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State Re.p Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) and state Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels)
Jason Villalba photo courtesy Jason Villalba, Donna Campbell photo by Patrick Michels
State Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) and state Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels)

The Texas Association of Business has come out against two religious freedom resolutions that critics say would enshrine a “license to discriminate” against LGBT people in the Texas Constitution.

TAB, which is the state’s powerful chamber of commerce, unanimously adopted a resolution last month opposing House Joint Resolution 55 and Senate Joint Resolution 10, by Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) and Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), respectively.

Chris Wallace, president of TAB, said more than 100 members of the board voted to add opposition to the resolutions to the group’s legislative agenda at a statewide meeting Feb. 17.

“We feel that this will certainly make our state look very much unwelcoming when it comes to business recruitment,” Wallace said of the resolutions. “We also have several businesses within the state, our large corporations for instance, that have diversity policies already in place, and what we’re hearing from them is they want their state to look the same way.”

Wallace pointed to the example of Toyota, which is moving its U.S. headquarters to Plano and worked with the city to pass an Equal Rights Ordinance protecting LGBT people against discrimination. He also cited damage to Arizona’s business reputation when similar legislation passed last year before it was vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer.

In addition to LGBT issues, the chamber is concerned the resolutions would allow people to claim religious exemptions to criminal, tax, health and safety, environmental quality and zoning laws. Wallace said the resolutions would also lead to a spike in litigation, costing businesses and taxpayers.

Chris Wallace
Texas Association of Business
Texas Association of Business President Chris Wallace

In opposing the ordinances, TAB joins progressive groups, including Equality Texas, the ACLU and the Texas Freedom Network.

“We are a very conservative business association as the state chamber, and it’s not our typical partners we have at the table with us,” Wallace said. “But we’re proud we have these partners at the table with us because we’re all working together to make sure we keep Texas open for business, and that we are seen as a place that welcomes all people and not one that excludes any groups of people.”

In response to the TAB decision, Campbell issued a statement suggesting SJR 10 is business-friendly.

“SJR 10 is about stopping overreaching governments at the local level from forcing Texans to run their businesses in opposition to their values and principles,” Campbell said. “If not for the protection of religious freedom, our nation would not be as diverse and tolerant as it is today for families, employers, and employees of all faiths. A lot of small business owners are going to be awfully disappointed if business groups start selling individual liberty and traditional family values down the river for an unattainable level of political correctness.”

A spokesman for Villalba said the representative was booked for the remainder of the week and wouldn’t be available to discuss the issue.

In addition to opposing the resolutions, Wallace said TAB has joined the newly formed statewide organization Texas Competes, which is dedicated to making the business case for fair treatment of LGBT people.

Be Different small

Texas prosecutes kids for missing school more zealously than any other state, according to a new report released this morning, and poor, minority and special education students are disproportionately targeted.

Texas Appleseed, a social justice advocacy group, authored the report on truancy prosecution, finding it a punitive and ineffective practice that has done little to increase attendance and graduation rates while dragging juveniles into the adult criminal system.

Just one of the astounding facts revealed in “Class, Not Court: Reconsidering Texas’ Criminalization of Truancy,” is that in 2013 Texas prosecuted approximately 115,000 truancy cases–more than twice the number of all other states combined.

These prosecutions fall heavily on minority students. In the 2013-14 school year, almost 20 percent of reported Failure to Attend School court referrals statewide involved African-American students, despite the fact that African-American students represent less than 13 percent of the student body statewide. Likewise, 64 percent of reported cases involving Hispanic students, though they represent only 52 percent of the student body.

The report suggest that a better, more effective solution for handling truancy cases may be for schools and courts to provide prevention and intervention services for at-risk children to get them back into school.

“We know the most effective programs to address truancy really hone in on the underlying reasons that a student is not attending school and addressing those underlying causes of chronic absenteeism,” said Deborah Fowler, the executive director of Texas Appleseed. “Those are the things that are missing in the Texas system. In Texas, we have a very court-centric approach that is very one-size-fits-all.”

The court approach, which involves fines students can’t pay and criminal records that can follow youth into adulthood, often fails to grapple with the realities kids are facing: chronic health problems, homelessness, family violence and the need to work for survival.

“We see when we talk to families that there are complex and varied reasons that kids miss school, and it often doesn’t really resemble what I think most people commonly think of when they think of truancy,” Fowler said.

