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Crank Cases

Texas voters are cranky about immigration, public schools, Democrats, and Washington, but they say they're doing better personally than the country is doing, that they're open to legalized pot, and that the state government is a model other states should follow.

Texas voters are cranky about immigration, public schools, Democrats, and Washington, but they say they're doing better personally than the country is doing, that they're open to legalized pot, and that the state government is a model other states should follow.

They also prefer Republicans over Democrats in statewide races by — with one exception — double-digit margins. All of that's in the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, which opened the week with the news that Gov. Rick Perry still holds a nine-point lead over Democrat Bill White and then unfurled a bunch of numbers that might even show why that's so and how it might change — for better or for worse.

White and his fellow Democrats trail the Republicans in every statewide race, according to that poll. White's is the closest race. The widest gap on the board was the 19-point abyss that separates Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott from Democrat Barbara Ann Radnofsky.

The broad strokes in the polling are easy to see.

• Texas is still a red state, and maybe by more than some of the pundits and soothsayers think.

• That might be an offspring of the antipathy toward Washington. Better to be IDed as a Texan than as one of the federales — just ask Kay Bailey Hutchison.

• The anti-incumbent wave might be a misreading of voter anger at what's going on in Washington. For instance: None of the incumbent Republicans in statewide office in Texas has been in electoral trouble this year. If the mob wanted someone's head, they might've collected it in the March primaries and the runoffs that followed (as they did in some downballot races).

• The lone exception was Victor Carrillo, who lost his seat on the Texas Railroad Commission to Midland CPA David Porter. That sets up a race between Porter, an unknown Republican, and Jeff Weems, an unknown Democrat. A chance for the Democrats to pick off a seat? Maybe, but something would have to change; Porter has a 12-point lead with five months to go.

The underlying issues aren't great for Democrats, either. Texans are aggravated about immigration. While they put economic issues at the top of their list of the most important problems facing the nation, they put immigration and border security at the top of their Texas list. And they want everything: an English-only amendment to the state constitution, a law like Arizona's that has local cops checking to see whether the people they encounter are U.S. citizens, an end to bilingual education and to in-state tuition for the children of undocumented aliens. They're a little more balanced when asked if they'd include a "pathway to citizenship" in federal immigration reform. That one only lost out by a five-point margin.

That has all the makings of an issue that could benefit Republicans in this election and, if they're not careful about it, ruin their chances with Hispanic voters well into the future. Former California Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, is the cautionary figure here; his emphasis on the issue gained him that job but helped the Democrats rule that state's politics for a decade. That's why you see a lot of pols — including Perry — talk about "border security" instead of "immigration." There's some code there — people tuned in to that particular frequency hear the terms as interchangeable. But there's also safety in talking about security, since it also plays on another frequency — that of the voter of whatever race who's worried about cartels and crime and so on.

The numbers, though, are strong. And politicians are opportunistic. Betcha some people decide that the long-term problem is worth the short-term gain. Lawmakers are already talking about mirroring the Arizona immigration laws and bringing back voter ID next session.

They're cranky about public education, expressing relatively low confidence in the schools (and raising questions about whether confidence is higher among voters who actually have kids in school and more contact, on the one hand, and the voters who pay for the schools through taxes but don't have any direct knowledge of what's going on in those education buildings). A majority say there are plenty of ways to make a living without a college degree, and more than half say most kids with the qualifications to go to college don't get the opportunity to do so.

But where immigration rises to the top of voters' list of what's most important, education is down in the single digits right now. This particular poll had it sixth on the list of Texas issues; seventh on the list of national problems. And education is, in election years, a winning issue for Democrats — when it's a top-of-mind matter for voters. Right now, they appear to be focused on immigration — an issue that usually plays better for Republicans.

A Failure of Regulation?

As oil continues to erupt from the ocean floor, the federal Minerals Management Service is devolving into institutional upheaval.

On Thursday, director Liz Birnbaum joined Chris Oynes, the head of offshore drilling, as MMS's latest top official to resign in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. And on May 14, after congressional testimony that described the agency's deference to the oil and gas industry, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced plans to split MMS into two sections: one concentrated on collecting royalties from oil and gas companies and another focused on enforcement of safety regulations.

