Capitol Chronicle

Living on the Dole

Capitol Chronicle
By Doug Potter

It's reassuring to know that welfare programs are alive and well at the Lege.

No, not that piddling couple of hundred bucks a month they hand out to poor people. I'm speaking of the serious and sacred welfare programs: those for the benefit of rich people. These are perennial and untouchable, and take myriad forms: regressive taxation, special taxing districts, MUD giveaways to developers, subsidized pollution (and public cleanup), infrastructure boondoggles, privatizing of public services, sweetheart contracts, and so on.

The comic symbol of corporate welfare this session is the $16 million contract with technology firm Sagem Morpho to fingerprint welfare recipients to catch "fraud." In five years of diligence, this grandiose exercise in techno-tyranny has caught nine -- count 'em, nine -- cases of welfare "double-dipping," while vacuuming money out of the taxpayers' pockets for the benefit of Sagem Morpho and its high-dollar lobbyists, two of whom just happen to be ex-legislators Hugo Berlanga and Terral Smith.

Austin Rep. Glen Maxey, under the acerbic slogan "the juice ain't worth the squeeze," passed a House bill to put an end to this nonsense. But Berlanga and Smith went to work in the Senate and -- jackpot! -- the bill stopped dead in committee. After some cosmetic tinkering to exempt "hardship" cases -- who did the committee think was applying for welfare, Berlanga and Smith? -- Sagem Morpho retained its millions, and the lobbyists went home happy. Poor people will continue to be treated like criminals, and the real scoundrels are laughing all the way to the bank.

Another giveaway program still flying under the media radar is Fort Worth Republican Rep. Kim Brimer's HB 1200, touted inevitably as "economic development" legislation. The bill (which quietly passed the House and awaits Senate debate) is in fact a school property tax giveaway to major corporations, with several already standing in line awaiting the payoff. Brimer has been trying to wire this bill for the benefit of our old friend Intel Corp. for some time -- the company began a major plant in Fort Worth and didn't finish it (where have we heard that before?), but roundheeled Brimer is convinced more taxpayer subsidies will rekindle the romance. His drafters are trying to hide the bill's cost by pushing it into future years, but if it passes, as is likely -- and companies like Intel, AMD, Boeing, and the rest eagerly begin shaking down school districts -- the projected state tab will eventually reach $1 billion or more. Future legislators looking for funding for public schools or public health can send the invoice to Brimer the Beneficent.

There are other, less visible corporate giveaways rolling through the Capitol, often in the form of special tax abatements to one or another special interest (popular this session is the property tax exemption -- a cool $30 million or so -- for those needy Texans who drive leased cars). My personal favorite is Dallas Democrat Sen. David Cain's SB 1096, which would donate $2 million in pari-mutuel taxes to the noble purpose of bringing the Breeders' Cup Race to Texas. And then there are the structural mutualities of interest, like the big law firm employment deals with Supreme Court clerks -- illegal on their face -- that the Court is doing its best this session to legalize.

But the Corporate Welfare Poster Child of the 77th Lege is Harold Simmons, owner of Waste Control Specialists (WCS), who looks closer than ever to achieving his longtime goal of a massive, privately operated nuclear waste dump in West Texas. Thanks to SB 1541, sponsored by Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, and amended to the direct advantage of WCS by Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, it appears likely that Lege will finally permit the installation of not one but two dumps in Andrews County -- one for waste under the Compact agreement between Texas, Maine, and Vermont, and one for potential millions of cubic feet of Dept. of Energy waste, including "mixed" waste (radioactive waste mixed with hazardous chemicals) as well as nuclear weapons waste from dozens of national DOE sites.

During last week's Senate debate, Duncan insisted grimly it would be "irresponsible" not to build a Compact dump -- even with the literally poisonous pill of the Bivins amendment attached. Bivins defended his DOE amendment as the only way to make the Compact dump "economically feasible": That is, the centuries of liability go to the state of Texas, the enormous risks go to ordinary citizens living in the path of the waste or relying on the Ogallala aquifer -- and the profits go to WCS and Harold Simmons.

In fairness to Simmons, he's thrown so much money around the Capitol, he's no doubt impatient to get a return on his investment. According to an analysis by Texans for Public Justice (www.tpj.org/Lobby_Watch/simmons.html), Simmons spent $1.6 million, either directly or through his corporate empire, on federal and Texas candidates in just the last two election cycles, and a similar amount on his platoon of lobbyists strong-arming the same legislators on behalf of his interests. Although Sen. Duncan insisted that enriching WCS was not the purpose of his bill, in pushing the Andrews site WCS lobbyists acknowledged frankly that the DOE money is the big enchilada. Having spent millions, Simmons stands to make billions on federal nuclear waste contracts -- and now that his very own personal dump is so close, he can probably taste it. On the Senate floor, El Paso's Eliot Shapleigh called it a disgrace that legislation should be so clearly dedicated to the benefit of a single contractor. Shapleigh lost, and so did Texas.

Can I make a tiny suggestion? Can we fingerprint all these guys, so the next time they show up with their hands out, we can suggest they go out and find honest work? end story

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