AUSTIN, Texas -- Here's another to add to our growing list of needed corporate reforms. When some poor company -- caught in endless coils of red tape, strangled by mean government bureaucrats, its last gasp of entrepreneurial energy driven out by nasty investigators -- is finally forced to pay for some slightly overzealous bit of capitalist behavior, what is that poor company to do? Write the fine off on its taxes, of course.

Yes, incredible as it sounds, when corporations are fined for breaking the law, they can deduct the fine from their tax bill. This puts the rest of us taxpayers in the unhappy position of subsidizing corporate misbehavior.

This revolting situation is now being "looked at" by the Senate finance committee Chair Max Baucus. Kudos to The Wall Street Journal for bringing this one to the public's attention. Is this a perfect example of how corrupted our political system has become by corporate special interests, or what? This policy should not be tossed aside lightly. It needs to be thrown aside with great force.

If you are feeling down about our political situation, you should have been at the rally of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) this weekend. Ten thousand community activists -- from COPS in San Antonio, Valley Interfaith, EPISO in El Paso, ACT in Fort Worth --- all roaring with energy. They had ridden on buses for hours through the rain to come to Austin for a giant rally and "accountability session" for political candidates.

The only major no-show was Gov. Goodhair Perry. Kay Bailey Hutchison, John Cornyn, Tony Sanchez, Ron Kirk and a bunch of down-ballot candidates smart enough to figure out they were looking at around a half-million votes came out for the big do.

IAF, which is also active in Arizona, New Mexico and California, is one of the most effective community organizing groups in the country. Its members decide their own agenda, which usually covers basic government services like fixing pot holes, stop signs near schools, and water and sewer for the colonias. Whatever they need, they work with the appropriate level of government to get it.

It was the IAF that pushed the Texas state legislature into funding water for the colonias and got Hutchison to help fund it through the feds. They've been tackling larger issues, as well. They are one of the major forces behind the living wage campaign and are also addressing some serious public health issues. They work through the churches and have been especially effective in helping the schools.

If you've forgotten what people power looks like, go to an IAF rally. Democracy only works if people work at it, and these folks do. It's actually a grand thing to see politicians forced to answer questions specifically -- no ducking, dodging or bull. Do you support us on this issue, yes or no? Will you work with us on it, yes or no?

The lead organizer for IAF is Ernie Cortes, a most unusual Texas Aggie. A few years back, he got one of those genius grants from the MacArthur Foundation. Like all great organizers, Cortes stays very much in the background and lets the people lead. And what leaders they are producing -- people who can tell their stories and explain their concerns in the most direct way.

A guy who was making $6 an hour as a plumber in the Rio Grande Valley couldn't support his family on it. So he came to Austin and got a job for $18 an hour, but he missed his son's first steps and first words. Now he's moved back to the Valley and can support his family thanks to the living-wage campaign. These moving personal testimonies about how much difference action by determined and disciplined citizens can make in the lives of regular folks are genuinely inspirational.

The IAFers filled, of all places, the Frank Erwin Center -- the UT basketball arena named after the late chairman of the board of regents. The right-wing Erwin had no use for political activists. He once referred to anti-Vietnam War protesters as "a bunch of dirty nuthin's" and for years afterward campus activists wore buttons that said, "Dirty nuthin'" The bust of Erwin that normally resides in the lobby of the place was moved to a closet for the day, where it looked down in beady anger at a luckless copy machine.

As people become more cynical and disgusted by the rampant corruption of our politics by big money and by vapid or nasty political rhetoric, we sometimes forget just how moving real democracy can be. The 10,000 people who filled that hall represent the hope of this country. And that's a wonderful thing to think about on Sept. 11.

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 2002 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.