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Jeff Leach

Two Paxtons are not better than one

Oh, good grief.

Always my Paxton avatar

Angela Paxton, the wife of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, is considering a run for state Senate, according to people familiar with her thinking.

Paxton has her sights set on Senate District 8, which is currently held by Van Taylor, R-Plano. He’s expected to give up the seat to run for Congress in 2018.

A Paxton candidacy would shake up the current race to replace Taylor. Phillip Huffines, the chairman of the Dallas County GOP, has emerged as a frontrunner after two Republican state representatives from Plano, Jeff Leach and Matt Shaheen, considered running but ultimately took a pass.

Taylor has now made his candidacy for CD03 official. To be fair, two Paxtons would be only marginally worse than two Huffineses, but at least there’s a chance we could knock off the first Huffines next year. I am not aware of a Democratic candidate for SD08 as yet – there may be one, it’s not easy to tell – and SD08 is not exactly a prime pickup opportunity, but come on. One way or the other, someone terrible is going to be on the other side of the ballot, and with any luck they’ll spend the next six months trashing each other. Just on general principles, we need to be in the game.

Bill to allow discrimination in adoptions and foster care passes the House

Shameful.

Rep. James Frank

Under House Bill 3859, which advanced on a 94-51 vote, providers would be protected from legal retaliation if they assert their “sincerely held religious beliefs” while caring for abused and neglected children. The measure would allow them to place a child in a religion-based school; deny referrals for abortion-related contraceptives, drugs or devices; and refuse to contract with other organizations that don’t share their religious beliefs.

Rep. James Frank, the Wichita Falls Republican who authored the bill and an adoptive father, said repeatedly during a lengthy debate Tuesday that his legislation is not meant to be exclusionary but to give providers some certainty when it comes to legal disputes. He described opposition to the bill as “fabricated hysteria.”

“You can be successful, but it will cost you,” Frank said. “The bill declares a winner and says, ‘You are protected.'”

But Democratic lawmakers who lined up at a podium at the back of the House chamber to question Frank said the legislation would give religious groups license to discriminate against LGBT — or Jewish or divorced — parents who want to foster or adopt, or to avoid getting children vaccinated. A vast array of things could be classified as a “sincerely held religious belief,” they said.

“We’re further casting these children off,” said Rep. Jessica Farrar of Houston. “We’re making it more difficult for them to be adopted.”

See here for the background. The original sin here is the state accepting the idea that it’s okay for faith-based groups to treat children who don’t conform to their faith differently than those who do. By its very definition, it’s not acting in the best interests of the child, but of the providers, who last I checked were supposed to have the best interests of the child as their primary concern. And the “sincerely-held beliefs” dodge is just that, for as Chuck Smith said in that earlier story there are a lot of harmful beliefs out there. Remember this?

So check out the short exchange in the video clip above between Cohen and Becky Riggle, a pastor at Houston’s Grace Community Church. Riggle was testifying against [HERO], arguing that it violates the religious freedom of business owners and others in Houston who think LGBT people are sinful. If a business owner has the right to refuse service to LGBT people because the owner’s religious beliefs are offended, Cohen asks, then should business owners also be able to refuse service to other people — like, say, Jews — for the same reason?

Riggle, clearly realizing she’s trapped by her own argument, proceeds to trip all over her tongue in trying to respond. She ultimately suggests that yes, religious freedom would allow her to discriminate against Jews. But she insists “that’s not the issue” in the case of the Houston ERO.

Actually, that’s exactly what this is about — whether someone’s religious beliefs give them a free pass to discriminate against anyone they choose in civil society.

“Sincerely held” is not a synonym for “commendable” or “worthwhile”. This is a bad idea and it will be directly harmful to children who are already pretty damn vulnerable. ThinkProgress, the Observer, and the Chron have more.

Oh, and on a separate note, there was this:

A foster care bill in the House turned into a heated debate on vaccinations for children on Wednesday.

