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Drama Club

Maybe Dan Branch is right. Asked whether there's a race for speaker, he called it more of a "Speaker Drama" and said Joe Straus (to whom he's pledged) appears to have the thing locked up.

Maybe Dan Branch is right. Asked whether there's a race for speaker, he called it more of a "Speaker Drama" and said Joe Straus (to whom he's pledged) appears to have the thing locked up.

Ken Paxton, the McKinney Republican who's pulled together a dozen votes in his challenge to Straus (who claims 122), says he's got supporters who haven't yet revealed themselves (he did a long interview on the subject of the race, which you can read or listen to on The Texas Tribune, here). And he seems to be relying on a strategy of encouraging members to listen to their constituents while outside groups bang the drums encouraging constituents to call members urging them to vote for a new speaker.

Straus' side is downplaying the race — see Branch, Dan, above — while taking it seriously enough to keep up the barrage of Internet ads and outside messaging and so on.

All of this might not result in a new speaker. But it'll have a role in the tone of the House next session. It's also the only way these guys know how to fight. The big class of Republicans elected in 2002 put Tom Craddick in the speaker's seat and then watched for years as Democrats and a small group of dissident Republicans tortured him from the chamber's back microphone — the one where people go to question bill sponsors. And speakers.

That's over; those guys won the best parking spaces two years ago with Straus' election. And Jim Dunnam, the leader of the Democrats during those years and the champion tormentor from the back mic, lost his reelection bid and won't be there to pester any Republicans this year.

If this lead-in to the session is any indication, it's likely to be Republicans back there raising hell next year. The Democrats are, on paper, too small to matter. But they'll get to play, if they can hold their ranks together, simply because the Republicans are splitting over who's more conservative and who's truer to the cause.

The bigger that split, the more powerful the minority will be. Republicans only number 99 if they can stick together. If they're split into two groups, the winners on any given issue will be those who assemble coalitions from the three groups on the floor: Democrats, Republicans, and Republicans.

Inside Intelligence: Working on the Railroad

With the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission bearing down on the Texas Railroad Commission, we asked the insiders this week whether the RRC should live or die, and whether the commissioners ought to be appointed or elected.

They'd kill it, and they favor appointed regulators over elected ones. Half said regulators should be appointed, while 37 percent prefer elections, 8 percent said it doesn't matter, and five percent don't know. Asked whether the RRC ought to remain as is, 33 percent said keep it, 60 percent said kill it and 7 percent didn't have a preference.

The usual disclaimers apply here: This is a non-scientific survey of political and government and lobby insiders. We ended the survey this week with a question: "Budget writers are looking for other agencies and programs to cut or reorganize. What's the state government doing now that it ought to stop doing?" Some of the things they said, starting with an unusually enthusiastic and detailed answer (the full verbatims are here:

• "First, I'd like to clarify my answers to 1 and 2. The RRC should be abolished and its duties transferred to the PUC with no new commissioners and a 20 percent reduction in staff transferred over from the RRC. There is no savings from replacing the three electeds w/ 5 part-timers and probably complicates matters more. I would support having the Legislature elect the PUC commissioners. State government should get out of the brush removal business. The Department of Licensing and Regulation should be abolished and those functions transferred to the Secretary of State. DIR and the Facilities Commission should be abolished and those functions transferred to the Comptroller. Teleconferencing should be mandatory for most board and commission meetings. Transfer UNT to the Texas Tech System and abolish the individual board of regents for the third tier schools and have them all under the Texas State University System. Give the coordinating board real muscle/teeth to weed out duplicative and underperforming programs. Require all faculty members to teach 12 hours each semester and freeze faculty hiring. Institute salary caps for all state officials at 250 percent of the governor's salary. Combine all retirement systems into one system. Retool secondary education to combine the last two years of high school with the first two years of college in a single junior college and use existing buildings and personnel to handle the courseloads. Combine 9, 8, and 7 grades into middle schools and have grades k-6 in one school. Have Comptroller work with state university architecture schools to develop a standard portfolio of school building plans and require any school seeking a state guarantee of its building bonds to use those standard plans to cut architect and contractor fees. Plan school buildings so that the libraries can be used by the public after hours and combine small town and school libraries. Plan public clinic space that can be used by school nurse and local doctors after hours. Require that all buildings and furniture used by have at least a 50-year lifespan. Make furniture purchases from prison workers manadatory. I have lots, lots more."

