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

A Fort Bend County Republican has introduced a bill that would prohibit cities from enforcing ordinances protecting LGBT people against discrimination.

State Rep. Rick Miller’s House Bill 1556 would bar cities from adopting nondiscrimination ordinances that include protected classes not contained in state law.

Texas law doesn’t include sexual orientation or gender identity and expression. If passed, Miller’s bill would undo LGBT protections passed by numerous cities, including Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston and Plano. Altogether more than 7.5 million Texas are covered by such ordinances.

Miller’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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

Here’s how Miller’s bill reads:

 

Screen shot 2015-03-03 at 10.32.31 AM

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trust Respect Access rally
Alexa Garcia-Ditta
Texans rally at the Capitol to promote comprehensive sex education and access to contraception and abortion.

When lawmakers in Austin discuss women’s health care access, often the voices of those most affected go unheard and unheeded.

Last week, women, students and advocates from across the state, braving nasty winter weather, came to the Capitol to change that. Wearing matching orange-and-white T-shirts, they came from the Rio Grande Valley, El Paso and North Texas. Women (and a few men) met with lawmakers and rallied for laws that promote comprehensive sex education in public schools and access to women’s health care services, including contraception and abortion. The events were part of the official launch of the multi-year Trust. Respect. Access. reproductive health campaign.

Over the last several legislative sessions, conservative lawmakers have chipped away at access to birth control and abortion in Texas, contending that they are promoting the health and safety of Texas women. In 2011, on top of a nearly $70 million cut to the state family planning program that forced more than 50 health care centers to close, the Texas Legislature passed laws imposing a 24-hour waiting period and mandatory ultrasounds on women seeking an abortion. In 2013, the Legislature passed House Bill 2, the sweeping omnibus abortion legislation that led to the closure, so far, of nearly half the abortion clinics in Texas.

The campaign, spearheaded by a coalition of six organizations, is a long-term effort to  roll back some of these restrictive health care laws while also promoting “pro-active” legislation, including bills that require medically accurate and age-appropriate sex education in public schools.

The Observer spoke with five women about how women’s health care in the Lone Star State has played a role in their lives and communities:

 

Nikki Vogel is a social work graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. She credits the relationship counseling she and her boyfriend received at Planned Parenthood as one of the reasons their marriage got off to a strong start.

 

Sofia Peña, a 27-year-old University of Texas Rio Grande Valley student who lives in McAllen, says the abortion she had helped her to stay in school. South Texas lost nine of its 32 family planning clinics due to 2011 budget cuts to the state family planning program, and the remaining abortion clinic will close if House Bill 2 takes full effect.

 

Maria Villanueva, a 30-year-old single mother from El Paso with an 11-year-old daughter, says her parents didn’t talk to her about sex growing up and she didn’t learn about contraception in school. She wants her daughter to get better sex education instruction in the classroom.

 

Autumn Tyler goes to the University of North Texas in Denton. As an African-American woman, she says she would be disproportionately affected by Texas laws that limit access to health care services for poor, uninsured women.

 

Mimosa Thomas, a 19-year-old college student from Corpus Christi, says the high school she went to had a daycare center for students’ children. Texas leads the country in repeat teen births.

 

Advocates and Democratic lawmakers insist that while they may not have the votes this session to pass such policies, they’re not going anywhere.

“We have endured tremendous political interference in Texas, and this interference has eroded the infrastructure of care delivery across our state that took decades to build,” Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, told the crowd at the rally on Thursday. “We are in it for the long run.”

Following Abbott’s Lead, House Members Propose Pre-K Grants

$100 million program would stop short of funding full-day pre-kindergarten
State Rep. Dan Huberty
State Rep. Dan Huberty

There’s widespread support around the Capitol for more state spending on pre-kindergarten programs, and much less agreement about how to do it.

State Reps. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) and Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown) have proposed a $300-million-a-year plan to fund full-day pre-K for some children in districts that agree to meet new quality standards. Meanwhile, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) has introduced a more ambitious plan: universal, full-day pre-K for all 4-year-olds in the state.

On the campaign trail last year, Gov. Greg Abbott also proposed more pre-K spending, but more cautiously. Rather than a blanket pre-K expansion, Abbott suggested rewarding districts with $1,500 per student if they meet new standards for program quality.

That’s the plan outlined in House Bill 4, filed today by state Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston). The bill creates a framework for defining the “high quality prekindergarten programs” eligible for extra state funding, but remains vague on how much each school district would get and how their programs would be evaluated. Under HB 4, those decisions would all be left up to the education commissioner.

