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Oklahoma

Time for an update on that other high speed rail line

It’s been awhile.

TexasOklahomaPassengerRailStudyRoutes

Backers continue to move along on plans to build a bullet-train route between Dallas and Houston, but it’s not the only high-speed passenger rail project on Texas drawing boards.

With a proposal to run between cities such as Fort Worth, Waco, Austin, San Antonio and Laredo, the project recently got a green light for new money to do further study.

“We’re still an embryo,” said Kevin Feldt, a North Central Texas Council of Governments program manager overseeing the high-speed rail project regionally. “We’re still in the first week or two of pregnancy.”

Nobody has begun buying right of way or buying trains, let alone figured out funding and finance — topics that can fire skepticism about the passenger rail’s ability to break even or turn a profit — but there’s now an environmental impact statement, and potential investors have come calling.

“Suffice it to say, there’s interest in developing (from) Fort Worth southward, possibly to Monterrey, Mexico,” Feldt said. “We’ve had the French and Chinese and Spanish come to us and meet with us to talk about it.

“Some wanted to do one piece; we had others who wanted to do everything.”

The proposed line from North Texas cities — Dallas and Arlington included — is part of an 850-mile project called the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Program Corridor.

[…]

Feldt said that whatever comes out of the next round of study, actually building a high-speed passenger rail — not to mention a Hyperloop system — will be “a lot more complex” than the challenges the private company working to roll out the Dallas/Houston passenger train has encountered.

The Dallas/Houston corridor is not only flatter and easier to run a high-speed train across, but less populous.

Still, like Feldt, Bill Meadows, who chairs the Commission for High Speed Rail in the Dallas/Fort Worth Region, noted the interest from Chinese and French rail representatives in discussing a public-private project here.

And, said Meadows, “They like the (Interstate) 35 corridor better than the (Interstate) 45 corridor.”

See here for the last update that I have, from July of 2016. Since then, the Draft Environmental Study has been completed, which “formally identifies seven Selected Alternatives that will serve as the framework for future investment in new and improved conventional and high-speed passenger rail service in three regions between Oklahoma City and South Texas”. The story also mentions the Hyperloop One Global Challenge, for which Texas remains in contention, though it’s not clear to me from the story how it fits in here. There’s lots of other obstacles that will need to be cleared for anything tangible to happen here, from choosing a single route to putting together financing and governance, to overcoming the inevitable political opposition. But things continue to move, and at this stage that’s about all you can ask for.

Miller avoids charges for his questionable trips

Can’t catch ’em all.

Sid Miller

Travis County prosecutors will not press criminal charges against Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller for tapping taxpayer funds for two trips that involved personal activities — including an appearance in a Mississippi rodeo and the receipt of a medical injection in Oklahoma called the “Jesus Shot.”

“We have decided to close our file and not pursue criminal charges against Commissioner Miller on these allegations,” Assistant District Attorney Susan Oswalt wrote in a memo to the Texas Department of Public Safety dated Sept. 8 first reported by The Houston Chronicle. “Our office has determined that criminal intent would be difficult to prove in this case.”

Travis County was reviewing an investigation that the Texas Rangers launched after the liberal advocacy group Progress Texas filed complaints about the Stephenville Republican’s February 2015 trips.

Those complaints followed media reports indicating that Miller personally benefitted from the state-funded trips.

A statement posted Tuesday to Miller’s Facebook account said the commissioner was “pleased this process is now complete and that he has been cleared of any wrongdoing.” The statement also thanked the Travis County District Attorney’s office and the Texas Rangers for their “professionalism.”

[…]

In her memo, Oswalt wrote “it is clear that Commissioner Miller used campaign and state funds to pay for the two trips,” but noted that he had fully repaid the state.

“Additionally, the total amount spent on the trips was relatively small, the state has been refunded all the money it expended on these trips, and the facts have been made known publicly so that Commissioner Miller is likely to be more careful in the future,” the memo said.

See here for the background. Let’s be clear, this isn’t a vindication of any kind, and Miller clearly wasn’t innocent. ADA Oswalt basically says as much in the memo – he did it, we all know it, but the amount involved was small, he paid it back, proving “intent” will be nigh impossible, so it just isn’t worth our time and limited resources to pursue. Miller will claim vindication anyway, and because the story ends here and we all have short memories, he’ll mostly get it. But we know what happened. The Chron and the Current have more.

Rangers hand off Miller case to Travis County DA

Here we go.

Sid Miller

The Travis County District Attorney’s Office has begun reviewing the findings of a criminal investigation into Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller’s travel, a top prosecutor said Friday.

“We received the investigation (from the Texas Department of Public Safety) earlier this week,” said the prosecutor, Gregg Cox, the head of Travis County’s Public Integrity Unit. “It is under review.”

The review can take awhile, meaning that it may be another few weeks, or more, before Miller learns whether he will face charges for allegedly using taxpayer money for personal travel, including a trip to Oklahoma on which he may have received a pain-curing injection known as “The Jesus Shot.”

Still, the news means that there has been progress in the probe into Miller, which began in April following a series of Houston Chronicle stories about his travel.

So to recap, there were two complaints filed against Miller, one for the Jesus Shot trip and one for the Mississippi Rodeo trip. The key to each complaint is the allegation that Miller used taxpayer funds for personal travel, which is a no-no. Miller has told ridiculous lies and made clumsy attempts to cover his tracks, to the point where his spokesperson bailed the hell out because it was just too embarrassing. Now, none of this means that an actual crime was committed, and if we’ve learned one thing from the scandals of recent years it’s that often the laws cited in the charges for these crimes are ill-fitted to the facts, making the indictments broad targets for skilled defense attorneys. We’re likely a few weeks away from a decision on whether or not to file charges, and if charges are filed we’re anywhere from months to years away from a resolution. So settle in and get comfortable, this could take awhile.

Alignments proposed for Oklahoma City-South Texas passenger rail

Check ’em out.

TexasOklahomaPassengerRailStudyRoutes

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) have released 10 service and route options for new and improved conventional and high-speed passenger rail service connecting Oklahoma City, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, and South Texas.  The options are evaluated in a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS).

“This corridor is home to major financial, energy, and education centers that people rely on every day,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.  “Providing efficient, more reliable, and faster higher-speed passenger rail options to move between cities is crucial for the economy and the population to thrive.  I encourage those along the I-35 corridor to participate in the comment and public hearing opportunities so that they are able to learn more and share their input.”

During a 45-day public comment period, FRA and TxDOT will take comments on the 10 options and the seven recommended preferred options that the two agencies identified.  Four public hearings will also be held to give residents a chance to learn about the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study, understand how their communities may be affected, and provide comments.

Current passenger rail service along the Interstate 35 (I-35) corridor includes three intercity Amtrak services from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth (Heartland Flyer), Fort Worth to San Antonio (Texas Eagle), and Los Angeles to New Orleans through San Antonio (Sunset Limited).

The DEIS addresses the relationships of the major regional markets within the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Program corridor in three geographic sections, and preferred alternatives are recommended for each geographic section separately.  The three sections of study are:

  • Northern Section:  Edmond, Oklahoma, to Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas
  • Central Section:  Dallas and Fort Worth to San Antonio
  • Southern Section:  San Antonio to south Texas (Corpus Christi, Brownsville, Laredo, and the Rio Grande Valley)

More than 10 million people currently live along the 850-mile corridor, which is expected to grow by 39 percent in Texas and 25 percent in Oklahoma City by 2035.  As a state with some of the largest metropolitan areas in the nation, spread out over hundreds of miles, Texas is now in high demand for alternative modes of transportation.  Since the majority of the state’s population is centered in the eastern half of state, along I-35 stretching into Oklahoma City, the highways have experienced increased congestion.

“More passenger rail service will help relieve already congested roads along the I-35 corridor and help this region manage the significant population growth on the way,” said FRA Administrator Sarah E. Feinberg.  “I encourage everyone to provide feedback on the 10 options that FRA and the Texas DOT have presented to continue moving this effort forward.”

In fiscal year 2012, FRA awarded a $5.6 million grant to TxDOT to fund a study of new and improved passenger rail service to meet future intercity travel demand, improve rail facilities, reduce travel times, and improve connections with regional public transit services as an alternative to bus, plane, and private auto travel.  The Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study evaluates routes and types of service for passenger rail service between Oklahoma City, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and South Texas.

More information about the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study can be found here.  The Final EIS is projected to be released by early 2017.

There are three public hearings scheduled to discuss these alignments, on August 9, 10, and 11, in Laredo, Austin, and Arlington, respectively. Relevant documentation is here if you have a few hours to spare and an enjoyment of poring over PDFs, while TxDOT’s page on the project is here. Just looking at the map, which I have embedded above, doesn’t give a clear picture of where the tracks would be. Streetsblog says it wouldn’t actually stop in “urban Austin”, but the map seems to indicate it would go near or by the airport, so perhaps this is a question of terminology.

This project has been kicking around for awhile – Oklahoma got a federal stimulus grant in 2009 to study rail between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, which isn’t actually part of this proposal but may have been the genesis of what we now have – with TxDOT creating the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study page in late 2013; as you can see at that link, there’s a separate project to link this rail line, if it happens, to the Houston-Dallas high speed line, if that happens. An extension into Mexico has also been floated, though I have no idea if we’re even allowed to say that sort of thing out loud any more. As this is a TxDOT project, one presumes that there won’t be any questions about whether or not this qualifies as a real railroad for eminent domain purposes, which is not to say that there won’t be any resistance to the possibility. I’m never sure how seriously to take this, as TxDOT has never been all that interested in anything but roads and there are plenty of ways for the chuckleheads in Congress and the Lege to put up obstacles, but we are at the DEIS stage, and that’s progress. What do you think? See here for the impact statement, and KVUE has more.

Being Sid Miller

It’s complicated, especially when your stories keep changing.

Sid Miller

The Texas Rangers are currently investigating whether Miller broke the law when he took those out-of-state, taxpayer-funded trips in February 2015.

The first was to Oklahoma, where internal emails from the Department of Agriculture indicated he planned the trip solely to obtain the Jesus Shot, which some believe cures all pain for life. Miller, who claimed the trip’s intent was to meet with Oklahoma lawmakers, said he would repay the state for the trip out of an “abundance of caution” after it was revealed in March by the Houston Chronicle that he missed a meeting with the state agriculture commissioner, Jim Reese.

“There was an official purpose for him to be in Oklahoma, and that was to meet with the commissioner of the state of Oklahoma,” insisted Todd Smith, Miller’s political consultant of 17 years, on Thursday. Smith attributed the missed meeting to a “comedy of errors.” He could not answer why those issues were not discussed at a conference both Reese and Miller attended just days before the so-called Jesus Shot trip.

Miller also traveled to Mississippi on the state’s dime, where he participated in the National Dixie Rodeo. When asked about the trip, the Department of Agriculture provided more than one version of how it came to pass, and late Thursday, Smith offered a much different account than his boss.

Initially, the Houston Chronicle reported that Miller took the state-paid trip to Mississippi to participate in the National Dixie Rodeo but sometime after that tried to set up a work meeting with the Magnolia State’s agriculture officials, making it a legitimate state-covered business trip. Miller said after those meetings fell through, he repaid the state for the trip with campaign funds because he also met with donors and advisers.

