Skip to main content

Again?

The beginning of a real race for speaker of the House looks the same as a dud. The proper mix includes one or more popular people who want the job, a high level of dissatisfaction with the person currently in the post, and a level of frustration in the rank and file that is sufficient to overcome every member's natural reluctance to get involved in a political knife fight.

The beginning of a real race for speaker of the House looks the same as a dud. The proper mix includes one or more popular people who want the job, a high level of dissatisfaction with the person currently in the post, and a level of frustration in the rank and file that is sufficient to overcome every member's natural reluctance to get involved in a political knife fight.

The first bit is in place, but it is always in place. The room in question has 150 politicians in it, and almost all of them think they'd make mahvelous residents of the corner office. This time, most of the conversations start with Reps. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, and Phil King, R-Weatherford. Neither has filed papers declaring himself a candidate — that's a required step if you're really in — but neither is pushing away members who want to talk about such a race.

"Any member can choose to run for speaker," says Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton. "Any member can have it in their hearts and minds that they could be speaker. That doesn't mean there's a speaker's race."

Chisum said recently that the math in the House would have to change. Joe Straus overthrew Tom Craddick in January 2009 with a relatively small group of Republicans and a relatively large group of Democrats. Unless allegiances change or a number of Straus supporters are upended in the November elections, Straus appears to be strong. Three of the small group of Republicans who helped Straus win in 2009 are gone. Two, Delwin Jones of Lubbock and Tommy Merritt of Longview, were defeated in the GOP primaries, and one, Brian McCall, left the House to become chancellor of the Texas State University System. That shrinks his ranks a bit, but they've been replaced by Republicans who joined the Straus team after his victory. Some of the Democrats are less happy. Two of their leaders, Jim Dunnam of Waco and Jessica Farrar of Houston, were incensed when Straus named Republican Larry Taylor of Friendswood to the Sunset Advisory Commission last month. Four of his five appointees there are from the GOP, and some Democrats, who signed on with Straus to get rid of Craddick, are starting to sour on their champion. Still, as Chisum noted a couple of weeks ago, Straus appears healthy: "Dunnam plus 15 [Republicans] is a winning ticket."

Bonnen says the frustrations haven't gathered enough force. Members don't like leadership fights and they just ended four years of them with Craddick's defeat. "We would rather have our right foot shot off than have a speaker's race," he says. "I don't think [challengers] could get ten votes this afternoon."

Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, has heard the talk and has been through these things before; Straus is the third speaker he's served under. Christian, who chairs the Texas Conservative Coalition, was loyal to Craddick and says he and others paid the price for that. "I myself had 37 bills killed last session," he says. "Chicken fighting. That's all [the legislation] I got through last time and it got killed in the Senate." Christian says he got one local bill through the system, but that's it. His unhappiness stems from that treatment, in part, and from his perception — he says he hears it all over the state — that Straus isn't conservative enough. "Two of his leadership team were knocked off by people who wanted them to be more Republican," he says. His main gripe, however, is that Straus' lieutenants have been heavy-handed in their punishment of Craddick's supporters: "It did not exemplify what makes us different from Washington, D.C."

Others are unhappy, too, Christian says, but that's not enough to make a race for speaker. "There's not an official race going on that I'm aware of," he says. "There is, of course, talk. There always is."

Getting the Positioning Just Right

You know about the argument between the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In the short version, the feds don't think the state is properly protecting the environment and moved to take over Clean Air Act permitting of a Corpus Christi refinery. They threaten more of the same in similar cases. You might think that's bad news for an incumbent governor running for reelection.

Maybe. But it also provides Rick Perry — who's made a year of bashing Washington — with an opportunity to paint the former mayor of Houston into the D.C. corner. Bill White, of course, is the Democratic nominee for governor, running against an incumbent who just defeated popular U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in a Republican primary, painting her as a creature of hated Washington.

The EPA/TCEQ flap prompted White to say Perry isn't doing his job (or that his appointees aren't doing their jobs) and that's why the feds walked in. That gives the governor the opportunity for some political rope-a-dope.