Huberty formally unveiled his bill at a press conference Thursday morning. Flanked by House budget and education leaders, he said the House budget would include $100 million for the new pre-K program, the Texas Tribune reported. In a statement today, Huberty said many districts would qualify for the extra money with programs they already have in place. The bill, he said, would provide “up to” $1,500 per student on top of the $3,650 the state funds today.

That isn’t nearly enough to cover the cost of full-day pre-K, so the bill falls short of what many early education advocates have recently favored. In a statement Thursday afternoon, Rep. Johnson said that high-quality pre-K “is by definition full-day prekindergarten.”

He and Farney will now have to fight to win House members over to a plan that’s more ambitious, and three times as expensive, as the governor’s preferred pre-K plan. Johnson’s office offered a reminder of the advocacy groups and civic leaders around the state that support a full-day program like the one in his bill.

David Anthony, CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas and a former superintendent of Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, says HB 4 includes some important elements—encouraging districts to use the state pre-K standards, and rewarding districts for using qualified teachers—but the bill is a missed opportunity if it doesn’t fund full-day learning.

Our research shows students achieve the greatest gains when enrolled in high-quality, full-day pre-K,” Anthony says, with an emphasis on “full-day.” “We have seen first-hand in the research and talking with teachers that they can accomplish so much more in a full-day program than with the half-day.”

Full-day programs tend to fit better around working parents’ schedules. The state doesn’t track how each school district’s pre-K programs run, but a recent survey by the nonprofit Children At Risk found that 47 percent of Texas districts are paying to offer full-day programs beyond what the state covers.

Anthony says he’s worried districts that already fund their full-day programs will be temporarily satisfied with a little extra money from the state. That could relieve the pressure that’s been building lately to create a strong full-day system. “Our concern is they’re gonna see $1,500—that’s better than what they’ve been getting—and thinking that maybe there’s no need for further conversation.”

Until a few years ago, the Legislature offered more than $200 million in grants to help districts expand their pre-K programs. But that money was cut along with more than $5 billion in other education funding in 2011.

Compared to the old program, says Center for Public Policy Priorities analyst Chandra Villanueva, Huberty’s $100 million plan doesn’t look so exciting.

“Right now it looks like the governor’s proposal [as written in HB 4] is basically recreating a similar grant program,” she says. “This program just isn’t going far enough and meeting the needs that we really have.”

Villanueva, like many other early education advocates, says the Legislature should fund any pre-K expansion through the same funding formulas it uses to pay for K-12 education. Grant programs like the one cut in 2011, or the one proposed under HB 4, are much more susceptible to cuts from one session to the next.

Funding pre-K through the formulas, she says, would also help ensure students get more equal funding. HB 4, on the other hand, could reward wealthy districts that already have the money to meet new requirements for, say, class size or teacher qualifications.

“The governor’s bill that’s outside the formulas, it’s really increasing inequity in the system,” Villanueva says. “I think we need a systemic approach to dealing with pre-K, and increase the equity in the system.”

Lt. Gov and senators
Kelsey Jukam
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson were flanked by other senators, but no Democrats, as they announced a major tax cut plan Tuesday.

As the size of proposed tax cuts keep growing and hurtling toward seemingly inevitable adoption, Senate Democrats are divided.

At a press conference Tuesday, Senate leaders unveiled a new plan for $4.6 billion in tax relief, up from $4 billion in the first draft budget. But Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) stressed that proposal was “bipartisan.” That’s true to a certain extent; five out of 10 Senate Democrats have signed on to at least one part of the tax plan—$2.5 billion in property tax cuts by adjusting the homestead exemption.

Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), one of the five Democrats to sign on to Nelson’s Senate Bill 1, said in a statement that raising the homestead exemption is “the best way to provide every homeowner a break.” Sen. Chuy Hinojosa (D-McAllen), who also co-sponsored the bill, said that SB 1 will let taxpayers “keep more of the dollars they earn.”

The homestead exemption applies to the first $15,000 of a home’s taxable value. If SB 1 becomes law, homeowners will be exempt from paying taxes on 25 percent of the state median home value, which in 2016 is projected to be $134,500. That means the first $33,625 of a home’s worth is exempt from taxes.

At the average total school district tax rate of $1.25 per $100 in property value, SB 1 would save home-owning taxpayers about $233 in 2016.

The plan is also designed to prevent future increases in home values from eroding the tax break—a problem with past attempts at lowering property taxes.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) is skeptical of the benefits of SB 1. She said that although she strongly supports tax relief, she wants to “ensure that any tax relief legislation is meaningful for all Texas families, including those who are not homeowners.”

“Approximately $200 savings a year for homeowners, for example, may not have as great an impact on our state as would investing the $2.5 billion in our public schools or in our higher education system to help reduce tuition for Texas families,” Zaffirini said.

