When Governor Abbott expressed dismay at what city governments and their citizens were doing in his state, it might have struck some observers of Texas politics as nothing new. Because for years now, the state of Texas has been challenging the power of the cities of Texas and of individual Texans.
But who exactly would want to do that and why?
We looked for answers — where else — but at the statehouse. It’s where last spring the issue came up in a public hearing held by the House Committee on Environmental Regulation.
“I’d like to tell you our story,” said Lesley Carey shortly after she took the podium in front of the committee.
Carey wanted lawmakers to know how her family used a state law to challenge a big company. The company wanted to truck sewage sludge 70 miles from Houston to a site adjacent to their land in Colorado County.
“Through the contested case process we were given a voice,” Carey said.
A voice through what’s called a contested case hearing. It meant her family could challenge or “contest” the company’s application for a pollution permit issued by the state.
Carey said her family uncovered evidence — evidence she said was unknown to state regulators — that showed that storm runoff from the proposed sludge site could contaminate a nearby lake. In the end, the company withdrew its application.
Lesley Carey and her family had prevailed and possibly protected their lake from pollution. But this all happened 10 years ago; why did she drive the 100 miles to Austin to tell her story now?
“I understand industry wants to shorten this entire process if not do away with some of it,” Carey told the committee.
That’s what the hearing was about: Lawmakers were looking into complaints from companies that those contested case hearings were costing them time and money.
“In Texas, this contested case can extend the process up to a year,” said David Wise.
Wise was with Shintech, a Houston company that was looking for a place to build a billion dollar petrochemical plant. He got the attention of lawmakers when he told them that just across the state border in Louisiana the permit process could be a lot quicker, maybe months quicker. Wise said they weren’t asking Texas for weaker pollution regulation, just a process with more certainty.
And local people can add uncertainty.
At another meeting last year in Austin, the Railroad Commission of Texas which regulates the natural gas industry was considering a proposal backed by gas utility companies. It would make changes to how cities could challenge those companies when they wanted to raise prices.
One after another, city mayors told the three members of the Railroad Commission it was an attack on their power.
“The proposed rule changes would silence them, moving all decisions to Austin where only the industry lawyers and lobbyists have a real voice,” said Jim Gerlt, the mayor pro tem of Lubbock.
That’s not just his opinion about who gets heard: an independent review panel found that campaign contributions from the utility industry to the campaigns of the commission members could “create the perception of bias” in favor of the companies.
One of the three Railroad Commission members, Barry Smitherman, interrupted Gerlt as he responded to questions.
“I think you’re confused. We’re not attempting to take away your original jurisdiction,” said Smitherman.
Oh yes you are, said the mayors. But in the end, the commissioners voted against the cities and for the change the big utility companies had wanted.
The Texas legislature is now back in session. A number of bills have already been introduced — and more are expected — that would challenge the power of cities and citizens. Lawmakers will have to decide who gets a voice in Texas.