• "Given how large and intrusive the federal government presence has become in areas like social services, education and the environment, I question the need for much of state government in those areas. Might be more efficient just to let the feds implement, rather than have the state as a translator between the feds and business/local government."

• "Too many judges in too many levels of court; too much fluff in business development; too much spent on prisons; too many school districts; too much overlap in higher ed and not enough focus on distance learning"

• "Incarcerating more people than necessary. Prison should be for hardened, dangerous people, not those with an addiction problem."

• "None come to mind."

• "Let the Federal Government take over TCEQ."

• "Education and Medicaid spending are the two big places left to cut. The elections showed that the citizens want less government. Both of these should be on the table. It is time to see if the electorate is really ready for the cuts they say they want."

• "Eliminate DIR. Reduce the per-student amount in the Foundation School Program. Eliminate state's subsidy of health care costs at ERS. Opt out of CHIP."

• "Eliminate the Texas House of Representatives. The benefits would far exceed the savings realized in the state budget."

• "That will be the question of the session."

Stumbling Block

Democratic Senators intent on making headway with some of their favored legislation during what’s left of the year will face a roadblock from U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison. The duo was part of the Republican minority that signed and sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, warning they would do all they can to avoid taking up matters in the upper chamber until Bush-era tax cuts scheduled to expire this year are extended.

“We write to inform you that we will not agree to invoke cloture on the motion to proceed to any legislative item until the Senate has acted to fund the government and we have prevented the tax increase that is currently awaiting all American taxpayers,” says the letter. “With little time left in this Congressional session, legislative scheduling should be focused on these critical priorities.”

Reid previously said he hoped to make some progress on the controversial Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would provide a pathway to legal residency for individuals brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents or legal guardians before they were 16. Hutchison got a full course in the DREAM Act with a hunger strike outside her San Antonio offices last month by students from the University of Texas at San Antonio, who said they wouldn't eat until the senator agreed to support the measure. The protesters were ultimately arrested after they refused to leave the premises following a nine-hour vigil.

A Democratic Gamble

Conventional wisdom says the house always wins. That didn’t turn out to be true for gambling interests in this last election cycle. According to a report by Texans for Public Justice, those with stakes in the legalization of casinos or slot machines put most of their money down on Democrats, who went on to suffer historic losses in the state.

Almost 80 percent of political donations to House candidates from Indian tribes and gambling political action committees went to Democrats. Nearly two-thirds of those donations went to candidates who ultimately lost. The three most generous gambling-oriented groups — Texans for Economic Development, the Chickasaw Nation and the North Texas Leadership PAC — gave well over $200,000 to House candidates. The chunk going to Democrats was 72 percent, 89 percent and 100 percent, respectively.

The top six House beneficiaries were all Democrats: Reps. Carol Kent of Dallas, Paula Pierson of Arlington, Chris Turner of Arlington, Pete Gallego of Alpine, Robert Miklos of Mesquite and Democratic candidate Michael Smith of Wichita Falls. Only Gallego survived the Republican drubbing in November.

The TPJ report also notes that gambling interests didn’t do much better with the House Republicans they bet on. “Two of their top five House Republican picks lost their primaries,” it says, “while a third died soon after his reelection.”

While few predicted Republicans would pick up as many seats as they did, the odds were in the GOP’s favor this year. Betting on their opponents was a risk, and gambling supporters certainly appear to have drawn a bad hand. But don’t count them out just yet. The final roll of the dice will come in the next legislative session.

Open for Business?

Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond says the business community must be “a key friend to higher education.” TAB and the Governor’s Business Council hosted a summit in Austin to foster dialogue between stakeholders, including business leaders, higher education administrators and lawmakers.

As legislators head into a finance-orientedd session, the backing of the business community will be important for higher education, a sector that is likely to be in the crosshairs when cuts are made. When the legislative leadership requested 5 percent cuts in the state budget earlier this year, more than 40 percent came out of higher education.

Higher education must also overcome a perception problem. Senate Higher Education Chairwoman Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, says she has spent years pushing back against the long-held impression that higher education is “the fat cat,” ripe for some trimming down.

