As Nelson Bunker Hunt once famously said, “A billion dollars isn’t what it used to be.” It certainly hasn’t done much for Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons’ luck at the Legislature. For the third time, Simmons’ high dollar lobbying effort to get Waste Control Specialists (WCS), his Andrews County dumping firm, licensed to dispose of low-level radioactive waste went down in flames at the Legislature. The culprit this time was a combination of blunders by his own lobbying team, led by WCS president Eric Peus, and an impressively coordinated public interest lobbying effort under the mantle of the Alliance for a Clean Texas, which includes the Sierra Club, Public Citizen, and Texas Campaign for the Environment, among others. Lubbock Senator Robert Duncan, a Republican, filed this year’s waste bill, S.B. 1541, which would have allowed WCS its license, but would have likely limited their business, at least in the short term, to commercial reactor waste–not the lucrative federal nuclear weapons program waste stream that Simmons has been coveting. Rather than settle for what they had in hand, Peus and company went for it all, encouraging Amarillo Senator Teel Bivins, a fellow Republican, to hijack Duncan’s bill on their behalf. These guys make enemies like other lobbyists make lunch dates.
While WCS was engendering disgust where it shouldn’t have, the Alliance for a Clean Texas was finding allies in unusual places, convincing five members of the House Calendars committee, including conservative Plano Republican Brian McCall, to kill the bill before it reached a final vote in the House. Then a host of members, both Democrat and Republican, joined Austin Democrat Glen Maxey in the session’s finest–and giddiest–display of chubbing (or stalling), to fend off Houston Democrat Ron Wilson’s (speaking of disgust) shameless eleventh-hour attempt at resurrecting the bill on the House floor. Thus Simmons, who reportedly telephoned Speaker Pete Laney for an explanation the night his bill flamed out, ended up right where he started, though now poorer by several hundred thousand dollars in lobbying fees. Time to fire everybody and start over again.
What’s the Boston Strangler got that House Republican Tommy Merritt doesn’t? The unanimous consent of the Texas House on a resolution honoring him. A half-dozen sessions back, a House member trying to make a point about the excess of honorary resolutions drafted a resolution honoring Albert DeSalvo (better known as the Boston Strangler). It sailed through an unwitting House. Early in the final week of the 2001 session, Lubbock Republican Delwin Jones drafted a resolution honoring Longview Republican Tommy Merritt–and twenty-seven Republicans had their name stricken from the list. Tyler Republican Leo Berman was the most vocal, telling a reporter from his hometown newspaper that “many of the things in the resolution were absolutely untrue.” The resolution recognized Merritt for five years of service in the House, appointment to President Bush’s energy advisory transition team and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, work on behalf of taxpayers, and a record “as a dedicated family man, crimefighter and lifelong conservative.”
Maybe it’s “lifelong conservative” that Merritt’s twenty-seven Republican colleagues didn’t buy. When Berman told the Tyler Morning Telegraph that Merritt got low rankings from the Texas Eagle Forum, Christian Coalition, and Free Market Forum, Merritt responded that “those are right-wing fanatical organizations…lead by fanatics and they are not the majority in Texas.” Last session Merritt, citing concerns of African-American constituents in his district, told the Republican Caucus and then-Governor Bush that it was a mistake to oppose hate crimes legislation. Merritt also supported a failed amendment to the parental consent abortion bill, which would have allowed a minor seeking an abortion to speak to a clergyman rather than a judge. And this session, when he wasn’t allowed to see the Republican House Caucus’ redistricting plan, Merritt drafted his own compromise between the Speakers’ plan and the Republican Caucus plan. “It took them months of secret meetings to come up with their plan, which didn’t have any statistics backing it up,” Merritt said of House Republicans. “I did mine in a week, and it had statistics for every district.” The failed Merritt Plan, which got more votes than any other plan presented to the House, created one more Republican district than did the plan proposed by the Speaker. “And it didn’t put [Corpus Christi Republican Gene] Seaman in Mexico,” Merritt said.
Speaking about his House colleagues, Merritt pulled out his pager and clicked on the number of Bush Chief of Staff Andrew Card and another White House phone number. “I’ve got direct access to the White House,” he said, and had talked to the Bush staff regarding the defection of Senator Jim Jeffords several days earlier. “How many of them can get through to the White House?” Merritt said harassment by Republican colleagues is nothing new. “Joe Nixon tried to kill my oilfield study bill, Anna Mowery was messing with my local bills [both passed]…. But I just keep rootin’ around, getting things done. Did you know the Speaker has me working on a deal to bring some frescoes from the Vatican to Lubbock for an exhibition? I’m getting a “JP II cap,” just like my personalized “W” cap. And I’m going to get the Pope to sign it. Any of those people on that list going to be staying at the Pope’s Summer Villa this fall?”
The National Commission on Federal Election Reform–which touts former presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter as honorary chairs–held one of its four national public hearings at the UT Austin campus in late May. The hearing drew some attention to local efforts, particularly the campaign for instant runoff voting in Austin.
Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker and former speech writer for Jimmy Carter, said Austin has a prime opportunity to make instant runoff voting a national issue. Australia and Ireland have used the system for half a century, but it has not been widely accepted in the United States. Oakland and San Leandro, California, recently adopted the system, and Alaskans will vote on it in 2002. Similar statewide legislation is in the works in Vermont and New Mexico. The Austin proposal would allow instant runoff voting for city elections, but does not address statewide voting.
Supporters of instant runoff voting say that Austinites are dragged to the polls too often, and if they show up to vote, they are forced to choose between the lesser of two evils. This has contributed to decreased voter turnout and increased voter apathy. In 1983, 39 percent of registered voters in Austin turned out to vote. In 2000: only 5 percent.
“Americans tend to think that our system, by default, is superior,” Hertzberg said. “Therefore, when something goes wrong, we say it is because of bad people. We complain of low voter turnout and everything else rather than question the institutional arrangements.”
Here’s how instant runoff voting would work:
Let’s say George, Al and Ralph are running for mayor. Under this plan, you would rank the three candidates on your ballot. Let’s say you mark that Ralph is your first choice, Al your second, and George… well, last. Instant runoff voting would first tally the number of “first place” votes that each candidate received. If no one receives a majority of votes, the candidate with the fewest first place votes is eliminated, and the “second place” votes come into play. If Ralph is eliminated, for example, the “instant” runoff between Al and George would be determined by tallying the second choices of the people who voted for Ralph, and adding those votes to Al and George’s respective tallies. No second, or runoff, round of balloting is required. This means less elections, less costs of running a campaign, and less guilt-trips by the major parties (i.e. you can vote for Ralph without ultimately hurting Al).
In Austin, a loose coalition of local groups have supported instant runoff voting, including the Greens, Libertarians, Sierra Club, Poder (an environmental justice group), and the Austin NAACP and NOW chapters. Some council members have already signed on to the idea, which has not yet been scheduled for a vote.