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Posts Tagged ‘Texas Legislature’

The emblem of the American Recovery and Reinve...

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), or "the stimulus" provided funds for a broad range of priorities, but did Texas spend the money wisely?

Public Citizen has been a member of a coalition that has attempted to bring more sunshine, more transparency, and more good government to the implementation on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as “The Stimulus.” Two years since its passage much of the funding appropriated has been spent, but there is still more to do. Our groups yesterday released a report “It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over: The Texas Legislature and the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act” which can be found at http://www.txstimulus.com.

It is worth noting that the txstimulus.com website was originally used by a select committee in the Texas Legislature charged with keeping an eye on how Texas spent ARRA funds.  Bee Moorhead in an interview with the Texas Tribune explained what happened to the website and all of that information the committee had been collecting:

During his days as select committee chairman, (Jim) Dunnam (chair of the select committee) set up a website — txstimulus.com — to provide documents and information on stimulus spending, culled from the committee’s hearings and correspondence with the Texas congressional delegation. In March, the domain, which was registered in Dunnam’s name, lapsed, taking all the information it contained therein.

Enter Bee Moorhead, executive director of Texas Impact, a statewide interfaith organization, and the new owner of txstimulus.com. “Legislative committees can use the internet really effectively, and there are great examples of committees doing that this year,” said Moorhead, citing efforts of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, “but those websites contain government information, and they can’t just be handled like some individual’s blog.”

The coalition also released a set of recommendations to help Texas improve its transparency. #4 is my personal favorite and one of my pet issues, but all are important. These recommendations are explored more in depth in the press release accompanying this post, which is available in full after the jump.

1. Draw down the unemployment dollars.

2. Keep a legislative eye on the game till it’s over.

3. Move the low-income weatherization program from TDHCA to SECO.

4. Modernize Texas’ Freedom of Information Act.

5. Make the Texas Fusion Center’s budget transparent.

6. Require more project-specific information on TxDOT projects.

7. Be ready for more funding.

8. Target ARRA energy efficiency dollars to areas of greatest need.

9. Build on ARRA health infrastructure investment.

10. Protect the integrity of all state government-related websites.

Included in our report are in-depth analysis of spending on transportation, weatherization, energy efficiency, health care, and others. I highly recommend you read this important piece of research, or at least bookmark it for future reference.  Please to enjoy.

(more…)

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Melissa Leo drops the F-bomb at the OscarsThe Texas Progressive Alliance would like to thank the Academy for this week’s blog roundup.

Off the Kuff published an interview with Chris Barbic, founder and CEO of the YES Prep charter schools, which included a discussion of what the looming budget cuts will do to charter schools.

Doing My Part For The Left is having a greeting card event. Refinish69 thinks it is time to Send Republican Senators and Representatives a Greeting Card to thank them for the work they are doing.

WCNews at Eye On Williamson points out that the he GOP’s wish is coming true – the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, Plutocracy, or the 30 year class war on working and middle class Americans.

Nat-Wu analyzes the Tucson shootings and the guns on campus bill before the Texas legislature.

From Bay Area Houston: “Teabaggers are the most dangerous, ignorant, disrespectful bunch of people on the planet.”

No one fails quite like Mucous.

The Texas Cloverleaf speaks out against concealed firearms on Texas campuses.

CouldBeTrue of South Texas Chisme calls out the Dallas Morning News for siding with the Koch brothers against hard working people.

Lightseeker over at TexasKaos thinks he knows what game the Republicans are playing at and what the Democrats are trying in reply. Check out Shock and Awe and The Democratic Strategy Going Forward.

Redistricting endangers several Texas House representatives, Democratic as well as Republican. The mapmakers may need long knives instead of sharpened pencils (since we can all do maps online now). PDiddie at Brains and Eggs summarizes the opening of “negotiations”.

Neil at Texas Liberal discussed the fact that he will soon be taking an airplane trip.

