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Rainbow flag - U.S. Supreme Court for Same Sex marriage
The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on same-sex marriage on Tuesday, April 28.

 

In what would be an unprecedented move, some leading LGBT advocates say they’re prepared to throw their support behind legislation related to same-sex marriage that’s been championed by anti-gay groups, including Texas Values and the Texas Pastor Council.

House Bill 3567, by Rep. Scott Sanford (R-McKinney), states that churches and clergy cannot be forced to participate in the “solemnization, formation, or celebration” of a same-sex marriage.

“It’s my job here at the ACLU to protect religious liberty, and if the bill is really about religious liberty, we’re going to come out in favor of it,” said Rebecca Robertson, legal and policy director for the ACLU of Texas. “There’s not a single example of any clergy being forced to perform a wedding that they don’t believe is consistent with their faith, but nevertheless we agree with the principle.”

The Texas Pastor Council, which has led efforts to overturn nondiscrimination ordinances in Houston and Plano, brought in dozens of religious leaders to testify in favor of the bill during a committee hearing last week. Meanwhile, LGBT advocates said the bill was too broad and could allow religiously affiliated organizations, including hospitals and universities, to discriminate against gay couples.

However, Sanford has since introduced a substitute that addresses many of those concerns by significantly narrowing the bill’s scope. In a letter to Sanford on Wednesday, Equality Texas, the Texas Freedom Network and the ACLU of Texas requested one additional minor change that the groups said, if made, would allow them to support HB 3567.

Robertson said other states have enacted similar protections in conjunction with marriage equality legislation or nondiscrimination laws. Texas is one of only 13 states where same-sex marriage is still banned, but the U.S. Supreme Court is widely expected to change that next month.

“There’s a reason that we can all get together on this bill,” Robertson said. “It’s a principle we all agree on, and people can take comfort in the fact that their personal faith traditions are not going to be threatened. There’s room for both religious liberty and equality. We have a big Constitution.”

Several media outlets reported Thursday that Senate Republicans had attempted to fast-track a companion bill at the request of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, only to have a hearing delayed by Democrats in a procedural move.

That bill, by Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls), is identical to the original version of HB 3567. The LGBT groups are hopeful Estes will be willing to address their concerns in the same way Sanford has. Neither Estes nor Sanford responded to messages seeking comment.

“There are ongoing conversations that are headed in the right direction, and if they continue in how they’re going, there’s every real possibility we’ll wind up with a bill we can support,” said Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas.

LGBT advocates say churches and clergy are already protected from being forced to participate in same-sex weddings under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Texas Constitution and the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“There are churches today that will refuse to perform a wedding for couples of different faiths, or for a couple where one of them has divorced, or for interracial couples, and these churches absolutely have that right,” Williams said, “and once the freedom to marry comes to the state of Texas, churches will absolutely have the right to refuse to perform or recognize those weddings.

“Absolutely no one is trying to change that, and so long as any proposed legislation conforms to the current standards, it will have our support.”

Dave Welch, executive director of the Texas Pastor Council, said his group continues to support the substitute version of HB 3567, and would not balk if SB 2065 is similarly revised.

“It’s frankly not one of the stronger bills,” Welch said. “It’s not one that deals with some of the other fundamental threats against religious liberty that we still need to see happen, so I’m not surprised [LGBT advocates would support it] because in reality all it’s saying is that pastors should have the right to continue to do what they’ve always done.”

Welch said his group is still pushing religious freedom measures that are more sweeping, including some that critics say would establish a “license to discriminate” against LGBT people. But most of those proposals appear stalled amid opposition from business leaders who fear the type of backlash seen in Indiana after it passed an anti-LGBT religious freedom law in March.

“Some of the Republican leadership are going to have to face the music if they don’t stand up for the principles upon which they were elected,” Welch said. “If they’re going to cater to the profit-at-all-cost corporate greed of the Texas Association of Business, which is basically standing on an empty platform of deception, they’ll ultimately lose the next election. … If Apple is going to pull out of Texas because we’re going to defend our religious freedom that has produced the same climate that brought them here to begin with, then frankly, move back to California.”

 

Don Huffines
Sen. Don Huffines approaches Peak Dallas

The Senate should eat its spinach, declared Gov. Greg Abbott, the Legislature’s kind-hearted but distant paterfamilias. Among the moderate and nutritious items he laid out as priorities for his first legislative session as governor, one would be good for the whole family: ethics reform.

Did you know that legislators do not much like being told how they can and cannot make money? On Tuesday, one of the Legislature’s signature ethics bills, Senate Bill 19, stepped on to the Senate floor a ghost of its former self, having been pilloried in committee. But once debate began, it was overhauled against the author’s wishes. Greatly strengthened in some ways and weakened in others, it eventually passed by a unanimous vote.

But could the debate—full of weird and acrimonious invective between senators, and involving the passage of a large number of amendments, including one which mandates drug testing for those who hope to become elected officials—threaten the bill’s future?

SB 19’s author, state Sen. Van Taylor (R-Plano), called his bill the “most significant ethics reform package of a generation” on Tuesday, as if it had already passed. His fellow senators seemed more doubtful. They made significant changes to Taylor’s bill, which seeks to make the ways lawmakers make money more transparent and to prevent legislators from immediately becoming lobbyists when they leave public service.

Their efforts to tweak the bill culminated in an unusual last-minute gutting of a key provision of Taylor’s bill against his wishes, making the events of Tuesday one of the stranger Senate floor debates of the session.

