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Texas lawmakers consider bill for beach closures

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Two pieces of legislation that aim to open the door for future rocket launches in Cameron County moved forward Wednesday with both the Texas House and Senate versions of bills getting favorable responses from legislators in Austin.

During the session, House Bill 2623 passed its second reading while its companion bill, Senate Bill 1574, passed out of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources.

The House could vote on the bill today.

State Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, sponsor of the House bill, said the outlook was good for the legislation, which is being proposed in an effort to get SpaceX, a private space exploration company, to bring a rocket launch site to Brownsville.

Oliveira said he is pleased with the bill, especially since it seeks to protect the public’s right to beach access by placing restrictions on launch dates during summer months.

He said he worked personally with SpaceX founder Elon Musk and Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson to draft the legislation, which requires the Cameron County Commissioners’ Court must seek approval from the General Land Office before approving primary launch dates on weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends and on Independence Day.

While that leaves open the possibility of back-up launch dates falling on holidays and weekends in the summer, Oliveira said the bill’s language represented concessions from each side of the discussion.

“I can tell you the scientists and engineers at SpaceX, because they’re scientists and engineers, wanted unilateral authority and complete discretion,” he said.

“But I said, ‘As much as I want you in my county, I need to also respect the people’s right to the beach.’”

Oliveira explained that without the bill, the state would not be able to allow SpaceX to operate on its beaches.

The Senate version of the bill is an exact twin of its House counterpart, he said.

With five weeks remaining in the legislative session, Oliveira said he’s confident the bill will pass its third and final reading as early as today and he expects the bill to be sent over to state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, in the Senate as a substitute for his bill by the end of the week, allowing the bill to be fast-tracked to ratification.

“It will pass tomorrow,” Oliveira said, saying he had spoken with colleagues on the floor to ensure there weren’t any concerns.

Lucio, too, was confident the bill would move swimmingly to the governor’s desk.

“We’re in good shape at this point,” he said.

Still, Oliveira said he wanted to be cautious, especially after an unexpected turn of events Wednesday caused the Texas Lottery Commission to dissolve before being approved again.

“We’ve had some crazy things happen here in the last 48 hours,” he said. “It’s an unpredictable Legislature in some ways.”

However, Oliveira said there was statewide support for his bill, which skirts around requirements in the Texas Open Beaches Act to allow for the occasional closures.

That statute, passed in 1959 and amended in 1991, states that “the public, individually and collectively, shall have the free and unrestricted right of ingress and egress to and from the state-owned beaches bordering on the seaward shore of the Gulf of Mexico.”

Lucio said this bill does not put a priority on attracting SpaceX to the area at the expense of public access, pointing out that the bill requires the Commissioners’ Court to inform the public of any beach closure ahead of time.

“This bill really creates a narrow exception,” he said.

As former chairman of the Texas Tourism Caucus, Lucio said he was ever mindful of the impact any beach closures could have on Valley residents and visitors.

Oliveira said he felt the rocket launches could even give a boost to tourism, as he said he envisioned thousands would turn out to see launches.

He also noted the explosion of economic activity in Houston and Clearlake when NASA began its work in Houston.

“This has that potential,” he said. “This could be very big for Texas and put us on the forefront.”

Lucio noted in a press release Wednesday that SpaceX would itself bring 600 jobs and an annual injection of about $51 million to the regional economy.

The potential economic impact for Texas, Oliveira said, had won over support from lawmakers and government officials from both sides of the aisle.

“From Governor (Rick) Perry on down we have had and been blessed with strong bipartisan support, which is not always easy up here,” he said from Austin. “Everybody believes it’s a win-win.”



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