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Kyle Kacal

Abbott wants in on bail reform

Not sure yet what to make of this.

The ongoing federal lawsuits (and the potential for new ones) and recent jail deaths have further spurred efforts in Texas to address the court rulings and help get poor people accused of nonviolent crimes out of jail. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has prioritized fixing the bail system this session, but he has focused more on making it harder for dangerous defendants to get out of jail.

But when this legislative session’s first pair of major reform bills were filed last month by a Democratic senator and Republican House representative who have worked on the issue for years, Abbott was silent. Now, he appears to have thrown his weight behind a less-detailed bill with the same name. A key difference: It puts power over changes to Texas’ bail system directly into his office — giving him control over the creation of a risk-assessment tool to be used in bail decisions.

The bill was only recently filed, and advocacy groups for bail reform have acknowledged that it will likely be tweaked as it moves through the Legislature, but the legislation still has drawn concern from groups that say it doesn’t properly address the problems that led to federal litigation and that it is fully “unworkable” in some areas.

“If the Legislature does not want federal courts to design local bail systems in Texas, they need to pass a bill that corrects the essential problem of people who could otherwise safely be released being jailed for no other reason than their not having money for bail,” said Mary Schmid Mergler, director of the criminal justice project for the advocacy group Texas Appleseed, in an email to The Texas Tribune.

She added that the first bills filed are more comprehensive and research driven.

[…]

A primary piece of Whitmire and Murr’s legislation would have the state’s Office of Court Administration create a risk-assessment tool to help judges determine an arrestee’s potential for posing a danger or skipping court hearings if released from jail before trial. It would also establish procedures in statute aimed at releasing poor, low-risk defendants from jail on no-cost bonds while those deemed a high risk would be detained before trial without the option of bailing out with cash. (Currently in Texas, bail release can only be denied in capital murder cases or in certain repeat felony or bail violation circumstances.)

The second Damon Allen Act filed this month by state Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, also includes a risk-assessment tool, but it doesn’t specify how and when the tool would be used to affect bail practices. Instead, it creates a program within the governor’s office that would both develop the tool and recommend best practices for pretrial release decisions.

“I think [Abbott] and his office produced the Kacal bill, which means we’ve got a lot of work to do with the governor’s office if we’re going to pursue my bill,” Whitmire told the Tribune last week. “I know [Abbott] wants to control it.”

[…]

A risk-assessment tool is included in Kacal’s legislation, but it is much less specific than Whitmire and Murr’s bills, which explicitly lay out how and by when judicial officers must use the tool in making bail decisions, in part nodding to the necessary changes called for by federal judges in Harris and Dallas counties. Instead, the Kacal (and now Whitmire) legislation places the power for creating the risk-assessment tool, as well as deciding on best practices for pretrial release, directly under the governor.

The bill would create a Bail Advisory Program within the governor’s Criminal Justice Division, a grant-making arm of the executive office. The governor would appoint a director, and the program would develop a pretrial risk-assessment tool for bail decisions (with help from the Office of Court Administration), recommend best practices for bail decisions and collect data on bail practices statewide.

“[Abbott’s] concerned about who would get out on a [no-cost] bond, and I guess he thinks if he came up with a risk-assessment model, he would be able to have more input,” Whitmire said.

See here for some background. I am of course generally suspicious of Abbott’s motives, but so far reform advocates haven’t complained, Whitmire has expressed his willingness to work with him, and as Whitmire notes they do need the governor’s signature. If this increases the odds of the bill passing, and it doesn’t result in the bill being too watered down, then this is fine. Everyone agrees there will be changes made to the final bill, so that’s what we need to watch.

If you can’t porkchop ’em, poison ’em

The war on feral hogs enters a new phase.

At a Feb. 21 news conference in Austin, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller announced the agency had issued a rule that would allow Kaput Feral Hog Bait, a pesticide containing the anticoagulant warfarin as its active ingredient, to be used in the control of feral hogs. The emergency rule, issued Feb. 6, makes Texas the first and, so far, only state to adopt regulations allowing the use of a lethal toxicant – poison – to control the invasive swine.