Abbott had wanted any ethics reform package to prohibit legislators and other elected state officials who practice law from earning referral fees—payments for referring a case to another lawyer. Taylor presented the provision as an urgent part of his ethics overhaul, prompted by the case of New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who was recently arrested and charged with making millions of dollars in a kickback scheme utilizing referral fees to mask what amounted to bribes, among other improprieties. “Referral fees are ripe for corruption,” Taylor said.

But several senators, lawyers themselves, opposed this provision—asking why other professions that deal with referral fees, such as realtors, weren’t included in the bill.

“I don’t think you know the full impact that this bill has on practicing [lawyers who are] legislators,” state Sen. Chuy Hinojosa (D-McAllen) said. “You’re putting most practicing lawyers out of business.”

And state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), a towering 43-year-veteran of the lege who personifies old-school wheeler-dealer politics as well as anybody currently in office, found himself aghast that Taylor would cast aspersions on state legislators’ keen ethical senses. When state Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) offered an amendment to prevent elected officials from hiring each other—ultimately killed, 6 to 25—Whitmire erupted at both Huffines and Taylor.

The whole bill was borne out of petty political grievances, Whitmire said, charging that Taylor still wanted to give former state Sen. Wendy Davis grief after last year’s election. And Huffines’ amendment seemed tailored to the case of his one-time primary opponent, former state Sen. John Carona, whose company once counted state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) on the payroll.

Why would Taylor and Huffines have a vendetta against two lawmakers who are well retired from the lege? Huffines seemed mystified by this assertion. When Whitmire suggested he felt he had a “score to settle,” Huffines replied: “The score was settled when I won.”

But Whitmire was angrier at the aspersions cast on the Senate as a whole. “I think you’ve done a horrible disservice to this outstanding body,” Whitmire said, speaking of the way in which Taylor laid out the bill. Wasn’t he implying, with his attempt to create new ethical guidelines for elected officials, that “we are all crooks?”

“Would you put a face on this for all of us?” Whitmire asked. If Taylor was aware of wrongdoing, “you need to name us.” And then, he added, “run over to the DA’s office.” Otherwise, he said, any suggestion of impropriety at the lege was, in effect, “incriminating outstanding, honest people.”

But though Whitmire felt Taylor’s bill and Huffines’ amendment were classless, he found himself physically “sick to my stomach” thanks to Taylor’s linkage of the Empire State with the Lone Star State. It was highly inappropriate, he said, to put Texas legislators in the same league as “the slime of the New York Legislature.”

After a long late-afternoon delay, state Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) came up with a fix for the debate over lawyer referrals. Although the Texas Government Code already requires referrals to be reported on personal financial statements, she said, “that wasn’t routinely being done.” Her amendment will allow elected officials who are lawyers to continue accepting referral fees, but they will have to report those fees and provide details of the associated court cases.

But remarkably, the compromise wasn’t accepted by Taylor, who felt it was a critical part of his bill and moved to table it. That’s commonplace in the House, but almost never done in the Senate. Even more unusual—Taylor convincingly lost the motion to table, and was forced to swallow Huffman’s provision. Senate leadership, with both Democrats and Republicans on board, effectively railroaded Taylor.

Other successful amendments to the bill will require candidates to disclose the full total of their income from whatever source, including pensions and retirement plans, and to post their personal financial statements online.

And state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville) took transparency to the next level with his amendment that would require state elected officials to take a drug test when they file for office and post the results of those tests online. The tests carry no penalty, so officials posting positive drug tests would only incur the wrath of public scrutiny.

The Senate passed the drug-test amendment, but not without some eye rolling. In response to Lucio’s amendment, state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) suggested he should propose that elected officials also take an IQ test—and maybe test for alcohol abuse as well. Ultimately, mandatory drug tests for elected state officials are probably not even legal. In the 1997 case of Chandler v. Miller, the Supreme Court found that mandatory drug tests of elected officials are unconstitutional, violating the fourth amendment.

All in all, Tuesday’s debate was reminiscent of another Senate tango that took place a little over two years ago. Carona, the former Dallas senator who was replaced by Huffines, found himself trying to wrangle a huge payday lending regulatory effort through the upper chamber. It came to the Senate weak, the product of lengthy negotiations between reformers and the industry—but a miracle happened. Amendments kept getting added to the bill, including several by liberals like Davis and Ellis, strengthening it and its provisions.

But Carona knew what was happening. The bill was tanking. It had become so top-heavy, and so strong against the industry, that it was effectively being killed on the floor, with little chance of future passage. He began acquiescing to the amendments, defeated. He told the chamber: “I just want to go home and feed my cat.”

Taylor seemed to be in a similar mood Tuesday. SB 19 is now an ungainly collection of weak and strong provisions—a mess that House members will have to work to untangle, if they pass it at all. The Senate, apparently amending out of spite, even passed a special amendment to prevent legislators for being paid to serve on bank boards. (Taylor serves on a bank board.)

Is SB 19 on the road to passage? Maybe. Will it be anything close to what the governor wanted when he called for ethics reform? No, almost certainly not. Taylor, Patrick and Abbott insisted they were thrilled with the bill, but one has to wonder how Taylor is feeling about his education in Senate decorum. Maybe he should get a cat.

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

Many of us have been the target of bullying, but few of us have been lieutenant governor. Dan Patrick has the misfortune to be both at the same time. Who is bullying the second-most powerful elected official in the great state of Texas, you ask? His peers in state government, says Dan.

