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Archive for the ‘Good Government’ Category

Public Citizen Honors Tom “Smitty” Smith

 

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After more than three decades of extraordinary work running Public Citizen’s Texas office, “Smitty,” formally known as Thomas Smith, is hanging up his spurs. Smitty is a Texas institution and a national treasure, and on February 1st, we celebrated him right.

Over 200 people attended a retirement dinner for Smitty at the Barr Mansion in Austin, TX on Wednesday evening.  Friends and colleagues from around the state who had work with Smitty on issues over his career that included clean energy, ethics reform, pollution mitigation, nuclear waste disposal, etc came to pay homage to a man who had dedicated his life to fighting for a healthier and more equitable world by making government work for the people and by defending democracy from corporate greed.

Mayor Adler and Council members Leslie Pool and Ann Kitchens

Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea and Smitty

Dallas County Commissioner Dr. Theresa Daniel and Smitty

During the evening, Austin Mayor – Steve Adler, Travis County Commissioner – Brigid Shea, and Dallas County Commissioner – Dr. Theresa Daniel presented Smitty with resolutions passed by the City of Austin, Travis County Commissioners Court and Dallas County Commissioners Court all of which acknowledge Smitty’s contributions to their communities and the state of Texas.

 

 

 

Adrian Shelley (front left) and Rob Weissman (front right) at Tom “Smitty” Smith’s retirement event.

Public Citizen’s President, Robert Weissman, thanked Smitty for his service to Public Citizen for the past 31 years and introduced the new director for the Texas office, Adrian Shelley, the current Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston.

Smitty’ impending departure fromPublic Citizen will leave a big hole in advocacy for progressive issues here in Texas, but both Smitty and Robert Weissman expressed confidence that Adrian would lead the Texas office forward into a new era of progressive advocacy.  Adrian is a native Texan from the City of Houston. He has served as the Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston since 2013. He first worked with Air Alliance Houston as a legal fellow in 2010, then as a Community Outreach Coordinator in 2012. In that time, Public Citizen has worked closely with Air Alliance Houston through the Healthy Port Communities Coalition (HPCC), a coalition of nonprofits and community groups which advocates policies to improve public health and safety while encouraging economic growth.

So be assured that Adrian and the Texas staff of Public Citizen are committed to carrying on the battle for justice, for democracy, for air clean and  energy and for clean politics. We can and will protect our children and the generations to come. For this, we can still use your help.  You can make a tax deductible donation to the Texas office of Public Citizen to help us continue his vital work on climate, transportation, civil justice, consumer protection, ethics, campaign finance reform and more

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Another state has officially called for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United!

Following a three-and-a-half-year campaign spearheaded by Public Citizen — On Wednesday, New York joined California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia.

Notably, New York is the first of these 17 states where one chamber of the legislature is under Republican control.

But it will NOT be the last.

Because eight out of ten Americans — Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike — believe Citizens United has to go.

And with Public Citizen leading the way — as we’ve done from the moment the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its disastrous decision — we will build on today’s momentum, including campaigns already underway in states like Arkansas, New Hampshire and Washington.

Please join the thousands of supporters from coast to coast who are donating to help make sure we can keep doing the painstaking, behind-the-scenes work — in hundreds of cities, in dozens of states, and in Congress and the White House — to ultimately win this amendment and restore our democracy.

Contribute now.

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The Uber/Lyft debate has been raging in Austin for months, but do you know what you’ll actually be voting on?  Voting is a right, but being an informed voter is a responsibility.

Proposition 1 is a vote on rules and regulations in Austin for transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft. If you vote AGAINST Prop. 1, you’re voting for the City of Austin’s proposed safety rules. If you vote FOR Prop. 1, you’re voting for Uber and Lyft’s proposed regulations that they personally drafted in retaliation to the Austin City Council’s ordinance. While a lot of the rules in the two ordinances are the same, there are some very important differences as well. To make it easier for voters to understand, we’ve highlighted the differences in the ordinances, and therefore what Austin residents are really voting on at the polls on May 7.

Key:

  • AGAINST PROP 1 – City of Austin’s regulations
  • FOR PROP 1 – Uber and Lyft’s regulations
  • TNC (Transportation Network Company) – an organization, whether a corporation, partnership, sole proprietor, or other form, which provides on-demand transportation services for compensation using an online-enabled application or platform to connect passengers with drivers.
  • ATD (Austin Transportation Department) – section of the Austin government that addresses transportation needs and challenges, as well as public safety.

Austin Proposition 1 Comparison Table

The regulations the City Council passed in December requiring stricter rules than currently in place for Uber and Lyft are not absurd. People who operate pedicabs or horse carriages in the city already have to get fingerprinted. Make no mistake; this is not an issue of keeping Uber and Lyft in Austin. That’s not what the vote is for on May 7. The City Council isn’t kicking anyone out; they’re just leveling the playing field for all TNCs by making sure they follow the same rules.  And if these particular companies choose not to do business here, Austin Uber and Lyft drivers will soon be provided with new transportation companies to drive for.