Texas Monthly’s R.G. Ratcliffe has pointed out that the savings from Nelson’s proposal will differ significantly from place to place in Texas. For homeowners in some areas—where values are “stagnant or declining”—the tax break is a “windfall,” he wrote. But homeowners who live in areas where property values are rapidly rising—Austin and Houston, for example—may not see their tax bills reduced. The tax relief will just keep these homeowner’s bills from going up as quickly—similar to how President Barack Obama described Obamacare as “bending the cost curve.”

The homestead exemption package also doesn’t directly help apartment-dwellers or other renters.

The property tax proposal also won some Democratic support because the state will make sure schools don’t lose any funding from the property tax reductions.

But that’s just to keep the school districts from being any worse off than they already are, said Eva DeLuna Castro, an analyst with the progressive Center for Public Policy Priorities. So although the state might be giving more aid to schools than it currently does, the schools will still be under-funded.

That worries Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso).

“If we decide to pass this legislation, the state needs to live up to its responsibility to adequately fund education,” Rodriguez said. “As it is, school districts are still recovering from cuts the state made in 2011, and we have hanging over our heads a district court ruling that our school funding system is inadequate and inequitable.”

Rodriguez doesn’t think that tax cuts in an already low-tax state should be a priority over access to quality education, or other infrastructure needs like health care, roads, water and pensions.

But if there have to be any tax cuts at all, progressive advocacy groups like the CPPP and Texas Forward agree that the homestead exemption is the way to go. The proposed homestead exemption is “a lot more noticeable for people at the bottom” of the economic spectrum says DeLuna Castro. It’s “progressive” policy to give almost every homeowner the same exemption, rather than structure reforms that largely benefit those with expensive homes, said DeLuna Castro.

Sen. Jane Nelson
Kelsey Jukam
Sen. Jane Nelson authored SB 1 and SB 7.

That’s probably why more Democrats are on board with the homestead exemption than the other proposed tax cuts, which reduce the tax burdens of Texas businesses. Four Democrats are co-sponsors of  Senate Bill 7, which would permanently reduce the franchise tax—the state’s primary business tax—by 15 percent for all businesses, shrinking the tax rolls by $1.5 billion.

Only three Democrats have signed onto Senate Bill 8—filed by Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown)—which would exempt businesses with an annual revenue of less than $4 million from paying the franchise tax.

Hinojosa is one of the few Democratic supporters.

“For many small businesses struggling to make it, the franchise tax represents an unnecessary and burdensome tax that limits job growth and economic investment,” Hinojosa said in a statement.

He noted that SB 8 will exempt more than 61,000 businesses that would otherwise pay the state’s franchise tax. But small businesses with less than $1 million in gross receipts are already exempt from paying the franchise tax, and seven out of eight Texas businesses currently pay no franchise tax, according to the public investment advocacy group Texas Forward.

Gov. Greg Abbott has previously vowed that he won’t sign any budget that does not significantly lower—if not eliminate—the franchise tax. Lt. Gov Dan Patrick said that he and other senators want to eventually eliminate the franchise tax altogether. But that would be a cut totaling $9 billion, according to DeLuna Castro.

“That would eat up all the available general revenue, so no one is really taking that seriously,” DeLuna Castro said.

Although Watson supports the homestead exemption proposal, he said in a statement he couldn’t “get behind cutting the franchise tax.”

“It would be irresponsible to cut off an important stream of revenue before we know what the Legislature’s obligations will be to fulfill its constitutional responsibility to Texas schoolchildren,” he said in the statement.

Will Francis, co-chair of Texas Forward’s Steering Committee, says that businesses got their tax cuts last session, and now they need to “put their fair share” into essential state services like education and healthcare. Francis, who is also the government relations director for the Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said that “there’s a volatility of resources” in Texas. While there may be a surplus in the budget now, he said, the economic fortunes of the state could quickly change.

At least one Senate Republican agrees. Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler)—who didn’t sign onto either SB 1 or SB 7—told the Quorum Report that “we have got to meet the needs of the state before we cut taxes,” and noted that state pensions, the highway system and health care for teachers are all underfunded.

Patrick has claimed that even with the tax cuts, the budget has plenty of room to address other needs, including education, pensions and roads, but he didn’t say on Tuesday how these other needs might be funded, only that they’d be addressed in the coming weeks. DeLuna Castro said that while the money is available lawmakers have limited their options because of an unwillingness to raise the constitutional spending cap or touch the Rainy Day Fund.

“The issue isn’t available revenue,” DeLuna Castro said. “It’s ‘we don’t want to.’”