The bill from Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, is part of the state’s attempt to reform its foster care system. Wu’s House Bill 39, which won preliminary approval, would limit on the number of kids a Child Protective Services worker could supervise. It would also require speedy medical evaluations of children entering the foster care system.

Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington and vice chairman of the staunchly conservative Texas Freedom Caucus, authored an amendment to the bill that would have restricted doctors from including vaccinations in initial medical examinations for children. Zedler said children could be removed from their homes by Child Protective Services, and then given an unwanted vaccination.

On the floor, Zedler told lawmakers that vaccines don’t protect public health and should not be considered an emergency medication. “The vaccination is only for that child to protect that child,” he said.

[…]

Zedler’s amendment had both Democrats and Republicans up in arms. Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, attempted to change Zedler’s amendment to allow doctor’s to distribute a vaccine if it has been proven to prevent cancer. Davis, who has previously been an advocate for vaccinations, said she was “dumbfounded” that lawmakers would vote against preventing cervical cancer.

“My amendment empowers doctors to practice medicine,” Davis said during a testy exchange with Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano. “I think this is so important that we can eradicate cervical cancer.”

Leach said he was concerned that Davis’ amendment would revoke parental rights who do not believe in vaccination, and “rip that decision from the parents and the child and give it to the doctor.”

Emphasis mine. Zedler’s amendment passed, while Davis’ attempt to modify it was defeated. Here are the 2016 election numbers in Zedler’s district and in Leach’s district. Sure would be nice to have some better representatives in those two districts, wouldn’t it? The Trib has more.

Help a crony out?

Collin County, y’all.

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

Collin County lawmakers debated intervening in Ken Paxton’s legal woes by pressuring county leaders to cut funding for the case, according to a series of private text messages exchanged last week.

Taxpayers in Paxton’s home county are on the hook to pay for his prosecution, which has dragged on for months as he’s appealed three felony indictments for violating state securities laws. Local Republican leaders have expressed concern about the case’s six-figure cost but have said the law leaves them no choice but to pay up.

But five Collin County lawmakers thought otherwise.

In a series of texts sent last week, which The Dallas Morning News obtained through open records laws, they discuss how to persuade County Judge Keith Self to violate a court order requiring him to pay three special prosecutors.

Should they send a signed letter to the Commissioners Court? Should they get lawyers involved? Or should they simply pressure Self to refuse to pay the prosecutors, a decision for which he could be found in contempt of court?

“All of us agree (hopefully) on the end goal. Question is what can we do to move the ball toward that goal line,” Plano Republican Rep. Jeff Leach sent in a text on Monday, to which Rep. Matt Shaheen responded, “I’ll ask Keith [Self] if they lowered the fees and discuss options to stop payment.”

“Perfect,” Leach texted back. “Let him know we are here to help — not hurt. If Keith got sent to jail for this — I’d be the first to bail him out.”

This is Exhibit A for why having a central Public Integrity Unit is a good idea. Now, in this case, the PIU in the Travis County DA’s office did investigate, and declined to pursue charges because they determined that the alleged crime did not occur in Travis County and thus was not in their jurisdiction. I don’t know if this situation was affected by the recent legislation that took a lot of these investigations away from the PIU in Travis County, but I do know that if the Travis County DA were doing this prosecution, we wouldn’t have Ken Paxton’s buddies trying to short-circuit it. If we’re going to have these prosecutions handled by home counties, we need better laws to prevent this kind of meddling. If a special prosecutor is needed, that special prosecutor should have fairly wide latitude to request funding to complete its job.

Modified quote of the day: Do it our way or else

From this DMN story about the fight over local control in the Legislature this session.

“[States’ rights] generally sounds good until you realize that some [states] are out of control,” said Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano.