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Well, we’ve waited for these, and here they are, the Committee Chairs for your 82nd Texas Legislature:

 

Agriculture & Livestock: Representative Rick Hardcastle (R-Vernon)

Appropriations: Representative Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie)

Border & Intergovernmental Affairs: Representative Veronica Gonzales (D-McAllen)

Business & Industry: Representative Joe Deshotel (D-Beaumont)

Calendars: Representative Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi)

Corrections: Representative Jerry Madden (R-Richardson)

County Affairs: Representative Garnet Coleman (D-Houston)

Criminal Jurisprudence: Pete Gallego (D-Alpine)

Culture, Recreation & Tourism: Representative Ryan Guillen (D-Rio Grande City)

Defense & Veterans’ Affairs: Representative Joe Pickett (D-El Paso) (more…)

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Reuters carried a good story with this headline Texas, home to Big Oil takes a shine to solar power that describes the solar potential that exists, along with industry involvement and how it could be expanded here if we could just develop some statewide policy that supports it.

Too bad the commissioners at the Texas Public Utility Commission (PUC) don’t see it the same way. After spending years (literally, years– since 2005) to come up with a portion of the state’s renewable portfolio standard to deal with solar and other forms of renewables besides wind,  they finally got around to publishing a proposed rule (the 500Mw non-wind portfolio standard) for these technologies.

This effort, at best, would be best termed as abysmal.

As described by the Environmental Defense Fund in this post “The proposed rule drastically reduces the target set by the Texas Legislature in 2005 of 500 MW by the year 2015.”

Commissioner Ken Anderson  described it this way: “This is just a proposal.”  In fact, all three Commissioners stressed  that the simple act of publishing the proposed rule does not mean that the commission ever intends to implement the rule.

So it looks like the Legislature is once again going to have to take up this simple task. And give the commission direction. As they did 5 years ago. And again during last session.

Texas has lost hundreds of opportunities for solar companies to locate here–  and over 10 billion in capitol investment– because we don’t have any statewide policy in place to support what could be the biggest boom industry since they started calling the Austin the Silicon Hills (as opposed to the silicon valley).

With the Legislature having its hands full with a huge budget shortfall, redistricting and their usual work on top of it, let’s hope they can find time to  send a clear message to the PUC that this needs to be done (as they were instructed in 2005) and it needs to be done now before more opportunities slip away.

We need  a dramatically increased solar program.  More than anything, we need the jobs, we need the energy, we have the people and we have plenty of sunshine.  We just need a little good policy.

With ICF International’s John Blaney stateing “We’re continuing to expect renewable capacity to grow rapidly in the near term, but it slows briefly after the incentives expire. Despite the recent market volatility – the huge buildup in 2009 and the slowdown in 2010 — we project that the U.S. will install just over 51 gigawatts of renewables between 2011 and 2016 and 86 gigawatts between 2017 and 2030″, is Texas really going to miss out on this energy boom ?

With Austin and San Antonio making strides, the announcement of the ground breaking by RRE Austin on their solar farm and SunPower looking to open an office in Austin its just the tip of what could be a clean tech explosion for Texas.

Send some sunshine our way.

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By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.

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Come one, come all. The House Committee on Redistricting is taking public testimony at hearings around the state regarding redistricting that will help shape the districts for both the house and senate of the Texas legislature, Texas congressional districts, and districts for the election of judicial officers or of governing bodies or representatives of political subdivisions or state agencies as required by law, including state board of education districts for the next ten years..

The HOUSTON REDISTRICTING HEARING will be held on November 20, 2010 at 10:00 A.M. at University of Houston, Athletic/Alumni Center, O’Quinn Great Hall, 3100 Cullen Boulevard, Houston, TX, 77004.

For more information on redistricting, including links to video of earlier hearings in other communities around the state, see our earlier blog by clicking here

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Texas House Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio (District 121) has released the names of 122 lawmakers who he says have pledged him their vote for speaker, giving him enough support for another term (of that number 79 of the 99 elected Republicans are included). 

