Texas

Environmentalist May Launch Legal Challenge To Texas ‘Under-funding’ Agency

Texas has a new governor and a new legislative session. Environmentalists are concerned what Greg Abbott and his allies in the legislature might do to promote the “Texas model” of business-friendly governance.

Texas Public Policy Foundation
Screengrab of Greg Abbott delivering the keynote speech to the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

 

“Texas is being California-ized,” Abbott said at a keynote speech he delivered January 8th to the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

It was one of his first public policy speeches since being elected governor. He said local ordinances banning things like those flimsy plastic shopping bags were making Texas more like California.

“It’s being done at the city level with bag bans, fracking bans, tree-cutting bans,” said Abbott.

He said those local measures amount to cities taking private property; whether it’s banning the use fracking to drill for oil on private land as voters in Denton did, or restricting the cutting of trees on private property as ordinances do in cities including La Porte, Pearland and San Antonio. Those cities say they passed such rules to protect their community’s quality of life.

Some environmentalists thought Abbott’s speech was a bad start for a new governor. 

“So that’s very concerning,” said Luke Metzger of Environment Texas. “A lot of the biggest victories we’ve had for the environment in Texas have happened at the municipal level.” 

But it was at the federal level the Abbott was known best for fighting against pollution regulation. In his previous job as attorney general, Abbott filed a multitude of lawsuits against the federal government when it tried to impose new rules to reduce pollution from industries.

At the same time, the Texas legislature had been slashing the budget of the state’s pollution regulator, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The TCEQ is responsible for enforcing both state and federal pollution laws.

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“I hope the legislature will reverse that now that we have lots of money that’s available,” said Jim Marston, a former lawyer now with the Environmental Defense Fund. He’s not optimistic that lawmakers will restore any of the 30 percent they cut in 2011 from the TCEQ’s budget.

“I’m actually so concerned about this that I’m looking at what our legal alternatives are because I actually believe Texas is now violating its promise,” said Marston.

Marston said Texas made a legal promise in agreements it reached with the federal government to monitor polluters and penalize violators.

“The hard evidence is they have dramatically underfunded the agency as the responsibility and caseload has gone up,” said Marston.

Kathleen White knows all about those agreements. She’s a former chairman of the TCEQ.

“It’s an interesting legal theory,” White told News 88.7.

White is now with the Texas Public Policy Foundation which advocates for less government interference in business. White says federal law doesn’t specify how Texas is supposed to fund environmental enforcement. She disagrees that the legislature needs to increase funding to the TCEQ.

“There is so much room to trim waste and duplication in those large agencies. So I’m not troubled by that,” said White. “I think I recall the executive director had, when I was there, like three receptionists. I use that as a single example. But that is so typical of large bureaucracies.”

According to the TCEQ’s press office, the agency will be asking the legislature this year for a $22 million increase in funding. The cuts in 2011 were around $250 million.

White predicts that Texas will continue or even increase litigation to block new federal pollution regulations like one called the Clean Power Plan that the state says could mean closing half the coal-fired power plants in Texas.

But while it may be easy for many Texas lawmakers to take a stance against the federal government, White says they might find themselves torn if asked to support what Abbott is now proposing: going after local governments and their environmental ordinances.

“This is difficult in Texas where we like individuals and local government to make decisions before state government or the federal government,” said White.

For the new governor, it’s a matter of saving what he called his vision for Texas.

“My vision is one where individual liberties are not bound by city limit signs,” Abbott said in his speech.

 

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Dave Fehling

Dave Fehling

Director of News and Public Affairs

As Director of News and Public Affairs, Dave Fehling manages the radio news operation at Houston's NPR station. Previously, he was a reporter at the station, covering the oil & gas industry and its impact on the environment. He won top state honors for in-depth and investigative reporting as well...

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