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contested case hearing

Hempstead landfill application resubmitted

Here we go again.

StopHwy6Landfill

A Georgia-based company on Wednesday announced it had initiated a new application to build a controversial landfill in Waller County, bringing renewed attention to a project that a citizens group and several county commissioners have actively opposed.

Earlier this year, Commissioner John Amsler had described the landfill as “dead” though at the time the proponent, Green Group Holdings LLC, was exploring ways to still bring the project to reality.

On Tuesday, the firm filed the first two parts of an application for construction of the Pintail Landfill with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, agency spokeswoman Andrea Morrow confirmed.

The portions submitted deal with whether the land can be used for waste disposal. They will be reviewed to decide whether the application can go forward, Morrow wrote in an email.

[…]

Green Group’s new application follows the rejection last fall by TCEQ of a previous proposal, which found the company had not adequately accounted for how high the water might rise in the area. TCEQ this spring also denied an appeal of that rejection, saying the appeal came too late.

In a news release, Green Group said the company was “confident” its new application would meet “all applicable design and location standards.” The new proposed landfill will be on a smaller portion of the of the original site.

News of the filing concerned Citizens Against the Landfill in Hempstead, which has actively opposed the proposal, believing that it would negatively impact the area’s water supply and economic vitality.

After first opposing the plans five years ago, the grass-roots group has kept a close eye on the project. Members of the group last month predicted the fight would continue when the company finalized the purchase of a 723-acre parcel where it plans to build the landfill.

“CALH remains strongly opposed to Pintail Landfill,” treasurer Mike McCall said Wednesday on behalf of the group. “We have got a lot of work to do to fairly evaluate that application. … Until that happens we are not going to have any further comment.”

See here and here for the background. On the one hand, there’s no reason to think that Green Group can’t fix the problems that caused their initial application to be rejected. On the other hand, the county government in Waller is unanimously opposed to this project, which wasn’t the case back when it first came to light some years ago. I never have faith in the TCEQ to be on the side of the people, but I do believe that Green Group has a much higher hill to climb this time around. We’ll see how it goes.

Hempstead landfill fight still not over

As with all things, it ain’t over till it’s over.

StopHwy6Landfill

Green Group Holdings recently purchased the 723-acre parcel where the company had planned to build the landfill before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality turned down the project.

The move means the Georgia-based Green Group hasn’t given up on the project, known as the Pintail landfill. David Green, vice president of the company, said it would continue to explore how to move forward.

“The Pintail property has been under option to purchase for a number of years,” Green said in a statement last week. “After much consideration, we have decided to exercise the option and purchase the property.”

Citizens Against the Landfill, a grass-roots group in Hempstead, said the company’s purchase of the land indicated that the 5-year-old fight over the project would continue. The group contends that the landfill would harm the area’s water supply and economic future.

“As much as we hate to admit it, at this point we are convinced that the battle is not over,” the group said in a statement that called for a new round of fundraising.

See here and here for the background. Green Group would have to submit a new application for the permit, so any new attempt to make this happen would begin more or less from the beginning, and would face opposition that has already organized and extracted a settlement from county government stemming from the initial attempt. It would be difficult for them, in other words, but not impossible. Those who do not want to see this landfill get built will need to stay on guard.

Waller County landfill plan appears to be dead

Maybe.

StopHwy6Landfill

A Waller County commissioner on Wednesday declared victory in a years-long battle against an outside company’s proposal to develop a landfill there.

“I am proud to say the landfill is dead,” Commissioner John Amsler said as the regular commissioners court meeting got underway.

However, a company representative said Wednesday that Green Group Holdings, LLC, is continuing to explore ways to move forward with the project.

[…]

County and city ordinances regarding landfills now prevent one from being built at that site, meaning a new application would be rejected, County Judge Trey Duhon said by phone Wednesday.

Green Group Holdings, LLC, had been looking to grandfather in an application due to a transfer facility permit they had already gotten for the location, but the county’s attorney learned recently that the state agency did not agree that would be the case, Duhon said.

“That effectively kills the landfill,” Duhon said, though he noted the company already has invested significantly in the project.

Or maybe not.

And yet, in a written statement on Friday, the chief executive officer of Green Group Holdings, LLC, said they were continuing to pursue the project that several commissioners such as Amsler promised during their election campaigns they would fight.

