Six weeks left. It's getting busy.
The governor is all over national TV talking about sovereignty and federal spending and stirring up the voters he hopes will come out next year and give him another term in office. He's also stirring up the opposition and effectively starting up the 2010 race for governor. Mark your calendar.
The Texas Senate is cranking out bills at something like its normal rate, sending hostages over to the House to wait in line behind House bills that haven't yet come up for a vote.
And the House is hitting stride, finally, popping out a supplemental appropriations bill that swells the current budget by $3.3 billion and setting the table for the 2010-11 budget.
Every session is weird in its own way. This time, it's been the lack of momentum, urgency, speed or whatever you want to call it.
For some, the argument over the state budget has come down to a provision prohibiting the use of public money for stem cell research. And others aim to cut the use of state money for family planning providers — in particular, Planned Parenthood affiliates.
The budget's got it all, though, and there's something for everyone to fight over: Unemployment insurance, highways, welfare, gambling proceeds, Rainy Day Funds, college funding, public education and textbook money, and on and on for $178.4 billion, or 903 pages, depending on how you'd like to count it. House members pre-filed 452 amendments, and set aside all of Friday and, if needed, the rest of the weekend to slog through it.
The rules: You can't add money unless you subtract at least as much. And you can't move money from one major section of the budget to another, say, from Education to Public Safety & Criminal Justice. Next stop: Settling almost $4 billion in differences between the House and Senate versions (the Senate's budget came in at $182.2 billion).
Tea, Con Carne
It was the kind of event Ron Paul supporters dream of having.
More than 1,000 conservatives of differing stripes showed up at Austin City Hall for the first of two "tea party" protests scheduled in the state's capital. Similar events were taking place in about 600 cities across America. Attendees toted an assortment of signs (more than a few recycled from Paul's run for President last year) against and for various causes, but one message summed up the sentiment of the crowd: "Big Gov't Sucks." (One man told us, "If you're not a right-wing extremist, you should be ashamed of yourself.")
A string of speakers — including incumbent Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Senate explorer Michael Williams — skewered federal pork and dished out red meat.
Dressed as if he had just gotten back from a fishing trip, or a seminar on populism, a ball-capped, light-jacketed Perry greeted the crowd as "true patriots," championed the economic accomplishments of Texas and disparaged "the folks in D.C. rampaging through the halls of Congress." He signed off with the signature valediction of former Democratic Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, "God bless Texas."
Perry's message at the rally (the first of three he was scheduled to attend across the state) could presage an argument in his GOP primary contest against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, assuming she runs. Perry's involvement in the tea parties is an example of his efforts to consolidate the conservative base of the Texas GOP and tap into an anti-Washington sentiment now in vogue among Republicans, says former Hutchison aide Matt Mackowiak, now a political consultant who assures us he doesn't have a dog in the Perry-Hutchison fight.
"He's obviously trying to align himself as much as possible with the positive energy at the tea parties," Mackowiak says. "But I don't see him appearing at a rally one day in April having much impact on an election on one day in March next year."
Texans for Fiscal Responsibility's Michael Quinn Sullivan, one of the event organizers, says Perry is brandishing his ideological guns.
"I can't help but think in some ways that the Governor has done something politicians are not supposed to do. He has stepped out and drawn a line in the sand, and said, 'These are the things I stand by and judge my terms by them,'" Sullivan said.
Hutchison, meanwhile, donned her writer's cap with an op-ed letter in the Austin American-Statesman touting her efforts in office to rein in the Democratic-controlled U.S. Legislature. That letter is indicative of the sort of message Hutchison will try to communicate in the next year, Mackowiak said.
The Perry-Hutchison matchup will probably be one of politics versus personality, he said, predicting that Perry will corner the conservative wing of the GOP, while Hutchison's strength will be in attracting moderate voters to cast their lots in the open primary.
Texas Democrats, whose gubernatorial contenders now include 2006 independent Kinky Friedman, were paying attention to Perry. Party chair Boyd Richie sent out a statement calling him hypocritical for posturing against federal spending while accepting billions in stimulus dollars. Additionally, Perry's rejection of $556 million in unemployment insurance funds would force a tax increase on small businesses, Richie said.
"If tea party attendees want to talk about "tax and spenders," they ought to be protesting against Rick Perry," Richie said.
Rep. Dan Gattis, R-Georgetown, disagrees with that characterization, saying, "I have to applaud Gov. Perry. From the beginning, he was an early critic of stimulus funds and bailouts coming out of Washington, D.C."
Gattis attended the Austin event because he believes in the cause, he said.
"The federal system has run amok. That is one of the reasons I joint-authored HCR 50 [reaffirming Texas' sovereignty under the 10th Amendment]," Gattis said.
