Sunday, May 8, 2016

Top Texas Senator Announces Ride-Hailing Legislation

The debate over regulating companies like Uber and Lyft looks likely to move from the local to the state level in Texas, although how big a discussion it will be remains to be seen.

On Sunday, the day after Austin voters soundly rejected a measure to overturn city protocols for ride-hailing companies, a top Republican state senator announced he will file legislation next year “designed to establish consistent and predictable statewide regulation of ridesharing services.”

The Legislature convenes in January.

Texas’ ridesharing companies can no longer operate effectively through a patchwork of inconsistent and anti-competitive regulations.— Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown

“It has become increasingly clear that Texas’ ridesharing companies can no longer operate effectively through a patchwork of inconsistent and anti-competitive regulations,” said state Sen. Charles Schwertner of Georgetown, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services, in a statement.

“Any legitimate safety or liability concern regarding ridesharing clearly deserves to be addressed, and I welcome all parties to engage productively in that discussion," the statement read. "But as a state with a long tradition of supporting the free market, Texas should not accept transparent, union-driven efforts to create new barriers to entry for the sole purpose of stifling innovation and eliminating competition.”

Uber and Lyft have said they will cease operations in Austin on Monday following the failure of Proposition 1, a referendum that would’ve overturned rules the City Council approved last year that — in part — will require drivers to undergo fingerprint-based background checks by next February. The companies, which have pulled out of other Texas cities that have passed similar regulations, spent $8.6 million on their Austin campaign, making it the most expensive in city history.  

Other state GOP officials expressed similar free market-based concerns on social media Sunday, indicating that Schwertner's measure may not have a hard time finding traction in the Republican-dominated Legislature.

“Liberalism has consequences,” Land Commissioner George P. Bush wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday, becoming the first statewide official to weigh in on the outcome of the Austin vote. “Austin claims to be a forward-thinking city ... This is what happens with liberalism — the government wins and the people lose.”

Disclosure: Uber and Lyft have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Eagle Ford Town's Residents Disgusted by Waste Site's Approval

On Tuesday morning, roughly 10 percent of Nordheim residents (population 316 at last count) once again pulled on their yellow “Concerned About Pollution” T-shirts, drove two hours north to Austin and told Texas regulators that they did not want to live next to an oil and gas waste site roughly half their town’s size.

Many in the rural DeWitt County community had done some version of this exercise several times over the past two or three years. They say their way of life would be threatened by a proposed 143-acre facility that would be used to store waste including drill cuttings, oil-based muds, fracking sand and other toxic oilfield leftovers.

Most of the residents figured they’d return home officially defeated. They were correct.

The Texas Railroad Commission on Tuesday voted 3-0 to allow San Antonio-based Pyote Reclamation Systems to build the facility, effectively ending one of the first organized protests against industry activity in South Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale.

“That’s what you call a little town getting shit on,” 80-year-old Kermit Koehler, who lives a few miles outside of Nordheim, said minutes after the vote.

In the end, the case highlighted gaps in bureaucracy that prevented the commission, charged with only evaluating groundwater effects, from taking into account residents’ other quality-of-life concerns. Those include the site’s possible foul smell, new trucks expected to rumble down already cracked local roads and the facility’s proximity to a school.

“I’ll be candid — I don’t like the site,” said Commissioner Ryan Sitton, who met with Nordheim residents last fall in an unpublicized visit. He was the lone commissioner to weigh in at Tuesday's open meeting. 

He added, however, that he had no other choice because experts at the agency determined that safeguards at the facility would properly protect groundwater in the area and because they could not evaluate other concerns.  

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s air regulator, has limited jurisdiction over such facilities, and only those with certain types of equipment require air permits to operate. Once the facility is up and running, however, it could be subject to air nuisance laws.

No state or local agency has authority to address the land use and traffic concerns. The facility would border Nordheim but not sit within city limits.

Shortly before approving the permit, Sitton issued an unusual warning: “Because they’ve chosen to build this site so closely to residents, the margin of error is exceptionally small,” he told an attorney for the waste company. “Don’t screw this up.”

CEO George Wommack told The Texas Tribune that his company’s facility is “best in class” and “the most highly engineered” such landfill that the commission has ever permitted. 

“We care very much about these people,” he said.

The commission ultimately required Pyote to beef up groundwater safeguards so that the waste won't flow out of retention ponds on site during worst-case flooding scenarios. Grant Chambless, who manages the agency’s environmental permits and support staff, said he "was very confident that the risks have been addressed." 