By now, you’ve probably heard the story of The Breakfast, as characterized last week by Texas Monthly. At a regularly scheduled weekly breakfast between Patrick, Gov. Greg Abbott, and House Speaker Joe Straus, things got heated: Patrick and Straus confronted each other over long-simmering resentments between the two chambers, and Abbott got up the nerve to ask Patrick about Patrick’s best friends calling Abbott’s pre-K plan godless welfare socialism. Patrick responded, in the only quote that left the room, that the two were “picking on me.”

The confrontation was the subject of feverish speculation through this weekend. Did the tale have substance? Was it fluff? Was Patrick not as weaselly, or the three as far apart, as the story has them?

To some extent, the full picture doesn’t matter: The Breakfast is a perfect #txlege meta-narrative. The highly unflattering story about Patrick had to be given to the media by multiple people with knowledge of the event—certainly from friends of House leadership, and probably from people in the governor’s camp, too—which is itself evidence that things are not going well between the three.

The weekly breakfasts have long been offered by one or another of its participants as evidence that things were going smoothly in the 84th—and that the governor, contrary to an increasingly popular perception around Austin, has a hand in how the Legislature is running. Eggs! Friendship! Fun!

But they’ve been extra-important this session because two of the Big Three are new. Patrick was a highly unknown quantity whose ability to play with others was in question when the session commenced in January. Abbott, who was attorney general before he took the top job, had no experience as a legislator. And would Straus and his team of streetfighters accept the new order?

With a little over a month to go in the session, we’re not much closer to getting a satisfactory resolution on these questions. There are some signs now that the causes of last Wednesday’s tension—the logjam in the House and Senate, and the drama over pre-K—are ebbing a bit. But other fights loom large on the horizon, and the underlying causes of this session’s dysfunction so far have not materially changed.

—Abbott’s out to lunch.

Unlike Rick Perry, who served in the Legislature for six years and had no reluctance about throwing his weight around as governor, no one really knew how Abbott was going to handle the Lege. He’s been making appearances at sporting events and music award shows far from Austin. A gap has opened up between the more moderate-minded guv and his right, giving oxygen to the persistent speculation in Austin that he should worry about a primary challenge in 2018.

When Patrick’s lieutenants—members of his so-called Grassroots Advisory Board—wrote a letter for the world to see that proclaimed one of Abbott’s most important policy priorities straight out of the pits of hell, he had to confront Patrick. Here’s how one person “familiar with the breakfast conservation” spun it to the Texas Tribune:

“I will say this for anyone who’s been wondering where Abbott has been,” said one. “He arrived today.”

This is too little, too late, isn’t it? It’s late April, and we’ve not long to go till Sine Die. The House and the Senate have gotten hopelessly crosswise on issues like their rival tax cut plans that will be very difficult to resolve without one side winning outright. Patrick can rightfully point to the governor’s past statements, like his seeming endorsement of property tax cuts in his State of the State address, as helping to create that confusion. (Patrick has repeatedly attempted to use Abbott’s past tax talk against him.)

Abbott’s priorities, from his university research initiative to the pre-K bills, have gotten batted around like a chew-toy. His ethics reform proposals have been hollowed out, and today one of the most important ethics bills this session was practically turned inside out by a hostile Senate. If the advisor here is suggesting he’s learned his lesson, he’s got a lot of ground to make up for.

—Patrick is still playing games.

Patrick burst into the Lege like Napoleon in a Whataburger drive-thru. He’d whip the place into shape. He set extraordinarily high expectations for himself, and many different sets of expectations as well. He could not possibly live up to them all. So the fight during the next month will be to preserve as much of his program as possible, against a speaker and governor he seems to view as undermining him.

Since Wednesday, Straus has referred a number of Senate bills to committee, and Patrick has done the same with some House bills. Significantly, Patrick referred House Bill 4, the pre-K bill that Abbott wants, to committee. So did the breakfast serve to break the tension? Are things working smoothly again now? Patrick soothingly told the Houston Chronicle he thought there was a less than 20 percent chance of a special session.

But is Patrick really backing down? At the breakfast, reports the Texas Tribune, Abbott emphasized that Patrick shouldn’t take his pre-K plan hostage: He “cautioned the lieutenant governor against holding that pre-K legislation hostage until the House acted on school choice or other bills dear to Patrick.”

The day after The Breakfast, Patrick called Julie McCarty of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party. She’s one of the most prominent tea party leaders in the state, and she’s on Patrick’s Grassroots Advisory Board—the one that kicked off the pre-K furor early last week. She described his call on her Facebook page. Here’s what she wrote:

From what I can tell, Dan is ok with the pre-k issue because it’s not full day, and it’s less money that it has been previously. Plus for some unknown reason Abbott is obsessed with it. But he believes it needs to be part of a full package deal of education issues.

In other words, Patrick continues to sell the tea party on his support of pre-K by using exactly the framework that Abbott sought to dissuade him from using. How much will he try to get in exchange for letting the guv’s wishlist through?

Patrick says he didn’t know about the pre-K letter that got him in hot water. But it plays into his hands, in a way. Anything he can do to widen the gap between Abbott and the GOP right is good for Patrick. Even if he doesn’t want Abbott’s job, the pressure might force Abbott to the right, too. And now that the distance between Patrick and the governor is clearly established, he might be blamed less by his base for having to pass bills written by the dreaded RINOs.

—The House wants to fight.

The Senate began moving on some smaller House bills last week, and the House began moving on an even smaller number of Senate bills. OK. There are real differences on important bills, but there always are. Much of the hold-up has been over which chamber gets to take credit for authoring bills, and that’s relatively easy to sort out—just divide them up.