Uber and Lyft have already pumped $2.2 million into this campaign, which is evident in their abundant advertising. This is supposed to be a local issue, but it’s quickly becoming a perfect example of why Citizens United should be repealed. Vote “No” for Prop. 1 and show corporations that they can’t write their own rules and buy local politics in Austin.

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Dylan Petrohilos - Gov Census

2014 and 2015 were back-to-back years that both earned the title for hottest year on record. and February 2016 was the warmest month, globally, ever recorded. And yet U.S. lawmakers continue to deny the facts.  Earlier this month, the Center for American Progress Action Fund (CAPAF) released an analysis of climate change denial in U.S. Congress called “The 2016 Anti-Science Climate Denier Caucus.” Their research found that more than 63% of Americans are represented by someone in Congress who denies that climate change exists.

Dylan Petrohilos - CAP182 members of Congress don’t believe the science behind climate change: 144 members in the House of Representatives and 38 members in the Senate. 67% of Americans want the U.S. to take action on climate change, but 202 million citizens are represented in Congress by a climate change denier. Since the Republican Party’s platform on environmental policy never mentions climate change, it’s no surprise that every single denier is a member of the Republican Party.

A recent poll revealed that 76% of Americans believe global climate change is occurring, including 59% of Republicans. According to a poll by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, 67% of Americans support President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. The results of these polls don’t correlate with the fact that that the number of Congressional climate deniers has increased from previous years. From severe weather, wildfires, drought, and flooding, climate change is impacting Americans every day, and it’s evident that human activity is the dominant cause. Despite this evidence, 70% of the Senate GOP still denies climate change.

Dylan Petrohilos - Open SecretsIn the analysis, CAPAF also looked into dirty energy money’s influence over Congress members. They found that climate deniers in Congress received more than $73 million in contributions from coal, oil, and gas companies. This is an increase of nearly $10 million from last year. When asked about their views on climate change, many deniers dodge the question by saying “they aren’t scientists”.

According to Sondre Båtstrand, a Norwegian researcher, the U.S. Republican Party is the only conservative party in the world which denies the reality of climate change. Båtstrand believes the GOP’s denial is due to three factors: the fossil fuel industry’s political spending, a commitment to free-market ideology, and the intense political polarization that punishes moderate-minded party members.

In February 2016, over 200 lawmakers in U.S. Congress signed onto a court brief opposing the president’s Clean Power Plan. At the end of 2015, the House of Representatives passed two resolutions to kill the Clean Power Plan. The Plan would regulate power plants’ carbon emissions and 67% of Americans support it. So it’s clear that Congress isn’t working the way it’s intended to. Members of the House and Senate are elected to represent the interests of American citizens, not their own fat wallets and the interests of dirty energy companies.

Regarding the state of Texas specifically, the 2016 Anti-Science Climate Denier Caucus found that 17 out of 38 Texas Congressional members are climate change deniers. In 2016, this is not only unacceptable, but is dangerous for Texas families who depend on their elected leaders to protect their futures. When the impacts of climate change become more and more apparent each year – more severe storms, deadly wildfires, crippling drought, and rising sea level – it’s clear there’s no time to waste. Climate change deniers in Congress, like Ted Cruz, stand in the way of these common sense safeguards. Texans and Americans across the country deserve leaders who will stand up to face this threat head on – not those following the playbook of their largest campaign donors.

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If you’ve used a taxi or similar transportation service in a major U.S. city recently, you’ve probably heard of Uber or Lyft. Uber and Lyft are two mobile ride hailing companies that were both founded in San Francisco, California. Uber was founded in March 2009 and Lyft was founded in summer 2012. They facilitate peer-to-peer ridesharing and operate under the transportation network company (TNC) label. By summer 2015, Uber’s net worth was valued at $50 billion and Lyft’s net value was $2.5 billion.

Council Member Ann Kitchen Getting Fingerprinted - Photo by Jay Janner, Austin American Statesman

Council Member Ann Kitchen Getting Fingerprinted – Photo by Jay Janner, Austin American Statesman

Uber and Lyft are great options for carpooling, for not having to deal with parking your car downtown, or for worrying about drinking and driving. They also provide convenience by simply using your smartphone to order and pay for a ride. So what’s all the fuss with them about? This past December, the Austin City Council passed an ordinance that, among other things, required all transportation network companies (TNCs), which includes Lyft and Uber, to fingerprint their drivers for background checks. The December ordinance set benchmark goals of having 25% of drivers fingerprinted by May 2016, with gradual increases, and then 99% compliance by February 2017.

