Political Intelligence



Buried in a recent wire service story is an important bit of news about the maquiladora workforce on the Mexican side of the Texas border. The dateline-Juárez story describes the killing of a woman worker from one of the “twin plants” whose proliferation has been fueled by the five-year-old trade agreement. The same story described the sexual assault of another worker, who, after working the night shift, was raped, beaten, and left for dead on a remote highway between Juárez and Casas Grandes. The woman survived the sexual assault to identify her suspected assailant – the driver of a bus under contract to transport workers to their jobs. Buried in the details are the ages of the two victims: thirteen and fourteen, respectively. The woman who survived works in the Parque Industrial de Las Americas, where several U.S. firms own subsidiaries. Mexican law prohibits companies from hiring workers younger than sixteen (except with special permits for limited day-shift work), and none younger than fourteen. It is widely known that maquiladoras routinely violate the law – and that child labor is one of NAFTA’s dirty secrets.


Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry is growing into the void left by the departure of Bob Bullock. Apparently Perry was so committed to Senator Florence Shapiro’s parental-notification abortion bill that he leaned on several Dem senators to ensure passage, advising them that if they didn’t vote for Shapiro’s bill, their own bills would get nowhere. Senators wouldn’t confirm Perry’s pressure tactics, but staff speaking off the record said the pressure from Perry left a few senators chafing at what appears to be a return to the tactics Bullock used to keep the Senate’s trains running on time.


The first bill of the session, which made it through the Senate in near-record time, passed the House to advance to the Governor’s desk. George W. may not have signed the $45-million “stripper well relief” bill within the three weeks he initially requested, but it did achieve statute status in a mere fifty-eight days. The bill was sold as “education relief” for school districts that would lose ad valorem tax revenue if marginally producing oil and gas wells were capped and removed from the tax rolls. The Governor claimed that a severance-tax moratorium would keep those wells open. Yet there are a number of questions never adequately answered – in fact, in the race to get the bill to the Governor, they were never asked.

At least one journalist wondered how many likely-to-be-capped wells would be kept open because of the tax break. Ross Ramsey of Texas Weekly went to the Railroad Commission and the comptroller’s office, and found that nobody had a clue. Apparently no government agency had studied the potential effect the bill would have on schools. Its effect on the pockets of well-owners, however, is clear. They pay no severance taxes while oil and gas prices are below a certain benchmark.

If the goal was to help school districts that depend on oil and gas property taxes, and not simply to underwrite the incomes of well owners, why not cap the tax relief? An amendment proposed by Democrat Kevin Bailey, setting a $200,000 tax-giveback limit for each individual, failed, picking up just forty-five votes (a number fairly close to the number of members in the progressive Legislative Study Group.)

Conflict of interest? In the Senate, four senators who are invested in oil and gas in Texas abstained from voting. In the House, the bill was carried by Tom Craddick, a Midland Republican who is in the oil and gas business. The most unexpected proponent of the tax moratorium for oil and gas: Houston Democrat Sylvester Turner. Turner made a passionate speech on the floor, perhaps too effusively praising a bill that “really is about helping people in need.” He concluded by reminding his colleagues that within a few weeks the extent of the state’s participation in the federal/state Children’s Health Insurance Program would be debated on the floor. “We don’t know how many wells the bill we vote on today will keep open,” Turner said, adding that we do know how many children will be able to buy into the federal/state health insurance program if the Legislature sets eligibility at 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

Of the 1.4 million uninsured children in Texas, 500,000 will qualify at the 200 percent level. The Governor has been fighting for 150 percent, which will insure only 300,000.

Several days after the oil and gas vote, El Paso Democrat Norma Chávez weighed in on the CHIP debate, arguing that the $150 million the Governor and Laura Bush are requesting – through Democrat Pete Gallego’s bill – to restore county courthouses in the state, is roughly the same amount of money it would cost to implement the CHIP program at 200 percent.


It didn’t take Democratic Senator David Bernsen too long to get oriented in the Senate. The Beaumont freshman was a force to be reckoned with when the Senate debated Plano Republican Florence Shapiro’s parental-notification bill. A week earlier, during committee hearings on the bill, Bernsen pressed Shapiro with questions about the wisdom of forcing pregnant teens into an intimidating judicial system where a judge could allow them to obtain an abortion without parental notification or consent. Bernsen argued that school counselors, clergy members, or licensed psychologists be included as options for minors seeking abortions without parental notification. Although his two amendments did not pass, Bernsen worked to define legislative intent and helped define House debate that will follow. And he was as skillful in floor debate as he was diligent in the committee process. “This guy is going to be a star and everybody knows it,” said one long time Senate staffer.