Nelson said that next week the Senate Finance Committee will hear any tax relief bill from any senator.

Robert Nichols
State Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) is playing a leading role in transportation funding overhauls this session.

The story of Texas government is, by and large, the story of robbing Peter to pay Paul, and then promising to pay Peter back with Polly or Pedro’s money. The Legislature finds it pretty easy to hack money out of the budget in hard times, but balks at restoring funding during flush times.

So, how to pay for urgent needs? In those good times, like now, the Legislature goes looking for Peter to shake down. Today’s hard choice comes in the form of Senate Bill 5 and Senate Joint Resolution 5, both authored by state Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville), the chair of the Senate Committee on Transportation. Both passed out of Nichols’ committee 8-1 today.

Nichols’ legislation would take about half of the taxes generated by the sale of motor vehicles and give it to the state highway fund. Normally this money goes into the general revenue fund, which is the giant pot of money the Legislature uses to pay for education, health care and almost anything else that state agencies do. (The highway fund would actually receive a little less than half at first—the tax generates about $4 billion a year, and his proposal would have the first $2.5 billion go to general revenue, the next $2.5 billion go to the highway fund, with both funds taking half of whatever comes after.)

The Texas Department of Transportation badly needs the money—the agency has estimated it requires $10 billion in additional funding each biennium just to handle the current level of congestion in the highway system. And, as Nichols said in his opening remarks, TxDOT needs to know the money will be there. “They need to have reasonable assurances six, eight, 10 years out how much money they’re going to count on, so they can begin the process for these big projects require,” Nichols said,

Nearly every legislator would like TxDOT to be made whole, if for no other reason than almost everyone uses the state’s transportation network—unlike, say, public schools and state health services. And an impressive coalition of movers and shakers has coalesced behind Nichols’ plan. On Wednesday, a press conference with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also featured the kind of panel of besuited white businessmen that convene at the Capitol when something big is about to happen.

But there was also some discomfort at today’s committee hearing, from both the left and the right. State Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood) said that the new funding for TxDOT amounted to a drop in the bucket—he’d like to see more of the auto sales tax receipts go to road funding.

But others on the committee worried primarily about the opposite—the effect that pulling money from general revenue would have on the rest of the budget. State Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), in particular, asked how redirecting billions of dollars from the general revenue fund was complementary with the Legislature’s tax cut ambitions.

“If we take that out, how do we make it up? I know we say, it’s good not to raise taxes,” said Ellis. “How do we pay for this? It’s a very important concept, and something we do need to do. But I saw everybody yesterday feeling real good about giving some of our money back in property tax relief.”

He’d said he’d prefer that his personal property tax rebate be reinvested in infrastructure. “I guess my home might be worth a little bit more than the average cost of a home in my district, but I’d get my $180 and put it back into roads, to be honest with you,” Ellis said. “I’m just wondering how we do it all.”

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are hell-bent on passing tax cuts large enough that people notice—part of their compact with GOP primary voters. That’s what makes Nichols’ proposals difficult. If the state had plenty of money, connecting TxDOT to a steady revenue stream would be a no-brainer. But the Legislature’s current budget proposals are packed with spending items, and some of the tax cut proposals legislators are floating would restrict the ability of the state to take in revenue in the future.

In a recent editorial calling for the Legislature to fund real needs before cutting taxes, the San Antonio Express-News collected legislators’ competing budget promises and declared that “even a Ginsu knife might not be able to slice this budget fine enough.”

State Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay), no flaming liberal, voted for Nichols’ plan but said he was wary of tying the hands of future legislators, who might need the money for something else.

“I have a huge reservation about the dedication of funds and the lack of the Legislature’s discretionary ability,” says Fraser. Nichols’ SJR 5 would ask voters to enshrine the rerouting of the vehicle sales tax in the Texas Constitution, something that would be  difficult to undo. Fraser said he would “continue to explore whether it’s good public policy to dedicate” funds, he said. “But I’m going to vote for this bill to move this process along.”

Freshman state Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) was having none of it. “We’ve had 30 years … to put money into highways and we haven’t done it,” he said. “The only way we’re going to make a forced savings plan is to put it in a constitutional amendment.”

That irked Fraser a bit. With “respect,” he told Huffines, “you’ve only been here about a month. Some of us have been here for a long time.” There’s a “learning curve of institutional knowledge” to be acquired. Huffines laughed amiably.

Transportation has been named one of the governor’s emergency items, meaning the Senate can take up Nichols’ plan immediately. On Wednesday, Patrick said he expected the Senate to pass the bills as early as next week.