But the biggest fight to come will be over tax cuts. Here, it’s very difficult to see a compromise without the other side yielding completely. But the two sides keep raising the stakes, which makes that option more and more unpalatable for the two jousters. Patrick’s team is digging in over his shoddily constructed plan to lower what Texans pay in property taxes by a small amount.

On Saturday, the House GOP caucus sent a message of its own: 90 of the 98 House Republicans signed a letter arguing for the House plan, which would cut sales taxes by an even tinier amount. The missive, unusual in the way that it’s addressed to the public, lays out in a fairly in-depth way why the authors think Patrick’s tax cut plan sucks. (You can read it here.)

The letter is wholly unnecessary—it’s just a way to poke the Senate in the eye. The House hadn’t even passed its tax cut plan yet. (It did on Tuesday, with Speaker Straus himself voting for some of the package’s provisions, a highly unusual gesture.) And the letter was signed by almost every member of the House’s far-right, who might have been expected to side with Patrick. When members of Straus’ leadership team speak—particularly state Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton)—viscous, oily disdain for Patrick seeps to the surface.

Was The Breakfast overhyped? Maybe. But the problems between the Big 3 aren’t just the product of personality quirks, to be worked out over muffins and coffee. They’re the product of ideology. That portends difficulties in the long term—mid-morning snacks or no.

Rape - Reproductive rights activist Shelby Knox
Reproductive rights activist Shelby Knox

Data released this week shows that 413,000 Texans have experienced some form of sexual assault in the past year.

The analysis, conducted by a research team at the University of Texas School of Social Work and Institute for Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, also estimated that 6.3 million Texans—4.2 million women and 2.1 million men—have experienced a form a sexual assault in their lifetime. In 2003, a similar study found that 1.9 million Texans experienced a form sexual assault in their lifetime.

“It’s alarming that the prevalence of sexual assault has grown significantly since 2003,” Annette Burrhus-Clay, executive director of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, said in a statement. “As a state it’s imperative that we devote adequate resources to preventing sexual violence and serving survivor needs…To do otherwise seems both reckless and heartless.”

Noel Busch-Armendariz, lead researcher and associate dean for research at the School of Social Work, called the numbers “staggering.” The increase from 2003, however, isn’t necessarily due to more occurrences, but rather stronger measurements and legal definitions of what constitutes sexual assault and increased awareness over the last decade, Busch-Armendariz said.

“I think that once we started to understand the crime better and we started to describe it better in how we measured it, people say, ‘Oh wow, that happened to me,’” she said.

In addition to the statewide prevalence of sexual assault, the study found that 61 percent of women, and three in 10 men, were assaulted by someone that they were related to or had a close relationship with, such as a spouse or dating partner.

“A lot of times we go after those who commit complete stranger assaults,” Busch-Armendariz said. In situations where a victim is related to or knows his or her assailant, “it makes it really complicated for the victim to report and seek help. They may have a difficult time understanding what happened, that this was a person [they] trusted.”

Data also show that only 9 percent of victims reported the assault to law enforcement.

“When victims feel blame or a sense of culpability, they don’t get the help they need and they don’t report the crime to the police,” Busch-Armendariz said. “Then we’re in the perpetual cycle of not being able to hold offenders accountable.”

During the last 12 years, Texas has expanded some support services for survivors, though the state must do more, said Chris Kaiser, staff attorney with the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault. For example, in 2003, the Legislature passed a law allowing sexual assault survivors to seek protective orders.

The state also has strengthened the Crime Victims’ Compensation Program, which helps sexual assault victims cover things like lease termination fees and relocation costs should they need to move away from their assailant. Kaiser also said some local police departments have improved the way they interview victims and witnesses of assault.

“The more we can expand options and meet people where they are, the better able we are to support them and help them follow through the criminal justice process,” Kaiser said.

Funding for things like rape crisis centers and sexual assault nurse examiners remains a challenge. In 2011, a study by the University of Texas’s Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault led by Busch-Armendariz found that the state spends approximately $42.8 million per year on those services.

“We should be paying attention to this crime. It’s affecting all of us as taxpayers,” Busch-Armendariz said.

This session, multiple measures related to sexual assault are moving through the Legislature. They include House Bill 1102, which would eliminate the civil statute of limitations for childhood sexual assault incidents. Senate Bill 145 by state Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso), scheduled for a hearing on Tuesday, would make medical forensic exams free for all sexual assault victims.

On Monday, the House passed a measure by state Rep. Poncho Nevárez (D-Eagle Pass) requiring college campuses to create robust policies for addressing sexual assault, though members voted down an amendment that would’ve created a statewide task force to study the issue. The amendment by state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) on behalf of state Rep. Dawnna Dukes (D-Austin) is identical to Dukes’ House Bill 808, which has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.

“What do we need to do to make sure that this body protects the women in this state?” Howard asked House members as the amendment was defeated Monday.

Ann Elder - Transgender Lobby Day
John Wright
Ann Elder, left, shares a photo of her transgender son with a staffer for Rep. Dennis Paul (R-Houston) as Mitchel Roth and Lisa Mauldin look on during Monday's lobby day at the Texas Capitol.

 

Mitchel Roth hasn’t been involved in politics since he protested the Vietnam War.

But Roth, an author and criminology professor at Sam Houston State University, spent Monday at the Texas Capitol lobbying against bills that would require transgender people to use public restrooms according to their birth sex.

Roth traveled to Austin on behalf of his 10-year-old son, who’d become suicidal before his parents realized last year that he was transgender.

“There’s so much wrong in this state,” Roth said. “We’re like No. 50 in education and insurance and everything, and they’re worried about guns in holsters and someone going to the wrong bathroom. That’s what pisses me off. It’s hateful, non-necessary legislation.”