Speaker Straus says he believes the race for speaker is over, but he is being challenged by Rep. Warren Chisum, a conservative Republican from Pampa, TX (District 88), who says the race is not over.

Texas Speaker races can be quite interesting.  We’ll keep you updated.

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Public Utility Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman recently sat down with Texas Tribune reporter Kate Galbraith to talk about energy efficiency, CREZ, smart-meters, non-wind renewables, the switch-hold rule, the Lege, and Federal climate legislation (or lack thereof?). It’s a good read/listen if you have some time. Some interesting highlights:

On the efficiency agency idea (we’ve had something to say about it here, here and here in conjunction with the rather lame energy efficiency rule adopted on July 30):

Galbraith: What do think of the environmentalists’ proposal to house all aspects of energy efficiency under one roof?

Smitherman: I talked to Smitty about it on Thursday, when I came back because I was out of the office last week, and I came in and I was catching up on the clips, and I called him up and I said, well that was quite a letter you sent to Speaker Straus, and we kind of laughed about it a little bit. You know, I think there’s some merit to it. Because whether it’s SECO or here or over at the housing agency, there’s at least three if not more places. Plus you’ve got the local community efforts where energy efficiency dollars are being expended, and there’s really no mechanism in place to coordinate that. And so if you want to take it and put it in SECO or put it over here, I don’t care. I think creating an entirely separate new agency is going to be tough next session because it’s going to be a busy session with redistricting and the budget and a number of other issues — Sunset — but it might make sense to take energy efficiency and house it in one place.

It is encouraging to hear the chairman agree that the nifty idea of combining efficiency programs under one roof makes sense.  PS- The “Smitty” he mentions is Public Citizen’s own Texas State Director Tom “Smitty” Smith, our boss.

On direction from the 82nd Lege:

Galbraith: Do you expect more direction next session?

Smitherman: I do. I think there are a number of members that believe very strongly in energy efficiency. And we saw that this last session with a couple of bills, and so I would expect there to be a robust debate at the end of the session. I don’t know where it will come out at the end of the day, but I think that the debate will be there. And what I hope continues to happen is that we use a broad portfolio of tools to address our energy security and independence and price stability, and energy efficiency is one of those tools. I wouldn’t suggest that we do only energy efficiency and not build the CREZ, for example; or not try to promote a new nuclear plant. But there are some people who really believe that energy efficiency is the way to go.

I don’t know who is advocating for only energy efficiency to accomplish clean air, lower bills and energy security, but it certainly should be a top priority, no?

Check out the entire transcript here to get the rest of the good stuff.

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By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.

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Statement of Tom “Smitty” Smith, Director, Public Citizen’s Texas Office

We are thrilled – but not surprised – that because of a growth spurt in the development of wind energy, Texas has met its renewable energy goal 15 years ahead of schedule. Each time Texas has set a renewable energy goal, the state has achieved it far in advance of the deadline set by the Texas Legislature. That’s because Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) policies are incredibly effective at stimulating new technologies and economic growth.

RPS policies are also remarkably successful at reducing air pollution and global warming gases. This program has resulted in 9 million fewer tons of carbon dioxide and reduces emissions of nitrous oxide, or NOx, by 15,000 tons per year and as such should be heralded as one of the state’s most effective environmental programs. The success of this initiative goes to show the positive outcomes that can be reached when environmentalists and business communities work together.

In 1999, the Texas Legislature created a Renewable Portfolio Standard that required all utilities to get at least 3 percent of their energy or a statewide total of 2,000 megawatts from renewables by 2020. In 2005, that goal was increased to 5,880 megawatts by 2015, with a target of 10,880 megawatts capacity created by 2025, which is the target that has been met. At the time of its implementation, this legislation was the most aggressive in the country. Similar policies have proven successful at creating demand for renewable energy throughout the United States, but nowhere have they been as successful as Texas. In Texas, these policies have resulted in the creation of as many as 83,000 jobs, according to Public Citizen studies.

