Open to Everything But Vouchers

Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, has politically remade himself a couple of times. He was an elected member of the State Board of Education in the mid-1980s when reformers led by Ross Perot successfully pushed the idea of an appointed board. Having lost that job, he ran for the state Legislature, where he was in the middle of the education reform and school finance wars waged from the late 1980s into the 90s. Then he became something of a partisan, a move that cost him some of his clout and that he's apparently ready to abandon. He says it was fun, but he wants to go back to the education concerns that attracted him to government in the first place.

Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, has politically remade himself a couple of times. He was an elected member of the State Board of Education in the mid-1980s when reformers led by Ross Perot successfully pushed the idea of an appointed board. Having lost that job, he ran for the state Legislature, where he was in the middle of the education reform and school finance wars waged from the late 1980s into the 90s. Then he became something of a partisan, a move that cost him some of his clout and that he's apparently ready to abandon. He says it was fun, but he wants to go back to the education concerns that attracted him to government in the first place.

We bring you that heart-warming tale because Grusendorf has assembled an impressive group of education groupies that could, fed enough fuel, drive the public school debate in Texas for the next few years. His newly forged Texas Education Reform Caucus is, he says, an attempt to build a defense to expected attacks on the accountability system and to figure out what the state should do to build on that system in the future. They'll do some brainstorming and some polling and see what happens.

Vouchers, one of Grusendorf's pet issues, will not be on the table. Without that in the way, he attracted an interesting crowd to the new group's first meeting, including representatives from the governor's office, the comptroller's office, business leaders like Tom Luce and Charles Miller.

He's got at least temporary safe passage from legislative leaders who can be turf conscious about these things. Grusendorf made ex-officio members of Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, and Rep. Paul Sadler, D-Henderson. Those last two chair the education committees in their chambers. Austin attorney Sandy Kress is involved, as is State Board of Education Chairman Chase Untermeyer. He brought in education groups and lawyers who've worked on school finance, and groups like the Texas Association of School Boards, Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, the Texas Business-Education Coalition and the Texas Association of Business and Chambers of Commerce. Teacher groups were notably absent from the first session.

The group will meet several times this year and several members said the only thing that's really clear is the taboo on vouchers. They're not in competition with other groups, panels, coalitions and committees that have formed up around the education issue over the last year (probably a good indication of what citizen focus groups are telling political leaders at the moment).

Though the teacher groups weren't at the table, at least not yet, several of the attendees say teacher retention, training and compensation could be the basis for a wave of legislation in education. Their first worry is that teachers are attracted to better jobs in other fields, so they'll be looking for ways to attract people to teaching and then keeping them in the profession. A couple of people who attended the meeting mentioned their desire to measure what teachers do, both to see what works in real practice and to figure out how to identify good teachers and reward them.

The group might also poke at school finance problems likely to crop up in the near and not-so-near future. School districts are gradually (and not so gradually) bunching up close to the state's $1.50 maximum tax rate; when enough of them get there, that could be construed to be a state-mandated rate. That's unconstitutional, and it would force lawmakers to come up with a new school finance scheme. There is also a faction that wants to find out what things work best in an education system with a set amount of money, a school-finance scheme that could determine whether the state and local districts are spending money on the right things.

Early Money is Good. So is Late Money.

Texas Supreme Court Justice Al Gonzales is still on the GOP's prayer list. And why not? The low profiles of judicial races make them a form of political lottery where voters don't often know who's got the establishment's seal of approval. In this case, that's Gonzales. But he's not well known, doesn't have a ton of money (though he probably will do about a week's worth of advertising on television), and might--depending on who's speculating--be at risk on a Republican ballot because of his Hispanic surname. His opponent is Rod Gorman, a Houston attorney. Gonzales is the subject of a late money-raising appeal from Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the Houston-based tort reform group. They're asking their adherents to send checks to that group's Houston office so they can forward them on.

Also on the late help list, a little unexpectedly, is Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, who won that office in a special election late last year and is seeking to keep it. Her opponent, trial lawyer David McQuade Leibowitz, is spending a huge amount of money on television. Most observers expect her to win, but they're taking the challenger's television seriously, and there's an effort in the Austin business lobby to raise some late money for her reelection bid.

