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Op Ed

We woke up this morning to exciting news. The Texas Observer is a finalist for for six honors from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, including awards for feature writing, investigative reporting and public-service journalism. We couldn’t be prouder. Our mission is always to provide independent, investigative reporting, free of charge to readers. (If you want to help in our mission, consider becoming an Observer Partner.)

We’ll be crossing our fingers when the final results are announced on July 22. In the meantime, check out the stories that earned nominations:

• Forrest Wilder’s Agency of Destruction is up for AAN’s investigative reporting award. His story chronicled the systemic corruption in the world’s second largest environmental agency—the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

• Dave Mann’s A Bloody Injustice was nominated in the long- form news story category. The article explored the flawed evidence in that convicted Warren Horinek of murder in 1996 and revealed how questionable testimony from forensic experts can send innocent people to prison.

• Melissa del Bosque’s Children of the Exodus, nominated for the feature story award, describes the horrifying plight of children who cross the border illegally and then are deported without their families. The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund provided support for del Bosque’s reporting.

• Dave Mann’s story DNA Tests Undermine Evidence in Texas Execution broke the international story that DNA testing disproved key evidence that led to the 2000 execution of Claude Jones. The Observer partnered with the Innocence Project in the successful three-year court battle to obtain the evidence: a single strand of hair. The story was nominated for the public-service award.

• Michael May’s Gone Rogue was nominated for an award for drugs reporting. His article chronicled the story of Barry Cooper, a former cop who turned into a hardline activist dedicated to catching police breaking the law.

• Ben Sargent was nominated for the best cartoon for his regular feature Loon Star State. Sargent never runs out of hilarious ways to poke fun at Texas’ most outrageous political moments.

Rick Perry for President?

You know it’s presidential election season when talk shows, political blogs, and pundits are well into the winnowing process for potential candidates.

With the nation’s economy stuck, public pessimism and oil prices growing, and President Obama looking potentially vulnerable, the irony all spring has been that no GOP aspirant looks very formidable. It’s a deviation for the party that always seems to nominate a perceived frontrunner. Indeed, according to former Bush media maker Mark McKinnon, “the Republican field looks conventional and flawed.” Is Mitt Romney, the man for and against his own health care reform bill, really the man? Or is the Rick Perry buzz real, particularly in the wake of the mass resignations from Newt Gingrich’s campaign, freeing the Texas governor’s inner circle of consultants?

To understand Perry’s potential appeal to the GOP base, let’s step back several years. On January 20th, 2009, while the rest of the country was tuned to the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, 25,000 people were waiting on a chilly afternoon in Midland, Texas, to welcome the departing President George W. Bush back home. It felt like an alternative political universe. The massed crowd, holding thousands of red, white and blue cardboard W’s, heard the now former president deliver a short, gracious speech about how good it felt to be back home. The crowd’s affection for the president was genuine. But that was hardly the most exciting part of the day. Instead, it was Gov. Rick Perry’s speech that really got the crowd going. Obama had been in the White House only a few hours, but already, Perry had declared war—on state socialism, government mandates and coddling America’s enemies.

It’s a banner Perry’s continued to wave for the last three years. He was in front of the Tea Party anger that led to last November’s GOP tidal wave in Texas. Already the longest serving chief executive in Texas history, he destroyed three strong opponents in his overwhelming reelection win in 2010, immediately went on a successful national tour for his book Fed Up, and then was appointed head of the Republican Governors’ Association for a second stint.

It’s been clear for most of 2011 that there was a potential opening in the Republican field for a charismatic, conservative candidate. The political pundit silly season was in full swing as the media made out its Christmas list of “likely” candidates for the presidential nomination of the party out of power. At the beginning of the year, the list was long and full of people that most knew didn’t stand the slightest chance of ending up in the White House without an invitation to a state dinner. (Haley Barbour, the lobbyist-in-chief who’s wistful for old white citizen’s councils? Mitch Daniels, a governor who’s got negative charisma?)

