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Op Ed

They’re Stealin’ Our Water Pa. Say It Ain’t So.

Why liberal and conservatives should defend the Rule of Capture.

The Observer has had two pieces lately on the skulduggery of the water business in Texas.  The skullduggery is not new but the means and the shear size of the theft are so great that they should be of concern to both libertarian liberals (or librarian liberals, I forget which) and property-rights conservatives.  Yet no one makes a peep—not a loud peep anyway—that our water resources in the State of Texas are changing hands. Forever.

Conservatives and liberals finally find something we can agree on, and nobody will touch it?  It doesn’t make sense—unless maybe it is just so complex and stealthy that people are just not paying attention.  Kind of like the snake swallowing the bunny.  Maybe it feels good at first.  Who knows?  But keep your eye on your water.  You are the bunny and you are being swallowed by the snake.

The Observer has a small piece in the August 20th issue up arms with the Rule of Capture, as if this ancient rule from English Common Law was the root of all this evil.  It is not.  The Rule of Capture has been applied to oil and gas, as well as to water and animals.  In normal use, no one has ever thought it restricts the governing authority’s rights to set the maximum rate of harvest of water, oil or animals.  In fact, deer were the reason for the Rule of Capture in England. Called ferrae naturae, deer wander from estate to estate, so no one really owns them until they are shot. Using this ancient principle, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department set rules about the number of deer that can be hunted each year without a problem.

Water harvesters see things differently. And this is not the first time the rich and powerful have tried to twist the Rule of Capture to make a profit.

Oil and gas went through this in the 1930’s. Some people wanted the government to sanction, or even help them, capture more than their fair share. Greedy bigwigs argued the Rule of Capture was as an absolute prohibition on government control of production methods, even if the ensuing melee permanently damaged the oil field.  They went to the Supreme Court several times but, in the end the court decided that the Railroad Commission did have the authority to regulate production methods and volumes. Not only that, the commission could allocate the reserves in an oil and gas reservoir in such a manner that everyone who owned mineral rights in that pool had a reasonable chance to produce that oil, either through drilling or leasing to someone else.  If you have 40 acres in Texas, you have a right to drill a well and to produce the resources on a fair basis with your co-tenants and neighbors.  It’s still the law today.

Imagine for a minute if the Railroad Commission had taken a different approach, the approach taken by today’s so-called “Property Rights Republicans.”  Suppose they had said that the first three drillers into an oilfield got to produce all the oil in the whole field and all those other owners just got shut out. Then these champions of small government would have had to set up a new bureau to keep anyone else from drilling on his land. Imagine that. There would have been suing, but first there would have been killing.  No one had to tell the average Texan back then that it was cheating for his government to use its power to keep him, or her, from doing what his neighbor was allowed to do.  Regulate method, limit withdrawal, yes.

Take it away, no.

Well aren’t we lucky now that we have a Property-Rights-Republican-dominated legislature to protect us from these big government property grabs?  There’s no way that these good Christians would give all the underground water in the state to a few fat cats and just take it away from the rest. Is there?

Yep, that’s just what they’ve done, and they seem to be getting away with it.  There was also an article in the Sept. 3 edition of the Observer about water right, but the facts discussed by Forrest Wilder really apply only to the Ogallala Aquifer’s fossil water—that is water that does not get recharged.  Most other Texas reservoirs are recharged by rainfall so that there is a sustainable rate at which water can be withdrawn. As you might expect by now, the legislature’s way of dealing with recharge reservoirs is just as crazy as the ways that they deal with the Ogallala. Unfortunately, you are going to have to sit down and understand a little bit about how the smoke and mirrors work.

The state has divided the counties into 16 Groundwater Management Areas. Within those areas, it has politicked to get sub-areas, from a part of a county to several counties, to vote themselves into a Groundwater Conservation Districts.  These little districts all have different rules and procedures, but all are required to come up with a vision of what they want their water resources to look like in 50 years.

This makes no sense for the Ogallala as Wilder has pointed out. This makes some sense for recharge reservoirs, if it were done reservoir wide. It’s not. Our leaders believe that the government that governs best is the government that governs with the least competence.  Therefore, the Texas Water Development board tells each little district how much water it can produce and then these little districts are set loose hog wild to say who gets all the underground water.

