El Paso Becomes Second City to Indict Employer for Wage Theft

On Thursday, for the first time in El Paso history an employer was arrested and indicted for robbing a worker of his wages.

In a state that constantly (and loudly) touts its business-friendly attitude, workers almost never reap the benefits. Construction workers and other low-income workers suffer some of the worst conditions in the country, with some of the worst pay.

In 2011, Austin-based Workers Defense Project successfully lobbied for a bill that amended the state’s wage theft code, authored by Senator Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso), that made it harder for employers to get away with stealing workers’ wages. The amendment to the Texas criminal code closed a loophole which allowed employers to get away with paying employees only partially for their work without facing criminal charges. El Paso has become the first city outside of Austin to indict an employer for stealing wages.

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Dormitory Darlings

These days, if you mention “curfews” or “signing out” to students living in UT dorms, they’ll probably give you a funny look. They may take their freedom for granted, but it wasn’t so long ago that living situations on campus were much more buttoned-up.

Though UT was founded as a coed university in 1883—a time when many colleges in the country didn’t even admit women—the campus’ early layout reflected a prevailing attitude of the time: women were fragile beings who had to be guarded and protected, both physically and morally.

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Whooping Cranes Lawsuit Could Change Texas Water Rights

In the winter of 2008, a good portion of the world’s only self-sustaining flock of whooping cranes starved to death. The majestic white birds, which are nearly the size of a Smart Car when they unfurl their black-tipped wings, were dropping dead along the Texas Gulf Coast. That winter was one of the driest the state has ever seen, and a lack of freshwater in the whoopers’ habitat near Aransas Pass resulted in a choked food supply and 23 whooper casualties. It was the largest single-winter decline in the species’ population, and admirers of the imposing bird came together to protect the fragile species.

A year later, a coalition of environmentalists, businesses and local governments sued the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, blaming the state agency for the unprecedented spike in whooper deaths. The group, called the Aransas Project, claimed the agency had violated the Endangered Species Act by allowing too much water to be withdrawn from the two river basins that feed the whoopers’ habitat. The group argued that two of the whoopers’ dietary staples—blue crabs and wolfberries—had dwindled from lack of freshwater inflow into the estuaries of San Antonio Bay.

In mid-March, federal District Court Judge Janis Jack ruled that TCEQ’s inattention to the whoopers was responsible for the 23 deaths. That amounted to 8.5 percent of the wild flock, which nests and breeds in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park and winters in Texas’ Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Jack ordered TCEQ to stop issuing any new water rights and told the agency to write a habitat conservation plan to ensure enough freshwater reaches the coast. (TCEQ quickly secured a stay from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.)

If Jack’s ruling stands on appeal, it could upend Texas’ system of allocating water rights.

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House Bill Tackles Pipeline Companies’ Eminent Domain Powers

In a state where property rights are considered to be on par with the right to breathe, pipeline companies can seize private land by invoking the power of eminent domain. In what state Rep. Rene Oliveira (D-Brownsville) deemed “a ridiculous process,” a company merely has to assert that it’s a “common carrier” to gain the power of eminent domain.

This common carrier status, which means the company is carrying competitors’ products as well as its own to serve the public good, grants companies the right to take land without getting landowners’ consent. Oliveira’s House Bill 3547 attempts to set up a process to ensure companies claiming the status are actually common carriers. The House Business and Industry Committee discussed the bill last night.

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