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Environment Texas

Protecting polluters

Ridiculous.

Ship Channel circa 1973

It’s never been easy fighting powerful polluters in Texas. A bill approved by a Senate committee today would make it even harder. With a big push from the Texas Chemical Council and the Texas Association of Business, the Senate Natural Resources Committee voted 6-3 today for legislation “streamlining” (read: weakening) the process that communities and environmental groups can use to challenge permits to pollute. (Democrats Rodney Ellis and Carlos Uresti as well as Republican Robert Duncan were the ‘no’ votes.)

“We are very disappointed by the committee’s vote today,” said Environment Texas Director Luke Metzger. “The deck is already stacked against residents when a powerful polluter applies for a permit to discharge chemicals in to our air, water and land.”

Senate Bill 957 by Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay) would put limits on contested case hearings, mini-trials in which each administrative law judges hear testimony and evidence from each side. Environmental groups already complain that the process is flawed: The judges can only offer recommendations to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. That agency, run by corporate-friendly Rick Perry appointees, often ignores or downplays the judge’s proposals.

However, SB 957 would weaken it even further. Fraser’s proposal would shift the burden of proof from the company seeking the permit—often some of the most lucrative and powerful corporations in the world—to the protestant, often a hastily-formed grassroots group or an environmental organization. The bill would also strictly limit how long the contested case hearing could last; limit who could participate; narrow the scope of the hearing; and eliminate discovery.

Here’s SB957. It’s not the only polluter-friendly bill out there.

Some county governments have found that when it comes to suing corporations over polluted property, hiring a private law firm on a contingency fee basis is the way to go.

But against the backdrop of a multi-billion dollar dioxin case in Harris County, there’s an effort to outlaw those arrangements in pollution lawsuits. The House Committee on Environmental Regulation has scheduled a hearing today on a bill that would ban counties from using private firms, HB 3119.

The bill has the support of the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute that compiled a report on what it calls the “dubious practice of employing private lawyers on a contingency basis.”

“The arrangement creates a variety of perverse incentives. A county faces no risk in bringing a suit and the outside, contingency-based counsel has no incentive to settle the suit,” said Brent Connett, communications director for the group.

The group argues that instead, contingency fee deals encourage private firms to enrich themselves at the expense of adequately funding the cleanup of toxic sites.

Harris County, which was the focus of the conservative group’s report, says contingency fee arranagements are vital to its efforts to litigate pollution cases.

“We don’t have money to go out and hire lawyers. You’re talking about, at a minimum, hundreds of thousands of dollars that we would have to spend up front just to go to court. With the contingency fee, we don’t have to do that. We only pay if we win,” said Terrence O’Rourke, special assistant to the Office of the Harris County Attorney.

[…]

[Harris County] points out that the big corporations fighting the suits often use very experienced, highly-paid attorneys.

“They’re spending millions on their lawyers and Harris County can’t afford that. We’ve got contingent fee lawyers,” says O’Rourke, the county’s special assistant.

The point of taking cases on contingency is that it only pays to take cases you think can win. Otherwise, it’s a lot of hours down the drain for nothing. One could argue that it’s the attorneys for the polluters that have no real incentive to settle, since they get paid by the hour. But maybe as a compromise, we could set up a public defender system for the businesses that find themselves plagued by these suits, to represent them free of charge. Think the polluters would go for that? Yeah, me neither.

Here’s the Chron on these two bills:

“It surprises me a little bit because there is no history of us settling cases in opposition to the attorney general or against the wishes of the attorney general,” said Rock Owens, who heads the environmental division in the Harris County Attorney’s office, which historically has filed the most civil environmental lawsuits in the state.

Owens said the legislation would diminish an authority local governments have had for decades to punish environmental offenders, and also make for an uneven playing field as governments cannot afford to pay private attorneys on an hourly basis like the companies they sue.

While the county has been filing environmental cases for a long time, it only recently began recruiting outside counsel. Six cases have been relegated to private firms.

[…]

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said the county has not taken an official position on hiring outside lawyers on a contingency fee basis, but that all counties “ought to be able to make those decisions on their own.”

