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On the Ballot: Taxes, Property, and College

by Reeve Hamilton, The Texas Tribune

by Reeve Hamilton, The Texas Tribune

Early voting is under way, but Texans — at least those who do this kind of thing — will vote on 11 proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution on November 3.

(Some already started; early voting began this week and runs through October 30.)

Experiencing significant crossfire is a cluster of amendments (2, 3, and 5) dealing with property tax appraisals. All three stem from House Joint Resolution 36.

Prop. 2 stops a home from being appraised based on its value as commercial property — or its "best use." Some wonder why, if the money a big box store could pay a homeowner for their land is real, the communities shouldn't consider that when procuring much needed tax dollars for their school district. Others, like Rep. Ralph Sheffield, R-Temple, feel that burdening select citizens with higher taxes is "wrong and it's time to make it unconstitutional."

There would be uniform statewide standards for property appraisal if Prop. 3 passes. If Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, is right, this is that "rarity when there is no opposition to an issue related to state government." This ignores vocal opposition from local control advocates who prefer counties enforcing standards themselves. Colorful agitator Linda Curtis of Independent Texans calls it "truly rotten" and "the Trojan Horse of this election."

The runt of this litter, Prop. 5, allows separate appraisal districts to combine, with legislative approval. Rural districts could benefit because they have trouble staffing their review boards. The Austin Chronicle called this "entirely trivial" — as opposed to the merely "trivial" Prop. 3 — and then endorsed both.

What crossfire? A chain e-mail that mislabels these as "propositions 1, 2, and 3" has made its way around the state claiming, "If you own a home, and these laws are passed, you will be taxed by the State." Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, one of the bill's coauthors has been scrambling to assure voters that's "blatantly false." The Texas Constitution prohibits a state property tax. Otto, along with Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, has launched a new website (under the auspices of STAR PAC) that Williams says, "anyone confused or concerned about the effect of these propositions should visit."

Elected officials are climbing over each other to endorse the Prop. 4 plan to devote state funds to developing more Tier One universities. Gov. Rick Perry already voted for it. Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, calls it "a big deal — a once-in-a-generation opportunity to super-charge our economy, help our universities and create a lasting inheritance for future generations." Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Schieffer and Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, are on board. Despite prominent Republican support, Young Conservatives of Texas came out against the measure in a YouTube video calling for a wiser investment.

The final amendment in the spotlight is Prop. 11, which limits the state's eminent domain authority. This is the first time Texans will vote on the issue since the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court Kelo v. New London decision. Rivals U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Gov. Rick Perry have both made a show of their support for this protection of private citizens. On the other hand, it may be unnecessary. On his website, Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, explains, "The Legislature has already passed a law providing protections against abuse of eminent domain authority."

Also being considered is Prop. 8 proposing a state fund to help veterans' hospitals. Some say it's a federal issue, but State Sens. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Sharp say people should vote early because, when it comes to veterans, "a 'yes' vote... is too important to risk waiting."

Prop. 9 writes access to public beaches into the state constitution. Unfazed by arguments that private property rights might be infringed upon, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson opined, "Can you imagine driving your family to the beach for summer vacation only to find a high fence covered with 'no trespassing' signs?"

Tax dollars could go to buy up land for buffer zones around military bases if Prop. 1 passes. Empower Texans, a conservative PAC, fears it allows "local entities to incur debt and raise property taxes in attempts to keep federal installations that may no longer be necessary to the military's mission or performance." But, if those bases are lost, supporters fear for the security and economy of the surrounding communities.

Prop. 7 grants members of the Texas State Guard an exception to an arguably antiquated law that says civil servants can't hold two government positions. It has the support of bipartisan coalition of Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van, Rep. Aaron Pena, D-Edinburg, and Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City.

Prop. 6 lets the Veterans' Land Board issue bonds to help veterans with home loans and land purchases. Prop. 10 extends term limits for state-elected emergency services districts from two years to four. Voters' passions aren't coalescing on either side for these two.

Shapleigh Makes Two

by Brandi Grissom, The Texas Tribune

Longtime El Paso state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh won't seek re-election in 2010. He joins Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, on the lame duck list. Ogden said earlier he won't return.