“We are assessing other avenues to move the project forward,” CEO Ernest Kaufmann wrote in a statement.

[…]

In his statement, Kaufmann wrote that Green Group believes TCEQ “has misinterpreted” the rules regarding how a permit application can be grandfathered. And he disagreed with Amsler’s conclusion: the agency’s recent interpretation of the impact that the transfer station registration would have on a resubmitted application “does not mean the project is ‘dead,’ ” he wrote.

A representative of an advocacy group called Citizens Against the Landfill in Hempstead, which has long fought the project, expressed they weren’t celebrating just yet.

The group has spent $1.8 million to fight the project, “a travesty in and of itself,” says Mike McCall, the group’s treasurer.

And while McCall said the group agreed with TCEQ’s decision that a new application should not be grandfathered in under old law, he said he won’t be convinced the group is done until they take away their equipment at the site. Until then, said McCall, who lives north of the proposed landfill site, the group would remain vigilant.

“I’m a CPA by profession, and I like to dot my I’s and cross my T’s,” he said. “I’m not satisfied that Pintail is through yet.”

As the first story notes, Green Group has not appealed the TCEQ rejection of their application for a permit; the application they had submitted was ruled “deficient” because it had not accurately accounted for the landfill’s potential effect on groundwater. That initial application is presumably their best chance to get this landfill done, since local laws have since been changed to ban them. There’s still the possibility of other legal action, and I’m not aware of a deadline for appealing the TCEQ ruling, so it’s still too early to say this is over. We’ll see what card Green Group plays next.

TCEQ rejects application for Hempstead landfill

Back to the drawing board.

StopHwy6Landfill

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality this week returned a company’s application to construct a landfill in Waller County, calling the application “deficient.” It was the latest blow to plans for the highly controversial project about 50 miles northwest of downtown Houston.

Green Group Holdings, LLC, a Georgia-based company that develops and operates waste management facilities, did not adequately account for how high the water level might get in the proposed area, a discovery that was made after years of vetting the application, according to a letter Monday from TCEQ to the company.

Actively opposed by a local citizens group, the Pintail landfill project was designed for a site north of Hempstead off Texas 6. The landfill’s maximum height would have been about 151 feet above the ground, with a volume of 35.7 million cubic yards available for disposal, according to the TCEQ application overview online.

Agency staff spent more than 1,300 hours over four years working with the company on the permit application, pointing out more than 400 points to be addressed, wrote Earl Lott, the agency’s waste permits division director, in the letter.

“Despite this significant effort, the application is still deficient,” Lott continued. “Elevated seasonal high water levels have been discovered at the proposed landfill site, substantially affecting the basis under which the draft permit was prepared.”

[…]

“For the integrity of the municipal solid waste landfill program, this is not where we want to be at this point in the process,” Lott wrote. “The application has already undergone extensive technical review, a draft permit has been prepared and the matter has been referred to the State Office of Administrative Hearings. It is at this point that momentous site information is discovered which significantly alters the approach to the design of the facility.”

Green Group Holdings can now walk away from the project, draft a new application or appeal the decision. An appeal must be filed within 23 days of the decision. The company has not yet decided what it will do next, according to a written statement.

“We are surprised by the action and are in the process of evaluating our next steps,” the statement said.

Citizens Against the Landfill counts the application’s return as a victory, but doesn’t believe the fight is finished,

“It’s a victory but it’s not over,” Huntsinger said. “When they leave town and say, ‘We’re not coming back to Hempstead with this site, that’s when it’s over.”

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for a copy of the TCEQ’s letter to Green Group. I have a hard time imagining that they will give up the fight, but their choices aren’t very good at this point. Congrats to CALH for all their hard work, whatever comes next.

More good news for Hempstead landfill opponents

This could be the end of the line for the proposed landfill.

StopHwy6Landfill

Opponents of a proposed landfill in Waller County won another victory in a years-long legal fight to prevent the project. The executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality issued a decision supporting the Citizens Against the Landfill in Hempstead’s request for summary judgment on the permit application.

“This is the best news we have received thus far in this case, which has been going on three to four years now,” county judge Trey Duhon wrote in an e-mail. “It is clear that the current application does not meet state requirements for a landfill, as the landfill opponents have been saying all along.”