The problem, repeated over and over at the summit, is that Texas is struggling to graduate enough students to sustain a globally competitive economy. In order for the Texas workforce to have 60 percent of the workforce made up of individuals with credentials in higher education — the international standard — by 2030, it will need to produce more than 4.1 million more graduates. Governor’s Business Council chairman Woody Hunt said, “This is one of those things we can’t afford not to do right.”

Much of the summit focused on squeezing more bang out of each buck. One proposal from Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes is to establish a model for the highest-achieving students to get priority access to financial aid. Another proposal with significant support at the summit was the idea of funding universities based on outcomes such as degrees, rather than enrollment, as it is currently.

Reading, Bill-Writing and Arithmetic

'Tis bill-filing season. Here's a roundup of the significant, odd, and otherwise noteworthy in the public education realm:

• On the textbook front, Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, wants to require universities to provide course and textbook information to students "as soon as practicable" to allow for the timely, and hopefully more affordable, purchase of books.

• Rep. Fred Brown, R-Bryan, wants to nix the Higher Education Coordinating Board and move its responsibilities to the State Board of Education.

• A constitutional amendment banning school vouchers is on the agenda of Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo.

• Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, is in favor of raising experience requirements for teacher certification.

• Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, wants to prohibit sugary drinks from public school campuses.

• There is a quartet of bullying bills: Sens. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo; Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth; John Whitmire, D-Houston; and Peña Raymond all have proposals to curb the behavior.

• Rep. Alma Allen, D-Houston, has a corporal punishment bill that would require a parent's consent to physically discipline a student.

The Week in the Rearview Mirror

Former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s conviction on money-laundering charges the day before Thanksgiving produced a mixed bag of reactions. Old foes were gratified to see “the Hammer” held responsible for his money-laundering scheme, but political observers noted that it wouldn’t lessen his legacy on the redistricting front, as his influence on the redrawing of maps has been widely viewed as a long-term game changer. Lead defense attorney Dick DeGuerin has already appealed the conviction to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Austin and has predicted that it will be overturned.

Among the bills filed for the upcoming session is one aiming to generate a little more tax revenue for the state by denying some foreign shoppers a sales tax exemption on their purchases. Rep. Chente Quintanilla, D-El Paso, thinks the current system is rife with fraud and needs stricter regulation. Proponents of the system say it encourages retail sales in Texas, but opponents want those seeking refunds to prove purchases are actually being taken out of the country.

Houston voters have spoken, but they might not have the final word. Red-light cameras were voted down on Election Day, but a conflict between the city and the company who provided them, American Traffic Solutions, is delaying their removal. The contract was set to keep the cameras functioning until 2014, but the traffic company is disputing the validity of the referendum. The city sued, the traffic company countersued, and now a federal judge has ordered that the cameras remain in place until all litigation is settled.

The governor’s office asked William E. Morrow, a member of the Texas Emerging Technology Fund's advisory committee, to resign for his involvement in a stock deal with the fund’s former director, Alan Kirchhoff. The deal — which triggered an investigation by the Texas Rangers and Kirchoff’s subsequent resignation — reportedly served as payment for work Kirchhoff did for Morrow’s firm, violating the ethics policy of the governor’s office, which requires employees to get permission to do outside work.

A new statewide power grid has been launched amid controversy about whether it will benefit Texas consumers. The new “nodal” system more accurately measures the distribution of energy, but the cost savings to retail consumers is forecast to be minimal; the bulk of the trumpeted savings will go to industrial and commercial customers.

Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, must be feeling a little déjà vu: He's filed his proposal to revise the redistricting process in nine consecutive sessions, and his bill to end straight-ticket voting three times now. Straight-ticket voting is only allowed in 15 states, but its abolition in Texas faces stiff opposition from both parties.

Expressing concern about border security, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn met with incoming Tamaulipas Gov. Egidio Torre Cantú to discuss strategy for the Mexican region. The drug war took center stage, with the death toll from the ongoing violence standing at around 30,000. The two also discussed the cash and guns flowing into Mexico from the U.S. and how to best utilize the $1.3 billion in the Merida Initiative, an anti-drug program funded by the U.S.

Political People and Their Moves

Dan Neil is still not in the Texas House, but a recount brought him four votes closer. The Austin Republican's challenge to Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, was 16 votes short in the first count. After an official recount, it was 12. He can still take the matter to the full House when it convenes in January. His side says Travis County election officials didn't count straight-ticket votes in his favor on overseas ballots. Howard and her lawyers say those votes are not meant to be counted, that so-called "permanent" overseas voters can vote for federal candidates, but aren't allowed to vote in local contests like the one in HD-48.