Once again I note the irony of people who rant and rage about the federal government telling Texas what it can and can’t do but who are lining up to tell various local governments, often in localities far from their own home districts (Rep. Cindy Burkett, author of HB 3119, is from the suburbs of Dallas), what they can and can’t do. The good news is that SB957 likely won’t get past the Senate’s two-thirds rule, while HB3119 hasn’t yet been voted on in committee. If we’re lucky, it won’t have enough time to make it through, or it too will die from insufficient Senate support. But until they both do die, they’re menaces to be watched.

Clean Water Forum

If you’re not at the Battleground Texas meeting today, Environment Texas has a fine thing to do instead:

Houston Clean Water Forum on Saturday, April 6th at 3:00 PM

As part of a Clean Water Forum sponsored by Environment Texas, three conservation experts will engage with members of the public about the potential for water conservation investments in the state. The Forum comes as the Legislature considers funding the State Water Plan and mere weeks after a federal judge ordered the state to leave more water in the Guadalupe River to support endangered whooping cranes, a ruling which could have widespread implications for water management in Texas.

WHO: Talya Tavor, Houston Field Organizer, Environment Texas
Charles Irvine, Attorney, Blackburn & Carter
Dustin Brackney, Owner, Hydroscapes Solutions
Benjamin Franklin, Organizer, Tar Sands Blockade

WHERE: 3015 Richmond Ave., Houston, TX

WHEN: Saturday, April 6th, 3-4:30pm

You’ll still be home in time to watch the Final Four games. Come on out and get involved.

What other environmental groups think about “One Bin For All”

As you know, last week the city announced that it had won the $1 million runnerup prize from the Bloomberg Foundation that would enable it to begin work on a single-bin solution for solid waste and recycling. While this announcement was generally met with cheers, the Texas Campaign for the Environment was not among those cheering. Their opposition to this proposal was a reiteration of previously expressed concerns about it. This got me wondering what other environmental groups thought about this proposal, since none of the coverage I’ve read has included any discussion of that. So I contacted several environmental groups and asked them for their feedback on this proposal. These are the responses I got.

From Frank Blake of the Houston chapter of the Sierra Club:

1. The proposal claims that it will reduce air pollution by reducing truck routes. But I don’t understand how truck travel would be significantly reduced since the overall volume of material to be transported would be the same. (50 truck loads of trash and 50 truck loads of recycling are still 100 truck loads if you combine it all; and since trash trucks fill up fairly quickly, there wouldn’t be much reduction in travel miles).

2. Since this ‘innovative’ method has not been tested on a large scale, and involves multiple technologies, is it really more cost effective than other existing methods? The costs to develop ‘innovative’ technological approaches often exceed estimates. And does the ‘One Bin’ collection method just shift certain processing costs down the line to other stages? Or result in reduced market value of recycled materials (contamination issues)?

3. Initial source separation enhances the market value of certain recyclables – e.g., paper and cardboard. Paper products co-mingled with other trash and food waste would have significantly reduced value, and limited recycling options. If you want to efficiently recycle paper products, one doesn’t mix them with food waste and other contaminants.

4. Composting is mentioned as a component of the ‘One Bin for All’ program. But how is it possible to maintain quality control for compost generated from general trash collections? General trash would include everything from broken glass, fluorescent lights (mercury), pharmaceuticals, and a variety of hazardous substances. What could such compost be used for? (Note: both Austin and San Antonio have initiated pilot curbside compost collections – i.e., compost materials are collected separately from general trash and recyclables).

5. What ‘waste to fuel’ technologies would be involved? The use of municipal waste as fuel can present problems because of the possible inclusion of contaminants and hazardous wastes. Where would such ‘waste to fuel’ facilities be located? Would the public be involved in any ‘waste to fuel’ decisions?

6. Other cities, including Dallas and Austin have adopted zero waste plans, with goals to reduce waste going to landfills by 90% and more. Houston has not yet adopted a long range plan or goals. Would adoption of a “One Bin for All” program with expensive processing facilities limit future options in Houston? What if there is a ceiling on the effective recycling rates that this method can accomplish? (and there is concern that the claimed “up to 70% rate” is overly optimistic).

7. How does a “One Bin for All” program really discourage waste, or encourage more ‘sustainable’, lower CO2 emitting lifestyles? It seems to do the opposite in ways, by sending a message to the public that it doesn’t matter what they discard, and that they don’t need to be conscious of recycling. (if recycling is perceived as difficult in some quarters, it is in part because the City of Houston has invested very little in public education over the years and has had different recycling programs or lack of programs in different parts of the City).