More than a week before the Chronicle story, Miller’s then-communications director Lucy Nashed told The Texas Tribune that the Mississippi trip — which was always designed to be a personal trip — was mistakenly booked by a staffer as a business trip. Once the staffer realized the trip was personal, Nashed said, Miller repaid the state for the trip out of campaign funds and $16.79 from his nursery’s business account. Earlier this month, Nashed resigned, saying there was a “tremendous lack of communication” at the department.

Miller has told the Tribune there was “absolutely no validity” to the complaints from liberal advocacy group Progress Texas that led to the Rangers investigation, calling them “harassment.”

“There’s nothing absolutely illegal or wrong with either of those trips,” he said.

But on Thursday, Miller’s political consultant told the Tribune a new version of the Mississippi trip. He said it was always supposed to be a business trip to meet with Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith and that those meetings did occur, contrary to what his boss has previously said.

“I think there was some discrepancy about whether or not he had a meeting with her on that trip,” Smith said. “He met with her multiple times. He went to the rodeo with her.”

Tribune attempts to confirm whether Mississippi officials met with Miller have been unsuccessful.

As for Miller’s rodeo-ing while on a state-paid trip, Smith said there was nothing wrong with it and compared it to buying souvenirs while on a business trip.

“He can’t flip a switch and say, ‘I’m no longer the agriculture commissioner here, and I’m the agricultural commissioner now,’” Smith said.

Well, when most of us buy souvenirs on business trips, we pay for them with our own money. We don’t put them on the company card and then claim that we intended he purchase to be for business purposes when the accounting department asks us to explain the expenditure. And I for one can’t wait to hear what Commissioner Hyde-Smith has to say.

Actually, as it turns out, we don’t have to wait.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller has met with his Mississippi counterpart multiple times since being elected, but there are no records indicating any meeting during Miller’s trip to the Magnolia State to compete in a rodeo in February 2015.

Mississippi Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith traveled to Austin to meet with Miller in December 2014, and the two also spoke during conferences in February and June of 2015, according to emails and budget records released by the State of Mississippi. No documents exist about a meeting during Miller’s trip, however.

Texas officials also said they have no records of any meeting during the trip.

The absence of records appear to undercut statements made by Miller and his political consultant, Todd Smith.

I’m sure you can imagine my reaction to this, but just in case you can’t:

It’s like one big Meghan Trainor video up in here. What really boggle my mind is that there was no real reason to make up another explanation. Miller’s previous excuse, however risible, was at least consistent. Why would you go to the trouble of offering a new, easily fact-checked reason and thus keep this part of the story in the news? Like Dogbert once said, sometimes no sarcastic remark seems adequate.

Now you may be asking yourself, what happens if Miller finally does resign? Who would be best suited to step in for him? Well, don’t you worry, never fear, Jim Hogan stands ready to be called to service.

A criminal investigation into Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller has just begun, and while it is far too early to speculate about its result, one candidate is putting his name forward for any opening necessitated by a resignation: Jim Hogan, the Cleburne farmer who opted not to campaign when the Democratic Party nominated him to run against Miller in 2014.

Hogan said in an interview that he has been closely following the news about Miller and believes it could end in him being appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott to fill the position.

“Well, of course,” Hogan said. “If you had a tournament and the first guy was disqualified, wouldn’t you pick the guy that got second? Why would you pick someone who got out in the quarterfinals?”

[…]

For Hogan, the spending is troubling, but he said he also was disturbed by another aspect that had not gotten very much attention — the fact that both trips took place during work days.

“I’m just different,” Hogan said. “If I wanted to go to a rodeo, I guess I’d find one on a Saturday.”

Well, you can’t argue with that. I just wonder, did Jim Hogan call reporter Brian Rosenthal to tell him what he thought about this situation, or did Rosenthal call him out of a sincere desire to know what Jim Hogan was thinking about this? In ether case, I’m sure someone will advise Greg Abbott of Hogan’s readiness. Paradise in Hell has more.

Second complaint filed against Miller

You do the crime

Sid Miller

A liberal advocacy group has filed another complaint against Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who found himself in hot water recently over possible misuse of state and campaign funds.

The complaint, filed Wednesday by Progress Texas,asks the Texas Rangers to investigate Miller for using campaign funds to pay for a flight to Mississippi, where he won money in a rodeo competition. Miller, who said he met with donors while in Mississippi, has said he has done nothing wrong.

The group also has filed a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission.

Miller’s trip was revealed by a Houston Chroniclestory last week. Earlier this year, the Chronicle also reported that Miller may have used state funds to take a trip to Oklahoma for a controversial medical treatment. Miller reimbursed the state for that trip.

“This isn’t Sid Miller’s first rodeo,” said Lucy Stein, advocacy director of Progress Texas. “Miller has yet again demonstrated a pattern of abusing his office by misusing taxpayer and campaign funds.”

See here for the background. As with the previous complaint, the Texas Rangers would do the up front investigation before handing anything off to a District Attorney. The Rangers have now agreed to do their part, and Miller is totes sad that everybody is picking on him.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller on Wednesday called complaints filed against him over questions surrounding two taxpayer-funded out-of-state trips “harassment.”

The complaints were “filed by a very liberal left-wing organization, Progress Texas. They are just harassing me,” the Stephenville Republican said in a phone interview. “There’s nothing absolutely illegal or wrong with either of those trips … There is absolutely no validity to the complaint.”

[…]

One of the trips Miller took was to Oklahoma, where he received a controversial injection known as “the Jesus Shot” that is supposed to cure all pain for life.

When asked by the Houston Chronicle about the trip, Miller said he made it so he could tour the Oklahoma National Stockyards and meet with Oklahoma officials. But when those officials were contacted by the Chronicle, they said they had no plans to meet him in their state that day. Internal emails from the Agriculture Department later indicated that Miller had planned the trip around receiving the shot. After details about the trip became public, Miller said he would repay the state for the trip out of an “abundance of caution.”

Miller also traveled to Mississippi in February on the state’s dime. While there, Miller, who is a calf roper, participated in the National Dixie Rodeo. When asked about the trip, the Agriculture Department gave contradictory reports to media outlets.

I mean, come on, y’all. Why do there have to be all these rules and things taking all the joy out of life? Why can’t Sid Miller just be the Ag Commissioner he was always meant to be, without these professional busybodies poking their noses into his business? It’s just not fair, I tell you. The Trib and the Chron, which quotes a DPS spokesperson saying that the Travis County DA’s office will get this hot potato if there’s anything to it, have more.

From the “It’s not the crime, it’s the coverup” department

Oh, Sid. You’re such a naughty boy.

Sid Miller

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller’s office withheld public records that suggest he obtained a medical procedure known as “The Jesus Shot” on a taxpayer-funded trip to Oklahoma, the Houston Chronicle has learned.

In response to a February public records request, Miller’s office had said that no email messages about the trip existed, even though it had more than a dozen of them, a spokeswoman acknowledged Friday.

The emails disprove Miller’s initial account of the trip and show that he tried to set up business meetings for that day only after scheduling an unspecified “appointment” in Kingfisher – a small town in north central Oklahoma that is the only place where it is possible to obtain “The Jesus Shot,” which is billed as able to take away all pain for life.

Friday’s disclosure marked the second time Miller’s office has withheld public records about the Oklahoma trip. Last November, it did not include any information about the trip in its response to a request for documents on all of Miller’s travel. A subsequent request specifically about the Oklahoma trip led the office to produce records, which did not include those released Friday.

Texas Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Lucy Nashed called both omissions inadvertent, noting the agency only has two public records staffers and received nearly 1,000 requests for documents last year.

“TDA thoroughly reviews each public information request that is received and works to provide a timely and complete response of any records we maintain,” Nashed said in a statement. “Transparency is our highest priority, and we are constantly reviewing our processes to ensure we continue to provide public information as required by law and expected by the taxpayers we serve.”

The state lawmaker charged with overseeing the department’s budget called the withheld emails “very troubling.”

“Inadvertent? At this point, what should we believe?” said Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, who serves on the House Government Transparency & Operation Committee in addition to chairing the budget subcommittee that deals with agriculture issues. “The Open Records Act exists for a reason. We are the stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars, and we should all, as elected officials, be accountable, transparent and honest in dealing with an open government.”

Government watchdog Tom “Smitty” Smith, the longtime director of Public Citizen Texas, said it is common for politicians trying to hide information to not fully disclose records and then, if caught, claim it was an accident.

See here and here for the background. I’ll say again, if there’s one thing that can hasten the demise of Republican hegemony in Texas, it’s scandal and corruption. (If there are two things, I’d add having the state’s economy go into the crapper, but that one will still require overcoming the slash-and-burn argument, so it’s not as clear and compelling as “throw the bums out”.) We should all take a moment to be grateful to Sid Miller for his dogged determination to not let Ken Paxton carry that burden by himself. Trail Blazers has more.

Earthquake!

It’s a real risk in Dallas now.

The Dallas-Fort Worth area has a 1 to 5 percent chance of experiencing an earthquake strong enough to damage buildings in the next year, the U.S. Geological Survey said Monday.

That risk has grown tenfold since 2008, when the area began experiencing a surge of mild to moderate-sized quakes, said Mark Petersen, chief of the National Seismic Hazard Mapping Project at the USGS in an exclusive interview with The Dallas Morning News. North Texas’ earthquake hazard is now on par with parts of Oklahoma and California.

“One of the big concerns for me is that there is a very high population density in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and this activity is taking place within that area,” he said.

Last week, The News obtained a report, produced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, detailing the potential damage from earthquakes of magnitude 4.8 and 5.6, which fall within the hazard map predictions.

The vast majority of damage to buildings would be minor, such as cracks in walls and ceilings. “I don’t want people to feel like their houses are all going to come down,” Petersen said.

But he said he couldn’t rule out a larger earthquake because the Dallas-Fort Worth area has long faults running through it that may have the potential to rupture.

Earthquakes and their risks are in the news this week because of a new report from the US Geological Survey that mapped out the risks of both natural and human-induced earthquakes. Here’s NPR.

A decade ago, an Oklahoman could count the number of noticeable quakes on her fingers. “In this past year, we had over 900,” says USGS seismic hazard expert Mark Petersen. “So the rates have surged.”

Petersen says induced quakes have become more frequent because there’s more wastewater from oil and gas operations around the country that has to be disposed of. Companies pump it down into underground wells, and sometimes that water raises pressure on underground faults that then slip and cause small quakes.

Industry officials say the percentage of waste wells that pose quake risks is very low. But with the rise in hydraulic fracturing (fracking), which produces a lot of polluted water that needs to be disposed of, the overall number of waste wells around the country has skyrocketed.

The new maps also include the risks of natural quakes around the country, as they have in the past. Those risks haven’t changed much. But the number of induced quakes has increased tenfold since 2014, according to the USGS.

Petersen notes that most of these induced quakes are not likely to bring down buildings. Most are in the range of magnitude 3 or 4, which are minor. But some are above magnitude 5, which can do serious damage — cause cracks in your house, for example, or in bridges and roads.

[…]

“I think that we need help people understand that they do face a risk in these areas of induced earthquake activity,” Petersen says, “and they need to take precautions just like people in California do.”

Taking precautions against induced earthquakes — such as strengthening buildings or changing insurance rates — might be tricky, though.

Mark Zoback, a geophysicist at Stanford University who studies induced quakes, says: “It’s important to recognize the risk that these maps point out, but that risk is going to change depending on what’s happening on the ground.” Wastewater wells may not be active for more than a few months or a year; after that, they may no longer pose a risk. Meanwhile, it can take years for a state or community to change building codes to make structures more quake-sturdy.

