Big Beat

Rick Perry at "The Response" in August 2011
Patrick Michels
Rick Perry

The news that Rick Perry will not seek re-election next year hit me hard. Sure it’s great to get some new blood in the governor’s mansion, but let’s face it: As a columnist, I’m worried about losing my go-to source for political comedy. There’s so much I count on from Rick Perry, from his perfect hair to his verbal flubs to the cringe-worthy name on his family ranch, that I just have to give a 10-gun salute to the old guy for all the material he’s abundantly provided over the years. Here in no particular order are the top 10 things I will miss about having Rick Perry as my governor.

1. First of all, I will miss having a governor who looks so badass shooting a gun. Say what you want about debate skills, when your governor has an intro video that rivals that of Walker, Texas Ranger, you’re talking master statesman.

2. I will miss having a governor who’s not ashamed to admit he’s a Christian. In a presidential ad. So brave!

3. I will miss having a governor with a mind like a steel trap.

4. I will miss having a governor who knows that a decade equals 90 years.

5. I will miss having a governor who confused the voting age with the legal drinking age. Cuz you’d have to be drunk to vote for him?

6. I will miss having a governor who makes a national debate feel like a Miss Teen USA pageant.

7. I will miss having a governor who’s taken that “whole ‘nother country” thing a bit too far.

8. I will miss having a governor whose family hunting camp has a name I can’t publish on this website, but that was painted on a giant rock for decades.

9. I will miss having a governor I get to pay twice.

10. And, finally, I will miss having a governor in office so long that children in Texas think the job is a lifetime appointment.

Adios, Ricardo.

David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” as recorded by Commander Chris Hadfield while on board the International Space Station.

On Sunday, May 12, Canadian astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield ended a five-month mission aboard the International Space Station by releasing a YouTube video of himself performing David Bowie’s 1969 hit “Space Oddity”—in space. Just three days later, the video had been viewed more than 11 million times, with nearly every one of the comments enthusiastically in support of Hadfield and astronauts in general. Earth’s first music video shot in space was the grand finale of a five-month social media campaign by Hadfield to engage the public in his space adventure. By broadcasting such mundane tasks as making a peanut butter and honey sandwich, brushing his teeth, and washing his hands, Hadfield managed to do what NASA and every other national space program hasn’t—reignite the public’s enthusiasm for space exploration.

But why did people become so blasé about space travel? America’s serious entry into space exploration was founded on the fear that the Soviet Union was going to colonize the moon. Fueled by paranoia about losing our technological and ideological superiority, the U.S. raced to get to the moon first. In 1969 the world gathered around television sets to watch Neil Armstrong take that first lunar step, and the result was a popular culture inspired by dreams of the future. When it became clear, however, that Russia wasn’t going to follow us to the moon, American moon missions ended. By the end of the 1970s, we had stopped advancing the frontier for human spaceflight, and the public’s enthusiasm waned.

In the ensuing years, government funding steadily dropped. The space shuttle program ended in 2011 and, by 2012, only one half of 1 percent of the U.S. federal budget went to NASA. Locally, cutbacks at the Johnson Space Center have resulted in massive layoffs for NASA employees and contractors. It’s hard to get precise numbers, but in the past three years, the Aerospace Transition Center, a human-resources facility run by the Texas Workforce Commission, has been utilized by an estimated 5,000 people in the Houston suburb of Clear Lake City, the home of NASA. Though the numbers are dwindling, the layoffs continue. But if American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is to be believed, the economic crisis we’re in didn’t cause the end of the space program. Rather, it could be the other way around.

In a 2012 Senate committee hearing on the future of the U.S. space program, Tyson theorized that “Epic space adventures plant seeds of economic growth because doing what’s never been done before is intellectually seductive whether or not we deem it practical.” He went even further to speculate that today’s economic crisis is a symptom of a collective loss of ambition due to our loss of the space dream.

Intellectual seduction seems a good term for what Commander Hadfield did with his social-media campaign. His zeal for space exploration is such that even the act of washing his hands is something he wanted to share with the world—and the world wanted to share it with him. His nearly one million Twitter followers attest to that.

To NASA’s credit, the agency was instrumental in helping Hadfield carry out his video broadcasts. The agency provided the technology that allowed Hadfield to do an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit live from space. But it was Hadfield’s enthusiasm and creativity that provided the content.