1. Perry hits Washington.

2. White hits Perry for hitting Washington.

3. White is in position of defending Washington.

4. Washington is unpopular.

5. Discuss.

Not Enough Taxes

The state's tax on corporations could end up half a billion dollars shy of Comptroller Susan Combs' predictions, officials with her office say.

The tax brought in $4.5 billion in fiscal 2008 and $4.3 billion in fiscal 2009. The comptroller predicted it would raise $4.3 billion again this year — FY 2010 — but that now appears unlikely. The tax was due on May 17, and $3.6 billion was collected. Some companies filed extensions and won't pay up until August, but those late payers probably won't cover the gap. Last summer, late filers paid $250 million. This year, to make the comptroller's projection come true, they'd have to pay $700 million by August 31.

Couple that with sales taxes that are running far short of the comptroller's estimate. Sales taxes are the state's largest source of tax money, and through the end of April, the state collected about $1.5 billion less than it collected during the same period a year earlier (the comptroller had estimated sales tax growth of 0.7 percent).

If sales taxes improve a bit — it appears they're coming back up to last year's levels — the two missed estimates total about $2 billion. There's still more than a year left in the two-year budget period, but the economy would have to improve at a really, really good clip to catch up. That appears unlikely.

The numbers aren't directly linked to the estimates of an $11 billion to $18 billion shortfall in the budget lawmakers will write next year, but could eventually add to that problem. This is money that's needed to keep the current budget balanced. If revenues fall short, lawmakers could backfill, adding money later to cover current costs. That, in turn, would add to the shortfall in the next budget.

In any case, the comptroller doesn't expect the business tax numbers to make it all the way back up to the $4.3 billion estimate. "We expect the numbers to be lower because they reflect the business activity of the last year," said R.J. DeSilva, a spokesman for Combs. "We'll have a definitive answer in August."

While they're waiting, state agencies have been asked to submit their proposed budgets with details on how to cut 10 percent from what they'd like. The state's top three leaders — Rick Perry, David Dewhurst, and Joe Straus — want those options spelled out for lawmakers meeting next January to write a new budget.

Hot Property

The Texas Supreme Court will soon consider whether or not to hear a lawsuit that challenges the validity of 90 votes cast to pass a measure in Andrews County to finance a low-level radioactive dump there. One watchdog group thinks all nine members of the state’s highest civil bench should recuse themselves entirely from hearing the case. That’s because since 2000, Texans for Public Justice says, the justices have accepted over $90,000 in campaign contributions from Harold Simmons, the owner of the Dallas-based waste company that will profit from the project. Wallace Jefferson, the chief justice, has been the biggest beneficiary, with a total of $18,500 from Simmons. He’s followed by Don Willett, at $12,500. The justices who have accepted donations from Simmons include the recently appointed Debra Lehrmann, who received $5,000, the maximum allowable for one election, for her bid for the Republican nomination to replace Harriet O’Neill.

Virtual Real Estate

Curious about the commercial real estate market around Tyler? Or how about industrial real estate near, say, San Angelo? With a new site launched this week by the Governor's Economic Development and Tourism division, TexasSiteSearch.com, businesses inside and outside the state can shop for locations online.

The site consists of an interactive map that allows users to overlay key assets of their choice, like airports, seaports, and universities, as well as tap into statewide database of properties that can be searched by size, type, and location.

The site didn’t go up over night. Ann Griffith, a research specialist who helped acquire the software for the site, says it took three to four years to move the project from a “gleam in someone’s eye” to launch. “We’re thrilled to have it up finally,” she said. “We’re hoping it will be perceived as a useful tool.”

The state is hoping that perception extends beyond just the borders of Texas and even the shores of the U.S. “We’re hoping this will be used internationally,” Griffith says. “Toyota moved here to Texas years ago, this would have been useful to them back in 2002 but there wasn’t anything like this available at that time.”