Moreover, some states have started to ban or limit waste wells in these quake zones. “And in the few places where the injection has stopped,” Zoback says, “the earthquakes have stopped.”

Zoback adds that the boom in oil and gas exploration in some places is dwindling, which would likely mean fewer waste wells and lower risk. On the other hand, wherever the industry drills new waste wells could become the next quake hot spot.

Can’t wait to see what the discussion of this looks like in next year’s Legislature. Assuming they’re allowed to talk about it at all, of course. Vox and the Chron have more.

Complaint filed against Sid Miller

Game on.

Sid Miller

A liberal advocacy group on Monday asked the Texas Rangers to investigate whether Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller used taxpayer money to fly to Oklahoma to get an injection known as “the Jesus Shot” that is supposed to cure all pain for life.

The group, Progress Texas, filed a two-page complaint alleging Miller intentionally abused his office in February of 2015 by using at least $1,120 in public money for private gain.

Abuse of office involving using that amount of money for private gain is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine.

“Politicians like Sid Miller using their office to benefit themselves is inexcusable,” said Lucy Stein, advocacy director for the group. “These guys think that they’re above the law, and they aren’t.”

The complaint stems from a Houston Chronicle article published last week that raised questions about the February 2015 trip, which Miller took to Oklahoma City with a top aide, billing the taxpayers at least $1,120.

[…]

Monday’s action marks the first criminal complaint against Miller.

It also is among the first complaint of its kind to be filed with the Texas Rangers, which was given authority during last year’s legislative session to probe allegations of misconduct by state elected officials and employees. The move took that power away from the Public Integrity Unit in the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, which was accused by Republicans of initiating cases for political reasons.

Stein said she had trouble figuring out who to contact with her complaint and was referred to multiple employees within the Texas Department of Public Safety.

“It’s very complicated now — nobody knows what they’re doing,” said Stein, who worried that the process could scare off some Texans with fewer resources. “It shouldn’t be so hard for an ordinary citizen to file a complaint against a statewide elected official.”

Stein said she had been told that the Rangers were “reviewing” the complaint.

See here for the background. This will be an interesting test of that new procedure, as defined by the Lege last year. Among other things, if the Rangers decide there’s enough evidence to hand off to a prosecutor, that would presumably mean giving it to the District Attorney of Erath County, where Miller attends church and hung his hat as State Rep in HD59. Here’s Sen. Kirk Watson, in the comments to an RG Ratcliife post on Facebook, explaining the details:

Of course the answer is a little complicated because of the way the bill (HB 1690) was drafted.

HB 1690 says “venue … IS the county in which the defendant resided at the time the offense was committed.” However, then the bill defines residence for 4 categories of people: legislators, members of the executive branch, certain judges, and everyone else. For members of the executive branch, residence is defined as the county where the person “claimed to be a resident before being subject to residency requirements under Article IV, Texas Constitution.” (That’s the former requirement that certain executive offices must reside in Travis county.) The Ag. Commissioner used to be subject to the residency requirement since he’s elected statewide (see SJR 52).

So, piecing it all together, I think he can only be prosecuted where he claimed to be a resident before he was elected Ag. Commissioner. The bill doesn’t provide any guidance re: what constitutes claiming to be a resident.

This is the PIU bill not any “ethics” bill that was vetoed. Remember a key problem with what was being done was that they were creating a special class of defendants. Instead of trying a person (ever other person) in the place where the crime is committed, they create a special class of people that can and will be tried in some place other than where the crime is committed. The place they claim residency.

Got all that? This presumes, of course, that the Erath County DA would not be conflicted up the wazoo and have to recuse himself a la the Collin County DA and Ken Paxton. In which case we’d have yet another special prosecutor prosecuting yet another elected Republican. Isn’t this fun? I’m getting ahead of myself here – we don’t even know what the Rangers are going to do with this just yet – but keep that in your back pocket for future contemplation.

One more thing: Ross Ramsay wrote that for now, the lack of two-party competitiveness in Texas means that all this is water of Sid Miller’s back, at least until a grand jury returns an indictment and/or he draws a primary challenger. I’ve seen more than one lament, on Facebook and elsewhere, about how pathetic the Democrats must be for us to be in this situation. Well, the simple fact is that there are more Rs than Ds in Texas right now. There are things that may change that, in the long term and the short term, one of which I have noted is for more than a few Rs to become fed up with their party, or at least a few specific members of it, and refuse to support them any more. Dirty elected officials, and the colleagues who apparently have not problem with them, are a possible reason why they may do this. Perhaps that effect will be noticeable in 2018, and perhaps it will not. For now, it’s all a matter of numbers. As with most things in politics, things are they way they are until all of a sudden they’re not. Trail Blazers has more.

Sid Miller and the Jesus Shot

I have three things to say about this.

DoubleFacepalm

Less than a month after taking office, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller flew to Oklahoma City with a top aide, billing the taxpayers at least $1,120 for flights and a rental car, budget records show.

At the time, Miller said he made the trip to tour the Oklahoma National Stockyards and meet with Oklahoma lawmakers as well as the state’s top agriculture official. His office posted a picture on Facebook of him with three lawmakers who his office said had invited him to the Sooner State’s Capitol.

Recent interviews have cast doubt on that description, however. All of the lawmakers in the photograph, or their aides, said they did not invite Miller or even expect him in their state that day in February 2015. The president of the stockyards said it did not give him a tour. And Miller himself now acknowledges that he requested the meeting with the Oklahoma agriculture official – and then did not show up.

A rental car receipt shows Miller and his aide drove 128 miles on the trip.

The interviews suggest a possible explanation: One of the lawmakers and another person with direct knowledge of the trip both said Miller told them that he got a medical procedure while in Oklahoma.

Miller, a former rodeo cowboy who suffers from chronic pain, told the Houston Chronicle earlier this year he has received the “Jesus Shot,” a controversial but legal medication administered only by a single Oklahoma City-area doctor who claims that it takes away all pain for life.

Miller declined to confirm or deny whether he received the injection during the February 2015 trip.

The agriculture commissioner insisted that the trip was a business trip that served state taxpayers. If nothing else, Miller said, the Facebook picture proves that he met with Oklahoma lawmakers.

Still, one of those lawmakers described his talk with Miller as nothing more than a brief chat that started in a hallway.

Aides to the others agreed.

“He’s saying that was the business purpose of his trip?” Rep. Jerry Shoemake said. “Really?”

In response to questions about the trip, Miller’s office said late Thursday that he had decided to pay back the flight and rental car costs.

“Out of an abundance of caution the commissioner is reimbursing the state for the cost of this trip,” spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said in an email. “He will continue to work on behalf of the agriculture industry in the Lone Star State, and travel across the country and around the world to identify new markets for Texas agricultural exports in order to grow the industry and create jobs for hardworking Texans.”

1. If you’re going to steal, steal big. Sid Miller earns $137,500 a year. Surely he could afford to drive to Oklahoma and pay $1100 for a shot, assuming his finances aren’t a complete mess. Why go to all this trouble for such a little payoff? I grant that Sid Miller isn’t terribly concerned about his reputation, but I don’t get taking this kind of risk for something so insubstantial.

2. In a better world, Miller’s clown show would be something that Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick would have to address. Sure, they’re not Miller’s keeper, but they are his colleagues in state government, and it’s entirely appropriate for them to be asked what they think about this. We don’t live in that world, of course. National media can go wall-to-wall with a story and force politicians who don’t want to answer certain questions to at least be asked them, but that’s not how it is here. This is something Rick Perry didn’t understand before his ill-fated Presidential run in 2012.

3. I firmly believe that the Republican hegemony in Texas is unsustainable, at least with the kind of Republicans we have now. It could last for awhile, and they have the resources to keep it on the shelves long past its sell-by date, but it will come to an end. If there’s one thing that I believe will hasten this end, it’s scandal and corruption. Ken Paxton and his felony indictments is an obvious problem for them, but Sid Miller shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s one thing to be a clown, it’s another to be a clown who steals. That’s a lot harder to laugh off, and it has the potential to taint those around him. When that will happen, I can’t say. But I feel confident that sooner or later it will.

2016 Presidential primaries: Clinton and Cruz win in Texas

A good night for Hillary Clinton.

Once again, Texas delivered for a Clinton.

The Texas Tribune projects that Hillary Clinton has easily won a majority of the statewide vote in the Texas Democratic primary, dominating her rival for the party’s nomination, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

As she struggled early on against Sanders in Iowa and New Hampshire, her campaign promised the tide would turn once the primary turned to states with substantive minority voting blocs – states like Texas.

Clinton was projected to rack up wins elsewhere Tuesday, in Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, according to national media outlets. Sanders was projected to win Vermont, his home state.

[…]

Hillary Clinton only held one public event in the state – in Houston. Instead, she delegated campaigning duties to her husband who also worked as a Democratic National Committee staffer on the 1972 George McGovern presidential campaign.

“This is a really impressive result and it reflects Hillary’s ties to this city and this county,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, at the campaign’s San Antonio victory party. “She did not need an introduction to Texas because of those deep roots here and Sen. Sanders was a newcomer, so she had almost a home-court advantage but she handled it very effectively.”

Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and mayor of San Antonio Henry Cisneros said Clinton drew from a diverse coalition of support among Texas voters.

“It’s a combination of the loyalty of the Hispanic and African-American communities in Texas who appreciate what she’s done and the groundedness of other Democratic groups like the unions who can distinguish between the abstractions of a candidate like Bernie Sanders and a get-it-done experienced candidate like Hillary Clinton,” Cisneros said.

Here are the statewide results. If you scroll all the way to the bottom, you’ll see that she did very well in individual Senate districts as well, which is how the delegates get doled out. All in all, about as good a night for her as could have been expected.

Not so great for Ted Cruz, despite winning Texas.

Ted Cruz on Tuesday was winning the presidential primary in Texas, carrying his second state in the Republican race for the White House, and apparently notching a third with a narrow edge in Oklahoma.

The Iowa caucus winner was projected to beat billionaire Donald Trump, who had posed a serious threat to Cruz in Texas, even tying him in one recent poll. Cruz’s campaign, not wanting to take any chances, sent the candidate on an 11th-hour tour of the state Monday to shore up support.

In early, unofficial returns Cruz was hovering around 40 percent of the GOP vote, with Trump about 10 percentage points behind.

After news networks called Texas for Cruz, chants of “Ted!” broke out at his election night party at the Redneck County Club.

Shortly after the Texas call, Cruz was also projected to win the Oklahoma primary. Cruz led Trump by about five percentage points, 35 percent to 30 percent. Cruz’s performance outside Texas and its northern neighbor on Tuesday night was otherwise disappointing.

The outcome was a far cry from predictions six months ago, when Cruz called Tuesday’s SEC primary his “firewall,” predicting it would be the day on which he made major progress toward securing the nomination. Up until the final hours before polls closed Tuesday, Cruz was arguing that he was running “neck and neck” with Trump across the Super Tuesday states.

In actuality, Donald Trump kicked Cruz’s butt in most of the other states. But hey’ it could have been worse for Cruz. He could have been Marco Rubio, after all. Statewide GOP results are here.

I did not stay up till the bitter end, but there’s plenty of info out there if you still need it. Basically, it’s looking a lot like Clinton versus Trump. I don’t expect either of them to have a clear field after tonight, but they both sure have a clear path.