There is "some immorality" to the idea of passing on the cost of the federal stimulus to subsequent generations of taxpayers, he said. "There is not a special money tree in Washington."
Railroad Commissioner Williams was a big hit. Crowd members booed on cue when he dropped names like George Soros, Michael Moore and ACORN. They cheered when he referred to God and Abraham Lincoln.
He lashed out at President Barack Obama, saying, "The President said he was for hope and change. I just hope he changes."
Williams also criticized the federal government: "The fact is, Washington, there would be no tea parties if you weren't spending like it's a bachelor party."
Now that the tea parties are over, what are attendees going to do? "That is the question," Sullivan said. "Getting together for a rally is fun, but the point has got to be continued engagement," he said.
Toward that end, Sullivan, Perry and Americans for Prosperity Texas director Peggy Venable urged crowd members to sign up via text message to receive more information.
One of the remarkable things about the tea parties is that no single entity was in charge of them, Sullivan said. The morning protest in Austin was the product of collaboration among TFR, Venable's group, the Young Conservatives of Texas, the Texas Libertarian Party and others. The Texas GOP got involved late, and they gladly welcomed its participation, he said.
"The crowd was excited about being positive about who we are in Texas, instead of just being against Washington," Sullivan said.
Things in Motion
The governor wants to turn down $556 million in Unemployment Insurance money from the federal government, but the Senate doesn't see it that way. That chamber voted 22-9 to "modernize" unemployment to meet federal stimulus guidelines to get that money. Opponents fear the state will get locked into a more expensive UI program. The feds have said the state can change back when the money runs out, but the Guv and others doubt the state would go backwards once a more generous program has been put in place. Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, and other supporters say the federal money will reduce the assessments on business for the insurance program and is well worth the $70 million to $80 million the changes add to the annual costs. All of the Senate's Democrats voted for the bill (one more vote is required to move it along); Republicans were split 10-9 in favor of it.
The Supreme Court has revisited its controversial ruling in Entergy v. Summers — a worker's compensation case. And there are signs the Lege doesn't like the way that went. The House Business & Industry Committee voted unanimously for HB 1657, which would rewrite that law to make it clear that premises owners don't share the liability protections given to contractors who have worker's comp insurance.
The Senate voted to "local option funding" to build local roads and that's on the way to the House. The 21-9 vote on Sen. John Carona's bill would allow local option gas taxes of up to 10 cents per gallon, and/or fees on vehicle registrations (including a new "road impact fee"), parking on government property, vehicle emissions, and driver's licenses. None of those things could take effect without a public vote in the affected areas. The locals would be barred from collecting more than they needed to pay for the projects they choose, and would have to stop collecting the taxes or fees once the projects were completed. The push for the bill started in the Dallas-Fort Worth area — Carona's home court — but would apply elsewhere as well. A constitutional amendment that would allow the money to go to road and rail projects — Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, carried that one — also passed. If the House likes that one, voters will have the final say.
The Senate okayed starting a new state law school in Dallas four miles from the private one at Southern Methodist University. If the measure passes, and gets funded by the appropriators, there will be a University of North Texas at Dallas College of Law in that city's downtown.
The People of Tort are warring over an asbestos/mesothelioma bill approved by the Senate. Short form: It changes the legal standards for linking asbestos in a product to the disease in a plaintiff. Labor and trial lawyers support the changes; the Texas Civil Justice League and Texans for Lawsuit Reform oppose them.
That's on the way to the House. That tentatively passed in the Senate and has to pass one more hurdle before it moves on to the House.
Mark Homer's HJR 53, which would replace the attorney general with the agriculture commissioner on the Legislative Redistricting Board, is out of committee and on the way to the full House. That's the five-member panel that draws political districts if the Legislature locks up and can't do so itself. Attorney General Greg Abbott declined invitations to testify on Voter ID legislation earlier in the session, reasoning that he might have to defend the state later and should stay off the playing field to avoid conflicts. Homer, a Paris Democrat, and Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, say he should stay out of redistricting for the same reason. The Lege will attempt to draw new congressional, Senate and House districts during its next regular session, which will follow the 2010 national census. The LRB currently includes the AG, the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the House, the comptroller and the land commissioner. All five (and the ag commissioner, too) are Republicans.
An ambitious and expensive pre-kindergarten bill that was languishing in spite of its adornments — more than 90 co-authors are signed on — is out of committee and on its way. Nobody seems to be against it, really, but two objections have slowed it. It's got a $300 million annual price tag. And while it would send money into the public schools, it would come with strings attached. School districts would rather have the money without the strings, so they can use it as they please instead of for a new program.
