Briefs Election reform, family planning, and Cuellar sides with GOP on trade 

Cuellar sides with GOP on trade

It wasn't a surprise, but opponents of the Central American Free Trade Agreement are nonetheless dismayed that House Democrat (or is he a Republican?) Henry Cuellar joined the GOP in his support for CAFTA. He announced his position at a recent speech to business supporters of the deal.

Lesley Ramsey of the Texas Fair Trade Coalition noted that pro-CAFTA lobbyists are courting Democrats, whom they need to ensure the agreement's passage. Although Cuellar ran as a D, he has been eyed as a closet Republican because of his previous support for George W. Bush and stint as Secretary of State under GOP Guv Rick Perry.

Cuellar's camp said in a prepared statement that the Dominican Republican portion of CAFTA, which includes five Central American countries, "would generate a net gain of more than 3,000 jobs" for Texas workers and add "$620 million to the Texas economy. He did not cite sources for those estimates.

By reducing or eliminating tariffs, American companies can more easily export goods to CAFTA countries. The San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, American Farm Bureau, and San Antonio Free Trade Alliance are endorsing the plan. Cuellar's district includes Laredo, which stands to gain from an increase in trade.

Yet, American companies move their factories to these countries to exploit sources of cheap labor and weak environmental and labor laws, jeopardizing not only sectors of the U.S. economy, but also the human rights of foreign workers.

Cuellar was quick to respond to the critics with his R-sounding rhetoric: "Opening the doors of trade will also give us the opportunity to closely monitor labor conditions abroad and ensure they are being held to the highest standards."

However, despite labor-rights protections within NAFTA, the economic model for CAFTA, worker abuses continue. Human Rights Watch reports that at least 23 complaints have been officially filed against American companies including General Electric, Honeywell, and General Motors, including allegations of forced pregnancy testing, denial of collective-bargaining rights, and firing employees for unionizing. None of the complaints resulted in sanctions; nor do the complaints account for the mounds of anecdotal evidence of violations.

The AFL-CIO's Linda Chavez retorted in her own press release that since NAFTA, Texas lost 170,000 manufacturing jobs. According to a 2000 Government Accountability Office report, of those participating in a program to retrain workers laid-off because of NAFTA, 47 percent were Latino.

Lisa Sorg

Ledge weighs election reform

Voting is the topic of three bills under consideration this session, including one that could help third-party and independent candidates.

SB 197, authored by Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, would allow municipalities, independent school districts, and primaries to use instant-runoff voting. Under this system, voters rank candidates from their first to last choice. If no candidate receives a majority of top-choice votes, the candidate receiving the fewest number of votes is automatically eliminated, and his or her votes are reassigned to the voter's second choice.

According to Barrientos' proposal, this system would eliminate expensive runoff elections. But third-party and independent candidates are also interested in the bill, hoping instant-runoff elections would level the playing field. "One of the biggest problems is that people perceive a vote for their conscience as a wasted vote," says Kris Overstreet, media coordinator for the Libertarian Party of Texas. "With instant runoff voting, you can use your first vote as a vote for your conscience, and then you can use other votes to vote against the party or candidate you don't want to win."

Also affecting third-party candidates is HB 1721, which would eliminate a "primary screenout" restriction. In Texas, citizens who participate in a party convention or vote in a primary election can't sign ballot access petitions for another political party or independent candidate. Texas is the last state to retain this restriction.

Addressing a hot topic in last November's election, HB 166 would require all electronic voting machines used in Texas to provide a paper receipt of the ballot. Voting machines would have to be certified and tested by a nationally recognized test laboratory.

State Senator Jeff Wentworth filed SB 1404, which would create a nine-member, bipartisan panel to control the redrawing of Texas' congressional districts. Although Wentworth, a Republican, has submitted similar proposals every session since 1993, this year his bill seems timely. In the 2003 session, Texas House Republicans, with support from U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, redrew congressional districts to favor the GOP. "The problem is that the party in the majority always kicks around whoever is in the minority," says Wentworth, whose Republican Party is in the majority for the first time since the Reconstruction era. "Texas ought to join the dozen or so other states that have concluded that the legislature is not the best place for these lines to be redrawn."

By Elyas Bakhtiari

You call this family planning?

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure goes the old adage, but not in Texas, where last week the Senate Finance Committee voted to shift $5 million from the Family Planning Program, which provides preventative health care, to crisis pregnancy centers that counsel women seeking alternatives to abortion. The $5 million will be cut over the next two years.

Finance Committee Chairman Senator Steve Ogden (R-Bryan), did not return calls from the Current, but was quoted in the Austin American-Statesman as saying that the reduction is a small portion of the Family Planning Program's $54 million budget, and that Medicaid provides many of the same services for low-income women. "Because it is so small," Ogden told the American-Statesman, "it doesn't really justify all the hyperventilating that goes along with it."

Critics of the rider, called "Alternatives to Abortion," disagree. "This tiny cut means 16,600 women don't get health care - it has significance," says Peggy Romberg, CEO of the Women's Health and Family Planning Association of Texas.

Community health clinics and hospitals that receive state funding through the program provide physical examinations, contraceptive education; cancer, diabetes, and STDs screenings, and other services. Crisis pregnancy centers are not licensed or regulated by any state agency, and do not offer medical services.

The vote came a day before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it would be illegal for Texas to disqualify Planned Parenthood for Family Planning Program monies because it provides abortion care with separate, private funds. "Alternatives to Abortion" is seen by critics as a fresh attack on Planned Parenthood, which receives $1.3 million annually from the Family Planning Program.

"`The Finance Committee` claims to be concerned about women's health, and to want to avoid abortions," says Jeffrey Hons, president and CEO for Planned Parenthood of San Antonio and South Central Texas. "How does decreasing family planning money, which helps women get contraception and reduces abortion, help?"

According to Romberg, women who receive health care through the program are not eligible for Medicaid. The Texas Department of State Health Services reported that, in 2003, it saved Texas taxpayers almost $500 million by preventing unintended births that would have been paid for by Medicaid.

"This is an ideological move rather than a practical move," says Romberg. "`The Finance Committee` would rather punish Planned Parenthood than prevent abortions."

By Susan Pagani

Massacre survivor to discuss peace

In October 1993, Adrien Niyongabo was fleeing a government-backed, military attack on his Burundi suburb. A Hutu, he was stopped by two men with guns who accused him of belonging to Tutsi, the rival tribe. Only after a friend of the family intervened did the men free Niyongabo, who fled to the hills for safety.

Seven years later, Niyongabo founded Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Services in Burundi, a Quaker-based organization, which he says helps genocide survivors and suspected perpetrators "face the remembrance of the past and live together in their communities."

In 2003, he helped establish the first Quaker trauma program in Rwanda, which specializes in trauma healing and reconciliation as these countries try to recover from ongoing violence.

Niyongabo will speak Wednesday, March 30 at 7 p.m. in the Heritage Room at St. Philip's college, 1801 Martin Luther King. Info: 532-8762.

Lisa Sorg



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