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Too Young to Jail

Harris County Juvenile Justice Center
Harris County Juvenile Justice Center

Senate Committee on Criminal Justice Chairman John Whitmire has been on an eight-year march to clean up the Texas juvenile justice system, driving a messy process that has involved the closure of state-run lockups, the restructuring of two state agencies and a reduction in the state’s population of juvenile offenders to one-fifth of what it had been.

Not long ago, Texas was a cautionary tale of mismanagement and unchecked abuse; now it’s seen as a national leader in juvenile justice reform. But this year, the question of how that reform should proceed has split Whitmire from many of his usual allies.

His priority this session is to further reduce the number of youth in remote state lockups, placing more of them in probation and treatment programs near their homes and families. There’s widespread support for his bill that’s intended to accomplish that.

A coalition of child advocates and criminal justice reformers has argued for another big change this session: to raise the age of “criminal responsibility” from 17 to 18.

State Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Corpus Christi) has illustrated the law’s strange logic with a hypothetical: “A 17-year-old could go into a store and could not buy cigarettes,” he told the Associated Press in March, “but they could steal the cigarettes and be punished as an adult.”

In the House, there’s apparently plenty of support for changing the law, but Whitmire is against it in the Senate.

For one, he objects on philosophical grounds: The line between juvenile and adult must be drawn somewhere, and Whitmire likes it just where it is. “I personally, philosophically, believe that if a 17-year old commits a violent act, I see no reason to change that they wouldn’t be [treated] as an adult,” he told the Observer.

He’s also concerned that the juvenile system isn’t ready for an influx of new 17-year-olds. He worries the 13-and 14-year-olds could be put at even greater risk, and he questions whether Texas juvenile lockups, in their current states, are any safer than a segregated spot in an adult jail.

“Raise the age” advocates note that even after the change, violent 17-year-olds could still be certified as adults. In 2013, 96 percent of the 17-year-olds arrested in Texas were caught for drug possession and other nonviolent crimes—and in those cases, a treatment program and a sealed record could change their lives.

Recent research has noted that young people are more impulsive than adults, but they’re also more receptive to rehabilitation. Intervening early could keep many from re-offending—saving the state money in the long run.

Despite the added cost of treating 17-year-olds in the juvenile system, the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation has signed on. TPPF analyst Derek Cohen told House members at a hearing in April that 17-year-olds simply don’t belong in the adult system. “It’s about using the best particular tool for the job,” he said.

House members at that hearing, Republican and Democrat alike, seemed receptive to the idea. Some probation officers said they needed more time to prepare for the change, and county officials pleaded for help covering the costs. But all seemed to agree on the premise. Elizabeth Henneke of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition reflected at one point: “Not a single person has come up here and said 17-year-olds should not be treated as kids.” That may not be the case, though, if the bill comes up for debate in the Senate.

Richard Pena Raymond
Rep. Richard Raymond

After about half an hour of debate Friday, House lawmakers passed House Joint Resolution 79, by Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin). The resolution requests that Congress convene a convention of states to consider amending the U.S. Constitution to require a balanced budget. Though little more than a huffy paper protest, the Legislature is fond of such exercises blasting the feds.

HJR 79 requests that Congress call a convention “for the limited purpose of proposing an amendment to the constitution to provide for a federal balanced budget.”

While mostly Republicans supported the resolution, which passed 100-40, Rep. Richard Raymond (D-Laredo) co-authored the legislation and more than a dozen Democrats voted for it.

“The deficit is bad for the economy, and it won’t get fixed without an amendment,” Raymond told the Observer. “I firmly believe this.”

Article V of the U.S. Constitution requires that Congress convene a national convention for the purpose of amending the Constitution if two-thirds of the states call for one. It’s never been done and no one really knows how it would work, but conservative groups are increasingly championing the idea.

Economists say that forcing a balanced budget during an economic turndown could cripple the national economy. In a January New York Times column, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman called the “balanced-budget fetish” deeply irresponsible.

More than two dozen states have passed resolutions calling for a balanced budget amendment by way of Article V, though there is some debate about the validity of some of the requests.

San Antonio-based political scientist Jonathan Bernstein calls a balanced budget amendment via constitutional convention “the worst idea in American politics.”

Washington Monthly went a step further, calling it “the dumbest constitutional amendment of all time.”

