Friday, August 19, 2005

Finishing with a Whimper

The second special session finally and mercifully petered out this morning when the House adjourned sine die (indefinitely), followed soon after by the Senate. Many lawmakers weren't even around the past few days. The final hours of this session didn't resemble lawmaking so much as the dull waning moments of a blowout football game--the stands emptied and even the players looking bored. You may wonder why this couldn't have ended three days ago, or last week, or, for that matter, three weeks ago? After all it's been three weeks since the session took a tumble off the Ugly Tree when the House revolted against the Speaker. It became clear then that the House couldn't pass a property tax cut bill. That effectively ended the special session. But Gov. Rick Perry and Lite Gov. David Dewhurst insisted on pushing ahead (in part, we suspect, so they could pass the SBC/telecom bill). Relations between the House and Senate got so bad that neither chamber wanted to adjourn until the final day of the session for fear of incurring blame for the failure. Instead they pathetically waited until the session expired, wasting tens of thousands in taxpayer funds in the process. Whatever happened to fiscal conservatism?

Here's a further accounting of the two special sessions (with apologies to MasterCard's ad agency):

Days in session: 60

Added cost to taxpayers: More than $3 million

Bills passed: 5, by our count (wind power, TEA budget part II, eminent domain, judicial pay raise, and telecom).

B-movie analogies circulating the Capitol: 2, "Groundhog Day" and "Weekend at Bernie's"

Filibusters: 2

Lame radio spots: 2, one series each by the governor and the speaker

Number of times Dewhurst and Speaker Tom Craddick snapped at each other: N/A (we may have to contract with IBM to calculate this.)

School finance bills passed: 0

Making the state's leadership look incompetent: Priceless

So there you have it. What's next? Well, the Texas Supreme Court will rule on the school finance lawsuit, presumably this fall. After that, it's anyone's guess. There will be yet another special session, perhaps this fall or, as increasingly rumored, after next spring's primary elections. Will the dynamics change? Will Perry, Dewhurst and Craddick learn how to govern? By then, will the leadership be able to muscle any education groups or reluctant Republicans into supporting its reforms? Will those reforms benefit all Texans instead of just the richest 10 percent? Stay tuned.

All we can tell you at this moment is that our legislative blog is coming to a close for now (hey, we've got a magazine to put out, don't you know?). We hope you've enjoyed it. And when the Lege returns, so shall our blog.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The SBC Session

Today, it became abundantly clear what the second called special session on school finance is really about. For those of you who thought it was about the kids or the teachers or even property tax reduction, how wonderfully naive of you. This session is really about Telecom; more specifically it's about a bill that will likely make hundreds of millions, if not billions, for SBC. If you are a consumer though, hold on to your wallet.

The telecommunications bill HB 13 would create statewide franchising for cable competitors while keeping companies like Time Warner locked into their municipal franchise agreements. (All cable competitors that is but Grande Communications, it appears, but that's another post). The bill would also deregulate local phone rates, and approve the provision of broadband over power lines.

SBC lobbyists have been working this bill hard the entire 79th Legislature. They have more than 50 registered lobbyists. While most won't get paid unless the bill passes, SBC has likely shelled out in excess of half a million dollars on lobbying already.

Dewhurst, bent on embarrassing Craddick by sending an education bill to die in the House, shrewdly let it be known that telecom wouldn't come up until senators had passed out education "reform." It doesn't matter that the votes in the House for the education bill don't seem to be there or that the "reform" is sadly lacking.

Oddly enough, two of SBC's strongest Senate supporters, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio) and Sen. Frank Madla (D-San Antonio) were absent today. Both were likely no votes to bring up the education bill. With both gone and Senators Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa (D-McAllen) and Royce West (D-Dallas) switching sides, the Senate voted to take up SB 8. Once they took care of that, they could get to the real important stuff, Telecom. It passed quickly.

Meanwhile in the House, telecom was also on a fast track. Efforts to amend the bill, by for example, forcing SBC to provide Internet to everybody, not just the rich, died quick deaths. On the anti-redlining amendment to provide equal access the following Democrats voted against: Rep. Terri Hodge (D-Dallas), Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (D-San Antonio), Rep. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio), and Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin).

