AUSTIN, Texas -- The corporations might as well write the names of state governments up on the bathroom walls: "For a good time, call Bush and the Texas Lege. They're easy! They're cheap!"

The Washington Post broke a fascinating story last week about the utility industry's funneling millions of dollars into two phony grass-roots organizations in order to stop Congress from deregulating utilities. Congress may be up for sale, as we have seen time and again, but the utilities prefer to be deregulated in state capitols, where they get so much more bang for their campaign-contribution buck. Part-time legislators from Pierre, S.D., to Austin (the Texans meet for 140 days once every two years), are so much less likely to understand the arcane details of fair rate-setting than the full-timers in D.C.

Post reporter John Mintz got a stack of files about "the Project," the secret, industry-funded effort. According to the memos, the Project was "discreet, guarded and highly confidential. ... Fear of congressional reprisals conditioned this style. ... It would be prudent to avoid rash openness." Yes, that rash openness needs to be avoided every time, doesn't it?

Gov. George W. Bush likes to brag that he got a $2 billion property tax break for Texans. This sounds really impressive in a state like New Hampshire, but our state is so big that this amounts to a Big Mac a month for property owners.

What he also did is stick everybody with $8.5 billion in stealth taxes, added to our utility bills to bail out the electric companies for their "stranded costs." That's a euphemism for "poor management and stupid projects," the most spectacular examples being the two white-elephant nukes built by Texas Utilities (now TXU Electric) and Houston Lighting & Power (now owned by Reliant Energy.) Both were big contributors to "the Project."

Time magazine has an article this week about another choice example of state government at its weakest. Turns out that Bush's man Reyn Archer, the state health commissioner (he of the notably eccentric sociological opinions concerning minorities) was fixing to regulate ephedrine, a weight-loss product that had been linked to eight deaths in Texas and more than 1,400 health problems, including heart attacks, strokes and seizures.

But lo, just as the agency was set to formulate tough new rules for ephedrine, Archer changed his mind, called in the large manufacturers and let them change the proposed rules. By an amazing coincidence, lawyers working for ephedrine makers also channeled $40,000 to Bush's re-election campaign about the time of a key industry meeting with Archer.

The ephedrine producers also hired former U.S. Rep. Tom Loeffler, a Bush "Pioneer," who has provided $141,000 to Bush's gubernatorial campaigns and raised at least $100,000 for his presidential campaign, according to Time.

Scholars of Texas politics will recall Loeffler's immortal 1986 race for governor, notable chiefly for reports that he had worn shower caps on his feet during a visit to San Francisco so as not to get AIDS and for the most vapid campaign slogan in history: "Texas will always be Texas." As though we were about to change our name to "Minnesota." No one ever accused Loeffler of being bent over double with intellect, but he sure can raise money.

Time also has an update on the ongoing saga of the pharmaceutical industry's manipulation of state governments to their advantage. "Florida is one of about 30 states in which makers of brand-name drugs, often led by DuPont, have pushed to limit patient access to generic versions," reports Time. The upshot of a particularly fine DuPont effort in Florida is that people there are paying 25 percent more for their blood-thinning medication than if they had access to the generic. "For a cheap thrill, call Florida." How many times do we have to read this story before we finally get it? The pharmaceutical industry also tries to get its drug patents extended through Congress, but Congress is so ... expensive.

Back on the "stranded costs" rip-off: TXU Electric tried earlier this month to get the Public Utility Commission to agree to a $3.7 billion bill -- to be added to the bills of ratepayers in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex -- without even explaining what the $3.7 bil was for. Still subscribing to the theory that "it would be prudent to avoid rash openness."

Like, what in the world are we being billed for? Because it's sure not for the power we're using. The utility backed down after protests by Dallas and Fort Worth.

On April 30, The New York Times reported a great surge in merger activity and asset-swapping by utilities, "showing how quickly fears have evaporated that deregulation could cause widespread financial trauma in the industry." The reason the utilities are a hot new play among financiers is "the favorable terms that the industry was able to negotiate as old-fashioned rate regulation faded ... the utilities continue to enjoy ratepayer-financed bailouts for nuclear power plants and other assets."

It's nice that someone is enjoying it.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.