That of course is not what Rep. Leach said, but it illustrates the issue as clearly as I can. Republicans, in Texas and elsewhere, don’t believe in “local control” or “states’ rights” or whatever phrase they’re using at the time to justify their actions. They believe that any laws they don’t like don’t apply to them, and they will act on that belief. Right now in Texas that means that the only valid form of government is state government. They didn’t have any problems with the federal government (besides the usual kind of turf wars one sees all the time) while George Bush was President, and they won’t have any problems with the federal government if the next President is a Republican. They didn’t have any problems with city governments until cities started getting all uppity about attacking problems they didn’t want to be solved. The only legitimate form of government is government they control and that does what they approve of. That’s what this all comes down to.

The bigger threat than the Plano petitions

This could be a big problem.

RedEquality

Four Republican lawmakers from the Plano area plan to introduce legislation that would bar cities and counties from adopting ordinances prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people, the Observer has learned. The proposed legislation also threatens to nullify existing LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances in cities that are home to roughly 7.5 million Texans—or more than one-quarter of the state’s population.

The bill comes in response to the Plano City Council’s passage last month of an equal rights ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations.

“There is legislation that’s being worked on,” Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano) told a group of pastors who gathered in mid-December at Plano’s Prestonwood Baptist Church in response to passage of the city’s equal rights ordinance, according to an audio recording obtained by the Observer.

[…]

Texas Pastor Council Executive Director David Welch, whose group is leading efforts to repeal equal rights ordinances in Plano and Houston, told the Observer the legislation would prohibit political subdivisions of the state from adding classes to nondiscrimination ordinances that aren’t protected under Texas or federal law—neither of which covers LGBT people.

“It should be a uniform standard statewide, and cities can’t just arbitrarily create new classes that criminalize a whole segment of the majority of the population,” Welch said. “It’s just self-evident that they’re going to try to do it city by city. We’re dealing with a broad public policy that creates criminal punishments. That’s a pretty serious issue, and when it’s based on a special agenda by a small, tiny fragment of the population … that’s a legitimate need and reason for the state Legislature to act.”

As I say, this as yet unfiled bill is a bigger threat than the petitions and the proposed constitutional amendments, since this would only need majority support to pass and would surely be signed into law by Greg “Local control means me in control” Abbott. I suppose we could hope that the business community, which is generally very favorable to municipal NDOs, might apply some pressure in Austin to stop this in its tracks. Given how effective they’ve been at dissuading their Republican buddies from doing other things they don’t like – you know, killing immigration reform, slashing funds for education and infrastructure, that sort of thing – it’s not a strategy I’d want to be dependent on.

Currently, the only state with a law prohibiting cities from enacting LGBT nondiscrimination ordinances is Tennessee. The Tennessee law, passed in 2011, prompted a lawsuit from the National Center for Lesbian Rights, but a state appeals court recently dismissed the case, saying plaintiffs didn’t have standing because they couldn’t show harm.

Shannon Minter, a Texas native who serves as legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said he now plans to file a federal lawsuit challenging the Tennessee ban.

Lawmakers in several other states have introduced proposals to ban local nondiscrimination ordinances, but none has passed. Minter said in the last few years anti-LGBT lawmakers have shifted to a religious freedom approach to counter local nondiscrimination ordinances because the strategy is more appealing politically.

“Because the Tennessee-style bill is so punitive toward all localities, I think that it’s so blatantly taking democratic power away from local governments that legislators just don’t have the stomach to do it,” Minter said.

The lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s law was based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1996 decision in Romer v. Evans, which struck down a Colorado law banning local protections based on sexual orientation. Authors of the Tennessee bill attempted to to get around Romer v. Evans by enacting a general prohibition on classes that aren’t covered under state law, rather than specifically targeting LGBT protections. However, Minter believes the law is still unconstitutional.

“Legislatures are not permitted to enact laws that are designed to disadvantage a particular group, and it’s as clear as it could possibly be that the purpose of these laws is to prevent gay and transgender people from gaining local anti-discrimination protections,” he said.

Tennessee lawmakers introduced the legislation in response to a nondiscrimination ordinance in one city, Nashville, and Minter said the Texas proposals broader impact would also make it more vulnerable to legal challenges.