Everybody Used to Be Somebody Else

We've previously mentioned the Republican primary for the 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth, mainly because it pits a mess of local Republicans against Gov. George W. Bush's appointee, Anne Gardner. She says she did, in fact, vote in the Democratic primary in the early 1990s, but says her opponent, David Evans, also voted in the Democratic primaries in 1990 and 1992.

He says he voted Republican in 1996 and 1998. Gardner told the Star-Telegram that she voted in the 1990 Democratic primary as a protest against Republican gubernatorial candidate Clayton Williams' rape joke. But that campaign gaffe in 1990 came after that year's primary elections and couldn't have been her reason. She's got mail hitting the postal boxes now, a positive appeal that only lightly knocks Evans (a vague contention that he wants to politicize the courts).

His mailers constitute a direct attack, saying there's no record she ever voted in a GOP primary and noting her support for Gov. Ann Richards, who collected a small contribution from Gardner in 1993. For her part, Gardner says she's been a Republican for 40 years, back to working on the Barry Goldwater campaign when she was in college.

Friends in Unexpected Places

The latest polling in the CD-07 race in Houston (U.S. Rep. Bill Archer is retiring) has state Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, in the lead. Of course, it's Culberson's poll. That said, his numbers haven't prompted much outcry from other contestants. The betting line remains pretty much the same; that Culberson and probably Peter Wareing will meet in a runoff after the field of seven Republicans is narrowed in the primary election. Culberson hasn't put together much of a media campaign, and will probably come in fourth in the spending war for that seat. But anecdotally, we're told that hard-edged advertising by the Ron Kapsche campaign is cutting into Wareing, mostly to the benefit of Culberson. Culberson's numbers have him with 32 percent of the votes to Wareing's 18 percent. If you put in the weights he thinks will prevail in the primary, Culberson's poll says he could win without a runoff. Caveat: The poll is a week old at a time when the candidates are running media campaigns, and the margin of error, at 5.8 percent, is relatively large.

• Speaking of unexpected help, long-shot Republican Railroad Commission candidate Andy Draughn picked up endorsements from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. Draughn is running against Michael Williams, who was appointed by Gov. Bush a year ago. Those surprises aside, Williams remains far ahead in fundraising and endorsements.

Would (Fill in the Blank) Change Your Vote?

It's push-poll season, most famously on the presidential front, but more pervasively in tight races on the state level, where negative phone-banking can be cost-effective. More of this will surely surface before March 14, but so far, there are allegations that people are asking suggestively damaging questions about candidates in San Antonio and in East Texas. Jose Menendez, who's running against Rep. Juan Solis III, D-San Antonio, says he's the target of such polling and wants it to stop.

In East Texas' Senate District 3 Todd Staples claims Les Tarrance's folks have been asking nasty questions on the phones in an effort to scare voters away from him. Tarrance's folks say they're not any nastier than anything else asked by pollsters in that and other races, and say they're not calling around in sufficient numbers to move lots and lots of voters from one camp to the other. That's a little cute, because the calls are targeted to particular kinds of voters instead of to a random sample.

A quick definition, which we pass along here just so you'll know what we're asking the campaigns when we needle them about this: A regular poll measures voter reactions; a push poll creates those reactions. One's an information-gathering exercise while the other is designed to move voters in a particular direction. Tell that to the campaigns and ask about push-polling, and the Staples folks say "Yup. They're doing it." The Tarrance people say they're asking voters both positive and negative questions and say there's nothing being asked that's not based in fact.

What's being asked, apparently, is whether it would change a voter's mind to know that Staples has been supported heavily by Realtors and has introduced several pieces of legislation that benefit Realtors. That prompted a press release from the Texas Association of Realtors, defending their guy and saying other business groups had also given him their support and money.

That counterattack from the Realtors includes a reiteration of Staples' shot at Tarrance, saying the candidate from The Woodlands is hitting Staples in an effort to hide his own tax and business problems, and contending those problems are the reason some business groups went with Staples.