The MMS, an Interior Department division charged with managing offshore drilling leases, is also the target of a whistleblower lawsuit filed in federal court in Houston by a Washington, D.C., conservation group, which charges the agency failed to ensure another BP offshore rig has the safety documentation required under law. At a press conference in the Gulf Thursday, Barack Obama excoriated "the scandalously close relationship between oil companies and the agency that regulates them."

But former MMS director Barry Williamson — who led the division during the George H.W. Bush administration and later served as a Texas Railroad Commissioner — says the focus should be on determining what happened at Deepwater Horizon rather than on prematurely laying blame. "It's more important now, as opposed to making general accusations [against MMS], to determine what happened," says Williamson, who is now the campaign chairman for Republican David Porter's Railroad Commission campaign. "Finger-pointing doesn't help. What you have to figure out before you start firing people is what happened, why it happened, was it preventable. If it could have been prevented, whose job was it to prevent it, and did that person do his job?"

In 1989, four days into Williamson's tenure, the Exxon Valdez crashed on the Alaska coast, bringing "a tremendous amount of attention," he says, to a previously obscure government entity. Because of that, Williamson says he understands "what [MMS] is going through from a crisis management standpoint," though he points out Valdez was "a transportation accident, not an offshore drilling accident."

Now that the oil is in the water, he says, there's not much else MMS can do. But the first step the division should take, Williamson says, "is to lead an investigation."

It's not news that the MMS has been a little too snug to the energy industry. Two years ago, an Inspector General's report documented an agency culture that "appeared to be devoid of both the ethical standards and internal controls sufficient to protect the integrity of this vital revenue-producing program." Some of the offenses: accepting gifts from oil and gas companies (including ski trips, paintball games, and tickets to a Toby Keith concert and a Houston Texans game), sexual relationships with industry representatives and drug and alcohol use at industry events.

Yet Williamson doubts that Salazar's move to separate the divisions within MMS will do much to correct the problem of corruption. "You can argue it's all in the same government," he says, "You can have divisions within MMS or you can kick it up and have divisions within the DOI — it's still the same people that's going to be doing the same things. … Someone's got be in charge. Either people are going to be honest and have integrity, or they're not."

Williamson also defends MMS's record of regulating the industry. "Whether someone took someone to lunch sometime is neither here nor there," he says. "Was there a failure of regulation? I don't know. There may not have been. Accidents happen sometimes. You can't prevent them. It's important to find out what happened before we start making all these allegations about an agency that's done a stellar job of helping keep the offshore safe for 40 years."

Arguing over Size

Despite the 1,200 National Guard troops that will soon patrol the U.S. border with Mexico, some Texas lawmakers are saying the Obama administration isn't doing enough to enforce border security.

Sen. John Cornyn called the deployment to a Band-Aid and said more money is needed to solve the problem.

His proposed solution — an amendment to a supplemental appropriations bill that called for about $2 billion in additional border security funding — fell short on the Senate floor. That didn't stop him from calling out what he deemed a failed effort by the White House.

"Under the President's plan, if illegal border crossings happen at the same rate as in recent years, there will be 450 illegal crossing for each new National Guardsman."

The Texas Border Coalition, a group of elected border officials and business leaders, claimed the senator's amendment fell victim to "political wrangling."

"TBC has long maintained that we cannot rely on outmoded strategies and tactics rooted in the past to secure the southern border and halt illegal crossings," it said after the vote.

Border Democrats saw the deployment as a good first step, however, and lauded the effort — despite not knowing exactly where the troops or resources would be allocated.

"We look forward to working with the White House as more information becomes available as to where and when these additional border security resources will be deployed," said a joint statement by Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, and Charlie Gonzalez, D-San Antonio.

Road Work

Last year during its Sunset Review process, the Texas Department of Transportation agreed to take on a $2 million top-down review of the agency's management and organization. The result, a whopping 628-page audit report by consulting firm Grant Thornton, was released this week.

"This is really just the next step in the ongoing modernization of the agency," said TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott, noting that TxDOT won't officially respond to everything in the document for a couple of weks.

