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Big Bend Regional Sierra Club
Regular Public Meeting
19 November 2002

President Don Dowdey called the meeting to order at 7:05 p.m. with ~24 present in 309, Lawrence Hall, SRSU.

Announcements (Don Dowdey):

  • TNC's Davis Mountains Preserve will host a Christmas tree cutting on Dec 7 & 14.
  • Photographer and conservationist Russ Hansen of Fort Davis, TX and Lincoln, VT died November 14.
  • Don reiterated his membership appeal. BBRSC membership stands at 111 and Red River at 114.
  • Ginny Campbell reminded us that calendar sales are the only fundraiser for BBRSC this year. Additional engagement calendars are being shipped, but there are plenty of wall calendars. Members are urged to purchase calendars, or check several out and sell them.
  • Ballots were mailed with the last newsletter: there are 3 openings on the Executive Committee, and three candidates. Members are reminded to mail in the ballots by the specified date.
  • The December 17 meeting will be a holiday party, featuring fun, food, and literature from the recent legislative workshop.
  • A recent court ruling will require the EPA to begin enforcing air pollution standards based on the eight hour ozone rule. The rule measures low-level ozone which is a severe lung irritant. Several cities in Texas, including Houston, will need to address meeting these standards in the State Implementation Plans they are currently preparing to address poor air quality.

Program:

Don introduced Representative Pete Gallego, who was just elected to his 7th term in the Texas House with over 70% of the vote. He has served on the Appropriations Committee and on the Conference Committee that reconciles the House and Senate versions of the appropriations bill.

Representative Gallego began by setting the stage for the upcoming legislative session, which is poised by be an historic session -- the first time since Reconstruction that Republicans will control both chambers (88 to 62 in the House). The Speaker and committee chairs are changing as a result of the change in party leadership. The new Speaker will be Tom Craddick of Midland. There are 33 new members in the House. The legislature faces a budget crisis plus new leadership in many state agencies (e.g., TCEQ, TxDOT, Commissioner of Health, Health and Human Services Commission). "A fascinating time to be in government" according to Pete.

The state budget stands at $ 114 billion. Looking at only a current services budget (i.e., maintaining the status quo without any new programs), the state faces an $8 billion shortfall.  There is also an agreement forged by the Republican leadership that taxes will not be raised, leaving budget cuts as the only remedy. The challenge will be to come to consensus about where to cut. Why is the state short $8 billion? In short – revenue down, expenses up, no new taxes. It will cost $550 million just to keep up with commitments made during the last session to provide retired teachers with health insurance. State sales tax represents 23% of the state budget. Sales tax revenue is $500 million short due to the poor economy. Over 80% of the budget is already set by law; only 17% of the budget is discretionary. The election for Speaker was hard core, leaving relationships fragile with a lessened spirit of camaraderie and creating an “interesting dynamic." Other issues include the insurance crisis (homeowners, medical, medical malpractice), school financing, campaign financing, Sunset reviews (the Ethics Commission is up for review), and a host of special interests. Pete said that all of these factors will present the biggest set of challenges since he started in the House.

Pete praised outgoing Speaker Pete Laney for his leadership in the House. The new Speaker, Tom Craddick, owes a debt of gratitude to many supporters and this will be evident as leadership roles are filled. Pete retains a seat on Appropriations due to seniority. He sees himself remaining a fairly major player in the House. In addition to his experience and ability, Pete also carries major legislation and is on the Sunset Committee as well as the Mexican-American Caucus. Pete expressed gratitude at the outcome of last election and said he was humbled by the outcome. Due to redistricting, his district now stands at 52% Democrat versus 74% previously. It could well be a swing district in the future. In spite of the proportionally lower number of Democrats, Pete earned a higher percentage of the vote than ever before.

Question and Answer Session:

In response to a question about speeding up the permitting process for wind power transmission lines, Pete explained that the problem with wind energy is getting power onto the grid. ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas, Inc.) is working with the legislature to improve grid access. Pete has been a supporter of wind power and will continue to be so.

