July 17, 2000
SMOG AND MIRRORS
Gore’s dishonest campaign against Texas
JOHN J. MILLER
Vice President Gore wastes no time before messing with Texas-and thereby with Gov. George W. Bush-in the foreword to the new edition of his book, Earth in the Balance. “Air quality is generally better across the nation, although a number of cities still have a long way to go,” says Gore. “When I wrote this book, Los Angeles, for example, had the worst ozone pollution in the country. But Los Angeles has achieved some significant improvements . . . while Houston has taken over as the city with the worst air pollution in America.”
Not quite. “We don’t rank cities,” says Dave Ryan, a spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency. But the Houston Chronicle did, using EPA data. Last fall, to great fanfare, it told readers that their city was the smoggiest in the country. But it shouldn’t have. “Anyone who claims that Houston’s smog problems are equal to or worse than L.A.’s is misinformed,” says Kay Jones, a former EPA official who now consults on air quality. The thing is, Houston had an unusually hot summer and Los Angeles an unusually cool one-which created a one-year anomaly in smog readings, almost certain to be reversed this fall if the Chronicle makes a new assessment using the same criteria. Yet even these criteria weren’t well chosen. Alternative interpretations of the same EPA data from last year show no change at all between Houston and L.A.; the air in both cities is smoggy, but L.A. remains king.
Still, the vice president’s surrogates now mention Houston’s unfriendly skies at every opportunity. When the League of Conservation Voters formally endorsed Gore in May, president Deb Callahan labeled Houston “the smog capital of the nation.” The Sierra Club has run ads blaming it all on Bush. Count on someone bringing up Houston during prime time at the Democratic convention in-where else?-Los Angeles.
It’s all part of a broader attack on the whole state of Texas, one meant to mimic Vice President Bush’s successful assault on Massachusetts twelve years ago, which transformed Michael Dukakis’s highly touted “Massachusetts Miracle” into the “Massachusetts Mirage” in just a few months. Houston is meant to serve as this year’s polluted Boston Harbor. If Team Gore has its way, most Americans will begin to regard the Lone Star State as a national embarrassment having more in common with a Third World country than with the rest of America. “If you listen to [Gore] long enough,” says Texas lieutenant governor Rick Perry, “you might think we’re living in one of the vice president’s rental properties.”
Texas isn’t just filthy, the story goes; it’s also a lawless place that lets people carry guns into churches. Stealing a page from the Clinton playbook of microinitiatives, Gore has suggested that no decent state would permit such a thing, and that the federal government must now intervene. The comic strip Doonesbury represents Bush himself as a disembodied cowboy hat-a caricature that would fall flat if he were a governor from just about anywhere else. The recent controversy over the state’s use of the death penalty also reinforces an outlaw image, although this issue is more media-driven than Gore-driven.
On top of it all, said Gore spokesman Douglas Hattaway in March, Texas is “one of the worst places to raise a child.” In the kid-centered politics of today, those are fighting words. A Gore ad earlier this year added a bit of detail to the claim: “Texas ranked the 48th worst state in America to raise a child.” The source for this is a report by the Children’s Rights Council, a nonpartisan child-advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., that ranks states based on their rates of divorce, child immunization, teenage births, and other factors. The strange thing about that study is how much Texas dropped in a single year-from 33rd to 48th. The council doesn’t appear to have an anti-Bush agenda, but it did alter its scoring criteria between 1998 and 1999. “Tennessee doesn’t do much better than Texas,” notes the council’s president, David L. Levy. “Gore has nothing to brag about.” In fact, in all of the council’s previous annual rankings, Texas appeared rather typical compared to other states, and Tennessee finished behind Texas by an average of ten places. “You should look at the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s rankings,” suggests Levy. “They’re much more professional than ours.” These were released on June 20. The result: Texas is 37th, Tennessee 45th.
It’s on the environmental issue, however, that the Gore campaign hopes to inflict the most damage on Bush. And so, Texas is “the number-one most polluted state in America-air, water, and land,” said the vice president in April.
That’s-at best-debatable. Yes, Texas has a lot of pollution. What does Gore expect from the country’s second-most-populous state? Texas is also home to 60 percent of America’s petrochemical industry, and 25 percent of its oil refineries. This production has to occur somewhere, which means that Texas pollutes on behalf of the rest of the country. What’s more, Texas has cut its pollution by more than any other state over the last decade, according to a recent report by Steve Hayward for the Texas Public Policy Foundation. And even when the measure is adjusted to take into account the size of the state, only two states reduced pollution more than Texas.
Sloppy research, whether deliberate or not, is a hallmark of this war on Texas. The League of Conservation Voters has asserted that “more than 4,400 miles of Texas rivers-one-third of those monitored-are so polluted they fail to meet federal standards for recreational and other uses.” But the group’s own cited sources don’t support this. The claim comes from a Dallas Morning News op-ed by Timothy O’Leary, and here’s what it says: “A third of the state’s rivers and streams probably violate federal water quality standards, though no one is certain because the state declines to test them all.” Perhaps this is damning; but it’s also a qualified statement based on guesswork. Gore campaign rhetoric, of course, doesn’t allow for shades of gray. It is perhaps because gray isn’t an earth tone.
Texas has the third-largest state-park system in the country (behind Alaska and California), but this also isn’t good enough for the League of Conservation Voters, which claims that “Texas ranks 49th among states in government spending to support its state parks.” What the group doesn’t say is that Texas park managers are given the responsibility of generating revenues in lieu of direct state funding, and many parks actually take in more than they spend. Visitors to the Big Bend Ranch State Park, for example, may pay several hundred dollars to participate in a cattle drive. That represents savings for Texas taxpayers, allowing them to spend less and still maintain a large park system. “The state parks don’t have to go running hat in hand to Austin,” says Don Leal of the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Mont. “The goal is self-sufficiency.”
But the distortion about Texas parks gets worse. When Deb Callahan endorsed Gore, for instance, she said that “under the Bush administration, not one single acre of land has been added to the state park system.” Not true. Texas has added nearly 91,000 acres, all through donations. When the Houston Chronicle confronted the League’s Betsy Loyless with this uncomfortable reality, she explained that this expansion shouldn’t count because it’s not a direct state expenditure. “It does say something about how the state of Texas reacts, rather than advances public land acquisition,” she snipped.
It says something, all right-in fact, it speaks volumes. But it reveals nothing about Texas, or Bush.