Political Intelligence

Talking Christian Vegetables

God Yam It

State Rep. Rob Eissler, a Republican from The Woodlands, is known for chairing the House Public Education Committee with a light-hearted style, sometimes livening up hearings on bills dealing with purchasing policy or standardized testing by throwing off some quick one-liners or puns on a witness’ name.

Some bills arrive with their own comedy. Take Rep. Warren Chisum’s House Bill 1287—please.

The Pampa Republican’s bill, requiring school districts to offer an elective course on the Bible, was good for two hours of mostly unintentional humor at its April 3 hearing, which brought a motley crew of academics, policy advocates, and Bible textbook salesmen before Eissler’s committee.

Richard Ford of the Heritage Alliance, a Dallas-based conservative Christian group, opined that while the U.S. Constitution is based on fears of mankind’s flaws, we owe our American freedoms to the Bible.

“In the Garden of Eden, God did not force Adam and Eve to be robots,” Ford said. “Our freedom from too much government, and freedom—the value of it, the worth of it—really comes from a biblical perspective.”

Mark Chancey, a biblical studies professor at Southern Methodist University, opposed the bill, raising concerns over the supposedly nonreligious Bible literature classes already being taught in some Texas public schools. One such class included a slide show entitled, “God’s Roadmap for Your Life.” In another, students were shown videos that, Chancey said, “feature computer-animated talking Christian vegetables.”

Eissler jumped in to ask: “Was one of them ‘lettuce pray?'” The room let out a collective groan—and groaned again minutes later when someone asked him about the unfortunate punch line. “That was a 24-carrot comment,” Eissler said.

Joking aside, Chisum said the bill is important because students don’t understand everything from Shakespeare and Dante to global economics because they don’t get the Bible references.

“You might explain something with, ‘This is prettier ‘n the Garden of Eden,’ but it just doesn’t compute,” Chisum said, if you haven’t read the Bible.

“I would hope that [after taking this course] we’d get a better prepared student to go out into the world and understand what they believe, how this country is put together, and why we are different from some other people on this planet,” Chisum said.

Apparently there’s something uniquely American about this book written thousands of years ago in the Middle East. In fact—and really getting revved up now—Chisum said the Bible might well explain our role as a world leader.

“We don’t have more natural resources than some other societies, yet we do much better,” he said. “A lot of it’s because of what’s in that book.”

For one, Chisum said, “We have a moral standard. Not everybody has a moral standard.” (Pause for dramatic effect.) “I would submit that some of the Eastern countries now lack a moral standard.”

Presumably China does not have talking Christian vegetables.

OUT OF SIGHT

The national media spotlight has moved on to other things, but the push continues to shutter a grim Texas prison where the feds send undocumented immigrant families. Almost a year after the T. Don Hutto Residential Center opened in Taylor, near Austin, the ACLU and other attorneys are suing the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of immigrant children detained there along with their parents. Seven of the 10 child-plaintiffs have been released since the lawsuits were filed on March 6, leaving two Lithuanian girls—Egle Baubonyte and Saule Bunikyte—and Sherona Verdieu of Haiti still in custody there.

The suit argues that Hutto, operated by the for-profit Corrections Corp. of America for Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement division, is a penal netherworld that violates a 1997 court settlement dictating how minors in immigration custody should be treated. About 2,000 people have been detained at the Hutto facility since its inception, many of them asylum-seekers.

Court documents paint a disturbing picture of children and parents traumatized by their imprisonment. “We are so sad and so depressed and so stressed here,” says Delourdes Verdieu, the mother of 13-year-old Sherona Verdieu, in a statement to the court. “At Hutto it is difficult for me to take care of Sherona the way a mother should. The family here is destroyed. We live in a prison.” The Verdieus have been detained at Hutto for seven months and are applying for asylum. Their complaints about Hutto square with the testimony of detainees released from the facility: The food is unpalatable, and meals are rushed; the guards maintain discipline by threatening to separate families; the education kids receive is inadequate; and the medical care is superficial.

An expert witness for the plaintiffs, child psychologist Dr. Andrew Clark, testified at a March 20 hearing that, based on interviews with former detainees and the statements of the plaintiffs, he thinks “there is a significant likelihood that the children at Hutto are suffering irreparable psychological injury by virtue of their detainment there.” In one interview with a released Honduran girl, Clark discovered that children at Hutto play a make-believe game of “correctional officer and detainee.” Three of the five children Clark interviewed said “they would rather be dead than endure the conditions at Hutto.” Two of three mothers he interviewed said they felt suicidal while detained. Several children had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including nightmares and flashbacks. One 4-year-old Honduran girl, Angelina Carbajal, a plaintiff dropped from the case after her release, began wetting her bed and asking to nurse again while at Hutto—signs of regression associated with extreme stress.