[…]

“We’re pleased to see that decision by the executive director which acknowledges the position we’ve taken all along,” said Bill Huntsinger, president of the Citizens Against the Landfill in Hempstead, representing opposition in the small town roughly an hour northwest of Houston.

Following the decision from the executive director, it falls to the administrative law judges of the State Office of Administrative Hearings to make a determination about the permit. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality would then rule on the findings.

“We are hopeful that the judge will do the right thing and dismiss the application,” said Duhon.

[…]

In his decision, the executive director of the state’s environmental commission, Richard Hyde, wrote, “the current application does not meet TCEQ rule requirements by the Applicant’s own admission.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The final step in the process is the actual Contested Case Hearing, which is set for November 2. At that hearing, the case – which may take two weeks – will be heard by two Administrative Law Judges with the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH). At the end of the hearing, these SOAH Judges will issue a “Recommendation for Decision” to the Commissioners of the TCEQ, and then finally the TCEQ will make its decision. (There’s currently a vacancy on the TCEQ, awaiting an appointment from the Governor, so I suppose this could affect the timeline.) One presumes the decision by the Executive Director of the TCEQ bodes well for the landfill opponents, but there’s still that hearing to go through. Stay tuned.

Hempstead landfill clarification

I recently blogged about an update to the Hempstead landfill story, in which Green Group Holdings asked to amend its original filings regarding groundwater levels. I received an email on Monday from a Green Group representative, who sent me the following additional information:

  • On August 12, 2015, the Administrative Law Judges presiding over the hearing on the landfill permit application for the Pintail Landfill in Waller County granted a continuance of the hearing process to allow Pintail to evaluate new information regarding groundwater levels at the proposed site following recent extreme rainfall amounts.
  • TCEQ rules contemplate the incorporation of new groundwater data into the engineering design for a landfill.
  • Because of our commitment to environmental stewardship and engineering excellence, we believe that further evaluation of this new information is the responsible course of action and we requested a delay in the hearing process to allow for it.
  • This is consistent with Pintail’s approach to meet or exceed applicable requirements. For instance, the surface water detention ponds at the Pintail Landfill will have significantly more capacity than required. The surface water management system at a municipal solid waste landfill is required by rule to be designed and constructed to manage the rainfall from one 25-year storm event. However, the Pintail facility’s ponds are designed to manage stormwater from two back-to-back 100-year rainfall events.
  • For the Pintail site, groundwater levels in the 15 piezometers were measured over an 18-month period, from July 2011 until December 2012, including two 3-month periods during which rainfall in the area of the Pintail site was more than 150% of normal (see attachment for additional information).
  • The higher groundwater levels recently measured at the site followed a 3-month period in which rainfall amounts were well over 200% of normal.

Emphasis in the original. The attachment in question can be seen here. In the original Chron story that I blogged about, the folks fighting the landfill asked for a summary judgment denying the permit and dismissing the case after this happened; I haven’t seen any new stories relating to this, so I don’t know what the status of that is. In any event, I wanted to be as accurate as I can about this, so here you go. Thanks to Green Group for the feedback.

Hempstead landfill would indeed hurt the environment

Raise your hand if this surprises you.

StopHwy6Landfill

Pintail Landfill developers backpedaled from arguments that their proposed dump site outside Hempstead would not harm the environment, agreeing for the first time this summer that their review of groundwater under the property was flawed.

Environmental testing by opponents in preparation for a November hearing found that groundwater is several feet closer to the surface than Pintail reported in its 2011 permit application. If constructed as proposed, landfill officials admitted in related state filings that the dump site would be underwater, violating regulations designed to protect against groundwater contamination that could affect drinking supplies.

Opponents celebrated the admission as vindication of their years-long battle to block the 250-acre landfill that would be visible from U.S. 290 and primarily receive trash from Houston 50 miles away.

Green Group Holdings, the Georgia-based developer behind the landfill, asked TCEQ for permission to amend its application just days after opponents submitted the revelatory geological report to the state administrative court scheduled to review the permit in a contested case hearing. An attorney for Green Group and Pintail did not return emails or phone calls requesting comment.