And while it’s no surprise that GOP lawmakers support the measure—tweaking the Obama administration over deficits is de rigueur in Congress—some Texas Democrats have jumped on the bandwagon.

Balancing the federal budget would likely require large tax increases, spending cuts, or both. Supporters, including three Texas Democrats who voted for HJR 79, were loath to name specific tax increases or spending cuts they would support in order to balance the budget.

“I believe in a balanced budget,” said Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) after he voted for the resolution. When asked which programs he would cut or which taxes he would raise to accomplish that goal, Turner demurred.

“I’m not in D.C., I can’t tell you about the federal budget,” Turner said.

All states except Vermont require balanced state budgets, but unlike the federal government states don’t pay for wars or provide for Social Security.

This is not Texas’ first Article V gambit. Texas passed convention-of-states resolutions in 1973, to prevent school desegregation, and in 1977, to balance the federal budget. Both measures failed.

“I think a balanced budget is a good thing,” said Rep. Joe Deshotel (D-Beaumont). But Deshotel admits that it will likely be a long time before Congress calls a constitutional convention.

“It was just a philosophical vote. We know nothing is going to happen with this,” he said.

Bell.Saenz.Miller.Welch
John Wright
Texas Values President Jonathan Saenz, clockwise from left, Rep. Cecil Bell, Texas Pastor Council Executive Director Dave Welch, Rep. Rick Miller and his wife, Babs Miller, confer after a committee hearing on House Bill 4105 last month.

The future of the battle over gay marriage in Texas—and possibly in other states—is likely to be determined by the House of Representatives in the next 72 hours, according to LGBT advocates.

House Bill 4105, by Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia), which is designed to undermine a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage, is scheduled for a floor vote Tuesday.

Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, said if HB 4105 passes the House, it’s very likely to clear the more conservative Senate before being signed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. There were 204 bills ahead of HB 4105 on the House calendar, and the deadline for it to pass the chamber is midnight Thursday.

“This House vote is a critical showdown. If the bill is delayed in coming up, if there are procedural issues with the bill, or if the leadership persuades the bill’s author to take the bill down, then it will not get passed and we will have dodged a bullet,” Miller told reporters during a phone conference Monday morning. “The ball game is really all being played in the Texas House of Representatives in the next 72 hours, and if I had to say, I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s critical that people speak out.”

HB 4105 is one of more than 20 anti-LGBT bills introduced in the 84th Legislature, believed to be the most in the history of any state. However, with time running out in the session, only four have cleared committee, and of those LGBT advocates view HB 4105 as the most significant threat to equality.

The bill would bar state and local employees from issuing, enforcing or recognizing same-sex marriage licenses—and prohibit public monies from being used to do so—regardless of any court order.

LGBT advocates say if the high court rules in favor of same-sex marriage, HB 4105 would set up a showdown between state and federal law, costing Texas millions of dollars in litigation and potentially delaying the effectiveness of the decision by years. They say the bill would unleash chaos similar to what’s been seen in Alabama over same-sex marriage, and generate the type of business backlash associated with passage of an anti-LGBT religious freedom law in Indiana.

Unless it receives a two-thirds supermajority of 100 votes in the House and 21 in the Senate, HB 4015 wouldn’t take effect until Sept. 1, more than two months after the high court rules in same-sex marriage cases from four other states in late June.

In addition to Bell, HB 4105 is co-authored by 88 other House Republicans. Only nine Republicans hadn’t signed on as co-authors as of Monday morning: Rodney Anderson (Grand Prairie), Sarah Davis (Houston), Craig Goldman (Fort Worth), Todd Hunter (Corpus Christi), Linda Koop (Dallas), Morgan Meyer (Dallas), John Smithee (Amarillo), Speaker Joe Straus (San Antonio) and Jason Villalba (Dallas).

None of the chamber’s 52 Democrats were listed as co-authors.

“There’s a great deal of opposition to this bill too, primarily from Democrats,” Miller said. “I think there is a lot of quiet opposition from moderate Republicans, so I think the supermajority would be much more difficult to achieve.”

Rebecca Robertson, legal and policy director at the ACLU of Texas, said HB 4105 is designed to give Texas another legal basis for challenging same-sex marriage in court: state sovereignty. And she said it could be used as a model by other states for resisting the Supreme Court ruling.

