Political Intelligence

A Climate of Denial


Living in Denial

Verily, we live in unbelievable times. In this topsy-turvy epoch of spin and truthiness, “think tanks” can dream up the most implausible suppositions and pass them off as fact. Key to this is the well-timed release of a study or “white paper” that includes snappy graphics, an author with “Ph.D.” behind his or her name, and a smattering of footnotes. Take for example a new report on climate change by the free-market fundamentalists at the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF). Iain Murray, a professional climate change denier on loan from the corporate-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute, is the report’s main author. To the question posed in the paper’s title-“Global Warming: What Should Texas Do?”-Murray offers an unequivocal answer: nothing! Texas, leader among the states in greenhouse gas emissions, should forget about regulating carbon dioxide and instead “concentrate on planning to meet its demands for electricity and on growing the state’s resiliency,” Murray and contributing author Bill Peacock of TPPF write.

The 35-page report, echoing a line that even George W. Bush has dropped, argues that “[t]he scientific jury is still out on whether significant global warming from manmade CO2 will occur.” And even if the vast majority of scientists are right and the planet is dramatically heating up, Texas’ economy is too dependent on emitting gargantuan amounts of carbon dioxide to change course now. In fact, let’s look on the bright side, the report suggests: Climate change will extend growing seasons in the United States, producing agricultural gains that “will more than compensate for damages expected in the coastal, energy, and water sectors unless warming is unexpectedly severe.” Yes, who cares about Padre Island when banana trees are bearing fruit in Dallas? And think about the millions to be made on selling privately held water rights when a perpetual drought begins in Texas around 2021, as recent scientific studies have predicted.

Even when the authors do concede an ugly reality about climate change, they find a creative way to dismiss it. For example, they admit that rising sea levels will likely put an additional 81 million people at risk of coastal flooding by the end of this century. No biggie: $1 billion each year should be enough to conduct an “orderly relocation of coastal populations,” the report concludes. Does anybody want to adopt a Bangladeshi or a Galveston islander?

Someone should bury this report in a time capsule, so future anthropologists-and hopefully ones not living on a scorched earth-can study what happens when right-wing ideology and corporate wishful thinking collide with scientific reality.

Climate Inaction

Anybody looking for decisive action from the Texas Legislature on climate change walked away from this session sorely disappointed. In sum, there was virtually no action. Of a dozen or so bills directly tackling climate change, not a single one had cleared the Legislature as the session came to a close. Most legislation designed to actually do something about greenhouse gases died in committee. In one instance, representatives of Detroit automakers swooped into Austin to squelch a bill adopting California’s low-emission vehicle standards for the Texas fleet. Enviros didn’t stand a chance. Instead, our valiant legislators propose to study climate change issues for the next two years.

One study group, charged with looking at power plants’ links to global warming, among other energy planning tasks, will consist mostly of politicians, including Reps. Phil King (R-Weatherford) and Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), both members of the global-warming-is-a-hoax crowd. Gov. Rick Perry will have three appointed members on the study group as well. Stalling should suit him just fine, since he pontificated in an op-ed last September about the “great debate in the scientific community” over whether climate change is manmade.

The only direct test vote on climate change in the House this session came on May 14, when Rep. Elliott Naishtat, an Austin Democrat, proposed a modest amendment to an air quality bill. The amendment would have charged the state climatologist-you know, an actual scientist-with assembling a team to devise strategies, such as a carbon emissions credit system, to reduce greenhouse gases. The vote was fairly lopsided, going down to defeat 88-52 with three Republicans joining 49 Democrats in supporting the measure and 14 Democrats siding with the Republicans.

This session was supposed to be different. Legislators came to Austin in January amidst growing public opposition to TXU and other power-generating companies’ plans to build 19 new coal-fired power plants. Anti-coal forces had been raising hell, not just about air pollution but also about coal’s considerable contribution to climate change. A Republican, Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson of Waco, was cooking up a coal moratorium bill. Meanwhile, attorneys challenging TXU’s air permits for new coal-fired plants blasted the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for doing absolutely nothing about the state’s output of greenhouse gases. In the opening days of the session environmentalists said they would seize the moment and force a debate at the Capitol on climate change. However, perhaps due in small part to the TXU buyout that resulted in the company dropping plans for eight of 11 proposed plants, the movement failed to translate its power into legislative action.

