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Norman Adams

Local control still under assault

Sucks to be us, Harris County.

San Jacinto River waste pits

With Harris County in its crosshairs, the Senate on Wednesday tentatively approved legislation that could make it tougher for Texas Counties to sue big-time polluters.

If finally passed, House Bill 1794 would notch another victory for a wide range of business groups in a legislative session that’s been kind to industry at the expense of environmentalists and advocates for local control. The proposal would set a 5-year statute of limitations and cap payouts at about $2 million when counties sue companies that have fouled their water or air.

A 24-6 vote with no debate set the bill up for a final Senate vote. The legislation already sailed through the House, pushed by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth.

Proponents say that curbing civil penalties assessed on top of those doled out by state regulators would bolster economic certainty for companies and allow them to focus resources on cleaning up their messes.

“This bill is about enforcing a policy that encourages people to do the right thing and not punish them,” said Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, who carried the proposal in the chamber.

But critics say the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) doesn’t do enough to hold polluters accountable, and that limiting local suits would encourage more pollution that jeopardizes public health.

“It is a terrible bill, and it is designed to protect polluters,” said Terry O’Rourke, special counsel with the Harris County Attorney’s office. “That’s all it is: It is a polluter protection bill.”

[…]

Under HB 1794, local governments and the state would evenly split the first $4.3 million awarded in a suit, and the state would pocket any amount above that limit.

County officials say the cap on local government collections would make it difficult, if not impossible to prosecute the most complex, egregious cases of pollution, because contingency fee lawyers would not sign on for such lower pay.

The counties, not the state typically initiate such actions, said O’Rourke, who has been prosecuting environmental cases since 1973.

“It is only by contingent fee litigation that you can prosecute global corporations that are operating in Houston – Harris County, he said. “You can’t attract people to that if you’re going to kill them with contamination.”

Anyone who thinks that this bill will be any kind of positive for counties – not just Harris, though it is the main target of this bill – is living in a fantasyland where voluntary compliance with environmental regulations would be sufficient. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if the TCEQ wasn’t a giant bag of industry-coddling suck, then lawsuits like these wouldn’t be necessary. All this will do is push the cost of pollution from the polluters where it belongs to the population at large. Hope no one reading this lives close to a site that won’t get cleaned up now.

And it’s not just county governments that are taking it in the shorts.

Norman Adams isn’t the kind of guy who is sensitive to smells, or much else. He wears cowboy boots and boasts of changing lots of his children’s and grandchildren’s diapers without gagging.

But the smell that wafts on the southerly breeze from a waste treatment processor toward buildings he owns on West 11th Street is “like an open septic tank, or worse.”

“Abusive,” he called the stench in a letter to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality opposing an application by Southwaste Disposal, to increase capacity at its liquid waste treatment facility near Houston’s booming Timbergrove neighborhood.

Adams begged regulators not to grant the expansion, instead requesting a “contested case hearing.” Such proceedings allow citizens who convince TCEQ that their health or pocketbook would be impacted by a permit to compel the company to demonstrate it can comply with environmental requirements.

But legislation awaiting Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature would make industry-friendly changes to the proceedings. It would set time lines to speed up the process, restrict who qualifies to ask for hearings and – most significantly – shift the burden of proof from companies seeking the permits to people opposing them.

The bills, which sailed through the Senate and House, have the backing of industry leaders who say contested case hearings make it harder for Texas to attract businesses by injecting uncertainty and expense into the process.

[…]

The bills tilt “the balance in favor of the polluters,” said Jim Marston, regional director with the Environmental Defense Fund’s Texas office. He also warned that Texas could jeopardize losing the Environmental Protection Agency’s authorization to administer permitting programs if signs the bills.

EPA spokesman Joe Hubbard on Tuesday said the legislation creates a “problematic” legal presumption. “We can’t speculate what action the (EPA) should take if the bills are passed and signed into state law,” he said.