Wommack said Pyote would iron out the additional quality-of-life concerns with local residents. “Now is the time that we can get some stuff figured out.”

Drilling and fracking a well leaves operators liable for vast amounts of liquid waste. They typically get rid of that waste by sending it to be injected into disposal wells deep underground. But operators must send solid waste such as drill cuttings, oil-based muds, fracking sand and other toxic substances to above-ground sites. That’s the type of waste Pyote’s facility would handle. 

The facility would include a mix of lined disposal pits and land treatment cells where more benign waste would be scattered and allowed to mix with soil. The company says thick clay lies beneath the land, providing an extra layer of protection for the groundwater underneath. Wommack said the spot in question is ideal for waste disposal. It sits in prime Eagle Ford drilling acreage, not far from the highway. And plenty of nearby drillers still need a spot to unload their waste — even amid the industry’s epic slowdown over the past two years.

But Nordheim doesn’t want it. Over the past two years, more than 200 people — including local state lawmakers and DeWitt County Judge Daryl Fowler — urged the commission to reject the permit.

State Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, stood with her constituents throughout the long-winding protest. The waste site would “cause this community great problems,” she told the commissioners. Still, she recognized the agency’s narrow jurisdiction and vowed to work during the 2017 legislative session on plugging such regulatory gaps.

The Railroad Commission is already set to undergo particular scrutiny next year, as lawmakers consider recommendations from the state Sunset Advisory Commission

“I want to offer to work with you during the sunset process,” she said to the commission.  “Help me make this a better process.”

The acknowledgements and promises did not make Nordheim residents feel any better.

“My roadrunners are going to be gone, my jackrabbits are going to be gone, and my brother and nephew [who live next to the site] are going to be gone,” Paul Baumann, a retiree of the DuPont chemical company who owns ranchland bordering the site, told the commissioners.

After the vote, he told the Texas Tribune that he was “really disappointed.”

“Disgusted” is the word that Lynn Janssen kept using. Her ranch house sits just down a dirt road from the soon-to-be waste site.

“What recourse do people have? This is it,” she said. “To think that they can permit something that they don’t like, there’s something wrong with that.”

Will Nordheim, with its aging population, survive the new development?

“No,” Janssen said. “People won’t send their kids to school there. They’ll go somewhere else.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at

Survey: Texans Support a Statewide "Clean Energy" Plan

When it blocked President’s Obama’s Clean Power Plan, the U.S. Supreme Court let Texas off the hook — at least for now — on developing a plan to boost its use of cleaner-burning energy.

But most Texans believe their leaders should draw up a plan to shift from coal-fired power to natural gas and renewables anyway, even if the state wins a high-profile battle against the carbon dioxide-slashing regulations, according to a new poll released Wednesday.

That includes Republicans.

Two Republican pollsters developed and conducted the survey of more than 800 registered Texas voters on behalf of the Texas Clean Energy Coalition, a group that supports natural gas, solar and wind energy. It offers insight into Texans’ views on energy policy, and a test of how public opinion compares to the rhetoric of politicians on the issue.

Among the findings:

  • Eighty-five percent of Texans (including 81 percent of Republicans) believe Texas should develop its own comprehensive clean energy plan, regardless of the outcome of a landmark lawsuit over the Clean Power Plan, which would require states to submit plans to the federal government to reach mandated targets for slashing carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Texans tended to define “clean energy” as wind, solar and natural gas sources. Few — just 37 percent — identified nuclear energy as clean, despite its lack of carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Only 14 percent have seen, read or heard of the Clean Power Plan.
  • Most Texans opposed the federal regulation when informed of one of the basic sticking points in the debate: whether Washington or the states should shape energy policy. In that case, just 41 percent said the Clean Power Plan was a good idea, and 55 percent considered it a bad idea. Only 17 percent of Republicans backed the regulation.
  • Most Texans — 69 percent — believe their leaders should construct a proposal to comply with the Clean Power Plan in case the state loses its court battle.  

The Clean Energy Coalition suggested that the results should strengthen a push in the Texas Legislature to add more natural gas and renewable energy to the grid.

“What struck me about the survey results is how widespread the support is across the political spectrum for increasing our state’s use of clean energy,” former Texas Sen. Kip Averitt, the group’s chairman, said in a statement.

The survey involved 801 live interviews conducted last month over the telephone (including cellphones and landlines), and it had a margin of error of 3.5 percent.