That left us with the 2012 GOP competition’s big leagues, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, and Tim Pawlenty.

Romney has a political operation built out of his national campaign two years ago, and $8 million-plus in the bank, personal wealth and a long list of political IOU’s. He also won fewer delegates than Huckabee in 2008, passed a Massachusetts health plan that resembles Obamacare, is still a Mormon (a big negative to many evangelical Christians), and is not exactly a Tea Party favorite.

Palin has high negatives and is buried in any current match up with President Obama. But who needs an organization when you’re the star of a reality TV series and the only potential candidate who can get tens of thousands of people out in seemingly a snap of your fingers. The question is if she’s a candidate or a celebrity.

Pawlenty? He doesn’t offend anyone, even if he doesn’t excite anyone. A safe choice if Romney implodes.

Matt Bai, in a piece in The New York Times, has talked about how the Republicans are about to have their first real fight, without an anointed next-in-line choice, for their presidential nominee in more than three decades. In such a flawed field, why not Rick Perry?

Former Bush political strategist Matthew Dowd, an authority on electing Texans to the White House, is bullish on Perry’s potential. To Dowd’s thinking, the governor is well placed to be the vessel for the anger of Republicans with his “tremendous ability to communicate anti-Washington sentiment,” because he’s “able to speak passionately to this anti-establishment fervor and has the credibility as an elected official.” It’s a talent Perry displayed in 2010, humiliating Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the Republican primary and crushing the first credible Democratic gubernatorial candidate in over a decade, Bill White, the popular former mayor of Houston, in November.

Perry’s 10 years in office look like the perfect success story to Republicans. Ten years of balanced budgets. Ten years of staying true to his conservative viewpoints.  A state that’s weathered the recession relatively well, with a population that’s booming (witness four new congressional seats in the coming reapportionment). And an ability to read the anger of the Tea Party wing of the party before the flames got lit.

How did a man derided by liberals like the late Molly Ivins as “Gov. Goodhair” and reelected in 2006 with only 39% of the vote in a multi-candidate field, manage this?  As Paul Burka, the Texas Monthly pundit, puts it, Perry has “an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time.”  Elected state representative as a Democrat (and later state chair for Al Gore’s 1988 presidential campaign!), he switched parties early, took on an overconfident Jim Hightower for state agriculture commissioner and beat him (with Karl Rove’s help).  Aligning himself with the conservative wing of the party that was always uneasy with then-Gov. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” Perry squeaked out a win for lieutenant governor in 1998, succeeded Bush two years later, and claimed the ideological right for his own. When the Tea Party pushed the party further right in 2009, he was waiting for them. Even when the national press derided Perry for hinting that secession might not be out of the question, this supposed gaffe became, in Burka’s view, a “call to arms,” that put him on the national conservative stage.

Perry has faced a serious challenge at home, starting with an almost $27 billion deficit to solve this year.  But whatever this special session ends up producing, the budget will be balanced (at least until early 2013), no matter the pain it may cause and taxes will not be raised.  Along with a list of ideological activist social legislation, it’s the kind of platform someone could run on if the primary voters were overwhelmingly conservative and really angry at the Obama administration.  Just like the Republican primary electorate awaiting in 2012.

So what does one call the governor of the biggest red state, someone who loves to go on the attack, a gifted campaigner with charisma to spare, and an almost unlimited ability to tap millions of Texas campaign dollars?  Some might call them a likely vice presidential running mate for more moderate sounding guys like Romney and Pawlenty. Others might call him a serious presidential contender.

Paul Stekler makes documentary films about American politics and teaches at the University of Texas at Austin.

 

Perry’s Response

George W. Bush was the Decider. Rick Perry is the Initiator. And, oh Lord, has Perry initiated one hell of an event.