Yes, there’s the courts. One can’t know how that might play out, and even if one felt confident that any such law would be unconstitutional on its face, these things take time and cost money and leave a lot of people in harm’s way in the interim. These are the consequences of not winning enough elections. Keep your state rep on speed dial, you’re going to need to let him or her know how you feel about this. Texas Leftist and Unfair Park have more.

Republicans will push pro-discrimination bills

I have three things to say about this.

RedEquality

Two days after the Plano City Council approved an ordinance prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people, a Texas legislator filed a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit the ability of cities to enforce such laws.

On Wednesday, Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) filed House Joint Resolution 55, which is similar but not identical to Senate Joint Resolution 10, filed last month by Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels).

Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano), one of several lawmakers who sent a letter to the Plano City Council opposing the nondiscrimination ordinance, also announced on Twitter Tuesday that he’s drafting a bill “to protect Texas business owners from unconstitutional infringements on their religious liberty.” As of Thursday morning, Leach’s bill hadn’t been filed, and he didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.

Nevertheless, a month before the session begins, the flurry of legislation suggests that, thanks in part to the legalization of same-sex marriage across much of the nation, conservatives will challenge gays rights in the name of religious freedom in the 84th Texas Legislature.

The resolutions from Campbell and Villalba would amend the Texas Constitution to state that government “may not burden” someone’s “sincerely held religious belief” unless there is a “compelling governmental interest” and it is the “least restrictive means of furthering that interest.”

Experts say such an amendment would effectively prevent cities that have passed LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances from enforcing them. In addition to Plano, those cities include Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio.

That’s because business owners could claim exemptions from the ordinances if they have sincerely held religious beliefs—such as opposition to same-sex marriage—making it legal for them to fire employees for being gay or refuse service to LGBT customers.

“It blows a hole in your nondiscrimination protections if people can ignore them for religious reasons,” said Jenny Pizer, senior counsel at the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal.

But Pizer and others said an even bigger problem could be the amendments’ unintended consequences.

Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas, said in addition to the First Amendment, the state already has a statute that provides strong protections for religious freedom—known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA. But Williams said the proposed constitutional amendments would supplant RFRA and go further, overriding exceptions in the statute for things like zoning regulations and civil rights laws.

[…]

Williams noted that similar resolutions from Campbell have failed in previous sessions. Amending the state Constitution requires two-thirds support in both chambers as well as a majority public vote.

“That’s a very high bar, and the Legislature’s a deliberative body,” Williams said.

But Williams said the key to defeating the legislation this go-round will be economic arguments.

“This would have a detrimental affect on businesses that are looking to relocate to Texas,” he said. “Businesses that want to relocate to Texas will think that their LGBT employees and the family members of their LGBT employees are not going to be welcome.”

1. Between equality ordinances, plastic bag bans, payday lender regulations, and anti-fracking measures, the obsession that Republican legislators may have this session with nullifying municipal laws may overtake their obsession with nullifying federal laws. I continue to be perplexed by this obsession.

2. We are all clear that these “freedom to discriminate” bills are, intentionally or not, also about the freedom to discriminate against Jews or blacks or whoever else you don’t like, right? I mean, every time they get pinned down on it, proponents of such bills admit as much. I don’t suppose it has ever occurred to the Donna Campbells of the world that one of these days they themselves could be on the receiving end of such treatment, if someone else’s sincerely held religious beliefs hold that antipathy towards LGBT folks is an abomination before God. I’m just saying.

3. Assuming Speaker Straus maintains the tradition of not voting, the magic number is fifty, as in fifty votes in the House are needed to prevent any of these travesties from making it to your 2015 ballot. There are 52 Democrats in the House, plus one officially LGBT-approved Republican, so there are three votes to spare, assuming no other Republicans can be persuaded to vote against these. We know that there are four current House Dems that voted for the anti-gay marriage amendment of 2005. One of them, Rep. Richard Raymond, has since stated his support for marriage equality. Another, Rep. Ryan Guillen, may be persuadable. The current position of the others, Reps. Joe Pickett and Tracy King, are unknown. Barring any absences or scheduling shenanigans, we can handle three defections without needing to get another R on board. This is the key.

