Jan. 13, 2005, 12:09AM

Union concerned over legislation

Lawmakers are urged to reconsider restructuring state human services


AUSTIN - The union that represents state employees Wednesday called on legislators to reconsider health and human services restructuring in light of a Houston Chronicle story outlining cronyism in privatization contracting.

"The articles in the Chronicle strongly suggest that the authors of the (House Bill) 2292 had major conflicts of interests," said Mike Gross, vice president of the Texas State Employees Union.

"We're concerned that the bill could pump Texas tax dollars into the pockets of well-connected corporations and drain resources from local communities," Gross said.

Gross said the legislation that passed in 2003 would close more than 200 local services eligibility offices and turn the functions over to call centers. He said that will make it more difficult for Texans to qualify for Medicaid or coverage under the Children's Health Insurance Program.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission is reviewing bids on privatizing the eligibility call centers. If the call centers are turned over to a private business, about 3,000 state employees are expected to lose their jobs.

The Chronicle reported earlier this month that former Health and Human Services Deputy Commissioner Gregg Phillips apparently set up a business partner in a consulting business advising clients on how to win state contracts that Phillips could influence.

And a company Phillips founded won millions of dollars in contracts through the Texas Workforce Commission, which is run by his longtime friend, Larry Temple.

Phillips helped write HB 2292 with private consultant Chris Britton, who was hired by then-state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson. Wohlgemuth was the official author of the legislation to restructure and privatize state human services.

Britton later explored bidding on state contracts mandated by the legislation he helped write.

State Rep. Kevin Bailey, D-Houston, chairman of the House General Investigating Committee, has said his panel is conducting a preliminary investigation into the state contracting to see if any laws were violated.

Gross said the Chronicle stories raise questions about the restructuring that lawmakers need to review.

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 Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau


Jan. 13, 2005, 8:47PM

Retailer out to polish image

Chain runs ads citing new jobs, employee benefits


Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, wants to be heard.

On Thursday the company ran full-page ads "setting the record straight" in more than 100 newspapers, including the Houston Chronicle, to counter negative publicity and portray the company as a good place to work.

The ads stress the company's employment benefits, commitment to diversity and goal of creating 100,000 new jobs this year.

Wal-Mart is responding to negative reports over such issues as employment practices, attempts by civic groups to keep the retailer out of their communities and a reputation for driving out small businesses.

Richard Costello, president of marketing consulting firm MagicEcho and former brand guru at General Electric, said Wal-Mart's image campaign is a smart idea.

"They're learning from the John Kerry experience," he said. "A challenge unanswered is going to kill you. They've been getting enormous negative publicity. This can do nothing but help them."

He added that he is surprised the company didn't act sooner.

Wal-Mart is wise to focus on employment issues when defending itself, because it is something that consumers can relate to, he said.

Such a campaign carries the downside that the media will rehash all the criticism, but Costello said, "They have the marketing muscle to drown out the noise."

As part of its campaign, Wal-Mart sent representatives to stores in 15 cities to field questions from the media.

In the Houston area, where the company has 22,000 workers, spokeswoman Christi Gallagher was at the Sugar Land Supercenter.

"There are some individuals across the country labor leaders, competitors or special interest groups who don't want us to succeed," Gallagher said. "We're simply tired of people saying things about us that just aren't true."

Critics either don't know enough about Wal-Mart or they are acting on misinformation, she said.

Germain Raney, personnel manager at the Sugar Land store, said wages and benefits are competitive and that "the opportunities are endless."

"Who knows? I may be retiring here," said Raney, 35.

Richard Shaw, secretary- treasurer of the Harris County AFL-CIO Council, maintained that Wal-Mart hurts communities. The company, he said, has more employees dependent on social welfare services "compared to people earning what we call living wages with benefits."

Noting that Wal-Mart states in its newspaper ad that it offers health care insurance with premiums that begin at less than $40 per month for individuals, Shaw said that Kroger, which is unionized, pays for the health insurance of employees earning comparable wages.

One of most high-profile examples of Wal-Mart's negative publicity occurred last June, when a federal judge granted class-action status to a sex discrimination suit against the retailer, making it the largest private civil rights lawsuit in history. The suit applies to as many as 1.6 million current and former female employees.

Also on Thursday, Wal-Mart unveiled a noncommercial Web site,, which provides information on employee benefits, the company's contributions to the community and more.

