In May 2009, Austin filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, creator of the blockbuster Spy Kids, hosted a celebratory press conference at his Troublemaker Studios. As state legislators and Gov. Rick Perry looked on, Rodriguez cheered a new, $62 million incentive program for movies made in Texas using Texas-based crews. The grants reimburse from 5 percent to 15 percent of production money spent in the state.
Now Rodriguez could lose an estimated $2 million in incentives for his latest project because of a 2007 law that denies state funding if films include “inappropriate content or content that portrays Texas or Texans in a negative fashion.”
The trouble started on Cinco de Mayo, when Rodriguez released a spoof theatrical trailer for his upcoming film, Machete. Rodriguez meant the gory, over-the-top trailer to satirize anti-immigrant legislation recently passed in Arizona. The trailer shows the titular character aiming a .50-caliber assault rifle at a senator (played by Robert De Niro) leading an anti-immigrant rally in front of the Texas Capitol. It ends with the words, “They just fucked with the wrong Mexican.”
The trailer drew return fire from conservative bloggers and Alex Jones, the conspiranoid, Austin-based radio talk show host. “We need to get the funding at the state level stripped out of the film commission if they do not stop this,” Jones said during a recent show.
Rodriguez did not return calls, but he told Ain’t It Cool News, where the trailer debuted, that he wasn’t trying to provoke a “race war,” as some critics had suggested. “It’s only because of what’s happened in Arizona that some scenes actually feel at all grounded in reality,” he said, “which is pretty nuts and says more about Arizona than any fictional movie.”
Bob Hudgins, director of the Texas Film Commission, reviews initial scripts, then signs off on the movie’s final cut before state funds are released. He says Rodriguez has assured him that the Machete trailer had nothing to do with the film set for release in September. “It’s hard to prejudge whether it’s offensive to Texas because I haven’t seen it yet,” Hudgins said. “I probably won’t see it until August.”
In May 2009, a company filming a movie based on the 1993 Branch Davidian raid in Waco accused the film commission of censorship after state aid was denied. Producers moved their $30 million project to another state.
Hudgins said the decision wasn’t censorship. He said he told the filmmakers their characters were factually inaccurate and that they chose not to apply for a grant. “The characters were based on real people in Texas who are still alive,” Hudgins said. “I showed them the script, and they said it was inaccurate.”
Problem is, lawmakers have forced Hudgins to make such judgments. The standard he’s working with is about as wide open as West Texas. “It’s a very difficult determination,” he said. “I won’t hedge on that. But I take it very seriously.”
texas vs. epa
Permitted To Pollute
The faceoff between President Barack Obama’s EPA and Gov. Rick Perry’s Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has escalated dramatically. On May 25, the EPA prohibited the commission from issuing a permit for a refinery in Corpus Christi, and promised to do the same for dozens of other industrial facilities if TCEQ doesn’t fix its flawed flexible-permit program. Such drastic action is unprecedented and signals that new EPA regional administrator Al Armendariz is not backing down from his promise to end business as usual in state environmental regulation.
“Flex” permits issued by TCEQ give polluters a pass on reducing emissions at individual sources such as smokestacks and storage tanks, instead placing a cap on entire facilities. The EPA and environmental groups say such caps are too lenient and virtually unenforceable, in part because the program is riddled with secrecy.
The Texas attorney general’s office has ruled for years that emissions data must be made public under the Clean Air Act, but often defers to TCEQ to decide what emissions data are released. TCEQ has allowed companies to decide what’s confidential. For example, the flex-permit application for Exxon Mobil Corp.’s Baytown chemical plant lists as “confidential” an analysis of health effects from storage tanks. Exxon also refused to make public details on pollution released during startup, shutdown and maintenance. In 2006, President George W. Bush’s EPA wrote to the TCEQ that withholding such data was contrary to federal and state law. “All emissions data must be made public,” the letter stated.
Nonetheless, TCEQ permitted Exxon’s Baytown facility. Today no one knows what type of startup, shutdown and maintenance activities are authorized under the flex permit.
Ilan Levin, an Austin lawyer with the Environmental Integrity Project, says he recently raised the secrecy issue with EPA officials. “You should have seen their jaws drop,” he said. “For a regulator who deals in air pollution, this is unheard of.”