You Just Thought This Had Been Tough Before

Change the background music in the Tarrance-Staples GOP primary from Mozart to Wagner. This thing is peaking, not only on the phones and in the press-release rhetoric, but also in more widely spread voter contacts. Both candidates are hitting mailboxes in the 17-county district with attacks. Staples is charging Tarrance with leaving years of business debts and taxes on hold until he decided to run for Senate. In fact, one of the homebuilder's consultants admitted a couple of weeks ago that Tarrance was unaware of some of the tax debts he owed until his political researchers dug them up.

Tarrance strikes back with a blast at Staples' financial backers, the same Realtors responding above to the voter phone calls. The details: Tarrance says Staples took $75,000 in contributions from the Texas Association of Realtors political action committee and filed 11 bills favorable to that industry last session. The mailer from Tarrance (who won the endorsement of the Texas Medical Association's PAC) goes on to say that Staples took money from supporters of "the HMO/Managed Care agenda."

In a press release on the same subject, Tarrance says the new shot "is not a personal attack" since it involves public records about Staples' conduct in public office. And he couches it as a public service, saying it's better to launch the missiles now than to leave the attacks to David Fisher, the Democrat who'll be seeking the seat in November.

Another bullet from Tarrance (expect this to be daily from here on out) centers on a crowd of prison guards from the district booing Staples at a forum for being, in their view and Tarrance's, less than helpful, or attentive, on pay raises, a major issue in the district. Staples, who's on the House Corrections Committee in the House, says the issue didn't really come up during the session.

There's something in this race for every age group, including the 12-year-old inside each male political hack in Texas. It's pure name-calling, just a straight up, traditional schoolyard nyah, nyah: A couple of weeks ago, the Staples campaign began referring to Tarrance as "Leslie Rea Tarrance" using the candidate's whole name. In response, Tarrance now refers to "Douglas Todd Staples."

Creating New Jobs in the Private Sector

The Texas Department of Economic Development, sandwiched between a highly critical report from the State Auditor's Office and a Sunset review that will come to a head in next year's legislative session, wants to hire a collection agency to run down more than $1 million in Smart Jobs funds that belong to the state but remain in the hands of companies that were supposed to train workers.

If Attorney General John Cornyn goes along with the request from the TDED board, the agency will hire lawyers on a contingency basis to try to retrieve money from employers who didn't train all the people they were paid to train. The agency sends Smart Jobs money to the employers for training, and then settles up with them on a quarterly basis, paying more for extra people trained and getting refunds for people who were not trained. But not all of the money that's supposed to come back actually comes back. Since 1996, TDED officials say they have accumulated an estimated $1.35 million in uncollected debts. That's less than two percent of what they first sent down to the trainers, but it could train a fair number of people if the agency can get the money back. They don't have the legal staff to hunt down the money, and say their collection rates are, for that reason, lower than they should be (the state auditors said as much in their January report). If Cornyn says okay, they'll hire lawyers to do their dunning for them, paying a percentage of what's collected. One hitch that might limit bids: The agency isn't completely sure how much is owed. Employers who didn't fill out their paperwork are assumed to have trained no workers, meaning the refund amounts could be inflated.

Maybe They Should Hire Regis Philbin

If you don't advertise a lottery, and if the people who run the show are afraid to take a little flack for changing the odds to generate interest, the popularity of the games will fall. That's what the lottery experts were saying a year ago when the Legislature was in session, and guess what? A limited ad budget and a fear that raising the odds will run off regular players has resulted in a slide in sales.

Scratch-off tickets are selling briskly, but make up only about 62 percent of total sales. That was the deal cut last session: The lottery would quit asking for a bigger ad budget if lawmakers would allow more of the amount wagered on instant games to be paid out in prizes. That trade is apparently driving the increase in scratch-off sales.

The sales drop will probably force the lottery to cut its minimum Lotto Texas jackpots back to $3 million (they've been at $4 million for five years), but don't solve the bigger problem, which is that players are numb to those numbers and don't get excited until they see much larger sums. That's why there was a pitch last year to raise the odds for a big jackpot to 1 in 25.8 million from the current 1 in 15.8 million. The basic equation is higher odds = fewer payouts = bigger jackpots = more interest. But the feedback to the lottery was negative and the agency decided to leave its spiraling online games alone.

