Is it possible that the inventors of adult diapers had been through a Texas speakers' race? Whatever the answer is to that question, there's little doubt they have a market for their products in Austin this week.
Speaker Joe Straus has his list of more than 80 percent of the 150 members of the House who've pledged to vote for his reelection when the Legislature convenes on January 11. Only three things can happen to a list like that: People stay put, people leave, or people sign up. The news this week has been mostly about the dropouts.
The incumbent in a situation like this one wants to end the conversation — something the Straus camp hoped for when they threw 128 names on the table. But the election isn't until January 11, two months from now. The opposition is energetic and somewhat organized. And this is the first such race since a federal judge opened the door in 2008 for third parties to take part in the choosing of the House's presiding officer.
During the last week:
Bryan Hughes left the fold, adding almost in passing that he was put off by a fellow legislator who told him he'd be taken care of in redistricting because of his support for Straus, but that others who didn't support the speaker were already being written out of the maps.
Straus put out a letter calling that outrageous and asking Hughes to cough up the name of the perpetrator. Chuck Hopson, R-Jacksonville, has his General Investigating & Ethics committee fired up and ready to investigate the perp. And Hughes later put out a statement saying he's given the name to Straus.
Ken Paxton, R-McKinney put his own name in the hat, saying he'd like to be speaker. Jodi Laubenberg, R-Parker, also in Collin County, says she'll support Paxton. She was originally on Straus' post-election list.
Warren Chisum, who jumped in two weeks before the election, sent out a new letter questioning Straus' ethics — by saying he wasn't questioning his ethics and describing the ethics he wasn't questioning. Here's the section in question: "Some Republican members of the House accepted huge campaign donations from Speaker Straus. The Speaker had them agree to sign 'pledge cards' to vote to reelect him as Speaker. That exchange has the unfortunate effect of creating the perception — just a perception, mind you — that leaves members trading votes for campaign donations. Personally, I don't think the members did that. But there is no denying the perception is there."
A second missive from Chisum called on Straus to release his pledges. Straus wrote back (all of these letters hit the media about the same time the members get them, evidently): "It is apparent to the most casual observer that the nasty tenor of this race emanates from you and your supporters, who are obviously behind the effort to hijack the speaker's race from the membership and subject it to the influence of outside forces. You can't claim to protect the members while at the same time activating outside forces to threaten them."
Some groups called on Straus to name his committees for the next session — something he technically doesn't have the power to do until after he's elected in January. Michael Quinn Sullivan with the Empower Texans PAC put out a press release on Election Night asserting a mandate: "Speaker Straus has no choice now but to appoint a much more conservative committee leadership in the House. Texas voters are clearly uninterested in power sharing and compromising with the failed policies of liberal Democrats. Speaker Straus is now free to make House committees more reflective of the conservative will of the people." Appointing committees before he's elected could put Straus on the wrong side of laws that prevent promising benefits to people in return for their support. That said, the speaker hasn't publicly said he'll have more Republican committee chairmen, or that he'll cut Democrats out. That leaves room for his critics to keep talking. And they're talking, with dozens — starting with Sullivan — signing a letter that calls for "a change to a more conservative speaker."
Leo Berman, R-Tyler, last week accused Straus of violating those bribery laws by contributing money to Republican candidates from his own political accounts, saying Straus did so in order to obtain their support.
There's a counter-letter from a group of conservative Republicans who support Straus and want everybody to chill out. The first signer on that one is Borah Van Dormolen, the Republican national committeewoman from Texas.
This can go on — maybe not at the current amplitude — all the way until January. Whether or not it turns out Straus in favor of someone else, the House is setting the tone for a session that would be contentious on the issues, even with the relationships in good shape. Texas has had speaker fights every two years for a decade.
One big difference this time is the freedom that outside groups have in the contest. They'd been blocked by the laws governing speakers' races — laws written to keep outsiders from interfering in what has long been regarded as an insider's game. But the Liberty Institute's Kelly Shackleford — with backing from the ACLU, among others — argued successfully that a speaker's race is just another legislative vote, and that people ought to be allowed to lobby legislators about how they vote. The courts agreed, and this is the first race for speaker, in Texas, featuring unfettered outsiders.
Inside Intelligence: Legislative Changes?
Most of our insiders — 92.6 percent — think Joe Straus will still be the speaker after January 11, but they don't sound confident that a Republican supermajority will bring peace and harmony to the Pink Building. Only a dozen of this week's 163 respondents think there will be a new speaker, and their choices varied between Warren Chisum, who's declared, Larry Taylor, who hasn't, and "someone else." Tom Craddick got a vote, and so did Dan Branch, a Straus supporter. Neither has indicated any interest in being speaker in 2011.
