Texas Railroad Commission Chairman David Porter speaks during a Sunset Advisory Commission hearing in Austin on Aug. 22, 2016. (Marjorie Kamys Cotera)

Texas Railroad Commission Chairman David Porter speaks during a Sunset Advisory Commission hearing in Austin on Aug. 22, 2016. (Marjorie Kamys Cotera)

Lawmakers Push Back on Railroad Commission Overhaul Proposals

State lawmakers on Monday considered a host of recommendations to reshape and rename the Texas Railroad Commission, a powerful agency that oversees a host of oil and gas activities but not railroads.

Staff of the Sunset Advisory Commission, the legislative body that periodically reviews state agencies, has called for big changes at the 125-year-old agency, including beefing up its oversight of drilling, pipeline safety and abandoned wells; improving record keeping; changing its name to the Texas Energy Resources Commission; and no longer regulating natural gas utilities.

But as a hearing of lawmakers on the Sunset commission stretched into evening, it appeared unlikely that all of those recommendations would make it into legislation.

One legislator said he believed the entire review was was unnecessary, and the criticism mean-spirited.

“When I went through this report, I thought to myself, ‘Why are you so angry at the Railroad Commission?'” Rep. Dan Flynn told Sunset commission staff.

“Oil and gas industry is the heart and soul of the state of Texas, the Canton Republican added, “And for us to go and attack an agency that’s done a pretty good job, it just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Though no lawmaker completely echoed Flynn, his spirited defense of the Railroad Commission underscored the difficulty of implementing change at the hulking agency in Texas, the nation’s oil and gas king.


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A camera captured gunmen storming a restaurant in Puerto Vallarta in August 2016, where they kidnapped Alfredo Guzmán and five others. (Omar Gonzalez/YouTube)

A camera captured gunmen storming a restaurant in Puerto Vallarta in August 2016, where they kidnapped Alfredo Guzmán and five others. (Omar Gonzalez/YouTube)

Son of ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán Released Unharmed After Kidnapping

When the son of imprisoned drug lord Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán and five others were abducted from a restaurant on Mexico’s Pacific coast last week, analysts said revenge attacks would follow.

The younger Guzmán is wanted by the U.S. for alleged drug trafficking while working for his father’s Sinaloa Federation.

But on Saturday, Guzmán was released unharmed reportedly after negotiations with the cartel that took him.

Alfredo Guzmán, 29 years old, was eating at a restaurant in Puerta Vallarta, Jalisco in the early morning Monday August 15 when masked men brandishing machine guns entered. Guzmán was ordered to his knees. The moment was captured by security cameras, a gripping image in a country where the elder Guzmán once seemed untouchable. Alfredo Guzmán was taken, but others with him were not.

That suggested someone was sending a targeted message to fill a vacuum at the top of an  empire of organized crime.

The governors of Jalisco and Nayarit, which borders Jalisco, both said they were preparing for violence following the abductions. Then Saturday Alfredo Guzmán and the five taken with him were released.

A relative told Agence France Presse “They were negotiating all this time, but now (the kidnapped men) are free and well.” Mexican authorities stated that a rival cartel took Alfredo Guzmán, implying that enemies can negotiate.

The unanswered question for the U.S. is what that apparent negotiation might reveal about the current state of the structure of the Mexican underworld. Alfredo’s father El Chapo is in prison in Juárez, from El Paso, Texas. El Chapo’s extradition to the U.S. was delayed by a Mexican federal judge in June.

– Lorne Matalon

The Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise, Idaho, is a contract facility operated by Corrections Corporation of America. The Justice Department says it is phasing out its relationships with private prisons after a recent audit found they have more safety and security problems than ones run by the government. (Charlie Litchfield/AP)

The Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise, Idaho, is a contract facility operated by Corrections Corporation of America. The Justice Department says it is phasing out its relationships with private prisons after a recent audit found they have more safety and security problems than ones run by the government. (Charlie Litchfield/AP)

Justice Department Will Phase Out Its Use Of Private Prisons

U.S. Justice Department officials plan to phase out their use of private prisons to house federal inmates, reasoning that the contract facilities offer few benefits for public safety or taxpayers.

In making the decision, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates cited new findings by the Justice Department’s inspector general, who concluded earlier this month that a pool of 14 privately contracted prisons reported more incidents of inmate contraband, higher rates of assaults and more uses of force than facilities run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

“They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and … they do not maintain the same level of safety and security,” Yates wrote in a memo Thursday.

