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Jose Rodriguez

From the “Answering my own rhetorical question” department

Nobody could have seen this coming!

Best mugshot ever

Ever since Texas’s “sanctuary cities” ban was first proposed in late 2016, the measure’s Republican backers have painted it as a public safety measure targeting criminals — without racist or anti-immigrant intent. But records obtained by the Observer reveal that some of the Texas citizens most supportive of the law apparently never got the memo.

Senate Bill 4, among other things, threatens local law enforcement officials who impede cooperation with federal immigration agents with fines, jail time and removal from office. To prosecute wayward officials, the law requires citizens to report violations of SB 4 to the Texas Attorney General’s Office. Attorney General Ken Paxton formally began accepting complaints in September, but the records include a stream of phone calls and emails beginning last February. Of 43 total formal and informal complaints so far, most veered wildly from SB 4’s supposed intent, expressing instead resentment of immigrants and even threatening violence.

“These comments are disturbing to read,” said state Senator José Rodríguez, an El Paso Democrat and staunch SB 4 opponent. Rodríguez called them part of a general shift toward viewing immigrants in a “national security framework” rather than a human rights one, adding that “during the SB 4 debate, we warned that the attorney general would receive frivolous, anti-immigrant complaints such as these.”

See here for the background, and click over for the entirely predictable stream of garbage that ensued. In a world where Ken Paxton felt shame he would no doubt be red-faced over this, but we do not live in that world. I don’t know what else there is to say.

One other thing:

Out of the dozens who communicated with Paxton’s office, only five followed the guidelines laid out in SB 4 by swearing their complaints before a notary or submitting an “unsworn declaration.” Four of the five centered on a high-profile incident involving San Antonio Police Chief William McManus — currently the focus of the only investigation of a potential SB 4 violation.

In late December, an SAPD officer encountered what appeared to be 12 immigrants being smuggled into the country in an 18-wheeler. When McManus arrived on the scene, he made the unusual decision to charge the truck’s driver using a state smuggling statute rather than turn him over to the feds. After questioning, McManus released the immigrants to a local nonprofit, effectively shielding them from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

That set off a firestorm: The head of the local police union called for McManus to be put on administrative leave; Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick urged Paxton to investigate whether McManus violated SB 4; and Paxton informed city officials on January 10 that he had received “several” complaints and was launching an investigation.

But will anything come of this taxpayer-funded investigation? SB 4 — which is still being fought over in the courts — forbids any local policy that bans or “materially limits” cooperation between law enforcement and federal immigration authorities, and forces jailers to extend detention of undocumented immigrants at the request of ICE.

McManus says his choice was an isolated decision that didn’t represent a new policy and that an ICE agent had every opportunity to intervene and take the individuals into custody. An ICE spokesperson has contradicted that, telling the San Antonio Express-News that the agency offered assistance and was rebuffed.

Vera, the LULAC attorney, said that the chief’s decision wouldn’t violate SB 4 because it didn’t represent a policy of non-cooperation. “[Paxton] doesn’t have a case,” he told the Observer. “If he had a case, he would’ve filed it already.”

See here for the background. Sometimes it’s just better to think of this all as a third-rate costume drama, available for streaming at CBS All Access or some such. Just let go and lean into the absurdity.

So now that names have been named, now what?

Maybe some hearings? I don’t know.

Texas leaders called for a review of sexual harassment policies at the state Legislature following a Texas Tribune story detailing how current procedures offered little protection for victims and describing a wide range of harassment at the Capitol. The Texas House approved changes to its policy last week. The Senate, where Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has asked state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst to lead a review of the chamber’s policy, has yet to hold any public hearings on the matter.

“These are serious allegations that have been denied by the senators,” Patrick said in a statement responding to the calls for resignation Thursday, adding that he had asked Kolkhorst to “determine if there are additional steps we should take.”

“I know she has been meeting with senators and staffers over the past several weeks and I expect that she will post a hearing notice soon to be sure that we are doing all we can to make sure every staff member and every elected official is protected from sexual harassment and all other inappropriate behavior,” Patrick said.

Earlier today, state Sen. José Rodríguez, chairman of the chamber’s Democratic caucus, said the behavior alleged in the Daily Beast article is “unacceptable” in any situation, but especially so for an elected official.

“Any person in a position of power who engages in such deplorable conduct should be fired or removed,” he said in a statement before Annie’s List announced their call for resignation.

State Senator Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, said in a statement that she finds the recent stories in the media “very alarming.”

“It’s a sad state of affairs when people feel their only option is talking to the press,” she said.

Rodríguez and Garcia both called for independent investigations of sexual misconduct at the Capitol. The Texas Tribune previously reported that those in charge of investigating and resolving sexual harassment complaints have little to no authority over lawmakers. Garcia said she is also calling for a hotline to report abuse.

“As this discussion continues at both the national and state levels, I applaud those who have come forward and encourage more women to continue shedding light on the culture of many of our industries and institutions, including the legislature, so we can create a culture shift where these incidents can be fully investigated, and hopefully, prevented,” Rodríguez said.

See here for the background. Since this story was published, Sen. Kolkhorst has agreed to hold a public hearing, on December 14. Details are here. According to Equality Texas, testimony is by invitation only, but the hearing is open. What if anything will come out of this is unclear, but it’s something.

I want to add that since that Daily Beast story was published, two friends of mine have posted on Facebook about their experiences with Sen. Miles. One reported that Miles “grabbed me and kissed me on the mouth”, the other said “I was “hugged” so closely, for so long and so…ummm….thoroughly (??) that I joked with one of my colleagues upon recounting the incident that I might ought to take a pregnancy test”. I’m not naming them because I didn’t ask them if I could name them here, but as I said they’re both friends of mine. I have no doubt that there are plenty of others with similar stories. This isn’t going away, and no number of complaints about anonymous allegations or “powerful enemies” will change the fact that there are real women out there with real stories to tell. What are we going to do about that? You know what I think. We need to know what our leaders think.

What West Texas can do to improve their schools

Here’s an op-ed from the Statesman about one educator in West Texas who has had enough.

My hero this week is Graydon Hicks, Fort Davis superintendent of schools.

A West Texas publication published his open letter to Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick raking them over the coals for “the lack of positive legislative action for public schools in Texas” at the most recent session, which adjourned at the end of May without passing a school finance bill.

Hicks is a West Point graduate and an experienced school administrator. He is no-nonsense guy who does not mince words. After detailing the effect of shrinking state financial support for public schools on Fort Davis schools over the past 10 years — combined with an increasing number of unfunded mandates and requirements — Hicks wrote, “How much more do you want to harm our children?

“If your intent is to dissolve public education (and your actions are more than a clear signal of such), then simply go on the record with that statement and remove the state’s authority to further overburden us without financial support. Quit pontificating about bathrooms. Quit hiding your intentions behind righteous statements about school vouchers and choice.”

Hicks accompanied his letter with a chart showing the annually declining amount of state funding available to the Fort Davis school district and the increasing burden on local taxpayers since 2008. That year, state funding amounted to $3.9 million, or 68 percent of the school district’s budget. Local property taxes provided $1.8 million, or 32 percent. In 2017, the state will contribute $378,000 — about one-tenth of its 2008 commitment, or 15 percent of the total budget. Local taxes this year will provide $2.2 million, or 85 percent.

“The Fort Davis ISD has 226 students,” Hicks wrote. “It has no cafeteria, has no bus routes, has dropped our band program, has eliminated (or not filled) 15 staff positions, has cut stipends for extra-curricular activities, has frozen (or reduced) staff pay for one year, has cut extra-curricular programs, has no debt, and has increased our local tax rate to the maximum allowed by the law.

“We have nothing left to cut.”

I agree that Superintendent Hicks sounds like a fine fellow who is speaking truth to power. That said, I feel compelled to point out how Jeff Davis County (*), which is where Fort Davis ISD, voted in the last gubernatorial election:


Governor
			
Greg Abbott             623  60.54%
Wendy R. Davis          366  35.57%
Kathie Glass             31   3.01%
Brandon Parmer            9   0.87%


Lieutenant Governor
			
Dan Patrick             560  56.62%
Leticia Van de Putte    375  37.92%
Robert D. Butler         48   4.85%
Chandrakantha Courtney    6   0.61%

Hold that thought. Now here’s a similar story about the school funding woes in West Texas:

Educators were excited to hear Gov. Greg Abbott announce he would call lawmakers back to Austin for a special legislative session to consider $1,000 teacher pay raises.

But Donna Hale, superintendent at 200-student Miami ISD in rural Roberts County, is wondering where the money is going to come from. An unfunded mandate, she said, could throw a wrench into their already difficult budgeting process.

“That’s the last thing we really need – the state saying you’ve got to do this when they’re not offering any support for us,” said Hale, who already doubles as the district’s librarian and said she was considering taking over as principal to cut payroll costs.

A wind farm and a sea of oil and natural gas wells in Roberts County has been good to Miami ISD, giving the district a flush tax base to pay for teachers and buildings. But its $1 billion dollar tax roll was cut in half this last year amid tumbling oil and gas prices. A state aid provision that it has relied on in recent years to guard against economic downturns expires in September and will take more than a third of the district’s budget with it.

Many rural schools like Miami ISD, the only school district in the county, are facing a similar dilemma and pleading with the State Legislature to act. Lawmakers return to the Capitol next month for a legislative overtime period, but school finance reform has taken a back seat to bills regulating bathroom use and creating a school choice program.

Again, I sympathize, and again, I wonder how did Roberts County vote in 2014?


Governor
			
Greg Abbott             324  93.91%
Wendy R. Davis           15   4.35%
Kathie Glass              5   1.45%
Brandon Parmer            1   0.29%


Lieutenant Governor			

Dan Patrick             320  93.29%
Leticia Van de Putte     12   3.50%
Robert D. Butler         10   2.92%
Chandrakantha Courtney    1   0.29%

I think you get where I’m going with this. Now, I will stipulate that in 2014, one might have been able to believe that Greg Abbott, who was touting an expansion of pre-K, and Dan Patrick, who had served as the Senate Education Committee chair and had passed some bipartisan bills during that time, could at least have been okay on education and school finance issues. Here in June of 2017, after a session that included the Senate refusing to consider HB21 and a special session that includes vouchers on the agenda, it’s really hard to believe that now. Further, both counties are represented in the Lege by pro-education members. Roberts County is served by Sen. Kel Seliger, who was the only Senate Republican to oppose the main voucher bill, and by Rep. Ken King, who was endorsed by Texas Parent PAC in the 2012 primary. Jeff Davis County has two Democrats, Sen. Jose Rodriguez and Rep. Cesar Blanco, in the Lege. Both were unopposed in 2016, and Blanco was unopposed in 2014, but in all three cases they drew a comparable number of votes to Republicans on the ballot. In addition, former Rep. Pete Gallego carried Jeff Davis County in 2010, even as Rick Perry and the rest of the Republicans were also winning it. The voters there do vote for pro-education candidates. Will they – and other counties like them – recognize in 2018 that “pro-education” does not describe Abbott or Patrick? I for one will have a lot more sympathy for their plight if they do.

(*) Yeah, I know.

Senate approves special ed reform bill

Good.

The Texas Senate moved Wednesday to ban state officials from ever again imposing a cap on the percentage of students allowed to receive special education services.

The chamber voted unanimously in favor of Senate Bill 160, putting the legislation just one step away from the desk of Gov. Greg Abbott, who already has indicated his support of the measure.

That last step, a vote on the floor of the Texas House, is expected to take place soon.

The legislation was filed in response to “Denied,” a 2016 Houston Chronicle investigation that exposed the state’s decade-old cap and revealed that it had denied services like tutoring and therapy to tens of thousands of children with disabilities.

As a result of the arbitrary 2004 policy, which the Texas Education Agency enacted while facing a $1.1 billion state budget cut and without notifying lawmakers, federal officials or the public, Texas now provides special education services to the lowest percentage of any state in the country – by far.

Now, with the Senate passage of Senate Bill 160, the state might be able to erase that ugly distinction, according to the proposal’s sponsor, Senate Minority Leader Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso.

See here for previous blogging on the topic. The Senate hasn’t done much to commend this session, but this one they got right. Let’s get it passed in the House and signed into law.

Voter ID 2.0 passes out of the Senate

Meh.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The Texas Senate tentatively approved legislation Monday that would revamp the state’s voter identification rules, a response to court rulings that the current law discriminates against minority voters.

Following more than an hour of debate, the chamber voted 21-10 to move the bill to a final vote, likely later this week.

Sen. Joan Huffman’s Senate Bill 5 would add options for Texas voters who say they cannot “reasonably” obtain one of seven forms of ID currently required at the polls. It would also create harsh criminal penalties for those who falsely claim they need to choose from the expanded list of options.

“I’m committed to constitutionally sound photo identification at polling places,” Huffman said.

Voting rights advocates have called the expanded list of options an improvement over the current embattled law, but they have pushed for ID options beyond those included in Huffman’s bill and raised concerns over the strict penalties for false claims.

[…]

“My intent with the bill is to take the roadmap that the 5th Circuit gave us,” Huffman said.

But those found to have lied about not possessing photo ID — by falsely signing the “reasonable impediment” form — could be charged with a third-degree felony under Huffman’s bill. Such crimes carry penalties of two to 10 years in prison.

Sen. José Rodríguez of El Paso was among Democrats seeking to soften the punishment, calling it too harsh for the crime — particularly in cases where a Texan is otherwise casting a legal vote.

“It has the effect of scaring people, intimidating people,” he said. “We should not be putting people in jail for up to 10 years for a lie that is frankly of no consequence.”

