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March 24th, 2004:

Escalation on another DeLay front

Byron points to this WaPo article in which watchdog groups call for a House ethics investigation of another Tom DeLay moneymaking machine, in this case one masquerading as a charitable organization.

Democracy 21 contends that the charity, Celebrations for Children Inc., is a political scheme established to let DeLay raise huge sums from interest groups and supporters to host lavish parties at this summer’s Republican National Convention.

DeLay spokesman Jonathan Grella said at least three-fourths of the charity’s income will go to needy children, with the remainder paying for dinners, a golf tournament, a rock concert, Broadway tickets and the other fundraising events DeLay plans to host at the convention in New York City.

House ethics committee rules prohibit investigations based solely on an outside group’s complaint. But a complaint is deemed to be lodged if any House member forwards an outsider’s allegations with a letter saying the information is filed in good faith and warrants a review.

Democracy 21’s action is meant to put each House member on the spot — either challenge DeLay’s operation or silently condone it — said the group’s president, veteran open-government advocate Fred Wertheimer.

Wertheimer’s group had complained about Celebrations for Children in a Jan. 28 letter to the ethics panel, formally called the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. “There is no public information, however, indicating that the Ethics Committee is pursuing this matter,” says Wertheimer’s latest letter to the panel.

Yesterday, he sent a copy to all 434 House members (one seat is vacant), saying, in part, “If just one House member is willing to act to defend the institutional integrity of the House, the Ethics Committee will be forced to proceed with an inquiry.”

House rules prohibit behavior by members or staffers that fails to “reflect creditably” on the House. Federal laws governing tax-exempt charities allow no more than an insubstantial portion of a group’s revenue to be spent on activities other than the charity’s main stated purpose.

Celebrations for Children fails both tests, alleges Wertheimer’s complaint.

“Tax-exempt charitable organizations are not supposed to be used as political playthings by Members of Congress,” his letter says. “The DeLay scheme will allow House members to attend, free of charge, such events as Broadway shows, golfing tournaments, yacht cruises, dinners, parties and other events, with the events being paid for by a ‘charitable’ organization and funded by big donors to the ‘charity,’ many of whom are likely to have important interests pending in Congress.”

Here is Democracy 21’s press release, which appears to be a followup to this statement decrying the lack of such an investigation as yet. The formal complaint is here (PDF). I’ve blogged on Celebrations for Children and the complaints surrounding it before (see here and here).

Shockingly, there are straws in the wind that DeLay might step down from his leadership position, as reported by Roll Call:

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) has begun quiet discussions with a handful of colleagues about the possibility that he will have to step down from his leadership post temporarily if he is indicted by a Texas grand jury investigating alleged campaign finance abuses.

…Republican Conference rules state that a member of the elected leadership who has been indicted on a felony carrying a penalty of at least two years in prison must temporarily step down from the post.

Could it be that DeLay really fears the TAB/TRM investigations in Austin? The ferocious response from the GOP here, ranging from a blizzard of open record requests to a petition to move the Public Integrity Unit to the Attorney General’s office, suggest they feel the need to be vigilant. I still never thought DeLay would blink, though. On the other hand, he’s smart enough to know that grand juries often deliver for prosecutors, and he ought to have a Plan B in hand. So this is probably just pragmatism and not trepidation.

The possible implications are staggering. For sure, a big cog in the GOP’s fundraising machine would be gummed up. DeLay might even find himself in some electoral trouble, though it’d probably take a conviction to really do him in. Of course, if he’s forced to drop out of the race, would the GOP be able to field a backup candidate? I can’t quite figure out what the state law has to say. Whatever the case, you can of course give a hand to Richard Morrison, who will hopefully get a boost from all this.

Wow. Stay tuned.

The trickle down effect, Perry-style

Here’s an example of how that “no tax increase” pledge from the last legislative session works in real life, from Lubbock.

Cuts in Medicaid and a state insurance program for children as well as decreases in private employee insurance are contributing to a health care “crisis” in Texas, University Medical Center president James Courtney said Monday.

