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Deceleration breaks down the (mostly) very bad, no good bills grinding through the Texas Legislature, noting some stuff we’re happy to see expire, and things that could actually be good if Governor Abbott signed them.
EDITOR’S NOTE: It’s like the summer of hate—and it’s still only spring. Trans youth, drag queens, immigrants and asylum seekers, diversity and inclusion, college profs, clean energy, and basic democratic practice and values…all have been attacked as a threat to the world Republican lawmakers are constructing in Austin this session. There is too much happening worthy of exasperated derision and active full-throated protest for us to cover it all in this list. Deceleration wanted to offer a glimpse across the landscape of (mostly anti-)environmental bills advancing toward the Governor’s twitching pen, noting where we see opportunity for residents to interrupt this flow. We also include opportunities to sidle up to organizations working to make sure this session’s violence represents a cresting and not a threshold for more to follow. ¶ We note our solidarity with all who are being singled out and attacked by lawmakers this session. We continue to grieve for all of the those whose bodies and futures were obliterated in mass shootings—in Uvalde, and elsewhere—and are offended by the mistreatment of families daring to stand in righteous anger for basic (and popular) gun reforms. The contempt for survivors is thick at the Capital. Civil Rights attorney Louis Bedford also points to the more than 50 bills filed this session specifically to limit the rights of queer, trans, and non-binary people, concluding that “everything might be bigger in Texas, but it seems that also applies to hate and bigotry.” A similar deluge marks environmental efforts, as much in what has advanced as what never even got a vote. A proposed constitutional amendment recognizing the right to a clean and healthy environment? Blocked. Fund to facilitate the cleaning up of abandoned oil wells? Stuffed. Considering the cumulative impact of air or water emissions in permitting pollution? Vaporized by indifference. But a grassroots democratic campaign for a city charter to guide the creation of healthier more equitable city, such as the El Paso Climate Charter? Well, this Lege was fully prepared to shut that shit down. Below are a dirty dozen bills that were in play as this critical week opened. Deceleration will update this information as we are able. — Greg Harman
Analysis by Paul Krantz & Greg Harman
Destroying trees and local control
Bill: HB 2239
Author/s: Rep. Troxclair
Status: Sailed through Texas Senate with almost universal R support and Dems split nearly evenly. Stalled in the House. Dead.
Summary: This bill forbids cities around the state from enforcing ordinances intended to protect Ashe juniper trees. Or, to be safe, “diseased or dead trees.” And trees that pose an “immediate threat to persons or property.” You know, those trees. As a reminder: Ashe juniper are found almost exclusively in Central Texas. One may think that alone would provide them some protection. But in the 88th Legislature’s war on environmental well being, consider this work by Ellen Troxclair a quickly normalized sort of gruesome. It targets the slim protections offered this tree by municipal tree policies around the state for old-growth, or heritage cedars providing shade and habitat. Why this tree you may ask? Governor Abbott signaled his desire to gut local tree ordinances as far back in 2017. But there’s a link to endangered species. The Golden-cheeked warbler, also unique in all the world to Central Texas, nests only old-growth juniper forests. As the presence of one species suggests the possible existence of the other, the trees can tangle up development plans until surveys for the imperiled birds can be conducted. No tree? No bird! This elimination of protections must have the developer lobby pulse racing.
Texas-Sized ‘Backup Battery’…Entirely of Gas
Bill: SB 6
Status: Senators voted SB 6 up in April. The House hasn’t touched it. Dead.
Summary: The gas industry served Texas so well during Winter Storm Uri. You remember when the state’s electric grid came minutes from “total collapse” thanks (primarily) to frozen gas infrastructure even as gas companies reaped windfall profits, right? Well the brain trust of Schwertner & King want to build a 10GW state-level backup battery system exclusively out of the stuff. “Texas Energy Insurance Program” is a plan to build new gas power plants to produce up to 10 gigawatts of ‘on-demand’ power. But critics say that the benefits to the state power grid will be minimal, and also cite the cost (figures range in the billions) to be passed through to taxpayers as well as ballooning greenhouse gas emissions. In a major gimme during a session where renewable power has been throttled at every turn, this bill would create a state endorsed low-cost loan program for the construction and maintenance of these gas plants. The Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), estimated construction costs up to $18 billion, and noted that fuel would be stored on site. It’s unclear if the building and operation costs would be paid by state allocated funds or by added costs passed onto customers. A recently shared plan by the LCRA aimed to have a first phase of plants running by 2028 and a second phase by 2033.
