That steady drip, drip, drip in the biennial Scare the Speaker thing has been plugged for the moment. Scratching around for other amusements, we came upon a congressional map for Texas showing who's got too few and too many people in their congressional districts.
Six districts come up short of the numbers they need, meaning they'd have to scratch around for more population: Three in West Texas and one each in Dallas, Harris, and Bexar counties. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, has the most underpopulated district. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, the biggest, with almost a million people in it.
The artists at the Texas Legislative Council used the 2009 Census estimate of the state's population: 24,782,302. And they assumed Texas is getting three new seats, bringing the total in the delegation to 35. That would mean 708,066 people in each district (a state's congressional districts have to be the same size; legislative districts are allowed some deviation).
The other undersized districts are currently occupied by Gene Green, D-Houston, Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, Randy Neugebauer, R-Lubbock, Michael Conaway, R-Midland, and Charlie Gonzalez, D-San Antonio. Everyone else in the delegation would lose population to the flyweight incumbents or to one of the three new districts.
The most overpopulated districts, after McCaul, are held by Michael Burgess, R-Flower Mound, Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, Sam Johnson, R-Plano, John Carter, R-Georgetown, and Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio.
Louie Gohmert's district is closest to the right size; he'd need to lose only 2,348 people to come in line with the new numbers.
If Texas gets four seats instead of three, only four districts would start off with too few people, but the number of districts that have to lose people would rise accordingly.
Population estimates for Texas House and Senate districts aren't available — the Census folk work for Congress, so that's who gets the numbers. The actual population numbers that'll be used for redistricting will be available in April at the latest. If the total population number is right (it's not), the standard Senate district next time will have 799,429 people and the average House district will have a population of 165,215.
Inside Intelligence: Earnings Report
Insiders split down the middle this week when asked whether lawmakers ought to be paid full-time salaries instead of the $600 per month they make now. The insiders divided that pie carefully: 48 percent favor paying lawmakers a full salary, while 51 percent would leave things as they are (the other 1 percent was undecided).
Two-thirds believe officeholders should be required to disclose more details about their personal income and assets than they do now. That's been in the news, with state Rep. Kino Flores, D-Palmview, set for sentencing next week on convictions related to his financial disclosures. Only 30 percent of the insiders say current disclosure laws are enough.
Their comments were pretty interesting. We got responses from 156 people this week, and they jumped right into the open question, which went like this: "Several Texas lawmakers have been in trouble in recent months over issues related to personal income and ethics — using their public positions for personal gain. Should state law be changed to make that harder to get away with, or to make it less attractive in the first place?" The full set of answers is available in our Files section. But here's a sampling:
"In theory, yes. However, I don't trust this incoming legislature to be able to pass legislation to address the issue, so it should be left for a saner time."
"No, you can't legislate ethics."
"There needs to maximum transparency and significant penalties. Too many people now believe that all politicians are corrupt and that has to change if we are ever going to restore faith in government."
"We need to have full-time salaries and tougher disclosure laws on income outside the legislature. Otherwise we will continue to have bought members as we have for over a century."
"Part of the reason they get in trouble is because it's difficult to make a living and be a legislator"
"Let's face it, being a Texas legislator is a full-time job. It is hard to make a living and be in the legislature. This leads officials to cut ethical corners. So, we should pay them properly and demand full and complete disclosure. No more loopholes, no more gimmicks."
"Changed to what? The same problems exist in every legislative body, from Congress to the local city council. It's called "human nature." I'm still trying to figure out how it is that legislators only make $600/month, yet I've rarely seen one leave the Capitol poorer than when he came in..."
"No. We already have provisions to deter conversion to personal use. And campaign researchers still need them to make these dumb decisions so we have something to use against them when they run for reelection."
"Pay should be increased, not so much so as to get away from the citizen legislator, but enough to warrant a more stringent reporting of political activities and to ensure separation of business and state interests."