Called “The Response: A Call to Prayer for a Nation in Crisis,” the event is a Christians-only rally on Aug. 6 at Reliant Stadium in Houston. The event’s website lists Perry as “The Initiator” and bills the rally as a “non-denominational, apolitical Christian prayer meeting.” It is anything but. Politicians thinking of running for president don’t throw apolitical rallies weeks before the Iowa straw polls. The Response appears to be a long-planned, high production-value ploy to wrap Perry in the heartland mantle. If that were the end of it—a religious rally to boost political standing—we’d give Perry a pass. We’ll forgive the governor some religious pandering now and again.

But there is a darker side to the event, and it lies with those whom Perry has cast his lot.

The organizational and financial backing for The Response is coming from a rogues’ gallery of far-right bigots and fundamentalists. Footing the bill for the event is the American Family Association, a zealously homophobic and anti-Muslim organization listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Even within the American evangelical movement, the American Family Association stands out for its vicious stance on gays and lesbians. In 2010, one of its principals, Bryan Fischer, proposed criminalizing homosexuality and posited that “homosexuals in the military gave us the Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine and six million dead Jews.”

Two of the main groups involved in The Response are TheCall and the International House of Prayer, both based in Kansas City. TheCall’s founder, Lou Engle, is a virulent opponent of gay rights. Last year Engle showed up in Uganda to lend aid and comfort to religious activists who favored a law imposing the death penalty on gay people.

Perry has also enlisted the help of Alice Patterson, a San Antonio GOP activist associated with the Texas Apostolic Prayer Network, an Arlington-based group that believes Texas is a “Prophet State” that will act “as a fulcrum point or anchor for a ‘teetering nation.’”

Keep in mind that Perry isn’t just a speaker at The Response. He’s the organizer, er, Initiator. These are his invited guests. It’s one thing to organize a prayer rally. It’s quite another to partner with zealots. We wish Perry would use prayer to bring people of all faiths together. Instead, his upcoming rally appears bigoted and divisive.

Come on, Obama, do it!

Stand up, stand tall, stand firm! Yes, you can!

The president is thinking about issuing an executive order that would mitigate some of the damage done by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United edict. The ruling unleashes unlimited amounts of secret corporate cash to pervert America’s elections. Obama’s idea is to require that those corporations seeking federal contracts disclose all of their campaign donations for the previous two years, including money they launder through such front groups as the national Chamber of Commerce.

This approach says to those giants sucking up billions of our tax dollars for endless war and privatization of public services: You’re still free to shove trainloads of your shareholders’ money into congressional and presidential races, but, hey, just tell the public how much you’re giving to whom.

Neat. It would be a clean, direct and effective reform. The corporate powers and their apologists are squealing like stuck pigs. Steven Law, a Bush-Cheney operative who is now a Wall Street Journal editorialist and head of a secret corporate money fund, recently decried the idea of public disclosure of contractor campaign contributions: “When I was in the executive branch,” he sniffed, “mixing politics with procurement was
called corruption.”

Yes, Steve, and y’all were corruption experts! Perhaps you’ve forgotten that we remember Halliburton, the Cheney-run corporation that helped put Bush in office and then was handed tens of billions in contracts, becoming the poster child of corrupt, no-bid procurement.

Come on, Obama, don’t back down. Sign that disclosure order! If they’re going to steal our elections, at least make them admit it.

Helping Themselves

Gary Elkins owns 12 Texas payday loan stores (Big City Finance! Freeway Finance! Cash Station!). He also happens to be a Republican state representative from Houston. The two jobs aren’t mutually exclusive. His role this session in helping quash legislation that might have regulated the loathsome payday-loan industry perfectly illustrates the conflict-of interest-problem at the Texas Legislature.

Elkins stayed out of negotiations on the payday loan bills for almost five months, citing his direct financial interest in the outcome. But that turned out to be a cynical bluff. When two modest reform bills came to the House floor, Elkins seemingly transformed from lawmaker into lobbyist. As we report on page 21 of this issue, not only did Elkins try to kill one of the bills, he also introduced an amendment that would have shut down certain types of payday lenders and increased his own personal market share.