If the first section of Part 1 of the audit is any indication, there will be plenty to talk about. The authors observed that "many of the most ardent TxDOT employees indicate that they no longer feel proud of their organization" and say that the senior management is widely perceived as "not addressing the big issues… not trusting other TxDOT staff… not setting clear expectations or goals… not being open to feedback… [and] lacking respect for governing bodies."

Lippincott notes that TxDOT has been undergoing many changes in the last two years and that, as he puts it, "change, by its nature, can create anxiety." He says, "We are going to look at the report and look at the explanations for the observations they provided. I think that's going to help us make assessments in the agency whether they be structural or attitudinal."

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said that, despite its length, there's little revelation contained in the tome. "When it comes to necessary reforms, there always seems to be a fight, probably because of the culture and leadership issues described in the report," he said in a statement. "It's time to strip TxDOT back to the engine block and rebuild it as an agency that can effectively serve Texas in this century." He said his interactions with Deirdre Delisi, the chair of the Texas Transportation Commission, have led him to believe "she intends to begin this significant, essential process."

The Week in the Rearview Mirror

On the 10th Amendment front, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it will take over the permit for a refinery in Corpus Christi, and hinted that because there were so many others it objected to, it might have to take further action in Texas. The equivalent state agency, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality responded to the EPA's objections and stressed that it continues to attempt collaboration with the federal agency. Meanwhile, regional EPA chief Al Armendariz declared that the EPA may be forced to take over the regulation of air quality in Texas.

• Controversy, along with oil, continues to swirl in the Gulf. Prolonged environmental devastation is prompting public outrage against the administration. EPA officials are critical of BP for missing deadlines set for them. And against this backdrop, the San Antonio Express-News reported that oil-free Texas beaches could potentially attract more tourism this summer, prompting a flood of angry comments.

• Although the governor's race hasn't kicked into high gear just yet, the candidates are revealing their strategies for the upcoming battle. Rick Perry hammered Bill White on the troubles of the transit authority in Houston, while White's attack on Perry centered on the Texas Enterprise Fund and cronyism. White's campaign characterized some of the transactions as misuse of taxpayer funds and alleged kickbacks to campaign contributors.

Joe Straus needed the support of Democratic legislators to defeat Tom Craddick and become speaker during the last session. But his friendly relationship with House Democrats could be in jeopardy if he continues to ignore their ranks when making appointments. His latest appointment to the Sunset Commission — Larry Taylor, head of the House Republican Caucus — generated a heated response from Democrats, who think Carl Isett's replacement should have come from their side of the aisle.

• The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Hank Skinner's case in their fall lineup. It's seen as a bellwether on DNA testing. Skinner and his attorney are pursuing the appeal as a federal civil rights case rather than as a writ for habeas corpus. At stake is whether the death-row inmate has the legal right to petition the lower courts to test DNA evidence held by prosecutors.

• Your beloved State Board of Education made national headlines voting in new social studies standards that echo social conservatives' political and religious views. The standards will be used to write curriculum, but it remains unclear if or when the standards will be included in new textbooks. Because of the budget shortfall, the state is unable to purchase science textbooks with the standards it revised last year, delaying the purchase of new social studies textbooks. A new board could undo what's been done this spring.

• As plans to dispose of nuclear waste in West Texas appear to be expanding in scope, neighbors and environmental groups are growing uneasy. The original plan, supported by locals as a job-generator, could grow to encompass waste from thirty-six other states, according to the Houston Chronicle. Opponents object to the dumping ground as an environmental threat, both to groundwater and as a roadway hazard while it's being transported.

• Amidst allegations that investigations had been quashed inappropriately, state insurance officials found themselves on the hot seat in front of the Sunset Advisory Commission. Lawmakers wanted to know more about why doctors who were accused of over treating and over billing patients in the system had not been sanctioned, and many had the cases against them dismissed that had already reached the enforcement stage. The commission will continue to hear testimony over the summer and make recommendations for the Legislature to consider next year.