See here for the background. The bill was amended to require “intentionally” making a false claim about not having ID in order to be prosecuted, which I appreciate. The whole thing still suffers from “solution in search of a problem” syndrome, but depending on how the question of discriminatory intent gets resolved, in the end it may not matter. Even if that doesn’t happen, I suspect there will be another lawsuit down the line, perhaps after someone gets busted. Voter ID will suck a little bit less under SB5, but it’s still voter ID.

Senate passes bathroom bill

Take your victory lap, Dan Patrick.

The Texas Senate on Tuesday tentatively signed off on the so-called “bathroom bill” on a 21-10 vote with one Democrat — state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville — voting in favor of the bill.

Senate Bill 6, a legislative priority of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, would require transgender people to use bathrooms in public schools, government buildings and other publicly-owned facilities that match their “biological sex” and not gender identity. And it would preempt local anti-discrimination laws meant to allow transgender residents to use public bathrooms that match their gender identity.

The vote on the controversial legislation came after a four-and-a-half-hour debate over discrimination against transgender Texans, local control and whether the proposed regulations would actually deter men from entering women’s restrooms.

Before passing the bill, senators considered 22 amendments. Republican senators joined the bill’s author, state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, in rejecting all but three amendments that make minor tweaks to the legislation but did not alter the main bathroom policies proposed in the legislation.

More than a dozen amendments were rejected including one that would have added discrimination protections for transgender individuals to the bill and another that would have prohibited individuals from personally investigating the gender identity of someone using a public bathroom. The Senate also rejected amendments that would have required the state to study the bill’s economic impact as well as crimes that occur in bathrooms.

You know the story by now, so I’ll just skip ahead. The Senate has to take one more vote on this, but that will be a formality. All the Republicans and the one Democrat who sorely needs to be primaried supported this atrocity. It’s up to the House to kill it, whether by neglect or by voting it down. Two things to call your attention to: One is the statement from the Texas Association of Business.

“We’re disappointed the Texas Senate would choose to pass discriminatory legislation like Senate Bill 6, despite clear indications that its passage will have an economic impact in Texas. TAB remains committed to fighting and defending the Texas economy against bills that discriminate and run counter to Texas values.

“Our members believe everyone deserves to be treated fairly and equally, and we have heard what they know- equity and non-discrimination is a twenty-first century economic imperative. Senate Bill 6 is simply not worth the risk, and it will do nothing to improve personal safety.

“Given the overwhelming economic evidence, and the clear rejection of the public safety argument from Texas law enforcement, Senate Bill 6 is a solution in search of a problem, and we hope that the Texas House will strongly reject this measure.”

RG Ratcliffe notes how business has lost control of the Republican Party. I’ll just say it again, if the TAB doesn’t work to defeat at least a few of the SB6 advocates, starting with Dan Patrick, then their opposition to SB6 basically meant nothing. Yes, there is a risk in trying to kill the king. This, and bills worse than it, is the risk of doing nothing. Your choice, TAB. And two, I give you this Statesman story on Jessica Shortall of Texas Competes:

Jessica Shortall, head of a Texas business group that advocates for LGBT rights, delivered a thoughtful and impassioned speech about the transgender bathroom debate at the South by Southwest conference on Sunday. It was the kind of speech that brought the crowd to its feet for a standing ovation — twice.

[…]

Shortall’s speech sprinkled anecdotes of her own life, touched on the Texas Competes mission, and worked in themes such as why it’s important to find common ground with political opponents.

“Assume there are no monoliths,” Shortall said. “The second you do that and label a whole group, you miss all the opportunities to find allies and build bridges.”

[…]

On Sunday, with a notepad in one hand and a handful of photos and data points projected on to a screen, she emphasized the need to build bridges with people who hold different beliefs, of finding common ground by rooting arguments in data, not emotion.

Midway through the speech she told the story of a trasngender girl who had an accident in a hallway at school because teachers couldn’t figure out which bathroom she should use.

“I wanted to shout,” Shortall said. “But I took a breath.” She noted that it feels good to be ideological and righteous, and isn’t as fun to stick to a strategy that involves talking to the other side and find common ground.

“Do you think I wanted to be the most boring, most data-driven LGBT advocate in the country?” Shortall said. “I am half-Venezuelan, raised in New Jersey, a very loud person. I like things big. But my job is to create this delicate new space for the business community to get involved in something risky. If I burn that down with my anger, I’d be at zero. I don’t matter. What matters is the goal.”

But she noted that arguments based on data and facts can only get you so far. To create change, you have to tap into empathy and love, she said. “Love is the only bridge that lets us see the people around us simply as people,” she said.

You can see a video of her speech here. I’ll take ten Jessica Shortalls over all 21 Senators who voted Yes on this piece of crap. A statement from Sen. Jose Rodriguez is here, a statement from Sen. Borris Miles is here, and the Chron has more.

The coming legislative border battle

Here we go again.

House Republicans on Wednesday said they aren’t backing away from recent efforts to secure the southern border despite an incoming president who made beefed-up immigration enforcement a hallmark of his campaign.

And as a final admonishment of President Obama, they said they intended to bill the federal government more than $2.8 billion for state spending on border security since January 2013. The amount includes a combination of expenses incurred by the Department of Public Safety ($1.4 billion), Texas Parks and Wildlife ($20.2 million), Texas Military Forces ($62.9 million), Texas Health and Human Services ($416.8 million), the Texas Education Agency ($181.1 million) and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission ($671,000), according to House Republicans. Another $723.8 million has been spent by local and state governments related to incarceration, they said.

“We understand the principles of federalism, and while we surely don’t want the federal government meddling in our schools and deciding our environmental policies or setting our health care policies, we sure as heck want them doing their limited duties, which are: enforcing the border, standing up for a strong military and delivering the mail,” said state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton.

Two years ago, Bonnen was the author of House Bill 11, an omnibus border security measure that increased by 250 the number of Texas Department of Public Safety officers on the border. The legislation was part of the record $800 million lawmakers appropriated for border security during that legislative session.

Lawmakers learned earlier this week they will have billions of dollars less in state revenue to work with this year as they craft the next biennial budget, even as the Department of Public Safety has said it would ask lawmakers for an additional $1 billion for border security. Bonnen said he hadn’t yet reviewed the request.

Although they said they had high hopes that President-elect Trump would fulfill his promise to secure the border and let Texas off the hook, House Republicans reiterated that lawmakers will need to wait and see what the incoming administration does and how soon it acts on border security before making a decision on future expenditures.

“We’ll have to see, [but] I think the Trump administration has made clear that they intend from day one, starting next Friday, to get to work on this issue,” Bonnen said, citing the day of Trump’s scheduled inauguration.

State Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, the chairman of the House Republican Caucus, left the door open to Texas lawmakers approving more funding for state-based border security efforts if necessary.

“Republicans in the Texas House are absolutely committed to continuous border security — be it from the state of Texas and what we’ve been doing all these years or from our federal government,” he said.

Part of Trump’s proposed solution includes building a wall along parts of the southern border. When asked what he would tell a Texas landowner whose property could be seized by the federal government for that effort, Bonnen said: “My response would be whatever we need to do to make our border secure and controlled by the federal government.”

If you’re going to pass the buck, as it were, why not skip the middleman and send the invoice straight to Mexico? It’s what Trump (says he) would do, and it has about the same odds of getting paid. It’s a stunt, so make it as stunt-y as you can. As for the claims that Dear Leader Trump will spend more money on “border security”, thus enabling the state to spend less, who knows? It’s a bad idea in general to believe a word the guy says, but there is certainly enthusiasm in Congress to spend money on it, so I won’t be surprised if it happens. Note that whether or not it does happen, legislative Republicans plan to spend more on it as well, which highlights again the sham nature of their “invoice” for what they (quite happily) spent in the last session. As Rep. Cesar Blanco says in the story, they all have primaries to win. Look for even more speeding tickets to get written in the area.

The Observer highlights the resistance.

Legislators and advocates on Wednesday announced Texas Together — a new effort that aims to resist anti-immigrant proposals in the Texas Legislature, including those that would revoke funding from so-called sanctuary cities and repeal in-state tuition for undocumented students. The campaign is an initiative of the Reform Immigration for Texas Alliance, a coalition of immigrant advocates and activists from across the state.

“We are here to stand against the attempt to put anti-immigrant rhetoric into bills,” said state Senator Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, at a Capitol press conference Wednesday. “We oppose these politics that have become poisoned with misinformation about immigrants and border life.”

[…]

Captain Shelly Knight of the Dallas Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday that SB 4 would strain law enforcement budgets and damage trust between communities and officers.

“All of that [trust] we’ve built up will be gone,” Knight said. “So therefore they won’t come and report violent crimes, such as family violence.”

Stand and fight, y’all. The Republicans are going to pass whatever they’re going to pass. Don’t give them any help on this.

Pot bills get their own post

They got their own story in the Trib, so why not their own post.

Zonker

Texas lawmakers across the state say they want leniency in how the state prosecutes marijuana crimes. In an interview with Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith Monday, State Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, said he thinks the Legislature could decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana next year, especially after several states did so on Election Day.

“We’re spending our tax dollars on incarcerating [people that don’t deserve to be incarcerated] because they got caught with a small amount of marijuana,” said Isaac, whose district encompasses Texas State University. “These are people that we probably subsidize their public education, we probably subsidize where they went to a state school, and now they’re branded as a criminal when they go to do a background check.”

Isaac added that last session he was approached by state Rep. Joseph “Joe” Moody, D-El Paso, who asked Isaac to sign on to a decriminalization bill but didn’t because he “didn’t feel like it was the time.” During the interview Monday, however, Isaac said “it is the time now” and publicly pledged to sign on and work to get a bill passed that would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.

Among the Texas proposals that have been filed thus far:

  • House Bill 58 by state Rep. James White, R-Woodville, would create a specialty court for certain first-time marijuana possession offenders based on the principle that first-time defendants are often self-correcting. The measure is intended to conserve law enforcement and corrections resources, White said in a news release.
  • State Rep. Joseph “Joe” Moody, D-El Paso, filed House Bill 81, which aims to replace criminal penalties for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana with a civil fine of up to $250. The bill also allows Texans to avoid arrest and possible jail time for possessing a small amount of marijuana. Moody authored a similar bill during the previous legislative session; it did not pass.
  • State Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston, filed House Bill 82, which aims to classify a conviction for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana as a Class C misdemeanor instead of Class B. However, if a person is convicted three times, it would revert back to a Class B misdemeanor. Dutton co-authored a similar bill last session with Moody.
  • State Sen. José Rodríguez filed Senate Joint Resolution 17, which would allow voters to decide whether marijuana should be legalized in Texas, following the pattern of a number of states.
  • Senate Joint Resolution 18, also authored by Rodríguez, would allow voters to decide whether to legalize marijuana for medical use if recommended by a health care provider. “It is long past time we allow the people to decide,” Rodríguez said in a statement.
  • Rodríguez also filed Senate Bill 170, which would change possession of one ounce or less of marijuana from a criminal offense to a civil one.

Some of this is a continuation of efforts from 2015, some of it is in recognition of the multiple pro-decriminalization referenda that passed in other states, and some of it is from the desire to save a few pennies on law enforcement and criminal justice. I don’t care about the motive, I applaud the direction. As was the case in 2015, the main (though not only) obstacle is likely to be Greg Abbott, who was not interested in anything more than the meager cannobinoid oil bill that passed during that session. Typically, Abbott has had nothing to say about whether he remains firmly anti-pot or not. We’ll have to see what the lobbyists can do with him. For those of you who want to see changes, these are the bills to follow for now.

Superintendents begin speaking out against special education limits

Good for them.

The leaders of two of the state’s biggest school districts are calling on the Texas Education Agency to stop penalizing districts for giving specialized education to more kids than the agency has deemed prudent.

Superintendents Michael Hinojosa of Dallas and Pedro Martinez of San Antonio came out against the arbitrary enrollment target after a Houston Chronicle investigation found it has led schools across the state to keep tens of thousands of children with disabilities out of special education.

Hinojosa said he would launch a review of special education in Dallas, where, the investigation found, just 6.9 percent of students receive special education services such as tutoring, therapies and counseling – about half the national average.

“I was surprised to see (the special education percentage) so low,” said Hinojosa, who previously worked as a superintendent in Georgia. “I’m used to that number being higher.”

Houston Independent School District Superintendent Richard Carranza, who was hired last month, said he could not yet say whether the target should remain in place.

Already, some state officials have decried the state’s policy, and the commissioner of the Texas Education Agency, Mike Morath, has acknowledged it was likely to be “tweaked.”

The state Senate minority leader, Jose Rodriguez, has begun drafting legislation to address the issue.

“It’s important that we address this issue to ensure children with special needs and their families aren’t denied rights established by federal law,” said Rodriguez, D-El Paso, in a statement. “I’m deeply concerned that this arbitrary performance indicator has disincentivized schools from fulfilling their moral obligation, and obligation under federal law, to proactively search out kids who may qualify for special education services and give them initial screenings.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Because I am that kind of person, I will note again that we have yet to hear anything on this topic from either Greg Abbott or Dan Patrick. I’m glad that Sen. Rodriguez plans to file a bill to address this, but I have little to no faith that it will go anywhere in Dan Patrick’s Senate. He just doesn’t care about this. I do have faith that new HISD Superintendent Carranza will have something to say about this, and I hope we hear from him soon.

Publisher of crappy Mexican American Studies textbook defends said textbook

It’s not that crappy, she swears.