There are several things that these little districts cannot do. They cannot forbid or treat export water differently. T, Boone Pickens would definitely not like that. Nor can they refuse a permit to anyone who has a legitimate use for water now, regardless of how much or how little or how much land he owns. And, once that little district reaches its maximum mandated pumpage rate, it cannot ever issue any more permits to drill commercial water wells, though there is a small exemption for household and livestock water.

Yep, it’s first come, first served. The big boys get their water in perpetuity. The little districts will continue as little fiefdoms using the heavy hand of government to keep landowners from drilling and using the water that the law says they have always owned.

No one is suggesting that they ought to be able to produce more than their fair share, but a fair share would be nice. As you might expect, there is some suing here. No killing yet but that may be because landowners today are so distracted by their iPods and wombat widgets that they have not yet seen the sleight of hand.  I do not mean to imply the legislators behave like carnival barkers but, it’s tempting.

So who are the big boys, the fat cats that are going to end up with all our water?  Well, the biggest and fattest so far is the City of San Antonio. A few years ago, we learned that the city was pumping not only more than their share of the Edwards Aquifer, but more than the whole aquifer can produce. The early water legislation came out of San Antonio’s emergency. The lege could have suggested that San Antonio should buy water rights from willing sellers and buy the water they need, but  naaaaaaaa.  Republicans would never do that.

Instead, they grandfathered everyone’s over-pumping of the reservoir, and told anyone who was hoping to save the family homestead’s water rights for the grandkids, well, sorry. San Antonio took their rights away by being first to be greedy. Yours is a dry land farm now and it will always remain so. These strict Constitutionalists must not have read the whole thing.

Just the gun part.

There are currently 98 ground water districts making these decisions, but much of the state remains without one. What’s going to happen to the “white” areas of the map where no district currently exists? My guess is that they won’t stay white for long because they are the only place where a landowners water rights are still safe, but only if he or she out-drills the neighbors.  Some of the best under-pumped areas of Texas lie within these white areas and those big boys, the ones John Henry Faulk called the “Water Hustlers,” are coming back with a vengeance.

A fair solution would really have been the simplest. Just allocate an aquifer’s maximum potential pumpage to all the land covering that aquifer on either an acre, or an acre-foot basis. That’s what engineers are for. Let people who own the land sell those water rights, keep them or use them as they see fit. Don’t just steal it in the name of God, mother and small government. It wouldn’t be that hard to do and you wouldn’t need the perpetual force of 98 little district-armies lurking around the state to keep landowners from drilling wells.

This really ought to be something that Republicans (of any stripe besides thieving Republicans) and Democrats (all except no-property no-how Democrats) can agree. Yet it doesn’t seem to be happening.

It is not a new problem. If you want to read more, read More Water for Texas, Walter Prescott Webb, University of Texas Press, 1954.


DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of The Texas Observer. The author is solely responsible for its content.

Don’t Overreact to UT Shooting

Mentally unstable person with assault rifle does not call for militarizing campus

A disturbed man took an assault rifle onto the University of Texas at Austin campus and shot himself Tuesday, law enforcement officials say. Early reports from witnesses say the UT student carried a Kalashnikov and wore a dark suit with a ski mask. He fired a few shots outdoors, and then moved inside a library where he killed himself in front of terrified students. This was a tragic day for Austin.

The shooting takes place after another high-profile shooting at the State Capitol. Fausto Cardenas is charged with making a terroristic threat for firing a pistol into the air in front of the building’s main entrance. I certainly hope the university does not follow the state government’s example following that shooting. More guns and metal detectors are not the answer.

Of course, UT parents were worried about their children Tuesday morning. As an adjunct lecturer, I was preparing to go to campus to teach a journalism class when I heard the news that “an active gunman” was on campus. I was worried about one of my students who works in the Perry-Castaneda Library where the alleged shooter took his life. I exchanged e-mails with colleagues who were under lock down with their students. I was grateful not to be there.

Unfortunately, many people will try to parley these fears to further personal agendas. There will be demands for better security on campus. The military-industrial-law enforcement complex will demand millions of dollars to put in more elaborate  security systems. Law enforcement agencies will want more military-grade firepower.

We know this because that is what happened after the Capital shooting. Our beautiful Capital is now marred by metal detectors and surrounded with state troopers carrying M-4 assault rifles. All because a man popped off a few rounds outside the building one day, hurting no one and not even hitting the Capitol.