South Congress Capitol View – Photo from Wikimedia

South Congress Capitol View – Photo from Wikimedia

Public safety officials support of the fingerprinting ordinance as necessary for safety. Without fingerprinting, drivers could slip through the background check using false identities.  Lyft and Uber are opposed to fingerprinting their “contractors” because they think their background checks are sufficient and that the ordinance opens the door to future regulation that they believe hampers innovation. Taxi drivers, pedicab operators and horse carriage operators are already subject to the same regulations though.

City Council Committee Meeting – Photo by Laura Skelding, Austin American Statesman

City Council Committee Meeting – Photo by Laura Skelding, Austin American Statesman

Lyft and Uber say that if fingerprinting happens, they’re leaving town. They don’t want to be subjected to regulations they think might stifle future business decisions or that defines them as taxi-like companies. If they’re associated with taxi services, they’ll be subjected to an array of additional rules. This is ironic because Uber and Lyft are in fact very similar to taxis: they provide transportation for passengers and receive payment in exchange. They are “taxi-like” and thus should be subjected to the additional regulations they want to avoid.

What about who the actual drivers are? According to Ben Wear (Austin American Statesman February 15, 2016, pg. B3):

At least ten Austin women filed complaints last year about sexual assaults – seven against ride-hailing drivers, three involving taxis. While the two companies use background checks that look at all 50 states, and they bar applicants with crimes of violence or theft, those background checks only look back seven years. So, someone could have committed a rape or even a homicide 10 or 20 years ago, even in Texas, and the ride-hailing companies likely would not find out about it.

In an undercover investigation, NBC Chicago hired several drivers and ran their own personal background checks on them. They found numerous tickets and questionable driving history. One driver had 26 tickets and one driver was an ex-con who had priors going back two decades including burglary, drugs, and assault. There are clearly people getting through their background check system that shouldn’t be driving for hire. Having the fingerprint submissions that the City Council proposed would make it easier for law enforcement to identify lawbreakers.

A political action committee (PAC) called Ridesharing Works for Austin formed in response to the fingerprinting mandate. The PAC made a petition to fight back against the City Council’s new TNC rules, and they gathered three times more signatures than they needed. The City Council could then either overturn the fingerprinting ordinance passed in December, or place it on the ballot of the next available election for the voters to decide. They went with the latter, so it’s up to Austin voters to decide on May 7.

The Uber and Lyft situation in Austin is a local example of a problem America is experiencing at a federal level – big money in government. The reason Uber and Lyft were able to gather so much support for their petition is because they contributed at least $50,000 in cash and services to the Ridesharing Works PAC. The PAC had canvassers go out, knock on Austin residents’ doors, and gather signatures. Many rideshare drivers also had the petition available in their vehicles for passengers to sign during their rides. Many inaccurately explained the issue to Austin residents as simply “Uber/Lyft vs. the city of Austin”. They told residents that the City Council is forcing Uber and Lyft to leave town, when in reality, if the two companies do leave, it’ll be on their own accord.

The money behind the petition against the fingerprinting ordinance is from big corporations. And those corporations are essentially funding Lyft and Uber’s campaign against safety regulations in Austin. This is exactly what we want to avoid in politics, and it’s happening right here in our city. Corporations coming up with their own rules and going to city hall to demand them is not the way government is supposed to work. It’s a government by the people and for the people, not by corporations and for corporations. If Uber and Lyft succeed in getting the fingerprint mandate overturned, it sets a dangerous precedent for the future. As citizens of the United States of America, we need to question how money from big corporations like Uber and Lyft is influencing our local legislation. Austin voters should consider this when they head to the polls on May 7th.

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UPDATE:

Ethics Commission rejects opinion to allow out-of-state donors to pay Paxton’s legal bills

Vote was 4 to 3 with one absent


At the beginning of the last legislative session, Governor Abbott announced he was making ethics reform an emergency priority for the Texas legislature to address.  In the end, very little ethics reform was passed, and now the Texas Ethics Commission is poised to adopt a dangerous “advisory opinion” Monday that hangs a “For Sale” sign on the Texas Attorney General’s office.

The draft opinion (AOR-605) invites out-of-state donors to give indicted Attorney General Ken Paxton unlimited amounts of money to pay his ballooning criminal defense bills (see Houston Chronicle story below). This opinion is a powerful magnet for political corruption, one drafted for the exclusive benefit of Ken Paxton, who is under indictment for alleged criminal securities fraud.

