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A Week at the Zoo

Check your rear view mirror.

Check your rear view mirror.

Here, Gov. Rick Perry, raising the specter of secession without actually advocating it, raising his profile inside and outside these sovereign borders.

There, the Texas House — the Fight Club of Texas government — doing everything but roasting s'mores and singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" around the campfire.

All the while, the Senate was chugging away, ambitiously passing dozens of bills and sending them to an uncertain fate in the molasses factory on the other side of the building.

That was some piece of road. And the trip's not over.

House and Senate conferees — as soon as they are named — will start their budget parley. The House is banging away on real legislation now after weeks of relative peace and quiet and a remarkably slow pace.

The 19-hour debate on the budget gave members and their leaders their first real look at how the various factions line up, and on what issues. When they split on straight party lines, it'll be something close to a tie. That's been apparent since November. Other fault lines are just now starting to show. It's too early to lock this down, but when the House splits on lines of power (as opposed to party, or something else), the outties have 55 to 60 votes. The harmony during the budget debate — borne of a mutual pact to drop amendments that had fatal procedural flaws — helped members avoid partisan warfare and skirmishes left over from the speaker race at the first of the session.

Now look ahead.

Sunset legislation for the Texas Department of Insurance could be a battleground. The Senate passed its version after a series of 18-12 party-line votes (Chris Harris, R-Arlington, was out sick), with Republicans fending off Democratic amendments that would have, among other things, created an elected insurance commissioner and given state regulators more oversight over rates. Several House members ran on those issues, and the House numbers are closer than those in the upper chamber.

The Texas Department of Transportation's Sunset bill is in there, too, with toll roads and Spanish engineers and funding shortages and so on.

College tuition, admission, and weaponry, local transportation taxes and fees and projects, public school accountability, property tax reforms, franchise tax adjustments, eminent domain, clean air, windstorm insurance... all of that is still ahead as the final month approaches.

Keep Monday, May 11, in mind. That's the last day, in practical terms, that a House committee can report out a House bill or resolution and have any hope of success. That date also marks the beginning of a series of deadlines that dot the last three weeks of the session.

Labor Day in the Senate

The Texas Senate bucked the governor, voting out a bill that would change the state's Unemployment Insurance program in order to attract $556 million in federal stimulus funds.

Gov. Rick Perry opposes those changes, calling them strings that he fears will remain in place when the federal money is gone. Federal officials have said, in writing, that the state can change its UI program later, reverting to the current system when that money is gone. But they can't include an automatic reversion now. Perry and others fear the Legislature would never go back once it had made the benefits available to people who aren't eligible now.

"Ronald Reagan said that there's nothing more permanent than a temporary government program. I think that is a very wise statement and I will stand by that," Perry said.

The issue doesn't break on party lines, though all of the 'no' votes came from Republicans (GOP senators, however, split their votes). Some agree with the Guv. Others say the federal money lowers by $556 million the deficit taxes Texas employers will have to pay to keep the UI system going in a recession. The Texas Association of Business and the Texas wing of the National Federation for Independent Business are with Perry on this one; the Texas AFL-CIO, among others, thinks the state should make the changes and take the money.

The changes in eligibility will cost the state an estimated $70 million to $80 million annually, and the bill by Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, would create a commission to study the system to recommend any future changes. That's the means for a reversion to what's there now — or an overhaul in a few years.

And Perry, while solidly against taking the money, pulls up short when you ask if he'll veto the bill: "Oh that's so far down the road. I think we've got a lot of debating and discussing to do."

• The next skirmish for the People of Tort will be in the House; the Senate approved an asbestos claims bill supported by labor officials and trial lawyers and opposed by businesses that want to limit lawsuits. The bill in question — authored by Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, changes the standard for linking a cancer called mesothelioma to asbestos products. Texans for Lawsuit Reform and the Texas Civil Justice League say Duncan's bill makes it easier for victims to win those lawsuits; the Texas AFL-CIO and the Texas Trial Lawyers Association support the bill and say Duncan's proposed standard is fairer than the current one.

Texas Unemployment Rises Again

Unemployment rose to 6.7 percent in March in Texas, up from 6.5 percent in February and up from 4.6 percent in March 2008. The Texas Workforce Commission said 47,100 people lost their jobs in March, bringing the net job losses in Texas over the last 12 months to 106,500. Construction and manufacturing led the losses. The state gained jobs in trade, transportation and utilities, and in financial services. The lowest unemployment rate in the state was 4.3 percent, in Midland. The highest was in McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, at 9.5 percent.

Secede?

One in six Texans thinks it's a good idea, according to Rasmussen Reports.

In a new survey, the pollster found that 31 percent of Texans think the state has the right to take its basketball and go home, but that 75 percent think Texas should remain part of the United States.

The quickie survey was inspired by Gov. Rick Perry's comments at an anti-government "Tea Party" rally in Austin. Perry, as quoted by the Associated Press: "Texas is a unique place. When we came into the union in 1845, one of the issues was that we would be able to leave if we decided to do that. My hope is that America and Washington in particular pays attention. 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, who knows what may come of that."

