The "county fair" section of the legislative session — the part at the beginning that's taken up with glad-handing and rattlesnake roundup demonstrations and mariachis and pre-schoolers and city and county and association "days" at the Capitol — is coming to a close.
All that stuff will continue, but lawmakers are actually starting to work on legislation and the daily sessions of the House and Senate will soon involve more than resolutions and ceremony.
There are less than 90 days left, and it's time to get busy.
The Senate's going first, relighting its partisan firecracker on Tuesday: They're planning to convene the Committee of the Whole and talk about requiring photo IDs of voters.
That legislation outrages Democrats and excites Republicans, and it's a Republican Senate. Using the COW to consider the bill is part of a design to tiptoe around the Senate's two-thirds rule; if that were invoked, Democrats would have the numbers to block consideration. This way, they don't. All they can do is try to amend it in their favor or to the disadvantage of the Republicans.
Once the thing's out of the Senate, it goes to the House, which has voted on it before. It'll be tight, though: The House has 76 Republicans, two of whom voted against the legislation two years ago (Delwin Jones of Lubbock and Tommy Merritt of Longview), and 74 Democrats, several of whom are in districts where a vote against voter ID — party loyalty or not — is politically perilous. The so-called WD-40s — white Democrats over 40 who represent conservative and mostly rural areas of the state — could find themselves stuck between local and party politics. (Think of pols like Joe Heflin of Crosbyton, David Farabee of Wichita Falls, Mark Homer of Paris, Chuck Hopson of Jacksonville, Allan Ritter of Nederland, and Jim McReynolds of Lufkin.)
Democrats are scrambling for amendments that would make the bill more palatable if they don't have the votes to block. One idea floating: Add same-day voter registration to the bill. That's where voters have the right to register to vote on the same day they cast their ballots, right up until Election Day. Like voter ID, it's popular with voters. Unlike voter ID, it's popular with Democrats and unpopular with Republicans.
The state's unemployment rate rose to 6.4 percent of the workforce in January, according to the Texas Workforce Commission. That's up from 4.4 percent in the same month of 2008, and up from 5.6 percent in December.
The U.S. rate is higher still, at 7.6 percent.
"The national economic crisis is beginning to have a serious, negative impact on our Texas economy," said TWC Chairman Tom Pauken in a press release on the new numbers.
TWC counted 797,000 unemployed Texans in January, as against 542,300 in January 2008 (those are not seasonally adjusted numbers). The December 2008 number: 667,900. The highest unemployment rates in the state were in border areas — Brownsville-Harlingen, at 9.5 percent, McAllen-Edinburg-Mission at 10.1 percent. In the biggest urban areas, Austin, Houston, and San Antonio were all below the state average — doing better than the state as a whole — while Dallas-Fort Worth and El Paso had higher than average unemployment rates.
There's more economic trouble outlined in the Federal Reserve Bank's latest Dallas Beige Book, which starts with this assessment: "Outlooks remain pessimistic, and many contacts expect little improvement through year-end."
Grab that Hand or Bite It?
A group of legislative Democrats called on Gov. Rick Perry to drop his objections to $556 million in federal unemployment insurance money, prompting his office to say the Guv hasn't made up his mind.
Perry is among the critics of federal stimulus money that comes with strings attached. In the case of unemployment insurance, the state would have to change the requirements it puts on out-of-work Texans seeking the help. If it does, more than a half-billion dollars would flow into a fund that's already $750 million in the red, but the changes would add an estimated $80 million to the program's annual cost. It's not clear that the state would be able to drop those requirements (and costs) when the federal money runs out.
The alternative isn't that hot: Either raise the unemployment insurance taxes paid by employers, or borrow the money to keep the fund in the black (debts that would be paid by employer contributions later). The taxes would have to rise even if the federal money is accepted by the state, but they'd be cut by the amount of federal aid: $556 million.
The Democratic lineup in favor of the federal aid included Rep. Jim Dunnam of Waco and Sens. Rodney Ellis of Houston, Eddie Lucio of Brownsville, Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso, Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, and Kirk Watson of Austin.
