Thursday, December 15, 2005

Common Cents Goes Up In Smoke

I think there are some things that we can all agree, unequivacably, are Bad. We may not always agree on how to fix these things, but we all agree there is a problem. Poverty is Bad. Hurricanes are Bad. Kicking puppies is Bad.

Smoking?

Isn't smoking Bad too?

I haven't met a person yet who thinks smoking is a really, really great idea. Even people I know who do smoke tell me it is the stupidest thing they have ever done, it makes them feel like sick, and dizzy and perpetually unable to breathe. It makes them smell like the bottom of a barroom floor and the money they have spent on cigarettes could have put all their kids through college. Twice.

They all want to quit. Everyone one of them. All of them who have been able to do so say it's the hardest thing they have ever done. I have a friend who is literally dying of cancer. It has crept through her whole body, was found in her spine this summer and moved into her brain this fall. She is currently living in a hospice facility and I wonder every day if this is the day she won't wake up.
But she still smokes.

The following information comes from TxCancer.org:

In Bexar county, cancer was the second leading cause of death in 2000. An estimated one in three Texans will develop cancer sometime in their lifetime. It is estimated that up to 80% of all cancers may be preventable.

Tobacco related cancers are reponsible for 87% of lung cancers. Tobacco use also contributes Tobacco-Related Cancers. Smoking also associated with cancers of the
mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, pancreas, uterine cervix, kidney, and bladder. Smoking accounts for at least 30% of all cancer deaths, is a major cause of heart disease (the first leading cause of death in Bexar County), cerebrovascular disease, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema, and is associated with gastric ulcers.


If we can all agree that smoking is Bad, then why is our legislature doing so little to control it? Yeah, I know. It's a free country and we will never get rid of Big Tobacco but there are certainly things we can do to keep them in check. Some public servants fight for these checks and balances, but many others support Big Tobacco.

Why? When everyone agrees, even smokers themselves, that smoking is Bad, why are certain members of the lege still supporting these tobacco companies?

There is a really good study from the Center For Tobacco Control, Research, and Education about tobacco control policy making in Texas. The document is also 157 pages long so I distilled some of the main points for you.

The tobacco industry has been actively involved in Texas politics for over 25 years. Although their involvement extends as far back as the 1950s and 1960s, they solidified their position in the mid-1970s when Texas passed its first and only state Clean Indoor Air Act. From that time forward, the industry has attempted to buy influence in the legislature, recruit smokers and fund grassroots organizations, ensure that their product and company names are well known to school children and young adults, and defeat any smoking regulations introduced throughout the state. Only recently have substantial tobacco control efforts been sustained to work against
the tobacco industry’s influence. Most of the effective tobacco control efforts have been enacted at the local level by concerned community groups and public health advocates. The state legislature in Austin—a bastion for big money and big business—has not been consistent or committed to passing statewide smoking restrictions or tobacco control programs and public health groups have not been aggressive in pushing the legislature or administration to do so.


...

The role that tobacco industry campaign contributions play in this inactivity is difficult to determine. Texas has no contribution limits for individuals donors. While corporate contributions from inside the state are technically banned, corporations are allowed to create political action committees (PACs) and funnel money through these sources directly to the candidates. Corporations headquartered outside of the state are under no restrictions to create PACs or even report their donations to the Texas Ethics Commission, the organization which nominally tracks in-state contributions. Because of this situation, it is very difficult to represent
accurately the amount of tobacco (and other corporate) money that goes into Texas campaigns from the out-of-state tobacco companies.


...

The role of money and campaign contributions in Texas politics is pervasive and the tobacco industry is a large contributor to this atmosphere....The tobacco industry injects money into the system each year in the form of contributions to
legislators, political parties and lobbying expenses.



Now starting on page 12, of this document is an actual Phillip-Morris memo about how they are going to continue to target the Texas Lege:

House: We will always concentrate on the Senate but there are things we can do in the House that will be of major benefit to us. We will continue to cater to the Speaker [Gib Lewis] and his pet projects, as well as to the five or six committee chairs that have and will help us. We must keep in mind that one of these committee chairs will be speaker in 1993. That covers leadership changes, now for specifics.

We will spend $16,000 in Sept. - Dec. 1989 and will request another $15,000 for 1990. We will concentrate on the races for Governor, Comptroller, key Senators, and key House Committee chairs. Where profitable, we will also give to Republican House races because those types are more likely to be “no new taxes” candidates....

