Skip to main content

Boring and Short

For a Texas governor — especially for one embarking on a reelection bid — that headline perfectly describes a successful special session. Voters didn't get hurt, weren't aroused, and have no real reason to give it another thought.

For a Texas governor — especially for one embarking on a reelection bid — that headline perfectly describes a successful special session. Voters didn't get hurt, weren't aroused, and have no real reason to give it another thought.

This special session will be a success if, in a couple of years, most of the people involved have to be reminded of what it was about. If they can't immediately recall it, that's a sign that everything went okay. It has all the signs of a winner.

The "got-to-do" issues moved quickly, with both chambers unanimously approving sales of $2 billion in highway bonds already approved by voters and extending the lives of five agencies that, without legislative action, would go out of business in September 2010.

Lawmakers stalled on a third issue, partly because none of them could detect enough local fever over public-private highway projects to approve new ones. They decided to let it hold and ended the session about 31 hours after it started.

And they did it with very little television coverage and with voters getting ready for a holiday weekend. Many people didn't even know they were in town.

The safety net caught the state's transportation, insurance, racing and two other agencies that would otherwise have gone out of business in a year and two months. They'll be up for review again when the Lege meets in January 2011 — a session that'll also feature redistricting and what could be a big fiscal mess (that budget won't have the $12 billion in stimulus money used to balance the current spending plan).

Lawmakers were more cautious when it came to transportation issues. The governor wanted the Legislature to extend the state's authority to start new Comprehensive Development Agreements, or CDAs. But lawmakers don't want to do that and aren't convinced any new projects will go unbuilt if they don't act.

With no sense of urgency around it, they decided they're not going to act on that last request.

And they changed their approach on the bond sales, striking a provision that would have set up a revolving fund, financed by those bonds, that supporters said would allow more roads to get built. As with the CDAs, lawmakers said they can make any changes they want in the regular session in 2011 without any real detriment to the state's transportation planning and construction.

"Since it's not going to make any difference in the number of lane miles that are built between now and the 2011 session, we can address this during that session," Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told reporters.

CDA are the public-private partnerships used to build toll roads and other projects with private and public sector financing, operations and ownership. Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, wanted to give local officials first right of refusal on new CDA projects, letting them decide whether they wanted to participate or leave the jobs to others. That's called primacy. He would also set up a process for working out the deals, settling disputes, and so on.

The Texas Department of Highways and the governor's office wanted legislators to reauthorize CDAs for a non-controversial list of projects and leave the blanket authorization for later. They pushed for that while Nichols talked to senators and others about his approach. The list had the advantage of ducking controversy and getting lawmakers out of town fast. The blanket had the advantage of putting a leash on public-private deals at a state agency held in low political regard in the Pink Building.

Lawmakers were reluctant to take on the CDA issue in a short session. It's fraught with political risk, with some voters unhappy about toll roads, partnerships that let foreign companies collect tolls and operate roads, and plans to add toll lanes to free roads in the state. Some lawmakers were willing to give the Texas Department of Transportation the right to go ahead with those deals, if some safeguards were put in place. Others wanted to approve only the new CDAs on a list. And others wanted to kill the idea altogether.

The differences and the speed of the session worked against a solution. Senators, in fact, started the session telling Dewhurst there wasn't much support for CDAs. After wrestling with that for a day, he came to the same conclusion.

The one thing they finally agreed on: No projects will go unbuilt if they put off the issue until the next regular session. Transportation officials dispute that, but couldn't convince lawmakers, who decided they knew enough to put the thing to rest for now.

The revolving fund that went with the bonds appeared to be alright in the Senate, but some members of the House had misgivings. Since it won't affect any projects before the regular session, it was easier to set that fight aside.

"It's a new concept," said Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan. "The House was a little uncomfortable with that, as I understand it..." he said. "In the interest of the short time that we have, I think that they were more comfortable with the familiar than with the risk that you take with something new."

Rep. Joe Pickett, the El Paso Democrat who carried the transportation bill in the House, doesn't think CDAs had the same level of urgency as the other special session topics.

"I think that the two main issues were still the language for Proposition 12 bonds and the sunset dates for those agencies that were hanging out there," he said. "And I don't think many people at the beginning thought we would be doing comprehensive development plans."