Oklahoma, where the same-sex weddings come sweeping down the plain

One of the most commonly made arguments for expanded gambling in Texas is that as long as we don’t have casinos, Texans will travel to neighboring states to spend their gambling dollars there. Well, that same argument can be made for same sex weddings, too.

More than 3,000 same-sex couples have married in Oklahoma since overturning the ban on gay marriage. Many in Oklahoma and Tulsa counties, but one Texoma town has become a hot spot for gay weddings, and it’s doubled the number of marriage licenses issued.

Thousands of names are bound in these leather books and by law of marriage at the Bryan County Clerk’s office. The records from 1904 are written in columns sorted by bride and grooms’ name.

The stack gets bigger each year and with October’s court ruling legalizing gay marriage — even bigger yet.

“Since we started issuing same sex marriage licenses it’s probably nearly doubled the number of licenses we issue every month,” said Donna Alexander, Bryan County District Court Clerk.

She said she does not think extra staffing will be needed to rush.

Oklahomans for Equality surveyed most of the state, and found Bryan County issues a disproportionate number of marriage licences to gay couples like Carla Nelson and Liz Blackwell.

“We had to come here because in Texas, they do not support the gay marriage,” Blackwell said.

Her story is becoming the norm.

“We’ve had some local couples, but most of them are from Texas,” Alexander said.

Durant is a quick drive for those in love from the Lone Star state, where a ban on same sex marriage stands.

There’s a seal-the-borders joke in there somewhere for the professional homophobes, but I’ll leave it to them to work it out. You’d think Oklahomans of all stripes would be happy to be stealing so much business from Texas, but apparently some of them just can’t abide that kind of fortune. One hopes that the Fifth Circuit and/or the Supreme Court will make this kind of road trip unnecessary soon, but in the meantime, if you just can’t wait, the flowers on the prairie where the june bugs zoom will be there to greet you.

I sense a remake opportunity here.

Texas same sex marriage plaintiffs want the get oral arguments scheduled

They would like to get on with their lives, if it’s not too much trouble to Greg Abbott and the Fifth Circuit.

RedEquality

Austin lawyer Nicole Dimetman is pregnant and expects to give birth for the first time on March 15, lawyers trying to overturn Texas’ gay-marriage ban announced Sunday.

“The need for justice and equality has always been urgent,” San Antonio lawyer Neel Lane, of the firm Akin Gump Strauss Haurer & Feld, said in a statement. “This development — Nicole’s pregnancy — only underscores that. We hope the [U.S.] 5th Circuit [Court of Appeals] will do what it can to move this case forward expeditiously.”

Dimetman and 13-year partner Cleopatra De Leon, an Air Force veteran, were married in Massachusetts five years ago. They want Texas to recognize their marriage.

After they were married, De Leon gave birth to a boy, now four years old. Dimetman adopted him. But adoption is expensive and time-consuming, and the couple would like to avoid going through the procedure again, Lane said. He noted that while for heterosexual couples, the establishment of parental rights is automatic, De Leon would have to do the adopting this time — to be legally recognized as a parent of the child they’re expecting.

“More importantly, the child will be exposed to great uncertainty and insecurity if, for some reason, Dimetman is rendered incapable of caring for the newborn child,” Lane said. “For instance, if Dimetman did not survive childbirth, the baby could be an orphan without a parent directing the baby’s care.”

The appeals court hasn’t set a date for a hearing in the case. Most of the briefs have been filed, though Abbott is scheduled to respond to the plaintiffs’ latest arguments very soon.

Lane noted that a three-judge panel, yet to be named by the appeals court, will hear the Texas case and one from Louisiana. In the Louisiana case, a federal district judge ruled that state could ban same-sex marriage. Briefs in it are to be completed by Nov. 7, Lane said. So a November oral argument in the Texas case would be ideal, as Dimetman would like to attend, he said. It’s unwise for women to travel late in their pregnancies if that can be avoided, and as of next month, Dimetman won’t have entered her pregnancy’s third trimester, he said.

Their co-plaintiff Mark Phariss wrote an op-ed in support of Dimetman and DeLeon, basically daring the state of Texas to live up to its stated concern about “families”, which our leadership supports far more in the abstract than in reality. The concerns about possible complications with the pregnancy and their consequences are more than theoretical to Dimetman and DeLeon. I’ve said before and I’ll say again, I do not understand the morality of anyone that would work to make the lives of Nicole Dimetman and Cleopatra DeLeon and their children more difficult and less secure. I don’t know if the Fifth Circuit is going to abet justice or stand in its way in this litigation, but one way or another we need to get this show on the road.

That takes on an even stronger urgency now that the Supreme Court has denied petitions to hear appeals of the various appellate court decisions striking down state bans on same sex marriage. By doing so, all of the lower court decisions striking down those bans in Indiana, Wisconsin, Utah, Oklahoma, and Virginia will go into effect, which is to say same sex couples can legally get married in those states, and shortly thereafter in the other states within those judicial districts. If the Fifth Circuit upholds the lower court’s ruling in this case, it seems safe to assume that SCOTUS will let that ruling stand as well. If they overturn it, or perhaps if the Sixth Circuit beats them to it, then that ought to fast-track review. One way or the other, however, further delays are just foot-dragging in the hope of postponing the inevitable. Daily Kos, Texpatriate, TPM, and Unfair Park have more.

UPDATE: Good luck with that, Ted.

Just a reminder that “more gambling” does not necessarily mean “more revenue”

If Atlantic City can go bust…

The winning streak has run cold for Atlantic City, N.J.

Earlier this week, the upscale Revel Casino Hotel announced it will close, bringing the total number of casinos in the city expected to close by the end of the year to four. Thousands of workers are confronting unemployment.

The state has long guaranteed Atlantic City a monopoly on gambling within New Jersey’s borders, but gambling revenues there have been declining due to increased competition from new casinos in neighboring states and the lingering effects of the financial crisis. The monthly report from the state Division of Gaming Enforcement issued Wednesday shows that the trend is continuing, as July’s take declined 7.7 percent year over year.

Pennsylvania, which only legalized casino gambling in the past decade, has replaced New Jersey as the state with the second-largest gambling industry. More casinos have been proposed in New York. Yet revenues have been disappointing across the region. In New Jersey, they have declined by around half from a high of $5.2 billion in 2006.

Most disappointing for investors has been the performance of the casinos’ new online gaming businesses. The prospect of online revenues has kept several casinos open despite declining income.

“A lot of these casinos have been unprofitable for quite some time,” said Alex Bumazhny, an analyst at Fitch Ratings.

Online gamblers haven’t anted up, though, and several casinos have folded. Bumazhny estimates that online gaming revenues for New Jersey businesses will total only around $125 million this year. Revel follows The Atlantic Club, which closed in January, and the Showboat and the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, also expected to close this year.

I like to note this sort of news item because as sure as the sun rises, at some point in the fall as the elections get settled and legislators start pre-filing bills, I’m going to get a press release from a pro-gambling expansion group touting the economic benefits of slot machines at horse racing tracks and/or casinos. Said press release and its accompanying economic study will point out the vast number of Texans that are currently gambling in Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and other non-Texas states, and will lament the money that could have been spent and gambled right here. My point is that the casinos and riverboats and what have you in Louisiana and New Mexico and Oklahoma and wherever else won’t simply give up the business those traveling Texans bring them without a fight, and the competition they will bring to hold onto their existing customers as well as lure new ones may possibly have a downward effect on those numbers in those press releases and economic studies. This isn’t about whether one does support or should support expanded gambling in Texas – as you well know by now, I am deeply ambivalent about it. It’s just a reminder to keep a sense of perspective when the issue heats up as it always does every two years.

When is that appeal of the Texas same sex marriage ruling going to happen?

A little later than originally planned.

RedEquality

It’s been five months since a federal judge struck down Texas’ bans on same-sex marriage.

But Attorney General Greg Abbott says he needs more time to file a brief appealing U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia’s February decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court.

Abbott’s brief was initially to the 5th Circuit on July 9, but his office has now requested — and received — two extensions. The brief is now due July 29, according to court records.

“Applicants do not seek this extension for purposes of delay, but rather so that appellate counsel Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell has sufficient time to prepare a brief that is thorough, accurate, and helpful to the Court,” Abbott’s office wrote in a July 15 motion requesting the second extension of 10 days. “The issue in this case, the constitutionality of Texas’ same-sex marriage laws, is important and complex. The additional time would allow Mr. Mitchell to give this case the attention that it deserves. Besides this case, Mr. Mitchell also has obligations with respect to other multiple lawsuits including challenges to Texas’ voter ID laws, redistricting, an upcoming bench trial concerning Texas’ abortion laws, and a United States Supreme Court capital case undergoing merits briefing. Even with the previous seven-day extension, appellants are still within the court’s usual limit of forty days.”

Attorneys for two same-sex couples challenging Texas’ marriage bans in the case, known as De Leon v. Perry, opposed Abbott’s request for an extension.

“The Solicitor General’s vague claim of being too busy to prioritize this appeal simply does not justify further delaying this dispute,” attorneys for the couples wrote. “Appellees are suffering irreparable harm due to the violation of their Constitutional rights, and that harm should not be extended merely because nearly five months have proven an insufficient amount of time for the Solicitor General to prepare Appellants’ opening brief.”

In May, the 5th Circuit denied a request from the plaintiffs to expedite consideration of the case.

Neel Lane, one of the attorneys representing the couples, told Lone Star Q this week that Abbott’s office had given him “no clue as to why they had to seek the extension.”

“But I should add that extensions are not unusual at all,” Lane said. “A total of three extra weeks won’t be material.”

Lane said under the new timeline, his side’s response brief will be due Sept. 2, with the state‘s reply due Sept. 19. The court has not scheduled oral arguments.

You can see a copy of the request for extension at that link. The original ruling was on February 26, so it will be seven months from then till all briefs are due, assuming no further delays, then oral arguments at a later date and finally the ruling. I figure that’s at least a nine or ten-month span, optimistically putting the ruling at around the end of the year. As a point of comparison, yesterday the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the earlier ruling that struck down the Sooner State’s anti-same sex marriage law. A survey of the press releases I’ve received on this case shows that the original ruling was made on January 14, oral arguments concluded on April 17, and the ruling by the 10th Circuit was handed down on July 18, or a hair more than six months total time. That’s a month less than it’s taking Texas just to get all the briefs filed. I’m sure they’re stretched pretty thin at the AG’s office between this and redistricting and voter ID and all those other lawsuits they file against the federal government every day, but that doesn’t mean we ought to feel any sympathy for them for it. Juanita has more.

Tenth Circuit upholds same-sex marriage

A huge step forward.

A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that states outlawing same-sex marriage are in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

By upholding a Utah judge’s decision, the a three-member panel of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver became the first appeals court to rule on the issue, setting a historic precedent that voter-approved bans on same-sex marriage violate the Fourteenth Amendment rights of same-sex couples to equal protection and due process.

But the court stayed the implementation of its decision, pending an anticipated appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, the state can ask the 10th Circuit Court to re-hear the matter before the full court, according to legal experts.

University of Utah law professor Clifford Rosky called Wednesday’s ruling, “the most important victory of the entire gay rights movement.”

It’s the first time a federal appeals court has recognized that same-sex couples have the same fundamental right to marry as all Americans, said Rosky, chairman of Equality Utah’s board of directors.

