GRC Investigates: Brazos protection bill killed by House committee members with money ties to aggregate industry

A "Texas Aggregates and Concrete Association Day" was declared at the state capitol on Feb. 28. (From the TACA Facebook page)

The state capitol held a “Texas Aggregates and Concrete Association Day” on Feb. 28.
(From the TACA Facebook page)

By Kathryn Jones

Editor

The industry lobbying group for companies that mine gravel, rock and sand along the Brazos River has contributed tens of thousands of campaign dollars to members of the Texas House Natural Resources Committee, an analysis of campaign finance records by the Glen Rose Current shows.

The committee last week essentially killed a bill to extend the John Graves Scenic Riverway after the lobbying group opposed it.

The proposed legislation would have extended the John Graves Scenic Riverway from Palo Pinto and Parker counties to Hood and Somervell counties.

Graves’ 1960 book Goodbye to a River, written after a canoe trip he made in down the Brazos in 1957 before a string of dams changed its character, has become a beloved Texas classic. It also has inspired a new generation of river environmentalists. Graves, who is 92, ended his famous canoe trip in Somervell County and lives in Glen Rose.

The scenic riverway designation currently covers 115 miles of the Brazos through Palo Pinto and Parker counties. Legislation creating the protected riverway was passed unanimously by the Texas Legislature in 2005 under a pilot program.

County commissioners in Hood and Somervell counties passed resolutions this year supporting the proposed extension.

The bill’s author, State Rep. J.D. Sheffield, whose district includes Somervell County, told the committee at a hearing last month in Austin that the proposed legislation “seeks to conserve the river and its natural resources by adding protections and changing the permit process.”

The bill died because it was left pending in the committee, which did not vote it out in time for action on the House floor.

Ed Lowe, president of Friends of the Brazos, a nonprofit advocacy group, said he was “disappointed” that the bill did not pass during the current legislative session.

“The aggregate industry doesn’t want this bill to pass,” Lowe said in an email responding to a request for comment. “Rep. (Allan) Ritter, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, wouldn’t bring it to a committee vote and it therefore never reached the floor.”

State Rep. Jim Keffer, a Republican from Granbury and a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement to the Current he also was “disappointed that the extension of the John Graves Scenic Riverway didn’t happen this session.

“I was the original House sponsor of the bill that created the John Graves Scenic Riverway in 2005, and I feel like it has been a success in Parker and Palo Pinto Counties with minimal impact to the lawful mining operations there,” Keffer continued. “It is my hope that the John Graves program is extended in a future legislative session to protect the water quality along the Brazos in Hood and Somervell Counties.”

The next time the bill could be considered again is when the Texas Legislature meets in 2015.

Ironically, the House committee’s lack of action came after Graves and Friends of the Brazos last month received awards from the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club for their work to improve the state’s air quality, water and wildlife resources in 2012.

Graves was presented the “Art in Service to the Environment Award” for bringing attention to the Brazos River through his writing.

Friends of the Brazos won the Evelyn R. Edens Award for efforts to protect the stretch of the Brazos that Graves wrote about in his book.

“Through their spirited efforts, the John Graves Scenic Riverway will likely be extended through Somervell County during the current legislative session,” the Lone Star Chapter said in making the award. Read the Sierra Club chapter announcement: 20130409_2012Awardsannounced 2

A trail of money and influence

The Current recently compiled and analyzed campaign contributions by the industry trade group Texas Aggregates and Concrete Association and its political action committee to the 11 members of the Texas House Natural Resources Committee.

The Current’s analysis of lobby activities and campaign finance reports to the Texas Ethics Commission shows that all but one of the committee members have received hundreds to thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the mining industry PAC. The total amount of PAC campaign money given to committee members is $34,400, according to the Current‘s analysis.