UMC is expected to lose $17.8 million throughout the current two-year state budget cycle, mostly because of Medicaid cuts, the Lubbock County Hospital Board heard Monday. Cost control measures and a tax increase have helped UMC absorb the blow.

Of the $8.9 million UMC expects to lose a year, the biggest hits are $3.5 million lost because of more stringent Medicaid eligibility and $2.7 million in Medicaid funds to pay for resident physicians, also known as graduate medical education (GME).

Dr. Richard Homan, dean of Texas Tech School of Medicine, said he plans to testify before the state House Appropria tions Committee today with officials from the University of Texas and Texas A&M in an effort to restore GME funds.

Cuts to the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the loss of private insurance among patients are placing great strains on public teaching hospitals in Texas, Court ney said.

“I believe these cuts disproportionately are affecting our types of organizations,” Court ney said. “The health care system in the state of Texas is in a state of crisis.”

Many employers are dropping commercial insurance for their employees because of high costs, UMC officials said.

The loss of insurance appears to be driving more unpaid visits to UMC’s emergency room.

So far in 2004, the percentage of nonpaying emergency room visits at UMC is 33.2 percent, up from 32 percent last year. The percentage of nonpaying inpatient and out patient services so far in 2004 are 19.2, up from 17.5 percent in 2003.

“We’re seeing people drop their coverage,” said David Allison, UMC’s chief executive officer. “We’re seeing people, just in general, not being covered. We’re seeing that decrease in our financial mix.”

So because the state refused to fund CHIP, federal dollars that would have helped to cover public hospital costs were left on the table. It’s up to the cities and counties to foot the bill for those who would have been covered before but aren’t covered now. Add in the people who’ve lost private health insurance, and you can see why Perry’s proposed property tax appraisal cap is such an anathema in municipal government. Just another success story from the 78th Lege.

“Dream Team 2: Senate Boogaloo”

Cara Morris has been beating the drums lately for the Democrats’ enhanced electoral prospects in the Senate. She quotes from this Roll Call article in which DSCC Chair Jon Corzine talks about promoting some of their candidates as a package deal.

Senate Democrats will send out an e-mail fundraising appeal today to more than 90,000 donors aimed at capitalizing on the growing diversity of their 2004 recruiting class.

“The dream team is here,” Donna Brazile, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee Voting Rights Institute, writes in the missive. “The emergence of Barack Obama, Ken Salazar and Congressman Brad Carson … makes ours the most diverse class of U.S. Senate candidates in history.”

Obama, a black state Senator, cruised to the Democratic nomination in Illinois last Tuesday, while Salazar, the Hispanic state attorney general, has emerged as the establishment’s choice in the race to replace Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.). Carson is a member of the Cherokee Nation and is essentially unopposed for the Democratic nomination in Oklahoma.

Obama would be only the third black Senator since Reconstruction; no Hispanic has served in the Senate in the last 27 years. Carson is one of the eight American Indians to serve in Congress.

“The historic opportunity to increase diversity in the U.S. Senate, and thus the diversity of views, background and cultures … is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss,” writes Brazile, who is also a contributing writer to Roll Call.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee officials hinted that the fundraising appeal is the first in a series of events aimed at creating a “national story” around their candidates.

“We are going to have a class that I would like to sell as a group because of the strength of their credentials,” said DSCC Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.). “We can take this crew on the road to help us on the financial side.”

Nationalizing the fundraising and promoting these three terrific candidates is a fine idea, but seeing the words “Dream Team” in this context makes me wince a bit. You may recall the reason why:

[S]ome Democrats warned of the impact of grouping candidates like Obama, Salazar and Carson, pointing out that much the same pitch was made on behalf of former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk (D) in the 2002 Texas Senate race — to no avail.

Kirk, who is black, was part of the so-called Texas dream team comprised of himself and Hispanic businessman Tony Sanchez, the Democratic candidate for governor.

The former Dallas mayor became a staple on the Democratic fundraising circuit, raising and spending more than $9 million. Sanchez spent freely from his own pocket, eventually donating $67 million to the campaign.