"Generally yes, but it depends on the proposal. Establishing a penalty of capital punishment would make it less attractive. Not sure that is a good idea."
"I have always felt that there is too much emphasis on minor reporting mistakes and not enough emphasis on how legislators make their money. I think Title Companies and local consulting contracts are a current area of concern."
"I think we're between a rock and a hard place on this issue. We're stuck between this 1700's nostalgia about citizen legislators and 2010's reality about what is required to guide this state through a budget shortfall and toward 40 million people. If increased scrutiny discourages potential officeholders, then we didn't need them to start with. "
"How they can get away with representing a client in front of a state agency is beyond me."
"I'd like to make the radical suggestion that current laws be enforced."
Even as Texas schools face budget cuts, their spending per student is on the rise, according to a new report from Comptroller Susan Combs that rates district expenditures against student achievement. The report identifies 43 districts in the state with exemplary practices. It also makes recommendations for how the 1,100 other districts can follow suit, including sharing facilities, conserving energy and joining purchasing co-ops.
At a press conference in Dallas at which she announced the report, Combs noted an increase in administrative staffing and urged schools to consider "economies of scale" in buying supplies and finding housing for classrooms. She developed the report at the request of lawmakers who asked her office to identify areas in which schools could improve spending relative to student performance.
The report also came out in favor of lifting the state's 22-student classroom cap between kindergarten and the fourth grade as a cost-saving approach. Sen. Dan Patrick, vice chairman of the House Public Education Committee, favors such a proposal. A law passed in 1984 requires no greater than a 22-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade. If the Legislature decided to temporarily remove that mandate, it would relieve districts from the burden of creating a new class with an additional teacher and classroom every time the number of students in a class hits 23 — something Patrick has said would save them "millions and millions of dollars."
Teachers' groups oppose using that method to drive down costs. They question whether the benefit will outweigh the detriment to students' educational experience and if it will actually help reduce costs. Districts can already apply for a waiver if they lack the space or qualified teachers to create a new class.
Brock Gregg, a lobbyist with the Association of Texas Professional Educators, says his organization is "very focused" on making sure the lawmakers understand how essential small class sizes are to effective public education. "If cuts occur," Gregg says, "the priority should be on keeping experienced, qualified teachers in front of each student in an appropriate-sized class so students can receive individual attention."
If the Legislature does decide to lift the requirement, it could save an estimated $558 million a year — but not without eliminating 12,000 teaching jobs.
DREAM Not Yet Deferred
DREAM Act supporters have a few more days to cross their fingers following a decision by the U.S. Senate to postpone its vote on the measure, which would grant legal status to undocumented students brought to the country illegally as children.
The U.S. House gave DREAM Act supporters — including several Texas college students on a hunger strike — hope after it passed the measure Wednesday. After the vote, U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, had this to say: "Today's vote by the U.S. House of Representatives not only corrects a fundamental injustice that has existed for far too long in this nation, it also strengthens the ability of our law enforcement to focus on those undocumented individuals who may pose a security risk to the United States. This legislation is long overdue, and I commend my colleagues in the House for taking decisive action to address this longstanding problem that has adversely impacted thousands of young people living in the shadows."
The Senate postponed its vote until next week, but Texas' Republican U.S. senators, John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison, will be part of the body opposing the measure. In a statement, Hutchison, previously seen as a potential swing vote, said: "I will not support the Dream Act legislation brought before the Senate because it expands the scope of the bill beyond the intended individuals who were brought here as children and grew up and were educated in the United States."
In a conference call with reporters, Cornyn said, "I have a lot of sympathy for these children who were brought to this country through no fault of their own. But this is the wrong way and the wrong time to try to move this one component of immigration reform through the Congress."
Flotsam & Jetsam
Tom DeLay's sentencing was put off until next month (the day before the legislative session, January 10), but state Rep. Kino Flores, D-Palmview, is scheduled to be sentenced next week. Flores was accused of leaving things off of his legally required personal financial disclosure forms. He was convicted on charges of perjury and tampering with government records. He didn't seek reelection, but hasn't resigned, either.
