Political Intelligence

Despite the SuperCenters’ streamlined convenience, Texans are rising up against them for aesthetic, economic, and ecological reasons. Lakeway, Houston, and Austin are just a few places where citizens have gone to battle with the biggest box in the past year, and won. In Austin, a coalition of neighborhood groups, environmentalists, activists, and even a few local developers successfully pressured the company into canceling plans for one SuperCenter proposed in the southwestern quadrant of the city, over the Edwards Aquifer, the sole water source for more than 50,000 people.

However, the fight isn’t over yet: On November 20, the owner of the property Wal-Mart planned to purchase for its Aquifer big-box filed suit against the city and developer Stratus Properties, which backed the anti-SuperCenter campaign. Anti-SuperCenter Austinites enjoy some sway with eco-conscious members of the Austin City Council, which has commissioned a study to determine the economic and environmental impacts of local big-box development.

Even in communities that lack organized opposition against Wal-Mart, citizens are rallying. Residents of Canyon, a small town located 30 miles south of Amarillo and the home of West Texas A&M University, have two separate suits against the Canyon City Commission, claiming that the five-member body has sidestepped democracy and its own rules for Wal-Mart’s benefit. In Fehr and Goss v. City of Canyon, currently on appeal (the city disputed the 47th District Court’s determination that the case was in the court’s jurisdiction ), Kevin Fehr and Brian Goss claim that the Canyon city clerk refused to deliver to commissioners a valid citizens’ petition requesting a referendum on the SuperCenter, as required by the city charter. And resident Mike McBroom, who lives a quarter-mile from the proposed site, argues in his suit that the city is violating its own comprehensive plan by approving big-box retail development next to an elementary school. His case goes to trial November 24.

“I think the commissioners have been sold a bill of goods,†asserts Amarillo Attorney John Mozola, who represents both sets of plaintiffs. “They desperately want the tax money will generate, and that has clouded their judgment.â€

Recently Wal-Mart announced plans to build a SuperCenter in Pampa, and possibly another in Hereford; Amarillo already has two with two more underway, and one in Dumas is already under construction. With so many SuperCenters vying for business in the sparsely populated Panhandle, Wal-Mart’s promise that the stores will be a regional draw for sales tax revenue is ringing false for towns like Canyon. Of course, once established, it’s too late. The SuperCenter quickly snuffs out local businesses.

Austin political consultant Mike Blizzard, who helped organize the grassroots campaign against the big-box over the Edwards Aquifer, has visions of a diverse coalition of Texans working to halt the Wal-Mart blitzkrieg. And rumors are circulating that hardware companies, pharmacies, and other affected business interests are planning to coordinate against Wal-Mart on a statewide basis.

Taking a proactive approach against Wal-Mart might prove difficult for citizens hoping to beat SuperCenter proposals still in gestation, since company representatives aren’t forthcoming with details about future plans. Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. keeps no lists of proposed stores, contends spokeswoman Daphne Moore, who has represented the company at many public forums and meetings during its recent Texpansion.

“If you start naming locations in Texas, I can tell you whether we’re opening a store there or not,†she says.

Get out the map.

Soft Money Hardball

An unusually contentious U.S. House Administration Committee hearing ended November 20th with the panel voting to grant Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) authority to subpoena the leaders of several Democratic fundraising groups.

The committee convened to question the chiefs of a handful of recently formed organizations created under Section 527 of the tax code that intend to raise soft money to influence federal elections. Ney said he called the hearing to examine whether the groups were attempting to evade the soft-money restrictions imposed by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.

Ney asked nine witnesses to give testimony, but the six invited Democrats—Partnership for America’s Families CEO Steve Rosenthal, Democratic Senate Majority Fund Executive Director Marc Farinella, New House PAC head Howard Wolfson, America Votes President Cecile Richards, America Coming Together President Ellen Malcolm, and Voices for Working Families’ former Chairman Gerald McEntee—did not appear.

Although the committee gave Ney the authority to issue subpoenas to those six individuals, Ney spokesman Brian Walsh said after the hearing that the chairman had not yet decided whether or when to do so. “We’re going to take some time and look at this,†said Walsh.

Despite the fact that the Democratic fundraisers had already informed the House Administration panel that they would not show up, the committee still made a point of putting their name cards in front of empty chairs at the witness table.

Ney said those witnesses “have chosen to thumb their nose at the Committee on House Administration†and that their behavior “proved doesn’t ban soft money despite incessant complaints by its supporters to the contrary.â€

But House Administration ranking member John Larson (D-Conn.) accused Ney of conducting “a partisan inquiry†that represented “the hijacking of official government resources†for Republican political purposes.

Three Republican Witnesses

Susan Hirschmann of the Leadership Forum as well as Frank Donatelli and George Terwilliger, both affiliated with Americans for a Better Country, appeared, but Ney said he did not wish to hear testimony from one side and not the other, so he quickly excused them. (Earlier this week, Americans for a Better Country asked the Federal Election Commission for an advisory opinion on whether it can engage in its planned campaign activities this cycle, which include raising and distributing soft money for the purpose of funding voter registration and turnout drives.)