And a bill finally reached the governor for approval, more than 90 days into the 140-day session. Worse yet, it was one of the "emergency" bills Perry designated for consideration early in the session. The bill would allow utilities to raise rates through the Public Utility Commission to rebuild what they lost in last year's hurricanes.
Things at Rest
Gambling is easy to bet against this session, but there's a very interesting spreadsheet floating around — the bones of the omnibus gaming bill promised by Rep. Edmund Kuempel, R-Seguin.
It's not in bill form, as far as we know, but the highlights would include casino gaming allowed in six major markets and on three island locations, with licensing fees of up to $50 million per casino. They'd be taxed at five to 15 percent — higher rates for smaller developments and lower rates for big ones, to encourage economic development.
Video Lottery Terminals — called VLTs in the industry and slot machines by the rest of us — would be allowed in horse and dog tracks and in places now licensed for bingo. That last bit means VFW rooms and churches could get up to five VLTs for each license held. Elsewhere, VLTs would be based on the square footage given to gaming in a given location.
Gaming would be allowed in properties owned by the state's three Indian tribes: the Alabama-Coushattas, the Kickapoos, and the Tiguas (though concerns about the Tigua governor's rap sheet have raised political questions about gaming there). And gambling purses would be set at 12 percent and allowed to drop only after Texas surpassed total gambling in other states.
That said, it's difficult to find lawmakers — sponsors, even — who'll bet much on getting the two-thirds votes needed to pass a constitutional amendment expanding gambling.
If Texas passes a Voter ID bill, it'll have to be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal court under the Voting Rights Act. Texas is one of several states covered because of a history of racial discrimination, and has to have federal approval when it changes its election laws. The Texas branch of the ACLU asked the feds whether they'd have a say, and got a letter back saying it would have to be cleared like any other change.
Move Kinky Friedman from the "considering" square to the "exploring" square. He's looking at a second run for governor in 2010, this time as a Democrat. And he says he's serious this time, though he still wants to be funny (his letter is here). Friedman finished fourth in 2006, behind Rick Perry, Chris Bell, and Carole Keeton Strayhorn, running as an independent. This time, he says his heroes have always been Democrats, and says he'll support the Democratic nominee, whoever that turns out to be. Right now, he and Fort Worth businessman/lawyer/ambassador Tom Schieffer are the two names in the Democratic column. Friedman's treasurer is Abel Dominguez, a San Antonio attorney who helped in Democrat Victor Morales' campaign for U.S. Senate in 1996. And Friedman says he's getting advice from former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower.
Railroad Commissioner and prospective U.S. Senate candidate Michael Williams has a list of 1,600 people he says are supporting his bid to replace Kay Bailey Hutchison when she resigns or her term is up. A few names you might recognize: Ernie Angelo Jr. of Midland, Merrie Spaeth of Dallas, and Richard Collins of Dallas. Add a few who can't vote but support him anyway: Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, Lynn Swann, and J.C. Watts.
The details aren't available yet, but look at the totals: Former Comptroller John Sharp raised $2.5 million "in cash and loans" during the first three months of the year and Houston Mayor Bill White raised $1.8 million during that period.
Sharp wasn't dragging the sack until January; if you add in White's December numbers, they're about even: White's at $2.6 million to Sharp's $2.5 million. And it's not clear how much of Sharp's account is from supporters and how much is from loans. In the end, it's the total that matters; but at this point, it's important to know who's got supporters and who's got a checkbook.
The money might be accumulating, but there's no race yet. The two Democrats have their eye on the U.S. Senate position occupied by Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, who has her eye on the governor's post occupied by Rick Perry.
A new poll says Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is better known than former Comptroller John Sharp, who in turn is better known than Houston Mayor Bill White.
That survey, done by Global Strategy Group — a New York-based consulting and polling firm that has several Democratic and corporate clients — doesn't include any head-to-head results in a hypothetical race for U.S. Senate (at least none were released). But it tried to get a read on the "familiarity" of each candidate to voters. And incidentally, it was released to the press a couple of days in advance of the deadline for candidate campaign finance reports, a more reliable measure of how the competition is developing.
And the pollsters shanked White, saying he "appears to be a one-market candidate" who is better known than Dewhurst or Sharp in Houston but falls behind them everywhere else. They also tested some negative ideas about White and Sharp and conclude that White's the more vulnerable to attack.
Dewhurst, familiar to 55 percent of the voters surveyed, topped the list. Sharp got 41 percent, and White got 30 percent. The rest of the list: U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, 25 percent; state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, 25 percent; Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, 23 percent; Railroad Commissioners Michael Williams and Elizabeth Ames Jones, 11 percent and 8 percent, respectively; and former Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams, 9 percent. Granger has endorsed Roger Williams for that spot, should it open up.
