This is the season when the Legislature's power wanes and the governor's power waxes.
The lawmakers are within a few days of leaving town until 2011. The governor's veto power is now irreversible, and it continues that way for another 20 days after the end of the session.
The calendar is built to put Rick Perry in an ideal deal-making mode: Bills are piling up on his desk and there's just a little time to fix things the way he wants them. He's got the power to call weary lawmakers back for a special session on any subject he chooses — or not to call them back in the rare instances when they want to return.
Perry has been working the floors in each chamber, and used the calendar, and the threat of a special session, to break legislative gridlock on windstorm insurance. It's not clear yet what'll happen, but the legislation is no longer stuck in committee.
The calendar and the Guv's wishes came into play in the reconciliation of House and Senate budget plans. Lawmakers put more money into transportation and undid some raids on transit funds at Perry's insistence, for instance, and Perry worked to save his discretionary accounts for economic development as the budget was finalized.
When it comes to appointments, the Senate's say in who's running the executive branch for the next two years is ebbing. An appointee named in the first week of June doesn't have to face Senate confirmation until next session; in fact, an appointee could be in place until the end of next session, two years from now. Controversial nominees who haven't already been named won't be named while the Lege is in town — not if the Guv wants them to serve, anyway. Controversial appointees who've already been named — like SBOE Chair Don McLeroy of College Station and Pardons & Paroles nominee Shanda Perkins of Burleson— have to win Senate consent before the Lege is gone or they're effectively busted.
This lasts about a month (barring a special session). After the last bill either has been vetoed, signed, or allowed to slip onto the books without a signature, the governor's power falls to its normal level. The Legislature will be gone. State agencies and lobbyists and business people and citizens will sort out what's been done.
And the 2010 political season will begin in earnest.
It's not completely weird to stop in the middle of the calendar at this time of a legislative session, but it's definitely weird to stop in the middle of a bill. Or two bills.
That's what the House did Thursday, stopping for the night with two bills open. Major bills, too. They were halfway through legislation revising the Top 10 rule that determines who can — and can't — get into the state's biggest schools. And they were considering that bill after bogging down in the middle of legislation changing the state's unemployment insurance law to bring more people into that system and attract $556 million in federal stimulus money.
That also pushes back consideration of what many think will be the two toughest bills of the month in the House: One that would require photo ID of anyone trying to vote in Texas, the other an omnibus insurance bill that could change how Texas regulates prices and policies in property and casualty insurance. Austin-based Texas Watch is battling the insurance companies on that, pelting voters in swing districts with robo-calls urging them to urge their legislators to "require insurance companies to justify their rates, pay reasonable medical expenses, and offer standardized policies."
The real deadline to keep in mind is Tuesday, May 26. That's the last day the House can consider Senate bills. After midnight Tuesday, most of the action will be in the various conference committees trying to settle differences between the House and Senate versions of legislation. One other rule to watch: To be eligible for House consideration on Tuesday, a bill has to be on the calendar, which has to be set by Sunday night. Anything in committee at that point will require the assistance of Harry Potter, or Captain Kirk, or Bart Simpson: Magic, force, or trickery.
The Only Bill that Must Pass
The next state budget is in the last stage before completion and the tax cut for small businesses is on the bubble.
The House wants to give businesses an exemption on their first $1 million in earnings — an idea that would free about 39,000 businesses from the corporate franchise tax. But it would cost the state $172 million, and some of the folks in leadership see shadows over that money.
Negotiators from the House and Senate settled about $3.8 billion in differences between the bills approved by the two houses (the Senate was higher) and sent their bill to the printer so the Legislature can bless it next week — after the next big deadline on Tuesday. Whether you buy those new numbers or not, they're tamping down expectations about the money available for the next two years, and the talk about the corporate franchise tax cut is part of that.
Several financial objects are still in motion. Comptroller Susan Combs has told the folks in the Pink Building that she won't change the estimates of revenue she made at the beginning of the session. This year's corporate franchise tax returns were due last Friday and are still coming in; her aides say they don't yet have a bead on whether those payments are on, above, or below the mark. But consider the revenue box checked.
The unemployment insurance bill passed earlier this year by the Senate — it would bring in $556 million in federal stimulus money while making changes to UI that would cost the state $70 million to $80 million a year — was in limbo as we hit our deadline — the House had brought it up, started amending it, and then set it aside overnight with plans to take it up on Friday. It's worth noting that that's too late on the calendar for the Legislature to override a gubernatorial veto, if there is one.
The finance folks want to get the budget set before they take up the business tax. The UI bill, opposed by Gov. Rick Perry, might never get to his desk. It might also be trade bait: Perry opposes the UI package but supports the tax cut. Together, the two bills would save business taxpayers $728 million over the next two years.