Unfortunately, it’s not that surprising—or unusual. Texas is represented by citizen-legislators. At $7,200 per year in salary, all but the most wealthy members must have outside employment. That’s perfectly OK. As citizens, we want doctors providing expertise on health care, lawyers helping out with complex legal issues and educators crafting education policy. However, lawmakers are too often crossing the ethical line and abusing their public office for personal gain.

Another recent troubling example was the much-needed reform to the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association—an insurer of last resort for coastal homeowners. The key lawmakers negotiating the bill make a living off TWIA-related lawsuits and insurance policy sales. Rep. Craig Eiland, a Galveston Democrat and vice-chair of the House Insurance Committee, has earned at least $620,000 from suits related to Hurricane Ike. Rep. Larry Taylor, a Republican from Friendswood, pulled in at least $300,000 from selling TWIA policies. Eiland and Taylor have worked on many insurance bills over the years, and we see nothing wrong with that. But in this instance, they were seemingly crafting legislation that would directly impact their own livelihoods. We couldn’t think of a clearer conflict of interest.

The Texas Constitution requires legislators to disclose “a personal or private interest in any measure or bill” to their colleagues and states they “shall not vote” on the matter. The provision is rarely, if ever, enforced. The Texas Ethics Commission must rediscover this small-but-critical section of the Constitution and enforce it. When they’re in the Capitol, legislators should work to benefit Texans, not themselves.

If you liked the Texas Budget Massacre of 2011, you’re gonna love the sequel set for release in 2013. Right now Republican politicians are congratulating themselves on handling a $23 billion budget shortfall this session with (all together now!) no new taxes. But in two years, they’ll be back in Austin for the 2013 legislative session, and the state’s finances could be just as bad.

How can that be? First, lawmakers failed to address the state’s long-term financial flaws this session; they simply papered over them (again). And, second, budget writers relied on a series of accounting tricks that could put the state in a precarious fiscal spot in two years.

Take a look at the state’s books and you will find a permanent deficit that runs about $5 billion a year. This is the result of a poorly designed scheme in 2006 to swap a property-tax reduction for a business tax that doesn’t generate enough money. Everyone at the Capitol knows about this mess. But no one has the guts—or the sense of responsibility—to deal with it. As a result, the structural deficit has now become as much a part of state government as the Capitol’s pink granite. In 2013—for the fourth session in a row—the state will start its budget process in a $10 billion hole at a minimum.

Then there are the accounting tricks. To balance the 2012-2013 budget without more revenue, lawmakers used every budget gimmick a dishonest accountant could think off. For instance, the budget proposals delay billions in payments to schools and Medicaid providers until the next biennium and count that as “savings” now. The state will have to pay those bills eventually, probably with a multi-billion-dollar emergency spending plan in 2013.

Lawmakers are recklessly gambling that an improving economy will help alleviate these problems, and they are making wing-and-a-prayer assumptions about future actions of the federal government. The Legislature assumes billions in cost-savings from Medicaid and other health-care waivers that Texas has requested from its dear friends in the Obama administration. That’s not likely, especially given that the Bush administration turned down those very same requests. Another ludicrous rider in the budget assumes the feds will pick up 100 percent of the health-care costs of undocumented immigrants. If these assumptions don’t pan out, Texas’ 2013 bill will be even higher.

This budget not only implements drastic cuts to education and health care, but sets us up for another round of painful reductions in two years.

Republican congresssional leaders don’t seem to be the quickest bunnies in the litter.

Having taken their blunt budget ax to Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, EPA, NPR, and dozens of other popular and effective programs, they then scampered to save one of the least popular and least effective federal programs on the books: the annual taxpayer subsidy for Big Oil.

As gasoline prices were rising to $4-a-gallon and higher, the House GOP voted unanimously to let the oil giants continue siphoning $4 billion a year out of our public treasury. All 241 of the Republican/Tea Party House members—with not even one dissenter in the bunch—declared that in this time of a supposed budget “crisis,” the neediest among us are not the elderly and the poor, but the little waifs of Big Oil.

