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Q&A with Dawn Paley, Author of Drug War Capitalism

In new her book, Paley breaks from a tired narrative to connect U.S. policy, free trade and the devastating war on drugs in Colombia and Mexico.
Dawn Paley - Drug War Captialism

Since Mexico sent the military into the streets to fight the drug war in 2006, at least 140,000 people have lost their lives. Drug capos are killed or jailed by the Mexican government, and still the violence escalates. Canadian journalist Dawn Paley peels back the layers of this complex conflict, dismissing the simple cops-versus-cartels narrative that dominates most U.S. media reporting on the drug war. Her new book, Drug War Capitalism, reveals how U.S. foreign policy, free trade and the ever-expanding drug war and militarization contribute to the bloodshed in Latin America. Currently living in Mexico, Paley covers dangerous territory: greed, political corruption and a battle for dwindling resources under the guise of a drug war.

In her courageous and ambitious book, Paley argues that there’s no longer a clear distinction between the drug cartels, the government forces supposedly fighting them and the rapacious global economy.

 

Texas Observer: Can you talk about the origins of your book Drug War Capitalism and why you decided to write it?

Dawn Paley: I was in Colombia and watching Mexico totally degrade over the first couple of years of the Merida Initiative, and I wanted to link what people were telling me in Colombia and the kind of experiences they were having there with what was happening in Mexico. It was instinctual. But I didn’t have a hypothesis at the beginning so I just started working. The first thing I did was go to Reynosa and Monterrey and started speaking with people. And then I met [Tamaulipas politician and businessman] Francisco Chaviria Martinez, and his way of understanding what was happening in Reynosa was that it was the municipal politicians themselves that were working with drug cartels to set off explosions in public buildings so that people would be afraid to go and ask for transparency from the municipality. What is happening is that it’s about more than just controlling cocaine. The violence is bleeding into political life, creating this climate of fear that is useful in maintaining the current economic and political model.

TO: Why did you call the book Drug War Capitalism?

DP: When I was writing the book I was thinking about it along the lines of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine and the subtitle of her book “The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.” My book is a different take on a similar idea of these various strategies that are deployed to promote and expand capitalism and I argue that the drug war is one of them.

TO: It was very interesting to hear your March presentation in McAllen. You talked about how trade agreements are often linked with military expansionism in countries. It reminded me of the Keystone XL pipeline expansion in Texas. The company hired local police as security. The police are from the community but then they become this private security force protecting the pipeline.

DP: Yes, it’s a whole area where we can see how U.S. foreign and military policy is brought back to the U.S. It’s been talked about with Ferguson, for example, where you see military equipment that was used in Iraq and Afghanistan. And then there are former soldiers who have returned from overseas and are now policing communities. In the case of the drug war, the militarization is something that we know less about and it’s less documented.

The easiest argument to communicate to people who live in the United States, for example, is about how militarization benefits the corporate sector. People understand that. There are these environmental struggles and struggles around social justice and occupying public spaces, and the role that the police play here in the U.S. as protectors of banks, protectors of capital. It’s a role police play everywhere. Of course the police are good for big corporations that are conflictive and that create conflict in communities.

Drug War Capitalism
Dawn Paley via Facebook
Drug War Capitalism
By Dawn Paley
AK Press
$10.55; 255 pages

TO: In your book you talk a lot about the link between militarization and the extractive industries like mining and oil and gas exploration.

DP: In Colombia during Plan Colombia it was very overt. Part of Plan Colombia included funding for U.S. soldiers to train Colombian soldiers to protect a pipeline that belonged to Occidental Petroleum. And there were other developments in Plan Colombia where soldiers had protected mining companies in the exploitation phase and were carrying the product and actually guarding the sites. One of the things announced in 2010 was that the Colombian Army would also carry out security for corporations carrying out mining exploration. So it’s the militarization of the entire lifecycle of extractive projects. And it was being done in a very blatant way and in the case of the oil pipeline, which was specifically funded by the U.S. And it’s done always with the same argument that it’s crucial to improve the business climate because that’s the way to reduce poverty—but it’s an argument that I think doesn’t have any basis in reality.

In Mexico, the militarization of the extractive industries might be a little less obvious. But there are a couple of cases in my book of federal police bursting into ejido meetings and trying to influence landowners, and trying to influence their decision-making around a mining project. In the same area in Chihuahua the army used its trucks to bring mining employees across a strike blockade. Those were two instances I was able to find for the book, but I think unfortunately over time there will be more evidence of collusion between police, the military and the promotion of these types of extractive projects. It’s not like this activity is always part of Plan Mexico. But Plan Mexico is crucial in arming and equipping soldiers and police units. Also we have a very hard time knowing exactly what’s being done with the money the U.S. is dispersing through the Initiative.

TO: What do you think will happen in Tamaulipas with fracking opening up, especially in a place with so much insecurity and violence?

DP: Multiple mass displacements have taken place in the Burgos Fields (in Tamaulipas). The area of the Eagle Ford Shale that runs south from Nuevo Laredo is essentially one of the most violent areas in Mexico where there’s no free press, people live in fear and there’s been multiple displacements from that region. We’ll see what happens with the fracking. It depends on gas prices, depends on the auctions held by Pemex and it depends on the ability to access water and how residents react to it. But I feel like what my book is doing—in the case of fracking in Tamaulipas—is calling attention to this new energy boom in one of the scariest, most dangerous regions of Mexico and saying, “let’s be open to the possibility that that’s not a coincidence.”