At one point, it looked like the bill might have to go to conference between the Senate and the House. Bill author Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford) then let slip what was really going on. He urged a temporary postponement "to expedite us all getting out of this special session as soon as possible." Ah, so that's why we this circus continues...

As one perceptive legislator watching the proceedings on the House floor commented: "Education will get a slice of bread and SBC will get the whole enchilada."

The Senate's Battle Cry: It's Not Our Fault!

Once more the Senate launched itself into debate on a school finance bill this afternoon. OK, maybe "launched" isn't quite the word. It was more like senators grudgingly accepted that they had to debate and pass a bill so Lite Gov. David Dewhurst could claim that the Senate did its part on school finance. House Speaker Tom Craddick seemingly bailed on the special session late last week. But there the Senate was today debating a school finance bill that everyone on the Senate floor knew would go nowhere in the House. So today's debate was all simply a grand exercise in trying to avoid blame.

No matter. Plano Republican Florence "Sisyphus" Shapiro dutifully rose on the Senate floor to start pushing another school finance boulder up the hill. We've lost count of how many times she's done this in the past two years. This bill, known as Senate Bill 8, is a stripped-down version of her previous education proposals. A string of Democrats rose to ask her questions about it--the same questions they'd asked her many times before. No one really had their hearts in it. A few senators reclined in their black leather chairs and stared into space as the debate droned on. Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) had the look of someone in the waiting room before dental surgery.

On the key vote, the Senate passed SB 8 by a 20-9 vote. The whole debate--including plowing through more than 20 amendments--lasted less than three hours, which is lightening speed in the verbose Senate. With the school finance performance out of the way, Dewhurst and Co. promptly moved on to debating the SBC-friendly telecom bill.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The Final Dance

Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland) just threw a bombshell that is worth quoting in its entirety:

"We have worked diligently to find a final compromise to HB 2 and HB 3. At this point in the special session, neither chamber has been able to pass any legislation, and it does not appear that they will. We are wasting time and money, and it is unproductive to prolong this process.

In less than two weeks schools are set to start, and it is vital for them to have the updated textbooks necessary to do so. The funds for those books can only be granted through budget execution, which cannot be done while we are in session.

I suggest we sine die, continue working together to reach an agreement, request the Texas Education Agency send us a list of reforms they can carry out without the Legislature changing the statutes, and wait to review the Supreme Court's ruling before formally meeting again."

Monday, August 01, 2005

Finally! Not Just an Idiot Wind from the Lege

You'd of thought that Gov. Rick Perry would be in a happier mood at his press conference today. After all, miraculously, something good came out of the now-two special sessions he has called. Perry signed Senate Bill 20, passed during the first called special session, which ended on July 20. The bill requires that about 5 percent of the state's energy come from renewable sources by 2015 and sets a goal of 10 percent by 2025. The legislation also empowers the Public Utility Commission to order construction of new transmission lines. This is vital in moving the power from wind generators in West Texas to the state's cities.

It's a strange day when Tom "Smitty" Smith, state director of Public Citizen and Perry are twinkling at each other but there they were, along with bill sponsors Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay), Rep. Todd Baxter (R-Austin), and Rep. Bob Hunter (R-Abilene). Smitty, who worked the legislation hard during the regular session, only to see it drown in a telecom bloodbath, seemed relieved. "We got past the impasse," he said.

The press clearly didn't give a damn. When it came time to ask questions nobody had one about energy. They only wanted to talk about school finance. Jay Root of the Fort Worth Startlegram led off. These days Root often summons up the pique of an executive who has to wait too long for his valet parking. He doesn't seem to care about the substance of school finance, he's just angry that legislators can't seem to get anything done. Maybe his vacation plans have been upset.

Sure enough, Jay wanted Perry to justify all the money spent for the special sessions when there is nothing to show for it. Predictably, this allowed Perry to get all indignant. "It's a minor amount of money compared to what it would mean for the teachers of the state, for crying out loud," his hairness huffed.

