Hot Air and Gas
Rapping at the Chamber Door
Conservative talk radio host Dan Patrick, Houston’s answer to Rush Limbaugh, ruminated to an Observer reporter back in February—before Patrick trounced three opponents in the Republican primary that all but assured him of a seat in the Texas Senate—that, if he won, he might just take his talk show on the road and broadcast from right outside the Senate chamber in Austin. [See “The Senator from Talk Radio?” February 24, 2006.] Three weeks into the special legislative session on school finance, it feels like Patrick already is broadcasting right outside the chamber door. Almost every afternoon at 4 p.m., legislative aides, reporters, and some senators have been tuning in to Patrick’s show over the Internet to hear his take on the day’s happenings at the Lege. Lately, Patrick hasn’t been pleased. Some conservative Republican activists have rebelled against Gov. Rick Perry and the GOP legislative leadership, and Patrick has led the grassroots charge.
The object of Patrick and Co.’s scorn is the new tax on business that Perry has been pushing to offset cuts in property taxes. These Republican activists were none too pleased that Perry and the Republican-controlled Lege were trying to enact a business levy that would be the largest tax hike in state history.
The measure barely passed the House. By the time the proposal reached the Senate floor on May 1, Patrick and his son Ryan had been railing against the bill for weeks on their highly rated afternoon talk show on Houston’s AM-700 KSEV, aka “The Voice.” Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst scrounged up the minimum 21 votes needed in the 31-member chamber to move the business tax bill past the initial procedural votes in the Senate. All 19 Republicans backed it along with two Democrats. But when the bill came up for final passage on May 2, Patrick-and-friends’ yelping had turned Sen. Mike Jackson (R-La Porte). That left the bill one vote short of passage. Jackson’s objections echoed Patrick’s fears that a tax on business would hurt the economy and that the resulting property tax cuts would soon be consumed by burgeoning home appraisals. Dewhurst recessed the Senate, and Perry hauled Jackson into a back room for a talking-to. Jackson was still getting lobbied at 4 p.m. when Ryan Patrick came on the air. He labeled Sen. Todd Staples (R-Palestine) an ambitious “sellout” for voting for the business tax, praised Jackson for taking a principled stand, and urged listeners to keep calling their lawmakers because the business tax was nearly dead. That proved premature. After a three-hour recess, Dewhurst and Perry finally cracked Jackson. He agreed to support the business tax again in exchange for a promised amendment to control rising appraisals. The bill then passed the Senate and headed for Gov. Perry’s desk.
As the Observer went to press, Patrick and friends were waging a last-ditch effort to prevent Perry from signing the business tax into law. It seemed like a long shot, but then again Perry, who faces three opponents in November’s election, can’t afford just to ignore Patrick’s legion of listeners. The possible anger Perry faces on the right is clear. On May 10, Dr. Steven Hotze, a Patrick ally who also hosts a conservative talk show on “The Voice,” sent his supporters an e-mail that read in part, “Our Republican officials have become tax tyrants just like the Democrats they defeated. If Perry were to sign HB 3, then you can be sure that he would be signing the death certificate for the Republican Party of Texas and its elected officials. Most of us were struggling for our conservative cause in the trenches … while Perry was a Democrat…. It is my duty to warn you of this impending disaster and to embolden you to fight against those who would destroy that for which we have so long labored.”
COWTOWING TO GAS DRILLING
In the days of the Chisholm Trail, Fort Worth ruled as the cattle capital. Now the city is hitching its wagon to the estimated 26 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lying dormant in the vast Barnett Shale formation, the second-most productive deposit of natural gas in the nation. Because of recent advances in drilling technology, including bits that bore horizontally, thousands of gas wells have cropped up in the growing suburban and urban environs of Forth Worth. Within the city alone, there are now 500. Never before, says David Buchanan of Dale Resources LLC, a small company that specializes in drilling in urban areas, “have you had this rich of a shale beneath 5 million people.”
Natural gas companies are eager to convince homeowners that wells are not only safe and environmentally sound, but also that owners of mineral rights can get rich off the royalties. But many homeowners complain that the new wells—in residential areas, on church property, beneath parks, even on school grounds—make bad neighbors. They point to noise, unsightly derricks, and the destruction of green space as intrusions into their daily lives. Moreover, on April 22, an explosion at a gas well in the suburb of Forest Hill killed one worker and led to the evacuation of more than 500 homes. Investigations by OSHA and the Texas Railroad Commission are pending.
Currently Fort Worth allows a well to be drilled as close as 300 feet to an existing home; new homes can be built within 200 feet of a well. A task force stacked with gas industry reps has recommended a 600-foot buffer between an existing home and a well (keeping the 200-foot provision for new home construction). The activist organization Fort Worth Citizens Against Neighborhood Drilling Ordinance, or FWCanDo, has agitated for a 3,000-foot buffer between wells and homes.