TO: Do you think there will be a rise in paramilitaries? Will oil and gas companies use private security forces in Tamaulipas because of the insecurity?

DP: Well, you can look at a case that Pemex started in Houston around the sale of stolen condensate, which the Mexican government says was stolen by the Zetas, primarily in Tamaulipas and Coahuila, and then brought across the border and sold to a syndicate of Texas fossil fuel companies that knew they were buying product that had been extracted illegally. And so these companies in Texas had these direct links with these armed groups. So it’s not a stretch of the imagination to think that their cooperation with these armed groups could extend to playing other types of roles. Another thing is, I’ve interviewed a number of oil and gas workers in Reynosa who talk about how dozens of people over a handful of years have been kidnapped and disappeared while they were working at remote sites and Pemex doesn’t do anything about it. One man recently told me that part of his job is marking these men down every week as absent. Some of these men have been missing now for four years and he marks them down as absent because the company won’t acknowledge that they have disappeared. It’s this absurdity where these high-level Pemex people are allowing this to happen and there’s been no big public denouncement by Pemex. I think if there were attacks against private contractors and U.S. or Canadian companies then it would be a scandal and there would be things we would know about and there would be more security measures in place.

TO: After so many years of writing about the drug war in Mexico, the U.S. media still covers it mostly like a crime story with body counts and not a lot of depth. Why is that, do you think? Why is there no context?

DP: I feel like as a journalist there is this idea that if you you’re not writing about the drug cartels and the battles and not chasing ambulances then you aren’t really covering the drug war, you’re covering something else. The dominant discourse in the media is so restrained and the language that they use is about Cartel X and Cartel Y fighting each other and the amount of drugs, and there are these sets of things that you have to say… the body counts. And what the police say and what the government is doing about it.

Going outside of those boundaries is something that could be risky for people’s careers. There is very little space in the mainstream media for telling other versions or for challenging that official version. People have built their careers on that version of events. I think that’s another part of it: There’s analysts, there’s journalists, there’s police officers, DEA officers there are all of these segments of society that depend on that official version. Challenges to that version of events could undermine the legitimacy.

TO: What are you working on now?

DP: I’m currently working on a book about clandestine mass graves in Mexico and the politics of exhumation and who is looking for these graves. It feels like my next logical step after this book. I think of the clandestine mass graves in Mexico as being one of the very important physical remnants that the drug war has left in Mexico. The drug war has transformed Mexico into a cemetery. We are talking about upwards of 24,000 people declared disappeared over the past six years. Meanwhile the state and federal governments are not following any type of protocol when it comes to finding these graves or matching them with folks who have been disappeared. Looking at the way the mass graves are treated reinforces this structural impunity that allows the war to continue.

tax cuts

Texans, you can put down your pitchforks and douse your torches: The edibles you’ve squirreled away in your emergency bunkers can be safely consumed. Life can begin anew. The tax cut war between House and Senate has been resolved, which means that barring a catastrophic screw-up—say, Comptroller Glenn Hegar realizing he misplaced a decimal point in the revenue estimate—we won’t need that special session on budget issues that legislative observers and hack journalists have worried you all about so much.

Is the package—a $3.8 billion dollar bundle of franchise and property tax cuts—any good? Well, that depends on your point of view. Most everyone, save some Democrats and probably a few right-wing senators, is about to tell you, loudly, that the budget deal is very, very good. There’s a great deal of face-saving to be done. This is the point of the session at which former enemies congratulate each other for the finest and most noble works of government since Periclean Athens: Patrick himself posited that this might have been the best legislative session in the state’s history.

The business lobby did pretty well in the tax deal, but the picture is a bit more complicated for most of the other players. The widespread perception outside the Capitol will be that Patrick “won” by getting some property tax cuts past the House. Meanwhile, Texans are getting a raw deal—with too small a tax break to make a real difference for most, and less money coming down the pike now and in the future for basic services like education.

The deal hasn’t been finalized quite yet, but here’s what we know so far: The two chambers have agreed on a 25 percent cut to the franchise tax. The huge property tax deal Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick bet nearly all of his chips on this session is dead, and in return for its death the House has agreed to a fixed increase in the property tax homestead exemption—from $15,000 to $25,000—which is smaller than Patrick’s original proposal.

The deal lets Patrick save face after abandoning his all-or-nothing approach to his property tax plan. But some of the key provisions that Patrick’s conservative backers most wanted, like a tying the homestead exemption to median home values, are gone.

Did he, in the vulgar language of the capitol, “win”? That depends on what you think the game was. If Patrick’s goal was to provide any kind or flavor of property tax “relief,” he succeeded. But the stakes here were always higher for Patrick than they were for the House.

Privately, many in the lower chamber didn’t really believe in a future for their plan, except as a negotiating tool to curb Patrick’s ambitions. When you take into account the different goals for the two chambers, it is harder to say who came out on top. The House won franchise tax cuts that the business lobby liked more than those offered by the Senate. By offering a larger overall tax cut plan than Patrick did, the House deprived Patrick of the political ammunition of claiming the House was standing in between you and cutting your property taxes. It’s very difficult for legislators to stand against property tax cuts, which are essentially political heroin, and yet they found an effective way to do so.