Not only did he mastermind the “Space Oddity” recording, planning well ahead of his mission to get permission from David Bowie to alter the lyrics and perform the song, but he also spent hours outside his 10-hour-a-day job as an astronaut creating content for his followers back home.

What NASA does now is crucial. It can take Hadfield’s social-media model and leverage its creativity to drum up popular support for new projects like commercial space-transport company SpaceX’s proposed rocket launch site outside Brownsville, a move that could bring hundreds of jobs to Texas’ poorest region. Or NASA can go back to what it was doing before and risk floundering another 20 years.

If that happens, however, American innovation may go with it.

One Nation Under Willie

Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson

In case you haven’t heard, Willie Nelson turned 80 recently. Fans, celebrity friends and the media have been showering him with tributes for weeks. The outpouring is unsurprising to Texans; Willie has always been the kind of entertainer to make everyone feel like family. I can’t think of anyone who manages such broad appeal while remaining such an outspoken liberal. Perhaps our lawmakers, perpetually stuck in political gridlock, could learn a thing or two from the man who brings together the hippies and the rednecks to create one Willie wonderful world.

Since the early 1970s, Willie Nelson has been the kind of artist who lets his hair down. Literally. “I let my hair grow and I would go into truck stops just to see what would happen,” Willie said of those days in a 2008 interview. It didn’t hurt him. Willie found his greatest success in his home state while embracing the southern-fried counterculture of the Austin music scene.

From growing hair, Willie graduated to open support of growing marijuana. He serves as co-chair on the advisory board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). The advocacy group has lauded Willie for “doing remarkable things to ‘normalize’ cannabis in the eyes of the American public,” by, “living an honest and transparent existence regarding his enjoyment derived from decades of cannabis use.” Willie is serious about his weed. After his arrest in 2010 for marijuana possession in Sierra Blanca, Texas—following pot busts in 2005 and 2006—he formed the TeaPot Party. “There’s the Tea Party. How about the Teapot Party?,” he said. “Our motto: We lean a little to the left.” And last year, he released the song, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” with rapper and avid pot smoker Snoop Dogg.

It helps that he approaches controversial topics with humor and grace. Willie broached homosexuality with his 2006 cover of “Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other,” a track that challenges the masculine stereotypes of the cowboy. The follow up track on the same album, “Ain’t Goin’ Down on Brokeback Mountain,” had some fans scratching their heads with its homophobic refrain, “That shit ain’t right.” But a recent interview in Texas Monthly confirmed Willie’s support of same-sex marriage. “I never thought of marriage as something only for men and women,” Willie said.“ But I’d never marry a guy I didn’t like.“

In December, while the country was debating gun control, Willie went on Piers Morgan Live to say he believes there’s no need for civilians to own high-powered semi-automatic rifles that shoot 100 rounds, adding, “Those are for military.”

Still his fans, many of them conservative country music lovers, keep him busy enough to play 200 shows a year.

“Whatever Willie’s politics are, you’ll never hear him speak about them when he does a show,” says Joe Nick Patoski author of Willie Nelson: An Epic Life. “That’s why his fan base is so broad and politically diverse. A Willie Nelson show is agnostic; the focus is on entertainment.”

Unless he’s doing a Farm Aid benefit. The entertainer co-founded the charity in 1985 to champion the small family farm. It turned out to be a cause upon which most people can agree.

As far as I can tell, that’s the real secret to Willie Nelson’s far-reaching appeal. In his music and in his life, he genuinely cares about the little guy in a way that never seems contrived like so many other country music acts. I know of no other performer of his caliber who spends 30 minutes after every show signing autographs. In 2011, he traveled to Japan to play a benefit for the victims of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Closer to home, his recent birthday concert outside Austin quickly turned into a benefit for the victims of the deadly fertilizer plant explosion in West, a town just 10 minutes from Willie’s birthplace, Abbott. Thousands turned out to wish Willie well and sell out the venue.

Then he boarded his bus the Honeysuckle Rose IV (it runs on Bio-Willie, his own alternative fuel brand), and got on the road again to continue his “Old Farts and Jackass Tour” (yes, you read that right) currently crossing North America.

What’s not to love?

