The Week in Review
Sun March 8, 2009 10:40 am

This post has been revised since its initial publication.

1. The Tom Schieffer candidacy.

Patricia Kilday Hart and I interviewed Tom Schieffer about his race for the Democratic nomination governor. Interestingly, Schieffer asked to go off the record before the interview to discuss the events that led to his being named one of the Ten Worst legislators in 1975. That was my first year to participate in the writing of the story, along with my then-colleague, Griffin Smith. The writeup was one of the toughest that we have ever written. It was full of anonymous quotes, which we seldom use today. Nowadays, the writeups are largely based on the public record. Schieffer was involved in one of the session’s biggest fights, an effort to authorize Texas’s first presidential primary in order to aid U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s bid for the Democratic nomination for president in 1976. The Texas Democratic party in that era was split into liberal and conservative wings, and Schieffer was a conservative Democrat. The liberals were fighting him hard all the way, including my former mentor, Babe Schwartz, and I am sure that that influenced the writeup. The ink was hardly dry on the issue before I began to have second thoughts about whether Schieffer really deserved being on the Worst list. The bill did pass, and Texas did have its first primary–not that it helped Bentsen, who was overwhelmed in his home state by Jimmy Carter.

Schieffer has gone on to have a successful career as an oil and gas operator, as president of the Texas Rangers baseball team, and as ambassador to Australia and Japan in the George W. Bush administration. He should be considered a legitimate candidate for governor. The Ten Worst article was 34 years ago. There are lot of obstacles in the path of a Schieffer candidacy, but that article shouldn’t be one of them. The main obstacles, of course, are Schieffer’s association with Bush and his well motivated, but ultimately self-defeating, unwillingness to distance himself from his friend and former Rangers’ business partner; his reluctance as a candidate, including the question of whether he will put his own money into the campaign; and–how do I put this?–a question of whether he has a feel for contemporary Texas politics. I had the feeling, talking to him, that he has one foot in the present and one foot in the seventies, when conservative Democrats ran the state. He still talks about Lloyd Bentsen and John Connally. Connally and Bentsen and Hobby were giants in their day, and they ran things a heck of a lot better than the Republicans have, but Schieffer so far seems like he is just putting his toes in the water. He needs to jump in.

2. The transportation stimulus package.

Transportation is one area where the stimulus package can produce real jobs and have real economic benefits. So why is the amount so small–just $2.5 billion overall, and $1.2 billion in the first installment? One of the reasons is that Obama wants to invest in high-speed rail rather than roads. I think this is a mistake.

I’d like to see more of the money go to highways and less to high-speed rail. High-speed rail requires total grade separation. For rural Texas, it will make the Trans-Texas Corridor battle look like a walk in the park. I ran some numbers back in the early nineties, when the idea of a bullet train was first floated, and to break even on the project’s then $6 billion cost, trains had to run 97% full between Houston and Dallas 24 hours a day. Like it or not, the most efficient method of getting people from point A to point B is one lane of freeway. In an hour, it carries six times the number of people as rail, and the cost is approximately the same.

Politically, the most important aspect of the transportation funding battle was the continuing hostility between TxDOT and the Legislature. TxDOT froze lawmakers out of the discussion of which projects should be funded, with the result that 70% of the money will go to toll roads. Legislators did not cover themselves with glory either, as some took the opportunity to lobby for projects in their districts. The level of mistrust of TxDOT is as high as it has ever been–thanks to Commissioner Ted Houghton, who decided to do a little bomb-throwing of his own at the March 5 meeting of the Texas Highway Commission, calling one of the witnesses and the organization he represents “idiots.” Senator Hegar fired off a letter to Houghton, which included the following observations:

* I am … compelled to strongly denounce your comments to Mr. Hank Gilbert at the … meeting as completely out of line and wholly unacceptable.

* Regardless of the criticism you may have received over the last few years in your duties as a commissioner and regardless of your thoughts about Mr. Gilbert or the group he represents, he is a Texas taxpayer, and it is extremely inconsiderate for you to dismiss him and the organization he represents as “idiots.” Anyone who holds the prestigious position of Texas transportation commissioner must take both the good and the bad that comes with that position and treat our fellow citrizens with respect; the same respect that he paid you in politely expressing his thoughts and opinions.

* [I]ncidents like this one only underscore the problems of the past and retard future progress. They certainly do nothing to change the perception of many of my legislative colleagues that TxDOT remains arrogant and unresponsive to the people it serves….

Lots of fodder here for the coming battle over TxDOT sunset.