“The last time that we saw similar efforts to undermine court rulings about what the Constitution requires was when Southern states attempted to use the power of the purse to avoid having to comply with federal court orders ordering school desegregation,” Robertson said. “Those tactics were rejected, but obviously it took years of litigation to get to that point. HB 4105 is trying to do the same kind of end run around the Constitution.”

If the bill passes, state and local officials likely would face lawsuits from either side depending on whether they choose to issue or recognize same-sex marriage licenses, Robertson said.

Under the bill, if a county clerk were to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple, the state would retain $30 from the fee that’s normally returned to counties. The bill would also prohibit the state Vital Statics Unit from recording the license, and require that it be turned over to the attorney general’s office.

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir estimated the bill would cost her county $40,000 annually in fees from same-sex marriage licenses. Nevertheless, if the high court rules in favor of marriage equality, her office likely would begin issuing licenses to gay couples shortly thereafter.

Other county clerks said they’re taking a wait-and-see approach but would be reluctant to alter the marriage license application forms.

Attorney General Ken Paxton, who staunchly opposes same-sex marriage, didn’t respond to a request for comment about HB 4105.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who vigorously defended the state’s marriage ban as Paxton’s predecessor, has not said whether he would sign HB 4105.

“Typically, we don’t comment until it’s either passed both chambers or on the way to his desk,” Abbott spokesman Sam Taylor said. “There are rare exceptions.”

One of those exceptions came last week, when Abbott announced support for Senate Bill 2065 and House Bill 3567, which are designed to prevent pastors and churches from being forced to participate in same-sex weddings. The Senate tentatively approved SB 2065 in a 21-10 vote Monday, and the House is scheduled to vote on HB 3567 Tuesday. 

LGBT advocates say they’d support SB 2065 and HB 3567 if the proposals are narrowed so they merely mirror existing protections, but the authors have refused to do so. 

pre-k funding

 

After about an hour of debate, the Senate passed legislation Thursday that would modestly increase funding for pre-K programs. House Bill 4, a priority of Gov. Greg Abbott, passed on a 25-6 vote, with a handful of GOP senators voting no.

That group included Konni Burton (R-Fort Worth), Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay), Bob Hall (R-Edgewood), Don Huffines (R-Dallas), Van Taylor (R-Plano) and Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe).

HB 4, by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston), would provide $130 million in grants to school districts that adopt new standards for curriculum and teacher qualifications. The pre-K expansion, although well below funding levels as recently as 2011, had drawn the ire of tea party leaders appointed to a grassroots advisory board by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. In April, the activists branded pre-K “godless” and “socialistic” in an impassioned letter to the Senate.

On Thursday, Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), the bill’s Senate sponsor, took pains to frame the measure in terms of accountability rather than increased funding.

“I want to send a clear message that these dollars are for quality, not expansion,” Campbell said, an overture to conservative groups that have argued vehemently against bringing new students into the state’s limited pre-K program, which primarily serves low-income and at-risk students.

The Legislature cut nearly $300 million from pre-K programs in 2011 but restored $30 million two years later. HB 4 would increase funding for pre-K programs by about $130 million—still below 2011 levels.

During debate today, Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) referenced the 2011 cuts. “We had taken a giant step backward and this is a little step forward,” Zaffirini said. Pre-K advocates have lobbied for more ambitious pre-K improvements, such as funding full-day pre-K, limiting teacher-student ratios, or providing new money through the relatively stable funding formulas rather than grants.

Despite the relatively modest increase in HB 4, the bill has grown into a major point of contention during the legislative session.

Gov. Abbott named increased pre-K funding a legislative priority in January, and HB 4 passed the House on a 129-18 vote in April. But two weeks later, the tea party letter threatened to derail things.

“The early removal of children from parents’ care is historically promoted in socialistic countries,” Patrick’s advisory board wrote.

The letter contributed to tension between the state’s top three officials, and prompted newspaper stories with headlines fit for The Onion. In an editorial titled, “Texas View: Pre-K isn’t Satanic or Socialist,” the Corpus Christi Caller-Times wondered, “How can God be everywhere except pre-kindergarten?”

Some observers speculated that Patrick would try to advance his pet school voucher legislation with a Senate amendment to HB 4, but no such amendment was offered.

The Senate did pass several amendments to the bill, including one to prevent Common Core curriculum standards from being taught in pre-K programs (there are no Common Core standards for pre-K), and an amendment creating pre-K teacher guidelines.

