Legislative Shop of Horrors
Again with the Special Interests House Bill 2758 Senate Bill 1542 Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) Sen. Ken Armbrister (D-Victoria) These companion bills, HB 2758 and SB 1542, begin to erode the quaint notion that citizens deserve to have input when, for example, Alcoa wants to expand an aluminum smelter. The bills would severely restrict one of the public’s few effective tools to prevent environmentally damaging industry expansion—contested case hearings. These are quasi-judicial proceedings in front of an administrative judge in which, say, a chemical company that wants an expansion permit must defend itself before local citizens and environmental groups over its permit. Lawyers represent both parties and a recommendation is made to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on how to proceed. Industry has long tried to do away with these proceedings, deriding them as cumbersome. Let’s face it, no one likes having to explain themselves to the neighbors. Currently, almost anyone who can prove an interest can be a party in a contested case hearing. If these bills pass, though, only an “affected person” will be able to request a hearing from the TCEQ. This means that environmental groups will be unable to file a request on citizens’ behalf. So unless you happen to be an engineer or scientist and know just how the proposed plant down the road will affect your neighborhood, no case hearing for you. Sen. Armbrister defends the bills, which were both pending in committee at press time. “All we’re trying to do is develop a better process,” he says. Armbrister adds that he wants to make sure that “those that may be affected by a proposed permit would [be heard], and those that had nothing to do with it, a special interest… wouldn’t have standing on that case.” Ken Kramer of the Sierra Club, however, says that restricting who can request a hearing could have broad impact. He notes that the threat of a contested case hearing gives citizens some leverage when dealing with industry. “Many permit applicant groups are willing to sit down and negotiate because they don’t want to go to a contested case hearing,” he says. Both Armbrister and Kramer estimate that only about 10 percent of permit applications even need a hearing. “Industry always tries to portray this as something that always holds up application process,” Kramer says. “But the fact of the matter is that it’s not that common and only happens in controversial issues.” Even when contested case hearings are held, the bills would keep them on the Q.T. The legislation states, “public notice of a contested case hearing… is not required.” Armbrister defends this, “If affected parties have been notified, why do you then need to have a public notice telling everybody else? We’re trying to streamline the process.” Indeed, streamlining the process in favor of you-know-who. Episode II: Revenge of the MPAA Senate Bill 481 Sen. Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio) So there you are enjoying a thrilling film in the silent darkness of the movie theater, when suddenly you hear the unmistakable chirping of some annoying twit using a cell phone. In that moment, who among us hasn’t thought that person deserved a prison term? Of course, you weren’t serious. Sen. Jeff Wentworth is, though. Under his SB 481, using a cell phone in a movie theater could result in a less-than-happy ending: a stint in the state pen. Wentworth filed SB 481 at the behest of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The bill is a sequel in MPAA’s nationwide drive to stop movie piracy (see Political Intelligence, May 9, 2003). SB 481 creates a new offense for the unauthorized operation of a recording device in a movie theater. The bill’s overly broad language outlaws the use of any device capable of recording, from a camcorder to cell phones that take digital photos or videos. On the repercussions from his bill, Wentworth is the Man Who Knew Too Little; he wasn’t sure if his bill criminalized cell phone use during movies. But he added that the bill’s intent was to prevent that Black Pearl of the MPAA, movie pirating. “I don’t know if (cell phone footage) would be a quality reproduction,” Wentworth said. But Todd Flournoy, the vice president and senior council for state legislative affairs for the MPAA, says the movie industry is serious about the camera phone villainy. “[The bill] was drafted to make sure it includes all devices that steal movies,” he said. Don’t think you can get away from the MPAA with technological innovation. The bill also outlaws any recording technology “now known or later developed,” just in case future shoe phones have digital cameras. As originally filed, Wentworth’s bill would have designated recording a movie a state felony. Some of Wentworth’s fellow senators found this untenable given that the state’s prisons are at maximum capacity. They coaxed Wentworth to reduce the punishment to a Class A Misdemeanor for the first offense. A second offense, however, still earns you a felony, with escalating jail times for subsequent violations. The MPAA and the National Association of Theater Owners have passed this type of legislation in 18 states and the District of Columbia. The bills are aimed principally at organized groups that steal movies, mass produce through video and DVD, and then sell them on the black market. Flournoy says the enterprise steals fistfuls of dollars from the film industry and warrants a harsh punishment. “The ability to sell only one copy and damage a multimillion-dollar production deserves stiff penalties,” he said. While federal copyright law bans the reproduction and distribution of films, the MPAA hopes state law will crack down on the actual recording. But the ACLU’s Ann del Llano says the MPAA’s bill goes after the wrong cast of characters. Del Llano explained that those conducting the recording in the theaters are hired “mules,” who film on behalf of the illegal business owner who is profiting. “This [bill] doesn’t attack or punish in any way the actual problem, which is selling illegal movie copies,” she says. SB 481 passed the Senate on April 13th on a voice vote. Rep. Terry Keel (R-Austin) has a similar bill in the House but plans to amend the legislation to ensure that only those with intent to record movies are arrested. This, he hopes, will avoid casting cell phone users in an all-too-realistic version of The Shawshank Redemption. Bad Bills are compiled by the Observer’s Bad Bill Girl, who rises vampire-like from hibernation every two years to suck the blood from vile or absurd state legislation.