Dodging Dewhurst
Tue February 3, 2009 4:34 pm

David Dewhurst's committee assignments late Friday spotlighted the challenge this session presents for Florence Shapiro, whose interest in running for the U.S. Senate places her in perilous territory vis-a-vis the Texas Senate's presiding officer, who likewise is considering a relocation to Washington. While Dewhurst's committee assignments shifted authority from Shapiro to Judith Zaffirini for higher education issues, Shapiro's remained chairman of the Senate's Education committee. That gives her ample opportunity to build a statewide name for herself by:

1. Revisiting school finance. Shapiro has been working with Senate Finance Chair Steve Ogden to use $1.9 billion set aside in S.B. 1 to improve equity, reduce the Robin Hood effect on property-wealthy school districts and undo an obsolete "target revenue" provision creating pressure on districts to raise taxes. Both Shapiro and Ogden believe the devil this session won't be in school finance details -- they are confident they can pass a bill -- but finding adequate money. Shapiro wants to up the ante to $3 billion for basic school funding.

2. Taking on the IRS to keep school construction costs cheap. Texas has hit an IRS-set limit on the school bonds it can back (thereby helping districts secure Triple-A ratings). Shapiro recently sent a letter to Texas's D.C. delegation, noting that although the state passed legislation in 2007 " to guarantee bonds up to 5 times the value of the Permanent School Fund, federal regulations limit this capacity to 2 1/2. As Texas has reached this capacity, the state may no longer provide for districts this cost saving measure." Shapiro's letter also noted that, while Congress is considering enormous stimulus spending, a simple change in the IRS rule would allow Texas school districts to easily finance badly needed construction projects. By pushing the issue, Shapiro stands to win big in the education community.

3. Proceeding with her bills, filed in November, to freeze higher ed tuition and soften the top ten percent rule. Zaffirini may be the higher ed committee chair, but Shapiro can still weigh in on high profile issues that resonate with voters.

History has not been kind to U.S. Senate candidates who lacked a statewide presence (See: Rick Noriega, Ron Kirk). That would seem to give an automatic advantage over Shapiro to statewide office holders like Railroad Commisioners Elizabeth Ames Jones and Michael Williams, former Secretary of State Roger Williams, as well as potential candidates Dewhurst and Attorney General Gregg Abbott. But Shapiro actually did quite well with her fund raising, last week reporting that she had $375,000 in the bank at year's end, compared to Ames Jones' $145,000, and Roger Williams' $131,000 (of which he donated $100,000 himself). A spokesman for Michael Williams told the Houston Chronicle's R.G. Ratcliffe that Williams had not begun fund raising. (None of the Republicans matched Democratic Houston Mayor Bill White's $640,000 -- collected in less than a month from his candidate announcement.)

Shapiro has put together an impressive steering committee including Dallas cowboy legend Roger Staubach, 11 current members of the Texas Senate, former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, retired energy executive Earle Nye. Note: In my original post, I opined the following: "If Dewhurst jumps in the race (and I think he will), he won't be able to drop his own millions with impunity -- as he has in previous state races. A federal rule specifies that if a candidate spends more than $800,000 of his or her own money on a campaign, then other candidates no longer have to abide in the federal $2,300 per individual contribution limit." An alert reader informed me the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the "millionaire's rule" last June. So much for an even playing field.

Since Dewhurst probably views her as a likely political opponent, the session will require some gentle navigation on Shapiro's part. But given her early fund raising success and education community network, don't count her out.

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