Events: In Texas, some events are worthwhile, but the benefits are so much greater with trips and campaign contributions. I give out tickets to PM events and they are much appreciated but don’t have much of an impact. However, we continue to try and develop inventive ways to ingratiate PM with legislators. As one example, immediately upon adjournment of the regular session, we distributed to each of the 181 Senate and House members a copy of The Capitol Story, which is an attractive photographic history of the statehouse. This unusual gift was much appreciated by
legislators and their families. I even got 4 or 5 phone calls to thank us....

Organizations of Elected Officials: We always give to the various caucuses and this type of contribution does buy political clout.


Boiling mad yet? I am.

And remember, this is Phillip Morris ONLY.

Speaking of Phillip Morris only, check out page 137 to see how much good ole PM had donated to Frank Corte's campaign in 1998 and 2000. A total of $1000.00

500 bucks every couple of years doesn't seem like that big of a deal, though. Right?

Except our boy Frank is a pretty cheap date. If you check out the chart on page 19, you will see a list of the 12 most pro Big Tobacco legislatures in 2001. And Frank Corte is on that list.

Raise your hand if you are at all surprised.

Yeah, me neither.

Disgusted, maybe. Furious, definately. But not surprised.

You know what else is Bad? Political sellouts like Frank Corte. The man has run unopposed for so many years that it has allowed him to get away with so many enormously awful, stupid, ridiculous things that it takes my breath away.

Everyone continues to be so surprised that Larry Stallings is running in this race. He is a completely underfunded no-name democrat. But when you look at stuff like this, the real question remains how could he not?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Now Just What Constitutes Fraud, Waste, and Abuse? And Wasn't That A Republican Mantra?

Just read this dandy post on BOR, a report on Chris Bell's appearance in Galveston. I'm just gonna give you a taste of Chris Bell on the Texas Enterprise Fund, which may be a fancy name for Republican Business Slush Fund:
Here is where the façade falls down and we find out the dirty little secret behind all those big promises. Rick Perry says that he spent more than $200 million to bring more than 22,800 jobs. But earlier this year, the Legislative Budget Board reported how many jobs had actually been created. Anyone want to guess how many jobs we got for $215 million dollars?

It wasn’t 22,000, not by a long shot. Anyone have any guesses?

The truth is so awful it makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time. For $215 million, the Texas Enterprise Fund only created 275 jobs as of January 31. Two-seventy-five. That’s about a million bucks a job. Some of those jobs will become real in the future, maybe ten years down the road, maybe someday, if we squeeze our eyes shut and wish really hard, but right now we’re paying way too much to do way too little.


Can you spell C-O-R-R-U-P-T-I-O-N?

Vouchers Vs. Real Change

School Vouchers.

This new Republican "hot topic" is really a clever way to make the Dems who oppose it look bad, and feel even worse. After all, who doesn't want to give good kids in failing school systems a fighting chance? If we say we are anti-voucher we are painted as evil, unsympathetic kid-haters. There are an enormous number of reasons why school voucher programs are a really, really bad idea. And I invite you to read this article about the current voucher program proposed by Frank Corte to see why.

And then, in order to take that bad taste out of your mouth, read Larry Stallings' position paper on public education. This is a PDF file, so feel free to save it to your hard drive and print copies to share if you so desire.

But the one thing I really want to address, personally, is all this hand wringing over failed public schools.

I went to a school, that not even five years before, had been classified a failed public school. By the time I got there, it was still a poor, urban school but it was no longer failing.

But the real story is in how the district turned this school around. Because they did only one thing differently.

They paid for the very best teachers.

The school was still shabby, the paint was still peeling, and you would be hard pressed to find a computer on campus anywhere. It was overcrowded, with not enough desks on campus for each student to have one in every class. We shared books. And there was still some racial tension. But the district, with the limited funding they had available to turn this school around, put their money in the best place they possibily could.

They put it in teacher's salaries.

They recruited the very best teachers from all over the district and gave them higher salaries to work at this school. The teachers, in turn, changed the whole dynamic of how the school operated.

They went after grant monies to bring in new educational programs and helped parents and students organize fund raisers in order to bring in even more. Let me tell you what some of these grants and fundraisers allowed me, as a ghetto public school student, to do.