The publisher of a proposed Mexican-American studies textbook that scholars, elected officials and Hispanic activists have decried as racist and inaccurate is defending the high school text ahead of a public hearing on the book Tuesday before the Texas State Board of Education.

“There’s never been a book in the history of SBOE that’s been attacked so prematurely in the process,” said Cynthia Dunbar, a former right-wing Republican member of the education board who now heads the educational curriculum company that produced the textbook.

The text, titled Mexican American Heritage and published by Momentum Instruction, was the only submission the board received after it issued a call in 2015 for textbooks to be used in Mexican-American studies classes at the high school level. The powerful 15-member panel sets statewide curriculum and approves textbooks.

[…]

Dunbar, who had not previously responded to interview requests, told The Texas Tribune on Monday that criticisms have been overblown and that most of them are based on a draft copy that her company has since revised. Changes include corrections of at least a few factual errors — one identified by an SBOE-appointed review board — and other tweaks in response to public feedback. The passage that implied that Mexican-American laborers are lazy has been “clarified,” Dunbar said, while contending that critics took that particular bit out of context.

“It exposed a racial bias stereotyped against them,” she said, noting that the review board found that the book totally met state curriculum standards.

“The point is there’s no hidden agenda here,” she added.

See here and here for some background. It’s nice that Dunbar says the book has undergone revisions and fixed some errors since it first appeared, but Dunbar has a long history of saying and doing ugly things, so her credibility isn’t very high. I’ll wait to hear from someone more trustworthy before I believe there’s any merit to her publication. In the meantime, the advice of rejecting this book and (one hopes) getting other groups to write them remains sound. See this open letter from SBOE member Marisa Perez for more.

The good news is that there doesn’t appear to be any support for adopting this textbook.

Hundreds of Hispanic advocates, activists, students and elected officials from across the state on Tuesday called on the Texas Board of Education to reject a proposed Mexican-American studies textbook they blasted as blatantly racist and which many scholars have deemed historically inaccurate.

The 15-member education board took public input on the text during an hours-long public hearing at which some of the panel’s Republican members criticized the Legislature for diminishing the education board’s power to vet textbooks.

The panel will vote to accept or reject the text in November, when it will hold a second public hearing.

[…]

Ruben Cortez Jr., D-Brownsville, who was so concerned about the text that he convened an ad-hoc committee of scholars and educators to review it, said he believes a supermajority of his colleagues will vote to reject it. (A report his committee unveiled last week found that the text is littered with errors.) Meanwhile, Vice Chairman Thomas Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, described the text Tuesday as “dead on arrival” and board member Marty Rowley, R-Amarillo, said he has “real concerns” about it.

Chairwoman Donna Bahorich, R-Houston, kicked off the public hearing with a heartfelt message dedicated to “Mexican-American colleagues, friends and neighbors,” assuring them that the board is committed to approving accurate instructional materials that adequately reflect their major role in U.S. society.

“Your story is part of the American story,” she said. “Everyone deserves to have their story told in a fair and accurate manner.”

Several Republican board members criticized Texas legislators on Tuesday for passing laws over the years that have diminished the panel’s authority to decide what textbooks local school districts use. And they warned that their weakened oversight could mean the proliferation of even more controversial instructional material.

They pointed specifically to legislation approved in 2011 that allowed school districts to choose textbooks that haven’t been approved by the board as long as they can show their instructional materials cover state curriculum standards. (Senate Bill 6, passed in the wake of a raucous, high-profile debate over social studies curriculum in which members of the board’s since-diminished social conservative block — including Dunbar — grabbed national headlines for their extreme comments.)

David Bradley, R-Beaumont, and other board members complained repeatedly Tuesday that the law allows for publishers to peddle problematic textbooks directly to school districts. He and former board chairwoman Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, asked Democratic Hispanic lawmakers who addressed the board if they’d be willing to reconsider those parameters.

Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, acknowledged that “legislation has a history of unintended consequences and this very well may be a case.”The Senate Education Committee is “looking at everything including this issue you’re bringing up,” state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, who is a member of that panel, told the board.

But Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, said the purpose of Tuesday’s hearing was not to “re-litigate” old legislation but discuss whether the text should be allowed in Texas classrooms.

“Not only does this book not belong in the classroom, it doesn’t deserve the attention it’s getting now,” he said.

I agree, but at least all the attention has accomplished one thing, and that’s the real need for a much better textbook. Let’s hope the next time around we get more than one possible candidates for that.

Voting rights lawsuit filed over Texas statewide judicial elections

This happened on the same day as the Fifth Circuit ruling on voter ID.

[Wednesday], the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), Garza Golando Moran, PLLC, and Dechert LLP filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas on behalf of individual Latino voters alleging that the method of electing Texas’s Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals judges violates the Voting Rights Act. The Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals are the two highest courts in the state and decide critical issues of state civil and criminal law, respectively.

“Courts in the state of Texas should reflect the diversity of the communities they serve,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee. “Instead, the way in which Texas elects judges to two of the state’s highest courts denies Latino voters an equal opportunity to elect judges of their choice. Bringing Texas state courts into compliance with the Voting Rights Act can help instill greater public confidence in the state’s justice system.”

All 18 high court judges in Texas, nine for each court, are elected statewide. Because White Texans comprise the majority of the citizen voting age population in the state, and because Latinos consistently prefer different candidates than do Whites, Latino-preferred candidates are almost never elected to the highest levels of the state’s judiciary. Such vote dilution is prohibited by the Voting Rights Act and the state could develop and implement a more representational electoral method.

Texas’s Latino citizen voting age population (CVAP) comprises 26.5 percent of the state’s CVAP while White Texans comprise 56.4 percent. With Latinos in the minority and voting polarized along racial lines, Latinos have been significantly underrepresented on both courts for decades. Since 1945, only two of the 48 judges to serve on the Court of Criminal Appeals, a mere 4.2 percent, were Latino. Over the same time period, only five of the 77 justices to serve on the Supreme Court, or 6.5 percent, were Latino.

Plaintiffs in the case include six individual voters from Nueces County and an individual voter from El Paso County.

“For too long the voice of the Latino community has been missing from the critical secret conference rooms of the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals,” said Carmen Rodriguez, plaintiff in this case and longtime civil rights attorney and activist from El Paso. “It is vital that we bring the promise of the Voting Rights Act to the selection process of the members of these august judicial bodies.”

Because Texas’s judges largely represent only one subset of Texas voters, there are serious questions as to whether all of the circumstances of a diverse population are fully considered. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals hears all death penalty cases in the state. From 1977 to 2010, of the 92 executions of Latinos nationwide, 78 were executed in Texas. Recent Supreme Court decisions of critical importance to racial minorities, including a May 2016 ruling limiting school funding for English language learners and economically disadvantaged students, were issued without so much as a dissent.

“All Texas citizens should have the right to cast a meaningful, undiluted vote for their most important courts,” said Ezra Rosenberg, co-director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee. “For decades, that right has been denied to Latinos in Texas. Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act was designed precisely to deal with this circumstance.”

“For too long, the Latino community in Texas has had no say in who represents them on the highest courts in the state,” said Jose Garza, a civil rights attorney and partner at Garza Golando Moran, PLLC. “The recent school finance ruling is a clarion call to every minority in Texas: Your voice will not be heard by these courts. Now is the time to listen to the millions of Texas minorities who want a seat at the table to help decide the matters important to our community. I am proud to represent these brave clients and work with some of the best legal minds in voting rights to fight for my state and my community.”

“Being able to participate fully in our electoral system is a fundamental right of all citizens,” said Neil Steiner, a partner at Dechert LLP, which is representing the plaintiffs pro bono. “We look forward to vindicating those rights for Texas’s Latino population.”

Here’s the complaint. The introduction gives you an overview of what this is about:

1. The Supreme Court of Texas (“Supreme Court”) and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (“Court of Criminal Appeals”) are the courts of last resort in Texas. They are the final authorities on questions of Texas civil and criminal law, respectively. Together, the two courts render enormously consequential decisions that profoundly affect the lives of all Texans.

2. According to the 2010 Census, Latinos, a significant and rapidly growing racial group, constitute 37.6 percent of Texas’s total population and 26.5 percent of Texas’s citizen voting age population. However, Latinos have been prevented from participating fully in the election of Texas’s high court judges because of the way those judges are elected. That election method, in which all judges for both courts are elected in at-large statewide elections, unlawfully dilutes the voting strength of Latino citizens and prevents them from electing their candidates of choice.

3. The Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals each has nine members. Because voting is racially polarized, that is, white voters as a group and Latino voters as a group consistently
prefer different candidates, the at-large method of election functions to deprive more than one quarter of the State’s eligible voting age population from electing judges of their choice to any of the eighteen seats on the two courts.

4. The Latino population and citizen voting age population are sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in at least two fairly-drawn single-member districts; the State’s Latinos are politically cohesive; and the State’s white citizen voting age majority votes sufficiently as a bloc to enable it usually to defeat Latino voters’ preferred candidates. Because of these circumstances, as well as the historical, socioeconomic, and electoral conditions of Texas, the at-large election method for the Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, 52 U.S.C. § 10301 (“Section 2”). Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30 (1986).

5. For these reasons, plaintiffs respectfully pray for this Court to issue: (1) a declaratory judgment that the use of at-large elections for the Supreme Court of Texas and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act; (2) an injunction against the further use of at-large elections for the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals; (3) an order requiring future elections for the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals to be conducted under a method of election that complies with the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act; (4) an award of costs and reasonable attorneys’ fees to plaintiffs, including expert witness fees; and (5) such additional relief as is appropriate.

I found this on Wednesday afternoon via Rick Hasen while looking at his coverage of the voter ID ruling. Basically, this is the at-large versus single-member-district debate taken statewide. If you scroll down to the end of the complaint and look at the list of lawyers involved, you will see that one of them is Jose Garza, who has successfully argued voter ID and redistricting cases on behalf of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. (Both of Garza’s partners, including Martin Golando, are also involved.) Amy Rudd, the first attorney listed in the complaint, was pro bono counsel for the NAACP Texas State Conference and MALC in the voter ID case as well. Point being, this is an experienced legal team taking this on, and it could wind up being a pretty big deal, yet so far the only news coverage I have seen is from Texas Lawyer, KTSA, and the El Paso Times, which notes that six of the plaintiffs are from Nueces County, with the seventh being El Pasoan Carmen Rodriguez, a civil rights attorney and wife of Texas Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso. I very much look forward to seeing how this plays out.

Sugarek/Jeffery foster family update

From Lisa Falkenberg:

The drab little courtroom off the square in Wharton, with its blond wood, stoic flags and idle metal detector at the door, seemed like an alternative universe.

Two Houston foster mothers who entered Thursday with anticipation and profound concern for the little boys recently removed from their home were jolted back by a process puttering along at half speed.

The horrifying realities facing the boys seemed shrouded in jargon and legal formalities. A CPS supervisor in a shiny suit, and the county attorney paid to represent the agency, moved with an utter lack of urgency.

The judge, Eric Andell, at least seemed to grasp the seriousness of the case and noted he’d read about it in this column last week.

The foster mothers, Angela Sugarek and Carol Jeffery, who were by all accounts loving parents to 3-year-old “Dion” and 4-year-old “Darius,” saw their plans of adoption dashed when CPS relocated the boys last month, apparently because the foster mothers had reported alleged abuse by a teen half-sibling living elsewhere in foster care.

[…]

At the status hearing last week, the foster mothers hoped the judge would consider their motion. They asked to be heard in matter, and they made a formal request to adopt the boys. But a ruling was delayed because their attorney had filed the motion only the night before.

“It seems to me the quicker we get this case to trial, the better off we are,” the judge told the attorneys and court-appointed advocates. “Time is not our friend.”

In fact, time may be the enemy for two troubled little boys with a history of abuse.

See here for the background, and be sure to read the whole thing. The good news is that CPS program director Leshia Fisher has been apprised, and is looking into things. The bad news is that she had been completely unaware that the boys had been taken away from Sugarek and Jeffery; she had assumed they had been returned to them by now. Every day that passes makes the situation worse for all involved. All we can do at this point is hope that someone steps in and fixes this.

And speaking of our bedeviled foster care system:

Two special masters appointed by a federal judge to oversee reforms to the state’s embattled foster care system have begun visiting with state officials, and their recent two-and-a-half-day orientation is projected to cost the state roughly $43,000, according to state officials.

The cost of the meetings held April 25-27 are just the beginning of an open-ended tab for court-ordered oversight after U.S. District Judge Janis Jack ruled last year that Texas’ long-term foster care system treated children inhumanely and violated their civil rights.

In that December ruling, Jack ordered the state to pay special masters to study ways to improve foster care over a six-month period. In March, Jack picked two special masters favored by children’s rights advocates: Francis McGovern, a Duke University law professor, and Kevin Ryan, a partner at the New Jersey nonprofit Public Catalyst, which advocates for child welfare.

Emails obtained by The Texas Tribune show the special masters and their staff arranged meetings with state officials for late April. Jack approved pay for McGovern and Ryan at $345 per hour, according to the court record.

Ryan also hired four staff members to assist him: Deborah Fowler, Eileen Crummy, Lisa Taylor and Margaret McHale. McHale received court approval to charge $305 per hour; the other three staff could charge $325 per hour, according to an email from staff at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

[…]

This isn’t the first time the state has been on the hook for the costs of an external review of the state’s child welfare system. In 2014, the state paid The Stephen Group to review the operations of the state’s Child Protective Services agency. The initial $750,000 contract has been renewed twice, for a total cost of $2.7 million.

