Political Intelligence

Not Up to Snuff



An ambitious group of right-to-lifers is taking credit for preventing construction of a proposed $41 million bioresearch center at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. They thought they were striking a righteous blow in their fight against embryonic stem cell research. As it turns out, they may have killed off a research facility for entirely the wrong reasons.

In the final days of the Legislature’s just completed special session, Joe Pojman, the executive director of Texas Alliance for Life, rallied his religious right soldiers to oppose state funding for the proposed facility. The money was tucked into a bill allowing for $1.86 billion in tuition revenue bonds for the state’s universities.

Pojman told his legions that scientists might conduct embryonic stem cell research at the Houston facility. Not surprisingly, the prospect of state funding for such research-in which stem cells are taken from discarded embryos-didn’t sit well with the anti-abortion crowd. Pojman’s group made so much noise about the addition of the bioresearch center that the University of Texas System officials withdrew their request for the facility. They were forced to remove it for fear that the revenue bond bill wouldn’t pass, jeopardizing higher education projects for every university system in the state.

One problem: Pojman and his activist friends seem to have misunderstood the work that would be done at the proposed bioresearch center. A university spokesman said the facility planned research not on the controversial embryonic stem cells, but rather on adult stem cells-research that doesn’t rely on embryos and that the religious right generally supports. “As I stated from the very beginning of the project concept, only human adult stem cell research-not embryonic stem cells-was planned to be conducted in the biomedical research and education facility at UTHSC,” Anthony P. de Bruyn, assistant to the vice chancellor for external relations and assistant director for public affairs for the university system, wrote in an e-mail to the Observer.

But a pledge from UT didn’t deter the Texas Alliance for Life and its assault on the proposed bioresearch center. And it certainly wasn’t going to dissuade Pojman from taking some credit for killing the idea. In a May 12 e-mail after UT had withdrawn the proposal, Pojman wrote to his supporters, “After state representatives received a large number of pro-life calls from constituents, an unprecedented pro-life victory occurred yesterday in the Texas House.” Maybe a hollow victory.

Mouthpieces for Mouth Cancer

The tobacco tax hike in Texas’ new school-funding regimen falls chiefly on cigarettes-not chewing tobacco. “Smokeless” chaw and snuff fall into a softer pouch between this tax law’s teeth and gums, codifying an official state preference for mouth cancer over lung cancer.

Part of the Legislature’s just-passed school-funding plan (House Bill 5) raises the state tax on a pack of smokes from 41 cents to $1.41-a 244 percent increase. The same legislation imposes a tax hike on smokeless tobacco of just 14 percent. The cigar industry dodged a tax increase altogether. There is no strong public-health rationale for these discrepancies.

Texas lobby records suggest that state Republican leaders may have presented the $1 cigarette hike as untouchable while leaving themselves open to persuasion from the smokeless tobacco lobby. Tobacco lobby spending doubled in Texas over the past decade from $1.4 million in 1995 to $2.9 million in 2005. Philip Morris’ Marlboro Man outspent smokeless tobacco giant U.S. Tobacco (UST) in each of those years except 2001, when UST made a failed push for another special tax break in Austin [“Double Dippin’,” June 22, 2001].

But in the first quarter of this year, smokeless tobacco interests increased their lobby spending 88 percent in Texas, leaving behind the cigarette lobby, which slashed its expenditures in this period by one-third. The fact that the once-powerful cigarette lobby disarmed in the face of a $1-a-pack tax increase almost certainly means that state leaders presented this tax as a done deal.

Instead of muscling lawmakers with lobbyists as it did in the old days, the cigarette industry lashed out at legislators and even its own customers. The Dallas Morning News reported that Sen. Bob Deuell (R-Greenville) planned to block the tax hike until he heard a Philip Morris ad trashing lawmakers for abandoning common sense. Capitol insiders also said that some desperate cigarette lobbyists resorted to arguing that the proposed tax would prompt some smokers to switch from tobacco to crack. This Big Lie insults the industry’s own customers.

