Whitmire, Employee Union Urge Prison Closures

Last year, lawmakers made history when they decided to close down the aging Central prison unit in Sugar Land.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and a union that represents prison employees hope to make more history in 2013, suggesting the potential closure of two privately run prison facilities: Dawson State Jail in Dallas and the Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility. They also argue that Texas could save money and improve safety in prisons by releasing more nonviolent offenders on parole.

“I think the prison system, generally speaking, is being operated on good terms, but Lord knows we can continue to improve,” said Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “We shouldn’t waste money on facilities we don’t need. I think we can identify one or two more of them.”

Whitmire and the prison employees union came to the same conclusion from somewhat different routes. Whitmire and legislators are looking to save money and reduce crime. The prison union is hoping to improve pay and benefits and attract more guards for understaffed facilities. 

The prison population dropped from about 156,000 in 2011 to about 152,000 this year, Whitmire said. He attributed the reduction to improved diversion programs and alternatives to incarceration, reforms that Texas lawmakers have aggressively adopted in recent years. 

“We are actually sitting on about 10,000 empty prison beds,” Whitmire said.

With that many empty beds, he said, it makes sense to consider shutting down unnecessary facilities that are high security risks. The facility in downtown Dallas, run by the Corrections Corporation of America, has faced criticism recently over allegations that health care there is inadequate. The company has denied any wrongdoing and said it works with the state to provide inmates access to health care.   

The Dawson State Jail also sits on prime real estate in downtown Dallas, and Whitmire said local officials have proposed closing it to make way for development.

The Mineral Wells facility, also run by CCA, has had a number of security issues, Whitmire said.

“I think it would be pretty convincing to show we’re wasting dollars” on those facilities, he said.

Whitmire and Lowry also agreed that pay should increase for prison staff and that the state should continue to aggressively pursue policies that allow nonviolent offenders to be paroled.

Those types of decisions, Whitmire cautioned, should be driven by public safety needs, not economic considerations or staffing concerns.

But for Lance Lowry, president of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of State County Municipal Employees, which represents prison workers, staffing concerns amount to safety challenges. 

In an October letter to Gov. Rick Perry, Lowry wrote that his group determined that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was down some 2,700 officers. The shortage of staff led to a partial closure at one unit this year, and the employees group argues the ongoing shortage jeopardizes security for both the inmates and the officers, particularly during the holidays.

“If we could divert funds toward staff development and retention, that would be a start,” Lowry said. “That would definitely be a positive start to addressing some of the needs.” 

In addition to urging lawmakers to close the private facilities and improve prison employees’ pay to compete with private sector employers, Lowry said that he will support measures that allow more nonviolent offenders to be released on parole. 

“We need to start funding infrastructure that makes the prisons system run,” Lowry said, “and that’s the employees.” 

Perry Shuffles the Deck

The second annual Texas Tribune Festival kicked off with with a conversation between Texas governor Rick Perry and Tribune founder and CEO Evan Smith in the Grand Ballroom of the AT&T Conference Center in Austin, Texas on September 21, 2012.
The second annual Texas Tribune Festival kicked off with with a conversation between Texas governor Rick Perry and Tribune founder and CEO Evan Smith in the Grand Ballroom of the AT&T Conference Center in Austin, Texas on September 21, 2012.

Secretaries of State in Texas often go on to something else in politics. Bob Bullock became comptroller and then Lite Guv. Mark White was attorney general and governor. Ron Kirk was mayor of Dallas and U.S. Trade Representative. Henry Cuellar is in Congress. Tony Garza was on the Railroad Commission. John Hill was attorney general and a Texas Supreme Court Justice. Al Gonzales was U.S. Attorney General. It’s always been like that: Back at the start, David Burnet was the republic’s SOS and also served as its president.

More to the point, the office is often the most openly political operation attached to the state payroll. It’s occupants run elections. They stick close to their governors. And they generally have relatively short shelf lives. John Steen Jr. of San Antonio, named to the office this week to succeed Hope Andrade, is the seventh SOS since Rick Perry took over the office of governor 12 years ago.