In this case, however, state lawmakers had no choice in approving the cost of the special masters. Lawyers for the state are appealing Jack’s ruling but must comply with her orders as the appeal progresses. Republican leaders have challenged Jack’s ruling as an affront to states’ rights.

A spokesman for Gov. Greg Abbott said the court ruling was forcing the state to spend money it could have otherwise used to improve child safety, such as hiring more staff. Much of Jack’s ruling criticized the state for failing to hire enough caseworkers to keep track of vulnerable children.

“It’s unfortunate and disappointing that millions of dollars that could have gone to serving youth in the Texas foster care system and hiring more caseworkers will now be spent towards the legally baseless special master process,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said in a prepared statement.

[…]

State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, told colleagues at an April hearing of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee that the state was simply paying on the back end for its failures to offer preventive care.

“Every time we have a federal court telling us that we’re not complying, it ends up costing us money. That’s just the way it is,” he said. “I know we’re all concerned about cost, but we always talk about how sometimes, prevention that we could’ve done could’ve saved us a lot of money.”

That’s because we always have to do this the hard way. And because “states rights” are more important than the children. Greg Abbott himself says so.

Rep. McClendon to step down

She’ll be missed.

Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon

State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, a San Antonio Democrat and 19-year veteran of the Texas House who tenaciously championed social justice reform, said Wednesday that she is not running for re-election.

McClendon was elected in 1996 to represent East Side voters in House District 120 and has emerged as a fixture in the Legislature as the dean of the Bexar County delegation.

However, McClendon’s health has been an ongoing concern. She was diagnosed in 2009 with stage 4 lung cancer and underwent surgery to remove water from her brain last year.

Her fragile physical state was emphasized during the latest legislative session when she relied on an electric scooter to navigate the Capitol and had noticeable trouble speaking.

In a statement, McClendon said she plans to stay in office until her term expires in December 2016 but that “it is time for someone else to take up the mantle.”

“Although I will not return to the Legislature in 2017,” she said, “I will still be engaged to ensure that the issues I have fought for will have a voice.”

[…]

McClendon has possibly become best known for her quest to have the state study wrongful prison convictions. She achieved the long-time goal during the last legislative session to create a commission to study exonerations, a triumph that helped earn her recognition from Texas Monthly as one of 2015’s best lawmakers.

Lawmakers said McClendon’s presence will be missed.

“Ruth is not only the dean of our delegation, she’s also our Capitol mother. Knowing that she’s not coming back is something that’s going to be hard to overcome,” said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat. “She’s always been the leader of our delegation, but now its time for her to make sure she’s taking care of her health and her family.”

All respect to Rep. McClendon, who has battled health issues for several years but went out on a high note this session with the passage of that exoneration commission bill. Go read the story at the end of that post linked above; if it doesn’t make you at least a little misty, you might want to adjust your meds. Her departure means that the ten-member Bexar County House delegation will have at least four members who were not there this past January – Rep. Diego Bernal, the successor to Mike Villarreal, who resigned to run for Mayor; Rep. Ina Minjarez, who won a special election for the seat vacated by now-Sen. Jose Rodriguez; and whoever follows the retiring Reps. McClendon and Joe Farias. If the Dems win back HD117 in this Presidential-turnout year, that will be half of the delegation turned over. Getting some new blood is always good, but losing such distinguished veterans is hard. I wish Rep. McClendon all the best as she enters the next phase of her life. The Trib has more.

Filibuster threat for open carry

We could have some end of session drama this year again.

Sen. Jose Rodriguez

State Sen. José Rodríguez said Thursday that if the opportunity arises, he plans to filibuster a bill allowing the open carry of handguns in Texas.

Speaking at a Texas Tribune event, the El Paso Democrat said he thought the legislation was “totally unnecessary” and presented a threat to the safety of police officers and the public.

“I think my back is problematical, but I assure you, for this issue, I will stand as long as I can,” Rodríguez said.

The legislation — House Bill 910 from state Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman — has already passed both chambers of the Legislature. It is headed to a conference committee, where Senate and House appointees must iron out key differences in the bill.

See here for the background. Sen. Rodriguez’s threat came before the controversial “no-stop” amendment was stripped from the bill by the conference committee.

“The Dutton/Huffines amendment is dead,” said state Rep. Alfonso “Poncho” Nevárez, an Eagle Pass Democrat who took part in the negotiations over House Bill 910.”There’s nothing more to do. That was the only bit of housekeeping on the bill that was to be had. It’s a done deal, for all intents and purposes.”

Once the House and Senate appointed a conference committee to work out differences on HB 910 Thursday, it took only a few hours for the panel to release a report.

Both chambers still have to approve the amended bill, and I have no doubt that they will if they get to vote on it, though there will surely be some gnashing of teeth over the change. The deadline for passage is midnight Sunday, so if Sen. Rodriguez is going to make a stand, that’s when it will happen.

In the meantime, campus carry is also going to conference committee, and will also likely emerge in a different form.

In the Senate on Thursday, the bill’s author, state Sen. Brian Birdwell, requested a conference committee on the legislation to work out differences between the two chambers.

The Granbury Republican said he had concerns with language added in the House that would include private universities in the new law.

“I am duty-bound to protect Second Amendment rights parallel to private property rights,” said Birdwell. “We must protect most private property rights equally, and not protect one or the other.”

Lawmakers who argued for requiring private universities to follow the same rules as public institutions say it’s a matter of fairness.

“If we are going to have it, I don’t know how I’m going to make a distinction between my kid who goes to Rice University and one kid at Houston,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston.

[…]

House lawmakers also added provisions that exempted health facilities and let universities carve out gun-free zones. When the bill originally passed the Senate, Birdwell rejected several amendments attempting similar changes.

I suspect this one will take a little longer to resolve, but we’ll see. Maybe Sen. Rodriguez will set his sights on it, too. See this Trib story about how removing the “no-stop” amendment also removed a headache for Greg Abbott, and Trail Blazers for more.

A different push for health care expansion

This ought to spark some interesting conversations.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Two Democratic lawmakers called Wednesday for Texas leaders to explore a new type of Medicaid waiver that they say could provide health coverage to many of the state’s millions of uninsured.

The waiver, characterized by the legislators as the kind of block grant that Republicans favor, is not predicated on a Medicaid expansion and would allow Texas to avoid many provisions of the Affordable Care Act unpopular with the leadership in the Legislature – including the individual and employer mandates. The waiver, known as 1332, takes effect in 2017.

“Based on where we are now in this state, (the waiver) probably is the best chance or possibility of an agreement… toward coverage expansion,” Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said at a news briefing with Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso.

In a letter sent to colleagues earlier this week, Coleman added that the waiver must not reduce access to care, increase costs to the federal government, or make insurance more expensive than under the current law. The waiver effectively tells states that “if they know a better, more efficient way to provide health care, then have at it,” Coleman wrote.

[…]

Arlene Wohlgemuth, executive director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative Austin think tank, said she had spoken to Coleman Wednesday morning about developing a 1332 waiver aligned with the principles laid out by the foundation.

“Of course, we are interested in reform of the program that truly gives flexibility to the states to provide for better health outcomes in a way that is affordable for the taxpayer,” Wohlgemuth said. “Thus far, the federal government has been unwilling to give exception to the requirements in the Social Security Act (the law that embodies Medicare) that have hamstrung true reform. We are interested to see what Representative Coleman has in mind through a 1332 waiver.”

Vivian Ho, a health care economist at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said there are so many unknowns about the waiver that it’s hard to know what to conclude.

“I can’t believe any waiver is the answer unless the state agrees to some sort of Medicaid expansion, and I don’t see how 1332 is going to help that,” said Ho. “It’s unclear how much money it would actually supply and whether it would provide access to tax credits for people below 100 percent of the federal poverty level.”

Ho added that block grants are a questionable idea unless the amount of money increases with population growth, given Texas’ continual migration and growing uninsured pool.

But Ken Janda, CEO of Community Health Choice, a nonprofit health care organization, called the suggestion “a very good idea” and said it “definitely seems worth talking about.” He said it answers a lot of concerns raised about Medicaid expansion and presents a possible solution to the health-care crisis that’s caused the closure of some private hospitals and threatens the existence of safety-net hospitals.

Rep. Coleman and Sen. Rodriguez filed bills this session to pursue this waiver and the reforms that it would allow. Here’s the letter they sent to fellow legislators outlining what this waiver would mean. Here’s the key bit:

However, there is a catch – the waiver must not reduce access to care, increase costs to the federal government, or make insurance more expensive than it is under the current law. The 1332 Waiver effectively tells states that if they know a better, more efficient way to provide healthcare, then have at it. Texas should take the federal government’s offer and consider ways to reform both Medicaid and private marketplace coverage in this state.

Basically, this is a put-up-or-shut-up challenge to Greg Abbott and the Republicans that have dug their heels in so fiercely against Medicaid expansion, the insurance exchanges, and every other aspect of the Affordable Care Act. You think you can do better? Prove it. My guess is that this will be roundly ignored, since Abbott and Rick Perry before him have shown zero interest in doing anything about the millions of uninsured Texans. Abbott appears to be perfectly willing to set fire to billions more dollars in his continued quest to not do anything about health care. But who knows, maybe someone will rise to the challenge. I agree that it’s at least worth exploring to see what might be possible.

Senate passes a voucher bill

Hopefully, this will die in the House.

Some low-income families unhappy with their public schools would get help paying private school tuition under a plan that won tentative approval in the Texas Senate Monday.

Senate Bill 4, which would use state tax credits to entice up to $100 million in business donations to fund a scholarship program, cleared the chamber 18 to 12 with two Republicans, Konni Burton of Colleyville and Robert Nichols of Jacksonville, breaking party lines to vote against the measure. One Democrat, Eddie Lucio of Brownsville, voted in favor.

Before it passed, Democrats raised concerns about the plan, arguing that it diverted money that should be going to public education into an unaccountable private school system. “They don’t have the same kinds of requirements that our public schools do,” said state Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso. “I can’t seem to get around that.”

While defending his proposal, state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, insisted that the legislation should not be considered a private school voucher program — a notion that has proven politically toxic in the Legislature.

“I don’t think we are taking money from the public schools. The student is leaving,” said Taylor, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. “This is private money — not state money — that is donated.”

Sen. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, said he viewed the legislation as a way to “short circuit around the whole voucher concept.”

“It is money that a corporation will be giving to a scholarship program in lieu of paying tax,” he said.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, called on Taylor to add language banning private schools participating in the program from using Common Core, the national set of curriculum standards that Texas lawmakers prohibited in the state’s public education system in 2013.

“It just defies logic that you would apply a different standard to private schools using taxpayer subsidized money,” said Ellis, after his amendment was tabled at Taylor’s urging.

Senators Rodriguez, Menendez, and Ellis have hit the highlights here. This is a strong point, too.

Rev. Charles Johnson, director of Pastors for Texas Children, a public school advocacy group, said the push for vouchers is more a fight for money than improving educational opportunity for poor students.

“If this were about kids, we’d target those 70 or 80 struggling schools out of 8,500 public schools and we would give them the resources they need to succeed,” he said. “The Legislature consistently refuses to do that.”

Well yeah. That would cost money. Dan Patrick already thinks we spend too much money on public education. Even the credulous Erica Greider notes that under this bill, families with above-median incomes would be eligible for these “scholarships”, a name that’s more about branding than anything else. It’s a giveaway to people who don’t need it at the expense of people who do, and there’s no evidence from existing voucher programs elsewhere that it does anything to improve educational outcomes. Like I said, let’s hope it dies in the House, as it should.

Call to action: DREAM Act repeal hearing set for Monday

You know the drill.

The push to repeal a 2001 law that allows some undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities is returning to the legislative spotlight, but on an unusual stage.

On Monday, the border security subcommittee of the Senate’s Veteran Affairs and Military Installations Committee is scheduled to hear Senate Bill 1819, by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, which would do away with the in-state tuition provision.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s decision to send the bill to the border security panel — instead of the education or state affairs committees — strikes some lawmakers as a signal that the deck is being stacked in its favor.

State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, said treating tuition rates as a question of border security was also an affront to undocumented students pursuing college degrees.

“Referring in-state tuition repeal to border security is implying these students are threats to the country, when in fact they are trying to contribute to the country,” he said. “It is a disservice for this bill to be heard in border security.”

Monday’s hearing was scheduled on Wednesday, a week after a similar bill, SB 1429 by state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, was referred to the Senate’s State Affairs Committee. But as of Thursday, Hall’s bill hadn’t been scheduled for a hearing. (Patrick’s office declined to shed light on why Campbell’s bill was referred to the subcommittee and immediately considered.)

But while the measure is likely to easily pass the Senate, it may meet more resistance in the House.

[…]

When the session began in January, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, said he supports the current policy despite the political firestorm it’s caused. On Wednesday, Zerwas, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, said debating the policy is healthy, but he still stands behind it.

If SB 1819 passes the Senate, Zerwas said it likely won’t be referred to his committee but instead the House Committee on State Affairs. The chairman of that committee, state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, said his support for the current policy is double-tiered.

“Number one, Texas made a commitment to these students, and as Texans we should honor our word,” he said. “Additionally, it would seem to me that having educated young people is much more productive for the economy of the state.”

Good for you, Reps. Zerwas and Cook. As for Donna Campbell, she’s doing her best to become Debbie Riddle 2.0. Details for Monday’s hearing are here; it was originally scheduled for last Monday but was postponed for a week. If it’s at all possible for you to be there and voice your opposition, please do so.