The proposed merger of three University of Texas campuses in the Rio Grande Valley has far-reaching financial implications. You should be rooting for the Texas Legislature to pass a bill that would combine the campuses of the University of Texas-Brownsville, University of Texas-Pan American and the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen, operated by the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio. The new institution would provide educational opportunities to a long underserved region at a time when ignoring the need for higher education in the Valley could soon burden the state’s economy.

The stakes for Texas’ economy are high. Steve Murdock, the former director of the U.S. Census Bureau and ex-state demographer, has estimated that undereducated Hispanics could cost Texas $11.4 billion annually in lost tax revenue by 2050. Alternatively, closing the earning gap between Anglos and minorities, he said, could, by 2050, increase average annual household income in Texas by $16,000. The solution: better education for Texas’ minority population. The Rio Grande Valley, where roughly 90 percent of the residents are Hispanic, is the place to start. As UT-Pan Am President Robert S. Nelsen told the Observer in March, “If we don’t get it right in South Texas, we don’t get it right in this nation and we especially don’t get it right in this state.”

Hispanics now comprise a majority of the kids in Texas public schools, and Nelsen says they make up 89 percent of the student body at UT-Pan Am.

Still, only 4.6 percent of all Texas Hispanics were enrolled in college in 2011, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. That’s compared to 7 percent of African-Americans and 5.6 percent of Anglos.

That could soon change. The bill to create a premier university in the Valley won unanimous support from the Texas House and easily passed the Senate but hasn’t yet won final passage.

The new institution would remain part of the University of Texas system and would become eligible for funds from a public endowment called the Permanent University Fund. The new university could also access the $50 million Institute for Transformational Learning, a part of the University of Texas System that bills itself as “promoting innovation” and funds online learning programs throughout the UT System.

Nelsen says that technology is a big part of the merged university’s future. “We’ve thought a lot about virtual classrooms. We’re doing more and more online and hybrid classes because of the great demand.” Online courses can be especially beneficial for working students or students who have children.

This year the school added masters of business administration and masters of public administration programs to four others already online, and the school has plans to do the same next year for special education and nursing programs.

The merger brings with it the plan to create a long-sought medical school at the Harlingen campus. “If you look at what happened at the UT Health Center San Antonio,” Nelsen said, “in 22 years, it generated over $18 billion in economic impact. Just creating a $98 million science building will have a $134 million impact. It will bring 125 extra jobs to the Valley.” That’s welcome news, because one downside to the merger is the loss of some jobs at the merging schools. UT-Brownsville recently notified about 250 employees that they no longer will have a job come August.

The newly formed university will also get access to a University of Texas funding program that provides allotments to attract top teaching talent.

All of which could lead the new university to become an emerging research facility. “I think this merger is an economic engine for the Valley and for the state,” Nelsen told me. It’s a long-overdue investment in higher education in one of the state’s most ignored areas—and hopefully will provide Texas an economic boost. If the bill passes, the merged university would be a win for the Valley and potentially a win for the rest of the state too.

Charros with flags
Cindy Casares
Charros carry the flags of the United States, Mexico and Texas through the Grand International Parade.

In many parts of the U.S., when the subject of Mexico arises, calls for more border security, higher walls and stricter immigration laws quickly follow. But in Brownsville, Texas, the ties that bind two nations together have been celebrated for 76 years during the annual Charro Days Fiesta. I grew up in Brownsville and have been attending Charro Days—named for the Mexican cowboy with the wide-brimmed hat—since the early 1970s. My parents and grandparents, likewise, attended from the time they were young. But with U.S.-Mexico relations riven by American immigration enforcement and Mexican narco-violence, I went home to see how traditions have changed.

Just days before this year’s Charro Days, the U.S. Consulate in Matamoros issued a travel warning for the border region of the state of Tamaulipas, following a spate of carjackings.

But I found that the border spirit—neither fully American nor fully Mexican but something altogether unique—lives on.

Grand International Parade Crowd
Cindy Casares
Crowds line Elizabeth Street in downtown Brownsville to watch the Grand International Parade. Charro Days Associaton President Henry LeVrier estimates 60- to 80,000 people attended this year.