The lottery's woes haven't forced the comptroller's office to make any change to its estimates of what the state will bring in during the current biennium. The numbers from the lottery are down from last year (when the numbers were down from the previous year), however, and the number-crunchers are watching. Scratch-off, or instant ticket sales, are up an average of about $3 million per week over the first half of the last fiscal year. Lotto Texas--the biggest revenue producer for the lottery and the one that's sucking air right now--is turning in sales numbers that average $4.4 million less per week than the same period a year ago. Add all the games together, and this year's take is averaging $49.4 million weekly, as against $51.8 million weekly last year.

Why? Nobody gets excited about "little" awards and it's been a long time since the Texas Lottery produced a really newsworthy jackpot. Lottery watchers are eyeing competition from things like Internet gambling sites and even from the hyperactive and easy-to-access stock market.

Though the idea spooked the lottery commission a few months ago, watch for a return to the idea of longer odds combined with a greater number of small prizes. The small prizes keep regular players interested. The longer odds increase the size of jackpots to headline proportions and attract other players who only get in when the numbers in front of that third comma get large.

A Flock: Democrats, Vouchers & Dennis Rodman

We already can hear the voice on the phone telling us that this comes from a Republican pollster. There. We led with it. Now, what should have been the lead: Ask Texas voters about a range of issues and people, and the pattern in that headline emerges. They don't like Democrats a whole lot, they're not crazy about vouchers, and they really, really don't like the newest Dallas Maverick.

The Fort Worth-based Eppstein Group polled 1,201 registered Texas voters and about the only thing they like is their governor, giving George W. Bush a positive rating of 71 percent and a negative rating of 27 percent. John McCain, by comparison, ranks 41 percent positive and 37 percent negative. Keep in mind that this was done February 10-15, before those two really got after it, but even then, Bush was the overwhelming favorite of Republicans and Republican-leaners, with a 91/8 split, while that same bunch had McCain at 40/44.

Less than two-fifths of the voters polled like the idea of school vouchers, which got an overall positive/negative rating of 37/58. Break it down: Republicans are 45/50 on the issue; Democrats are 28/66; Independents are 32/61 against vouchers. The question was phrased to ask voters whether they favor "using tax dollars to fund private and religious school vouchers."

A quartet of well-known Democrats--Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Bill Bradley and Henry Cisneros--doesn't fare even that well. Clinton's positive negatives among all Texas voters are 27/71. Gore's are 29/66. Bradley's are 32/44, and Cisneros' are 21/48. All four improve when you take out everyone but Democratic voters, but not as much as you'd think. Clinton's result is almost a split, at 49/47, while Gore does pretty well, at 59/36. Bradley comes out at 38/33 when only Democrats are in the mix. And Cisneros still doesn't make it to the water line, at 31/35.

Think those stink? Pity the Worm. Dennis Rodman's positive/negative in his new state is 11/75.

Oddments, Miscellany, Statistics

Here's an odd little piece of tax lore. The Texas Association of Business and Chambers of Commerce got its tax-free status confirmed, and that apparently allows the association to go back four years and sweep up some or all of the taxes it paid to vendors. This came to us in the form of a call from a semi-alarmed vendor, and TABCC's Bill Hammond says it's true. The money comes not from the vendors, however, but from the state. If a vendor charged sales tax and TABCC paid it, the association gets its money back from the vendor, either in the form of a check that the vendor then credits against taxes or in the form of a chit signed by the vendor that is then paid by the state.

• Fodder for your reading list: The House Research Organization has put together a report on what might be the central issue of the next legislative session: "Redistricting by the Numbers: Issues for Census 2000."

• Juvenile crime in Texas dropped 9 percent during the first six months of last year, according to the Criminal Justice Policy Council. Arrests were down, but because of harsher sentencing, so-called "commitments" to the Texas Youth Commission rose from 1997 to 1998. There's a full report on the trends at www.cjpc.state.tx.us.

• This shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who's tried to do any hiring lately, but the Texas unemployment rate is at a 26-year low of 4.3 percent. That's the lowest since January 1974.

• Lost in the Sturm und Drang over Internet taxation is the state's losses to catalog sales. While the current numbers have the state losing up to $50 million to online sales, those same number-crunchers say catalog sales that go untaxed cost the state over $200 million annually. A widely reported University of Tennessee study says the online numbers will soon go through the roof. By 2003 in Texas, the researchers contend, online sales will cut $932 million out of the state's sales tax revenues.