Andrade, who took office in July 2008, had the longest tenure of that bunch. Steen, who has been an important fundraiser for the governor’s campaigns — he was a regional finance chair in the 2010 run against Kay Bailey Hutchison and then Democrat Bill White — isn’t a surprising pick. He’s been a Perry appointee to the Alcoholic Beverage and the Public Safety Commissions and his wife was an A&M Regent.

He wasn’t even the most surprising appointment of the week.

That trophy goes to Jeff Boyd, who was Perry’s chief of staff a minute ago and who now is on the way to an open seat on the Texas Supreme Court — the governor’s tenth appointee to that panel. He’ll join six other judges who got their start on the court with Perry appointments (they have to go on the ballot in the first general election after they’re appointed).

Ann Bishop (formerly Fuelberg) will be the new chief of staff. She’s been at the Employee Retirement System, the Department of Information Resources, and the comptroller’s office. If you’re scoring this one, think of a scale with legislative/political candidates at one end and agency/management/wonks at the other. If there are fireworks ahead, they’ll probably come from some other part of the governor’s office.

In Higher Education, More Bang Without More Bucks

Rep. Dan Branch R-Dallas and Sen. Judith Zaffirini D-Laredo, co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Oversight of Higher Education Governance, Excellence & Transparency during meeting on September 21st, 2011
Rep. Dan Branch R-Dallas and Sen. Judith Zaffirini D-Laredo, co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Oversight of Higher Education Governance, Excellence & Transparency during meeting on September 21st, 2011

For higher education in the 83rd Legislative Session, the central theme will be finding ways to get more bang for the same amount of bucks, if not less.

Of the bills filed thus far, the one to watch is most likely House Bill 25 by House Higher Education Committee Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas. If passed as filed, it would tie 25 percent of state funding for undergraduate education to student success measures. You’ll notice the target percentage is the same as the bill number. Branch’s office traded with Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, to make that happen — perhaps an indication of the excitement behind it.

The push for what is often referred to as “outcomes-based” funding — as opposed to the current formula, which is based on enrollment — has lasted multiple sessions without much success.  And that was just for 10 percent of funding, which is all the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has recommended in the coming session.

The coordinating board believes that 10 percent is sufficient to encourage improvements, but Branch wants a higher number, noting that Tennessee, which has significantly fewer public universities, is already at 100 percent outcomes-based funding.

The potential for the debate about which metrics to use and whether or not to make this change was on display at a higher education conference held this week by the Texas Association of Business, a strong supporter of the new funding model.

Observing that community colleges have already agreed to the change, TAB President Bill Hammond spoke sternly of four-year institutions that he worries might hold up the legislation. “They need to get on the train,” he said.

In order to make sure money is being put to use effectively, legislators will be revisiting a number of financial aid programs.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, the former Senate Higher Education Committee chair, has already filed a bill narrowing the eligibility requirements for the B-On-Time loans, which seek to encourage timely graduations, to four-year university students.

The program, which offers interest-free loans that may be forgiven if certain criteria are met, has suffered from a lack of publicity and was heavily criticized in the coordinating board’s sunset report. With Zaffirini now chairing the Senate committee that oversees the sunset process, the issue is likely to receive significant attention.

So will TEXAS Grants, the state’s primary need-based loan program. According to the coordinating board, with current levels of funding and award amounts, only about 18 percent of eligible students would be able to receive TEXAS Grants.

While no bill has yet been filed, they have recommended a major overhaul to the program, shrinking both the award amount and the number of students eligible to receive it. By spreading money more thinly in a smaller pool, the coordinating board predicts the state will be able to reach 95 percent of eligible students.

As Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, has observed, such a dramatic overhaul would not be necessary if the program was fully funded. But chances of that happening seem low.

