Month: February 2000

The Olympia Scramble

Last week, legislative committees in Olympia decided on which bills would go before the Senate and the House. Many good bills died in committee, a few made it through committee, and lots of time was spent agonizing over the budget and transportation issues. With only three weeks left in this short session, there’s not much time to plug the funding holes left by I-695.

The repeal of the car tab tax left the state’s biennial budget short by $750 million. There’s about $74 million available under the I-601 spending cap that can be immediately used to fill some of the gap. There’s also about $200 million in unrestricted reserves and another $500 million set aside by law in the emergency reserve account. I-695 supporters want to see all of that reserve money spent. The only problem is, once the money’s gone, it’s gone. Spending the entire reserve–including emergency funds–to fill the gap in a single budget year is moronic, to say the least. Which means the legislature will probably try some combination of budget cuts and raiding of various trust fund accounts (the Housing Trust Fund, the tobacco settlement funds, etc.) to pay for transportation. And in the middle of all of this, there’s been a lot of chest-beating, election-year moves by both the Democrats and the Republicans to cut taxes, which would create an even bigger hole in the budget.

Governor Locke has provided no leadership on either the budget shortfall or the collapse of transportation funds. He has made a one-time allocation of $100 million to local transit authorities, giving them three or four months’ grace period before the big cuts have to happen. Meanwhile, his head-in-the-sand approach to transportation funding–i.e., leave it to his Blue Ribbon Committee on Transportation to study and recommend a solution in late November (after the November elections, of course)–is politicking at its worst and a clear dereliction of duty. At the very least, it’s a sign that Locke is another one of that odious breed of conservative Democrats who’s happy to find one issue (in this case, education) that he hopes will take the voters’ minds off his stunningly poor record. Yet, even Governor Lick-Ass’s education proposal is being savaged by this year’s legislature in the name of finding a little dough for road construction. On Feb. 5, Locke at last backed down and admitted that maybe this year’s legislature ought to address the transportation funding problem, but he has no coherent plan and clearly prefers to drop the subject, if possible.

In the meantime, the legislature has a narrow timeline to approve bills and work out a budget. The bills listed below are, as of this writing, being debated on the House and Senate floors. On Wed., February 16, bills that have survived a vote of the full House will be passed on to the Senate for another run through committee, and vice-versa for Senate bills. That process will take approximately two weeks. The final 10 days of the session will be devoted to voting on bills that survived committee, reconciling the House versions with the Senate versions of each bill that passed, and hammering out the budget.

This, then, is a progress report. (Note: House Bills have the “HB” designation and begin with the number 1 or 2 and Senate Bills have the “SB” designation and begin with the number 5 or 6. An additional “S” in front of a bill number designates a substitute bill.)

First of all, a lot of very good bills died in the first round of committee hearings. Most childcare bills died, including a provision for a toll-free childcare hotline that would have provided parents with free and easy-to-obtain information on childcare providers. Foster care bills fared badly, especially a couple of good proposals to provide educational assistance to children in foster care and to 18 to 21-year-olds raised in foster care who have no access to funds for college or other higher education options. Folks with disabilities got short shrift, too, as one bill after another failed to make it out of committee.

Affordable housing advocates watched some of their bills die, too, including a proposal to extend the “just cause” requirement to tenants outside of Seattle. Inside Seattle, landlords who want to evict tenants have to show “just cause”–not so, in the rest of the state. But a bill to preserve federally designated Section 8 housing and give tenants or non-profits a chance to buy former Section 8 properties (SSB 6663) survived and will be scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor; its chances in the House seem slim, however. Senate Bill SB 6689 would reallocate real estate excise taxes to local, low-cost housing. Call your senator and tell her or him to support these two bills.

Welfare advocates helped to shepherd through a few bills to mitigate the impact of the state’s welfare reform policies. SHB 2367 and SSB 6558 would allow single parents to count on-the-job internships and practicums as part of the work requirements under the WorkFirst rules. This is a no-brainer, and SHB 2367 passed the House unanimously. Similarly, SB 6365 and SB 6364 would allow apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs to also qualify as work. Another bill, 2S6167, would make it easier for low-income folks to maintain access to Medicaid by removing the “assets test” for people who re-apply for benefits. It does, however, force everyone to use the same application when they apply. Currently, pregnant women and children use a simplified application that’s less burdensome. This problem, however, could be hammered out later.

The big social issue of this session has been the state’s health insurance crisis. The legislature has bypassed any discussion of fixing the state’s Basic Health Plan and concentrated instead on two items: the Patients’ Bill of Rights and the private insurance market.