“Very few courts have embraced the fundamental rights argument and this court seems to have completely embraced it and applied ‘strict scrutiny,’ the highest standard recognized under constitutional law,” Rosky said.

If the state asks the 10th Circuit Court to re-hear the matter before the full court, Rosky said he doubts they’ll get a different result, and the request may not even be granted.

The appeals court upheld U.S. Judge Robert Shelby’s December decision, which struck down Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage and prompted more than a 1,000 same-sex couples to marry during a 17-day window before the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay, halting all such weddings.

[…]

The 10th Circuit Court focused their ruling on the 14th Amendment, which gives equal protection to American citizens, and their reading of the Constitution that the legal rights of married couples has nothing to do with the gender of those in the union.

“A state may not deny the issuance of a marriage license to two persons, or refuse to recognize their marriage, based solely upon the sex of the persons in the marriage union,” the 10th Circuit Court ruled.

“We hold that the Fourteenth Amendment protects the fundamental right to marry, establish a family, raise children, and enjoy the full protection of a state’s marital laws. A state may not deny the issuance of a marriage license to two persons, or refuse to recognize their marriage, based solely upon the sex of the persons in the marriage union,” the appellate court said.

The decision is here. As TPM notes, there’s a separate case before the 10th Circuit on Oklahoma’s gay marriage ban. It’s hard to imagine a different ruling in that case. This decision affects multiple states that fall within the 10th Circuit’s purview, all of which have their own litigation pending. See Freedom to Marry’s litigation page for an overview of the legal cases elsewhere. One that is being watched closely is in the Fifth Circuit, where the appeal of the ruling in the Texas case will be heard; appellants’ opening briefs are due July 9, with responses due 30 days later, no schedule yet for oral arguments. The belief is that if any court is going to stop the winning streak for same sex marriage, it’ll be the Fifth Circuit, because they suck like that. But we’ll see. It’s not completely out of the question that SCOTUS won’t have to rule on this at all, if the lower and appeals courts keep agreeing with each other; by the way, another judge, this on in Indiana, also struck down a state ban on same sex marriage on the same day. We’re a long way from the end of this story, though we’re definitely getting closer. Freedom to Marry, the Deseret News, dKos, the Human Rights Campaign, the Dallas Voice, TPM, the Slacktivist, Texas Leftist, and no doubt many others have more.

Hearing for the Texas federal same sex marriage lawsuit is tomorrow

All eyes will be on San Antonio on Wednesday.

RedEquality

Like most new parents, Nicole Dimetman and Cleopatra De Leon plan their days around their small child. Theirs is an ordinary family life, they say, but it is by no means easy.

Although married in 2009 in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage is legal, they live in Texas, a state that doesn’t recognize their union. When De Leon delivered their child in 2012, Dimetman’s name wasn’t allowed on the birth certificate.

“There was that time period that I was the only parent,” De Leon said, a situation that never affects married heterosexual couples. “If something happened to me during his birth, he would have been considered an orphan.”

In October, the women, along with another couple, filed a federal lawsuit in San Antonio challenging the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. On Wednesday, they will go before U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia, who will consider a preliminary injunction, a court order that would bar Texas from enforcing the ban while the suit continues to be litigated.

As the nation’s second-most populous state, “any decision that affects the marriage equality in Texas has national implications,” said San Antonio-based attorney Neel Lane, who represents the couples.

Indeed, the implications of the Texas cases could transform the national debate over gay marriage.

[…]

To prevail on the injunction request, the couples have to show they are likely to win when the full suit is litigated, and that they “are being harmed right now,” according to attorney Lane.

“Our belief is the arc of equal protection cases … points directly to recognizing that people have the right to marry regardless of gender,” Lane said. “Gays and lesbians are not afforded access to marriage and all the benefits from it. That is a denial of equal protection of the law. It is unequal when some people are not permitted to do what most others are permitted to do. And there’s no basis for denying them that right.”

See here and here for the background on the Texas case. As you can see from the latter link, I was rather pessimistic about this at the time that the hearing date was set. Then along came the rulings in Utah and Oklahoma and Ohio, and the decision by Virginia AG Marc Herring to not defend that state’s law, and just like that things look a whole lot different. There’s still a ton of decisions to be made, by the district court in Virginia and the appeals court for Utah and Oklahoma. Ohio, the site of a narrower decision concerning death benefits, is now on the clock with its own lawsuit (via Scalzi). And I’d still bet money on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals doing something hideous when they get the opportunity to weigh in. But it’s clear that the ground has shifted, and that the plaintiffs have by far the stronger argument. I don’t know what’s going to happen in court tomorrow, but it’s mind-boggling to think that we’re at this point barely eight years after that horrible, discriminatory amendment was passed. I truly hope we can start the countdown till its final day. Lone Star Q has more.

UPDATE: And late yesterday, the Democratic Attorney General of Nevada, with the agreement of the Republican Governor of Nevada, has announced the state will not defend its ban on same sex marriage against litigation there. Another nail in the coffin.

On, Wisconsin

From the ACLU of Wisconsin:

RedEquality

The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Wisconsin and the law firm of Mayer Brown filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of four same-sex couples who wish to marry in Wisconsin or are seeking recognition for their legal out-of-state marriages.

The plaintiffs include Roy Badger and Garth Wangemann of Milwaukee, who have been together 37 years. Three years ago Wangemann had much of his right lung removed after being diagnosed with lung cancer. Following the operation, a complication occurred and he was put into a medically induced coma for nearly a month. His progress was uncertain, and Wangemann’s father attempted to override Badger’s power of attorney to have his son taken off life support. Before that could happen, Wangemann recovered.

“What upset me the most was that after all of our time together, our relationship was not fully recognized by my family and there was a real danger that my wish to give Roy the ability to make decisions about my care could be stripped away,” Wangemann said. “Thankfully, our wishes held in this case. But without the protections that come with marriage, the consequences can literally be a matter of life or death.”

Other plaintiffs in the case are Carol Schumacher and Virginia Wolf of Eau Claire; Charvonne Kemp and Marie Carlson of Milwaukee; and Judi Trampf and Katy Heyning of Madison. Read their stories.

Wisconsin’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples prevents them from securing the hundreds of protections that state law provides to married couples. Wisconsin law subjects same-sex couples to an additional harm that is unique among states that deny same-sex couples the freedom to marry. The only way for Wisconsin couples to get the federal protections that come with marriage is for them to go out of state to marry. But Wisconsin law says that may be a crime punishable by nine months in jail and a $10,000 fine.

Among the plaintiff couples, Schumacher and Wolf were legally married in another state, raising the possibility of prosecution back at home. The lawsuit challenges the overall ban as well as the application of this criminal law to same-sex couples who are forced to choose between being denied federal protections and the risk of criminal prosecution.

“These families simply want the security and recognition that only marriage provides,” said Larry Dupuis, legal director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “They have built their lives and raised children here. It is wrong for the state to treat these loving and committed couples as second-class citizens, and it is cruel to place them in a catch-22 where they can’t even travel elsewhere to obtain federal protections without their marriage being labeled a crime.”

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. The plaintiffs allege that the state’s constitutional marriage ban sends a message that lesbians, gay men, and their children are viewed as second-class citizens who are undeserving of the legal sanction, respect, protections, and support that heterosexuals and their families are able to enjoy through marriage.

Criminalizing out of state marriages is a nasty little twist. I’m surprised there wasn’t a lawsuit sooner.

Meanwhile, the Virginia case was heard yesterday.

The ban on same-sex marriage is just like an old Virginia law that made interracial marriages illegal, and it’s time for Virginia to stop discriminating against gays and lesbians, a state attorney told a federal judge Tuesday.

But lawyers who support the ban said if the law is to change, it should be done by the legislature. They also argue that there has never been a fundamental right to same-sex marriage.

“We have marriage laws in society because we have children, not because we have adults,” said attorney David Nimocks of the religious group Alliance Defending Freedom.

The case is the first one in the South to reach oral arguments before a federal judge. Recently elected Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring announced Jan. 23 that he would not defend the state in the lawsuit because he believed it violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

In overturning bans in Utah and Oklahoma, federal judges have also said those laws violate the 14th amendment.

Virginia Solicitor General Stuart Raphael told the judge Virginia had frequently been on the wrong side of history, citing the state’s ban on interracial marriages, its defense of segregation as well as its opposition to allowing female students into the Virginia Military Institute.

Raphael said supporters of the ban have failed to prove how allowing gay marriage would make opposite sex couples less likely to marry.

“That’s the Achilles heel in the argument,” he said.

[…]

U.S. District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen said she would rule soon. If Wright Allen finds Virginia’s law unconstitutional, Raphael asked her to issue a stay so that nobody can get married until the case is heard on appeal.

He said the state wanted to avoid the situation Utah found itself in after marriages were briefly allowed to occur there before a stay was issued.

With Herring’s office deciding to side with the plaintiffs, the job of defending the law fell to the legal team of Norfolk’s Circuit Court clerk.

Attorney David Oakley said the court should respect the legislative process that created the law. If the law is to be changed, it should be done through the legislature, he said.

In addition, an attorney for the religious group Alliance Defending Freedom argued on behalf of the Prince William County’s clerk, which was allowed to intervene in the case. The clerk asked to intervene because of worries the attorney general’s office wouldn’t do an adequate job defending the law.

And there was some action in Utah as well.

The state of Utah offered a tailored defense of its ban on same-sex marriage in a brief filed late Monday evening with the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing its laws are all about the long-term interests of children.

Utah has chosen a definition of marriage that is “principally a child-centered institution, one focused first and foremost on the welfare of children rather than the emotional interests of adults,” the state said. “And by reinforcing that understanding, the state gently encourages parents to routinely sacrifice their own interests to the legitimate needs and interests of their children.”

That definition is not designed to demean other family structures “any more than giving an ‘A’ to some students demeans others,” the state said.

But redefining marriage in “genderless” terms likely would result in lower reproductive rates and fewer children being raised in the ideal environment provided by biological, opposite-sex parents, the state said.

[…]

Attorneys for the three same-sex couples who are challenging Utah’s ban have until Feb. 25 to file a response, and the state’s final filing must be submitted by March 4.

Oral arguments are scheduled for April 10 in Denver. The three-judge panel that will hear the case — as well as an appeal from the state of Oklahoma involving a similar ban — will be picked 10 days before the hearing.

You can see the full brief here. I’m pretty sure these are the same basic arguments that were made in the Prop 8 case in California. There may be some differences, but I’m not a lawyer so this is just my impression. I am sure we’ll hear more of the same when Texas’ case gets heard.

More on TxDOT and high speed rail

First come the studies and the public hearings. Then we wait and see what happens.

What a weird map of Texas

The Texas Transportation Commission is expected to vote Thursday at its monthly meeting on the creation of a high-speed rail commission focused on the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Separately, TxDOT is holding a series of public meetings around Texas and Oklahoma, starting this week, to hear comments on a study looking at the feasibility of high-speed rail projects between Oklahoma City and South Texas.

Texas Transportation Commissioner Victor Vandergriff stressed that the two initiatives should not be interpreted as a decision by TxDOT to develop any high-speed rail projects in Texas.

“We have not yet discussed a broader charge with respect to transportation policy and funding,” Vandergriff said Friday in Dallas at the Southwestern Rail Conference, which was hosted by Texas Rail Advocates. “The Legislature sets our course for that.”