Not looking good for medical marijuana

From Trail Blazers:

Rep. Marisa Marquez

A key lawmaker suggested Tuesday that a bill legalizing marijuana for medical use is probably “dead,” but the sponsor said she’s not discouraged by the “premature” pushback.

The bill has not yet been referred to a committee, where it could be debated and voted on, but similar proposals have been referred to the House Public Health committee now headed by Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has said he opposes medical marijuana legalization, and Crownover told The News Tuesday “I think it’s dead in the House, also.”

[…]

The bill’s author Rep. Marisa Márquez, D-El Paso, called Crownover’s assessment “premature.”

“I believe that there are a lot of members out there that believe that this is worthy to look at and to discuss,” Márquez said. “I’m not discouraged by any means.”

[…]

There’s a chance the bill could also end up in the House State Affairs committee chaired by Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana. Cook said he thought the proposal was “ahead of its time,” but worth a discussion.

“What I traditionally like to do is hear all the different folks come in and testify on a bill because sometimes that reinforces where you are, and sometimes it causes you to change your mind because you are forced to think about things a little more broadly than you would have otherwise,” Cook said.

“We should always have conversation about things,” Cook said. “That’s what we’re here for.”

The bill in question is HB 3785; it and a companion bill in the Senate by Sen. Jose Rodriguez were filed at the deadline. Here’s an Observer story with more details about Rep. Marquez’s bill. It’s not the only medical marijuana bill, and it’s far from the only bill that would in some way loosen or reform marijuana laws, but it does appear to be outside the limits of what will get serious attention. This is going to have to be an actual election issue – a winning election issue, since Wendy Davis supported medical marijuana – before any real progress gets made.

Bill filing deadline has passed

Believe it or not, we are almost halfway through the legislative session, and we have now passed the point where new bills can be filed.

130114152903-abc-schoolhouse-rock-just-a-bill-story-top

Racing to beat a deadline for filing bills, state lawmakers on Friday submitted hundreds of measures on everything from abolishing the death penalty to the licensing of auctioneers.

By the time the dust settled, 928 bills had been filed in the state House and Senate on Friday, setting the chambers up for a busy second half of the legislative session.

“Now, it’s game on,” longtime lobbyist Bill Miller said.

In all, some 8,000 measures are now before the 84th Legislature, including 4,114 House bills, 1,993 Senate bills and 1,771 resolutions.

[…]

The most high-profile bill filed Friday was an ethics reform package supported by Gov. Greg Abbott that long had been expected to be submitted by Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano. Abbott had declared ethics reform a legislative emergency item during his State of the State address last month.

Taylor’s proposal, known as Senate Bill 19 and also backed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, would require state officials to disclose contracts with governmental entities, prohibit lawmakers from serving as bond counsel for local and state governments and make departing legislators and statewide elected officials wait one legislative session before becoming lobbyists.

“There is no more valuable bond in democracy than the trust the people have with their government,” Taylor said in a statement. “The common-sense ethics reform outlined in Senate Bill 19 will strengthen that bond and send a clear message to the people of Texas that there is no place in government for those who betray the trust given to them by the voters.”

Tax policy also was a common theme, with [Rep. Dennis] Bonnen submitting his hotly anticipated proposal to cut business and sales taxes.

The Senate, which in some ways has been moving faster than the House, already has debated several tax proposals, and the issue is expected to be a priority focus of the session.

The Trib highlights a few bills of interest.

— House Ways and Means Chairman Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, filed his long-awaited proposals to cut the rates for both the margins tax paid by businesses and the broader state sales tax. The margins tax bill, House Bill 32, is identical to one filed by Senate Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. The measures should draw the House more into the tax cut debate this session, which until now has been focused more on the Senate, where Nelson has already held hearings on some high-profile measures.

— Several measures filed Friday aimed at allowing Texas to change its approach to immigration, even as broader proposals stall in Washington.

House Bill 3735 by state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, seeks to establish a partnership with the federal government to establish a guest-worker program to bring skilled and unskilled labor to Texas.

House Bill 3301 by state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, would recognize undocumented Texans as “citizens” of the state. It would allow them to apply for driver’s licenses, occupational licenses and state IDs if they meet certain residency criteria and are can verify their identity.

“It also opens the door for future conversations about the very real fact that these Texans without status are here, they are not leaving, and we should be doing everything we can to help them find employment, housing and opportunity,” said Laura Stromberg Hoke, Rodriguez’s chief of staff.

— House Bill 3401 by state Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, seeks to establish an interstate compact between interested states for the detection, apprehension and prosecution of undocumented immigrants.

— Looking to add restrictions on abortion, state Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, filed House Bill 3765 to beef up the state’s informed consent laws when it comes to minors. Texas law already requires patients seeking an abortion to go through the informed consent process, but Laubenberg’s bill would require notarized consent from a minor and a minor’s parent before an abortion is performed.

— House Bill 3785 from Rep. Marisa Marquez, D-El Paso, would permit patients with cancer, seizure disorders, PTSD and other conditions to medical marijuana. The measure is broader than other bills filed this session that would only allow low-level THC oils to be used on intractable seizure patients.

— The National Security Agency might have some trouble in Texas if Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, gets his way. House Bill 3916 would make it illegal for any public entities to provide water or electric utility services to NSA data collection centers in the state.

— State Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Port Arthur, filed a pair of measures, House Bill 3839 and House Joint Resolution 142, which would ask voters to approve the creation of as many as nine casinos. Under Deshotel’s plan, most of the casinos would be built near the Texas coast, and a large portion of the tax revenue would go toward shoring up the troubled Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, the insurer of last resort for coastal Texans.

— In an effort to pave the way for a Medicaid expansion solution that would get the support of conservatives, state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, filed House Bill 3845 to request a block grant from the federal government to reform the program and expand health care coverage for low-income Texans. Though GOP leaders have said they won’t expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act, they’ve asked the feds for more flexibility to administer the program. Coleman’s proposal, titled the “The Texas Way,” intends to give the state more wiggle room while still drawing some Republican support.

Here’s a Statesman story about the casino bills. There’s been a distinct lack of noise around gambling expansion this session, which is change from other recent sessions. I suspect Rep. Deshotel’s proposals will go the way of those previous ones, but at least there’s a new angle this time.

Here’s a press release from Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP) in favor of the medical marijuana bill from Rep. Marquez; there is a not-yet-numbered companion bill to HB3785 in the Senate, filed by Sen. Jose Menendez, as well. Two other, more limited, medical marijuana bills, the so-called “Texas Compassionate Use Act”, were filed in February. I don’t know which, if any, will have a chance of passage. I will note that RAMP has been admirably bipartisan in its praise of bills that loosen marijuana laws. Kudos to them for that.

If you’re annoyed at Jodie Laubenberg going after reproductive choice again, it might help a little to know that Rep. Jessica Farrar filed HB 3966 to require some accountability for so-called “crisis pregnancy centers’. Her press release is here.

I am particularly interested in Rep. Coleman’s “Texas Way” Medicaid expansion bill. (A companion bill, SB 1039, was filed by Sen. Jose Rodriguez.) I have long considered “block grant” to be dirty words in connection with Medicaid, so to say the least I was a little surprised to receive Rep. Coleman’s press release. I have complete faith in Rep. Coleman, so I’m sure this bill will move things in the direction he’s been pushing all along, but at this point I don’t understand the details well enough to explain what makes this bill different from earlier block grant proposals. I’ve sent an email to his office asking for more information. In the meantime, you can read Sen. Rodriguez’s press release and this Legislative Study Group coverage expansion policy paper for more.

Finally, one more bill worth highlighting:

The proposal introduced by out lesbian Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin) would prohibit mental health providers in Texas from attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of people under 18. Those who violate the law would face disciplinary action from state licensing boards.

Israel acknowledged that House Bill 3495 has little chance of passing the Republican-dominated Legislature, and it wouldn’t apply to faith-based practitioners, but she said it’s an important response to the Texas GOP’s 2014 platform plank endorsing reparative therapy.

“I don’t think that they recognize how hurtful these kinds of things can be,” Israel told the Observer. “To suggest that some young kid that happens to be gay is less than normal is very hurtful and harmful and dangerous, and I think I put myself back in those years when I was first discovering who I was. … I felt strongly about introducing a bill that was a counter to that, to say, ‘We don’t need fixing. We just need your love.’”

Virtually all of the major medical and mental health organizations have come out against reparative therapy, from the American Psychological Association to the American Medical Association and the American Counseling Association.

I agree that this bill isn’t going anywhere, but as I’ve been saying, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have been filed. Good on Rep. Israel for doing what’s right. Equality Texas has more.

Sanctuary cities bill hearing rescheduled

Didn’t know you could do this in the Lege.

A controversial immigration proposal scheduled for a public hearing Monday was postponed after a border Democrat argued that Republicans did not give the public sufficient notice about the meeting.

The “sanctuary cities” measure, Senate Bill 185, by state Sen. Charles Perry, seeks to prohibit cities from adopting policies that forbid police from enforcing federal immigration laws — or asking the immigration status of someone they arrest.

The proposal was scheduled for an 8 a.m. hearing before a subcommittee of the Senate Veteran Affairs and Military Installations Committee. But state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, used a procedural move called “tagging” — or blocking — to get the item knocked off the agenda because the notice for the hearing was posted online Friday. It should have been posted earlier, state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, the committee chairman, said at the hearing.

“The bill should have been posted as early as Thursday to ensure compliance with Senate rules,” Birdwell said. “It was my fault. I personally apologize.”

Under the chamber’s rules, senators are allowed to request an additional 48 hours of notice for hearings that are posted 72 hours or less in advance. Rodriguez requested that notice Monday morning.

The hearing has been rescheduled for March 16, when the subcommittee will also hear Birdwell’s Senate Bill 3, an omnibus border security bill.

Rodríguez said he fielded several phone calls over the weekend from constituents, including El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles, who wanted to speak against the bill but couldn’t make it to Austin in time.

“We refer to it, and I think some of you refer to it, as the ‘show me your papers’ bill,” Rodríguez told reporters at a news conference Monday. “We made a procedural move to allow for more time for people to come before this committee and be able to have their views heard on this major, major legislation.”

See here for the background. This bill is the same kind of stinker it was in 2011, when the Republicans last tried and failed to pass it. It won’t be easy to stop but we’ve got to try. The Observer and Stace have more.

Bill to outlaw non-discrimination ordinances filed

From The Observer:

RedEquality

A Fort Bend County Republican has introduced a bill that would bar cities from adopting or enforcing non-discrimination ordinances that include protected classes not contained in state law. Texas law doesn’t include sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.

As a result, state Rep. Rick Miller’s House Bill 1556 would undo LGBT protections passed by numerous cities, including Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston and Plano. Altogether more than 7.5 million Texas are covered by such ordinances.

“HB 1556 will prevent local governments from expanding business regulations beyond limitations established in state law,” Miller told the Observer. “Competing and inconsistent local ordinances interfere with economic liberty and discourage business expansion. By promoting instead of restricting business growth, this bill is about job creation and an improved state economy, both of which have a direct, positive impact on Texas citizens.

“Because every private business is different, nothing in the bill prevents local businesses from voluntarily adopting their own discrimination policy not currently included in state law,” he added.

Rep. Miller’s son, Beau Miller, an openly gay 41-year-old Houston attorney, is an HIV and LGBT activist. Miller said he was “extremely disappointed” to learn about his father’s bill.

“If the bill progresses through the Legislature, I’m sure there will be a robust conversation about the impact not only on minority communities, such as the LGBT community, but also on local rule in Texas,” Beau Miller said. He also posted a response to the bill on Facebook.

Miller’s bill is the counterpoint to Sen. Jose Rodriguez’s statewide non-discrimination bill that was also filed last week. It’s a more limited approach than Sen. Don Huffines’ bill to outlaw cities, which makes it more dangerous. I imagine family gatherings at the Miller house will be a bit more awkward now, and that’s a good thing. Rep. Miller should feel bad about this. It’s an appropriate response for when one does something offensive and wrong and gets called out on it.

As we know, strangling local control has been a running theme this session, with Greg Abbott and the Republican legislature deciding that they are the only valid authority in Texas. Thankfully, there is finally starting to be some organized pushback on this.

Local Control Texas — composed of Central Texas environmentalists, workers’ rights groups and Republicans from rural areas and small cities — might be the one thing stopping a governor-inspired effort at the Capitol to target some local ordinances.

Already, Local Control Texas has had some success, getting out-of-the-way towns like Montgomery — 50 miles north of Houston — to pass or consider resolutions that call some of the proposed legislation an overreach. The effort seeks to broaden opposition beyond major cities like Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, which have passed some of the local ordinances Abbott wants to pull back.

“What looks weird to some looks like home to others who create software and startups and street art,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler told the American-Statesman in January as he sought to defend the local rules following Abbott’s swipe.

“We ask that you refrain from hindering local governments’ abilities to serve the interests of their residents,” the group’s founders have written in an open letter to state leaders and lawmakers that is posted on the group’s website, localcontroltexas.org.

The signees of that letter include Darren Hodges, Fort Stockton’s Mayor Pro Tem who also identifies himself as a tea partier; Lanham Lyne, a former Republican state representative and mayor from Wichita Falls who runs an oil and gas exploration business; the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance; the Workers Defense Project; and the Texas Campaign for the Environment.

“Austin is a bit hypocritical, complaining to Washington, D.C., and then going around and telling local communities what to do,” Hodges, who has championed a plastic-bag ban in Fort Stockton, told the American-Statesman.

Karen Darcy, a member of the North Shore Republican Women, which meets by Lake Conroe, north of Houston, says she’s called her state representative and state senator — both Republicans — to ask them to fight proposals that threaten local control.