Analysis by columnist Chis Tomlinson:
“If successful, Republicans will ensure Texas consumers will over-invest in a fading technology that will weigh on their electricity bills, contribute to a hotter planet, trigger more drastic climate action later and massively under-invest in the clean technology that will dominate the next century.”
Action Opportunity: It’s possible this bill was too radically on the scale for gas for Republicans who are supposed to care about things like free markets. Did warnings over SB 6 representing a death knell for energy competition finally sink in? Calls to your rep may actually make a difference right now.
Blocking Medical Standards of Care for Transgender Minors
Bill: SB 14
Author/s: Sen. Campbell
Status: Here was a case where even Dems voting as a block (which they have not done nearly enough this session) could not overcome the sheer imbalance in the Senate. Passed in the Senate but House Dems have been exploiting procedural maneuvers to tangle it up and delay a vote. Republicans pushed through at end of session. Headed to Governor for signing.
Summary: The legislation prohibits doctors from following evidence-based best practices for trans youth, prescribing puberty blockers, hormone medications or related gender care surgeries to those minors for whom these are medically necessary, life-saving treatments. It makes no exceptions for patients diagnosed with gender dysphoria, or who report psychological distress about their gender identity.
The Texas Freedom Network points out that “bills like these go against medical standards” and that “every major U.S. medical and mental health organization, from the American Medical Association to the American Academy of Pediatrics, has approved and set standards for gender-affirming care for transgender young people and adults.”
Action Opportunity: There is still time to call your House representative about this one. This link makes it easy to do so. Readers should also plug into the Transgender Education Network of Texas and Equality Texas for future action opportunities.
Disaster Planning with Disabilities in Mind
Bill: HB 2858
Author/s: Rep. Shaw
Status: Sent to Calendars to schedule a House vote on May 8…never to be seen again? Looking for signs of life. Dead.
Summary: Winter Storm Uri was just one climate-driven disaster in a long and growing list of disasters in which that the state of Texas (and local responders) failed to consider the needs of people with disabilities in any deeply meaningful ways. HB 2858 challenges the state (and local responders) to do better. It’s a sort of generalist bill designed not to overburden with prescriptions while making it clear things have got to change. HB 2858 would require the “inclusive disaster and emergency planning practices at all levels of government” that include people with disabilities. It would explicitly direct emergency shelter operators to be able to shelter and care for those with disabilities—both in the short- and long-term—and establish plans for “wellness checks” during disasters, as well as make improvements in emergency communication by mandating both in audio and visual formats be used, as well as generating “surge capacity” to respond to the particular needs of people with disabilities during crisis.
Action Opportunities: Groups like Disability Rights Texas have been working to improve disaster planning in Texas for years. State direction is important, but your local community doesn’t need permission to develop disaster plans that serve all residents equally. That’s it. That’s our nudge. Get busy.
Slapping Down Pollution Complaints
Bill: SB 471
Author/s: Sen. Springer
Status: Cleared the Senate with only 3 Dems and 1 Republican objecting. (Seriously, y’all.) Had looked to be bottled up in House Environmental Regs, but Rep. Brooks Landgraf of District 81 reportedly flipped positions in a hearing this week. Sent to Governor for his signature on May 29, 2023.
Summary: Spellcheck assured us repeatedly that we knew how to spell ‘punitive’ correctly. Spellcheck was wrong. Meet SB 471. This bill creates a fee to be paid by anyone who files a complaint with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality if they have already filed three complaints within the past year that did not result in TCEQ enforcement actions. Sen. Springer claims the bill is intended to streamline the TCEQ’s work, but critics say the regulation will make it harder to monitor and control pollution. Sharon Wilson, who says she has filed more than 400 complaints with the TCEQ as a field advocate for Earthworks (often including stunning infrared video evidence, to boot), is clearly in line for some wrist slaps if this one passes. Because most of her work has gone nowhere inside the TCEQ. (And she’s not alone in that.) That fact should explain why Springer is coming at this issue all wrong.
Tim Doty, an independent environmental consultant and former TCEQ employee, told the League of Independent Voters (LIV) that under SB 471 the TCEQ will be left with “less work and less responsibility” while citizens will “lose power and leverage to minimize environmental impacts around the state.”
Action Opportunity: Fighting the hydra of environmental injustice is a massive job. Reach out to any climate-concerned organization that inspires you and ask how you can help.
Protecting Polluter Profits, Punishing Public Schools
Bill: HB 5
Author/s: Rep. Hunter
Status: House members vote up 120-24 (with only 14 D’s and 10 R’s objecting). Slated to be taken up by the Senate’s Business and Commerce Committee. Modified version passed the House at midnight deadline May 29, 2023.