Another major theme will be the effort to open up new pathways to a degree, especially those that are more affordable. Along those lines, Branch has filed a bill to ease the transfer process and Gov. Rick Perry has advocated for the expansion of programs that let students advance based on their competency rather than time spent in class. Perry has also famously called for universities to have a four-year flat-rate tuition, though a bill on that issue filed by Branch’s only requires that such a payment plan be offered as an option.

And then there are the bills with the most potential for lively debate. Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, has filed a bill that would sunset the decade-old deregulation of tuition, a concept with bipartisan support. And multiple Republicans have filed, or announced their intention to file, bills that would prevent undocumented immigrants from being eligible to pay institutions’ lower in-state tuition rates.

Newsreel: Freshmen Invade, Perry Appoints

This week in the Texas Weekly Newsreel: It's freshman orientation at the Texas Capitol, and Gov. Rick Perry has appointed a new Texas Supreme Court justice and a new secretary of state. 

Inside Intelligence: About the Infrastructure...

As attention turns to the legislative session that starts about a month from now, we asked the insiders about some of the big-ticket items that might be on the agenda — transportation and water and other infrastructure. First, some bad news: Most don’t think lawmakers will fund any of those programs during the regular session.

If they do fund anything like that, it won’t be with taxes, according to 95 percent of the insiders — only 5 percent said taxes would be the place to look for money. Bonds and fees got the most attention, combining for 60 percent of the respondents, and 17 percent said lawmakers might tap the Rainy Day Fund for infrastructure.

Generally speaking, most said lawmakers will get into the Rainy Day Fund in 2013 for some spending, but a large number — 37 percent — are betting lawmakers will leave that money alone.

The insiders are split on whether the state will eventually get a high-speed rail program (it’s been most recently proposed as a private-sector project by promoters in Houston.

As always, we have attached a full set of verbatim comments about this week’s questions. A sampling follows:


Will the state fund big-scale infrastructure needs, like water and transportation, during this year’s regular session?

• "Maybe water"

• "Water will probably get another legislative study and transportation will get some extra money but no real big-scale action to solve the State's infrastructure funding problems."

• "Both water and transportation will get additional funding as we can’t keep kicking the can down the road."

• "They will definitely fund water infrastructure projects.  There is unprecedented political momentum on this topic.  The only question is whether it will come from new or existing revenue sources."

• "The key word is "needs." If that's that case, then smart money management will pay for them."

• "Water, yes Transportation, maybe (more likely next session) Nichols really wants a transportation bill as his legacy"

• "Yes but only on the margins.  They will not fix any problems. Too much need and not enough money."

• "Finances will still be tight and legislators will be looking to backfill funding to Medicaid, rebuild the education budget and balance the 2013-14 budget. There will be no slack for big ticket infrastructure needs even though needs are clear and growing."

• "They will finally make the investment in water and transportation."

• "The state will fund a token amount of both water and transportation.  They'll hold back on big amounts in case the state loses the whopper (school finance) lawsuit."

• "Breathing air, drinking water and driving down the road might be the only things that can get bipartisan support."


Do you think Texas will eventually have high-speed rail?

• "Will it get cattle and crops to the markets faster?"

• "Seems suspiciously European"

• "It may not be in our lifetime, but the forces that be are starting to understand the business side of high-speed rail. Also, it doesn't hurt that a few influential conservative Texans are starting to push for it."

• "Even though "eventually" can cover a really long time, as long as roads and water remain unfunded or underfunded there doesn't seem to be enough money for high speed rail."

• "Waste of money"

• "Not unless the federal government funds it.  Driverless cars will soon make long-distance passenger rail service obsolete."

• "We might have high speed rail the day we figure out how to have a legislative session without tipping off the Southwest Airlines lobby team about it."

• "Texas is way behind, just beginning the planning process that the feds require before investing, but with open, flat, terrain between three of the nation's ten largest cites, high-speed rail is a no brainer."

• "My heart says yes but my head notes the prevalence and preeminence of oil companies in this state."

• "By the time we have high-speed rail, California will have teleporters."


Where would lawmakers go for money to fund a water plan, big transportation or other infrastructure projects?

