Janek gets grilled, transportation moves, and more
Janek in the Hot Seat
Schadenfreude: a German term, literally translated as "harm-joy," meaning taking pleasure in the discomfort of others. It's hard not to imagine that anyone who faced a tough grilling from Kyle Janek when he was a senator was feeling a little glee when the Health and Human Services commissioner took a roasting on Feb. 18 from the Senate Finance Committee over the infamous 21CT contract. The attack began, unsurprisingly, with Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who has already called for Janek's resignation (see "Whitmire: Janek Must Go From Health and Human Services," Jan. 15). The dean of the Senate bluntly asked, "How can this committee have confidence in your oversight of these agencies?"
However, this was just the beginning of a blistering bipartisan cross-examination that centered on the no-bid contract deal with 21CT, an Austin-based IT firm that was supposed to detect Medicaid fraud, but ended up costing Texans $110 million for little return. And this was not the only contract under scrutiny. Lawmakers also pushed hard on a telecommunications deal with AT&T that exploded from $1 million to $105 million. Then there was a second, separate no-bid deal – this one with Accenture to process Medicaid claims – a contract that only existed because the state fired Xerox from doing the same job. Then there were the massive pay raises for politically connected employees, and a hair-raising dissection of nepotism: Janek's chief of staff, Erica Stick, was de facto supervisor to chief counsel Jack Stick, her husband, and approved a highly unusual $97,020 academic reimbursement to Janek's deputy chief of staff, Casey Haney, who also happened to be Stick's chief of staff back when he was a state rep. "That's a pretty obvious conflict," said Whitmire.
Voices were raised as Janek became confrontational with Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, after she pressed him on his relationship with Haney. There was a personal tinge, since Haney was with a campaign running against Huffman in a 2008 special election to replace none other than Janek (Huffman described Haney as "a hitman"). Janek banged his hand on the desk repeatedly as tempers frayed, and by the end of the meeting, Huffman said that "I just don't think he's in a position to lead a multibillion-dollar agency."
In a moment of contrition, Janek admitted he had made personnel decisions that were "poorly handled," but he ended on a pugnacious note. "I find problems, I fix them, and if they get me into hot water because I now demonstrated there's a problem some place, so be it."
Road to Somewhere
The paperwork for Gov. Greg Abbott's five emergency items – pre-K spending, higher ed investment, border security, ethics reform, and transportation – formally arrived in the House and Senate on Feb. 22. That means lawmakers can accelerate these issues past the normal legislative timeline. But does it mean anything will actually get done? Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, is optimistic that – at least when it comes to roads – there will be some forward motion. "Everyone finally agrees that we need extra transportation dollars," he said. He credits the passage of last year's Prop. 1, partially ending diversions of gas tax dollars away from road costs, with changing the political mood. Those diversions are a drum on which he has hammered for years, and he argues that process will continue. He said, "I don't think that there'll be any question that the billion dollar-plus diversion that is happening with [State Highway Fund 6] will come to an end." He's also optimistic that there will be new general revenue and local funds available, although he warns against "just relabeling money and creating a bigger hole in the budget." Sadly, the outlook for investment in trains, planes, or anything but automobiles remains dim ("You say rail, and you've said a four-letter word."). Still, he remains upbeat. "Let's not look a gift horse in the mouth. We finally got movement on something."
Another of Abbott's emergency items, border security, reached Senate Finance on Feb. 23, and the debate soon descended into semantics: To wit, what exactly constitutes a secure border? Abbott has defined it as zero illegal crossings, but there is the beginning of a bipartisan push for a more realistic target. In part, that's fiscal conservatism worried about turning the border into a money pit. But there are also serious concerns about losing so many state troopers from local law enforcement duties. Whitmire raised a practical problem: With 200 existing vacancies in DPS, how does the state propose to fill the extra 500 positions proposed for the border?
Fix school finance now: That was the terse message from Judge John Dietz, venting frustration that the state is challenging his August ruling that public school finance is unconstitutional. "We are dooming a generation of these children by providing an insufficient education, and we can do better," he told a Sunday gathering of the Association of Texas Professional Educators... House Appropriations Committee Vice Chair Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, has confirmed he will run for mayor of Houston this November. If he leaves the House, then that makes Travis County's Rep. Dawnna Dukes the ranking Democrat on the committee... Bye-bye, LVDP: Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, officially left the Senate on Feb. 24 to run for mayor of San Antonio. After 24 years in office, she is replaced by Democrat José Menéndez... Our long ice cream nightmare is over: Feb. 24 was Washington County Day, and Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, was able to announce free Blue Bell would be provided... Senate Bills 11 and 17, the campus carry and open carry bills, were placed on the Senate intent calendar for Feb. 23 after speeding through committee (see "Gun Carry Bills Advance," Feb. 20). However, there is no movement at press time... House conservatives are wondering if Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is slowballing red-meat legislation. If controversial bills like campus carry hit the House floor, they will pass. However, if they die in committee, or time out before the session ends, Patrick will be able to conveniently blame it all on Speaker Joe Straus.