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Floor Pass

Austin State Supported Living Center
Daniel King
The Austin State Supported Living Center

After several lengthy delays for back-room negotiation, the House passed a bill Saturday night that would restructure the Department of Aging and Disability Services, but only after removing a controversial provision to close an Austin institution for the intellectually disabled.

Senate Bill 204 by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen), as passed by the Senate, would close the Austin State Supported Living Center, one of 13 state-run institutions for people with intellectual disabilities, in 2017. The measure would also create a commission to identify other centers for later closure.

Closing the Austin facility would have been a major development in a long-running debate between advocates who say state-run institutions are an outdated model for care, and family members who would struggle to find a new home for loved ones who’ve been living at the center.

But a last-minute amendment by Rep. Susan King (R-Abilene) excised any mention of closure. The move drew praise from a group of residents’ relatives who have vehemently opposed shuttering the institution.

State Rep. Susan King (R-Abilene)
State Rep. Susan King (R-Abilene)

“It makes me cautiously optimistic,” said Liz Belile, whose sister lives in a state-supported living center. “I think we are at the beginning of a turn in the tide, possibly. Hopefully. We are seeing that shutting down institutions without preparing the community is proving disastrous.”

Citing high costs and a declining number of residents, the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, which evaluates other state agencies, issued a report last year that recommended closing the Austin center.

“Despite transitioning many residents into the community, Texas has not closed a facility since the 1990s. With the cost to taxpayers growing unsustainably, the State must close some of the most problematic centers,” the report states.

The population at state-supported living centers peaked at around 14,000 residents in 1974. But during the last half-century, partly in response to a series of troubling lapses in care, Texas has worked to move adults with intellectual disabilities out of institutions, and into community-based settings such as group homes. State living centers now serve fewer than 4,000 people, with 215 in the Austin facility.

Texas is not the only state moving people from large institutions to community-based settings. Between 1965 and 2009, the number of Americans with intellectual disabilities in state institutions declined by 85 percent. Many advocates have heralded deinstitutionalization, saying that smaller community settings foster independence.

But some residents’ relatives say they’re more wary of the level of care in privately run group homes. Last fall, a 24-year-old autistic man wandered from a privately run group home in South Austin and was killed by a neighbor as he tried to enter his house.

Citing that case, Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin) was an outspoken opponent of closing the Austin living center during debate yesterday. Central Texans must have a facility to house our most vulnerable, disabled citizens, Workman argued, and closing the center is not “the panacea some say it is.”

An amendment by Workman would have delayed closing the center by two years, but King’s last-minute amendment rendered it moot. House members voted overwhelmingly, 127-10, in favor of King’s measure to remove any mention at all of closing the facility.

Following Saturday’s vote, Senate and House members will negotiate their differences in conference committee within the next week—so for now, the future of the Austin living center remains uncertain.

A large gun
megan ann/Flickr

Friday’s Senate debate over the licensed open carry of handguns was supposed to be so easy.

Open carry, for all its detractors, had been one of the most fêted issues facing the 84th Legislature, passed pretty early in the session by both chambers. But after the House and Senate open carry bills became hostages of a protracted budget debate, it fell to the upper chamber to pass House Bill 910, the lower chamber’s open carry bill, in the last days of the session.

Much of the debate followed the script: Democrats offered amendments, and those amendments were voted down. Then, things went off the rails.

State Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) offered an amendment that would prohibit police officers from stopping someone solely because they are visibly carrying a handgun. One Democrat, state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), and a handful of senior Republicans, began talking in an effort to kill the amendment. But they failed, after an unusually heated and unscripted debate, especially by Senate standards. Huffines won a 19-to-12 vote on his proposal, thanks to an extremely unusual coalition of Democrats and tea party senators. And eight hours after the debate began, the Senate passed HB 910 by the same margin.

Don Huffines
Don Huffines

Under Huffines’ amendment, if a law enforcement officer sees a man with a gun walking down the street, the officer can’t ask the man for verification that he’s carrying the gun legally unless the man is also breaking another law. Opponents say the provision amounts to de facto unlicensed open carry. Law enforcement organizations have fiercely opposed it, saying the inability to determine whether someone is carrying a weapon legally poses a lethal threat to them and the public.

But some on the right say the fact that a person is carrying a gun shouldn’t give a police officer the right to compel identification, since carrying a gun is not necessarily an illegal act. And Democrats, particularly those with large minority constituencies, fear giving police officers more pretext to detain citizens. The Huffines amendment mirrored a provision originally added to HB 910 as it passed in the House, authored by state Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) and state Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R-Irving). The House amendment passed easily, 133 to 10.

But when the bill came to the Senate, Dutton and Rinaldi’s provision was stripped from the bill as it went through committee. Huffines’ bid to put it back seemed to seriously unnerve a number of senators, including those who had fought for open carry early on, like state Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls), the bill’s sponsor, and state Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), the chair of the Senate Committee on State Affairs, which initially gave the high sign to this session’s gun bills.

The heated debate pitted two unusual bipartisan coalitions against each other, starring an angry Whitmire and a cutting Huffman, who both grilled Huffines at length about his amendment, charging that the measure would have fatal consequences for police. Huffines did not seem particularly prepared for the fight. At one point, he falsely claimed his amendment had the support of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, bringing an immediate rebuke from the organization on Twitter, which Whitmire raised on the floor.

