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How Things Look at the Gate

Republican Gov. Rick Perry is six points ahead of Democrat Bill White in the new University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll. Other numbers in that survey indicate voters might be willing to vote for a new governor but that White hasn't made the sale: 22 percent are undecided, 5 percent would vote for Libertarian Kathie Glass and — this is sort of interesting — 31 percent say they identify with the Tea Party. White got 33 percent in the poll to Perry's 39 percent — a number of some significance, since it was Perry's final percentage in 2006's four-way race for governor.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry is six points ahead of Democrat Bill White in the new University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll. Other numbers in that survey indicate voters might be willing to vote for a new governor but that White hasn't made the sale: 22 percent are undecided, 5 percent would vote for Libertarian Kathie Glass and — this is sort of interesting — 31 percent say they identify with the Tea Party. White got 33 percent in the poll to Perry's 39 percent — a number of some significance, since it was Perry's final percentage in 2006's four-way race for governor.

On the other end of the same poll, it's probably a good thing Perry isn't running for national office (just ask him). He's running sixth in his own state in a hypothetical 2012 Republican primary for president, behind Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and Texas Congressman Ron Paul. The range there runs from Perry at 7 percent to Palin at 20. Jeb Bush, former Florida Guv and the brother of The Man Who, clocked in with 3 percent. Too soon for another Bush?

The poll landed as Perry uncorked his fall ad campaign, starting with a positive spot on the economy on Sunday and developing before the first week was over into a campaign with both positive and negative commercials. White has been on the air for about a month and a half, bolstered by weeks of negative advertising from the Steve Mostyn-funded Back to Basics PAC.

The president of the United States is a drag on Democrats in Texas, with his 58 percent job disapproval rating and a markedly unpopular Democratic Congress behind him. Registered voters in Texas (800 of them were polled September 3-8, with a margin of error of 3.46 percent) support the state's lawsuit against federal health car laws, favor Arizona-style immigration laws, and give mediocre grades to the national, state and to their personal economies, with bigger groups saying they think things are worse than they were a year ago and smaller groups saying things are better now than then.

Generic Republicans beat generic Democrats in both congressional and statehouse matchups by 15 points. Similar margins show up in the contests for lieutenant governor, attorney general, etc., but not in the governor's race. For all of Perry's efforts to nail White to Washington, the former Houston mayor seems to be dodging the fusillade. Voters, asked how they feel about various people and institutions, had both Perry and White in a pack with the Tea Party, Republicans in Congress and the GOP itself. Barack Obama, the Democrats in Congress and the Democratic Party lag behind.

The statewide races at the bottom are closer than the race for Lite Guv between David Dewhurst and Linda Chavez-Thompson (15 points), and for AG between Greg Abbott and Barbara Ann Radnofsky (17 points), but Republicans are still in the lead. Jerry Patterson has a 10-point edge over Hector Uribe in the land commissioner race, Todd Staples is beating Hank Gilbert by 7 percentage points in the agriculture commissioner race; and Republican David Porter leads Democrat Jeff Weems by 8 points in the railroad commissioner contest. Libertarians are pulling up to 7 points in those contests — easily enough to act as spoilers in close races.

Only 2 percent list the state budget has high on their list of important issues. On the state side, it's border security and immigration, followed by the economy and jobs. On the national list, the Texans put the economy at the top, followed by unemployment and jobs, followed by political corruption/leadership (an issue that also made the top five on the state list).

Debate and Switch

Rick Perry’s re-election campaign set a Sept. 15 deadline for Bill White,to release his income tax returns from his days in the Clinton administration or forgo the chance to debate the governor. The day came and went. No tax returns were released. And now the chances of a televised debate look slim.

White’s campaign has agreed to just about every debate offer that’s come its way. “Debates are a means of accountability for voters, and Perry's showing his true colors as a scripted professional politician who thinks he's entitled to re-election," White said. "I'll debate him anywhere, anytime.”