“If the majority at a local level have a problem with something, it’s up to that jurisdiction to decide what’s best for its citizens,” she said.

The Local Control Texas website is here if you want to check it out. Their efforts are badly needed, and I definitely appreciate the Republican participation on it, since this message needs to be bipartisan. What also needs to happen is for these same Republicans to be prepared to vote against at least some of the politicians that are doing this to their cities and counties. They can pick their spots as needed, but as with many other things, until someone actually loses an election as a result of being on the wrong side of an issue like this, there won’t be any incentive to be on the right side. Consequences can be quite motivating, if they exist.

Statewide non-discrimination ordinance filed

From the Inbox:

Sen. Jose Rodriguez

On the 179th anniversary of Texas Independence Day, Senator José Rodríguez (D-El Paso) filed Senate Bill 856, a bill that would prohibit discrimination in the areas of employment, public accommodation, housing, and state contracting based upon sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression. The bill was joint-authored by Senators John Whitmire (D-Houston), Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), Kirk Watson (D-Austin), and Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston).

“Fair treatment for workers, families, and people who visit our state—including gay and transgender people—is a crucial factor in the ongoing strength of the Texas brand. An inclusive Texas is crucial to recruiting and retaining talent, attracting entrepreneurs and company relocations, and maintaining a strong travel and tourism industry. Moreover, discrimination of any kind runs counter to the values of opportunity, personal faith, and freedom from discrimination that all Texans hold dear,” Senator Rodríguez said.

“Discrimination of any form has no place in Texas. Not in our schools, our government, or our services. I am proud to co-author this legislation and proud to stand strong for the fair treatment of all Texans especially our friends in the LGBT community who for too long have been the target of discrimination,” stated Senator John Whitmire, Dean of the Texas Senate.

“I’m proud to coauthor legislation to prevent fellow Texans from being discriminated against due to who they love,” said Senator Ellis. “All hardworking Texans, including our LGBT neighbors, should have the chance to earn a living, provide for their families, and live like everyone else without fear of getting fired or evicted solely because of who they are. ”

“Every Texan deserves to be treated fairly, and this legislation will make our state stronger by protecting this important ideal,” Senator Watson said.

“All Texans should enjoy equal protection under the law. This important legislation would ensure that our LGBT brothers and sisters can express who they are without fear of discrimination. It would also send a message to the rest of the world that Texas welcomes anyone that wants to contribute to our great state, regardless of sexual orientation,” Senator Garcia said.

According to the 2012 FORTUNE 500 Non-Discrimination Project from the Equality Forum, 48 of 52 Fortune 500 companies in Texas already prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Many others also extend that protection to gender identity or expression. In 2012, the Center for American Progress reported that work environments hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) employees cost companies $1.4 billion in lost output every year.

Because Texas does not protect people who are gay or transgender from discrimination, many municipalities have already acted to extend discrimination protection to those residents. Currently 35.5% of Texans live in a city where discrimination against sexual orientation is prohibited. 33.9% live in a city where gender identity is protected.

“It is time—past time,” said Senator Rodríguez, “to make sure that all Texans have the independence our state claimed for itself almost 200 years ago. To be free of discrimination based on who you are, and to be treated fairly and equally is an environment Texas should be leading the way in creating, not being late to adopt. That’s what businesses want. But most importantly, all Texans deserve the right to provide for themselves and their families, secure a place to live, participate in the Texas economy, and contribute to the Texas economy, no matter what city they live in or visit and regardless of who they are or whom they love.”

Business leaders agree.

Catherine Morse, General Counsel and Director of Public Affairs at Samsung Austin Semiconductor: “Like so many other companies in Texas, Samsung is competing globally for the best talent. We believe that nondiscrimination measures will help us in that regard.”

Mellie Price, serial entrepreneur and Managing Director of Capital Factory: “For small and large businesses across Texas to compete for top talent, we must have workplaces and communities that are diverse and welcoming to all people.”

“I chose today—Texas Independence Day—to file this important legislation,” Senator Rodríguez concluded, “because Texas values—such as hard work, opportunity, and the Golden Rule—are the reason why Texas remains strong 179 years later. That is why we must act definitively to ensure everyone in the Lone Star State is treated fairly and equally.”

Here’s SB856. It’s not going to go anywhere – it’s going to be a hell of a fight to fend off legislation that would nullify local non-discrimination ordinances; yet another such bill was filed around the same time as Sen. Rordiguez’s bill – but that doesn’t matter. I’ll say again, if we don’t stand up for what we believe in, what are we even doing? I commend Sen. Rodriguez and his four co-authors for doing the right thing. I hope the rest of their colleagues follow their example. The full press release is here, and Equality Texas has more.

Working for progress on LGBT issues

I’m always a little wary when I see a phrase like “chipping away” in a story about LGBT issues, but in this case it refers to obstacles, not hard-won victories, so it’s OK.

RedEquality

The rights and interests of homosexual Texans will be in the spotlight like never before next year, as the state’s same-sex marriage ban gets a long-awaited hearing in federal court and lawmakers take up a slate of bills that address everything from employment and insurance discrimination to local equal rights ordinances.

“In Texas, it’s very difficult with the makeup of the Legislature to pass anything,” said Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston. “But it’s called chipping away – keep bringing the issue – until one day it passes.”

[…]

Daniel Williams, of Equality Texas, said he believes there is a “realistic opportunity” to pass legislation allowing both same-sex partners to be listed on birth certificates, and to remove a provision in state law that criminalizes sexual relationships between some same-sex teenagers.

Other bills have been filed to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in public school sex education classes, and for insurance companies and state contractors. Two bills, by [Sen. Jose] Rodriguez and his El Paso colleague Joe Moody, are seeking to remove from state law books an unconstitutional, unenforceable statute that criminalizes sodomy.

Williams also is interested to see whether Gov.-elect Greg Abbott will break with his predecessor by pushing state compliance with federal mandates to reduce the prison rape rate – which disproportionately impacts gay and transgender inmates – and whether more municipalities follow San Antonio, Houston and Plano’s lead in passing non-discrimination ordinances.

Don’t forget about Plano, too. There’s a reason all those hateful pastors are freaking out about this – they know they’re losing. Bills have been filed by Rep. Coleman and others to repeal Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage and to fix the birth certificate problem as noted, and there’s a broader organization being formed to help press the case in Austin. That’s all good and necessary and I have some hope as well, but I suspect that once all is said and done simply not losing ground will be seen as a win with this Legislature.

As for Sen. Donna Campbell’s effort to supersede local efforts by filing a resolution that would block any local rule or state law that infringes on “an individual’s or religious organization’s … sincerely held religious belief,” advocates think the business community will come out against it as they did against similar legislation in Arizona.

“Yes, you can talk about taking power away from those local leaders, but there’s going to be a lot of pushback from the local elected officials and their constituents,” said Jeff Davis, chairman of the Texas chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, a national group made up of gay members of the GOP and their allies. He said Campbell’s resolution likely would generate “a lot of talk,” but he believes the effort “isn’t going to move completely forward.”

Meanwhile, religious leaders waging a legal battle against Houston’s non-discrimination ordinance are banking on the increasingly-conservative Legislature to support their efforts. While they await a 2015 court date to determine whether enough signatures were gathered to force a local referendum on the Houston ordinance, they have turned their eyes to Plano, which passed a similar ordinance earlier this month.

“These ordinances are solutions looking for a problem,” said David Welch, director of the Houston-based Texas Pastors Council, which filed a petition against the Plano ordinance this week. “It is a special interest group representing a tiny fraction of the population using the power of law to impose their lifestyle and punish those that disagree with them.”

He said the council will continue to work with lawmakers on legislation that could undo these ordinances at the state level, as well as reaffirm current law that enshrines marriage as between one man and one woman.

It would be nice if the business lobby puts some pressure on to kill not just Campbell’s bill but all of the pro-discrimination bills that Campbell and others are filing, but don’t expect me to have any faith in their efforts. At least as far as constitutional amendments go, there are enough Democrats to keep them off the ballot, barring any shenanigans or betrayals. It would be nice to think that Republicans can play a key role in preserving existing protections, if not expanding them, but there’s no evidence to support that idea at this time with this Legislature. We need to win more elections, that’s all there is to it. Let’s make it through this session unscathed and get started working on that part of it ASAP. BOR has more.

Legislation to overturn same sex marriage ban filed

Someone’s gotta do it, and you know it won’t be Republicans.

RedEquality

Kriselda Hinojosa recalls how she unintentionally came out to her father in sixth grade.

“He actually saw me kissing my girlfriend at the time,” Hinojosa said. “So he caught me, but he didn’t get upset. He never yelled at me or anything. He was always very open-minded. I’ve never heard him talk bad about the LGBT community.”

Over the years, the now-32-year-old Hinojosa said, her father’s acceptance has evolved into righteous indignation over the fact that his only daughter doesn’t have equal rights. Two years ago, Hinojosa “eloped” to Las Vegas with her girlfriend for a same-sex commitment ceremony. When she returned to Texas, it hit home for her dad that their certificate means nothing in the eyes of the state.

In 2013, Hinojosa’s father, state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen), authored a bill to legalize civil unions in Texas. And on Father’s Day this year, he penned a heartfelt pro-equality letter to his daughter that was published in newspapers statewide.

On Monday, Sen. Hinojosa took his support a step further, introducing a bill to repeal Texas’ constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage on the first day of pre-filing for the 2015 legislative session. Hinojosa’s bill, SB 98, is one of several that were set to be filed Monday that—if all were to pass—would have the combined effect of legalizing same-sex marriage in Texas pending a public vote.

“He says he’s proud of me, but I’m more proud of him,” Kriselda Hinojosa said. “He’s taking a risk, also, because he could actually lose supporters, but it doesn’t seem to phase him. He’s doing what he thinks is right.”

Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) filed a companion to Hinojosa’s bill, HJR 34, aimed at repealing the marriage amendment, which was approved by 76 percent of voters in 2005. To pass, the amendment repeal bills would need a two-thirds majority in both chambers, as well as a simple majority at the ballot box.< Meanwhile, state Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) and Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) were set to file legislation Monday that would undo Texas’ statutory bans on same-sex marriage, which passed in 2003. Anchia’s bill is HB 130, and Rodriguez’s measure was piggy-backed on Hinojosa’s SB 98. The statutory changes would have no impact until the constitutional amendment is repealed.

We’ve been down this road before. What I said then largely applies now, and I don’t expect any different outcome. An x-factor in this is the Fifth Circuit, whose actions on the appeal of DeLeon v. Perry could possibly inspire some backlash. If there’s one achievable thing I’d like to see happen on this, it’s for there to be a fully unified Democratic response to these bills. I’d like to see the few remaining holdouts in our caucuses finally get right on this issue.

Actually, there’s a bigger reason why we’ll need to stand together on this.

Texas tea party Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, introduced a measure Monday that could effectively allow businesses to turn away gay customers — or fire LGBT employees — under the guise of religious freedom.

On the first day of pre-filing for the legislative session that begins in January, Campbell introduced Senate Joint Resolution 10. The resolution, which proposes a constitutional amendment “relating to a person’s freedom of religion,” reads as follows:

Government may not burden an individual’s or religious organization’s freedom of religion or right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief unless the government proves that the burden is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. For purposes of this subsection, the term “burden” includes indirect burdens such as withholding benefits, assessing penalties, and denying access to facilities or programs.

Campbell introduced a nearly identical measure two years ago, but it died in committee. The 2013 measure was supported by the anti-LGBT group Texas Values and opposed by Equality Texas.

Texas already has a statute, the Religous Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), that provides strong protections for religious freedom. However, critics say Campbell’s proposal would go much further than the Texas RFRA.

For example, while the RFRA says government “may not substantially burden” an individual’s religious freedom, SJR10 states only that government “may not burden” an individual’s religious freedom. Removing the word “substantially” would significantly alter the scope of the law, as outlined in testimony from former state Rep. Scott Hochberg in 2013. Also, unlike the RFRA, Campbell’s proposal doesn’t include exceptions for enforcement of civil rights laws.

In other words, this would overturn the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, and a whole lot besides. Because “local control” goes out the window when the locals do something the hegemons don’t like. Be that as it may, no Democrat should consider voting for this. Let the Rs own every piece of the same sex marriage ban as well as this abomination when SCOTUS finally takes up the question, whichever way they go. The people are ready for the unjust marriage ban to be repealed. Let’s give them what they want. LGBTQ Insider has more.

Maxey Scherr kicks off her campaign

From the inbox:

Maxey_Scherr_Headshot

Maxey Scherr, an El Paso attorney, officially kicked-off her campaign for United States Senate today with a web video and event over a hundred supporters in El Paso. Scherr is vying to be the first person from El Paso to serve in the U.S. Senate.

Watch the web video, “Get Texas Off Cruz Control,” here.

In addition, Maxey’s campaign launched an accompanying website: TexasOnCruzControl.com

“Ted Cruz is the epitome of everything that’s wrong with Washington – and John Cornyn is along for the ride,” Scherr said. “I’m running for the U.S. Senate because their agenda leaves too many people behind. You deserve a senator who listens and is respectful, and who is focused on solving problems. Senator Cornyn is stuck on ‘Cruz Control’ on every issue that matters and I’m running for Senate because I won’t be.”