"Well, you heard six of us say it: Number one, take all of the money. Number two, spend the money wisely," Ellis said. "This money is to be used to stimulate the Texas economy — not to supplant projects we were already going to do anyway."
Perry has expressed his reservations about the federal money on several occasions, but a spokeswoman said he hasn't made up his mind about the unemployment insurance funds. "It's unfortunate that today some legislators decided to inject politics into the stimulus discussion," said Allison Castle. "Despite the tone of todays press conference and the fact that the governor has yet to make a decision, he looks forward to working with all lawmakers on this important issue to Texas families."
The economy stinks and unemployment is rising, but it's a good time to be a trained auditor. Lookit:
The House's special committee on the federal spending package opened a "Texas Stimulus Fund" website to track the money that comes through the state government. That's actually only a fraction of the Texas-bound funds. The numbers have been a little squishy, but the latest estimates are that $16.7 billion in aid will go through the state government while a like amount comes into the state in the form of tax cuts for individuals and businesses. Almost $11 billion will be available to state and local governments through grants for programs like transportation, utility and water infrastructure, environmental and medical programs, and weatherization.
State Comptroller Susan Combs opened a spot on her website to make the stimulus spending transparent. It's detailed, too. As this was written, the site had a 23-page spreadsheet on the federal money and the state breakdowns, where available. She's promising to update that as things develop.
Texas will be one of 16 states targeted for bimonthly reports on stimulus spending by the federal Government Accountability Office. That agency got $25 million to watch the money, and they've worked up a list of states — California and Florida are among the others — that they'll keep an eye. The first report on that front is due in April.
And the State Auditor's Office is putting on its watchdog suit so it'll be ready to count the pennies that have gone through Texas to make sure they're going to the right places. SAO thinks the feds will want quarterly reports — this is apparently in addition to the GAO stuff, above — and that Texas lawmakers might expect the same. And they think the feds will want separate accounting for all of the state's ARRA funds (the official name of this thing is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act).
The battle over transportation money in that package raged this week, with the Texas Department of Transportation basically making its own decisions about how to spend the money and the Legislature railing about the amount that's going to projects that support toll roads. The approval of TXDOT's plans appears to belong not to state lawmakers, but to the federal transportation folks who have to sign off on the Texas plan before they'll cut a check. Some of the objections from Texas lawmakers made it into the TXDOT package, notably, an acknowledgement that the spending targets economically distressed areas, among other things.
Solar and wind energy proposals are stealing the show this Legislative session. Meanwhile, off the main stage, deals are in motion to make a former power source of the future — nuclear — an even more significant part of Texas' energy portfolio. But those plans could change amid environmental concerns and showdowns between corporate giants.
Nuclear power is the third-leading source of electricity in Texas, after natural gas and coal. In November 2008, natural gas and coal plants each produced about 40 percent of the state's electricity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Nuclear was next with 13 percent; about five percent came from wind and solar. Proponents of nuclear power argue that reactors are reliable, proven sources of electricity that are free from carbon pollution.
Texas now has two nuclear plants — the 2,725-megawatt South Texas Project near Houston, and the 2,300 MW Comanche Peak facility near Dallas. (By comparison, the City of Austin recently decided to build the world's largest solar panel array, at 30 MW, for about $250 million.)
Sen. Glenn Hegar, D-Katy, represents an area encompassing STP and a proposed Victoria County nuclear plant. Texas legislators are limited in what they can do to advance nuclear energy, compared to wind or solar, he says.
Nuclear power "is more of a federal issue than state. The most important thing the Legislature can do is continue to provide regulatory certainty in the restructured wholesale market," Hegar says.
Nuclear power "isn't a big part of my own personal agenda," said Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, chair of House Technology, Economic Development and Workforce. It's not that Strama's against nuclear power, he says — it's just that solar energy is more relevant to his district.
Perhaps the reason for state legislators' silence on nuclear power (no bills have been filed so far this session directly addressing the topic) is they consider their mission already accomplished.
