Now there are maps, and the chairman of the House Redistricting Committee, Burt Solomons, appears to be in a hurry. He unveiled his proposed House map on Wednesday and could ask his committee to vote as early as Monday after hearings over the weekend.
The Carrollton Republican's map creates one new Latino district, keeps the current number of Black opportunity districts and pairs 16 members in districts where they would face one of their colleagues in the 2012 elections.
"I want to thank the members of the House for working with the Redistricting Committee over the past weeks and months. We have received public testimony from across the state at hearings and submitted written materials. I deeply appreciate everyone's participation," Solomons said via written statement. "As a member, I know this is a very personal process, and I appreciate the patience and understanding that I have received from my colleagues. The map we are proposing is a fair and legal map that represents the people of Texas and our growth over the last 10 years. And, I believe the members understand this growth resulted in some difficult decisions for me personally."
Everything you say if you're the redistricting chairman can and will be used against you in a legal fight that inevitably ensues in redistricting years. Expect to hear a lot of this kind of mild talk from Solomons while this soup is simmering.
• Four members got paired in East Texas (freshmen in italics): Dan Flynn and Erwin Cain, Allan Ritter and Tuffy Hamilton. Ritter and Hamilton are both chairmen, and Ritter just switched to the GOP, so it seems unlikely they'd go after him.
• Four got paired in West Texas: Jim Landtroop and Charles Perry, and Warren Chisum and Rick Hardcastle. That's not a hardship on Hardcastle, as Chisum has already said he's interested in being on the Texas Railroad Commission and won't be running for reelection.
• Four got paired in Dallas County: Joe Driver and Cindy Burkett, and Linda Harper-Brown and Rodney Anderson. Both of those incumbents battled through ethics problems to win reelection last year, and both are in current districts where the demographics have been looking more and more Democratic over the last few cycles. Dallas County has to lose two seats, but don't write off the freshmen in these matchups.
• Two in Harris County: Scott Hochberg and Hubert Vo. Hochberg represents a minority coalition district — Anglos are a minority there, in other words, and the Democrats were quick to label this pairing as possibly retrogressive. In redistricting, going backwards — retrogressing, as the nerds put it — is a no-no. This is the only Democratic pair on the Solomons map.
• And two in Nueces County: Raul Torres and Connie Scott. Like the Houston pair, Democrats tagged this as a possibly retrogressive move.
This is just the start. The House Redistricting Committee holds its first hearings on Friday and Sunday. Other maps are coming in.
A Different Idea
A coalition of Latino groups unveiled a redistricting map a day later that would add five Latino-majority districts to political maps used to elect state representatives in Texas.
There are 30 such seats now. In the proposal from the Texas Latino Redistricting Task Force, that would increase to 35, with new Hispanic opportunity seats in the Panhandle/South Plains, in West Texas, and in Hidalgo County. Two existing seats, in Tarrant and Harris counties, would be redrawn so that Latinos make up the voting age majority.
The task force includes the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the American GI Forum, the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, the William C. Velasquez Institute, the La Fe Research and Education Center, and the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.
The members of the group were critical of Solomons' plan. "It reduces the number of districts in which Hispanics have a majority of voters. It's retrogressive," said Nina Perales, litigation director for MALDEF.
She said the task force map would pair 16 incumbents in eight districts. That's one more pairing that in the Solomons map. Their pairs include: Cain and George Lavender, Dan Flynn and Bryan Hughes, John Otto and Ritter, Todd Hunter and Scott, Jim Keffer and Susan King, Chisum and Landtroop, Harper-Brown and Jim Jackson, and Burkett and Driver. All 16 of those members are Republicans.
Individual members are certain to present — publicly and privately — their own versions of how they think the new political lines should be drawn. If lawmakers can't agree on the maps, new districts will be drawn by the Legislative Redistricting Board, a five-member panel that includes the speaker of the House, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the land commissioner and the comptroller. All five are Republicans.
The ideal House district in the new map will have 167,637 people in it. Left alone, the districts are way out of whack. Rep. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, has a district with 300,801 people in it, due to growth since the current maps were drawn a decade ago. Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, has a district with 117,346 people in it.
The stats and gory details of the various plan are available on the Texas Legislative Council's website, which lets you view these things (go to the District Viewer) or download maps and stats from the FTP site (the Solomons plan which will be the baseline for legislative arguments — until and unless he walks in with a substitute — is #113).
Gov. Rick Perry beat Bill White in 99 of the districts on the Solomons' map. John McCain beat Barack Obama in 98 of them. It's safe to say the chairman of redistricting is trying to institutionalize the GOP victories in November, putting together as many strong Republican seats as possible.