Then the governor said something that pricked the ears of the teacher and superintendent reps standing outside. Perry said that he'd been in politics long enough to know that sometimes you don't get the full loaf, you have to settle for a half a loaf or a slice. This seemed to leave open the possibility that he'd declare victory if the Lege just passed a teacher salary increase and some money for textbooks and called it good. When it comes time to stump in front of his suburban constituents heading into the March '06 primary, Perry then might be able to get on down the road by blaming the failure to reduce property taxes on the Lege.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Updating the Numbers

Amid the hubbub of yesterday's school finance meltdown in the House, we goofed on two numbers. The proposal by Rep. Scott Hochberg (D-Houston) that amended House Bill 2, the school finance plan, didn't quite triple the homestead exemption, as we stated in a previous post. Past incarnations of Hochberg's plan tripled the current $15,000 homestead exemption, but this time it proposed increasing the exemption to $32,500. That would still provide much more help to lower- and middle-income families on their property taxes than the leadership's version of HB 2. The rich folks wouldn't benefit quite as much, though. (Exempting $32,500 in value from property taxes helps a lot more when your home costs $150,000, than it does if you live in a $3 million mansion). Hochberg's plan also would provide more money for schools, which we thought was the whole point of this exercise (call us crazy).

Also, we miscounted by one the number of Republicans who broke ranks with the Speaker to vote for Hochberg's amendment. The total was 14.

The House and Senate are both adjourned until Thursday. The telecom, judicial pay raise, and tuition revenue bond bills are all still out there. With school finance foundering, though, those bills are in some limbo. For one, leadership in both chambers has been using those issues to leverage votes on school finance. But more than that, we're thinking it wouldn't be the best PR move to kill school finance and then pass a bill that aids big corporations like SBC (telecom) or that boosts legislators' own retirement benefits (judicial pay raise). If that happens, some lawmakers might find themselves tapping into those retirement benefits a little earlier than they expected.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Craddick's Reaction to the Meltdown

Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland) spoke with reporters this afternoon after the House melted down debating school finance. Craddick said the votes weren't there to pass House Bill 3, the property tax cut bill, last night and this afternoon. And once Scott Hochberg got his amendment on the school finance legislation, House Bill 2, "It [was] like a mushroom cloud," Craddick said. The Speaker said Hochberg's amendment succeeded because four Republicans were absent, though it should be noted that the amendment received 76 votes, which constitutes a majority of the House even if all members are present.

"I think the members are worn out," Craddick said. "They've taken this vote numerous times. The school superintendents and the school people have been real strong...It makes it hard on the [House] members." Indeed, one House Republican, explaining a vote against HB 2, said that no one from the district has called to support HB 2 or HB 3, while numerous school officials have phoned to urge a 'no' vote. After a regular session and two special sessions, that opposition seems to be taking a toll.

It seems highly unlikely that this special session can be saved. The speculation on the House floor this afternoon was that Craddick wanted to end the circus and tried to do so by offering up HB 3 for a vote when everyone knew it would fail. Since tax bills must start in the House, the Senate can't take up HB 3.

Why did Craddick do it? Capitol wags today said the maneuver gets Craddick out of a increasingly tumultuous special session in which the House is revolting against him, protects House Republicans from another vote to raise the sales tax, and sticks it to Gov. Rick Perry.

If this session collapses, as now seems quite likely, and the Lege adjourns, will Perry call another special session as he's promised on several occasions? The sessions are getting increasingly ugly.

A Surreal Day in the Texas House

It took all of four legislative days for the second special session on school finance to implode. This time it happened in the Texas House--and in spectacular fashion this afternoon. It was a marvelous few hours of legislative theater that ended with the sponsors of both the school finance bill and the property tax cut bill voting against their own legislation.

How did it come to that?

The House convened this morning planning to take up the school finance bill, House Bill 2--followed by the property tax cut bill, House Bill 3. But the House stood at ease for most of the morning and afternoon while Speaker Tom Craddick tried to scare up enough votes to pass at least HB 2.

