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Texas: America's Dream or NIghtmare?

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On April 17 th there was a horrific explosion at the West Chemical and Fertilizer plant in West, Texas, that killed 15 people, injured more than 200, destroyed or damaged 150 homes, and caused at least $100 million in losses.  Five days later, Texas Governor Rick Perry was in Illinois trying to lure business to Texas, praising his state's limited regulations.  Is Texas America's future?

Republican conservatives have a simple economic precept: what's good for business is good for America.  Conservatives believe states should provide a "business friendly" environment with low taxes and few regulations.  They argue this inevitably creates jobs and builds community through the "trickle-down" theory of Reaganomics: "a rising tide lifts all boats."

Texas is the foremost practitioner of the conservative theory.  This year CEO magazine voted Texas "the best state to do business in" for the ninth consecutive year, citing factors such as low taxes and sparse regulations.  Texas' 6.5 percent unemployment rate is below the national average.

But the Texas economy has negative aspects that contributed to the explosion at the West Chemical and Fertilizer plant.  There is no state fire code and McLennan, the county that housed the plant, also has no fire code.  According to the New York Times:

Texas has also had the nation's highest number of workplace fatalities -- more than 400 annually -- for much of the past decade. Fires and explosions at Texas' more than 1,300 chemical and industrial plants have cost as much in property damage as those in all the other states combined for the five years ending in May 2012. 

In much of Texas zoning laws are non-existent.  In 1962, when the West Chemical and Fertilizer plant originally opened, the facility was far from downtown; in recent years, a school, nursing home, and apartment complex were built nearby.

A consequence of Texas' "anything goes" attitude is not only the nation's highest number of workplace fatalities but also America's dirtiest environment.  According to the Houston Chronicle Texas leads the US in greenhouse-gas emissions.

Texas' coal-fired power plants and oil refineries generated 294 million tons of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases in 2010, more than the next two states -- Pennsylvania and Florida -- combined.

 

Regrettably, many Texans lack adequate healthcare.  The Texas Observer reports that the state ranks first in the nation for adults without health insurance. 

Over the last decade, Texas added thousands of jobs in construction and energy.  Unfortunately, Texas leads the nation in construction fatalities. 

The Texas construction industry is characterized by dangerous working conditions, low wages, and legal violations that hurt working families and undercut honest businesses.

Furthermore, an average of 39 energy industry workers die each year.

Oil and gas field services and drilling workers were killed on the job in Texas more than those in any other profession, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis of five years of fatal accidents investigated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

And when Texans are injured on the job, they often have great difficulty getting their medical claims reimbursed.  Texas is the only state where employers have a choice about paying worker's compensation.  If the worker's employer doesn't provide coverage, the worker has to file a civil claim.  But even when there is worker's compensation, the system is notoriously difficult.

Texas Governor Rick Perry roams the US luring workers to Texas with the promise of good jobs, but the reality is unimpressive.  Writing in the American Independent Patrick Brendel observed the new Texas jobs are primarily low-wage jobs:

Texas has by far the largest number of employees working at or below the federal minimum wage ($7.25 per hour in 2010) compared to any state, according to a [Bureau of Labor Statistics] report.   In 2010, about 550,000 Texans were working at or below minimum wage, or about 9.5 percent of all workers paid by the hour in the state.

On June 14, Governor Perry vetoed an equal pay bill.

Meanwhile, the ruined city of West, Texas, is struggling to recover.   Total losses will be more than $100 million and FEMA likely will reimburse only 10 percent.  The City of West has sued the owner and supplier  of the West Chemical and Fertilizer Plant.

On April 22nd Texas Governor Rick Perry was asked about the explosion at the West Chemical and Fertilizer Plant and contended, "" more government intervention and increased spending on safety inspections would not have prevented"" the West catastrophe.

What's happened in West and Texas graphically illustrates the choice facing America.  We can adopt an extreme pro-business strategy and subordinate worker pay and safety; we can, in effect, tell the 99 percent, "You're on your own."  Or we can adopt a strategy that puts people first; we can decide that capitalism has to be subordinate to democracy and protect the rights of all Americans.

 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.

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