The map shrinks the number of Republicans — if you're looking at those pairings, for instance — but it increases the number of "safe" seats that Republicans should win in normal years. According to an analysis by the Fort Worth-based Election Group, the Republicans would have 92 seats with at least 55 percent results in the new map, as against 82 seats in the current map (they mean that, averaging three contested races in 2010 and three more in 2008, that many districts saw Republicans pulling an average of 55 percent or more of the vote).
Dallas County loses two seats, as expected, in both the Solomons and Latino coalition maps. The chairman's map cut one seat from Houston's current total of 25; the other map leaves 25 representatives in the state's largest county.
The competitors for strangeness in the Solomons map include HD-149 in Williamson and Milam counties; HD-88, a 12-county wonder that connects the South Plains with North Texas; and HD-33 in Rockwall and Collin County. The first has got what could be described as a milk mustache, floating along in the skinniest way possible along the Williamson County-Travis County line. The second stretches from Terry County, southwest of Lubbock, to Cooke County, north of Denton, an interesting community of interest. And the third manages to touch each of the six counties that border Collin without going anywhere near the middle of the county. It's shaped, fittingly, like a question mark.
None of those has an incumbent.
Inside Intelligence: On Taxes and Cuts
This week, we asked the insiders about taxes and cuts — the order of the day.
Some lawmakers have talked about revising the state's business margins tax, and 57 percent of the insiders think they should do that. Only 12 percent think it ought to be left alone, and 30 percent would scrap it and replace it with something else. But if you read their comments, they don't appear to think the Legislature will do anything dramatic about the tax this session.
That tax has an exemption for any business with less than $1 million in sales. The exemption expires at the end of the fiscal year, and it would cost about $150 million to keep it going. Most of the insiders think lawmakers will renew the exemption — 53 percent. Less than a third — 31 percent — say lawmakers won't do it, and 16 percent checked the "don't know" box.
The full verbatim answers — we also asked about the "smartest" and "dumbest" cuts in the budget — are available in our files section. Here's a sampling:
Will legislators spend $150 million to renew the $1 million exemption from the business margins tax?
• "They should as a matter of public policy let it expire. Therefore they will probably renew it."
• "And it is fun watching the tax watchdogs explain why raising the money to do this does not violate the PLEDGE."
• "This question indicates incorrect thinking that the money is the Legislature's. The correct question should be, 'Should the Legislature confiscate $150 million from small business to help deal with the State's fiscal irresponsibility'. The answer is, 'It should remain with the small businesses.'"
• "This will be a battle worth watching to see just how much power the ideological anti-government crowd actually has in the Lege."
• "Absolutely. Repeal of the exemption will be branded a tax increase and thus it won't happen. Plus, hard for the Democrats to blast the current exemption, considering that one of their own (Former Ways and Means Chair Oliveira) was its author last session."
Does it make sense — politically, and as a matter of policy — to revise the state's business tax, or should it be scrapped and replaced with something else?
• "Tax collections rise and fall with the economy. Good economic times = more taxes paid. Bad economic times = less taxes paid. Seems kind of simple, but then again this is politics."
• "An equitable income tax for all, rather than an onerous tax that affects the state's employers, would be far more fair and would undoubtedly raise considerably more money."
• "For the state to grow and succeed, business needs to step up and be an active voice for education. No workforce, no business. It ain't that hard."
• "#1 We can't go back, legally or as a practical matter, to the old system. #2 The franchise levy in Texas is proportional to what other states raise, so we've got it just about right as it is. #3 The franchise tax is NOT the cause of the current fiscal troubles. 'Fix the franchise tax' has become lazy political shorthand for 'let's raise a whole bunch of new tax money to plug the future structural shortfall in the budget.' If you tripled the franchise tax that change would not fix the budget."
• "It has underperformed and needs revision. But lots of other tax laws need revisions, too."
• "Poor plan poorly executed ab initio. This notion that it is 'under-performing' or that it is somehow 'structurally flawed' is nothing more than euphemistically complaining that the rate isn't high enough. But be assured that sometime before football season, someone will decide that it's really not a tax bill after all if all they're doing is 'tweaking the formula'. Nonsense of course, but there it is."
• "Fixing the broken margins tax is a policy necessity and a political nightmare. Thus, nothing will be done til the lights really are turned off."
What's the smartest cut lawmakers have made in their state budget proposals?
• "Educational Region Service Centers"
• "College for Prisoners"
• "Housing for TDC employees. It plays politically."