Students with disabilities also make up a significant percentage of students charged with truancy. While special education students represented only 9 percent of students statewide in the 2013-14 school year, they represented 13 percent of court referrals for Failure to Attend School.

According to the report, many students with disabilities miss school to receive essential disability-related treatment from doctors and speech, occupational and physical therapists. Sometimes schools, under pressure from the state to meet attendance goals, refuse to excuse absences for therapies that parents and outside providers believe are essential, but schools do not prioritize.

“Every time a student misses school, even for something that should be excused, you run the risk of sloppy record-keeping in the attendance office. You also run the risk of a parent or a student forgetting to turn in their excuse and a higher chance of being referred for those absences,” said Dustin Rynders, an attorney for Disability Rights Texas.

Each truancy fine can run up to $500. Because 79 percent of those charged are economically disadvantaged, many of the tickets go unpaid. If the student’s family can’t pay the fines and court costs, that student could face arrest and incarceration when she turns 17.

“The students who are most likely to be sent to court and fined are the students who can least afford it. We have an overrepresentation of students who are classified as economically disadvantaged going to court for truancy cases. So it’s families that are least able to pay fines that are getting saddled with these fines,” said Fowler.

The report also describes another troubling sanction: Some judges are ordering students to “unenroll” from school and take the GED. In other words, courts in Texas are ordering children to drop out of school as a punishment for not going to school. Over a three-year period, 6,423 students who were ordered to drop out and take the GED then failed the test.

truancy chartThe report also provides suggestions for better ways to handle truancy cases. Texas Appleseed encouraged legislators, school districts and Texas Education Agency to decriminalize truancy so that it is no longer treated as a crime in adult criminal court, make all court referrals discretionary, and require effective school-based truancy prevention and intervention. The executive summary also emphasized the importance of requiring schools to produce complete data on truancy in a timely matter.

“What we have suggested is that the Legislature consider requiring schools to take a graduated approach before filing a case so they would have an initial intervention with the family that could simply consist of meeting with the family , talking to them and figuring out what’s going on and see what’s causing the chronic absences. If that didn’t work, then the next approach would be to refer them to a truancy prevention class or to a counselor or to a community based service that the family may need to really get at the underlying causes,” says Fowler.

Reporting data has become a problem. School districts are required to accurately report their truancy filings, but only half do, according to the report.

“We know that truancy reform is definitely on the radar for our legislature this session and we hope that ensuring that school districts report data accurately will be among the issues that the legislature addresses when it comes to the way truancy is handled in Texas”, says Fowler.

But Susan Steeg, a Travis County justice of the peace who handles truancy cases for three Austin-area school districts, defended the current approach toward truancy. She argues there’s no other proven way to get students back into school.

“What is on the table now is to repeal that law and there is nothing that is going to fill that void,” Steeg said. And what I’m afraid of is all the programs that we have in place with the courts that have juvenile court management won’t have a way to get those kids into court for the interventions that they sorely need.”

Steeg also defended the court-ordered GED tests.

“We see a lot of students where traditional classes are not in their best interest. We have several grade alternative choices here in Travis County. Besides GED courses, we have several diploma programs that are open to them, such as Austin Can Academy, American YouthWorks, and many of these programs are four-hour days, so the student can work part time also receive their high school diploma,” she said.

Fifteen bills filed related to truancy reform are in session now.

Fifteen bills filed related to truancy reform have been filed this legislative session. The House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee will hear a host of truancy-related bills on March 11.

Debbie Townley of Austin is one of nearly 1 million Texans who could lose the financial assistance she gets to help pay for health insurance if the Supreme Court rules against the Obama administration.
Alexa Garcia-Ditta
Debbie Townley of Austin is one of nearly 1 million Texans who could lose the financial assistance she gets to help pay for health insurance if the Supreme Court rules against the Obama administration.

Debbie Townley, a 54-year-old grandmother of two living in Austin, didn’t get annual mammograms or well-woman exams for years because she couldn’t afford health insurance.

“I would go to the emergency room to get health care to take care of an ailment,” she said. “It got to the point where I would be sick and still be going to work because I couldn’t go to the doctor.”

But in February, she found a solution. Townsend signed up for a plan through the Affordable Care Act’s insurance marketplace. After a $194 subsidy, Townley only pays $158 out of her pocket each month. She can now afford regular checkups and cheaper prescriptions.

