Bad Bills

Fear & Leaching in the Lege


Licensing Prejudice

SB 944 Sen. Steve Ogden (R-Bryan) HB 1845 Rep. Todd Smith (R-Euless)

Mrs. Beverly Ogden was justifiably outraged when she learned from news reports that a number of the September 11 hijackers had valid drivers’ licenses while at the same time they were wanted by the INS or FBI. Since the federal agencies don’t deign to brief local police departments, patrolmen even stopped, but didn’t detain, at least one of the hijackers. This oversight is a fine example of a federal law enforcement agency failing to communicate with local officials. Enter Mrs. Ogden, who urged her husband–the Texas Senate Chair for the Committee on Infra-structure Development and Security–to do something about this situation. With unerring ability, Sen. Ogden hatched an idea that will make the Lone Star State both less safe and more polarized.

SB 944 has two parts, both aimed directly at non-citizens. The first requires that the expiration date of a person’s visa or residency card coincide with that of their license. The date would be plainly visible on the card. The second part of SB 944 is so gratuitous, the author made it clear in committee he is willing to jettison the provision, if need be. Emblazoned on the driver’s license would be the word “non-citizen.”

Needless to say, representatives of Texas’ soon-to-be majority Latino population were uncompromising and quite angry in their testimony when the bill appeared before Ogden’s committee on March 31. (The only person testifying in favor was Mary Lynn Gerstenschlager of the Eagle Forum, who dutifully cited “national security.”) Several witnesses compared the proposal to the yellow star forced on Jews in Nazi Germany. But beyond the rhetoric, they presented a number of practical and common-sense reasons why this bill is bad policy. Of course, logic is a devalued currency in the Lege these days.

The bill must worry the Texas Department of Public Safety, whose new job it would be to keep track of immigrants and visitors. Immigration status is often a moving target. As Joe Sanchez from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MAL-DEF) testified, INS documents may have an expiration date, but the individual’s status does not terminate when the document does. A legal permanent resident, by far the most common form of immigrant status, is an indefinite, permanent status by definition.

Ana Yanez-Correa, legislative policy director for LULAC, explained to senators that the bill would force immigrants to circumvent the law, resulting in more people on the road without a license or insurance. “This hurts national security by creating an incentive for people not to trust law enforcement,” she said.

Latino representatives reiterated that the best way to address the chairman’s concerns was to make it easier for people to get a driver’s license, and thus be in a position to keep better track of them. There is currently a bill filed to do just that, HB 57, sponsored by Rep. Miguel Wise (D-Weslaco). (Gov. Rick Perry vetoed similar legislation last session.)

Texas ACLU Executive Director Will Harrell noted that racial profiling data collected by local police agencies indicate that Hispanics are three to four times more likely to be searched. “This would create a greater incentive for local sheriffs to stop people who look like immigrants,” said Harrell.

Many witnesses brought up the financial cost in a time of budgetary crisis. The fiscal note for SB 944 is a paltry $341,380. A study of a similar law in Virginia–a state neither Texas-sized nor on the border–placed the price tag at $5.5 million. But despite these reasoned arguments–and putting aside Republican outrage at so-called illegal immigrants driving on valid licenses–fear from 9/11 permeated the committee meeting.

Afterward, committee member Sen. Eliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso) predicted that the bill will likely get out of committee on a party line vote, four Democrats losing to five Republicans. What happens when, and if, it reaches the Senate floor remains to be seen. But the senator from the border knows that in the real world, economics drive immigration. “What will be the effect [of this bill] on the Dallas construction industry?” he wondered.

Fowl Play

SB 1361/1363 Sen. Todd Staples (R-Palestine) HB 168 Rep. Wayne Christian (R-Center)

Something smells foul in East Texas, and it’s not just the poultry industry. Rep. Wayne Christian and Sen. Todd Staples have introduced three bills between them that would weaken, repeal, and negate law that allows the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to use evidence collected by citizens in enforcement actions against polluters. The law, passed last session as part of the TCEQ’s sunset review recommendations, was first implemented in 2002. According to Brent Wade, TCEQ’s Field Operations Division assistant director, evidence submitted by citizens has resulted in a number of violation notices being issued to polluters. “We haven’t experienced any problems or drawbacks from the program at all,” he says. The current statute makes evidence collected through illegal trespass inadmissible. It has even provided for more than two-dozen training sessions across the state to educate the public on evidence collection.