Clean Power Plan opponents seized on the data showing that most Texans oppose the policy, and suggested that the survey questions should have included more information on how transforming the state’s energy mix would affect power prices and the reliability of the electric grid.

“We find the poll quite flawed. It is uninformed on the legal issues underway by a number of states,” Michael Nasi, general counsel for the pro-coal group Balanced Energy For Texas, said in an email.

The Clean Power Plan, Obama’s most ambitious effort to combat climate change, would require states to slash carbon dioxide emissions from power plants however they see fit — accelerating a shift from coal that started years ago. Carbon dioxide is a potent greenhouse gas that directly contributes to climate change.

(The survey released Wednesday did not define carbon dioxide or wade into the politics of climate change.)

For Texas, that would mean cutting an annual average of 51 million tons of emissions, down about 21 percent from 2012 levels.

Had the regulations stayed in place, Texas would have had until September to submit a final plan or apply for an extension. If the state failed to do so, the federal Environmental Protection Agency would have drawn up its own plan for the state.

Attorney General Ken Paxton, Gov. Greg Abbott and other Texas Republicans argued that doing so would cost the state jobs, push electricity costs too high and threaten reliability. They say the regulations subvert state power.

Proponents of the rules — backed by early analyses — suggest that market forces and existing policies alone would push Texas most of the way toward its target.

But it’s not clear whether Texas will ever have to comply. In February, the Supreme Court granted a request by Texas and 26 other states to halt the regulation as their challenge winds through the legal system.

Though any state can take action on climate, and many have, the ruling removes the mechanism to submit a plan to the federal government.

Nevertheless, advocates for the Clean Power Plan suggest that Texas should prepare a plan in case it loses the legal battle — if only to keep federal regulators from imposing a plan they drew up. Most of the Texans who responded to the new poll seemed to agree, even if they opposed the Clean Power Plan broadly.

Mike Baselice, a longtime Republican pollster who conducted the poll, said he wasn’t surprised.

“Part of it is a knee-jerk reaction to: Hey, if it’s Washington, D.C. telling the state of Texas what to do, some of the people are going to put up their hands and say, 'Back up,'” he said.

But not everyone considers that a good idea. 

Pamela Giblin, an Austin-based lawyer with the firm Baker Botts, which represents many energy companies that would be affected by the policy, called the federal rule “outrageous, regardless of your position on climate,” and believes the justices will ultimately strike it down.

Even if the Obama administration wins, she suggested, judges would likely draw up a new timeline for states to comply — refusing to penalize them for not immediately complying with a rule that had been blocked. And that final decision could take years.

A spokesman for Abbott suggested that the survey results did not sway the governor.

"Texas will not waste millions in taxpayer dollars attempting to comply with a federal statute that the Supreme Court has already found suspect and put on hold," John Wittman said in an email. 

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at

Analysis: A Texas Judge Takes Voter ID to Court

* Correction appended

Editor's note: If you'd like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey's column, click here.

The only Democrat in elected statewide office in Texas is suing to upend the state’s photo voter ID law, saying it’s an unconstitutional obstacle to a legal activity: voting.

The rogue in question is Larry Meyers, who was elected to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals as a Republican in 1992 and re-elected in 1998, 2004 and 2010. At the end of 2013, he changed parties, irritated with the direction of his party and wanting to make a statement on his way out of office — if that’s where the switch takes him.

Meyers says he left the Republican Party “after the Tea Party takeover” and says the infighting within the GOP has only confirmed his decision.

He refers to his former political home as “the Donner Party,” after an infamous case of cannibalism among settlers in the 1840s. “They’re eating each other up,” he says.

Meyers filed his state lawsuit in October 2014, while another legal challenge to the state’s voter ID law was pending in federal court in Corpus Christi. A federal judge overturned the law, but it has remained in effect during the state's appeals to higher courts.

Meanwhile, state and local officials in Texas tried to get Meyers’ challenge dismissed. A Dallas trial judge — former state lawmaker Dale Tillery, a Democrat — refused that request. Now those officials are asking the state’s 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas to toss it. That hearing is set for Tuesday.

Meyers refers to his former political home as 'the Donner Party,' after an infamous case of cannibalism among settlers in the 1840s. 'They’re eating each other up.'