His surprise announcement set off speculation about his plans for higher office — and a vigorous fight to replace him.

"While other public service may lie ahead, I will not run for the Texas Senate in 2010," Shapleigh said. "During each day of the last decade, we have endeavored to do our very best for the people of our great community and state."

Shapleigh said he had been weighing the decision for several weeks, but the announcement came as a shock to his staff and to many in the political arena.

"I've done what I came to do," Shapleigh said.

Shapleigh would not say specifically what office he will seek, but he did rule out a challenge to El Paso Democratic U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes.

"My dreams have never been in Congress," he said.

Shapleigh said repeatedly that Texas needs change at the highest state levels, but he would not say whether he planned to run for statewide office. He didn't say no, either.

An announcement about his future plans, he said, would come in about three weeks, after he has some time to relax.

Shapleigh's good friend El Paso County Attorney José Rodriguez was one of the few people not surprised by Friday's news. Rodriguez said Shapleigh told him last week he planned not to seek re-election. During that conversation he said Shapleigh mentioned that he might consider a run for statewide office.

Shapleigh was elected to the Senate in 1996 and helped lead efforts to establish a four-year medical school in El Paso, the first on the U.S.-Mexico border. He has been among the most liberal Democrats in the Texas Senate, a vocal critic of Republican leadership and a lonely proponent of establishing a state income tax. He has fought to fund services for low- and middle-income families and chastised conservatives for slashing the budgets for children's health insurance and other programs.

Shapleigh's departure leaves open a Senate seat that has rarely been vacated.

Only three people, all Democrats, have held the seat since 1973: Shapleigh, Peggy Rosson, who served from 1991 to 1997, and Tati Santiesteban, who held the seat from 1973 to 1991.

Potential successors — mostly Democrats — are already stacking up. It's a solidly Democratic seat; over the last two election cycles, the average statewide Democrat beat the average statewide Republican by 25.7 percentage points.

Rodriguez said he plans to announce an exploratory committee to run for the Senate soon.

"I am going to be trying to gain support both here locally and in Austin in the next 30 days or so," he said.

Rep. Norma Chavez, D-El Paso, said, "you bet" she's going to consider a run for the Senate seat.

"I finished my seventh term. I'm an accomplished legislator who will obviously look seriously at the Senate race," Chavez said, adding that she was already planning to do a countywide poll in November to gauge her support.

Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, thought about it and decided not to run.

"I'm just going to cool my jets," said Pickett, who had floated the idea last week.

The chairman of the House Transportation Committee said he is happy with his position in the lower chamber. And, he doesn’t see a move to the Senate as a step up.

"I don’t need to run for the Senate," he said. "I'm in a really good spot for El Paso."

Asked whether he'd support any of the current candidates who have expressed interest in the El Paso Senate seat, Pickett said he was keeping his powder dry for now.

Former Republican Rep. Pat Haggerty, caught during a round of golf in Austin, said he would consider running, but he added that a Republican couldn't win that seat.

"If I ran, it wouldn’t be as a Republican," he said.

Other names circulating in the potential candidate list today include El Paso Mayor John Cook and Republican businessman Dee Margo, who challenged Shapleigh in 2006.

Margo, reached at a reunion in Nashville, Tenn., said he still hasn't made any decisions about running in 2010. He had previously said he wouldn't run against Shapleigh.

Asked whether today's news changed the equation, Margo said, "I doubt it, but I don't know."

Challenging Relationships

by Julian Aguilar, contributor to The Texas Tribune

Political allies and a noisy and very public divorce dominate the conversation so far in Rep. Tara Rios Ybarra's effort to win a second term in the Texas House.

The Democratic lawmaker's support from Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a group that gives generously to Republicans, continued this week. TLR gave her its Civil Justice Leadership Award in Harlingen. Though TLR's support was crucial to her primary victory last year over incumbent Rep. Juan Escobar of Kingsville, Rios Ybarra said their backing indicates her pro-business leanings, not her party affiliation.

J.M. Lozano, a South Texas businessman vying for the freshman's HD-43 seat, said her support from the group reflects the Democratic incumbent might be out of touch with her own party.

