By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
To county clerks around Texas who are tracking legislation in Austin, the show is turning into a sort of campy horror flick. Call it Courthouse Dracula Returns or The Bill That Wouldn't Die.
What's troubling the clerks is the re-emergence of a proposal that would increase filing fees for public records--things such as land titles, assumed business names, liens, and marriage licenses--to raise extra money for document preservation. The clerks, who generally oppose the legislation, thought they had killed the bill last session. But they didn't reckon on Dallas businessman William "Sonny" Oates--who they believe is the political equivalent of Christopher Lee, rising once again to snack on taxpayers.
"He's back," says Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir, who follows state legislation for the County and District Clerks Association of Texas. "We gotta figure this out again."
Oates is the chief executive officer of Government Records Services Inc., a company that restores and archives important public records in counties throughout the United States, including Dallas.
When the Legislature last convened, the Dallas Observer reported how the clerks were up in arms over a bill Oates was peddling that would have required the clerks to charge an extra $10 for every public document filed in their offices ["Not so fast, Sonny," April 10, 1997]. The additional money was to be dedicated to restoring and preserving those records. Oates, not coincidentally, has a virtual monopoly over that particular business in Texas.
The clerks, fearing that the bill would create a taxpayer revolt that could cost them their jobs, managed to water the measure down by making the fee optional. Despite their resistance, the legislation survived the House and Senate, only to be vetoed by Gov. George W. Bush, who called it "excessive." Bush, like the clerks, did not want to sign off on anything that might be construed as a tax increase.
Evidently, Bush's stake wasn't fatal, and now the clerks worry that the possible presidential hopeful may be transfixed by the businessman's relentless seduction.
In February, state Rep. Tony Goolsby, a Dallas Republican who chairs the powerful House Administration Committee, introduced a bill similar to the legislation Oates and his lobbyists pushed last session. As before, the bill doesn't come from the clerks, who would presumably benefit from it, nor has Goolsby bothered to consult the clerks to find out whether they need higher fees. Rather, the clerks association contends that the current fees are, with a few exceptions, adequate to pay for their document-preservation projects.
Nonetheless, House Bill 1599 would give county clerks the option of charging an additional $7.50 "records archive" fee for each document filed in their offices. Though the fee is less than last time, there's a new twist: The bill would allow clerks to charge an additional $7.50 to pay for the restoration of old county courthouses. In Dallas, for example, that means the $9 that County Clerk Earl Bullock now charges for filing a one-page document could increase to $24.
It just so happens that restoring Texas' historic courthouses is a priority project for Bush.
Shortly after the National Trust for Historic Preservation added 225 Texas courthouses to its annual list of America's most endangered places last summer, Bush announced his Texas Courthouse Preservation Initiative. The governor appointed a committee to recommend ways to save the state's historic courthouses. The group gave Bush its recommendations in November, though they did not include any specific suggestions on how the money should be raised.
The clerks, meanwhile, were on the lookout in case Oates' legislation was filed again this year. It wasn't long before they sized up what they consider a rather obvious attempt to slip the measure past Bush.
"The governor's hot button this year is courthouse restoration," says Fort Bend County Clerk Dianne Wilson, who with DeBeauvoir monitors legislation for the clerks association. "This bill is just adding a little sugar on it, hoping the governor won't veto it."
A Bush spokesman said the governor has not reviewed the bill and has no comment.
The clerks association isn't expected to take a formal position on the bill until it meets on March 16, but some members have already begun distributing fliers in opposition. Calling themselves "concerned county officials of Texas and voting Texas taxpayers," the anonymous pamphleteers circulated a flier dated February 22 that begins, "Sonny Oates Is At It Again!!!"
"Just when Texas county officials thought it was safe to run their affairs, Sonny Oates of Government Records Services has gotten Rep. Tony Goolsby (R-Dallas) to file House Bill 1599," states the flier.
Goolsby did not return phone calls for this story. Neither did Oates.
The clerks admit they have "no knowledge" that Oates is behind Goolsby's bill, Wilson says, but they have a large dose of suspicion. Oates has again enlisted a team of high-priced lobbyists, led by Austin heavyweight Rusty Kelley, to represent his company in Austin.
While Goolsby may be intent on helping the clerks do their jobs better, he hasn't bothered to consult them on the matter, Wilson says. But what really annoys Wilson is that the bill, one of several that proposes raising county filing fees for various causes, puts clerks in a position of upsetting historic preservationists.