On the Lege

Recruiting Tools

There's no need to worry that David Dewhurst is anything but a true businessman at heart. That became evident when, after unceremoniously firing 110 of his employees on his first day in office, the freshman land commissioner asked Gov. George W. Bush to approve raises for his top stockholders -- er, executives -- to bring them more in line with what similar jobs are paying out in "the marketplace."

In the marketplace, the Census Bureau estimates the 1997 median income in Texas was $34,000. But Bush, whose job as governor pays about $90,000, was quick to approve the raises through August 31, when Dewhurst will have to ask lawmakers for a budget increase to pay for the jacked-up salaries. The raises will bring each of the eight lieutenants' salaries to $101,000 a year, for an additional cost to the state of about $90,000. There's no question that the state can afford it; the savings from Dewhurst's January 4 "Monday-morning massacre" at the land office are estimated at $2.5 million.

Dewhurst's spokesman Mark Sanders said that the pay hikes were necessary to overcome an informal pay cap that existed under former commissioner Garry Mauro that kept salaries under $89,000. "We just couldn't draw people at that range," Sanders said. "We are using it as a recruitment tool." -- E.C.B.

Partisan Pouting

Austin gained a new measure of political strength in the House last week when Speaker Pete Laney awarded long-overdue committee chairmanships to Austin Reps. Elliott Naishtat and Sherri Greenberg. But Austin representatives' gains in the House underscored the exclusion of Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, the most senior member of the Austin delegation, from Senate leadership.

Naishtat will head the House Human Services Committee; Greenberg will chair Pensions and Investments. Naishtat's assignment -- his first committee chairmanship in his four terms in the Legislature -- may mean the derailment of punitive welfare reform legislation that would exclude drug users and additional children born to female welfare recipients from Texas Assistance to Needy Families benefits.

Austin Rep. Glen Maxey, who likewise has never chaired a committee, will hold Naishtat's former position as vice chair of human services. Other Austin lawmakers awarded their first vice chairmanships were Dawnna Dukes, who was appointed to the Business and Industry Committee, and Terry Keel, appointed to vice chair the Public Safety Committee.

The Capitol was starting to look eerily similar to its larger counterpart in Washington last week, as House Republicans greeted Laney's assignments -- which gave Democrats a 23-13 edge in standing leadership -- with cries of "Partisanship!" The assignments seemed to some like mere vengeance for Lt. Gov. Rick Perry's snubbing of Barrientos, who is among the Senate's most senior members, but was not named to chair any committees this session. A press release issued by the Republican Party of Texas last week called the committee assignments "incredibly partisan" and "politically motivated," adding that Laney's committees "vastly under-represented" Republicans despite the Democrats' fairly slim margin in the House.

But what the press release fails to mention is that the new assignments represent a net gain of only one position for Democrats on house committees. While four seats changed hands from Republicans to Democrats, three switched from Democrats to Republicans, and the vast majority of assignments remained unchanged. -- E.C.B.

Defining Hate

Last week, a group of lawmakers unveiled legislation authored by two Houston Democrats,Senfronia Thompson and Rodney Ellis, that would vastly expand the scope and specificity of Texas' hate crimes law (HB 638; SB 275). You wouldn't have known it from reading the Austin American-Statesman, though -- the daily dropped the ball on the bill, which was front-page news elsewhere across the state. Called the James Byrd Jr. Act in honor of the black man allegedly killed by three white men in a racially motivated crime in Jasper last year, the amendments seek to clarify the current law, which increases the penalty for crimes "motivated by bias or prejudice."

The current statute, also authored by Ellis, has been widely accused of lacking teeth because it fails to name any specific groups which might be targeted for hate-motivated crimes. Prosecutors rarely use the law, says Dianne Hardy-Garcia, executive director of the Lesbian Gay Rights Lobby of Texas, because they view it as too vague to withstand a constitutional challenge in court. The new bill would explicitly list out race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and sexual orientation as motivating factors for hate crimes, making it "comprehensive" enough, says Hardy-Garcia, to "perhaps prevent the more violent types of hate crimes" before they happen.

In addition to clarifying "bias or prejudice," the law would allow victims of hate crimes to claim civil penalties; set aside funds to aid small towns in prosecuting hate crimes; establish a hate crimes case officer in the attorney general's prosecutor assistance division; and create training programs to help police officers recognize and investigate the crimes.

Of 2,300 hate crimes recorded by the Texas Department of Public Safety since 1992, the vast majority have been in major cities like Dallas, Houston, and Austin, where police officers are trained to recognize bias-motivated crimes; in small towns and larger cities like San Antonio, where such training is minimal, police departments reported virtually none. To look at the statistics, Hardy-Garcia says, you might think that "San Antonio's just a utopia. They don't have hate crimes there." -- E.C.B.

The Revolving Door

On Monday, Texans for Public Justice released "Texas Revolvers," a report critical of the revolving door that exists between the Legislature and the lobby. The nonprofit group found that 110 of the 1,600 lobbyists registered in 1997 (during the last legislative session), are former public officials. Of the 110 "revolvers," 91 are former legislators. In all, the 110 lobbyists earned up to $44 million in 1997. That's about one-fifth of all the money paid to all registered lobbyists that year. To stop the revolving door, Texans for Public Justice proposes a lifetime ban on paid lobbying by former legislators, governors, and lieutenant governors. The group also wants a lifetime lobby ban on "key staff and officials." More on this next week...

While Texans for Public Justice was working on the public interest issue, state officials were busy publishing the lobby lists for 1999. According to the Texas Ethics Commission, 1,250 lobbyists are currently registered with the agency. The lobbyists range from Aanstoos, Alice L., who has a single client, Southwestern Bell, to Zottarelli, Angelo P., a hired gun with 21 clients, including the City of Austin and the city electric utility, Austin Energy. For more on the lobby lists, see http://www.ethics.state.tx.us/. The Texans for Public Justice report is available at http://www.tpj.org. -- R.B.

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