8. I am concerned and puzzled that the City of Houston would roll out this type of comprehensive proposal without more consultation, input and involvement with the public, and recycling and environmental advocates.

Elena Craft of the Environmental Defense Fund had this to say:

I think the One Bin proposal is an interesting and innovative approach to the issue. The city of Houston needed to take a proactive step to deal with its low recycling rate. This proposal beat out many others from other cities to win the Bloomberg Foundation grant, and I would like to see it succeed. I believe the concerns that have been raised by others can be addressed.

Finally, Luke Metzger of Environment Texas said he would defer to TCE on this issue, since they are the experts on waste among Texas environmental groups and he had not been following the story. David Weinberg of the Texas League of Conservation Voters also deferred to TCE, saying that there’s a division of labor in the environmental community, with TCE taking the lead on waste issues. I hadn’t considered that before now, but in retrospect it makes sense.

So there you have it. There are definitely concerns about the Houston One Bin solution, though they are not universally shared. I do think we are low on detail at this point, and it would be nice to know more about the history of this kind of solution in other cities, and why Houston thinks past failures can be overcome. I also think Frank Blake makes a strong point about the message this sends that recycling would become the city’s responsibility and not the individual’s, which in turn provides a disincentive for people to think about their own usage patterns and their own need to follow the three Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle. The idea of recycling just doesn’t exist for a lot of people. I base this statement on the fact that every public recycling receptacle I’ve ever seen in Houston always has at least as much trash in it as recyclables, and every public trash can always has lots of plastic bottles, aluminum cans, and other obvious recyclables; this is true even when the trash can and the recycling bin are right next to each other. People just don’t think about it. I suspect that even in neighborhoods with the 96-gallon single-stream recycling bins, participation is less than it should be, and in neighborhoods that still use the little bins that don’t take glass or cardboard, it’s pathetically low. That’s without taking into account apartments, offices, restaurants, and so forth. This is the crux of the city’s case for the one bin solution. One could certainly argue that a combination of a more aggressive single-stream rollout plus a PR campaign to educate people about recycling would be a more ideal way for the city to go. I agree that it would be more ideal, but it’s not clear to me that it would get better results, even if the claims about how much material can be usefully recovered from a single bin solution are overstated. What’s the minimum level of participation in single-stream recycling that’s necessary to be “better” than the single-bin solution? I don’t know the answer to that.

Anyway. I would certainly prefer that Houston be a better recycling city. I’m open to arguments that it’s possible to get to where we should be as a city without the one bin solution. I get the concerns, and I plan to follow up with the city to see how they would respond to them. What are your thoughts?

Meet SWIFT

SWIFT is the State Water Infrastructure Fund for Texas, which would be created by the big water bills of the session, HB4 and SB4. Basically, this is a plan to create a water infrastructure bank, to finance various water projects that the state needs at low interest, with some seed money from the Rainy Day Fund to get started. So far the proposals have been met with approval by the various stakeholders.

A parade of Texas mayors on Tuesday urged state lawmakers to invest $2 billion in reservoirs, pipelines and other water-supply projects.

Houston’s Annise Parker, San Antonio’s Julian Castro and other mayors said the passage of House Bill 4, which would create a fund to help pay for water-related infrastructure, is necessary to satisfy the demands of residents and businesses.

“We are not going to wait, but it sure would be nice to have the state with us,” said Parker, who said Houston is moving forward on water projects. “If the rest of the state does not make the same efforts we have, we may lose our competitive advantage.”

[…]

State Rep. Allan Ritter, a Nederland Republican who filed the bill, said a $2 billion capitalization could finance the state’s entire long-range water plan, which identifies 562 projects at a cost of $53 billion over the next half-century.

The initial $2 billion would come from the state’s rainy day fund

The projects would be selected by the Texas Water Development Board but would be locally owned and controlled, Ritter emphasized.

“They need help in what I call ‘getting over the hump,'” he said of the financing challenge water providers face with projects that can cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take years to complete.

There’s a lot of money at stake, and any time there’s a lot of money at stake, there are many competing interests for it.