Consider one of my favorite floats in Saturday’s parade: a flatbed truck carrying a group of uniformed Customs and Border Protection agents playing conjunto music. I saw them at last year’s Sombrero Festival where they brought the house down. The irony of a bunch of Hispanic guys in CBP uniforms playing Tex-Mex music to a cheering Hispanic crowd is not lost on me. It’s also not unusual in the Rio Grande Valley where Texas and Mexico meld into one.

Locals continue to keep Charro Days a bi-national celebration as best they can. In the early days, the bridges to Mexico remained opened so that citizens of both countries could freely share the events happening on both sides—street dances in Brownsville, rodeos in Matamoros, parades in both cities.

Those days are gone, but this year the mayors of Brownsville and Matamoros still met midway on the Gateway International Bridge for the traditional Hands Across the Border ceremony. The mayors exchanged gifts and hugged while schoolchildren from both countries did the same. Wearing a fringed leather jacket with white filigree—a traditional costume from the state of Tamaulipas—Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez recalled the importance of this symbolic gesture.

“We are more than neighbors, we are family,” he said to the crowd in English, while Matamoros Mayor Alfonso Sanchez Garza described the ceremony in Spanish as “a hymn to the friendship the two cities share.”

Mr. Amigo.Eduardo Yañez
Cindy Casares
Brownsville Police officers escort 2013′s “Mr. Amigo” Eduardo Yañez in the Grand International Parade. Yañez is a Mexican television and film star.
In the 1960s, a small group of Chamber of Commerce leaders in Brownsville created the Mr. Amigo Association to honor Mexican celebrities who work toward furthering U.S.-Mexico relations. Over the years, a number of famous Mexican entertainers—both male and female—and one former Mexican president have been crowned Mr. Amigo. This year’s title-holder, a telenovela star named Eduardo Yañez, drew throngs of adoring female fans to Charro Days festivities, especially the three Brownsville parades that took place Thursday through Saturday.

Saturday’s parade also featured fifteen entries that made the trek from Matamoros to appear in the event. Thirty years ago, that number would have easily been much higher, but tightened security and immigration measures have changed things, Charro Days Association President Henry LeVrier says. For years, the Grand International Parade started in Brownsville and continued on to Matamoros to join that city’s Fiestas Mexicanas, but that all changed about four years ago due to concerns over firefights in Matamoros between Mexican military and cartel members.

Kids in Costume, Charro Days
Cindy Casares
Children are a big part of Charro Days. Parents dress their kids in traditional Mexican costumes to pass on a love of their heritage.
These days, after the parades families are more likely to head to the Sombrero Festival —a 27 year-old fair held in Brownsville’s Washington Park with live music, food booths and Mexican-themed competitions like the “Grito Contest,” (a grito is a Mexican victory cry), and the ever-popular “Frijolympics,” (a bean cook-off).

A bevvy of souvenir shops from the Matamoros mercado have also come over to the Brownsville side now that Brownsvillians are afraid to travel to Matamoros to buy their Charro Days costumes.

As Mayor Martinez said at last year’s Hands Across the Border event, “Our two cities will always be one family. No matter the forces that try to pull us apart.”

LeVrier agrees, telling me, “We continue meeting throughout the year with organizers in Matamoros to keep the spirit going.”

Neither prefabricated walls nor the threat of narco-violence can destroy that and I suspect, when this current political climate is relegated to the history books, Charro Days will still be going strong.

A fascinating video is circulating on the Internet featuring motorists who decline to answer questions at Border Patrol checkpoints miles from the border. Questions like, “Are you a U.S. citizen?” or “Where are you headed?” are met with polite refusals. In the video, one pair of motorists stopped at a Laredo checkpoint refuse to answer an agent’s question about their citizenship. When the agent becomes agitated and orders the driver to pull over to secondary inspection, the driver politely says, “No thank you.” The agent calls over his supervisor. “Unless we’re living in a police state,” the driver says. “Unless this is Mexico or Nazi Germany … this is still America and I can travel down this road without having to answer questions from federal agents.” The kicker is the motorists get away with it; the supervisor ultimately waves them through.

