The Race Is to the Swift
Among Texas priorities, it ain't women and children first
A privately chartered jet arrived in the U.S. from England last October, carrying 34 immigrants of Middle Eastern origin, bound for Texas. Immediately upon their arrival, an obscure agency of state government in Austin placed them in quarantine and began medical testing, without the newcomers' written or verbal consent. The government was searching for venereal diseases.
The quarantine lasted almost two months, and included what must have been excruciatingly painful scrapings of genitalia. The explanation provided by the state authorities was that these immigrants were not like the rest of us and had sexual practices that put the public at risk. Basically, the state was saying, they "screwed like animals."
Like horses, in fact.
When Dick and Christine Reed returned with their herd of purebred Arabian quarter horses last winter, after a long stay in Great Britain, it was the beginning of one of those mind-numbing bureaucratic fuckups that state officials usually blame on the overfed, overregulated U.S. government. In this case, however, the feds had the good sense to keep a low profile. But the state of Texas, entering the worst budget crisis anyone can remember, spent tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayers' money to test a rich man's horse herd for venereal diseases and refused his offer to pay for the services -- a process that, in the end, reaffirmed the reputation of equine morals, and unsurprisingly, helped to remind us who really runs Texas.
What's more, in its small and particular way, the episode helped explain why state government is "broke" -- that is, without money for a variety of social needs.
In 1993, Dick Reed was transferred by his company from Texas to Leicester, England. Instead of selling the Arabian-horse operation that he and his wife owned on the side, they simply loaded their horses on an airplane and headed across the Atlantic -- the kind of option the Reeds, apparently quite well-to-do, could afford. "At the time of our move," Mr. Reed wrote in a letter to his congressman late last year, when he asked for government help in returning his herd to the U.S., "we lived in Aubrey" -- Denton Co., near Dallas -- "and were involved in breeding horses. We sold our farm and took our breeding stock with us to England. We are now returning to Texas and have bought the Diamond B Ranch in Aubrey. We are returning with our horses (approximately 30)."
The Power of the Frito
Thirty-four, to be exact: 21 mares, four stallions, and nine foals. For readers who didn't know that horses get the clap, they do -- in this case it's called Contagious Equine Metritis, a disease that can leave a stallion sterile or cause a mare to abort and which could create havoc in Texas' large population of quarter horses and cutting ponies. Texas, like the rest of the United States, is CEM-free, while England (which suffers, in addition, from mad cow disease) is not.
When Mr. Reed noticed a certain reluctance on the part of federal government veterinarians to address his needs, he did what civics books suggest. He approached his congressman, U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall of Rockwall. "The USDA Veterinarian Services Department is designed to help those engaged in animal breeding and production go about their business," Mr. Reed complained, in his letter to Hall. "I find it disturbing that having spent 10 years abroad helping a Texas company like Frito Lay become a world leader in snack foods, I don't find my government helpful in expediting my relocation back to the United States." Well. That says it all, doesn't it? Mr. Reed had spent a decade helping make Europe safe for Fritos, and he expected the U.S. government to recognize his sacrifices on the altar of capitalism.
It wouldn't turn out to be quite that simple.
In order to be declared CEM-free, a horse must be in quarantine for at least a month under the supervision of a CEM-qualified state or federal veterinarian, taking both tissue and blood samples. Quarantine had originally been permitted in a select number of states -- New York among them and Florida and Kentucky (where there's a huge horse-breeding industry) and, of course, Texas -- land of the cowboys.
The isolation takes place on private farms, under the care of government veterinarians. What Mr. Reed proposed was such a "private" quarantine, at his ranch, the Diamond B (recently rechristened the Diamond R), outside the Big D.
The Texas Animal Health Commission is the state's animal health regulatory agency, headed by the state veterinarian -- kind of the surgeon general of the Texas animal kingdom. At the time, the state vet was Dr. Linda L. Logan, who responded to Mr. Reed's request in the negative. Dr. Logan noted the big issue on everybody's mind: money, or the potential cost to the state's already-strained treasury of supervising the Diamond R quarantine: "The state of Texas," she responded flatly, "does not sponsor CEM quarantines due to the expense and staff needed."
