By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
No joke--a total 180 in the middle of the road at high speed, such high speed that no one seems to have taken the time to consider just what roaring off in the opposite direction is going to mean.
They call it the Job Creation and Wage Enhancement Act--of all the blooming misnomers--and what it does is basically destroy the legal foundation for the protection of the environment and public health. That's like calling AIDS a situation comedy.
I don't know about y'all, but I get a little bored with the political Chicken Littles in this country who are always running around announcing that the sky will fall, and death, doom, and destruction will inevitably follow, if we don't balance the budget or if we mess with "the finest health-care system in the world" or whatever the topic of the week is.
On the other hand, sometimes those fools in Washington really do dream up some destructive doozies, not because they're out to do evil but because they have failed to consider the Law of Unintended Consequences. And the unintended consequences of the Job Creation and Wage Enhancement Act are both monumental and evil.
Picture, if you will, a series of proposals that would radically redefine traditional American property rights; excuse state and local governments from any obligation to obey key environmental laws; and tie up federal agencies that prevent industries from pumping poison into the air and water.
The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution rightfully and sensibly says the gummint cannot seize your property without giving you just compensation for it. If they want to take a hunk of your pasture to run a freeway through it, they have to pay you fair market value for the land.
But suppose you want to build a cyanide factory on your pasture and dump your waste cyanide in the crick that runs through it, and the gummint says you can't 'cause that crick flows on down to the city's drinkin' reservoir.
The Republicans want to give you the right to sue the gummint and make all the rest of us pay for the money you say you will lose by not bein' able to poison our drinkin' water.
Far-fetched? Nope. Under the provisions of this dandy "Job Creation Act," we are going to have to pay landowners for not poisoning us. (This is not what is known in the Texas Lege as "a hypothetic." Before the Environmental Protection Agency came into existence, a Texas legislator once defended a polluter of the Houston Ship Channel by saying, "Cyanide is a scare word.")
We tend to forget how very young and new our environmental laws are.
Most of them have been in place for less than 20 years, and, yes, to quote many a Texas rancher, they do interfere with "a man's God-given right to do whatever the hell he wants to with his own land."
But there has been general agreement that a "God-given right" is limited if what you want to do with your property harms your neighbors--or the city's drinking water.
By expanding the definition of what touches off the Fifth Amendment's requirements to provide "just compensation," the "Job Enhancement" bill sets up the following situations:
* The Office of Surface Mining imposes land-use standards on companies that strip-mine coal in West Virginia, making the companies restore some of the damage they do to the landscape so erosion and destruction of the river systems in West Virginia will not follow. Should the companies be compensated by the government (us) because their property is less valuable with these restrictions on it?
* If the Interior Department restricts timber companies from clear-cutting to protect wildlife, should the government (we) have to pay them?
* If the Occupational Safety and Health Administration sets stricter limits on cotton dust in textile plants so the workers won't die of brown-lung disease, should the industry have the right to demand payment from the government (us) for a reduction in the value of its factories?
Senator John Chafee, R-Rhode Island, says of the "Job Creation" proposals that "the most important thing to keep in mind is that a major purpose behind much of environmental law is to protect private property rights. These laws protect our health, life, and property from the adverse consequences of somebody else's pollution and other nuisances imposed on us by our neighbors as they pursue their own interests."
Part of the package is risk-assessment legislation that would override existing environmental and health laws. If the bill had been in effect 20 years ago, the government could never have mandated the removal of lead from gasoline.
But that program is well recognized to have given tremendous benefits to our society; children's average blood-lead levels have fallen by 75 percent since the phaseout began.
What we have here is a truly bad idea.
Metaphor of the Month comes from state Senator David Sibley of Waco, heretofore unsung in the ranks of Texas legislative phrase-makers. The extreme difficulty of trying to write tort reform legislation, Sibley said, makes it comparable to "playing pickup sticks with your butt cheeks--no matter what you do, you mess up everything."