A Dutton for Punishment
FAMILY LAW FIASCO Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) has a complicated relationship with his colleagues in the Texas House. Last session, Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland) gave Dutton the chairmanship of the Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee. Dutton, although a Democrat, is a member of the Republican team. He earns his place with small favors such as a timely disappearance during the tightly contested voucher vote. But the chairmanship Craddick offered Dutton is a poisoned chalice. The committee is a purgatory. The speaker placed Rep. Toby Goodman (R-Arlington), with whom he has a long antagonism, as vice-chair. He also appointed six other Democrats, several of whom spend much of their time trying to thwart the speaker. In a session seemingly full of family-issue obsessions like gay marriage, none of these substantive bills made it to Duttons committee. Not that it would have mattered. The committee didnt meet very much. For some reason, throughout the session it could never quite muster a quorum. It was almost as though the members were staying away intentionally to spite their chairman. (This rolling boycott was confirmed privately by some committee members and denied publicly.) Unlike other Craddick purgatories such as the Agriculture and Livestock Committee, Duttons committee handles substantive legal issues, which require a fair amount of legislating. The attorney generals child support division had a laundry list of small corrections to the family code they needed passing this session. Their request formed the heart of House Bill 1449, which was scheduled to be heard in Duttons committee. Rep. Todd Smith (R-Euless) entered this tale of Dutton and HB 1449 in a roundabout but very personal way. Prior to the session, an acquaintance of Smiths wife told him a story that he knew all too well. Her husband, a wealthy lawyer, had left her and their children. The husbands child support payments were woefully low. In Texas, the maximum required by law in child support owed by a parent who makes $6,000 or more a month is 20 percent of $6,000 for a single child, 25 percent for two children, and 30 percent for three; or $1,200, $1,500, and $1,800 respectively. It doesnt matter if the parent earns more than $6,000 a month, thats the maximum. Despite inflation, that amount has stayed the same for 12 years. Efforts to raise it have faltered in the House where many of the members are wealthy men under child support orders. Smiths own father, a lawyer, had left him and his sister in the care of their mother when he divorced his wife. His mom raised the two children alone in an apartment while working as a secretary. Smith offered a modest proposal to raise the income ceiling from $6,000 to $7,500. However, he couldnt get Chairman Dutton to set a hearing for his bill. Dutton himself is under a child support order from 1999 that affects his four young children. But when the full House voted on HB 1449, Dutton agreed to accept Smiths bill as an amendment. Smith even got the Senate sponsor of the AGs cleanup bill, Sen. Chris Harris (R-Houston), to go along. Harris made minor changes to the bill on the Senate side. When it came back to the House, Dutton refused to accept Harris changes and the bill went to a conference committee comprised of five members from each chamber. What happened next is a matter of some contention. Two sources say that at the last minute, Dutton tried to fold two controversial bills of his that had failed earlier in the session into HB 1449. In the Senate, Harris refused to go along and the bill died. On the penultimate day of the session the Observer found Dutton standing off to the side of the House floor and asked what had happened with HB 1449. He claimed not to know why the legislation had died in the Senate. The Observer then asked whether his own child support order might explain why it has taken so long to raise the child support level. What I have going on personally doesnt have a motherfucking thing to do with nothing, Dutton said. If thats what you are after, fuck you. He then turned and walked into the members lounge.