• "For long-lasting projects, at a time of historically low interest rates, bonds are actually the conservative approach"

• "We will not raise your taxes, but we will increase your fees."

• "The smart, and by that I mean don't tax the masses, is to go through bonds.  Although the masses will end up paying for it in the end but bonds tend to sell better then taxes."

• "Lawmakers are still more likely to use debt-financing (bonds) or rainy day funds (one-time infusions) than they are to vote for taxes or for fees that can be called taxes by future opponents."

• "There are 2 major funding sources for transportation. When the legislature finally realizes that we must live within our means, they will stop pilfering those funds and direct them to their intended purposes."

• "The state has no money. The public wants the projects. So public private partnerships are the only answer."

• "They would use the rainy day fund to set up an revolving account for funding the initial projects of the water plan and then rely on the local governments to fund the balances. It will be up to local jurisdictions to pas bonds or raise money through taxes and fees."

• “Taxes? What is ‘taxes’?"

• "For water, it's going to take a combination of Rainy Day funds, bonds, and local/regional participation money."

• "Nothing makes these nitwits happier than borrowing money and saying they have cut spending."


Do you think the new legislature will vote to use the Rainy Day Fund?

• "I guess it would depend on what they decide to use it for.  It was a battle to use it for public education, so I don't know what other issue is worthy of a rainy day fund vote."

• "Yes, they will use a few billion from the rainy day fund and they will justify using it on one-time, non-recurring investments such as transportation projects."

• "But only to fund prior year shortfalls"

• "Yes. The tax dollars in the fund were collected for a purpose — economic stabilization.  We presently have a serious economic instability situation being created with our failure to address critical water and transportation needs to meet current and future demands."

• "Doesn't need to"

• "They will if leadership as in the big 3 support it."

• "But only to fund the shortfall from last Session. These guys didn't vote to spend the money.  But now they are left holding the bag.  That's a perfect and legitimate use for the Rainy Day Fund."

• "They'll use a little of it, but not much."

• "The Rainy Day Fund comes into play only if the Legislature uses it to address the hole left by not using the Rainy Day Fund in 2011."

Our thanks to this week’s participants: Cathie Adams, Brandon Aghamalian, Jenny Aghamalian, Jennifer Ahrens, Victor Alcorta, Clyde Alexander, George Allen, David Anthony, Jay Arnold, Charles Bailey, Dave Beckwith, Amy Beneski, Andrew Biar, Allen Blakemore, Tom Blanton, Chris Britton, Andy Brown, David Cabrales, Lydia Camarillo, Kerry Cammack, Marc Campos, Thure Cannon, Snapper Carr, Corbin Casteel, William Chapman, Elna Christopher, John Colyandro, Harold Cook, Beth Cubriel, Randy Cubriel, Denise Davis, Hector De Leon, June Deadrick, Nora Del Bosque, Tom Duffy, Richard Dyer, Jeff Eller, Jack Erskine, Jon Fisher, Wil Galloway, Neftali Garcia, Dominic Giarratani, Bruce Gibson, Stephanie Gibson, Kinnan Golemon, Daniel Gonzalez, Jim Grace, Kathy Grant, John Greytok, Clint Hackney, Wayne Hamilton, Bill Hammond, Adam Haynes, Ken Hodges, Steve Holzheauser, Shanna Igo, Deborah Ingersoll, Richie Jackson, Cal Jillson, Jason Johnson, Mark Jones, Robert Jones, Lisa Kaufman, Robert Kepple, Richard Khouri, Tom Kleinworth, Ramey Ko, Dale Laine, Nick Lampson, Pete Laney, Dick Lavine, James LeBas, Donald Lee, Luke Legate, Leslie Lemon, Myra Leo, Elizabeth Lippincott, Ruben Longoria, Vilma Luna, Matt Mackowiak, Luke Marchant, Dan McClung, Parker McCollough, Robert Miller, Bee Moorhead, Mike Moses, Steve Murdock, Craig Murphy, Keir Murray, Keats Norfleet, Pat Nugent, Nef Partida, Gardner Pate, Robert Peeler, Tom Phillips, Wayne Pierce, Richard Pineda, Allen Place, Kraege Polan, Gary Polland, Jay Pritchard, Jay Propes, Ted Melina Raab, Bill Ratliff, Tim Reeves, Patrick Reinhart, Jeff Rotkoff, Jason Sabo, Mark Sanders, Andy Sansom, Jim Sartwelle, Stan Schlueter, Robert Scott, Bradford Shields, Jason Skaggs, Brian Sledge, Ed Small, Martha Smiley, Larry Soward, Dennis Speight, Jason Stanford, Bob Strauser, Colin Strother, Michael Quinn Sullivan, Sherry Sylvester, Jay Thompson, Russ Tidwell, Trent Townsend, Trey Trainor, Ware Wendell, Seth Winick, Lee Woods, Peck Young, Angelo Zottarelli.

