Political Intelligence

VIVA EL VALLE

Last fall we reported on a successful living wage campaign in the Lower Rio Grande River Valley, led by Valley Interfaith, the church and community-based organization well-known for organizing colonia residents along the border. The campaign targeted public employers in the Valley, which account for roughly one-third of all jobs in the region. One year later, a study by MIT professor Paul Osterman has assessed the results of the campaign, and the prognosis is good.

Since the initiative began in 1998, ten public employers in the Valley have raised wages. Osterman attempted to assess not only the number of public employees earning higher wages, but also the ripple effect in private industry, as other employers raised wages to remain competitive. His surveys determined that over 7,200 people now earn higher wages as a result, making the Valley’s experiment one of the most successful of the roughly fifty living wage campaigns around the nation. He found no signs of job loss in the affected organizations, despite dire predictions from some Valley politicians and private employers.

“Living wages are not only the right thing to do, it also makes good business sense; if you pay workers more they are not only more productive, but they also become less reliant on state and federal support and more self-sufficient,” said Gilbert Garcia, an Interfaith leader from McAllen. “Even the most conservative of economic analysts are concluding that the real challenge today is not jobs, but the huge wage disparity in this country,” he said.

WHERE THE SIDEWALK WAR ENDS

The Eleventh Commandment in this political season to end all seasons is Thou Shalt Not Embarrass the Governor – even if it means eating a little crow. A longstanding dispute between a group of environmentalists and the governor’s mansion DPS security detail has come to a surprising conclusion: the cops gave up. Shortly after the governor declared his candidacy last year he also apparently ordered a strict new policy regarding the longstanding practice of demonstrating on the steps of the mansion. On four separate occasions, environmentalists protesting the governor’s air pollution policies found themselves arrested and jailed, ostensibly for “blocking the sidewalk.”

Following accusations by the Texas ACLU and others that the policy was enforced selectively, an embarrassing succession of announcements came from the governor’s office, which alternately claimed that there was no policy, and that the policy had been rescinded. To get some clarification, the jailed (and released) environmentalists sued, naming the governor as a defendant, along with the mansion security detail. After two unsuccessful attempts to get himself dismissed from the suit, the governor apparently gave the order to settle, rather than be forced to testify himself.

“He was afraid of having to get up there and answer the same questions his people were asking us – about his criminal history,” said Jim Baldauf of Texans United. What was it worth to him not to have to testify in court during his presidential campaign? The settlement awarded $99,000 to the aggrieved parties, and ordered “sensitivity training” for the governor’s protective detail. No such training has been ordered for the governor, who claimed all along that he had nothing to do with the policy change (if there was one). The sidewalk, meanwhile, is open for business.

THEY DIDN’T LEARN IT HERE

People seldom receive criminal indictments for violating environmental laws in Texas – administrative fines are rare enough in this era of “flexible enforcement” of the state’s environmental laws.

That’s why it must be particularly embarrassing for the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission that two of its own alumni have recently found themselves sitting on the wrong side of a grand jury for enviro crimes. The Fort Worth Star Telegram reported last month that a grand jury in New Mexico had indicted six people in an illegal dumping investigation near Las Cruces. Among them was Hector Villa III, who, before he apparently turned to a life of crime, was a TNRCC regional director in El Paso. Now an environmental consultant, Villa is accused of abetting the illicit disposal of hundreds of thousands of gallons of rendering waste. That is, liquefied dead animal parts.

Back in 1998, meanwhile, Michael Peters, a former Beaumont regional manager of the Texas Air Control Board (TNRCC’s predecessor), was indicted by the feds for environmental crimes committed at the Huntsman chemical plant in Port Arthur. Peters, who protected and served the Beaumont area until he left the agency in 1989, was the environmental manager at the much-maligned Huntsman plant.

On the subject of criminally negligent bureaucrats, the Corpus Christi TNRCC field office deserves at least an honorable mention. After all, the seriously illegal benzene violations that recently resulted in federal indictments against four Koch Pipeline plant officials there had apparently been signed off on by state regulators, most likely by someone in the Corpus regional office.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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