From the Department of Best Laid Plans: Dallas-based TXU Corp.’s less-than-modest proposal to construct 11 new coal-burning power plants in Texas has hit an unexpected snag. Two administrative law judges recommended in August that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality deny an air permit for the company’s enormous proposed 1,720-megawatt Oak Grove facility, near Franklin in Central Texas.
The Oak Grove facility is the first of TXU’s 11 proposed plants to come up for the required air permit from the TCEQ. A group of area landowners calling themselves Robertson County: Our Land, Our Lives and statewide environmental groups contested TXU’s permit application. The judges agreed with the plaintiffs, finding that TXU’s preferred technology couldn’t achieve its promised low-emission levels for two key pollutants — mercury and ozone-causing nitrogen oxides. The judges also found the TXU plant would further foul the region’s air, including the already-polluted Dallas-Fort Worth area. It was a rare victory for opponents of new and very dirty coal-fired plants. “You would think they were God’s gift to the environment and they were building the cleanest coal plant imaginable, and only a wacko, crazed eco-maniac would have any problems with it,” said Paul Rolke, founder of Our Land, Our Lives. “Now we have two judges who … have looked at the facts and agreed with what our group has been saying all along—that this plant could be built cleaner and should be built cleaner.”
The victory may be temporary. The judges’ recommendation isn’t binding, and agency commissioners, appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Perry, could still approve the permit. After all, there’s never been much doubt about which side the governor’s on. In October, Perry signed an executive order “fast-tracking” the permitting process for 16 proposed coal-fired power plants, including the TXU 11. The day he signed the fast-track order, Perry received a $2,000 campaign check from a former TXU chairman, a tie-in first reported by the Houston Chronicle. A TXU political action committee chipped in $5,000 a few weeks later.
TTC From the Right
Gov. Rick Perry’s plan to pave Texas with a 4,000-mile system of futuristic toll roads has made enemies among those he usually counts as supporters. Known as the Trans-Texas Corridor, the proposed network of superhighways will crisscross the state and contain as many as 16 lanes for trains, trucks, and cars, as well as a utility corridor. Madrid-based Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte has teamed up with San Antonio’s Zachary Construction Corp. to propose building a corridor segment that will parallel Interstate 35.
Phyllis Schlafley, the conservative doyenne who almost single-handedly defeated the Equal Rights Amendment, recently criticized the plan. The galactic-sized highways caught Schlafley’s attention when she realized that they would bisect the entire country–not just Texas. A supporter of tough immigration laws, Schlafley says the most egregious aspect of the plan is the fact that the highways would be “designed to bring in Chinese goods from Mexican ports in sealed containers, first by rail, then by Mexican trucks, none of which would be inspected until Kansas City.”
Conservative Republicans are opposed to the idea that a foreign company will be given carte blanche to raze homes, churches, schools, businesses, ranchland, and farmlands for private toll roads that will be cash cows for the next 50 years or so. “Because there are issues of confiscation of private land, state and national sovereignty, and other similar concerns, we urge the repeal of the Trans-Texas Corridor legislation,” states the Texas GOP party platform. The platform speaks even more harshly of the concept of eminent domain, saying it should not be used to seize “private property for public or private economic development or for increased tax revenues.”
The Texas Farm Bureau has equally strong anti-corridor language in its 2006 legislative blueprint. Nonetheless, the bureau’s political arm, the “Ag Fund,” supports Perry’s re-election. Perry hails from Paint Creek, a farming community roughly an hour north of Abilene. In 1990, he was elected to the statewide post of Texas Commissioner of Agriculture, and up until now he has always benefited from rural support. Explains Farm Bureau spokesman Gene Hall, “The Texas Farm Bureau is not a single-issue organization.”
TTC From the Center
Ric Williamson, Texas Transportation Commission chairman and a Perry appointee, has come up with a novel way to sell the unpopular Trans-Texas Corridor—the new superhighway will be a boon to the environment. According to Williamson, the corridor will reduce congestion, improve air quality, and increase safety. But experts for Environmental Defense, who reviewed the state’s 4,000-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the corridor, say the superhighways would be “an environmental disaster,” wreaking havoc on waterways, farmland, wildlife habitat, air quality, human health, and rural communities. Given today’s price of oil, opponents also maintain the corridor project is already obsolete and will only increase urban sprawl, traffic growth, and greenhouse gases. “In the history of the U.S. and probably the world, there has never been a transportation project like the big, precedent-setting Trans-Texas Corridor,” writes Mickey Burleson of Environmental Defense. “This system is the most destructive in the world,” she continues, noting that the four priority corridors will eventually claim over a million acres, much of it in rural Texas.
The corridor project will also damage the Texas Hill Country, where millions of tons of rock will be blasted and crushed and hauled out for roadbeds. Ironically, the trucks used to haul the rock will further damage existing roadways, she says.