Roth was one of several parents with young transgender children who joined dozens of other LGBT advocates at the lobby day organized by Transgender Education Network of Texas.

For Roth and other parents, the prime target was House Bill 2801, by Rep. Gilbert Pena (R-Pasadena), which would make school districts liable for damages if they allow transgender students to use restrooms according to the gender with which they identify.

HB 2801 was scheduled for a hearing two weeks ago, but Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana), chair of the House Committee on State Affairs, abruptly asked Pena to rewrite it.

Pena, who previously told the Observer that HB 2801 is designed to protect students’ privacy, has declined to discuss the measure further.

“I have no idea what’s going on with it,” Pena said Monday. “You’ll have to ask the committee chair.”

Cook said Pena hasn’t offered a substitute bill or asked for another hearing to be scheduled.

“This looks like something that’s not likely to be addressed this session,” Cook said, adding that the liability for school districts presented “a huge issue.”

Another proposal, House Bill 1748 by Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-Spring), would make it a misdemeanor for transgender people to use public restrooms according to how they identify and a felony for business owners to allow them to do so.

Riddle, whose bill was also referred to Cook’s committee, has repeatedly declined to discuss it with the Observer. She recently told Breitbart Texas that HB 1748 is “simple common sense” because “men go to the men’s room and women go to the women’s room.”

“It protects the privacy and safety of women and children,” Riddle told Breitbart. “It is sad we even need a bill like this in today’s society.”

Lisa Strnad - transgender lobby day
John Wright
Trans woman Kerri Strnad, left, prepares to visit lawmakers’ offices with her wife, Lisa Strnad, during Monday’s lobby day at the Texas Capitol.

Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas, said it’s too soon to declare anti-trans legislation dead, noting the deadline for committees to report bills to the House is May 11.

“Amendments are still a risk, but I think events like this are what’s keeping those bills down,” Williams said before a press conference to kick off the lobby day on the north steps of the Capitol. “There are 35 days left in the session. At this point, every hour is a victory.”

Monday’s event was the third trans lobby day this year. That’s unprecedented, and Williams said anti-trans legislation has had a galvanizing effect for people who support transgender rights.

“Before this session, I think 90 percent of lawmakers could have said they’ve never had a conversation with a transgender person,” Williams said. “I don’t think any of them can say that now.”

On the eve of same-sex marriage arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court, the lobby day also served as a timely reminder that the LGBT movement is about more than marriage, said Mara Keisling, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Transgender Equality. In addition to fighting negative bills, participants advocated for statewide nondiscrimination laws.

“In states like Texas, a gay couple could get married in the morning and go back to work and tell their co-workers and get fired,” said Keisling, who traveled to Austin for the event. “Marriage was never the most important or only part of our agenda.”

Keisling said similar anti-trans bills have been introduced in eight states, but none has passed.

“It really is almost exactly the same bill in every state,” she said. “It’s based on, clearly, some radical think tank putting these things forward, because there’s no problem in Texas with people using the bathroom. While every legislature has a few knuckleheads, the leadership in most of these state legislatures has understood what sort of boneheaded policy it is.”

Keisling accompanied Roth and other parents of transgender children as they visited legislative offices throughout the afternoon.

Ann Elder, of Friendswood, said her son transitioned from female to male at 7. He was allowed to use a nurse’s bathroom at school but stopped when other students started asking him why.

“He just stopped drinking at school and stopped going to the bathroom,” Elder said. “He comes home dehydrated, starved, because he’s so afraid to use the bathroom.”

During a visit to the office of Rep. Mark Keough (R-The Woodlands), co-author of an anti-trans bill, legislative director Kurt Jones told Elder and other parents that Keough supports the measures because he’s pastor of a conservative Christian church.

“His worldview is obviously going to come from that,” Jones said.

Elder responded that her son is a foster child whom she and her husband adopted because they were unable to have kids.

“My child came to me from God,” Elder told Jones. “Tell [Keough] that God sometimes gives people challenges.”

John Whitmire
Sen. John Whitmire (D- Houston)

On Thursday, the Texas Senate overwhelmingly voted to roll back zero-tolerance discipline policies that disproportionately affect poor and minority students. Senate Bill 107 by Sen. John Whitmire (D- Houston) would give administrators more flexibility to deal with unruly students and require that public schools designate behavior coordinators to handle misbehavior. It passed 29-1.

“The bill allows administrators and teachers to work with youth, to hold them accountable and not criminalize them,” Whitmire told the Observer.

Texas’ Safe Schools Act of 1995 requires school administrators to expel students, or place them in a disciplinary alternative education program, for certain types of severe misconduct, such as possession of alcohol or weapons and public lewdness.

“The main objective is to stop mandatory expulsions for the unintentional behavior such as forgetting a small pocketknife, or a shotgun shell,” Whitmire said.

Whitmire laid out his bill on the Senate floor in a little more than a minute, and the Senate passed it in three minutes, about as fast as possible. The speedy passage, however, belies its potential impact.

Mary Mergler, director of Texas Appleseed’s School-to-Prison Pipeline Project, says reforming “zero tolerance” could greatly benefit Texas children, especially poor kids.

“We know from existing research that exclusionary discipline is associated with increased likelihood that students will drop out or end up in the criminal justice system,” Mergler said.

Research has shown that children growing up in poverty experience higher levels of traumatic stress than their more affluent peers. This stress can result in smaller brains, higher cortisol levels and overly reactive amygdalas. In other words, these students are at a physiological disadvantage when it comes to navigating the middle-class behavioral standards of public schools.