Dr. Logan suggested that the animals be sent to Florida for the required isolation, a bit far from the Lone Star State, but in theory not a hardship for anyone who could afford to fly a herd of horses in a jetliner across the Atlantic. Unfortunately, Florida's quarantine facilities, it turned out, were not available for such a big job. Ditto, New York's. That's when political pressure began to be threatened -- or applied -- in Austin.
Enter Bill Barnes, of the William J. Barnes Agency, of Westfield, N.J. Mr. Barnes is a private agent who arranges transport of animals into and out of the United States. He was responsible for making arrangements for the shipping of the Reed's herd by plane (including, to attend the Arabians' in-flight needs, an in-flight groom instead of a stewardess). The state was sticking to its policy of refusing to become involved, when Mr. Barnes contacted the TAHC. The mere mention of Barnes' name was enough to scare the state's top vet. "I know Mr. Barnes and persistence is his middle name," Dr. Logan told her fellow government veterinarians. "You may remember his involvement early on in the West Nile [virus] issue [in] Florida. He is well connected, and I can assure you guys that if we cannot find a way to accommodate him we may regret it later." For Dr. Logan at least, those words may have turned out to be prophecy.
The pressure Bill Barnes promised to bring to bear was not a particularly subtle kind of influence. "In no way am I trying to strong-arm anyone," he wrote to Dr. Logan. Barnes then proceeded to strong-arm her: "but anyone clever enough to accumulate 30 horses, have a large horse farm, and be an executive with an international corporation, has access to political resources. The nonclever and horseless have access also -- but often less." In reaction to this not-very-veiled threat, Dr. Logan told her colleagues, "This guy can make life pleasant or miserable depending on which side we come down on this issue." She added in an e-mail, "I think this thing could get nasty if we do not find a way to accommodate this shipment."
Pressure began to build. The TAHC soon logged a call from the office of state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, a member of the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee, acting on behalf of his constituents, the owners of the Diamond R. Even before the senator became involved, the state agency was finding itself on thin ice. The TAHC had years earlier decided that Texas would be one of the states offering CEM quarantines. But the service had rarely been used -- and never for a full herd. In 1995, in fact, the TAHC had agreed with USDA not to permit any more "private" CEM quarantines, because of the expense and the difficulty of state or federal vets driving back and forth to a private farm for what could be months. The federal government stuck to its decision, but the state was wavering. Representing the Diamond R, Bill Barnes had a particularly strong argument: "Texas voluntarily entered into an agreement with the USDA [to provide CEM testing]," he wrote to Dr. Logan, reminding her of the state's original willingness to do the work. "Presumably this was for the benefit of Texas importers."
Mention of importers -- in other words, Texas' powerful agribusiness complex, including the state's large animal-husbandry industry -- caught everyone's attention. But the TAHC was already overwhelmed by other animal-testing duties and could not afford hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars on a private quarantine -- especially with a looming budget crisis, in which the governor planned cutbacks at all levels of state government. The question in Austin became: Does no really mean no?
Surprisingly, Mr. Barnes suggested a gracious compromise: His client would pay the state for the work. "Might it be possible to provide reimbursement of services?" he asked Dr. Logan.
That would not be possible, Bill Barnes was told. But the Texas Animal Health Commission made a hard decision, and cut its best deal: The state would, it was decided, do the work for free.
Despite shuttle flights and high tech hoopla, notwithstanding the Silicon Prairie or bioengineering, old-fashioned agriculture remains the second most important industry in Texas.
The Texas Way
Animal husbandry alone -- raising pigs, goats, chickens, and, of course, cows and horses -- is worth $9 billion a year to the state's economy. That's only the value leaving the farm or ranch gate. If you count the price the consumer pays, when he or she buys the product on the hoof, or under shrink-wrapped plastic in the supermarket, it's much greater. With that money comes enormous political influence for the producers.
The TAHC, despite its name, does not concern itself with canary fever or if your tabby has a fur ball caught in its throat. The commission is one of those many agencies of the capital bureaucracy almost exclusively devoted to the service of the industry it supposedly regulates. Created decades ago to watch for brucellosis in cattle, TAHC inspectors rove the state -- still looking for brucellosis, but also for tuberculosis in dairy herds, fever in swine, Newcastle's disease in chickens, various illnesses in elk and deer; recently the agency has a bio-terror function as well, because of the fear that America's increasing number of enemies abroad may attempt to introduce a foreign animal disease into Texas herds. But the agency's most traditional function is protecting farm animals' health from everyday communicable diseases -- thus protecting farm industry's health -- and thus maintaining farmers' and ranchers' bottom lines.