In addition, Maxey Scherr was endorsed by former Congressman Silvestre Reyes, State Senator Jose Rodriguez, and State Representative Joe Moody:

“Maxey was one of the brightest and most talented people who worked on my staff,” said former Congressman Silvestre Reyes. “Maxey has a deeply personal understanding of different backgrounds that compose Texas. Her energy and focus are exactly what we need in Washington to deal with issues like immigration reform and increasing the minimum wage. I’m proud to support her.”

State Senator Jose Rodriguez said, “Maxey Scherr is dynamic, smart and committed to Texas. She’s a great candidate for U.S. Senate who will work for access to health care, improved education, and immigration reform. Unfortunately Texas leadership only works for the interest of large corporate donors today. We need to change that, and focus on policies that help small business, workers and families – and Maxey will be that type of Senator.”

State Representative Joe Moody said, ““I’ve known Maxey Scherr for years and am proud to endorse her for U.S. Senate because of her character. She will focus on solving problems. Whether it’s cutting wasteful government spending or supporting an increase to the minimum wage – Maxey will be a passionate advocate for Texas families.”

Here’s an embed of that video:

It’s a good video, well produced with a catchy hook and some appealing ideas. I agree with PDiddie that attacking Cornyn via Cruz is a worthwhile idea, one that isn’t necessarily limited to Democratic candidates for Senate. The video also can – and should – be cut into shorter versions for sharing or making more specific points. It also accomplished the job of earning some media, which is no small feat at this time of the cycle and with so many Republicans running around saying crazy things.

One other point to note is the three endorsements Scherr received. Sure, they’re from hometown politicians, but I’d bet money she’s the only candidate in the increasingly crowded Senate primary that gets any endorsements from such prominent Democrats. In a race between candidates that don’t have a statewide profile, having any kind of base of support will help. That’s a bigger deal now, because via Juanita I see that perennial LaRouchite nutball Kesha Rogers has filed for the Senate as well. Rogers was a bad enough joke as a two-time nominee for CD22. At least there, she was in a deep red Congressional race that no one paid any attention to. If she somehow manages to get nominated for the Senate, that would be a catastrophe. In my earlier post about Lloyd Oliver rearing his head again, I said that “no good Democrat wants him on the ballot”. That goes a billion times for Kesha Rogers. Someone asked me in the comments what I meant by “a good Democrat”. Well, for starters, a good Democrat wants to nominate good candidates, and does not want to vote for someone that would be actively toxic to other Democrats on the ballot and who would be an even bigger disaster if they somehow managed to get elected. This isn’t a particularly high bar to clear here. And as with Lloyd Oliver and Kim Ogg, that means Democratic elected officials and other candidates can’t afford to stay on the sidelines. No one has to endorse Maxey Scherr, or any other specific candidate, but for goodness’ sake please do your part to make sure people know that there’s a bad choice on the ballot that they need to avoid. No excuses, no pleading ignorance, no avoiding the responsibility. Start now and avoid the rush. And be sure to keep an eye out for Maxey Scherr as she makes her way around the state with the Cruzmobile.

Kinky for Ag Commish, Sam Houston (maybe) for AG

One and a half candidate announcements to note from the weekend. First, from the Trib, is the quadrennial appearance of Kinky Friedman.

Bi-polar and tri-partisan

Singer, songwriter, novelist, humorist and former Independent gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman will run for the Democratic nomination to be the state’s next agriculture commissioner.

A formal announcement is expected on Monday.

This will not be Friedman’s first bid for statewide office. In addition to running for governor as an Independent in 2006, he ran unsuccessfully for agriculture commissioner in the Democratic primary in 2010. He expects this cycle to be different, in part because of the excitement surrounding state Sen. Wendy Davis at the top of the Democratic ticket.

“The better Wendy does, the better we will do,” he said. “And we will also be able to bring a lot of Independent voters and people who have never voted before.”

Though no Democrat has won statewide office in nearly two decades, Friedman predicted that this cycle could be “very winnable” — if the party can attract non-traditional voters.

Friedman, who describes himself as “an old time Harry Truman Democrat,” had been mulling a gubernatorial bid. He previously expressed interest in promoting the legalization of marijuana and casino gambling in Texas. On Saturday, he said that the two issues would remain a part of his platform as a candidate for ag commissioner, especially the idea that the state should “legalize, cultivate, tax and regulate marijuana.”

“It could be an economic engine for the state, enabling us to do whatever we want to do,” he said.

Ag Commish isn’t one of the offices I suggedted Kinky run for when he popped up again like one of those inflatable clown dolls, but what the hell. At least it’s an office for which Dems didn’t currently have a candidate. PDiddie makes the case for Kinky based on the issues he wants to emphasize, while BOR reminds us of the reasons to be skeptical. For now, I see this as PDiddie does, a low-cost gamble with some upside. Friedman doesn’t help diversify the ticket, and we’ll all hold our breath every time he’s in the vicinity of a microphone, but if he can stay focused on the issues he says he cares about, it’ll be all right. I hope. Texpatriate has more.

Meanwhile, the Lone Star Project brings news of a possible announcement.

Sam Houston Likely to Announce for Texas AG
Respected Texas attorney was a top vote getter in 2008

As expected, Senator Wendy Davis’ announcement that she is running for Texas Governor is encouraging other strong, qualified Democrats to run statewide. The Lone Star Project has learned that highly respected Houston attorney, Sam Houston, will likely soon announce his candidacy for Texas Attorney General.

Sam Houston’s background is law, not politics
Apart from having about the best ballot name any Texan might imagine, Sam Houston is a respected, highly competent attorney with deep roots in Texas. With more than 25 years of experience practicing law, Sam would enter the AG’s office with more than twice the experience as a practicing attorney than Greg Abbott when he became Attorney General. Unlike Abbott and John Cornyn, who were political appointees and professional Republicans before becoming AG, Sam Houston would bring practical experience advocating for clients in the court room.

Sam was born and raised in Colorado City in west Texas (about halfway between Abilene and Midland). His Dad owned a small auto supply/hardware store where Sam often worked. He went on to get his college degree at UT and then earned his law degree at Baylor. Sam lives in Houston with his wife, Jantha and their two children.

Abbott, as Texas AG, has been the counsel to cronies
As Texas AG for over a decade, Greg Abbott has turned the office into a legal advocacy organization for partisan politics and doling out special favors to political friends and donors.  Recently, the Lone Star Project detailed how Abbott looked the other way while some of his top donors bilked the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) of millions of dollars in tax funded grant awards.  This follows a long history of Abbott taking the side of special interests over Texas citizens.

A top vote getter in 2008
Sam was a Democratic nominee for the Texas State Supreme Court in 2008.  Despite the fact that virtually all resources for statewide candidates were diverted for local candidates and out-of-state national races, Sam received over 3.5 million votes – more than any other Texas Democratic candidate on the ballot in 2008.

It’s not official, but…
Don’t be surprised if Sam Houston files to run for the Democratic nomination to become Texas Attorney General.

It may not be official, but it seems highly unlikely that Matt Angle et al would risk making a fool of himself like this if it were anything but a matter of timing or paperwork at this point. Sens. Carlos Uresti and Jose Rodriguez have also been mentioned as possibilities, and I suppose either or both could still jump in; they’re not otherwise on the ballot till 2016, so it’s a free shot. I think Sam Houston would be a strong candidate – he’s well-qualified, unlike many other people running on both sides he has statewide candidate experience, he can probably raise a few bucks, and I do think being named “Sam Houston” is likely to be beneficial to him – so I’ll be happy if this possibility turns into a sure thing.

Democratic ballot update

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte:

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

State Sen. Leticia Van De Putte of San Antonio is exploring a run in 2014 as the Democratic challenger in the lieutenant governor’s race, but she said there is still a lot to consider.

“We’ve really had so many family losses, so first and foremost my concerns are with my family,” she said.

Van De Putte has seen her share of losses since the start of this summer — first the death of baby grandson, then her father died in a car accident and recently her mother-in-law passed away.

[…]

Van De Putte is re-grouping this week to discuss her role in the 2014 statewide elections and — like many other Democrats considering higher office — waiting for state Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth to officially announce her decision about running for governor, which is set to happen Oct 3, the official date Democrats can file for a statewide election.

Sen. Carlos Uresti:

This time it’s state Sen. Carlos Uresti, who said he is mulling a run for the attorney general’s office in 2014 and considers himself a perfect fit for the job.

“With my experience as an attorney of 20 years, my experience as a legislator of 16 years — including my experience as officer in the Marine Corps — I think gives me some of the skills to fill that position,” he said.

[…]

Uresti said the attorney general’s office should not be a partisan office that only concerns itself with legal battles with the federal government.

Uresti said his decision doesn’t hinge on whether or not state Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth decides to run for governor and he will make a decision and announce his plans in early November.

If he runs, Uresti said one top of his top priorities as attorney general would be to go after “dead-beat” parents who don’t pay their child support.

According to Robert Miller, Sen. Jose Rodriguez is also thinking about running for AG. Sen. Rodriguez is closer to my personal ideal for that job, but as long as one of them runs, I’ll be happy.

And as for the main event, we’ll find out next week.

Amid widespread reports that she plans to run for Texas governor, state Sen. Wendy Davis on Thursday released details about the announcement of her future plans next week.

Davis will make the announcement at 3 p.m. on Oct. 3 in the auditorium where she received her high school diploma in 1981 — the Wiley G. Thomas Coliseum in Haltom City. Davis had previously announced the date, but until Thursday she had not given details about the time or location.

Politico reported Thursday that Davis is telling top Democrats she is running for governor, though she and aides are declining to confirm anything with their names attached to it.

“Next week join your friends and neighbors for the moment when I announce what I plan to do next,” Davis said in an email blast to supporters.
 “We’ll be gathering at the same coliseum where I received my high school diploma — and I really want you to be there with me.”

It’s hard to imagine she’s announcing for anything but Governor. I guess nothing is impossible, but any other office would be a ginormous anticlimax. And once Davis has announced, we can hopefully get the rest of the ticket filled in. We need candidates for Ag Commissioner and Railroad Commissioner – I wouldn’t mind a more prominent name for Comptroller, but we do have someone – and of course the Court of Criminal Appeals and Supreme Court. If Wendy Davis is on top of the ticket, we have no excuse for leaving any slot blank.

Senate passes non-abortion bills, committee passes HB2

The decks are cleared on the Senate side for the main event.

In a speedy Thursday morning meeting with little debate, the upper chamber passed Senate Bill 2 with a 30-1 vote, allowing Texas judges and juries to sentence 17-year-olds convicted of capital murderers to life in prison with parole after 40 years. It also passed Senate Joint Resolution 1 unanimously, a measure to ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment to spend money from the Rainy Day Fund on transportation initiatives.

SB 2, authored by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place, alters Texas law to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that eliminated mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles last year. The Senate debated the bill for about 20 minutes before voting to suspend the rules and pass it. The measure now heads to the House.

The transportation bill, by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, would move nearly $1 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to the Texas Department of Transportation. TxDOT has said it needs about $4 billion to deal with growth and congestion on state roads. The House, meanwhile, is working on a different version of the transportation bill, raising questions about whether the two chambers can agree before the session ends.

Both bills then went to the House, which wasted no time in passing SB2. It now goes to Rick Perry, though some people think SB2 is unconstitutional as written – Sen. Jose Rodriguez released a statement saying so after SB2 passed; Texpatriate disagrees with him. There was also some separate action on transportation and an issue that isn’t on the session agenda at this time.

The House Appropriations Committee met on Thursday afternoon and passed House Bill 5, a major “TRB” measure by House Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas.

The bill would issue bonds for 62 campus construction projects, though House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, made it clear that it will not be sent to the House chamber for a vote until Perry adds the issue to the special session call.

At Thursday’s meeting, the committee also unanimously passed House Joint Resolution 2, a transportation bill by state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, which would give the Texas Department of Transportation additional funding from the state’s gas revenues. TxDOT officials have indicated that the department needs roughly $4 billion a year to maintain current traffic congestion in the state.

No clue if Perry will let the campus construction bill move forward. In the meantime, the Senate moved forward on the abortion bill as well.

As the news conference was going on, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee met and approved House Bill 2, which would ban abortions at 20 weeks of gestation and tighten regulations on abortion facilities and providers. Dewhurst said that the full Senate would approve the bill on Friday — and that the gallery would be cleared if protesters mounted any demonstrations to impede the process.

In a likely preview of the debate to come Friday, the committee voted down two amendments offered by state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, that would have created exemptions for victims of rape or incest and abortion facilities more than 50 miles from an ambulatory surgical center.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said she plans to offer additional amendments on the Senate floor and that the debate could last eight hours.

The news conference in question was held by David Dewhurst, who beat his chest and clung to outside agitator Rick Santorum in a pathetic attempt to look like he was in charge of something. While it had originally looked like the Senate vote on HB2 would wait till Monday, it’s clear that Dewhurst wants to get it over with as quickly as possible so he can minimize the odds of his screwing something up.

Senate committee votes to repeal state sodomy law

About time.

RedEquality

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee voted on Wednesday to repeal the state’s anti-gay sodomy law, a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional.

Texas, along with Oklahoma and Kansas, will be the only states that still have the law on the books after Montana’s legislature approved its repeal of the measure and the governor pledged to sign it.

Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, authored the bill and said the state was long overdue in taking the measure off the books and that it created confusion among law enforcement.

“This defunct law was the grounds for police to harass patrons of restaurants in my district resulting in a suit against the city of El Paso,” he said, describing a 2009 incident where police arrested a same-sex couple for kissing. “Not only is the continued existence of this law on the books a source of misinformation to law enforcement, but in my own district local governments have been forced to spend their limited resources due to this misuse.”