See here and here for the background. I’d feel sorry for Norman Adams, but he’s a well-known Republican activist, so in a very real sense he’s getting the government he deserves. I do feel sorry for his neighbors, and for everyone else that will be put in this position. In Houston, where residential development is encroaching on former (and sometimes still active) industrial areas, that could be a lot of people. But hey, at least our ability to attract more pollution-oriented businesses will remain strong.

Down to the wire for “sanctuary cities”

There’s an 11th hour lobbying effort to stop the “sanctuary cities” bill as it is.

As two of Texas’ most politically-involved business leaders emerged as opponents, a bill banning “sanctuary cities” lost crucial momentum Friday, raising the possibility the measure will be killed or substantially weakened before the special session of the Texas Legislature ends Wednesday.

HillCo Partners’ lobby team, led by Neal T. “Buddy” Jones, is working on behalf of Houston home builder Bob Perry and San Antonio grocery store magnate Charles Butt to alter a proposal that would permit law enforcement officers to inquire about the immigration status of people they detain, Jones’ partner Bill Miller confirmed.

Miller declined to detail the changes Jones hopes to make in the legislation, saying only that they have “given language to members” to consider including in the proposal, which would carry financial penalties for cities that prohibit law enforcement from inquiring about immigration status.

The opposition of the business leaders demonstrates a schism in the Republican Party on the issue, designated a priority by Gov. Rick Perry. Bob Perry, no relation to the governor, is a prolific Republican contributor who has given $2.5 million to the governor’s campaign coffers since 2001. HEB CEO Butt has made substantial contributions to members of both parties.

Friday, the House State Affairs Committee canceled hearings scheduled to pass the bill for the second day in a row, due to a lack of a quorum, as exhausted lawmakers returned home to tend to their businesses and families. A meeting has been scheduled for Monday, but House leaders did not rule out that a meeting could be called during the weekend if enough lawmakers return to Austin.

[…]

Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, who sponsored the measure, expressed frustration that the two businessmen are “trying to kill the bill” at such a late hour.

“It’s good to know that my good friend, Buddy Jones, and his clients, Mr. Butt and Mr. Perry, decided after six months what they think a sanctuary cities bill ought to look like,” he said. “I don’t know where they’ve been for six months.”

Well, Burt, not to put too fine a point on it but for the first 140 days they knew that Democrats would kill the bill in the Senate, so there was no urgent need on their part to do anything. With the two-thirds rule out the window for the special session, they figured they needed to get their act together, and that meant lobbying Republicans. Any questions?

Perry and Butt aren’t the only ones telling Republicans to back off, and much as it pains me to say anything nice about the likes of Norman Adams and Steven Hotze, they’re doing the right thing for mostly the right reasons, so kudos to them. If they do succeed here, however, I still believe they need to rethink their strategy going forward, because unfortunately this issue isn’t going away. In fact, unless there’s a miraculous breakthrough on windstorm insurance reform in the next 24 hours or so, it may reappear later this week. So keep fighting the good fight and all that, but try to remember that plugging your fingers into the leaks isn’t the same thing as repairing the levee. PDiddie has more.

Same schism, next verse

I’m not surprised that there exist other GOP activists besides the usual Bob Perry/Bill Hammond/business interests types that aren’t happy with their party’s recent anti-immigrant/anti-Hispanic fixation. Nor am I surprised that like their business-oriented counterparts they haven’t figured out what to do about it.

A series of email exchanges between Republican Party boosters and the office of Gov. Rick Perry indicate some conservatives believe passing the contentious “sanctuary cities” bill may cripple efforts to recruit more Hispanics to their ranks.

The correspondence signals a potential rift between Perry, who appears intent on addressing immigration issues during the current special session, and some of the party’s backers as rumors surrounding a possible Perry presidential run continue to swirl.

“At the end of the day you should understand that Hispanic voters will not support a party that wants to deport their mother and father,” Norman Adams, the co-founder of Texans for Sensible Immigration Policy and a member of Texas GOP Vote, a conservative website, wrote to Ray Sullivan, Perry’s chief of staff. The messages are part of an email exchange that began June 2 and were obtained by the Tribune.