Patrick wanted and needed a signature victory for this session, his first. After all this furor, Patrick is likely to win for his constituents a smaller-than-expected tax break that most Texas homeowners—the people whom Patrick is expecting to give him credit—won’t even notice, because they’ll be swallowed up by rising rates and home values. Average homeowners might pay about $120 less in property taxes than they might have otherwise, but how many will notice or care as their taxes continue to go up? The only thing that can bend the property tax curve downward is a substantive reorganization of the state’s overall tax structure. Anything else is a band-aid, and not a long-lasting one at that.

It’s not really the stuff that launches political careers skyward. Some of Patrick’s supporters have said the Legislature can rededicate itself to real property tax reform next session, but that seems doubtful. The economy will likely have cooled, and the state may face a budget hole thanks to the school finance lawsuit and other looming budget issues. This session may have been the last, best opportunity to do a big tax cut deal.

If you think Patrick’s original plan stunk, you should be grateful to the House for somehow convincing him to abandon what was his biggest priority, one he kept doubling down on. And in the course of the standoff, the size of the offered tax plan, which at one point had almost reached $5 billion, has shrunk down to $3.8 billion. That’s a sizeable chunk of change the state will need in the 2017 session, or the next special session, when it’s likely to need it very badly.

But there’s still an opportunity cost to going along with even the small property tax cut. In the draft of the budget released by the conference committee Wednesday afternoon, a package of additional money that the House had attempted to allocate to public education had been scaled back from $2.2 billion to $1.5 billion. It cannot be said enough that Texas has not returned to the same level of investment in public services, particularly education, that it had before the last recession.

These are supposed to be flush times, when we store up our surplus and make prudent investments before the next winter. That’s fiscal conservatism. Instead, we’re ensuring that when hard times come again—as they inevitably will—the cuts we’ll have to make will cut even deeper. It’s a fundamentally reckless way to run the state.

texas tea party

The 2014 election cycle was the most rousing success the conservative wing of the Republican party has ever had in Texas, and the 84th Legislature is that election’s child. How do the people who made that victory happen feel about their session?

They are not pleased:

As sine die approaches, we recall the hours spent knocking on doors and making calls for candidates who promised government reforms that would make Texas a national leader in limited government and a true champion of liberty.

We remember every single rhetorical flourish that promised Texas would have a secure border, restored Second Amendment Rights, a ban on sanctuary cities, lasting property tax relief, an end to the franchise tax, an end to tolling, protections for life and traditional Texas values, and educational freedom through school choice. It’s beginning to look as if some of those campaign promises are “all hat and no cattle.”

With the condition our country is in, we’re in no mood for any stalling, slow walking, or backtracking from Texas leaders. We need Governor Abbott and Lt. Governor Patrick to make good on their campaign promises.

That’s from a letter signed by some 28 members of state’s tea party cognoscenti, to the extent such a thing exists. Several of them serve on the lite guv’s Grassroots Advisory Board—those are the guys who called Abbott’s pre-K plan, now passed by both chambers, “godless” and “socialistic.”

They charge that Abbott, Patrick and Straus are on the cusp of “failure,” and the session has been a waste. These people have always loathed Straus, and Abbott was never really one of them, though some of the signers here have been slow to realize that. But it’s significant that Patrick is being charged with crimes against the revolution here too. After all, some of these people have been empanelled as his “advisors.”

Ok, so what would they like to happen? Keep in mind—there’s 10 days left in the session. Pretty much everything that’s not already on the path to final passage is doomed.

Greg Abbott
Gage Skidmore
Gov. Greg Abbott

Secure the border […] End social service magnets (including in-state tuition breaks) for illegal aliens; ban sanctuary cities; mandate employment verification such as E-verify, and impose penalties for violators

Advance & protect the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death

Restore Second Amendment rights

Protect religious liberty – the right to resist violation of personal conscience

Protect religious freedom of clergy, pastors, and churches Protect Texas from a federal redefinition of marriage-HB 4105/SB 673

Prohibit the use of foreign laws, which do not guarantee our fundamental constitutional rights, from being used in Texas courts (ALAC)

Protect and harden the Texas electric grid—a life, security and economic issue

Provide educational freedom and choice for all parents and students

Advance fiscal responsibility through constitutional spending limits, budget transparency, debt and tax reform

Reform state transportation policy to end dependence on debt and tolling

Advance private property rights with eminent domain and annexation reforms

Sounds easy enough, right? Yes, some of the bills they single out literally cannot be passed, and some issues were effectively shut down months ago—the anti-LGBT House Bill 4105 is and has been dead. But now that the fire has been lit under them, Abbott, Patrick and Straus will get moving quickly to protect the electrical grid from electromagnetic pulse weapons, one presumes. This session has swung, with metronomic regularity, from quiet bleakness to high comedy. This is a fine entry in the latter category as the last days roll by.

It’s funny, but these aren’t just cranks. They have real influence in the Republican primary. When Capitol observers wondered about the feasibility of a Patrick primary challenge to Abbott in 2018, these are the people who were supposed to have been his footsoldiers—very good people to have in a fight. Maybe they still are. They’ll certainly take to Patrick more than the alternative.

But it’s a sign that he hasn’t done as good a job of managing expectations among his core supporters as he might have. It’s an interesting political problem: How do you satisfy a political base that literally cannot be satisfied?

Well, maybe they can: But it takes a special kind of leader. Recently, the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party delivered a flag signed by their members to an exceptional kind of guy who needs their support and prayers as he fights to pass the many bills he’s advanced on behalf of conservative values this session: Jonathan Stickland.

