Political Intelligence

Moguls and Misanthropes

SNOW JOB?

Sing along now.

Oh the dazzling flakes and the slopes that snake, on the Big Mock Candy Mountain

Where the bluebirds sing and cash registers ring, on the Big Mock Candy Mountain.

Dallas businessman Charlie Aaron has a dream-bringing downhill skiing to north Fort Worth. As early as fall 2009, he intends to complete a 250-foot tall concrete and steel mountain on the flatlands of the Metroplex.

This wondrous peak, nay glacier, will be coated in fake snow, cooled by giant machines, and surrounded by all the trappings of a Colorado skiing experience, including a spa, gondola, convention hall, and hotel with stuffed bears in the lobby. (You can take a virtual tour at bearfireresorts.com.) There will be snowboarding, and ice skating on a covered creek made of a plastic called the Ez-Glide 350. “You can skate on one side for 10 years, then flip it over and skate on the other side for 10 years,” Aaron says.

Improbable? Or, at best, a staggering waste of water and energy? Not so, Aaron says. The “snow” will be a soft polymer substitute called Snowflex that’s manufactured by a British engineering firm and used at 14 sites in Europe. All the water he needs, Aaron says, can be plucked from the sky with a system powered by solar panels. Electricity will come from his own power plant, fueled by natural gas tapped right there on the 527-acre site. The cogeneration plant will produce so much electricity that he’ll have power to spare. “We’re going off-grid and will provide our own electricity and then probably sell off the excess electricity to the surrounding community,” he says. Aaron plans to cool his playland with giant blowers that spew mist over the mountain. The mist will evaporate and drop the air temperature by 20 degrees.

Such fantasies don’t come cheap. Aaron is trying to raise $150 million and borrow another $550 million. He won’t say who his partners are or how much they’ve chipped in so far, but former Texas Congressman Dick Armey is helping recruit investors.

Repeat chorus.


CHIP SHOT

By the end of September, Congress must decide whether to preserve one of the nation’s most successful health care initiatives-the Children’s Health Insurance Program. CHIP provides health insurance for kids of working families. Though immensely popular with child advocates, CHIP is often overlooked as a major policy success in the national health care debate. Yet recently released data from the federal government show that the 10-year-old program has improved the health of millions of children and likely accounted for a significant drop in the percentage of uninsured kids nationwide.

The report, issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in late June, examines Americans’ access to health insurance. The study generated some headline-grabbing numbers: 44 million Americans lack health insurance; one in five children in Texas is uninsured. These figures, while alarming, are not new. The percentage of Americans living without insurance has remained constant for nearly 10 years, according to the CDC. (In 1997, 15.4 percent of Americans lacked health insurance; in 2006, it was 14.6 percent.) Texas has long led the nation in the number of uninsured children and adults. We won’t be surrendering the title anytime soon.

While little has changed for adult access to health insurance, the numbers tell a different story when it comes to kids. Since 1997, when the Clinton administration passed CHIP through a Republican Congress, the number of young Americans without insurance has dropped by nearly 5 percent, according to the CDC. That may not seem like a lot, but it represents millions of kids now covered by government insurance.

Some states, like Texas, insist on turning down federal money for kids’ health care. After deep cuts in 2003 that cost the state $900 million in federal matching funds, the Texas program now covers roughly 300,000 children. The Legislature passed a bill that should add 100,000 children to the rolls, though 1.6 million kids in Texas remain uninsured.

Congress must reauthorize CHIP before September 30, or the program will expire. Some Republicans, more than a few from Texas, have long talked of killing off CHIP. That seems unlikely with Democrats in control of Congress. But the Bush administration and GOP lawmakers have numerous ways to scale back the program, including lowering income limits and reducing federal matching funds. The Bush administration has recently put out several press releases that underestimated the number of uninsured kids nationwide to make the case that CHIP could be reduced. Meanwhile, Congressional Democrats hope to expand the program. The debate will begin in earnest in July, when a CHIP reauthorization bill authored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat from West Virginia, is scheduled to come before a Senate committee.