Instead of allowing Pintail to amend its application – and take that revised plan into the hearing – landfill opponents have asked state administrative law judges to issue a summary judgment denying the permit and dismissing the case.

“My client, along with the City of Hempstead, have collectively spent over $1 million fighting this landfill,” said Blayre Pena, attorney for the nonprofit advocacy group Citizens Against a Landfill in Hempstead. “It would be a true miscarriage of justice if Pintail is allowed to admit their application does not meet statutory and regulatory requirements and then be given the opportunity to send it back to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to fix it.”

The contested case hearing originally had been scheduled to start Nov. 2, but Pintail’s request has delayed that at least several weeks, assuming the judges don’t deny the permit outright.

“We are playing the waiting game,” Hempstead Mayor Michael Wolfe said. “While the TCEQ did not take a position on the city’s motion to dismiss, we are hopeful they will see the light and realize there is only one acceptable answer to this situation: Deny Pintail’s application.”

See here, here, and here for some background. I wonder what motivated this admission – the story doesn’t give any indication, and it’s not something they’d do if they didn’t have to. Whatever the case, I agree with Mayor Wolfe. Groundwater is precious enough in this state. The last thing we need is to put any of it at risk of contamination by a landfill. Let’s hope the TCEQ sees it that way as well.

Hempstead landfill update

From the inbox:

StopHwy6Landfill

After several postponements, the Contested Case Hearing on the proposed Pintail Landfill permit has been set for November 2, 2015, in Austin.

Assuming no further delays, the case will be heard by two Administrative Law Judges with the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH). The trial is expected to take about two weeks. This proceeding to determine the facts is the last step before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) Commissioners make their final decision on the Pintail Landfill permit application.

The proposed landfill permit was not stopped by last December’s trial in Waller County.

The December trial was necessary to clarify whether former County officials acted legally in adopting, first, an amended version of the County’s 2011 landfill location control ordinance and, second, a Host Agreement. A jury of Waller County citizens decided that those officials did violate the Texas Open Meetings Act and the Texas Public Information Act.

The issuance of the TCEQ landfill permit remains to be decided. The application was referred to SOAH for a determination of the facts through a “trial” called a Contested Case Hearing (CCH). Such hearings include depositions, affidavits, expert testimony, and cross-examination relative to the many disputed issues in the application.

After the evidence is heard, the SOAH Judges will issue a “Recommendation for Decision” to the Commissioners of the TCEQ.

Along with Waller County, the City of Hempstead and several other Parties, Citizens Against the Landfill in Hempstead (CALH) is preparing for the CCH.

For over four years now, the landfill has been fought to a standstill and the Applicant still does not have a permit. Neither does it own the property.

Up against the big money of Green Group Holdings and their financial backers, CALH has had to budget tightly and fund every dollar with donations and fundraisers. If you are not aware, CALH has held 26 garage sales so far, each averaging about $10,000. These sales are so well stocked by wonderful donations and so popular with shoppers that we have had to rename the event ‘more than a’ Garage Sale. In addition, we have held annual dinner/auction fundraisers called ‘We Stand United’ in both 2013 and 2014, where tickets were sold out prior to the event and proceeds exceeded $100,000 each.

To date, most of the preparation work for the CCH has been done and paid for from donations, fundraisers and settlement funds from the December trial. However, it is estimated that another $300,000 will be needed by CALH to cover the remaining expenses of the upcoming CCH battle. Without lawyers to finish preparing for the case and to try it before the SOAH Judges, the fight could be lost.

This is why CALH is preparing to host ‘We Stand United 3’ on Saturday, July 25, 2015, at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Hempstead, Texas. All committees are working feverishly to make this event as successful as its predecessors. The community is coming together as always with donations, table sponsorships and ticket sales. If you would like to see a community working together in a positive, united way, we invite you to attend this event on July 25. Please see the flyer attached for details. We also invite you to visit our website and Facebook page to learn more about our organization and its activities.

Please contact us at StopHwy6Landfill@gmail.com for further information.

See here and here for previous upadates, and here for more on the July 25 fundraiser. I have been a supporter of this effort to keep the landfill out, and I continue to wish CALH well. I had been a little concerned that the legislation passed this session to restrict contested case hearings might stack the odds against them, but I have been assured that it will not affect theirs. It’s still a concern going forward for others, but that’s a subject for the future. Regardless, I’ll be following it and will check for updates in November.