Meanwhile, ExxonMobil just announced a 69 percent leap in profits this year, while Chevron, ConocoPhillips and others are enjoying similar jumps in theirs. Guess what percentage of those enormous profits the corporations are likely to pay in taxes? Zilch. Their lobbyists have punched such gaping loopholes in our tax code that they can escape paying anything for the privileges and benefits they get from America. Exxon, for one oily example, had a $19-billion profit in 2009, but not only did it pay exactly zero in federal income taxes, it manipulated the system to get a $156 million rebate from us. Likewise, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips had multibillion-dollar profits that year, paid not a dime in taxes, and also got refunds.

Republican lawmakers had a clear choice in dealing with the deficit. So why did they choose to cut off your granny’s health care, while helping these corporate billionaires make off like bandits? I guess it’s a matter of whom you really love.

 

Find more information on Jim Hightower’s work—and subscribe to his award-winning monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown—at www.jimhightower.com

The Texas Tribune is wrapping up its first rodeo of legislative coverage. It now has alliances with The New York Times and several Texas publications. But is it any good?

A multimillion-dollar startup instantly heralded in national outlets (including its future ally, the Times) should be the subject of a 4,000-word analysis, not a 750-word column. What political figures does it write about more often? Who does it routinely not write about? Who funds it, and are those people written about? What issues does it tackle regularly? Which does it regularly ignore?

Until someone writes that analysis, here’s what I like about it:

It provides jobs for excellent journalists. If you don’t think that is a good thing, then join the far edge of the Tea Party, denounce Thomas Paine and redact the Constitution.

It provides a look into Texas politics and state agencies, with pure numbers, statistics and intensive databases done by Matt Stiles. Emily Ramshaw takes a hard look at health care coverage. Ross Ramsey dissects the state budget.

It fills the aching gap left by wounded news outlets that can’t afford to cover state politics. It has kept everyone—The Texas Observer and the daily newspapers’ remaining political reporters—on their toes. News competition is back in play. That is a good thing for democracy.

Here’s what’s not to like:

The Times reported early on that the Tribune was going to offer “the good-for-you, Brussels sprouts journalism—education financing, lobbying, bureaucratic priorities, civics and state government … a niche site with a very narrow focus.” It has delivered on that, and it’s also been constrained by it. There are drawbacks to the demands of providing instant online journalism aimed at insiders.

What the Tribune needs is consistent, long-ball narrative and multipart investigative projects. It needs the 5,000-word drill-downs like Sy Hersh does for The New Yorker. It needs the huge packages that win Pulitzer Prizes for ProPublica, for investigative work and public service.

Sam Freedman, a New York Times writer and journalism professor, says the best stories exist on a temporal and eternal axis. You invest your stories with a legacy value—with huge context and sweep—so the stories have a longer shelf life, so the echo chamber resounds until the plutocrats really pay attention and maybe even go to prison for a long, long time. Associated Press correspondent and former Texas Observer managing editor Chris Tomlinson calls those the “WTF” stories, the ones that make readers go “What the fuck!” So far, it’s hard to point to a jaw-dropping WTF in the Tribune.

I took a very unscientific poll and called several editors, consultants, reporters and educators across the state. What startled me, and I have no precise explanation for it, was how many folks instantly went off the record when they wanted to criticize the Tribune.

They lauded the TT extensively, for sure, but their voices dipped down when they said they thought it was boring, too much inside-baseball, too busy-looking, or producing too few investigative stories. They wished the good reporters were unleashed to play to their talents. The reticence, I suspect, is partly based on jealousy and fear—that the Tribune has money, foot soldiers, and those connections to the Times. The number one criticism was that it is too insular, too focused on details and not enough on the Big Context.