Texas should adopt the same policies to encourage the growth of non-wind renewable energy such as solar, geothermal, biomass, agricultural methane and landfill gas. Texas has become a leader in wind as a result of carefully crafted policies like the RPS, but there is no reason we can’t do the same and become a leader in non-wind renewable energy as well. The Public Utility Commission and the Texas Legislature have the opportunity to develop other sources of renewable energy and thereby bring economic growth to Texas. This is happening elsewhere, but not in Texas, because we lack the specific incentives for non-wind renewables that other states have jumped to adopt.

The current success would not have been possible without the hard work of environmentalists, large wind producers like the Wind Coalition, the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association (TREIA), environmental groups, church groups and rural county officials who worked together on what has become one of the state’s largest job creation programs and boon, through increased property taxes, to educational services in rural communities. Our thanks go out to these parties, and we certainly hope that in 10 years, we can applaud the similar success of solar and geothermal energy due to a non-wind RPS.

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By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.

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Longhorns and Aggies to create “green funds” that may soon be emulated statewide

Austin, TX – Progressives in America have been stunned over the last year as President Obama’s agenda has repeatedly faltered and the far-right Tea Party has emerged as a dominant force in public policy discussions. Given the failure to make progress on major national issues, perhaps it should come as no surprise that some progressives have turned to local solutions.

A shining example comes from the Lone Star State which may soon become the leading state when it comes to “green funds” on college campuses. Last week Texas’s two biggest rival colleges, Texas A&M and UT Austin, both passed student referendums in favor of raising fees to pay for environmental services on campus.

On Wednesday Longhorn students approved a $5 per semester fee hike, and on Thursday Aggie students followed suit with a $3 fee of their own. (more…)

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Public Citizen and Area Legislators Urge State to Deny Air Pollution Permit

HOUSTON – Area legislators joined Public Citizen this week in urging environmental agencies to deny the White Stallion coal plant its air permit because if built, the facility would degrade air quality in Houston.  The emissions from this proposed power plant would exacerbate the problem of smog in the Houston-Galveston-Beaumont region, which already is in violation, or “non-attainment,” of federal ozone standards and may soon have to meet higher standards as the result of a new proposal to strengthen the federal ozone rule

“The proposed White Stallion coal plant would harm the health of the people of Matagorda County, degrade the environment, and stifle economic development and tourism throughout the region,” said Ryan Rittenhouse, coal energy analyst with Public Citizen’s Texas office. “We are pleased to see Texas legislators step up to protect our citizens, the environment and Texas’ economic future.”

White Stallion’s air permit hearing before the State Office of Administrative Hearings begins today and will last through Feb. 19. That office will make a recommendation to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

The air pollution permit is the first step; the project still will need a wastewater permit from the TCEQ and an additional permit from the Army Corps of Engineers.

If granted an air permit, White Stallion will increase emissions of nitrogen oxide (NOx), the principle component of ozone, by more than a third in Matagorda County, where the plant will be located. That translates to more than 4,000 tons per year of NOx that would blow into the Houston area, dramatically increasing ozone levels in the non-attainment region.

“The proposed White Stallion coal plant will be less than 17 miles from the Houston/Galveston non-attainment region. Coal plants such as this one are one of the largest, individual sources of smog-forming pollutants,” said State Rep. Ana E. Hernandez (D-Houston). “Particularly in light of new EPA ozone standards, why should we allow a coal plant to be built on our doorstep? It will only make it that much harder for us to clean up Houston’s air pollution.”

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ruled that the TCEQ has not been adhering to the Clean Air Act in its issuance of new air permits, but the TCEQ has failed to change its permitting process.

For this reason, Texas legislators, including Reps. Hernandez, Jessica Farrar (D-Houston) and Kristi Thibaut (D-Houston), sent appeal letters this week to Dr. Al Armendariz, regional administrator of the EPA, urging the agency to step in and provide much needed guidance and oversight to the TCEQ. Their letters asked that the White Stallion power plant not be given an air permit to begin construction until the EPA ensures that constituents will receive the full public health protections of the federal Clean Air Act.