"Any political action committee is going to say they are bipartisan but when you see who funds them (TLR), they are not," Lozano said. "In South Texas when you get into these communities you cannot abandon your constituents. If 90 percent of your constituents are Democrats you better stay loyal to your party."

Despite the publicity surrounding her financial support from TLR, Rios Ybarra downplayed the issue.

"I am a pro-business candidate," she said. "There are different organizations that will make contributions based on my stance with that, and there is a way to be pro-business and pro-environment and pro-worker and pro-everything else, one is not mutually exclusive to each other."

Campaign finance reports show TLR has given to Democrats but favors Republicans — something Lozano claimed could up his chances of claiming a Democratic Primary Election victory next year.

Not so, said Rios Ybarra, adding that lawsuit reform is just one item in a cornucopia of issues that, when settled, will lead to job growth.

"First of all, our issues are not lawsuit reform, our issues are very clearly jobs, education and health care," she said. "And so I talk to constituents. I am not in Austin working the lobby."

Lozano, who is at the helm of three restaurant franchises in his district and the son of a medical doctor, said he believes frivolous lawsuits should be addressed but that TLR does not distinguish between frivolous and legitimate issues.

Rios Ybarra must also contend with her current divorce proceedings after splitting with Richard Ybarra. The state representative admitted in a deposition that she was having an intimate relationship with developer and campaign contributor Clayton Brashear after she filed for divorce. But she said her personal life — public as it has now become — is irrelevant when it comes to her politics.

"There are so many important issues for my district and for South Texas right now that there is not really time to get distracted," she said.

Lozano said he has followed the divorce proceedings not to sling mud, but to prepare himself for whatever may come next. He says he's considering his options should Rios Ybarra drop out of the race, and someone else jump in.

Chances of that look slim, however, according to Rios Ybarra. She and her ex-husband still attend public functions together, she said, and have agreed to put the best interests of their two children first.

"Our objective is to raise two healthy children," she said.

Running Shoes

Former capitol reporter James Bernsen says now that he won't challenge Rep. Diana Maldonado, D-Round Rock, in next year's elections. He'll back Larry Gonzales instead.

Last year, Maldonado won what had been a Republican seat, and the GOP wants it back. There are four people on the Republican side still looking at the race (John Gordon, Stephen Casey, and Ralph Piña have all shown interest, in addition to Gonzales).

Bernsen says he got into the contest about the same time Gonzales did, that he took at look at it, and that he decided "Larry is the better candidate. I'm going to support him."

• Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, will seek another term. She won her spot in 1992 and has held it continuously since then. Five senators have more seniority than she does; three others came to the Senate the same time she did.

• Rep. Mark Homer, D-Paris, will have an opponent in the person of Erwin Cain, a Como lawyer and businessman who is also chairman of the Hopkins County GOP. Republicans regularly beat the stuffing out of Democrats in that six-county district — on the statewide level in the last two elections, the difference averaged 20.3 percentage points in favor of the Republicans — but Homer has held off serious challenges over several cycles. And Homer says he'll seek a seventh term in next year's elections. That's HD-3.

• Not running: Donna Keel, a Republican who challenged Rep. Valinda Bolton, D-Austin, in 2008. She sent a note to "fellow Republicans" saying it's not the right time to run again, but that she'll support the Republican nominee

• San Antonio lawyer Tim Tuggey, managing partner of Tuggey Rosenthal Pauerstein Sandoloski Agather, will run in the GOP primary for the State Board of Education. He's got his eyes on the seat now held by former state Rep. Ken Mercer, who's also a Republican and is also from San Antonio. Tuggey, who served on San Antonio's VIA board, said in his announcement that he's concerned about alleged ethical lapses in SBOE's management of the Permanent School Fund. Another Republican incumbent on the SBOE — Don McLeroy — also faces a challenger in the GOP primary next year. Lobbyist Thomas Ratliff is taking him on.

• The political fire drill in the El Paso delegation continues with Naomi Gonzalez's announcement that she'll run for the Texas House seat occupied now by Democrat Norma Chavez. Chavez is in the hunt — not officially, but in — for Eliot Shapleigh's Senate seat. The allegiances are tricky here; Shapleigh's decision not to run again prompted El Paso County Attorney José Rodriguez to start exploring the race, along with Chavez. Gonzalez works for Rodriguez as an assistant county attorney, and finished second in a 2008 race for city council.