Send an email message today urging the Ethics Commission to:

  1. Reject the Paxton Loophole; and
  2. Pursue an absolute ban on all gifts for the AG’s criminal defense. 

Email your brief comments to:  Commissioners, Texas Ethics Commission at:  [email protected],

Below is an article by the Houston Chronicle on the proposed ethics opinion

Proposed ethics opinion would let AG tap out-out-of-state donors for defense funds
By David Saleh Rauf and Lauren McGaughy
January 26, 2016 Houston Chronicle

AUSTIN – Indicted Attorney General Ken Paxton could tap out-of-state supporters to pay his legal defense team but must ensure those funds have not been funneled from any Texas donors, according to a draft advisory opinion from the state’s ethics regulator.

The Texas Ethics Commission is scheduled to vote Monday on legal guidance that would give Paxton, or any employee in the attorney general’s office, the green light to accept gifts from some donors.

If approved, it would clear the way for the embattled attorney general to accept contributions to cover his legal expenses from out-of-state donors, with certain conditions.

State law prohibits agency officials from accepting a “benefit” from someone under the agency’s oversight.

However, the ethics commission has said situations exist in which Paxton and his employees could accept gifts – namely from an out-of-state donor with no pending matters before the attorney general’s office – but that safeguards would have to put in place to prevent potential conflicts of interest.

The draft opinion for the first time addresses the possibility of money bundling and suggests heightened disclosure for gifts to employees of the attorney general’s office to avoid the perception of corruption.

It comes as Paxton and his team of high-profile defense attorneys appeal a recent court ruling while preparing for a possible trial in his pending felony fraud case.

‘Diligent inquiry’

Paxton is accused of breaking state securities laws by encouraging investors to buy stock in a North Texas tech company without disclosing that he was being paid by the firm, and for funneling clients to a friend’s investment firm without being properly registered as an investment advisor representative with the state.

He faces two first-degree felony charges, which carry a sentence of five to 99 years in prison and a fine, and one third-degree charge.

Paxton repeatedly has declined to detail how he is paying for his attorneys, saying only that neither his $2.5 million in campaign funds nor taxpayer money is being used.

A draft opinion released in late November provided the initial blueprint for Paxton to avoid violating the state’s gift-giving laws while accepting a “benefit” from a donor in certain circumstances.

The opinion was crafted in response to an anonymous request that specifically addressed situations in which potential donors are from outside Texas, minimizing the possibility they could be subject to the attorney general’s vast umbrella of jurisdiction.

The commission sent the proposal back for more internal vetting after questions were raised about the possibility that an out-of-state supporter could bundle or mask the fact that funds were coming from Texas donors.

The commission now is set to take up the refreshed guidance, which makes clear that Paxton or anyone in his office accepting a gift first will have to root out the “true source of the benefit” to ensure he is abiding by the law.

“We do not think that a person who is subject to the jurisdiction of a public servant or a law enforcement agency can evade the restrictions … using another person as a conduit for making a gift to the public servant (e.g., by giving a benefit to another with the instructions that the benefit then be passed to the public servant),” commission staff wrote in a draft opinion released this week. “Similarly, the public servant would be prohibited from accepting a benefit if the public servant knows that the true source of the benefit is a person who is subject to the jurisdiction of the public servant.”

The draft also proposes a set of “best practices” for disclosure, including recommendations that any such gift, along with its source, value and a description, be revealed publicly within 30 days.

A “diligent inquiry” also would have to be performed by whomever receives a gift to make sure the donor has no connection to Texas and is not under the attorney general’s jurisdiction. That inquiry, according to the latest draft, also would need to verify that the out-of-state donor “is not operating as a conduit” for someone else.

Not for sale

Watchdog groups reacted with swift criticism, saying the latest proposal invites the potential for an already-indicted attorney general to put a “for-sale sign on the AG’s office to pay for his criminal defense.”

“A close reading suggests that the commission has qualms about this convoluted ethical blank check,” said Craig McDonald, director of the left-leaning watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, which has filed multiple criminal complaints against Paxton, including one related to his current indictments. “The opinion should have been written in one word: No!”

The ethics commission does not identify who asks for an advisory opinion, but the circumstances laid out in the request mirror those of the attorney general.

At a recent hearing, the commission debated the issue with pointed comments specifically aimed at how the opinion could help establish the equivalent of a legal fund for Paxton.

Paxton also recused himself, without explanation, from all matters pertaining to the ethics commission just as the opinion request was being considered publicly.

The question of who is footing Paxton’s legal bill has become one of the mysteries in his ongoing criminal saga. His defense is expected to cost millions of dollars.

Paxton, a Republican, took office in January 2015 and was indicted six months later for allegedly violating state securities laws during his time as a state lawmaker. He was fined and reprimanded in April 2014 for not registering with the state as an investment adviser representative but has pleaded not guilty to all charges and asked for a jury trial in his home county.

No gift ban

Meanwhile, ethics regulators have been wrestling with the issue of gifts for employees in the attorney general’s office since July, when the request for an opinion first was lodged.