At their peak, contract prisons housed approximately 30,000 federal inmates. By May 2017, that number will have dropped by more than half, to 14,000, Yates wrote. The Bureau of Prisons tends to use contract facilities to confine inmates who require only low security and who tend to be in the country illegally. The U.S. government spent $639 million on those facilities in fiscal year 2014, according to the inspector general report, in payments to three companies: Corrections Corporation of America, GEO Group, and Management and Training Corp.


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Lupe Dempsey, a retired federal agent, brings her Glock 9mm with her when she goes down to the Rio Grande. She believes the border is too wide open, evidenced by this unguarded metal walkway across the river in far West Texas. (John Burnett/NPR)

Lupe Dempsey, a retired federal agent, brings her Glock 9mm with her when she goes down to the Rio Grande. She believes the border is too wide open, evidenced by this unguarded metal walkway across the river in far West Texas. (John Burnett/NPR)

Borderland Trump Supporters Welcome A Wall In Their Own Backyard

Polls show that the idea of building a wall across the southern border remains unpopular with the general public and especially in the U.S. borderlands.

But not everyone living near the international divide opposes a barrier between the U.S. and Mexico. Donald Trump has a small, zealous following along the southern frontier.

Hudspeth County, in far West Texas, has desert, mountains, cactus, coyotes and 250 Republicans. The GOP county chair is Maria Guadalupe Dempsey. She looks as sweet as a school crossing guard, but for 20 years she worked as a criminal investigator with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She says lots of folks in lower Hudspeth, where she lives, are concerned about border security.

“Border Patrol does a good job of patrolling this area, but it is kind of difficult to patrol it all the time,” She says. “So I would see a wall maybe as a deterrent.”

As proof of a porous border, she describes a footbridge across the Rio Grande, built years ago, that is completely unguarded. After a bumpy 20 minute drive from Interstate 10 down to the riverside, seeing is believing. Sure enough, it’s a narrow metal walkway across the river that anyone could walk across from the Valle de Juarez, in Mexico, which is home to farmers and violent drug smugglers.

“[It’s] the same that you would do in your house,” Dempsey says, holding a Glock 9mm handgun for protection. “You build a fence, you put a gate up and you open and close it as you wish. You invite people in. You don’t want people who are not invited to come into the country.”


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Pump jacks dot the landscape outside Midland, a West Texas oil town. (Ilana Panich-Linsman for NPR)

Pump jacks dot the landscape outside Midland, a West Texas oil town. (Ilana Panich-Linsman for NPR)

Texas Town’s Fortunes Rise And Fall With Pump Jacks And Oil Prices

Out on the wide open plains of West Texas, you can see the horizon for 360 degrees, interrupted only by the nodding up and down of pump jacks pulling oil up out of the earth.

There lies the aptly named town of Midland.

To get the hang of the place, you need to start downtown, on a corner near the Chase Bank, where an electric billboard displays the essentials: the temperature, a message — “God Bless Midland” — and a number. On this day, it’s 45.94.

That number — the price of oil by the barrel — affects everything in Midland: whether people have jobs, how much they pay in rent, whether waitresses make tips.

And that number helps explain why the middle class in Midland shrank faster than almost anywhere else in the country since 2000 — because so many people here have gotten richer.

This boom-bust town reveals a complex picture of America’s economic recovery.

During the boom, people got rich.


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Outside the opening of Robert Irwin's new permanent installation at the Chinati Foundation on July 23, 2016. (Travis Bubenik/KRTS)

Outside the opening of Robert Irwin's new permanent installation at the Chinati Foundation on July 23, 2016. (Travis Bubenik/KRTS)

Robert Irwin Brings ‘Big’ To Texas With Permanent Art Installation

The 87-year-old conceptual artist unveils a large-scale installation of his work in Marfa, Texas, this week. He’s spent his career creating site-specific art that often treats light as its subject.

Listen to the NPR story above and read the full transcript of this story here.

