Political Intelligence

The Struggles for Power


School’s Out

During the first go-around of the fourth special session to repair the state’s school-funding system, House leaders somehow managed to take the school out of school finance.

On the session’s fifth day—with the House gearing up for its first major debate—Speaker Tom Craddick exercised his power to forbid amendments dealing with education. Instead, members would be allowed to focus on only property tax cuts. The procedural rule incensed Democrats and some Republicans, few of whom found comfort in the leadership’s promise to address public education reform later. “It’s almost like sleeping with a woman tonight and telling her I’m going to marry you tomorrow,” said Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) on the House floor. “Why can’t I marry her before we sleep together… If you can’t come right, don’t come at all.”

After the House members composed themselves, Turner noted that although the Texas Supreme Court hasn’t found the level of education in public schools to be unconstitutional, the justices have made it clear that they’re not thrilled with the status quo. “They didn’t say we’re doing OK,” Turner said. “They said the adequacy of education, which has yet to become unconstitutional, will become unconstitutional if the Legislature does not do more. If we’re going to fix it, let’s fix it now.”

But fix it they did not. In a marathon session on April 24, lawmakers managed to pass four bills—all dealing with property tax reduction.

The debate, or lack thereof, on education in the House is politically dicey for Craddick. He’s trying to retain his speakership following a primary election in March that eroded his power. The chattering class has it that Rep. Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie) the Appropriations Committee chair, is running for speaker and counting votes from House members to knock off Craddick at the start of the regular session next January. The special session has given Pitts an opening. The same day that Craddick cajoled the no-education rule through the House, Pitts filed an education reform bill (House Bill 91) that proposes new money for schools, including a teacher pay raise, and other public school initiatives that have broad support in the House. How Craddick decides to handle the bill—let it come to the House floor or keep it bottled up in committee—may help determine how much longer he remains in the speaker’s chair.

Across the Capitol, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst seemed to be thinking more like Pitts. “(W)e are talking with the House about the Senate adding language to that bill that will improve our schools, such as teacher pay raises, incentives, and increased accountability and performance,” Dewhurst said in a statement after the House passed its tax bills. “It is imperative that the Senate work thoroughly and carefully to craft a school finance reform bill that will ensure we improve our schools, lower local school property taxes and level the playing field for Texas’ businesses.”

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio) who sits on the education committee, said the session would be a failure without education reform. One of the reasons it might be easier in the Senate to work on education issues is simply because the Senate parliamentarian said the issues fall into the scope of the special session. (The House came to the opposite conclusion.) But perhaps more than anything, senators, whose behavior has always been more congenial than that of the House members, also have the luxury of huge districts that encompass both rich and poor school districts. In the House, plenty of members represent only rich school districts, which makes it harder to alter a system in which rich districts must surrender property tax money to poorer districts. As Van de Putte put it, “We represent big districts, and you don’t find so much parochialism.”

Cruel Summer

With energy prices at the same stratospheric level as the mercury in thermometers across the state, state Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) is leading a bipartisan group of House members and senators in an effort to cool down the poorest Texans.

Turner and his colleagues want the Legislature to revive the System Benefit Fund—a pot of money into which every utility customer contributes and which is supposed to help poor Texans pay their electricity bills. Lawmakers gutted the fund last session leaving some Texans to sweat out the summer. Lawmakers decided to raid the $427 million in the fund for other state spending to fill a gap in the budget, even though Texans are still being told on their electric bills that they’re dishing out about 65 cents a month to aid their poor neighbors.

“This is a critical issue that we have an opportunity to address before things get any worse,” Turner said in a statement. “We are already at the breaking point, and it will just get worse as it gets hotter.”

Turner has filed House Bill 31 and House Bill 32 in the special session to fix the problem of rising energy costs. HB 32 calls for halting the fee for the System Benefit Fund unless the money goes where it’s supposed to. Turner’s other bill, HB 31, is designed to adjust the “price to beat” fuel factor—set by the state—to reflect the real price of natural gas, instead of the current artificially high rates based on the price of natural gas from the days after hurricanes Rita and Katrina.