3. Republicans mobilize for the Voter I.D. bill.

Rosemary Edwards, chair of the Travis County Republican party, sent an e-mail to Central Texas Republicans urging a show of strength to pack the Senate gallery on Tuesday to demonstrate their support for the Voter I.D. bill. In an exhortation reminiscent of Mack Brown’s “Come early. Be Loud. Wear orange,” Edwards urges her fellow Republicans: “Show up on the south side of the Capitol at 7:45am on Tuesday. Wear RED!!”

The College Republicans posted Edwards’ e-mail on their Web site and added this commentary:

By supporting this bill, we can finally put an end to the days of dirty Democratic politics that stretches from the days of LBJ all the way to audacious activities of ACORN. We now have a legitimate opportunity to make sure that our most sacred of rights is preserved only for our citizens.

“Only for our citizens.” Do they really think that illegal aliens are voting? That people who are in this country illegally would risk deportation (not to mention jail time) for voter fraud? They don’t want anything to do with official government functions. This is why Voter I.D. is a solution in search of a problem.

4. The Texas Public Policy Foundation release aimed at Dewhurst and Straus.

Here is the gist of the release from March 6:

The Texas Public Policy Foundation asked Texas Lt. Governor David Dewhurst and Texas House Speaker Joe Straus to stop further consideration of tax increases that could weaken an already shaky state economy.

“With Texas businesses and families facing such economic stress, our state government needs to send a clear message that it understands their plight and will not add to their financial burdens,” wrote Justin Keener, the Foundation’s Vice President of Policy and Communications, in the attached letter to the two leaders. “We must not send any signal to the markets, businesses, or public that Texas is even thinking about raising taxes.”

Keener cited the local option transportation tax proposals – specifically SB 855 by Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas), which Carona told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on February 25th would soon be heard in his Transportation and Homeland Security committee – as prime examples of negative signals that could hinder Texas’ economic recovery.

I agree with TPPF that a general tax increase would not be wise in this economic climate. But the Carona bill is not a general tax increase that would be foisted on the people of Texas. It is a proposal for a local option gasoline tax of 10 cents a gallon in the Dallas-Fort Worth region that would have to be approved by the public, and would be for the sole purpose of constructing transportation projects that would include rail and roadways. Because mobility is an important condition for economic growth, the tax would have a corresponding economic benefit that would offset the effects of a gasoline tax increase. I don’t agree with everything in the bill, by a long shot. A $60 fee for registering vehicles brought into the region from another state or country seems onerous to me, and a “new resident roadway impact fee” of $250 sounds downright un-American to me. Nevertheless, I see nothing wrong with giving the Metroplex the ability to chart their own future. As I have written above, I don’t think that heavy rail projects make sense–they just don’t move enough people to justify the cost– but if Metroplex voters are willing to pay for them, I don’t see why it is any of TPPF’s business.

I do have concerns that the TPPF letter, addressed as it is to Dewhurst and Straus, appears to be an effort to enforce an ideological opposition to new taxes generally, even those that are local option and arguably have a net positive longterm impact on the regional economy. It’s one thing for the Foundation to make its points, which it does very well; it’s quite another to call upon Dewhurst and Straus to oppose a specific piece of legislation.

5. Museums ad Nauseum

Abby Rapoport, our intrepid intern, filed this report on the House Appropriations subcommittee on Education:

Gone are the days of Tom Craddick and special items doled out as gifts, at least if Education Subcommittee chair Scott Hochberg has his way. As representatives from university after university paraded in front of the subcommittee on Thursday, each was asked which of the existing special items they would you swap out for new requests?

Hochberg ran the committee with a mixture of humor and frankness about economic realities. “There are few bad ideas in the Appropriations bill, but
it’s our job to prioritize,” he said. “There’s only so much cash.”

The committee commended those schools with fewer special items while questioning those with large requests. Texas A&M International requested startup funds for a Ph.D program that was already up and running. Texas Tech also heard a bit of an earful when Hochberg saw its 2 million dollar museum request. “They have so many museums that they don’t even itemize them!” Hochberg burst out. Senator Robert Duncan has been a busy man. In addition to a central museum, Tech maintains a ranching heritage center, a Lubbock lake landmark site, an International Cultural Center, and a Vietnam Research Center and archives. Oh, and a Center for Financial Responsibility, with semester credit hours offered for a course in how students can manage their money.

Hochberg gave a verbal “gold star” to the nursing program at Texas State University-San Marcos, for using startup money to actually start the program and not asking for more startup funding.

Museums quickly became a running joke on the committee as one school after another requested them as special items. Hochberg was eager to explain, “This subcommittee is second to none in its love of museums,” he said. But don’t expect it to fund them.

* * * *

Hmm. Abby’s report really captures the flavor of the hearing. But I bet a few special items find their way into the Appropriations bill somehow. They always do – pb

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