Planned Parenthood Rally

After nearly a month of negotiating the two-year state budget, House and Senate budget writers approved a provision this week that excludes Planned Parenthood from the state Breast and Cervical Cancer Services program, which thousands of poor women in Texas rely on for cancer screenings and diagnostic services. The program also allows providers to quickly enroll cancer patients in Medicaid for follow-up treatment.

The idea to exclude the longtime provider originated earlier this session, when lawmakers proposed reorganizing the program’s funding into a three-tiered system, putting Planned Parenthood and other specialized family planning providers last in line to get funds.

In January, key budget writers state Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) and state Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) acknowledged that they want to keep state money away from health care providers that also perform abortions, even though no public dollars fund the procedure and Planned Parenthood clinics that offer such services are completely independent from its health centers.

Along the way, as the Observer reported, women’s health advocates, providers and Democratic lawmakers raised concerns about the collateral damage that would follow from suddenly cutting major providers from the cancer program.

“This so-called three-tiered approach has the very intended consequence of wiping out at least a provider that is integral in making sure that women that don’t otherwise have access to care,” state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) told the Observer in February. “There are providers that aren’t the targeted provider that also get hurt.”

The negotiated provision approved Wednesday appears to quell the concern that non-Planned Parenthood providers would lose funding from the program. However, it does specify that no abortion provider or an affiliate of an abortion provider (read: Planned Parenthood) may participate in the program. Planned Parenthood has been a BCCS provider for 20 years and serves about 10 percent of the 34,000 women served every year.

“Once again, Texas legislators have ignored their constituents and jeopardized the lives of Texas women,” Yvonne Gutierrez, president of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, said in a statement released late Wednesday.

Does all this sound familiar? It’s a strategy the Legislature has used in the past: In 2011, the GOP-led Lege implored the same criteria on providers that participated in the Medicaid Women’s Health Program. However, when the Legislature wrote the single largest provider out of the program, the federal government yanked its generous $9-to-$1 matching funds. Texas then created its own Texas Women’s Health Program, without Planned Parenthood. That change, along with nearly $70 million in family planning budget cuts, resulted in the loss of more than 50 family planning clinics statewide.

While the 2013 Legislature restored some of the cut funding, several studies have shown that women are still going without services. According a recent survey by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project, more than 50 percent of women seeking family planning services in Texas reported encountering at least one barrier along the way.

The exclusion of Planned Parenthood from BCCS is just another blow to reproductive and women’s health this session. Bills moving quickly through both chambers will undoubtedly restrict access to abortion for Texas women: Senate Bill 575 bans private insurance plans from covering abortions and would require women to buy a supplemental policy to cover the procedure, and House Bill 3994 would dramatically reduce access to abortion for minors in Texas who are victims of abuse or assault. HB 3994 would also require all women seeking an abortion in Texas to present a government-issued ID.

Execution Drugs to be State Secret Under Legislation Headed to Governor

Proponents of a bill shielding execution drug manufacturers from public scrutiny rely on flimsy “threats” as justification
lethal injection

 

Manufacturers of execution drugs will be shielded from public scrutiny, helping to keep Texas’ capital punishment machine in working order, under a bill headed to the governor’s office. On Tuesday, Senate Bill 1697 cleared its final hurdle with a favorable vote in the House. If signed into law by the governor, as expected, the bill will keep information about anyone who participates in executions or supplies execution drugs confidential.

“This bill is about trying to protect innocent people who are just doing their job,” said Rep. John Smithee (R-Amarillo), the bill’s House sponsor, on Tuesday.

That rationale was voiced numerous times by supporters as the bill moved through both chambers, but there’s little evidence that Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) personnel or suppliers of execution drugs are at risk.

The names of those involved in carrying out executions have never been revealed by TDCJ. The real issue is whether citizens should be able to access information about lethal-injection drugs. Until last year, the identify of lethal-injection drug suppliers could be acquired through a public information request. In May 2014, then-Attorney General Greg Abbott ruled that TDCJ could keep the information secret. The ruling came after the Department of Public Safety sent Abbott a “threat assessment” report that claimed “publicly linking” a supplier or manufacturer of execution drugs would present “a substantial threat of physical harm” and “should be avoided to the greatest extent possible.”

That decision was a shift from three previous rulings in which the attorney general’s office had found that TDCJ failed to prove that disclosing the information would create a substantial threat of physical harm.

The May 2014 ruling came as Texas’ supply of execution drugs was rapidly dwindling. In 2012, the state turned from a three-drug cocktail to a single injection of pentobarbital. According to a Texas Tribune timeline, by August 2013 TDCJ had only four vials of the drug remaining, prompting the state to turn to compounding pharmacies, lightly regulated facilities that typically mix drugs for individual patients. In October 2013, the Woodlands Compounding Pharmacy requested that TDCJ return pentobarbital it had sold to the agency after the company began receiving unwanted media attention. In a letter to TDCJ, Jasper Lovoi, the owner of Woodlands, said he had been made to believe that his company’s role in supplying the drugs would be kept private.

“I find myself in the middle of a firestorm that I was not advised of and did not bargain for,” Lovoi said in the letter.

During the House debate on SB 1697 Tuesday, Smithee said that manufacturers—such as compounding pharmacies—are refusing to sell lethal injection drugs to Texas and other states because of “threats of violence.” But when Rep. Terry Canales (D-Edinburg) asked him to elaborate on those threats, Smithee couldn’t provide examples. Canales is the author of a stalled bill that would require TDCJ to post information about execution drugs, including the manufacturer, on the agency’s website.