“I urge TCEQ and the EPA to deny the permit authorizing the White Stallion coal plant to be built in Matagorda County. Texas’ air quality must be improved for the good health of every Texan. The goal of clean air and clean water can be obtained by a commitment to reducing air contaminants,” Farrar said.

Despite the fact that a new coal plant could hinder Houston’s ability to meet federal regulations, the TCEQ refuses to predict or consider air impacts that are outside the non-attainment region. In fact, the TCEQ executive director filed legal briefs arguing that evidence showing White Stallion would contribute to ozone problems in the Houston area is irrelevant to the decision of whether to grant the White Stallion air permit. The TCEQ similarly refuses to consider cumulative impacts when granting an air permit, such as the fact that the 30-year-old Parish coal plant is only 50 miles northeast of the White Stallion site and also within the Houston/Galveston non-attainment region.

White Stallion would also pull 36,000 acre-feet of water from the Colorado River every year. Increased activity from the two barges required to deliver coal every day would contaminate the water with toxic runoff and erode the embankments.

The proposed plant would be located along a 100-year floodplain and would store coal ash waste on site. In the event of extreme weather, that toxic waste could easily wash into public waterways.

“The proposed White Stallion coal plant would dump thousands of tons of toxic pollutants into our air and water every year, when this region is already in non-attainment for clean air,” Thibaut said. “Furthermore, construction of this plant would remove 36,000 acre-feet of water each year from the Colorado River, which serves many drought-stricken areas of our state. As the elected representative for thousands of my constituents who would be affected, and as the mother of a small child, I cannot stand by as our air and water quality are further eroded.”

If the project is granted its air permit, advocates still have a chance to challenge the permit in state court and to reform the TCEQ through the sunset review process.

“The TCEQ is one of a number of state agencies that are about to undergo sunset review at the Texas Legislature. The sunset commission has the power to reform this agency and insist that any permits issued in the future adhere to the Clean Air Act,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office. “With this process, Texas has the opportunity to ensure that the health of Texans and their environment are protected more than the profits of energy corporations.”

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By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.

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Also cross-posted at our Energy Blog:

President Obama announced this morning he was putting the government on a low carbon diet. Through a series of initiatives, he hopes to decrease energy consumption through efficiency and switching to alternative energy that is less carbon intensive.

As the single largest energy consumer in the U.S. economy, the Federal Government spent more than $24.5 billion on electricity and fuel in 2008 alone. Achieving the Federal GHG pollution reduction target will reduce Federal energy use by the equivalent of 646 trillion BTUs, equal to 205 million barrels of oil, and taking 17 million cars off the road for one year. This is also equivalent to a cumulative total of $8 to $11 billion in avoided energy costs through 2020.

“As the largest energy consumer in the United States, we have a responsibility to American citizens to reduce our energy use and become more efficient,” said President Obama. “Our goal is to lower costs, reduce pollution, and shift Federal energy expenses away from oil and towards local, clean energy.”

Fun fact 1: The US government uses approximately as much energy as the entire country of Austria.

Fun Fact 2: Similar initiatives made by states have netted huge results. The state government of Utah, led by governor Jon Huntsman (who Obama named ambassador to China, you may remember), invested $1.5 million in energy efficiency for government agencies expecting a 10 year payback. They made it back in 3– and now they save over half a million dollars in energy costs a year. Efficiency is an economy of scale– and I’m willing to be the entire government of Utah would not even fill in one of the large federal agency buildings around DC.

Fun Fact 3: Texas has its own “No Regrets” greenhouse gas reduction strategy in accordance with the passage of SB 184, which Public Citizen supported: don’t forget that Sunday is the last day to submit your energy efficiency ideas to the state comptroller’s office. For more info see: www.TexasNoRegrets.org

I think this is a domestic spending freeze everyone can get behind.