• Freshman Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Tomball, will seek a second term in HD-130. He knocked off incumbent Rep. Corbin Van Arsdale in the GOP primary in 2008.

John Sharp picked up an endorsement for his U.S. Senate bid from Dan Richards, son of the late Gov. Ann Richards.

Dan Gattis, running for the SD-5 Senate seat, won endorsements from Round Rock Mayor Alan McGraw and from five of McGraw's predecessors.

• Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, being interviewed on Dallas radio, said "two or three" senators were planning to move on before the next session. We know of Steve Ogden and Eliot Shapleigh, a Republican and a Democrat who've said they won't seek reelection. But three? Dewhurst was apparently referring to Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, who's raising money to run for the U.S. Senate should Kay Bailey Hutchison resign her spot. Dewhurst is also interested in the Hutchison job.

TEA's Testing Troubles

by Brian Thevenot, The Texas Tribune

Some 30,000* "highly qualified" Texas public school teachers don't actually meet the federal definition for that standard — which could jeopardize their jobs and will certainly cause bureaucratic headaches for them and their school systems.

The teachers in question did not take a required general knowledge exam, but rather believed — on the advice of the Texas Education Agency — that a specific subject knowledge test would suffice.

The snafu, apparently due to a miscommunication between state and federal bureaucrats, was disclosed in a letter from the Texas Education Agency to school systems. Districts across the state seek to have 100 percent "highly qualified" staff to meet federal standards under the No Child Left Behind Act — meaning many of the teachers in question might not have been hired in the first place, said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe.

The agency stressed in its correspondence, however, that it has asked federal authorities to review the matter, and that many teachers may be able to complete the requirements and gain the "highly qualified" designation. The 30,000 figure is just a guess — based on typical turnover in a state with 321,000 teachers, Ratcliffe said.

And it might well be a wrong guess, as it turns out. TEA might be revising the number of "highly qualified" teachers who didn't actually earn that qualification.

On Wednesday, TEA said the number of teachers affected could reach 30,000, but that number was called into question Thursday when the Houston and Austin systems — which educate more than a quarter about six percent of the state public school population — reported that less than 30 of their teachers would be affected.

Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott repeated the 30,000 figure in an interview Thursday. Later, when told of such small numbers in large districts, Ratcliffe said the figure she had supplied a day earlier was a “worst-case scenario” and that the agency had not yet done enough research to determine the true number. Given the Houston and Austin totals, the number could be “much lower,” she said.

The term "highly qualified" comes from the federal No Child Left Behind Act and generally has replaced state certification standards. The problem here stems from differing interpretations by the Texas and U.S. education departments over qualifications to gain the credential.

Federal monitors who visited the agency last month, however, disabused them of the notion that subject-specific tests would suffice for elementary teachers, who teach multiple subjects. They sent the state a ruling, which it forwarded to districts. The state has asked for federal leniency in the matter, but as it told districts in the letter: "there may be little or no flexibility" from U.S. education officials on the designations.

"It's a significant concern," Ratcliffe said. "Sometimes it can take months to get an answer (from the feds), and in Texas, if they want to non-renew a contract, they have to tell the teacher by March. And of course they have to start hiring by then.

"It has all kinds of implications," she said.

In addition, according to the TEA letter, school systems will have to ensure that those teachers who don't qualify are not being paid by federal grants funds, such as the Title I program, which aims to improve education for children in poverty. And Texas has tens of thousands of public school students in those programs and can get the federal funds if their teachers meet the federal standard, Ratcliffe said.

Texas Unemployment Rises Again

The state's unemployment rate hit 8.2 percent in September, up from 8 percent in August and 5.1 percent in September 2008. There were 996,000 people unemployed last month, according to the Texas Workforce Commission. Three areas of the state have unemployment levels over 10 percent: McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, at 11.6 percent; Beaumont-Port Arthur and Brownsville-Harlingen, both at 10.8 percent. The lowest rate in the state, according to TWC, was Lubbock, where 5.7 percent of labor force was out of work.