On Election Day 2002, however, neither candidate came close to winning or turning out the record black and Hispanic vote that was predicted.

Kirk lost to then-state Attorney General John Cornyn (R) 55 percent to 43 percent; Sanchez was defeated by Gov. Rick Perry (R) 58 percent to 40 percent.

In a recent interview, Kirk said Texas turned into “much more of a national race than a local race,” adding that the best advice he could give Obama is to find “a message that resonates much broader than the African-American community.”

“He’s got to make the issue about Illinois,” Kirk said.

Couple points: First, the third member of the “Dream Team” in 2002 was John Sharp, the Anglo in that rainbow coalition. He lost a close race to David Dewhurst for Lt. Governor. Second, given the GOP trend of the state, the high popularity of President Bush, and the whole runup to Iraq that characterized the 2002 elections, and it’s hard to say that Ron Kirk could have done all that much better. Finally, and this is important, Tony Sanchez was a lousy candidate who not only didn’t pull his weight on the top of the ticket, he was more of a liability than an asset.

That said, whatever factors may have affected the 2002 race, the “Dream Team” concept was basically a flop. Way too much attention was paid early on to Ron Kirk as “the black candidate” who was one-third of this black/white/brown ticket, and not nearly enough attention was paid to the fact that Kirk was an excellent and well-qualified candidate with a strong track record in public service. He was more of a symbol than a person, and it served him poorly. The end result what that Kirk got only about 30% of the Anglo vote statewide, which was not nearly enough.

Therefore, it’s my sincere hope that if the DSCC takes Obama, Salazar, and Carson on the road, it’s to tout their credentials as shining examples of smart, hard-working, and dedicated people who will make the Senate a better place. That they also come from varied racial and ethnic backgrounds is nothing more than what one should expect from a party that truly reflects and represents all of America. Kirk has it exactly right: These races should be about what’s best for everyone in their states. That’s how they’ll win.

The return of the blocker bill

If we do in fact have a special session on school finance reform, the blocker bill and its 2/3 majority requirement for bringing a bill to the Senate floor for debate will be in effect, according to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

Dewhurst said the Senate would require a two-thirds vote to debate all legislation. As presiding officer, he set that requirement aside during the highly charged partisan debate over redistricting last summer, prompting 11 Democratic senators to shut down Senate business by fleeing to New Mexico.

Some major education initiatives, including part of Perry’s property tax limitation plan, would require constitutional amendments and two-thirds votes in the House and the Senate regardless of the procedural change.

But a blanket two-thirds vote hurdle in the Senate would potentially give the Democratic minority more influence over changes in public school funding and legislation affecting teachers and classrooms. It could block any effort to allow tax dollars to be spent on private school vouchers, an idea that Perry and many Republican lawmakers support but most Democratic legislators oppose.

[…]

Dewhurst has been working privately with senators on revisions to a school finance plan approved unanimously by the Senate last year.

“It’s my intention to continue its use as long as our senators continue to come together and work for what’s best here in Texas,” he said of the two-thirds tradition.

Dewhurst, a Republican, drew a distinction between a special session on school finance — which Perry has said he will call if lawmakers can agree on a new funding plan — and last summer’s sessions on redistricting.

Redistricting is partisan and public education shouldn’t be, he said.

“The blocker bill and the resulting two-thirds tradition have historically been a legislative tool of the lieutenant governor. It historically has not been used in special sessions involving redistricting because redistricting is obviously not a bipartisan issue,” Dewhurst added, repeating his explanation for bypassing the tradition last summer.

(deep breath) I’m gonna let that one go. You all know my opinion on the subject.

Given that any major change would require a 2/3 vote of each chamber plus a statewide vote on a Constitutional amendment, this is a lesser thing than it appears in terms of legislative advantage, at least for this special session. I’d guess it’s more of a signal that Dewhurst the Good Cop will be back in the house after last year’s unpleasantness. It’s a smart move on his part, since now any grudge-carrying by the Dems can be characterized as bad manners on their part. And hey, who knows, maybe he’s actually sincere. Stranger things have happened.