(Yes, eleven votes in the Senate can also stop the madness. Unfortunately, one of those votes belongs to Eddie Lucio. I’d rather take my chances in the House.)

Unfair Park and Hair Balls have more.

Double secret illegal Medicaid amendment amended

Yes, I know, it’s all so confusing.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The House on Sunday night accepted Sen. Jane Nelson’s and other lawmakers’ clean up of an amendment by a freshman state representative from Collin County that would require a rubber stamp from the Legislature before Medicaid could be expanded to cover more able-bodied adults.

Basically, they feared Rep. Jeff Leach’s provision could screw up two things — some shifts of the state’s most disabled individuals between so-called “Medicaid waiver programs,” as the bill attempts to improve and shrink the cost of their long-term care services; and the scheduled addition to Medicaid of foster children through age 26 and a subset of youngsters now on the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Under the federal health care law, some current CHIP recipients — those ages six through 18 and just over the poverty line — will have to be shifted to Medicaid. That and the extension of coverage for former foster children are noncontroversial requirements of the federal health care law.

The long term care bill, which would expand use of managed care in Medicaid, received final House approval and was finally sent to the governor. The vote was 146-1.

Last week, Leach, R-Plano, added the provision to the measure by Nelson, R-Flower Mound. Effectively, it would have barred the Texas Health and Human Services Commission from accepting anyone into Medicaid who was not eligible under this year’s rules as of Dec. 31. Leach said he wanted to make sure lawmakers, not just Gov. Rick Perry, have a say on whether Texas expands Medicaid to cover uninsured adults of working age. Texas currently covers almost none.

Rep. Richard Raymond, a Laredo Democrat who was House sponsor of Nelson’s bill, said the new language added by House-Senate negotiators makes sure Leach’s amendment does no collateral damage.

“We have been able through the years to get waivers” for disabled and elderly Texans to stay out of nursing homes and large group homes, he said. But the bill will put those services under managed care, he noted.

See here for the background. Basically, the committee report clears up the aspects of Leach’s amendment that could have caused real problems, and leaves the largely symbolic “do nothing without the Lege’s OK” provision in place. As I said before, it’s not like Medicaid expansion is going to happen without major changes to the state government, if it ever does.

Medicaid expansion is now double secret illegal

Whatever.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

In a surprise turn in the House on Monday evening, a bill to reform Medicaid long-term and acute care services became a vehicle for the GOP’s platform against Medicaid expansion.

“Many of us are very weary of Medicaid expansion,” said state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, who offered an amendment to Senate Bill 7 that would ban Texas from expanding Medicaid eligibility without the approval of the Legislature. While House lawmakers recognize that Texas’ large number of uninsured residents is a problem, Leach said, “We don’t believe that Obamacare is the answer to that.”

Leach’s amendment — which was adopted with a vote of 87 to 57 — would prohibit the Health and Human Services Commission from providing “medical assistance to any person who would not have been eligible for that assistance and for whom federal matching funds were not available” under the state’s existing criteria for medical assistance.

State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, expressed concern that the “broad stroke” of Leach’s amendment would handicap the state’s ability to stretch federal matching dollars in other programs, such as the 1115 Medicaid waiver program.

“I’m the first to tell you that the Medicaid system is very fragile,” said Zerwas, who has pushed this session for the Legislature to weigh in on the Medicaid expansion debate by approving “a Texas alternative” based on private-market reforms. “But this particular provision, in terms of restricting any ability to utilize matching funds for the provision of health care, is not the right amendment for this bill,” he said.

But under current law, Leach said, the state health commissioner or governor could expand Medicaid coverage without legislative approval. The expansion of Medicaid eligibility is “too big of a decision for the future of this state to be made by one person, and I believe the Legislature ought to be involved,” he said.

