God and Taxes
In the perennial debate of creationism vs. evolution, creationists are adapting in order to survive. Considerably more sophisticated than their Scopes trial counterparts, opponents of evolution didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t bring up God, the Bible, or Young Earth Theory at the September 10 State Board of Education hearing.
The board is set to vote on November 9 whether to approve 11 biology textbooks. The books have already been vetted by a review panel, but some board members are considering rejecting them, citing a clause of the Texas Essential Knowledge Skills code which calls for “strengths and weaknesses” of all scientific explanations to be presented.
Some board members, following the lead of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, say none of the books adequately discuss the weakness of evolutionary theory. The Institute has involved itself in similar debates in Ohio and Kansas.
“I found most of contained serious factual errors,” said Jonathon Wells, an institute senior fellow to the board. “All of them fall short of allowing students to evaluate information effectively.”
Under the rubric of rounding out evolution teaching, the Discovery Institute advocates teaching what they call the controversies surrounding the theory of evolution, allowing for discussion of alternate theories. The theory they have in mind is Ã¢â‚¬Ëœintelligent design.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ More philosophy than science, intelligent design theory posits that life is ordered by the intention of a conscious creator, rather than randomly driven by the forces of natural selection.
If that conscious creator is presumably God, the Institute is too savvy to say so. “ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not about religion,” says Discovery Institute President Bruce Chapman.
But an internal memo widely attributed to the instituteÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s founder, Philip Johnson, states that “design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.”
The institute will not confirm or deny the authorship of the memo.
Parents, teachers, and a goodly portion of the stateÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s scientific community, including Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, rallied at the board hearing to defend the theory of evolution.
In several hours of testimony, they argued that the “weaknesses” in evolutionary theory cited by the institute are insignificant, the “factual errors” in the books are nit-picking, and the principles of evolution have been confirmed by nearly a century of research.
Board of Education member Don McLeroy was unpersuaded by the pro-evolution testimony, though conceding that Weinberg is “a really bright guy.” McLeroy has evolved his own lengthy critique of evolutionary theory, noting, for instance, that “feathers are very hard to explain.”
McLeroyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s chief grievance is with the principle of Ã¢â‚¬Ëœcommon descent,Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ that is, the ape-man fork in the evolutionary tree.
“It is completely within our responsibility to look at Ã¢â‚¬Ëœcommon descentÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ and take it out of the arena of fact and place it back into the arena of hypothesis,” McLeroy says.
Board member Terri Leo seems most distressed by the idea that evolution is “blind, driven without purpose.”
The teaching of evolution, opponents argued, is responsible for a host of societal ills, from declining morals in the young to increased teen suicide rates.
Before they vote to accept or reject the textbooks in November, the board might note the fate of their counterparts on the board of education in Kansas, where evolution was removed from the stateÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s science standards in 1999. The following election, all but one of the members who approved the change were voted out of office. It appears that in politics, at least, survival still goes to the fittest.
Consumers Get Housed
The newly created Residential Construction Commission is one of those state agencyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s you probably donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t care about until you actually need it, like, say, when your defective roof collapses or your faulty foundation lilts. At times like those, when you want to recoup loses from the construction company that built your crumbling home, youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll be glad the state created an agency to regulate the residential construction business and fight for consumers like yourself. If only the RCC was on your side. Sadly, judging by Gov. Rick PerryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s seven appointments to the commission in early SeptemberÃ¢â‚¬”five of whom have ties to construction companiesÃ¢â‚¬”it will be yet another Texas regulatory agency dominated by the very industry itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s supposed to oversee.
The RCC, birthed last legislative session, will consist of a nine-member commission that will head a 26-person team of inspectors. The agency is supposed to license and regulate the home construction industry and help resolve disputes between homeowners and home builders. Consumer groups feared from the start that the ostensibly pro-consumer commission would be hijacked by the home builders, some of whom are among Gov. PerryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s largest political donors. High on the list of Perry backers are Dick Weekley of David Weekly Homes, a co-founder of the big-money Texans for Lawsuit Reform, and Bob Perry, owner of Perry Homes and the biggest Republican donor in the state (he gave nearly $4 million to various campaigns in 2002).
Well, the list is out andÃ¢â‚¬”surprise!Ã¢â‚¬”itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s dominated by construction industry officials. The appointments include: Art Cuevas, president of Art Cuevas Construction in Lubbock; John Krugh, corporate counsel for the aforementioned Houston-based Perry Homes; Glenda Mariott of Mariott Homes in College Station; and Scott Porter, president of Porter Contracting in Kerrville. The RCC chair will be MidlandÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Patrick Cordero, who heads Strategic Abstract & Title Corp. and has ties to House Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland), another benefactor of the construction industryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s campaign contributions. Only two of the seven appointees have no construction affiliations, a Dallas attorney and the CEO of a telecommunications firm.
Perry still must name two more appointees to the RCC. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s possible those last two commissioners will be consumer advocates. That is, if they can muster enough campaign contributions.
Bidness, Yes, Taxes, Maybe
Midland’s second favorite sonÃ¢â‚¬”after George W. BushÃ¢â‚¬”Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick is staying as far away as possible from the hottest topic in his west Texas district these days. Right before labor day, Midland joined a number of other West Texas counties in suing more than a dozen oil companies including ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, Oxy USA, BP, and Shell Oil Co. A total of 17 counties around the state are alleging that the oil companies engaged in a conspiracy through their affiliates and subsidiaries to defraud them between 1983 and 1998 by underreporting the market amount they paid for crude oil and thus how much they owed in local taxes. The number of counties who are party to the suit is expected to grow. Each county must battle it out with the oil companies independently.
For an area nurtured and grown on oil, the lawsuits are unprecedented. As one reader posted on the Midland Reporter-Telegram website: “Wow! Midland County takes on big oil. This is huge.”
It wasn’t just the Bushies who left comfortable Connecticut to make their oil fortunes in Midland. Speaker Craddick has also benefited from Midland’s oil industry, selling mud, of all things, used in drilling. He has also been a consistent booster of the industry in the legislature.
Yet despite an intimate knowledge of the West Texas oil biz, Craddick declined an opportunity to comment on the lawsuits.
The oil companies strenuously deny the allegations in the lawsuit. If upheld, they could be forced to pay hundreds of millions although lawyers for the counties are tight-lipped about the amount they believe is at stake. An ExxonMobil spokesman called the allegations in the lawsuit “hogwash.”
The lawsuit clearly spells out how essential oil money is to the taxbase of the area. “Midland County uses its tax revenues to fund a variety of activities, including servicing roads, maintaining and operating public safety and emergency services, providing for the maintenance of County facilities, discharging statutory duties imposed under Texas law, and conducting other general business.”
County officials deny that they were driven to the lawsuits because of the drastic cuts in state services the Republican Speaker helped force through the legislature. Even if the counties win, it could take years of appeals before they see any money, not soon enough to fill budget gaps in local services.