Homeland Security attorneys argue in court documents that it has improved conditions at the facility, including letting detainees wear civilian-like clothing, adding playground equipment, dropping the number of head counts each day to four from seven, and allowing contact visits with relatives.

Lisa Graybill, an ACLU of Texas attorney working on the case, says the changes still don’t comply with a previous legal settlement requiring that minors, if they must be detained, should be kept in the least restrictive setting possible.

“[A]s a former penal institution … it’s hard to imagine how Hutto could ever become a home-like environment,” Graybill says.

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks displayed his skepticism at the March hearing, saying he found it hard to believe that illegal immigrants “have less rights than the people I sent to the penitentiary. And I have heard enough to think that that has been going on.”

On April 9, Sparks issued a preliminary ruling in the case finding that the facility “probably” violates the previous legal settlement. Sparks did not order the children released, but set a trial date for August.

THAT FUNNY SMELL

Perhaps the whole idea wouldn’t carry such a taint of political cronyism if it hadn’t been hatched in private and the main supporter wasn’t a multimillionaire beer baron who showers money on Republicans.

But as things stand now, the seemingly benign notion of transferring about 20 state historic sites from one part of state government to another has made many people nervous. Some dislike the idea itself. Others are opposed because they don’t trust the power players behind the plan and think there must be a political payoff buried in the deal somewhere.

At the epicenter of this miniswirl of suspicion is House Bill 7, which would take the care and maintenance of some number of the historic sites away from the Parks and Wildlife Department and give them to the Texas Historical Commission.

The THC is chaired by John Nau III, a Perry appointee and owner of Silver Eagle Distributors in Houston, the country’s second-largest Anheuser-Busch distributor.

Nau has donated more than

$200,000 to Gov. Rick Perry, $175,000 to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and $50,000 to House Speaker Tom Craddick since 2002, according to Texas Ethics Commission filings.

For that kind of change, state officials take your calls, which is apparently how Nau’s desire to have his commission take over some of Parks and Wildlife’s 32 historic sites—which include historic houses, grave sites, an old brewery, and a lighthouse—became Craddick’s desire as well.

A history buff, Nau says the sites deserve better care and could be nice little moneymakers for the state. (State parks have become rather bleak after a decade of meager funding. Lawmakers have given Parks and Wildlife little money to update its facilities, and four parks have been shuttered for lack of funds. A state auditor’s report released in March raised concerns about how the department is managing the money it does have.)

At a recent hearing on HB 7, Nau predicted a tourism boom and said the THC is ready to help the state cash in. His testimony hit a crescendo as he described a vision of newly retired baby boomers crisscrossing the country in RVs, scattering tourism dollars around America’s historic sites.

Nau was the only witness who favored the bill and left the meeting when he was finished. Critics of the plan, and neutral witnesses, testified for nearly three more hours.

Several pointed out that the sites wouldn’t be in such bad shape if lawmakers would simply give Parks and Wildlife a decent budget to take care of them. HB 7’s author, Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, a Kerrville Republican, has another bill that would funnel more of the state’s sporting-goods tax to the department.

But some of that money would also flow to Nau’s commission, and critics wonder if the whole point of the exercise is for the beer baron to execute a bit of bureaucratic empire-building.

The commission Nau chairs only has about 100 employees. Since it was established in 1953, its main job has been helping communities identify historic sites, renovate them, and stick a marker out front. With the exception of the Nimitz Museum in Fredericksburg, THC hasn’t been in the business of running sites or, until now, claimed the ability to do so.

Operating the sites would amount to a huge expansion of the commission’s functions, and critics say THC, which typically is limited to an advisory role, lacks the field staff to do it. It would have to hire people and duplicate expertise Parks and Wildlife already has.

Originally, 21 sites—reluctantly identified by Parks and Wildlife at Craddick’s request—were included under HB 7. The House Culture, Recreation, and Tourism Committee cut the list to 18 before sending the measure to the full House.

The larger, more ideological concern raised by critics is that Nau’s vision seems lifted from the corporate world, and he has close ties to the pro-privatization crowd. There’s concern that the parks transfer would open a new front in the privatization movement that has already taken hold in electricity, prisons, highways, and social services.

At the hearing, Nau devoted much of his testimony to playing up the sites’ untapped moneymaking potential, calling them “proven economic development tools.” Nau made grand claims, predicting a $1.4 billion tourism windfall if Texas plays its cards right.

“I’m in the consumer product business,” he said. “You always start with the consumer and move back, because if you start with what you think and move to the consumer, you’re not going to do very well.” In the end, this is the key justification for shifting the parks to THC—that only with Nau at the helm can the historic sites reach their potential as tourism powerhouses and start generating more of the money it takes to run them.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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