If the House agrees on the Senate’s amendments to the bill, it will be sent to the governor for final approval.

voter id registration

Four years after Texas passed one of the strictest voter ID laws in the nation, lawmakers will debate another measure on Thursday that could make it even more difficult for Texans to vote.

House Bill 1096, by Rep. Jim Murphy (R-Houston), would require the address on a voter’s approved ID, such as a driver’s license, to match their voter registration address. Currently voter ID addresses and voter registration addresses do not have to match.

If a voter registrar believes a voter’s residence is different from that indicated on registration records, the registrar may send the voter a residence confirmation notice. Voters can respond by submitting a signed response confirming their residence.

Under HB 1096, voters would have to provide “evidence” that their residence address matches their voter ID.

Critics argue that requiring voters to have updated addresses on their IDs would be another burden on poor and minority voters, who move often and tend to vote for Democrats.

“Currently no one is being denied the right to vote because they just moved,” said Texas Democratic Party Executive Committee Member Glen Maxey. “This bill would change that. Despite the rhetoric about voter integrity, efforts like HB 1096 are simply an exercise in voter suppression. Some people are trying to kick certain people off voter rolls who don’t look like them.”

Laying out his bill in committee, Murphy said the intent of the measure is simply to ensure that voters will reside and vote in the same precinct.

Jim Murphy
thinkprogress.org
Rep. Jim Murphy (R-Houston)

But in tea party circles the bill is all about saving democracy from fraudsters.

“The game to steal elections is always afoot,” Houston Tea Party activist Kelly Horsley wrote in a March blog post about the bill.

Such fears have led to a creeping phenomenon: tea party poll watchers.

Alan Vera, chairman of one such group—the Harris County Republican Party Ballot Security Committee—testified in favor of the bill in March. Vera said his five years reviewing and challenging voter registration have shown him just how bad Texas election law is.

With a healthy dose of indignation in his voice, Vera said when it comes to the election code “Texas is F Troop, and I’m tired of being F Troop.”

Although voter fraud is an infrequent problem, Republicans in the Legislature went to extraordinary lengths to pass Texas’ voter ID law in 2011. It requires voters to present an approved form of photo identification, such as a driver’s license or concealed handgun license, to vote. The name on the ID must exactly match the name on the list of registered voters. If the names are “substantially similar,” the person can still cast a ballot by signing an affidavit. Wendy Davis, Leticia Van de Putte and Greg Abbott all had to sign affidavits in 2013. If the names are not substantially similar, the voter may have to vote “provisionally” and go to the local voter registrar’s office within six days to present an approved photo ID. Simple!

HB 1096 could have repercussions for at least one member of the Elections Committee. Freshman Rep. Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) says his wife voted in House District 21 last fall, but according to documents obtained by the Observer the address listed on her driver’s license is in the adjacent House District 22, represented by Democratic Rep. Joe Deshotel (R-Beaumont). An honest mistake perhaps, but indicative of where updating driver’s license addresses falls on many Texans’ priority list.

Phelan says he and his family moved into District 21 in October 2013. “I don’t know if my wife has updated her driver’s license. She should have changed it. I don’t know if she has or hasn’t.”

Maxey says that HB 1096, just like the 2011 voter ID law, targets poor, minority, elderly and disabled Texans.

“In America you think that every citizen would be eligible to vote, even people who move a lot,” Maxey said. “Texas is going the opposite way. If you’re not smart enough, or with it enough to know you need the right address on your driver’s license to vote, then fuck you.”

Corrected: The original version of this story stated that Ms. Phelan voted in House District 22 but her license indicates an address in House District 21. In fact, Ms. Phelan voted in House District 21, which Rep. Phelan represents, but her license indicates an address in House District 22. The story also stated that Rep. Phelan moved into House District 21 in August 2014, He says he moved into his district in October 2013. The Observer regrets the error.

Garnet Coleman
Kelsey Jukam
Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston)

To explain why Texas should remove its unconstitutional sodomy ban from the books, Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) pointed to state budget advisers’ fiscal note for his proposal to repeal the law.

“It is currently a Class C misdemeanor to engage in same-sex sexual intercourse,” the fiscal note states. “A Class C misdemeanor is punishable by a fine of not more than $500. Lost revenue from reduced fines imposed and collected is not anticipated to have a significant fiscal impact.”