Local control still under assault

Sucks to be us, Harris County.

San Jacinto River waste pits

With Harris County in its crosshairs, the Senate on Wednesday tentatively approved legislation that could make it tougher for Texas Counties to sue big-time polluters.

If finally passed, House Bill 1794 would notch another victory for a wide range of business groups in a legislative session that’s been kind to industry at the expense of environmentalists and advocates for local control. The proposal would set a 5-year statute of limitations and cap payouts at about $2 million when counties sue companies that have fouled their water or air.

A 24-6 vote with no debate set the bill up for a final Senate vote. The legislation already sailed through the House, pushed by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth.

Proponents say that curbing civil penalties assessed on top of those doled out by state regulators would bolster economic certainty for companies and allow them to focus resources on cleaning up their messes.

“This bill is about enforcing a policy that encourages people to do the right thing and not punish them,” said Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, who carried the proposal in the chamber.

But critics say the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) doesn’t do enough to hold polluters accountable, and that limiting local suits would encourage more pollution that jeopardizes public health.

“It is a terrible bill, and it is designed to protect polluters,” said Terry O’Rourke, special counsel with the Harris County Attorney’s office. “That’s all it is: It is a polluter protection bill.”

[…]

Under HB 1794, local governments and the state would evenly split the first $4.3 million awarded in a suit, and the state would pocket any amount above that limit.

County officials say the cap on local government collections would make it difficult, if not impossible to prosecute the most complex, egregious cases of pollution, because contingency fee lawyers would not sign on for such lower pay.

The counties, not the state typically initiate such actions, said O’Rourke, who has been prosecuting environmental cases since 1973.

“It is only by contingent fee litigation that you can prosecute global corporations that are operating in Houston – Harris County, he said. “You can’t attract people to that if you’re going to kill them with contamination.”

Anyone who thinks that this bill will be any kind of positive for counties – not just Harris, though it is the main target of this bill – is living in a fantasyland where voluntary compliance with environmental regulations would be sufficient. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if the TCEQ wasn’t a giant bag of industry-coddling suck, then lawsuits like these wouldn’t be necessary. All this will do is push the cost of pollution from the polluters where it belongs to the population at large. Hope no one reading this lives close to a site that won’t get cleaned up now.

And it’s not just county governments that are taking it in the shorts.

Norman Adams isn’t the kind of guy who is sensitive to smells, or much else. He wears cowboy boots and boasts of changing lots of his children’s and grandchildren’s diapers without gagging.

But the smell that wafts on the southerly breeze from a waste treatment processor toward buildings he owns on West 11th Street is “like an open septic tank, or worse.”

“Abusive,” he called the stench in a letter to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality opposing an application by Southwaste Disposal, to increase capacity at its liquid waste treatment facility near Houston’s booming Timbergrove neighborhood.

Adams begged regulators not to grant the expansion, instead requesting a “contested case hearing.” Such proceedings allow citizens who convince TCEQ that their health or pocketbook would be impacted by a permit to compel the company to demonstrate it can comply with environmental requirements.

But legislation awaiting Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature would make industry-friendly changes to the proceedings. It would set time lines to speed up the process, restrict who qualifies to ask for hearings and – most significantly – shift the burden of proof from companies seeking the permits to people opposing them.

The bills, which sailed through the Senate and House, have the backing of industry leaders who say contested case hearings make it harder for Texas to attract businesses by injecting uncertainty and expense into the process.

[…]

The bills tilt “the balance in favor of the polluters,” said Jim Marston, regional director with the Environmental Defense Fund’s Texas office. He also warned that Texas could jeopardize losing the Environmental Protection Agency’s authorization to administer permitting programs if signs the bills.

EPA spokesman Joe Hubbard on Tuesday said the legislation creates a “problematic” legal presumption. “We can’t speculate what action the (EPA) should take if the bills are passed and signed into state law,” he said.

See here and here for the background. I’d feel sorry for Norman Adams, but he’s a well-known Republican activist, so in a very real sense he’s getting the government he deserves. I do feel sorry for his neighbors, and for everyone else that will be put in this position. In Houston, where residential development is encroaching on former (and sometimes still active) industrial areas, that could be a lot of people. But hey, at least our ability to attract more pollution-oriented businesses will remain strong.

