According to consumer groups, since energy deregulation went into effect in Texas in 2002, residential electric rates have increased 80 percent on average in the deregulated parts of the state and the rates of city-owned utilities and co-operatives have risen at a slower but significant pace as well. At the same time, programs designed to help low-income households with their electric bills are either stagnating or have been eliminated thanks to a miserly state legislature. Now there is evidence that the combination of the two is contributing to homelessness in Texas.
“I think with low-income people, rising energy prices are devastating families,” said Carol Biedrzycki, Executive Director of the Texas Ratepayers’ Organization to Save Energy. “We have reached increases that are catastrophic. ”
The legislative evisceration of LITE-UP TEXAS, a statewide assistance program that benefited, at its peak, almost 800,000 low-income, disabled, and elderly customers in the state by offering a 17 percent monthly discount and a waiver of late fees appears to be causing the most impact. Last year the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature discontinued LITE-UP, created in 2002 in conjunction with deregulation, although the state continues to collect fees for the program from residential customers.
Terry Hadley, a spokesman for the Texas Public Utility Commission, which oversees the competitive electricity markets, conceded that no other program exists “as extensive as the LITE-UP program,” but that customers should “work with their retail provider” or “look at switching providers” if they are having trouble paying their electric bill. However, the companies selling electricity to consumers in deregulated parts of the state have few obligations or incentives to provide assistance to low-income households. Reliant Energy, the second-largest electricity provider in the state, is offering a 3 percent discount for LITE-UP customers for a six-month period as well as a $120 one-time annual payment for low-income customers. This assistance is a pittance in light of the 86-percent increase in Reliant’s residential rates since 2002. In addition, under PUC rules, utilities may refuse service to customers who owe the utility back debts. As a result, many poor families who qualify for affordable or public housing are unable to move in.
“You can’t rent anything if you can’t get your utilities turned on,” said Fred Butler, Executive Director of the Community Action Network (CAN), an Austin-based research and advocacy organization on social service issues.
Case managers who work with poor clients say this Catch-22 is keeping people in shelters and deepening homelessness. “I have a lot of clients who work really hard to eliminate their utility debt, but they are still struggling to get into housing, especially with energy prices going up and up and up,” said Lauren Tybor, a case manager who works with low-income families in Austin. She noted that all of her clients living in shelters have utility debts over $500.
Utility companies often refer needy customers to human service agencies, but these organizations have limited resources. For example, in 2004, Caritas of Austin provided 1,350 clients with rent and utility assistance while turning away 17,364 requests, according to a report sponsored by CAN. “Prices are so high in the major areas of the state that most assistance programs are literally running out of money, even the ones that get federal funds,” said Butler. “We exist in a society where we are making the difference between the haves and have-nots greater every day… When [profit] becomes so ridiculously huge, [the utilities] should plow some of that money back into the community.”
War on the poor II
It usually takes a few months after a legislative session for all the damage that the Lege has inflicted on the state to become apparent. To wit, tens of thousands of poor women across Texas are discovering that they may no longer have access to birth control, screenings for cervical and breast cancer, health exams, and other essential family planning services. For this, they can thank three conservative Republican state senators—Greenville’s Bob Deuell, Steve Ogden of Bryan, and Tommy Williams of The Woodlands—who legislatively attacked Planned Parenthood’s budget. Their two amendments to last session’s state budget resulted in a 25 percent cut in funding for family planning providers such as Planned Parenthood this year.
No matter that Texas boasts one of the nation’s highest teen pregnancy rates. Undeterred, Williams and Deuell authored amendments to the state budget that siphoned $25 million in state and federal funds from family planning providers that perform abortions (read: Planned Parenthood). Ogden, as chair of the Senate Finance Committee, allowed the amendments into the budget. The senators redirected $5 million to crisis pregnancy centers—pseudo-health clinics often run by religious groups that offer abortion-free advice to pregnant women. The other $20 million was appropriated to federally qualified health centers that offer some family planning services, though not abortions. The federally qualified health center in Deuell’s district saw its budget more than double. The problem, say family planning advocates, is that some areas of the state, such as South Texas, lack federal health centers, and some of the centers are not equipped to provide the level of services that Planned Parenthood does.
