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Beyond City Limits

May 30, 2003, News

Curiouser and curiouser: Congressional Democrats continued to call for an investigation of the Dept. of Public Safety pursuit of the Killer D's and especially the involvement of the federal Dept. of Homeland Security (apparently at the request of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay). Attention has been focused on the quick move by the DPS (a day before the Dems returned from Oklahoma) to eliminate all information about the pursuit from its files, claiming it is "not allowed" to maintain such information unless there is evidence of "criminal activity." Since the Dems were breaking no laws in their quorum-busting walkout, the DPS defense is that it's only following established procedure -- as fast as humanly possible. And on Tuesday, state Rep. Kevin Bailey, D-Houston and chair of the House General Investigating Committee, told reporters that, from DPS videotapes of the area around Speaker Tom Craddick's office, it appears that Jay Kimbrough, coordinator of Texas homeland security through the AG's office, may have been directly involved in managing the chase. U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett told the Congress, "We need to know who came up with the idea of diverting federal resources ... and everything federal employees did in response." Said Craddick: "I'm afraid that those who are pursuing a conspiracy are drilling a dry well." -- M.K.

On Tuesday, Statesman Capitol reporter Ken Herman paid off a disputed "friendly wager" with Speaker Craddick, according to the Quorum Report. Herman says he thought he bet against the speaker finding and returning the Killer D's, but Craddick says all he had to do was locate them -- which he, or the DPS or the feds or somebody, did within 24 hours. After repeated public proddings from Craddick, Herman delivered thusly: "Today, in an effort to end all disputes between us ... I purchased a triple-fudge cake and presented it to said Mr. Speaker with the intent of putting his ceaseless public whining to an end. This should allow the chocolate-addicted gavel-wielder to return his attention to the serious public business at hand." Herman added a postscript: "At the time of the friendly wager, I was unaware that Mr. Speaker would engage the Dept. of Public Safety, Interpol, the Green Hornet, and the Iraqi secret police to track down the missing reps." -- M.K.

Texas House observers have come to call middle-aged Anglo Democrats -- a mostly rural and definitely endangered species -- the "WD-40s" (white Democrats over 40). But Kathleen Pasulka, a lawyer for the WD-40 Co., wrote a letter to House members asking them to "cease and desist" using the term, as a potential infringement on the trademark of the legendary all-purpose lubricant. In response, Rick Hardcastle, the Vernon Republican chair of the Agriculture and Livestock Committee, and his Angleton GOP colleague Dennis Bonnen "retained" San Antonio Democrat and official Killer D videographer Trey Martinez Fischer as "Special Counsel to the Rural White Boys." The three penned a lengthy tongue-in-cheek letter to Pasulka rejecting her complaint and informing her that "these ol' country boys are in no way diluting your client's good name." They also pointed out that Texas common law holds the state immune from lawsuit -- unless permitted by the Legislature -- and suggested that various laws (or sales of stock) might be proposed to give the company a hard time. The reps closed, "God Bless the Rural White Boys," adding a P.S. -- "Mean letter to follow" -- and a P.P.S.: "Interested in an endorsement deal?" -- M.K.

HB 4, the malpractice/tort-reform bill, has passed both chambers of the Lege but has not yet gone to conference committee -- and the Associated Press is reporting rumors that Gov. Rick Perry may call an immediate special session next week (the regular session ends June 2) to break the deadlock. Senate State Affairs Chair Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, has refused to allow a conference until his House counterpart, Civil Practices Chair Joe Nixon, R-Houston, agrees to a list of changes -- at which Nixon balks. The major sticking point is the proposed cap on noneconomic damages in malpractice suits: The House version called for an absolute limit of $250,000 for any lawsuit, the Senate version allows for a total of $750,000 in cases with up to three defendants. Nixon says a higher limit wouldn't spur a drop in malpractice-insurance rates; Ratliff counters that there must be more recourse in the most egregious cases of malpractice. A spokeswoman for the governor would not predict a special session but said the governor supports the $250,000 hard cap. -- M.K.

After a last-minute implosion in the wee hours Sunday morning, on Memorial Day the Legislature's conference committee on CSHB 1 -- the $118 billion biennial budget -- arrived at an agreement expected to be approved by both chambers. Much is still very unclear, but according to published reports, Senate conferees had held out for increased spending on social services, while House members wanted more funding for public schools (as a centerpiece of the still-prospective "Kill Robin Hood" plan). A tentative deal had been made possible by $1.3 billion in federal funding for Texas in the tax-cut package approved by Congress last week, which state senators want to earmark for restoring CSHB 1 cuts in Medicaid. But at 3am Sunday, the conference collapsed when four (of five) senators walked out over insufficient funding (also Medicaid related) of state health-science centers. The next day, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst offered $10 million from his college-loans "Be on Time" program to satisfy the mutineers. For more on the budget, see "Capitol Chronicle." -- M.K.

While there was much backroom arm-twisting still going on this week, it appears that both public-school vouchers and "online charter schools" (aka "Bill Bennett's Boondoggle") have been scuttled for the session -- possibly because supporters overreached as they tried to smuggle the bills into other legislation. Arlington Rep. Kent Grusendorf's voucher bill had staggered into oblivion several weeks ago, but Gov. Rick Perry and San Antonio tycoon James Leininger were said to be personally lobbying to revive the corpse. Meanwhile, Grusendorf's online charter proposal (allowing citizens to buy Internet hardware and software with public funds, to the benefit of software company K12, represented by Bennett), also killed in the House, was looking for a Senate live host to sink its fangs into. It found HB 411 -- designed to promote science education -- and climbed aboard, was defunded in the budget process, and subsequently revived by Lt. Gov. Dewhurst in the wee hours Sunday morning. But opponents, offended by the under-the-table maneuvers, have forced an agreement to remove the parasite forthwith. Stay tuned: Even if the bills indeed expire this week, chances are excellent the undead will walk the Earth in the expected special session for public-school finance. -- M.K.

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