Whitmire’s bill also states that campus behavior coordinators “shall employ alternative discipline management techniques, including any progressive interventions.”

Mergler says that alternative discipline management techniques, such as restorative discipline and positive behavioral intervention and supports, are better for all students, and help them stay in school.

“The goal should be to keep students in school and in class,” Mergler said.

The bill now moves to the House for consideration.

State Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria)
Facebook
State Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria)

The House State Affairs Committee considered legislation Wednesday night that would make sweeping changes to a legal process allowing minors to seek an abortion without their parents’ permission. Abortion rights advocates and legal experts warned the changes could endanger vulnerable young women.

Currently, if a woman under 18 can’t get permission from a parent for an abortion—often because of abuse or because her parents aren’t in the picture—she can seek a legal, confidential bypass from a judge. House Bill 3994 by state Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria) includes a menu of what she and supporters of the bill call “necessary reforms” to the bypass process, including increasing the burden of proof and limiting the counties in which cases can be heard. HB 3994 would also require every person seeking an abortion, regardless of age, to present a government-issued form of identification. Call it voter ID for abortion.

“The intent is improve the protection of the minor girl and ensure that parental rights are protected,” Morrison told the committee as she laid out her bill Wednesday.

Family lawyers who represent minors in bypass cases, however, told committee members that just the opposite would happen. They argued that Morrison’s bill would ultimately destroy the judicial bypass process set up by the Legislature in 1999.

“Even minors have a right to decide what they do with unintended pregnancies,” said Susan Hays, an Austin-based family lawyer and co-founder of Jane’s Due Process, which provides free legal services to pregnant minors. “The state can’t have an absolute veto over [judges’] decisions on these cases.”

Currently, a bypass application can be filed in any county in Texas, but Morrison’s measure would require the application be filed in a minor’s county of residence; a neighboring county, if her home county has a population of 10,000 people or fewer; or the county in which her abortion provider is located. While anti-abortion groups testified that current law essentially amounts to venue-shopping, opponents said it protects confidentiality, especially in rural communities.

“These young women need confidentiality,” Tom Ausley, a family lawyer based in Austin, told the committee. “They do not need to necessarily be in a situation where when they walk in a courtroom, the clerk knows who they are or the judge knows who they are,” Tom Ausley, a family lawyer based in Austin, told the committee.

Current law also requires judges to rule on bypass cases within 48 hours, or the bypass is automatically granted. HB 3994 would expand that period to five days. The legislation also increases the burden of proof from a “preponderance of evidence” to “clear and convincing” evidence—a standard used by 13 other states, Morrison said.

Finally, the minor seeking a bypass must appear in court under Morrison’s bill.

“We’re talking about ending a life, it’s a decision that cannot be reversed,” Greg Terra, president and lawyer with the Texas Center for the Defense of Life, told committee members Wednesday. “We’re talking about taking away the ability of parents to influence that decision. That ought to be a very high burden.”

When minors seek a judicial bypass, the reasons are often complex. Jane’s Due Process reports that in 2013, 321 pregnant teens reached out to the organization for legal help, information on the bypass process, or pregnancy options. Of those, 17 percent of teens who sought help through Jane’s Due Process reported that they had experienced sexual or physical abuse by a parent at home, and 37 percent feared being kicked out or disowned for being pregnant. Sixteen percent were orphans or had no way to contact a parent for consent to an abortion.

“When you deny vulnerable young women access to abortion, you’re forcing them into teen motherhood,” said Amanda Stevenson, demographer and researcher at the University of Texas’ Policy Evaluation Project.

HB 3994 also requires county clerks to report the location and outcome of each bypass case. Ausley and others raised concerns that doing so would jeopardize the safety of judges.

“I’m terribly worried that if this information is disseminated that judges would be in physical danger,” said Rita Lucido, a Harris County-based lawyer who has represented minors in bypass cases for 15 years.

The committee left the bill pending.

Dave Welch
John Wright
Dave Welch, executive director of the U.S. Pastor Council, addresses a group of pastors on the north steps of the Capitol Wednesday.

Gay rights advocates began sounding the alarm Wednesday after two anti-LGBT bills cleared House committees and another received a favorable hearing.

Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, said if LGBT groups and their corporate allies don’t work quickly to generate the type of backlash seen over a religious freedom bill in Indiana last month, it could soon be too late.

Miller made the statement on a day when separate House panels advanced bills that would bar county clerks from issuing same-sex marriage licenses and allow state-funded adoption agencies to turn away gay couples based on religious beliefs. The two bills, which breached a dam that had kept a record number of anti-LGBT measures at bay for the first 100 days of the session, now head to the Calendars Committee.

“My fear is that if the Indiana-style outrage doesn’t happen now, before these bills make it to the floor of the House, it will be too late, because the membership of the House will pass these bills, and then the Senate will fly them through, and Gov. [Greg] Abbott will have no choice but to sign them in his mind,” Miller said.

Miller and others said with the U.S. Supreme Court set to hear oral arguments on same-sex marriage Tuesday, moderate Republicans in the Legislature are feeling the heat from social conservatives.

“I feel like the Republican base is desperately afraid of the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage this summer,” Miller said. “I think there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on the leadership in the House to pass anti-LGBT legislation. I think some of Speaker [Joe] Straus’ lieutenants are more likely to cave in to that pressure than others.”

