El Paso Times
By Marty Schladen, USA Today Network Austin Bureau
Original story here
AUSTIN — From banning plastic checkout bags to trying to save honeybees, Texas environmental groups have a long wish list as the 2017 legislative session gets underway.
Some proposals that are relatively voluntary have a good chance of passage, while those that would require money from a tight budget don’t, a political observer said.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Railroad Commission are subject to the same 4 percent cuts that other state agencies are.
“Everyone’s going to take a haircut,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. “And there hasn’t been a lot of political will on environmental-enforcement issues.”
He was referring to proposed budgets that cut environmental agencies’ funding and bills that would require the agencies to put enforcement records online in a searchable database.
The leader of one environmental group said it’s going to be a tough fight, but he and his colleagues will do all they can to secure funding for those and other priorities.
“The big issue is going to be the state budget and how it relates to the environmental agencies,” said Luke Metzger, founding director of Environment Texas.
One proposal that would cost the state nothing but could again roil the Legislature would overturn local ordinances banning single-use bags at store checkouts.
More than 12 Texas cities — including Corpus Christi and Austin — already have banned such bags or imposed fees for them.
But Gov. Greg Abbott in 2015 declared war on the measures, saying they were being passed by people who wanted to see Texas “Californianized.” Attorney General Ken Paxton has sued Brownsville over its imposition of a $1 bag fee and state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, has filed a bill that would overturn the local ordinances after a similar measure failed in 2015.
Andrew Dobbs of the Texas Campaign for the Environment said he and his colleagues will fight such moves.
Rottinghaus said that when Texas’ GOP leaders in 2015 overturned local fracking bans, they showed a willingness to concentrate power in Austin. But he noted that the oil and gas industry, which didn’t want fracking bans, is much more powerful than those that want single-use bags.
“It’s difficult to see this issue rising to the top,” he said.
One environmental bill that seems to stand a good chance of passage would encourage household collection of rainwater. Filed by state Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, it would allow local governments to exempt collection systems from property appraisals.
“Right now, you get dinged for being responsible,” said Isaac’s chief of staff, Terry Franks. He explained that currently, property values rise when rainwater collection systems are installed.
Rottinghaus said that the voluntary nature of the bill and that it’s a tax incentive would make it appealing to other Republicans.
Another seemingly modest proposal would be to spend certain environmental funds on the purpose for which they were collected, said Cyrus Reed, conservation director for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.
Currently, more than $1 billion collected under the Texas Emission Reduction Plan hasn’t been spent. It’s been used instead to show that Texas isn’t spending more money than it takes in, Reed said.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has proposed spending some of the money to buy natural-gas powered vehicles for the state, Reed said. Patrick’s spokesman, Alejandro Garcia, declined to comment, but Reed said the money could be better spent.
“The highest and best use would be to get dirty diesel vehicles off the road,” he said.
Other legislative priorities for Texas environmental groups include:
- Regulation of the disposal of sewage sludge, which often is spread on the ground even though it could contain toxins and other dangerous substances.
“That stuff is being spread on agricultural land with little or no oversight,” Dobbs said.
- Slowing the decline of honeybees: Populations of the insects, which are essential to pollinating fruits, nuts and vegetables, are dropping at a rate of 30 percent a year, Metzger said.
A type of agricultural insecticide, neonicotinoids, is thought to be driving the decline. Big box stores are already removing the chemicals from their shelves, Metzger said, and his group wants the state to stop using them in parklands and along highways.
- Earmarking $2 million to study environmental flows: Waters in Texas streams are often overappropriated to irrigators and cities, leaving too little for Mother Nature, said Ken. W. Kramer, water resources director for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.
Such flows are not only vital to estuaries at the mouths of rivers such as the Nueces and Trinity, Kramer said, but they’re also vital to waterways that often run dry, such as the Pecos River and the western reaches of the Rio Grande, he said. The state did one set of studies starting in 2007 and now it’s time to follow them up, he said.
- Testing all school drinking fountains for lead contamination: Metzger said that most Texas schools have not been checked and in the wake of the Flint, Mich., water crisis it’s urgent to do so. Lead is especially harmful to children because it can impair brain development.
Marty Schladen can be reached at 512-479-6606; email@example.com; @martyschladen on Twitter.