Townley’s subsidy and that of nearly 1 million Texans who purchased health insurance and also qualify for financial help through the federal marketplace are in jeopardy. Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a challenge to a portion of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. At issue is whether people who live in states that did not set up their own state-administered insurance marketplaces, including Texas, are eligible to receive federal tax credits. Should the high court rule against the Obama administration, Townley and other Texans who qualify for a federal subsidy could lose the money they get to help pay for health insurance.

“Without the tax credit, it’d be really hard to pay my bills,” she said. “To do away with the tax credit would be another burden on my finances.”

As oral arguments wrapped up Wednesday in Washington, D.C., state Rep. Chris Turner (D-Arlington) filed two bills that he says will protect Texans who receive federal subsidies. House Bill 817 would create a Texas-run exchange if the Supreme Court decides consumers in Texas aren’t eligible for tax credits through the federal marketplace. House Bill 818 would create a state exchange regardless of the outcome.

For the last several sessions, Texas lawmakers have decided against establishing a state-administered exchange.

“Texas needs to be prepared,” Turner said. “I understand that many of my colleagues in the Capitol do not support the [Affordable Care Act], but what I do hope, however, is that people will see through political rhetoric and agree that making sure our constituents don’t get hit with a major tax increase is the right thing to do, as well as ensure that Texans who have purchased health plans in the marketplace have the ability to keep them and get the health care that they and their families need.”

During the last open enrollment period, which ran from October to mid-February, almost 1.2 million Texans enrolled in health plans through the federal marketplace. Of those, 84 percent qualified for a subsidy that lowered their monthly payments.

To receive a federal tax credit, an individual must earn between $11,500 and $46,680, or between $25,850 and $95,400 for a family of four. The Kaiser Family Foundation, a national health care research organization, estimates that more than 2 million Texans are eligible to receive financial assistance, though not all of them are currently enrolled. According to the National Women’s Law Center, nearly 1.3 million of those eligible are women and approximately 761,000 are Hispanic.

Texans at risk of losing their insurance aren’t the only ones worried. Ted Shaw, CEO of the Texas Hospital Association, said Texas hospitals incur billions of uncompensated care costs by treating the uninsured in emergency rooms.

“An end to tax subsidies and private health insurance coverage for nearly 1 million Texans will further weaken the already strained health care safety net and increase the un-reimbursed care costs shifted on to employers and property taxpayers,” he said.

Early analysis of oral arguments by legal experts indicate the justices could be split 5-4, though it’s unclear what the outcome will be. Though Texas isn’t challenging the Affordable Care Act in this case, Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement that the lawsuit “will ultimately free Texans from the bureaucratic burdens of this unjust, unaffordable and failing law.”

A decision is expected by June.

Celia Israel and Celinda Garza
Celia Israel
State Rep. Celia Israel (right) and her partner Celinda Garza

The name of a lesbian lawmaker’s longtime partner doesn’t appear in a Texas legislative directory, though the publisher updated the web version after the Observer inquired about the issue.

Austin Democratic Rep. Celia Israel’s partner of 20 years, Celinda Garza, isn’t listed in the 2015 edition of the Texas State Directory—a go-to source for lobbyists, reporters and others seeking information about legislators.

The Texas State Directory—an 80-year-old publication put out by a small private companyplaces the names of lawmakers’ spouses in parentheses next to their cities of residence.

Israel said her staff listed Garza as her partner on a form provided to the Texas State Directory. However, Julie Sayers, the president and publisher of the Texas State Directory, indicated that because Garza wasn’t listed as Israel’s spouse, she wasn’t included. She also said only legally married spouses are listed in the directory.

“I’ve lived with this my whole life. It’s just something you get used to,” Israel said. “It’s unfortunate that they’re not recognizing my 20-year relationship.”

Israel, elected last year, is the first out lesbian lawmaker in Texas—and the only openly LGBT state legislator in Texas history to have a longtime same-sex partner.

Despite an anti-LGBT legislative climate at the Capitol this session, Israel said she and Garza have gotten a generally positive reception. Garza wasn’t allowed to join the Legislative Ladies Club because they aren’t married. However, they were introduced as partners at a gala on the eve of the session hosted by Speaker Joe Straus and his wife.

