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Conservative Lawmakers Target United Nations

In the latest effort by conservatives to fight what they see as overreach by the United Nations, two Texas Republican lawmakers have filed legislation aimed at a nonbinding plan for sustainable development that the United States and more than 100 other countries signed in 1992.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal, and Ryan McCrimmon, The Texas Tribune
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In the latest effort by conservatives to fight what they see as overreach by the United Nations, two Texas Republican lawmakers have filed legislation aimed at a nonbinding plan for sustainable development that the United States and more than 100 other countries signed in 1992.

The plan is known as Agenda 21, and it seeks to encourage governments to promote environmentally friendly development such as preserving open spaces and discouraging urban sprawl.

The identical bills proposed last week by state Rep. Molly White of Belton and state Sen. Bob Hall of Edgewood would choke off state and municipal funding — including money from public universities — to organizations “accredited by the United Nations to implement a policy that originated in the Agenda 21 plan.”

The anti-Agenda 21 proposals come on the heels of a national conservative outcry, with similar legislation being considered in statehouses across the country. (Only Alabama has successfully passed it so far.) Critics say Agenda 21's basic tenets — especially those promoting public transportation or denser communities — are a threat to private property rights and states' sovereignty. White said her bill would protect Texas from a "global agenda" propagated by "a handful of unelected, unaccountable people." 

The U.N. as a whole is also a target of conservative activists and lawmakers. White, an anti-abortion activist who has attended many U.N. conferences, has criticized its promotion of better access to birth control in developing countries. And state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, is seeking to make sure the beloved Alamo could never come under “foreign control,” as the U.N. is considering giving the historic site a World Heritage designation. 

It's not clear which organizations would be the target of the Agenda 21 bill in Texas. The 350-page Agenda 21 plan covers everything from reducing deforestation to women's empowerment.  

“You’re talking about a document that covers everything from healthy living, preventing child abuse, promoting public transportation,” said Chris Whatley, executive director of the United Nations Association of the United States of America. “If you specifically write a really big bill that says the state of Texas can’t work with any of those organizations and it can’t work with anything that’s included in that document, that 350-page set of suggestions, it could lead you into territory you don’t anticipate."

For example, the nonprofit Save the Children consults regularly with the U.N. and promotes the health of children, which is part of Agenda 21. Whatley asked: Would the Texas bill affect its ability to work with child refugees in the Rio Grande Valley?

“They can use federal funds to operate,” White said of Save the Children. She added that Texas-based nonprofits and private businesses would be exempt from the bill's ban on receiving state and city dollars, but the bill does not say that.

Asked about the companion proposal he filed in the Senate, Hall said he was targeting “city organizations and cities that are adapting the U.N. programs.”

Does that mean cities and public universities can’t give grants to nonprofits for activities like “strengthening the role of business and industry” or protecting freshwater resources, both of which are mentioned in Agenda 21? Hall’s office did not respond to requests for more details.

Unlike the Texas proposals, a similar anti-Agenda 21 bill in Mississippi names an organization that would be affected. That state's bill would ban cities from any affiliation with the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), a global network of cities that work on issues like climate change and sustainable development.

That group has drawn the ire of the far right in Texas because of its ties to the U.N. and Agenda 21. A few cities, including College Station, have withdrawn from ICLEI membership in recent years. But many big cities, including Houston, Austin, Dallas and San Antonio, are still members.

Mississippi's bill has passed that state's House and is now pending in its Senate Judiciary Committee. Maine, Washington and other states are also looking at the issue. 

So is Missouri, though its governor, Democrat Jay Nixon, vetoed similar legislation in 2013. “Not a single pejorative action in Missouri has been tied” to the plan, he wrote in his veto letter, adding that the bill would “force ambiguously worded restrictions on state and local governments.”

That state's Legislature nearly overrode him, but its House fell short of the required two-thirds majority by just a handful of votes. The bill is back on the table this year.

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