Perry, talking to reporters, said his feelings about the UI bill are well known. He stopped short of saying he would veto the measure if the House, like the Senate, approves it. But he didn't offer much comfort to its supporters: "I wouldn't want to be a member voting to let Washington, D.C., tell us how to run our business in Texas. I just think the people of the state of Texas have that one figured out now. Texans know how to run Texas better."
There is still time to fool with the numbers. The appropriations bill — which will come in at around 900 pages — is being printed and is cumbersome to change. But there's a supplemental budget bill that can survive tinkering until the last days of the session, and it's the one to watch. Among the items in play is a pay raise for state employees.
Out of It
A federal investigation of Texas' State Schools for the mentally retarded will end; the U.S. Department of Justice has agreed to a $112 million settlement that includes regular monitoring of the schools by independent experts, enhanced oversight and new guidelines for employees.
The Legislature has to adopt resolutions — being drafted now by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, and Rep. Patrick Rose, R-Dripping Springs — accepting the terms of the deal. The agreement (see a summary here) follows disclosures of abuses of residents by state employees and others and comes as lawmakers are finishing reforms designed in part to regain control of the institutions.
In legislation moving this week, lawmakers added video surveillance; better background checks, drug testing, and training of employees; and an ombudsman's office to handle complaints. As they often do after a scandal, they've proposed changing the name of the facilities from state schools to "state-supported living centers." It also would house the highest-risk residents in one of the schools rather than scattered throughout the system.
A local option transit tax caught a ride on the Senate's version of a major transportation bill, adding to a legislative traffic jam that separates that version from one passed earlier by the House.
The Senate's Transportation Committee voted out the sunset bill for the Texas Department of Transportation, sending that to the full Senate for a vote — maybe this weekend — and then on to a deadline negotiation with the House.
We'd make it about even odds that no bill passes and that the TXDOT bill is back in two years, when lawmakers will also be busy with other abrasive materials like redistricting and an expected budget shortfall.
At this point, the bills are different from top to bottom. The Senate wants to keep the appointed board at TXDOT; the House wants to do away with it. The Senate would leave the final decisions on funding for road projects with the state; the House would cede that power to local officials. The House creates a legislative oversight committee to babysit the agency; the Senate doesn't. The list goes on, but you get the idea (and the Senate's not through yet).
Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, started the game as one of the transportation agency's harshest critics, but now finds himself siding with the agency on governance and financial issues. He'd prefer to have appointed commissioners with the final say over how the state's transportation money is spent. The House bill belongs to Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, but Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, is riding shotgun and is an advocate of letting local officials make the decisions (see the bit about federal transportation folks after this story).
Now they've got something else to fight over. Just before sending the bill to the full Senate, Carona's committee added in another piece of legislation that would allow local boards to ask local voters to approve higher gasoline taxes to pay for local transportation projects. It would be limited to the state's larger metropolitan areas; one supporter referred to that as a "pilot project," though it would apply to Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, Austin, El Paso, and Corpus Christi. House conservatives — including Isett — think that's spinach. He says he'll strip the provision out of the bill if it survives the full Senate.
That gasoline tax legislation is also on the House's calendar for this week, but got delayed until the Senate has had a poke at that sunset bill.
Separately, state finance folks have apparently sorted out a mess in the transportation section of the proposed two-year budget. At one point, their forays into Fund 6 — the main source of transportation funding in the budget — would have left TXDOT without enough money to pay bonds (sold less than a year ago at the urging of the Guv, the Lite Guv, and the Speaker) and left the agency short of funds for new projects, and of the general revenue money that's used to attract federal matching dollars. That SNAFU is one of several that kept the budget negotiations open past midweek.
Federal highway officials have reservations about local control of highway dollars in Texas — the subject of that sunset legislation pending in the Pink Building. At issue is a section of HB 300 — the Texas Department of Transportation sunset legislation. The feds sent a letter detailing their worries; the main one seems to be that control of federal highway dollars would be in local hands rather than in state hands. And the feds aren't wild about that. "TXDOT has the responsibility to ensure the connectivity and consistency of federal projects from one region to another," they wrote. "If project selection rests with [local boards], it is unclear how projects that cross jurisdictional boundaries will be coordinated and implemented."
Grades, Greenbacks and Guns
Coming this fall to a Texas college near you: Students with less stellar high school grades, with money in their (parents') pockets, and with guns on their hips.
It's not the next Robert Rodriguez movie enabled by new state film incentives, but the result of three higher education bills that have received Senate approval and await nods from the House. One would loosen the rules that require schools to give preference to students in the Top 10 percent of their high school class. Another would reregulate tuition at state schools. And the third would allow licensed students and others to carry handguns on campus.
