A Change of Season
Last week's government is this week's politics. Gov. Rick Perry is running TV and radio ads to define and claim credit for what the legislature just did on taxes and school finance, touting tax cuts, teacher pay raises, new business taxes, high school math and science standards, and so on.
Democrat Chris Bell, who's running against Perry on the November ballot, says the governor's plan continues a dangerous and unproductive reliance on high-stakes testing, does too little for schools and for teacher pay, and puts too much emphasis on local tax cuts.
Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, a Republican running as an independent against Perry, and Bell, says the Perry plan spends $23 billion more than it raises and will force the Legislature to either make deep cuts in the budget next year, find new money in taxes or casinos, or scale back the tax cuts voters have been promised.
Perry's the only candidate running an air campaign right now, with two TV ads and one for radio (all of them are available on his campaign website or in our Files section).
The incumbent is apparently advertising on the theory that the first part of the campaign is about defining what happened in the special session. The notion is that most voters weren't paying attention to the particulars of the session and that at least some of them will get their version of what went on from the candidates and their ads instead of the newspaper and television reports. Perry wants to call this a big tax cut and a success on school finance before the public hears the competition calling it something less attractive. At the moment, he's the only one spending money on a megaphone to make sure voters hear his version of events.
One ad features Perry standing in front of a house, and includes shots from a classroom and a construction site. The second shows him standing in front of a school with kids playing in the distance, and includes the same classroom and construction site scenes. The script and the words that appear on the screen while he's talking are identical in the two spots.
The script is read by Perry: "A $15 Billion property tax cut and more money for our schools. We kept our promises to you. The average homeowner will receive a $2,000 tax cut. Every teacher will receive a well-deserved pay raise. We closed corporate loopholes and created new protections to keep taxes low. And we're protecting our job climate — the best in the nation. Lower property taxes, higher teacher salaries, and the largest tax cut in history. That's good for Texas."
While he's talking, these words appear on the screen: "$15 Billion Property Tax Cut... Governor Rick Perry... $2,000 Tax Cut over first 3 years... Pay Raise for Teachers... Real Taxpayer Protections Keeping Taxes Low... Protecting Jobs... Lower Property Taxes... Higher Teacher Salaries... Largest Tax Cut in History... Pol. Ad Paid for by Texans for Rick Perry."
Perry also cut a radio spot, also in his own voice. That script: "A $15 billion property tax cut over three years. The largest tax cut in Texas history. And more money for schools. We kept our promises to you. This is Gov. Rick Perry. The average homeowner will receive a $2,000 tax cut. Every teacher will receive a well-deserved pay raise. And more money will go to high school math and science instruction and dropout prevention. We closed corporate tax loopholes and created incentives for employer health and retirement benefits. We passed strong new protections to keep taxes low. The effective tax caps mean voters have more say over school spending and tax decisions. And we're protecting our job climate, the best in the nation. Lower property taxes, higher teacher salaries, and the largest tax cut in Texas history. Educators, taxpayers, and businesses agree — that's good for Texas. Political ad paid for by Texans for Rick Perry."
Strayhorn blasted the Perry ads, saying the tax bills passed during the special session don't raise enough money to cover the local property tax cuts promised in other legislation. She disputed Perry's claim of $2,000 in tax savings, saying property value changes and tax increases by cities and counties and special districts will erode that savings. She said the teacher pay raise amounts to less than $25 a week — "less than a tank of gasoline" — and said Perry's plan hit Texas businesses with a 200 percent tax increase over the current corporate franchise tax.
Bell questioned the governor's priorities, saying the special session did nothing to improve schools and that the new legislation makes the state more reliant on high stakes tests — like TAKS — that Bell says should be deemphasized. The new legislation includes incentive pay for teachers that's based, in part, on how their students do on standardized tests. Bell said he would keep the governor's tax bill, but would use some of the money for education instead of dedicating all of it to lower local school property taxes.
Torturing the Numbers
What's this tax break worth? And why are the numbers from Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn's camp so small while the numbers from Gov. Rick Perry's camp are so big?
In his TV spots, Perry says the property tax break approved by lawmakers in the just-ended special session will average $2,000 over the next three years. Perry got the "average tax cut" by taking a number from Texas A&M University's Real Estate Center and running it through the tax bills. The average sales price in Texas in March, according to A&M, was $180,500. (A spokesman for Perry says they used that number because the governor thinks sales prices should be disclosed as a way to keep property appraisals realistic. That's opposed by many in the real estate business, and wasn't part of the fight over taxes and school finance.)