Robert Grijalva isn't running for the Texas House. The chief of staff to Rep. Chente Quintanilla, D-Tornillo, says (via press release) that he poked around in HD-77 to see if the time was right to get into a House race. That's not his boss' district — it's where Marisa Marquez, D-El Paso, is the current state representative. The poking around apparently caused some consternation within the El Paso delegation, and Grijalva issued a press release — on state letterhead — to stop rumors of his candidacy.

Texas Rangers owner Nolan Ryan endorsed John Kuempel in the special election in HD-44. Kuempel is one of a herd of candidates hoping to replace the late Edmund Kuempel, R-Seguin, in the Texas House. Ryan, a Hall-of-Fame pitcher, owns a ranch in that district and supported the father before endorsing the son.

Gov. Rick Perry bestowed an honorary Texas Ranger title on Chuck Norris, best known for starring in the television show Walker, Texas Ranger. Aaron Norris, the show's executive producer, also received the honor.

The governor appointed William Buchholtz of San Antonio to the Commission on State Emergency Communications, which helps cities, counties and emergency communication districts implement and maintain 911 emergency communications and poison control center services throughout the state. Buchholtz is executive director of the Bexar Metro 911 Network District.

Perry appointed Marc Farmer to the Texas Economic Development Corp. and also named David Calabres of Dallas the chairman of that panel. Farmer is with the Lubbock Economic Development Alliance. Calabres is a Dallas lawyer.

David Porter, who takes a seat at the Texas Railroad Commission next month, hired Amy Maxwell as his chief of staff and legal counsel, and William Fullerton as his director of public affairs. Maxwell, an Austin attorney, previously worked for Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn. Fullerton, who was on Porter's campaign staff, was political director for Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams.

Troy Alexander is back where he was ten years ago, rejoining the Texas Medical Association's lobby team after a stint as Speaker Tom Craddick's health and human services wonk and then two years with the Texas Department of State Health Services. He knows his way around Medicaid and other issues, and politics.

Quotes of the Week

U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, in a slideshow presentation he prepared for the GOP Steering Committee: “Speaker Boehner is our Dwight Eisenhower in the battle against the Obama Administration. Majority Leader Cantor is our Omar Bradley. I want to be George Patton — put anything in my scope and I will shoot it."

CNN host Anderson Cooper to Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, on his bill that would require candidates for president or vice president to show their birth certificates to government officials because, Berman says, the American people don’t know where President Barack Obama was born: “You're basing legislation on stuff that's just rumors and stuff that's been proven to be false.”

House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, telling a hometown Tea Party group how he interpreted November’s election results: “We’re making huge cuts.”

Charter bus driver Raúl Vargas, who regularly treks from Monterrey, Mexico, to Dallas with a busload of Mexican Dallas Cowboys fans, on his hopes that his violence-plagued country — and the football team that keeps him in business — will see better days, to The Dallas Morning News: “I have faith that both the Cowboys and Mexico will improve.”

Eric Olsen, a senior adviser at the Woodrow Institute Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.. on whether the arrest of Arturo Gallegos Castrellón, a high-level capo in the Juárez cartel, will have an effect on the violence in Ciudad Juárez, to The Texas Tribune: “As important as this is, I don’t think it’s going to turn the tide or be the straw that broke the camel’s back for the cartels operating in Juárez. It’s a many-headed monster. You lop off one and more emerge."

Terry McDonald of the Coalition of Reason, an atheist-rights group, on the timing of atheist-themed messages appearing on city buses, in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: “I'm not unhappy it's running during Christmas. Why do Christians own December? There were people that said this may cause a problem. That doesn't bother me."

Freshman Rep. Rodney Anderson, R-Grand Prairie, tweeting during House freshman orientation: "Drew Number 1 for class what..."

Don Reay, executive director of the Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition, on Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West, who arrested singer Willie Nelson for marijuana possession last week, quoted in the Tribune: "He’ll either be goat or hero, depending on the person."

Contributors: Julian Aguilar, Reeve Hamilton, Ceryta Lockett, David Muto and Morgan Smith

Texas Weekly: Volume 27, Issue 46, 6 December 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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