Texas plans to sue over EPA’s latest clean air plan

So what else is new?

ERCOT

Attorney General Ken Paxton said Tuesday that he plans to sue the Obama administration over the proposed “Clean Power Plan,” its plan to combat climate change by slashing carbon emissions from power plants.

“Texas has proven we can improve air quality without damaging our economy or Texans’ pocketbooks,” the Republican said in a statement, claiming the rules would threaten the power grid and increase electric prices. “I will fight this ill-conceived effort that threatens the livelihood and quality of life of all Texans.”

Using those arguments over the past year, the state’s Republican leadership has loudly panned the proposal, which would require the state to cut close to 200 billion pounds of carbon dioxide in the next two decades however it sees fit.

Environmental and health advocates say limiting the greenhouse gas would help fight climate change, bolster public health and conserve water in parched Texas, and they suggest that opponents are exaggerating the economic burdens.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency suggests that Texas could meet its goal through a combination of actions: making coal plants more efficient, switching to cleaner-burning natural gas, adding more renewable resources and bolstering energy efficiency. Under the proposal, Texas could also adopt a “cap and trade” program – a scheme in which companies bid on the right to pollute.

The federal proposal is scheduled to become final in June, and Texas would have one year to submit its plan. But some watching the debate expect the EPA to push back the deadline amid pressure from states and other critics.

If Texas ignores the rules, the EPA will construct its own plan for Texas, though the agency has not said what that might look like. Democrats and others call that approach risky and suggest it would beckon more stringent requirements.

Bills that would direct Texas regulators to adopt a plan are nearing their death in the Legislature.

Fossil fuel interests and 15 U.S. states – not including Texas – have sued the EPA over the proposed rules in a case heard last week in federal court. Judges appeared skeptical of a challenge to rules that haven’t been finalized.

See here, here, and here for the background. I have to say, if Paxton managed to deliver that line about Texas improving its air quality on its own with a straight face, it will be the most impressive thing he ever does in office. Texas has fought the EPA multiple times in recent years with little to show for it, with another fight currently before the Supreme Court. Doesn’t mean they’ll lose this time, but it does give one some hope. It would of course be cheaper and easier and better for everyone if they would give up this fight and adopt rules that the state is already most of the way towards meeting anyway, but like most things in life that comes down to winning elections, and we know how that has gone around here.

Meanwhile, if you don’t like the idea of the EPA wielding power over Texas, you won’t like this, either.

Texas appears poised to enact environmental legislation that could trigger an unintended consequence: more federal oversight.

Fast-moving bills that would curb opportunities for public protest so state environmental permits can be issued more quickly have drawn the attention of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, long the state’s political punching bag.

The agency says it has concerns about the legislation, and may need to review whether it jeopardizes permitting authority the EPA has granted Texas.

Senate Bill 709 would scale back contested case hearings, a process that allows the public to challenge industrial applications for permits at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) — such as those allowing wastewater discharges or air pollution.

Similar versions of the bill pushed by Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, and Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, have sailed through the House and Senate, rankling consumer and environmental groups.

[…]

The EPA says it shares concerns about the bill, which would overhaul the hearings process in a variety of ways. It would give the agency sole discretion to determine who is an “affected person” who could ask for a hearing; set an 180-day time limit for the proceedings (with potential exceptions); narrow the issues the public could argue; and arguably shift the burden of proof from the company to the public.

“EPA is concerned that as currently drafted, [the legislation] could be read to impact the applicability of federal requirements to federal permitting programs being implemented by the TCEQ,” David Gray, director of external affairs for the EPA’s Dallas-based regional office, recently wrote to Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, who had asked for input.

Gray called the shift in the “burden of proof” as particularly problematic, adding that the EPA should review the legislation to ensure that it doesn’t “interfere with federal requirements or alter the basis for one or more program requirements.”

See here for the background. It’s like we can’t help ourselves sometimes, isn’t it?

And finally, on a related note:

Kansas and Texas will file amicus briefs supporting Florida in its lawsuit against the federal government over Medicaid expansion, Gov. Rick Scott announced Monday.