Cooler, less financially-vested, heads must prevail at UT. We need to recognize that the systems already in place worked marvelously well. No one but the alleged gunman was hurt. Electronic messages warned students and faculty, who locked down the campus and kept students safe. Within 15 minutes after the shooting started, I heard an Austin police officer on a scanner say that the bloody crime scene on the library’s 6th floor was secure. Police then took the next three hours to make sure there were no other suspects and no other dangers to campus. The system worked.

I could argue that spending millions of dollars and turning our public spaces into fortifications is a waste of money. After all, how often have these things happened in the past? I could argue that these precautions are futile as long as guns are readily available and mental health care is not. But the real reason I feel the need to speak out so soon after the shooting is how I felt standing in my front yard this morning as these vents unfolded.

I live just north of the UT campus. I can hear the warning sirens from my living room. When the police helicopter circled overhead, I could see the sniper hanging out the open door, his rifle at the ready. And these sights took me back to Baghdad, where I worked as a reporter across the river from the Green Zone.

The sirens they use at UT are the same that they use when the Green Zone comes under attack. From my office in Baghdad on the other side of the Euphrates, I would watch as the Special Forces helicopters launched with gunmen standing on the skids to hunt down the mortar teams. What I saw and heard this morning was all too familiar. Central Austin for a few hours resembled Baghdad.

I learned in Iraq that no matter how high you built a wall, and no matter how advanced your weaponry, those things do not stop attacks like these. All you do is make the place where you live uglier and more dangerous because the attackers escalate to match the defenses. I have learned that strong communities that ensure health and justice for all citizens live in greater peace than those that do not, no matter how many security systems you purchase. Adding security is nothing more than running on ice.

The lesson from the UT shooting should not be that we need more barriers in our community. We need a stronger community that makes sure people don’t need a weapon to feel secure, and mental health care that is easier to obtain than a gun.

During the 1980s I spent several Easter vacations sailing with the late columnist Molly Ivins and some of her leading liberal friends. After the day’s sail out of Corpus Christi or Port Aransas, our party would reassemble on land for drinks and dinner. I wish I had a double Scotch (and probably did have a double Scotch) for every time Ivins remarked: “Whenever two or three reporters and commentators are gathered together, they tell the most revealing, engaging, sometimes appalling stories of happenings behind the scenes, but rarely share a word of it with their readers.”

Now that I am a writer on my own, having left the Houston Chronicle after 34 years, and with Texans facing another four years of government of, by and for Gov. Rick Perry and his cronies, I see no reason to hold back.

After three terms as a state representative and two as agriculture commissioner, in 1998 Perry successfully ran for lieutenant governor. During the campaign he appeared before the Houston Chronicle’s editorial board. Asked what was his first priority, Perry said that the highest and most sacred duty of every public official is ensuring that children get a good education.

Right answer, but, quelle surprise,  Perry’s actions have run counter to his words. He has kept state support for public education – state government’s largest and most important function – anemic. As governor he appointed as chairman of the State Board of Education a man who not only rejected evolution and modern biology, but also wanted to deny Texas children a basic knowledge of physics and cosmology. Perry appointed an education commissioner who fudged the numbers to hide poor student achievement and rampant failure.

Soon after George W. Bush was elected president of the United States in November 2000, he resigned the Texas governorship, and Perry became governor. A few days after his inauguration, Perry invited the Houston Chronicle editorial board to dine with him in a private room at Post Oak Grill in Houston. Perry sat at the head of the table. He was flanked by his bodyguard of state police officers wearing ridiculous, oversized white cowboy hats in the style made famous by Tom Mix. I was seated to the governor’s left, appropriate enough considering my position on the political spectrum.

Toward the end of the meal, Perry affected a humble demeanor and beseeched my colleagues and me to just give him the benefit of the doubt, a chance to show he could do the right thing by the citizens of Texas. Perry promised, as a point of personal honor, that we would not be disappointed. He seemed so sincere, he had me going there. For a moment, I actually thought a new desire to add some distinction to his leadership and legacy had caused him to turn over a new leaf.

Yeah, sure. On his opposition to adequate state support for the public schools and the teaching of legitimate science to Texas children, Perry proceeded to heap large cuts in state support for undergraduate education and university research, the very engines of the growth Perry rightly regards as essential for Texas prosperity.

