Beyond City Limits
The $100 million settlement agreement between the state and Farmers Insurance Group is in limbo, as Travis Co. District Judge Scott Jenkins -- who must approve the settlement -- ruled that lawyers for Farmers policyholders can question state Insurance Commissioner José Montemayor, Farmers chief John Hageman, and other figures at an upcoming hearing on the deal. Consumer advocates have blasted the settlement as a giveaway to Farmers, and the policyholders' suit seeks to block it. Along with upholding the policyholders' subpoenas, Jenkins ruled against Farmers' motion to have its own customers disqualified as intervenors in the case. -- M.C.M.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a bit giddy at the November election results and the GOP's enthusiasm for its radically conservative political program, overreached last month by sending out a fundraising letter freely invoking the names of Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov.-elect David Dewhurst, and Speaker-presumptive Tom Craddick. The pitch solicited support for the TPPF's upcoming "Legislator Policy Orientation" at the Four Seasons Hotel. The TPPF apologized for its "mistake" in using the names of the three officials in raising donations -- of $5,000 to $100,000 -- from lobbyists to support the conference. Perry, Dewhurst, and Craddick distanced themselves from the fundraising -- but still lent explicit support for what they called an "important policy event." -- M.K.
On Jan. 2, state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, filed a bill that would bring Texas in line with last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling banning the execution of the mentally retarded. SB 163 would outlaw the practice in Texas and define procedures for determining the mental status of a defendant prior to trial; attorneys could request a hearing in front of either judge or jury to determine whether the accused was mentally retarded at the time of their crime. It would also allow the hearing verdict to be appealed directly to the Court of Criminal Appeals, require the CCA to adopt standards for review, and allow any defendant convicted prior to the proposed effective date (Sept. 1) to ask for an SB 163 hearing. In 2001 a similar bill, also sponsored by Ellis but mandating a post-trial procedure, was enacted by the Legislature but vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry. -- J.S.
At the other end of the right-to-life scale, Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, has filed another bill to ban human cloning in Texas. Nelson, whose similar bill failed last session, was spurred into reaction by the recent announcement of the Raelian Church that Clonaid, its offshore company, had managed to clone a human infant -- although the church has since been unwilling or unable to prove as much. That didn't stop Nelson, who has a vivid imagination for microscopic events. "I get a pit in my stomach every time I think about the unspeakable horrors that must have occurred in the cloning of this child," said the senator in a press release, "especially considering that it takes about 100 attempts for scientists to get it right in cloning an animal. There is no punishment on earth strong enough for what these people have done." Nevertheless, Nelson will try her best: The bill would make human cloning in Texas a first degree felony punishable by five to 99 years in prison and a $10 million fine. -- M.K.
Former Austin parks chief Charles Jordan has announced his retirement as head of the Portland, Ore., parks bureau. Jordan came to Austin to run PARD in 1984 after serving 10 years as the first African-American elected to the Portland City Council; he returned to the Rose City in 1989 and has led Portland's parks system ever since. While not ruling out a future run for mayor of Portland (he came close to a race in 1992), Jordan plans to increase his involvement on national environmental issues: "One of my missions," he told the Portland Oregonian, "is to color-coordinate the environmental movement to help the people of America understand that people of color love the land." -- M.C.M.
The Jan. 2 issue of Nature contains a study by UT biologist Camille Parmesan and Wesleyan University economist Gary Yohe claiming the strongest statistical evidence to date that global warming is affecting the natural world. The researchers say that, after allowing for habitat destruction and other possible causes, global warming over the last century has apparently caused temperature-sensitive wildlife to shift its range toward colder climates by an average of four miles or toward higher altitudes by an average of 20 feet per decade. During the same period, spring reproductive cycles have begun about 2.3 days earlier per decade. One implication is that regions once considered stable for wildlife may change in 50 to 100 years, meaning that nature preserves in those areas will be insufficient to protect the species within them. "We've boxed all these species into these habitats that we thought we could maintain with some mild management and a little bit of restoration," Parmesan said, "and -- boom! -- climate change comes along and suddenly the very placement of these will be wrong." Dubya, are you listening? -- L.N.
A long-anticipated change by the Bush administration in the New Source Review provisions of the Clean Air Act came on New Year's Eve -- timing that environmentalists allege was intended to minimize public outcry. Nine Northeastern states have filed a federal lawsuit challenging the action -- which would "bring more acid rain, more smog, more asthma, and more respiratory disease to millions of Americans," said New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer after filing the suit. The New Source Review rules had required that power plants, factories, and refineries, when making significant changes that might result in greater pollution, must upgrade their facilities with the best available pollution-control technology. Under the new Bush rules, environmentalists say, many changes once considered "significant" will now be classified as "routine maintenance" and therefore exempt from NSR. Locally, NSR relaxations could benefit the Alcoa facility in Rockdale (about 60 miles northeast of Austin), which both federal and state authorities have cited for NSR violations, although officials insist pending cases are not affected by the latest revisions. -- L.N.