Scott filed suit last week, alleging that the federal government is “coercing” the state into accepting Medicaid expansion by witholding the extension of a different Medicaid program. The Low Income Pool brings $1.3 billion in federal funds to the state to pay hospitals for care for the poor and uninsured and is set to expire June 30.

“I am glad Kansas and Texas are joining our fight against the Obama Administration for attempting to coerce Florida into Obamacare expansion by ending an existing federal healthcare program and telling us to expand Medicaid instead. The US Supreme Court has already called this sort of coercion tactic illegal,” Scott said in a released statement.

In granting a one-year extension last year, federal officials stated they would not extend it again without significant changes. A recent letter from federal officials to the state clearly suggested the fate of LIP was tied to Medicaid expansion but officials with the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services have also said Florida is free to expand Medicaid or not as it wishes.

See here for the background. Daily Kos has characterized the Florida lawsuit as being about refusing federal Obamacare dollars while demanding federal non-Obamacare dollars, which strikes me as apt. Easy to see why it was irresistible to Texas to join in. Ed Kilgore has more.

Three bad bills

Bad bill #1:

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, has been trying for months to pass legislation that would make it tougher for local entities to bring in more tax revenue by taking advantage of rising property values.

On Thursday, he managed to add language to a bill from state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, that could do just that, though not as severely as many local officials had feared.

Creighton’s bill, http://txlege.texastribune.org/84/bills/SB1760/, aims to make the administration of local property taxes more transparent with provisions such as directing the comptroller to publish a ranking of property tax rates statewide and requiring local entities to justify future tax increases on election notices and ballots.

Under Bettencourt’s amendment, 60 percent of the members of a city, county, school district or other local entity’s governing body would have to approve a property tax rate that brings in more revenue from existing homes and businesses than was collected in the previous year — a metric known as “the effective tax rate.” Currently, approval of a simple majority of a local governing board is all that is needed.

[…]

The Texas Municipal League, which counts more than 1,000 Texas cities among its members, first heard rumors about Bettencourt’s amendment Thursday morning, and began lobbying senators against it, fearing that it was an attempt to pass his revenue cap bill, according to to executive director Bennett Sandlin.

The actual amendment language could pose problems for some local entities, Sandlin said. But he stopped short of promising that the municipal league would work to kill it in the House.

“We’re still digesting,” Sandlin said. “It’s not a full-blown revenue cap so I don’t want to say we’re going to go to the mat on this.”

Sandlin argued that the amendment should have been vetted more thoroughly by the Senate.

“It was never in a bill and it never had a hearing,” Sandlin said.

Bad bill #2:

Legislation that would upend the legal process in Texas to allow the attorney general to have a three-judge panel to decide cases with statewide implications, rather than a single district judge, was approved Thursday by the state Senate after a lengthy and pitched debate.

Senate Bill 455 by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, would allow the attorney general to request the Texas Supreme Court’s chief justice to form a panel of judges to hear any cases filed in a district court in which the state is a defendant.

School finance and redistricting were two examples cited as among the types of cases that could be covered by the change, which supporters argued was needed to keep one county from steering the outcome of important cases that affects all of Texas.

“When one county is given that much control, it effectively disenfranchises voters of the other 253 counties who did not vote for that district court judge,” Creighton said. “We’ve seen a 40-year saga in and out of court on school finance. We have one trial court that hears that case and it is reviewed on appeal by the Supreme Court based on parameters and decisions set by that court. It would be better representation across the state to allow a process where other judges are involved in decisions of that magnitude.”

[…]

Under the bill, a single state district judge still could hear cases with statewide impact, unless the attorney general requested a three-judge panel. A state district judge and an appellate judge from elsewhere in Texas would join the original district judge in hearing the case.

“It sounds totally unnecessary, since those cases go directly on appeal to the Supreme Court that is 100 percent Republican,” said F. Scott McCown, a University of Texas law professor and former Austin district judge who heard school finance cases between 1990 and 2002. “It will be more costly and slower to have three judges on a trial. Three-judge panels are very awkward and inefficient.”

And if lawmakers think they might get a different outcome with a three-judge panel, McCown and other legal experts noted that the Texas Supreme Court has ruled against the state in five of the six of the school-finance cases since 1984.