“It’s always nice when people recognize us,” Israel said. “We’re a unit.”

Sayers initially told the Observer that Garza’s name wasn’t listed anywhere on the form provided by Israel’s office. Sayers said she had a copy of the form but declined to provide it to the Observer. A representative from Israel’s office said they didn’t retain a copy of the form.

Sayers acknowledged that only spouses can be included in the directory.

“That’s not my business to list girlfriends or boyfriends or children,” Sayers said.

Israel said she planned to write a letter to Sayers about the matter.

Sayers said it would be too late to update the print version of the directory because it has already gone to press. But as of Wednesday, the online version of Israel’s listing had been updated to read: “Spouse: Celinda Garza (Partner).”

Jani Maselli Wood court fees
Harris County Public Defender's Office
Jani Maselli Wood, assistant public defender in Harris County

In Houston, one attorney is making real change by quibbling over loose change.

Jani Maselli Wood, an assistant public defender in Harris County, is waging a one-woman war against the way Texas uses the hundreds of different fees it collects from people involved in the criminal justice system. Most recently, Texas’ 1st Court of Appeals agreed with Wood that the $250 “DNA record fee” charged to her client was unconstitutional because the state splits that money between the highway fund and the general fund for criminal justice planning. Neither pot pays directly for the expense of trying a criminal case—ostensibly the purpose of court costs. Wood successfully argued that the $250 constitutes an unlawful tax.

That’s no small potatoes for an individual—especially for the indigent clients Wood represents, since $250 is almost a full week’s pay at minimum wage. But Wood has also gone to bat over 34 cents. “Obviously, it’s 34 cents for [my client], but how much is it across the state?” she says. “It’s just not right, so I keep chipping away.”

Those chips add up. Court costs and fees contribute hundreds of millions of dollars a year that lawmakers rely on to accomplish the one task they’re constitutionally obligated to complete during their brief biennial parley: passing a budget. A 2014 study by the Office of Court Administration identified 143 distinct criminal court costs and 211 different civil fees on the books that funneled more than $350 million into the state kitty, more than a quarter of which went to the general fund—which is to say, not to courts. In fact, some mandated expenses, such as providing support for county indigent defense programs, are paid entirely out of fees rather than the general revenue fund. That’s one way legislators keep from raising taxes. The poor, who are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system, end up footing the bill.

Case law requires that court fees be used for their stated purpose, but the Office of Court Administration review found that 14 fees didn’t even have a named purpose. Many more fees were imposed by statutes that suggested a purpose but didn’t restrict the money’s use to it. In other words, court costs are a ripe area for constitutional challenge.

So why is Wood’s crusade, so far, so lonely? Because court cost constitutionality is not a very lucrative area of law. “I could not do this sort of litigation if I was in private practice,” Wood says. “No client would pay me to do it. And no judge would pay me to do it if I was court appointed.” But her employer, the Harris County public defender, is on board. “My boss is very supportive of impact litigation and systemic change.”

Before Wood’s efforts, many courts wouldn’t even provide an itemized bill of what citizens were being charged. Now, every case she wins builds legal precedent for improved honesty in budgeting.

The state, as it usually does when it loses, appealed the 1st Court ruling to the Court of Criminal Appeals, Texas’ highest court for criminal cases. Their ruling is likely months away. But Wood isn’t slowing down. She says, “I told my husband, it’s probably going to be a decade before I’m done.”

Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick
Kelsey Jukam
Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick at the State of the State Address.

Ah, love triangles. Throughout history, they’ve provided rich dramatic material. But they’re no fun to be in, and almost as un-fun to be around. Bruised egos, miscommunication and ill will. Matters of the heart get so messy.

The Legislature is also premised on a three-way relationship, though, one hopes, platonic. There’s Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus. We know where they stand, roughly—Patrick’s a right-winger who goes with his gut, and Straus is a cautious and analytical moderate. Which of them will form a stronger relationship with the governor?

The answer to that question will say a lot about how the 84th Legislature unfolds. Who’s winning?

1) Dan Patrick has so much love to give, man.