In addition to Keffer, the committee members are Ritter (R-Nederland), chair; Eric Johnson (D-Dallas), vice chair; Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin); Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton); Bill Callegari (R-Katy); Tracy O. King (D-Batesville); Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio); Eddie Lucio III (D-Brownsville); Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio); and Doug Miller (R-New Braunfels).

Johnson is the only member who did not receive contributions from the PAC.

A call to Ritter’s office for comment was not  returned.

From 2004 to 2012, the aggregates association spent $792,658 on lobbying and contributions to Texas political candidates, campaign finance records show. The association’s lobbyist is Austin attorney Allen Penn Beinke Jr., who will receive a prospective $25,000 to $50,000 from the industry group this year, according to records filed with the Texas Ethics Commission. The majority of the spending is on food, events, entertainment, awards and gifts.

Lt. Governor David Dewhurst has been the association’s top recipient of campaign contributions, raking in $115,000 from 2004 to 2012. He was followed by Gov. Rick Perry with $105,000 and former State Sen. Kip Averitt (R-McGregor), who represented Somervell County before he resigned due to health reasons, with $18,500.

From 2004 to 2012, records show the association contributed a total of $10,500 to Bonnen, $7,000 to chairman Ritter, $5,000 to Keffer — who has been a strong supporter of the John Graves Scenic Riverway bill — $3,000 to Fischer, $2,000 to Miller, $1,750 to Callegari, $1,750 to King and $1,200 to Lucio.

The newest members of the committee, Ashby, who was elected in 2012, received $200 from the mining industry PAC that year, and Larson, who was elected in 2010, received $2,000 in 2012.

State Sen. Brian Birdwell, Averitt’s successor, also has received $500 from the PAC.

The aggregates industry association holds monthly legislative breakfasts at the posh Austin Club. On Feb. 13, State Rep. Jason Isaac, a Republican from Dripping Springs, was the guest speaker. Two days later he filed a bill that established Feb. 28 as “Texas Aggregates and Concrete Association Day” at the state capitol.

The association had given Isaac $2,500 in campaign contributions from 2010 to 2012, records show.

On the day named in its honor, the association posted on its Facebook page that it had more than 50 appointments with legislators and their staff members, was treated to a barbecue lunch at the capitol and that it handed out “cool swag” such as plastic cups and glasses imprinted with the association’s logo.

On April 17, the guest speaker at the legislative breakfast was House Natural Resources Committee member Larson.

Less than a week later, on April 23, the committee held a hearing on the John Graves Scenic Riverway bill. Larson commented that he was concerned about the impact of the bill on the aggregates industry.

Richard Szecsy, president of the Texas Aggregates and Concrete Association, said in response to a request for comment from the Current that “protecting our environment is the benchmark of TACA’s legislative program.

“Just last session we worked with legislators on House Bill 571, which enhanced TCEQ’s (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s) regulatory authority over aggregate mining operations,” he added.

The association opposed expanding the John Graves riverway pilot program because the implications were not “fully evaluated,” Szecsy said.

“We believe that simply expanding the region that this pilot program is intended to cover without fully evaluating, vetting and understanding the implications – scientific, economic, environmental and social – is unsound public policy for Texas.”

Szecsy also pointed out  the Texas Aggregates and Concrete Association contributes to many legislators and their programs as many associations and organizations do.

“By no means do we control the fate of any legislation – we simply let legislators know through our testimony as well as meetings with them and their staff if a bill has a positive or adverse effect on our industry,” he said.

Mining industry opposes more Brazos protection

Szecsy also testified at the Austin hearing. He said aggregate mining operations already must register annually with the TCEQ. They also are regularly inspected by the agency, he said.

“We firmly believe there is more than enough regulatory compliance for aggregate mining operations, whether they’re within the scenic waterway or within an area that would like to be encompassed within the scenic waterway,” Szecsy said. “So there is more than enough regulatory compliance there or at least oversight for those operations.”

Further regulation could affect the availability of raw materials such as sand and gravel needed for construction and take away one more “economic option” for individual property owners, as well as possibly have “long-term consequences” for the industry, Szecsy added.

