Perry and the Pits
Big Gov. Perry Style
The irony doesn’t come thicker: Gov. Rick Perry, whose every public utterance seems to include praise for smaller government and scorn for new taxes pushed a bill through the legislature this session that not only creates a new government bureaucracy, but slaps a fresh set of fees on homeowners to fund it.
Sponsor Rep. Allan Ritter (D-Nederland), with Perry’s backing, pitched House Bill 730 as a consumer-friendly bill that would provide relief to homeowners when they bought poorly constructed houses. In reality, it is a giveaway to the home construction industry and some of Perry’s biggest campaign contributors.
The bill establishes a new 26-person state agency, the Texas Residential Construction Commission, to license and oversee home builders. The commission is supposed to act as an objective third party in disputes. So when a new homeowner can’t get a construction outfit to fix, say, a faulty roof, the commission will send out an inspector to make a ruling. The only problem is industry representatives will dominate the nine-person Residential Construction Commission, and its highly technical administrative process may limit consumers’ ability to win a civil judgement in court later on, believes Reggie James of Consumers Union. “This thing does more to regulate the consumer,” says James. “They’ve designed [the agency] to be captive from the get-go.” For the pleasure of getting a not-so-helpful inspection, homeowners will have to pay a fee set by the commission.
HB 730 is yet more pet legislation for construction companies like Houston-based Bob Perry Homes and David Weekley Homes, who you will no doubt remember as the big-bucks backers of this session’s adventures in tort reform. Bob Perry (no familial relation to the governor) just happens to be Rick Perry’s biggest individual donor, having given the Guv more than $500,000 the past five years, according to Texans for Public Justice. It appears Big Government is just fine when it benefits Big Contributors.
While America is watching Reality TV, the Bush administration is quietly advancing its own version of Bachelor and Bachelorette Numbers, 1, 2, 3, etc. Will it be New Mexico, South Carolina, Nevada–or how about Amarillo, Texas? We’re talking about the proposed sites for a new “Modern Pit Facility” to manufacture plutonium triggers used to detonate nuclear bombs. Amarillo’s 15,000-acre Pantex plant, where the nation’s nuclear stockpile is maintained, is one of the five sites being considered by the Department of Energy (DOE). Since the Cold War ended, Pantex has focused on disassembly and weapons component storage. Until 1989, plutonium-239 pits–the triggers–were produced at the Rocky Flats plant in Colorado. The DOE closed that facility because of excessive environmental contamination–which is one reason that environmentalists and many others in the five communities under consideration are hoping that they are not chosen. They also see the “pits” project as part of an overall Bush administration plan to re-ignite the nuclear arms race–pits today, “mini-nukes” tomorrow, and a pox on arms control.
Currently the government relies on an interim facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, which has the capacity to produce 50 to 80 pits per year. “The lack of a long-term pit production capacity is a national security issue,” says Bryan Wilkes of the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration. He says that the capacity at Los Alamos isn’t sufficient to meet the future needs of the nation’s nuclear stockpiles. According to the DOE, a plutonium pit, the core of a nuclear bomb, is only good for between 45 and 60 years. Production at the new pit facility is expected to begin in 2020, when many pits in the nuclear stockpile will need replacement. It’s not about the arms race, says Wilkes, it’s “only about maintaining the stockpile.”
Robert Schaeffer of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, a national network of anti-nuke groups based in Washington, D.C., isn’t buying that bit of circular reasoning, and insists that “no aging problems have been identified, therefore why do they need to upgrade the existing stockpiles?” “The message to Pakistan, India, China, and other nations,” he says, “is that in order to be a great and powerful nation you have to make nuclear weapons.”
The DOE announced its intent to construct a new pit facility last September. Besides Pantex, the other sites under consideration are the Nevada Test site, the Los Alamos and Carlsbad sites in New Mexico, and the Savannah River site in South Carolina. “Conventional wisdom,” says Schaeffer, has it that Savannah River is the favorite; the South Carolina site received the top score in the DOE draft Environmental Impact Statement. But the political push is on–particularly from New Mexico’s Republican Sen. Pete Domenici–for Carlsbad, where the DOE currently maintains a “Waste Isolation Project.” The pit facility is expected to provide 1,000 jobs. Last February, Texas Sen. John Cornyn told the Associated Press that Pantex would be the ideal choice. Since the stockpile is already there, that would eliminate the need to transport the plutonium pits to Pantex, “increasing safety and reducing environmental concerns.” A public hearing on the proposed new facility will take place at Amarillo College on June 26, from 7 to 10 p.m. For more information, see www.wpfeis.com.
Too Greedy, Not Ready The final day of a legislative session is supposed to be all pomp and pageantry. It’s a day for self-congratulatory speeches, family visits, and, as one Capitol reporter put it, resolutions honoring anyone in the state that lawmakers have yet to recognize. With all the deadlines for passing legislation expired, the only real work left is for lawmakers to rubber stamp corrective resolutions. It’s the legislative equivalent of touch-up paint: minor technical tweaks to previously passed bills. Typically, the Lege approves about a dozen of these resolutions to fix typos, change mislabeled sections, and add omitted words.
But this session–the first time Republicans controlled both the House and Senate in 120 years–June 2 turned into just as ugly an exercise in legislating as occurred during the previous 139 days. The trouble came from the corrective resolutions. Not only were there almost twice as many as usual (the House passed 20 resolutions this June 2, compared with 11 in 2001), but also many of them made substantive changes to major bills.
Lawmakers in both chambers found themselves looking at corrective resolutions for nearly every significant measure passed in the session’s final weekend, that included: an omnibus transportation bill (House Bill 3588), an omnibus health and human services rewrite (House Bill 2292), a sweeping tort reform measure (House Bill 4), and a home and auto insurance bill (Senate Bill 14). And a number of the resolutions weren’t benign technical corrections, but instead, entirely new paragraphs and sections inserted into legislation already debated and passed. A legislator who cared to know the substance of a resolution had to scramble to decipher it.
The resolution that caused the biggest stir was for SB 14, the insurance reform bill. Senate aides described it as a provision pushed by insurance company lobbyist Buddy Jones that mysteriously morphed into a “corrective” resolution offered by Sen. Mike Jackson (R-La Porte). The resolution inserted new language into the section of the bill governing how and when insurance companies can use a person’s credit history to set rates. The use of this credit scoring had been one of the bill’s most controversial issues. When Jackson tried to pass his resolution, Democrats Eliot Shapleigh (El Paso) and Rodney Ellis (Houston) loudly objected. A frustrated Ellis told several Republicans, “If you try and redo this bill, I can tell you right now I’m going to filibuster.” For a time, it looked as if the long-sought after deal on insurance might implode. As the sun set on the session’s final day, a gaggle of aides, senators, and lawyers huddled for more than two hours before reaching a compromise. The Senate passed a reworked version of the resolution, only to have a similar brouhaha erupt in the House.
Some blame the numerous meddling resolutions on a legislative logjam during the session’s final weekend. On May 31, work on several major bills halted amid rumors in the Capitol that the leadership might kill tort reform or insurance or the ethics bill so Gov. Rick Perry would have reason to call a special session and revive redistricting. It smacked of the same radical overreaching the Republican leadership exhibited all session. In the end, all the major bills survived, though it meant lawmakers had to cram through nine monster pieces of legislation on Sunday, the last day to pass them. Whatever the reason, it was a fitting end to a tumultuous 78th Legislative session.