Political Intelligence

Looney Bells A-Ringing


Bad Santa! Bad!

The radical Christian Right, self-anointed guardians of our moral rectitude, are sounding the alarm against a new evil lurking in our midst. And what form has the Great Wickedness chosen this time, you may ask? Billy Bob Thornton in a Santa suit.

In the new comedy Bad Santa, Thornton plays a hard-luck, alcoholic, womanizing mall Santa plotting to rip off his employer. The reviews have generally been favorable, particularly for Thornton’s turn as a surly St. Nick. But for the denizens of the Religious Right, whose senses of humor are clearly two sizes too small, a Christmas movie in which a faux Santa uses the f-word is the latest sign of societal decay.

Santa campaign. The film, according to Laptop Lobbyists, is nothing short of an all-out attack on Christmas. (A holiday, it should be quietly noted, that has as much of a so-called pagan influence as a Christian one.) The group is urging a boycott, organizing a letter-writing campaign, and joining a long line of people calling on Disney chief Michael Eisner to resign. (Dimension Films, a Disney subsidiary, released the movie.) It has also penned an open letter to Eisner to run as a full-page ad in the Washington Times. The letter presents an aggressive defense of the fictional Mr. Claus, “Our Santa is the long-time husband of the devoted Mrs. Claus. Yours has onscreen sex with a sleazy barmaid who insists that he keep his hat on.”

In a phone interview from his Virginia office, Laptop Lobbyists Executive Director Chris Carmouche said his group didn’t start the campaign, but simply reacted to the call of outraged supporters, hopping on the already-moving sleigh, so to speak. “When people perceive that you’re messing with Christmas, they get angry,” he said. Christmas-themed vulgarity is inexcusable, even if the story is about a con man playing Santa, not the actual made-up character. Carmouche later admitted that he hadn’t in fact seen the film, but the trailer offended him plenty.

Of particular concern to Carmouche is a scene in which a young child pulls down Thornton’s fake beard and asks why Santa lacks real whiskers. Thornton’s character explains that he once had a beard, until he became sick and his hair fell out. “How’d it fall out?” the kid asks. “I loved an unclean woman,” Santa says. The child seems confused. “Was it Mrs. Claus?” “No,” Santa responds spryly, “it was her sister.” Said Carmouche, incredulously, “I’d hate to be a parent trying to explain to my child that reference to venereal disease.”

I’m sorry Virginia, that’s what happens when you don’t use a condom.

Sharpened Hysteria Straight

A student, charity founder, award-winning essayist: Christina Lough is the classmate you envy, not the one you fear. She’s certainly not the kind to stab someone at school, in her case, Garland McMeans Junior High, in Katy. Yet on October 7, a teacher noticed Christina’s pencil sharpener—a kind of razor-on-a-handle contraption that’s common in Korea, though not in Texas—and wrote up a disciplinary notice accusing the eighth-grader of possessing a “prohibited item.” (Lough’s citation originally described the sharpener as a “knife”; a school administrator subsequently scratched out the word.) For her violation, Christina underwent a police interrogation, endured three days of regular suspension and seven days of in-school suspension, and lost her positions as president of the student council and the National Junior Honor Society.

Like other McMeans students accused of “serious” crimes, Christina didn’t get to dispute or appeal the school’s charges. Nor did her parents, who have since filed a lawsuit, now in state court, against Katy ISD and McMeans principal Susan Rice for violating Christina’s right to due process. Sumi Lough, Christina’s soft-spoken mother, begins to sob when relating that she bought the controversial sharpener during a recent trip to South Korea, and put the item in Christina’s bag. “They never even gave me a chance to explain,” she laments.

KISD officials and their attorney argue that creating the appearance of meting out punishment unevenly will lead to a rash of civil rights and discrimination lawsuits. And because Christina’s parents met a school requirement demanding proof that they had read the student code of conduct, they should have been aware that the Korean pencil sharpener wasn’t permissible, asserts KISD spokeswoman Kris Taylor. Though the code doesn’t forbid possession of a “pencil sharpener,” or designate sharpeners as weapons, it does permit the school principal to subjectively determine when school supplies and other items pose a security threat. “[The sharpener] is, by every definition in the student conduct code, a weapon,” Taylor says, noting that school officials did consider Christina’s grades and clean conduct record when deciding her punishment.