The Patients’ Bill of Rights has come up in prior years, but has hit a dead end every time. Not this year. A much-amended version sailed through the Senate on a 48-1 vote. It has already passed through the House Health Care Committee and is scheduled for a vote on the House floor, where it will probably pass (2SHB 2331). It will give patients the right to sue HMOs, requires insurance carriers to offer a choice of providers, and would ensure the confidentiality of patient information. One provision, however, is problematic; the bill would allow patients a third-party review for claims that have been denied, but there’s no time limit on how quickly that review must occur. It’s a bad sign when both Premera Blue Cross and Regence BlueShield representatives gloat that they are already in compliance with this provision. Only a week ago Premera agreed to pay the state a $55,000 fine for illegally denying patients’ claims to cover emergency room visits. Regence has also been accused of the same crime, as has Aetna. And QualMed Washington paid a $250,000 fine last August for emergency-room claim denials.

The insurance industry has another trick up its sleeve. Two bills (one in each house) address the private insurance market. Both bills would change state law to lengthen the time people with pre-existing conditions must wait before they can qualify for private insurance. Currently, the wait is only three months. HB 2362 would extend that to six months, while HB 2360 would extend it to one year, primarily at the request of insurance companies that don’t want to cover pregnant women or “high-risk” individuals (for example, a person recently diagnosed with cancer). Both bills are bad, both have stalled in the House Health Care Committee–but both are also exempted from the usual cut-off dates, so either one could be revived at any time. Ominously, a substitute Senate bill, 2SSB 6067, which pushes similar changes to our state’s insurance laws, is scheduled for a Senate floor vote. Some legislators want to tack it on to the Patients’ Bill of Rights. Call your Senator and tell him or her to vote this one down.

On the bright side, two bills–HB 2031 and SB 5920–require health insurance plans to offer their enrollees direct access to midwives. These bills have passed both houses and could easily become law by the end of the session.

These are only a few of the many bills that have passed committee. To check on the status of these and other bills, you can call the Bill Room at 360-785-7573. To reach your legislators, you can call the toll-free hotline at 1-800-562-6000 (TDD 1-800-635-9993). Via the Internet, you can visit http://www.leg.wa.gov to see the texts and status of bills, follow the legislative schedule, and find out who your representatives are.

One Planet – February 16, 2000

Diamonds Are for Terror

Many people think that Africa is a poor continent. The African people are poor, but the continent itself is the richest in the world–which is the very reason why the African people were (and are still) subject to colonialism, long-running civil wars, and governmental corruption. One example of this is Angola.

Angola has some of the most productive diamond mines in the world. Unfortunately, some of those diamond mines are in the hands of Jonas Savimbi and the UNITA rebels, who are responsible (along with the CIA, which helped to fund and train UNITA in the 1970s) for a bloody civil war that has lasted over a quarter of a century. In the mid-1990s it looked as if the Angolan civil war was finally over: a ceasefire was in effect, the UN had brokered an agreement between the two sides, the new government in South Africa was not supporting UNITA (as the old, apartheid regime had), and UNITA had agreed to disarm. But something went wrong.

It’s not unusual for rebels to hide their weapons and instead turn in a handful of broken guns, hoping that this will satisfy the UN. In the case of UNITA, however, there weren’t many weapons left to stash away–it was a movement on the wane, with few soldiers left in the ranks and not much territory under its control. And then the diamond merchants took notice. They didn’t want to deal with the socialist government in Luanda, its state diamond company, Endiama, and the National Bank of Angola.

Suddenly, in 1998, UNITA revived, Savimbi willingly broke the four-year-old ceasefire, and his troops began to take over large areas of the Angolan highlands–diamond country. UNITA had new tanks and guns. White mercenaries appeared among its ranks. In 1993 the UN had imposed an arms and fuel embargo on UNITA, and on July 1, 1998, the UN slapped diamond sanctions on UNITA. But the new sanctions relied on a system of honor: the diamond industry was to simply make an effort not to buy diamonds directly from UNITA rebels or the areas they controlled.

The diamond industry has given lip service to the sanctions, especially the South African diamond company De Beers, which views southern Africa as its territory. De Beers continues to this day to buy diamonds from UNITA–as well as the rebels in Sierra Leone–in violation of the sanctions. Diamond sales have brought in an estimated $8 billion to UNITA.

In early January of this year, the UN attempted to tighten the sanctions by requiring each diamond purchased in southern Africa to carry a certificate of origin and a document from the exporting country. This has “started to disrupt the world trade” in diamonds, according to industry observers. De Beers has announced that it won’t buy from UNITA, but observers point out that UNITA usually sells its stock to diamond traders–middle men–who then mix the UNITA diamonds with legitimate gems and sell them in a package to De Beers and other companies. Certification documents are easily forged, and corruption within the Angolan government makes this easy.

UNITA has spread its $8 billion dollars all around the African continent and beyond. Togo, Burkina Faso, and the Ugandan military have sold supplies to UNITA. The Zambian government recently impounded a Ukrainian airplane flying supplies into UNITA territory and arrested the Zambian businessman and nine Ukrainians involved in the flight. Even airplanes from the Angolan state oil company have been spotted at UNITA landing strips; corrupt Angolan officials are cashing in by selling fuel to the rebels in violation of the sanctions. UN observers have found chemical weapons among caches abandoned by retreating UNITA troops. UNITA forces have been active in Namibia, capturing and killing French tourists, and have been making incursions into Zambia, too.