The new high-speed rail commission will advise state transportation officials on “the development of intercity rail corridors, new transportation policies, and funding and procurement strategies as they relate to the implementation of proposed high-speed rail connecting the Dallas and Fort Worth areas,” according to TxDOT’s agenda for the meeting.

“It is a limited purpose and scope assignment,” Vandergriff said. “It is not an indication that there is any funding for high-speed rail.”

[…]

TxDOT launched its Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study last year to take a wide-angle look at the impact of potential rail service projects between Oklahoma City and the Texas-Mexico border. This month, TxDOT officials announced plans to expand the scope of the study south, to Monterrey, Mexico, to account for interest in building a high-speed rail line between Monterrey and San Antonio.

See here and here for the most recent entries in this saga. The schedule for TxDOT’s public meetings on the Texas-Oklahoma prject is here. As for the Houston-Dallas privately funded project, Chron transportation reporter Dug Begley has more on what they’re saying. Texas Central High-Speed Railway is expected to file some federal documents in April that will tell us more about their plans, including their preferred route. I’ll be keeping an eye out for that.

US-Mexico high speed rail?

What goes north can also go south.

Like this but with fewer mountains

A high-speed rail line connecting San Antonio and Monterrey, Mexico, could be less than a decade away from welcoming its first passengers, according to federal and Texas officials who met with Mexican officials in Washington, D.C., on Thursday to discuss the project.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-San Antonio, hosted the meeting in which Texas and Mexican officials offered a joint presentation to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx about the project, and Cuellar said Foxx was receptive. It was the third meeting between U.S. and Mexican officials related to the project, Cuellar said, following a meeting in the summer and another in October.

“From the Mexican side, they are very interested,” Cuellar said. “From the Texas side, they are very interested.”

Supporters say the rail line, if completed, could move passengers from San Antonio to Monterrey in two hours. The trip takes nearly five hours traveling by car.

Cuellar said he became interested in such a project after learning that the Texas Department of Transportation had received $5.6 million in federal funds last year to study possible rail projects between Oklahoma City and South Texas.

[…]

Both Mexican and U.S. officials envision a large portion of the project’s funding coming from the private sector, perhaps from a single company investing in the project in both countries.

We are familiar with one private investor for high speed rail in Texas, and we heard about that FTA grant recently. Obviously, all this is a long way from happening, but if both do happen – I’m reasonably confident about the Houston-Dallas line – then it would make a lot more sense to connect them, since that would have more value than two separate, disconnected lines. That would mean finishing the rest of the so-called Texas Triangle, which would then have offshoots continuing on to Oklahoma City and Monterrey. That would be pretty cool, don’t you think? The Highwayman and the Express News have more.

Annise Parker’s journey

The Chron reviews how Mayor Parker went from activist for the LGBT community to Mayor on the occasion of her wedding.

Annise Parker circa 1991

The country’s first openly gay mayor became the country’s first openly gay married mayor this week. A wedding wouldn’t seem the sort of event to justify partisan commentary, yet at least one critic questioned the timing: Why, the Harris County Republican Party chairman asked, did Mayor Annise Parker marry longtime partner Kathy Hubbard after her re-election?

But Parker has spent more than half of her life working to advance civil rights for homosexuals. The union is just a formality for a life lived outside the closet, years before popular culture began to catch up.

Parker first met Hubbard at Inklings, Parker’s gay and feminist bookstore in Montrose, in 1990. The 23 years they’ve spent together span a period of notable change in gay culture in our country. Parker, 57, had been out since high school.

To give their meeting cultural context, she and Hubbard met two years before singer k.d. lang came out of the closet, three years before singer Melissa Etheridge did so, and seven years before Ellen Degeneres received a toaster from Etheridge when Degeneres’ popular character said she was gay on prime-time TV.

Unlike those performers, Parker didn’t have a paying audience to consider. Instead, she had a constituency to represent. Parker in 1990 was just beginning to think about advancing her career in public service, which eventually would lead to her mayoral election. She began that work at a time when gay rights hit a flashpoint in Houston following two fatal hate crimes.

The evolution of this particular civil rights issue has been urgently debated and has evolved greatly in recent years. The tenor of the debate suggests how far it is from resolution. But it’s also easy to lose sight of how far gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights have come since Parker served as president of Houston’s Gay Political Caucus in 1986, which was one year after actor Rock Hudson died of AIDS after living out for years to close friends but closeted to the public.

Mayor Parker’s story is well known, but it’s always worth taking a look back and reminding ourselves that there was never any guarantee that any of us would wind up where we did. The fact that she is able now to marry the woman she loves and has been partnered with for 23 years would have seemed like a crazy, alternate-universe idea even five years ago. That happy occasion is unfortunately also an opportunity for the usual squadron of small-minded pecksniffs, from anonymous commenters on newspaper websites to public officials that have nothing better to do, to make nasty remarks. Whether they realize it or not, their whining is just a reminder that they’ve lost. They’ve lost in Utah, they’ve lost in Oklahoma, and perhaps as soon as next month, they’ll lose in Texas. The laws may take awhile to catch up, and as with all things some will never give up their fight for the wrong side, but they have lost. Our country is a more joyful place for it.

Oklahoma!

Where the same sex marriages come whistling down the plains.

RedEquality

U.S. Senior District Judge Terence Kern ruled Tuesday that Oklahoma’s ban on marriage equality is unconstitutional.

The ruling is stayed pending appeal, meaning marriages will not occur immediately in Oklahoma.

In striking down Oklahoma’s ban on same-sex marriage, U.S. District Judge Terrence Kern described it as “an arbitrary, irrational exclusion of just one class of Oklahoma citizens from a governmental benefit.”

“Equal protection is at the very heart of our legal system and central to our consent to be governed,” Kern’s 68-page decision says. “It is not a scarce commodity to be meted out begrudgingly or in short portions. Therefore, the majority view in Oklahoma must give way to individual constitutional rights.”

[…]

Two plaintiff couples, Mary Bishop and Sharon Baldwin — who both work at the Tulsa World — and Gay Phillips and Susan Barton, filed their case in November 2004.

The legal challenge came shortly after Oklahoma voters overwhelmingly passed the constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage in the state. The couples were seeking the right to marry and to have a marriage from another jurisdiction recognized in Oklahoma.

“The Bishop couple has been in a loving, committed relationships for many years,” the judge said. “They own property together, wish to retire together, wish to make medical decisions for one another, and wish to be recognized as a married couple with all its attendant rights and responsibilities.”

But Oklahoma’s constitutional amendment “excludes the Bishop couple, and all otherwise eligible same-sex couples, from this privilege without a legally sufficient justification,” Kern said.

The order is stayed pending appeal, so there won’t be a mad Utah-like rush to the county clerk’s offices for licenses just yet. But you can’t deny it’s coming. You think Texas Republicans are maybe feeling a little nervous about their court date next month? You can see a copy of the judge’s decision at the link above, and Freedom to Marry has more.

UPDATE: Here’s a longer version of that Tulsa World story.

The states that are making life harder for their National Guard members

It’s not just Texas.

RedEquality

While a majority of states ban same-sex marriages, most are not fighting the new policy. But Pentagon officials say that in addition to Texas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and West Virginia have balked. Each has cited a conflict with state laws that do not recognize same-sex marriages. (A West Virginia official said, however, that the state intended to follow the directive.) While the president has the power to call National Guard units into federal service — and nearly all Guard funding comes from the federal government — the states say the units are state agencies that must abide by state laws.

Requiring same-sex Guard spouses to go to federally owned bases “protects the integrity of our state Constitution and sends a message to the federal government that they cannot simply ignore our laws or the will of the people,” Gov. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma said last week.

But the six states are violating federal law, Mr. Hagel told an audience recently. “It causes division among the ranks, and it furthers prejudice,” he said. Mr. Hagel has demanded full compliance, but Pentagon officials have not said what steps they would take with states that do not fall in line.

Though the government does not keep official figures on same-sex marriages in the military, the American Military Partner Association, which advocates for gay service members, estimates that the number could be 1,000 or more of the nearly half-million National Guard members nationwide, said Chris Rowzee, a spokeswoman for the group.

The military grants a range of significant benefits to the spouses of active-duty guardsmen, including the right to enroll in the military’s health insurance program and to obtain a higher monthly housing allowance. Spouse IDs allow unescorted access to bases with their lower-priced commissaries.

Officials in the six states say they are not preventing same-sex spouses from getting benefits, because those couples can register and receive IDs through federal bases. But those officials conceded that many couples would have to travel hours round trip to the nearest federal installation. Advocates for gay service members, though, fear that some benefits offered on bases, like support services for relatives of deployed service members, could still be blocked.

Moreover, gay spouses say that in an age that saw the scrapping of the military’s ban on openly gay service members, it is discriminatory — and humiliating — to have to jump through extra hoops to receive benefits.

See here, here, and here for the background. I’m still waiting for the threatened lawsuit to be filed. Note that even among the states that banned same-sex marriage, Texas and these others are a minority. There’s no public policy purpose being served here, just disrespect for people who have done nothing to deserve it. One way or another, these states need to be made to do the right thing and do right by their National Guard members.

SCOTUS to review request to reinstate injunction against HB2

It’s never a good thing to have one’s fate in Justice Scalia’s hands, but that’s where we are.

State attorneys filed a response on Tuesday to abortion providers’ request for the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene in the ongoing legal battle over the constitutionality of Texas’ new regulations on the procedure.

Abortion providers on Monday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate a lower federal court’s injunction that blocked Texas from implementing strict new abortion rules, which the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals lifted. Justice Antonin Scalia, who is considering the plaintiffs’ request, ordered the state to respond by Nov. 12.

“The applicants focus almost exclusively on their claim that ‘approximately 20,000 Texas women’ will be unable to obtain abortions each year on account of HB2’s hospital-admitting privileges requirement,” the Texas attorney general’s office responded on Tuesday. “But a litigant does not establish a factual proposition by asserting it to be so.”

The state’s attorneys debate evidence presented by the plaintiffs that 13 abortion facilities that do not have a physician with nearby hospital admitting privileges would be forced to stop performing abortion, leading an estimated 20,000 women to lose access to abortion services. The state argues there’s not enough evidence that remaining abortion providers could not take on those additional patients.

The 5th Circuit plans to hold a hearing to fully consider the case in January. The state’s attorneys argued in their response that it’s “hard to imagine” the Supreme Court would reconsider the case after the 5th Circuit, unless the 5th Circuit’s ruling conflicts with the 7th Circuit’s ruling on a similar hospital admitting privileges requirement in Wisconsin. “The applicants do not allege that this scenario is ‘likely,’ and it is highly unlikely, especially when the Wisconsin and Texas cases are likely to turn on features unique to each state’s abortion market,” state attorneys note in their response.

The plaintiffs anticipate that Scalia will issue an expedited decision shortly after receiving the state’s response. He could also refer the case to the entire U.S. Supreme Court. If Scalia does not reverse the 5th Circuit’s decision or refer the case to the whole court, the plaintiffs may ask another Supreme Court justice to consider the case. If the case is not considered by the U.S. Supreme Court, it will still proceed in the 5th Circuit.

See here and here for previous updates, and click the Trib link above to see copies of the filings. I have no idea what to expect here, but as it happens on Tuesday the Supreme Court also refused to hear an appeal from the state of Oklahoma asking for a review of a state court ruling that struck down their law requiring an ultrasound before an abortion. As I said the last time, that only required SCOTUS to decline to act, where here we need them to take action. But you find your reasons to be optimistic where you can.