“We can’t afford to pit one [group] against another,” said Laura Huffman, of the Nature Conservancy. “A growing state is going to want to eat, drink and turn the lights on.”

Much will depend on whether key lawmakers—Rep. Allan Ritter (R-Nederland) and Fraser in particular—can craft a fair structure for distributing what will likely be billions of dollars over the coming decades.

“I think it’s like most of the issues that come before this body,” said state Rep. Doug Miller (R-New Braunfels). “Follow the money.” Austin American-Statesman reporter Asher Price did just that. He found that one of the organizations behind the push for a state water bank, H2O4Texas, is funded by “industries that stand to benefit from massive projects to move water around the state.”

That’s not terribly surprising but suggests that legislators will have to be careful to guard against allowing the water bank to turn into a slush fund.

The key word is: prioritization. The state water plans lists 562 distinct water projects, a wish list drafted by hundreds of “stakeholders” organized into 16 regional water planning groups. Those projects are the essence of the plan. But how do you pick which ones to fund? What form does the funding take—grants, loans, etc? Which projects get funded first? Do conservation-focused projects receive a leg up or is the money going to flow into new reservoirs?

Ritter’s legislation, House Bill 4, has been praised by environmentalists for requiring that at least 20 percent of the funds go toward water conservation.

Sen. Fraser’s legislation, Senate Bill 4, would create a fund outside of the state treasury but would put the Texas Water Development Board in charge of prioritizing the projects. But Fraser repeatedly complained today that the board is ill-equipped to take on such a huge task. Fraser said he’d had trouble getting a simple list of water-supply projects that the board considers top priorities.

Under Senate Bill 4, the Water Development Board would be run by three full-time commissioners instead of six part-timers. It would also set up a nine-member advisory committee to recommend water projects to the full board. Other senators, however, piled on Fraser’s proposal, leading him to stress that it was a work in progress and likely to be negotiated until the bitter end.

This AP report goes into more detail about conservation and highlights a potential stumbling block for the legislation.

Luke Metzger, director of the advocacy group Environment Texas, told the Senate Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday that it was critical that the state emphasizes conservation and ensures enough water is left behind for the eco-system. He pointed out that large-scale water projects, such as new reservoirs, can have a negative impact on the environment.

“In 1968, the State Water Plan predicted that by the year 2020 you would need 32 million acre-feet of water. Of course it’s almost 2020 now, and we’re only using 18 million acre-feet,” he said. “It’s critical that in planning for the next 50 years, we are flexible and we’re careful not to burden Texans in the future with huge debts for projects we might not need.”

He pointed out that San Antonio grew by more than 65 percent while still using the same amount of water and said other cities could follow that model. He said plans are for the state to meet 34 percent of future water needs through conservation and called on the committee to set aside that much of the new water fund for projects that save water.

Just fixing leaky water mains could save enough water for 2.7 million Texans, Metzger said.

[…]

So far no group has come out against creating what would be called the State Water Infrastructure Fund for Texas, or SWIFT. But the measure may require Republican lawmakers to vote in favor of lifting the state’s constitutional spending limit, which many conservatives do not want on their record.

Have I mentioned before that artificial spending and revenue caps are stupid and destructive? This is another illustration of why. The issue here is whether appropriating money from the Rainy Day Fund would count towards the revenue cap, which mandates that spending can only grow so much from one biennium to the next. Use of the Rainy Day Fund wasn’t originally intended to be included in such calculations, but the fanatics who rule over Republican primaries don’t care for such subtleties, so the issue remains a potential roadblock for doing the things the Lege has said it wants to do.

Yet another effect of the drought

Bacteria.

One expert used simple rhyme to explain the reason behind high levels of bacteria in Texas waterways.

“The solution to pollution is dilution.”

Increased bacteria levels in rivers and streams due to decreased flow that typically dilutes runoff pollution is an expected yet overlooked toll of the drought, said Andrew Sansom, executive director of the River Systems Institute at Texas State University.

So, without more flow in waterways, there is no solution to pollution.

“We look at this drought as an issue of supply, but the real dark side is that we’re facing some real potential water quality issues as well,” Sansom said.

A report released Thursday by an environmental advocacy group concluded that bacteria levels are dangerously high in tests on five of 13 water bodies — including three in the Austin area: Barton Springs, Hamilton Pool and Bull Creek near Loop 360. The study compiled available data from 2010 through summer 2011 — kept by the City of Austin, the Lower Colorado River Authority, and other governmental agencies and river authorities — at popular Texas swimming locations .