Emblematic of post-Columbine hysteria, KISD’s rigid disciplinary policy is worst-case-scenario based. For instance, what if a “bad” student had stolen Christina’s pencil sharpener? Maintaining security, like in prison, is the top priority. “If there was a positive lesson my daughter could learn from her punishment, I would not have filed a lawsuit,” says Sumi Lough, adding that she never read the school conduct code’s weapons regulations because she never expected her daughter to carry a weapon to school.

To rouse public support for an overhaul of KISD’s disciplinary procedures, the Loughs have circulated a petition that already has more than 1,500 signatures. Other parents whose children have suffered similar fates have joined the campaign. There is even a website (www.KatyZeroTolerance.com) that features school-discipline horror stories. What lesson will Christina Lough take away from all this? She and her sister Alexandra have written a student bill of rights for McMeans that they are promoting.

Sickening Precedent

As if insurance companies and health maintenance organizations (HMOs) didn’t get away with enough already in Texas, now it seems the state can’t protect consumers even when it wants to.

In 1995, the Lege passed a bill that required hospitals and HMOs to provide the state with a range of consumer information, including data on patient satisfaction and quality of care. The legislation birthed a state agency, the Texas Health Care Information Council, that collects and disseminates the data so consumers can find out, among other things, which HMOs were best liked by their patients. The law has been a hit with consumers, state officials, and health-care providers. Well, some providers.

In 1999 and 2000, Austin-based Seton Health Plan refused to file its data with the state. The HMO had correctly concluded that it would actually be cheaper to violate state law than follow it. That’s because, in a fit of shortsighted lawmaking, legislators set the penalty for not gathering the required data too low. The fines range from $1,000 to $10,000 per year, while it costs an HMO tens of thousands of dollars just to collect the consumer feedback.

When it couldn’t compel Seton to provide its patient data, the Health Care Information Council called in the Attorney General’s office to enforce state statutes. The AG’s office took Seton to court and lost. A state district judge and the Third Court of Appeals both found Seton in violation of the reporting requirements and ordered the HMO to pay a $1,000 fine for each year it failed to provide data ($2,000 total). But the courts ruled that, as long as Seton paid the fine, it didn’t have to submit the missing reports. That proved a bargain for Seton, especially since the state was ordered to reimburse the HMO for $15,000 in legal fees. In late November, the Texas Supreme Court refused to hear the case. The AG’s office has asked the supremes to reconsider, but the state’s high court rarely changes its mind.

Now, state officials fret that other HMOs will follow Seton’s lead, choosing to save money by paying the measly penalty instead of complying with state law. That could undermine the whole system. To make matters worse, Texas’ brief flirtation with providing consumers valuable HMO information may soon end. The Texas Health Care Information Council’s budget has been slashed by 30 percent and it will soon be folded into a sprawling Department of State Health Services as part of the state’s massive reorganization of health and human service agencies. As council Executive Director Jim Loyd puts it, “There is a lot of uncertainty about this program and where it plays out on the grand new list of priorities.” Don’t expect consumer needs to be high on that list.

The Craddick Treetise

Many legislators were back on the House floor on December 6th for the annual lighting of the House Christmas tree. Those with discerning eyes or who had read recent press accounts knew that something was different this year. For the first time ever, the House tree is a fake.

For decades, the House Christmas tree, like the bigger one outside the Capitol, was Texas-grown. Last year, it was a red cedar. This holiday season, the center of the House floor is adorned with a Chinese-manufactured imitation fir. (It’s bad enough the state is losing manufacturing jobs to China, but now we’ve got to buy our Christmas trees there too?) To make matters worse, the tree is made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a form of plastic known for its fire resistance. While PVC itself isn’t toxic, its production and disposal spew dioxin and other deadly carcinogens into the environment. Greenpeace and other environmental groups have urged a ban on PVC production in the U.S.

First-term House Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland) and his wife Nadine made the decision to go plastic. Craddick has said he broke with tradition because propping a live tree on the House floor brings with it such nuisances as falling needles, insects, and fire risk.

In fact, the real reason the House bought a fake tree is because the Speaker and his wife simply wanted it that way. In 34 years of marriage, the Craddicks have always used a fake tree in their home. That Craddick forced a fake tree on the rest of us seems all too appropriate given the legislative sessions we’ve just endured. He overruled valid points of order, manipulated votes to get the outcome he wanted, and forced through horrid legislation that benefited his corporate backers. All that was bad enough. Now a plastic tree as well?