A blanket prohibition on gift-giving exists for the governor, lieutenant governor and members of the Legislature, along with their staffs, though there are several exceptions that allow freebies to flow to those elected officials and their employees.

There is no such comprehensive ban for the attorney general’s office, however, and the commission chairman has said he does not believe lawmakers ever intended for that to be the case.

“The Legislature didn’t make it illegal for an employee of the attorney general’s office to receive a gift,” Commission Chairman Paul Hobby said at a November meeting. “It did for other offices.”

 

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At Mass Convergence on Washington, D.C., People Will Demand That Policymakers Address Barriers to Voting, Curb the Influence of Wealthy in Elections

Thousands of people will converge on Washington, D.C., this spring as part of an unprecedented movement to demand a democracy that works for all Americans, one in which everyone has an equal voice and elected officials are accountable to the people, not the wealthy.

The landmark three-day mobilization, called “Democracy Awakening” and scheduled for April 16-18, brings together two advocacy communities in one movement. Together, they will press for reform proposals focused both on restoring and expanding voting rights protections, and curbing the influence of wealthy interests and corporations on elections. Polls show that the public overwhelmingly agrees on the need for reforms in both arenas, but this will mark the first mass demonstration calling for change on both these fronts.

More than 100 groups representing a diverse array of issues are organizing Democracy Awakening. Lead organizations include the American Postal Workers Union, Common Cause, Communications Workers of America, Democracy Initiative, Every Voice Center, Food & Water Watch, Franciscan Action Network, Greenpeace, NAACP, People For the American Way, Public Citizen, Student Debt Crisis and U.S. PIRG. A list of all endorsing organizations is available here.

Democracy Awakening will feature a rally and march on Sunday, April 17, as well as targeted actions at the “Congress of Conscience” on Monday, April 18, that will call for voting rights protections, measures to curb the influence of money in politics and more. Democracy Awakening will include teach-ins and cultural events throughout the weekend.

For both money in politics and voting rights, the U.S. Supreme Court has eviscerated laws that once protected the voices and votes of everyday Americans. Congress has solutions in front of it, but has failed to pass them into law or even hold a hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“That’s why it’s time for us to fight back on a scale that’s never been done before,” announces a video about Democracy Awakening created by Brave New Films.

City by city and state by state, a national movement is growing to ensure voters are fully heard. In communities throughout the country, voters have turned back efforts to impose discriminatory barriers to voting, won measures for public financing of local and state elections, and passed resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and other rulings.

Solutions being sought as part of Democracy Awakening include legislation to restore the protections against voting discrimination that were struck down by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County, modernize voter registration, prevent deceptive practices that keep people from the ballot box and ensure equal access to voting for all.

Activists also will call for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and allow elected representatives to set commonsense limits on money in elections. They will press for increased disclosure of the source of election spending and public financing of elections.

Democracy Awakening will follow a march and demonstrations organized by 99Rise and Avaaz as part of a separate event called “Democracy Spring.” The march will go from the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., in early April.

Stay tuned for more – THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!

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Happy Holidays to All

Texas director, Tom "Smitty" Smith accepting a proclamation from City of Austin Mayor, Steve Adler.

Texas director, Tom “Smitty” Smith accepting a proclamation from City of Austin Mayor, Steve Adler.

Last Friday, the Texas office of Public Citizen celebrated the holidays, 30 years of its work in Texas and had an open house at our new offices located at 309 E 11th Street, in Austin, TX.  The event was attended by several hundred people.  Mayor Adler, Jim Hightower and Representative Elliott Naishtat all spoke about the good work Public Citizen has done in Texas.  Mayor Adler’s proclamation says it all.  Click here to see the proclamation.

If you wish to make a donation toward the work of the Texas office, click here.

 

 

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Killing me softly

Killing me softly

Senate Bill 709, which passed in the Texas Senate on April 16th and has now passed in the Texas House, would scale back the public’s right to participate through a contested-case, an administrative hearing process that allows the public to challenge industrial applications for permits at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) – such as those allowing wastewater discharges or air pollution emissions.

Last night this bill was discussed and passed to third reading in the Texas House.   During the discussion of this bill, it was alleged that “Texas’ current bureaucracy puts the state at a ‘serious disadvantage’ compared to its neighbors,” according to Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, who carried the bill in the House.  However, the truth is that there are just not that many permit applications that are affected by the contested case hearing process. In 2014, there were 1,960 applications received by TCEQ. Of those applications, only 10 were referred to the State Office of Administrative Hearings – that’s only one half of one percent of applications received in that calendar year. The other 99.5% of permit applications to the TCEQ go uncontested and are processed and issued in time-frames similar to or even faster than our neighboring states with whom we compete most closely for business. This was based on an analysis of public records by Public Citizen and later confirmed by the agency to the Texas Tribune.

