LOBBY LOGIC ON THE LOOSE
It all seemed so simple. Electronic fingerprinting of food stamp applicants, a fraud detection measure introduced statewide in 1999, has cost the state $7.2 million dollars, and will cost $2.7 million more in this biennium. So far it has saved us roughly $40,000. So let’s get rid of the program.
Everybody seemed to agree with that logic in March: House Bill 102, introduced by Representative Glen Maxey (D-Austin) to eliminate the program, easily passed in the House. But a lobbying blitzkrieg led by former Representative Hugo Berlanga may prevent the Senate companion bill from making it out of the Health and Human Services Committee, where it was stalled at press time. “The pressure’s been hard, and they’re using every angle,” said Senator Mike Moncrief, sponsor of the Senate version and chair of the committee. “It’s being fought as hard or harder than any other bill this session.”
Berlanga is in the employ of Sagem Morpho Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of French defense contractor Sagem SA., which makes the “finger imaging” technology used to fingerprint each food stamp applicant in Texas. The company is a major player in the emerging biometric identification industry, which is pushing around the country for states to adopt personal recognition technologies, to be used for everything from driver’s license applications to prescription filling. According to state Ethics Commission records, the company is paying Berlanga between $50,000 and $100,000 this session. At least two other lobbyists, Terral Smith and Kathy Hutto, are also fighting Maxey’s bill-as are the grocers, who hope to see finger-imaging technology eventually adopted for broader use in stores. “We continue to deal with some fraud in the lane,” said Joe Williams, president of the Gulf Coast Retailers Association, who wrote to senators earlier in the session urging them not to support the bill.
Smith and Berlanga are both members of the revolving-door all-stars: Berlanga is a former state representative, while Smith used to work as Governor Bush’s legislative director. Ironically, as Andrew Wheat of Texans for Public Justice points out, when Smith signed on with Bush in 1996 he replaced Dan Shelley, whose quick transition from that job to lobbyist for Lockheed Martin prompted Bush to introduce new revolving-door ethics rules. (However, those rules only restrict former employees from lobbying the governor’s office.)
It’s not easy for a lone public interest lobbyist to dribble through an industry-funded full court press. “I’m used to working on these issues that nobody really knows about, and it’s a matter of going to the right person and getting them behind a bill,” said Celia Hagert, a nutrition policy analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorites. “This session it’s been different, though, trying to go up against these big guns.” According to the CPPP, most food stamp fraud is perpetrated by applicants who misrepresent their family circumstances, while less than 1% of fraud is attributable to duplicate benefits-the only thing finger-imaging of applicants is designed to catch. Studies by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the University of Texas, and the state of New York have all shown that finger-imaging is not cost-effective.
Meanwhile, electronic fingerprinting threatens to deter some eligible applicants who might feel stigmatized or otherwise singled out by the procedure. This might seem like reason enough for a Democrat to support a bill to dump the technology, but Senate Health and Human Services committee members Mario Gallegos (D-Houston) and Frank Madla (D-San Antonio) have apparently been persauded by the wisdom of their old friend Berlanga. “More than anything, it serves as a deterrent” Berlanga told the Houston Chronicle. “It’s almost like saying Fort Knox has an incredible security system. Nobody’s ever broken in. Why should we be paying for the security system? The logic’s not there.” No, it sure isn’t.
DEATH BILL LIVES
Although the practice of executing juveniles violates international treaties to which the United States is a party, in early April it was starting to look as if the state legislature wouldn’t even manage to hold a hearing on a bill that would raise the execution age to 18. At least, that’s the way things seemed to attorney Walter Long, who was concerned that House Bill 2048, authored by Fort Worth Democrat Lon Burnam, would languish in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, which failed to call the bill week after week. “Each week we’ve been waiting in anticipation, and it’s getting later and later,” he said.
There are 29 death row inmates in Texas who were convicted as juveniles, 23 of whom are minorities. Long represents one of them, Napoleon Beasley, who was convicted of a 1994 carjacking murder in Tyler. His case has been appealed to the Supreme Court; his execution is scheduled for August. “In every other aspect of the law, a 17-year-old is a legal infant, in terms of competency to execute a will or contract, or commit a tort,” says Long, who notes that since 1990, Texas has executed one quarter of all juveniles executed worldwide. Currently, he adds, no other country in the world allows the execution of juveniles, except for perhaps Iran (where the situation is unclear).