A similar exchange took place during debate in the Senate last week. Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), SB 1697’s author, said that when information about the manufacturers of execution drugs was previously disclosed, it had a “chilling effect on reputable pharmacies wanting to provide these compounds to the state of Texas.” She said that investigations by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) had led to the determination that “credible threats” had been directed at suppliers of lethal-injection drugs. But when pressed, Huffman couldn’t cite specific examples. No details of the DPS investigations have been made public.

According to Austin-based attorney Philip Durst, lawmakers have been unable to point to specific threats because there haven’t been any. Durst is one of the plaintiffs attorneys in an ongoing lawsuit against TDCJ seeking disclosure of the name of a particular compounding pharmacy supplying execution drugs to the state.

Durst told the House Corrections Committee at the end of April that based on his assessment of evidence provided by TDCJ and DPS during the lawsuit, there have been no threats of violence against drug suppliers or manufacturers in Texas or in any other state.

Evidence presented by TDCJ in its motion for summary judgment includes emails to drug suppliers that read more like scoldings than threats and a link to a blog post about the Woodlands Compounding Pharmacy that includes an illustration of an exploding head. The post encouraged readers to write reviews of the pharmacy on Google+, sign a petition and contact the American Pharmacists Association.

A state district court sided with the plaintiffs in December 2014 and ordered TDCJ to reveal the name of the lethal injection drug supplier. TDCJ has appealed the decision, but if SB 1697 is signed into law the entire suit could be rendered moot.

Ultimately, “threats” against pharmacies appear to have little to do with the legislation passed yesterday. Even House Corrections Committee Chairman Jim Murphy (R-Houston) called the threat argument a “straw man.” The primary impetus for the law, which both Smithee and Huffman acknowledged in debate, is preserving executions in Texas. Death penalty opponents have seen public shaming of drug suppliers as a potential Achilles’ heel for execution-happy states. TDCJ has a better chance of acquiring the necessary drug supplies if companies are promised secrecy.

Maurie Levin, an attorney involved in the lawsuit against TDCJ, says what’s most troubling about SB 1697 is that it shields the agency and the execution process from demands for transparency or accountability.

“For Texas, of all states, to carry out secrecy in executions is a frightening thought,” Levin said. “And I have no doubt that at some point it will come back and bite us.”

 

texas truancy

For weeks, the Senate and House have been in a schoolyard scrap over which body has the best approach to decriminalizing truancy, raising the prospect of yet another legislative session ending without reform. Though both the Senate and House have passed bills that would treat truancy as a civil matter, Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) and Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston)—the authors of the competing proposals—are bottling up each other’s bills in the committees they oversee. Still, a last-minute third-way compromise may save the prospects of truancy reform, which has gained broad bipartisan support.

Texas is one of only two states that treats missing school as a criminal matter. In 2013, Texas courts prosecuted more than 100,000 criminal truancy cases, twice as many as all other states combined. Truancy often leads to steep fines, arrest and criminal records that follow students into adulthood, and research indicates that the punitive approach has little effect on school attendance. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating Dallas’ truancy courts for possible civil rights violations and Fort Bend ISD has shut down its program over accusations that it disproportionately punishes poor and minority students.

The compromise, House Bill 1490 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), takes a slightly different approach to ending criminal truancy than the Whitmire and Dutton bills.

HB 1490 would shift truancy enforcement’s focus from courts to schools, requiring school districts to adopt a three-tiered system of interventions for truant students with escalating consequences, including community service or restorative-justice programs within schools. Whitmire is sponsoring HB 1490 in the Senate, which has a hearing in Senate Criminal Justice Committee Thursday afternoon.

Dutton also supports the Huberty approach.

“His bill doesn’t do any harm to my bill. The only thing my bill did differently was eliminate mandatory referral based on 10 absences,” Dutton said.

(Current law mandates that schools refer students to justices of the peace or courts for prosecution after 10 unexcused absences.)

Deborah Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed, a social justice advocacy group at the forefront of efforts to decriminalize truancy, said Huberty’s bill is a smart approach.

“Rep. Huberty’s bill has both of the components we look for in truancy reform: decriminalization and intervention and prevention at the school level,” said Fowler. “We are delighted to see it move forward.”

Jody Baskins, director of legal services at the Texas Association of School Boards, said any change should ensure that students remain accountable.

“Whichever bill moves forward, when a judge issues an order, if the student disregards the order then the court needs to be able to enforce the order in some way. There need to be escalating consequences,” Baskins said.

After the session ends, Dutton said, his Juvenile Justice Committee plans to meet with the House Public Education Committee to discuss what schools can do to keep kids in the classroom.

Dave Welch
John Wright
Dave Welch, executive director of the Texas Pastor Council, addresses a group of pastors on the Capitol steps in April.

Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia) said Wednesday he doesn’t plan to introduce an anti-gay marriage amendment to the so-called Pastor Protection Act scheduled for a House vote Thursday.

However, with 12 days remaining in the session, Bell said he continues to look for another means of resurrecting House Bill 4105, which was designed to undermine a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage, and died on the House floor last week.

LGBT advocates feared Bell would attempt to add the provisions of HB 4105 to Senate Bill 2065, by Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls), which would reaffirm that pastors and churches can’t be forced to participate in same-sex weddings. But Bell said he doesn’t believe such an amendment would be considered germane to SB 2065, aka the Pastor Protection Act, thus threatening the bill’s chances.