• More training for day-care workers might be a popular idea with lawmakers and children's advocacy groups, but it's unclear who has the authority to require an increase. The Attorney General's office has been asked to review the Department of Family and Protective Services' standing to require that training be increased beyond the numbers spelled out in Texas law. Commissioner Anne Heiligenstein hopes for an opinion from Abbott by August. Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, whose committee held hearings on child care earlier this month, told the Austin American-Statesman that the Legislature can either grant authority to the agency or fill in any gaps with legislation.

• New security measures at the Capitol allow concealed handgun permit holders to bypass the metal detectors set up for the general public. Now gun-rights advocates want to make Texas even more permissive and are pushing for an open-carry law. They've collected over 65,000 signatures online, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, petitioning the governor to address the issue in the next legislative session.

Political People and Their Moves

ERCOT is filling those holes at the top of its org chart, naming H.B. "Trip" Doggett its new CEO and Mike Cleary its COO. Doggett has been acting chief exec since November of last year. Cleary, who'd been the agency's chief technology guy, takes the job Doggett used to hold. ERCOT is the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, and operates the electric grid for most of Texas.

Patrick Reinhart left the lobby shop at the Brown McCarroll law firm for an in-house job as El Paso Electric Company's Director of External Affairs. He'll remain in Austin.

Cameron Krier, most recently a staffer to U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, joined the Texas Hospital Association, where she'll work on health care policy, technology and other issues.

Amber Moon, after five years with the Texas Democratic Party in Austin and more recently in Houston, is leaving for postings unknown in Washington, D.C. Anthony Gutierrez takes over in Houston.

Press corps moves: Reporters Emily Ramshaw and Brian Thevenot of The Texas Tribune are now assistant managing editors.

Deaths: William "Bo" Byers, who reported on Texas government and politics for 37 years for the Associated Press and the Houston Chronicle, serving the latter as bureau chief into the early 1980s. He was 90.

Quotes of the Week

Gov. Rick Perry at a ribbon cutting ceremony in Richardson, quoted in the Dallas Morning News, criticizing the EPA's decision to take over the process of permitting a Corpus Christi refinery: "It would be a good idea if more states were like Texas. Our state's air is cleaner than it was. Our economy is stronger than most other states."

Katherine Cesinger, a spokeswoman for Perry, talking to the Austin America-Statesman about the new "Coyote Special" gun created in the Guv's honor: "I'm just shooting from the hip here, but I'd say he thinks it's a pretty good little gun."

House Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands: "Our schools are all working hard. But they all have challenges that are a reflection of society. When I was a school board member, people would complain that there are drugs in schools. I would assure them that we don't supply them."

Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, in a statement released after Speaker Joe Straus appointed House Republican Caucus Chair Rep. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, to the Sunset Advisory Commission: "The Speaker has had four chances to appoint members to the Sunset Commission and only one of those appointments has been a Democrat. Anyone who doesn't believe he is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative Republican isn't paying attention to the appointments made by the Speaker."

Attorney and Democratic nominee for Texas Attorney General Barbara Ann Rodnofsky on current AG Greg Abbott's remarks earlier this month regarding the BP oil leak, in the Huffington Post: "We've seen no more absolute quotes than Mr. Abbott's language defending BP with his May 3 praise of BP making 'all the right actions and all the right comments.' Mr. Abbott's receipt of two million dollars in campaign donations from the oil and gas industry may explain his behavior."

U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Longview, quoted by NPR on Congress' decision to reconsider the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" military policy before completing a study on its potential effects: "Voting on a repeal of don't ask, don't tell before the Pentagon's review is completed says to the military that 'we don't care what you think. We're shoving this down your throat.' "

Former President George W. Bush reflecting on his life in office: "I didn't watch the news. Hell, I was the news most of the time."

Pollster Daron Shaw analyzing a new University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll showing that 42 percent of Texans are open to the idea of legalizing marijuana for personal use: "I think there's a bunch of latent stone-heads out there."

Contributors: Julian Aguilar, Reeve Hamilton, Ceryta Holm, and Morgan Smith.


Texas Weekly: Volume 27, Issue 21, 31 May 2010. Ross Ramsey, Editor. Copyright 2010 by The Texas Tribune. 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) 716-8600 or email biz@texasweekly.com. For news, email ramsey@texasweekly.com, or call (512) 716-8611.

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