WEST, Texas Five days after an explosion at a fertilizer plant leveled a wide swath of town, Gov. Rick Perry tried to woo Illinois business officials by trumpeting his state's low taxes and limited regulations.
Asked about the disaster, Perry responded that more government intervention and increased spending on safety inspections would not have prevented what has become one of the nation's worst industrial accidents in decades.
"Through their elected officials," he said, Texans "clearly send the message of their comfort with the amount of oversight."
This antipathy toward regulations is shared by many residents in the town of West. Politicians and economists credit the stance with helping attract jobs and investment to Texas, which has one of the fastest-growing economies in the country, and with winning the state a year-after-year ranking as the nation's most business-friendly.
Even in West, last month's devastating blast did little to shake local skepticism of government regulations. Mayor Tommy Muska echoed Perry in the view that tougher zoning or fire safety rules would not have saved his town.
"Monday-morning quarterbacking," he said.
Raymond J. Snokhous, a retired lawyer in West who lost two cousins brothers who were volunteer firefighters in the explosion, said, "There has been nobody saying anything about more regulations."
Texas has always prided itself on its free-market posture. It is the only state that does not require companies to contribute to workers' compensation coverage. It boasts the largest city in the country with no zoning laws Houston. It does not have a state fire code, and it prohibits smaller counties from having such codes. Some Texas counties even cite the lack of local fire codes as a reason for companies to move there.
But Texas also has 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 cost as much in property damage as those in all other states combined for the five years ending in May 2012.
Compared with Illinois, which has the nation's second-largest number of high-risk sites more than 950 but tighter fire and safety rules, Texas had more than three times the number of accidents, four times the number of injuries and deaths, and 300 times the property damage costs.
As federal investigators sift through the rubble at the West Fertilizer Co. plant, seeking clues about the April 17 blast that killed at least 14 people and injured roughly 200 others, some argue that Texas' culture itself contributed to the calamity.
"The Wild West approach to protecting public health and safety is what you get when you give companies too much economic freedom and not enough responsibility and accountability," said Thomas O. McGarity, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law and an expert on regulation.
Since the accident, some state lawmakers began calling for increased workplace safety inspections to be paid for by businesses. Fire officials are pressing for stricter zoning rules to keep residences farther away from dangerous industrial sites. But those efforts face strong resistance.
Chuck DeVore, the vice president of policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative study group, said that the wrong response to the explosion would be for the state to hire more "battalions of government regulators who are deployed into industry and presume to know more about running the factory than the people who own the factory and work there every day."
This anti-regulatory zeal is an outgrowth of a broader Texas ideology: that government should get out of people's lives, a belief deeply held throughout the state that touches many aspects of life here, including its gun culture, its Republican-dominated Legislature, and its cowboy past and present.
Texas is one of only four states with legislatures that meet as infrequently as possible, once every two years, as required by the 137-year-old state constitution.
From the freewheeling days of independent oilmen known as wildcatters to the 2012 presidential race, in which President Barack Obama lost Texas by nearly 1.3 million votes, the state's pro-business, limited-government mantra has been a vital part of its identity.
That is particularly true in the countryside.
"In rural Texas, no one votes for regulations," said Stephen T. Hendrick, the engineer for McLennan County, where the explosion occurred.
It is impossible to know whether tougher regulations would have prevented the disaster near West, especially since investigators remain unsure what sparked the fire that caused the fertilizer to explode. McLennan is among the Texas counties without a fire code.
But federal officials and fire safety experts contend that fire codes and other requirements probably would have made a difference.
A fire code would have required frequent inspections by fire marshals who might have prohibited the plant's owner from storing fertilizer just hundreds of feet from a school, a hospital, a railroad and other public buildings, they say. A fire code probably also would have mandated sprinklers and forbidden the storage of ammonium nitrate near combustible materials.
Investigators say the fertilizer was stored in a largely wooden building near piles of seed, one possible factor in the fire.
"It's tough to overstate the importance fire codes would have made," said Scott Harris, a former emergency management coordinator in Texas for the Environmental Protection Agency who is now with UL Workplace Health and Safety, a safety science company. "Texas just hasn't wrapped its brain around this fact yet."
In chemical fires, firefighters often bear a heavy toll.
Ten of the at least 14 people who died in West were firefighters, and two more were residents helping fight the flames.
This week, officials of the state firefighters' association said a 50-foot-tall memorial to volunteers killed in the line of duty, on the Capitol grounds in Austin, has no room left for new names not even those from West.
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said enough is enough.
"We can dance around it all we want to," said Ellis, who has called for more frequent inspections of plants like the one near West. "But the laissez-faire attitude about government oversight and government regulation has to have some impact on safety measures."
West Fertilizer fell under the purview of at least seven state or federal regulatory agencies, each with its own objectives. None had primary responsibility for ensuring the safety of the hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate stored there or that of the workers or residents nearby.
Zak Covar, executive director of the state environmental regulatory agency, has said his office is not responsible for tracking ammonium nitrate. He pointed to the Office of the Texas State Chemist Tim Herrman, who said his agency monitors whether fertilizers are labeled correctly and not their safety.
"It's fair to say we are not fire-safety experts," he said.
In the capital, two hours south of West, a handful of lawmakers say the time may be right to push, incrementally, for change.
Walter T. Price IV, a Republican state representative from Amarillo, sponsored a bill to give smaller rural counties the option to impose fire codes. Though it is a straightforward bill, Price said, he has already heard complaints from business owners that such requirements could be financially burdensome.
Paul Burka, senior executive editor at Texas Monthly, said he does not imagine that the West disaster will lead to much in the way of change. Tragedies rarely do, he said.
"We're not going to spend our money telling businesses what we should do with their premises," said Burka.
Indeed, days after the accident near West, state lawmakers killed a proposal to provide $60 million in training and resources for volunteer firefighters. And a lobbyist for state firefighters, who backed Price's effort, said the bill had little chance of passing because of resistance from the real estate industry.
"Businesses can come down here and do pretty much what they want to," Burka said.
"That is the Texas way."