Swept Aside

Gov. Rick Perry ignored pleas and requests to put a number of other issues on the special session agenda — entreaties that continued after the start of the session, and past Perry's statements that no additions are likely.

Family members and advocates for the late Timothy Cole — exonerated of rape charges after he died in a state prison — came to Austin seeking a gubernatorial pardon and asking Perry to put the issue in front of lawmakers if he thinks a new law is required to allow posthumous pardons.

Several lawmakers and trade groups wanted the governor to add eminent domain legislation to the call, saying the measure passed during the regular session helps but isn't enough because it doesn't compensate landowners for all of what they lose when the government forces them to sell land.

Several lawmakers and outside groups, led by Sen. Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso and Rep. Garnet Coleman of Houston, asked Perry to add an expansion of the Children's Health Insurance Program to the agenda.

Two hours after the House and Senate brought the special session to a close, the Harris County GOP was sending Houston Republicans messages urging them to ask Gov. Rick Perry to call another special session with Voter ID as the topic.

Lawmakers actually filed 36 bills, including the two that passed, the CDA bills that died, a CHIP expansion, and bills protecting concealed handgun owners from employer restrictions on storing their guns in their vehicles, extending mental health benefits to include eating disorders, indexing the minimum wage to the cost of living, extending eminent domain protections, changing benefits for employees of junior colleges, allowing revenue bonds for school construction, and tightening revolving door restrictions for Harris County employees.

Running Shoes

The upcoming Republican battle for governor is starting to appeal to some Democrats.

Fort Worth businessman/lawyer Tom Schieffer's in the race. Medina County entertainer/writer Kinky Friedman is, too. And other buzzards are circling around the idea that a bloody GOP primary could produce a wounded Republican candidate in the November general election — someone who might be vulnerable to a challenge from a Democrat.

It's early, but there's recruitment talk going on. The caveat, as always, is that we can't tell from our seats whether those recruitments are genuine or engineered. But if you log in to Facebook, you'll find groups trying to draft state Sen. Kirk Watson and former Travis County Ronnie Earle, both from Austin. Watson was urged into the race by fellow Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who looked but won't run and says Watson ought to. Earle, according to the Austin American-Statesman, has filed papers that allow him to raise money for an as-yet unspecified state race. Mark Thompson, who ran for Railroad Commission last year, might also be in the race.

It's a red state — the best performance by a statewide Democrat last year was 45.8 (Sam Houston in a race for Texas Supreme Court). But Democrats are encouraged by strength at the local level in places like Dallas and Houston, and by gains in their statehouse delegation over the last few years. The Democratic share of the Texas House was 62 of 150 seats in 2003; now it's 74 seats, or two short of a majority.

It's not a great environment, but it has improved enough, apparently, to attract some interest.

• On the Republican side, add one and drop one. Gov. Rick Perry has a press conference scheduled this weekend with Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler. Berman was talking about a bid for governor but has lately been talking to Perry and telling reporters that he'd join the governor's reelection efforts if Perry satisfied Berman's standards on immigration issues. There's another Republican challenger in the wings, though: Debra Medina, who chairs the Wharton County GOP, plans to be on the GOP primary ballot for governor in 2010. She's also pushing a set of initiatives she'd like to see on the GOP ballot in March.

• Perry announced his top supporters, as U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison did earlier in the year. Perry's list is here. We sorted it by city here. And we mashed it up with Hutchison's list, sorted by city, here.

Combs: Money in the Till

All the counting is done, and Comptroller Susan Combs says lawmakers left $359.1 million unspent during the regular session that ended on the first day of this month.

In a letter to state leaders and lawmakers, Combs says the Legislature left $359.1 million in general revenue money unspent. She revised some numbers after looking through the Legislature's work, too. The amount available for general revenue spending in the two-year budget that starts in September is $78.1 billion. That's up $1 billion from earlier estimates, but it's not because tax collections have risen — it's because of the way lawmakers wrote the next budget and revised the one we're in. She's making no changes to her revenue estimates — just accounting for what the Legislature did during the session.