Give Shapiro points for best spin, putting this headline on the results: "SHAPIRO HAS HIGHEST NAME ID AMONG ANNOUNCED GOP CANDIDATES." Dewhurst, see, hasn't said what he'll do.
The current occupant is Kay Bailey Hutchison, who's looking hard at a race for governor against fellow Republican Rick Perry.
Pollster Jef Pollock didn't return calls seeking comment. The survey was done March 30-April 1, included 603 "randomly selected voters" and has a margin of error of +/-4.0 percent.
Political People and Their Moves
U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton is leaving that post to pursue a job he hasn't named in the private sector. He was George W. Bush's criminal justice wiz in the Guv's office, then worked for Bush in Washington before winning the prosecution appointment here in Texas. Sutton was pilloried by conservatives for prosecuting a couple of rogue Border Patrol agents who shot a suspect and tried to hide the evidence and cover up the incident. In another case, Sutton helped send former Texas Attorney General Dan Morales to prison for a variety of financial crimes.
Mark Sanders is back on Carole Keeton Strayhorn's payroll, this time for the last month of her campaign for mayor of Austin. She's been mayor before — from 1977 to 1983 — and now that she's been a state insurance commissioner, railroad commissioner, comptroller, and (third-place) candidate for governor, she's making another run at the muni level. Sanders, a political consultant for nearly 20 years, was her primary political advisor for the last few years, hadn't been involved in the mayoral race until now.
James Huffines is the new chairman of the University of Texas System's board of regents. His colleagues elected him to replace Scott Caven Jr. of Houston; this is the second time since he came on the board in 2003 that he'll serve as chair.
Victor Alcorta now has a door with his own name on it. Alcorta — former policy director for Gov. Rick Perry and general counsel in the Secretary of State's office — has been at Thompson and Knight for seven years. The new shop is called the Alcorta Law Firm.
Former Public Utility Commissioner Karl Rabago has landed at Austin Energy — the city-owned electric utility in the capital. His portfolio includes "energy efficiency, climate, green buildings, key accounts, market research, and advanced vehicle initiatives."
The Fort Worth-based Eppstein Group won six "Silver Pollies" for political advertising and design, from the American Association of Political Consultants. That's that industry's version of the Oscars. The company (which entered under that name but has since reformed into four separate divisions) won for work for the Tarrant Regional Water District, the Texas Farm Bureau, Dallas Water Utilities, and for a wet-dry election in Mesquite. They also got three honorable mentions.
Deaths: Michael Heskett, who ran the state and local records division at the Texas State Library and Archives for years, of cancer. He was 64.
Quotes of the Week
Gov. Rick Perry, on federal stimuli, states rights, and secession, quoted by the Associated Press: "There's a lot of different scenarios. We've got a great union. There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that. But Texas is a very unique place, and we're a pretty independent lot to boot."
Democrat Tom Schieffer, currently exploring a gubernatorial bid against Perry: "Talk of secession would be laughable if it weren't mentioned in a serious way. Texas certainly can't withdraw from the world. We can't withdraw from America. We can't roll up into a ball and pretend problems don't exist. This is not the time to build walls between Texas and the world. This is the time to find workable solutions to the problems we face."
Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, on the same subject: "Talking about state's rights, the oppressive hand of the federal government and secession brings up some pretty bad memories in this state. It was not all that long ago that those were the exact words used by those who opposed desegregation and the civil rights movement. The top elected official in the second largest state with our history simply cannot be so loose with his comments. He's not a radio or cable TV talk show host."
Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, on the slow pace of the session, in the Houston Chronicle: "We had a record number of bills introduced. That's the bad news. The good news is that probably a record number of them will fail."
Former U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza, asked by Texas Monthly what he'd do if Kay Bailey Hutchison resigned her seat and Gov. Rick Perry wanted to appoint Garza: "My response would be, 'Rick, I live in Mexico City. It seems like an odd place to choose a U.S. senator from.'"
Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, on political squabbling at the State Board of Education, quoted in the Austin American-Statesman: "All I hear is that the Republicans want to push their religious views into the curriculum, and the Democrats want to teach our children how to masturbate."
SBOE member Pat Hardy, R-Fort Worth, on legislation that would strip the board of power, quoted in The Wall Street Journal: "As crazy as the Texas Board of Education is, there are just as many crazies, percentage-wise, in the state Legislature."
Texas Weekly: Volume 26, Issue 15, 20 April 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 email@example.com. For news, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (512) 288-6598.