Miller, who as a member of the Texas Legislature in 2011 sponsored a successful bill allowing aerial gunning of feral hogs by private citizens with the permission of landowners, trumpeted the new rule as a significant advance in the state’s ongoing war against feral hogs, which compete with native wildlife, carry and transmit diseases such as brucellosis, and annually cause tens of millions of dollars in damage to property, including an estimated $50 million in annual losses to agriculture.

“I am pleased to announce that the ‘feral hog apocalypse’ may be within Texans’ reach with the introduction of Kaput’s hog lure,” Miller said.

Miller’s action was made possible by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s conditional registration last month of Kaput Feral Hog Bait under the federal statutes governing pesticide use across the country. Kaput, the brand name of pesticides produced by Colorado-based Scimetrics Ltd. Corp., is the first and, so far, only toxicant approved by federal authorities for use in feral-hog control.

Warfarin, laced in prepared baits designed to be eaten by feral hogs, is toxic to pigs in the same way that it is lethal to rats, mice and other rodents for which the substance has been used as a toxicant for more than 60 years. Warfarin has therapeutic uses – it is one of the most common medications taken by humans as a blood-clot preventive. But ingested in sufficient quantities by some mammals, warfarin triggers fatal internal hemorrhaging.

Warfarin’s effects are anything but therapeutic in pigs. Feral hogs’ physiology makes them susceptible to warfarin’s toxic effects at a much lower dose than almost any other animal, research has shown. The percentage of warfarin the Kaput Feral Hog Bait approved by EPA is 0.005 percent by weight – five times lower than the 0.025 percent warfarin by weight used in rats/mice baits.

The poison has proven very effective at killing feral hogs, according to research conducted in Texas by Genesis Labs, a sister company of Scimetrics.

[…]

To limit exposure of non-target species such as deer, raccoons, birds and other that might ingest the baits, protocols for distributing it mandate use of a specially designed feeder with a heavy “guillotine” door that must be lifted to access the bait. Feral hogs have little trouble using their stout snouts to lift the door, while the door’s weight and mode of operation stymies most other wildlife.

Additionally, use of the pig poison in Texas will be restricted. Under the rule change announced by Miller, the warfarin-based bait is classified as a “state-limited-use pesticide,” and it can be purchased and used only by state-licensed pesticide applicators.

Landowners or others who want to use the hog toxicant on property in Texas and who do not hold the required license will have to hire a licensed applicator to legally set up the approved bait dispensers and distribute the bait. That almost certainly will limit its use.

Some Texans would rather it not be used at all.

In the wake of Miller’s announcement, the Texas Hog Hunters Association initiated an online petition to have the rule revoked. The group cites concerns about the potential human health effects of eating feral hogs that have ingested the warfarin-infused baits as well as questions about collateral damage to non-target species such as deer or domestic dogs that ingest treated baits and possible secondary poisoning of animals and protected birds such as hawks and eagles.

As of early Saturday, the online petition at change.org had garnered 10,400 supporters.

Texas Department of Agriculture statements counter those concerns, noting the low levels of warfarin in hogs that consume the baits pose little threat to humans, especially if they avoid eating the animal’s liver, where most of the warfarin will be concentrated. Also, the bait contains a blue dye that transfers that color to the fatty tissues of hogs. Hunters taking a hog and finding blue-tinted fat can decline to eat the animal.

Here’s the petition in question. It turns out that these hunting groups did more than just create a petition, and they got some results.

A Waco-area feral hog processor on Monday said he was racing to get a bill filed that would shoot down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller’s call for a “hog apocalypse” through use of a poisonous bait.

Will Herring, owner of Wild Boar Meats, last week won a court order temporarily halting Miller’s Feb. 21 rule allowing use of “Kaput Feral Hog Lure,” arguing the measure would spook pet food companies he sells to and put him out of business. Herring said he’d since secured Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-Bryan, as primary sponsor for legislation that would require study of chemicals before they are approved. The deadline to file bills for the current state legislative session is Friday.

