Redefining reform

Sifting deeper into the rubble of the 74th session here in Austin, one finds several nominees for Worst Bill of the Session beyond the previously nominated "takings" bill, also known as "property rights."

One law we need desperately is truth-in-bill-naming. One more piece of special-interest, greed-head legislation called the Something Something Reform Act and we're going to have to get the dictionaries to redefine "reform."

How about: "Reform: Special usage, Texas only. Way to rip off the public for the benefit of a private corporation."

"Reform" (actually deform) of the Consumer Protection Act/Deceptive Trade Practices Act gives additional license to the worst kinds of businesses that operate in Texas. It's back to "buyer beware." If you get ripped off or even severely damaged by some sleazy business, don't bother trying to get your money back--much less any other compensation.

Southwestern Bell bought itself the sweetest little monopoly you ever did see--with our money. According to Tim Curtis of Texas Citizen Action, "Southwestern Bell had this deal bought and paid for before the session started.

"The only adjustments to their plan made by the other side--and that included little guys like us up to AT&T--were because we had arguments so persuasive and powerful they had to ameliorate some things just to cover their political butts."

The Southwestern Bell bill was supposed to bring competition (ha ha) to local phone service. It does things never done or even contemplated in any other jurisdiction, such as requiring other competitors to build their own phone lines. The bill is a sham--an absolute barrier to competition.

When the federal courts broke up AT&T several years ago, the courts recognized that the captive customers had an investment in telephone infrastructure--we bought it, we paid for it. Rates had been set all those years so that consumers paid for building the phone lines. In recognition of that investment by the public, the courts gave us competition and told AT&T, "You gotta share your lines."

In Texas, there is no recognition at all that public rates have been set over the years for capital investment or that we have been forced to invest in that infrastructure--there's no recognition that we played a part at all.

"We get nothing to pay us back," said Curtis. "We're getting shafted, our investment taken from us without returning a damn dime or even an opportunity for competition."

You want to know what this session was like? Consider the case of Richard Weekley, a big-time real estate developer who owns shopping malls and--along with his brother--a big housing company. Weekley appeared in Austin as president of Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the folks who were going to "reform" our tort system, Governor George Dubya's pet project.

Imagine my surprise when The Wall Street Journal listed Weekley as one of this session's biggest "winners." I'd have listed him as the session's biggest "over-reacher." When you behave so badly that one of the three top officeholders in Texas describes you as an "ass" and points out that tort reform would have been even more pro-bidness without your able assistance, I'd say "winner" was a little strong.

This "new, dynamic leader" of the tort-reform movement came into Austin like Attila the Hun, as though he owned the place or was buying it in some kind of Wall Street deal. He tried to put several provisions into the "reform" package that directly benefited his own businesses.

One said that if you are a landlord, you have no responsibility for third-party acts. That means that shopping-mall owners, like Weekley, could take down their parking lot lights and fire their security guards, 'cause who cares if some lady gets mugged in a dark parking lot?

Another clause said that if you file suit for construction mistakes, you lose--and what's more, you have to pay the other side's court costs. Say a builder has been using some cheesy materials that fall apart after 10 years. No responsibility falls to the builder--you have to sue the manufacturer. Even the Journal suggested that this "winner" stay home in 1997.

On another note, you will notice that we've been having another go-round in the debate about "values." The latest episode is Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole's speech in Hollywood, blaming bad movies and gangsta rap for the decline of civilization.

"Hypocrite!" shriek the lefties. A charge not without merit, as the senator limited his criticism to movies made by and starring your more Democratic types, carefully leaving out such distinguished purveyors of violence as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, Republicans both.

Indeed, Die Hard With A Vengeance, easily the most mindless glorification of violence currently on display, was bankrolled by Rupert Murdoch, the Republicans' sugar daddy. Murdoch has contributed more dreck to American culture than most, but Dole chose to aim his fire at Time-Warner, which gives money to Democrats.

I have listened to an awful lot of conservatives blame "liberal values" for everything from Snoop Doggy Dogg, who doesn't strike me as a liberal, to the drowning of Susan Smith's children in South Carolina. I have no idea what conservatives mean by "liberal values," but I know what I think conservative "values" are: greed and selfishness.

And, judging by this session of the Texas Legislature, greed and selfishness are taking over.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Copyright 1995 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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Molly Ivins