Senate votes against clean air

Yesterday was a bad day in both chambers of the Lege. We’ll start with the Senate, where a bill to block the City of Houston’s effort to enforce clean air regulations on plants outside its city limits was passed.

Mayor Bill White’s plans to clean up Houston’s air were dealt a blow Tuesday when the Senate tentatively passed a measure that would prohibit local governments from regulating pollution coming from outside their boundaries.

“This isn’t over air quality. It’s over city sovereignty,” said Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, who carried the bill. “This is a policy issue, not an environmental bill.”

Jackson also acknowledged the bill had become a partisan issue. It was passed along party lines, in a 20-11 vote.

Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, just back from a liver transplant, attempted to filibuster the bill but gave up his efforts to talk the bill to death after less than 30 minutes.

Until now, the city had successfully blocked legislative attempts to limit its power to clean Houston’s air.

White wants to be able to bring nuisance charges against industrial plants outside Houston that send unhealthy concentrations of certain pollutants inside the city.

White said he would prefer not to use nuisance laws to crack down on air pollution from elsewhere, but he proposed that approach because the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has failed to adopt strong-enough standards limiting pollutants.

“For years, we have urged Texas state regulators to set maximum levels for the concentration of carcinogens, such as benzene. They should adopt the city’s detailed plan to reduce benzene or develop their own plan,” White said after Tuesday’s vote.

“Cleaning our region’s air is good for public health and our economy. We are not interested in reducing excessive emissions of air (toxics) placed in the air outside our city so long as folks keep it out of the lungs of people inside the city.”


Houston doesn’t have the right to regulate air quality in another city, said Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston.

“Houston is creating regulations other people have to live by. This is bad policy,” Janek said of White’s plan, adding that TCEQ ought to set tougher standards, not the city of Houston.

“We tried to leave it to the state for 15 years, and nothing’s happening,” Gallegos said. “TCEQ is not going to do anything. They will leave it as it is. You have the same fox guarding the hen house. Another two years will go by with no regulation.”

Strictly speaking, Sen. Janek has a valid point. This should be the TCEQ’s job. Unfortunately, the TCEQ lacks any real power to do that job. The Lege could give it a genuine mandate to do its job, and indeed multiple bills have been filed this session to do exactly that. Unfortunately, these and other such bills have to go through the House Environmental Regulation Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Dennis Bonnen, the polluter’s best friend in Austin. As the Dallas Morning News editorializes this morning, Bonnen has given great lip service to environmental action, but hasn’t done squat beside that.

While many lawmakers bear responsibility, Rep. Dennis Bonnen’s lack of leadership has been particularly disappointing.

Last month, the Angleton Republican, who leads the Environmental Regulation Committee, spoke of long-term strategies and clean energy. He scheduled hearings for 18 bills that would protect the air we breathe. We called it an “air quality extravaganza.”

While the pronouncements from the statehouse steps and the much-heralded hearings were dramatic statements, they’ve yet to yield substantive change.

Now, Mr. Bonnen is pledging to pass comprehensive reforms – in 2009.

Two years is too long to wait. Policies that would make polluting less profitable and would bolster urban areas’ efforts to meet federal air quality standards are urgently needed.

A years-long delay is a dangerous prospect for Dallas and other smog-choked cities.

And guess what? Bonnen may be responsible for letting Jackson’s bill come to the floor of the House, where it will undoubtedly pass on similarly partisan lines. That nugget is buried at the end of the Chron piece:

Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, has filed an identical measure in the House. That bill still is in committee. Once Jackson’s bill receives final passage, it is expected to substitute Smith’s measure for swifter passage.

See, Smith’s bill resides in Urban Affairs, which is chaired by Houston Democrat Kevin Bailey, who at this time seems unlikely to give it a hearing. But Jackson’s bill, now that it has passed the Senate, hasn’t been assigned to a House committee yet. If it goes to Urban Affairs, which as Jackson’s own statement about this being a “city sovreignity issue” it ought to go to, then most likely it’s sayonara. But if it goes to Bonnen, well, that will be that. I’ll keep an eye on that.

One last thing: This bill didn’t have to come up for a vote at all. While all eleven Democrats voted against the bill once it came to the floor, Sen. Eddie Lucio abstained on the matter of suspending the rules to allow it to come up. This is exactly the sort of crap that got Frank Madla primaried out in 2006. I don’t mind if Lucio or anyone agrees with Jackson on the merits of the bill, but be a grownup about it if so. This sort of thing is – pardon my French – chickenshit. Shame on you, Sen. Lucio.

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