Bad Bills

You Have to Pay to Play

Chem Council Cashes In

SB 455

Sen. Ken Armbrister (D-Victoria)

HB 1063

Rep. Wayne Smith (R-Baytown)

This Senate bill and its House companion are noteworthy contenders in the crowded race for the fastest corporate campaign payoff. Of course, they had a leg up. The legislation was bought and paid for by that venerable source of corporate political power, the Texas Chemical Council. As usual, when the council is at work, it’s the public who pays the price.

The Chemical Council had a prominent seat on the Craddick leadership late train for post-election campaign donations. The council gave 20 late train contributions in November and December 2002 totaling $13,000. High-priced chem council lobbyist Bill Messer served on Craddick’s transition team and co-hosted a lavish fundraiser for the new speaker. So it should come as no surprise that more than a month before committees were publicly announced, of the 15 representatives (including House Speaker Tom Craddick) who received late train contributions from the council, eight were soon to be committee chairs and three were slated for appropriations.

One of the recipients of chem council cash was Sen. Ken Armbrister (D-Victoria) who chairs the Senate Natural Resource Committee. Armbrister is quite candid about the origin of SB 455. “It came from the Chemical Council, from [Senior Vice President] Jon Fisher,” he said.

What was the council asking of Armbrister? All they wanted was to hobble the ability of the state to enforce pollution control laws. Current law–recommended by a year-long Sunset Review process and still being phased in at the agency–requires the Texas Council on Environmental Quality to track and report the compliance history of all regulated entities. Companies composed of several facilities, such as petrochemical plants, are considered as a whole unit in terms of a compliance history. Current law also mandates that the compliance histories be available to the public via the Internet.

By amending every “shall” to read “may” SB 455 effectively makes TCEQ’s establishment of compliance histories discretionary, and no longer required by law. Just in case TCEQ does decide to keep a record of an industry’s failure to comply, the new bill repeals the use of “violation notices” in that record. It also gives big polluters a major break by designating the use of all compliance histories as site-specific. Instead of judging a company as a whole, each facility within a corporation would have its own compliance history. Environmentalists say this change hides a company’s true conduct. Lastly, the bill removes compliance histories from the Internet where the public can view them. And if TCEQ does put any information about a polluter’s history on a website, the polluter is allowed to review it first for “quality assurance.”

On the House side, there is apparent confusion among the authors of this environmental menace as to where it originated. When asked, Rep. Wayne Smith said he had no idea of the origins of his HB 1063 (a carbon copy of the Senate bill). Smith said his chairman on the House Environmental Regulation Committee, Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), had passed it on to him. (Both men received late train contributions from the chem council.) Perhaps with six other bills filed under his name, freshman Republican Smith is a bit overwhelmed. Still, you’ve got to wonder: Is it worse for a legislator not to know the lobby group for whom he caters or to pretend not to know?

Bonnen insists that the house bill he gave to Smith was written by his staff after consultation with “agency and industry folks.” Bonnen adamantly states that it was not brought in by an outside group, “It wasn’t something that was delivered to my office,” he said. Hmmm.

Justice For Sale

HB 754

Rep. Vilma Luna (D-Corpus Christi)

How much justice Texas provides depends on how much money you have, as many of the roughly three million working poor in the Lone Star State would likely attest. Rep. Vilma Luna has filed a bill to help remedy that situation. In HB 754, more affluent offenders required to perform community service as part of their sentence would, at the discretion of a judge, be able to buy their way out of it for $50 a day instead of for example, spending eight hours picking up trash on I-35.

Rep. Luna’s legislative aide Lucas Meyers claims the reason for this bill is not just to raise money for the state but because it will aid poorer offenders. Meyers describes HB 754 as a bill “to help defendants who are among the working poor and cannot afford to take time off” for community service. Allowing offenders to pay $50 for a day’s community service, he says, will “in many cases” save people money in lost wages, childcare, and travel expenses.

Never mind that the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure already provides guidelines for tailoring community service requirements for employed offenders. Leeway built into current law prohibits courts from requiring employed defendants to perform more than 16 hours of community service a week, for example, and the hours can be worked on weekends or evenings.

“There are currently no guidelines that offenders would have to work in conflict with their jobs,” says Ray Ramirez, victim services coordinator for the Community Justice Assistance Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “The offenders have control over how they will meet the time requirements. It’s pretty open-ended.”

Then, of course, there is the question of whether it’s constitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. In fact, you can go back further to the Magna Carta for insight into this bad bill. “To none will we sell, to none deny or delay, right or justice.”

Unfortunately, Luna’s bill will help codify a difference in consequences for criminal acts that is already well understood by lower income Texans. “Only poor people would be required to perform a service to their community,” notes Meredith Martin Rountree, director of the Texas ACLU’s Prison and Jail Accountability Project. “I don’t see wealthy people as having any less need to learn about responsibility, a work ethic, and the importance of living productively in a community than poor people do.”

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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