Perry responded to the EPA’s effort to fix the flex-permit program with typical bombast, calling the move part of Obama’s “campaign to harm our economy and impose federal control over Texas.”
dept. of gentrification
East Austin Cleanup
On a recent Friday night in East Austin, seven Austin Police Department (APD) officers and I visited Clicks Billiards, a local bar, nightclub, and pool hall. I was riding along on an initiative to curb violent crime in what the officers call the “East Riverside Corridor”—a low-income area populated primarily by recent immigrants from Latin America. The city would like to see the area redeveloped from strip malls, seedy bars, and Mexican restaurants into mixed-use residences and retail businesses. Upscale apartments and condos are under construction.
At Clicks, the officers followed protocol. One carded the bouncer at the door, another went to the bathroom, and the others circulated through the crowd, shining their flashlights onto people’s drinks and peering through the dark, trying to spot anyone who looked underage. Satisfied nothing transparently illegal was going on, one beefy, mustachioed officer greeted two men leaning against a pool table. They shook hands; the officer bent over and took a shot (he missed).
“We’re looking at Friday and Saturday nights, from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m.,” said APD Lt. Paul Christ. “We have one sergeant and six officers, on overtime, working that area.”
The department says that by targeting bars and nightclubs in the area, it can reduce robberies, assaults and public intoxication. Statistics indicate the East Riverside corridor is a crime hotspot, and the officers I rode with were adamant that the initiative is the result of those numbers.
When I asked APD Commander John Hutto whether the anti-crime initiative is linked to city support of redevelopment in East Austin, he said, “Absolutely. We recognize that there’s quite a few bars and nightclubs along Riverside Drive, and what we’ve seen in the past is that more often than not, our late-night violent crimes—you know, the robberies and aggravated assaults—are in some ways fueled by alcohol.”
Erica Leak, a senior city planner who oversees the East Riverside Corridor Master Plan, said the area is already changing. “A number of older apartment complexes have been torn down,” she said. “With more private investment in the area, that often helps with crime rates. Throughout the master planning process, we have been contacting lots of different departments throughout the city in trying to coordinate their efforts with ours.” In effect, the police are helping clear the way for gentrification.
By the time the officers dropped me back at the station around 1 a.m., they had walked through seven bars and pool halls, stopped by a taco trailer for dinner, and intended to visit at least four more nightspots. The officers had issued a few jaywalking citations, made a cocaine arrest, and received a report of one UFO sighting. They still had three hours to go.
State Board of excuses
The Texas State Board of Education’s three-day showdown in May over social studies standards attracted reporters from across the country, from The New York Times to Fox News. Accounts focused on the fiery, often entertaining back-and-forth over which historical figures to include: the Dolores Huertas or the Phyllis Schlaflys?
After the final votes on the new standards (Huerta and Schlafly both made it in), the cameras were packed up, onlookers drained from the room—and the board voted to postpone buying the new science textbooks it spent much of 2008 and 2009 debating.
The argument over science curriculum centered on whether to require that students learn the “strengths and weaknesses” of the theory of evolution. In the end, social conservatives lost that struggle; of the many changes made to the curriculum, one of their few successes requires biology teachers to explain “any data of sudden appearance” in the fossil record—proof, supposedly, of evolution’s fallibility. They also succeeded in requiring students to “distinguish between scientific hypotheses and scientific theories.”
Now it appears that Texas kids will have to glean those points from supplementary materials rather than new textbooks that were supposed to arrive in the fall. The state normally replaces textbooks on a rotating basis every 10 years. With Texas facing a budget shortfall of at least $11 billion in 2011, the money isn’t going to be there. Textbooks covering the new science standards would have cost $400 million, and the Legislature is already expecting a bill of $888 million for textbooks already ordered.
In the 2011-12 school year, the state will begin standardized, end-of-course exams for high-schoolers, and students will be expected to have mastered the new science standards. So board members crossed their collective fingers that the Legislature would approve money for an unorthodox plan: a supplement covering the new standards as a stopgap.
The Texas Education Agency had proposed to provide science supplements for high schools only at a cost of about $17 million. Instead, board members approved supplements for science classes from fifth grade through high school. They have no idea how much the supplements will cost.
It’ll be a couple of years before the state has to pay for new social studies textbooks, scheduled to arrive in fall 2013.