• Political use of the Internet is also ramping up. In that poll, noted above, only 18 percent of Texas voters said they had pulled information about a candidate off the Internet during this election cycle. It was higher among Republicans, at 21 percent, and Independents, at 19 percent, than among the 12 percent of Democrats who said they had looked at candidate information.

Political People and Their Moves

Michael Totty, editor of the Wall Street Journal's Texas Journal, wins a promotion, becoming editor of the national paper's California edition, which means, basically, that another Okie is moving to the Golden State. Totty's replacement here will be Neal Templin, who was most recently a writer in the Journal's Dallas bureau... Count our weasel words in this next line: Your back-of-the-envelope list of folks considering the possibility of someday maybe perhaps running for statewide office should probably include Rep. Kenn George, R-Dallas, in the slot next to comptroller. He's talked with friends about it, but hasn't made any plans... Kelsey Reeves, Time Warner's lead lobbyist in Austin, is moving to the company's lobby operation in Washington, D.C... Wayne Atkins, legislative director to Sen. David Sibley, R-Waco, is off to play from the outside, working on legislative matters for the Texas Credit Union League... Busted: The nephew of Rep. Robert Puente, D-San Antonio, was arrested for allegedly stealing yard signs touting Puente's opponent, David Arevalo. Puente told the local paper he didn't know about it; Arevalo said he has the thefts on tape and called on Puente to resign. He's not gonna do that... The lawyers who voted in the State Bar poll like incumbents, for the most part, and on the state's high courts, they prefer Republicans. But in contested races without incumbents, they weren't always perfectly clear. Sharon Keller of Austin only got 43 more votes (out of more than 8,500) than J. Gary Trichter of Houston for the chief's seat on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. She's on the court, in another seat; both are Republicans. And Barbara Parker Hervey of San Antonio, a Republican, was only 112 votes ahead of W.B. "Bennie" House of Houston, also an R, for another seat on that panel. The Bar liked Republican John Boston of Austin for the other seat on that court. The lawyers overwhelmingly gave their support to the three incumbents on the Texas Supreme Court: Nathan Hecht, Al Gonzales and Priscilla Owen... Watch this space: Texas Congressional Democrats are pushing Ricardo Morado, who's now the mayor of San Benito, for a federal judgeship in South Texas. U.S. District Judge Filemon Vela plans to go on senior status. They submitted the name for presidential appointment; the U.S. Senate will look at it after that step. There are exceptions, but presidential election years aren't the best environments for quick approval for judicial appointments.

Quotes of the Week

Gov. George W. Bush, in a letter to John Cardinal O'Connor, Archbishop of New York, on the governor's campaign stop at Bob Jones University in South Carolina: "On reflection, I should have been more clear in disassociating myself from anti-Catholic sentiments and racial prejudice. It was a missed opportunity, causing needless offense, which I deeply regret."

William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, on whether Catholics should accept that apology: "I'd have to ask them, what do they want? Do they want him to bend over and take a paddle right to his behind? I mean, at what point do we say enough is enough?"

South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian on the battle between Bush and John McCain, which really took off in his state: "The good news for Democrats is that when these guys get done with each other, there is not going to be much left."

Attorney General John Cornyn, on a federal judge's decision that Calvin Burdine should be released from Death Row in part because Cornyn's office missed an important deadline in the case: "We are filing an immediate appeal and are confident the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals will block the release and keep Mr. Burdine in prison."

Gtech executive Larry King, who runs the company's Texas Lottery operations, on why interest is dropping off: "They want something exciting, and $4 million is not exciting."

IBM security guru Charles Palmer, explaining why he doesn't like to hire former computer hackers to help build his security systems: "It's like hiring an arsonist to be your fire marshal. They know all about the stuff and they know how to be good at it, but can you ever really sleep at night?"

Stephen Phenix, creator of a nationally popular boondoggle called the Sexiest Geek Alive, on the number of female entrants: "We thought this would appeal mainly to boys because we're stupid."


Texas Weekly: Volume 16, Issue 34, 6 March 2000. Copyright 2000 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited.

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