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Statement of David Power, Deputy Director, Public Citizen’s Texas Office

Seemingly out of concern that competitive renewable energy will damage Big Oil’s bottom line, the Texas Railroad Commission wants to block renewable energy transmission lines that would put affordable energy from west Texas wind farms on an even playing field with the historical titans of Texas energy – oil and gas companies.

A new investment in these transmission lines would save ratepayers $2 billion a year, reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 16 percent and create more than $5 billion in economic development benefits for Texas. Ratepayers, companies and organizations with an interest in seeing the further development of renewable energy and green jobs should contact the Texas Public Utility Commission (PUC) and tell them to deny the Railroad Commission’s request to intervene.

The Texas Legislature authorized these transmission lines in 2008 to address the lack of available transmission lines to deliver wind energy from the panhandle and west Texas to the major metropolitan areas in central Texas where demand is higher. This renewable energy helps reduce costs for ratepayers by providing abundant and inexpensive clean energy that helps offset the volatile price of natural gas.

In its filing with the PUC, the Railroad Commission inappropriately expressed concern for current and future oil and gas development in Texas. In doing so, the commission stepped outside of its regulatory role to promote the interests of Big Oil. While the commission’s stated task is “primary regulatory jurisdiction over (the) oil and natural gas industry,” in this case, it is attempting to pick winners and losers in regards to Texas’ energy future. It is also questionable whether Michael Williams, who sits on the Railroad Commission and who is currently in the running for Kay Bailey Hutchison’s U.S. Senate seat, is acting in the best interest of the public or doing favors for potential campaign contributors.

This is another example of outrageous overreaching by the Railroad Commission on behalf of the same industries it is supposed to regulate. The commission is charged with regulating the oil and gas industries, not with protecting their interests with taxpayer dollars. The Railroad Commission and Mr. Williams need to stick to their own jurisdiction, rather than making an inappropriate power play to earn favors with Big Oil.

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By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, cleaner cars, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.

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UPDATED!!!!

After receiving communications from the office of Senator Carlos Uresti, we realize that there was an inaccuracy in the original form of this post. Senator Uresti has apparently never taken a charter flight from Austin to San Antonio, rather, he has taken flights from Austin to other areas in his sizeable district, and then flew back to San Antonio. We apologize for any misinformation and hope that this clarification sheds further light on the matter.

DOUBLE UPDATED!!!!

According to the Dallas Morning News, Rick Perry was living it up in Vegas, and once again taxpayers picked up the tab for his security detail. The rest of the party was paid for by political donations and private contributions:

They say that what happens in Las Vegas stays there, but for Rick Perry, not all of it has.

The governor’s Oct. 24 political trip to Las Vegas to meet with Brian Sandoval, a Republican candidate for Nevada governor, included a bachelor party for Perry’s son, Griffin, spokesman Mark Miner conceded Thursday.

He initially declined to call it a bachelor’s party, saying he would describe it more as a dinner. He confirmed, though, that it was a celebration of Griffin Perry’s upcoming nuptials joined by a number of his male friends.

The governor used a combination of money from his political donors and the Republican Governors Association to pay for his Vegas trip. It’s illegal to use campaign funds for personal travel, but Perry has a history of combining business with pleasure trips so that political entities will pick up the tab.

…Taxpayers do not pay for such travel by the governor or his family, but his security detail is funded by the state. Department of Public Safety officials would not say Wednesday how much that cost.

The Las Vegas meeting with Sandoval might not have been that pressing, as it turned out. The former U.S. district judge and Nevada attorney general came to Austin a little more than three weeks later to attend a Republican Governors Association meeting hosted by Perry.

Perry has been a leader of the RGA, which raises millions of dollars to boost the campaigns of Republican governor candidates.

On the Saturday of the Vegas trip, Perry stayed at the ritzy Palazzo casino and resort where the cheapest rooms go for $239.

Original post:

Texas Representatives, Senators, and other statewide elected officials, both locally and nationally, receive reimbursements for their on-the-job travels. They travel quite frequently to conduct business that benefits their constituents. Or at least that is what we hope they do.