Start with the $180,500, deduct $15,000 for a homestead exemption (that's the minimum; homeowners in Harris County and some other locales get to deduct 20 percent of their property's value). He's also assuming school districts won't add on a four-cent local enrichment tax — nearly every lawmaker and expert we've talked with assumes that's an automatic increase. And with all of that, Perry says your savings will be $1,936.35 (if school districts take the four-cent local enrichment, it would be $1,737.75). Divide it by 100 and multiply the result by 17 cents for the first year, and by 50 cents for years two and three. Add it up and you get a tax cut of $1936.35, assuming prices and tax rates don't rise. The Real Estate Center put the median prices of homes sold in March at $138,700; the tax cut on that house would amount to $1,447.79 over the first three years, if values and rates were stable.
To save exactly $2,000 using Perry's math, you'd own a house with a taxable value of $185,939.
Strayhorn takes several sizable nibbles out of the governor's estimate.
She says the average value of houses on the Texas property tax rolls is $118,274 — 34 percent less than the Guv's starting point. She assumes the school districts will claim their four cents. She assumes the value of the homes will rise five percent each year. And she adds in other school taxes that pay for things like debt and facilities. By her reckoning, the savings only amounts to $598 for the first three years — about $1,400 less than what Perry is promoting on TV.
To save exactly $2,000 with Strayhorn's math, you'd need a $360,398 house.
It's the Strayhorn Discount, or the Perry Premium: She says you'll get 51 cents in savings for every dollar he promises; he says you'll get a dollar for every 51 cents of savings she estimates.
The Itchy and Scratchy Show*
Gov. Rick Perry -- confronted with a spoiled photo-op in Beaumont -- told a crowd gathered there that the Hurricane Rita relief approved for Lamar University by state lawmakers was being held up by Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn.
"I had hoped to sign House Bill 63 today," he said. "However, the comptroller has yet to certify that sufficient funding is available to meet these critical needs, even though the state has a budget surplus of more than eight billion dollars and it has been sitting on her desk for more than a week. Why she didn't take compassion on the people of Beaumont and certify this bill as quickly as possible I cannot explain."
Strayhorn's deadline for certifying that legislation was actually the next day. But she signed it while Perry was on the road and replied to his towel snap with one of her own, saying he could have signed the legislation right after she did, except that he was out of town.
If Gov. Perry was not gallivanting about the state he could have signed this bill today," she said. And she said the aid should have been available last fall, when she called on Perry (he ignored her) to hold a quick special session to free money for hurricane relief. He also could have called in the Legislative Budget Board to appropriate emergency money, she said.
"If Gov. Perry had done what I urged last September, repairs to classrooms, libraries and other infrastructure could be completed right now."
If you're new here, these are two of the four major candidates for governor. And if you're interested in that legislation, it's now law. The machinery of state government will soon be engaged in moving that money to the hurricane-ravaged bank accounts at Lamar.
*with apologies to Matt Groening
The Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct issued a "public admonition" of state Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht, criticizing his testimonials for Dallas lawyer Harriet Miers after she was nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court. But he's battling back and the issue will go to court.
Hecht and Miers are friends, fellow church-goers, and even went on a few dates. Miers withdrew her nomination to the court after withering criticism from conservative Republicans and from Democrats. President George W. Bush ended up picking Samuel Alito, who won Senate confirmation and is now a justice on the high court. But while she was in the hot seat, Hecht fielded calls from reporters — with encouragement from the White House — saying in numerous interviews that she was qualified for the job and vouching for her character.
The state commission said he stepped over two lines when he did that: One that prevents judges from endorsing candidates for public office and one that prevents them from using their office to promote their own or others' interests (a copy of their ruling is available in the Files section of our website or by clicking here).
Hecht and his lawyer, Chip Babcock of Houston, were baffled. Babcock said in an interview that judges have been speaking on behalf of judicial nominees for decades without stirring the ethical and canonical waters. And a fairly recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court freed them even further, allowing judges to talk about their positions on various issues, just like other officeholders. Between that ruling and this decision, Babcock said, Hecht "can talk about abortion, the war on Iraq, and tort reform, but he can't take a position on the nomination of Harriet Miers." Former Chief Justice Tom Phillips called the ruling "bizarre" and said he saw nothing wrong with Hecht's support of Miers: "I don't think anything Judge Hecht said violates anything in the Code."
Hecht has appealed the decision. He was at a judicial conference and wasn't available for interviews, but he did issue a statement:
"The State Commission on Judicial Conduct has admonished me for providing information about the qualifications of a person nominated to sit on the United States Supreme Court and for commenting on the nomination. I believe that my statements on matters of national public interest did not offend canons of judicial ethics and were fully protected by the First Amendment as core speech. As best I can determine, the Commission’s action is unprecedented despite many judges, over the years, providing factual information and endorsements to the judiciary committee and the public concerning nominees to the federal bench. I intend to vigorously contest this charge which raises important issues of free speech."