The problem is not simply that Perry lacks integrity, which he does. The worst of it is that Perry is so dedicated to perpetuating himself in office  and so mindless of the public interest that he doesn’t even know what integrity looks like. From my decades-long observation post on the Houston Chronicle’s editorial board, I saw many examples of how Perry auctioned his power to the highest bidder, including the one that follows:

As the Texas Legislature was wrapping up in May 1999, Port of Houston commissioners voted to spend $75,000 in taxpayer money to hire  two lobbyists in Austin for only a few days’ work. Lobbyist Mike Toomey, Rick Perry’s on-and-off aide, adviser and longtime crony, would get $50,000.

Port officials said there was no particular threat to the port’s interests in the Legislature. If that were true, the late-session lobbying fees would be not only a complete waste of money,  but a pointless transfer of public money to private hands. What port officials feared was that some obscure legislation diluting local control of port finances and operations would sneak through as the session ended. They hired Toomey because they thought he could get Lt. Gov. Perry to keep such a bill off the Senate floor until the clock ran out.

I wrote an editorial for the Chronicle condemning the expensive hires and what they represented, pointing out that Toomey was already paid by the city of Houston and Harris County to watch out for Houston-area interests. Shouldn’t Harris County residents be able to look to their local governments’ lobbying teams, working with the Harris County delegation in Austin,  to safeguard their all-important seaport, the editorial asked.

Stung by the criticism, Ned Holmes, chairman of the Port Commission at the time, asked to meet with the Chronicle editorial board to defend the late payments to influential lobbyists.

“Is it your position,” I asked Holmes, “that bills rise and fall in the Legislature based upon who pays Mike Toomey $50,000 and who doesn’t?”

Holmes said it was.

“Well,” I replied, “that is an abomination in the sight of the Lord, and you should be decrying it as loudly as we are.”

With that, Holmes burst into tears. Perhaps he realized he had too easily lost the moral high ground and would not soon get it back. Perhaps he just couldn’t stand being lectured by a poor newspaper man who could barely afford his own yacht.

Holmes’ position rested on the premise that not even a prominent Republican civic leader and campaign contributor such as himself  could approach Rick Perry directly with any hope of gaining his cooperation. First, according to Holmes’ theory, Texans had to pay Perry’s crony and campaign finance bundler $50,000 if they wanted  Perry to act in the public interest. If Perry’s tea party supporters succeed in returning him to the governor’s mansion, how many of them will be able to come up with $50,000 when they want the governor’s support for some pet policy?

(Ever wondered why Perry was so keen to give away countless acres of prime farm- and ranchland and billions of dollars in highway tolls to a Spanish-owned company in San Antonio? Two words: Mike Toomey, who had been on the  company’s payroll.)

A few days after the meeting with Holmes, I got a call from a lawyer at a Houston firm that did significant business with the port. The lawyer wished to take me to lunch and, at Holmes’ request, explain “how things really work in Austin.” The unstated assumption was that unless the lawyer succeeded in straightening me out, the firm’s business with the port would be placed in jeopardy.

The lawyer said I didn’t fully appreciate the role of personal relations in state government. But even the most naïve voter knows that in Austin, “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” is practically the third law of thermodynamics. The way things really work is precisely the problem. Up against insider relationships and mutual greed and ambition – all oiled with millions in campaign cash — the public interest stands little chance.

At this point, full disclosure requires that I mention my 20-year-old,  often admiring acquaintance with Perry’s Democratic opponent on the November ballot, former Houston Mayor Bill White. White and his wife, Andrea, and my now ex-wife were all in law school together at the University of Texas. I first met White at a dinner party attended by some of his former classmates and their spouses. For some reason I was talking before dinner about my  favorite cousin, a natural scientist who had spent her career studying societal insects – ants, bees, termites – in southern Africa. At some point White interjected, saying in so many words that he practically lived for the study of societal insects and had written of the lessons they hold for human activity and society.

Here then, is a candidate for governor whose  knowledge and intellect know no bounds, who has a proven record of commitment to good government and whose personal pride and dignity don’t allow him to say one thing and do the opposite, or to place the levers of government exclusively at the beck and call of moneyed interests. Yet unless thousands of shortsighted, unthinking Texans change their mind before the November election, Texas will be stuck again with Perry et al.

I’m getting ready to go to France to look for a place to live, but I shall return in time to cast my vote in November. The question before the people of Texas is whether we will be led for more years by someone who needs somebody’s hired gun to tell him what to do, or whether we will elect a candidate capable of figuring it out for himself – no charge.


DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of The Texas Observer. The author is solely responsible for its content.

It’s remarkable that Texas Gov. Rick Perry has survived most of an election year without discussing his most notorious scandal: the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.

Willingham was sentenced to death for starting a 1991 house fire that killed his three children. In February 2004, on the eve of his execution, Willingham’s lawyer sent the governor’s office credible evidence that the case against Willingham was flawed. A nationally renowned fire expert had looked at the forensic evidence and concluded it was outdated—a set of “old wives tales” that arson experts had since disproved. The fire at the Willingham house was likely accidental.

If there had been no arson, then Texas was about to execute an innocent man. (Eight additional arson experts have looked at the case and concluded the evidence was bunk.) Willingham’s attorney requested a stay. Perry said no. It’s not clear the governor even read the fire expert’s report before letting the execution go forward.

Not only did Perry proceed based on questionable evidence, but when the Texas Forensic Science Commission began probing the case, the governor intervened. Last fall, he slowed the process by replacing three commission members, including its chairman. It looked like a cover-up, and for a few fervid weeks in late 2009, the Willingham case became a major political scandal. Perry was hammered in the Texas press, in The New York Times and on CNN.

Now the Willingham scandal has all but disappeared. Perry’s opponents in the GOP primary and the general election haven’t mentioned it. Reporters rarely ask about it. With Perry disinclined to appear at a single gubernatorial debate this fall, it’s less likely that Willingham’s name will be uttered in Perry’s presence before Election Day.

However, on Sept. 17—just as this issue of the Observer is published—the Forensic Science Commission is scheduled to release its final report on the case. In its preliminary report in late July, the commission concluded the evidence against Willingham was “flawed.”

We’re not sure how far the nine commissioners will go in their final report, or what impact the findings might have on the governor’s race. We do know this: The record suggests that Perry ignored key evidence, may have allowed an innocent man to be executed and later stalled an investigation into the matter. Those are serious charges. The governor must not be allowed to evade them.

From St. Edward’s University Hilltop Views Editorial

Approximately 35 non-profit organizations are scheduled to participate in the upcoming St. Edward’s University non-profit internship fair, but each group is in danger of being overshadowed by the one that will not be there.

The university recently rejected a request from Equality Texas to participate in the Sept. 15 fair. The group’s stated goal is to eliminate discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation by lobbying the Texas legislature on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender issues. In an e-mail, St. Edward’s notified the group that they were at odds with the university’s Catholic principles, and therefore not allowed to be at the fair.

The university claims that allowing Equality Texas to be on campus to recruit student interns would be an endorsement of the group’s beliefs. Meanwhile, the career planning website Hilltop Careers features internships with the offices of pro-choice state politicians, like state Rep. Valinda Bolton, D-Austin, and Harris Media LLC, a political consulting firm that works for candidates who support the death penalty like Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. Advertising these jobs is not an endorsement of pro-choice or pro-death penalty beliefs, but an avenue for students to become politically engaged.

A critical goal that St. Edward’s sets for students is that they “learn to think.”  This motto does not refer to base indoctrination. Rather, it means that St. Edward’s seeks to equip students with the necessary mental tools to solve problems—social, occupational, moral or otherwise—on their own. Having provided students with the ability to think critically and reasonably, the university should trust that they can make their own decisions.

Thus, students should be allowed to freely choose whether they agree with practices like gay marriage, and also to freely choose whether or not they want to intern for an organization that advocates for it.

The remainder of the university’s explanation was equally troubling. When the university incorrectly identified Equality Texas as a for-profit organization, it appeared to be having a knee-jerk reaction rather than a fact-based response. The university’s lack of knowledge about Equality Texas suggests that it did not take the necessary time to evaluate the organization’s purpose and value.

Moreover, the university’s decision to turn away Equality Texas is at odds with the very mission statement that St. Edward’s claims to be defending. The university has long prided itself on being a welcoming place for students, faculty, staff and guests of all beliefs, backgrounds, faiths and ethnicities. This commitment is a central part of the university’s mission statement, and sexual orientation is just as much an element of diversity as economic or ethnic background.

The university seemed to agree with this interpretation of diversity when it took the initiative of sponsoring a LGBT student organization called Pride. However, St. Edward’s now appears to be back-tracking regarding which types of diversity it considers acceptable.

