POLITICAL INTELLIGENCE Corporate Lobbyists Give Common Sense the Finger 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 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 angler 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., According to the CPPli less , than 1% of fraud is attributable to duplicate benefitsthe only thing finger imaging of applicants is designed to catch. 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 billas 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 It’s not easy for a lone public interest lobbyist to dribble through an industryfunded 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 0/o of fraud is attributable to duplicate benefitsthe 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 costeffective. 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 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 12 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 4/27/01
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