Insufficient data — fewer than 10 tests in the year and a half — stymied analysis of a dozen more locations, said Luke Metzger , director of Environment Texas Research and Policy Center, which headed the study.

“The fact is that because we’re not testing frequently enough, it’s quite possible that the water is more unsafe or had more exceedances than we know about,” Metzger said.

You can find the report here. Have I mentioned lately that it would be nice if we got some rain?

The long-term recycling deal

I noticed this when it was posted last week but didn’t give it much thought at the time.

There’s a 20-year no-bid contract on today’s City Council agenda.

That’s legal because it’s an amendment to an existing contract, not a new contract.

But it’s still got Councilman Ed Gonzalez‘s attention. He tagged it last week so that it could not be voted on until today. And today, City Hall sources say, Gonzalez will propose sending it back to the administration to have the recycling contract bid competitively.

“The markets are emerging and the value of the commodity is emerging,” Councilman C.O. Bradford said Tuesday, and that emerging value is increasing. “So why would we lock ourselves into a 20-year deal?”

Environmentalists are also questioning the wisdom of the contract.

“We think it makes common sense that it should be bid because you’re going to get a better deal for Houston taxpayers if you have an open, competitive process,” said Zac Trahan of the Texas Campaign for the Environment.

The effort by CM Gonzalez to send this back was successful. Trahan emailed me later with some background on all that happened. From his email:

Houston had a short-term contract (through 2012) with Abitibi when they owned the facility, then WMI bought the recycling center, and then city officials begun working on a long-term recycling contract extension with WMI. We found out about this contract about two weeks ago, and together with allies at the SEIU Texas State Council, the Apollo Alliance and the Houston Sierra Club, we’ve been working to delay its adoption and make sure it goes through a competitive “request for proposal” process instead. At today’s City Council meeting it seems we were successful.

Of course, our organizations have spent the past couple weeks communicating with the Solid Waste Management Department, Mayor Parker and all City Council Members about this contract. We spoke at length with Sustainability Director Laura Spanjian. We sent email alerts to our members urging them to contact Houston officials. Our phone-banking staff asked our members to participate by calling Mayor Parker and other Council Members directly.

However, we also reached out to other waste and recycling companies to gauge their level of interest in submitting a formal proposal. Two companies – Texas Disposal Systems, out of Austin, and Greenstar, here in Houston – have expressed interest so far. These companies both sent letters to Mayor Parker and the Council Members communicating that they would indeed bid and compete for the contract if given the opportunity. A representative from Greenstar even attended today’s city council meeting to testify to this effect. During the meeting Council Member Gonzalez made a motion to send the contract back to the administration to go through the RFP process, and that motion prevailed. We see this as a victory for recycling and a victory for Houston taxpayers, because an open, competitive bidding process will certainly result in the best recycling contract and the best deal for Houston residents.

Of course this issue is far from settled. We’re only beginning our work. Next we must ensure the RFP itself is designed with the right criteria in mind – not just that Houston officials should go with the “lowest bidder,” but that we should identify the best overall recycling program for our money. Then we must work to see that the best proposal really is selected, and to defeat efforts by any company or companies attempting to use their connections at city hall to influence the process. We’ll keep you posted as this process moves forward.

Here’s a copy of a letter that was sent to Mayor Parker by Trahan and folks from the Apollo Alliance, the Sierra Club, and the SEIU Texas State Council. I’m glad to see that this deal will now be competitively bid, and I think Trahan and his colleagues are correct to think in terms of the deal in more than just lowest-cost terms. For example, according to that blog post the deal that had been in the works with WMI called for them to give the city 15,000 big green recycling carts this year and 1,500 carts a year thereafter. That sounds like a lot until you realize that as of February there were 270,000 households serviced by Houston’s Solid Waste department that do not have the big bins. I’d like to see the speed at which the companies would get these wheely-bins to the public be part of the bid evaluation. For that matter, I’d like to see what ideas these guys have for expanding the recycling program beyond the 375,000 households that Solid Waste serves. Do they have any thoughts about getting apartments, office buildings, restaurants, or other commercial establishments involved? This is a 20-year deal, we should be thinking big. Think about what you’d like to see and let your Council members know.

