Lege Notes

Determined to turn the special session into something really special, Gov. Rick Perry added several more legislative priorities to the "to do" list – and legislators have already checked off one of those items. On Tuesday, both chambers approved a pay raise for the state judiciary (a measure that died in the final hours of the regular session). The bill also included a provision that hikes legislators' retirement pension, which left teachers dismayed that lawmakers would help themselves before shoring up the teachers' ailing pension system. In other work to be done, Perry ordered lawmakers to address an overhaul of the telecommunications industry, as well as renewable energy goals, and tuition revenue bonds to pave the way for colleges and universities to build new facilities. Last week, Perry added property rights to the list to prohibit governments from taking private property to benefit private developers. Legislation on these issues has been quietly wending its way through the Lege during the 30-day special session, which ends Wednesday. The issues aren't nearly as divisive as school finance. The governor says he expanded the agenda because the Senate showed "real lead-ership" in passing a tax bill that comes closer to matching the House version. – Amy Smith

The negotiating team assembled to hash out House and Senate differences on a school finance bill looks a lot like last season's cast, with one exception. Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, replaces Sen. Ken Armbrister, D-Victoria, on the conference committee charged with doing what couldn't be done in the regular session – striking a compromise deal on HB 2. The remaining Senate conferees include Florence Shapiro, R-Plano; Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock; Kyle Janek, R-Houston; and Royce West, D-Dallas. On the House side, the same all-white, all-GOP team includes Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington; Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands; Dianne Delisi, R-Temple; Jim Keffer, R-Eastland; and Dan Branch, R-Dallas. – A.S.

Gonzalo Barrientos was hoping he had one last trick up his sleeve Sunday night when he tried to add the regional gas tax election option to the property tax revision bill in the Senate. As Barrientos pointed out on the floor, a quarter of the tax would go to education, albeit the funding of transportation for education. The actual tax, once implemented, could bring $100 million to the state. Sponsor Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, raised a point of order that it was not germane, which Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst sustained, killing the possibility of a gas tax a third time since the regular session. Both Barrientos and Austin Rep. Mark Strama had managed to attach the gas tax option to bills that were eventually scuttled in committee. – Kimberly Reeves

The Texas Senate decided the only way to fix the franchise tax was to kill it, but don't expect it to be dead for long. A low-rate broad-based business tax always was the goal of the Senate – if not the House – and one concession Lt. Gov. Dewhurst managed in behind-the-scenes negotiations was to go ahead and set the school district tax rates in future years. That means the Lege has a target to hit, and unless lawmakers want to approve the highest sales tax rate in the solar system, they'll have to figure out an actual compromise on how to tax business. Of course, that compromise won't come until next session; if the Senate version prevails in conference committee, a blue-ribbon panel would sort out the options. – K.R.

Former state Rep. Glen Maxey of Austin will lead the statewide effort to defeat a constitutional ban on gay marriage on the Nov. 8 ballot. Maxey has signed on as campaign director for the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas, the lead organization in a broad coalition of state and national groups. The former six-term lawmaker – and the state's first openly gay legislator – spent four years as LGRL's executive director during the Eighties. He also fills a void left by the recent resignation of LGRL executive director Randall Ellis. "I'm eager to use my experience to [bring a] broad coaltion of fair-minded Texans together to say 'no' to this nonsense in November," Maxey said in a statement. "Most Texans are embarrassed that they are being asked to ratify this kind of bigotry." – A.S.

Campaign finance reports aren't due until Friday, but state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn provided an early preview of her fundraising efforts in her bid to become the next governor. She reported raising $1.5 million in 10 days in June, giving her a $7 million cushion as she works her way toward next year's rough-and-tumble GOP primary race against Gov. Rick Perry. Lawmakers are prohibited from fundraising activities during the regular legislative session, which ended June 19. – A.S.

Political operative Kelly Fero is leaving his chief strategist gig with the Texas Democratic Party to open his own shop, but he says he'll continue working with the party on a long-term goal of recapturing state government seats. For the immediate future, he'll keep his fingers in Texas legislative and judicial races "and perhaps one prominent statewide race." Fero's cryptic announcement Monday was said to have set off alarm bells at Gov. Rick Perry's campaign office, on the theory that Fero was signing on with Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who's challenging Perry in the Republican primary, but is raising money from both sides of the fence. Fero, who is more at home in the back room than in the spotlight, chuckles over the Strayhorn rumor, as if he'd expected nothing less from the Perry campaign. But he remains mum on the more logical assumption that he'll help out fellow Democrat and former Comptroller John Sharp – if he decides to mount a bid for governor. Sharp, who has twice run unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor, is expected to decide some time this summer. – A.S.

Potential gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell, the former Houston congressman who filed the House ethics complaint against Tom DeLay, spoke to members of the State Democratic Executive Committee on Saturday, saying it was time for the Democrats to take back their party and present a stronger agenda to the voters on issues such as public education, college tuition deregulation, and campaign finance. "For too long, we have assumed that all we really need to do is wait for people to realize just how bad Republicans are before they started voting for Democrats again," Bell said. "It is not enough to be right about them being wrong. We have to start defining a future – not just for the Texas Democratic Party – but for Texas as a whole." Bell, who lost his seat after redistricting, is expected to announce this month whether he'll make a run for governor, though that would be a harder race if former Comptroller John Sharp throws his hat in the ring. – K.R.

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    Instead of businesses, consumers and working stiffs will shoulder much of the property tax cut approved by the Senate.

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