Texas Family Values Rally
Kelsey Jukam
Jonathan Saenz of Texas Values, right, stares at a cardboard wedding cake celebrating Texas' ban on same-sex marriages at a Texas Faith and Freedom Day rally, Feb. 24, 2015.

Hellfire may be licking at Texans’ heels, but bitter cold forced the righteous inside today. For months, groups such as Texas Values and the Texas Eagle Forum had planned to convene for Texas Faith and Family Day and give a mighty rebuke to changing cultural norms on the south steps of the Capitol, a venue that can lend grandeur to even small rallies. Instead, they filled a little more than half of the 350-seat Capitol auditorium.

In Texas, the Christian right did quite well in the 2014 election, but, true to form, social conservatives feel more persecuted than ever. In one respect, their sky really is falling: The state ban on gay marriage looks ready to collapse. There was the one-off marriage of a Travis County couple last week, and there’s a widespread expectation that marriage equality is coming to Texas soon, thanks to either the 5th Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court.

But at the Capitol auditorium today, there was no talk about that elephant in the room. Perhaps that would have been too depressing for the crowd. Instead, like prisoners of war awaiting a dawn execution, event organizers talked about the past. The ringleader was Jonathan Saenz, the anti-gay marriage activist whose ex-wife left him for a woman.

Saenz, who has tirelessly fought against non-discrimination ordinances around the state and who is the most visible face of anti-gay-marriage activism, stood onstage next to two pink-and-white birthday cakes and a facsimile cardboard wedding cake marking the 10th anniversary of the approval—by roughly 13 percent of the state’s voters—of Texas’ constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Might as well celebrate now, because the ban will likely be dead by the actual anniversary of its passage in November 2005.

In some ways, it was still 2005 in the room. The Texas Eagle Forum’s Cathie Adams introduced state Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia), who opened with a joke. “I always take a picture of the audience,” he told the crowd, pulling out his phone, to prove to his wife that he is where he said he would be. After all, “it’s until death do us part, and it’s me she was talking about killing.” Traditional marriage, you see, is the bond between a man and his nagging wife.

Bell is the author of a bill that would bar government employees that help perform or recognize same-sex marriages from getting paid or receiving benefits—one of a number of weird last-ditch efforts to keep the gays at bay. Polls show Texans are more and more in favor of recognizing same-sex unions of some kind. But Bell had a rejoinder to that. “Public polls are conducted by people who want to skew public opinion one way or another,” he softly reassured the crowd.

The sanctity of marriage wasn’t the only subject on the day’s agenda. State Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) rose to speak about his efforts to curb judicial bypass abortions. A slick lawyer could abduct your daughter on her way to school, he told attendees, and help her get an abortion without your knowledge.

It was, he said, the 179th anniversary of William Barret Travis’ famous last letter from the Alamo. Today’s culture wars are similar. “Either we win, or there’s going to be deaths,” Krause said of the fight to end legal abortion. “Victory or death,” he signed off.

Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) rose to talk about his anti-Sharia law bill. Was the bill pointless demagoguery? “Read the news,” Leach told the crowd. The menace of Sharia law was becoming more pressing every day. “There’s no judge in Texas that should even think twice about violating the U.S. Constitution,” Leach said.

Quite a few legislators dropped by, but the disparity between representatives and senators who elected to make the walk to the auditorium speaks volumes about the differences between the two chambers. Among reps, Molly White and Scott Turner (he of the failed speaker bid) came by. But neither they nor any of the event’s other speakers hold much sway in the House—they hail from the party’s fringy side. But the senators who showed are influential, including Brian Birdwell, Charles Perry and Donna Campbell, who’s well on her way from freshman wacko-bird to senior stateswoman. (In a few more cycles, one assumes, she’ll be primaried as a RINO.)

Their leader was there as well, and Campbell introduced Dan Patrick to a standing ovation. “He is our leader, he is strong and he has the same values we do,” she said. “He’s known for his hard work ethic, and he’s a strong family man.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick
Kelsey Jukam
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick speaks to attendees of the Texas Faith and Family Day rally.

No marriage in Texas is as sacred as the marriage between Patrick and his podium, and he showed his great love for it to the crowd. Relaxed and happy, he spoke with the knowledge that he was among friends, though he mostly avoided any talk about issues. Instead, he spoke about his great love for the Bible and his conviction that his allies share that love. What a shame, he said, that he had to wait to find God’s word until he was middle-aged. He mentioned his modestly titled book about the Bible, The Second Most Important Book You’ll Ever Read, written years ago when he was but a mere talk show host.

“I don’t know if the end days are today, or a thousand years from now,” Patrick told the crowd. “That’s why we have to stand for Christ in all that we do.”