There are many different ways to form a bond with a political partner, but Patrick’s is pretty curious. A few weeks ago, I wrote that the lite guv’s strategy for dealing with the governor appeared to be to “hug him to death and hope compliance follows,” but if anything I may have undersold it. Dan’s mash notes for Greg are getting stronger:

—At a Feb. 10 press conference on extending the National Guard border deployment, Patrick emphasized multiple times that he stood “shoulder to shoulder” with the governor. They were in close physical proximity to each other. So good so far, I guess. He was tamer in his words for Straus: “We stand shoulder to shoulder with the governor, and we will work with the speaker.”

—After the State of the State address on Feb. 17, Patrick reported that the two had achieved some sort of mind-meld. “I could have written that speech,” he told a reporter. In a statement, he said that Abbott said “everything I wanted to hear in the State of the State address.”

—Another week goes by, and the two have become even closer, perhaps dangerously so. On Feb. 24, Patrick holds a press conference to discuss his tax cut proposals. Is Abbott on board? “We’re so close shoulder-to-shoulder you couldn’t put a piece of paper between us.”

That’s abnormally close. Patrick and Abbott, apparently, have entered into a collapsing orbit like two doomed celestial bodies. At any moment—perhaps this has happened already—their masses will merge and become one. Has anyone seen Greg Abbott lately?

2) The one with the fear of commitment

The problem for Patrick is that the governor has shown no signs of reciprocating this love. There are even a few signs that he doesn’t particularly enjoy this level of affection.

When Patrick had that press conference on border security—the one where he emphasized over and over that the governor stood “shoulder to shoulder” with him—the press waited most of the day for a corroborating statement from Abbott’s office. But it didn’t come. This was strange. It fell to Straus to reply to Patrick’s event, which was attended by every member of the GOP Senate caucus. And Straus’ response was very, very cool.

The State of the State—the one Patrick says he could have written himself—contained only cursory plugs for Patrick’s policy agenda. He mentioned school choice, sure, but not in the way Patrick would have done. His plan for border security carefully marks the halfway point in between the House’s proposal and the Senate’s. And several of his emergency items come with a price tag, like his university research initiative, which could prove unpopular in the spending-averse Senate, especially since the senators have their own budget priorities.

Meanwhile Abbott and the Senate seem to be competing with each other to offer the biggest tax cut proposals: The original Senate budget included $4 billion in tax cuts; then, Abbott proposed $4.4 billion; and Patrick answered with $4.6 billion. If the tax cut proposals continue to grow at this rate, state government will have abolished itself by May.

Does Patrick’s Senate respect Abbott? We saw one test of that last week, when the Senate Committee on Nominations met to consider Abbott’s three appointments to the University of Texas System Board of Regents. Conservative activists like those associated with Midland oilman Tim Dunn hate Abbott’s nominees.

The hearing was the first public split between Abbott and legislators—Republican senators attempted to tear his nominees to pieces in a five-hour hearing so intense it fell to a Democrat, state Sen. José Rodríguez, to offer Abbott a few sympathetic words.

It may have been the first visible rift between Abbott and his right, but it won’t be the last. There are many issues on which the moderate, responsible governor that Abbott might like to be is at odds with the wingers in his party, Dan Patrick foremost among them.

Patrick’s predecessor David Dewhurst was weak, but desperate to look strong. He had less and less influence as his tenure in office went along, but he was always sure to make himself visible. Patrick, so far, is doing something approaching the opposite—in his series of policy press conferences, he’s been letting the chairs of the Senate committees take point on their issues, even when the bills they’re offering up are effectively his.

There’s been a lot of talk around Austin that Patrick might make a run for governor in 2018, either because Abbott doesn’t run for re-election or Patrick chooses to primary him. If that’s the game plan, it makes sense for Patrick to offer Abbott his loving support now. There’s no point in showing his ambition this far out—it’s a bad look. But if the divide keeps growing between the Senate right-wing, encouraged by enforcer groups that have always had pretty tame feelings for the guv, and Abbott—who could blame Patrick for that?

3) The strong, silent type

Straus isn’t just ideologically different from Patrick, he’s cognitively and emotionally different: He’s cool and analytical where Patrick is hot and passionate.

In this year’s speaker race, which Straus won easily, there was some speculation that Patrick’s arrival made House Republicans less willing to support a conservative challenger to Straus. Patrick was an unknown quantity, and a lot of Republicans in the Lege were skeptical. They wanted a speaker who would stand up for them and ignore the ideologues if Patrick’s Senate threatened rural schools, for example.