“All our bill says is, ‘Let’s have a state agency and/or state educational institution study this poison and any other poison before it before it becomes legal,’” Herring said from Austin, where he was recruiting state lawmakers to back the bill. “There’s not one public study, and by public study I mean a study available to the public, that has looked at using the product Kaput to poison feral hogs.”

[…]

Herring said he was processing as many as 5,000 hogs a month and was getting ready to break ground on a new facility when Miller announced a rule that could potentially put he and other wild hog processors out of business.

“We have not developed a way to test for it, nor have we developed a way to inactivate it,” Herring said. “If someone said, ‘Look, I only want to buy warfarin-free wild hog meat,’ we do not know a way that we could guarantee that. And that’s a problem to me.

“It’s not just me that’s concerned about this,” Herring added. “I only do the pet food business. There’s a couple of companies that deal with the human consumption business, and it’s the same issue.”

Herring last Wednesday filed a lawsuit against Miller’s rule, with the Texas Hog Hunters Association and Environmental Defense Fund filing supporting briefs. State District Judge Jan Soifer in Austin on Thursday issued a temporary restraining order stopping Kaput use in Texas until March 30, saying the TDA did not follow the Texas Administrative Procedures Act and agreeing that allowing Kaput would cause “immediate and irreparable harm” to Wild Boar Meats.

All right then. I have some sympathy for the hunters here, because introducing poison into the environment, even in a fairly controlled fashion like this, carries a higher level of risk. Even with the protocols in place, there’s no way to fully prevent unintended consequences of this. It should be noted that this isn’t the first attempt at poisoning the pigs, but it is the first one with an EPA-approved toxin. We’ll see how this plays out in court, and I’ll keep my eyes open for an anti-warfarin bill in the Lege; as of yesterday, I didn’t see anything authored by Rep. Kacal that sounds like this.

Two truths about testing

Lisa Falkenberg boils it down.

While there’s no doubt standardized tests are an important part of student assessment, somewhere along the way, they became too important. We’ve tethered them to everything from student promotion to teacher pay to school reputation. And it’s not just the test days that take away from meaningful learning but the months-long test prep.

Opting out is one way of saying enough’s enough. Principals and teachers aren’t as free to send that message to lawmakers. They’re bound to follow the law. The power rests with parents. But parents are only empowered if they know their rights and band together.

Falkenberg’s column is about two sets of parents, in Waco and in Houston, who try to get their kids out of their STAAR tests. I can’t add anything to that first paragraph above; it’s exactly how I feel. There’s also the stress to the students, which we have had to deal with this year. All tests are stressful, of course, but it’s the pervasiveness and the emphasis on the STAAR that takes it up a notch.

It’s the second paragraph that I want to focus on, because it really is the case that we the parents have the power to affect this. But it’s not just us parents that have this power, and it’s not because we’re parents. The power we have is at the ballot box. If you don’t like the testing regime we have now, don’t support candidates or incumbents that do. In Texas, that means knowing how your legislators stand, and vote, on testing matters. Falkenberg writes about Kyle and Jennifer Massey, parents from Waco who fought a battle with Waco ISD to allow their son to not take the STAAR this year. Kyle Massey runs a blog and has written several entries about his testing beliefs and their fight to opt out their son. Well, the city of Waco is represented in Austin by Sen. Brian Birdwell and Reps. Kyle Kacal and Doc Anderson. I searched Massey’s blog but didn’t find any of those names mentioned on it. I don’t know what these legislators’ records are on standardized testing matters, but they’re the ones the Masseys should have their beef with. Waco ISD is just doing what the Legislature has directed them to do. If you want them to take a different direction, it’s the folks in Austin you need to convince, or defeat.