Summary: “HB 5 is like Chapter 313, but worse” according to Every Texan (formerly the Center for Public Policy Priorities.) Chapter 313 was an addition to Texas state tax code which allowed school districts to offer property tax abatements that could be applied to certain companies, effectively slashing the amount of state taxes owed, which severely diminished the funding available for public services such as higher education, health and human services, and public safety. Chapter 313 failed to be reauthorized in 2021, but now HB 5 is here to try and replace it. This bill will be more expensive than Chapter 313 and has lower requirements for companies in terms of jobs and wages. Whereas two-thirds of the tax breaks granted under Chapter 313 previously were for wind and solar projects, the new bill excludes them entirely, granting an unfair tax advantage to fossil fuel projects, which is what this Lege is all about.
Be Kind to Concentrated Animal Feedlots (CAFOs) Act
Bill: HB 2827
Author/s: Rep. Burns
Status: Passed the House on a split vote (39 D’s and 14 R’s objected). May have died on Senate side.
Summary: Remember that raging feedlot fire that incinerated 18,000 cows in April? Neither do the authors of this bill. Manure management isn’t sexy, but just a reminder here that not all environmental regulations are the product of bloodless bureaucrats out to undermine market innovation, a la Ghostbusters. Oftentimes they really do save lives, of people, of cows, of a living Earth. Here specifically the Texas Lege is poised to bravely eliminate the need for individualized waste permitting applications for new CAFO projects, or even current projects which are being expanded or altered, and inserts in their place standardized general permits. Existing site-based permits have allowed for more public input about where CAFOs can operate and what kind of waste management standards they must uphold. HB 2827 gets rid of solid waste training requirements for dairy operators, and severely limits other regulatory measures such as requiring soil sampling for permits.
Overall this bill cuts back much needed regulations which were put in place to prevent massive dairy farms from polluting soil and water resources. Care about the health of a stream or river near you? There’s plenty to loathe in this measure.
Action Opportunity: Texas Rivers Protection Association is sure to have some ideas for building back from this session. Or, if you want to get your hands dirty, volunteer any given week with a group like River Aid SA.
Freedom to Combust
Bill: SB 1017
Author/s: Sen. Birdwell
Status: A whopping two Democrats opposed this bill in the Senate. Signed by Governor Abbott on May 13, 2023. Effective as law as of Sept. 1, 2023.
Summary: Another effort to crush city controls. In this case the City of Dallas, which was advancing toward elimination of gas-powered lawn equipment due to concerns about noise and public health. States have been leaning this way too, for good reason. Deceleration would remind that “leafs aren’t litter” to begin with. Anyway, clearly the Texas Nursery and Landscape Association had feelings about Dallas’s efforts, asking if there could be more carrots than sticks, a la rebates, to help small businesses make the transition. This effort prohibits local governments from preventing the “use, sale, or lease of an engine based on its fuel source.”
Action Opportunity: Too late to steer this boat ashore, but you can ditch your own gas-powered yard tools in solidarity by tapping into some hefty rebates, such as CPS Energy has been offering for years.
Loosing the Border Vigilantes
Bill: HB 20
Author/s: Rep. Schaefer
Summary: HB 20 looked back at events like the Porvenir massacre and thought wistfully, ‘Perhaps we should have more of that.’ Also called the Border Protection Unit Act, the bill enables the state to create border patrol units of deputized agents who “arrest, detain, and deter individuals crossing the border illegally, including with the use of non-deadly force.” These border patrol agents would “have immunity from criminal and civil liability for any actions taken that are authorized.” Units could also oversee the construction and maintenance of physical border barriers. Any individual caught illegally entering Texas could immediately be charged with a 3rd degree felony and a fine of $10,000 or more—effectively killing any refugee seekers path to asylum or citizenship before they have a chance to start.
According to a report by Human Rights Watch, Abbott’s related Operation Lone Star has already “violated the right to be free from racial discrimination and the right to seek asylum under US and international law.” HRW expressed concern that HB 20 (and HB 7 will result in more widespread human rights violations. As climate change continues to intensify droughts, floods, and natural disasters in Mexico, Central America, and South America, intensified border patrols equate to a particularly violent form of environmental racism.
US federal and state legislation make it harder for climate refugees to legally seek asylum, while US and Texas-based corporate actors (and lawmakers) continue to exacerbate climate change with industrial greenhouse gas pollution.