Is it possible Patrick’s leadership style will encourage Straus to be more vocal about his beliefs, too? When pressed on this question at a UT-Austin event recently, Straus was mostly mum. But his statement on Patrick’s border proposal was remarkably terse: “I appreciate Governor Patrick’s remarks, but Governor Abbott is the Commander in Chief and he will decide whether to extend the National Guard’s deployment.” That’s about as close as you get to seeing one politician tell an ostensible ally to go screw himself in an official statement.

On Monday, a key ally of House leadership, Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), appeared alongside what appeared to be three to four dozen reps—including some Democrats—to talk up the House’s border plan. Bonnen laid out a collection of bills that would seek to bolster law enforcement abilities throughout the state while creating a permanent DPS presence along the border. That would allow the National Guard to be sent home quickly and preempt the need for future border “surges,” like the one Patrick wants to maintain.

Those “surges” have always been more about political need rather than practical need, so it’s hard to see how some more state troopers would prevent them. Still, the effort to rally so many representatives to stand alongside Bonnen was a strong visual match to Patrick’s press conference, when he attempted to use the whole Senate GOP caucus as leverage against both the governor and House.

And Patrick is not going out of his way to make himself beloved in Straustown. At a speech Patrick gave to a gathering of the Concerned Women for America, a Christian group, he gave a version of a spiel he’s given at at least two events recently. The gist: Finally, most of the state’s leadership are good Christians.

“I have never seen before in my eight years in the Texas Senate the presence of God in the Capitol like I’ve seen this year,” said Patrick. “Greg Abbott, myself, Comptroller Hegar, Ken Paxton, Sid Miller. I’ve participated in all their swearings-in and inauguration. And I can tell you that every one of them put God first.” They honored Jesus in all they did.

Omitted from Patrick’s list, of course, is Straus, who is Jewish. Those who follow Texas politics know the utility of these kinds of dog-whistles in talking to groups like CWA, though it might seem thin to others—the plausible deniability is precisely why they’re useful.

We’re only a month and a half through the session—this is supposed to be the easy part. And there’s already so much warm feeling! Only 90 days to go.

State Rep. Rick Miller
State Rep. Rick Miller (R-Sugar Land)

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

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

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

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

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

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

HB 1556 is more specific than a similar measure introduced by Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas). Huffines’ SB 343 would bar cities from enforcing any ordinances that are more stringent than state law, unless otherwise authorized by statute.

Here’s how Miller’s bill reads:

Screen shot 2015-03-03 at 10.32.31 AM

Four Collin County lawmakers previously said they planned to introduce a bill similar to Miller’s in response to the passage of the Equal Rights Ordinance in Plano.

Miller’s proposal is also similar to a bill passed recently in Arkansas. The only other state with a similar law is Tennessee.

A DPS training near McAllen
Alex Landeen
A Texas DPS training session near McAllen

While reporting my 8,000-word feature on the Texas Department of Public Safety helicopter shooting of two undocumented men over the last year, I tried repeatedly to obtain documents from the Texas DPS by using the Texas Public Information Act. I wanted to better understand the agency’s dramatic transformation in the last decade into a militarized police force, especially when it comes to its border security programs.

I was met with resistance at every turn by the agency, even when it came to documents that I knew had already been released to other news outlets.

In September 2014, I filed a public information request with DPS seeking documents, such as contracts and memos, on a Virginia-based contractor called Abrams Learning and Information Systems Inc. (ALIS). The private company, founded by retired Army Gen. John Abrams, is one of the main architects of the sweeping Texas border security plan.

In January, the Texas attorney general issued an opinion that DPS didn’t have to release much of the information, citing homeland security concerns, among other reasons. But DPS had already agreed to release documents that it considered to be public information. In October, I paid a $221 deposit to DPS. For months I have written and phoned Molly Cost, the DPS lawyer in charge of the agency’s public information requests, but have never received a response.

Other media outlets have had problems getting even basic information from DPS.

The Houston Chronicle recently reported that DPS refuses to release border crime data. Even the Texas Attorney General’s office can’t get a response from Cost at DPS, despite numerous attempts to reach her, the Chronicle wrote. What kind of state agency won’t even talk to the state’s top lawyer?

In 2012, Jeremy Schwartz at the Austin American-Statesman published an important investigative piece about ALIS, pointing out that the company had received at least $20 million in no-bid contracts for everything from drafting border security talking points for then-Gov. Rick Perry to helping DPS set up joint intelligence centers and military-style commands across the state.

