Political Intelligence

WAGE WAFFLE.

In September the Observer reported that Hidalgo County Judge Eloy Pulido was busily chipping away at Valley Interfaith’s apparent victory in their recent living wage campaign for county employees in the Valley (“Victory in the Valley” by Nate Blakeslee, September 3). After a lengthy campaign, the community- and church-based group had won a 3—2 vote for a new $7.50 wage floor for all Hidalgo County employees. But the budget process was yet to come, and Pulido pledged to revisit the issue. In late September, he managed to slow it down, but not kill it. A two-year phase-in was agreed to by the commissioner’s court, with a raise to $6.75 for 2000, and then to $7.50 in 2001. Valley Interfaith leader Father Jerry Frank said the group was “seriously disappointed” that not all of the original three commissioners stood firm on their previous votes, though he still termed the results a “tremendous victory for the working families of Hidalgo County.” The group has vowed to make sure that no further flaking takes place when the 2001 budget process rolls around.

GONZO: SHE GOTTA GO.

Austin State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos has let it be known that he will oppose the reappointment of Public Utilities Commissioner Judy Walsh, whose term ended August 31, but who was expected to be nominated for a second term by Governor Bush. This should effectively end Walsh’s chances of reappointment, since the Senate generally will not contravene the wishes of a nominee’s hometown senator. Barrientos, who said he was contacted by over fifty different parties about the controversial nomination, told Political Intelligence that it was “a difficult decision” but declined to say what the deciding factor was for him. He did acknowledge that one of the anti-Walsh groups he spoke with was the Communication Workers of America, which as the parent union of the Texas State Employees Union represents the majority of state employees working in the capital. Unionized state workers are among Gonzo’s most loyal constituents. What has Gonzo in a fix is that C.W.A. also represents the employees of Southwestern Bell, which has been critical of Walsh for her vigorous support of competition in the telecommunications industry. In general, Bell’s competitors are not unionized; thus the greater their market share, the fewer the number of union jobs in the industry. Texas A.F.L.—C.I.O. President Joe Gunn says Walsh often overstepped her bounds as commissioner, in many cases lobbying on particular bills.

Ironically, it’s Walsh’s hard-line stance against Bell that has led to her support among consumer groups like Consumer’s Union and Public Citizen, who usually find themselves on the same side as organized labor in these types of fights. “It’s clear that the worst of all possible worlds is to have a virtually unregulated monopoly, which is essentially what we have now” with Southwestern Bell, said Public Citizen’s Tom Smith. “She has been harder on Bell than almost anyone in my memory.” And Walsh’s anti-monopoly instincts extend beyond telecommunications: Walsh was also an ardent supporter of market-share limits in last session’s utility deregulation debate.

You can see Gonzo’s dilemma. But it’s hard to imagine Bush’s office, which planned to leave Walsh in place as a “holdover” commissioner until the Senate reconvenes in January 2001, coming up with a replacement that can please both labor and consumers. It hasn’t happened yet.

WARD CAN’T WAIT.

Rather than wait for the company to set up shop in their county, residents in Ward County have already begun organizing against Envirocare, a private company seeking to build a low-level radioactive waste storage facility in West Texas. Citizens presented a petition urging county officials to reject the company at a late September commissioner’s court meeting.

Envirocare of Texas, whose parent company in Utah operates one of only three commercial low-level waste dumps in the country, is expected to choose from sites in Ward, Loving, and Borden counties. Envirocare first selected and then abandoned a site in Andrews County, near the existing Waste Control Specialists dump, which is also pursuing low-level waste disposal contracts.

Ward County Judge Sam Massey claimed neutrality, but acknowledged he had written to Envirocare’s Rick Jacobi (lately of the now-defunct Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority) outlining terms under which the county might work with the company. Massey was savvy enough to demand tribute money, but naïve enough to ask for a public referendum when and if the company decides to expand into other waste markets. The real gold mine that both W.C.S. and Envirocare covet is Department of Energy waste. And the real spectre of that scenario is that, if the federal contracts are awarded, not even the State of Texas would be able to regulate such dumping – much less the citizens of Ward County.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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