Texas’ “homosexual conduct” law was struck down as unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003. But Coleman said the fiscal note for House Bill 2057, which would finally repeal the statute, illustrates the confusion that results from leaving it on the books.

“Our Legislative Budget Board wrote a fiscal note on a law that’s been overturned by the Supreme Court,” Coleman told the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence on Wednesday. “That shows you the problem. As long as it’s on the books, people will arrest someone for a law that’s not valid and will write a fiscal note based on a law that’s not valid.”

Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso), a member of the committee, said he was “baffled” by the fact that the sodomy ban is still on the books. And Rep. Terry Canales (D-Edinburg) called it “amazing.”

Douglas Alexander, a representative from the State Bar of Texas, testified in support of HB 2057 and noted that patrons of an El Paso restaurant were threatened with arrest under the sodomy ban in 2009. The men filed a federal lawsuit against the city that was settled three years later.

“It’s virtually guaranteed that as long as this law is on the books, other incidents of this type will occur in other municipalities, which will undoubtedly result in substantial expenses,” Alexander told the committee. “By failing to take the step of removing it, which now the Legislature has the option to do, it basically creates an unfunded liability.”

In addition to repealing the sodomy ban, Coleman’s bill would strike sections of the Health & Safety Code that reference it. Those sections require that “materials in the education programs intended for persons younger than 18 years of age must … state that homosexual conduct is not an acceptable lifestyle and is a criminal offense under Section 21.06,” as well as that “course materials and instruction relating to sexual education or sexually transmitted diseases should include … emphasis, provided in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under Section 21.06.”

Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano), a member of the committee, suggested that the Legislature should replace that section.

“Does it make sense to add language here that talks about the fact that the ideal environment for a child is a mom and dad?” Shaheen said.

Coleman responded that his bill would not remove another paragraph stating that sexual abstinence before marriage and fidelity in marriage are the most effective ways to prevent HIV infection, sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. Coleman told Shaheen he wrote that language with former Rep. Warren Chisum (R-Pampa).

“I wouldn’t want to see anybody remove that language from that statute,” Coleman said. “It’s been there since 1995 and has served us very well.”

Despite being introduced in every session since 2005, proposals to repeal the sodomy law have never made it to the floor of the House or Senate. This year may not be any different. HB 2057 was left pending on Wednesday with less than a week for House bills to be voted out of committee.

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State Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas)
Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas)

A pro-LGBT bill that appeared dead three weeks ago is still clinging to life after clearing a House committee Monday.

House Bill 537, by Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas), would allow same-sex parents to have both names on the birth certificates of adopted children.

The bill received surprising GOP support from Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana), chair of the House Committee on State Affairs, during a hearing in March. But it still lacked the votes to clear the committee, prompting Anchia to make an impassioned speech in support of the measure on the House floor April 15.

“Regardless of how you feel about a kid’s parents, you’re always good to the kid,” Anchia said. “They didn’t pick their parents, but those are the parents they have, and you know, those are the parents they love, and they deserve accurate birth certificates. We can do better than this. Texas is better than this.”

On Monday, the committee quietly voted 7-4 to advance HB 537, with Cook and Rep. Patricia Harless (R-Spring) joining five Democrats who voted in favor of the bill. Four Republicans voted against it, while two others were absent.

“This is a simple, common-sense bill that helps children,” Equality Texas legislative specialist Daniel Williams said. “It shouldn’t surprise anyone that it passed with bipartisan support.

“At this point it will be a challenge to get the bill to the House floor before the deadline next week, but it’s still a realistic possibility,” he added.

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Pro Choice March at the Texas State Capitol
Pro-choice march at the Texas Capitol in 2013.

With a 21-10 vote, the Texas Senate passed a bill Tuesday banning coverage for abortion in private health insurance plans, including those offered in the Affordable Care Act’s federal health exchange. The measure is the first abortion-related legislation to pass out of either chamber this session.

Senate Bill 575 by state Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) would only allow private insurance to cover abortion in cases of medical emergencies, which current law defines as “life-threatening physical condition aggravated by, caused by, or arising from a pregnancy that, as certified by a physician, places the woman in danger of death or a serious risk of substantial impairment of a major bodily function unless an abortion is performed.”

Under Taylor’s plan, anyone with private health insurance who wants abortion coverage would need to buy a supplemental plan.

“This bill is all about choice,” Taylor said as he introduced the bill. Women can still choose to get an “elective” abortion, he said, “they’ll just have to come up with another way to pay for it other than having people across Texas who buy insurance be forced to pay for something they don’t believe in.”