When the TAHC refused the Reeds' offer to pay for the supervision of their quarantine, it was because, according to an agency spokeswoman, the Legislature has barred the agency from charging for its services. Out of a $12 million yearly budget (including $3 million in federal funds under cooperative programs), the only service the agency is permitted to charge for is inspecting riding stables -- "a very small part" of TAHC's budget, said the spokeswoman. (Current legislative budget proposals call for eliminating that program, and an overall 12.5% reduction in the agency's budget for the next biennium.) Practically everything else the commission does is free to the industry. That's a kind of generosity unmatched even by the federal government.
"The Legislature mandated that they will support their agriculture in that way. That was their decision," a government veterinarian involved in the Diamond R quarantine explained after the fact. In contrast, the same vet continued, "Congress didn't feel that the general public should subsidize import/export work."
Unlike the TAHC, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture has wide-ranging authority to charge fees for services. When the Reed's herd arrived in the U.S., for example, the first stop was federal quarantine in Atlanta -- a three-day general isolation required of all animals entering the U.S., whether circus elephants or zoo-bound exotic wildlife. For those three days in Atlanta, the Reeds were charged $21,000. In addition, had the USDA performed the CEM quarantine itself, federal vets would have been able to charge up to $5,000 per horse. Florida and the state of New York would have charged as well, if they had accepted the work. In Texas, on the other hand, the Legislature has mandated that services of this kind are free to the politically potent agriculture industry.
This is supposed to be the year in which we examine how Texas state government really conducts its business. The financial squeeze is tight. "This is really a different kind of legislative session," the TAHC's liaison to the Legislature explained recently. "There's not a lot of backslapping at the Capitol." There is still, however, a considerable amount of back-scratching, especially for agriculture. But, as it turns out, not just farmers and ranchers benefit from the traditional Texas good-old-boys network.
In the state's other most-favored industry, oil and gas production, for instance, there are also perks for producers. For more than a century, Texas law has required abandoned wells (as potential environmental hazards) to be plugged and capped by their producers -- and for nearly that long, the Railroad Commission, which regulates the energy business, failed to enforce the law. A decade ago, under public pressure, the Legislature directed the RRC to address the problem, and the agency slowly began plugging and sanitizing thousands of abandoned wells across the state.
In theory, that process is paid for out of industry fees or enforcement penalties. In fact, the program is woefully underfunded, producers continue to abandon wells with little fear of state enforcement, and there are at least 17,000 "orphaned" and potentially dangerous wells across the state. As in the case of the TAHC, the state agency nominally in charge of regulating the industry instead collaborates in imposing on the general public the costs of industry doing business. In the context of power at the state level -- that is, who owns the Capitol -- it's useful to remember that in only the last few years Texas has gone from a governor with a history in the oil and gas business and a lieutenant governor and speaker with backgrounds in agriculture to the present governor, who has a background in agriculture, and a lieutenant governor and speaker with a history in oil and gas. Things change, but they don't change much.
The result is that the hypocrisy piling up around the Capitol can get pretty deep. Some of the most conservative elements of Texas society include farmers and ranchers as well as oil and gas men. They and their hired mouthpieces delight in rising up on their high horses -- so to speak -- and lecturing the rest of us about the evils of government handouts. But these same interests spend just as much time bellied up to the public trough as any welfare mother, laboring immigrant, or indigent widow.
Usually, they take bigger swallows, too.
Something strange happened in the middle of the Diamond R quarantine. The horses tested healthy, but Dr. Logan resigned as Texas state veterinarian. The official explanation is that she resigned, after only a year or so in office, to take care of her ill mother in Georgetown. But recently, the chairman of the commission mentioned that Dr. Logan left in a "firestorm," which doesn't quite jibe with her leaving just to nurse her sick mom. Dr. Logan isn't talking, but there has been private speculation.