Perry isn't backing off his main idea — that the feds are overreaching and that Washington (where his next opponent works) is screwing things up. But he says he's not promoting divorce, and isn't paying attention to the comics who found material in his comments: "I don't think Texas is going to secede. I don't think that we should.... Leno makes his own jokes and a lot of time, makes them up. I would suggest to you that they can make jokes about Texas. We'll continue to take their jobs."

The pollsters also took a peak at the coming race for governor (at least on the GOP side). Perry is viewed favorably by 55 percent of the voters. U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is viewed favorably by 67 percent. Republicans like both of them, the survey said: Perry got 78 percent, Hutchison 83 percent.

Sharp Ad: Secession is "radical, anti-American"

Former Comptroller John Sharp used the secession uproar as the subject of his first ad, available, apparently, only on the Internet.

The text: "During World War II, my father was shot in defense of the greatest country on Earth. And I proudly wore the uniform of a United States Army Reserve officer. So I'm offended when it becomes acceptable for anybody to talk about Texas leaving the Union. I'm running for the United States Senate because we need mainstream, common sense leadership to clean up the mess in Washington, D.C. — not a bunch of radical, anti-American rhetoric. I'm John Sharp, and you bet I approve this message."

The former comptroller isn't mentioning anyone by name, but the issue arose from comments Gov. Rick Perry made at taxpayer rallies last week. Perry says he doesn't think Texas ought to secede, but brought it up himself during post-speech interviews with reporters last week.

And Sharp manages to join Perry's swipe at Washington while stepping away from the secession talk. The ad's up on the Internet; it's not clear that it's running as a paid commercial anywhere.

He Likes It?

After 18 hours of debate and consideration of 225 amendments, the Texas House unanimously approved a $178.4 billion budget that's almost $4 billion smaller than one passed earlier by the Senate. They finished at about 4 o'clock Saturday morning. Next play: A conference committee to reconcile the two bills. The House voted down amendments on merit pay for teachers and publicly funded vouchers for private schools. And they added some things. The governor would lose money in the Texas Enterprise Fund if he decides not to take federal stimulus money for Unemployment Insurance. They voted to slash the governor's budget and use the money for veterans and the mentally ill.

Even so, the governor said lawmakers are on the right track. "Pretty good budget work, actually," Perry said. "Looking at it from 35,000 feet, I think they're some budgets we can work with it. Left to my own devices, I might have crafted them a little bit different."

He dismissed rumors that he's considering a veto of the budget with a special session to follow. That gossip was widespread a few weeks ago and persists today. " How many sessions have we been here? Since '85? Okay, how many times have we heard that statement, 'That's veto bait?' So, I'm sure there are people that are saying that, but again, I put that in the highly inflammable rumor category."

The House-Senate conference committee will have ten people on it, although the Senate asked — for the second session that we know of — to increase the numbers and have seven people from each side. On that issue, they'll use the House's number. Five each.

Don't Look Back

Neither of the two members of the Texas Railroad Commission looking hungrily at a possible opening in the U.S. Senate is up for election next year. Not now, they're not.

Both Elizabeth Ames Jones and Michael Williams can concentrate their political attention on their respective efforts to succeed Kay Bailey Hutchison when she leaves office. Jones isn't on the ballot until 2012, and Williams' term runs through 2014. But all that could change.

Replacing the three commissioners with one — elected every four years — is on its way to the full House. It would require a constitutional amendment that would be on the ballot as early as November. And that could demand political attention from Jones and Williams. On the other hand, it could provide a public platform for a couple of state officials seeking wider attention and recognition. Rep. David Farabee, D-Wichita Falls, is the sponsor; it's out of committee waiting for a spot on the calendar.

Another bill, by Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, would prohibit commissioners from running for office during their term at RRC. That one's still in committee waiting for a vote.

Regular Job Reviews

John Carona wants Texas Transportation Commissioners to answer to the Legislature every two years. The Republican senator from Dallas has a bill headed for the local and uncontested calendar (SB 1351) that would replace the commissioners' current six-year, staggered terms with two-year terms. And the terms would end on February 1 of odd-numbered years — while the Legislature is in session. All five commissioners would come up for Senate approval at the same time.

Flotsam & Jetsam

Sharon Keller goes on the grill next week, when a House committee considers a resolution calling for her impeachment. Keller is the presiding judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, and will face questions about turning away a death penalty appeal that came in after the 5 p.m. deadline. The inmate was executed a few hours later. The State Commission on Judicial Conduct will hold hearings this summer on the episode. The House will do it on Monday.

• A Senate committee approved an eminent domain bill similar to one vetoed by the governor two years ago. That legislation from Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, restricts government use of eminent domain for economic development (private sector) reasons. Agriculture groups, among others, have been pushing for it since a U.S. Supreme Court decision a few years ago. In his veto message two years ago, Rick Perry said that version created new causes of action for lawyers to pursue.

• Cities and counties are gearing up for the latest property tax battle. They oppose a bill that would set up automatic rollback elections when local governments raise taxes more than five percent. In current law, those elections are triggered when the rates rise more than eight percent and enough citizens sign a petition to force the rollback election. Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, got his bill out of committee this week.

