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Texas' battle against feds leads to more oversight

Friday - 6/29/2012, 5:33pm  ET

By RAMIT PLUSHNICK-MASTI
Associated Press

HOUSTON (AP) - Texas Gov. Rick Perry has spent much of the past three years loudly and defiantly fighting against what he views as Washington meddling in state affairs, often refusing to cooperate with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and becoming a leader in the battle against President Barack Obama's health care plan.

Other Republican governors pursuing a similar tactic may want to take note of what's happened in Texas amid Perry's hard-fought battle: An obstinate refusal to cooperate has resulted in more, not less, federal oversight.

"We're very conservative and we're very stubborn," said Bill Miller, a lobbyist in Austin for HillCo who has represented both Republicans and Democrats. He described the Texas mindset this way: "We're not going to be smart. We're going to be pure. It's a point of pride and if there's something else we're proud of, it's our pride."

One area where Texas has fought ferociously with the feds has been on environmental regulations. Yet as the state challenged EPA rules in court over the past three years, the federal agency simply side-stepped the state to work directly with industry.

A similar scenario is playing out with Obama's health care overhaul in Texas, where nearly a quarter of the population, or 6.2 million people, are uninsured. Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has given the law the green light, it's highly likely that Texas won't have time to build a key program, forcing the federal government to design and manage it until the Lone Star State steps up.

"When Texas maintains programs ... they're able to allow Texas values to predominate," said Cal Jillson, a political scientist with Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

And when the federal government steps in, it actually strengthens the anti-Washington sentiment in Texas.

"Typically, federal involvement in Texas drives the argument that it's no damn good for Texas," Miller said.

Richard Hyde, deputy executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, has been dealing with such issues for several years. First, the EPA overturned a long-standing air-permitting program, forcing more than 120 plants to get new operating papers. As Texas pursued court challenges, the EPA offered the companies options for getting new permits so the nation's largest refineries could operate, and sent them back to the state to finalize the paperwork.

Then, when Texas refused to participate in a new requirement that companies that emit greenhouse gases get special permits, saying it does not have the authority to issue such paperwork, the EPA began directly administering the program, Hyde said. The agencies do communicate "about process" because the EPA is not usually in the business of issuing permits, he said, but the situation is not ideal.

"With greenhouse gas permitting and flexible permits, certainly they felt like we should fit in a box just like all the other 50 states. And if you want to ... think out of the box and it doesn't fit in the mold, it doesn't work for them," Hyde said. "We want to show that the Texas way works for Texas."

When it comes to Obama's health care plan, Texas has focused on challenging the law in court. That means it's unlikely to have a health insurance marketplace up and running by 2014. The insurance exchange is designed to allow individuals and small businesses to shop for coverage from a range of competing insurers.

As a result, Texas and other GOP-led states that counted on the law being overturned could see Washington running their exchanges instead.

Mark Jones, the head of the political science department at Rice University in Houston, points out that when the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality oversees a permitting program, it considers industry needs and the economy first, while the EPA emphasizes the environment _ two conflicting philosophies. With the health care exchange, Jones believes that because the government acts as a clearinghouse, federal involvement will not have as much impact.

Still, he said, if Washington puts together Texas' exchange it will almost certainly be "more progressive and liberal."

Faced with that possibility, some Republican governors hedged their bets. In Michigan, for example, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder indicated before Thursday's ruling that he would consider moving forward with his state's exchange so it could control its design. He said he was "just trying to be a pragmatist."

In a statement Friday, Perry's office said it was evaluating the court's ruling and determining the best course of action. But it added that Texas "has no interest in accelerating the implementation of Obama-care in Texas and will continue to call for the full repeal of this bankrupting and overreaching bill."

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