Our readers talk back.
Fri., March 19, 2004
If an Attorney Is So Certain That Discussion Is Moot, Why Have Courts?
I am an attorney. I have worked on Texas ethics laws for the past 20 years. Ten of those years were in service to the Texas secretary of state where I served six secretaries three Republicans and three Democrats.
I would like to share with you some observations about the last general election as you consider the facts of the ongoing investigation by DA Ronnie Earle.
The speaker's race statute restricts the involvement of committees and other groups in acting to aid or defeat the election of a speaker candidate. However, the statute does not prohibit speaker's candidates from supporting their party's candidates in the general election.
Both Speaker Tom Craddick and Speaker Pete Laney were actively engaged in 2002 in efforts to elect enough state representatives from their respective parties to enable that party to control the Texas House. These were two senior members of the House actively engaged in the general election battle to elect as many members of their party as possible.
In his effort to get his party's candidates elected, former Speaker Laney completely controlled the contributions and expenditures of the Texas general-purpose political committee "Texas Partnership Political Action Committee."
In TPPAC correspondence, Speaker Laney identified himself as "Chairman" of the political action committee, and in the official filings with the Texas Ethics Commission he identified himself as the "Person Appointing Treasurer," and as the sole "Contribution Decision Maker," and the sole "Expenditure Decision Maker." The public record clearly discloses that Speaker Laney completely and totally controlled the Texas Partnership PAC and decided which candidates received contributions from the PAC.
In the 2000 election cycle, Speaker Laney's Texas Partnership PAC made more than 170 campaign contributions to candidates for the Texas House. In the 2002 election cycle Speaker Laney's Texas Partnership PAC made the same types of campaign contributions. The candidates supported reported them as campaign contributions from the Texas Partnership PAC.
Speakers Laney and Craddick did nothing wrong or illegal. We must not confuse general election campaigns with the speaker's race. It is legal and appropriate for a leader to support his party's candidates in the general election and to encourage others to support those candidates. In fact, a legislative leader would be failing his obligations and duties to his party's candidates if he didn't fully and actively support them in the general election. But that support concerns the general election, not the speaker's race. Not every action by a leader relates to the speaker's race. A leader must be allowed to rally support for his party's candidates in the general election. Such support does not trigger a speaker's race violation.
Edward M. Shack
[News Editor Michael King responds: Mr. Shack is too modest by half. He is not simply "an attorney," but the attorney who advised many of the central Republican players on the laws governing their involvement in the 2002 legislative campaign. His letter is in effect a commentary on his own legal counsel, of which he approves. As he knows, the speaker's race statute is only one aspect of the DA's investigation into campaign irregularities, after public interest groups raised questions about Speaker Craddick's direct donations of Union Pacific PAC funds to particular House candidates. Shack may well be correct that this was simply an expanded version of political business as usual, although the investigation of Craddick, Pete Laney, and the other speaker candidates may show otherwise.
Far more interesting are the aspects of the investigation Shack fails to mention. Most importantly, business groups and GOP PACs spent millions in corporate or "soft" money for political activities like fundraising, polling, telemarketing, "voter education," and similar functions. They say they were acting on legal advice that defined such costs as "administrative overhead" under Texas law, a definition heretofore unknown to either the Texas Ethics Commission or prosecutors.
We're not attorneys, but we can read.]
Doesn't Like Ad
My grandniece, Rachel, pointed out the advertisement for cosmetic gynecological procedures on the page next to the table of contents in your Chronicle this last week [Feb. 27]. We certainly have taken a step back in this country, haven't we, Mr. Black? I recall growing up that it was not uncommon for physicians to operate on girls and young ladies as a supposed hygienic practice. In reality, though, the surgery was most often wielded as a threat by parents over their daughters who seemed possessed with "abnormal" sex drives.