Some representatives take advantage of the tax-payers’ money by choosing to stay in fancy hotels while traveling and use charter or private planes to get to their destination. Several representatives use campaign money and funding from other sources to pay for their trips across the country and around the world. But reports obtained by Texas Watchdog show the details of travel expenses that Senators billed to the state, and the report reveals spending that is, if not unnecessary, definately unnerving in some cases.  They report:

A $3,000, seven-day junket in Maui, staying at a resort boasting a spa that “sets a new standard for head-to-toe pampering in paradise.”

Overnight stays at a Ritz-Carlton in New York, a luxury hotel on Manhattan’s waterfront.

Charter plane trips within Texas for as much as $5,100 a pop.

State senators spent taxpayer money on these travel expenses. And they’re all perfectly within the rules regulating Senate travel — rules the senators write themselves.

The bills range from daily stipend claims and car mileage reimbursement to flights and hotel stays for conferences in Chicago, Washington and New Orleans. The expense reports, receipts and bills from Jan. 1, 2008 to May 1, 2009 also reveal the extent to which senators used private and charter planes to get around. Click here to see a searchable database of all the expenses, which was requested under the Texas Public Information Act.

Senator Mario Gallegos from Houston spent tax-payers’ money to pay for a trip to Hawaii for a conference at which he was a presenter. Gallegos brought his wife and son and stayed in a hotel that boasted of their opulance and ability to pamper: a portion of a hotel bill (paid for by private money, not by the state) attests to the fact that someone  . Although he did not ask for reimbursements for his family’s travel expenses, he requested the amount of $1,679.58 for the hotel room expenses. The total hotel bill was $1,919.27. This begs the question of whether this was 100% state business or at least partially family outing, and to make matters worse in Gallegos’ case, he was the only legislator attending the conference that traveled and stayed there on the expense of tax payers, while Troy Fraser, Joe Driver, Larry Taylor and Burt Solomons all had the trip paid for by private donations from those putting on the conference as speakers’ honoraria, or used campaign funds.

In addition, some senators use private planes, state planes, and charter planes to conduct business. Texas senators – in large part Senator Robert Duncan, Senator Carlos Uresti and Senator John Carona – spent over $86,000 using these methods to travel over the period of a year and a half.

A spokesperson for Uresti claims that the size of his district and the lack of airline services in specific areas require him to use non-commercial flights (a reasonable explanation). However, Senator Uresti also used charter flights to travel from Austin to other areas in his district and back to San Antonio, and Senator Carona used his private plane to fly between Austin, Dallas, El Paso and Houston. All these cities have frequent commercial flights for a much cheaper reimbursement price than private or charter planes.

The expensive travel arrangements by Texas Elected Officials translate to the national level as well. Texas representatives and senators spend more taxpayer’s money on travel than any other state representatives. The Texas representatives in DC have used $91,000 in past 12 months on travel expenses, including travels to foreign countries. All in all, the whole House spent 7000 days over the period of 9 months on domestic and international travel. The cost of this travel? An estimated total of 9 million dollars.

Governor Rick Perry also billed the tax-payers for thousands of dollars for an August trip to Israel with his wife, friends and public officials.

The King David Hotel in Israel

"Nice hotel, guv'nuh!"

While Governor Perry’s stay at one of the most posh hotels in the world, King David, was covered by the Doheny Global Group, a private donor, (raising eyebrows on its own) he billed the state for the cost of his bodyguards’ stay.  And the cost of just the hotel stay for security? $17,000. In addition to the stay, security costs included expenses for the flight, food, and overtime. All in all, the total sum spent on security for this one trip to Israel was over $60,000.  While we certainly understand that Israel is not the safest place in the world and see the need for security, taxpayers have the right to come to their own conclusions about the cost/benefit analysis of such a big pricetag.