Even as the lung-cancer lobby went into remission early this year, the mouth-cancer lobby metastasized. Smokeless tobacco interests posted a net gain of 17 new Texas lobbyists in the first quarter of 2006, boosting lobby spending in the state to perhaps $1.3 million (the exact amount is unknown since lobbyists report incomes in ranges).

UST’s hired guns include former lawmakers Buster Brown, James Clark and Buzz Robnett, as well as former Bush gubernatorial aide Reggie Bashur and ex-Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Rusty Kelley. Competitor North Atlantic Trading Co., which sells Zig-Zag rolling papers and Beech-Nut chaw, hired ex-Senator Bill Ratliff. Invoking the name of a wise Star Wars character, Ratliff’s Senate colleagues called him “Obi-Wan Kenobi” back in the days before Obi-Wan went over to the dark side and joined the tobacco lobby.

Cut from the Tax Cut

Times are tough for many elderly and disabled Texans. Rising energy prices have been hard on low-income seniors, and the state no longer helps them pay their electricity bills. Then there are the many cuts to social service programs for the elderly and disabled since 2003. In this era of Republican rule, seniors could at least look forward to a nice fat tax cut, right?

Well, no, actually. In the just finished special session, the Legislature passed a bill that will cut local school property taxes by an estimated $15.7 billion during the next three years. But more than a million elderly and disabled Texans weren’t included in the bill and won’t see any of those savings. The reason for this gets a bit complex. Many elderly and disabled homeowners already pay lower school property taxes. Because they’re a more vulnerable population, many elderly and

disabled homeowners had their rates frozen at a $1.33 per $100 of property, while other homeowners saw their rates drift up to the cap of $1.50. Now the elderly and disabled are being punished for that special treatment. Because their rates were frozen, they needed a special provision in the tax cut bill-and a constitutional amendment-to realize the one-third reduction in tax rates that most everyone else will receive. That may sound like a lot of legislative work, but it’s not all that much if the GOP leadership is behind it. Therein lies the problem.

Rep. Elliott Naishtat (D-Austin) attached the necessary rider to the tax cut bill and filed the constitutional amendment, only to see those efforts die in the Senate. In a press conference the day after the session, Naishtat blamed House Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland) and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst for leaving 1.2 million elderly homeowners and 146,945 disabled homeowners on the cutting room floor. Dewhurst countered that it wasn’t logistically feasible to pass the constitutional amendment in time for the 2007 tax year. So Dewhurst said the Senate decided to put off the issue until the 2007 regular session that begins in January. That means, even if the Lege does eventually include the elderly and disabled, they likely won’t see any tax cuts until 2009.

A Dose of Compassion

Few courts in the land may be more hostile to defendants than the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The state’s high court for criminal cases has made a national reputation for harshness. Justice Sharon Keller even contended on PBS’s Frontline recently that a man exonerated by DNA evidence should remain jailed. Death row inmates looking for leniency from the nine justices usually have little chance of receiving it.

But for about five minutes-by justice system standards-in early May, the Court of Criminal Appeals displayed compassion and conscience. The court granted a condemned man a reprieve just days before his scheduled lethal injection in Huntsville. Derrick Sean O’Brien got about as lucky as someone waiting for execution can get when the judges shocked the state’s legal community by postponing O’Brien’s execution.

O’Brien’s lawyer filed a motion arguing that the cocktail of sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride used in Texas’ executions causes excessive and excruciating pain and amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. This isn’t a novel legal argument. Attorneys for most prisoners facing the death penalty file that same brief; the court almost always swats it aside. This time, a majority of the judges decided that O’Brien’s lawyer might be on to something, and they canceled O’Brien’s execution date.