Of course, the company in your ad proposes to sculpt and rejuvenate our vaginas, though I suspect that reputable obstetricians would still recommend the Kegel exercise as the safest, most reliable means of toning muscles in that area. But how convenient when laser technology offers to tighten with a single swipe what formerly required several "husband stitches" to accomplish. I could not explain to my grandniece how reducing the area of sensitive tissue could ever enhance sexual gratification. Nor why labia reduction is any different from the practice of genital mutilation everyone here so readily condemns in other cultures. Why would any woman living in this free country of ours need to reconstruct her hymen?
The freedoms we women enjoy today were hard won, Mr. Black, and obviously the battle's not over. Only, we've moved into an arena of definitions now. Somehow it has become fashionable to permanently alter the size and shape of a woman's sexual organs (for the gratification of men, I suppose). In the interest of balance between genders, your paper really ought to run an ad offering circumcision or penis enlargement services on the same page. I believe it would be easier to explain the necessity for those kinds of procedures.
The 1905 Jewish Encyclopedia says: "With the destruction of the Temple (AD70) the Sadduces disappeared altogether, leaving the regulation of all Jewish affairs in the hands of the Pharisees. Henceforth, Jewish life was regulated by the Pharisees; the whole history of Judaism was reconstructed from the Pharisaic point of view."
In his biblical history lesson, Michael Ventura failed to mention what Jesus said about the Pharisees ["Letters @ 3am," March 5]. Also, there was no mention of the Babylonian Talmud and its position on Jesus and those who follow him. I guess I'll just have to chalk it up to subjective oversight.
Larry D. Chasteen
[Michael Ventura replies: As I noted in the piece, there was a great deal that I didn't have space to include. Much scholarship has been devoted to Jesus and the Pharisees, with many contending that their relationship, though argumentative, was basically friendly: Jesus is invited to Pharisees' homes to eat, and in Luke 13:31 Pharisees warn him that Herod wants to kill him. But I only had so much space and elected to devote it to Mel Gibson's most egregious departures from the gospels.]
The Gospel According to Mel
A very special thanks to Michael Ventura for attempting to shine some sanity on the religious education nightmare created by Mel Gibson ["Letters @ 3am," March 5]. Those of us in the field are already doing "catechetical damage control" thanks to Mel playing goosey-loosey with scripture and theology. Just shows what happens when an angry ultra-right-wing type has got $30 million to spare and an axe to grind!
The Rev. Frank Sabatte, CSP
University Catholic Center
The Genius That Was Bill Hicks
I am 47 years old. I saw Bill Hicks ["Requiem for a Sane Man," Comedy, March 12] perform live twice when I first moved to Austin. I was totally unprepared the first time. From the moment he walked on stage he jerked you by the gut off of whatever fence you straddled and left you convulsing on the floor and thinking. But he left you no time for rest. He was a comedic prizefighter; his wit pounded you with combination after combination. People talk about his fearless political insight, but what I witnessed was far more than that. He was a complete comedian. His timing was flawless, his craft seamless, and he could make anything funny. Both times after leaving his performance I was swept up in an emotional and physical catharsis. Hicks' comedy had thrown the baggage of my thoughts out on stage and smothered them one by one. Both mornings after his performance I woke up with a very sore stomach. And then, he disappeared. I still miss his brilliance greatly. You do, too, I promise you. He was the best comedian/philosopher/analyst/performance artist I have ever had the pleasure to experience in my lifetime.
In his "Page Two" column [March 12], Louis Black twice makes reference to Austin having five major film festivals. I, like everyone I informally polled, can only name two: SXSW and the Austin Film Festival.
What are the other three? And aren't they by definition minor if they can't be named off the top of one's head?