Senate Bill 175 by Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, would let colleges limit the number of students admitted under the Top 10 rule. The House started work on that but quit for the night with the bill still on the operating table.
The rule was passed in 1997, following a U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing affirmative action in college admissions. In 2003, the court decided that colleges could use race as one factor in admissions. The rule has been credited with removing disparities in admission rates between students from rural and urban areas.
The powers that be at the University of Texas at Austin have been pushing for a rule change for several sessions, saying the growing number of automatically admitted freshmen is squeezing out other students they would like to admit.
About 40 percent of enrolled UT-Austin freshmen from Texas high schools were admitted under the rule when the law first took effect in 1998. Today, that number is about 80 percent. (Although the population of Texas has grown by about 20 percent since 1998, the number of enrolled Texans at UT-Austin has remained relatively steady, from 6110 freshmen in 1998 to 6322 in 2008.)
"Without a change, one of out state's top universities will soon lose discretion over the makeup of its freshman class," says House sponsor Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, chair of the Higher Education committee.
At Texas A&M-College Station, the state's other Tier One public university, about half of fall 2008 incoming freshmen were admitted automatically.
Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, pushed successfully for a floor amendment that allows Top 10 Percent students to keep their "automatic admission tickets" to universities for three years, allowing a student to attend community college before going on to the four-year college of his/her choice. Bonnen says his idea will assist students who cannot afford a four-year college right away, or whose parents want them to stay at home for a while after graduation. "I think it will create significant diversity," he says.
SB 1443 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, limits colleges' ability to set their own tuition rates. The bill prohibits the state's major schools from hiking tuition and fees by more than five percent a year. Some schools would not be able to raise tuition at all, pending approval from a legislative study group.
It also encourages state lawmakers to provide adequate amounts of money to colleges, in recognition that chronic underfunding is what led to tuition deregulation in 2003, and the price increases that followed. As we went to press, that one was pending in the House Calendars Committee.
So-called "campus carry" legislation, SB 1164 by Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, lets concealed handgun license holders over the age of 21 carry firearms on college campuses. As written, the bill applies to both public and private universities, which then could independently choose to opt out of the law.
Wentworth is worried about time running out on his bill, which cleared the Senate on Wednesday, but he is optimistic about its chances in the House because he made changes to his bill to match it up with companion House Bill 1893 by Rep. Joe Driver, R-Garland. Driver's bill passed a House committee and attracted more than 75 coauthors before dying when the deadline for House bills passed last week.
The arithmetic looks good, at least. Driver says he had 79 House coauthors on his campus carry bill, but several dropped off after feeling pressure from outside influences. Driver now claims 75 or 76 coauthors, plus 10 to 15 other representatives who have assured him personally they will vote in favor of the bill.
To have any chance, SB 1164 has to clear two committees — Public Safety and Calendars — by 10 o'clock Sunday night.
"It's totally bipartisan. There's really no rural versus urban, no big city versus small city. Maybe some of the people in cities where there's public universities may not vote for it," Driver says. "I think the majority feel that it's a bill that does what it's designed to do, and that's to give people a chance to protect themselves wherever they go."
— by a Texas Weekly Correspondent
Smoked, Chewed, Armed, and Reloading
The much-hyped Smoke-Free Texas bill was too much for the state Senate to inhale. The sponsors and promoters of that bill declared it dead with two weeks still left in the legislative session.
A smokeless tobacco bill that would change the way that product is taxed is getting some attention in the Senate. It would raise about $30 million to repay student loans for doctors who agree to practice, initially, in underserved areas of the state. And it would throw another $70 million or so into general revenue. The high-end tobacconists like it. The discount tobacco folks don't like it. Doctors like it. Lawmakers are split between wanting the money and fearing the appearance they're increasing taxes. While that's pending, the Texas Association of Business is running radio ads around the state promoting the medical program in that bill.
The House shot down — with a rule violation and not a vote — a resolution touting the state's sovereignty. The sponsors will try again in the time left.
Texas made it into The Onion. The formula: The governor talks about secession — satire ensues. The humor paper's lead: "WICHITA FALLS, TX—Calling it an essential step toward securing the Texas border and protecting his people's way of life, Gov. Rick Perry announced Tuesday the completion of a 1,953-mile wall designed to keep out millions of unwanted Americans." Here's a link.
In our continuing effort to bolster the work of your high school civics teacher, we bring you the latest candidate making a pitch in Austin. This one's from Houston Mayor and U.S. Senate hopeful Bill White, who spoke to 75-100 Democrats at Austin's Scholz Garten. His stump speech lasted about 20 minutes.
