Public Interest Representatives Denounce Sen. Brown’s Attempt to Hijack H.B. 801

Sen. Brown "Pulls a Fast One" in Committee by Amending H.B. 801 to Include Grandfathered Air Polluters Legislation & Other Bills

(Austin)—Representatives of public interest groups today denounced an effort by Sen. Buster Brown (R-Lake Jackson) to "hijack" a previously agreed-to bill on pollution control permits. On Tuesday of this week, the Senate Natural Resources Committee, which Sen. Brown chairs, adopted a committee substitute for H.B. 801 that incorporates the language of four other bills sponsored by the Senator.

Those bills, including legislation to continue the voluntary program for grandfathered air polluters, have passed the Texas Senate and are currently in the House. Apparently Sen. Brown was not pleased with the rate of progress of those bills in the House.

The public interest representatives speculate that the Senator is trying to use H.B. 801 as a vehicle primarily to "send a message" to the House to move his bills through the process. In doing so, they contend, Sen. Brown is putting in jeopardy a finely-crafted compromise bill that has support from environmental groups, business groups, and local governments..

"Using H.B. 801 for purposes of promoting the Senator’s legislative agenda is in direct contrast to the statesmanlike approach that Rep. Tom Uher took on this bill," said Richard Lowerre, an environmental attorney who participated in several weeks of negotiations on H.B. 801 on behalf of several citizen groups. "Rep. Uher, the House sponsor of 801, brokered a deal which turned a bad bill restricting the rights of the public into a good bill for all parties. Now the action by Sen. Brown jeopardizes the prospects of H.B. 801."

Rep. Uher has committed to public interest representatives that he will fight to assure that the Senator’s bills are stripped out of H.B. 801. Lowerre praised Rep. Uher for standing firm on the agreement made on H.B. 801 by the parties involved in negotiating the bill. "We hope that Sen. Brown will reconsider his action and return H.B. 801 to the agreed-to language that will allow it to go forward," said Lowerre.

Ken Kramer, Sierra Club state director, criticized the inclusion of the grandfathered air polluters bill in H.B. 801 in the Senate committee. "This action in the Senate committee may be an attempt to avoid an up or down vote on the House floor on closing the grandfather loophole. The backers of Sen. Brown’s S.B. 766 (the voluntary bill for grandfathered air polluters) know that they are likely to lose the vote on an amendment to close the loophole."

"This inclusion of the inadequate voluntary program for grandfathered air polluters in H.B. 801, if allowed to stand, would prevent the Texas House from being able to vote straight up or down on this issue," continued Kramer. "The issue of grandfathered air pollution is too serious to be dealt with by these types of political games. We hope that Sen. Brown will reconsider his actions and allow the grandfathered air polluter issue to be dealt with fairly on the House floor, where it will probably be scheduled next week."

In addition to S.B. 766, Sen. Brown incorporated language from S.B. 486 (landfill siting), S.B. 1298 (restricting use of air dispersion modeling in contested cases on concrete batch plants), and a portion of S.B. 1311 (dealing with authorization of a small volume of surface water for beneficial use without a permit).

H.B. 801, as originally filed, would have eliminated the opportunity for the public to request a contested case hearing before an independent hearings examiner for pollution control permits issued by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC). After a major public outcry, Rep. Uher responded by initiating a lengthy series of negotiations among representatives of industry, environmental groups, and local governments.

Those negotiations resulted in a bill that makes changes in the contested case process that would be fair to all parties and that moves only one type of permit action from a contested case opportunity to what is termed "notice and comment." Groups as diverse as the Texas Chemical Council, the League of Women Voters, the Sierra Club, Texas Oil & Gas Association, Consumers Union, and many others have endorsed the negotiated H.B. 801 with the understanding that there would be no amendments to the bill that were not acceptable to all the negotiators. Sen.Brown’s actions were not agreed to by the negotiators.

[Note: Sen. Kenneth Armbrister (D-Victoria) is the Senate sponsor of H.B. 801.]