A pastor—one of the so-called Houston Five who’ve been involved in a fight with Houston mayor Annise Parker—delivered a closing prayer: “We declare this state to be the sovereign territory of Jesus Christ,” he said, eliciting “amens” from the crowd. It fell to Bell to cut the banniversary cake, with White and Birdwell at his side.

Earlier, Leach had treated the crowd to his favorite Woodrow Wilson quote: “It’s better to temporarily fail at a cause that will ultimately succeed,” he said, “than to temporarily succeed at a cause that will ultimately fail.” On gay-rights issues, the true believers at the Capitol today are convinced they’re doing the former. What will happen when they come to terms with the fact that it’s really been the latter?

Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 1.26.23 PM

Here in the Patriotic People’s Republic of Kory (почему вы переводите это), things are actually looking up! True, it’s been a hard few weeks. Though our editorial staffers were forced to marry guns in a group ceremony yesterday, a court order won by our extremely competent Attorney General Ken Paxton annulled them (or at least that’s what we’re telling ourselves.)

1) We check in today on GREAT LEADER KORY, who’s developing a personality cult, as all great leaders should. The fear he’s put in the hearts of legislators has won him fans.

One Metroplex writer has been able to put Watkins’ role in the freedom movement in perspective. Read for yourself, on the website of Brett Sanders—the website’s logo renders the B in Brett as a Bitcoin—a feature-length treatment of Watkins: “Patriot Misunderstood, Kory Watkins a Rebel Without a Pause.” (sics throughout.)

There is a man who walks the line in Texas.

Go on…

A Freedom lover, Tarrant County Precinct chair, Radio Show host, Father, Brother, Husband, and Son. Kory Watkins who credits the discovery of Ron Paul for his awakening to the corruption and tyranny in government, and Paul’s strong stance for Freedom and Liberty.

Fair—Watkins is almost indisputably someone’s son. But haven’t a lot of his erstwhile allies denounced his tactics, like shouting at legislators that “treason is punishable by death?”

All the negativity thrown at Mr. Watkins about his choice of methods, have been simply petty and not very relevant. […] Why separate yourself from Samuel Adams and Thomas Jefferson type of Freedom Fighter?

Kory, the author says, is “fighting for the rights of not only himself but countless others. His aggressiveness and the utilization of his Freedoms to express and engage the battle to have our rights restored are trashed by many within the liberty movement.” This Thomas Jefferson look-a-like, in his period-appropriate MRA trilby, is a critical leader—the critical leader—of the state’s gun rights movement. “Just like a defense on any sports team needs an aggressor, an intimidator, one that goes head first into the melee.”

The bill that facilitates the installation of panic buttons in lege offices after Watkins stormed the office of state Rep. Poncho Nevárez was a #FalseFlag operation, says the author, “a pre determined plan” designed to discredit Kory. They’re scared of him because he’s effective.

“Kory is the modern day symbolism of ‘Don’t Tread on Me,’” Sanders writes. “We have been silent and nice for far to long.”

I’m sold. What will Watkins—son, husband, radio host, Thomas Jefferson, linebacker—do once he’s won his gun rights? Among other items, Watkins says he will fight to end “knife and sword regulations.”

Get excited, legislators. Come next session, these guys are going to be wandering around the capitol with broadswords.

Here’s a video of Kory Watkins rapping.

 

2) Ever since state Sen. Don Huffines won his primary bid last year, I’ve been preoccupied with the feeling that his face is familiar. Recently, with the help of the Observer’s photo-analytics team—unpaid interns we’ve pulled from Casis Elementary’s pre-trial diversion program—we’ve cracked it. Huffines bears a striking similarity to ’70s character actor Henry Gibson, of Nashville and The Blues Brothers fame:

Henry Gibson, in The Blues Brothers
Henry Gibson, in The Blues Brothers
Don Huffines, in the Senate
Don Huffines, in the Senate

Could it be a coincidence? Plausible. But eagle-eyed readers will note that “Don Huffines” and “Henry Gibson” share no fewer than seven letters between them, and the keener amongst you will be intrigued to know that Gibson “died” just six years before Huffines made his first bid for elected office. Peek into the dark recesses of this state, and ye know not what ye shall find.

Whatever his real name is, Huffines would like to wish “all the ladies out there” a “happy Valentime’s Day.”

3) Remember Rick Perry? He’s slowly fading from the state’s memory. We find ourselves bathing in the Eternal Sunshine of the Rickless Mind. He has a new video out this week about his great love for a great state. Sing our praises, guv!