Inside Out: A Large Difference of Opinion

With the elections of 2012 finally behind us and the members of the newly-elected 83rd Legislature beginning to circle Austin, the breach between the attitudes of political professionals in the Texas Weekly/Texas Tribune Inside Intelligence poll and the general public surveyed in the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll remains a wide one.

Those who work in and around government, and the voters, who for the most part vote for their state legislators then withdraw to occasionally check in from a distance on the distasteful business of legislating, still appear far apart in their views on matters of policy and government. The gap between the insiders and the Republican voters who are dominating the electoral landscape in Texas is particularly wide when it comes to confidence in the efficacy of government. And as was evident when we compared the two groups after the May 2012 UT/Texas Tribune poll, Republican voters prioritize a very different set of problems than do the political insiders.

View of Government

Both the Texas public and the insiders flounder a bit as they navigate the cross currents of American patriotism, the nationalist political culture of their state patria chica, and their apparently constitutional wariness of government. A seemingly reflexive embrace of how Texas government does things coexists with a raft of suspicion and negative judgments about state government, and downright hostility toward the federal government.

In the results from the two October surveys, both groups more or less embrace the “way government runs in Texas” when presented with one of the recurring items from the UT/Texas Tribune Poll, with the insiders slightly more sold than the general public on the Texas way — a pattern we’ve seen before when comparing these numbers.


But as with so many other results in the UT/Trib poll, the overall results conceal telling partisan differences. As the figure below illustrates, 57 percent of the insiders and 54 percent of the public agree to some degree that state government in Texas is a good model for others (“Come and get it, Yankees! And you too, California hippies!”). When the public results are broken down by party identification, however, Republicans express much more support for the Texas way than Democrats, independents, or the insiders. Only 11 percent of Republicans in the sample disagree with the notion that Texas provides a good model, with a whopping 85 percent agreeing that other states ought to notice how we do things here. Democrats are much less sold on the model that all other groups: only 25 percent embrace the Texas model, compared to a little more than half of true independents.


The stampede toward the Texas way of doing things begins to run in contradictory directions when we compare responses on views of state and national government. The insiders were more positive than the public in their assessments of government, and both groups were generally more positive about state government than the federal government. For example, when asked which phrase better describes state government — mostly corrupt or “mostly honest” — 62 percent of the insiders opted for “mostly honest.” Among the public, the “mostly honest” score dropped to 43 percent, with a quarter saying they didn’t know. About a third of each group directly chose “mostly corrupt.”


The insiders’ more positive view of government writ large comes into sharp focus here. The insider results on this item are a mirror image of the public poll: 68 percent choose “mostly honest.” The insiders expressed a much more positive assessment of state government’s care with tax dollars, too, but there was broad agreement that the federal government was careless with tax dollars. The insiders, then, largely viewed the federal government as honest but spendthrift, while the public viewed them as corrupt and loose with their tax money.