This analysis also found that Texas typically processes air quality permits faster than Arkansas, Arizona, Oklahoma, New Jersey, Colorado and even Louisiana.  When pressed for one facility Texas might have lost to Louisiana because of a misconception about our permitting process, on the floor of the Texas Senate, Senator Fraser gave the example of Shintech, Inc. (a Japanese subsidiary of Shin Etsu and the largest producer of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in the United States).  In 1998, Shintech backed out of its plans to build a PVC plant in Convent, LA (which is in the heart of what has become known as “Cancer Alley”, an environmental justice community of low-income, minority residents)  This community fought back and won because of legal opposition by the local residents.  Since that time, Louisiana put rules in place that makes it harder for citizens to obtain legal help to fight off industry – sound familiar?  So now Shintech will be able to expand their operations in Louisiana without much opposition and if they come back here . . . well, they may find the same “business-friendly” fast-track environment.

If this bill is enacted into law, the contested case process that has a track record of improving permits and protecting the environment from the biggest and longest lasting environmentally hazardous projects, would be substantially amended.
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TACThe Texas Senate is considering Senate Bill 10, which is basically a politicians’ protection plan.

Corruption in state government is so bad that Governor Abbott declared ethics reform an emergency shortly after taking office earlier this year.  But instead of making the tough changes necessary to stop corruption in the capitol, the Senate is about to vote on SB10, which will make it easier for public officials to get away with unethical and illegal conduct.  It’s another scandal in the making.

Email your state senator to let him or her know you don’t support the SB 10.

It has been suggested that SB10 should be renamed the “Corrupt Incumbent Official Indemnification Act.”  It creates a special legal system reserved for elected and other public officials, and constructs a complex maze designed to stymie criminal investigations and prosecutions.  If the bill becomes law, prosecuting a corrupt official will require the unanimous approval of the Attorney General, the Texas Rangers, the presiding judge of the judicial region where the accused resides, and a local prosecuting attorney.  This unnecessarily complicated series of review will operate as a political filter and give a green light for cover ups and continued corruption.

And the current attorney general may not be the best person to investigate others for ethics violations. On May 2, 2014, then-candidate Ken Paxton signed an agreed order with the Texas Securities Commission.  He admitted to referring clients to his friend’s investment company even though he was not a registered securities representative, and failing to disclose a 30 percent kickback he received on investment management fees. He claims it was an honest mistake but he should have known better.  While in the legislature, Paxton voted in favor of the statute that outlawed such conduct. And he later voted to amend that statute to specify that those violations are a third-degree felony. So how tough do you think Paxton is going to be on corrupt elected officials?

SB10 is based on a false premise: that the counties who elect public officials will hold them more accountable.  But how tough are members of the courthouse cabal likely to be on a wayward politician in his or her hometown? Historically, the good old boy system has been a powerful deterrent to effective and tough local prosecution.  Over the last 40 years we have had scandals in Duval, Hidalgo, Cameron and Dallas counties that involved corrupt elected officials who were protected by the local political machines. It often took bringing the FBI in to clean up the mess.

Home cookin’ – The bill’s sponsors suggest that fairness to the defendants in this special class of cases dictates that they be prosecuted in their home counties.  But criminal prosecutions of all kinds are generally tried in the county where the crime occurred—in public corruption cases, that is usually in the seat of government.  And in the vast majority of states, including Texas, public integrity cases are handled by a local prosecutor in the county where the offense occurs. In a few states, the attorney general prosecutes these cases, but again, usually where the crimes occur. Only one state—Wisconsin—has a “hometown venue with a hometown prosecutor” provision.

There are some who say that the Travis County District Attorney’s office is too partisan and are using that excuse as a reason to move prosecution of public corruption cases away from the seat of government.  The reality is that the Travis County Public Integrity Unit (PIU) has pursued public corruption cases in a non-partisan fashion. Of the 21 elected officials it has prosecuted since 1978, 15 were democrats and 6 were republicans.

What can be done to assure tough prosecution? After burying SB10 without a eulogy, the existing system, which works well and gets to the heart of corruption, should be fully funded.   Failing that, Texas needs to find the toughest independent prosecutors in the state and put them to work cleaning up corruption at the capitol.

So what can citizens do? Email your state senator and ask them to vote against SB10, the politicians’ protection plan.  For even more impact, call his or her office to make your view known.

Don’t know who represents you?  Click here to find out who your state senator is.  Contact info is below the jump.
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Defend local controlThere are two bills up for a hearing on Monday, March 23rd that would impact the ability of local communities to pass ordinances to protect the well-being of its citizens around fracking.  We encourage all those concerned about defending their right to local control to attend the hearing and testify or if that is not possible, contact the offices of the members of the committee and let them know how you stand before the hearing.