“We’re in beautiful New Hampshire, the Granite State,” narrates Yankee Rick, probably slathered in infidel maple syrup and wearing a Patriots jersey. “Granite’s tough and durable, just like the people who live in this fiercely independent state,” Perry says as B-roll of him patting a veteran on the shoulder plays.

Man. Even if you were happy to see him go, it hurts when your one-time lover finds another, doesn’t it? Do all our memories mean nothing, Rick? Just… adios, mofo, like that? In two weeks he’ll be wearing L.L. Bean flannels and bitching about that recent nor’easter. But pancakes are no substitute for brisket, Perry. You’ll regret this. Loyalty, Rick, it used to mean something.

Perry is in New Hampshire because he’s running for president. How is that going? Well, Perry has an easier route to win the Republican nomination than some others, which is not to say that he’ll be successful. It’s actually only a two-step plan:

Step One: Patiently wait until J.E.B. is eaten alive by the Right, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul flame out spectacularly, Scott Walker’s weird fetishes surface and Marco Rubio’s face falls off during a live debate, revealing an intricately machined system of whirring gears.

Step Two: Don’t look like a dolt.

Step One is going OK, inasmuch as Perry is still in the race. Step Two? In New Hampshire, Perry produced a novel historical claim at a county GOP Lincoln-Reagan Day dinner. According to Perry, old Abe “Rebel Annihilator” Lincoln was, it turns out, a vociferous proponent of state’s rights:

“Abraham Lincoln read the Constitution, and he also read the Bill of Rights, and he got down to the Tenth Amendment, and he liked it. That Tenth Amendment that talks about these states, these laboratories of democracy. […] The Tenth Amendment that the federal government is limited, its powers are limited by the Constitution.”

As historian Josh Zeitz writes in Politico Magazine, GOPers have always had a hard time incorporating Lincoln into their political narratives. They like to boast that he was a Republican, but he was a Republican before the American party system inverted itself several times during the course of the last 150 years. Lincoln was a big-time federalist whose most important domestic policies were quintessentially big-government projects—he championed federal investment in education and became deeply concerned about the trajectory of American capitalism as the war came to a close. His biggest achievement, of course, did have a little something to do with state’s rights. In Perry’s imagining, perhaps we could call it “The War of Northern Aggression for a Limited and Devolved Government with No Handouts.”

The grotesque thing about this, of course, is that Perry flirted with secession as governor.

Here’s the Gettysburg Address, as reimagined by Perry. If you’re on his campaign team, feel free to use this:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new loose federal compact, conceived in joint appreciation for family values and corporate power, and dedicated to the proposition that the states, the laboratories of Democracy, know how to create jobs better than some bureaucrat in D.C., I tell you what.

Now we are engaged in a problematic period in which both sides are at fault, testing whether that loose federal compact, or any loose federal compact so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of this unfortunate mutual dispute. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that this nation may continue to create jobs long into the future.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here to reduce the taxpayer’s burden. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion to the cause of limited government—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom from intrusive government mandates and burdensome federal regulation—and that government of the states, by the states, for the states, shall not perish from the earth.

Someday, a spiritual successor to me and my work will rise in a border state, with a handsome head of hair, and he will take the fight to tyranny just as I did. We’re Taxed Enough Already, people. It’s not a miracle, it’s a model. God bless America. Adios, mofos.

Access to Planned Parenthood

Haven Health Clinic in Amarillo provides gynecological care and cancer screenings to women across 26 counties in the Panhandle, serving a 25,000-square mile swath of the state. Under a Senate budget proposal that redistributes funding for a state breast and cervical cancer program for uninsured women, speciality clinics like Haven Health could lose money for Pap smears and mammograms.

“If we were to lose the money, there are women in our area who will die,” Carolena Cogdill, CEO of Haven Health Clinics, told the Observer. “We do see a lot of women who have a precursor to cervical and breast cancer.”

The Senate proposal is intended to keep Planned Parenthood from participating in the breast and cervical cancer program. According to the draft budget, funding would follow a three-tiered formula: Money would first go to public health entities, such as hospital districts and community health clinics, followed by providers that offer “comprehensive primary and preventative care.” The third and final tier would include specialty clinics like Planned Parenthood and Haven. Cogdill fears her clinic could be in that bottom tier because it’s privately-run and doesn’t clearly offer “comprehensive primary and preventative care.”

“So far I haven’t been able to get in touch with anybody at the Department of State Health Services who knows the answer,” she said.

According to a list of providers compiled by the Department of State Health Services and obtained by the Observer, at least 13 providers—many of which operate multiple clinics or are the only provider in their area—could fall into the second or third funding tier and risk losing money.