• "Their own legislative budgets."
• "Cutting non-teaching jobs in school districts"
• "In this environment there are no smart or dumb cuts. Everything got whacked, so I would not give credit or blame to the legislature for any of the specific cuts."
• "All of them"
• "State-Fed Relations. Since Perry is fundamentally opposed to federal funding, it doesn't appear that we need someone to lobby for more money."
• "Nothing like 'Wow, that was really smart' comes to mind."
• "Cutting the Arts Commission"
What's the dumbest cut?
• "Public education"
• "Nursing homes by 34%"
• "Anything that costs federal matching money."
• "Texas Historical Commission"
• "TEXAS grants"
• "Reducing the size and scope of government intervention into the lives of free people is never dumb."
• "Dumbest? Family planning. (Meanest: nursing home cut)"
• "It's hard to know where to start, but all the cuts in child protective services, adoption services, etc., are going to come back to haunt us."
• "Cutting mental health. The result tends to be an increase in spending for county jails."
• "The research is clear and obvious, the sooner we invest in young children the bigger the returns on that investment. Cutting education and health care for kids under 5 makes absolutely no fiscal or moral sense."
Testing the Test
When Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, brought House Bill 500 to the House floor last week, he emphasized what it did not do.
It did not, he said, lower testing standards. And it did not, he said, delay the roll out of the state's more rigorous STAAR exams.
He was setting out to correct what he called the "misrepresentations" and "false claims" surrounding the bill, which, despite its overwhelming support in the House — more than two-thirds of his colleagues signed on to it and only four voted against it — has generated vocal opposition from many within education circles, who view it as a dramatic retreat from hard-won reforms.
The debate over HB 500 also reveals a divergence between House Public Education Chair Eissler and Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, who chairs the education committee in the upper chamber, on how the state should hold students and educators accountable.
Shapiro staunchly opposes any departure from HB 3, passed in 2009 implementing the state's new STAAR exams, which will replace the current TAKS subject area tests next year. HB 500 does just that. Instead of end-of-course exams counting toward 15 percent of a student's final grade, it permits school districts to set their own policy. It also suspends a graduation requirement that students receive an aggregate passing grade on 12 exams in four subject areas — instead, students would have to pass four exams total in each of the subject areas.
School districts, worried about how operating with fewer teachers will affect classroom instruction and whether they'll be able to afford updated textbooks, have pushed for delaying the new exams. Business groups — including the Texas Association of Business, the Texas Coalition for a Competitive Workforce and the Austin Chamber of Commerce — oppose the measure because they believe it represents a dangerous step back for student accountability in the state.
To some extent, the divide between the two education heavyweights represents a rehashing of an old battle between the House and Senate on student testing. This time around, that could be because lawmakers in the House are looking for ways to soften the blow of their stark budget, which allocates about $4 billion less to districts than the Senate.
"We are living in very sensitive times about money," said Sandy Kress, an education lobbyist who opposes HB 500. "The House didn't treat the districts very well on the money side. The members may have thought this is something we could do for those who aren't happy about the appropriations bill."
A New Immigration Debate
Legislation that may potentially allow thousands of gay and lesbian Texans to sponsor their partners for legal residency in the U.S. was introduced in Congress this week. The Uniting American Families Act by U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, would expand the sponsorship opportunities beyond the current heterosexual marriage or partnership.
"Today, thousands of committed same-sex couples are needlessly suffering because of unequal treatment under our immigration laws, and this is an outrage," Nadler said in a statement. "Our Constitution guarantees that no class of people will be singled out for differential treatment."
The bill would include the term "permanent partner" to sections of the Immigration and Naturalization Act that apply to married heterosexual couples. According to the statement, more than two dozen countries allow their citizens to sponsor gay and lesbian partners for legal immigration, including Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Israel, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
The Week in the Rearview Mirror
State District Judge Tim Sulak ruled in favor of the state insurance commissioner and against State Farm, but the insurance company will appeal. Commissioner Mike Geeslin found in 2009 that State Farm had overcharged its customers and ordered them to repay $310 million plus interest in refunds. State Farm took the case to court and apparently wants to keep it there for a while.
Comptroller Susan Combs disclosed that the personal information of at least 3 million people had been unprotected on her agency's computer servers for more than a year. After requesting information from the Teacher Retirement System, the Employee Retirement System and the Texas Workforce Commission, the agency did not follow its own protocols for encrypting the information or deleting it after a specified time. Since the error was discovered, the information has been moved to a secure site, and some of the employees responsible have been fired. The agency is sending letters to the people affected and established a special number at its office to offer advice. The FBI and Attorney General Greg Abbott are both investigating the breach.