Interestingly, the one exception to the general pattern came when discussing partisanship. More than half of the insiders characterized state government in Texas as too divided along partisan lines, while only 37 percent of the public expressed that judgment. While the same assessment of the federal government drew overwhelmingly negative assessments from both the insiders and the public, the insiders were more negative: 96 percent of them described the federal government as too divided along partisan lines, compared to 86 percent of the public sample. These judgments make sense if one considers that the insiders value cooperation and see partisanship as having a poisonous effect on political processes.

Hot Tea

To the extent that those under the Tea Party banner have argued for a less compromising approach on the road to smaller government, and have been vocal in their denunciation of the process as it has been working in recent years, it’s no surprise that the results show that the insiders continue to have negative views about the impact of the Tea Party on politics. The insiders and the public — especially Texas Republicans — continue to have strikingly different takes on the Tea Party.


Insiders are much more negative about the impact of the Tea Party on the Republican Party, with a large majority (68 percent) saying it has too much influence. That differs markedly from Republican identifiers in the public survey, only 9 percent of whom say the Tea Party is too influential; 72 percent choose one of the broadly positive judgments.

Problems and the Eye of the Beholder

As in the May 2012 surveys, perceptions of the most important problems facing the state reflect very different priorities. Immigration and border security continue to occupy the top position among the public’s concerns, a consistent feature of the results on this item over the life of the UT/Trib poll that is driven largely by significant Republican interest in those two issues; combined, they routinely account for 40 percent or more of Republican responses.

The results from the insiders also closely resemble those found in the May survey and confirm the impression — widespread in Austin, anyway — that those in and around the political process in the state remain preoccupied with the follow up to the significant reductions in education spending in the current budget. The contrast between insider and public attention to education is especially striking: 43 percent of the insiders cited education as the most important problem facing the state, while only 10 percent of the public — and 7 percent of Republicans — did so. If there is a groundswell of pressure coming on the education issue, as many education advocates and Democrats predicted in the wake of last session’s cuts, it is so far more evident in the grass tops than in the grassroots.

This predicament regarding education is indicative of the defining problem facing lawmakers when they convene in January. In an atmosphere of deep skepticism about government, they must sort out the priorities of those within the process and those who elected them. That is not new. But they undertake their traditional tasks in an atmosphere in which the professional insiders walking the terrazzo floors of the Capitol have distinctly different views from a mobilized faction of the electorate currently viewing politics through a prism of populist hostility toward government.

For the many new members — those elected in 2010 and 2012, well more than a third of the legislature — the acuteness of this situation, in which the signals from inside the institutional process and the signals from the population outside frequently offer contradictory guidance — is the new normal. 

The Calendar

Monday, Dec. 3:

  • House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee hearing (10:30 a.m.)
  • Fundraiser for Rep. Phil King; Stephen F. Austin hotel, Austin (5-6:30 p.m.)
  • Fundraiser for Sen. Glenn Hegar; Austin Club, Austin (4:30-6:30 p.m.)
  • Fundraiser for Rep.-elect Matt Schaefer; Austin Club (4:30-6 p.m.)
  • Fundraiser for Rep.-elect Travis Clardy; Austin Club (4:30-6 p.m.)
  • Fundraiser for Rep.-elect Trent Ashby; Austin Club (5-7 p.m.)

Tuesday, Dec. 4:

  • Legislative Study Group's Winter Event honoring Rep. Scott Hochberg; W Hotel, Austin (5-7 p.m.)
  • Fundraiser for Reps. Dwayne BohacBrandon CreightonJohn Davis and Dan Huberty; Austin Club (11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.)
  • Fundraiser for Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt; Austin Land & Cattle (4:30-6:30 p.m.)
  • Fundraiser for Rep. Tan Parker; Austin Club (11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.)

Wednesday, Dec. 5:

  • Fundraiser for Rep. Garnet Coleman; Austin Club (7:30-9 a.m.)
  • Fundraiser for Rep. Ana Hernandez Luna; Headliners Club, Houston (4:30-6 p.m.)