J. Robinson Wheeler
[Editor's note: SXSW, Austin Film Festival, Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival, CinemaTexas, Cine Las Americas]
Gerrymandered Out of Representation
I voted in Tuesday's primary elections and for the first time felt the effect of the recent Republican gerrymandering of U.S. congressional districts. Lloyd Doggett has been my representative until now, and I was disappointed that I could not support him. But far worse, District 10 has no Democratic contender at all. I'm a lifelong Democrat and know that the Republican party pursues policies that are directly against my better interests. Which leaves me with no representation in Washington with all Republicans holding Senate and (now) House seats supposedly representing me. I feel like a stranger in a strange land, after living here for 25 years. No, that's too soft; I feel like I've been assaulted. This is very wrong.
Austin Fails Music
How is it possible, one might ask, that Austin doesn't make the Top 10 list of "cities that rock" in the April issue of Esquire? That Fresno, Denver, Gainesville, and Minneapolis are more musical cities than Austin? The obvious answer is that the city of Austin doesn't care. We have seen a steady stream of unsupportive behavior by the local and state government to foster the once vital music scene here. On the eve of South by Southwest, I hereby request that the city should be banned from ever using the moniker "the live music capital of the world" until such time that we deserve it, so as not to be deservedly mocked. If the city doesn't try to resuscitate its image, we might soon become simply an unremarkable high tech suburb of Houston.
Sincerely, Ron Deutsch
Low Voter Turnout
To whom it may concern,
Big news today. Low voter turnout. Fine print: Thousands of voters didn't know where to go vote. What's happened since our last primary? Redistricting. That's sooo last year. Did it give our local election offices enough time to deliver clear instructions to Texans?
I can only speak for myself. Our beloved Travis County voter registrar, Nelda Spears, sent my voter registration card last month, and had me under Precinct No. 105. Last year I was in Precinct 101. Shortly following the card from Nelda Wells Spears, I received notification of change in election precinct from the Travis County Voter Registration Division telling me to go to Precinct 106, not 105. Well, I went to 106 and I wasn't on the books. After calling the Secretary of State's Office Elections Division, I was told to go to, in fact, 105; however, it was a mistake because I really belonged to 106 based on where I live.
Confused? Yeah, so am I, and so were Texans. I can't even be sure that my vote ultimately was recorded as some genius promised to correct the error. I went the extra 10 miles to make a difference, and I don't have screaming kids, a short lunch break, or other pressing concerns, just as important as our right to vote.
Our local government failed big time. Voters were confused, disenchanted, and lost today. Today's Texas primary was a complete disaster, one of the darkest days ever in Texas politics.
Tremendous appreciation for Tom DeLay and the rest of his Albo Pest gang, Rick Perry included. You really screwed things up in your favor. All I can say is enjoy it while it lasts.
Heinlein Book Should Have Been Left Behind
Re: Dan Yoder's response ["Postmarks," March 5] to the Chronicle article about more funding for the Austin Public Libraries ["Reading the Riot Act," News, Feb. 27]. Mr. Yoder agrees, "A hearty amen" and "Dismissing libraries as irrelevant is a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Recently at the downtown APL, I found on the "new books" shelf a book labeled as science fiction titled Armageddon. This is the 11th book in the Left Behind series. This bad-fiction/bad-faith series is filling an entire sci-fi shelf at the APL. A religious publishing house produces these books. As stated in the first book, people with "faith" in God begin to "disappear" from the Earth because "the Rapture had taken place. Jesus Christ had returned for his people." There are numerous referenced scripture quotations in the series from the New King James Bible and New American Standard Bible.
If the Left Behind books are sci-fi, then the Grand Canyon in Arizona was formed just 10,000 years ago by the runoff from the Great Flood (Noah's Ark).
Classic science fiction books are disappearing from the main library shelves; due to budget cuts they are not being replaced. Yet, there is funding to buy god-awful extremist religious-right publications that are not sci-fi. People from Austin to Australia are wondering why film producer Steven Spielberg has not made a movie based on Have Space Suit, Will Travel. Yet that classic sci-fi book is no longer on the shelf at the main library.