“Why won’t you listen to the people who put their lives on the line every day for us?” Whitmire asked a generally quiet Huffines. “We are really playing with a dangerous matter. It’s not something that we can afford to be wrong about.”

But as Huffines fumbled easy questions about his bill, he leaned heavily on support from state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) and state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), two of the more liberal senators in the chamber. Ellis said his group of allies on the amendment vote was “the strangest bed I have ever slept in.”

They prevailed. The Senate bill, with the cop-limiting amendment in it, will head back to the House for a final vote. If they concur with the Senate changes, the bill will go straight to the governor’s desk. If they don’t, for whatever reason, there could be trouble ahead for the bill.

Huffines has long desired to pass constitutional carry, which would allow individuals to carry handguns openly and without a license. This amendment, as many opposing senators pointed out, was an excellent way to accomplish that goal. If cops aren’t allowed to stop individuals openly carrying guns to ask for proof of their license, why would anyone need to carry a license? It was, it seemed, a great victory for the gun-rights crowd.

Huffman warned of future consequences. “This is a mistake, and I think it’s a mistake the state of Texas will come to regret,” she said. “I was raised with guns, I was raised with hunting. I believe in it. But I believe in some social order, too.”

But as the Senate was wrapping last night, a tweet from Gov. Abbott seemed to call into question the future of the bill as currently drafted. After the lengthy debate over whether the bill would put officers at risk, Abbott seemed to weigh in:


Abbott has been getting pressure from law enforcement groups who are nervous about this open carry bill. Was this empty signaling, or was it intended as a warning? Could there be a last-ditch attempt in the coming days to strike Huffines’ hard-won amendment?

tax cuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planned Parenthood Rally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Execution Drugs to be State Secret Under Legislation Headed to Governor

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


texas truancy

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

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

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

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

Dutton also supports the Huberty approach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

open carry - gun laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A-F Campus Ratings

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opportunity School District

royce west
Courtesy of
Sen. Royce West

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

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

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

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

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

“Parent Empowerment”

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

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

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

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

Virtual Schools

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonathan Saenz
Patrick Michels
Texas Values President Jonathan Saenz

The leader of an anti-LGBT group is accusing the Texas Association of Business of supporting “the homosexual agenda” and turning its back on values like faith, family and religious freedom.

In a radio interview last week, Texas Values President Jonathan Saenz blamed the state’s powerful chamber of commerce for the demise of anti-gay legislation, including Senate Bill 1155, by Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood), which would prohibit cities from enforcing LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances.

The TAB made headlines when it came out against two religious freedom proposals, but it did not publicly take a position on SB 1155 or other anti-LGBT legislation. However, in an appearance on the Family Research Council’s Washington Watch program, Saenz accused the TAB of working with “radical left” groups to defeat Hall’s bill, which never got a hearing.

“The business lobby, the Texas Association of Business, has decided now they’re going to put all their investment in the homosexual agenda, and that’s one of the things they did,” Saenz said. “It was a big surprise to a lot of lawmakers, and when they did that it had a very negative impact on the impression of what this law was really about. The Texas Association of Business has clearly turned their back on the values of Texas.”

Saenz couldn’t be reached for further comment. He told Washington Watch host Craig James he doesn’t think many TAB members are aware of the group’s opposition to anti-LGBT legislation. He called on people to find out if businesses are members of TAB and demand answers from the chamber’s leadership, which he said would result in a “shakeup.”

“It’s absolutely absurd, and the way that they’ve distorted legislation and misled people about what our legislation really does, some of the proposals we had during the session, it’s really not right at all,” Saenz said. “I think if a lot of members of the Texas Association of Business were aware of how left-leaning and liberal the organization’s leadership here at the Capitol has become, I think they’d be shocked.”

TAB President Chris Wallace confirmed in an email that the group took no position on SB 1155, but didn’t respond to a request for further comment. TAB’s opposition to the two religious freedom proposals was part of a national trend, most evident in Indiana earlier this year, of backlash from business interests over anti-LGBT legislation.

Saenz also criticized Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), chair of the Senate Committee on State Affairs, for not scheduling a hearing on SB 1155, one of more than 20 anti-LGBT proposals introduced in the 84th Legislature. With two weeks remaining in the session, none of the anti-LGBT legislation has passed, and a high-profile anti-gay marriage bill died in the House on Thursday. Huffman couldn’t immediately be reached.

Saenz said TAB and other groups have convinced lawmakers that “family values are bad for business,” while the opposite is true.

“Texas has been No. 1 for business for 10 straight years—that is during the same 10 years that our marriage laws have been between one man and one woman,” Saenz said. “It appears to me those policies have helped Texas and been a part of what makes Texas great. … This type of war on values from the Texas Association of Business within our state has got to end, and it’s been very damaging, and it’s been misleading, and it’s been disruptive.”

Listen to Saenz’s full interview here. Saenz is also scheduled to appear on Michelangelo Signorile’s Sirius XM Radio show—which is in Austin this week—on Monday afternoon.