First, Bill Barnes may have exercised the political power Dr. Logan feared. But the Reeds got the quarantine they wanted, so what would have been the point? For himself, Barnes says he didn't knife her in the back.
There's another possibility. The board of commissioners that runs the animal health agency, appointed by the governor, was said to have been unhappy with Dr. Logan's extensive travel. She is an expert in several animal diseases and spent considerable time lecturing at and visiting sites in neighboring states and in Mexico, as well as at federal facilities. But the acting state veterinarian who succeeded Dr. Logan is also constantly on the road. So that doesn't make sense either. There's yet another theory to explain Dr. Logan's departure: that she came out of the closet -- as a vegetarian.
Although this seems the least likely story, it might make the most sense. The Texas Animal Health Commission is all about meat -- raising animals and then slaughtering them for market. The state agency is pretty much a wholly owned subsidiary of one of the oldest lobbies in the Lone Star State, the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. Actually, that's not quite fair. The Farm Bureau, the hog raisers, dairymen, and chicken producers each also own a piece. The quarter-horse association is also in there, by a nose.
The chairman of the TAHC is Richard Traylor, described by the state agency in his official bio as "owner, operator, and CEO of T-Bar Cattle Company and Traylor Ranches. He is chairman of the boards of the Texas Livestock Marketing Association, Texas Livestock Commodities, and National Finance Credit Association. [He] is a member of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association and director of the San Antonio Livestock Exposition." That would suggest he's a tad pro-industry, no?
There are two public members of the 12-person commission, but you can listen to hours of commission meetings without hearing even a passing mention of the public; what counts is what the industry wants. Gov. Perry's latest appointee to the animal health governing board, according to a TAHC press release, "hails from Marion, where he is a swine producer. The swine industry representative has held many leadership posts in the Texas Pork Producers Association." At a recent board meeting, when a proposed bill was mentioned that would require the agency to start collecting fees for the expensive work it does, industry reps began to squeal.
Yet the Reed case disturbed even employees of this most servile arm of state government. "There are other owners already asking to avail themselves of this [CEM quarantine] service," a state vet warned at the end of the Diamond R episode. "Since Texas Animal Health Commission cannot charge fees for this oversight, we will become the cheapest game in town. Other states where they do import a lot of horses, for example Florida, provide this service. They have a fee basis, [but] we just don't want to go there." Indeed, rather than set the precedent of accepting money for state services rendered, the commission recently voted to officially remove Texas from the USDA list of states providing quarantines -- for fear that other testing, including disease checks for the state's sacred cattle industry, might one day be charged for as well. "As long as you're on that approved list," a member of the commission warned his colleagues, "you can get political pressure to do these things for someone that you may not do otherwise." The commission's action in removing Texas from the list was, at least in the Reed case, closing the barn door after the horse had fled. The political pressure had apparently already been applied.
The final cost for the Diamond R quarantine is unclear. The state expended 322 hours of veterinarians' time, and employees traveled 5,224 miles back and forth from government offices to the Reeds' ranch to monitor the herd. Early in the process, one official estimated the total cost to the state would be between $50,000 and $60,000. Recently however, the cited figure has been $2,000 to $3,000 per horse, which would put the total cost to the people of Texas at between $70,000 and $100,000.
In the state's Children's Health Insurance Program, on the other hand, although fees vary depending upon the family's income, the money spent by the state of Texas to quarantine the Diamond R would have paid the yearly deductible for as many as 1,000 kids. Maintaining for a moment this animal-vs.-kids comparison, a recent study by Texas Tech University found that cattle in the state are better vaccinated than Texas children.
"There's a lot of people in Europe who would like to import horses into Texas without going through Kentucky," Dick Reed complained recently. He got the state service he wanted, but he won't get it again. The cattle industry, especially, would rather see Texas closed to horse quarantines than face the risk of fees for government services in the future. Even Bill Barnes, who took advantage of industry-friendly rules to aid his clients, says that in this respect the state of Texas is out of step with reality: "To be honest, I've never had an experience in which someone is not charging [for quarantine services] on a fee-for-service basis. They [TAHC] need to be charging." That's what other states and the federal government do.
But Mr. Barnes doesn't understand that, in Texas, raising healthy animals is a protected, state-subsidized priority. Raising healthy children is not.