SUN SETS ON A WRECKING TRAIN.
It sounds like the beginning of a bad haiku, and maybe it should be: bad poetry for bad public policy. Every ten years or so each state agency must appear before the Sunset Commission (four state reps, four senators, and two public members) to defend its policies, procedures, and reason for existence. This year the T.N.R.C.C. (a/k/a “Trainwreck”) must defend its ten-year record of protecting the public health and the state’s air, soil, and water. Most people would rather defend O.J. Simpson again.
It hasn’t been a good twelve years for the environment in Texas, and more often than not, the T.N.R.C.C. has been part of the problem. Voluntary permits for grandfathered polluters. The Sierra Blanca radioactive waste dump debacle. Toxic waste incineration. And who could forget the “Call First” surprise inspection policy for polluting facilities?
Don’t bet on the Commission throwing too many bombs at the June 20-21 public hearing in Austin. The Commission has already issued its report, which recommends continued use of voluntary compliance and “regulatory flexibility” to enforce state and federal environmental laws. Yet out of more than 900,000 annual tons of grandfathered pollution (from exempted older facilities), the Governor’s voluntary permitting program has produced a reduction of 3 percent (17,878 tons annually) in the twenty-nine months since the program began. The Commission has recommended two major reforms that environmental activists have been seeking for years. One is to make the agency’s Office of Public Interest Counsel a truly independent body. OPIC’s attorneys currently answer to the same executive director and commissioners whose decisions they are called upon to challenge. Second, the Commission recommends that the executive director no longer actively support the industry side in the contested permit hearing process, a practice that understandably causes citizens battling polluters to question the agency’s impartiality. Expect industry groups to fight those recommendations and related legislation next session.
Environmental activists would like to see a much more comprehensive overhaul of the agency, beginning with a redefined mission statement that emphasizes protecting public health and the environment and removes entirely the current reference to promoting economic development. Fifteen environmental and public interest groups have formed a working group to raise awareness about the upcoming hearing, and to pressure Commission staff and legislators to use the review process to redirect the agency. “The staff sees polluters as their clients … not the people,” said Erin Rogers, Texas Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Rogers has toured the state filming citizens as they tell their war stories about battling polluters and the T.N.R.C.C. A rally will be held at noon on the south steps of the Capitol Wednesday, June 21. For more information, visit www.texascenter.org/sunset; e-mail email@example.com; or call the Sierra Club: (512) 477-1729.
SO SUE US.
Pressured to call a special session to address the crisis in prison guard pay, training, and retention, Governor Bush announced a compromise plan last month. Bush, with Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry and House Speaker Pete Laney, agreed to an emergency pay raise for correctional officers. AFSCME, which represents most C.O.s in the state, is claiming victory, but the raise (up to $1,656 per year, depending on experience) still leaves Texas officers about $6,000 short of the national average of $34,000 a year. It’s not likely to placate the veteran officers for long. Legislators have promised that raising officer pay will be high on the agenda next session, though they have also begun hinting at another round of prison construction in Texas, so officers may be competing with beds for funding.
Here’s one compelling argument for a pay raise union reps might bring to the table: staffing the units with responsible, well-trained, well-paid employees, as well as with experienced supervisors, means fewer lawsuits against the agency. Inmate suits against the agency seldom get far, regardless of their merit. But according to documents obtained by the Observer, suits by employees are costing the agency a bundle. In 1999 alone, the agency paid out over $380,000 to current and former employees to settle allegations of sexual harassment, retaliation, discrimination, and improper firings. Those are just the cases that have been settled; dozens more are still pending. Ten lawsuits have been filed since September 1 of last year. Of course, the bean-counters might say T.D.C.J.’s legal bills are minor compared to the cost of properly funding the agency.
More substantial cost-cutting measures, like ending the drug war, are not expected to be on the table next session.
Last we heard, the Revolution is yet to begin. But The New York Times, apparently having grown tired of waiting, has started reporting it anyway. In a June 4 story on a planned protest against the Organization of American States in Detroit, reporter Nicholle M. Christian wrote: “human rights campaigners … plan, starting on Sunday, to unleash the same kind of protests that left Seattle with $2.5 million in damage last December after a meeting of the World Trade Organization. In that protest, demonstrators, some wearing gas masks, hurled Molotov cocktails, rocks and excrement at delegates and police officers….” (emphasis added).
Come again? No credible coverage of the Seattle demonstrations (heretofore including that of the Times) accused any of the protestors of attacking cops or delegates with anything, much less deadly weapons. A rumor briefly circulated in D.C. that materials for Molotov cocktails were discovered in a raid prior to the A16 demonstrations, but later it was revealed these were medical supplies. Following a barrage of e-mail complaints from Direct Action Network members and others, and a mini-protest staged in front of the Times building in New York, the paper issued a retraction June 6. Editors acknowledged that the article “referred incorrectly” to the W.T.O. protestors. Just one little mistake: “The authorities there said that any objects thrown were aimed at property, not people. No protestors were accused of throwing objects, including rocks and Molotov cocktails, at delegates or the police.” Editors were presumably still investigating the excrement question.
The O.A.S. demonstrations, incidentally, were largely peaceful, with about 500 people marching in Detroit. The real action was across the Canadian border in Windsor, Ontario, where the O.A.S. meeting took place. About 5,000 protestors met an equal number of Canadian police, drawn from across Ontario. As in D.C., the city was largely shut down in anticipation of a conflict. A contingent of young protestors attempting to stop a bus of delegates was pepper-sprayed and arrested.