Abortion providers petition SCOTUS for injunction review

We’ll see what happens.

Abortion providers on Monday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate a lower federal court’s injunction that blocked Texas from implementing strict new abortion rules.

“Right now, women in vast swaths of Texas are being turned away at clinic doors because of a bogus law that attempts to do underhandedly what states cannot do directly — block women from accessing abortion services,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “We now look to the Supreme Court to protect women’s access to these essential health care services while we fight this critical court battle.”

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday lifted a lower court’s injunction, allowing the state to implement two provisions in House Bill 2 that require abortion providers to obtain hospital admitting privileges nearby the facility and follow federal guidelines, rather than a common, evidence-based protocol, when administering drug-induced abortions.

Justice Antonin Scalia, who is considering the plaintiffs’ request, has ordered the state to respond by Nov. 12. The plaintiffs anticipate that Scalia will issue an expedited decision shortly after receiving the state’s response. He could also refer the case to the entire U.S. Supreme Court. If Scalia does not reverse the 5th Circuit’s decision or refer the case to the whole court, the plaintiffs may ask another Supreme Court justice to consider the case. If the case is not considered by the U.S. Supreme Court, it will still proceed in the 5th Circuit, which has scheduled a hearing in January 2014.

See here, here, and here for the background. Think Progress offers a small sliver of hope, as SCOTUS just refused to hear an appeal to overturn an injunction against Oklahoma’s full-throttle ban on medical abortions, but in that case they declined to take an action whereas in this case they would need to step in, so I don’t know. Even if they do step in, the damage has been done:

After the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision Thursday to lift an injunction on new abortion regulations in Texas, at least nine abortion facilities — about a quarter of the state’s abortion providers — have discontinued abortion services in light of the new law.

The court’s decision is “having an immediate impact starting today, and what that impact is depends on each woman and where she lives,” said Sarah Wheat, vice president for community affairs for Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas. Planned Parenthood has discontinued abortion services at four Texas locations: Fort Worth, Austin, Waco and Lubbock. Wheat said staff members began calling patients to cancel appointments Thursday evening soon after the appellate ruling came down.

“Depending on that patient and what her circumstances are, we’re either referring her to another health center in that same community or telling her which cities she’ll have to travel to,” Wheat said.

See the embedded video in that Trib story for the effect on one woman and her family. SCOTUS won’t take any action until at least next week, so the “emergency” part of this request wasn’t exactly honored. We’ll just have to wait till then to see about the rest of it. The Statesman, Texas Politics, Trail Blazers, and RH Reality Check have more.

I do not expect another Ardmore

The AusChron tries to get out the Democrats’ strategy for Special Session 2.

When the Texas House convened last last month to pass, on third reading and onto the Senate for final passage, Senate Bill 5, the omnibus abortion regulations bill, Austin Rep. Elliott Naishtat heard several colleagues discussing whether House Dems would be ready to walk out – to break quorum – in order to stop the measure from moving forward.

Among the questions before Democrats as they face today’s start of a second-called special session, with passage of abortion regulations first on Gov. Rick Perry’s to do list, is whether a mid-summer, out-of-state sojourn may be in the cards. “There was talk about it” on the floor last month, he said, “and there will undoubtedly be talk about it again.”

[…]

With the 30-day special-called session only getting under way today, there is plenty of time for Republicans to maneuver to pass the divisive measures – as one Capitol staffer said last week, not even Davis can talk for 30 days. But there remain other strategies to explore, said Austin Democratic Sen. Kirk Watson – though he declined to offer specifics. “I’m not going to get into strategies,” he said, “but we’re not going to give up the fight.”

[…]

Requiring testimony in each chamber may be one way to moderate the legislation’s forward progress, but it is unlikely to do much to halt the ever-forward movement. So, might a mid-summer trip to a nearby state be the way to go? That’s certainly an option, says [Rep. Donna] Howard. Though, realistically, says Naishtat, he isn’t sure that it would work to derail the measure completely. “I don’t see how House or Senate Democrats could break quorum for the amount of time necessary to defeat the bill – it could be as much as three weeks,” he said. “On the other hand, other people doubted that Sen. Wendy Davis could pull off a filibuster. So what I’m saying is, you never know.” Indeed, Naishtat agrees that at this point, every option is on the table. And it would be “foolish,” he said, for Republicans to “underestimate our power, our intelligence, our mastery of the rules, and our commitment to doing everything legal to prevent the passage of … anti-pro-choice bills.”

I’m not privy to the Dems’ thinking, and I certainly wouldn’t dismiss any feasible possibility out of hand, but I have a hard time seeing how a quorum break would be successful. As with the Davis filibuster, all it can do is delay. It can’t prevent any of this awful legislation from passing, because Rick Perry can just keep calling more sessions, which you know he will. The reason why Ardmore was doable in 2003 was that the Dems only needed to be gone for five days. As with the previous special session, the re-redistricting bill came up late, and it was close enough to the deadline for passing bills out of the House for the Senate to take up that they could bug out on Monday and return on Saturday having accomplished their task. Busting quorum now would be like what the Senate Dems tried to do later that summer. As was the case back then, there was no magic day after which you could say you were in the clear. Maybe they’ve though this through and they know what their endgame is, but I have my doubts. It’s asking an awful lot of a lot of people, and I don’t know how practical it is. I hate to be a wet blanket, and I could be wrong about this, but that’s how I see it.

Two more factors to consider. One is that in the aftermath of Ardmore and Albuquerque, there were some rule changes made in each chamber to make future quorum busts more difficult and more punitive to the fleeing party. I don’t remember the details, but I do feel confident that the Rs would be extremely vengeful towards a caucus that skipped town. Two, back in 2003 the Governors of Oklahoma and New Mexico were both Democrats, and thus unwilling to cooperate with the efforts to locate and extradite the Killer Ds. Both Governors are Republicans now, so no such assistance would be in the offing. The only neighboring state now with a Democratic Governor is Arkansas, but I would not want to put my fate in that state’s hands. The nearest state where I’d feel safe, politically speaking at least, is Colorado. Point being, any out of state excursion would need to be done by air, not by bus, which increases the cost, the risk factor, and the likelihood of something going wrong because there’s just too much you can’t control.

Anyway. If it were up to me, I’d do everything I could to drag the proceedings out, while giving the crazier members of the GOP caucus as many opportunities to say something as stupid as Rep. Laubenberg did last session, and I’d lay whatever groundwork I could for litigation to block the law. The name of the game is the 2014 election. Go down fighting, keep everyone engaged, and be ready to pick up where you left off as soon as the session ends. Be sure to read the whole AusChron story, there’s a lot more in there besides quorum breaking.

Who gets the water?

This will be worth watching.

A simple idea has guided appropriations of Texas water for decades: First come, first served.

Now, with drought conditions returning to almost the entire state, the principle is being put to the test by a fight over water in the Brazos River.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is withholding water from some, but not all, rights holders to meet the needs of the Dow Chemical Co., which operates a massive manufacturing complex where the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

Farmers have sued to get their water back, saying the state agency overstepped its authority by exempting cities and power producers with rights younger than theirs from the suspension order. The agency based the decision upon “public health, safety and welfare concerns.”

No one disputes the chemical maker’s rights, which date to the 1920s. The legal question is whether TCEQ may consider factors beyond seniority when deciding who gets water first in times of shortage.

“This really will be a precedent-setting case if the courts uphold TCEQ’s position,” said Ronald Kaiser, professor of water law and policy at Texas A&M University. “It is about whether we still believe in the priority system. It is elegantly simple, but its limitation is that we don’t consider the highest economic use of water.”

[…]

In the lawsuit, the Texas Farm Bureau and two growers argue that TCEQ does not have the authority to divert from the priority system during drought.

The order leaves more than 700 farmers without surface water for irrigation, while dozens of others with junior rights, including the cities of Houston and Waco and NRG Energy, will not be restricted in their use.

“It turns the priority system on its head,” said Regan Beck, assistant general counsel for public policy at the Farm Bureau.

Mark McPherson, a Dallas-based lawyer who specializes in water rights but is not involved in the lawsuit, agreed.

“When the historic state priority system is changed so materially, it makes those who planned based on the priority system look foolish, and it makes those who benefit from the change look lucky,” McPherson said. “I don’t think that’s a proper use of agency power.”

The solution, he said, is for those who need more water to pay for it. State law allows TCEQ to transfer water rights to meet urgent public health and safety needs, but doing so requires compensation, which was not offered in this case.

“The correct answer is perhaps harsh, but nonetheless necessary: Go acquire more water rights, at the market cost, and pass those costs on to the users,” McPherson said. “And if this were allowed to happen, we’d quickly feel, and finally understand, that water supply is a critical factor in economic competition.”

I’m not a lawyer and I know precious little about water rights, but what McPherson says makes sense to me. I can’t wait to see what the court says. I imagine the Lege will be interested in this decision as well, as it may force them to rewrite some existing laws, and it may give them some extra incentive to tackle that long-term water issue.

Meanwhile, in other water dispute news, the state of Texas has filed a complaint with the Supreme Court against New Mexico over water from the Rio Grande.

In its complaint, Texas says that New Mexico has dodged a 1938 agreement to deliver Texas’ share of Rio Grande river. Instead, New Mexico is illegally allowing diversions of both surface and underground water hydrologically connected to the Rio Grande downstream of Elephant Butte reservoir in New Mexico, according to the filing.

The complaint, filed after New Mexico took its own legal actions and after years of negotiations, asks the Supreme Court to command New Mexico to deliver water apportioned to Texas.

The Rio Grande is the primary, and at some places the only, source of water for much of the agricultural land within Texas. Water from the river constitutes, on average, half the annual water supply for El Paso, according to the filing.

“So long as New Mexico refuses to acknowledge its Rio Grande Compact obligations to Texas, no amount of negotiation or mediation can address Texas’ claims,” the filing said. “And so long as the matter continues unresolved by this Court, New Mexico can simply continue to divert, pump and use water in excess of its Rio Grande Compact apportionment, to the continued detriment of Texas.”

Conservation in El Paso has been emphasized for decades, said state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso. “The community has rallied behind conservation as important,” he said. “But we have rights to access to water: Water in the desert is crucial.”

New Mexico Attorney General Gary King fired back Thursday in a statement that Texas’ court filing was “tantamount to extortion.”

New Mexico farmers already can draw less water from the Elephant Butte reservoir following an agreement several years ago between the two states. King said the Texas complaint, if successful, would “deplete the water in southern New Mexico in a manner that would destroy the long-term viability of water resources.”

The Trib also covered this and another dispute between Tarrant County and Oklahoma that SCOTUS has agreed to adjudicate. I figure we’re going to see a lot more of this sort of thing in the coming years.

UT will start conference shopping

More dominoes.

University of Texas President William Powers Jr. was given the authority Monday to explore changing conferences, and Texas will seriously consider trying to join the Pacific-12 and the Atlantic Coast conferences if not other possibilities, sources close to the realignment discussions told the American-Statesman and business partner Hookem.com.

Powers was given the charge of leading Texas’ realignment search following an hour-plus long executive session meeting of the UT regents. Powers has the authority to keep Texas in the Big 12, but any recommendations to move to another conference would have to be approved by regents.

