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Straus on Priorities; More Campaign Woes for Dewhurst

The speaker of the House dampens expectations for vouchers, tax breaks and transportation without ruling any of those things out. And the lieutenant governor unpeels another layer of problems he says arose from a campaign manager's embezzling.

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Joe Straus can sound so mild when he’s making news. Without any visible ruffling of feathers on stage or in a packed room at a TribLive talk this week, the speaker of the Texas House threw cold water on school vouchers, on the possibility of tax cuts, and on transportation funding as a serious competitor to funding for water infrastructure.

Vouchers have blown up in previous sessions and he said he doesn’t want a repeat of that. Without flat killing the idea, he said he’s willing to wait and see what comes over.

The school finance ruling puts a potentially expensive item on the state’s list of things to do, and that and other needs make major tax relief less likely. Gov. Rick Perry proposed $1.8 billion; again, Straus is doing the wait and see thing.

And he stuck to his guns on water, calling it the state’s most important problem of the moment and saying he’s concerned about spending the state’s Rainy Day money on roads as a two-year stopgap instead of as part of a bigger plan.

One more: Straus said “there may be something where there’s enough flexibility” to make Medicaid expansion work in Texas under the federal health care law.

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A former aide to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is now under federal investigation after the Dewhurst campaign disclosed that Kenneth “Buddy” Barfield had apparently misappropriated at least $1 million from Dewhurst’s federal political account.

Barfield, a longtime advisor to Dewhurst, served as campaign manager of his campaign for U.S. Senate and has worked on his political campaigns for several years.

Dewhurst’s accountants and lawyers have not made public the total amount they believe is missing from the politician’s various state and federal campaign accounts.

The federal investigation and amendments to the federal filings were first reported in The Dallas Morning News. In a cover letter to the Federal Election Commission, the campaign said the new reports “remove certain transactions that were disclosed in the original report, but which did not actually occur.” The letter, from Curt Beck, assistant treasurer to the Dewhurst for Texas account, also said the corrections disclose a debt from the federal campaign to Dewhurst’s state campaign, which “represents payments made by the David Dewhurst Committee [the state committee] for various consulting services provided to the Dewhurst Campaign [the federal committee], including media consulting, communications consulting, and other types of consulting services.”

Dewhurst had earlier disclosed campaign finance reporting problems that he attributed to Barfield, correcting Texas Ethics Commission reports on his political contributions and expenditures dating back to 2008. The campaign brought the matter to the attention of Travis County prosecutors at the time, and proceeded on to an accounting audit of its federal campaign reports.

That work resulted in amended federal reports for the third and fourth quarters of last year, which in turn prompted federal inquiries into Dewhurst’s accounting for his U.S. Senate campaign.

“After learning in early December of Mr. Barfield's embezzlement from the state committee account for his own personal gain, we began an internal investigation into the federal campaign account,” said Rob Johnson, a spokesman for Dewhurst. “Unfortunately, during this on-going investigation, it has become clear that Mr. Barfield also stole funds for his own personal gain from the federal campaign account. This is a serious and unfortunate situation and our attorneys have turned this matter over to the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Election Commission. The federal campaign is fully cooperating with both agencies in their investigation of this matter and we look forward to the resolution of this matter.”

Separately, Dewhurst’s federal campaign is refunding about $780,000 to campaign contributors who gave money for his general election campaign last year. Since he lost the primary runoff, he wasn’t in the general election and can’t keep the money raised for it.

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