But the Angolan government has resources to fight UNITA. Rich with oil revenue from offshore drilling and sitting on one of the richest oil regions in the world, the Luanda regime can afford the airplanes, anti-tank guns, and helicopters needed to destroy UNITA. But every penny spent on the war is wasted money that could be spent on social programs for the general population, and it’s the civilian population, as usual, that is suffering the most in this war. Landmine victims, refugees displaced from their homes, and pockets of starving civilians surrounded by UNITA rebels in the Angolan highlands have highlighted the absurd nature of a civil war fought over shiny stones.

It’s a conflict being repeated all over Africa, from Sierra Leone to the Congo. For Africa, diamonds are not a symbol of romance and eternity, they’re a symbol of terror.

One Planet – February 2, 2000

On Jan. 21, indigenous people and members of the Ecuadoran military took over the government of Ecuador. After days of protest aimed at Ecuador’s failing economy and the government’s recent announcement to declare the U.S. dollar the official currency, indigenous people entered the parliament building in Quito and, marching with a sympathetic escort of mid-level military officers, drove Ecuadoran President Jamil Mahuad from the presidential palace. The protesters met with high-ranking military officers, and a new government was declared. It was to be led by a triumvirate: indigenous leader Antonio Vargas, former president of the Supreme Court Carlos Solarzano, and Chief of the Joint Command, General Carlos Mendoza. But just three hours after the declaration, General Mendoza unilaterally handed over the government to Vice President Gustavo Naboa, Mahuad’s successor. Mendoza caved in to foreign pressure–the U.S. threatened to slap sanctions on Ecuador similar to the current, crippling sanctions against Cuba, and all the other South America nations (with the exception of Venezuela) condemned the coup. In the aftermath, the leaders of the indigenous union went into hiding and vowed to continue the fight to overturn the Ecuadoran government from the outlying provinces. Whether this means the beginning of an armed struggle remains to be seen. Up to this point, the indigenous movement has been peaceful, but has won only a few seats in parliament and almost no concessions from a government bent on implementing IMF structural adjustments. Ninety percent of Ecuador’s population is indigenous, and the per capita income of Ecuador’s Indian population is a shockingly low $250 per year.

On Jan. 15, 95,000 electricity workers went on strike in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. Four of the northern state’s six power plants were shut down, leaving millions of people in darkness and without heat. The strikers were protesting the government’s plans to privatize electrical utilities. Police immediately arrested four labor organizers in an attempt to stop the strike. However, on Jan. 17, 100,000 dockworkers went out on strike to demand higher wages, effectively shutting down all of India’s major ports in the first major dockworkers strike in over a decade. Bolstered by the port actions, the electricity strike spilled over into neighboring Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan states. And finally, on Jan. 21, transport workers in New Delhi went on strike to protest a new tax on vehicles entering the city–just one month after a nationwide transport strike over increases in the price of diesel fuel crippled commerce throughout the country.

In a panic, the government called out the military to replace strikers at the ports and power plants. Sixty engineers were fired for “sabotage” and 4,000 electrical workers were fired for “failing to maintain essential services,” a crime under Indian law. Nevertheless, the strikers held firm, continued to blockade many of the ports and electrical facilities, and large numbers of government workers and teachers walked out in solidarity. Finally, the government relented and said it would study the port workers’ demands; their five-day strike came to a successful end. The government has also begun to negotiate with electrical workers in earnest and released two of the key organizers of the strike. Nevertheless, the Indian government says it will comply with IMF demands to privatize the electrical industry.

On Jan. 26, the all-male Egyptian parliament voted to grant Egyptian women the right to divorce their husbands without first having to prove spousal abuse. Egypt, a strong U.S. ally in the Middle East, has long discriminated against women in its divorce laws. Men are able to divorce their wives by simply uttering “I divorce thee” three times. One conservative member of parliament reacted in horror. “Women have their unique physiological nature, different from any other living being,” said Ahmed Abu Hijji. “At certain times every month, they become short-tempered and changeable and they might try to divorce just because of that. It’s a very dangerous thing.” The bill, which also allows women to travel abroad without the consent of their husbands, has one catch: a woman has to pay back the dowry her husband paid for her at the time of the marriage, and forgo alimony payments. “Poor women will not be able to afford it,” said Hoda Badran, a feminist. “These changes will largely benefit wealthy women who are the only ones likely to travel abroad or be able to buy their way out of a marriage.” Inadvertently pointing out the problem of institutional sexism, which places little value on a woman’s life, one disgruntled male added: “I believe there will be lots of women murdered because a man won’t tolerate a woman leaving him, and might suspect she has been having an affair.” …Which is, of course, an all too common occurrence in Western, so-called “enlightened” nations.

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