I bring this up in part because it’s important to keep in mind which office and which officeholders are responsible for what, and partly because doing so can be hard work. I was chatting the other day with a friend who wasn’t previously much engaged with politics and elections. She asked me if there was a website that kept track of which candidates supported or opposed which issues. I said no, that kind of information tends to be widely dispersed. You can check with various interest groups to see who they endorse and for those who keep scorecards like the TLCV how they rate the performance of various incumbents, and you can check out the League of Women Voters candidate guides when they come out. But there may not be a sufficiently organized interest group for the issue you care about, LWV candidate guides don’t come out till just before elections and not every candidate submits responses, and non-incumbents aren’t included on scorecards. You have to track that information down for yourself, via their website or Facebook page or by asking them yourself. It can be a lot of work.

But it’s work that needs to be done if you want a government that’s responsive to you and your preferences. One reason why there’s often a disconnect between what people actually want and what gets prioritized is because there’s a disconnect between what people say they want and what they know about the candidates they’re voting for and against. You ultimately have to do the work to know you’re getting what you think you’re getting. Partisan affiliation is a reliable indicator for some things, but not for everything. Standardized testing and curriculum requirements fall into the latter group. Be mad at your school board trustee for this stuff if you want, but they’re just playing the hand they’ve been dealt. The dealers are on the ballot this fall. Do you know where your State Rep and State Senator stand on this issue?

Some are elected to do things, others are elected to not do things

Meet the opposite ends of the spectrum in the Legislature.

Not Ted Cruz

Not Jonathan Stickland

They were the freshest of the freshmen — the two youngest members of the largest freshman class of the Texas House in 40 years. And even before they took office, Mary González, an El Paso Democrat who will turn 30 in October, and Jonathan Stickland, a tea party Republican from the Fort Worth suburbs who will be 30 in September, each had made a defining declaration.

Stickland announced his ambition to compile the most conservative voting record of any member of the Texas House. “It’s time to do battle,” he said.

And González, uncomfortable with the imprecision of being described as the first openly gay woman to be elected to the Texas Legislature, announced to the Dallas Voice that she was actually “pansexual.” She explained that gender isn’t binary but a spectrum, and she has said that while her partner may be a lesbian, “I’m not.”

“Authenticity is important to me,” she said in a recent interview.

It was a breathtaking bit of sharing, especially for a representative who was from a socially conservative district and who was about to enter an institution that is dominated by an older generation of men and has had only one openly gay member — Austin’s Glen Maxey, who left the House a decade ago.

Though the 83rd Legislature ended its regular session just two weeks ago, it isn’t too soon to conclude that its two youngest members, in very different ways, had successful freshman seasons. Their experience offers a window into the sometimes surprising workings of the Legislature, and how novice members find their way amid the hurly-burly of the biennial mayhem, and why it is that a member of the board of the Texas organization for “queer people of color” might find herself more welcome than the darling of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party.

[…]

Some of this might be the Seinfelds of informed opinion purposely placing the stocky Stickland in the role of Newman (“Hello, Stickland”) as an inviting target. But insults in Austin are music to the ears Stickland cares about back home. Think U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

“Has Ted Cruz ever passed a bill? I don’t think he has, but he’s one of the most influential and powerful senators, and he’s done it as a freshman,” said Stickland, who, in fact, passed a bill with state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, to allow excused school absences for the children of active-duty military personnel. “Ted Cruz has become a sensation because of what he’s fought against and not what he’s fought for. People love him for it.”

Yes, I’m sure it’s now the fondest wish of Jonathan Sticklands everywhere to grow up to be Ted Cruz. No question, from reading the story or just generally following the news from the Capitol this year, Stickland had a lot of success with his mission to obstruct anything he didn’t like. If that’s what he wants out of being a legislator, and that’s what the people who elected him want out of him, then mission accomplished. I’m sure there will be some political opposition to his tactics back home, not to mention opportunities for payback among his colleagues if the people of Stickland’s district ever ask him to get a bill passed for them, but he’ll just turn that into fuel for his persecution complex, like every other straight white boy from the suburbs who’s convinced that he’s the real victim here.

On a much more pleasant and productive note, there’s fellow freshman Rep. Mary González, who was paired with Stickland in this article not just for their youth but also for their position on the political spectrum, with Stickland measuring as the most “conservative” member while González was the most liberal.

