Mojo - September 2011

How Perry Pushed Donor's Nuclear Waste Dump

| Thu Sep. 1, 2011 3:46 PM PDT

Texas Gov. Rick Perry tried to remove a state commissioner who opposed expanding a West Texas nuclear waste dump run by one of his largest political donors, Reuters reports today. When it became clear that Bobby Gregory of the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Compact Commission might be able to block the dump from accepting out-of-state nuclear waste, Perry's office offered him an alternative job—a prestigious post on the board of regents of a state university.

The news is certain to fuel the longstanding political scandal over the dump, which was licensed in 2008 by Perry's top environmental regulator, Glenn Shankle, over the objections of his staff, three of whom resigned rather than sign off the on the deal (Shankle later left to become a lobbyist for the dump's parent company, Waste Control Solutions). WCS is owned by Harold Simmons, a billionaire corporate raider who has given Perry's campaigns at least $1.2 million.

As I reported in March, WCS had been trying to expand the dump from a fairly limited repository for waste from Texas and Vermont into what could become one of the largest nuclear waste dumps in the country. Approving the expansion was up to the compact commission, which was composed of six Perry appointees and two appointees from Vermont. But with the Vermont appointees likely to be replaced by anti-nuclear Democrats and Gregory and another Texas commissioner opposed to the expansion, Perry's office apparently saw a need to replace someone on the commission with a crony more friendly to Simmons.

After Gregory refused the governor's job offer, Reuters reports, the commission was called to vote on January 4th, before the terms of the Vermont Republicans ended. It approved expanding the dump by a vote of 5-2.

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Obama DOJ Cracks Down on Protesters Blocking Abortion Clinics

| Thu Sep. 1, 2011 12:44 PM PDT

The Obama administration has stepped up efforts to protect abortion clinics from protesters illegally impeding access to clinic grounds. NPR reported Thursday that the Department of Justice is bringing more civil suits against protesters who trespass and block access to clinics:

The numbers are most stark when it comes to civil lawsuits, which seek to create buffer zones around clinic entrances for people who have blocked access in the past. Under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, or FACE Act, the Justice Department's civil rights division has filed eight civil cases since the start of the Obama administration. That's a big increase over the George W. Bush years, when one case was filed in eight years.

Given the increasing attacks on abortion clinics around the country by lawmakers hell-bent on making abortion inaccessible, if not illegal, this is good news. But the piece also points out that there have been a number of incidents of violence in the past few months that should reiterate the need to take threats to clinics seriously. A Planned Parenthood office in McKinney, Texas and the Summit Women's Center in Detroit were both attacked with Molotov cocktails this summer, and a Wisconsin man was charged with attempted first-degree intentional homicide after threatening to shoot abortion providers.

As Sharon Levin, vice president at the National Abortion Federation, notes in the NPR piece, protesters who commit minor violations, like trespassing, often end up escalating to more violent acts if they aren't prosecuted.

25 Giant Corporations That Paid Their CEOs More Than They Paid Uncle Sam

| Thu Sep. 1, 2011 11:20 AM PDT

It might make sense for a small business to pay its top brass more than it doles out to Uncle Sam in taxes, but what if that company has tens of thousands of employees and billions of dollars in profits? Well, this is America folks. What follows is a list of 25 mega corporations that paid one guy—their CEO—more money than what they spent on their entire federal tax bills last year. The same companies averaged $1.9 billion each in profits—money that was earned, in many cases, by cutting thousands of American jobs.

Source: Institute for Policy StudiesSource: Institute for Policy Studies

Meme-Busting: Obama's Secret Plan to Win in 2012

| Thu Sep. 1, 2011 9:43 AM PDT
"Don't tell anyone what I told you, okay?" According to two GOP congressmen, President Obama has a secret plan to steal the 2012 election.

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) believes he's uncovered President Obama's secret plan to win next fall's presidential election: Grant citizenship to millions of undocumented residents with the expectation that they'll check his name at the ballot box come 2012. He's not alone; Rep. Louie Gohmert floated a similar conspiracy theory last week, telling Fox News that Obama would attempt to steal the election through some combination of massive voter fraud and blanket amnesty.

Here's what Coffman told Denver's Caplis & Silverman radio show last month:

There's another piece of this puzzle. What the Administration is doing, is taking a very aggressive move in the people that have illegal status and moving them through citizenship and waving all the fees and waving anything they can to get the process done in time for 2012. That's something I would love to see the media focus on.

Mercy! Expect to hear a lot more talk like this over the next 12 months, as right-wing media outlets shift into overdrive in the run-up to the election. The same thing transpired with ACORN in 2008 when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) famously declared that we are "on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy." (We're still here.)

California Health Insurance Regulation Bill Stalls

| Thu Sep. 1, 2011 9:20 AM PDT

As I reported on Wednesday, the California state legislature have been considering a bill, AB 52, that would give state regulators the power to reduce or even veto health insurance premium increases. On Thursday, though, the state Senate voted to table the bill, which passed the state Assembly in June but faced a decided lack of enthusiasm among upper-chamber legislators.