The committee immediately convened a business meeting, which consisted of statements by various House Administration members and was characterized by an unusual level of acrimony for the panel. At one point, Larson attempted to give his opening statement and was informed by Ney that he was out of order. “This hearing is out of order,†Larson responded.

Larson was demonstrating his grasp of the obvious. The no-show Democrats knew the odds are against them. Hirschmann, after all, is Tom DeLay’s former chief of staff, who recently moved into the corporate lobby. The Leadership Forum she directs is a Tom DeLay creation and just before the new campaign law took effect it raked in $1 million in seed money from the Republican National Committee—which was quickly returned when it appeared the normally toothless FEC was going to bite this time. While the Dems knew the Republicans had a home-field advantage at the House Committee, they didn’t know the officials had been “hammered†into obedient soldiers. “Bob Ney is a decent guy who is usually fair and even-handed,†a disinterested lobbyist watching the hearing told the Observer. “This is DeLay working through Ney.â€

Cutting the Councils

State health officials are revealing exactly what they mean by “streamlining†government. They recently unveiled their finalized plan to overhaul the social services safety net. The transition plan implements last session’s disastrous House Bill 2292 that scrunches 12 existing health and human service agencies into five, privatizes several core state functions, and dissolves at least 5,000 state jobs. The 115-page document reads like a Fortune 500 business plan. It describes the “integration, optimization, and transformation†of the state’s health and human services agencies, beginning in earnest in January. The transition plan also lays out a “communication plan†(read: spin) and the need for an “enterprise-wide communications infrastructure.†State health officials wasted no time embarking on their communications strategy. When the transition plan was made public, Health and Human Services Commission head Albert Hawkins released a statement praising the restructuring as a major step forward for low-income Texans. “This new approach will result in a system that serves consumers better,†promised Hawkins.

How accurate that prediction will be might depend on the definition of the word “better.†In supposedly making the safety net more efficient, the reorganization actually reduces services by eliminating state jobs and several government programs. The cutting has already begun.

In September, HHSC officials abolished 39 of the state’s 109 advisory and inter-agency committees. These cuts, mandated in HB 2292, went unnoticed by most media outlets. The eliminated committees brought together state workers and policy experts from a wide range of agencies and advocacy groups to handle overlooked sections of the state’s social service web. While some of the groups were probably expendable—the Department of Health’s Animal Friendly Advisory Committee doesn’t exactly seem essential—many others will be sorely missed. How wise can it be to cut the Hepatitis and HIV Interagency Coordinating Council or the Child Abuse Program Evaluation Committee? Mental health advocates are especially upset at the loss of the Community Resource Coordinating Groups for children and adults that brought together various government agencies with local organizations to care for the mentally ill.

The cuts aren’t about saving money. Dispensing with nearly 40 percent of the advisory councils saved the state a whopping $62,000 this year. While the state will save an extra 10,000 hours of staff time, some of those state employees with more free time may simply be laid off during the looming HHSC reorganization. As for the advisory committees, HHSC officials claim that the overhaul will shift the duties of some of the abolished councils to other agencies. But it’s worth noting that HHSC announced the cuts in a dryly written memo that, unlike the effusive transition plan, didn’t claim to improve services.

Texas Teaching

Last month activists from across the country made an annual pilgrimage to protest the infamous School of the Americas, located at Fort Benning near Columbus, Georgia. The SOA has been a target of demonstrators ever since it was revealed that graduates from Latin America had put their training to use by engaging in human rights violations from the Southern Cone to Mexico. Strictly speaking, the SOA no longer exists. It was “closed†in 2000 and officially reopened as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC) in 2001. Nevertheless, a national network of activists continue to organize annual teach-ins, vigils, and non-violent civil disobedience. They might do well to also direct their attention elsewhere—say, Texas. Last year Amnesty International reported that Fort Benning is “only one small part of a vast and complex network of U.S. programs for training foreign military and police forces that is often shrouded in secrecy.†Amnesty stated that there are approximately 275 known U.S. military schools and installations that provide such training. At least 13 programs are located in 10 installations in Texas. San Antonio’s Lackland Air Force Base—home to the Inter-American Air Forces Academy and the Defense Language Institute—rivals Fort Benning in terms of the numbers of program courses taken by students from Latin America. According to recent reports to Congress from the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of State, Colombian nationals enrolled in 794 courses at military installations in the United States last year. The United States trains more military and police from Colombia than any other country in Latin America, followed by Ecuador, Honduras, Bolivia, El Salvador, and Mexico. In fiscal year 2002, students from these six countries combined enrolled in 460 courses at Lackland AFB, compared to 301 at Fort Benning, a fact that so far has attracted little attention from either activists or the media. Yet at least one foreign military trainee in San Antonio has been accused of engaging in the sort of activities that earned the SOA its badge of shame. He is Colombian Air Force Lt. Cesar Romero. In June 2002, the Los Angeles Times reported that he had been accused of killing 18 villagers with a cluster bomb dropped from a helicopter in 1998. It September 2000, Romero received flight-simulation training at Randolph AFB—three months after a prosecutor ordered an investigation into the 1998 killings, and in direct violation of U.S. regulations that forbid the enrollment of students who are even suspected of having engaged in human rights violations.

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