Naked City

Beyond City Limits

On Tuesday afternoon, after three hours of secret deliberations, the rump GOP Senate emerged to vote 16 to 1 to impose personal fines on the 11 Democratic senators still holed up in Albuquerque, N.M. (Ken Armbrister of Victoria voted against, and two Republicans were absent.) On Monday, following the state Supreme Court's decision to reject a petition for a writ of mandamus sanctioning the absent senators, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst announced, "The Washington-paid counsel [Austin attorney Renea Hicks, hired by the Texas Democratic congressional delegation] for the 11 Democratic senators, in opposing Supreme Court intervention, also stated today that the Senate itself has adequate tools to deal with this situation. I agree." Judging from the length of their secret session -- which may itself have violated the Texas constitutional requirement of open legislative meetings -- the other senators weren't nearly so unanimous. They eventually emerged to assess fines that would total $57,000 each by Aug. 26, the end of the special session, although it's not at all clear that they have any power of enforcement. Another rumored threat looms: freezing the senators' office accounts, jeopardizing the jobs of staff members. The Democrats vowed to defy the sanctions and to file a civil rights lawsuit against the lieutenant governor and their colleagues for "official oppression." "This is going to be the black-and-brown tax imposed by the all-white senators," said McAllen Democrat Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa. -- Michael King

At press time, the investigation by a Travis Co. grand jury into more than $300,000 in questionable insurance claims paid by Farmers Insurance to state Rep. Joe Nixon, R-Houston, was ongoing. John Hageman, the head of Farmers' Texas operations, and Jim Killian, a company government-affairs officer, each testified before the grand jury this week. According to an internal e-mail exchange between Isabelle Arnold, the company's former national mold claim manager, and Jim Daues, the company's top claims officer, Nixon was paid for claims not covered by his homeowners insurance, so the company could secure him as "friend of Farmers during the legislative session." Nixon tenaciously carried the controversial "tort-reform" package passed this spring. -- J.S.

On the bright side, maybe the fines assessed to the Texas 11 can help balance the state budget. On Aug. 8, Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn announced Friday that July sales-tax collections were down 4.6% ($55.8 million) from the same month last year. It was the third worst monthly decline in the last decade, and the 12th slumping month in the last 13. "When the sales tax catches a cold," said Strayhorn, "our state catches pneumonia." The influenza shows little sign of improvement, and the news is aggravated because the Legislature's budget projections were dependent on frenzied whistling in the dark that good times are right around the corner. The political cracks are also broadening among the Republican leadership. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst's spokesman Dave Beckwith responded to the grim news by blaming the messenger, saying that the comptroller should be collecting more in taxes, because she was recently assigned more collection officers. Beckwith apparently knows as much about taxes as he does about civil rights; the comptroller's revenue numbers are based on sales, not enforcement. -- M.K.

Perhaps the most newsworthy aspect of Saturday's Capitol rally in support of the Texas 11 is that it happened at all -- despite expectations of brutal heat, about 5,000 people filled the south lawn and loudly applauded brief speeches from the absent Democratic senators' family members and then, by means of an audio hookup from New Mexico, from each of the senators themselves. Austin Rep. Dawnna Dukes emceed the festivities, and first introduced a bipartisan group adamantly opposed to congressional re-redistricting: Ram Chavez of the American GI Forum, Max Shumake of the Sulphur (River) Oversight Society, and Mayor Maureen Jouett of Killeen. Shumake's from Texarkana, U.S. Rep. Max Sandlin's rural East Texas Dist. 1, where they pronounce it, "We're rule." He said the proposed Republican congressional maps would subordinate his community to the wealthy and thirsty Dallas suburbs, concluding, "Everybody can't be a country boy, so please don't try to make city boys of us all." Organizers said that at least 40 buses each carrying 50 to 60 people had arrived that morning from all over the state, joining several thousand more Austinites to cheer on the Albuquerque absentees. They walked home to the sound of Joe Ely singing a slightly updated version of Woody Guthrie's "Going Down the Road," including the lyric, "I'm a-goin' where there ain't no more DeLay." -- M.K.

Although the moment passed virtually under the press radar, Friday's House session once again couldn't maintain a quorum throughout the afternoon, and after passing a handful of resolutions and a few minor bills almost certainly doomed to die for lack of a Senate, foundered on HB 16 (Swinford), which would reduce the qualifications necessary to be appointed insurance commissioner, eliminating the requirement for five years of insurance-related experience. The bill passed, 73-20-1, but Waco Democrat John Mabry killed it by calling the point of order on the quorum. Democratic caucus Chair Jim Dunnam, also of Waco, was quick to point out that 24 Republicans were absent without excuse, calling it "hypocritical" for the Republican leadership to attack the absent Senate Democrats when their own members were not at the Capitol. "Our constituents and both Republican and Democratic legislators don't care about redistricting," said Dunnam. "They know there is real work to do, and it's time for us to get to work on a real plan to lower property taxes and equitably fund our public schools." -- M.K.

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