The rules on reimbursement for travel expenses are pretty loose (and, we should emphasize, are written by the Legislature themselves), but each Senator must provide a legitimate reason for using private or charter planes. These reasons include a time-crunches, a cheaper option than commercial travel expenses, and the lack of commercial flights to their destination. However, since time-crunch is not easily defined, Senators sometimes choose to use charter or private planes to maximize their time efficiency instead of maximizing the utility of taxpayers’ money. Perhaps each Senator’s expenses are not outrageous, but all unnecessary spending adds up over the span of a year. This money can be used in the communities of their constituents, or for local programs.

So why do they get away with this superfluous spending? Most citizens do not look into reports of each Congressman’s travel expenses, but trust them to spend tax payer’s money appropriately. Congressmen admit they hardly ever receive questions from their constituency about travel expenses.

It is understood, of course, that our Representatives and Senators, etc must travel to conduct business and to form diplomatic relations and push policy agendas. The issue at hand is whether they are eschewing nice amenities at their destination and the methods of transportation on the tax payer’s dime. We are by no means saying that our Representatives have to stay at econo motels and take red-eye flights in order to conduct public business. Further muddying the waters are the different standards and methods in place. Some trips are paid for out of personal and campaign funds, but some spend more taxpayers’ money.

By Harrison

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By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, cleaner cars, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.

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The booming wind energy industry in Texas didn’t just pop up over night — it was a result of years of research, advocacy, and policy work.  Ever wondered how it all happened?  Smitty, the director of Public Citizen’s Texas Office, has a story to tell — check it out!

Seeing as we are just at the beginning of the history of wind, it is a story that is constantly evolving.  Coastal wind projects have been developed in Texas recently (look for a post on this very topic soon!).  Just this week, the Abilene Reporter News ran an article about a local professor and director of the Wind Science and Engineering Research Center at Texas Tech that testified on a bill in Congress that would pump $200 million annually into research and development for wind power.  While wind is of course a viable industry in its current stages, further R&D will allow it to provide an even larger portion of our total electricity needs, operate more efficiently, and be an even cheaper and more reliable form of energy.

While you’re at it, check out this recent article from the Guardian about the “furious search for practical, affordable electricity storage” so that excess energy produced when the wind is blowing but no one’s lights are on can be socked away and used when we need it most.

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frameworknewThe word, according to the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club:

The Texas Legislature failed to update state energy codes for new commercial, industrial, and residential buildings. That doesn’t mean Texas can’t move forward. We can get the job done in other ways.

There is a silver lining to this spring’s legislative shortfall: proposed rulemaking at the State Energy Conservation Office (SECO) to update the state minimum building codes from 2001 to 2009 may move faster than the proposed legislation would have required.

Adopting the 2009 IECC or IRC will lead to the following changes in residential construction:

  • Homes will be tested or inspected to allow less air leakage and less thermal infiltration, leading to less energy use.
  • Ducts will be sealed and tested or located in conditioned space to ensure that heating and cooling equipment functions efficiently.
  • Windows will meet lower U-factor and lower SHGC requirements, leading to substantial reductions in the amount of air conditioning needed. (Note that the IECC sets a more stringent SHGC requirement than the IRC.)
  • At least half of light fixtures will have to be “high efficacy.” (Lights have not been included in previous residential energy codes.)

On June 5th, SECO opened a 30-day comment period on updating the residential energy codes based on the 2009 IRC Codes. Take a moment today to send your comment of support for updated energy codes! Comments are due to SECO before 5 pm on July 5.

Failure to update our standards quickly and effectively would be a step backwards and could potentially impact current or future funding from the federal government.  Texas lags behind many states on its Energy Codes (see map). The nation is moving to update energy efficiency codes, with Congress considering a single national building code standard.  Under the American Renewal and Recovery Act (the federal economic stimulus program), Texas has submitted a letter to the Department of Energy saying it has a process to update its standards, allowing SECO to accept certain grants for energy efficiency.

Take action today and send your comment to SECO to support new, green energy codes in Texas!

For more information, check out Sierra Club’s factsheet.

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