Bottom line: It all balances, with money left over for general spending. (This has nothing to do with the $9 billion-plus that's expected to accumulate in the state's Rainy Day Fund by the end of the next biennium; that's a different pot of money.)

Flotsam & Jetsam

U.S. Senate candidate Roger Williams says he raised more than $400,000 — or about $1,000 per guest — at a fundraiser last weekend.

Candidates don't have to make their reports public until mid-July. Williams, a former Texas Secretary of State, is in the hunt for Kay Bailey Hutchison's seat, if she decides to resign early to concentrate on her run for governor.

• Rep. Beverly Woolley, R-Houston, announced she'll seek reelection to her HD-136 seat. A victory would mean a ninth term for Woolley, who was first elected in 1994.

• Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, did some research and found the shortest special session in state history: One hour, in 1919.

• Put Kim Limberg on the list of candidates in HD-105, where Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, is the incumbent. Limberg is a Democrat and a state highway department engineer. Harper-Brown won a very close election last year and Limberg is the second Democrat in the race; Loretta Haldenwang, a former aide to Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, is planning to get in. If the incumbent doesn't run for reelection, Irving City Councilwoman Beth Van Duyne will run as a Republican.

Jeff Weems, a Democratic activist and an oil & gas attorney in Houston, is pulling together a challenge to Texas Railroad Commissioner Victor Carrillo, a Republican who'll be on next year's ballot.

• This isn't exactly the 2012 Republican presidential primary, but it's not exactly not: Govs. Rick Perry of Texas, Haley Barbour of Mississippi, and Sarah Palin of Alaska could all be on the dais at the Texas Public Policy Foundation's 20th anniversary shindig on September 11. That'll be in Austin.

Political People and Their Moves

Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, says he won't run for mayor of Houston and wants to focus on other projects and on his duties as a state lawmaker. "Although I believe the race is eminently winnable, a late entry into the campaign would have required that I drop every other project in which I am involved... " he said. This would have been Turner's third attempt at the top city post.

Valerie Corte was sworn in as a Temporary Acting Representative for HD-122, subbing for her spouse, Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio, who's on active military duty in Okinawa. He's due to return in mid-July.

Juan Garcia, a Farm Service Agency staffer who's originally from Willacy County, is the new Texas state director for that program, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Obama Administration tapped another Texan, Francisco Valentin Jr., as Texas state director for rural development at the USDA. He's been with the federal government since 1979.

Gov. Rick Perry appointed Wayne Roberts of Austin and Scott Smith of Cedar Park and reappointed Paul Braden of Dallas to the State Pension Review Board. Roberts now works at the UT Health Science Center in Houston and used to be on Perry's policy staff. Smith is vice president of investments for Wells Fargo Advisors. Braden is a partner at Fulbright and Jaworski.

Hitched: Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Tricia Hamilton Bivins in a private ceremony in Houston. It's the second marriage for each of them; she is the ex-wife of former state Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo.

Quotes of the Week

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, to Amadeo Saenz, head of the Texas Department of Transportation, on extending public-private highway projects: "We're being asked to pass legislation more on faith than on fact. So far, faith has been very disappointing."

Gov. Rick Perry, telling reporters his intentions, before the session: "Get 'em in, get 'em out and get the work done. Bada-bing, bada-boom."

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, in the Austin American-Statesman: "If the [U.S.] Senate job came open, I would probably give it a hard look. I think that seat needs to stay in Republican hands."

Texas A&M Regent Gene Stallings, quoted in the Bryan Eagle after the faculty overwhelmingly cast a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Mike McKinney: "He may have mishandled a quote or two, as we all do from time to time, but his mind's in the right place and his heart's in the right place."

Merrill Metzger, formerly with Minutemen American Defense — a citizen border patrol group — in The New York Times: "I had to take an oath, and part of the oath was that I couldn't eat Mexican food. That's when red flags went up all over for me. That seemed like prejudice."

Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University, talking about the next presidential race with the Washington Examiner: "It's way too early to talk sensibly about the 2012 field, but that's no reason not to do it."


Texas Weekly: Volume 26, Issue 26, 6 July 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.

Quality journalism doesn't come free

Yes, I'll donate today