Political Intelligence



Why would an all-star lineup of Texas political and business heavyweights-including former governors Preston Smith, Dolph Briscoe, and Ann Richards, as well as rich guys Red McCombs, Herb Kelleher, and Ed Whittaker-give a fig about a plans for a physical education building at a small west Texas college? Because the building in question, to be built at the Wayland Baptist University campus in Plainview, has been designated the Pete and Nelda Laney Center, in honor of the longtime Speaker of the House of Representatives and his wife. Let the shaking of trees begin: It’s one measure of the widespread respect Laney commands that all those big names have joined the Statewide Advisory Committee to raise funds for the building.

Lately, though, there’s been some off-the-record grumbling around Austin about the fact that people with interests currently before the legislature are giving money to a project honoring the current Speaker of the House. (The private gifts are not subject to the ethics rules governing campaign contributions.) For instance, should owners of Waste Control Specialists, a nuclear waste company that stands to make millions of dollars if a certain bill passes this session, be making donations to the Laney Center? Senate Bill 1541, which had just passed the Senate at press time, would authorize a private company to dispose of low-level radioactive waste from United States Department of Energy weapons production sites. The only Texas company currently positioned to do this, with a disposal site in Andrews County, is WCS. In two past sessions, Laney has ruled on points of order to kill similar bills.

Meanwhile, WCS Chairman of the Board, part-owner, and lobbyist Kent Hance is chair of the Statewide Advisory Committee for the Laney Center. “I’m a Baptist, and I tithe,” Hance told the Observer. “I think I’ve probably given probably 40 or 50,000 (dollars to the Laney Center). Not all at once, but on a yearly basis.” Hance, a former United States Congressman whose district included Plainview, said that he’s been chair of the Statewide Advisory Committee for more than three years. (In particular, he was chair last session, when Laney was responsible for the WCS bill’s demise.) Hance previously served on the Wayland Baptist Board of Trustees for 12 years. “This really is a religious deal, rather than a political deal,” said Hance, who added that he has not discussed any waste control legislation with Laney this year. WCS is also partly-owned by Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, who has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to George W. Bush and to state candidates. Simmons did not return phone calls to say whether or not he had contributed to the Laney Center.

Another member of the advisory committee is Ralph Wayne, a former deskmate of Laney’s in the House and now the lobbyist for the Texas Civil Justice League, which this session has supported legislation to restrict class action lawsuits.

Dr. Russ Gibbs, Vice President for Institutional Advancement at Wayland Baptist, said that the fundraising effort for the Laney Center has been conducted carefully, to avoid the appearance of conflict-of-interest. “Anything anyone gives has nothing whatsoever to do with anything before the Legislature. It’s simply a recognition to Pete and Nelda for their service to Texas,” Gibbs said. “I don’t send a spreadsheet to the Speaker saying these are the people who’ve given to the project.”

The Speaker “is not keeping any kind of tabs at all on who’s donating to this project,” said Laney spokesman Mark Langford.

Ah well. Given that business lobbyists normally devote so much time and money to no higher purpose than getting pro-business laws passed, maybe it’s a good thing when some of their time and money actually go toward the construction of a college building. Now the question is who to name the waste dump after.


Which costs more? A bunion removal or a Caesarian Section? If you guessed Caesarian Section, you guessed wrong, says Dr. Margaret Thompson of Austin, who recently testified on behalf of legislation to correct gender discrimination in medical insurance in the state.

Thompson was one of a group of doctors behind the Renaissance Women’s Center, an innovative women’s hospital that closed its doors last February despite a patient list of 1,000 expectant mothers and a six-month waiting list. One of the reasons the Center closed was the very nature of the kind of care it provided-women’s health care.

“Volume was not a problem; the hospital could not pay its expenses with the amount of money that was reimbursed for the care they provided,” explains Dr. Donna Hurley, who used to practice at the Center.

To combat gender discrimination in medical insurance payments, Center physicians founded the Equal Health Care Alliance of Austin, with the support of such prominent Austin women as University of Texas women’s basketball coach Jody Conradt; clothing designer Susan Dell, who is married to Michael Dell; and businesswoman Luci Baines Johnson, Lyndon Johnson’s daughter.