Where It’s At: Dems had killed the bill on a technicality, but Republicans brought it back with some midnight maneuvers. It’s now riding inside House Bill 7, according to the Texas Tribune, adopted as an amendment 90-51.
Action Opportunity: Here today and in days to come, your strong support for migrants and the international right to seek refuge is needed. Check out groups like the Migrant Center for Human Rights, Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Services (RAICES), and Witness at the Border for ways to volunteer and to stay up on the issues. Also be aware of how
Master Class: Bipartisan Organizing for Parks
Bill: SB 1648
Author/s: Sen. Parker
SB 1648 has all the markings of legend-grade organizing. Activists from dueling ideological wings of climate Twitter clash over wind power and birds, the dialogue cools, and suddenly they are knocking on doors at the Capitol seeking support for Texas state parks together. It looks like the dialogue between Luke Metzger of Environment Texas and Doug Deason, who The Dallas Morning News describes as a “hemisphere-trotting Dallas businessman and conservative activist,” evolved a very promising drive for $1B for a parks conservation fund, they told the DMN could then attract state matching money bloom into $5 billion with private and federal funds. They aren’t flying solo on this parks mission, however, HJR138 would invest $2B in special fund in the state treasury that could produce $26B by 2025 for state parks.
Where It’s At: Passed the Senate with strong bipartisan support. Signed by Governor on May 29, 2023. Effective as constitutional amendment.
Action Opportunity: We’re expecting parks-related bills to come up for further discussion next week. More info over here.
Meager Reforms for the TCEQ?
Bill: SB 1397
Author/s: Sen. Schwertner, District 5, et al
Summary: Changes TCEQ’s operational protocol and sets higher limits on the penalties the state regulator can apply to polluting business. The bill would require the agency to contact Texans who live near a facility via email when the facility applies for renewal permits and requires live meetings on its website on top of notifying local newspapers. Public comments on agency matters would be collected for 36 hours after TCEQ meetings. Additionally the penalties that TCEQ can impose on industrial polluters that violate state regulations would be increased from $25,000 to $40,000 per day. Conservation director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, Cyrus Reed, told the Texas Tribune that the bill is a “modest but important bill,” but that he hoped to see key environmental justice initiatives added, such as creating an advisory council to look at cumulative air quality impacts in regions where multiple facilities operate. No such luck.
Considering the TCEQ’s historic record of failing to hold big industry players accountable, many are rightfully concerned that this bill doesn’t go nearly far enough. A recent report by Public Health Watch details the years leading up to a devastating 2019 chemical fire at the ITC facility in Deer Park. TCEQ scientists had recorded troubling concentrations of leaking chemicals like benzene and 1,3-butadiene at the site on numerous occasions. But again and again, PHW shows, the TCEQ failed to take regulatory action, and even granted permissions for the construction of further chemical storage tanks.
Where It’s At: SB 1397 passed by Senate in April. Sent to Governor on May 29, 2023.
Action Opportunity: Where is your rep? Maybe drop them a line.
Directing Utilities to Waste Less Energy
Bill: SB 258
Author/s: Sen. Eckhardt, District 14
Summary: SB 258 amends current law regarding energy efficiency goals for electric utilities. Specifically, transmission lines distribution utilities would need to meet energy efficiency savings equal to 1 percent of the annual electric use of their customers, as opposed to the current regulation which requires an energy efficiency savings of 0.4 percent of peak demand. More simply put, this bill requires utilities to operate more efficiently, and in doing so it will “quadruple investments in energy efficiency by 2030,” according to the Sierra Club. The only thing not to like about energy efficiency—the “first fuel,” as superfans know it—is the voracious energy users poised to spoil any gain made from stabilizing the grid by straining it less. Advocates for the bill say it helps to abate rising electricity costs and eases stress on the grid by reducing demand—for which the data centers and crypto mines thank you very much. This should theoretically also help reduce the need for expensive new power plants, though the gas-powered state “battery” of SB 6 makes meaningless.
Action Opportunity: Can we get a witness?
Paul Krantz is an independent journalist with a keen interest in human impacts on the environment. His stories have appeared in Deutsche Welle, SF GATE, Earth Island Journal and elsewhere. He has a bachelor’s in English from University of San Francisco and a master’s degree in Digital Journalism from Hochschule für Medien, Kommunikation und Wirtschaft (HMKW) in Berlin.
Greg Harman is the founder and co-editor of Deceleration.
Top illustration based on AI generated material (no, we don’t plan to make a habit out of it!) with the prompt: “texas statehouse covered in garbage and garbage trucks being attacked by monsters with flaring oil wells.”