Can we take a step forward without also taking one back?

From last week’s Texas Tribune on the subject of plastic bag recycling.

On Tuesday the Senate’s Committee on Natural Resources heard testimony on a bill sponsored by the committee’s chairman, state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, that would require large retailers like Wal-Mart to have well-labeled bag recycling canisters in their stores. This afternoon the House’s Environmental Regulations committee heard testimony on a similar bill, sponsored by Rep. Kelly Hancock, R-Fort Worth.

“It encourages more eco-friendly behaviors,” said Hancock, who said that plastic bags cannot be recycled at curbside. It was a “free market-based solution,” he emphasized, that would result in more bags being recycled and made into items like benches or flower pots.

Environmental groups, however, oppose the bills because a clause at the end of both would “preempt” local rules that are in conflict with the bill. They fear this would prevent cities from banning the bags outright. Already, Brownsville has instituted a plastic bag ban, which took effect in January, and two other locations — Fort Stockton and South Padre Island — have approved bag bans that will come into effect in the coming months.

“We shouldn’t tie the hands of local communities trying to reduce solid waste,” said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, in an email. Metzger did not testify but opposes the bill.

Fraser said that the bill aimed to bring a “transition” period for plastic bags. “We’ve got plastic bags in the system and we’re moving toward trying to eliminate them,” he said.

But Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, noted that there was “nothing in this bill that eliminates plastic bags in the waste stream,” and he feared that cities wanting to ban bags would be preempted from doing so under the bill’s language. Fraser said the three cities with bag bans would not be preempted, but it appeared that other cities that moved to ban bags in the future would be preempted.

Large retail groups like Wal-Mart and the Texas Restaurant Association back the bill, and several bag manufacturers also testified in favor.

I’ve noted the Brownsville and South Padre bag-banning efforts; Fort Stockton was news to me. Fraser’s bill is SB908; it was approved by the committee and is on the intent calendar for tomorrow. Hancock’s bill is HB1913; it’s still in committee. While there are times when it makes sense for the state to establish a single standard for something and in doing so override what cities have done, this isn’t one of those times. I’m confident that this provision is in there to get support from those large business interests. I’d prefer the Lege take no action at this time than take a step to prevent other cities from following Brownsville or South Padre or Fort Stockton’s example. Let’s let there be some experimentation to see what works best, and let’s leave some flexibility in place for the future rather than impose a one-size-fits-all solution. We should have bag recycling dropoffs at these locations, but we should be allowed to have more than that if we want it as well.

Some reactions to LBB recommendations

The Statesman asks around about three of the Legislative Budget Board recommendations for raising revenue. First, the suggestion to allow liquor sales on Sunday, which it projects would generate an extra $7.4 million. Not surprisingly, the liquor industry favors this, but some others don’t:

David Jabour, president of Austin-based Twin Liquors, said the demand wouldn’t be high enough to warrant another business day.

“Based on some analysis that we have done, it would actually simply spread the business over seven days,” Jabour said.

Jabour also said the guarantee of having Sundays off attracts higher quality employees.

Suzii Paynter, director of the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas — a group that opposes the expansion of alcohol availability — said the money raised by Sunday sales would be a drop in the bucket. By comparison, raising the tax on beer to a level similar to the tax on cigarettes would bring in nearly $700 million, she said.

I can’t address Jabour’s argument about Sunday sales cannibalizing other days’, but I will note that being allowed to open on Sunday doesn’t mean you have to be. As for Paynter, that isn’t actually an argument against. She’s right, higher taxes on beer would raise more money, but 1) there’s no way in hell that will happen, and 2) even if that were an option, there’s no reason you couldn’t allow Sunday liquor sales as well. It’s not an either-or choice.

Then there’s the recommendation of a fee on gas guzzlers:

Environment Texas director Luke Metzger said heavier gas-guzzlers tend to cause more wear and tear on roads.

“If the direction lawmakers are going is increased fees, that’s one fee that certainly makes sense — as a way to recoup from the damages they cause and to encourage the production of more environmentally friendly vehicles,” Metzger said.

Metzger said his group would prefer that lawmakers “take on some of the biggest polluters with direct taxes on the industries themselves, rather than regular Texans. But this is a reasonable next-best policy we could hope for.”