According to a Texas Woman’s University study, reimbursements for female-specific surgery average 32 percent less than other surgical procedures requiring equivalent skill and resources. Thompson and others point to those statistics to explain another finding of the TWU study-nearly one million women in 156 Texas counties have no access to an ob-gyn.

While the Alliance hasn’t had much luck persuading employers to revise their insurance policies, the group is making progress on the legislative front. Recently, the Omnibus Women’s Equal Health Care Act, sponsored by Senator David Cain (D-Dallas), passed the Senate with overwhelming support and is now wending its way through the House. But don’t expect a health care revolution tomorrow or even a major revamping of insurance company reimbursement rates. For one thing, the Act would put the burden on the insurance policyholder to make a complaint. Only then will the Texas Department of Insurance request rate information for a specific company. But meanwhile the Department will conduct market studies to discover common reimbursement practices in different regions of the state, according to Barbara Holthaus, director of TDI’s life and health division.

A spokesman for the Association of Health Plans told the Austin-American Statesman that efforts to raise reimbursements will increase women’s insurance premiums, though he also said that at present there was no inequity. (Neither the Texas Association of Life and Health Insurers nor the Texas Association of Health Plans returned phone calls from the Observer.)

Right now insurers’ reimbursement rates are guarded as closely as trade secrets. “Reimbursement rates are a funny thing,” says Ken Ortolon of the Texas Medical Association. “It’s very hard for the physicians that have contracts with HMOs to tell what the rates are because of the games they play. Fees are kind of a moving target.” Ortolon says HMOs lowered rates after doctors negotiated contracts with competing PPOs.

Holthaus was optimistic that insurance companies would be able to comply with the Equal Health Care Act, and that reimbursement rates will be opened to the department’s scrutiny. And that would be a major change, says Glenn Smith, an Alliance spokesman. “Right now insurance companies like to scream that that’s confidential information,” he says. “It’s as though they have absolute unaccountability.”


Poor Bolivia. So far from God, so near to Bechtel. Lucky for us we have the eagle-eyed Gabriel Bocagrande to report on all things multi-lateral, including the World Bank’s water privatization scam in Cochabamba, Bolivia (“The Difference Between God and Bechtel,” June 23, 2000). The scam involved a 40-year concession to run the city’s water system, which was granted to a consortium led by Italian-owned International Water Limited and Bechtel Enterprise Holdings. Not surprisingly the consortium slapped the citizens of Cochabamba with a major water bill increase-with monthly bills the equivalent of nearly a third of one-month’s salary, for those earning minimum wage. We’re happy to update that story and report that Oscar Olivera, spokesman for the Coalition in Defense of Water and Life, or La Coordinadora, who led the efforts to keep the city’s water system under public control, recently received the $125,000 Goldman Environmental Prize, awarded each year by the San Francisco-based Foundation.

Also among the winners this year were Jane Akre and Steve Wilson (“The Land of Milk and Money,” March 17, 2000), the husband and wife investigative reporting team, who lost their jobs with Florida television station WTVT-Tampa, when their series on the effects of hormone additives in dairy production was nixed by station managers. The series, which was to have been called “The Mystery in Your Milk,” painted a less than flattering picture of the role of Monsanto Corporation, which produces the most widely distributed form of artificially synthesized “recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone.”

Meanwhile, Ricardo Montiel, who won a Goldman Prize last year for his efforts to save the forests of the Mexican state of Guerrero from illegal logging, continues to wrack up awards and recognition-from his prison cell in Iguala. A farmer and activist who was arrested in May 1999 on trumped-up charges, Montiel was convicted last fall and sentenced to seven years in jail. Fellow activist Teodoro Cabrera was slapped with a 10-year sentence. In February Ethel Kennedy presented Montiel with the Sierra Club’s Chico Mendes prize, named in honor of the slain Brazilian environmentalist. Last month, Montiel was awarded one of Mexico’s top human rights awards, named in honor of the late bishop of Cuernavaca, Sergio Mendez Arceo. Despite President Vicente Fox’s efforts to improve Mexico’s human rights record and the vast amount of international attention focused on their cases, Montiel and Cabrera remain in prison. Why? Perhaps because the Army ordered their arrest. And Rafael Macedo de la Concha, Mexico’s Attorney General, who spent more than 30 years in the military and is the son of a general, recently stated that he saw “no reason” to review their case.