Before death penalty opponents could muster too much hope, however, the court reverted to form. Two days after the O’Brien reprieve, another condemned man, Jermaine Herron, was scheduled to die. Seeing some success with the excruciating pain argument, Herron’s lawyers filed a similar appeal. The Court of Criminal Appeals rejected it, and he was executed. How can this mix of lethal injection be too cruel for one man but not another? The court rectified that apparent inconsistency and got back its judicial mojo by also lifting O’Brien’s reprieve. It’s worth noting, however, that the court lifted it on a 5-4 vote.

Catherine Burnett, a law professor at South Texas College of Law and the court-appointed lawyer for O’Brien, was diplomatic in her description of the state high court’s maneuvering. She called the reprieve a cautious and responsible move to consider the arguments. Burnett, who hasn’t given up keeping her client alive, chose not to criticize the judges for lifting the reprieve.

So what’s left for O’Brien? The condemned man and death penalty opponents hold out hope that the U.S. Supreme Court will review the case. Some legal scholars also anticipate a U.S. Supreme Court ruling by the end of June on a similar challenge that argues the mixture of chemicals that most states use in lethal injections amounts to an unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. That ruling may temporarily halt Texas executions-including O’Brien’s-which has been rescheduled for July 11.

George vs. Tyson

On May 18, Tyson Slocum, who directs Public Citizen’s Critical Energy Program went mano a mano with Stephen Colbert-or more accurately finger jab to finger jab. Many have tried and many have failed. As President Bush and the stuffed-shirt, see-no-evil, say-no-evil Washington press corps know all too well, it’s just plain haaaard to fake out fake-news comedian Stephen Colbert, the host of Comedy Central’s Colbert Report. Before thousands of journalists, and the president and first lady, Colbert delivered a chillingly perceptive “Emperor’s No Clothes” take on the Bush presidency during the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner this spring. “I stand by this man,” Colbert declared, “I stand by this man, because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things, things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound with the most powerfully staged photo-ops in the world.”

Fortunately, Slocum (another former Austinite) managed to do significantly better during his recent encounter with Colbert. After fielding some softballs-“That some sort of a Commie front?”; “You don’t want me to ride my bike to work, do you?”; “What’s your clean energy program-squirrels on a wheel?”- Slocum managed to score a few critical points about America’s role in the energy crisis: Americans use one out of every four barrels of oil consumed in the world-double the amount consumed by their counterparts in Europe and Asia. At a time of unprecedented oil company profits ($342.2 billion during the administration of George W. Bush), Congress passed an energy bill last August that delivers $5 billion in new subsidies.

Slocum and Public Citizen have repeatedly called for a “real energy program,” which would include higher fuel economy standards and a new income tax on windfall oil profits. That tax would be dedicated to supporting clean energy fuels, renewable energy, energy efficiency, and increased investment in mass transit.

Earle of the Silver Screen

The Dallas Morning News calls it a “one-sided shootout”; the Fort Worth Star Telegram says it “preaches almost exclusively to the converted”; Tom DeLay dubs it “worthless.”

The object of their aspersion is The Big Buy: Tom DeLay’s Stolen Congress, a newly released documentary about the rise and fall of Tom DeLay, which enjoyed a sold-out world premiere of nearly 200 on May 19 at Houston’s Angelika Theater. Proceeds from the event went to Texans for Public Justice, the watchdog group that, back in 2003, cracked the door on DeLay’s possible illegal use of corporate money in the 2002 Texas election. The documentary, written and directed by Texas filmmakers Jim Schermbeck and Mark Birnbaum, casts Ronnie Earle, the Travis County DA investigating DeLay, as a populist hero taking aim at corporate crooks. Tom DeLay, the former U.S. House Majority Leader, fills the role of the sinister and hypocritical power-broker.