The appeal should happen quickly. Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson appointed three judges to hold a trial. If you figure in all of the permitted delays, that trial has to start within about three-and-a-half months, and the panel will then have up to 60 days to rule. The three judges include Kerry FitzGerald and Amos Mazzant of the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas, and Ann McClure of the 8th Court of Appeals in El Paso. They were chosen by lot; FitzGerald, the first picked, will preside.
Not the First Time
It's been almost two decades since the commission spanked a sitting member of the Texas Supreme Court. Justices William Kilgarlin and C.L. Ray were sanctioned in 1987 — the first members of the state's high court ever called on the carpet by the panel. Hecht is the third.
Kilgarlin was admonished in June 1987 for letting two of his law clerks accept trips to Las Vegas from a law firm with business before the court. He and Ray also got popped for sending a letter raising funds for a defamation suit against a former briefing attorney who was helping a legislative investigation of the court. That fundraising letter went to a list of lawyers that included some attorneys with business before the court.
Ray was reprimanded by the commission the same day. They said he'd tried to transfer a couple of cases from one court to another on behalf of a lawyer who contributed to his campaign; that he and his family took several free flights on a private plane owned by a group of Houston lawyers who practiced in the Supreme Court; that he was communicating with lawyers in a case before the court while it was being deliberated by the justices; that he told someone with a case before the court how the judges were lined up, a day before the outcome was made public; and that he called a district judge hearing a murder case against the son of a friend to say he couldn't see someone from that family committing murder. Ray was reprimanded, a more serious punishment than admonishment.
A Tout Sheet from the Fort Bend GOP
Fort Bend is only one of the four counties with a say in who'll replace U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, on the ballot. But their members have their favorites. They did a straw poll more for fun than for science. For what it's worth, it put David Wallace, the mayor of Sugar Land at the front of the pack, followed by Rep. Charlie Howard, R-Sugar Land, and Houston lawyer Tom Campbell, who finished second to DeLay in the March GOP primary.
Party Chairman Gary Gillen says the straw poll lists everybody who got a vote, whether they're interested in the job or not (for instance, Harris County Judge Robert Eckels has said he won't run, but he got some votes here). It also lists Democrats, like Nick Lampson. There are two elections in question here. One is a back-room deal where party folk from the four counties in the district will select someone to replace DeLay on the November ballot for a full two-year term in Congress. The other election — a special election to replace DeLay for the rest of his term — will be held, apparently, that same day. The ballot list for that one will include everyone from any party or persuasion who declares themselves a candidate. The survey results were laid out in a press release you can get by clicking here.
Add this to your list of political action committees to watch during this election cycle: the Texas Planned Parenthood Votes Political Action Committee. It's new and it's only filed one report so far — six contributors gave $4,310 — but it aims to get involved in this year's elections. One contributor was former Gov. Ann Richards, whose daughter Cecile Richards heads Planned Parenthood's national operation.
The group doesn't have a public goal for fundraising. Heather Paffe, the state political director, says the new PAC will fill in where local groups don't have political machinery in place: "Our ability to provide health care services to women rests in part on being politically involved." The new PAC will work with others already in place in the state's three biggest cities.
The Planned Parenthood of Houston and Southeast Texas PAC had $77,673 on hand at the end of last month, according to the report it filed with the Texas Ethics Commission. Planned Parenthood of North Texas Action Fund Political Committee had $9,855 in contributions that month, but ended with no money on hand. "Winning for Women," affiliated with the San Antonio Planned Parenthood, had $33,361 on hand at the end of last month.
A Teachable Moment and Other Shorts
If you're writing about student testing, be sure you read over your work before you turn it in. The Harris County GOP is giving away bikes to kids at J.R. Harris Elementary School who passed the state's standardized TAKS test. It's the third year they've done the giveaway for kids with good scores. But if you read their press release carefully, it looks like they're aiming higher than usual — giving away lots and lots of bikes: "The GOP in cooperation with the school is giving away 300 bikes to any child who passes the TAKS."
• It's now against the law to protest at the funerals of military men and women in Texas. That was a late addition to the special session agenda and a response to protests organized by a Kansas group that contends the deaths of U.S. soldiers abroad has something to do with God's wrath toward gays. They and others who want to protest for whatever reason now have to stay at least 500 yards away — about a quarter-mile — from an hour before the service until an hour after.
• A new SurveyUSA Poll that says more Texans have a negative impression of Gov. Rick Perry than have a positive one. The poll, done last weekend, says 40 percent of Texans approve of the job Perry's doing, while 54 percent don't. Last month, the same outfit said in a poll of 579 "likely voters" that Perry would win the Guv's race if it were held now, with 39 percent of the vote. Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn was in second place in this one, with 25 percent, followed by Kinky Friedman with 16 percent and Democrat Chris Bell with 15 percent. Have a little salt with those results: With six months left before the election, that survey says only 3 percent of Texans are undecided. So 97 percent have thought about it and made up their minds?