The pressure from the right was palpable at the Capitol on Wednesday as scores of evangelical pastors from across the state gathered to lobby in support of anti-LGBT legislation. Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton addressed the pastors in a closed-door meeting, before dozens testified in favor of a religious freedom bill.

Dave Welch, executive director of the Houston-based U.S. Pastor Council, told the group they’re in a “tug of war” against business interests that oppose anti-LGBT legislation due to potential negative economic impacts.

Speaking on the north steps of the Capitol, Welch accused legislative committee chairs of “bottling up” anti-LGBT legislation, which he called “a hot potato that everybody’s terrified of … because of the massive amount of national counterpressure” in places like Indiana.

“Unfortunately, that’s what’s speaking right now,” Welch told the pastors.

Asked later whether his side can win the tug of war, Welch said, “Ask Goliath.”

“We’re not going to let the Texas Association of Business and [Executive Director] Bill Hammond or any other group sell their soul—they’re welcome to do that, we can’t stop them—but we’re not going to let them steal our freedom, and that’s what this is all about,” Welch told the Observer. “When big corporations … declare war on the church and war on religious freedom, we’re going to answer the call.”

Moments before the pastors gathered, the House Committee on State Affairs voted 7-3 along party lines to advance House Bill 4105, by Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia), which would prohibit state or local funds from being used to license or recognize same-sex marriages.

Among those voting in favor of the bill was Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana), a moderate who chairs the committee and has come out in support of one pro-LGBT bill.

“For me, I believe in the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman, so that’s why I voted for it,” Cook said.

Rep. Cecil Bell
Rep. Cecil Bell

Bell compared the Supreme Court’s impending decision on same-sex marriage to Roe v. Wade and said Texas doesn’t have to spend tax dollars to support it. He also suggested the state could choose not to heed the ruling because the court is not considering a Texas case.

“Unless it’s on a Texas case, states have a level of autonomy,” he said.

Asked about potential backlash from the business community over anti-LGBT legislation, Bell called it a “non-issue.”

“I think the vast majority of Texans and Texas businesses will continue to function exactly like they function today,” Bell said. “We produce the vast majority of the gasoline across the country. I don’t see folks not using gasoline.”

The Texas Association of Business, the state’s powerful chamber of commerce, has come out against two proposed religious freedom amendments that critics say would enshrine a “license to discriminate” against LGBT people in the Texas Constitution. But the TAB has remained silent on the bills that cleared committee Wednesday.

“We have not taken a position and doubtful (with timing of the session) that we will be able to,” TAB President Chris Wallace said in an email. “We will continue to monitor the business-related implications.”

Late Wednesday, the House Committee on Juvenile Justice and Family Affairs voted 6-1 to advance House Bill 3864, by Rep. Scott Sanford (R-McKinney), which would allow state-funded child welfare providers to discriminate based on sincerely held religious beliefs.

Meanwhile, dozens of pastors gave hours of testimony in support of House Bill 3567, also by Sanford, which he said is designed to prevent clergy from being forced to perform same-sex marriages. Critics of HB 3567 say it’s so broadly written that it could allow any religiously affiliated organization—from hospitals to universities and homeless shelters—to discriminate against LGBT people.

Chuck Smith, executive director of Equality Texas, said he believes Wednesday was a coordinated day of anti-LGBT legislative activity in advance of marriage arguments at the high court. Equality Texas representatives have consistently expressed confidence they can kill all of the more than 20 anti-LGBT bills introduced in the 84th Texas Legislature.

“That was never prefaced with the belief that we could stop every bill from getting out of committee,” Smith said. “I still think that’s achievable, but to do that is a day-to-day battle that sometimes involves changing strategy from day to day.”

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payday loan
Courtesy of Taber Andrew Bain via Flickr

 

A year and a half after the Observer documented hundreds of examples of payday loan companies using the criminal justice system to pursue unpaid loans, state regulators have taken action against one company. In December, the Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner ordered Ohio-based Cash Biz to pay a $10,000 fine and provide more than $16,000 restitution to 51 customers the company filed criminal complaints against. In a legal filing obtained by the Observer, Cash Biz, which has 16 Texas locations, agreed that it had “referred its customers for prosecution based on an erroneous belief that a person commits a crime by issuing a check that is later dishonored.”

State law prohibits payday and title loan businesses from even threatening borrowers with criminal action, except in unusual circumstances. And the Texas Constitution states plainly that “no person shall ever be imprisoned for debt.” Nonetheless, many local DAs and justices of the peace serve as de facto debt collectors for the industry, and some people with small payday debts have ended up in jail. Payday and title lenders in Texas can effectively charge unlimited fees for loans, which often carry APRs of 500 percent or more. In December, Texas Appleseed released a report documenting more than 1,500 criminal complaints filed by 13 different payday loan companies since 2012. Many resulted in fines, arrest warrants and even jail time.

Eamon Briggs, assistant general counsel with the Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner, said this was the first time the agency had penalized a company for the practice.

“This certainly appears to be a growing trend and we’re working to make sure our licensees know they can’t be making these referrals unless they have specific concrete evidence of fraud, forgery or other criminal conduct,” Briggs said. “It’s simply not permissible or within the intent of this prohibition to allow [payday and title lenders] to make referrals and simply rely on the DA to decide whether or not there are merits to the claim. We’re working to make sure everyone knows that this is not an acceptable practice.”

Briggs said OCCC asks lenders during an examination process whether they rely on the criminal justice system to collect on bad debt. But “people don’t always answer that question during the examination process truthfully.” The agency relies largely on consumer complaints and information supplied by consumer advocacy groups like Texas Appleseed to catch violations.

