The majority of Houston-area lawmakers in the Texas House voted against legislation intended to protect the public from toxic air pollution, a Houston Chronicle analysis of 2005 voting records has found.
The five rejected amendments would have made the state's health screening levels for pollution more strict, required companies to continuously monitor emissions and set fines for the periodic releases known as "upsets" that plague fence-line neighborhoods.
Yet 20 of 34 representatives in the eight-county region, where toxic pollution problems have been well-documented, particularly along the Houston Ship Channel, voted to table these actions.
All 20 of the dissenters are Republicans, some of them representing industrial districts such as Pasadena, Baytown and Seabrook, where people and industry exist side by side.
Typically, a party-line vote on legislation to increase regulations on industry would not be surprising. However, legislators during this year's regular session were presented with increasing evidence that toxic pollution was a problem locally and that Houston residents were more concerned than ever about its impact on health.
"These numbers are shocking when you consider the myriad of air issues facing the Houston area," said Colin Leyden, executive director of the League of Conservation Voters. The League recently reviewed votes on three of the amendments as part of its annual Scorecard; the Chronicle analysis revisited and expanded upon the group's effort.
Democrats who backed the amendments were banking on that momentum continuing into the session. It didn't.
The issue "was certainly brought to the forefront for Houston legislators, especially. I was hoping that there might be enough pressure building that there would be some support behind these efforts," said Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, the only Democrat to not vote to keep all five amendments in House Bill 1900, legislation that streamlines the reporting of pollution.
"You are still having to overcome industry opposition," Eiland said. "Industry still has a lot of say-so, even in areas like this, where public health and quality of life are at issue."
Rep. Toby Goodman, R-Arlington, whose tabled amendment would have lowered the levels the state uses to screen pollution's health effects, agreed.
"I didn't need many more votes. I am a mainstream Republican member and a lot of mainstream Republicans follow me," Goodman said. "I get closer than anyone else, but I still don't win. Industry is the reason you don't win, the mindset of the members of the House against further regulation, and the misguided perception that if you vote for an amendment to clean up the air and water you are some sort of liberal activist."
The lack of support by the Houston delegation for pollution-cutting measures this year could crimp plans by Mayor Bill White, who has said he will use the Legislature as a means to improve air quality in the region.
Elena Marks, the mayor's health policy director, said the administration will work next session to change some minds.
"Ultimately, I don't think it will cut along party lines. For those for whom it is not a top priority, we have to work that much harder to educate them," she said. "I'm just not sure they have been educated on balancing out need for regulations and need for public health."