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a national research organization that tracks abortion and reproductive health policy, 10 states already prohibit insurance companies from covering abortion, and another 15 states prohibit abortion coverage in health exchange plans.

Larry Taylor
Courtesy of larrytaylor.com
Sen. Larry Taylor

All but one Senate Democrat—Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville)—voted against Taylor’s bill.

State Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) took issue with the bill’s lack of exemptions for rape or non-viable pregnancies. He laid out a series of hypothetical situations in which a woman may find herself needing insurance coverage for an abortion, which Taylor called “extreme” examples.

“A person who finds themselves in any of the three scenarios I just talked about might consider our actions to be extreme if we make this difficult decision more difficult by denying insurance coverage,” Watson replied.

Taylor walked back his remark, calling Watson’s hypotheticals “extremely rare.”

State Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston), who also voted against the bill, raised concerns that requiring women to buy supplemental coverage for abortion would create an extra cost for those who can’t afford it. Many women in her east Houston district, she told her Senate colleagues, can’t pay for an abortion out-of-pocket. Garcia also pointed out that after the Legislature passed House Bill 2 in 2013, dozens of abortion clinics have closed and access has been reduced statewide. Other women’s health services, including contraception, are still hard to come by in some parts of the state.

“It seems that we’re making it impossible for [women] to have funding for these things,” Garcia said. “It’s unfortunate that we’ve already denied access to poor women, now we’re talking about women with [private] insurance.” After a final vote from the Senate, the bill heads to the House. A similar bill by state Rep. Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown) has been left pending in the House State Affairs Committee.

Jonathan Stickland
Rep. Jonathan Stickland speaking at the 2015 Lincoln Day Dinner for the Tarrant County Republican Party in Fort Worth, Texas.

 

When news came on Thursday that state Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) had been physically ejected from a meeting of the House Committee on Transportation by its chairman, state Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso), over what the latter alleges was a bizarre and pointless plan to falsify witness lists in support of one of Stickland’s bills, it was totally unsurprising to Stickland’s many fans at the Capitol. And yet the tale was also totally delightful—like a cool mountain breeze, or the sun on a warm winter day.

In a session replete with clown shows—Kory Watkins’ annexation of state Rep. Poncho Nevarez’s office seems so distant now that it feels as part of a lost childhood, like a Madeleine cake—Stickland has delivered over and over again, one of the state’s most unbeatable and unproductive generators of tomfoolery. He’s underappreciated, though. Thanks to the intense resentment he’s garnered from his fellow legislators and lege-watchers, people aren’t giving him enough credit as a wholly unique practitioner of Lege performance art.

To that end, and to lend a sort of scientific respectability to the admittedly unscientific art of Stickland-watching, I propose a new metric to be introduced in the evaluation of his near-constant gaffes and schemes: the Stickland Number. We can find the Stickland Number by dividing the volume of Stickland’s shenanigans, judged on a scale from 1 to 10, by the extent to which the shenanigans helped Stickland advance his policy priorities, as judged on the same scale, like so:

(Stickland’s shenanigans / Stickland’s impact)

Here’s just a few of the many wonderful things Stickland has done for the benefit of the Austin press corps during the last four months:

—Jonathan Stickland: Winter is Coming

The session started off pretty slow for Stickland, actually. Yes, he was the Legislature’s only real friend of the open carry wackos who freaked everyone out in January. He spoke at their rallies. He raged against committee assignments when they appeared to threaten his bill, and he was accused of baiting the loonies threatening Nevarez.

Not much came of it, but it’s still a crucial part of Stickland’s origin story for the 84th, like when Bruce Wayne’s parents got shot. “We’re told we need to respect the process,” Stickland told the Houston Chronicle, “but I can’t respect the process if it doesn’t allow all legislation to be heard.” Foreshadowing!

Shenanigans: Mild. 2.
Stickland’s impact: His bill was dead anyway. 1.
Stickland Number: 2.

—Jonathan Stickland, Proud Ex-Baby

Stickland recovered from early setbacks with a great plan to make a stand: He took a sign from Texas Right to Life and posted it outside his House office.