The Big Buy borrows from the Robert Greenwald school of filmmaking, which stresses the politics of the documentary rather than the artistry, the polemical message rather than even-handed reporting. (Greenwald is responsible for such MoveOn.org fodder as Outfoxed, Uncovered: The War on Iraq, and Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices and is the producer of The Big Buy.) That unabashed partisanship has generated more press than the actual content. The film will probably appeal to viewers who aren’t DeLay experts (there are no new revelations here) or casual political observers (the subject material doesn’t lend itself to great storytelling). At a press conference before the screening in Houston, Schermbeck advised that his movie is a “crime story,” not about Democrats and Republicans but “cops and robbers.” Schermbeck actually borrowed that line from Earle who says as much in a section of the film titled “The D.A.” Depending on your point of view, perhaps the most appealing or frustrating scenes in this documentary are of Ronnie Earle speaking candidly about his desire to snuff out the corporate stranglehold on democracy and issuing thinly veiled threats to, presumably, DeLay. “It’s important that we forgive those who come to us in a spirit of contrition and forgiveness,” Earle preaches at one point in the film, “But if they don’t, God help ’em.” Earle may regret such candidness, unusual for a prosecutor in the midst of a high-profile case. DeLay and his hotshot attorney, Dick DeGuerin, have seized on the DA’s statements to paint Earle as a partisan zealot. They filed a motion in state court alleging prosecutorial misconduct partially because of Earle’s participation in the film. DeLay, on the other hand, refused to be interviewed by the filmmakers. In any case, Earle-and perhaps Schermbeck and Birnbaum-and “The Hammer” will be seeing each other again soon in court.

Right Revelations

Those god
ess Commies over at the Texas Freedom Network have released a new playbook on the religious right in Texas. The report-“The Anatomy of Power: Texas and the Religious Right in 2006”-challenges the all-too-common misunderstanding among progressives that the conservative Christian movement is a cartoonishly monolithic beast. Instead, the TFN report delves deep into the intricate web of organizations and individuals that comprise the religious right in Texas. It’s a diverse coalition of interests with varying policy goals: fundamentalist preachers calling for the abolition of the separation of church and state; gazillionaire crusaders who pump millions into school voucher programs; lower-middle-class rural activists fighting abortion and embryonic stem cell research.

Texas Freedom Network, a grassroots policy organization established to support public education that calls itself a “mainstream voice to counter the religious right,” draws on years of experience in the trenches to recount in the report how marginalized Rapture enthusiasts and other religious fundamentalists “moved in little more than a decade from the fringes of the political realm to the halls of Texas politics and government.”

“We’re trying to make sure that Texans understand how religious extremists have essentially hijacked the political process and the debate over public policy in the state and essentially shifted those far to the right,” said Dan Quinn, an author of the report and TFN’s communications director.

Featured in “Anatomy of Power” is a venerable who’s who of Texas religious conservatives, including progressives’ bête noire, James Leininger-“Sugar Daddy of the Religious Right.” Leininger, a retired San Antonio physician who built his fortune producing hospital beds, spent millions of dollars of his own money building an empire of think-tanks and pliant candidates promoting his conservative pet projects. Most notable is his quest to pass a publicly funded school voucher program in Texas.

The report also scrutinizes less-known, but no less powerful, figures such as David Barton, vice chair of the Texas Republican Party and president of WallBuilders, a nationally known group that advocates making conservative Christian beliefs the foundation of government. Barton wants to bring down the wall that separates church and state. He has become a sought-after power-player in conservative circles, jet-setting around the country, challenging religious leaders to preach politics from the pulpit.

Looking ahead, the report anticipates “social conservatives tighten[ing] their grip on the Republican Party of Texas and the levers of government,” with looming battles about abortion, gay rights, stem cell research, and public education. Quinn highlights, in particular, a coming brouhaha over the state’s science curriculum (read: evolution vs. creationism) in the Texas State Board of Education, where Leininger-funded candidates likely will hold a majority after the fall election. But there’s also hope for more moderate voices, the report notes. Despite spending $2.3 million to unseat five anti-voucher Republican moderates in the March primary, Leininger and his candidates won only two out of five Texas House races [see “Wrath of the Soccer Moms,” March 24, 2006]. Religious extremists, Quinn argues, are becoming “frustrated” because their agenda has not been as successful as they would like. Now is the time for moderates, progressives, and left-leaning people of faith to get organized, he says.