.

Rick Perry: The Best Little Whore In Texas

Page 3 of 6

The Perry-Simmons nuclear landfill is surrounded by giant piles of red clay rising up out of the desert, flanked by huge manmade chasms designed to hold sand-covered drums of sizzling waste. A person entering its gates feels an irresistible urge to wear lead underpants. It's a terrifying sight, but it's even more disturbing as a symbol of Rick Perry's style of government. In Perry's Texas, state regulation doesn't work because regulatory seats can be bought, and the free market doesn't work because connections and influence matter more than competition and performance. The landfill run by Perry's pals at Waste Control Specialists represents an extreme example of both dysfunctional ends of the governor's approach to government, a taxpayer-financed hole in the ground that is as extremely unsafe as it is woefully uneconomic. "The WCS plant," says Lon Burnam, a Texas state representative, "is the ultimate example of Perry's crony capitalism."

Perry's great triumph as governor has been the construction of an elaborate political machine, one that operates according to its own separate dynamic, using donations, appointments and favors as currency. In fact, Texas is run much like a Soviet protectorate, with a party boss (Perry) and a Politburo of superconnected advisers to the governor who shuffle back and forth between the public and private spheres (Perry's chief of staff, Mike "The Knife" Toomey, for instance, jumped from the governor's office to a job lobbying for Merck prior to the HPV vaccination order), all backed by a somewhat larger Central Committee of big financial donors who are the real "representative" power in the state, much more than the actual state legislature.

Who's on that Central Committee? It's not that hard to figure out. Texas has no limit on individual donations to political candidates, which means the governor's best friends don't have to hide behind soft money and other back-door channels. In Texas, you can pay your tribute right out in the open.

"The total of hard-money donations to Perry's three gubernatorial campaigns is $102 million," says McDonald, who tracks the state's pay-for-play system on behalf of Texans for Public Justice. "Half of that, $51 million plus, came from just 204 donors."

Simmons, the billionaire owner of WCS, is near the top of that list of Perry's 204 super-insiders, having personally donated more than $1 million to Perry's three gubernatorial campaigns. If you add in his donations to the Republican Governors Association, which Perry was elected to lead last year, then Simmons and his company have donated $3 million to Perry-friendly causes in the past 10 years. That makes Simmons the second-biggest donor in Perry's camp, behind the homebuilding magnate Bob Perry (no relation), who has handed over an astonishing $13.7 million to Perry and the governors association.

The system of uncapped donations means that Perry's superinsiders effectively operate as mobsters who hold a chit on the state's government. "These are obscenely huge amounts," says McDonald. "You can give a politician $100 or $1,000 because you like his ideology. But when you start giving him $250,000 or $500,000, you gotta think you are getting something in return."

So what did Harold Simmons get for his money? A lot.

For starters, a group of Perry appointees on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality gave Simmons a license to build his hazardous nuke dump, even after the TCEQ's own team of scientists agreed that the project was too risky, given how dangerously close it lies to the Ogalalla aquifer, which provides drinking water for seven states.

When I visit the site in September, it has just rained in the area for the first time in a year – really – and there is water all over the place. Rod Baltzer, the president of WCS, insists that the wastewater is being contained and disposed of in a safe, orderly fashion. But it's hard not to look beyond the dump to nearby Eunice, New Mexico, visible just a few miles away, and wonder about the wisdom of taking a private company's word that there is no contaminated water running underground to the nearby town. Especially since another of Simmons' companies, NL Industries, has already been caught leaking radioactive waste into an aquifer in Ohio. In a supremely ironic demonstration of how the modern system of payola capitalism works, Simmons is now being paid millions by taxpayers, via the federal Energy Department, to clean up his own mess, moving radioactive waste from his dump in Ohio to the one in Texas.

All of this is key to understanding Perry, because the WCS landfill so perfectly fits the business model of his key donors. The company leases the land for the dump, meaning that WCS keeps the lion's share of the profits, while the liability mostly stays with the state. There's no real regulation to speak of, and many of the state's decisions appear to have been greased by massive campaign contributions or other favors: The executive director of the state's environmental commission, for instance, received a job as a lobbyist for WCS not long after helping the firm get its license.

What's more, the company even got the government to pay for the landfill, lobbying the town of Andrews to float a $75 million bond issue to finance the construction of two new dump sites on the property. And in a final insult, WCS managed to negotiate a loophole exempting it from having to pay school taxes in Andrews. Instead, it offers a few small scholarships a year.

"When I was a kid, our high school was the first one in Texas to have carpets," says Melodye Pryor, a local resident and longtime opponent of the dump. "Now, our schools are falling apart."

Andrews is little more than a few crisscrossed roads in the middle of the desert, wrapped around a couple of gas stations and Mexican restaurants and populated by tough blue-collar workers hunkered down in modest little sun-cooked houses. If you can grasp this little working-class neck of Texas lending a Dallas billionaire $75 million so that he can keep 90 percent of the revenue from a dangerous nuclear-waste dump that runs without any real regulatory oversight, all while paying no school taxes, then you've begun to understand what Rick Perry's America might look like.

"It's the worst possible hybridization," says Medina, the Tea Party candidate who ran against Perry. "A private entity keeps the receipts. The state and the taxpayer own all the liability."

The descriptions of Perry's early political career all sound like the early chapters of true-crime books about serial killers, where nobody notices anything special about the protagonist until the bodies start piling up along the local riverbank. In Perry's case, those bodies didn't start showing up until 2000, when Bush became president and Perry assumed his seat as governor, turning the state government into a factory of obscene backroom deals. At first, like many of today's would-be Tea Party leaders, Perry started off trying to milk big government rather than dismantle it. In the late Eighties, when Michele Bachmann was training for her future as an anti-tax crusader by working for the IRS, Perry – who like Bush had a military pilot's background, but unlike Bush flew in the real Air Force for five years – was serving in the Texas state legislature, representing Haskell County, a dry little pocket of nowhere just north of Abilene and west of Dallas.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

prev
Politics Main Next

blog comments powered by Disqus
Around the Web
Powered By ZergNet

ABOUT THIS BLOG

Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

www.expandtheroom.com