Dr. Steve Hotze, the chairman of Conservative Republicans of Texas, is included in the exchanges and urges Perry and Sullivan to reconsider. Hotze contributed at least $60,000 personally and at least $640,000 via his PAC to GOP House and Senate candidates in the last election cycle

“It seems that we should focus on recruiting Hispanics to the Republican ranks,” he wrote. “It appears this bill might accomplish just the opposite.”

And as much as I don’t want to see the “sanctuary cities” bill get passed, when it does get passed on GOP votes alone, the continued alienation it will bring them from Latinos will be well earned and well deserved. But I’ll say again, the solution to this is simple and obvious: Raise money and recruit candidates to take on the more noxious xenophobes in the next primary. Given that the one thing that motivates Republican officials the most strongly these days is fear of a primary challenge, you’d think this would be fairly simple to grasp. If they do, then one of two things will happen: Either they’ll have enough success knocking out the Riddles and Bermans of the world to change behavioral norms, or they’ll realize just how marginalized they are in their own party. Speaking as someone who isn’t a Republican, I’d consider either of those outcomes to be positive.

The anti-Prop 1 factions gear up

The usual suspects have gotten the band back together to ensure that no action is taken to mitigate flooding in Houston.

Former Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt has teamed up with anti-tax advocate Bruce Hotze and conservative activist Norman Adams, significant players in a previously successful effort to scuttle a drainage fee during the Lee Brown administration. They reformed the “No Rain Tax” PAC, Bettencourt said, and expect to raise enough money to run radio ads and phone banks against the measure.

Bettencourt said it was “preposterous” that the details about how the program would be implemented have yet to emerge with the vote only five weeks away.

“This is an open-ended blank check from the taxpayers,” he said.

I’ll stipulate that it’s taken a long time for all of the details of Prop 1 to be finalized. But let’s be clear, that’s just a convenient excuse for these guys. Had there been a fully realized plan six months ago, with every i dotted and t crossed, they’d claim some other reason to oppose this. That’s because they don’t want to pay any money to alleviate flooding problems in Houston. I don’t know if that’s because they don’t think there are flooding problems in Houston, or because they’re too cheap to pay the five bucks a month that Prop 1 would cost them, but I do know that in the nine years since the last time they defeated a proposal that was intended to tackle this problem, they haven’t offered any solutions of their own, or supported any candidates that offered a solution that they approved of. Thus, my conclusion that they’re not interested in being part of any solution.

I point that out to say once again that the choice here is not between Prop 1 and some alternate plan that you think would be cheaper or more effective or faster to implement or fairer or whatever. The choice is between Prop 1 and doing nothing for another decade or so, because I guarantee that if Prop 1 goes down, no further attempt will be made to tackle the problem until long after everyone has forgotten about this one. If you agree with Bettencourt, Hotze, and Adams that flooding isn’t a problem, then your choice is clear. If you’re voting against Prop 1 because you believe there’s a better way to solve the problem, then I look forward to seeing you work to get your preferred solution implemented, whatever it may be. As someone who does believe there is a problem, I’d hate to have to wait another ten years before we try to fix it.

As far as that faux concern about not knowing what the specifics will be, Mayor Parker has now set forth the details of the drainage fee. Council will not vote on it before the election, but there will probably be a resolution presented to Council so the principles of the Mayor’s plan can be approved. Yes, we should have had the details sooner than this. But I’ve believed from the beginning that the principle of needing to deal with this was sound, and that has been my motivation for supporting this effort.

One more thing:

Stan Merriman, a local Democratic activist who opposes the initiative and is working with [a different anti-Prop 1 PAC], said he could not support a fee structure that would require the same amount from an owner of a 5,000-square-foot-lot in Sunnyside and River Oaks.

“That’s fundamentally unfair,” he said.