At age 14, I was isolating and mapping DNA. At age 15, I was one of the very select few to gain an internship at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. At age 16, I traveled with classmates to Ashland, Oregon to see several plays at the famous Shakespeare Festival. At age 17, I was taking college level courses sponsored by the local community college both on and off campus. During all of these years, I traveled all over the state with the Drama Club, Speech Club, and Model United Nations presenting speeches and papers and winning numerous awards. I took two Advanced Placement classes and scored so high on both that I didn't have to take any English or any History classes in college. In fact, every single student in my AP English class passed the AP exam. I learned to write so well, that I got an A on every paper I ever wrote in college, while others struggled with the college-level writing requirements I had already mastered.

None of this is designed to brag on myself. The credit goes to a handful of passionate teachers and administrators who worked all day, and stayed up all night writing grants so I could do these amazing things.

So I say thank you to the teachers who gave me an excellent start; and the state and local school district that didn't give up on a failing inner city school by throwing vouchers around which would have destroyed my school. Thank you to everyone who fought for the public education system. I would have had none of these experiences if it hadn't been for educators and local politicians who believed in public schools.

This is why I am so thrilled about the candidates we have running this year. Both Larry Stallings and John Courage have experience as educators and believe in supporting our teachers and saving our public schools.

We have new leaders presenting real alternatives to killing our school systems with voucher programs and other bad plans. I hope you take the time to read about some of these alternatives and consider them when you vote next November.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Blockwalking, Chili, and Mutt and Jeff

Well, John Courage came over, gave us some blockwalking training yesterday, and sent us out to practice. We realized getting signatures in 3088 was going to be like digging diamonds - hard, long, dirty work. I say dirty because some of us had to do some really quick and dirty thinking getting past gate guards into a few developments, like pretending to be house-hunting.

Molly, 8 years old, fell immediately in love with John, and he was a little surprised, until COMM-D explained that she has been seeing his bumper stickers all around, and now that she is meeting the man, she was " a little in awe". Of course, it doesn't hurt that John is a doll-baby, tall, good looking, and approachable. Plus, he looked like a candidate in his blue blazer thing. Her grandpa, Candidate Larry is as approachable, but quite a bit shorter than John. And she seldom sees him in anything other than sweat pants and a tee shirt, covered in dirt, or paint. So, if you see him being referred, not-quite-disrespectfully in these pages as "Little Larry", it is a sort of Mutt and Jeff reference when we think of the two local Dems running for office to save America, and save Texas.

So, here's the chili. I call it Blockwalker's Chili. Now those good folks who came here to walk for John and Larry could have been being either real polite or real hungry, but the chili did seem to go over pretty well. It was almost gone by the time everybody left, so I am giving y'all the recipe here:

5 lbs ground round of beef
1 of those really big cans of pinto beans, weighs about as much as a newborn (I know, I know, beans don't belong in chili, but think of them as a nutritional supplement, like the tomatoes you will also see in this recipe)
2 one-pound cans fire-roasted, chopped tomatoes
1.5 cups chili powder (yes, cups is correct)
2 T cumin
2 T onion powder
1 T garlic powder

Fry the ground round, draining it of fat (or not). Add 1 quart of water, the tomatoes, and the spices. Cook about 30 minutes on low, then put it into a big pot, and stir in the whole can of beans, liquid included, and 1 quart more water. I had to use an 8-quart pot for it all. Stir in the beans carefully so as not to mash them up, unless you like mashed-bean chili. Simmer on medium about an hour, then turn the heat down lower and continue simmering about an hour or more.

This is not your gourmet, authentic chili - I like that, too; this is for the hard-core blockwakers who just need something good to eat before facing a mostly-Republican precinct.

And to those stalwarts who braved hustling petition signatures in this Republican precinct - Muchisimas Gracias! (Put in your own upside down exclamation point and accent marks, please - I can barely embed links, and that took me almost a year to be able to do without a cheat sheet. This should tell you we are running a shoestring operation here.)

Today, we are going to take a few hours off to do some Christmas stuff for the baby in the family. I keep thinking because he towers over both his parents and is not home much at all, we can dispense with trees, lights, Christmas mugs and decorations, but, no. He shows up just in time to force me into it. Then his face lights up, he gives me that 5000 watt smile, and I think it was worth it.