“A lot of work’s been done on that bill, and I don’t want to compromise that bill,” Bell told the Observer. “The intent is to assert the sovereignty of the state of Texas. If I can find a place to do that, then I’ll do that. But I’m not going to compromise the very structure and value system that I’m trying to affirm in that process.”

In addition to warning of a possible amendment from Bell, LGBT advocates say the Pastor Protection Act is unnecessary because clergy and churches are already protected from being forced to participate in same-sex weddings under the state and federal constitutions as well as Texas’ Religious Freedom Restoration Act. They also say no same-sex couple has tried to force an unwilling clergy member to officiate their wedding.

Equality Texas, the Texas Freedom Network and the ACLU of Texas have said they’d support SB 2065 if it is amended to emphasize that it would apply only to clergy members who are acting in a religious capacity. Estes has declined to add such language to the bill.

Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, said his fear is that pastors acting in a secular role, such as county clerks and justices of the peace, could use the bill as a basis for denying licenses to same-sex couples or refusing to marry them.

“We’ve talked to a number of legal experts who think they’ll fail if they try that, but it does raise the question of, ‘Will that be another way to delay constitutionally protected rights for gay and lesbian couples who want to get married?'” Quinn said. “The concern is not so much that it’s a horrible bill, but that it will be misused by people to do bad things.”

With other anti-LGBT legislation stalled, social conservatives have made SB 2065 a top priority in recent days. However, Texas Pastor Council Executive Director Dave Welch acknowledged recently that its passage wouldn’t be a significant victory.

Supporters of SB 2065 have used committee hearings on the bill to give general testimony in opposition to same-sex marriage, which some witnesses compared to bestiality and pedophilia.

“It suggests that really the goal here to increase hostility and animosity toward gay and lesbian couples who want to get married, rather than to protect pastors from having to perform their marriages, because pastors are already protected from doing that if they don’t want to,” Quinn said.

Nevertheless, if SB 2065 is the only unfavorable measure that passes out of more than 20 anti-LGBT proposals that were introduced, advocates won’t hang their heads.

“It’s certainly encouraging that some of the really bad bills appear to be going nowhere, and that the only bill that’s moving forward does essentially what the law already does,” Quinn said. “If we can get out of the session without any of those other bills passing, it would clearly be a big step forward.”

The Pastor Protection Act has already cleared the Senate, and Gov. Greg Abbott has said he will sign it.

A discarded backpack found on the Cage Ranch in Brooks County.
Jen Reel
A discarded backpack found on the Cage Ranch in Brooks County.

As early spring in Texas brings the return of bluebonnets, as August marks the beginning of high school football, early summer ushers in the dying season in Brooks County. In the last decade, hundreds of migrants have perished in the unforgiving ranchland of Brooks County, cut down by heat and exhaustion while trying to circumvent a Border Patrol checkpoint on U.S. 281, 70 miles north of the border. By the thousands they slog—old, young, Mexican, Central American—across the sizzling sand, often equipped with little more than a bottle of water and a snack, lied to by their coyotes, pursued by vigilantes with dogs and ATVs. Dehydration can do crazy things to a person: Some strip naked and then roast in the sun. Others lose all sense of thirst and die with a water jug next to them.

Often, the bodies aren’t found for weeks, or months, or years. Some are presumably never found. Unidentified bodies recovered by the perpetually broke Brooks County Sheriff’s Office are sent to a cold-storage facility at Texas State University. In 2012, the most fatal year on record, the sheriff’s department recovered 129 bodies. In 2013, the death toll was 87. Last year, the figure was 61, but by mid-April of this year, authorities had already recovered 23 bodies, putting 2015 on pace to exceed 2013.

The causes of this humanitarian crisis—and that’s precisely what it is—are fairly well studied and understood: Ever-increasing border militarization has funneled migrants into narrower, more remote and more dangerous routes into the U.S. interior. Drug cartels have consolidated control of human smuggling and turned it into a ruthless business. Finally, in the case of Brooks County, the location of the Border Patrol checkpoint near Falfurrias forces migrants into el monte, the wilderness. Deaths began increasing in the mid-’90s, when the checkpoint expanded and border policies became stricter. The checkpoint—or more precisely its location—is the proximate cause of the crisis. Without the checkpoint, many more migrants would survive.

Solving the border security puzzle—if it can be solved—is a momentous task. But moving or abandoning the checkpoint is within the realm of possibility. It is strange that such a proposal is rarely contemplated. Everyone laments the senseless loss of life and yet there is a solution, albeit an imperfect one, within reach. Scrap the checkpoint; save lives.

“It’s not a crazy idea,” says Eddie Canales, a longtime human rights organizer from Corpus Christi who has set up water stations on ranches in Brooks County. “There’s always been rumbling about moving it to San Manuel,” just north of Edinburg. Border Patrol could still do its job at a checkpoint closer to the border, checking travelers for guns, drugs and legal status. The difference is that migrants would face less perilous, more populated terrain; they’d have an easier time finding help when facing a life-threatening situation.

But Canales told me that moving the checkpoint is just tinkering with a complicated situation. Canales lives this crisis. He’s eyeball-deep in the quicksand of South Texas politics. He’s found bodies in the brush and he chats with immigrants in Spanish. But his thinking is global in scope:

“It comes down to the deliberate policy to have undocumented labor with no rights or privileges,” he says. “Immediately, how do you mitigate and prevent people from dying? I don’t know. Within this political climate, it’s all about enforcement. People are going to find a way to get through.”