The House, meanwhile, wants the state comptroller to test local appraisal values less frequently. The comptroller does an annual study to try to make sure local property values are properly set, since those values are tied to school taxes and the state's funding for public schools is based on how much money comes in from local property taxes. Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, and others say the state's annual study drives up values and forces tax increases on local property owners. He wants the state to review the local numbers every two years instead of annually.

• Unless leprechauns leave pots of gold laying around, the Texas Department of Transportation will have to forego maintenance to keep up with spending on new roads. The agency, in a friendly letter to the Senate (which asked for it), spells out the financial box it's in: Maintenance is already underfunded. Federal funding is only semi-reliable. Fuel taxes don't produce enough money to build the roads on the books. And state revenues aren't big enough to support the sale of all of the bonds voters have approved. The agency could have a $275 million difference between its plans for 2009 and 2010 and what's actually available.

• Vice President Joe Biden plans fundraising stops in Austin and Houston next week and will also visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline Center in Austin on that trip.

Something to Wet Your Whistle?

David Dewhurst wants to bring his own wine. John Sharp wants to be his sommelier.

The Senate Administration Committee veered from its normal duties to take up a liquor bill — approving a proposal (SB 2523) that would allow people to take their own wine into restaurants that already sell wine, to pay a corkage fee and to take whatever's left in their bottle home with them at the end of the evening.

That's an extremely local issue, at least for now: Lt. Gov. Dewhurst told senators he'd like to be able to take his own wines into local joints whose cellars don't include his favorites. The Lite Guv's staff says the bill was requested by the Texas Restaurant Association. The sponsor, Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, feigns ignorance about all of that.

But after word of the bill got out — the Associated Press was the first to report it — one of Dewhurst's former opponents — Democrat Sharp — sent some wine to his office. It's probably not the wine Dewhurst had in mind, though. He sent a note along with it.

House Democrats Spoof the Guv

After the tempest over Gov. Rick Perry's comments on secession (he brought it up without advocating it, but said you never know what Texans might do if they're not treated right by the federal government), Texas House Democrats ordered some t-shirts to commemorate the event.

Political People and Their Moves

Roger Williams picked up endorsements from Don Powell, an Amarillo banker and fellow George W. Bush supporter who headed the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. in the Bush Administration. Williams, who wants Kay Bailey Hutchison's job when she gives it up, also got nods from some former NFL Players: Cowboys Bob Lilly and Rayfield Wright, and Norm Bulaich, a TCU grad who played for Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Miami.

Dr. Alfred Gilman, a Nobel laureate at UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, will be the chief scientific officer of the state's new cancer research program. The school will be without a dean quickly; he plans to start the new job next month.

Laura Taylor is the new associate commissioner for accreditation at the Texas Education Agency. She's been at TEA for 16 years, and has been acting in her new job since November.

Gov. Rick Perry appointed three new members to the Texas Medical Board, and reappointed four more. The new members are Dr. Patrick Crocker of Austin, Houston attorney John Ellis Jr., and Dr. Wayne Snoots of Dallas. Reappointed: David Baucom of Sulphur Springs, Dr. Manuel Guajardo of Brownsville, Dr. Allan Shulkin of Dallas, and Houston attorney Timothy Turner.

Newbie: Genevieve Elizabeth Willett, born last week to Tiffany and [Supreme Court Justice] Don Willett. She's 7 lbs. 9 oz. Everyone's healthy.

Quotes of the Week

Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, during the budget debate: "That's the headline: Two days after governor says we ought to secede, House zeroes out the governor's budget."

Former Appropriations Chairman Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, commenting on the budget debate in the San Antonio Express-News: "There's a new sheriff in town. And it ain't us."

Gov. Rick Perry, on the pace this year: "I'm always frustrated with the speed of important issues, but that's how this place works. It goes through a sometimes cumbersome, sometimes frustratingly slow process, but we've still got 40 days left of the legislative session. That's plenty of time. I feel like Groundhog Day, answering the questions, because if you think about it, we always get down here to the last 40, 45 days of the session and 'Well, are we going to get anything done?' and it seems like we always do."

Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, arguing that an asbestos litigation bill would burden business, quoted by Texas Monthly: "Dow Chemical pays over a billion dollars... to help support our schools. Business has been good to Texas."

Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, trying to stop efforts to regulate teen use of tanning beds: "You're really going to change Friday night lights at the football game for all these cheerleaders and drill team girls."

Senate Nominations Chairman Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, on the thin support for Don McLeroy's appointment to be chairman of the State Board of Education, quoted in the Houston Chronicle: "It's my preference, if that is going to be the case, that we don't bring him forward. There's no sense in doing that."

Democratic consultant Jason Stanford, quoted in the Houston Chronicle on two of his party's gubernatorial hopefuls, Tom Schieffer and Kinky Friedman: "We've got two white guys collecting Social Security who say they like George W. Bush."


Texas Weekly: Volume 26, Issue 16, 27 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 biz@texasweekly.com. For news, email ramsey@texasweekly.com, or call (512) 288-6598.

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