Almost as big a majority — 87.1 percent — think the Senate should keep requiring a two-thirds majority to bring up legislation for consideration.
Inside Intelligence is a new weekly feature we're doing with our sister publication The Texas Tribune: A survey of insiders on questions of the moment. We sent questions to more than 450 lobbyists, consultants, former officeholders and others to check the collective pulse of the people closest to the action. We didn't ask current officeholders or their staffs, and we used an Internet service that prevents non-invitees from voting and prevents invitees from voting more than once. We'll do a new one every week, running in Texas Weekly on Friday and sometime the next week in the Tribune. This week, we got 163 responses who identify themselves as Independent (27.6 percent), Republican (40.5 percent) and Democrat (31.3 percent).
This week's open-ended question was, "How do you think the election outcomes will affect the legislative session ahead?" A few of the answers (the full set can be found here):
"I think some of the more polarizing issues will get further than they have in the past but not necessarily pass. There will be a huge amount of infighting among Republicans, which we are already seeing in the speaker's race."
"Redistricting will suck. Dramatically."
"Texans clearly want a much more conservative set of policy outcomes. The voters clearly shut off debate on new revenue sources in favor of strict fiscal accountability and responsibility."
"Some sort of voter ID bill and immigration reform bill will pass. And any chance for increasing the gambling footprint went away on election night."
"With almost all of the winners pledging no new taxes, it would appear major cuts to state spending in health care, education and infrastructure development are in the offing. And the Republicans will be able to make the DeLay plan look modest as they claim 75% of the Congressional seats in the delegation."
"Conservatives will get everything they want and more: huge budget cuts for social services, illegal immigration legislation, voter identification legislation, more tort reform legislation, and redistricting that cements Republican control of the state for the next decade. Thank you Texas Democratic Party!"
"It will obviously embolden conservative Republicans, so expect a stream of early votes on social issues before reality sinks in and the sober business of budget cutting takes all the fun out of the session."
"The elections made redistricting even harder. More Rs now will have to be paired. Passing a budget became easier, however. The Rs simply will cut and cut and cut."
"Train wreck. R's want no tax hike. D's don't have the votes or a plan. Let the Special Sessions begin."
"Move to the right please! The huge Republican numbers will dictate a number of conservative issues will likely be passed (Voter ID, Immigration, additional tort reforms, etc). Shake-up of key committee leadership will also occur due to the large Republican majority. Finally, cuts in state services will be deep and very little can be done by slim Democrat numbers."
"More partisan bickering. Greater likelihood of more special sessions."
"If Republicans are unified (big if), budget and redistricting get done in the regular session. Looks like legislators will have the summer off."
One More Election
John Kuempel of Seguin will run for his late father's seat in the Texas House. Edmund Kuempel, elected in 1982, died last week after a heart attack. The younger Kuempel won't get a free ride: Robin Walker, also of Seguin, also a Republican, is running. She lost the GOP primary earlier this year to the elder Kuempel, getting only 25.4 percent of the votes. And Schertz attorney and school board member Gary Inmon — who's also the incoming president of the Texas Association of School Boards — is looking, too. HD-44 is a strongly Republican district, and Gov. Rick Perry called the special election to fill the seat for December 14. Candidates have until Monday at 5 p.m. to sign up.
By a Thread
After overseas ballots were counted, incumbent Democratic Rep. Donna Howard of Austin expanded her already razor-thin election night lead over Republican challenger Dan Neil by a single ballot, putting her lead at 16 votes.
As far as Travis County officials are concerned, the final vote tally is 25,026 votes for Howard to Neil's 25,010. A recount is considered likely, but Neil had yet to officially demand it. "We have until a couple days after Secretary of State canvasses," said Eric Bearse, a spokesman for the Neil campaign, in an e-mail on Thursday, "so right now we are still looking at our options."
If a recount came out in Neil's favor, it might seem like just another win in a slew of Republican victories, but the implications for this race are particularly high for multiple reasons. For starters, Howard currently has the distinction of being the only remaining white female Democrat in the House. More importantly, with Howard hanging on, the split in the House is 99 Republicans to 51 Democrats. Flipping just one of those D's would give the R's a solid supermajority.
Howard is proceeding under the assumption that she will be spending the first half of 2011 under the Capitol dome. "I was prepared for whatever the voters decided here," she told KXAN in Austin, "and I'm extremely grateful for the outcome that will allow me to continue working for the people of the district."
In a pivotal decision that will attract the attention of property rights groups and open-beach advocates across the country, the Texas Supreme Court ruled last week that the Open Beaches Act may not allow the state to ask landowners to remove private property if a hurricane or other natural disaster moves it within the public section of a beach.