Yeah. Too bad this will never happen, because I think it’s a great idea, too. I just can’t see anyone on the Republican side touching it with a ten foot pole.

Finally, there’s suspending the sales tax holiday:

Dick Lavine, senior fiscal analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for low- and middle-income Texans, said the holiday was originally intended to help lower-income families. But most of the savings actually go to higher income families that can afford to purchase a full year’s worth of school supplies and clothing tax-free, he said.

Lavine said the cost to the state is not worth keeping a holiday that doesn’t help families that already carry a disproportionate share of the burden of the sales tax.

He said the additional revenue “could make a large difference in any of the programs that are being threatened with cutbacks or being shut down.”

I must admit, I hadn’t thought of it that way. This perspective makes me a lot more favorable to the idea. But as with the gas guzzler surcharge, I have a hard time seeing it get passed. In another year, with a different legislature, maybe. Not this time.

Environment Texas scorecard

Here’s the Environment Texas scorecard (PDF) for the 2009 legislative session. A few points of interest:

– There were seven scored voted for Senators, and eight for the House. For all but two, the “right” vote was Yes, which is pretty strong evidence that this was a much friendlier session for environmental issues than we’d seen in recent years.

– Nobody scored zero, though a handful of House Republicans had only one good vote. In the Senate, 19 of 31 members – all 12 Democrats plus seven Republicans – got perfect scores. Only four Republicans in the Senate received grades below 60%.

– Fifteen House Dems had perfect scores: Robert Alonzo, Carol Alvarado, Valinda Bolton, Lon Burnam, Garnet Coleman, Joe Farias, Pete Gallego, Ana Hernandez, Abel Herrero, David Leibowitz, Diana Maldonado, Armando Martinez, Joe Moody, Marc Veasey, and Armando Walle. The low scorers were Harold Dutton and Tracy King, each with 63%. Rob Orr was the top-ranked Republican, with 75%. Jim Pitts, who had excused absences for all but three votes, scored 67%, and a total of 11 Republicans had 63s.

– Unfortunately, only three of these bills passed both chambers, with one of them (HB821 by Leibowitz, which would have required television manufacturers to provide free recycling for discarded TVs) being vetoed by Governor Perry. As such, while this session was a lot more positive than others had been for environmental issues, it could have been a lot better.

Monday Lege roundup

Lots of legislative action today beyond the voter ID vaudeville act. Here’s a quick roundup of some other bills of interest.

HB1736, also known as the Tim Cole Act for the man who was posthumously exonerated this February, has passed both chambers and is on its way to Governor Perry’s desk. The bill increases the compensation given to those who are exonerated after being sent to jail. Grits has the story, and more info is here and here.

– The statewide smoking ban is stuck no more.

A statewide smoking ban was endorsed by a Senate panel today, after authors agreed to exempt cigar bars, patios of restaurants and bars, and nursing homes.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston said the compromises were necessary to resuscitate the measure, which he called a matter of life and death.

“It goes a long way toward reducing the incidence of cancer in Texas,” he said of his bill. It cleared the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on a 5-3 vote.

Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, joined the panel’s four Democrats in voting for the bill, which Ellis praised as “much stronger” than a companion measure in the House that was watered down Friday to exempt 224 of the state’s 254 counties, limit enforcement and carve out many loopholes for bars.

So Sen. Nelson was true to her word. Kudos to her for that. SB544 still has to pass the full Senate and then get reconciled with the House bill, once it passes that chamber. There’s still work to be done, in other words.

Solar energy gets a boost.

[SB541] by state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, would provide so-called renewable energy credit incentives for electric generation from equipment manufactured in Texas and sets a goal for electricity generated from sources other than wind at 1,500 megawatts by 2020.

“This is designed to help bring large, industrial-size solar facilities to Texas,” Watson said. “This is about looking forward to the future — in alternative energy, jobs and manufacturing — much the same we did for wind a few years ago.”

Good. ACT Texas and Environment Texas cheer, and I join them in that.

– Finally, both strip club bills, Rep. Senfronia Thompson’s HB982, and Rep. Ellen Cohen’s HB2070 were scheduled for votes today, the former in the Senate and the latter in the House. You have to figure there can only be one, so we’ll see which one survives.