There is some good news. Green forces are close to getting major bills promoting energy conservation and efficiency passed with bipartisan support. While this legislation only tangentially touches on climate change, it may dampen the need for new carbon-belching power plants.

Kidding Themselves

Texas has a dire shortage of foster families. The state’s social services agencies can’t find enough safe homes for neglected kids. But Gov. Rick Perry and friends are here to help. The solution? The governor’s own nonprofit.

Buried deep within a large foster care reform proposal-Senate Bill 758-is an unusual one-paragraph provision. It requires Child Protective Services to consult with the One Star Foundation to help recruit foster families through faith-based groups. It’s rare for legislation to direct a state agency to contract with a specific nonprofit. But the folks at One Star aren’t your typical do-gooders.

Opened in 2004, the One Star Foundation is a nonprofit offshoot of the governor’s office that operates several volunteer programs with state and federal money. The foundation was created by an executive order from Gov. Rick Perry. His image appears so many times on One Star’s website you would think Perry runs the thing, though he has no official control over the foundation. One Star ostensibly operates separately from the governor’s office. But it does run the governor’s Mentoring Initiative and the governor’s Faith-Based and Community Initiative. There’s no question the bonds are tight.

One Star president Susan Weddington-a former head of the Texas Republican Party and a Perry ally-said the foundation approached the author of SB 758, Flower Mound Republican Sen. Jane Nelson, about including One Star in the bill. Other nonprofits, such as Lutheran Social Services, have worked with foster families for years, but apparently they didn’t make the cut.

Weddington acknowledged that the foundation hasn’t dealt with foster care in the past, but she contends that One Star is especially qualified because it has good connections with faith-based organizations and church groups that can help the state recruit foster families. “We’ve made so many contacts,” she said. “They’re very interested in meeting the needs in their communities.” Weddington said One Star won’t receive any additional state money for its foster-care consulting.

There aren’t many nonprofits with enough stroke to ring up a state senator and inject their name into a high-profile bill. Notwithstanding, Weddington contends that her group didn’t receive any favored treatment. “Our mission is very pure,” she said. “[The foundation] is connected to an office, not a person. Our work is for the state of Texas, not the governor.”

Something’s Fishy

You’ve probably never heard of House Bill 899. It’s an inconsequential bill-one of thousands floating through the Texas Legislature’s 80th Session. HB 899 should have slid quietly into state statute. And it probably would have, if not for the events of May 3-which neatly illustrate how the Texas House operates under Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland).

HB 899 slightly alters the section of the occupational code dealing with the Texas Board of Professional Engineers. Not exactly front-page material. But the state’s engineers and architects have been bickering over the bill for months. On May 3, the Senate-passed version of HB 899 landed back in the House. Rep. Wayne Smith (R-Baytown), the author of the bill, concurred with the Senate’s changes. The House passed a final version, and HB 899 was on its way to the governor’s desk. That should have been the end of it.

But later that day, Smith was called into the hall behind the House chamber for a meeting with Craddick and the speaker’s chief of staff, Nancy Fisher. In the back hall, Fisher threw a fit, according to several sources. She pleaded with Smith to take HB 899 to a House-Senate conference committee.

Why was Fisher so adamant about such a minor bill? It seems the architects didn’t like the Senate changes to HB 899, which slightly favored the engineers. And Fisher’s husband is an architect. She’s married to Bruce Weir-a registered architect, according to public records.

Smith wasn’t going to put up a fight on such a minor bill. He relented and took HB 899 back before the House later on May 3. This time, following Smith’s suggestion, the House voted to appoint a conference committee. As the Observer went to press, the conference committee had yet to agree on a final bill.

Asked about the incident, Smith confirmed the sequence of events and the meeting with Fisher. But he said he considered Fisher’s objections simply part of the legislative process. He said many people often provide input on his bills. “It sounds to me like someone is trying to place blame [on Fisher], and I’m not going to do that,” Smith said. “That’s all part of the process.”

Craddick spokeswoman Alexis DeLee said she couldn’t comment directly on the matter. But she added that Fisher isn’t the only one following the issue. “We have been inundated with letters and phone calls from architects on this.”