Lloyd Bentsen, 1921-2006
Lloyd Bentsen Jr., who served for 22 years in the U.S. Senate, ran for president and vice president and served as President Bill Clinton's first Treasury Secretary, died at home in Houston after a long illness that followed a couple of strokes. Bentsen was 85.
Bentsen was a decorated bomber pilot in World War II and started his career in public office by getting elected Hidalgo County Judge when he was 25. He started three terms in Congress a couple of years later, and then quit to go into private business. In 1970, he ran for Senate, beating incumbent U.S. Sen. Ralph Yarbrough in the Democratic primary and then besting U.S. Rep. George H.W. Bush in the general election. He was the vice presidential nominee on the Democratic ticket that lost to Bush in 1988, behind Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts.
His death prompted an outpouring of remembrances, including this one from his family: "Senator Lloyd Bentsen passed away at home Tuesday surrounded by his loving family. He was a man of courage, wisdom and civility and set the highest standard for public service. As a young World War II squadron commander, he repeatedly risked his life to defend freedom. In the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, he promoted fiscal responsibility and free trade, supported the civil rights of minorities and women, and enabled protection for children and older Americans. As Secretary of the Treasury, he helped bring greater opportunity and unprecedented prosperity to our country. A friend of business and workers alike, Lloyd Bentsen earned his family’s and his country’s deepest appreciation for his extraordinary contributions to the well-being of his and our nation. Lloyd Bentsen had a blessed life and fully graced every member of his family’s lives. He is survived by his incredible wife of 63 years, B.A. Longino of Lufkin; three children and their spouses, and eight grandchildren."
Political People and Their Moves
Ron Dipprey, after three years at the Texas Chemical Council, is retiring (for the second time) this summer. Hector Rivero, who is current at DuPont, will leave that post to take Dipprey's place. Dipprey retired from Dow Chemical several years ago and worked as a freelance lobster for a couple of years before taking his current job. No word yet on Rivero's replacement at DuPont.
Monty Wynn is leaving the comptroller's office to join the Texas Municipal League; he's replacing Snapper Carr, who left TML to lobby for Hillco Partners.
Former Denison Mayor Jerdy Gary is Gov. Rick Perry's choice to chair the Grayson County Regional Mobility Authority. Perry reappointed banker Jeff Austin III of Tyler as chair of the Northeast Texas RMA.
Michael Peters, a criminal court at law judge in Houston, was publicly admonished by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct for a couple of "creative" sentences. A woman who starved two horses was sentenced to a bread and water diet for three of her 30 days in jail. A man who illegally dumped chromium was ordered to drink a non-toxic concoction that included some less dangerous pollutants he dumped. Peters didn't back down when told those sentences were illegal; thus the spanking from the commission.
Deaths: Harris County Treasurer Jack Cato, a former TV reporter and Houston Police spokesman who was seeking a third term this year, of heart failure. He was 70.
Quotes of the Week
Political consultant George Shipley, who worked for U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, in the Austin American-Statesman: "I was afraid of him. I used to stand up when he'd call me on the phone."
Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, telling the Longview News-Journal that lawmakers didn't permanently solve school finance in the special session: "Politicians have a tendency to deal short term rather than long term."
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, telling the Houston Chronicle lawmakers have plenty of time to patch the new business tax if they need to: "If the revenues aren't there, we have the option of tightening the belt or tweaking the tax. To those who say there may be some holes, it's not operable until 2008. Give us a chance to take a good hard look at it during the 2007 (legislative) session."
Former state district Judge Scott McCown, on the new school finance law in the San Antonio Express-News: "The Legislature has made a significant change. The court is going to presume that the Legislature acted constitutionally. Just like you presume someone is not guilty, you presume that the Legislature acts constitutionally."
Sen. Jon Lindsay, R-Houston, telling the Houston Chronicle what's changed in his three decades in public office: "Well, it's become more difficult to serve as an elected official, I'll tell you that. I can't explain exactly why that is. There are just a lot of people out there that are hard to deal with."
Former House Speaker Pete Laney, talking about Sen. Jeff Wentworth's proposal to let a bipartisan commission handle political redistricting in Texas: "I think the people elect their representatives to make those decisions, and can un-elect them. They can't un-elect a commission."
Democratic consultant James Carville talking about the current president and his predecessor at a dinner for Dallas Democrats, reported in The Dallas Morning News: "Bush is having trouble with his generals. My man Clinton had trouble with his privates."
Texas Weekly: Volume 22, Issue 47, 29 May 2006. Ross Ramsey, Editor. Copyright 2006 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. 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) 302-5703 or email email@example.com. For news, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (512) 288-6598.