This is all true, but it’s also the case that migrants and their coyotes adapt to the obstacles—walls, agents, checkpoints—put in their way. If we’re reasonably certain that removing the checkpoint can save lives, then there is no excuse for not considering it. To choose the status quo is to tacitly accept a border enforcement policy that is driving human beings—most of whom come to the U.S. to reunite with family or to seek employment—to take extreme risks.

Border Patrol and local authorities, in consultation with landowners and human rights activists such as Canales, should at least study the issue. Instead, Border Patrol is planning to expand the Falfurrias checkpoint, doubling the number of lanes and adding personnel. In the Valley, the border “surge” of state cops and Texas Guardsmen continues with no end in sight and with uncertain effects on migration patterns. We’ve come to call the ever expanding border operation a “war”—though most of the casualties will be counted many miles north of the border in Brooks County.

open carry - gun laws

A day after nine people died in a massive shootout in Waco, a Senate committee approved a House bill (HB 910) that would expand the rights of gun owners by allowing concealed handgun license holders to openly carry a holstered handgun.

The Waco shooting was just the sort of “chaotic situation” that open carry could exacerbate, Austin Police Department Assistant Chief Troy Gay warned senators today. Throughout the legislative session, open carry critics—including law enforcement officials—have argued that the law could make it harder for officers to discern the bad actor in a situation with multiple shooters, slowing the police response.

Stephanie Lundy, representing the gun control group Moms Demand Action, said that the Waco shooting should make it clear that “more guns in more places with fewer safeguards is not a winning strategy for public safety.”

Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) and Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) both said that HB 910 has nothing to do with the shooting. Birdwell stressed that law enforcement officers in Waco “performed masterfully” while Huffman argued that this particular bill isn’t about legislating against criminal activity. She said that there are “plenty of laws on the books” designed to prevent the type of incident that occurred yesterday.

“We try our best to control criminal activity and we try our best to prevent criminals from committing crimes, but as we can see yesterday, things still occur sometimes,” Huffman said.

Open carry is pretty much a lock to pass this session in one form or another, so many witnesses against the bill used the hearing to preemptively lobby against a “campus carry” amendment that may be tacked on during debate on the Senate floor. That measure would allow license holders to carry handguns into college classrooms, dorms and other buildings on campus. Rep. Allen Fletcher (R-Cypress), author of a campus carry bill that failed to get through the House calendars committee, said earlier this month that tacking on the measure as a Senate amendment would be easier than having to “fight the fight” on the House floor.

Several public Texas university chancellors, including University of Texas System Chancellor William McRaven, have said they are opposed to campus carry. Thousands of students have signed petitions against the measure.

Sandy Twidwell with Moms Demand Action said the fact that legislators are considering a campus carry amendment, despite widespread public opposition, “demonstrates a lack of respect unworthy of this body and the people it serves.”

Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls) said that he thinks “everyone who is tackling these issues wants to work against gun violence,” but they have differing ideas of how to do it. He invited anyone with an thoughts on how to prevent gun violence, including representatives of Moms Demand Action, to bring him ideas after the session ends.

HB 910 easily passed the committee, with only Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) voting against the bill. The committee did make one change to the bill, eliminating an amendment that would have prohibited police from stopping people to ask whether they have a concealed handgun license.

classroom
U.S. Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Andrew J. Palmer (left) reads to students at Sidney A. Wright Elementary in San Antonio on Jan. 4, 2012.

 

Throughout the legislative session, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has painted a dire portrait of hundreds of Texas public schools.

Currently, Patrick remarked during a March press conference, almost 150,000 students languish in nearly 300 failing schools across the state. He vowed to fix the problem.

The measures he championed include red-meat education reform proposals with appealing names: rating schools on an A-F scale; a state-run “opportunity school district” to oversee low-performing schools; a “parent empowerment” bill making it easier to close struggling schools or turn them into charters; expanding online classes (taxpayer funded, but often run by for-profit entities); and “taxpayer savings grants”—private school vouchers, effectively—to help students escape the woeful public system.

Patrick has long fought for many of these, but now that he holds one of the state’s most powerful offices it seemed, going into the session, that his reform agenda would be better positioned than ever before.

The president of Texans for Education Reform, Julie Linn, certainly believes so. She boasted in a January editorial about the potential for success under Patrick’s leadership. “The momentum is in place to make 2015 a banner year for education reform in Texas,” Linn wrote.

Teacher groups and public school advocates have a different take. As they see it, Patrick’s agenda is not a recipe for well-intended reforms but an attack on chronically underfunded public schools.

“There is a concerted, well-funded attempt to dismantle public education,” Rev. Charles Foster Johnson, executive director of the public school advocacy group Pastors for Texas Children, told the Observer in March. Johnson blamed elected officials who aim to “demonize and blame teachers and schools for the social ills and pathologies of our society at large.”

Patrick’s education proposals tap the reform zeitgeist that has increasingly gained political favor, both in Texas and nationally, during the last decade. From President Obama to presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush and Sen. Ted Cruz, education reform has created odd bedfellows, obscuring policy fault lines between Democrats and Republicans like perhaps no other issue.

Reform critics, though, point out that test scores have always closely tracked family income rather than school quality. They note how schools with high rates of poverty are more likely to be low-performing if the state uses test scores as the primary measuring stick. “The real problem,” Johnson said, “is that we don’t have the political will to assign those schools the resources they need.”

Regardless of where you stand in the debate, with less than two weeks left in the 84th Legislature we can begin to gauge the success of Patrick’s reform agenda, much of which is being carried by his successor as chair of the Senate Education Committee, Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood).