The Week in the Rearview Mirror

The story so far: The federal Environmental Protection Agency expressed its disapproval of the permitting process in Texas, citing violations of the federal Clean Air Act. Gov. Rick Perry, in a letter to the President, defended the state agency, stressing that they are effective at enforcing clean air standards while maintaining a healthy climate for job creation. And Bill White contends EPA would have stayed out if Perry's appointees at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality had been doing their jobs right.

• As if the TCEQ wasn’t already under the gun from EPA’s threats, U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Flower Mound, is calling for an investigation into the state agency's operations. A March audit conducted in response to a complaint filed with the agency’s fraud division showed that its leaders were aware that equipment used for testing at a natural gas facility was not sensitive enough to test for toxic compounds. Testing with more sensitive equipment resulted in toxic compounds being identified in several locations, although this was never publicized by TCEQ. The agency is up for sunset review going into the next legislative session and will face questioning lawmakers this summer.

• Fallout from BP's oil spill continues to be not just environmental, but economic and also political. This week, the administration announced the shallow-water ban has been lifted, but stalls on new deep-water permits and suspended floating rig operations caused some to complain that any ban on drilling could impact Texas jobs. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, spoke out against curtailing energy production, saying that will bring job losses and higher energy prices.

• A broken water main in Dallas caused big headaches for the criminal justice system, disabling computer systems and forcing employees to enter information manually. The Dallas Morning News reports that a consultant’s report from 2008 warned that without an offsite backup system, an accident like this could cripple operations; no action was taken on those findings. The 96 servers are expected to be rebooted and back in service soon, and county officials are already formulating an emergency plan for next time.

• Will she or won’t she has been the refrain surrounding Kay Bailey Hutchison for over a year now. Now it's about something other than quitting the U.S. Senate to run for governor (no, she didn't). It's this: will she run for re-election in 2012? She’s not answering and claims she’s not even considering it. Meanwhile, other’s political fortunes are tied to her plans, as they make the call on their own candidacies for the possibly but not certainly open seat, as well for as their current positions.

• For light summer reading, how about the 628-page audit of Texas Department of Transportation released this week? The consultants at Grant Thornton lay out the problems facing TxDOT and make recommendations to improve its public image. According to their report, the fundamental challenge of getting the funding it needs requires TxDOT to ensure it can be trusted to handle its budget in a transparent, efficient manner. The conversation will continue at a specially called meeting of the Texas Transportation Commission next week (Tuesday).

• Troops ordered to patrol the border should be a dream-come-true for the Texas governor. But after the announcement that 1,200 National Guard troops will be heading to the U.S.-Mexico border, Perry was uncharacteristically quiet on the issue. White also reserved judgment on the plan, while expressing reservations about the limitations of relying on federal troops. A coalition of border advocacy groups had no qualms expressing their fears that the plan would turn their communities into militarized zones and hurt them economically.

• A settlement was reached in the Freedom of Information suit pending against the Metropolitan Transit Authority in Houston. Details of the deal were not publicized and state District Judge Al Bennett must still approve the deal. The controversy had generated some heat in the gubernatorial campaign as Perry used the complaint that Metro was destroying documents to criticize White and his leadership when he was mayor of Houston.

• Lawmakers, led by lame duck Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock, held meetings to do preliminary work on the redistricting they’ll have to do next year, and as they consider the impact of four million additional Texans, they’ll also need to take into account where the population growth was (metro areas). Hispanic groups view this as an opportunity to establish districts that reflect their numbers and growing power in Texas, while rural Texans will be reluctant to see their influence ebb.

• A new report assessing state facilities for people with mental disabilities found critical staffing shortages in the Lubbock State Supported Living Center. The report is part of a settlement reached last year with the Department of Justice, and forthcoming reports will evaluate each of thirteen similar facilities. Staffing problems plague many of the centers. Inexperienced workers are tapped for responsibilities beyond their abilities, the ratio of caregivers to patients is too high, and turnover rates are close to sixty percent.

