June 2, 2003
Despite Setbacks, Session Yields Five Steps Forward
Ethics Reform, Wind Power Bill, Pollution Reduction Plan Cited as Victories
AUSTIN – Texas consumers and protectors of the environment came away with five major wins as the 2003 legislative session ended Monday, Public Citizen said today.
“For the most part, I can’t recall a worse legislative session in Texas, and I’ve been through all of them for the past 20 years,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of the Texas office of consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. “Still, we were able to help get some good legislation passed and help defeat some really bad bills in the final days of the session.”
On the plus side, Smith cited passage of an ethics bill during the closing minutes of the session early Monday morning.
“This is the first significant reform in ethics laws for Texas lawmakers in more than a decade,” Smith said.
He praised State Rep. Steve Wolens, D-Dallas, and State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, for their leadership in seeing that the ethics bill, HB 1606, was passed with many of its most controversial provisions still intact. Those provisions included requiring candidates to report their campaign cash balances and report contributions of $500 or more. The bill also prohibits legislators who are lawyers from representing clients before state agencies.
“Speaker of the House Tom Craddick should be credited with starting the process of ethics reform when he appointed a strong ethics reform committee at the beginning of the session,” Smith said.
Also listed at the top of Smith’s list was passage of HB 1365, which significantly improves the Texas Emissions Reduction Program, the state’s major air pollution cleanup program. Included in HB 1365 was a new energy efficient building program. Smith praised the passage of legislation that will help boost the production of clean, renewable wind power in Texas.
“Improving and funding TERP, getting a state green building program, and getting our wind power industry back on its feet were three of our priorities at the beginning of the session, and we succeeded in getting all three,” Smith said.
Another win for consumers, Smith said, was the creation of a state Office of Patient Protection to serve as an ombudsman by dealing with consumer complaints to state health agencies about about health care providers. Smith credited Craddick’s staff with making sure this legislation was passed.
The 2003 session also saw the defeat of two bills, SB 1952 and HB 2877, that included measures that would have undermined the ability of citizens to meaningfully participate in the pollution control permitting process before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
“Again, Senator Ellis deserves a lot of credit for stopping the stripping away of these rights for Texans,” Smith said.
SB 1325, a bill that would have encouraged more harmful incineration of municipal solid waste in Texas, also was beaten back.
Among the worst results of the session for consumers and the environment was the passage of legislation allowing radioactive waste from other states to be buried in West Texas. Also bad was a tort reform measure that placed severe limits on damage awards in personal injury lawsuits and limited protections for victims of medical malpractice.
Also disappointing was passage of SB 1265, which limits the ability of local law enforcement and district attorneys to prosecute environmental crimes in their communities.
“Overall, what we saw this session were corporate interests, big campaign donors and right-wing ideologues strengthening their sway over state government,” Smith said. “And that’s to the detriment of most Texans, who believe government must play a big role in keeping our air and water clean and protecting consumers from corporate rip-offs.”
For Public Citizen’s breakdown of the 2003 session, click here.