Perry spokesman Mark Miner blamed White’s “lack of transparency and honesty” for preventing a debate. “Every time liberal Bill White has released some of his past tax returns, scandal has followed,” he said in a statement. “Why is Bill White still hiding the truth about his financial activity from the people of Texas?”

Because of equal time rules for broadcast television, a proposed Oct. 19 debate hosted by some of the state’s major newspapers may have to be replaced with an hour-long interview of White that streams on the web — unless, of course, Perry has a change of heart. Of course, there are other options still available. For example, it’s possible that interviews could take the place of a traditional debate, which is what happened when Ann Richards and Claytie Williams opted not to share a stage in 1990.

Political Science

Just under a year after the Texas Forensic Science Commission was originally set to consider the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, the agency appears poised to say arson investigators committed no wrongdoing in providing evidence used to convict the Corsicana man for the deaths of his three daughters in 2004.

After much delay, the commission addresses the Willingham investigation for a final time on Friday. A draft of a report circulated prior to the meeting suggests it will conclude that investigators who provided evidence for the state adhered to the fire science standards that existed at the time and thus were not professionally negligent in concluding that Willingham started the fire.

That conflicts with the conclusions of Craig Beyler, the nationally renowned fire expert the commission hired to advise it on the Willingham case last summer. Beyler's report discredited the techniques of the investigators, saying they seemed "to be wholly without any realistic understanding of fires and how fire injuries are created." At a July meeting, commission members, including Chairman John Bradley, questioned the basis of Beyler's report, saying it did not properly detail what the contemporary standard of practice for fire investigations in Texas and focused on publications and research, rather than manuals or materials the investigators would have been able to access. It's not fair, Bradley said then, "to go back in time to create some academic, theoretical standard based on academic documents," adding that the investigator "was doing what he was taught at the time."

In 2007, the Innocence Project submitted a complaint to the commission concerning the arson science the state used to convict Willingham. Two days before the commission was scheduled to take up the Willingham case in October, Gov. Rick Perry abruptly replaced three of the commission members, including then-Chairman Sam Bassett, an Austin criminal defense attorney. Bradley, then the Williamson County district attorney, took his place and postponed the review.

Sens. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, sent a letter earlier last week to the commission criticizing its handling of the Willingham case. They said the commission has been too secretive — its internal deliberations on the case have been in a four-person subcommittee not subject to the Open Meetings Act — and that it has avoided answering the original question brought up by the complaint: "Did the State Fire Marshal commit professional negligence or misconduct if it failed to inform the courts, prosecutors, the Board of Pardons and Parole, and the Governor that flawed arson science may have been used to convict hundreds or thousands of defendants?"

Bradley responded to the letter by questioning the senators' motives, noting that they also sit on the Innocence Project's board of directors. "The Forensic Science Commission is an independent agency that will set aside the exaggerated claims and self-serving opinions of individuals outside the forensic field and concentrate on answering the single statutory question authorized by law to be answered,” he said. "The rest is just a circus sideshow."

Losing Their Religion

After months of relative quiet, the State Board of Education has injected itself back into the headlines with a resolution warning textbook publishers that a “pro-Islamic/anti-Christian bias has tainted some past Texas Social Studies textbooks.”

Oddly, the resolution emanated from Randy Rives, a candidate for State Board of Education District 15. Rives lost the Republican primary — badly — to the more moderate incumbent Republican, Bob Craig of Lubbock.

“It’s a little unusual,” said Board Chair Gail Lowe, R-Lampasas. “We don’t typically have resolutions brought by members of the public,” particularly a losing candidate for office. Lowe put the resolution on the agenda, she says, after getting requests to do so from constituents and from social conservative board allies Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio; Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands; Don McLeroy, R-Bryan; and Terri Leo, R-Spring.