The Observer contacted five of the providers on the list, including Haven. Representatives for four of the five said they were concerned about losing funding but hadn’t been able to determine conclusively which tier they would fall into.

The fifth, Jennifer Riley of the YWCA of Lubbock, said that she’s unsure how the budget proposal would affect her organization. The YWCA doesn’t directly provide the cancer services, but instead  gives financial assistance to low-income women and refers them to clinics in the community for services and treatment.

Other representatives of specialty providers testified at a Senate Finance Committee hearing Thursday, many warning of the collateral damage that could come with a tiered system. In 2011, the Texas Legislature slashed $70 million from state family planning programs in part to defund Planned Parenthood and imposed the same tiered funding scheme, which resulted in the closure of more than 50 family planning clinics. Many of the clinics had nothing to do with Planned Parenthood.

The proposal “does exactly the opposite of investing in women’s health,” said Ana Rodriguez Defrates, Texas policy director with the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, in testimony before the committee. “It would have the effect of eliminating funding for many of the frontline clinics that provide breast and cervical cancer services in rural communities.”

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Hispanic women in Texas are more likely to develop cervical cancer than white or African-American women.

Martha Zuniga, executive director of the South Texas Family Planning and Health Corporation in the Corpus Christi area, said that her organization would likely be in the second tier of funding. Three of her clinics can see women immediately for screenings and diagnostic services, whereas patients may experience long wait times at the “tier one” public and community health centers.

“In my part of Texas, the [proposal] may eliminate organizations like us, which are an important part of the breast and cervical cancer safety net for the Coastal Bend community,” she told senators.

Health care providers and advocates also urged Senate Finance Committee members to protect women’s health services in the budget this session. In 2013, legislators restored the family planning funding lost in 2011. This session, the Texas Senate budget includes $50 million for a consolidated women’s health program. Still, as Dr. Janet Realini of the Texas Women’s Healthcare Coalition reminded the committee Thursday, only three in 10 eligible women are being served.

“We still have a long way to go,” she said.

Kel Seliger
Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo)

The high-stakes battle over high-stakes testing returned to the Capitol today as the Senate Committee on Education heard testimony on Senate Bill 149, which would allow students to graduate high school without passing state tests.

Without action from the Legislature, as many as 28,000 students will not graduate this year because they haven’t passed state tests, said the bill’s author, Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo).

Seliger’s bill would allow students who fail State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) exams to graduate if they pass all classes required for graduation, maintain a 2.0 GPA and meet other conditions outlined by an individual graduation committee.

According to Seliger’s proposal, the individual graduation committee—consisting of the student’s principal, teacher, school counselor and parent—would have to vote unanimously for a student to graduate.

Arguing in favor of the bill, committee chair Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) said there is a big disconnect between student achievement and test scores.

“It’s insanity when you see the level of achievement some of these kids are doing and they can’t pass the test,” Taylor said.

Testing is big business in Texas. The state currently pays the testing company Pearson almost half a billion dollars under a five-year contract to develop, distribute and score STAAR tests.

Aldine ISD superintendent Wanda Bamberg testified that she doesn’t trust Pearson.

“Every year we pay Pearson to have our [scored] papers returned to us … and we found a paper that was mis-scored,” Bamburg said. “We’re holding children accountable for graduation based on that type of scoring error.”

Seliger’s bill comes amid a broader movement to diminish the importance of high-stakes tests. During the 2013 legislative session almost 90 percent of Texas school boards signed an anti-testing resolution, and the Legislature reduced the number of tests required for graduation from 15 to five.

Texas started requiring that students pass standardized tests to graduate in the 1980s, and was one of the first states to do so. After the state implemented the tests, the graduation rate for Latinos and African Americans dropped significantly. In 1997 the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund sued the Texas Education Agency, arguing the test was racially discriminatory.

Courts ruled in favor of the agency, and the anti-testing movement didn’t reach critical mass until a few years ago when a coalition of advocacy groups started agitating. One much-publicized group, dubbed Moms Against Drunk Testing, testified at today’s hearing in favor of Seliger’s bill.

Clay Robison, spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association, said his organization hopes the work of advocacy groups will prod the Legislature to take a closer look at who benefits from the state’s testing requirement.

“The current testing regime enriches companies and transfers accountability from a Legislature that has historically underfunded education,” Robison told the Observer.

Senate Bill 149 did receive some pushback, primarily from Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) and Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham).

Kolkhorst said she was concerned the bill would create a disincentive for students to pass tests and questioned why the state should spend so much money on exams if students can graduate high school without passing them.

“Maybe we should just throw those out [the tests] and save the money,” Kolkhorst said.

“That’s a whole ‘nother discussion,” Taylor responded.

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