Bad Bills

Chain-Link Gangs
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WALLEYED

House Bill 3653 Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-Tomball)

Anti-immigrant forces would love to build one giant wall along the Texas-Mexico border to keep the brown menace out, but even they recognize that the giant cost to the state isn’t easy to swallow. Tomball Republican Rep. Debbie Riddle has found a way to spoon-feed a border fence and its price tag to taxpayers. House Bill 3653 would require the state to build a 12-foot, razor wire fence along sections of the border, at the request of landowners who feel their property is at risk. To keep costs down, she proposes using inmate labor to build the fence sections. So, with state funding and a complimentary prisoner work force, border landowners can increase the value of their property while redirecting those pesky illegal immigrants through the territory of whichever unfortunate neighbor declines the deal.

Riddle testified on April 30 before the House Committee on Government Reform that the bill is not about illegal immigration. “This bill is about protecting private property rights and helping landowners along the border to feel safe and secure,” she said. “Private landowners are unable to protect their own land against large amount of traffic along the border caused by illegal immigration, drug trafficking, and etc.”

Luis Figueroa, legislative staff attorney at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said a fence doesn’t deter anyone. “All a fence does is funnel populations into a different area,” he said. Some border communities rely on economic relations and consumers from Mexico, and a fence sends a negative message, he said.

Joe Arabie, director of field education and research at the Texas AFL-CIO, said he opposes the bill because the property values of those getting fences would go up at the expense of taxpayers. The use of inmate labor, he said, has the potential to eliminate free-world jobs.

The bill fails to clarify the housing conditions of the inmates, said Nicole Porter, director of the prison and jail accountability project at the ACLU of Texas. Because there aren’t many prison units along the border, she said, “there would be lengthy transportation or drives to and from the border areas. That would be an added expense to the Texas taxpayer in addition to decreasing public safety and increasing opportunity for them to escape.”

Porter said she supports the use of inmate labor as a form of skill-building to facilitate re-entry into the community. “I’m not convinced that building a fence along the border is going to be a replicable skill in other communities,” she said, since most inmates return to urban areas.

The biggest barrier to the bill is its open-ended fiscal note, which depends on how many landowners want fences and how much repairs would cost in the future. The cost could be millions. Perhaps the state could save money by hiring illegal immigrants to build prisons near the border to house the inmates to build the wall.

WALKS LIKE A DUCK

House Bill 1927 Rep. Warren Chisum (R-Pampa)

When a bill comes along that will make life easier for the state’s petrochemical industry, lawmakers tend to glom onto it like oil on a duck. This time around, the unctuous legislative creature is Pampa Republican Warren Chisum’s House Bill 1927.

Passed unanimously by the Civil Practices Committee and awaiting a floor vote at press time, the measure would shield companies that make gasoline additives from legal liability for pollution or injury caused by their products as long as they follow state and federal rules while making the stuff.

Companies that make toxic petrochemicals are often sued when their products wreak havoc on the environment or sicken people. Sometimes they’re even expected to pay cleanup costs for environmental disasters. Chisum’s bill would eliminate their “strict liability,” the legal term meaning, essentially, that if you make something, you can be held responsible for its ill effects.

Is there something in the water that would induce lawmakers to give manufacturers a free pass? There is: the gasoline additive MTBE. Originally designed to make gasoline burn more cleanly, MTBE has polluted water across the nation. Gasoline is spilled, and the chemical seeps through dirt into water tables. It’s difficult to clean up and, even greatly diluted, makes water taste terrible. The Environmental Protection Agency says MTBE in high amounts is a likely carcinogen, and fears about the chemical’s safety have led California and New York to ban it.

Texas is one of the top producers of MTBE. In 2005, then-Congressman Tom DeLay, the Sugar Land Republican, tried unsuccessfully to convince Washington lawmakers to pass liability protection for MTBE producers. His proposal created an $11.4 billion dedicated cleanup fund-something Chisum’s bill does not. Having failed at a national level, refiners have taken their grievance to Austin.

Chisum’s bill would still allow lawsuits against people directly responsible for spills, or against producers of a bad batch of MTBE. But Kaiba White of Public Citizen, a national consumer advocacy group, points out that it is MTBE’s inherent dangers that lie at the heart of many lawsuits against manufacturers. “The lawsuits being brought are against the companies” that manufacture MTBE, she says, “saying this is a bad product from the start.” A few large cases have resulted in awards of tens of millions of dollars for cities and counties, most notably in California, to clean up MTBE in their water supplies. In Texas, she says, there are a number of suits in progress, and many more spills for which lawsuits haven’t yet been filed.

Shielding MTBE producers from lawsuits after a spill would stick local governments with the cleanup tab, Monte Akers of the Texas Municipal League told the Civil Practices Committee at the bill’s March hearing.

Bill supporters say that’s fine, since it was the government that told them to make MTBE in the first place. The federal Clean Air Act requires some areas to sell gasoline spiked with additives to make it burn cleaner; the additive list includes MTBE, ethanol, and a few other options. At the bill’s hearing, Chisum explained his sympathy for the producers like this: “If you require us to make this additive, just don’t sue us because we made the additive that you told us to,” Chisum said. Even when something goes wrong, “the problem is a spill problem,” he said. “The MTBE does exactly what you asked it to do.”

Ken Kramer of the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter says that doesn’t entitle producers to a free pass from the courts. “Our take on it is that, yeah, you may have a legitimate defense,” Kramer says, “but it’s important to uphold the right of the public to seek to bring litigation against manufacturers of products like this.”

With the legislative session’s end nigh, the Observer‘s bad bills vultures now take wing, gorged beyond all natural limits from feasting on this year’s remarkable bounty of putrid legislation. We leave lawmakers to their just desserts.