It’s hard to say that this makes much difference. Barring the election of a Democratic Governor in 2014 – I’ll leave it to you to estimate the odds of that – it’s pretty much a moot point anyway. Since in adding this amendment SB7 was altered from the Senate version, it has to go to a conference committee, so the amendment could wind up getting stripped anyway. But in all honesty, it probably doesn’t matter anyway. BOR and Trail Blazers have more.

The birth control poll

The Texas Freedom Network would like you to know that Texans support having access to birth control.

A new statewide poll from the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund shows Texans believe that access to family planning and birth control is important and should not be limited by a woman’s income level, employer or medical provider. Voters support government taking action to ensure that Texas women can make their own decisions about family planning, including providing state funding for family planning and birth control programs in the state.

Support for state funding for providing access to family planning services and birth control for low-income women is both broad and deep, crossing political, racial, generational and geographic lines. Moreover, strong support exists for access to birth control among religiously observant Texans, including both Catholics and Protestants, as well as Born-again Christians.

Here’s the poll memo:

Texans believe that access to family planning and birth control is important and should not be limited by a woman’s income level, employer, or medical provider. Voters support government taking action to ensure that Texas women can make their own decisions about family planning, including providing state funding for family planning and birth control programs in the state.

Support for state funding for providing access to family planning services and birth control for low-income women is both broad and deep, crossing political, racial, generational, and geographic lines. Moreover, strong support exists for access to birth control among religiously observant Texans, including both Catholics and Protestants, as well as Born-again Christians.

Voters support efforts to make birth control more accessible to women, not less. Texans oppose the cuts to funding for family planning made by the state Legislature in 2011 and want to see funding restored. They also oppose allowing employers to deny their employees health care coverage for family planning services and birth control, and want to ensure that state funding for family planning goes to medical providers that offer a full range of family planning services, including birth control.

The results in this report are based on a statewide poll of registered Texas voters, conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and Chesapeake Beach Consulting for the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund. The survey reached a total of 604 registered voters in Texas and was conducted February 6 – 11, 2013. The margin of sampling error for the sample is +/- 3.99 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence level.

The poll was conducted jointly by Democrat Anna Greenberg and Republican Bob Carpenter. It has certainly accomplished the goal of getting media attention, as these Chron, DMN, Statesman, AusChron, and Hair Balls stories show. But only the Texas Observer notes the disconnect:

Despite the overwhelming evidence of support for family planning services, some legislators have filed bills that go after contraception. Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), for example, is pushing “Hobby Lobby” legislation, which would give tax breaks to companies, like Hobby Lobby, that face federal fines over their refusal to provide emergency contraception coverage to their employees through insurance.

Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) filed HB 1057 last week, which would prevent abortion providers or their affiliates (like Planned Parenthood) from providing sex education materials for public schools.

But, according to [TFN President Kathy] Miller, this study only illustrates that lawmakers have lost sight of what Texans actually want. “Last legislative session, we saw some legislators openly declare war on contraception. Texans clearly want that war to stop,” Miller said.

I’m not surprised by this poll result, and I do hope it gets a lot of attention. But, and I hate to be a wet blanket here, the fact is that many Republican legislators have nothing to fear, or at least they believe they have nothing to fear, from it. Not to put too fine a point on it, but when was the last time someone lost an election in Texas for being wrong on birth control? Far as I can tell, the next time will be the first time. Lord knows, there are plenty of Republicans who’ll be on the ballot in 2014 that should take heed of this, starting with our promiscuously litigious Attorney General/Governor wannabee Greg Abbott, who’s been busy amicus-briefing the federal courts over the Obama administration’s contraception mandate for employers, including Hobby Lobby. But until someone actually does lose an election over this, why should we expect anything or anyone to change? Someone needs to start convincing some of those Republican women to reconsider some of the people they’ve been voting for.