The corridor project has proven fertile ground for Gov. Rick Perry’s gubernatorial rivals. Democrat Chris Bell, whose poll numbers have been edging up in recent weeks, says the plan is “rife with insider dealing, cronyism, and conflicts of interest.” Kinky Friedman, cigar-chomping maestro of the one-liner, claims the project is nothing more than a greedy land grab that will eventually cost more than the Iraq war. And Carole Keeton Strayhorn, the state comptroller who’s running as an independent, promises that if elected, she will “bust” any contracts between the state Transportation Department and private companies. “Texas property belongs to Texans–not foreign companies,” she says.
Perry TTC Consequence Free
During a normal statewide campaign, Rick Perry undoubtedly would have to at least give the appearance that he cares about his constituents who are angered at the prospect of having their property paved over with superhighways. But with three other candidates dividing the vote in the gubernatorial race, Perry needs only 26 percent to win a third term. As of late August, polls showed he had 35 percent of the vote.
So when rural Texans complain, a Perry spokesman doesn’t have to be particularly conciliatory. Texas is facing an “infrastructure crisis,” and farmers and ranchers whose property is going to be gobbled up by superhighways are just going to have to suck it up. That’s basically the message from the Perry campaign these days, though spokesman Robert Black hastened to add that the governor is “sympathetic” to his rural constituents. “Every road in the state of Texas was once on private land,” he said. “All those roads were vehemently opposed. Now they’re the lifeblood of the state.” Black went on to say that the country’s founders predicted the day would come when the taking of the land would be necessary for the greater good. “We are in a time like that,” he said.
It’s Miller Time
Texans took the lead in foisting high-stakes testing on the nation’s primary and secondary public schools. The Texas accountability system, in which the standardized test is the sole indicator of educational achievement, is now the law of the land, enshrined as No Child Left Behind. But, you may ask: “Is our children learning?” Well, the system has yet to have its national accountability moment, but indications are not promising in Texas. Regardless, vendors and their consultants, many of them Texans, who happen to sell the tests and preparatory materials, have done very well indeed.
Now Texas’ accountability cabal has graduated to the next level of education reform: colleges and universities. In September 2005, Secretary of Education and Texan Margaret Spellings appointed a Longhorn to serve as chairman of the federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Charles Miller—former University of Texas regent, millionaire businessman, and Bush Pioneer—led the commission in its charge to develop “a comprehensive national strategy for postsecondary education.” There are no surprises here. Miller has made standardized testing of college students and a radical overhaul of the financial aid system, including the expansion of private lending, centerpieces of the commission’s proposal. (The CEO of Kaplan Inc., the test preparation giant, also sits on the commission.)
In a draft of the report, commissioners charged that American higher ed was “equal parts meritocracy and mediocrity.” While that phrase and many of the more hard-boiled proposals were struck from the latest version, issued in August, the report still blames colleges and universities, describing them as “risk-averse, frequently self-satisfied, and unduly expensive.”
To solve these and the many other problems he sees, Miller pushes his favorite cure-all: standardized testing, linked to harsh performance and accountability measures. In January, Miller fired off a memo to commission members “promising new developments in the area of student testing.” Miller’s memo also lauded the work of Educational Testing Service, a company that the UT System, under Miller’s leadership, tapped to launch a testing regime for students in 2003. The commission will formally release its conclusions in a final report in mid-September.
Governors from 10 states on both sides of the border passed through Austin in late August for the 24th annual Border Governors Conference. The big issue was, of course, immigration. The conference brought together a diverse group: governors from California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas (two Republicans, two Democrats), and from the six Mexican border states. Yet the range of discussion—at least publicly, most of the meetings were held behind closed doors—was limited. Texas Gov. Rick Perry set the tone early by announcing that “border security” would be his No. 1 priority. And what about a guest worker program or paths to legalization for immigrants? “You cannot have a workable program of immigration until you have the border secured,” Perry said, playing to the more hardcore security-first camp of the Republican Party, whom he’ll need to win re-election this fall. Along with the three other U.S. governors, Perry signed a frank letter at the conference to key congressional leaders calling on them to quit dithering and pass an immigration reform bill. “In all of our states, we face a crisis not of our making,” the governors wrote.
Meanwhile, not far away, immigrant rights advocates convened a shadow convention—the Second Alternative Border Communities Conference—where activists laid out a radically different vision for the border region. “Brothers and sisters, we are here to call for a just border that permits the free movement of people, not just goods and capital,” said Richard Moore, executive director of the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice. Some in the press didn’t react well. “I’ve had enough; these people don’t have credibility,” mumbled a reporter for the Austin affiliate of Fox News while activists held a press conference. A Hispanic man was speaking at the lectern about the governors’ “excluding the public from the meeting;” “trying to build a physical wall to separate the two countries;” and “violating migrant rights.” It was a different message from what reporters heard at the official event. But few seemed to be listening.