HB 40 – Darby | et al. – Relating to the express preemption of regulation of oil and gas operations and the exclusive jurisdiction of those operations by the state.

HB 539 – King, Phil | et al. -Relating to the procedural requirements for the adoption of a municipal regulation, limitation, or prohibition on the production, storage, or transportation of oil or natural gas; authorizing a fee.

These two bills are scheduled for a hearing in the House Energy Resources Committee on Monday, March 23, 2015 at 2:00 PM or upon final adjournment/recess of the Texas House.  The committee hearing will be in the Capitol Extension in room E2.010.  The members of that committee are listed below the jump.
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sxsw-interactive-logoIf you are in Austin and registered for SXSW Interactive, check out this session today at 3:30 – Commercial Threats to Freedom of Speech Online

 

 

Friday, March 13
3:30PM – 4:30PM
Austin Convention Center, Room 10AB

Globally, there has been much attention paid to the threat that government entities may pose to individuals’ rights to speak and share information freely. However, far less attention has been placed on the role that bad acting companies and other commercial interests play in trying to squelch or suppress public statements and expressions online. From corporations suing respected journalists and news media for speech that they claim is libelous, to bad businesses suing users of online review sites for negative reviews, more and more often, people are finding their freedom of speech threatened online.

This panel of experts will discuss the current commercial threats to freedom of speech online and the possible solutions to this growing issue.

Presenters

  • Amy Austin is the Publisher of Washington City Paper, an influential and award-winning alternative news media company in Washington DC.
  • Evan Mascagni graduated, summa cum laude, from the University of the District of Columbia, David A. Clarke School of Law in 2011.
  • Laura Prather is an attorney with Haynes and Boone LLP in the Litigation Practice Group in the Austin office
  • Paul Alan Levy is an attorney with Public Citizen’s Litigation Group

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Coalition for Sensible SafeguardsThe Coalition for Sensible Safeguards strongly opposes the Regulatory Accountability Act (RAA), which the House passed on Tuesday. They are urging members of Congress to oppose it and The White House  has issued a veto threat for the Bill . This innocuous-sounding bill is designed to undermine our nation’s environmental, public health, workplace safety and consumer financial security protections – not improve them.

The RAA would rewrite dozens of laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Consumer Product Safety Act and the Food Safety Modernization Act by requiring federal agencies to put corporate profits ahead of the health and safety of American workers and families. Agencies would have to produce highly speculative estimates of all the indirect costs and benefits of proposed rules and do the same for any potential alternatives. What counts and does not count as an indirect cost or a potential alternative? The bill leaves that up to the imagination of industry.

In addition, the RAA would hamstring the work of agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission, the National Labor Relations Board, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The bill would subject their work to review by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which is infamous for delaying, diluting and blocking important new safeguards. Federal agencies already take years to issue health and safety standards. The dozens of cumbersome requirements added by this bill would make that process even longer.

Any high-stakes rule that miraculously made it through these roadblocks would face unprecedented challenges. The RAA would allow industry lobbyists to second-guess the work of respected scientists through legal challenges, sparking a wave of litigation that would add even more costs and delays to the rulemaking process – while putting the lives, health and safety of millions of Americans at risk.

The costs of blocking crucial standards and safeguards are clear: The Wall Street economic collapse, the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia, the West Fertilizer Company explosion in West, TX, countless food and product safety recalls and massive environmental disasters including the Dan River coal ash spill in North Carolina and the Freedom Industries chemical spill in West Virginia are just some of the most recent examples.

It’s no wonder polling shows that Americans want better enforcement of our nation’s rules and standards. Congress should listen to the public and stop trying to sabotage the safeguards that protect us all.

To learn more about the potential effects of the bill, see the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards’ 2011 report: Impacts of the Regulatory Accountability Act. The latest version of the bill has been partially revised, but the problems at the heart of the bill remain.

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It’s a new era for the Austin City Council in more ways than one.  Not only does the Council have geographic representation for the first time ever, but the almost entirely new Council (Kathie Tovo is the only returning member) has proposed a significant overhaul to the way in which the body does its job.  These changes were presented at a press conference with all 10 Council members and Mayor Adler last Thursday.

Austin City Council press conference. Photo by Kaiba White 1/8/15.

Austin City Council press conference. Photo by Kaiba White 1/8/15.

The proposed changes are in response to several often repeated complaints.  The first is that Council meetings are unreasonably long – an average of 9 and a half hours in 2014, according to a city auditor report.  This results in some Council decisions being made late at night after a full day on dais.  The second complaint is that there is little to no certainty about when any specific item will be taken up at Council meetings.  Coupled with the long meetings, this means that members of the public who wish to speak on an item have a difficult time doing so because can’t spend all day at a Council meeting.