The impact of these efforts is now clear throughout the state. In South Texas, Planned Parenthood of Cameron and Willacy counties suffered a 36 percent cut in its budget for 2006. At least 1,500 low-income women in Brownsville could lose access to health exams such as breast cancer screenings and to birth control, as reported in the Brownsville Herald. In Corpus Christi, Planned Parenthood expects to turn away 2,300 women. Planned Parenthood of Houston lost 50 percent of its budget. Only Dallas received a reprieve. Three family planning clinics were preparing to close and lay off their 30 employees after a loss of $1.7 million in federal funding; as many as 11,000 poor women would have lost services. Just before the planned closures, Dallas businessman Harold Simmons read about the situation in the Dallas Morning News, and donated $1 million to keep the clinics open. Simmons’ generosity will sustain the Dallas clinics for only another year. After that, Dallas clinics—along with centers around the state—will need more donations or restored funding from the Legislature to remain open.
Roasted Turd Blossom
At the Austin Headliner’s Club roast on January 12, the ritual of the charity roast bore the distinctive stamp of the controversial honoree of the evening: Karl Rove. The Headliner’s Club exists to provide a forum for an already clubby press corps to drink in private with newsmakers. The club is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Judging from the 750 or so high-powered guests that filled the $300-a-ticket black-tie event held at the Renaissance Hotel Ballroom, Rove proved a good draw. Once the club pays for the lavish affair, the money left over (if there is any) will go toward journalism scholarships. Still, some in the club-—which boasts a healthy percentage of Democrats who are members—stayed away in disgust. “To me it was a disgrace to the Headliners, and I called and complained as did others,” said Liz Carpenter, a long-time member and former press secretary for Lady Bird Johnson. “I don’t know why they didn’t get someone who was worthy.”
Carpenter notes that Rove, whom President George W. Bush affectionately dubbed “Turd Blossom,” is still under investigation by a federal prosecutor over his role in leaking the name of an undercover CIA agent. The allegation is just the latest in a long line of alleged dirty tricks attributed to Rove during his career as the political operative most credited with the rise of the Texas GOP and George W. Bush. One would think that with such a rich history there would be no lack of possible insults, but as is so often the case with Rove, the Roast appears to have been rigged before it began. Maybe the wrong people were chosen as presenters. Perhaps they were just plain scared of one of the most powerful men in the country. It probably didn’t help that Rove’s wife and teenage son were sitting at a table right in front of the podium. Regardless of the reason, most of the roasters failed to land a blow.
The award for the most pathetic roaster went to Mary Matalin, who bizarrely spent most of her speech insulting her husband, Democratic operative James Carville. Bush media advisor Mark McKinnon showed a slide show in which the most gripping images consisted of Rove in silly hats. McKinnon also screened a little film of Dubya delivering a “To-Do” list for Rove that included: “finish reading the Cliff Notes of the Constitution,” “autograph the first edition of my new book, Karl’s Brain,” and “take Barney to drug sniffing training at Homeland Security.”
The two Democratic roasters consisted of former Comptroller John Sharp and former UT Regent Lowell Lebermann. Ever since Sharp engineered the Texas Democratic electoral debacle of 2002, he has perfected the demeanor of a beaten dog grateful for scraps. His most piercing line: “If there is a Democrat walking in the forest giving a speech and Karl Rove isn’t there, is he still wrong?”
Lebermann, who is a prodigious Democratic campaign contributor, proved to be the only one that showed any gumption. Lebermann prefaced his comments with an acknowledgment that he fully expected to be audited by the IRS and investigated by the CIA the next day. He said that the Clinton and Bush administrations seemed to have a common weakness: “Two pudgy people in the White House who couldn’t keep their mouth[s] shut.”
