Beyond City Limits
On May 9, District Judge Scott Jenkins ruled that two state senators -- Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, and Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock -- will have to take the stand and testify about their role in Texas' settlement last year with Farmers Insurance. Late last summer -- amid growing political posturing over the state's insurance-rate conundrum -- the state sued Farmers, charging that the company used deceptive business practices and pricing schemes and overcharged Texas policyholders. When Farmers threatened in response to pull out of the Texas insurance market, state officials -- chief among them Duncan and Fraser -- tried to help negotiate a settlement. The agreement finally reached included a promised rate rollback of nearly 7% but did not require Farmers to admit any wrongdoing or pay any of the millions in fines the state initially sought. Consumer groups cried foul and sought to force both Farmers and the state to explain in open court how the settlement was reached -- a prospect that attorneys for both Farmers and the state have tried to block. Jenkins ordered Duncan and Fraser to appear in court May 20. -- J.S.
Two unsuccessful Democratic legislative candidates have filed suit against a political-action committee founded by U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, claiming the group skirted campaign finance laws in its efforts to secure victories for their GOP opponents. The plaintiffs, Paul Clayton of Orange and Mike Head of Athens, contend that the Texans for a Republican Majority PAC "engaged in a broad variety of political activity" on behalf of their opponents -- now-freshmen Reps. Dan Flynn, R-Van, and Mike "Tuffy" Hamilton, R-Mauriceville -- but failed to report all of its financial transactions to the Texas Ethics Commission. "This suit addresses hidden and illegal contributions and expenditures by DeLay's PAC," said Austin attorney Cris Feldman, who represents the plaintiffs. Both TRM and the Texas Association of Business have come under legal fire for their use of corporate dollars in the 2002 legislative elections. Reform advocates have also criticized TRM for discrepancies in its reports to the Ethics Commission and the IRS. -- A.S.
Meanwhile, after legal setbacks in two different courts, the Texas Association of Business on Monday took its case to the Court of Criminal Appeals in hopes of winning protection from a Travis Co. grand-jury probe into its 2002 political campaign. The latest action follows last week's 3rd Court of Appeals ruling effectively ordering T.A.B. President Bill Hammond and others to testify before the grand jury. Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle is investigating a $1.9 million political ad campaign that T.A.B. paid for with money from undisclosed corporate sources. A district-court ruling had ordered T.A.B. to submit information concerning the financing of the ad blitz -- without revealing the identity of the contributors. At press time, the Court of Criminal Appeals had not yet ruled on T.A.B.'s motion for a temporary injunction while the case is under consideration. In this week's appeal, T.A.B. attorney Andy Taylor argues that disclosure of the corporate donors would "subject them to threats, harassment, and reprisals from government officials and private parties." -- A.S.
If the smoke wafting up from the Yucatán hasn't singed off your cilia, state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, and Rep. Todd Baxter, R-Austin, have proposed companion bills that might curl them. Carona's SB 1325 and Baxter's HB 2576 would allow retail electric providers to receive renewable energy credit for up to 50 megawatts of electricity produced from garbage incineration -- a practice known to send harmful substances such as dioxin and mercury into the air. The Sierra Club, Texas Public Interest Research Group, Texas Campaign for the Environment, and other eco-watchdogs oppose the bills, which they say could draw support away from better renewable-energy sources such as wind and solar power. A Baxter aide says her boss' experiences confronting landfill issues as a Travis Co. commissioner partly prompted his bill, which remains in the Calendars Committee and thus on death watch pending the return of the Killer D's. Carona's bill awaits a vote in the Senate. -- L.A.
Also in the Senate, HB 15, by Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio -- the "informed consent" bill that imposes a mandatory 24-hour waiting period on women seeking abortions -- was considered Monday by the Senate State Affairs Committee. (Unlike the similar House committee that heard HB 15, Senate State Affairs actually includes a female member -- Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound.) The bill remains pending in committee at press time. On May 22 at the Capitol, reproductive rights advocates will hold a vigil opposing the bill, which also requires abortion-seeking women to view graphic photos of fetuses and receive false information linking abortions to increased risk of breast cancer. -- L.A.
It appears that the quest to completely privatize the state jail system is dead -- at least for now. Barring any unforeseen last-ditch legislative maneuvering, the main bills floated by Reps. Ray Allen, R-Grand Prairie, and Jack Stick, R-Austin, have either stalled in committee or have been substituted, with the portions relating to prison privatizing omitted. HB 1669 and HB 2190 are still sitting in the House Committee on Corrections, which Allen chairs, while HB 1480, which seeks to make the Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice a more "efficient" operation overall, has been passed to the House floor, minus a subsection that would mandate a large-scale privatization study. Of course, all three bills may have already been spiked by the Killer D's. -- J.S.
Weed Watch: On April 23, Nevada Secretary of State Dean Heller announced that he will not seek to prosecute drug czar John Walters, head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, for state-election law violations. Walters made several trips to that state last fall in an attempt to defeat Nevada's Question 9 citizen initiative, which would have decriminalized marijuana, among other reforms. At issue is whether Walters was violating both state- and federal-election laws by stumping against Q9 while on the government's time and dime. Walters claimed immunity from prosecution and last month Nevada Attorney General Brian Sandoval agreed -- though with harsh words for the czar's actions. Sandoval found the stumping "particularly disturbing," reports the Drug Reform Coordination Network, because Walters clearly "sought to influence the outcome" of a state-election issue. -- J.S.