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Food Stamp shortage, imminent eminent domain reform

 

Stamp collection

Our current scrambling over the food-stamp program didn’t come out of nowhere. Yet here in the state with some of the highest hunger rates and “food insecure” households in the nation, officials continue to blame the national recession for their backlogged and error-riddled system. In a recent interview with the Austin American-Statesman, William Ludwig, a Dallas-based regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service dismissed the state’s excuse.

“All states are feeling the pinch right now because of the economic recession, but I’m not aware of any state that is having it to the degree that Texas is,” Ludwig said, adding that Texas’ woes date back to the firing of thousands of state workers and simultaneous privatization efforts. Local hunger activists on the frontlines agree.

“They fired the workers that knew what they were doing and hired a lot of workers who don’t know what they are doing,” said Eunise Sierra, of the Coalition of Concerned Citizens for Consumer Welfare in San Antonio. Former Health and Human Services Commissioner Albert Hawkins, who was appointed by Texas Governor Rick Perry back in 2002, cut payroll and outsourced key elements of the food-stamp and other low-income-assistance programs to Bermuda-based Accenture. Problems quickly became apparent, and the Accenture deal fell to other companies, but Perry stood by Hawkins, who retired to applause in May — before federal fines were threatened and a class-action lawsuit put the issue in the nation’s spotlight.

While federal law requires food-stamp applications to be processed in 30 (and in cases of extreme need, seven) days, the long wait times in Texas have become a source of shame for the state. Applicants are waiting three months just for an appointment, Sierra said. It takes another two months for their cases to be processed and relief delivered. One of Sierra’s clients has been waiting a year for help. In the meantime, some food banks are good for a couple day’s worth of food once a month; those that have family to go to bounce from house to house; others are forced to turn to shop-lifting; utilities are cut off to pay for groceries.

Now, if these food-stamp dollars were state dollars, we could starve our low-income residents in peace. But these are 100-percent federal dollars, and that gives Washington an undisputed voice in the matter. Although a federal judge dismissed a class-action lawsuit over the state’s failings last week, Texas could still be fined by the feds or lose its federal funding. Not that Perry would go hungry.

Eminent front
(it’s a put on?)

On the November 3 election agenda: Telegraph a message to the Pink Dome — Texas’ rugged individualists want real eminent-domain reform. Check! But how to do it? If voters approve Proposition 11 on November 3, does that tell the Lege to pass stronger legislation next session, or let the Governor — who already lost the Texas Farm Bureau endorsement to Kay Bailey Hutchison — off the hook?

The question divides former bedfellows TFB and Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, who fought long and tenaciously against the now-dormant I-35 Trans-Texas Corridor plan. The farmers lobbied valiantly this spring for meaty eminent-domain collar SB18 only to watch it die behind the mighty Voter ID logjam. But they’re glass-half-full sorts (of course; they’re farmers), and despite its many shortcomings, they say, Prop 11 offers some meaningful protection in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2005 Kelo v. City of New London decision, which allows the government to take land and hand it off to a private developers. If it passes:

• Property could not be taken and transferred to a private entity for an economic-development project or to increase tax revenue. In order to meet the definition of “public use,” the political entity that snatched it or “the public at large” would have to own and use the land.

• Urban-blight takings would have to be done on a parcel-by-parcel basis, making it much more difficult to raze entire neighborhoods.

• The Lege could only confer eminent-domain authority on new entities by a two-thirds vote of each house. (True story: When the 81st Legislature asked the Legislative Council to tally the number of political entities in the state with eminent-domain power, they stopped counting at infinity.)

“We’re not done yet,” says TFB spokesman Gene Hall. “But that’s no reason not to put these Kelo protections in.”

But TURF doyenne and Express-News designated “City Bright” Terri Hall has been blogging against the Prop, calling it “window dressing” that would absolve the Guv for the sin of vetoing HB 2006 back in 2007. That bill contained protections that the TFB says they’ll still fight for in the 2011 session even if Prop 11 passes — most importantly a good-faith-bargaining provision with teeth, including recourse to independent appraisals, and a provision that would allow landowners to buy back property at the original sale price if it’s not used for the stated purpose within a set timeframe.

“If we get these crumbs ... I doubt we’re going to get another bill,” Hall said. Even if Prop 11 passes, she believes lawmakers and their lobbyists would still find ways to take property on behalf of private developers, and she objects to any law that allows the government to use “blight” as a reason to take someone’s land.

“It’s great if we can enhance some of these rundown neighborhoods,” Hall says. “But it has to be with the homeowners’ consent.” If the government was willing to pay a fair-market price, she adds, they wouldn’t need eminent-domain arm-twisting power.

Kathy Seay, policy advisor for hometown Representative Frank Corte, who authored the resolution, says they know their work’s not finished. It doesn’t mean the protections not included this time around aren’t important, she said, but the 2007 legislation was largely crafted to address opposition to the Trans-Texas Corridor, and “This piece of legislation is really designed specifically to address Kelo concerns.”

Check the full November 3 ballot, voting locations, and your registration status online at bexar.org/elections.