Turner and more than a dozen other lawmakers asked Gov. Rick Perry to allow the Legislature to add energy issues to the agenda of the special session. (Only the governor can set the agenda in special sessions.) There’s that $8 billion surplus, after all. But Perry refused. Solve school finance, and then we can talk about restoring the System Benefit Fund, the governor said through a spokesman. If they don’t return the money, it could be another long, hot summer for many poor families.

Burning for Coal

Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams describes Texas as “the Saudi Arabia of coal.” With 13 billion tons underground, the state is home to 3 percent of total U.S. coal reserves. To Williams’ mind, that represents the future of Texas’ energy production. What’s that you say—coal power is too dirty, a major producer of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming? Not so, says Williams. This is “clean” coal. Williams recently spoke at the University of Texas at Austin, touting Texas’ chance at winning a $1 billion federal grant to build the world’s first “zero emissions” coal plant—part of several efforts in Texas to re-imagine coal as a modern, efficient energy source.

The federal Department of Energy is offering the grant money in conjunction with the FutureGen Industrial Alliance, a group of “some of the world’s largest coal producers and users in the world,” according to its Web site. The zero emissions demo plant would use a process called gasification—a different method of burning the coal that first breaks it down into basic chemical elements—that drastically reduces CO2 emissions.

For some environmentalists, that all sounds well and good, except they don’t see anything “clean” about Texas’ use of coal in the near future. Texas coal plants already lead the nation in carbon dioxide and mercury emissions. Karen Hadden, the executive director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, describes the FutureGen plant as a “one-time show piece.” Hadden also says there are contradictions in the FutureGen project. Dallas-based TXU Energy, for instance, is a FutureGen affiliate, but the company has plans to build 11 decidedly unclean coal-fired power plants in Texas by 2010. “They want to build a generation of dirty plants when the technology is here to make them cleaner,” Hadden said.

Commissioner Williams, meanwhile, said in his speech at UT that he is “not sold yet” on renewable energy because of its high cost. He said that providing cheap and clean coal is his priority. But clean coal may not be as affordable as Williams makes it out to be. One new clean-coal plant will cost roughly $975 million to build—compared with, say, the estimated $300 million bill for the planned wind-power farm in the Gulf of Mexico. And storing the carbon waste produced by the clean coal plant may also prove expensive and environmentally risky. “[The plant] sounds real good on paper,” Hadden said, “but it seems to me to be the wrong place to put our energy efforts.”

Feingold the Hawk?

U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) is about as progressive as they come. In an April 18 speech at the University of Texas at Austin on behalf of John Courage, the Democrat making a third attempt to unseat U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-San Antonio), Feingold told the liberal crowd what it had come to hear—kind of.

Feingold rattled off a list of his crowd-pleasing positions: publicly funded campaigns, a presidential censure, the importance of public service, his lone vote against the original PATRIOT Act, and his opposition to NAFTA, to the 1994 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) that created the World Trade Organization, and to Most Favored Nation status for China. With all his progressive credentials firmly established, he then uttered five words that almost never pass through his lips. “I agree with the president,” Feingold said. He was talking about Iran. “For progressives to be credible, for Democrats to be credible, we have to know when to say that it is possible that we might have to take military action. I’d put Iran in that category.” Feingold qualified his remarks a bit, saying that the administration has been too aggressive in its reported chatter of using nuclear weapons on Iran. The president’s hot rhetoric, Feingold said, has reduced the chances for a diplomatic solution. “I think his emphasis is off,” he said.

While Feingold adopted a surprisingly hawkish tone, his comments were understated compared with what the president was saying about Iran the very same day. When a White House reporter asked Bush about the possibility of a nuclear strike against the Muslim nation, he responded, “All options are on the table.” Now that’s a bombshell.