Christian and Staples say they are opposed to the law because it threatens private property owners’ rights. In fact, they were so frightened of tax dollars going toward “training neighbors to bring suit against another neighbor,” as Christian’s Chief of Staff Grant Ruckel puts it, that they spoke at a rally on the topic at the Lufkin Civic Center last March. The Lufkin Daily News reported that the civic center used by rally organizers was “packed.” According to Dian Avriett, Chair of the Piney Woods Group of the Sierra Club, at least half of the people in attendance were brought in by the poultry industry, and many others were connected with lumber interests.

“Over a dozen vans and small buses with Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride logos on them were [present],” she said. Bo Pilgrim (who is board chairman of the number two chicken company in the country) and his wife have donated $32,000 to Christian’s campaigns since March of 2000 and $26,000 to the Staples for Senate Committee.

The Palestine chicken king has been fighting battles with neighbors in east Texas for years over the pollution from his facilities. The last thing he wants is to empower them to help regulators, especially not when he has them on the run. One such neighbor is Mount Pleasant resident Lola Barrett, who has made numerous complaints about the pollution from the Pilgrim facility in her town. She has gone to the trouble of photographing the questionable discharges into Tankersley creek that separates her property from Pilgrim’s Mount Pleasant facility. Barrett has shown the photos at public permit hearings held by TCEQ. But the 71-year-old grandmother with chronic bronchitis is tired of fighting Pilgrim. She and her husband are negotiating a deal with the chicken king to buy out their land. It’s aggrieved citizens like Barrett that these bills will ground down on behalf of corporate polluters like Pilgrim, and it stinks.

Milking the Lege

HB 1148/HB 1358 Rep. Sid Miller (R-Stephenville)

The Bosque and Leon rivers flow into lakes that provide the sole source of drinking water for Waco, Belton and Temple–with combined populations of more than 300,000. For the past 10 years, Waco officials and environmentalists have fought upstream dairies in the legislature, courts, and before the TCEQ. They are slowly prodding the state to ever-so-slightly regulate dairies. But not if Rep. Sid Miller has his way.

Rep. Miller represents Erath County, the epicenter of Texas’ dairy industry. He has introduced two bills that weaken environmental regulation of dairies, efforts he mistakenly seems to believe will help the hometown money-makers in their long-running fight with environmentalists and the City of Waco, which blames the industry for the area’s severe water pollution. The city claims the hundreds of industrial dairies–of several thousand cows each–have saturated the Bosque and Leon river systems with cow manure, and all the lovely side-effects of its by products (nitrate and phosphorous contamination, not to mention the smell).

When asked why these bills are necessary, Miller’s Chief of Staff Duane Gallagher said his office had no comment. But it’s clear Miller is simply bailing out his district’s main industry. As the controversy has grown, increasing numbers of dairymen have left Erath County for the less-regulated areas of West Texas and New Mexico. Miller and Erath County officials are no doubt worried about the loss of their cash cows.

Their solution is bad policy for everyone. HB 1148 essentially would allow a dairy operator to keep his permit indefinitely even after the TCEQ revoked it. It’s worth noting the agency has pulled or failed to renew only one dairy permit, even though there is no lack of deserving candidates. But on the off-chance the TCEQ actually did its job, under this bill, the dairy would have a six-month period to continue operating under the revoked permit. The dairyman could then appeal and continue to do business until the resolution of the case. Even if the dairy lost the appeal, it would be allowed an additional three months to cease operations.

Miller’s other bill, HB 1358, aims to prevent citizens (and by that, we mean the neighbors with creeks full of cow shit) from contesting a dairy’s TCEQ permit application by creating several unnecessary roadblocks in the already complex permitting process. The bill stipulates opponents must submit written protest of a permit 15 days before the “first scheduled commission action.” The measure also requires the TCEQ to conduct discovery of evidence for any contested case hearings. Opponents of any dairy permits must submit their evidence, including an affidavit announcing their intention to testify, to the TCEQ at least seven days before the hearing.

What Miller doesn’t seem to grasp is that these bills won’t ultimately stop Waco’s lawsuits or the protestations of environmentalists. The way to save the dairymen of Erath County isn’t to exempt them from environmental regulation, but to get them to run cleaner dairies.

Bad Bills are compiled by the Observer’s Bad Bills Girl, who rises vampire-like from hibernation every two years to suck the blood from vile or absurd state legislation. If you have a likely candidate for “Bad Bills,” fax her at (512) 474-1175, or e-mail [email protected].