Political People and Their Moves

Gov. Rick Perry appointed Debra Lehrmann to the Texas Supreme Court, replacing Harriet O'Neill, who resigned before her term was up. Lehrmann already won the Republican nomination for a full term in O'Neill's seat; the incumbent resigned after that election. Jim Sharp, a Democrat, will face Lehrmann in the November election.

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins named former state Sen. Ted Lyon, D-Mesquite, to look into alleged wrongdoing by a couple of county constables. Delays in that case have been a gift to Watkins' critics, who've suggested he's not interesting in pursuing an investigation against allies.

The public policy operation at the University of Houston has been renamed the Hobby Center for Public Policy in honor of former Lt. Gov. and former UH Chancellor Bill Hobby.

Jelain Chubb is the new Texas state archivist and director of archives and information services at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission; she was previously state archivist of Ohio.

The University of Texas System shuffled its org chart, cutting 19 fulltime positions including two vice chancellor posts. The cuts included Tonya Brown, vice chancellor for administration, and Keith McDowell, vice chancellor for research and technology transfer.

Former GOP gubernatorial candidate Debra Medina announced the launch of a new political advocacy group, We Texans. She will serve as the group’s president.

The governor appointed Joseph Croci of Bee Cave and Ford Keating of Austin to the Texas Skill Standards Board for terms to expire at the pleasure of the governor.

And he appointed Tony Cortes of San Antonio to the Texas Fire Protection Commission.

Quotes of the Week

Lobbyist Brad Shields, in an Austin American-Statesman article on lobbyists getting concealed handgun licenses to speed entry to the Capitol during the legislative session: "Because of a scare with one crazy guy with a gun, the only way to get quick access to the Capitol will be to carry a gun. Now, that makes a lot of sense, doesn't it?"

Former Rep. and current lobbyist Pat Haggerty, R-El Paso, on the rush to apply for handgun licenses to circumvent metal detectors upon entrance to the Texas State Capitol, as reported by the San Antonio Express-News: "There are some lobbyists I don't know whether I'd trust — or trust myself if they're around. It would certainly be a good way to do away with the competition."

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, after learning about Russia's National Day of Procreation (an effort to boost the country's population) from Eddie Aldrete, the vice-president of IBC Bank: "Talk about your feel-good legislation!"

Attorney General Greg Abbott, on the accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down, quoted in the Dallas Morning News: "Just because this happened doesn't mean I can't do whatever it is I wanted to do. It picked me up off of the hospital bed and got me going."

U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Rockwall, on why the BP spill shows a need for more offshore deepwater drilling, quoted in the Dallas Morning News: "There's this huge stream of energy that's coming out of that broken pipe. It's certainly something we could use to lessen our dependence on Arab energy."

Gov. Rick Perry, on the Environmental Protection Agency's threat to take over Texas' air quality permitting program, at a press conference in Deer Park, Texas: "I don't understand the federal response of coming in to the state that should be the poster child, should be the model for this country."

Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, in a statement on the Guv's decision not to apply for the second round of federal Race to the Top funds: "The truth is that Perry accepted $16 billion in federal stimulus money last year. He hopes that the Race to the Top decision will make him look like a Washington outsider. I'm not falling for it."

Debra Fowler, legal director of Texas Appleseed, to The Texas Tribune on the practice of having law enforcement issue tickets to elementary school students for bad behavior: "The parent ends up bearing the brunt of the fine, time off work and court costs, and it’s not really a meaningful punishment for children… Also, there’s a sort of absurdity to issuing a ticket to a 10-year-old child."

Hudspeth County Commissioner Jim Ed Miller making a sarcastic observation about the debate about illegal immigration to The Texas Tribune: "Facts are negotiable, but perceptions are rock solid." Contributors: Morgan Smith, Ceryta Holm, Reeve Hamilton, and Julian Aguilar


Texas Weekly: Volume 27, Issue 22, 6 June 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.

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.

Quality journalism doesn't come free

Yes, I'll donate today