"Didn't we do that last session with the decommissioning bill?" said an incredulous Janice McCoy, chief of staff for Senate Business & Commerce chair Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay. That legislation set up a funding mechanism for decommissioning nuclear plants in Texas' deregulated electricity market, effectively enabling the building of new reactors in the state.
Since that bill became law, applications for three projects in Texas have been submitted for federal approval. If all are okayed, the state's nuclear power production would triple in the next decade or so (A rule of thumb is that it takes about 10 years to go from application to functioning nuclear facility):
Two new towers at STP would add an extra 2,700 MW of capacity. NRG (44 percent), CPS Energy (40 percent) and Austin Energy (16 percent) own the two existing towers. The new towers would be owned by CPS and Nuclear Innovation North America, a joint venture between NRG and Toshiba Corporation.
Two new towers at Comanche Peak would add an extra 3,400 MW of capacity. The plant is owned by Luminant, formerly part of TXU Corp. Luminant (88 percent) and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (12 percent) would own the two new towers.
Exelon might build a brand-new plant in Victoria, consisting of two towers with a combined capacity of about 3,000 MW. Exelon will soon announce details on technology and capacity of the towers, said Bill Harris, a company exec. In 2010, Exelon will announce if it will pursue the project, Harris said.
Also, Amarillo Power and UniStar Nuclear Energy are pondering a two-reactor plant "at an undisclosed location near Amarillo," according to the Amarillo Globe-News.
None of those projects is a done deal, as corporations contend with a nationwide dearth of capital funding and opposition from grassroots groups. Texans for a Sound Energy Policy Alliance, formed by a wealthy land-owning family in Victoria to fight the proposed Exelon plant, contends that the Guadalupe River isn't an adequate source of water for a nuclear facility.
"The group is not anti-nuclear," executive Director John Figer says. "We're more site-specific about the proposed nuclear plant in Victoria County."
Echoing Figer's water worries is Karen Hadden, executive director of the statewide Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition. She also cited radioactive waste, radioactive leaks, security concerns and monetary cost as major problems with nuclear plants.
"Texas has such a wealth of wind and solar potential that it makes no sense to pursue nuclear, which is a really an energy form of the past," Hadden said.
Activists aside, the energy companies themselves might stand in the way of new nuclear production. Exelon has been attempting to take over NRG, which recently announced it will acquire Reliant's retail electric provider business. It's not clear that Exelon would pursue its Victoria plant if it successfully buys NRG (along with NRG's stake in STP).
After the NRG-Reliant announcement, Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, sent out a letter saying the transaction thwarts the intent of electricity deregulation legislation. Turner is calling for a Public Utilities Commission of Texas review of the deal.
Schieffer Jumps In
Former U.S. Ambassador and Texas Rep. Tom Schieffer says he's formed a committee for an exploratory run for governor. He said Texans are worried about the economy, education, health care, and "the effects of a state government that has become more ideological, more narrow and more partisan than it needs to be."
The Fort Worth businessman says he's been encouraged in early conversations with friends and fellow pols and wants to extend the inquiry to voters. If they're amenable, he'll drop the "exploratory" and run a full campaign for the Democratic nomination.
Schieffer was a Democrat in the Texas House, but says he voted for George W. Bush for governor and for president because "he is my friend and business partner." The two were in a partnership that owned and operated and then sold the Texas Rangers Baseball Club. And Bush appointed Schieffer as U.S. Ambassador to Australia and, later, to Japan. Bush ran against Democrats Ann Richards, Garry Mauro, Al Gore, and John Kerry; Schieffer said he voted for Bush each time. He also said, however, that he's given more money to Democrats than to Bush, and that he voted for Barack Obama both in last year's primary and in the general election. And he said he ignored several opportunities to switch parties and become a Republican.
No Obligation Trial Offer
Legislators who want to run for governor don't have to resign to do so, and don't have to resign if they're "exploring" such a run, either.