IMMIGRATION INFLATION

Even the most strident opponents of illegal immigration say they support legal pathways into the United States. Yet federal officials are about to make it more costly to become legal. On July 30, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will raise fees to apply for a green card, citizenship, employment visas, and other immigration benefits by an average of 66 percent. The last time the feds did a comprehensive fee review was in 1998. CIS officials say the boost in revenues will lead to somewhat faster processing times by the end of 2009. (Some types of visa applications are backlogged 20 years or more.)

Immigrant advocates argue the steep increases will keep many people in the shadows. Joseph Vail, director of the immigration clinic at the University of Houston, wrote to CIS that, “Drastically enhanced fees, coupled with restrictions on fee waivers, will force many hardworking immigrants into undocumented status.” Vail points to the 155 percent increase-from $395 to $1,010-in the permanent-resident application fee as particularly harsh on low-income immigrants. (For those with permanent legal status seeking citizenship, the price tag now reads $675, up from $405.)

One perverse effect of making legal immigration more onerous may be to encourage illegal immigration. Leslie Helmcamp, with Catholic Charities of Central Texas, describes a recent trip she made to Altar, Mexico, across the border from Arizona’s perilous Sonoran Desert. “The people I talked to were risking their lives because they couldn’t stand being away from their family any longer,” she said. “The cost of immigration has made it impossible for a lawful permanent resident to bring their whole family over at once.” Facing a minimum wait of seven years for a visa, not to mention thousands in processing and attorney fees, many immigrants blow off the system, hire a coyote, and hit the desert instead.

Joining immigrants and their advocates in criticizing the fees are others invested in legal migration: businesses that rely on foreign labor, university liaisons for international students, families adopting children from abroad, and arts organizations that bring touring dancers, theater companies, and musicians to the U.S. Many have called on Congress to replace the fee-based system with congressional appropriations.

STRAIGHT TALK

The Baptists’ new point man on homosexual outreach wants to tone down the hellfire and damnation talk toward gays and lesbians. Appointed in June as the Southern Baptists’ national strategist for gender issues, Bob Stith is advocating a “passionate, redemptive ministry to homosexuals.” A pastor from Southlake, near Dallas, Stith was an inveterate gay-basher until he came out in 1995 with a softer stance. “God spoke to me and broke my heart … and made me realize how wrong I was,” he said.

Don’t expect Stith to be flying a rainbow flag anytime soon, though. Stith endorses the Southern Baptist Convention’s belief that the Bible condemns homosexuality as “a sin.” Instead, he wants to convert gays and lesbians to the straight and narrow. “We need to say to people there is a way out without beating them over the head with a Bible or attacking them,” Stith said recently.

Stith plans to seed the redemption model into churches, creating homosexual outreach ministries across the country. His post is funded by LifeWay Christian Resources, the Baptists’ publishing house and the largest Christian retailer and publisher in the nation, with $433 million in revenue in 2005. If experience is any indication, the redemption model won’t amount to much more than broken lives and wasted effort. The so-called “ex-gay” movement, led by groups such as Exodus International and Arlington-based Living Hope Ministry, has long pushed sexual reorientation therapy, an intense, Bible-backed process of teaching gays and lesbians to tame their desires and live as heterosexuals. Gay rights advocates have derided the therapy, which sadly targets individuals torn between faith and identity. The psychological mainstream regards it as ludicrous at best and damaging at worst. “The scriptures command love especially for those least powerful and misunderstood and the American Psychiatric Association has pronounced ex-gay therapies dangerous,” said Miguel De La Torre. associate professor of Social Ethics at the lliff School of Theology in Denver

There is little empirical evidence that the “therapy” works. Many graduates bounce in and out of the closet faster than you can say “Ted Haggard,” leading to the coinage of the term “ex-ex-gay” to describe backsliders. Recently three former leaders of Exodus (“freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ”) publicly apologized for the harm they had brought to gay Christians and renounced the ex-gay movement. All three said they knew people who had failed at the therapy and become depressed or even suicidal, according to the Los Angeles Times.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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