After these revelations, the Public Integrity Unit at the Travis County District Attorney’s Office began to investigate the ALIS contracts. But the unit was forced to end its investigation in 2013 after Perry vetoed $7.5 million for the anti-corruption agency.

Yesterday, the liberal group Progress Texas made the important point that the ALIS contracts have been all but forgotten, even as Gov. Greg Abbott and the Legislature are considering an increase in border funding of as much as $815 million.

Now would be the time for the Public Integrity Unit to reopen its investigation into the ALIS contracts and help shine some light on DPS, said Progress Texas.

“The human cost and lack of transparency surrounding DPS operations at the U.S.-Mexico border underscores why we must scrutinize third-party contractors training DPS and other state employees in border security,” said Ed Espinoza, executive director of Progress Texas.

One thing I wanted to figure out during my investigation was who crafted the policy authorizing DPS personnel to fire from helicopters during pursuits. No other law enforcement agency in the country would entertain such a policy, because it’s so clearly reckless. “What if you hit the driver? Then you’ve got an unguided missile on your hands,” Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of at the University of South Carolina and a national expert in police pursuits, told me. “What they were doing was totally crazy.”

But without DPS providing even basic information, there’s no way of knowing who was responsible for that deadly policy.

Listen to Melissa del Bosque discuss her story, Death on Sevenmile Road, on Texas Standard.

cupcake amnesty
Reshma Kirpalani / Austin American-Statesman
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller bites into a cupcake during a January press conference in Austin.

In his first big act as Texas agriculture commissioner, with reporters gathered ’round to record the moment, former state Rep. Sid Miller pardoned, and then ate, a pink-frosted cupcake.

Miller’s lighthearted “cupcake amnesty” press conference, a folksy affair with beloved Austin food trailer Hey Cupcake! as a backdrop, was a big hit on the evening news. The story spread fast that, thanks to the intervention of Miller’s nanny-state-bustin’ agriculture department, Texas parents were free at last to send their kids to school with birthday cake for the class. Miller also promised to repeal state bans on deep fryers in cafeteria kitchens and on soda sales at public schools.

“We’ve been raising big, strapping, healthy young kids here in Texas for 200 years,” Miller said, “and we don’t need Washington, D.C., telling us how to do it.”

The whole spectacle was typical Miller. Before losing his state House seat in the 2012 GOP primary, the Stephenville rancher and tree farmer was best known as the author of red-meat fare like Texas’ pre-abortion sonogram law and a bill sanctioning the sporting practice known as “pork-chopping” (shooting feral hogs from a helicopter). Rather than dwell too much on agriculture in his latest campaign, Miller reminded voters of his work defunding the “abortion industry,” named Ted Nugent his campaign treasurer, and even managed to call the Civil War “the War of Northern Aggression.”

The cupcake decree was a fitting reminder that Miller—white hat, gleaming grin and all—has returned to taunt Texas liberals again. But as reporters quickly realized, there was little of substance in his announcement. Texas had not, in fact, ever banned cupcakes brought from home to school. And the rule change behind Miller’s announcement took place April 2014, months before Miller was even elected. Last year, under former commissioner Todd Staples, the department repealed the 10-year-old Texas Public School Nutrition Policy because new federal rules for school lunch and food sold at fundraisers had made the state’s policies redundant.

“In other words,” as Houston child nutrition advocate Bettina Elias Siegel wrote in January, “the ‘repeal’ characterized by Mr. Miller as somehow courageously bucking restrictive regulations was actually a show of appropriate deference by our state to the federal government.”

On her blog, “The Lunch Tray,” Siegel struggled to make sense of Miller’s announcement—not only his taking credit for a change he had nothing to do with, but worse, his plans to further peel back nutrition safeguards in the name of local control. “To encourage deep-fat frying and soda and cupcakes is so shockingly backward thinking,” Siegel tells the Observer.

What’s most troubling about Miller’s announcement, Siegel says, is that his department is the one tasked with enforcing those federal regulations he deems so unnecessary. On Miller’s watch, the ag department “could essentially gut [the federal rules] through failure to enforce. And that’s really worrisome to me.”

Spokesman Bryan Black told the Observer that won’t happen; the department, he says, is still “required to comply with all federal regulations.”