Typically, resolutions don’t mean much, Lowe said: “I’m not a big fan of resolutions, national car-buying month or biscuit-eating week or whatever. They don’t bind anybody to anything.”

Still, some members contend that the 2002 board — also Republican-dominated — somehow let some anti-Christian, pro-Islamic stuff into Lone Star textbooks. Among the outrages cited: “allotting 82 student text lines to Christian beliefs, practices, and holy writings but 159 (almost twice as many) to those of Islam; describing Crusaders' massacres of European Jews yet ignoring the Muslim Tamerlane's massacre of perhaps 90,000 co-religionists at Baghdad in 1401, and of perhaps 100,000 Indian POWs at Delhi in 1398; thrice charging medieval Christians with sexism; and saying the Church "laid the foundations for anti-Semitism."

Board members want to issue this stern warning to publishers: “that the SBOE will look to reject future prejudicial Social Studies submissions that continue to offend Texas law with respect to treatment of the world's major religious groups by significant inequalities of coverage space-wise and/or by demonizing or lionizing one or more of them over others, as in the above-cited instances.”

Lowe says the board plans to take up the matter Sept. 24. She says she will endeavor to avoid casting a vote, as the board chair often does unless a member calls for a roll-call vote or her vote is needed to break a tie. But Lowe, who usually votes with the social conservative bloc, says she would vote to approve the resolution if forced. “It would be unusual to have a record vote” on a nonbinding resolution, Lowe says. “But we’ve done quite a few unusual things this year.”

Resurrecting "Loser Pays"

Gov. Rick Perry would like some more tort reform, please. Striking a policy note at a campaign stop, he threw his support behind an effort to restrict frivolous litigation. "More is needed to restrain frivolous lawsuits and personal injury lawyers," said the governor, who was in Houston to accept the endorsement of lobbying heavyweight Texans for Lawsuit Reform. It's unusual for Perry to make a policy announcement on the campaign trail and the move could hint that the Guv is getting ready to bop the Democratic opponent, already labeled in dozens of press releases as "liberal trial lawyer Bill White," over tort reform issues.

He praised the extensive tort reform package the Legislature passed in 2003 but said more is needed In particular, he'd like to see a loser-pays system, in which a plaintiff must pay a defendant's legal costs if a court determines a suit is frivolous; more strictly defined causes-of-action; and allowing courts to expedite legal claims and quickly dismiss those that are clearly groundless.

The Week in the Rearview Mirror

Most public school students in Texas heard a presidential back-to-school speech this week with little fanfare. The public outcry that was big news last year was nonexistent this year, as President Barack Obama again encouraged students to work diligently and dream big as they pursue their education. Districts reported much less opposition from parents and credit last year's speech for easing concerns about content.

Twenty states, including Texas, that are suing the federal government over the health care reform bill were heartened to see their lawsuit (mostly) given the green light. The suit claims the law is unconstitutional because it requires citizens to buy health insurance. A federal judge dismissed portions of the lawsuit and said he'll rule on the remainder by October 14.

Lawmakers and state officials have been struggling for months to figure out how to fill the growing budget shortfall. Now comes word that the estimate has been revised upward again, from $18 billion to $21 billion. The fiscal year that closed at the end of August showed even weaker tax receipts than anticipated. The official number, calculated by the comptroller's office, won't be available until January, whe­n it will be presented to the Legislature as it reconvenes.

For the first time in its history, the University of Texas has a freshman class without an Anglo majority. The results of an ethnicity survey showed that less than 50 percent of the class checked the racial box classifying them as white. Options for students changed this year, with the addition of new categories: ”Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander” and “two or more,” which taken together made up 2.7 percent of the population. Every category except white showed an increase over last year's figures.

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, is facing scrutiny after an analysis of his financial records found some gaps in his reports. Stock transactions made by McCaul and his wife, Linda, weren't detailed properly on financial disclosures required by the House Ethics Committee. McCaul blamed the faulty disclosures on a clerical error at the accounting firm he uses and promised to amend the statements immediately.