City Hall does not have to strike a single match or sponsor a single book-burning party to empty shelves of classic publications. They just cut the APL funding and make books like Robert Heinlein's Have Space Suit, Will Travel, poof just disappear from sight. This is not prophecy, it's a crass act.
Former APL employee,
Questions About LCRA
After the March 11 meeting about the Gracywoods greenbelt I am left wondering several things:
There exist different opinions and standards about how large the "danger zone" around power lines is. The LCRA is using larger distances than some. The LCRA presented their numbers as if they were indisputable objective facts like 2+2=4, but reasonable people disagree about how close trees can be before danger exists, and such engineering rules of thumb are ultimately guidelines based on people's opinions and experience. Can an exception to normal LCRA procedures be considered?
Why is raising the lines not considered a viable option? It would cost more, but not unduly more, and raising would only need to be done in the areas with the affected trees, not along the entire length.
Most importantly: Why is there no established policy for replanting new trees when old trees are destroyed? There is a history of the LCRA often leaving a trail of destruction with such tree cuttings. The LCRA presumably exists to serve the community ... but leaving lots of stumps and destroying the recreational enjoyment of a park does not serve the community. The bureaucracy has lost sight of this fact. Talking with some LCRA representatives, I believe that several of them agree and regret how things have proceeded in cases like this, but find it bureaucratically difficult to achieve the goals of being more sensitive to the needs of the community. There should be more explicit rules in the agency about having a commitment to a mitigating plan in cases where tree removal is unavoidable. In the Gracywoods case, the LCRA clearly has very specific plans to remove dozens of mature trees, but several representatives all admitted that it was quite "nebulous" how new trees would get planted to replace them.
It Is as I Would Like It to Have Been
I read with interest Michael Ventura's scourging of Mel Gibson's Passion ["Letters @ 3am," March 5], hoping for something new or revealing. Instead, Mr. Ventura has chosen to slam the indomitable filmmaker over the accuracy of his film according to his interpretation of the Gospels, writings that have more interpretations than they do translations, each one a spin on the one previous. Why can't Gibson, who bankrolled the film, directed it, and executed the most innovative marketing campaign since Barney the purple dinosaur, interpret the Scriptures through his faith and show the world his spiritually guided vision? Is that not what artists do?
Ventura goes to great lengths to appear establishment and conformist with his accusatory diatribe. He says Matthew was written circa 75-85CE, or 45-55 years after Jesus was crucified. Why on Earth would a guy wait 45-55 years to write down what was undeniably the most significant event in his life, in anyone's life at the time? Why wouldn't he have written it down as it happened, or shortly thereafter while it was fresh in his mind? How many details could he have forgotten or could have been sanitized away from an accurate version, told and retold, edited and re-edited, by countless pontiffs, Caesars, and priests during the 45 years before the manuscript was "released" to the masses as a defining historical document and code of behavior?
I thank Gibson for his vision that, at least, brings new relevance to the singularly most significant act in the history of Christianity, spoken in a visual vernacular designed to penetrate even the most jaded senses in an era of sensory overload. To compete with films like XXX, The Matrix, and Kill Bill, Gibson had to push the envelope. God forbid he push a sacred cow into St. Peters. It is as it was.
Banning K. Lary
[Michael Ventura responds: My objection wasn't to Gibson's right to make his film; I object to Gibson's claim that his film accurately reflects our primary sources, the Gospels. Gibson has said, and has let others say on his behalf, that, in effect, "it is as it was." No. It is as he imagined it to be, and his version often contradicts the Gospels. That's his right. But there should have been a brief notice at the beginning of the film as there is at the beginning of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ to the effect that this is Gibson's interpretation and that he departs from the Gospels considerably.]
Make Voting Easier
There must be a huge untapped demographic of possible voters who would probably vote if the process were just a little more enabled.
If you're like me, you care about government in a general way, want to follow politics, but somehow never find the time. I know I should stay abreast of our candidates and democratic responsibilities, but realistically, even the most conscientious of us relegate voting to the list of necessary errands such as submitting our income taxes and updating our will.
