lucio, Chair, Seliger, Vice-Chair, Davis, Estes, Fraser, Gallegos, Williams
JURISPRUDENCE, Wentworth, Chair, Gallegos, Vice-Chair, Carona, Duncan, Harris, Hinojosa, Watson
NATURAL RESOURCES, Averitt, Chair, Estes, Vice-Chair, Deuell, Duncan, Eltife, Fraser, Hegar, Hinojosa, Jackson, Seliger, Uresti
NOMINATIONS, Jackson, Chair, Eltife, Vice-Chair, Hegar, Nelson, Nichols, Shapleigh, Watson
STATE AFFAIRS, Duncan, Chair, Deuell, Vice-Chair, Carona, Ellis, Fraser, Harris, Jackson, Lucio, Van de Putte
TRANSPORTATION & HOMELAND SECURITY, Carona, Chair, Watson, Vice-Chair, Davis, Ellis, Huffman, Nichols, Shapiro, Shapleigh, Wentworth
VETERANS AFFAIRS & MILITARY INSTALLATIONS, Van de Putte, Chair, Shapleigh, Vice-Chair, Davis, Estes, Huffman
SUBCOMMITTEE ON BASE REALIGNMENT & CLOSURE, Shapleigh, Chair, Estes, Huffman
Averitt: C-Natural Resources, Business & Commerce, Education, Finance, Higher Education
Carona: C-Transportation & Homeland Security, Criminal Justice, Jurisprudence, State Affairs
Davis: Education, International Relations & Trade, Transportation & Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs & Military Installations
Deuell: VC-Health & Human Services, VC-State Affairs, Economic Development, Finance, Natural Resources
Duncan: C-State Affairs, Finance, Higher Education, Jurisprudence, Natural Resources
Ellis: C-Government Organization, Criminal Justice, State Affairs, Transportation & Homeland Security, Business & Commerce
Eltife: VC-Economic Development, VC-Nominations, Finance, Natural Resources
Estes: C-Agriculture & Rural Affairs, VC-Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Base Realignment & Closure, Business & Commerce, International Relations & Trade, Veterans Affairs & Military Installations
Fraser: C-Business & Commerce, International Relations & Trade, Natural Resources, State Affairs
Gallegos: C-Subcommittee on Flooding & Evacuations, VC-Jurisprudence, Education, Intergovernmental Relations, International Relations & Trade
Harris: C-Economic Development, VC-Business & Commerce, Finance, Jurisprudence, State Affairs
Hegar: VC-Government Organization, Agriculture &Rural Affairs, Criminal Justice, Natural Resources, Nominations
Hinojosa: VC-Finance, Agriculture &Rural Affairs, Criminal Justice, Jurisprudence, Natural Resources
Huffman: Subcommittee on Base Realignment & Closure, Government Organization, Health & Human Services, Transportation & Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs & Military Installations
Jackson: C-Nominations, Agriculture &Rural Affairs, Business & Commerce, Natural Resources, State Affairs
Lucio: C-International Relations & Trade, Business & Commerce, Finance, Government Organization, State Affairs
Nelson: C-Health & Human Services, Finance, Government Organization, Nominations
Nichols: VC-Intergovernmental Relations, Health & Human Services, Subcommittee on Flooding & Evacuations, Nominations, Transportation & Homeland Security
Ogden: C-Finance, Administration, Education, Government Organization
Patrick: VC-Education, VC-Higher Education, Criminal Justice, Health & Human Services, Intergovernmental Relations, Subcommittee on Flooding & Evacuations,
Seliger: VC-Criminal Justice, VC-International Relations & Trade, Finance, Natural Resources
Shapiro: C-Education, Administration, Finance, Transportation & Homeland Security
Shapleigh: C-Subcommittee on Base Realignment & Closure, VC-Veterans Affairs & Military Installations, Health & Human Services, Nominations, Transportation & Homeland Security
Uresti: VC-Agriculture & Rural Affairs, Health & Human Services, Natural Resources, Administration
Van de Putte: C-Veterans Affairs & Military Installations, Business & Commerce, Education, State Affairs
Watson: VC-Transportation & Homeland Security, Business & Commerce, Economic Development, Jurisprudence, Nominations,
Wentworth: C-Jurisprudence, Administration, Intergovernmental Relations, Transportation & Homeland Security
West: C-Intergovernmental Relations, Education, Finance, Health & Human Services, Higher Education
Whitmire: C-Criminal Justice, Administration, Finance, Government Organization
Williams: C-Administration, Education, Finance, International Relations & Trade
Zaffirini: C-Higher Education, Administration, Economic Development, Finance, Health & Human Services
Political People and Their Moves
The migratory pattern has changed in a small way, with a band of policy wonks leaving the Senate to work for new House Speaker Joe Straus. They'll announce a full list of hires in the next few days, but some names are out: Andrea Sheridan (education), Janna Burleson (criminal justice), and Shelly Botkin (environment), all from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst's staff, will join a team that's headed by Lisa Kaufman, who worked in the Senate before working for a tort reform group, and Denise Davis, who worked on the east side of the Pink Building before becoming House Parliamentarian. Straus also hired Craig Chick from the Texas Association of Realtors (former House and Senate aide), and Andrew Blifford, a budget analyst, from Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie. Jesse Ancira, who'll be general counsel, was a House creature before working for the State Auditor and then the Comptroller.
Kurt Meachum and Jerry Philips, late of the Texas Progress Council and the House Democratic Campaign Committee, respectively, are hanging out a lobby shingle. They're both House rats, working for Democrats there for the last half-dozen sessions.
Bryan Eppstein is busting his Fort Worth-based The Eppstein Group into four parts — each with a principal who's not named Bryan Eppstein. Michael Grimes is the new president and will head Capitol Alliance, which will do public affairs, public relations and lobbying. Keats Norfleet will run the Election Group, also based in Austin, working on political campaigns for candidates and causes. John Shults will head the Fort Worth-based Lighthouse Opinion Polling and Research, taking over the firm's survey business. Jonathan Rice is the lead name at the newly created RADAR Agency — a Fort Worth-based advertising firm. Eppstein says he'll be an advisor and strategist to all four companies, focusing on growth of the ad firm at first. He'll also stay involved with "select state officeholders" and work as a pollster and lobbyist for a couple of current clients. All four principals already work for the firm; Eppstein and Grimes say the new setup will let the units work together or separately, depending on the client.
Quotes of the Week
Gov. Rick Perry, speaking at a Texas Association of Business luncheon: "I'm very concerned about the tons of fish that our federal government is flinging at us in the form of bailouts."
Lydia Camarillo, vice president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, quoted in the Austin Chronicle: "I believe that in 2010, if you register a million Latinos in Texas, with another 400,000 African-Americans, at the top of the ticket a Democrat would win. It would be an Anglo Democrat with 1 million. With 1.5 million Latinos, at the top of the ticket any person of any color would win as a Democrat."
U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, telling the Fort Worth Star-Telegram what she thinks of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's endorsement of Perry over Hutchison: "I have no reaction whatsoever."
El Paso Republican Dee Margo, on the battle between Hutchison and Perry, in the El Paso Times: "I have allegiances to both sides. I just want to stay the heck away."
Texas Weekly: Volume 26, Issue 5, 9 February 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.