For anyone who’s watched the House under Craddick the past three sessions, it should come as no surprise that the speaker and his staff would try to strongarm a House member and the Senate perhaps for personal reasons.

No Roberts Relief

In February, an Observer cover story took a close look at how the newest additions to the U.S. Supreme Court could affect death penalty cases. At the time of Anthony Zurcher’s examination (“Relief Denied?”, Feb. 23, 2007), the prognosis seemed up in the air. What George W. Bush appointees Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito “think of the death penalty and its application is not at all clear,” Zurcher wrote. But by sifting through the appointees’ brief track records on the high court, Zurcher concluded the evidence didn’t bode well for opponents of the death penalty.

Three months later, Robert Owen and Jordan Steiker, two Austin lawyers who have argued and won death penalty cases before the Roberts court, said any ambiguity about the two newbies was gone: They were almost certainly in the Scalia-Thomas camp. But the court as a whole is far from settled. The key, the lawyers told a May luncheon of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy’s Austin chapter, was Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Steiker and Owen, both law professors at the University of Texas, have been arguing death penalty cases for more than a decade. In their opinion, the additions of Roberts and Alito have left the high court more divided than ever on the issue. They see the court as separated into two blocs. Four justices are almost certain to side with the death penalty: Roberts, Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas. And four seem willing to go so far as to find the death penalty unconstitutional because it has been inconsistently applied: Steven Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter, and John Paul Stevens. Meaning, on this issue, “Justice Kennedy now controls the court,” Steiker said.

Kennedy, like his recently departed colleagues, William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O’Connor, began as a reliable backer of capital punishment but has since indicated growing doubts about how it is meted out. “Ten to 15 years ago, Kennedy seemed unreachable,” Steiker said. “But he’s become someone who’s circumspect about the death penalty.”

But even the lawyers, who have argued before Kennedy for years, admit they can’t predict which way he’ll go on a particular case. That uncertainty could lead to a slowdown in death penalty cases litigation, as advocacy groups on both sides enter a “sort of standoff while waiting for another change in the makeup of the court,” Owen said.

Both lawyers, though, did feel confident making one prediction about the immediate future: “Expect every death penalty case to be 5-4,” Steiker said.

The Damage Done

A simple piece of legislation that would have saved lives and money expired in committee on May 19, despite a majority of support in both the House and the Senate. Senate Bill 308 by Sen. Robert Deuell (R-Greenville), would legalize programs that exchange clean syringes for dirty ones for intravenous drug users-a policy that has unfailingly reduced the spread of diseases like HIV and hepatitis C in a number of cities across the world.

SB 308 passed out of the Senate with a vote of 23-8 on April 27 and moved on to the House Public Health committee, where chairwoman Rep. Dianne White Delisi (R-Temple) blocked it. She set a hearing for the bill as part of a deal with Deuell, but says it was understood that a vote would never be called.

“I was not persuaded that the public health advantages outweigh my concerns and the concerns of my constituents about ensuring the availability of needles to illegal drug users,” Delisi says.

Tracey Hayes of the ACLU of Texas says the bill would have had six supporting votes in the committee – more than enough to pass it along. Any opposition to this bipartisan policy stems from a fear by some that the issue would be used against them in political campaigns, she says.

Needle exchange is anything but radical in the medical community. Among the bill’s supporters are the Texas Medical Association, the Texas Hospital Association, and Delisi’s own Temple hospital, the Scott & White Center for Healthcare Policy.

Given the $385,000 an uninsured HIV/AIDS patient typically costs the state, any measure that would prevent the spread of the disease can only be seen as fiscally conservative. Dr. Peter Lurie of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group testified before the Senate Health and Human Services committee that 200 to 400 new HIV cases could be prevented in six Texas counties by 2020 if needle exchange programs are implemented. Nearly every other state has a policy allowing for syringe exchange, Hayes says.

Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (D-San Antonio) proposed a needle exchange program for Bexar County as an amendment on another bill on May 21. The House passed the amendment 71-60. The votes are there in both houses for a larger program.

Perhaps Delisi was unconvinced because she didn’t show up for the hearing on the bill-in the committee she chairs. Delisi didn’t see a need. “Oh, that legislation has been around for years,” she says.