McLeroy Moves Up
The Senate Nominations committee voted 4-2 to let the full Senate decide whether Republican Don McLeroy should chair the State Board of Education. That panel had withheld its approval after his confirmation hearing.
Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, said he put the governor's nomination of McLeroy to a vote after "the situation changed." Jackson, who chairs the Nominations panel, wouldn't say just what changed, and said he has "no idea" whether McLeroy will have to votes to win confirmation when his name is put to a vote, probably next week.
McLeroy has been chairman of the board for almost two years — Gov. Rick Perry installed him in that post shortly after the 2007 session of the Lege. If he's voted down by the full Senate — or if they don't vote at all before ending the session in a couple of weeks — Perry will have to choose a new chair from among the other members of the SBOE. In committee, four Republicans out-voted two Democrats (with one Republican absent).
Political People and Their Moves
Rep. Edmund Kuempel, R-Seguin, is ready to roll even if his doctors aren't. Kuempel, who had a heart attack in a Capitol elevator last week, appears to be on his way to a full recovery, according to Rep. Charlie Geren, who's been reporting his progress to the House. He's not likely to come back to work during the session, but all is well.
Three Senate Democrats stepped out of their government shoes for a minute to endorse Gene Locke, who's running for mayor of Houston. He'll do it with Rodney Ellis, Mario Gallegos, and John Whitmire in his corner.
Robert Jones, political director of Annie's List, made the Rising Stars list at Politics Magazine.
Sentenced: Mauricio Celis, the Corpus businessman who's illegal posing as a lawyer helped derail Michael Watts' political aspirations. Celis will be on probation for ten years and has to pay restitution estimated at more than $1 million.
Gov. Rick Perry's appointment office has been busy, naming:
Todd Novosad of Austin, Catherine Benavidez of Carrollton, and Angela Sieffert of Dallas to the Texas Board of Occupational Therapy Examiners. Novosad is a rehabilitation specialist at Hallmark Rehabilitation. Benavidez is president of Injury Management Organizations. Sieffert is an occupational therapy assistant at Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation.
Nils Mauritz, managing partner of Mauritz & Mauritz Cattle Co. of Ganado, to the Lavaca-Navidad River Authority's board. He also reappointed John Cotten Jr. of Ganado and Ronald Kubecka of Palacios to that board.
Lester Ferguson, a retired Air Force colonel from Kerrville, and Lucy Wilke, an assistant district attorney there, to the board of the Upper Guadalupe River Authority. Perry also reappointed Stan Kubenka of Kerrville to that board.
Edward Zwanziger, a physician assistant from Eustace, to the Texas Physician Assistant board of directors. The Guv also reappointed Ron Bryce of Red Oak to that board.
Joanne Justice of Arlington, Jaime Blevins Hensley of Lufkin, and Dona Scurry of El Paso to the Texas Real Estate Commission. Justice and Hensley are Realtors; Scurry is a CPA.
Quotes of the Week
Dave Carney, campaign manager for Rick Perry, telling The Dallas Morning News that new voters are welcome in the GOP: "But that doesn't mean you take your principles and throw them out the door and become a whorehouse and let anybody in who wants to come in, regardless."
Former Land Commissioner Garry Mauro, a Democrat, talking about Gov. Rick Perry in the Los Angeles Times: "The simple thing to say is this guy is a right-wing nut who shouldn't be taken seriously. Anybody who's doing that is making a horrible mistake."
Political analyst Charlie Cook, quoted by The Dallas Morning News: "Kay Bailey Hutchison is a very rational, normal, well-adjusted person. I'm just not sure any degree of moderation substantively or stylistically is necessarily a good thing in a Republican primary in Texas."
Houston Mayor and U.S. Senate candidate Bill White, joking about suspending his last campaign to deal with hurricanes and how it underscored his legendary speaking prowess: "When I don't go around campaigning, people vote for me."
Lucy Dalglish with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, talking to the Austin American-Statesman about a court ruling involving conversations between members of the Alpine City Council: "The 5th Circuit said public officials' rights to meet secretly may trump your right to know what they are up to. I just think this decision is cracked and stupid and offensive. We don't allow secret meetings in this country except under very special circumstances."
Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, quoted in the Houston Chronicle on her vote against a windstorm insurance bill being fast-tracked on deadline: "I'm not trying to slow the process down, but don't I have a right to read this stuff?"
Former First Lady Laura Bush, quoted by The Dallas Morning News telling SMU graduates that she had to go back and look up the name of the person who spoke at her own graduation ceremony: "You can imagine my surprise when I discovered it was George Bush."
Texas Weekly: Volume 26, Issue 20, 25 May 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.