Fundraising stops this week for state officeholders and will remain closed until after the legislative session. Their next reports on spending and contributions are due in mid-January. There are loopholes: Lawmakers can raise money while they're passing laws for charities and nonprofits, and state officials seeking federal office can raise money for their federal accounts in spite of the ban on fundraising for their state campaign treasuries.
The Week in the Rearview Mirror
A controversial, unprecedented hearing on the constitutionality of the death penalty may take place after all. The Harris County district attorney's office had asked the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to halt the proceedings of a case challenging the death penalty as it's administrated in Texas, and the high court intervened on Tuesday. Both sides were directed to file responding briefs with the court within 15 days while the case against accused murderer John Edward Green Jr. — who defense lawyers say is at risk of being wrongfully executed — remains on hold, pending the appeals court's decision.
Democratic state Rep. Donna Howard appears to have held onto her Travis County seat following a recount, ending Republican hopes for a supermajority in the House. Official recount figures showed Howard winning by 12 votes, four fewer than the 16 by which she'd been previously leading. Republicans had hoped pull out a supermajority of 100 representatives if Howard's opponent, Republican Dan Neil, had prevailed, but will now have to settle with 99.
Thirty-seven newly elected members of the House visited the Capitol for a crash course on procedures and issues they'll be tackling in January. Briefed on pressing topics like the budget shortfall, redistricting and public and higher education, the freshmen — most of them Republicans — also discussed their backgrounds and their goals for the upcoming session.
U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's unpopularity among some of the noisiest conservatives could be a liability for her if she decides to run for another term. Conservatives and Tea Party activists are becoming vocal about opposing Hutchison, who also angered some voters by promising to step down when running for governor and then remaining in office. Tea Party members complain that Hutchison is insufficiently conservative and has been in Washington too long.
Because of formula changes, Texas stands to lose about $1.2 billion in Medicaid funding late next year on top of a reduction in the percentage funded with stimulus dollars, which will expire in June.
The Environmental Protection Agency issued an emergency order to protect homeowners in Parker County from a possible explosion. After chemical components of natural gas were found in drinking water there, the federal agency issued an order under the Safe Drinking Water Act requiring the drilling company it deemed responsible, Range Production Co., to identify the source of the leak and to provide two homeowners whose wells are contaminated with potable drinking water. The Texas Railroad Commission is still investigating who is responsible and whether the procedure popularly known as fracking caused the natural gas to leak into the water supply.
State leaders have again asked all state agencies to slash an additional 2.5 percent from their budgets. Sales tax revenues have continued to fall short of projections, leading to a predicted shortfall of up to $28 billion in the next budget cycle. Programs that have been immune from previous cuts are suddenly on the chopping block, including college financial aid and prison funding.
Texas consumers got a boost from state Insurance Commissioner Mike Geeslin, who issued an order banning discretionary clauses from insurance policies, calling them unjust and deceptive. Most commonly found in long-term disability policies and health care policies, the clauses have already been banned in 22 other states. The new rule goes into effect after Feb. 1 for disability claims and July 1 for all other types.
State Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van, told the Associated Press he'll do an audit on himself after being asked why he sought reimbursement for the same expenses from the state and from his campaign. Flynn's a former bank examiner.
Political People and Their Moves
U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, was appointed chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, effective when the Republican-led Congress convenes next year.
Texas Solicitor General James Ho announced that he is leaving the post he has held since 2008. He will go into private practice, though he says he does not yet know where. He's been commuting between Dallas and Austin for some time now.
The Mexican-American Legislative Caucus elected its officers: Trey Martinez-Fischer, D-San Antonio, chairman; Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, vice chairman; Armando Martinez, D-Weslaco, secretary; Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, treasurer; and Veronica Gonzales, D-McAllen, general counsel.