Thursday, Dec. 6:

  • House Government Efficiency and Reform Committee hearing (10 a.m.)
  • Fundraiser for Sen. Carlos Uresti; Mi Tierra, San Antonio (5:30-7 p.m.)
  • Fundraiser for Rep.-elect Joe Moody; The Network, El Paso (5:30-7:30 p.m.)
  • Fundraiser for Sen.-elect Donna Campbell; Austin Club (11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.)
  • Fundraiser for Rep.-elect James Frank; Midwestern State University Sikes Lake Center; Wichita Falls (5:30-7:30 p.m.)

The Week in the Rearview Mirror

School finance in Texas is on trial, and this week a representative of a national polling firm detailed his company’s results of a survey conducted in the summer. The poll showed that Texans are generally in favor of tax increases that benefit schools, but that if they live in a property wealthy district, where some of those funds are subject to recapture by the state, the amount of support drops dramatically. In one county, Calhoun, almost 90 percent of those polled refused to support a tax rate hike because of the rule that requires so-called property rich districts to remit money back to the state to be sent to poorer districts. Since voters must approve tax rate hikes proposed by their districts, school officials testified that this obstacle to funding is affecting their operations and budgeting.

The last time the federal government offered funds for education, the state of Texas, led by Gov. Rick Perry, declined to apply for the Race to the Top program. But federal authorities modified the program, allowing individual districts to apply, and this time 117 Texas districts and charter schools did just that. Of those, three charter schools and seven school districts are on the list of 61 finalists and are competing for four-year grants that range from $5 million to $40 million, depending on population. Schools qualified to apply if their populations included at least 40 percent low-income students, and unlike last time, they did not have to adopt common core curriculum standards, a sticking point for Perry. The governor continues to object to the program, on the grounds that schools do not need the burden of additional federal standards and guidelines.

On her way out the door, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison has co-sponsored a measure on immigration with another outgoing GOP senator, Jon Kyl of Arizona. Dubbed the ACHIEVE Act, it presents a Republican alternative to the DREAM Act. The bill would provide children brought into the country illegally an opportunity to go to school, join the military and subsequently apply for work and permanent visas. The legislation won't likely see the light of day in the lame-duck session, but supporters hope it will be reintroduced when the new Congress convenes in January, and Hutchison was quick to point out that she has briefed her successor, Ted Cruz, on the details of the bill.

Texas has 10 percent of the nation’s poor families, and the poverty level has only increased during the recession. But the number of families receiving cash assistance has dropped significantly following reforms to the program made in the mid-1990s and legislative redirecting of block grant funds. Eligibility for the program is based on the federal poverty line, and in Texas that line means a family of three must earn less than $401 per month to qualify. The state receives a block grant from the federal government, but only spends about 16 percent of that money on cash assistance. That translates to only six in 100 families receiving temporary assistance.

Following the election, stores are reporting another rush of gun and ammunition sales mirroring post-election 2008 sales. Fears of an Obama administration restriction on guns prompted the rush and resulted in shortages of products in 2008. Store owners report that sales have doubled since this time last year. And Rep. George Lavender, R-Texarkana, plans to again introduce a bill that would allow Texans to openly carry their guns. His 2011 bill died in committee. 

The Texas River Cities initiative got a boost from the Department of Energy when it announced a $500,000 grant from the agency. The money will be used to support an electric vehicle corridor from Austin to San Antonio, promoting infrastructure to support electric vehicle traffic. Participating electricity providers and city utilities hope to provide more charging stations and encourage widespread use of the vehicles in the Central Texas area. 

Incomes in the Permian Basin continue to rise, and a U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis report shows that Midland has the second-highest per capita income in the country. Average income for residents of the city rose by almost 12 percent and, at $65,173, ranked second only to Bridgeport, Conn.’s $78,504. The 11.9 percent gain in 2011 was actually less than the previous year’s jump of 12.9 percent. 