Attorney General Greg Abbott says neither the law nor the constitution prohibits it, so it must be legal.
The question in this case originated with Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, who has said on several occasions that he'll run for governor if the Legislature doesn't crack down on undocumented aliens living and working in Texas. But it could affect others; Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, says she'll take a look at a run for governor once the session ends in three months.
Berman had asked if a resignation was required if a House member declared for Guv in the first year of his or her two-year term. It doesn't matter when they run or explore or declare, according to Abbott: They're not required to quit the Legislature.
Former legislator Toby Goodman didn't break the law by using campaign funds to rent an Austin residence owned by his wife, a court rules.
State ethics officials accused Goodman of breaking laws that are supposed to prevent elected officials from enriching themselves with campaign funds. Goodman, relying on an official opinion from the Texas Ethics Commission, paid market-rate rent to his wife for a property that she owned separately from him.
And now state district Judge Randy Catterton of Fort Worth says Goodman was following the law because he relied on the TEC opinion, because there was no argument that he owned a share of the property himself, because the rent wasn't at an above-market rate, and because state officials didn't show that any of the rent money actually went to pay the mortgage on the property (a mortgage that included Mr. Goodman's name).
The judge issued a summary judgment — attached here — last week.
Worst Face Forward
While the U.S. Supreme Court mulls the link between campaign contributions and judicial decisions, a new study posted by the Center for Public Integrity tracks the phenomenon in several states (including Texas) and concludes that there is sometimes a correlation between contributions to a judge's campaign and how the judge decides cases.
Wallace Jefferson, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, has joined the ranks of Texas judges who want to unlink campaigning and judging and any appearances of conflicts; lawmakers are making a fresh attempt at judicial selection reform.
In the meantime, this new study includes this zinger in its abstract: "While we do not find any evidence of a relationship between contributions and the votes of judges in Nevada, it does appear that there is a quid pro quo relationship between contributors and votes in Michigan and Texas." And this one: "While we only examine three states and one year here, the results suggest that there may be circumstances where the appearance of impropriety surrounding campaign contributions and judicial decision-making may be an empirical reality."
They didn't cite particular opinions where the state's high court rewarded contributors. Instead, they're relying on statistical analysis based on the outcomes of cases and the contributions from the lawyers and parties involved.
What they didn't find: Whether decisions follow dollars (corruption) or dollars follow decisions (political philosophy). That, according to the authors (Chris Bonneau at the University of Pittsburg and Damon Cann of Utah State University), needs more study.
Google Me, and Other Stories
Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, filed a bill that would make it illegal to "publish through the Internet, or cause to publish through the Internet, an image capable of zooming into greater detail than that of an aerial photograph taken without a magnifying lens 300 feet or higher of private property not visible from the public right-of-way." No closer, for instance, than this.
The company that runs Lone Star Park — that's the horse track in Grand Prairie — filed for bankruptcy, but the actual owners of the track told The Dallas Morning News they'll open for racing next month, as planned. Magna Entertainment Co. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Ted Cruz, the state's former solicitor general, now has a website where he can collect names of supporters and giving them information and all that. He hopes to seek the Republican nomination for attorney general if his former boss, AG Greg Abbott, leaves that post to run for U.S. Senate or something else.
The National Journal's rankings of congress from most conservative to most liberal is out (and on the free part of their website, too). Some highlights: U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Dallas, came out in a three-way tie for most conservative member of the House. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, was the most liberal member of the Texas delegation and ranked 13th overall in the 435-member House. On the Senate side, Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison is 20th most conservative, and John Cornyn ranks 17th.
The Houston Chronicle asked the state what it paid employees in 2008 and made a must-see searchable database of it. We typed "executive director" into the blank for job titles, and found two agency heads making over $200,000, a couple more making less than $200,000 but more than $150,000, and another 22 making between $100,000 and $150,000. Same game, with the "commissioner" title: One over $200k, seven under $200k and over $150k, and 19 more between $100k and $150k. And if you just search for the highest salaries, you'll find 16 people making more than $250,000 on the state payroll, led by Thomas Harris, chief investment officer at the Teacher Retirement System, at $434,680; 11 of the 16 are doctors and psychiatrists who work for the state.