In response to a question about the grandfathering of "dirty" power plants, Pete replied that his expectation is that not much environmental work will take place in the legislature over the next biennium and that we may be entering a period of "environmental deregulation." Moderates will not be in the driver's seat and his expectation is bleak on the environment. Warren Chisum will be no longer chair of the Environmental Regulations Committee. Borderlands air quality issues have pretty much fallen off the table -- the only issue on the table with Mexico now relates to water. Are toxic waste facilities going to be given an inroad in Texas in light of the situation? Pete said he hopes not. The heavy reliance of our economy on tourism may save us -- the scenic beauty of west TX is too important to chance with any sort of environmental accident. Hopefully the state learned something from the litigation surrounding the radioactive waste dump site in Hudspeth County that was railroaded through in 1991. Pete is categorically opposed to radioactive waste, and believes that the state should hold the license in all cases. Texas is still part of the Compact that statute has not been repealed. A private company could open the door to DOE waste and we could wind up with much more than bargained for. The Low Level Radioactive Waste Authority record is abysmal.

TCEQ (formerly TNRCC) completed Sunset Review and will undergoing follow-up, cursory review only this session.

Redistricting is being redone again to bolster Republican representation in Washington.

Texas imposes a franchise tax on corporations, but there is no tax on limited liability corporations. Southwestern Bell is registered as a limited liability corporation and the state looses millions in tax dollars. This loophole should be closed. Pete would support raising the cigarette tax to support public health programs.

This legislative session offers a tremendous opportunity for creativity and to look at things from the ground up. By the end of the session, we will be able to tell the difference between Democrats and Republicans! Pete organized a group of Democrats to oppose budget cuts related to programs for children, Medicare/Medicaid, education, and infrastructure along the border. He supports the commitment to no new taxes. His intent will be to re-establish budget priorities. Education is a huge priority – Pete asks whether there is a problem out there that cannot be solved through education? Currently, Texas uses 175% of the federal poverty level definition (which is unrealistic), but there may be a movement to lower the poverty level in Texas. Rather, Pete believes there are some areas where the budget could be cut and not affect critical programs and social services (e.g., the courthouse renovation bill could be tabled until Texas is a wealthy state again). Pete intends to go through the budget line by line to look for areas to cut. Public funding for tourism is an area he will look at. We should look for targeted cuts in some state agencies. We need to look to filling existing prison and TDY beds before new facilities are pursued.

Entrada al Pacifico is currently no more that a sign it has never been funded and no funding is pending. Still, "the trucks are coming." Highway 67 from Marfa to Presidio will be widened – it is currently unsafe and Pete has been working with TxDOT on at least providing climbing lanes in some areas. The Mexican economy is weak the Mexican government has little money to invest in infrastructure. Railroad development is an important alternative to highway truck traffic; a viable rail line would significantly reduce truck traffic. Gov. Martinez of Chihuahua has made completion of the Mexican portion of the Entrada highway a priority and the highway will probably be finished during his term.

Texas leads the nation in the number of uninsured children and ranks near the bottom overall. Hospital District or county covers indigents; the problem is in the mid-range (e.g., working poor), who fall between the cracks.

Pete really wants a dialogue with the rest of the House. Sometimes issues are decided and votes cast based on whose idea it was rather on merits. Pete believes this must change.

Pete agreed to work on establishing better communication between TCEQ and TDH on borderland health issues.

In closing, Pete urged us not to look so glum!

Business meeting:

  • Clean Air T-shirts are being sold for $10.00 and donations are being accepted for Clean Air bumper stickers.
  • Minutes: A motion was made and seconded to accept the minutes from the October regular meeting. Passed.
  • Treasurer's Report: Available funds as of November 16, 2002 total $1237.84.
  • Meeting adjourned at 8:30 p.m. with refreshments. Literature from the recent legislative workshop was available.

Submitted by Linda Hedges, Secretary


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