The 1959 Open Beaches Act — along with a constitutional amendment passed last year — provides that the public must have access to the state's beaches between the coast's mean low tide line and the vegetation line. When a hurricane or other natural disaster occurs, it can affect those boundaries, moving the public access line forward or backward. After Hurricane Rita, Carol Severance's Galveston property — four homes in total — ended up on the public beach. She sued the General Land Office and the state of Texas after she received a letter from Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson saying her houses would be subject to removal now that they were on state property. After she appealed the decision to the federal 5th Circuit, that court sent the case to the Texas Supreme Court to interpret the Open Beaches Act.
"While losing property to the public trust as it becomes part of the wet beach or submerged under the ocean is an ordinary hazard of ownership for coastal property owners, it is far less reasonable to hold that a public easement can suddenly encumber an entirely new portion of a landowner's property that was not previously subject to that right of use," the court wrote.
Two justices on the all-Republican court — David Medina, joined by the newly elected Debra Lehrmann — dissented. In his opinion, Medina criticized the majority's "game of semantics," arguing that the ruling "jeopardizes the public's right to free and open beaches."
The Week in the Rearview Mirror
Gov. Rick Perry hasn't let his disdain for Washington stop him from asking for federal aid. When the Obama administration turned down his request for a disaster declaration in the wake of Tropical Storm Hermine, Perry appealed to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for aid for 13 counties hit by excessive flooding. That request has also been denied, with FEMA saying Texas has the internal resources to take care of the cleanup. State officials have since said they'll seek aid from other federal agencies, including the departments of Commerce and Agriculture.
Texas found itself in the national spotlight again as two of its governors — one current and one former — went on the book promotion circuit. After nailing down his re-election, Gov. Rick Perry headed out on tour in support of his new book, Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington. He appeared on news and talk shows to discuss fiscal policy, the federal government and his predecessor, George W. Bush, coincidentally also out on a book tour. Bush's memoir, Decision Points, was just released, and the former president will be keeping a higher profile these days while promoting it. Since he left the presidency almost two years ago, he has not made many public appearances or campaigned for any candidates.
A 99-page report submitted by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to state officials contained two recommendations for higher education reform that are attracting a fair amount of attention. The first would force public schools to report on performance measures that would be tied to 10 percent of their base funding. The second specifies new standards in awarding the state's main form of financial aid for students, the TEXAS Grant. The performance-based approach to funding schools has already generated controversy at Texas A&M University, where cash has been awarded to faculty members based on student evaluations.
A Manvel residential treatment center has again come under scrutiny after a teen living there died of apparent asphyxiation after a staffer at the center tried to restrain him. The state had just put Daystar Residential Center on probation in light of previous incidents at the facility and a report by an independent monitor, which suggested that such restraints were frequently used.
Straight-ticket voting has been abolished in most states, but Texans made good use of their ability to vote a party ticket this year. In the five biggest counties, straight-ticket voting was at its highest level in a decade, and — no surprise — Republicans were the big winners. Even though urban counties are generally seen as friendlier to Democrats in straight-party voting, Republicans had the edge this year in all but Dallas and Travis counties. Coupled with traditional Republican straight-party voters in rural counties, the fate of Democrats in the election was sealed.
The most-discussed numbers from the recent election have centered on the Republican sweep of the Legislature — but other numbers bear watching, too. The Libertarian and Green Parties of Texas were able to field candidates in 2010 that will gain them automatic access to the 2012 ballot based on percentages of votes they received. The Greens in particular should be grateful that they won't encounter the same uphill battle they faced this year just to get on the ballot, giving their candidates more time to prepare for the election.
If you're still keeping score in the case of Judge Sharon Keller, she has again prevailed in her fight to get her public warning tossed out. Stemming from a death penalty case in 2007 in which she refused to keep her office open late to hear an appeal, it appears that efforts to punish her have failed and prosecutors have exhausted all options. A special three-judge panel has upheld its finding that the public warning was issued in error and that there will not be a rehearing.
Budgeters beware: The revenue picture for Texas keeps getting bleaker. A 21-member task force released a report the day after the election showing that the relatively new and controversial business margins tax is not bringing in as much money as projected and could widen the expected budget shortfall. Although no recommendations were made, Comptroller Susan Combs still felt it necessary to clarify that the report was issued simply to provide data to the Legislature and that it should not be used to recommend changes.
Republicans taking the election results as a mandate are already pressing their agenda. And they think they can move the agenda along quickly if they can just make one little change to Senate rules: eliminating the two-thirds rule, which requires in the current Senate that 21 members agree to bring up a bill for vote. The Senate currently contains only 19 Republicans, leaving the possibility that Democrats could block all legislation if they chose. Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, thinks the rule should change from two-thirds to 60 percent (or, 18 votes). He needs just 16 votes to change the rule when the Legislature convenes in January and says he already has a handful of members on board.