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said he tried to get the law repealed in 1993, but conservatives in the Texas House blocked the attempt.

“All you’re doing is following court rulings and taking unconstitutional language off the books,” he said.

Sen. Rodriguez’s bill is SB 538. It’s the second pro-equality bill to pass out of this committee so far. As before, the big question is whether either bill can pass the full Senate or the full House, but regardless of that it’s still a step forward. Kudos to Sen. Rodriguez for filing the bill and to Sen. Whitmire for getting it through his committee. Equality Texas, Texpatriate, and the Texas Observer have more.

Charter bill passes Senate, voucher bill passes out of committee

Score one for Sen. Dan Patrick.

As colleagues praised Education Chairman Dan Patrick’s efforts at building consensus, a significantly altered version of his expansion of the state’s charter school system quickly passed out of the Senate Thursday afternoon.

Patrick, R-Houston, said the bill accomplished what should be the goal of lawmakers — lifting everyone through quality education.

“The key to that is to have the opportunity for a great education, and I’m real proud to be a member of the Senate today,” he said as senators approved the measure by a vote of 30 to 1.

[…]

Talking with reporters afterwards, Patrick said the measure focuses on closing poor performing charter schools while allowing high quality schools to open.

Calling it “the most important education bill of the session,” he predicted by the time lawmakers go home in May, they will have passed “some of the biggest reforms in education that we’ve passed in a long time.”

Patrick originally intended to lift the state’s 215-school cap on charter contracts. After amendments, including one from Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, it now incrementally increases the limit on charters, reaching a hard cap of 305 by the year 2019. Charter schools aimed at dropout recovery or operated within traditional school districts would not count toward that cap.

The Senate dropped a requirement for school districts to lease or sell underused buildings to charter schools and another that would have provided facilities funding for charters, which — along with the state cap on charter school contracts — is a primary issue in a lawsuit pending against the state.

Patrick was hailed by Democrats after the vote for his willingness to listen and work with them. (The lone No vote was cast by Republican Sen. Robert Nichols, in case you’re wondering.) You know that I’m a frequent critic of Patrick’s, for very good reasons, but I do recognize that he’s got skills, and when he puts them to use in service of non-ideological items, he can be both good and effective. Patrick drew praise from Raise Your Hand Texas for his performance, and his SB 2 got kudos from Sen. Jose Rodriguez, who is very much on the opposite side of Sen. Patrick ideologically. I’ll throw in my own “attaboy”, since this bill does most of what I would have preferred and not much if any of what I opposed. That’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned. The Observer and Harold Cook have more.

And just to balance out all those good feelings, Patrick’s voucher bill, SB 23, was voted out of committee, with four Rs and one D (Eddie Lucio, of course) voting Yes. It seems likely that the remaining Democrats will unite against it, which will be enough to block it from coming to the Senate floor, but you never know. All in all, not a bad week for Dan Patrick.

Senate passes its budget

Let the damning with faint praise for this jerry-rigged excuse for not adequately funding our needs yet not eviscerating them as badly as last time begin.

Adjusted school spending chart from Rep. Gene Wu

The Texas Senate approved a $195.5 billion two-year budget Wednesday, with Democratic state Sens. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth and Sylvia Garcia of Houston voting against the spending plan.

Senate Bill 1 spends $94.1 billion in general revenue — the part of the budget lawmakers have the most control over — a 7.7 percent increase over the 2011 budget. Spending would increase in most areas, including education and health care, but still drew criticism from those who argued that more spending is needed in light of the size of last session’s budget cuts and the amount of money now available.

“We did what we had to do last session, but we can be proud of what’s included in this budget,” said the chamber’s chief budget writer, state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands.

Even those who supported the bill said it remains a work in progress. The budget leaves untouched nearly $12 billion available in the state’s Rainy Day Fund. Members in both the Senate and the House are eyeing the fund for proposed water infrastructure and transportation projects.

The House Appropriations Committee is expected to vote on its version of the budget Thursday, with that version likely to reach the House floor in early April. Both chambers will then appoint conference committees to formally meet and resolve differences between the two proposals.

Williams said after the vote that he expected there would be more agreement than differences between the House and Senate budgets.

Davis offered the sharpest criticism of the proposal, accusing Republican senators of using an ongoing school finance lawsuit as an excuse to avoid properly funding public schools this session. Senate Bill 1 adds about $1.5 billion in funding to public education. Lawmakers cut $5.4 billion from education last session. Various lawmakers have predicted that the lawsuit will prompt a special session on school finance in 2014.

“We are expected to fix the finance problem, and I believe that we can start to do that work today,” Davis said.

Sen. Davis’ statement on SB1 is here. She wasn’t the only critic of the bill.

Williams acknowledged the Senate’s budget wouldn’t bring school funding back to levels that existed before lawmakers whacked $5.3 billion from basic aid and grants in 2011. But Williams, R-The Woodlands, said senators put back nearly $1.4 billion. He predicted higher property values and economic growth would allow lawmakers to fill more of the hole before the session ends in late May.

“While we still have a ways to go, we can make more progress as this whole process moves forward,” said Williams, who heads the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, though, gently chided Williams for worrying more about staying within a constitutional spending limit and preserving state savings than about educating children. The state is expected to have nearly $12 billion in a rainy day fund by August 2015. GOP leaders currently plan to spend about $4 billion of it to create two infrastructure improvement revolving-loan funds.

“If there are the votes to go into the rainy day fund for water or for transportation, I will be one advocating we also use the rainy day fund to help those children,” said Ellis, who ran the budget panel in the 2001 session.

Ellis said the budget falls about 3 percent short of funding current services enough to cover population growth and inflation.

The embedded chart, courtesy of Better Texas and Rep. Gene Wu, is a reminder that we’re still behind on what we had been spending on public education. I do hope that more will be added as the process continues and better revenue estimates come in, but there won’t be a game-changer. A statement from the Texas AFT is here, a statement from the TSTA can be found at BOR, a statement from Sen. Jose Rodriguez is beneath the fold, and Stace has more.

(more…)

TSTA polls about public education

From the inbox, via the TSTA:

A strong majority of Texas voters support using some of the $12 billion in the state’s Rainy Day Fund to restore the $5.4 billion cut from the public education budget two years ago, and the support is strong across party lines, a poll commissioned by the Texas State Teachers Association shows.

The statewide telephone poll of likely voters, conducted Feb. 19-25 by Democratic pollster Keith Frederick and Republican pollster Jan van Lohuizen, also indicated strong growth in public awareness that the funding cuts were hurting educational quality in classrooms. The poll included an oversampling of Republican primary voters.

The question about restoring school funding was asked two ways. One version simply informed respondents of the recent, rapid growth in the Rainy Day Fund and asked if they favored putting $5 billion back into public schools. Some 79 percent said yes, including 93 percent of Democrats, 76 percent of independents and 61 percent of Republican primary voters.

The second version asked respondents if they favored spending $5 billion of Rainy Day money to hire more teachers, reduce class sizes and restore important academic programs or if they believed spending that money could lead to future tax increases and schools should first do a better job of cutting waste, bureaucracy and overhead. Some 69 percent favored restoring the funding, including 83 percent of Democrats, 64 percent of independents and 52 percent of Republican primary voters.

Answering another key question, 61 percent said they believed the funding cuts hurt the quality of classroom instruction, and 32 percent said the cuts were absorbed by cutting waste in schools. That was a marked difference from responses to a similar poll question asked in late 2011, before the full impact of the spending reductions was widely known. At that time, only 47 percent thought the cuts hurt classroom quality, and 49 percent believed they would be absorbed by eliminating waste.

Presented with options, two-thirds of Texas voters (66 percent) would use the nearly $12 billion Rainy Day Fund to restore public school funding. This includes 39 percent who chose education funding over roads (4 percent) or water (5 percent) plus 27 percent who would spend Rainy Day money on all three needs. Only 22 percent would save the entire Rainy Day balance for future needs.

“Texans are not fooled by the rhetoric coming from the education-cutters in Austin,” said TSTA President Rita Haecker. “The vast majority of voters – Republicans, Democrats and independents alike – know that the budget cuts have hurt our classrooms. They also know that the Legislature has enough money to restore the funding without raising anyone’s taxes, and they demand that their legislators do the right thing for our children.”

The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent for the entire 800-person sample and plus or minus 7 percent for the oversample of 200 Republican primary voters.

Four Democratic Senators – Ellis, Davis, Lucio, and Rodriguez – have filed legislation that would use Rainy Day funds for the purpose of restoring public education funding. See beneath the fold for their joint press release. You can see the poll data in this PowerPoint file, which for some reason isn’t on the TSTA webpage but which I’ve uploaded for your perusal. It’s great to have public opinion on one’s side. But there’s a disconnect right now between public opinion and what’s happening in the Capitol. Part of that is a function of the way legislative lines are drawn, since the opinion of Republican primary voters is so often at odds with the opinion of everyone else, including Republican non-primary voters. Part of that is the lack of a fully functional Democratic Party at the statewide level, or of a communications infrastructure to get the message about this disconnect through. More people need to lose elections over this. Nothing will change until the leadership changes. Burka has more.

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Marriage equality bill filed

As I said before, some things you do because they’re the right thing to do.

On the right side of history

State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, filed a bill Thursday to permit same-sex couples to marry, calling it a “Valentine’s Day gift to all Texans.”

His measure is one of several bills filed recently that deal with gay rights issues.

State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, filed Senate Bill 538, which would take the term “homosexual conduct” out of the penal code.

In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court found that Texas laws banning sodomy were unconstitutional. Though such laws cannot be enforced anymore, some are still technically on the books. Rodríguez’s bill would nix the part of the Texas Penal Code that lists “homosexual conduct” as a misdemeanor crime. Similar bills filed in 2011 were unsuccessful.

[…]

Burnam’s House Bill 1300 would extend the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, including property and homestead rights, child custody and support, adoption, and workers’ compensation benefits. Lawmakers who have signed on as co-authors include Democratic state Reps. Mary González, Ana Hernandez Luna, Donna Howard, Eddie Lucio III, Alfonso “Poncho” Nevarez, Mark Strama, Chris Turner, Armando Walle and Gene Wu. A similar bill, SB 480, allowing civil unions, was filed by state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.

Rep. Burnam’s bill would only take effect if one of the joint resolutions that were filed previously to repeal the loathsome double secret illegal anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment is adopted. No, of course I don’t expect that to happen this session, but it’s coming eventually and we all know it. Well, most of us do, anyway.

Former state lawmaker Warren Chisum, who sponsored the proposal that put Texas’ version of the Defense of Marriage Act in the state constitution, said he hasn’t changed his views and he doesn’t think the state has, either.

“I know there’s a big push, seems like, around the United States, but you know, I don’t think Texas has changed their mind,” Chisum said. “We’ll be the oddball of all of them, I guess. If everybody else in the country switches, I still think the view of Texas is a little more conservative than the rest of the country.”

Gov. Rick Perry’s spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said, “The governor fully agrees with Texas voters, who made clear in 2005 that they believe marriage should remain between a man and a woman.”

Chisum and Perry sure are a couple of excellent symbols for the Texas GOP, aren’t they? Old, white, proudly intolerant, and stuck in the past as the world changes around them. Somewhere, a bunch of young Republican activists are grinding their teeth. Anyway, you can see a video of Rep. Burnam discussing his bill here. BOR has more.

Repealing the Texas double secret illegal anti-gay marriage amendment

Some things you do because they’re the right thing to do.

On the right side of history

Reps. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, and Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, are seeking to reverse the state’s prohibition against gay marriage or same-sex civil unions.

Their proposed constitutional amendments — HJR 77 and HJR 78 – would repeal a 2005 amendment passed by Texas voters that bans recognition of same-sex unions.

Coleman cited recent polls that show sentiments have changed for a majority of Texans. “Two-thirds of Texas’ voters now believe the state should allow some form of legal recognition for committed same-gender couples,” he said.

Anchia said he represents many couples and families who are discriminated against by the state’s Defense of Marriage Act.

“It is time we revisit this issue; it is time we treat all Texans with dignity and respect,” Anchia said.

The representatives are taking particular aim at a provision of the act that would deny gay couples any civil or legal benefits reserved to husbands and wives. A statewide poll from last year showed that only 25 percent of Texans believe that same-gender couples should neither be allowed to marry or enter int a civil union.

There’s also SJR 29, filed by Sen. Jose Rodriguez in the Senate on Friday, and SB 480 by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, which would serve as enabling legislation for these resolutions if their accompanying amendments were adopted. See here for more.

Back to the Trail Blazers story, the poll cited is this UT/Texas Trib poll from October that showed approval of marriage equality with a plurality of 36%, and approval of civil unions at 33%; only 25% disapproved of both. Those are encouraging numbers, but I don’t see that translating into legislative action any time soon, especially since it will take a Constitutional amendment, which requires two-thirds support from the Lege to get passed. Maybe someday, but not when Republican legislators and other assorted officeholders are urging the Boy Scouts to keep banning gays because gayness is icky and immoral. We’re getting to the point where more and more people have realized that supporting equality is the truly moral thing to do, but we’ve still got a long way to go in Texas, and I don’t think we’ll get there – more specifically, I don’t think two-thirds of the Legislature will get there – before the Supreme Court does. I applaud Sens. Rodriguez and Hinojosa and Reps. Anchia and Coleman, who has done this every session since 2005, for their action, and I certainly urge everyone to call their Rep and Senator and ask them to support these joint resolutions, I’m just saying it’s too early to get one’s hopes up. Equality Texas has more.

UPDATE: The Dallas Voice has more.