Skip to the Lou

If CNN imagined it could mollify the brown masses whom Obama birther and anti-immigration mouthpiece Lou Dobbs regularly vilifies with a special Soledad O’Brien series, well ... CNN hasn’t met the Esperanza Center and their colleagues. Their message is, “you can’t have it both ways, CNN,” said Esperanza Center Director Graciela Sanchez. The problem isn’t just Dobbs’s childlike enthusiasm for the Minutemen (who’ve been busy since June distancing themselves from Shawna Forde, a Minutemen branch leader arrested in the murder of 9-year-old Brisenia Flores and her father), says Sanchez, but his steady flow of misinformation about undocumented immigrants — that they account for a third of our prison population, e.g., and are the cause of a leprosy epidemic — the former of which he shrugged off as “I misspoke” when challenged by Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman. (Watch it at democracynow.org.).

“It riles up those who are suffering,” Sanchez said. “The economy is down and people look for enemies. You base it on a stereotype, you make that stereotype inhuman.”

The Esperanza is holding a press conference at 10 a.m. Wednesday at 922 San Pedro to promote the bastadobbs.com campaign, which has produced a slick video condemning Dobbs and is working to send CNN the message that the jowly right-wing populist must go.

Running the numbers

San Antonio can avoid the high risks associated with new nuclear power by banking instead on a raft of renewable energy sources and energy-saving technologies, a coalition of organizations fighting the proposed expansion of the South Texas Project announced Monday. Since City leaders haven’t yet compared CPS Energy’s nuke proposal with a stable of alternative-energy sources, the members of Energía Mía called for the City Council to reject the city utility’s request for another $400 million for the two additional nuclear-power reactors when they meet on October 29.

“We think that they should stop and look and do a side-by-side comparison, because there is so much that can be done in the world of energy efficiency and renewables,” said Karen Hadden, executive director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition.

From committed half-owner to majority 40-percent status to an intended 20- to 25-percent minority stake: San Antonio’s desired share in the reactors has been throttled back by at least half since the City-owned utility submitted its joint application with NRG Energy to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the fall of 2007. Although NRG has been shopping CPS’s undesired 10 percent for months, no buyer has been found. And with CPS Energy’s vote last week to reduce its stake yet again, there’s another 20 percent to pawn.

“Today, under the current contract, [CPS is] on the hook for $6.5 billion,” Tom “Smitty” Smith, head of Texas’ Public Citizen, reminded a small crowd of reporters outside a home in the Alta Vista neighborhood. “Before there is a vote on this [nuclear] plant, there needs to be a full analysis of all the alternatives, and have that done in a public process, where the public can see the data, where the public can truth-test the data.”

A variety of experts and organizations (including the Current) have challenged CPS Energy’s figures for the cost of reducing energy use through weatherization programs and energy efficiency.

Energía Mía’s press release adds:

“Two independent studies on CPS and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission data have shown that alternatives are far cheaper than a nuclear plant. While CPS is making big commitments to weatherization, they have been typically spending more money than others to achieve the same result. CPS is spending two to three times more per saved megawatt than other utilities in Texas or Houston. In Houston the city teamed with its local utility and did a neighborhood-by-neighborhood retrofit program that saved 14.6-percent of the energy usage in each home for $1,000, a fraction of what CPS is spending. A recent study for CPS found the cost of efficiency was about half the cost of the proposed nuclear reactor.”

Read the Current’s take in “Atomic numbers,” September 30, and the rest of our nuclear-power series, “Nukes of Hazard,” online at sacurrent.com/cpsenergy.asp.

First offendment

The QueQue is beginning to suspect that the reason barely legal PR cyclone T.J. Connolly stirs up such strong emotion is his discretion-free embrace of our capitalist republic’s crazy contradictions.

“I wanted to update you on the status of my pending criminal trial,” he crowed in an October 14 email. “It has become the “Trial that might have been.” [Emphasis original, but you probably knew that.]

Indeed, the judge postponed Connolly’s October 26 court date with the DA, who’s bringing him up on two felony counts of making illegal corporate donations to political campaigns. Connolly and attorney Adam Cortez were banking on the tenuous “corporation” part of the charge: The offending checks were written from the bank account of Connolly’s limited partnership, in which his corporation owns a lowly 1-percent interest. [See the QueQue, October 7.] But then someone noticed that the Roberts’s Supreme Court appears to be thinking about overturning the 100-year precedent that bans those direct corporate campaign gifts. An opinion in that case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, could come as early as this fall (or as late as next), and because it’s a First Amendment issue, it would affect any applicable case in litigation.

If the Supreme Court upends the rule, says White Collar Crime Division Chief Adriana Biggs, “We’d have to look at the opinion. If what we gleaned is that corporations have a First Amendment right to contribute directly to a campaign, it would affect our ability to move ahead with the case.”

Cortez believes there’s a “better than 50-percent chance there’s going to be a change in the current contribution laws.”

Critics of Chief Justice Roberts — who invited the arguments over the issue even though the case originally presented a much narrower issue — fear that a reversal of the long-established rule could end democracy as we know it, corporate pockets being much deeper than say, citizens’ and that federal election pot. But for Connolly, we suppose, it’d be a win-win situation: He, a free man, with a limitless supply of new donors to match with pliable politicians.

For more info on the Citizens United case, click here.

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