A-F Campus Ratings

Proponents say a simple A-F rating system gives parents a more transparent way to determine the quality of their local schools. Texas’ current rating system includes two categories: “met standard” and “needs improvement.”

Despite vehement opposition from educators across the state, Taylor’s Senate Bill 6 passed the Senate and was ready for a vote in the House Public Education Committee. But that did not happen.

Instead, Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) rolled the A-F rating language into his House Bill 2804 last week. HB 2804 is Aycock’s effort to reduce the importance of standardized tests, and he has argued that the new rating scale wouldn’t matter much. “We have to call them something,” he told House members repeatedly during debate about his bill last Thursday.

In an impassioned speech on the floor of the House that night, Rep. Larry Phillips (R-Sherman) pleaded with his colleagues to remove the A-F ratings from Aycock’s bill. “You think just because you rate someone ‘A’ through ‘F’ they are going to do a better job? No,” Phillips said.

Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) warned in March that an “F” rating would stigmatize schools, making it harder for low-rated schools to retain teachers, staff and students. “In assigning ‘F’ grades to some of these campuses,” Rodriguez said, “are we not really consigning them to failure permanently?”

But with House support for the measure in Aycock’s bill, Texas appears likely to join at least 14 other states in rating its schools like an elementary school spelling test.

Opportunity School District

royce west
Courtesy of senate.state.tx.us.
Sen. Royce West

Senate Bill 669 by Royce West (D-Dallas) would allow the state to take control of low-performing schools, thereby superseding the authority of locally elected school boards.

If schools have low-performance ratings for two consecutive years, the Texas Education Agency could move them into a statewide “opportunity” school district in the hopes of turning them around. The bill would then allow TEA to turn the schools over to private charter operators, among other options.

“We have a collective statewide responsibility to figure out how we turn around the cycle of despair in schools that have been failing year after year after year,” said Mike Feinberg, CEO of the KIPP charter school chain, at a Senate hearing in April.

At the same hearing, Patty Quinzi of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers argued that the new state-run district was “basically a business opportunity and that’s it. … This was a bill that was designed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is co-chaired by private charter school managers.”

The “opportunity” district bill passed the Senate on a 20-11 vote, but some observers say support for the measure is shakier in the House. The bill will be heard in the House Public Education Committee on Tuesday.

“Parent Empowerment”

Under a measure passed in 2011, parents can petition the state to turn schools with five consecutive years of poor state ratings into charter schools, to have the staff replaced, or even to close the school. It’s a tactic known as a “parent trigger,” and Taylor’s Senate Bill 14 would reduce that period to three years.

“This is about parent empowerment,” Taylor said when he introduced his bill in March. “[Five years] is too long to have young children stuck in a school and to have people defending that failing school district.”

California adopted the nation’s first parent trigger law, and its use there has prompted controversy. Critics say the few instances when the law has been invoked led to community conflict, teacher attrition, and dubious results. Nevertheless, reform advocates hope to spread and strengthen such laws across the country.

SB 14 easily passed the Senate in April but has less support in the House. The measure will also be heard in the House Public Education Committee on Tuesday.

Virtual Schools

Texas law allows public school students in grades 3-12 to take up to three online courses, paid for by the student’s school district at up to $400 per course. Senate Bill 894, by Taylor, would lift the three-course cap and extend online courses to students in kindergarten through second grade.

Texas needs to remove existing barriers and provide greater opportunity for students to access online courses, Taylor said as he introduced his bill in March.

David Anthony, CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas, a nonprofit education advocacy organization, has called SB 894 a “virtual voucher” that would drain funds from public schools and direct them to for-profit virtual school providers.

Research has shown that student performance lags in corporate-run virtual schools compared to their traditional brick-and-mortar counterparts. “There is little high-quality research to call for expanding [virtual schools],” according to a 2014 report from the National Education Policy Center.

SB 894 was voted out of committee in April but has yet to be brought up on the Senate floor for a vote.

Vouchers

After numerous defeats by a coalition of rural Republicans and big-city Democrats during past sessions, the fight for school vouchers returned to the Capitol this session.

Senate Bill 4, by Taylor, would create scholarships to enable mostly low- and middle-income students to attend private and religious schools. Under the measure, private businesses would receive a tax credit for funding the scholarships.

Students from families with an income of not greater than 250 percent of the national free and reduced-price lunch guideline would qualify—for a family of five that means an annual income of about $130,000. Patrick proposed a very similar measure in 2013.

Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) memorably used a hearing on this measure to denigrate public education.

“Today we have a monstrosity, a monopoly,” Campbell said. “It’s called public school.”

The bill passed the Senate, but several representatives told the Observer vouchers will be easily defeated in the House. SB 4 is currently stuck in the House Ways and Means Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Dan Bonnen (R-Angleton). Bonnen has emerged as a fierce foe to Patrick this session, and it is not clear if he will even bring the bill up for a vote.

One thing is certain, though, for all Patrick’s posturing and the money thrown at education reform in the last year, the only measure with a seemingly clear path to the governor’s desk is A-F campus ratings.

As for school vouchers, lawmakers dutifully played familiar roles in what has become a perennial fight, but the outcome isn’t likely to be any different this time around.

This session’s grade on advancing the education reform agenda will probably hinge on the measures left in play: the “opportunity” school district, “parent empowerment,” and virtual school expansion.

Depending on your perspective, that grade probably won’t be “A” or “F,” but somewhere in between.

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