Houston Democrats very nearly beat back SB 1317 [Monday]. The bill survived, for the moment, because of Sen. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville). Legislation can only be taken up in the Senate if two-thirds of the body - 21 senators - vote to "suspend the rules " that bills be heard in order. With 20 Rs and 11 Ds in the Senate, the minority can kill any bill if they stick together. On SB 1317, Lucio broke with his 10 colleagues by staying neutral on the key suspension-of-the-rules vote. His abstention denied the Dems of the 11 votes necessary to prevent the bill from coming up for debate.
It was a curious choice since Lucio decided to vote against the bill later (when supporters needed only 16 votes). Lucio has been known to trade his vote before when Senate leadership needs to flip a Democrat.
Lucio told the Observer that Jackson had explained the bill to him a few days earlier as "one city going into another city and trying to pass an ordinance." So Lucio pledged to support Jackson. And apparently, in typical Democrat fashion, Lucio says no one bothered to give him the memo that SB 1317 was deeply opposed by Houston Democrats, especially the ailing Sen. Mario Gallegos. When Lucio found that out a few minutes before the suspension-of-the-rules vote, he was conflicted.
"I didn't want to be shown voting against Sen. Gallegos, but at the same time, I didn't want to desert Sen. Jackson completely," Lucio explained. He said that after he heard more about the bill, he decided he was against it.
The bill still must pass the Senate on third reading. That may not happen. Lucio says he won't vote to suspend the rules -- which also requires 21 votes -- when SB 1317 comes up for final passage.
The Observer also got a reaction from Mayor Bill White to the Senate vote:
"I was disappointed [with the Senate vote] but I believe the majority of people in our state want a state with cleaner air," White remarked
He went on: "Texas is changing and from all neighborhoods in our community - with people from all backgrounds, all partisan persuasions, all income levels - I get a sense that people are tired of business as usual on air quality. I feel that, you know, Texas some decades ago including Houston acted as though our land and air was infinite and anything interfering with industry could reduce economic growth. Our economy's changed. Now the growth in our region which is the economic powerhouse of this state...depends on a broad base of businesses and the ability to attract skilled workers and entrepreneurs that can locate anywhere."
White said that nuisance enforcement actions would hardly bring the industry to its knees. Civil nuisance violations are a Class C misdemeanor, amounting to a maximum $2000 fine. That works out to about how much profit the Houston petrochemical industry makes in 2 seconds, White calculates. The point of the proposed revisions to the nuisance ordinance, he said, is to set scientifically-based standards for 10 air toxics. Voluntary compliance from industry is preferred - and indeed White has encouraged companies to come to the table to work on an equitable solution - but the city still wants some legal stick to back up the standards.
Finally, here are some thoughts on the matter from Rep. Ellen Cohen. There will be more on this, believe me.
Sometimes, legislation in the Texas Capitol becomes a matter of life and death.Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 02, 2007 to That's our Lege
SB 1317, written by the chemical industry's lobbyists and promoted by Sen. Mike Jackson (R-La Porte), lets cancer-causing toxins pour into the atmosphere around Houston, putting millions of citizens at risk of chronic disease. It prohibits city leaders from addressing pollution produced outside their city limits that drifts in and threatens their own citizens.
Under the guise of sovereign immunity, Sen. Jackson wants to prevent city leaders like Houston Mayor Bill White from holding polluters responsible for poisoning the air we breathe. How many more children have to die from these carcinogens before state government does what it's supposed to do?
Here are the facts: Texas is home to four of the most toxic-laden counties in the nation -- Harris, Galveston, Brazoria, and Jefferson. Yet, the state's environmental protection agency, the misnamed Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), has historically looked the other way under the direction of commissioners appointed by the Governor and confirmed by Sen. Jackson's own Nominations Committee.
Every attempt by Mayor White or other area leaders to force TCEQ to find a regional solution to a regional problem has been ignored by the state. While most of the industry is working to voluntarily reduce emissions -- after all, they have to breathe the toxins, too -- a small group of polluters prefers to have Sen. Jackson carry their special-interest legislation to escape accountability.
TCEQ needs to do its job, set industry-wide standards for these emissions, and ensure a level playing field so that responsible corporate citizens aren't at a disadvantage against those who refuse to do the right thing just because they have a friend in the Texas Senate willing to carry their special-interest legislation.
Cities compete every day for economic opportunities and professional talent. Most people have a choice where to work and live. So, Texas had better make it clear to the world that we don't approve of polluted air or countless businesses and families will pass on Texas and prosper somewhere else. Sen. Jackson may not understand this, but mainstream Texans do. They know that real leadership is about finding ways to balance the need for energy and products with the right to breathe clean air -- and that we can do both.