Bad bill #3:

Texas is poised to widen its welcome mat to a wide range of industries.

Claiming that the state’s bureaucracy is shooing away businesses, House lawmakers on Thursday night gave initial approval to a bill aiming to quicken regulators’ pace of cranking out permits for major industrial projects – by limiting public scrutiny.

Over the objections of consumer groups and environmentalists, the chamber tentatively passed Senate Bill 709, which would scale back contested-case hearings, a process that allows the public to challenge industrial applications for permits at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) – such as those allowing wastewater discharges or air pollution emissions.

Texas’ current bureaucracy puts the state at a “serious disadvantage” compared to its neighbors, said Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, adding that her legislation would give businesses more certainty.

Already approved by the Senate, the measure sailed through the House by a 92-50 margin after Democrats put up a roughly 90-minute fight, arguing that lawmakers were poised to squelch the voices of their constituents.

“This bill is very, very serious,” said Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, who saw his and other proposed amendments to soften the bill shot down. “You will have to explain to your constituents why you have taken away their right, why you have enhanced their burden and why you have stripped them of protection.”

Contested case hearings resemble a trial in which companies and their critics present evidence and testimony in front of an administrative law judge in the hopes of swaying regulators, who have the final say. For particularly complicated – and controversial – industrial projects, the process can yield information that the short-staffed TCEQ did not foresee.

Protesters rarely convince regulators or a company to completely withdraw a permit application, but veterans of the process say they often win concessions that shrink a plant or landfill’s effects on the community.

[…]

Less than 1 percent of permit applications ever draw a contested-case hearing.

Of 1,960 waste, water and air permit applications filed with TCEQ last year, for instance, the commission granted hearings to just 10, according to an analysis of public records by the advocacy group Public Citizen. The agency confirmed those numbers to The Texas Tribune.

The analysis also found that Texas typically processes air quality permits faster than Arkansas, Arizona, Oklahoma, New Jersey, Colorado and even Louisiana.

I grouped these three bills together because they neatly encapsulate two of the main Republican priorities for this session: Partisan advantage and stomping on local control. Bettencourt’s amendment to Creighton’s bill, which as the story notes is at least not his infamous revenue cap bill, is both an ideological obsession on his part, and a nuisance bit of effluvia that in the end may not make much difference. The city of Houston hasn’t raised its property tax rate in my memory; thanks to its own stupid revenue cap, it may never be able to do so again. HISD raised its lower-than-most property tax rate in 2014 as it said it would as part of the 2012 bond referendum. That passed on a 7-1 vote, so it would have easily cleared the higher bar. As far as counties go, remember that they all have four-member Commissioners Courts plus a County Judge. To pass anything requires either a 3-2 or 3-1 vote depending on whether the Judge votes or not, and all of those are 60% or better. I’m sure this will have some effect somewhere, but here in Houston? Probably not much.

The contested case hearing bill, like the anti-fracking-ban bill, is an example of what happens when the state fails to uphold its responsibilities to the people. Just as there would be no demand in cities to regulate fracking within their limits if the Railroad Commission wasn’t such an industry lapdog, neither would there be much demand for contested case hearings if the TCEQ were worth a damn. The folks in Denton and elsewhere have done what they have done because it was the only viable option available to them. (Well, at least until enough people statewide realize that they need better and more responsive government at that level.) Now that option has been taken away, and this one may be as well. Better hope you don’t live anywhere close to a site that may someday be used for industrial purposes.

(You didn’t think I’d let these bills go by without asking once again what the Mayoral candidates think of them, did you? At least we know what Sylvester Turner thinks of the contested case bill. The Lege and TxDOT are going to have a bigger effect on the next Mayor’s tenure than any of them seem to realize right now.)

Finally, the make-school-finance-lawsuits-more-complicated bill – the story also mention redistricting litigation, but that’s usually done in federal court, and I don’t know that the state has any authority there – is another nuisance partisan bill that like Bettencourt’s amendment may wind up having little practical effect. I mean, if the Supreme Court upholds Judge Dietz’s latest ruling, can anyone claim that politics was a factor? I would also note that it is entirely within the Legislature’s power to ensure that there are no more school finance lawsuits ever again. All they have to do is a better job funding the schools.