It was big political news when the big Texas schools were considering conference realignment, right? The little guys do it with so much less fuss: UT-San Antonio and Texas State University are joining the Western Athletic Conference. That starts in summer 2012. Both of those schools are now in the Southland Conference.
Political People and Their Moves
U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, who lost the Corpus Christi congressional seat he has held since 1983, is shelling out almost $28,000 to have the ballots recounted. The 73-year-old Democrat, who was down by 797 votes to Republican Blake Farenthold at last count, is amending his recount request, according to the McAllen Monitor. He originally called for a recount of three precincts in Nueces County, but the Texas Secretary of State says every precinct has to be included.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, who withstood his challenge from a Republican challenger, wouldn't mind vying for a seat on the House Appropriations Committee, the San Antonio Express-News reported. The report cited Austin-based consultant Colin Strother, a longtime adviser to Cuellar and his brother, Webb County Sheriff Martin Cuellar, who said the congressman would "absolutely" pursue the seat. Cuellar is currently a member of the U.S. House Homeland Security, Agriculture, and Oversight & Government Reform committees.
After eight years regulating the oil and gas business, outgoing Texas Railroad Commissioner Victor Carrillo will join Texas Right of Way Associates when he leaves the commission. That outfit surveys and acquires land and rights of way for energy firms.
Alex Bunin, the federal public defender for the Northern District of New York, was unanimously appointed chief of Harris County's first-ever public defender office by the commissioners court.
Gov. Rick Perry reappointed Jose Cuevas Jr. of Midland, the president and founder of JumBurrito Inc., to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
Perry appointed Harvey Brown of Houston as justice of the 1st Court of Appeals. Brown is a partner at Wright, Brown and Close LLP and a former judge in the 152nd Judicial District Court in Harris County.
Perry appointed David Rakow of Rockwall as judge of the 439th District Court in Rockwall County. Rakow is judge of the Rockwall County Court at Law and a former assistant criminal district attorney for Rockwall and Kaufman counties.
University of North Texas System Chancellor Lee Jackson announced his intention to nominate V. Lane Rawlins as the sole finalist for the presidency of the University of North Texas. Rawlins is the interim president; that nomination needs approval from the board of regents.
Quotes of the Week
Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, who camped out at the Capitol for 36 hours to be the first to pre-file her bills for the next legislative session, to The Texas Tribune: "I would have waited a month if I had to do so."
President George W. Bush on NBC's Today, accepting rapper Kanye West's apology for famously saying during the aftermath of Katrina that the president "doesn't care about black people": "I'm not a hater."
Tea Party activist Debra Medina weighing in on the speaker's race on conservative blog Texas GOP Vote: "A chairman who unilaterally does our bidding but stifles debate from the opposition does little to facilitate the wisdom of the body or good public policy."
Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, to Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, on the lawmaker's call to release House members from their pledges to support him as speaker: "Have you no shame? At a time when we should be celebrating the historic Republican gains of the recent election, and focusing on the business of the state, you have instead engaged in a campaign of distortions and attacks that have subjected the membership to a constant strain of negativity solely to return power to a small faction that lost it in January, 2009."
Mexican American Legislative Caucus Chairman Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, on how he would have welcomed Democrat Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs, back in to the caucus after Rose's anti-immigration ads during the campaign: "We just don't have any tolerance for those who want to play political games or use immigration as wedge to advance some partisan agenda. Had he won the election, Rose would have learned first hand what it means to kick Latinos down the road like they're some sort of aluminum can."
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on her belief that President Barack Obama's health care reform plan will lead to more abortions, in The Dallas Morning News: "It is even worse than what we had thought. The ramifications of this legislation are horrendous."
Steve Ray, spokesman for U.S. Rep.-elect Blake Farenthold reacting in the McAllen Monitor to news that incumbent Democrat Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, will push for a recount: "Mr. Ortiz didn't get enough votes on Election Day and he didn't give them enough money for a recount. It seems he just keeps coming up short. It is time for him to stop this charade so that Blake can get to work for the people of the 27th District."
Carrollton City Manager Leonard Martin on money Texas cities spend lobbying elected officials for federal dollars, quoted in the Tribune: "Lobbying — let's face it — comes with a bad rap. It always suggests that you're buying people off and on. Our people don't do that."
Contributors: Julian Aguilar, Reeve Hamilton, Ceryta Holm, David Muto and Morgan Smith
Texas Weekly: Volume 27, Issue 43, 15 November 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. For news, email email@example.com, or call (512) 716-8611.