This was a surprise to me because I grew up in the Rio Grande Valley where travelers must pass through an internal checkpoint in Sarita or Falfurrias to reach points north. The Border Patrol operates a total of 71 permanent and tactical checkpoints on the southwest border, according to a 2008 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. (Tactical checkpoints do not have permanent buildings. They support permanent checkpoints by monitoring and inspecting traffic on secondary roads that the Border Patrol determines are likely to be used by undocumented travelers or smugglers.) As the checkpoints have proliferated, so has concern over the rights of motorists. Critics of the internal checkpoints say they violate the Fourth Amendment prohibition on “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Still, it was unclear to me if you are legally obligated to answer Border Patrol agents’ questions. What, exactly, are your rights and responsibilities at these checkpoints? I put the question to a few legal experts.

Denise Gilman, co-director of the immigration clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, says that Border Patrol agents at internal checkpoints are allowed to ask motorists basic questions about citizenship, identity and travel itinerary, but they cannot detain you or search your vehicle without probable cause. Your refusal to answer questions would not provide probable cause to allow for such a detention or search, she added.

“So, if you refuse to answer, they can pull you out of the line and over into ‘secondary inspection’ and they can probably hold you there for about 20 minutes or so,” she said. “But they cannot do anything more if you continue to refuse to respond unless something else develops during that time period that would lead to probable cause.”

More than one motorist in the video declined to pull over into secondary inspection, yet they were allowed to go on their way without incident.

“I don’t know of any case where the person has refused to go into secondary inspection as in the YouTube video,” says Barbara Hines, a clinical professor of law at UT who co-directs the immigration clinic with Gilman. “But it is a very interesting civil disobedience idea. Because in order to arrest the person, the Border Patrol, again, would need probable cause.”

I happened to have a trip planned to the Valley last weekend. On my way back to Austin, I stopped at the checkpoint in Sarita. Rather than refuse to answer the question, “Are you a U.S. citizen?” I asked the agent whether or not I was legally obligated to answer. She was taken aback at first, asking if I was going to pull a camera on her. I told her I was doing a story for the Texas Observer, which probably ensured that I would get out of there without a hassle.

Her supervisor referred me to the Border Patrol Public Affairs Office in Falfurrias and I went on my way never having revealed my citizenship.

By email later, a Border Patrol spokesman gave me the answer I was looking for: “Although motorists are not legally required to answer the questions ‘are you a U.S. citizen and where are you headed,’ they will not be allowed to proceed until the inspecting agent is satisfied that the occupants of vehicles traveling through the checkpoint are legally present in the U.S.”

Border Patrol agents are granted authority to question the occupants of vehicles traveling through an established checkpoint based on U.S. vs. Martinez-Fuerte. That was a 1976 Supreme Court decision that said permanent or fixed checkpoints set up by the U.S. Border patrol on public highways leading to or away from the Mexican border are not a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Congress also gave the Department of Homeland Security authority, through the Immigration and Nationality Act, to conduct searches within a “reasonable distance” of the border, which DHS defines as 100 miles.

Hines points out, however, that federal laws and regulations are subordinate to the Constitution.

So it seems you are within your rights not to answer the Border Patrol agent at an internal checkpoint (this doesn’t go for actual borders!), but the agents are also within their rights to ask you about your citizenship. At least for a while. After that, they’d need probable cause to detain you.

vote here

Uh-oh. The Supreme Court might strike down a key part of the Voting Rights Act, the venerable 1965 law that’s protected minority voting rights for nearly half a century. The court will hear oral arguments next week in Shelby County v. Holder. At issue is Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires states with a history of racial discrimination (Texas included) to get “pre-clearance” from the U.S. Department of Justice before making changes to the voting system.

Apparently some justices have been jonesing to declare racism a thing of the past and usher in an America where everyone can live happily ever after. Unfortunately, that’s a fairy tale. While the days of overt discrimination may be mostly behind us, institutional racism still exists and will take much longer to eradicate. Hispanic and black Texans understand this better than most.

“Texas’ history is so that it is, in all honesty, a poster child for why we need Section 5,” MALDEF Attorney Luis Figueroa said at a press call held by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights February 21.

Just take the recent Texas redistricting mess.

Less than a year ago, a federal, three-judge panel in Washington D.C. ruled that the new congressional maps drawn by the Republican-led Texas Legislature were intentionally discriminatory. That’s a pretty high (or low, in this case) bar to meet.

Writing for the panel that included Judge Rosemary M. Collyer and Judge Beryl A. Howell, Judge Thomas Griffith said they were, “persuaded by the totality of the evidence that the plan was enacted with discriminatory intent.”

