With a panel of state legislators set to decide the future of a number of Texas agencies, the state's environmental agency seems likely to get the green light to operate for another 12 years, but with some changes — a situation environmentalists are calling a mild victory.

The Sunset Advisory Commission, which evaluates the need for the existence of state agencies, will continue to hear public testimony today on nine state agencies, including the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the world's second-largest environmental agency. The Sunset Commission, in a report issued last month, recommended giving the TCEQ authority to enforce drought management plans and asked the agency to concentrate on better serving the public.

But environmentalists like Matthew Tejada, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, say the Sunset staff flinched when it came to addressing the controversial practice of air permitting. "That's the meat and potatoes of the Sunset review process, but they didn't take them up because of this political fight that is going on over all of these other EPA and TCEQ issues," Tejada says.

That aside, Tejada says he's pleased with the recommendation to raise the cap on air emissions fees. The TECQ can't charge companies for emitting more than 4,000 tons of pollution, which Tejada says creates an unfair fee for small companies. The program is also $4 million in the hole. "The big boys that pollute more should pay more," Tejada says. "The little guys that pollute less should pay less. And hopefully that will also drive an incentive in there for everybody to try to pay less."

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Audio: Erika Aguilar's story for KUT News

The Sunset staff also recommended raising the penalty cap, the amount the TCEQ fines serious violators. It's capped at $10,000 per violation, per day. David Weinberg, executive director of the Texas League of Conservation Voters, hopes the state's large budget shortfall will persuade legislators to OK an increase. "This is a logical place for new revenue to be found that is an incentive for big companies to cut back on pollution but then funds a very good program," Weinberg says.

The Sunset report estimates increasing the penalty cap would have generated $1.4 million last year and perhaps some additional savings from not having to send some of those cases to the attorney general's office. But TCEQ spokesman Andy Saenz says this isn't the first time the issue has been raised at the Legislature. "Will that be deterrent to businesses? Will that be an extra burden to businesses? Those are big decisions and that's why those are left up to the Legislature to make," Saenz says.

The Legislature will also decide whether TCEQ will develop a new way to rank companies it regulates. About 80 percent of them are ranked average by default because they don't have any compliance history. The Sunset report said that method doesn't properly reflect actual performance. 

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