He noted that if the riverway protection is expanded, mining operations would have to form a reclamation plan, a restoration plan and “provide financial insurance to account for that reclamation plan,” which could be expensive.

A fiscal note attached to the bill said that of the 28 quarries currently permitted under a general permit, four in Somervell County and 24 in Hood County would be affected by the riverway bill. They “would be required to obtain either an individual permit or would be required to seek coverage under the general permit depending on their proximity to the water body protection area,” the note said.

“Based on preliminary assessment, approximately nine quarries in Hood County and at least two quarries in Somervell County may require individual permits,” the note added.

However, in the other counties where the riverway designation exists, “it has been shown where both sides on this issue have worked together to mutual satisfaction,” Sheffield said.

Iris Broyles of Friends of the Brazos said at a hearing in Glen Rose earlier this year that she visited with officials in Parker County about eight years ago to see how the existing scenic riverway had impacted the area.

“There were no negative impacts, no cost to the community,” Broyles said. “The community has taken extra pride and recognize it as a special place.”

One mining business closed because of the 2005 riverway legislation.

Read about the special permit at this link: http://www.tceq.texas.gov/permitting/wastewater/general/jgsrquarries.html

Sheffield pointed out the Brazos has a significant positive economic impact on another business — tourism.

“The tourism industry in Somervell County is growing rapidly and is vital to this area,” Sheffield said. “A lot of this tourism involves recreation in and around this river.”

Even before its decision not to take any action, the committee wanted to amend Sheffield’s bill by extending the date mining operations would have to comply from January 2014 to January 2015. That was intended to give the aggregate businesses along the Brazos more time to make changes in their operations.

 

 

6 Responses to GRC Investigates: Brazos protection bill killed by House committee members with money ties to aggregate industry

  1. Kathryn Reply

    May 20, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    Thanks so much, Jim. I learned from the best!
    The Texas Tribune picked it up on TribWire. It’s so nice to be able to write what I want to without a supervisor telling me, “Now, don’t stir up any trouble!”
    We have a special gift for you and Jan, particularly. Thought we’d make it down to Austin by now, but haven’t yet. Our invitation to come visit still stands too, of course. Please give Jan my best. Thanks for reading and for writing.

  2. cole word Reply

    May 20, 2013 at 7:50 am

    FYI, Being Bosque County Judge for the last 10 and half years, I can say for sure, Former Senator Kip Averitt, NEVER lived in Meridian.Neither one of us, would be comfortable, with him being called “a Meridian Legislator.” Good story, other than that. Business as usual in The Legislature……..Bad-Money, kills, Good Bills!

    • Kathryn Reply

      May 20, 2013 at 9:34 am

      Thank you, Mr. Word. We’ll correct that.

    • Kathryn Reply

      May 20, 2013 at 2:21 pm

      Yikes, don’t know how I messed that up, but it’s corrected, Mr. Word. I guess I was thinking of the Averitt Insurance presence in Meridian. Thanks so much for bringing it to my attention.
      Best,
      Kathryn

  3. Suzanne Gentling Reply

    May 17, 2013 at 7:04 pm

    Hardly surprising. While the rest of us waits for the corporate/industrial/political entities to catch up and realize that additional environmental sensitivity and regulations for doing business will be mutually beneficial in the long term, we will continue to work to be heard by them.

    • Kathryn Reply

      May 18, 2013 at 12:31 pm

      Sadly, that seems to be the state of affairs today, Suzanne. People often feel powerless to change the cozy relationship between corporations, industry and politicians. Or it’s just easier to focus on other things. Case in point: fewer than 200 people read my investigative piece, but more than 1,000 tuned into the tornado coverage. That’s human nature, of course, but I hate that a good piece of legislation was killed in the interests of a few and at the expense of many and not many people seem to care or feel they can do anything about it. But I’m going to keep after this and it sounds like the supporters of this bill are not going to give up, either.

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