Bear in mind that George W. Bush appointed two of the judges on the panel. When conservative judges are calling your actions discriminatory, your issues probably run deep. Yet, just six months later, the Supreme Court would say we are free of that discriminatory intent?

Just two days after the federal court struck down Texas’ redistricting plan, another panel of judges in that same court ruled that Texas’ new voter ID law, was also in violation of Section 5 of the VRA. The law would’ve required voters to present a valid, government-issued photo ID to vote, but judges figured out what critics had been saying all along: the requirement would hurt those Texans most likely to be without a valid ID, mostly poor people of color.

“Record evidence suggests that [Senate Bill] 14, if implemented, would in fact have a retrogressive effect on Hispanic and African American voters,” the judges wrote. “Everything Texas has submitted as affirmative evidence is unpersuasive, invalid, or both. Moreover, uncontested record evidence conclusively shows that the implicit costs of obtaining SB 14-qualifying ID will fall most heavily on the poor and that a disproportionately high percentage of African Americans and Hispanics in Texas live in poverty. We therefore conclude that SB 14 is likely to lead to ‘retrogression in the position of racial minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the electoral franchise’.”

The Voting Rights Act was passed at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and was secured through a lot of blood, sweat and tears. It intended to put an end to discriminatory voting practices like poll taxes and literacy tests that created widespread disenfranchisement of minority voters. Proponents of the measure warn that we will see a return to those days if Section 5 is struck down. In Texas, even with the VRA, we’ve never stopped having to fight those who don’t want to see people of color turn out to vote.

I hate to think what this state will look like for minorities if our legislators are left to govern on their own.

Sam Houston State Office Building
The Sam Houston State Office Building houses the State Ethics Commission offices.

In the words of Fred Lewis, an attorney who advocates for campaign finance reform, the Texas Ethics Commission is not just toothless, but gumless—a shell agency that makes a mockery of good government. And that’s by design. The Ethics Commission was created and is funded by the very people it’s supposed to police: our legislators.

Examples of the agency’s weakness aren’t hard to come by, but try this one out: The commission has apparently never formally asked the Travis County district attorney to investigate a case. (The Travis County DA’s Public Integrity Unit is charged with criminal investigations of state officials, most famously indicting former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.)

In a tough-on-crime state, it’s the politicians who enjoy a peculiar lack of enforcement and policing—largely thanks to the Ethics Commission.

The big busts of corrupt politicians in recent years have happened with little help from the Ethics Commission. Instead, the agency has focused on trifling technical violations that have drawn the ire of lawmakers. It’s the equivalent of a cop busting jaywalkers while a nearby bank is robbed.

Take the case of former state Rep. Kino Flores, a Democrat from the Rio Grande Valley known to contractors as “Mr. 10 Percent” for his habit of skimming off the top of government contracts. Flores was eventually the target of 59 allegations of misconduct and was convicted in 2010 of ethics violations. During its investigation of Flores, a Travis County grand jury expressed “outrage” at the vagueness of state ethics law. In a letter, the jurors excoriated what they termed “loopholes and vagueness which seem to be common for self-serving legislative laws and codes.”

The jurors specifically cited the opaqueness of the personal financial disclosures filed by elected officials. In Flores’ case, the Ethics Commission allowed him to declare himself a “consultant,” without listing who or what he was consulting for. There is no record of the Ethics Commission ever investigating Flores.

Lax ethics laws also plagued the case of former state Rep. Joe Driver, R-Garland, who in 2010 got caught double-dipping on travel reimbursements. Jay Root, then a reporter with the Associated Press, noticed the duplications on state and campaign travel records. Driver’s initial defense was that the Ethics Commission told him it was all good. Watchdog groups pointed out that lack of vigilance on the part of the Ethics Commission could lead to rampant abuse by lawmakers.

Because of the confidentiality rule, it’s not known whether the Ethics Commission was investigating Driver, and since House travel records before mid-2005 were already destroyed at the time of Driver’s confession, it was impossible to know how much Driver earned by getting reimbursed twice for the same expenses. Driver admitted to double-dipping for years.

Since former Travis County DA Ronnie Earle nailed former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on money-laundering charges, lawmakers have tried several times, unsuccessfully, to strip the Public Integrity Unit of its funding or authority.

Some board members of the Ethics Commission, perhaps feeling upstaged, suggested in November that the commission take over the Public Integrity Unit’s job. Luckily these proposals have gone nowhere, thanks in part to public outrage.

This legislative session, lawmakers have a golden opportunity to fix the Ethics Commission. The agency is up for sunset review, the once-every-12-years process of reforming state agencies.

Several watchdog groups have proposed that the Ethics Commission create an enforcement director position with the power to execute real investigations. Unfortunately, the sunset staff didn’t adopt that recommendation. But there are other ideas for reform.

Legislators could pump more money into the commission’s stagnant budget, so the agency could, for example, hire more staff with law enforcement backgrounds. They could also clarify the law to allow for sharing of information with law enforcement agencies. Finally, they could empower the executive director to sign off on subpoenas and other investigatory tools without requiring the Ethics Commission board—political appointees, all—to approve them.

Is it too much to hope that lawmakers will shine more light on their own dealings in the murky world of money and politics? Perhaps. Both Republicans and Democrats talk a good game about transparency and disclosure; it’s up to us to make them live up to it.

bullets

A shooting at Lone Star College in Houston resulted in three injuries last week, just two days after the first-ever “Gun Appreciation Day.” Gawker tallied at least sixteen incidences of gun-related death or injury on Gun Appreciation Day, too. Because none of these events was a mass shooting, the reader comments on the news stories covering them often contained sentiments like the following from the Houston Chronicle: “No ‘school shooting’ here at all. Just two thugs in a part of town known for gang and gun violence on a daily basis,” or, “A couple of thugs got into a typical thug fight. It happens every day in Houston. The media would have you believe this was a massacre,” or, “This is NOTHING like the shooting at the elementary school…it just happened to happen at a junior college between 2 hot blooded young men!”

They’ve got one thing right. It does happen everyday. Unlike mass shootings, other types of gun violence are so common that, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, more children and teens die from guns every three days than died in the Newtown massacre. That they’re treated as yawn-worthy speaks to our acceptance of gun violence in certain neighborhoods.

Those neighborhoods, of course, tend to be populated by people of color. The Children’s Defense Fund reports that 43 percent of all children and youth killed by firearms in 2009 were black. And while the annual number of shooting deaths of white youth decreased by 44 percent between 1979 and 2009, the deaths of black children and teens increased by 30 percent. The annual number of shooting deaths of Hispanic children decreased, but only by 25 percent.

The question we have to face is this: Do we want to address all gun violence or do we only want to try to prevent mass shootings? Is one group of victims more important than the other? The answer, of course, is no. All lives are important.

Whether it’s a seemingly random mass shooting at a predominantly white, suburban school or the death of a child of color caught in the crossfire of a gang shooting in the inner city, gun violence is often facilitated by two things: Availability of guns and a lack of services and supports available to our children and their families around the issues of drugs, gangs, failing schools and mental health services.

If I had my druthers, we’d ban both assault weapons and handguns, but the proliferation of guns in America makes that a near-impossibility. So, let’s start with the proposal on the table from President Obama. It calls on Congress to close background check loopholes and bans military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

Current law only requires background checks be performed by licensed gun dealers, but about 40 percent of guns are sold through private dealers. Requiring all gun sellers to perform background checks and facilitating better sharing of this information among states will help keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.

The president’s plan also suggests that Congress allocate money to schools for social and mental health services that address students’ behavioral issues. But it also gives the schools the option to hire more school cops, covertly termed “school resource officers,” that some youth advocates fear will exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline.

Here’s how the ACLU explained it: “We fear that neutral sounding safety policies, such as putting more cops in school will lead to the over-incarceration of school-age children, especially students of color and students with disabilities, who are disproportionately arrested and prosecuted for issues that would normally be handled by school administrators when law enforcement is introduced into schools.”

Legislators must consider not only middle-class, white victims who’ve died in mass shootings, but the victims who are more likely to die everyday because of the color of their skin—think Trayvon Martin or 23-year-old Rodrigo Diaz of Georgia, who was shot in the head and killed this weekend after pulling into the wrong man’s driveway.

