On The Lege

Grandfathers Win

Owners of industrial facilities operating under old air quality laws are breathing a little easier after a vote in the Senate that allows those plants to reduce the amount of pollution they generate -- voluntarily, and only to decade-old standards.

According to figures compiled by Public Citizen, industrial plants in Texas emit some 2.48 million tons of air pollutants every year. Of that amount, more than 900,000 tons of pollutants are exempt from the Clean Air Act because they come from plants that are grandfathered under older regulations. Under SB 766, authored by Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown, R-Lake Jackson, and passed by a vote of 23-7 on Tuesday morning, facilities like refineries and power plants can obtain an air quality permit from the state within two years. Under that permit, they will be allowed to voluntarily install new pollution reduction equipment that meets the air quality standards that existed in 1989. Environmental groups are fighting the bill because they believe the grandfathered plants should meet more stringent clean air standards. "It allows them to voluntarily dictate the terms and the amount of reductions," says Tom Smith, state director of Public Citizen. "To get the air in our cities safe enough to breathe, we need 70% to 80% reductions from these plants, and they are only offering 20%." Environmentalists argue that in some cities, the grandfathered plants could degrade air quality to the point that the cities will be declared non-attainment zones, thereby subjecting them to a panoply of federal mandates, including car emissions testing, car pooling, and other measures. But the only senator to speak against Brown's bill on Tuesday was Sen. Carlos Truan, D-Corpus Christi, who said the state would be forced to give permits to outdated plants that are not meeting the same air standards required for new facilities. "It's not good business, and it's not in the public interest," said Truan. "Enough is enough."

Also on Tuesday, Public Research Worksreleased a report on the campaign contributions made by the top 100 grandfathered air polluters in the state. The study found that the owners of the grandfathered facilities made more than $10.2 million in political contributions between 1993 and 1998, and that 11% of Brown's campaign contributions in the last election cycle came from companies with grandfathered facilities. In all, Brown has received $101,405 from the companies since 1993. The report also said the grandfathered plants emit "as much smog-forming nitrogen oxides as 18 million cars." (Texas has about nine million cars on the road.) The full text of the report is available on the Web at http://www.foree.com/prw.nsf.--R.B.

Custody Battles

With amazing, unLege-like speed, HB 2671 (which could be called "the Lacresha Murray Bill") authored by Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, whipped through the Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee late Monday afternoon in just under two hours. The bill is designed to close a loophole in the Texas Family Code and make sure children in the care of the state Dept. of Protective and Regulatory Services (DPRS) are not interrogated by police without first appearing before a judge to ensure that the child understands his or her rights and the severity of the crime for which he or she is being questioned.

Usually when a child is placed with DPRS, there is a custodial hearing. The child is considered to be in state custody, and under the Texas Family Code, children suspected of committing a crime go before a magistrate before and after police questioning. But the case of 14-year-old Lacresha Murray -- who was tried and convicted twice for the 1996 beating death of two-year-oldJayla Belton -- exposed a loophole in the law: If the child has been placed with DPRS in the event of an emergency, and no custodial hearing takes place, the child can be interrogated without ever appearing before a judge, because she is not officially "in custody." Five days after Murray was put into "emergency" DPRS care, she was interrogated by three Austin police detectives for over two and a half hours, and her resulting statement was used against her in court. "This bill addresses that situation: the Lacresha Murrays of the world," said Turner.

Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee Chair Toby Goodman, R-Arlington -- who was integral in updating the Texas Family Code provisions in 1996 -- was surprised that the loopholecould be used as it was in Murray's case. "In my opinion, I don't see how that was not a custodial interrogation," he said. A whole contingent of witnesses testified in favor of the bill, including Shirley Murray,Lacresha's grandmother and adoptive mother, Murray's supporters from the group People of the Heart, and her attorney Keith Hampton.

Murray's case is pending before the Third District Court of Appeals, but unless the Court reverses the conviction based on the idea that she was indeed in custody at the time of her interrogation, this legislation will not affect prosecutors' ability to use the statement as evidence in a third trial. Still, Hampton is encouraged by the proposed change. "It won't happen again," he said. "Not to another kid." --J.S.

At Death's Door?

It appears as if legislation requiring the Board of Pardons and Paroles to conduct its business in public -- as well as similar, less drastic death penalty legislation pending before the state House Corrections Committee -- may already be condemned. The committee debated yesterday a bill sponsored by Rep. Glenn Lewis, D-Fort Worth, requiringthe Board to meet as a body in clemency matters and in panels to consider parole cases. One hint to the bill's grim future: The bill carries a substantial financial burden -- a burden which, though indeterminate, was not considered in the $97 billion budget bill for the 1999-2001 biennium approved by House members just hours before Lewis' bill was discussed. Moreover, Lewis' legislation would require a substantially more radical shift in philosophy thana similar bill from Austin Rep. Elliott Naishtat, which calls for the board to meet as a body only "to consider whether to recommend commutation" in death penalty clemency cases; Lewis' bill requires the group to meet and discuss all of the 18,000 parole cases it considers annually, as well as the hundreds of non-executive clemency cases it takes up every year. That proposal, Lewis admits, is unlikely to pass out of the Republican-chaired committee, at least in its current form. But, Lewis says, "I'm always open to any suggestions. ... If there's something that can be done to make this bill more feasible, I'm open-minded enough to consider it."

By far the most vocal opponent of any changes to the process was, not surprisingly, Victor Rodriguez, the outspoken board chairman who is adamant that board members should be permitted to "deliberate individually" and privately. In testimony, Rodriguez introduced a new wrinkle to his argument, suggesting the board "maybe ought not be called a 'board,'" since state boards and agencies are technically required to meet in public. Before his testimony, Rodriguez defended the board's clemency procedures: "I've said all along we have a good system in place that's fair and lawful," he said. "The good people of the state of Texas have already afforded these folks (death row inmates) every kind of benefit and consideration. They don't need to do any more for them." For now, it looks like Rodriguez will get his wish. Like Naishtat's HB 397, Lewis' bill was left pending in the committee with no further hearings scheduled. Both are likely to remain parked in committee unless some area of compromise can be reached, an outcome Naishtat aide Brian Dupre said is unlikely.--E.C.B.

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