Gov. Rick Perry named attorney Edward Vaughan of Bulverde chairman of the Texas Water Development Board.
Perry appointed Randy Watson of Burleson to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education, or TCLOSE, which ensures Texans are served by highly trained and ethical law enforcement. Watson is president and CEO of Justin Brands, a division of Berkshire Hathaway.
The Guv put Mario "Omar" Garcia on the board of the Texas Economic Development Corp. Garcia is vice president of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation.
Perry named Joe Grubbs of Waxahachie to the 378th District Court in Ellis County. Grubbs is currently the county and district attorney and is a former mayor of Waxahachie. He'll replace Al Scoggins, who's on his way to the 10th Court of Appeals in Waco.
Quotes of the Week
Texas Health and Human Services Commissioner Tom Suehs, in The Texas Tribune: "Whether you're in Medicaid or you opt out of Medicaid, your debate is fundamentally the same. What does our safety net health care system look like, how are we going to deliver it, and how are we going to pay for it? And whether you're in Medicaid or out of Medicaid, if you want savings, you have to reduce the number of people you serve. And that's not a pleasant exercise."
EPA Regional Administrator Al Armendariz, telling The Dallas Morning News why he ordered Range Production Co. — over the objections of the Texas Railroad Commission — to protect two families found to have natural gas in their water wells, on the state regulators: "They want more data and believe that action now is premature. I believe I've got two people whose houses could explode. So we've got to move."
John Cook, of the State Republican Executive Committee, on criticism of an e-mail he sent calling for a "Christian conservative" speaker of the Texas House, quoted in The Texas Observer: "My favorite person that's ever been on this earth is a Jew. How can they possibly think that if Jesus Christ is a Jew, and he's my favorite person that's ever been on this earth?"
Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, on a bill he filed that would jail federal employees who enforce the federal health care law, quoted in the Tyler Morning Telegraph: "Thomas Jefferson believed in nullification. I believe in nullification, and I just wanted to try it."
Recently defeated Angelina County Justice of the Peace R.G. Bowers, who has easily won each of his elections since 1988 as a Democrat, to the Houston Chronicle: "They were so anti-Obama that they just pushed one button. I said they couldn't spell R.G., so they just spelled R."
Newly elected Republican Rep. David Simpson of Longview to the Tyler Morning Telegraph on the challenges Republicans in the Legislature will face next year: "We are keenly aware that we are going to have to work together to get things done. That's not my fear. That will eventually happen. My fear is compromising when we don't have to compromise."
Katherine Cesinger, spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry, on plans to restart the controversial Alien Transfer and Exit Program, which deports undocumented immigrants arrested in Arizona back to Mexico through Texas ports: "We weren't in favor of it then, and we certainly aren't now."
Author and Austin screenwriter Si Dunn, on the Texas Film Commission's denial of incentives for Texas film maker Robert Rodriguez's immigration film Machete, in the Austin-American Statesman: "Texas needs to do a much better job of politically supporting its movie and television industry ... The notion that state legislators somehow can protect Texas' image from 'negative light' is just laughable — and sadly naive."
Rep. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, to The Texas Tribune on the new Democratic minority in the Texas House: "I'm encouraging the Democrats not to go the bomb-throwing route and to be healthy and reasonable."
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, in a fundraising e-mail, on the influence of GOP midterm gains on the recent tax compromise in Washington: "President Obama's decision yesterday to join with Republicans in opposing the largest tax increase in American history was made not because he had a sudden change in political or economic philosophy."
Texas' state climatologist, John Nielsen-Gammon, on the rise of greenhouse gases, quoted in the Tribune: "The increase is definitely caused by humans."
Contributors: Julian Aguilar, Reeve Hamilton, Ceryta Lockett, David Muto and Morgan Smith
Texas Weekly: Volume 27, Issue 47, 13 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 email@example.com. For news, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (512) 716-8611.