Today I realized that I had procrastinated right past the early-voting opportunities and found myself sitting squarely in the midst of party primary Election Day. I am a registered voter (I'm not completely out of touch), so I queried a popular search engine for "where to vote in Austin, Texas" and hit some pretty irrelevant links ... nothing tangible on the local news sites, and the Austin American-Statesman site requires an uncomfortably detailed registration.
In desperation, I finally found my way to the Travis County Voter Registration Web site, and managed to locate my voting place by first verifying my registration (a four-step process, resulting in at least two 404 errors), then determining my precinct number, and finally determining the "polling place" by precinct number. (Why do they call it a "polling place"? I'm not taking a poll. I'm voting.)
I acknowledge that I was only able to do this because I have no other tasks at work today and can freely access the Internet due to the relaxed work environment that I currently enjoy. I'm quite sure that doesn't apply to every last-minute voter!
Since politics, like retail, are market driven, I suggest candidates who wish to target undecided or last-minute voters plaster the cybertown with a simple online link designed to enable the lunchtime voting errand in three easy steps.
Why are property taxes so high in Texas? Here in Oregon they are 1.5%. Also, they are much higher than in most states. I was thinking of moving to Austin, but on a fixed income it makes house payments too high.
Thank you, John Stetson
Coos Bay, Ore.
Soon, Hold Your Breath
When is the Chronicle staff going to apologize to the people of Austin for endorsing ad nauseam the liberals running this city? Stuck in traffic, your street dug up for years? Thank the City Council. They could close the streets and make all the needed repairs in about one-tenth the time they now take, but "street closures" would be a negative when it comes to attracting businesses ... you know, big, evil corporations with all those damned jobs, they might not move here and the City Council couldn't tax them. So, basically, the City Council is telling all us residents and local businesses seriously impacted by street "improvements" and "utility upgrades": "Screw you, we'd rather let this drag out for months or even years than to get it done quickly." The reason the City Council let Stratus Corporation purchase the land around Barton Springs instead of turning it into a city park is that you cannot tax a city park. My storage rental has gone up $35 a month, about 25%, because of the tax increases the city levied over the past 18 months. The owner of the storage place was going to purchase the land behind it and put in more units, but decided not to because the taxes are ridiculous.
Businesses on South Congress are closing because the owners of the properties are saddled with ever-increasing taxes. "Free concerts" at Zilker? No way, the city has to collect not only the fee from the radio station for the park, but $2 a car. They don't charge $2 a car any other time, not on weekends, not during soccer games. Only at "free concerts." It's bullshit.
The only thing the city of Austin is interested in is tax revenues, speeding and parking tickets, "fees," and any other thing that they can glom onto to get some money, nothing more; they are whores for the mighty dollar. They sacrifice our quality of life for money, wonder when Hightower is going to rant on about this corporation, the city of Austin, being nothing but greedy.
Carl T. Swanson
Last week, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Julie L. Gerberding warned America that obesity is catching up to tobacco as the leading cause of death in America. Obesity is a precursor to diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. At the current rate, the annual obesity death toll is expected to surpass 500,000 deaths annually, rivaling cancer deaths.
Thus, it seems only fitting that the Great American Meatout observance should surpass the Great American Smokeout in the number of local events and media coverage. Indeed, the current Meatout Web site (www.meatout.org) lists nearly a thousand educational events in 50 states and 20 other countries.
At each event, volunteers are asking their neighbors to kick the meat habit on March 20 (first day of spring) and explore a plant-based diet. Ten cities are hosting hundreds of billboards and bus cards carrying the Meatout message. Thirty governors and mayors are issuing special proclamations encouraging their citizens to explore a wholesome diet of whole grains, vegetables, and fresh fruits.
The times they're a changing. Are state lawsuits to recover Medicaid costs from meat companies next?
Sincerely, Calvin Hennison