Wal-Mart has about 3,660 U.S. stores and 1,500 internationally, with sales of more than $250 billion.

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Reuters News Service and Chronicle reporter L.M. Sixel contributed to this story.


  Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle


Jan. 31, 2005, 9:34PM


Spellings brings a mother's touch

New education chief is the first in job while having children in school


WASHINGTON - When it came time for then-Gov. George W. Bush to move to the White House in 2001, there were plenty of Texans who hoped to go with him.

"But we all knew there were two people who were definitely going," said Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. "Karen Hughes was going, and Margaret Spellings was going."

On Monday, four years after he brought her to Washington as his senior domestic policy adviser, President Bush joined Spellings on stage as the former Houstonian was sworn in as his secretary of education.

"For more than 10 years, she's been right down the hall or by my side," Bush told about 300 people gathered at the Education Department. "Now I look forward to having her take her seat in the Cabinet Room."

Sealed with a kiss

The 47-year-old Spellings, who succeeds former Houston Independent School District Superintendent Rod Paige, had already taken her oath of office from White House chief of staff Andy Card on Inauguration Day. Card reprised the ceremony Monday, sealing it with a kiss on the cheek. In addition to the president, the audience included first lady Laura Bush, several Cabinet members, lawmakers and a small group of "FOMs" Friends of Margaret who sported huge buttons of Spellings on their lapels.

Spellings, who helped design and push through Congress the administration's No Child Left Behind law, "believes, as I do, that every child can learn, and that every school must teach," Bush said.

"She is talented, she is smart, she is capable, and she is a lot of fun to be around," he said, drawing laughter.

Spellings, the first education secretary who is the mother of school-age children, was accompanied on stage by her husband, two teenage daughters and two older stepsons. Her parents and sisters sat in the audience.

"In carrying out my duties to the American people, I will be carrying out my duties as a mom," she said. "And there is none more important than to provide a quality education to our children."

Spellings made a brief speech urging Bush and Congress to "stay the course" on No Child Left Behind, the 2002 law that requires schools to meet accepted standards on testing, teacher qualifications and safety, or risk losing some federal funding.

"When you signed No Child Left Behind into law three years ago, it was more than an act. It was an attitude," Spellings said. "An attitude that says it's right to measure our children's progress from year to year so we can help them before it's too late; an attitude that says expecting students to read and do math at grade level or better is not too much to ask."

Law has its critics

The law is working, Spellings said. Test scores in reading and math are rising and poor and minority students are improving their performance.

Now it's time to expand the law to high schools, where only 68 of every 100 students stays long enough to graduate, she and Bush agreed.

Critics of the education law and even some of its supporters have voiced concerns that the measure is poorly funded and managed and that it penalizes poorer schools at a time when they need increased federal assistance.

"We think there are some common-sense changes that can be made in the law to make it work at the classroom level," said Daniel Kaufman, spokesman for the National Education Association, a 2.7 million-member teacher group that supported Spellings' nomination."We support the goal of the law to leave no child behind. It's a great idea, but the devil is in the details."

Fallon, who worked closely with Spellings when she was in the governor's office, said the new education secretary is a good listener, bright, politically savvy and "a joy to work with."

"I have a lot of confidence that things that are common-sense issues will suddenly get fixed," Fallon said. And if Bush's actions in Texas are any indication, she said, "the president is going to be spending a lot of time on education."

Stayed behind the scene

Spellings, who attended Sharpstown public schools and the University of Houston, worked as a lobbyist for the Texas Association of School Boards before going to work for Bush.

While at the White House, she worked mostly behind the scenes and was rarely recognized in public. Those days are likely over, though.

In her first days at the Education Department, Spellings already has been forced to deal with the fallout from the department's controversial public relations contract with Armstrong Williams, a prominent black media commentator who was paid $240,000 to promote No Child Left Behind.

Paige has ordered an investigation. Federal law bans the use of public money for propaganda.

Spellings also made headlines last week when she denounced PBS for spending public money on a cartoon with lesbian characters, saying many parents would not want their children exposed to such lifestyles.

An episode of Postcards from Buster shows Buster, an animated bunny, on a trip to Vermont, which recognizes civil unions for same-sex couples. The focus of the show is on farm life and maple sugar, but it features two lesbian couples. PBS has since decided against distributing the episode.


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 Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau