On The Lege

Death Watch

During his campaign for attorney general, John Cornyn insisted the job was "not about being the state's top cop." But now, Cornyn is trying to prove he's tough on crime, issuing lengthy statements before the executions of George Cordova, Danny Lee Barber, and Andrew Cantu. The releases describe each crime in excruciating detail, including gut-wrenching "facts" such as this one: "[T]he skin on [one victim's] head had been literally ripped from her skull by the force of her attacker's blows, and the brain itself showed signs of bruising." Following such macabre bits, the statements feature highlights of the police-obtained confessions. They do not, however, detail any of the constitutional questions raised by the way the confessions were obtained -- which, in Barber's case, were substantial.

The release includes a list of scheduled executions through May (making the jobs of both anti-death penalty activists and "victims' advocates" who schedule protests and celebrations around the executions easier), and one can only assume that the information is meant to be an ongoing feature of Cornyn's tenure. Is there any legitimate purpose to these four- and five-page "news releases" that don't contain any, well, news? One explanation may be found at the end of the Cantu statement: "If this execution is carried out ... this will be the 170th execution since executions resumed in Texas," the statement boasts, "and the 6th since General Cornyn took office."-- E.C.B.

Hear Us Out

Kathy McKissack is an unlikely activist. But about three years ago she heard that Griffin Industries was planning to build a rendering plant a half mile from her house in Corsicana. Concerned over the impact such a facility would have on her community, McKissack became a leader in the fight against Griffin. She was ultimately successful; after months of community protests, Griffin located elsewhere. Last Monday, McKissack was at the Capitol, warning that citizens like her might not be able to fight industrial plants under HB 801, filed by Rep. Tom Uher, D-Bay City. Uher's proposal would eliminate the contested case hearing process at the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission -- a trial-like process in which opponents of permits are allowed to present evidence and cross-examine witnesses. Under Uher's plan, permit opponents would be allowed only to give comments on the permit.

McKissack says the contested case hearing process was the only thing that prevented Griffin from building the plant near her home. Doing away with it, she said, "would ease the way for any polluting industry that wants to come into Texas." Without a hearing, McKissack asks, why would a polluter "take into account the interests of the people who live near the plant?" In a packed meeting room Monday afternoon, Uher presented his bill to the Environmental Regulation Committee, saying that environmentalists were "using government to stop an application" for a permit. Uher said the state is now competing for jobs in a global economy and that if industrial companies find the Texas regulatory process too stringent, they will "go to Alabama or Louisiana and then we've lost jobs."

Environmental groups, including the Lone Star Sierra Club, Public Citizen, and Clean Water Action are vehemently opposed to Uher's bill. Tom Smith of Public Citizen says it "eviscerates the rights of Texans to get a full hearing in front of a trained judge." -- R.B.

Poor Parks

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department needs more money. And a bill introduced by Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown, R-Lake Jackson, could allow the department to get an additional $33 million per year in revenue from a tax on sporting goods. Brown's bill, SB 286, will remove the limit on the amount of money the agency can get from sales taxes that are assessed on everything from fishing lures to life jackets. Brown said the bill is needed "because of our deteriorating parks system. A lot of it has been ignored over the years, so the infrastructure is really suffering. The restrooms, and the roads and all that. This will give Parks and Wildlife a chance to come in and show what they are going to do, then the appropriations process can allocate additional dollars" to the agency.

Brown's bill could help an agency that has been struggling to stay afloat for many years. A report released late last year showed that Texas ranks 49th in the nation in per-capita spending on state parks. And the problem is getting worse. In 1983, TPWD was spending $63 million to maintain 116 parks. By 1998, the agency was spending just $51 million to maintain 123 parks. SB 286 has been referred to the Finance Committee. -- R.B.

Support System

Attorney Gen. John Cornyn made a plea for his beleaguered child support division before the Senate Finance Committee last week, asking senators for a $38 million cash infusion to help stabilize the program. The increase is needed, Cornyn said, because the state's "success ... at moving people from welfare to work" in recent years has shrunk the amount of retained collections from welfare cases dramatically, leaving the child support program limping just as federal welfare reform mandates are requiring it to run. Since two-thirds of the money currently being pumped into the division consists of federal funding, Cornyn described the situation as "sort of a good news/bad news scenario."

Without a doubt, the program Cornyn inherited had been faltering for years. During testimony, Cornyn said that although 25,000 cases are added to the division's workload each month,its staff levels are so paltry that the vast majority of parents calling the division's phone bank about problems with collections are unable to get through. "They hang on for about nine minutes on the average, and then they hang up," Cornyn said. Along with funding for 114 new phone-bank staffers to respond to the more than a million calls the center receives each month, Cornyn's request included a plea for money to meet requirements mandated by federal welfare reform, including a central statewide disbursement unit to process and disburse about half of all child support payments in Texas.

The department had sought a waiver to allow the state to keep some disbursements at the county level, but Cornyn's child support deputy Howard Baldwin said the bid was unsuccessful. Instead, he says the division would look at its options, including turning the unit over to the comptroller's office, or privatizing it. Texas is the only state which houses its child support division in the office of an elected attorney general, and the state's child support cases currently involve over two million children.-- E.C.B.

We've Got Bills

Sen. Drew Nixon wants to crack down on solicitors. No, not that kind of solicitor. Nixon's regulatory legislation (SB 437) would allow consumers to permanently restrict "telephone solicitors" (commonly known as telemarketers) from calling their homes ...

SB 489, filed by Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), would require property owners' associations (those nearly omnipotent entities responsible for draconian regulation in suburban areas nationwide) to conduct hearings on fines or penalties levied by the associations before taking a resident to court for violating association rules ...

Rep. Lon Burnam has filed HB 1371, which would double the fine for disclosing a person's HIV status, from $5,000 to $10,000. -- E.C.B.

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