A further signal that there may not be anything worth going to the mat over comes from State Rep. David Swinford (R, Dumas), who was there the last time we went through all this.

“Somebody needs to do something, and everybody knows it,” Swinford said. “But I’ve been meeting on the select committee in the House, and we had over 200 hours of testimony on this. To tell you I had a clear vision of where we’re going, I’d be lying.”

[…]

Swinford said he doesn’t foresee a massive overhaul of the tax and school finance systems. Instead, the likely outcome will be a series of bandages that will keep the system limping along.

“I don’t see the political will to trash this tax system,” Swinford said. “Instead, we’ll probably jick here and jack there and come up with 20 different things all wrapped together.”

One thing Swinford sees as a certainty is the impending demise of Robin Hood, the state’s effort to find equality between rich and poor districts.

You mean “this specific effort to find equality between rich and poor districts”. Unless the court ruling that led to Robin Hood in the first place is no longer operative, some form of fund transfer from rich districts to poor ones will take its place. Lasso, from whom I got the above link, says it thusly:

The courts have ruled (and will rule again and again) that all children must have a public education that is supported by substantially equal funding. The only way for this to happen is to have money transferred from rich places to poor.

It really doesn’t matter that the money is washed through the state. After all, if the property tax was collected by the state instead of the local districts and then redistributed you could SAY Robin Hood was dead. But the money would be taken from the same people and given to the same people as before. No difference.

And that’s the way it’s going to be. Changing to a sales tax won’t make a difference (or much of a difference). Rich districts will still subsidize the poor. As it should be. Robin Hood was a good guy, right?

Indeed.

DeLay supported TTM

Quelle surprise: Tom DeLay gave PAC money to Texans for True Mobility.

Two political action committees controlled by DeLay gave $30,000 to Texans for True Mobility, which spearheaded a high-dollar effort against Metro’s proposal to expand its light rail beyond the Main Street line.

DeLay’s donations came as Texans for True Mobility was scrambling to maintain an advertising campaign a day before the Nov. 4 referendum, which passed narrowly.

Campaign finance reports indicate that on Nov. 3, DeLay’s congressional campaign committee and his Americans for a Republican Majority each donated $15,000 to Texans for True Mobility.

Well, the good news is that since the referendum passed, that was all a waste of money for DeLay. In that sense, I wish he’d given more.

Metro board Chairman David Wolff said he does not believe DeLay’s contributions raise questions about his commitment to get money for Houston rail.

“I think that he has come a long way, and I look forward to working with him,” Wolff said. “He wanted there to be a referendum.

“He said he would respect the wishes of the voters. Now, they have spoken and I believe he will honor what they said. I have no reason to believe otherwise.”

You have way more faith than I do, but I guess you pretty much have to play nice. Talk to me again in a year and we’ll see how it goes.

Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Gerry Birnberg said he is not surprised that DeLay and Americans for a Republican Majority would spend money to defeat the rail referendum. “It looks like Congressman DeLay was fully committed to defeat rail,” he said.

But Birnberg said the disclosure of the contributions is further evidence that he and two other plaintiffs should move forward with a lawsuit they filed to force Texans for True Mobility to disclose the names of its donors.

The civil suit alleges that Texans for True Mobility broke the law when it concealed the identity of contributors who underwrote advertisements bashing Metro’s transit expansion plan. The lawsuit seeks damages of twice the amount of money the group collected.

The DeLay-related donations showed up in his PACs’ required financial disclosure documents, filed earlier this year.

“DeLay has ultimately had to disclose that he contributed to the anti-rail campaign, but that information is learned long after the election,” Birnberg said. “Who are the other people who contributed to that effort?”

Yep. I believe that above a certain amount – say, $250 or $500 – there should be no such thing as an anonymous political donation, and that all donations should be fully disclosed before whatever election it is that they’re being used for. Given that our idiot DA bought TTM’s baloney about it being an “educational” organization and thus exempt from normal campaign rules, I don’t expect to see this happen any time soon.