Meyers is lapping this up. His challenge is the sort of technical thing you would expect from a long-time judge. He points to this sentence in the Texas Constitution (emphasis added): “In all elections by the people, the vote shall be by ballot, and the Legislature shall provide for the numbering of tickets and make such other regulations as may be necessary to detect and punish fraud and preserve the purity of the ballot box; and the Legislature shall provide by law for the registration of all voters.”

“It does not include ‘prevent,’” he says, adding that the voter ID law is “a prior restraint against your constitutional right to vote.”

As he put it in his original filing, the voter ID law forces voters to prove they are innocent before they cast their ballots rather than requiring the state to prove that someone is actually guilty of voter fraud once they have voted. Someone who doesn’t have the required identification “will be denied his right to vote and will be presumed to be guilty of voter fraud,” he wrote.

Proponents of the voter ID law say it’s no more burdensome than presenting identification in routine commercial transactions, and say the law has built-in workarounds for people who don’t have drivers’ licenses to show voting officials.

Meyers contends that the state’s effort to prevent voter fraud — he doesn’t think such fraud exists in any serious way — creates an obstacle to voting that does more harm than good. Voter fraud is already illegal, he points out, and the state can and should prosecute it whenever it occurs.

“We’re just asking that our Constitution be enforced,” he says. “Voter ID is almost identical to what the old poll tax was. ... It suppresses the vote.”

In its legal filings, the state argues that Meyers doesn’t have grounds to sue because he hasn’t shown how he the voter ID law has done him any harm. Those state lawyers also contend that the law does not add to the “qualifications” of voters but is more akin to other requirements, like when the polls are open or when elections are held.

The timing of this appeal worked out pretty well for Meyers, who is up for re-election in November — the first time he has faced a Republican while running for reelection as a Democrat. He filed his lawsuit in October 2014, and Judge Tillery declined to dismiss the case last August. The looming appeal hearing, and the decision that will follow, could raise his profile a little bit in the months leading up to what is probably his final appearance on the ballot, whatever the result.

And after switching to the party that hasn’t won a statewide election in two decades, he knows he faces long odds.

“I wasn’t going to run again. I was ready to retire,” Meyers says. “I wouldn’t mind winning, though.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated the outcome of legal challenges to the voter ID law; it was overturned by a federal judge but has remained in effect while appeals proceed. Also, an earlier version did not make it clear that this is the first time Meyers has run for reelection as a Democrat, although he ran and lost a bid for Texas Supreme Court as a Democrat in 2014.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at

Hofheinz Family Sues to Keep Name on UH Pavilion

Throughout its storied 46-year history, the on-campus basketball arena at the University of Houston has been named after the late Houston mayor Roy Hofheinz. 

Now that the old, out-of-date facility is about to be remodeled, Hofheinz's family doesn't want that to change. 

In a petition filed Wednesday in Harris County court, the family urged a judge to block the university from changing the name of Hofheinz Pavilion. UH is currently soliciting donations for a major renovation of the facility. The family says it doesn't want the school to promise a renaming in exchange for a sizable gift. 

In fact, the family said in a press release that it believes that such a promise has already been made to a new "anonymous donor." UH didn't address that allegation in a statement Wednesday afternoon. But it did say that it "disagrees with the family's position" about renaming. 

According to the family, the building — used for basketball, concerts and special events — was named for Hofheinz after he donated $1.5 million toward its construction in 1969. The arena has been renovated multiple times since then with no name change, the family said. The next renovation will be major, however. University officials have said they are hoping to raise $25 million for the work. 

But taking Hofheinz's name off the facility to pay for that update would be wrong, a lawyer for the family said. Hofheinz, who died in 1982, served in the Texas Legislature, served as Harris County judge and was mayor for two years. His family said he fought to desegregate city hall, pushed for major transportation initiatives in Houston and was involved in bringing what would become the Houston Astros baseball team to town.

But the family said in a press release that "Hofheinz Pavilion is the only public structure in Houston bearing his name." And taking his name down would break a promise made when the stadium was built. 

"There was only one condition on the donation: for once, something in Houston that he helped build would bear his name," John Raley, an attorney representing the family, said in a press release. "The University agreed, took his money, spent it, and now wants to break their agreement. That is illegal and, as any fair minded Texan can see, simply wrong.”

The university said it disagrees, but it is trying to find an amicable solution. 

"The University of Houston appreciates and celebrates the generosity of all its donors and complies with the donors’ intent and restrictions set forth in gift agreements," it said in a statement. 

Disclosure: The University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at

Featured Post

Political Trip Fundraiser