TOMMY, CAN YOU HEAR HER? Carmencita Abad has a question for Tom DeLay. Recently the 45-year-old Philippine-born union organizer and lecturer for the non-profit organization Global Exchange traveled to Houston to ask Mr. Tom DeLay why someone as powerful as he can ignore and even perpetuate the system of sweatshops. On May 31, the Greater Houston Partnership organized a little luncheon love-fest for the beleaguered U.S. House Majority leader at the Westin Galleria Hotel. Across the hall, another group of Houston partnersthe Harris County AFL-CIO and Houston Interfaith Committee for Worker Justicewere honoring a sweatshop survivor, Carmencita Abad. Although they have never met, Abad and DeLay have a history that goes way back. From January 1993 to January 1999, Abad worked in Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands as a contract laborer for the Sako Corporation, which manufactured clothing for such name brands as GAP, Levi, and Old Navy. After reading an ad in a Philippine newspaper, Abad paid $2,500 up front to a local recruiter, flew to Saipan, and began working 14-hour days, seven days a week. She lived with 14 other women who shared one toilet and one shower in company-provided barracks with no air conditioning and no hot water. She earned $2.15 an hour (later raised to $3.05) to help support her family back in Manila. When she tried to organize a union, thinking about having betterment in working conditions, as she explained in a recent telephone interview, Sako fired her. As Observer readers will recall, (see Stranger Than Paradise, September 10, 2004), the congressman from Sugar Land once famously described the economics of manufacturing in the U.S. commonwealth as a perfect Petri dish of capitalism like my own Galapagos Island. After a whirlwind junket to the Marianas during the 1997-1998 winter holidays, DeLay also declared that he could find no evidence of sweatshop conditions in Saipan and challenged critics to produce one person or one story to prove him wrong. Well, ask and ye shall receive. There she was, so many years later, and just across the hall. CONSUMERS GET HOUSED, AGAIN No one personifies the powerful homebuilding industry in Texas better than Bob Perry. The reclusive Houston housing magnate is the owner of Perry Homes, which constructs so many of the look-alike suburban dwellings sprouting up around the state. Hes also Texas most prolific contributor to political campaignsto the tune of $6.9 million since 2001, almost exclusively to the GOP. So you have to wonder: Is Bob Perrys corporate attorney the best person to help run the state agency regulating the homebuilding industry? The Texas Senate sure thinks so. Perrys corporate attorney is John Krugh. In 2003, he helped write the legislation that created the Texas Residential Construction Commission (TRCC). Ideally, the supposedly pro-consumer agency would help settle disputes between builders and homeowners, and would license and regulate the home construction sector. That was pretty much a fantasy. The TRCC is run by and for the politically powerful building industry (see The Agency That Bob Perry Built, February 4, 2005). Krugh was appointed one of the agencys nine commissioners by Gov. Rick Perry (no relation to Bob Perry, at least genetically). In May, all nine commissioners at the TRCC came up for Senate confirmation. Krughs nomination, in particular, drew fierce opposition from state Sen. Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock). This was how Duncan summed up the agencys work when the TRCC commissioners came before the Senate Nominations Committee on May 16: [TRCC] appear[s] to the public to be a regulatory body, when in fact, the people really being regulated are the consumers, not the builders, Duncan said. This elicited a sharp response from Commissioner Paulo Flores, who insisted that he is, in fact, not in the pocket of the building industry. Duncan saved his harshest rhetoric for Krugh. The Lubbock Republican was upset that his wide-ranging TRCC reform billwhich would have made the commission slightly more consumer friendlynever even received a committee hearing this session. Duncan blamed the homebuilding industry and members of the commission (read: Krugh) for killing his bill. Krugh acknowledges that he didnt like 30 percent of Duncans legislation, including a section forcing homebuilders to disclose when new homes havent been inspected. Duncan shot back at Krugh: Im asking you to take off your builder hat, if you can do that. When youre sitting on this commission … you have to make decisions based on whats in the best interest of the state of Texas, not just whats in the best interest of the builders. Now, taking off your builder hat … do you not think its a good thing for a consumer to know that their house hasnt been inspected? Krugh conceded, Once you put it that way, I agree with you, yes sir. Duncan: But you opposed that provision in the bill? Krugh: Opposed is awfully strong. I had objections to portions of it. Seems to be opposed, to me, Duncan said. When the commissioners nominations went before the full Senate on May 26, Duncan, along with Democrats Royce West of Dallas and Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso, spoke forcefully against Krughs confirmation. The Senate did take the unusual step of separating Krugh from the other nominees for an individual confirmation vote. Duncan said before the final vote that the Senate needed to send a message the Texas Association of Builders is a good organization, but they dont run the Texas Senate. Uh, Senator, we beg to differ. The Senate confirmed Krugh by a vote of 24-7four no votes short of blocking his nomination. Krughs term runs until 2009.