Throughout the years, the university has endeavored to give the concepts of inter-faith dialogue and global understanding their due attention in curriculum and on-campus events. This practice has not required the university to sacrifice the Catholic character central to the campus. Instead, the university embraces the opportunity to learn about other cultures as part of the overriding Catholic belief in the dignity and value of all human life.

If the university is open to discussions of topics that have traditionally been at odds with the stance of the Catholic Church, it should be willing to take on the issue of sexuality in the same manner. Issues of sexual orientation deserve the same respect with which the university has treated issues of diversity in culture and faith.

Ultimately, shutting out groups like Equality Texas is akin to trying to win an argument by refusing to have one. A university should be a place where debate and differences are encouraged, not stifled.


DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of The Texas Observer. The author is solely responsible for its content.

Hiding Worker Injuries

According to the latest safety reports, workplace injuries are on the decline in our country. Great! Only … it’s untrue.

Many burns, cuts, poisonings, and other on-the-job injuries are deliberately hidden from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Last November, the Government Accountability Office found widespread underreporting of injuries by company doctors and other health professionals. In a survey of 504 medical practitioners, more than half told investigators they had been pressured by bosses to downplay illnesses and injuries. More than one-third said they were asked to provide insufficient treatment to workers so injuries would not have to be reported. More than two-thirds knew of workers who didn’t want bosses to know about injuries because the workers feared they’d be fired.

Under OSHA rules, any injury that requires more medical treatment than first aid must be registered in a company’s “injury log.” A high injury rate increases the company’s worker compensation costs and can prevent it from qualifying for government contracts. So top executives pressure managers and company doctors to treat serious injuries with bandages instead of stitches.

Also—get this—corporate injury reports are based on the honor system! From Wall Street to BP, we’ve seen how much honor there is in CorporateWorld. While OSHA does conduct occasional audits of injury rates, workers are rarely interviewed, leaving it to corporate executives to tell the truth.

Of course, executives are not hot to do that. Every workplace can and should be made safe. That won’t happen without honest reporting of conditions, followed by real punishment of violators.

Find more information on Jim Hightower’s work–and subscribe to his award-winning monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown–at

Walking the Walk

Somewhere near the intersection of the practice of democracy and the money-logged electoral politics of a flagging empire, the Texas Industrial Areas Foundation network held a statewide conference to promote its agenda for the upcoming elections and biennium and to build a get-out-the-vote effort modeled after its successes of 20 years ago.

By 10 a.m. on August 28, a parade of charter buses had docked at a conference center in northwest San Antonio and disgorged 1,300 people from the 11 IAF organizations in Texas—from El Paso to Houston and Lubbock to Brownsville. They were looking serious, many having begun their pilgrimage in the early morning darkness.  Teachers, nurses, school principals, undocumented workers, civil servants, construction workers, clerics, electrical workers, truck mechanics, labor leaders, retirees, and the recently unemployed—presente.

Bill White was there, but his invited opponent sent his regrets. The governor’s “Where’s Waldo” act had grown so stale that his absence did not even elicit the boos you once heard at these meetings that used to require IAF leaders to remind the participants that the Industrial Areas Foundation was non-partisan.

Of course, that depends upon what you mean by “partisan.” One leader after another addressed the gathering to advocate for increased investment in healthcare, public education, access to college, workforce development, and rebuilding neighborhoods whose infrastructure was in shambles. They talked about the State’s projected $18 billion shortfall and that the mindset of most public officials in that environment is to cut services rather than raise resources to invest in people.

Bill White, who was sitting at the front table, was asked to speak briefly.  He talked about his record as mayor of Houston on affordable housing and job training.  He began to talk about a high-dollar fundraiser Perry was holding the next week, but Father Walter D’heedene of San Antonio COPS asked him to stick to the issues. He talked about increasing the police force, and the good father cut him off again, asking if he would meet with the organizations if he is elected in November and if he supported their agenda. White agreed to both and was escorted off the stage as Father D’heedene reminded the crowd, “We’re not here to support candidates. We are here to get them to support us.”

The real business of the conference was to educate and mobilize their combined forces to get out the vote. Rev. Davis Price of Lubbock and the West Texas Organizing Strategy said their job was to “agitate people into hope [so they] open up an alternative future.”