An El Paso group dedicated to preserving a city landmark got token support, but not financial commitment, from the El Paso City Council. The Save the Stacks group is trying to preserve Asarco smokestacks, which are no longer in use. The City Council agreed to support the preservation of the smokestacks, but refused to commit any city funds to the project. An Asarco trustee has presented the group with a proposal that would have cost the city $14 million to repair, maintain and preserve the smokestacks, and now that the city has declined to provide funds, the group must come up with an alternative plan before February 2013, when the smokestacks are set for demolition.

Political People and their Moves

Texas’ congressional delegation is regaining some of the clout it lost when Republicans redistricting Democrats out of their seats ten years ago: Jeb Hensarling, R-Dallas, will chair the Financial Services Committee; Mike McCaul, R-Austin, will head Homeland Security; Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, will chair Rules; and Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, will head Science, Space and Technology.

U.S. Sen.-elect Ted Cruz has selected Chip Roy, who helped Gov. Rick Perry write his 2010 book Fed Up!, as his chief of staff. Roy, an attorney, worked for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn before Perry tapped him in 2011 to serve as head of the State-Federal Relations Office.

Ann Stuart, chancellor and president of Texas Woman’s University since 1999, is stepping down but will remain in place until a successor is picked. 

Sylvia Garcia picked up the endorsement of the AFL-CIO’s political arm in her effort to succeed the late Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston. Her chief rival, state Rep. Carol Alvarado, picked up an endorsement, too, from the Houston Professional Firefighters Association. Gov. Rick Perry hasn’t yet called that special election.

Remove the “interim” from Ursula Parks’ title at the Legislative Budget Board; she’s now the director, after standing in the top job on a temporary basis since last April.

David Gonzales is the new CEO at the Texas Association of Health Plans. he was most recently with Cardinal Health, but did time at the Texas Pharmacy Association and as a Texas Senate staffer before that.

Donnis Baggett, most recently the publisher of the Waco Herald-Tribune, joins the Texas Press Association as executive vice president; he’ll head up the lobbying efforts for that group, which recently absorbed the Texas Daily Newspaper Association.

State Rep.-elect Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso, hired Roger Garza, executive director of the House Democratic Caucus, to serve as her chief of staff and also hired Arlina Palacios, Victor Reyes and Catherine Rodarte — El Pasoans all — to fill out the staff. 

Gov. Rick Perry reappointed Judge Kelly Moore of Brownfield to be presiding judge of the 9th Administrative Judicial Region. Perry reappointed Stephen Ables of Kerrville to the corresponding spot in the 6th Region, and David Peeples of San Antonio to that job in the 4th Region.

The governor named Arthur Troilo III of Lakeway to the board of the Department of Information Resources. Troilo is an attorney.

And the governor named Houston dentist Rodolfo “Rudy” Ramos Jr. tochair the State Board of Dental Examiners.

Quotes of the Week

Rick Perry, first of all, he has to get over that back pain stuff, but Rick Perry has tremendous track record of success, probably running again — could run for president. 

Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist at a Politico event on Wednesday

The whole government, and the Democrat Party, the Republican Party — they’re all dinosaurs.

U.S. Rep. Ron Paul to The Washington Post

When we do it, it is called the 'nuclear option.' When Democrats do it, it is the 'constitutional option.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn to The Washington Post on the debate over filibuster reform in the Senate

What he doesn’t want to do is divide the party and create a bunch of infighting with a primary battle.

Trey Newton, a political strategist for George P. Bush, to Politico on Bush's 2014 plans

Members of the commission are appointed by elected state leaders and would be enforcing criminal actions against those same elected officials. If it ain’t broke, don’t mess with it.

Former Texas Ethics Commission director Tom Harrison, in a letter opposing a proposal to move enforcement from the Travis County district attorney to the TEC

The fact that we are trying to say that we are doing really well and everything is hunky-dory in Texas with regard to dropouts is unfair to the future students in our workforce. And I think it's doing a disservice to tout these inflated numbers as if everything is okay.

Bill Hammond of the Texas Association of Business, on reports that Texas has the nation's lowest high school dropout rate