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August 20th, 2012:

Interview with Rep. Gene Green

Rep. Gene Green

Let’s get this round of interviews off with a strong start with a visit with Rep. Gene Green, who has been a fixture in local politics for a long time. First elected to Congress in 1992, Rep. Green was elected to the State House in 1972 and to the Senate in 1985. Rep. Green is a Democratic Senior Whip who serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. He’s a UH grad and a union man, and many of his former staffers and interns have gone on to political careers of their own. Here’s what we talked about:

Gene Green MP3

I now have the Yahoo! audio player enabled as a plugin for my blog (thanks, Greg Wythe!) and it works a little differently. Basically, as long as this is the top audio file on my index page, you ought to see a “Play” control button next to the link above. If not, or later this week when I have another interview published, simply clicking the link ought to play the audio via the player. If something goes wrong as can happen when implementing something new, let me know. You can always right-click to save the MP3 file to your computer.

You can still find a list of all interviews I did for this primary cycle, plus other related information, on my 2012 Harris County Primary Elections page and my 2012 Texas Primary Elections page, which I now need to update to include fall candidate information. And since I haven’t mentioned it since the last interview, you can also follow this blog by liking its Facebook page.

The ballot propositions we won’t have

Today is the 78th day before the November 6 election. That makes it the statutory deadline for ordering an election, as noted by the Secretary of State. They cite Sec. 201.054 of the Elections Code for this, which seems wrong to me; Sec. 201.051 appears to be more on point, though that still doesn’t specifically address ballot referenda. In any event, assuming they know what they’re talking about, that means today is the last day that a charter amendment referendum can be added to Houston’s ballot for November. So, even if the City Secretary has finished certifying the petition signatures for the measure to overturn the homeless feeding ordinance, unless City Council approves it today, the item is moot. It can’t be voted on this year. Moreover, since there were two charter amendments in with the bond referenda, if those charter amendments are approved, there can be no more charter amendments put on the ballot for two more years. And since Election Day in 2014 is November 4, which is not quite two years after this year’s election on November 6, the next available time for a charter amendment election would be May of 2015.

There were at least two more charter amendments that had been potentially on tap for this year that will also now have to wait. There were a pair of anti-immigration proposals for which signatures were collected but apparently never submitted. I can only presume they did not get enough signatures, which makes me happy. Of course, if Dan Patrick gets his way and passes a “sanctuary cities” bill then it ultimately won’t matter. The other was a referendum to overturn the 2001 charter amendment that bans the city from providing domestic partner benefits to its employees. As far as I can tell, no effort to collect petition signatures for that was ever launched. I’m pretty sure the Lege will not intervene on this matter before May of 2015, so it will have to wait for the next electoral opportunity. Those are the ones I recall, anyway. If you know of others let me know.

Count tells EPA to review flex permits

Score one for Texas.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday that the Environmental Protection Agency’s disapproval of Texas’ Flexible Permits program was not supported by the Clean Air Act.

Under the Flexible Permits program, which had been in place since 1994, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality put a cap on allowed emissions from oil refineries and other industrial plants by facility. EPA officials announced in 2010 that they disapproved of the program because it might allow major polluters to exceed federal standards, record-keeping was inadequate and the methodology for calculating the emissions cap was unclear. As a result, those flexible permits were no longer accepted under the Clean Air Act. The facilities that already possessed flexible permits were subject to federal fines.

In the opinion, the court called the EPA’s disapproval of Texas’ program “untimely” and said it “unraveled approximately 140 permits” issued under the program. The court said the EPA’s reasoning was mainly based on wording, and not actual standards or procedures.

“A state’s ‘broad responsibility regarding the means’ to achieve better air quality would be hollow indeed if the state were not even responsible for its own sentence structure,” the court says in the opinion.

The opinion says the EPA must further consider the program.

Court opinion on matters pertaining to the EPA had been running against the state recently, so I’m sure they’re celebrating in the AG’s office. It’s not a huge win for the state, however:

Elena Craft at the Environmental Defense fund pointed out that the court’s decision does not rubber stamp Texas’ Flexible Permits program, but rather deems the EPA’s reasons for disapproving the program inadequate. The program still needs approval from the EPA to exist.

“The reality is that there’s no real change of the situation on the ground,” Craft said. “These [permits] are still not approved by the EPA, so they’re still susceptible to government enforcement until approved.”

The flex permits may yet be denied, but not until further review and not on the grounds cited so far. This story isn’t finished yet.

HISD takes another crack at ethics reform

Good luck.

Houston school trustees on Thursday renewed serious talks about tightening their ethics rules after failing to agree on new policies late last year.

The proposed changes, meant to restore public confidence that the Houston Independent School District is hiring the best contractors without undue influence, also could affect trustees’ political campaign coffers.

Trustees would have to abstain from voting on deals involving vendors who had contributed more than $500 to their campaigns the prior year. They also would have to disclose and abstain if they have a close relationship with a vendor.

Board president Mike Lunceford pledged that trustees would take a preliminary vote on the new policies in September. The changes would be in place before November, when the board is asking voters to approved a $1.9 billion bond issue that would result in the district awarding numerous lucrative construction contracts.

“This is something that should have happened a long time ago,” trustee Juliet Stipeche said of adopting stricter rules. “We need to have higher ethical standards.”

This is true, and pushing for stronger ethics rules before rolling out the pro-bond referendum campaign makes a lot of sense and ought to help satisfy those who want to be supportive of the bonds but have qualms about some of the trustees’ behavior. Still, any set of rules can be circumvented – as Campos suggests, what happens if a vendor donates to a PAC that then attacks or supports a given candidate? I wouldn’t mind seeing publicly funded campaigns for school boards as I’ve suggested for judicial races, but in a post-Citizens United world, I don’t see a viable path towards that end. Honestly, what we really need are more voters that are willing to hold accountable trustees that don’t act in an ethical manner. If we had Board whose members all instinctively acted correctly in these matters, we wouldn’t have to sweat the details nearly as much.