The Austin Chronicle

The Solution to Pollution

On the Lege

By Robert Bryce, June 9, 1995, News

The "Trust Me" Law: Signed into law on May 23, HB 2473 is seen by many as one of the worst environmental bills of the 74th Legislature. Authored by super conservative Rep. Warren Chisum (D-Pampa) and sponsored in the Senate by Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown (D-Lake Jackson), this law allows companies to audit themselves for violations of environmental, health, and safety regulations. Since violating the law usually results in some sort of punishment - often a fine in the case of corporations - this bill would waive any financial penalties for companies which do an audit, then voluntarily come forward and admit that they did something wrong. And as long as the companies doing such audits freely admit to any wrongdoing (on the honor system, of course), they will be allowed to keep any information gleaned from such audits a secret.

Specifically, the bill will allow corporations to keep the following information secret from all regulatory agencies, and to prevent anyone from introducing the information in court or during any permitting process or other administrative proceeding: interviews with current or former employees; field notes and records of observations; findings, opinions, suggestions, conclusions, guidance, notes, drafts, and memoranda; legal analyses; drawings; photographs; laboratory analyses and other analytical data; computer generated or electronically recorded information; maps, charts, graphs, and surveys; and other communications associated with an environmental or health and safety audit.

Environmentalists and public health advocates fear that granting a company immunity from fines will encourage polluters to cram years' worth of violations into a single audit in the hopes of avoiding any penalties. Commenting on a similar bill introduced in the Colorado Legislature last year, Randall Weiner, attorney for the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies, says that the true intent of such bills "is to provide an economic boom to large businesses at the expense of the environment."

The Environmental Protection Agency, Texas Department of Health, Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, and other agencies will still be able to conduct their own investigations and penalize the lawbreakers they discover; they just won't be able to use any information gathered by the company itself. - Andrea Barnett n THE BILL TALLY: Like everybody else, legislators like to keep score. In the Lege, success means passing a bill as an author, joint author, or sponsor. If that doesn't work, you can try to tack your bill onto another bill.

This week's score sheet - which relies on numbers supplied by each representative - includes three members of the Austin
delegation: Democratic Reps. Elliott Naishtat and Glen Maxey and GOP Rep. Susan Combs. Maxey says he passed or piggybacked some 70 different pieces of legislation. Naishtat claims a total of 52 bills (plus 10 that he tacked onto the welfare reform bill), while Combs claims a total of 29.

You won't get these numbers by searching the bills that have been sent to the governor. A computer search of the 1,102 bills sent to the governor's office turned up Naishtat's name 23 times, Maxey's 16 times, and Combs' 14 times. The discrepancy likely comes from bills that have multiple authors. Those bills only carry the name of the first rep on the bill, regardless of how many authors there are.

Maxey's favorite accomplishment of the session came on viatical settlements, financial transactions that were previously unregulated. For those with AIDS, or other terminal illnesses, who need to get the cash value out of their life insurance policy, it is an important reform. Terminally ill patients often need to liquidate their assets to pay for medical care and other needs; many sell their life insurance policies for less than their face value to viatical brokers, who then collect on the policy upon the death of the insured.

But the terminally ill don't have much leverage in these transactions. Maxey's bill, now awaiting the governor's signature, will require viatical brokers to register with the Texas Insurance Commissioner, who will then have the power to sanction any broker who is dealing unfairly with the terminally ill. The commissioner can also establish any rules he deems necessary to protect the terminally ill in these transactions.

Maxey also passed HB 988, which will allow citizens to use home HIV test kits. Governor Bush signed the bill into law April 28.

Naishtat's main focus this session was again on children. He sponsored SB 103 by Sen. Mike Moncrief (D-Fort Worth), creating a Guardian Resource Board which will coordinate guardianship services at the local and regional levels. He also passed HB 1274, which authorizes social workers to obtain voter registration information to help them locate parents who aren't paying their child support.

In addition to her work on SB 14, the private property rights bill she initiated in the House as HB 2591, Combs passed or sponsored a variety of bills - ranging from pensions for police officers and firefighters to HB 2133, which prohibits employees of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department from doing any biological surveys on private land unless they have the written permission of the landowner. Combs was one of several House sponsors of Sen. Moncrief's SB 97, which outlaws "canned" hunts of dangerous wild animals. Thus, a weekend warrior cannot use a high-powered firearm to kill an animal that's just been released from a cage and consider it a sport.

Next week: We'll tally up the scores for Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos and Reps. Sherri Greenberg and Dawnna Dukes. n JUDGE FOR YOURSELF: The Lege couldn't reform the way voters select judges, but on May 26, the House and Senate gave final approval to a measure restricting contributions to judicial candidates. SB 94 by Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) may be the single most important bit of ethics reform to occur this session.

For years, the Texas judiciary has been accused of being for sale, or at least, for rent. Attorneys with pending business before the Texas Supreme Court were able to give the justices huge campaign contributions. The issue was the subject of much press attention; even CBS's 60 Minutes ran a segment on the problem.

SB 94, which awaits Governor Bush's signature, limits to $5,000 the amount of money an individual can give to candidates in statewide judicial races. Law firms can give a maximum of $30,000 to statewide judicial candidates. The bill also imposes a voluntary spending limit of $2 million for candidates in statewide races. Contribution and voluntary expenditure limits will also be imposed on candidates in local judicial races.

HB 810, which would have overhauled the way Texas selects appellate judges, never reached the Senate. Thus, the system which allowed Stephen Mansfield - an underqualified lawyer who has difficulty telling the truth - to be elected to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, will stay in place for at least two more years.

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