The proliferation of wells signals that many residents have been more than happy to invite drillers into their neighborhoods, but the politics of NIMBYism, race, and class are creating sharp divisions. “The people that stand to make big, big money have lots of acreage,” says Gary Hogan, a member of the task force, who is calling for a 1,000-foot minimum. “But the person that owns an average house lot—there’s no big fortune.” Says Don Young of FWCanDo, “People who don’t own mineral rights are really the victims.”
As the competition among companies heats up, drilling outfits are pushing deeper into urban neighborhoods—many of which are poor, minority areas—that eye the proposed deals with skepticism. One area is the Morningside Park neighborhood in south Fort Worth, where Dale Resources is seeking a deal with the low-income, African-American neighborhood. “We’re going to be able to hopefully produce gas, people will receive royalties, and not a thing will change in their everyday lives,” says Buchanan, Dale Resources’ community liaison.
But Ida Piper, president of the Morningside neighborhood association, says her community is near-unanimous in opposing the company’s offer to lease mineral rights from the whole neighborhood in exchange for a $250 signing bonus and a small monthly royalty check for each household. “I don’t feel it’s a good deal personally,” says Piper. “We’re concerned about the noise, about the safety, because we’ve got elderly people, children.”
Landing the Bush Library
The George W. Bush presidential library still has no home. Two years into the search, the bidding process that will determine the location of the 43rd president’s library continues. The selection committee—headed by Bush pal and former Commerce Secretary Don Evans—has shortened the list of prospective collegiate hosts to three: the University of Dallas in Irving, Baylor University in Waco, and Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Each university has drafted secret design plans and allocated university land for the prospective Bush library—which, with a price tag of $200 million to $300 million, will be the priciest presidential library in U.S. history. The project is expected to bring in additional cash and development deals to its future hometown. SMU and Baylor have been outspoken in their desire to host the library since 2000. But perhaps it is SMU, Laura Bush’s alma mater, that has demonstrated the most cutthroat attitude when it comes to accommodating the Bush library.
Dallas lawyer Gary Vodicka filed suit against SMU in 2005 for allegedly engaging in fraud and intimidation to gain full ownership to 12 acres of land on which the University Gardens condos now sit. Vodicka believes SMU has slotted the land for the Bush library and wants to run off the condo owners.
Vodicka’s suit claims that SMU told owners the condos were unfit for living and in need of costly repairs, and then proceeded to buy the condos one-by-one at prices that were below their actual value. Vodicka, who owns four of the condos, says that only 10 percent of the units were inspected and that the property is still habitable. In fact, Vodicka continues to lease his condos.
SMU officials have previously denied that they would use the land occupied by the condos for the Bush library. But in a recent court appearance, SMU Controller John O’Connor testified that “it is possible that one of the sites would include part of that property,” according to the Dallas Morning News.
A Dallas district judge has given Vodicka three months to conduct inspections of the condos. The judge has planned a summary judgment hearing for June, when SMU will present evidence and thus conclude proceedings without a full trial.
A likely front-runner in the library race, SMU has been criticized for being landlocked and for lacking the vast tracts of acreage that the other universities offer. After buying the old Mrs. Baird’s bread factory in 2003, SMU’s executive director of public affairs, Patti LaSalle, told the Morning News, “Whenever a property near campus becomes available, we try and get it. If we do get a presidential library, it won’t hurt to have more land.”
In November 2004 Amnesty International issued a report outlining concerns about Taser use in the United States. This spring Amnesty International-USA updated that report, documenting 85 Taser-related deaths in the United States from November 2004 to February 2006. Nine occurred in Texas. Among the cases the human rights organization investigated was that of Roberto Gonzalez, who died after being tased by Waukegan police on Jan. 3. Gonzalez, 34, had locked himself in his sister’s pantry. After repeatedly telling him to come out, police “fired pepper balls” into the pantry. They later kicked down the door and tased him. Gonzalez was pronounced dead when he arrived at the hospital. According to the report, “As well as being in a situation where deadly force would not have been justified, Roberto González’s case also illustrates Amnesty International’s concerns over the health implications of using Tasers in conjunction with chemical incapacitant sprays and restraints.”
The organization also expressed concern about the use of Tasers on people already in custody, citing another Texas case as an example. Daryl Dwayne Kelley died in 2005 after he was tased at the Harris County Jail in what Amnesty International described as “an inherently excessive use of force.”
Amnesty International is not the only group concerned about Tasers. As part of a reporting project organized by the University of North Texas’ Mayborn Institute, journalism students from several Texas universities have filed more than 500 open records requests in an investigation of the use of Tasers and stun guns by law enforcement agencies throughout the state. Preliminary results are available at http://mayborninstitute.unt.edu. For more information about the Amnesty International-USA report, see www.amnestyusa.org.