When debate finally started on HB 2, the House rebelled against leadership, voting 76-67 in favor of Scott Hochberg's amendment to lower the proposed property tax cut and triple the homestead exemption. Hochberg, a Houston Democrat and high priest of school finance policy, contends that the increased homestead exemption will ease the tax burden on lower and middle income families. The plan narrowly failed in the first special session.

With Hochberg's amendment in the bill, Craddick was in a tight spot. The House stood at ease for half an hour while leadership tried to peel off some of the 13 Republicans who had backed the Hochberg plan. There was a palpable sense of unease among Democrats on the House floor as they waited for Craddick's next move. And when Craddick sprung it on them, it turned the House upside down. Unable to turn enough votes to take out the Hochberg amendment, Craddick decided to scuttle the ship. HB 2 sponsor Kent Grusendorf (R-Arlington) went to the front mic and accepted all the pending amendments, which moved the House right to a vote on HB 2. Grusendorf then raised two fingers to signal a vote against his own bill. A slew of Republicans and some stunned Dems killed HB 2 by 79-62.

Craddick then told Rep. Jim Keffer (R-Eastland) to move ahead as planned with HB 3, even though everyone on the House floor knew the bill didn't have the votes to pass. With HB 2 dead, there was still some hope for the special session, because the Senate could send its school finance plan over to the House. But not so with HB 3, because tax bills must originate in the House. So when Craddick rolled out HB 3 for a sacrificial killing, the Speaker essentially blew up the special session.

In his closing remarks on HB 3, Keffer summed it up perfectly, "It's been sort of a surreal day." He then stunned the House. He said he was committed to cutting property taxes but that "this is not the bill. This was the governor's plan. We worked on it as much as we could...we didn't get there. Mr. Speaker, show me voting 'no' on HB 3." The House floor erupted in cheering and whooping. The tax bill died by a final vote of 124-8. At which point, Rep. Paul Moreno (D-El Paso), as he does after legislative victories, yelled, "It's Miller time."

Monday, July 25, 2005

Ready for Your Car Insurance to Go Up?

In order to give minimal property tax reductions to homeowners and help reelect Governor Rick Perry, House Bill 3 will raise the sales tax and add new taxes to a host of services. According to recent proposals, these services will include (among others) connecting to the Internet (so much for closing the digital divide) and car repair.

This is what will be taxed according to the conference report on House Bill 3:

"Motor vehicle repair services" means the repair, remodeling,
maintenance, or restoration of a motor vehicle, including testing
or diagnostic services, body repair and painting, engine repair,
transmission repair, exhaust system repair, brake repair, and air
conditioning repair.
Of course, it's possible that insurance companies eager to do their part for public education and homeowners will absorb the increased costs of repairing vehicles rather than pass it on to customers as increased rates.

Possible...BUT NOT LIKELY.

According to insurance watchdog, Texas Watch, insurance companies overcharged Texas policyholders $4 billion in 2004. Texas Watch calculated that for Texas drivers the average overcharge per vehicle insured worked out to $205.26. Oh, and btw, in 2002 Texas had some of the highest insurance rates in the nation for homeowners. Wonder how much those have gone down since then...

The more than $700,000 the insurance industry spent to elect a friendly Lege in 2002 sure paid off, didn't it?

Groundhog or Turkey?

The folks at the Lege were back at it today, trying to solve school finance for the fifth time. The big move in the latest version of this chess game appears to be in the Senate where a 2/3rds vote in order to suspend the regular order of business is required to take up House Bill 2. Many Senators are rightly concerned that whatever they approve, no matter the quality, will be radically changed for the worse in conference committee with the House. The bill that comes back will only need a majority vote to pass. Thus everybody understands that the first vote is the most important one. It was supposed to occur today but instead the Senate adjourned until tomorrow. Looks like Dewhurst doesn't have the votes he needs to get the bill off the floor.

Meanwhile in the House, the rumor is that Craddick will, by hook or by crook, force his members to pass both House Bill 2 and it's taxing cousin House Bill 3, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. After that he will release his members to vote their districts. The idea here is to avoid having the bill die in the House, so if failure ensues the Senate gets the blame.