Just for a moment, Brownsville state Senator Eddie Lucio?s eyes seemed to turn from brown to green on May 14, as his Senate colleague Eliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso) introduced a bill aimed at boosting the economies of border counties. After Shapleigh offered a heartfelt defense of the bill (which would use $250 million from the state?s Rainy Day Fund to try to steer public investment into areas where private investment is likely to follow) Lucio stood to note that he himself was the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Border Affairs, and that while he thought Shapleigh?s proposal was a good one, in the event that it did not pass, he himself was going to request that Lieutenant Governor Bill Ratliff appoint a Blue Ribbon Committee. The committee would further examine economic development initiatives for the border region, he said. Lucio then approached the Senate press table and distributed copies of a letter he?d written to Ratliff on the subject.
Lucio may have been jealous, but in the end he still voted with Shapleigh, as did most of the other Senators. The bill?s most vocal opponent was Steve Ogden, a Republican senator from Bryan-College Station who never stops grinning. He tried to paint the bill as providing subsidies for business, but Shapleigh countered by giving examples of the type of investment the bill was intended to promote, such as medical research. Answering another senator?s alley-oop question (i.e., a question posed by an ally solely to set up more speechifying ), Shapleigh said that the border has historically been denied its fair share because ?we have not seen the lives there as having the same value as other lives in the state of Texas.?
Ratliff supported the bill, underscoring the difference of opinion between him and Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander over use of the state?s Rainy Day Fund. Rylander has opposed tapping into the fund for anything but ?real emergencies,? as has Governor Rick Perry. (In his remarks to the Senate, meanwhile, Shapleigh argued that if the prison bed shortage was once deemed enough of a crisis to require accessing the Rainy Day Fund, then the border region, with its 40 percent child poverty rate, should also qualify for crisis status. Ratliff agreed that?It?s certainly raining along the border.?) In the event that Rylander and Ratliff face off for the Republican nomination for Lieutenant Governor, the issue of the Rainy Day Fund is likely to emerge as a sparring point.
At press time, Shapleigh?s border initiative had an uncertain future in the House.
BIZ V. BIZ.
“This was less about resolving differences between business and labor and more about resolving differences between business and business,” said AFL-CIO lobbyist Rick Levy after participating in an intense two months of negotiations over modifications to the state worker’s compensation system. The arguments among the various business groups seemed oddly reminiscent of the sort of tiffs common among progressives, Levy said: Some business lobbyists wanted to compromise with labor and the Texas Medical Association, while others thought that by holding out for the entire loaf, they would mobilize more of their allies to come back and kick butt next session.
The issue at hand was how much choice was available to injured workers seeking medical treatment. “Business for the last six years has had as a primary legislative objective taking away the injured worker’s choice of doctor,” noted Levy. That objective was not met; instead the labor, business, and medical representatives who participated in the negotiations came up with an alternative in which workers are offered certain incentives to participate in a managed care system, but are not required to see a particular doctor.
The issue of doctor choice is just one component of Rep. Kim Brimer’s House Bill 2600, the worker’s compensation bill. While it does not propose major reform (such as requiring companies to participate in the worker’s compensation system, as every other state does), the bill does set forth some good things for workers. For instance, workers with more than one part-time job would be able to calculate lost wages based on all jobs held, rather than on the single job they were working at when they were injured. The AFL-CIO supports the bill; some doctors, meanwhile, are concerned that it gives too much power to insurance companies in making treatment decisions.
THE PRIVATE LIVES OF GUINEA PIGS.
Though the term “medical privacy” sometimes refers to one’s ability to keep one’s medical records private from others, Sen. Jane Nelson, the demure Republican from Flower Mound, has come up with a new definition. Her Medical Privacy Act would keep people from seeing their own records, if those records were “collected or created in the course of a clinical research trial.” As noted in an Austin American-Statesman article about Nelson’s anti-consumer bill, roughly 19 million Americans take part in clinical research trials every year, which works out to about 1.4 million people in Texas, based on the national average rate.
COLEMAN STRIKES AGAIN!
Tom Coleman, the undercover agent involved in the controversial drug bust in Tulia (see “Color of Justice,” by Nate Blakeslee, June 23, 2000), is in trouble again. Allegations of civil rights violations spurred the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the Tulia bust, and the credibility of Coleman’s testimony has also come under scrutiny in the ongoing investigation. News of that investigation has been reported everywhere from T.O. to The New York Times, but apparently not everyone has gotten the word. Now the itinerant lawman has been fired from another drug task force, reportedly for abusing his power as an officer. Working for the Southeast Dallas County/Ellis County Task Force, Coleman went undercover to set up a series of small buys in the Waxahachie area, just as he had in Tulia. Just before the cases went to trial, however, Coleman was suddenly fired. Ellis County District Attorney Joe Grubb, who hired Coleman and assigned him to the task force, won’t say exactly why Coleman was canned in late April. According to several defense attorneys with clients from the bust, however, Coleman was accused of mistreating a confidential informant who helped him make the cases. According to a source close to the case, who asked not to be named, the confidential informant accused Coleman of sexually harassing her. When she refused his advances, Coleman allegedly revealed her name to one of the defendants she had snitched on, who subsequently beat her up. The D.A.’s office is reportedly investigating other allegations about improprieties committed by Coleman while on the job in Waxahachie, though Grubb said he currently had no plans to file charges against Coleman. Grubb said he was not aware of Coleman’s history when he hired him.
In the meantime, these allegations have prompted several area defense attorneys to take a closer look at Coleman’s background, according to attorney Mark Griffith. “Our position now is that not one of these cases should go to prosecution,” Griffith said, although a couple of defendants from the sting have already pled guilty. “I would be hard-pressed to tell a client of mine to plead out based on evidence provided by Tom Coleman, because he has zero credibility,” he said.
CRUNCH TIME FOR ENVIROS
One of the Sierra Club’s top legislative priorities is coming down to the wire, and the outlook is as hazy as the Houston skyline at rush hour. On the nuke waste front, all eyes are on S.B. 1541 by Sen. Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock), a bad bill made much worse after being hijacked by Sen. Teel Bivins (R-Amarillo) on behalf of Waste Control Specialists, the company that wants to dispose of Department of Energy waste at its private dump in Andrews County. On May 15, the bill slipped through the House Environmental Regulation Committee with suspicious ease, fueling growing suspicion around the capitol that House Speaker Pete Laney is on board with Waste Control’s controversial plan. Dump opponents are still hoping that Duncan, who supports a private dump for commercial reactor waste, but not for the much larger (and more lucrative) DOE waste stream, will at least strip the Bivins amendment off in conference committee, though the tenuous alliance between the Panhandle Republican and environmental lobbyists is showing signs of strain.