Gov. Rick Perry will have Tony Garza's support in his race next year against Kay Bailey Hutchison. Garza told Texas Monthly he'll stick with the incumbent.
By the Census Bureau's reckoning, one in five adult Texans didn't finish high school — roughly 3 million people. About half of those didn't make it to ninth grade. And the Texas Education Agency reports that 55,306 students dropped out in 2006-07 — the most recent numbers available. That's got lawmakers talking about career and technical education programs (what were until recently called vocational education) in and after high school. The idea is that some folks just don't want or need to go through traditional college classes or college prep. Several pieces of legislation from Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, and others would reward high schools that offer CTE courses that sync with college and the job market. Other legislation would set up college and junior college training for adults who need technical and/or remedial classes.
The two lawmakers — who chair the public education committees in each house of the Lege — also want to replace high-stakes standardized tests in elementary and high school with a series of end-of-course and other tests that measure progress along the way. They've got support from the Texas Association of Business and some other groups. Teacher groups are more skeptical. The Texas Federation of Teachers say there's still too much reliance on standardized tests.
Political People and Their Moves
Former Rep. and utility lobbyist Curt Seidlits is starting a new public affairs firm he says will combine traditional lobbying and consulting with the Internet and new media tools. The firm — Focused Advocacy — will be based in Austin. Seidlits was at the former TXU for more than a decade.
Becky Moeller was elected president of the Southern Region of the AFL-CIO and keeps her gig as president of the Texas AFL-CIO. The new duties include serving on the union's general board.
Robert Peeler joins the Austin office of the El Paso-based Kemp Smith law firm, where he'll work on legislative and regulatory issues. The former UT football player was chief of staff to Sen. Mike Jackson and has had his own law practice for the last couple of years.
Getting hitched, no date set: Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Patricia "Trish" Bivins, the ex-wife of former Sen. Teel Bivins of Amarillo.
Recovering: Former First Lady Barbara Bush, after heart surgery in Houston. Doctors replaced her aortic valve and expect to let her out of the hospital in a week or so.
Deaths: Jamie Hager Clements, billed as the youngest pol ever elected to the Texas House (at age 20), and a former mayor of Temple, and the top attorney for Scott & White, at age 78.
Quotes of the Week
Gov. Rick Perry, talking about the Mexican drug wars, quoted by the Newspaper Tree (El Paso): "The issue of how long this will last I think is really directed more to the federal government of the United States and if they're going to engage in a substantial way. I think this could be put to bed rather quickly. When you think about the number of billions of dollars the United States government has committed to a war in Iraq and a war in Afghanistan, a very small amount of that directed to this war against these drug cartels could end that war very quickly."
Democrat Tom Schieffer, asked whether he'll self-finance any or all of his bid for governor: "This is not an ego trip for me and I think you have to go to people and try to find support, and if you can't find that kind of support, that tells you something. So I'm going to try to raise the money."
Schieffer, on voting for George W. Bush twice for governor and twice for president: "He was my friend and he was my business partner, and I kind of put a little special niche in there for friends."
Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, urging Gov. Rick Perry to accept federal stimulus money for unemployment insurance: "I don't pay my federal income taxes to send the money to Wisconsin."
Chris Lippincott of the Texas Department of Transportation, disputing a House chairman's assertion that federal highway funds are supposed to favor economically distressed areas, quoted by the Associated Press: "I'm not sure Representative Dunnam understands what the law says. Federal law can be complicated."
Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, quoted in the Washington Post on the demise of The Rocky Mountain News: "Even when they were uncovering corruption in the city, even when they were embarrassing us or causing us discomfort, they were making the city better. It's a huge loss."
Rep. Susan King, R-Abilene, promoting vocational education: "If you're not college material, it doesn't matter. You're something material."
Texas Weekly: Volume 26, Issue 9, 9 March 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.