To help educate, they’d enlisted John Shure of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C. He told them, “States have never seen a bigger drop in their revenues than they are seeing in this depression. You can’t cut your way out of economic troubles. They’re giving us a shovel to dig deeper and not a ladder to climb out.”  More than 30 states have raised taxes since the recession started, he told the conference. Ann Dunkelberg of the Texas Center for Public Policy Priorities said that the budget should start by drawing on the over $9 billion in the State’s Rainy Day Fund. “Well, it’s raining,” national IAF Co-Director Ernesto Cortes, Jr., said.

Moments later, Texas House Ways and Means Chair Rene Oliviera, D-Brownsville, said, “Ernie, it’s not just raining. It’s a perfect storm…This is going to be the most difficult legislative session I’ve ever seen,” Oliviera said. “In 1985, we didn’t pass a budget until August. The same thing will happen this time.” Oliviera said that he has identified $40 billion in tax breaks that most Republicans will call a tax increase. “I believe we will be recovering in two years, so we should take as much as we can [from the Rainy Day Fund]. But that requires a supermajority two-thirds vote in both houses.

“This is not a ‘sky is falling’ speech,” he continued. “I want to tell you how it is. We may have to close prison units. We may have to reduce help for the elderly and for abused children….You must mobilize like you’ve never mobilized before,” he told the gathering.

Oliviera warned of a mean season in the Legislature not only focused on the budget and social services but on the latest Republican issue designed to polarize, distract and confuse the public—immigration. He said hearings have already begun—not to solve problems but to target immigrants. “Divisiveness, fear, and immigrant bashing are what we are going to see,” he said, echoing previous speaker and immigration reformer Tamar Jacoby. who called this “the worse time I can remember in the immigration reform debate.”

And then Ernie Cortes took the mound. He was clearly agitated and ready to agitate. He began with a long, slow windup: “If there is any word that defines democracy, it is ‘compromise.’ The question is: which compromise do you make? Half a loaf feeds some people. Half a baby, as decreed by Solomon, is a corpse. We have to be there at the table. What gets us there is organizing, is getting our people out.”

And then the blazing fastball: “It’s open season on anybody you don’t like. We need to stop bullying in public policy, picking on people they think can’t fight back. We’ve got to end that. The only way to stop a bully is to stand up to a bully. [A few cheers went up in the house.] If you walk in their neighborhoods and they turn you away, then you go to the next person and to the next person. We’ve got a choice,” he thundered. “Go home to your families or go out and fight for them.”

Thirteen hundred people rose to their feet and cheered. They pledged to send out 2600 block walkers in cities across Texas to register new voters and then to get people to the polls. Block walkers have already been working the neighborhoods of Houston and San Antonio. They pledged to bring in 225,000 new voters statewide this year and 750,000 new voters by 2014. It will be a test of the old-fashioned, highly democratic, retail politics that Dave Mann wrote about on these pages.

Following a series of workshops on the key issues of the conference, the IAF leaders reconvened for one last charge from IAF Co-Director Sister Christine Stephens. She reminded them of the network’s “Sign Up and Take Charge” campaign of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It resulted in 500,000 new voters and IAF electoral clout, which led to indigent health care legislation, infrastructure services for the colonias, and greater support for public education. “We understand our ticket to the decision-making table has got to be the number of voters who support our issues,” she told the conference.

“We’re looking for surprising clout at the ballot box,” she said. “These are trying times for our families, for Texas, for the future.” She told the leaders not to plan for the future, but to change it. “Those 750,000 voters [targeted for 2014] are our decision to change the future of our children and grandchildren. For our children and our grandchildren, we will walk on glass to get them a better future. Let’s walk together.”

Armed with information and determined to be dangerous to the status quo, 1300 community leaders filed back on their buses and fanned out across Texas to attempt to change the future one voter at a time, to breathe life into democratic purpose in a state that seems to have lost its faith in the ability of government to serve the public good.


DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of The Texas Observer. The author is solely responsible for its content.

Another BP Outrage

With the BP well capped and former CEO Tony Hayward exiled to Russia, perhaps you thought the BP horror story was coming to a close. Now comes this: prison labor.

In its national PR blitz to buff up its image, the oil giant has boasted that it has been hiring devastated, out-of-work local people to handle the cleanup. Many have been hired, but not nearly enough. A Nation magazine report helps explain the shortfall. BP has been using inmates—a captive workforce—to do much of the shoveling and scooping to remove oil from Louisiana beaches. What a deal! BP gets cheap workers who are guaranteed to show up on time, do what they’re told, and keep their mouths shut.