But Miller sounds committed to getting around as much of that regulation as possible. Even though 16 percent of Texas’ “big, strapping” high schoolers are obese—a rate that’s higher than the national average, and even worse for low-income, Hispanic and African-American children—Miller takes Texas’ persistent childhood obesity as a sign of government ineptitude.

“These rules were put in 10 years ago, and those figures haven’t gotten any better,” he explained to Tucker Carlson of Fox and Friends. “Government intervention hasn’t worked. But individual responsibility, local control, is what works.”

Duplass brothers
Jaimie Trueblood
Mark and Jay Duplass

Twenty years ago, two young movie obsessives living in Central Texas scrounged together enough money to make their first feature films, and in the process established Austin as the new center of American independent film. Despite the success of El Mariachi and Slacker, however, no one at the time would have guessed that Robert Rodriguez would grow up to become a movie mogul or that Richard Linklater would have directed a Best Picture nominee at this year’s Academy Awards. But this is the world in 2015: The outsiders have become the industry; the artists have become the world-beaters.

Mike Judge knows all about the rise from flyover-state obscurity to the heights of Hollywood acceptance. While Rodriguez and Linklater were busy shooting their first features in Austin, Judge was 200 miles north in Dallas making the animated short films that would eventually become Beavis and Butt-head. Even more than those of his colleagues to the south, Judge’s rise was a rush: One minute he was learning how to draw animated cels, the next he was saving MTV from collapse. The trajectory was not dissimilar from what he’d witnessed years earlier working for a tech startup in Silicon Valley, where it was, and still is, common to see computer nerds become millionaires seemingly overnight. Judge’s brilliant HBO comedy, Silicon Valley (Season 1 of which will be released on DVD this month) is a peek behind the curtain of that kind of rarified ascendency. The series tells a story of socially awkward geniuses striving to become self-made masters of the universe—Astors with social anxiety disorder, Rockefellers in hoodies and torn T-shirts.

The heroes of Silicon Valley (all men, living together in one house among a profusion of computers and junk food) exist in a bizarre, insulated world of corporate cults, unfathomable wealth, blindingly sudden success and very few women. Consequently, their lives amount to balancing acts of self-importance and awkwardness, messianic delusions and pathological anxiety. As Judge once said of this new technological Gilded Age, “The people most qualified to succeed are the least capable of handling success.” Housemates Richard, Erlich, Guilfoyle and Dinesh know how to create world-changing innovations, but they have no idea what to do with themselves once they get up from their computers. Like their heroes before them (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg), they dream of creating revolutionary technologies that will justify all those years spent at the bottom of the social totem pole, communicating in a bizarre tribal vernacular and convincing themselves that their stabs at monetary success and cultural icon-hood are really philanthropic endeavors. “We’re making the world a better place,” goes one refrain, repeated in limitless variations throughout the series, “through constructing elegant hierarchies for maximum code reuse and extensibility.” This may be gibberish, but it’s their gibberish.

Another new HBO show, this one produced by adopted sons of Austin, looks through the lens of success in the other direction. Togetherness was created by brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, who helped develop the mumblecore film movement before moving west to Hollywood. The series looks at the lives of adults who were once full of potential (the show’s most tragicomic hero, Alex Pappas, was the star of every play and sports team in high school) but have leveled off at average as middle age approaches.

Given their career-long fascination with the intimacies and gestures of everyday interactions, the Duplass brothers seem made for serial television, a form that allows them to explore the tiny defeats and disappointments that make up a life. The four protagonists of Togetherness (which is now showing on Sundays)—one married couple, one unhinged sister and Pappas—are writhing masses of internal contradiction and minor struggle, bound by the realization that they never became the great (or even fulfilled) people they thought they would be. The collapses of the 40s—of career, of marriage, of body, of desire and desirability, of potential and self-worth—are simply the inheritances of a life lived.

The characters of Togetherness tinker with their inner lives, but the stakes are higher and the pathologies more complex on Silicon Valley. The young men behind the computers aren’t struggling to adapt or coming to grips or coping; they’re righting long-simmering personal wrongs by recreating the world to suit them, one byte at a time. Like Linklater, Rodriguez and Judge, they’re outsiders becoming insiders, not by adapting to the world, but by forcing the world to adapt to them.

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