Lebermann noted that the various scandals lapping up against the White House, from Jack Abramoff to Valerie Plame, seemed to be having an effect. “In the green room before the event, Karl pulled me aside to tell me that the biggest crisis facing the nation was prison rape.” (The joke met with a second of stunned silence before the crowd started to laugh.)
When Rove’s turn in the ritual came, he landed blows that were much more vicious than his roasters. He dissected Sharp’s career as a loser who finally clawed his way back into public service when his college buddy hired him for a job. He devoted most of his attention to Lebermann, beginning by informing him that the IRS was going to start that night rather than wait for the morning.
He then told a story on himself—first reported in Texas Monthly—that illustrated the arrogance his roasters failed to pierce. A Texas Democratic senator (Bob Glasgow) whom Rove did not name, other than to note that he no longer served in the state Senate, torpedoed Rove’s confirmation to serve as a regent for East Texas State University in 1991. The senator used the confirmation hearing to make an issue of Rove’s skullduggery against Jim Hightower, Bob Bullock, and other Democratic candidates. After the confirmation hearing, Bullock, as Rove told it, reportedly went to the senator and said, “You realize if all those horrible things you said about that fine young man are false, you slandered him, and you should apologize. And if they are true, you are as stupid as you look.”
He calls them “Adam’s Army,” and they march to the tune of AM radio vituperation. Adam McManus—who hosts “Take a Stand with Adam McManus” on KSLR 630-AM in San Antonio and who brags that he “makes Rush Limbaugh look liberal”—has been leading his loyal followers on local crusades for seven years. They’ve protested city funding for a gay film festival; a “60 Minutes” segment featuring assisted suicide; and a racy Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. McManus and company even organized an October 2001 anti-abortion protest to “arouse the compassion in Americans… whose hearts have been softened by [9/11].”
Now, McManus has a new crusade: forcing NBC’s new drama “The Book of Daniel” off the air in San Antonio. On January 6, during his 3-6 p.m. broadcast, McManus, a bearish man sporting a short beard and the unshakable conviction of a Christian fundamentalist talk show host, called on his listeners to show up later that night at the headquarters of WOAI-TV, the NBC affiliate in San Antonio, to demand the immediate cancellation of “Daniel.” (The show has been cancelled at four other NBC affiliates around the country.) McManus repeatedly told his listeners on air that the show is written by “a practicing homosexual,” and that it “belittles Christianity and mocks Jesus” by depicting a Christian family dealing with the sins of homosexuality, pill addiction, premarital sex, and alcoholism, in addition to featuring a recurring Jesus character, who’s blasphemously laidback and short on spiritual advice.
Although McManus hadn’t actually seen the show, which was debuting that night, he said he took “for face value” the sage opinion of the American Family Association (AFA), a powerful conservative organization that regularly publishes a list of entertainment that Christians should boycott. After imploring his Army to show up at the protest, McManus took calls. Most callers piously echoed McManus’ assertion that “Christians are the last politically correct punching bag.” One caller said she would protest to “protect our children from the evil that networks shove down our throats.”
About 60 people attended the protest in downtown San Antonio, holding signs provided by McManus that read “God is Grieved,” “WOAI-TV Makes Jesus Sad,” and “The Book of Daniel Mocks God.” God could not be reached for comment, but the Lord’s—and Adam’s—followers were more than happy to talk to the Observer. Many said that “Daniel” is part of a larger war on Christianity whose latest assault was last month’s War on Christmas (see “Holiday Fruitcake,” December 16, 2005). “We’ve got the Islam that hates [Christians], you’ve got Billy Bob on the street that thinks you’re a kook,” said Jim Eiland, a regular McManus listener. He added that the real “Book of Daniel” is about end-time prophecies. While holding his protest sign, Eiland insisted that real Christians don’t hate. “What people don’t realize about Christians is they’re supposed to love their enemy.” Indeed, at the end of the protest, McManus singled out one apparently formidable enemy of Christianity during a group prayer; he prayed to the Almighty for the writer of “Daniel” to “turn his back on Buddhism.”