Vol 29, Issue 20 Print Issue

The Week in the Rearview Mirror

Now that municipal elections are over, the polls are open for the long-awaited Texas primary. Early voting began Monday in advance of the May 29 election. No one knows what turnout will be like for the unprecedentedly late-in-the-season primary. Usually held on Super Tuesday, the primary was delayed as state officials and the courts hammered out an agreement on redistricting maps.

A permit issued by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality facing challenges from environmental groups has been reviewed by a district court judge, who indicated he would send the permit back for review. His misgivings about the energy plan’s permit include worries about the area’s resulting air quality and safety issues surrounding the plant’s fuel source. Judge Stephen Yelenosky, of the 345th District Court, said that worst-case scenarios were not modeled for the Las Brisas plant, planned for the Corpus Christi area, and that more hearings may be needed to determine whether the permit should be revised or revoked.

The long-standing dispute between Amazon and the state of Texas appears to be settled, provided that the legality of the deal doesn’t come into question. The company owed $269 million in back taxes and agreed to start collecting and remitting sales taxes to the state on July 1 for an undisclosed payment made to settle the issue. It also agreed to create 2,500 jobs in Texas and invest $200 million over the course of four years. Austin attorney Buck Wood challenged the deal as unconstitutional, arguing that Comptroller Susan Combs doesn’t have the power to forgive tax debts. Details of the settlement will remain confidential, but local governments or legislators could challenge the issue.

A federal directive designed to protect the offshore environment is having some unintended consequences. The U.S. Department of the Interior issued an order that oil companies should remove nonproducing oil platforms from the Gulf quickly in order to prevent them from becoming shipping hazards or leaking in the aftermath of storms. But the state of Texas is using the abandoned rigs to create habitat in the Gulf, and both Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, have written letters of protest to the agency’s director, Ken Salazar. The Rigs to Reefs program sinks the platforms, using the structures to create artificial reefs. Of the 66 reef sites in the Gulf, 70 percent of them started as oil rigs.

U.S. Rep. Ron Paul announced on Monday that he would not be campaigning further in his race for the presidency. In a public statement, he admitted that trying to compete in upcoming races would cost millions of dollars that his campaign does not have. He urged supporters to continue to stay involved and to “stay tuned” for ways they could help support his strategy.

Texas’ insurer of last resort for coastal residents, the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, has approved a 5 percent rate hike for next year. The increase is across the board, and for now a decision about determining rates based on the susceptibility of a particular area to storm damage has been tabled. After Hurricane Ike hit the Gulf Coast in 2008, the organization found itself in the red when it not only faced payout of billions of dollars in claims, but also had to spend millions defending itself in court against mishandled claims. The Legislature tried to help TWIA in the last session with a restructuring and as part of that improvement gave the agency the power to adjust its rates based on specific geographic risk. That idea is still being considered and could be approved in the future.

For the second time, Texas’ Higher Education Coordinating Board has released an almanac detailing results of public colleges and universities across the state. The almanac includes information such as average tuition and fees, how long it takes students to earn their degrees and the particulars of their budgets. Commissioner of Higher Education Raymund Paredes instituted the publication of the almanac last year when he decided that making the information available online wasn’t enough. This year, he hopes to show the progress that’s been made and highlight what still needs to be done.

Texas’ death penalty again drew national scrutiny this week when a Columbia University study released claimed that Texas executed an innocent man. Columbia Law professor James Liebman led a team of students in investigating the case of Carlos DeLuna, put to death in late 1989 for the 1983 stabbing death of Wanda Lopez. Liebman and his team started their research on the case in 2004, and have produced a 436-page treatise on the case, published in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review.

The U.S. House showed a little bipartisan cooperation in passing a bill outlawing tunneling along the U.S.-Mexico border. Current laws didn’t specifically address the construction or financing of tunnels, and lawmakers wanted to close any loopholes allowing the building or use of tunnels. U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, worked with Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, to author the House version of the bill, which passed with a vote of 416 to 4. The Senate passed a version of it earlier this year, and it now heads to the president’s desk for his signature. 

Political People and their Moves

State Rep. Veronica Gonzales, D-McAllen, is leaving the Legislature early, allowing her to take a job at UT-Pan American as vice president for university advancement. Gonzales had already decided against another term in the House, where she's served since 2005. She starts the new job July 1 and has to resign to accept it. That sets up a special election for her seat; Gov. Rick Perry could set that as late as the general election date. The contenders for her spot in the regular election are Democrat Bobby Guerra and Republican Miriam Martinez.

President Obama nominated Gary Blankinship to serve as United States Marshal for the Southern District of Texas. He has been employed by the Houston Police Department, where he worked his way through the ranks to the position of senior police officer, since 1982.

Karen Amacker is leaving the Texas Department of Transportation, where she was director of media relations to spend more time at home. She was at the agency for nearly four years and at the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault before that. 

Scott Stewart, most recently with Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston, is joining the Texas Lobby Group (Richard Evans' shop) to work on government affairs. 

Anne Brown has been selected as executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, the official nonprofit partner of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Since 2002, she has been with National Audubon Society.

Gov. Rick Perry appointed William “Bill” Heine III of Austin and Dennis L. Lewis of Texarkana to the Texas Military Preparedness Commission. Heine is CEO and president of American Constructors. Lewis is a military advisor and liaison to the Texarkana College Red River Army Depot.

The governor appointed Gary Aber, a Simonton veterinarian, to the Texas Racing Commission.

Baylor University announced that it received a major gift from Sheila and Walter Umphrey, of Beaumont, for Baylor Stadium, the university’s new on-campus football stadium.

Deaths: S.M. True of Plainview, who led the Texas Farm Bureau from 1982-93, died in an accident on his Hale County farm. He was 88.