Now that we have the Mayor’s plan for Prop 1 implementation, I hope it’s clear that Merriman’s assertion is factually wrong. Merriman has posted his bullet-point list of objections to Prop 1 in the comments to a couple of my posts as well as at Stace’s place. Among other things, he seems to be saying that there’s very little we can actually do about flooding, which was not something that he mentioned in his previous writing when he said that we should be “viewing such a project as one perfect for federal stimulus funds”. Be that as it may, I’ll say again that if Prop 1 does go down, I look forward to supporting the effort that Merriman and others like him plan to lead to do something about this. Because otherwise, if they don’t have one, they’re just agreeing with Bettencourt, Hotze, and Adams that there is no flooding problem in Houston.

UPDATE: Here’s the official link to the principles for Prop 1.

Renew Houston submits petitions

Renew Houston has submitted signatures to get its drainage improvement proposition on the ballot this November.

Renew Houston, a group of influential local engineers, has collected more than 30,000 signatures in a push to seek voter approval for an $8 billion initiative — and a monthly drainage fee – to better prevent flooding across the city.

For an average Houston homeowner with a 5,000-square-foot lot and a 2,500-square-foot home, the fee would be about $5 a month.

Here’s the Renew Houston press release on this. For background and details about what Renew Houston is proposing, see John, Perry, Tory, Neil, and me. My impression of this idea and plan is a favorable one, and as things stand now I would vote for it. But of course many people are not so inclined – I expect this to be a tough campaign for them, especially if there is an organized and funded opposition. What are these people going to say?

“On days like today, I think it’s obvious why we need some improvements,” said Allen Watson, an engineer and board member of the Metropolitan Transit Authority who is involved in the campaign. He was referring to the street flooding that has enveloped various parts of the city amid heavy rainfall in the past week. “It’s obvious why we need some improvements. The drainage systems are old.”

Critics point out that engineers involved in educating voters and bankrolling the drainage campaign stand to make money on projects that the referendum would pay for if it passes. Engineers have countered that they are best suited to educate the public about the problem, just as doctors may educate people about a problem they can make money treating.

Norman Adams, an activist who was among the leaders of a successful fight against a scuttled drainage fee plan during the Lee Brown administration, said voters are likely to reject such a “rain tax” in this political climate.

“Voters will see this as an additional property tax, and voters are so upset with property taxes now that it will be absolutely opposed,” he said.

My understanding is that Renew Houston’s plan differs significantly from the Brown plan, mostly because of its pay-as-you-go nature, but I’ll need to do a deeper review to be able to fully explain that. Be that as it may, it seems to me that if you oppose Renew Houston’s proposal, then you must either think the status quo is fine – that is, that Houston’s drainage system is adequate as is, and that the CIP process is sufficient to make needed repairs and improvements – or that there’s a better way of funding drainage improvement projects than Renew Houston’s plan. So let me ask that question directly to Norman Adams or anyone else who opposes the Renew Houston plan: Do you believe Houston’s drainage system is adequate, and that the mechanism we have now for maintenance of it is sufficient? If not, what is your preferred alternative? I would hope that in any future coverage of this campaign, those questions are asked of the opposition.

Anyway. The story notes that both the anti-red light camera forces and the Mayor White term limits commission are planning to submit their petition signatures as well, so depending on what the City Secretary has to say, we may have an even more crowded ballot this November. Mayor Parker has also indicated her support for the Renew Houston plan, which is the first time she has done so – see this KUHF story from earlier in the week for an example of what she had been saying previously, before the petition signatures were submitted. Finally, the Ultimate Memorial blog discusses how Renew Houston is making its pitch to neighborhoods.

Several area Super Neighborhood councils have discussed the issue. And though none have given their full support, they do find the interesting enough to ask for more information and more time to discuss.

Ed Browne, a Memorial City District Drainage Coalition founder, recommends that all super neighborhoods and organizations raise three issues when RENEW representatives come speak to their groups so that the political action committee endorsing the proposed fee understands the need for fundamental changes in the way business is done in Houston.

There must be no more unwarranted variances given to developers by the city of Houston, he said. The city must enforce its ordinance that requires detention. And there needs to be an end to “grandfathering.”

Good questions all. That’s a discussion worth having, and one I look forward to.

UPDATE: John Coby has more.