González’s success, which might have seemed even more unlikely, was her ability to surmount her exotic introduction, emerging from the session as the Mexican American Legislative Caucus freshman of the year, and, it seems from relationships she’s forged across party lines, something like the Miss Congeniality of the class of 2013. In her unique 140-day gestation in the Capitol hothouse, she seemed to find a way to become one of the boys without becoming one of the boys.

“It’s been a lot of hard work to go to 149 members to get them to go beyond their projections, beyond their stereotypes, beyond the stigma and beyond the boxes,” González said. “Hey, I’m getting a Ph.D. Hey, I grew up on a farm. Hey, I am so much more than the one thing, the only thing that people want to write about.”

Or, as state Rep. Poncho Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass, a fellow freshman who sits next to her in the House and represents an adjoining border district, put it, “Mary’s the only woman on this floor who can palpate a cow.”

“In heels,” adds González.

How the cow got into those heels…never mind. I was channeling Groucho Marx there for a minute. Carrying on:

Rep. Mary Gonzalez

Earlier in the session, state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, who chairs the State Affairs Committee, serves on Calendars and sits diagonally behind her on the House floor, told her, “ ‘You’re basically the same age as my daughter, so you’re going to be my adopted daughter on the floor,’ and that’s kind of what we did. She’s a wonderful young lady to work with.”

Of Cook, said González, “I’m so surprised how close I have gotten to him.”

Asked to compare her approach to Stickland’s, Cook said, “I think you catch more bees with honey.”

And, unlike Stickland, González focused mostly on more targeted legislation for her district.

“We were able to get wastewater service to three colonias, sewerage to over 1,000 families in my district,” González said of the impoverished neighborhoods. “That’s amazing. No one is ever going to write about that, but I know what it means.”

“Mary is pretty much positive, not only a sunny disposition but a very positive person,” said state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, a veteran Democrat from Laredo. “You get the sense with Jonathan that he’s just not very content with anything.”

[…]

When she showed up as a member of the Agriculture and Livestock Committee, Chairman Tracy King, D-Batesville, said he assumed she had gotten stuck with the assignment, but he was delighted to find out that she grew up in 4H, the daughter of a Texas A&M agricultural extension agent in El Paso, and that the committee had been her first choice.

“We developed a kinship sitting next to one another on the ag committee,” said state Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station. “I like to judge people for myself, and we’ve formed an incredible relationship.”

[…]

For González, the real drama during the session was internal.

She recalled staying up all night when she was a UT student to testify against capping automatic admissions to state universities under the top 10 percent law.

“I wouldn’t be here without it,” she said of the law guaranteeing state university admission to those in the top 10 percent of their high school class. Then last month, a bill by Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch to extend the limits that she opposed was headed to the House floor, and she realized the bind she was in.

“When I was in my previous life, I could more actively fight it, but I’m a member, and you know Chairman Branch has done a lot for El Paso and a lot for my district, as far as bringing the medical school to El Paso,” González said.

“It’s this tension,” she said, “between sticking up for what you think is important and against what you think is oppression, and the reality that you still have to work with these people tomorrow and they can stop your bills, which are also trying to end oppression.”

In the end, she said, “I asked a few questions on the back mic; I talked to him,” but it was clear the bill was going to pass. She was still one of only seven votes against it, but she wasn’t as vociferous in her opposition as the old Mary might have been. “You’ve got to pick your battles.”

I was in Austin for a training class last month, and had the pleasure of meeting Rep. González at the ten year reunion of the Killer Ds. My impression of her, even before meeting her, was as positive as everyone else quoted in the story. She’s already got at least one opponent for next March, and the story notes that her predecessor, former Rep. Chente Quintanilla, is also thinking about getting in. Rep. González will have the support of her caucus mates, who have committed to her over their former colleague, and she’ll have mine as well. The world is full of Jonathan Sticklands, but it’s the Mary Gonzálezes that truly leave a mark. Stuff does need to get done, and we need the people who are there to get it done working for us.