Weather conditions are taking their toll as hundreds of thousands of acres in West Texas are either burning or in imminent danger. The Texas Forest Service is scrambling to provide resources across multiple counties suffering from grass fires and has reported that most of them are under control. But the threat of high temperatures and stiff winds has led to warnings of optimum conditions for more fires to break out.
As the debate intensified over concealed carry on campus, legislators were also toying with their own ability to carry concealed weapons. A bill to allow students to carry guns on campus stalled at one vote shy of the 21 needed to bring it up for debate in the Senate, but its sponsor, Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, is still looking for an opening. Meanwhile, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee is expected to send a bill to the floor for debate that would allow lawmakers to carry weapons almost everywhere, including places their constituents cannot, like bars and churches.
As part of the congressional deal that averted a federal government shutdown, Republicans won a repeal of the so-called Doggett Amendment, which specified that Texas' portion of federal education money had to be committed strictly to public education and couldn't be used to divert education money to something else. It's not yet clear how the state will allocate the money, but there's $832 million to allot.
A ban on texting while driving got tentative approval from the House, and in the end, it wasn't a close vote. It would make it illegal to text, but not to read a message.
Debate over the Confederate flag erupted in East Texas this week. The Sons of Confederate Veterans raised the flag outside the Anderson County courthouse in Palestine, but County Judge Robert Johnston asked them to remove it. The group complied, but some protesters gathered in front of the courthouse to object.
Cross one of the governor's emergency bills off the list. The House passed SB 18 — the eminent domain bill — and sent it back to the Senate.
Political People and Their Moves
Democratic Party Chairman Boyd Richie won't seek another term when his time's up next spring. Richie is in his third two-year term in that post. Two names in the hat: Former Cameron County Judge Gilberto Hinojosa and state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond.
The president's reelection campaign is underway and so, apparently, is the fundraising operation. Barack Obama will be in Austin on May 10 to raise money. That's the only scheduled Texas stop on that foray.
Freshman Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, can shave now. He decided to let his beard go until he passed his first bill. He got two through the House this week.
Gov. Rick Perry appointed Courtney Burch-Arkeen of Orange to the 128th District Court. She's in private practice now, and will replace Patrick Clark, who is resigning to take over the Orange County Court-at-Law.
Deaths: William McMinn, a Houston businessman who co-founded Associated Republicans of Texas and later served on the board of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which announced his death. He was born in 1930.
Andy Kesling, most recently the communications director for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. His career began at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and he also worked in the public affairs offices Texas Christian University and Southern Methodist University. He was 49.
Quotes of the Week
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, on the repeal of his amendment that would require federal education money to supplement, rather than supplant, state funds: "[It] is one of many unwise concessions made to Republicans to avoid their threatened government shutdown."
Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, to the Houston Chronicle on the repeal of U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett's education funding amendment: "You couldn't have gotten $832 million at a better time."
Freshman Rep. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, on the initial redistricting maps, quoted in the Lubbock-Avalanche Journal: "This is just political gerrymandering, and a lot of counties in West Texas won't go for it."
Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, on Republican attempts to push legislation when Democrats are absent, quoted by the Austin American-Statesman: "When would it be a good time to be absent between now and the end of the session? Never."
An adviser to U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Surfside, to Slate on the likelihood that the congressman will run for president in 2012: "60/40."
Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, who has two bills that focus on the Daughters of the Republic of Texas' role as caretakers of the Alamo, quoted in the San Antonio Express News: "What are the Daughters hiding? What are you afraid of?"
Chip Roy, the governor's appointee to the Office of State-Federal Relations and ghost writer of the governor's "Fed Up" book, on the House's vote to transfer most of state-fed's funds to a military-children tuition program, in the San Antonio Express-News: "I might have voted to cut it as well, based on what I understand of the office, but possibly without hiding behind the political gamesmanship of moving it from one account to another."
Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, on spending endowment funds like those set up in the state's tobacco lawsuit settlements instead of leaving them in place to generate future revenue: "We go into the next biennium without a problem in the world except for the future."
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, making a distinction, in the Austin American-Statesman: "This isn't a carnival. This is the Texas Senate."
Contributors: Julián Aguilar, Reeve Hamilton, Ceryta Lockett, David Muto and Morgan Smith
Texas Weekly: Volume 28, Issue 15, 18 April 2011. Ross Ramsey, Editor. Copyright 2011 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.