The president’s plan is not as comprehensive as it should be.. Studies show most gun crime is committed with handguns and it’s not clear how much of an impact the Obama proposals will have on that. Still, even modest, common sense measures will have trouble clearing Congress, especially the Republican-controlled House. That’s just the current political reality.

But while we’re debating gun violence, let’s no longer pretend that it’s a problem just confined to the occasional mass shooting.

Training video from Craft International.
Training video from Craft International.

Ever since Gov. Rick Perry tasked the Texas Department of Public Safety with tighter border security during the 2006 election cycle, trigger-happy bureaucrats have been given carte blanche to turn the state into their own personal theater of war. In October, DPS made headlines when a state trooper in a helicopter shot at unarmed Guatemalan immigrants riding in the back of a truck in Hidalgo County. Two of the Guatemalan men were killed. Last week, the Austin American-Statesman reported that DPS officers have fired from helicopters while pursuing vehicles five times over the past two years. In only one instance was the DPS successful in stopping a vehicle without causing fatalities. Two of the instances required the additional use of spikes in the road to ultimately stop the vehicles, and two instances resulted in the suspects fleeing the scene for Mexico.

“We’re really not apologetic about it,” DPS Director Steve McCraw said of the policy of allowing armed troopers to fire from helicopters. His remarks came before the Guatemalan killings. “We’ve got an obligation to protect our men and women when we’re trying to protect Texas.”

That DPS allows its officers to fire from helicopters when apparently no other American law enforcement agency does so says something about the agency’s sense of mission. McCraw is fond of painting the Texas border region as a war zone, and he’s got the paperwork to prove it. Funny thing, though: A private firm that stands to profit from the continued militarization of the Texas border region generated that proof.

In March, the independent news site Alternet exposed the controversial relationship between DPS and Abrams Learning & Information Systems (ALIS), owned by retired U.S. Army Gen. John Abrams. DPS has paid ALIS millions since 2007 to not only create the state’s border security strategy, but execute a P.R. campaign to create the perception that Mexican drug violence threatens the lives of Texas civilians on an ever-increasing basis.

Even more alarming is the fact that ALIS has been awarded millions in contracts with virtually no public discussion or scrutiny. The Texas Public Safety Commission, which oversees DPS, has allowed McCraw and DPS to run the state’s border security operations, dubbed Operation Border Star, with little oversight. In fact, a follow-up investigation by the Statesman turned up very few state officials outside of law enforcement who had ever heard of the small Virginia firm despite the fact that it received $22.7 million from DPS and the Governor’s Office for border-security operations from FY 2007 to FY 2011.

What’s more, the DPS and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott have refused to release details of Operation Border Star to the Center for International Policy, claiming it would put law enforcement officers at risk. The same documents, however, were released to for-profit security consultants contracted by Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, who’s been waging his own little border war.

Is this what conservatives mean by small government? Leaving public safety to private defense companies founded by former military brass with little to no border experience looking to cash in on America’s fervor for “secure borders?”

Although state Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) called for an investigation of the contracts between the DPS and ALIS in March of this year, and Comptroller Susan Combs responded in April that her office would “focus on, but not limit the audit scope” to DPS’s contract with ALIS, I cannot find any public report of such an investigation eight months later. An earlier review by the Compliance and Oversight Division of the governor’s office obtained by the Statesman revealed that DPS has a history of improperly diverting federal stimulus funds to pay ALIS, as well as other shoddy accounting practices.

A DPS spokesperson told KRGV News in the Rio Grande Valley that she couldn’t explain why DPS decided to circumvent the state competitive bidding process in 2006 when they began their special relationship with ALIS. The governor’s office declined to comment.

We can’t continue to let private firms profit, using our tax dollars, from this reckless and sometimes deadly militarization. It’s time for the Legislature to launch a full-scale investigation into DPS, McCraw and Perry’s handling of Operation Border Star.

Corrected on Jan. 3, 2013: The original story stated that DPS Director Steve McCraw had been “downright cruel in his reaction to the October killings” of two Guatemalan men and cited a San Antonio Express-News article in which McCraw is quoted as saying he’s “really not apologetic about it.”

However, as the Express-News article made clear, McCraw’s quote was drawn from an interview prior to the Guatemalan fatalities. He was speaking about DPS’ policy of allowing armed troopers to fire from helicopters. We have corrected the story and apologize for the error.