Rep. Larry Taylor won't get to see the legal settlements he sought from the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association — a Galveston judge ruled TWIA doesn't have to reveal the details. The Friendswood Republican was asking the association for pieces of a settlement reached between homeowners and insurance companies. He says he wanted to examine the deals and also said he wasn't motivated by curiosity about Houston attorney Steve Mostyn. Mostyn, the lawyer for the homeowners, is also this year's most prolific Democratic donor, and some characterized Taylor's move as political.

After failing to work out a deal with federal education authorities to free up $830 million in federal tax dollars, Texas Republicans filed a bill to repeal the so-called Doggett Amendment. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, wants the U.S. House to undo the requirement to spend the money only for increases in state education funding. U.S. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn filed legislation with similar intent in the Senate.

Petrochemical companies could soon get some guidance on what’s required of them under rules set and enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency, which ruled that the state agency issuing permits was violating the Clean Air Act. The federal agency has taken over the permitting process, auditing dozens of petrochemical plants. It plans to help companies comply with the law going forward, while guaranteeing forgiveness for past violations.

Political People and Their Moves

Strike Libertarian Mike Smith from the HD-78 race in El Paso; he dropped out, endorsing Republican Dee Margo, who's trying to win a rematch against Democratic Rep. Joe Moody.

Bryan Preston left his post as communications director for the Republican Party of Texas to become a full-time blogger at the conservative Political consultant Chris Elam takes over at the RPT.

Gov. Rick Perry appointed Scott J. Becker of McKinney as judge of the 219th District Court in Collin County. Becker is an assistant district attorney in Collin County.

Quotes of the Week

Gov. Rick Perry at a press event defending his rationale for not debating Democratic challenger Bill White: “It’s not about this good ol’ fightin’ Texas Aggie being afraid to [debate] that Harvard boy.”

Bill White, responding on Facebook: “Rick Perry now refers himself as a ‘good ol' fighting Aggie’ and calls me a ‘Harvard boy.’ OK. At age 20 I helped put together a bipartisan coalition to pass legislation to reduce oil imports through energy efficiency and a stronger domestic oil and gas business. Then I returned to Harvard and then UT. At the same age Rick was a yell leader, which is great. Surely both Rick's parents and mine were proud of us.”

Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, on whether he'll run for speaker of the House, quoted in The Texas Tribune: "We're still in the talking process. I'm sticking my toe in the water and seeing if there's any temperature there. Seems to be some temperature."

County Commissioner Kenneth Mayfield, to Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, during a hearing in which Watkins challenged the court's decision to cut three jobs from his office, quoted in The Dallas Morning News: "You're about the sorriest public official I've ever been associated with."

Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, on the direction of the state: “I think going the liberal, progressive, godless way is fundamentally wrong.”

Loretta Haldenwang, Democratic candidate in HD-105, to The Dallas Morning News on Republican incumbent Linda Harper-Brown accepting mileage reimbursements while driving a car owned by a state contractor: "We’ll give her the gasoline reimbursement, but the money she’s not entitled to, we want back."

University of Texas President William Powers Jr., on the reputation of the country's current higher education system at the state of the university address, in the Austin American-Statesman: "There is a growing crisis of public confidence in American universities, and these forces are not going away any time soon."

Retired deputy state comptroller Billy Hamilton on why Gov. Rick Perry and Bill White haven’t offered specifics on dealing with the budget hold, in The Dallas Morning News: "I've worked for politicians most of my adult life, and I never knew one to say 'Oh, no, there's this huge problem and I haven't got the first idea on how to deal with it.' "

Contributors: Julian Aguilar, Reeve Hamilton, Ceryta Holm, David Muto, Morgan Smith, and Brian Thevenot

Texas Weekly: Volume 27, Issue 35, 20 September 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 For news, email, or call (512) 716-8611.

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