Texas Railroad Commission Chairman David Porter speaks during a Sunset Advisory Commission hearing in Austin on Aug. 22, 2016. (Marjorie Kamys Cotera)
A camera captured gunmen storming a restaurant in Puerto Vallarta in August 2016, where they kidnapped Alfredo Guzmán and five others. (Omar Gonzalez/YouTube)
The Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise, Idaho, is a contract facility operated by Corrections Corporation of America. The Justice Department says it is phasing out its relationships with private prisons after a recent audit found they have more safety and security problems than ones run by the government. (Charlie Litchfield/AP)
Zelda Yazza, left, distributed roasted agave at Guadalupe Mountains National Park in May 2015. The Guadalupes were an historic homeland for the Mescalero Apache, and members of the tribe have returned to the mountains in recent years to conduct mescal roasts. Such roasts were at the center of Mescalero life in West Texas.
Farmworkers on strike block traffic on the Roma bridge in Roma, Texas, in 1966. (Courtesy of AFL-CIO)

Fri. Aug 19 Interview: David Todd and the Texas Landscape Project

David Todd is the founder of the Historic Conservation Association of Texas and one of the authors of a new book called The Texas Landscape Project: Nature and People.

t’s a collection of maps, photographs, and essays that explores conservation and ecology in every corner of the state.

Todd joins us today to talk about the book, the advantage of maps over narrative, and some conservation stories based right here in West Texas.

West Texas Talk is broadcast live at 6:30 pm each weekday.
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John Randolph: The man behind Texas Brags

Lonn Taylor, the Rambling Boy

Lonn Taylor, the Rambling Boy

Texas Brags was a series of illustrated booklets that covered Texas-based topics between 1944 and 1972. Think of it as a lighthearted version of the Texas Almanac.

In this edition of the Rambling Boy, Lonn Taylor digs into the history of the Texas Brags booklets and the history of it’s founder — John Hayward Randolph. The latter proved to be pretty difficult but was aided by an old Marfa resident.

The Rambling Boy is broadcast Monday evenings after the 7 pm newscast.
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Zelda Yazza, left, distributed roasted agave at Guadalupe Mountains National Park in May 2015. The Guadalupes were an historic homeland for the Mescalero Apache, and members of the tribe have returned to the mountains in recent years to conduct mescal roasts. Such roasts were at the center of Mescalero life in West Texas.

Desert-Mountain Harvest: Native Plants and the Mescalero Apache

Rising a mile above desert plains, the Guadalupe Mountains are an icon in the West Texas landscape. They draw geologists, biologists, artists – and Texans eager to climb the state’s highest peak. The forests and springs of the Guadalupes were … Continue reading

Nature Notes is broadcast Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8:35 am and 4:45 pm
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Wed. Aug 17 Interview: Karen Bernstein’s Richard Linklater documentary

Richard Linklater. Credit: Karen Bernstein

Richard Linklater. Credit: Karen Bernstein

Richard Linklater is one of the biggest names in Texas film, and the Austin-based director of movies like Slacker, School of Rock, and the much heralded Boyhood, is the subject of a new documentary.

The documentary, called Richard Linklater – dream is destiny – profiles Linklater and focuses on his desire to work outside the typical film production centers of New York and Los Angeles.

Karen Bernstein directed and produced the documentary with Louis Black. She joins us for today’s West Texas Talk to discuss the documentary, the filmmaking process, and the importance of Linklater’s work.

West Texas Talk is broadcast live at 6:30 pm each weekday.
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Does the Rise of Airbnb Mean Fewer Housing Options for Marfa Residents?

Home rental websites like Airbnb and VRBO have gotten hugely popular over recent years, but as the market for short-term rentals grows across the country, people are concerned about how that’s affecting long-term housing options.

The research is just getting started, but the impact of short-term rentals is most pronounced in towns where housing is already scarce – places like Marfa, where renters do lots of moving.

“It’s kinda known as the Marfa Shuffle,” says Julie Bernal, who’s done plenty of shuffling since moving here four years ago.

Before she landed her most recent place, Bernal moved six times in three years.

“Yeah it was a lot of moving,” she says, “and for someone who really values their home space, and all that it was kinda challenging but it does seem to be kinda part of life here in Marfa.”

Housing has been tight in Marfa for a while. The growth of Airbnb and VRBO have made some people, like Bernal, feel like finding a spot is even tougher now.

“It seems like there’s a lot more short-term rentals now in town than there were say five years ago,” says Bernal, “I don’t know for sure, but it feels like those short term rentals are taking away rental property.”

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