In the early days of the cleanup, crews appeared on beaches wearing scarlet pants and white T-shirts with bold red letters: “Inmate Labor.” Investigative reporter Abe Louise Young writes that the sight of prison laborers outraged the local community, so they were removed.

Not the inmates, the uniforms! Now the inmates wear BP shirts, jeans and rubber boots with no prison markings, and they are moved to and from the job in unmarked, white vans. How many are there? No official with BP, the federal government, or the state of Louisiana could or would tell Young. How much are the prisoners paid? A local sheriff’s official told Young, “They’re not getting paid. It’s part of their sentence.”

BP is getting paid for this labor. By you and me. Under a little-known tax provision passed during the Bush regime, corporations can get a “work opportunity tax credit” of $2,400 for every work-release inmate they hire. To see Young’s article, go to


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Passing Fancy

As Texas kids start readying their backpacks and pencils, parents must be a little concerned—a recent spotlight on our education accountability system has revealed some major flaws. Chief among them: Why are we letting districts count failing kids towards their pass rates?

Not long ago, lawmakers and educators all clamored for some way to reward those schools that were improving, while still falling short on performance. Performance growth, many said, should count somewhere in the accountability system, so teachers aren’t punished for taking on students who are already woefully behind and helping them improve. In response, the Texas Education Agency implemented the now–infamous Texas Projection Measure, a statistical tool that is supposed to predict whether students will pass the state’s standardized test based on their current scores and the school they attend.

For instance, a student who fails the state math test may still count toward the school’s passing rate in math, if the TPM shows she is on track to pass in the next three years. However, the student gets no credit and no one goes back to see if she ever actually did pass.

Rep. Scott Hochberg almost caused riots when he questioned the accuracy of the predictions and the logic of rewarding schools that are still failing. Newspapers were quick to follow: the Houston Chronicle’s Rick Casey referred to the model as “statistical chicanery” while The Dallas Morning News called it “fatally flawed.”

As everyone damns the measure, we should remember the original goals of such “growth” models: to credit those teachers who work with disadvantaged students and help them get on track.

Imagine this scenario: A teacher has several students who received almost no credit on their standardized tests the year before. Through effort and hard work, she helps them get a much better score—but a score that remains well below the passing level. We can point to the student before and after, and see that the teacher made impressive progress.

Yet nowhere in our current system do we reward this growth. Unless the kids come close to the pass mark, we treat almost all failures alike. In a lot of schools around the state, teachers face a classroom with many students woefully behind and inadequately prepared. We’ve all heard the stories—the students in middle and high school who struggle with basic math and literacy. If we want to get more good teachers into such tough classrooms, we need to credit those who are showing results, even if those results aren’t good enough.

Dell’s Deceptive Genius

Let us now sing the praises of Round Rock-based Dell Incorporated. The computer giant offers an object lesson for the laissez-faire ideologues who keep insisting that we should turn our government over to corporations, since they are so efficient and customer-oriented.

Michael Dell’s concept of tight inventory control, direct marketing and cheap labor production in offshore factories quickly turned him into both a multibillionaire and a celebrity CEO hailed as a genius.

But—oops—turns out that Michael’s genius has a few unsightly hickeys on it. His corporation is now being sued by some of its biggest customers for peddling shoddy products, then deliberately deceiving buyers about the shoddiness.

Beginning in 2003, for example, Dell shipped millions of faulty desktop computers to customers. Even after executives learned that the products had a bad component that would cause a 97 percent failure rate, they urged employees to keep this quiet. “We need to avoid all language indicating the boards were bad or had ‘issues,’ ” said one internal email. “Don’t bring this to customers’ attention proactively,” instructed another Dell document.

The company even tried to shaft the law firm it hired to defend it against aggrieved customers, balking at fixing 1,000 faulty computers Dell had foisted on the firm. Good grief! Shaft your best friend; cheat your own mother; but messing with your lawyer is a death wish.

Adding to Dell’s problems is a tumbling market share and plummeting stock prices, aggravated by federal charges that the corporation has been cooking its books for years. Indeed, the genius himself is even facing federal accusations of fraud and misconduct.

Genius is as genius does. But should we really entrust our public business to this kind of corporate ingenuity?


Find more information on Jim Hightower’s work–and subscribe to his award-winning monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown–at

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