That regents authorized Powers was not a surprise in a month that has already been full of them in college athletics. The landscape there appears to be shifting to super conferences, raising the question of whether the already-diminished Big 12 can survive even with the continued support of the Longhorns.

Oklahoma gave its president even more authority to act on realignment during its regents’ meeting Monday, and Oklahoma State regents will meet Wednesday. OU could be the school that petitions the Pac-12 for membership soon and possibly lead Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State on the path to join as well, sources said.

[…]

All sources say the process could still be an extended one and take anywhere from one to three weeks because of the sensitivity of the talks and the complexity of the issues. Texas remains keenly interested in preserving its Longhorn Network , but conference membership elsewhere will make that a thorny problem.

On Monday, Powers called the conference consideration an “ongoing process” and then quickly ducked into an elevator without answering questions from reporters.

OU president David Boren was more talkative. He acknowledged that if OU left the Big 12, it would focus mainly on the Pac-12 and said the school has had “very warm, very receptive,” conversations with that conference.

Boren, however, said, the OU board’s directive “is not a Texas A&M-like situation.” He added, “This is not an announcement that we are leaving for the Pac-12. … No one should read into today that we have made a decision.”

But you’re sure as heck thinking about it. Whatever UT and OU may be thinking about, the PAC 12 is not on the menu at this time.

The Pacific 12 Conference released a statement Tuesday night saying it was not pursuing expansion plans at this time.

“After careful review we have determined that it is in the best interests of our member institutions, student-athletes and fans to remain a 12-team conference,” Commissioner Larry Scott said in the statement.

The decision came after Scott met with conference presidents.

Of course, as we know with the SEC and Texas A&M, “not at this time” does not mean “forever”. Word was that not all PAC 12 schools were on board with further expansion, which most likely means they didn’t think they were getting enough out of what had been proposed so far. I’m sure not ready to say that the wheels have stopped spinning just yet.

Be that as it may, if the PAC-12 doesn’t work out, another possible landing spot for UT could be the increasingly-misnamed Atlantic Coast Conference, which added Syracuse and Pittsburgh to its roster for the 2014 season. Why the ACC? There would be no obstacle to UT keeping the Longhorn Network under its existing rules. The ACC is now up to 14 members, so one presumes they only have two more slots available, if they are still looking to expand.

The potential shuffling at the top has those not at the top considering their options as well.

The Big East and Big 12 might join together in their fight for survival.

School and conference officials from the two leagues have been discussing ways to merge what’s left of them if Texas and Oklahoma leave the Big 12, a person involved in the discussions told The Associated Press.

[…]

If the Big 12 loses Texas, OU, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, it would leave Missouri, Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas and Kansas State scrambling.

Without Syracuse and Pittsburgh, the Big East still has six football members: Cincinnati, Connecticut, South Florida, Rutgers, Louisville and West Virginia. Plus, TCU is slated to join in 2012, giving the Big East a presence in Big 12 country.

[…]

Also talking about a merger is the Mountain West Conference and Conference USA. Mountain West Conference Commissioner Craig Thompson told the Idaho Statesmen that he and CUSA Commissioner Britton Banowsky “resurrected this consolidation concept with Conference USA from a football-only standpoint.”

A union between those schools could create one BCS automatic qualifying league, but there’s no guarantee some of those schools won’t also look elsewhere.

There’s no guarantees of anything except more chaos and the pursuit of the almighty dollar. It’s even possible that the Big XII could remain intact, if the right terms are met.

Texas has never wavered in its hopes to keep the Big 12 afloat, but is equally determined to keep its lucrative Longhorn Network.

But on Tuesday, a high-ranking Oklahoma school administrator said the school would consider staying put in the Big 12 if Texas agrees to a “reformed” version of the conference that includes changes to the Longhorn Network and if Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe was removed, The Oklahoman newspaper reported.

“It’s going to take major, major reforms,” the source told The Oklahoman as conditions for staying put. “We’d have to have an interim commissioner.”

Tune in tomorrow when everything you know today may prove to be wrong.

UPDATE: Long live the Big XII! Until something better comes along, anyway.

Can this conference be saved?

Here’s your latest Big XII speculation.

Several reports indicate that Texas would be willing to share its Tier I revenue provided through the Big 12’s television contracts for football to help preserve the conference. That would not affect the $15 million provided each year to the school by the Longhorn Network.

But the key to keeping the Big 12 together still appears to be convincing Oklahoma to stay. The Sooners appeared ready to bolt to the Pac-12 with Oklahoma State in tow for most of the last week.

Even with the recent comments of OU president David Boren saying his school wouldn’t be “a wallflower” in a possible realignment scenario, the Sooners may be convinced to stay put after some initial apprehension.

“We just have to tap on the brakes and try to slow down,” a person familiar with the negotiations said. “There is still value in this conference. We all just have to realize that.”

This may already be obsolete, of course; indeed, it may be too little, too late. To be honest, I really don’t understand the mad rush towards 16-team super conferences. Speaking as a survivor of the WAC 16, there are many issues when there are that many schools. But then I’m also pretty sure that logic isn’t the driving factor here. Tune in tomorrow for another exciting episode of As The Conference Turns.

Are you ready for the Sooner Network?

Sure, why not?

Reporters were given a tour Tuesday of the university’s SoonerVision HD production rooms that have been expanded through $5 million in improvements in recent years. With fiber-optic cables connecting the school’s athletic venues to side-by-side control rooms, Oklahoma plans to broadcast and webcast dozens more sporting events this year in high definition.

“It allows us to do broadcast quality. That’s the thing I don’t think a lot of people realize is that five years ago our webcasts were one camera at a game, at a volleyball match, and we’re still doing some of that,” said Brandon Meier, the executive director of video production.

“Now more of our webcasts are going to look like broadcasts that you’re going to see at home with all of the bells and whistles and the replays and the score bug. We’ve gone from the one-camera setup to the 32-person broadcast setup to make that happen.”

The expansion is another step toward the school’s ultimate goal of launching its own around-the-clock network in a quickly expanding television marketplace for college sports.

The Big Ten’s lucrative network is being joined by a series of Pac-12 channels and the Longhorn Network, created through a $300 million deal between Texas and ESPN.

As compared to those endeavors, Oklahoma has a part-time network. It produces and broadcasts dozens of live basketball games and events from Olympic sports on television, and offers other live sporting events through an online All-Access package that charges subscribers about $10 a month or $100 a year.

Spokesman Kenny Mossman said eventually the university hopes to “dovetail” its online offerings into its own TV channel.

I’m sure they do. They’re probably making a few bucks from those All Access packages in the meantime, too. Say what you want about the Longhorn Network, I do agree with their assertion that everyone will be doing something like this sooner or later.

Big XII lives

Wow.

“The University of Texas’ athletics programs will continue competing in the Big 12 Conference,” the school announced Monday in a statement.

Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin released the following statement:

“Texas A&M is a proud member of the Big 12 Conference and will continue to be affiliated with the conference in the future. As Athletics Director Bill Byrne and I have stated on numerous occasions, our hope and desire was for the Big 12 to continue. We are committed to the Big 12 and its success today and into the future.”

Oklahoma also announced its intention to stay in the Big 12.

Less than five hours ago, the departure of UT, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State to the PAC 10 was described as “imminent”, though there were other reports at the same time that the situation was more fluid. Guess we know which it is. I’m a little surprised by this, on the grounds that UT’s regents were to meet tomorrow, and A&M’s regents had not yet even scheduled a meeting. Apparently, that pitch from Big XII Commish Dan Beebe was more compelling than I expected it to be.

Beebe’s pitch involves projections of a significant increase in the Big 12’s cable rights beginning in 2012. The numbers suggest an average payout per team at about $17 million, just under the $17.4 million per school the deep-pocketed SEC distributed.

“We have as much value as 10 here than just about any other conference out there,” Beebe said Friday. “If it’s about that value and that money, then that shouldn’t be part of the equation.

“If it’s about other factors that are outside of our control, then there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Big 12 schools heard an optimistic presentation in Kansas City during the spring meetings by Fox Sports Net suggesting a significant increase.

There is a catch: the Fox offer to the Big 12 would be long term, upward of 18 years, according to multiple sources. A great deal now might not be as lucrative in 2025.

The Big 12 could get even more cash in 2016, when the league’s broadcast TV rights package with ABC/ESPN expires. The departure of Colorado and Nebraska will add about $32 million to the conference in penalties over the next two years.

According to ESPN, UT will still be allowed to pursue its own TV network. Earlier reports had suggested that this would be a deal-killer for Texas A&M. Just goes to show you never really knew what was going on all this time. The questions I have now are one, will the PAC 10+1 add a 12th team so they can at least get a conference championship game, and two, will the Big 10 and its 12 members swap names with the Big XII and its 10 members? I suppose it’s possible the Big XII could hunt for a couple of new members to make its name accurate again – I have a statement from State Rep. Garnet Coleman advocating for the inclusion of UH and TCU – but that still doesn’t settle the Big 10 mess. All in due time, I suppose. Credit to the DMN for being first out with the story.

With more gambling comes more problem gambling

The never asleep gambling industry in Texas likes to point out how much business the casinos in Oklahoma and Louisiana get, which includes a hefty amount from Texans. But as gambling becomes more prevalent, so do gambling addictions.

Tribal casinos have grown in size and number since voters in 2004 approved a law expanding tribal gaming. There are now more than 100 tribal casinos in the state. Four horse racing tracks, the state lottery and even the Internet offer more gaming options.

“Of course the number of problem gamblers is on the rise,” said Wiley Harwell, executive director of the Oklahoma Association for Problem & Compulsive Gambling office in Norman. “Anytime you have casinos, per se, you’re gong to have this come along with it. If you’re in the casino business, you’re in the problem gambling business as well. We’re just now seeing our fair share of it.”

Figures from the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services show the number of people who called the state’s gambling helpline increased from 627 in fiscal year 2007 to 912 in fiscal year 2009. The number of people seeking treatment for gambling addiction at a state-funded facility rose from 149 to 350 in the same time period.

“Gambling addiction used to be a hidden problem in poker rooms,” Harwell said. “Now you see more and more casino gamblers.”

Harwell said many of people who call the helpline see the number on posters and brochures that are required at casinos.

These numbers don’t address those who seek private help. Many more do not seek help at all.

I refer you back to this post about the concept of “playing to extinction”. The point, simply, is that there is a cost to expanding gambling, and that cost is in my opinion understated. I just want to make sure we all keep that cost in mind, especially if the prospects of casinos in Texas are getting brighter.

Oklahoma gets on the SUPERTRAIN

Welcome aboard!

The Oklahoma Department of Transportation said Friday it has taken an initial step to apply for high-speed rail funding that, if successful, could return passenger service to Tulsa.

ODOT spokeswoman Terri Angier said top speeds between Tulsa and Oklahoma City would be more than 150 mph with an average speed of more than 110 mph.

Top speeds for the Heartland Flyer, which provides servicefrom Oklahoma City to Texas, would be 90 mph, with an average of more than 60 mph.

The Heartland Flyer now can travel only up to 79 mph, but the speed is lower on much of that route.

A cost estimate for the project, which would include improvements from Tulsa to the Texas state line, has been put at just under $2 billion.

This would be part of the South Central Corridor that also includes the Texas T-bone and Little Rock, Arkansas. Nice to see the other states involved are doing their part. I hope their prospects for getting the funding are better than ours.