Tribune co-founder Ramsey (who once hired me almost 25 years ago to write a book) defends his publication and essentially says the sum is greater than the parts: “It’s a constant balance between detail and context, for us and for everyone else who covers something that’s complex and/or insular. You can get lost in detail, but if you don’t pay attention to it, you can’t properly describe the big picture.”

The Tribune is coming of age during a particularly draconian legislative session that needs a special kind of numbers-crunching scrutiny. The question is, after the session is over and the oily agents of politics go home, will the Tribune chase them to the ends they deserve?

Most years, like most Texans, we want the Legislature to finish its business and adjourn as quickly as possible.

But this year is different. With the state facing a massive budget shortfa ll and drastic spending cuts, the more time for debate, the better. We have the unnerving feeling that many Texans don’t understand the catastrophic effects of some of the cuts to education and health care that the Legislature is considering. Do most Texans want schools and nursing homes to close? We don’t think so.

The legislative session is always a mad dash of hurried policy-making. In 140 days, no bill receives the attention—from either the lawmakers or the public—that it probably deserves. But as the Legislature debates a budget that could end lives and livelihoods, public engagement is vital. That’s why we hope the Legislature sticks around this summer.

If lawmakers fail to pass a budget before the end of the regular session on May 30, the governor will call the lawmakers back for a special session—likely in July—to pass a budget before the next fiscal year begins on Sept. 1.

There are reasons to be nervous about a special session. Democrats will lose their one legislative weapon—the Senate tradition, during regular sessions, that bills receive two-thirds support to come to the floor, a weapon that they may have already lost. In early May, Senate Republicans circumvented the rule to pass the budget. And anything can happen in a special. Lawmakers would be free to write an even more drastic budget over the summer, though it’s hard to see how they could do worse than the current House version, which axes $23 billion from current spending levels.

But the potential advantages outweigh the risks. A special session focused only on the budget would bring more Texans into the conversation. Without the other bills to draw attention away from the fiscal proceedings, media outlets would swarm to a summer budget debate. Thousands of teachers and public employees who already got their pink slips could flood the Capitol and show lawmakers just what the faces of budget cuts look like.

And for the first time, Gov. Rick Perry, who’s laid oh-so-low when the House or Senate start talking about the actual costs of the cuts, might finally have to take some ownership of the proposed budget cuts.

It’s admittedly a gamble, but one we’re willing to make. A special session could be this state’s last hope for including more citizens in a budget process that will impact so many lives.

It’s good to know that some corporate chieftains feel the pain of their underlings, who keep being forced to do more for less. Take the example of Gannett, the media giant that owns 23 television stations and 82 newspapers, including USA Today.

Early this year, Gannett notified employees that, for the third year in a row, they would get no raises and would have to take a week off without pay. The note was written with a gentle hand, acknowledging the hardship such sacrifices cause for workers and thanking them for their “great work.” To soothe the pain a bit, the note added that Gannett’s two top executives would take a commensurate cut in their salaries.

OK, team spirit!

But don’t grab the pom-poms and break out in cheers. Only two months later, bonuses totaling $3 million were quietly bestowed on the top two. To add a cherry to this sweet delight, the duo also were awarded stock options and deferred pay totaling as much as $17 million.

So some 32,000 workers were forced into furloughs to save about $17 million for Gannett, but the corporation’s No. 1 and No. 2 were allowed to slurp up all of that savings and then some. Who says there’s no “I” in team?

It’s not like the executives are doing a terrific job. Gannett’s newspaper readership, revenues and stock price have fallen substantially, and the corporate chieftains are widely viewed as lacking imagination. But they are credited with “aggressive cost management.” What’s that? It’s a cynical corporate euphemism for throwing employees in the ditch.

Working people are being sacrificed because of management’s failure, middle-class opportunities are shrinking, and top executives collect multimillion-dollar bonuses. Where’s the morality in that?

 

Find more information on Jim Hightower’s work—and subscribe to his award-winning monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown—at www.jimhightower.com