Burnam, too, thought that the committee, chaired by Rep. Juan Hinojosa (D-McAllen), seemed disinclined to hear the bill: “A lot of people have a real vindictive attitude toward children. The signal that I’m getting is that the chairman thinks this one doesn’t have a chance of making it through the process,” Burnam said at the time. Texans concerned about the death penalty should take heart in the likely success of other bills this session, he added, noting that a bill providing for state-funded DNA testing of some inmates has been signed by the governor, and a ban on executing the mentally retarded has passed out of committee in both houses. Meanwhile, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee passed a bill on April 11 calling for a statewide vote on a two-year death penalty moratorium.
Surprise: on April 18, just as we went to press, H.B. 2048 was reported out of committee. Those liberals can be such pessimists sometimes.
YOU MAKE THE CALL
In early April, a crack team of Texas legislators-Lieutenant Governor Bill Ratliff, Senator Rodney Ellis, House Speaker Pete Laney, and House Approrpriations Committee Chairman Rob Junell-traveled to Washington to meet with President Bush and with Tommy Thompson, Secretary of Health and Human Services, with whom they raised concerns about Medicaid costs. Democratic spin: forced by Presidential politics to cut taxes last session, Texas must now go to the Bush administration to beg for money. An alternate view: The Texans were there to “have a discussion,” not ask for money-this according to Ratliff’s press secretary Nick Voinis.
Granted, they did discuss some important issues: for instance, the fact that the federal share of Medicaid costs is based on a state’s overall economic status. (Because of this, and because many other regions of the state are doing relatively well, the Texas border gets less federal Medicaid money by percentage than, say, West Virginia.) But it would appear that most of those issues seemed to involve, well, asking for more money.
CRY OF THE WOUNDED BOOZE BARON
Shipping alcohol in, out and around Texas hasn’t been straightforward since at least Prohibition. Part of the reason for the shipping complications lies with the “three-tiered” system set up by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code in 1935. The Code’s three classes of alcohol handlers-producers, wholesalers and retailers-are kept separate to discourage a booze monopoly. For the most part it has worked, except that only four companies control wholesaling of all liquor and 85 percent of wine. The drawback for small wineries in Texas is that it’s bad economics for them to pass their wine through this second tier-they just can’t produce the volume that would make up for the low profit per bottle, and they say the wholesalers aren’t interested in them anyway.
The wholesalers are very interested, however, in preventing small wineries from selling booze straight to the public. Rep. David Swinford’s (R-Dumas) H.B. 892 would let wineries ship to wet areas anywhere in the state, providing they and the shipper have special permits. It also allows wineries in wet areas to sell on-premises, a move Swinford’s office says is meant to encourage tourism. To open the spigot to other states, Rep. Anna Mowery, (R-Fort Worth), introduced H.B. 1046, a bill that would allow wineries to ship straight to residents through the creation of new shippers’ and carriers’ permits. “It’ll make the difference between being profitable and not,” said Ed Manigold of Spicewood Winery. “The direct economic impact would be about $500,000 as opposed to maybe $50,000 now.” He said the area’s income from tourism would be about $1.5 million and that sales tax revenues would increase one-hundred-fold.
The big distributors aren’t giving up without a fight. They’ve argued that the bills would let minors order wine for themselves, especially over the Internet. “I’m just fascinated how concerned the booze people are about minors getting wine,” Mowery scoffed. “They’re going to order wine and wait so many weeks to get it?” Despite her bill’s requirement that a 21-year-old sign for delivered wine (and a similar clause in Swinford’s bill) the Licensed Beverage Distributors of Texas, a wholesalers’ lobby, has campaigned against them. This took an embarrassing turn in March when wholesalers distributed postcards depicting a white teen selling alcohol in a blighted downtown setting, complete with gang graffiti and a black youth in the scene. Several black legislators took offense at the racial stereotype in the appeal, and the mailing was discontinued.
If the winery bills pass, the big distributors may be hit in the ego more than the wallet. Tim Dodd of the Wine Marketing Research Institute at Texas Tech says that experience from other states and countries has shown that letting small wineries ship directly to customers would affect the amount going through wholesalers in “the one percent range.”
WE GIVE UP
We were discouraged to learn of our irrelevance in Larry L. King’s fine piece on former Texas Observer editor Willie Morris, which appears in the May issue of Texas Monthly: “After reading Willie’s reporting on the Legislature,” King writes, “no less than Norman Mailer said that ‘neither he nor anybody else need bother with the subject further.'”