Ann Baddour, of Texas Appleseed, said she was pleased that OCCC had taken action against Cash Biz but said the punishment fell short.

“It’s not sufficient because it doesn’t address any of the detrimental impacts it had on these individuals,” she said. “It doesn’t expunge that charge from their record” or fix damaged credit scores. “It’s basically a refund at value, there’s no additional penalty.” It also doesn’t consider how much Cash Biz might have gained financially from threatening customers who made payments directly to the company but not a DA’s office.

“It does seem like me that it’s not a sufficient penalty to create a disincentive for this behavior,” Baddour said.

OCCC says it’s looking into 13 other payday companies documented by Texas Appleseed as filing criminal complaints against customers. But despite the attention by regulators—not to mention the fact that the practice is illegal—it continues.

The agency and consumer advocates want the Legislature to clarify, again, that criminalizing payday debt is not allowed. Several bills would do that but only one—Senate Bill 1650 by Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler), considered the weakest—has even gotten a hearing. House Bill 3058, by Rep. Helen Giddings (D-Dallas), would put the prohibition in the Penal Code and allow both consumers and the Texas attorney general to sue a wayward lender.

Giddings says her measure is needed to “protect citizens that are being taken advantage of by these predatory lenders.”

But even something that simple, and relatively uncontroversial, is difficult to move through the Legislature. The Giddings bill is not among a handful of consumer loan bills being heard by the House Investments & Financial Services Committee on Wednesday. Lawmakers seem loath to touch anything that has to do with payday lending after back-to-back sessions that featured nasty, and ultimately unsuccessful, efforts to bring any regulation to the $5 billion industry.

“There’s not a desire to pass any meaningful payday bills” this session, said Baddour.

84th Texas legislative session
Cesar Garza via Flickr

We have under six weeks to go in the 84th Legislature, and the House and Senate haven’t really started to grapple with the most substantial areas of disagreement between them.

For a special session to be avoided, the two chambers must quickly reconcile their differences over the budget and pass enough of Gov. Greg Abbott’s priorities for the guv to feel like he won. In case you forgot, Abbott has tasked the Lege with approving ethics reform, tax relief, university research funding, pre-K and transportation funding, all of which are in varying states of trouble.

So, how are things going, anyway?

1) The Senate has been slow to pass bills, but it has been especially slow to pass House bills. State Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), who effectively speaks for Speaker Joe Straus, has certainly noticed this. And, boy, is he pissed.

On Monday, the Senate passed a big border security package, Senate Bill 3. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and his leadership team chose to pass the Senate bill instead of picking up a similar measure from the lower chamber, House Bill 11, which passed the House all the way back on March 19. If the Senate had taken HB 11 and altered it, the two bodies could have worked out a compromise in conference and been done with it. For whatever reason, Patrick wanted to pass his bill first. Bonnen let loose to the San Antonio Express-News:

“It’s surprising and disappointing that the lieutenant governor wants to play political games with the No. 1 issue in the state of Texas, which is securing the border,” Bonnen said in an interview Tuesday. “It shows the lieutenant governor plays politics with anything and everything.”

Then he did the same to the Texas Tribune. “For some reason, Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor, wants to bring the same bad Washington, always-politically gaming concepts to Austin instead of solving problems,” Bonnen said. “[Patrick] sat and stared at House Bill 11 for 32 days.”

Patrick’s office declined to give a statement to the press. House and Senate leadership frequently take shots at each other—but as the remarks sharpen and the brawl moves into the public eye, it’s something to watch.

2) The Senate is not getting along with the House. How is the Senate getting along with the governor? For months, Patrick has been hugging Abbott with all the force he can muster, in the way you’d only do to your worst enemy. They’re friends, right?

Early in the session, Patrick appointed a grassroots advisory board to help him keep in touch with his base—the Republican primary voters who made him lite guv. Great idea! This motley collection of tea party leaders—JoAnn Fleming, Julie McCarty and Katrina Pierson among them—would chill out to the side and occasionally let Dan know how they felt about big bills. Harmless fun, really.

On Tuesday, they began circulating a letter announcing that they “stand united in strong opposition” to major pre-K bills—House Bill 4 and Senate Bill 801, specifically. (HB 4 passed the House, but the Senate as a whole has taken no action on pre-K yet.) The bills, which contain policy proposals wholeheartedly endorsed by Abbott, were godless monstrosities that had to be killed at any cost, Patrick’s best friends said.

Texas already has plenty of challenges with education (K-12) because of weakened familial bonds in society without the State of Texas encouraging parents to turn their young children over to pre-schools. […] We are experimenting at great cost to taxpayers with a program that removes our young children from homes and half-day religious preschools and mothers’ day out programs to a Godless environment with only evidence showing absolutely NO LONG-TERM BENEFITS beyond the 1st grade.

The letter continues:

The early removal of children from parents’ care is historically promoted in socialistic countries, not free societies which respect parental rights. The Welfare State has resulted in the breakdown of the American family. We need to encourage the formation of strong families, not remove the children from their homes and parents’ care at ever earlier ages.

Patrick’s office told the press he had no idea the letter was coming out. Nonetheless, the advisory board announced itself as representing the lieutenant governor: The tea party activists even mocked up a letterhead with an icon reminiscent of the state seal at the top.

So Patrick’s people are telling him that one of the governor’s top priorities for the session is strictly verboten. If you’re Patrick, what do you do? If you’re the governor, how do you act now to bolster the chances of it passing?

3) What’s our governor up to, anyway? By now, Perry would have locked these guys in a duck blind and passed the bills himself.

Ah, the magic of representative government.

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