A third concern is that by the time an item comes up at a Council meeting most, if not all members have already made their decisions and that speaking for or against an item isn’t likely to change the outcome of the vote.  This perception (along with the time commitment required to participate) likely discourages many from showing up to share their views.

IMG_6859Council’s proposals are intended to address these complaints head on by expanding opportunity for public input earlier in the process and reducing the length of Council meetings.

Instead of most items going directly to the full Council for consideration, most items would first be assigned to a committee and would receive a public hearing in committee.  The larger number of proposed Council Committees should reduce the length of any one meeting and make it more feasible for members of the public to participate.  Time sensitive items or items that don’t receive timely attention in their assigned committee could still be sent directly to the full Council.  And even if an item received a hearing in committee, any 4 Council members could still request a second hearing before the full Council.

Council has also proposed to assign certain topics, such as zoning to meetings that will focus on those issues, in order to allow members of the public to more easily hone in on which meetings they want to attend.  Executive sessions would generally be reserved for a special meetings to keep meetings flowing and waste less of the public’s time.

As advocates of good government, Public Citizen supports these proposals and has just a few suggestions:

  1. The Council Committee on Austin Energy should remain a committee of the whole – with all Council members, including the mayor, serving on it.  Austin Energy is the City’s most valuable asset, accounts for a majority of budget allocations and contributes significant revenue to the city’s general fund, which pays for the bulk of the city’s services, such as parks, firefighters, and libraries.  In 2013, the public spoke clearly in favor of Council retaining control over Austin Energy, instead of transferring governing authority to an unelected board.  Since Council serves as the board of directors for Austin Energy, all Council members should be fully engaged in governing the utility.
  2. A subcommittee of the Committee on Austin Energy should be created to study and propose options for modernizing Austin Energy’s business model.  The mayor and several other Council members have indicated that they wish to find ways for Austin Energy to remain viable in the long run.  One significant challenge is an eventual future when many more customers will have their own solar systems on their homes and businesses and will purchase less energy from the utility, but will still rely on the utility to maintain a working power distribution grid.  Utilities in other states and countries are beginning to tackle the problem of retaining sufficient revenue while selling less electricity.  Establishing an Austin Energy Business Model subcommittee will ensure that Council is focused on ensuring the long-term financial stability of Austin’s most valuable asset.
  3. Council should stet an expected timeline for holding public hearings on items that are assigned to committees.  We suggest that a public hearing should be held within 30 days of an item being assigned to a committee.  This will ensure that the committee process fosters meaningful and timely public engagement, as it is intended to do.

Please email the Council members to let them know that you support their proposed changes and these suggestions from Public Citizen.

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Blog Post PicTwo non-profit and non-partisan investigative journalism organizations, the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News, have concluded through their joint investigation that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the Railroad Commission protect the oil and gas industry instead of the public whom they claim to serve.

Fred Wright and Morris Kocurek were two oil and gas regulators working for the Texas Railroad Commission who received praise from their supervisors, promotions, and merit raises throughout their careers. But they may have done their jobs too well. They were fired in 2013 for what they believe to be their insistence in making sure oil and gas operators followed the rules and regulations in place to protect the public and the environment.

Wright was responsible for determining whether oil and gas wells were up to code to prevent groundwater contamination. He was often encouraged or coerced by his superiors to bend the rules, to say that operators had met compliance standards when they had not. In 2013, his superiors told him that complaints had been filed against him by the operators claiming he was “unreasonable to work with” and “does not attempt to offer solutions to bring them in compliance with commission rules”, citing that Fred’s methods for compliance would be “costly”. Wright’s boss at the time, Charlie Teague, insisted that Write approve oil and gas wells despite the fact that they were in violation of statewide rules.

As the enforcer of proper toxic waste disposal in the oil and gas industry, Kocurek faced very similar problems. He said his bosses made it clear that he was supposed to go easy on the industry. The violation notices Kocurek filed were usually processed very slowly and follow-up inspections were assigned to the more lenient inspectors. Eventually, Kocurek realized the influence that the industry had on its supposed regulators and his reports were all ignored. Violations would disappear after the right phone calls were made.

Documents obtained from the Railroad Commission through the open-records corroborate the stories of Mr. Wright and Mr. Kocurek. Wright has filed a civil lawsuit alleging wrongful termination. He has also filed a federal whistleblower complaint. Kocurek, on the other hand, hasn’t taken any legal action and would rather forget the whole thing.

According to InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity, the Railroad Commission is controlled by three elected commissioners who have accepted nearly $3 million combined in campaign contributions from the industry during the 2012 and 2014 election cycles, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics. In the case of the Railroad Commission and the TCEQ, money talks and it’s louder than the voice of Texas citizens.

Read their extensive report here: [http://books.insideclimatenews.org/fired]

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