For Reasons of Health

See how far we buried this in the newsletter? Still: In a letter to supporters, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison vows to stay in federal office until the health care debate is over.

"The U.S. Senate is now debating legislation that would dramatically expand federal government control over our health care system," she writes. "It's important that you know I will not leave this fight. I will remain in the Senate this fall to help lead opposition to any government takeover of one-sixth of our economy."

The timing of the letter roughly coincides with Hutchison's comments on a radio show (Mark Davis, WBAP-AM) last week, when she was vague about when she might leave the federal job to concentrate on her challenge to sitting Republican Gov. Rick Perry. She said a few months ago — to reporters in general and on that same radio show in particular — that she would resign in October or November. October looks unlikely now. And the timing of a congressional vote on health care might be best left to bettors and political consultants. The Texas primary is four-and-a-half months away.

While she says she'll stay in office, she throws several spears in Perry's direction in the letter, saying the state has a highest numbers of uninsured citizens, that property taxes are the highest in the nation, that "our highways are lagging and TxDOT is broke," and that "our children are quitting school at alarming rates."

Hutchison says "14 years of one-man rule is too long." Later in the letter, she calls herself a reformer: "Quite frankly, I believe the lobbyists and insiders in our state capitol could use an infusion of new, conservative thinking and new ideas — a cleanup of business as usual in a city that badly needs it."

Political People and Their Moves

Adam Haynes is leaving TIPRO (the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association) after five years for a job with Chesapeake Energy, one of TIPRO's member companies.

Gov. Rick Perry named R. David Kelly of Dallas to chair the Teacher Retirement System of Texas and appointed Todd Barth, Seth Crone, and Nanette Sissney to that board. Kelly is a partner with Carleton Residential Properties in Dallas. Barth is an attorney and president of Bowers Properties in Houston. Crone is a CPA and an exec with The Bank of New York Mellon Trust Co. He lives in Beaumont. Sissney is a school counselor at Whitesboro ISD.

The Guv appointed Keith Drewery of Nacogdoches and James "Jim" Hughes Jr. of Newton to the Angelina and Neches River Authority Board, and reappointed Dominick "Nick" Bruno of Jacksonville. Drewery runs a construction company. Hughes is an insurance and investment broker, and Bruno is the retired past president of Austin Bank.

Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, said he and fiancée Shannon Wiggins are planning a wedding for next spring. They had planned to get hitched sooner, but discovered the planning takes a bit more time. The nuptials are tentatively set for April 2010, and will probably take place in Austin.

Deaths: Former Sen. J.P. Word, a Democrat who served for a decade in the Senate, after following a family tradition by winning election as Bosque County Judge, and did a stint lobbying for the Texas Chiropractic Association and consulting for the Texas Association of Taxpayers. He was 80.

Quotes of the Week

Former Gov. Mark White, telling The Dallas Morning News that he's lost confidence that the state can fairly administer the death penalty, which he once championed: "I'm not running for anything. It's a lot easier for me to say it."

Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, telling the Houston Chronicle that Matthew Knowles' home on the eroded Texas beach is getting the same treatment it would get if his daughter wasn't famous: "I didn't know who Beyoncé Knowles was. If he's getting special treatment it's not because of me."

Charles Robinson of Amarillo, talking to gubernatorial candidate Tom Schieffer after a speech, quoted by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: "You sure picked a bad time to run on the Democratic ticket."

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, asked to second-guess Gov. Rick Perry in the Houston Chronicle: "I can't get inside the mind of Perry even on a good day."

Dallas County Republican Party Chairman Jonathan Neerman, in The Dallas Morning News: "Even the most ardent partisan can't claim we didn't get our clocks cleaned the last two cycles. The question is why? We don't know what's driving it. I, for one, don't believe this is a Democratic county."

Billy Higginbotham, a wildlife specialist at Texas A&M University, in The Atlantic: "There are two types of landowners in Texas — those that have hogs, and those that are about to have hogs."

Texas Weekly: Volume 26, Issue 40, 26 October 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 For news, email, or call (512) 288-6598.

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