The bill's sponsor, Assemblyman Mike Feuer, conceded defeat—for the time being, at least: "Despite an outpouring of strong support from small business, working families and consumers throughout (California), the bill has hit a temporary roadblock in the Senate," Feuer said in a statement released to reporters.

A spokeswoman for Feuer said he will resume work on the bill next year. But the opposition to AB 52 is well-financed and doesn't seem likely to allow the measure to rise from the dead. The list of interest groups opposing AB 52 is long, featuring groups like the California Association of Health Plans and the California Medical Association. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), which negotiates health and retirement benefits for over 1.6 million Californians, also opposes the bill, fearing that it would impinge upon its authority to set HMO plan rates.

The problem of massive insurance rate increases is particularly acute in California. After the passage of federal health care reform, the Golden State's largest insurer raised rates by 16% over the objections of state regulators. And last year, the California-based non-profit provider Blue Shield proposed—but later retracted—a 39% hike for some individual policies. To top it off, the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council ranked California as the twelfth most-expensive state in terms of health care costs in 2011. The key takeaway? California continues to be a great target for health care reformers.

Oddly enough, AB 52 died the same day that a key piece of federal health care reform requiring regulators to review double-digit premium hikes went into effect. Is the federal rule a win for health insurance policyholders? Not quite: the federal bill doesn't give state regulators the power to reject increases they deem "unreasonable," as AB 52 would have. So it remains up to the states to wield rate-setting authority on their own. But even those with the authority to block increases don’t necessarily wield it, and states without that power sometimes end up negotiating premium reductions with insurers through informal channels.

Is there any hope for increased regulation of insurance giants in California? The Washington Post's Sarah Kliff thinks so. Call it The Great Man Theory of Health Insurance Regulation:

What the state does have: an incredibly aggressive insurance commissioner named Dave Jones, who has managed to convince nearly every major carrier in the state to drop its premium increases. He’s done this mostly with publicity blitzes: It doesn’t take a whole lot for a rate increase to rile up the public with a premium increase.

The rate-review regulation…lays down a lot of foundation for an insurance regulator who wants to be aggressive, requiring the review and publicizing of larger rate increases. States have also received grants to increase capacity to review rate increases. It’s now mostly up to regulators how they want to use these new tools.

Federal health care reform sought comprehensive change. But it also set the stage for state advocates to implement further incremental changes on top of the new federal structure. The point being: it's not entirely deluded to think that AB 52 and bills like it will get another chance, so long as lawmakers and advocates keep up the pressure.

Meet Rick Perry's Favorite Lobbyist

| Thu Sep. 1, 2011 7:07 AM PDT
Mike Toomey (left) and Rick Perry (right) have been friends since they entered the Texas House together in 1985.

In 2010, private corrections lobbyists gave Texas Governor Rick Perry $100,000 during his re-election campaign, and then Perry went on to push a series of proposals that would have privatized the prison health care system and neutered the commission tasked with oversight of the nation's second-largest inmate population—all in the name of austerity. That's the basic gist of my story today

But what's also noteworthy about the story is who it involves—specifically, Perry's former chief of staff Mike Toomey, who is now a lobbyist for the nation's largest private prison firm. He was also a lobbyist for Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the political juggernaut that has poured millions into Perry's campaigns and helped secure business-friendly tort reform in the state. Last month he started Make Us Great Again, a super PAC designed expressly to support the Governor's presidential run. Toomey was the lobbyist for the pharmaceutical giant Merck when Perry signed a controversial executive order mandating that adolescent girls receive a Merck vaccine against HPV. If you don't follow Texas politics, you probably don't know him, but he's had an outsized influence on Perry's rise.

I recommend reading Patricia Kilday Hart's profile of Toomey in Texas Monthly in 2003, back when Toomey was the Governor's chief of staff. Here's a snippet:

A common complaint heard around the Capitol is that Toomey "hasn't taken off his lobby hat"—meaning that as Perry's chief of staff, he continues to argue positions favorable to his former clients, especially [Texans for Lawsuit Reform]. Toomey was ready with his answer when I raised the point in our interview: "I have two responses to that. First of all, I didn't have any client that I didn't agree with philosophically about what they were doing. Just go through my client list. I don't have clients I disagree with." The second rebuttal was that he delegates issues on which he has lobbied previously to other staffers. As an example, he said he sent representatives of SBC Communications (Southwestern Bell) to an assistant, who could take the company's concerns directly to the governor, since Toomey himself had worked as a lobbyist for its competitor, AT&T...

Toomey's involvement on behalf of his former clients might become a major problem if he returns to lobbying for them, but Williamson says that is unlikely. He and other friends predict that Toomey will return to electoral politics, running for a statewide office like comptroller, or alternatively, go to work for a conservative advocacy foundation.

Anyway, read the whole thing.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 1, 2011

Thu Sep. 1, 2011 2:57 AM PDT

US Army Sgt. 1st Class Robert Russell uses his weapon's scope to secure an area during a bridge inspection in Zabul province, Afghanistan, Aug. 22, 2011. Russell is a platoon sergeant assigned to the Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul's security force. US Air Force photo by by Senior Airman Grovert Fuentes-Contreras.