News and pictures of the sign eventually appeared in national news outlets, giving some Americans their first taste of Stickland. Lucky them. But before long, Stickland’s nemesis, state Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Ft. Worth), came round to take down the sign—or, as Stickland has it, his sign was “ripped down and thrown in my staffer’s face.” The walls of the Capitol, Geren said, are not there to be decorated like some teenager’s bedroom. Geren, the head of House Administration, denied charges that he had aggressively intimidated Stickland’s staff. “If Stickland wants to act like a child, that’s fair, but I did not rip it down,” he said. But Stickland was having none of it, he told the Austin American-Statesman:

“I think the Kumbaya is about to be over,” Stickland said. “It’s time to start telling the voters where we stand. I think people are beginning to get anxious.” […] “We are about to start cutting each other to shreds,” he said.

Shenanigans: Stickland won some nice press with this. “Cutting each other to shreds?” 6.
Stickland’s impact: Nothing was accomplished. 1.
Stickland Number: 6.

—Jonathan Stickland’s Night of the Long Knives
Shortly after signgate, the House met to consider its budget. Stickland was ready for battle. Past is prelude. He’d finally shiv House leadership, and they’d come to understand their mistake, in time. He warned the Dallas Morning News of the trouble to come:

“A lot of people are frustrated that their legislation isn’t moving. They’re going to try to put their bills on the budget,” said Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, who filed several amendments on illegal immigration. “It’ll be a bloody day on the House floor,” he said.

While the night was long, no blood came. Most votes were not even close. Stickland gave up, or he was outmaneuvered. One exception: at 2 in the morning, Stickland took to the back mic to make one of the more important and principled stands against big government we’ve seen thus far this session. He wanted to cut the budget for the feral hog abatement program.

Government, he said, couldn’t solve our problems—not even the hog problem. Long live hog, said Stickland. Feral hogs are a collective, like the Borg. But Stickland wanted us to fight them as individuals. Foolish. Only seven reps voted with Stickland, meaning the hog blood, at least, will continue to flow.

Shenanigans: Stickland gave up. 2.
Stickland’s impact: Same number of dead hogs as before. 1.
Stickland Number: 2.

—Jonathan Stickland is No Cheap Date, Charlie 

After the budget fight, Stickland begin using a new tactic. This would be much more effective. The House has something called a Local and Consent calendar, through which uncontroversial bills can be passed quickly. Stickland’s plan was to slow it down for no real reason and ask a lot of questions whenever he saw a potentially problematic bill, then let it pass anyway, something that would surely win him many friends in a chamber where most people are counting down the seconds till they can go back to The Cloak Room. Could anything drag Stickland away from the back mic? Our long-suffering superhero’s archenemy had a plan:

CHARLIE GEREN used OATMEAL COOKIE! It’s not very effective

Shenanigans: Should Geren stop bullying Stickland? Probably. Should Stickland step to the mic less? Also probably. 4.
Stickland’s impact: All involved lost precious minutes of our lives, like sands slipping through the hourglass, as we march relentlessly toward the grave. 1.
Stickland Number: 4.

—Jonathan Stickland Gets Respect

When an open carry bill finally came up for a vote in the House, Stickland was incensed. The bill required a license to carry a gun in public. He had planned for months to offer an amendment to nuke the gun license.

But House leadership wouldn’t recognize his amendment, claiming it wasn’t germane to the bill, a procedural requirement. Was it really, or were the guys in charge kicking Stickland in the shins? Stickland took to the mic to protest.

He railed against House leadership in a 10-minute angry tirade, asking state Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), manning the House dais, why he had been railroaded all session long. In one beautiful moment, he was asked by Bonnen to bring his objections to the front of the House, to discuss them with the parliamentarian. His answer: “How has that worked out for me so far?”

But at one particularly climactic moment in his speech—essentially, Stickland saying, “No, YOU’RE out of order!”—the tide turned in Stickland’s favor. Cheering and applause could suddenly be heard in the House. It was like a movie.

But it wasn’t from the legislators. It was from elementary school kids in the gallery, during a Capitol tour. With presumably no idea what the fight was about, they found themselves moved solely by Stickland’s passion. Finally, somebody who speaks his language.

Shenanigans: Stickland at his most cinematic. 5.
Stickland’s impact: Children are our future, but they can’t vote. Also, amendment killed. 1.
Stickland Number: 5.

—Jonathan Stickland and the Battle of Pickett’s Charge

Things came to a head on Thursday. Has our heat-packing hero met his match?

As with any good bout, the battle began with one pugilist messing with the other’s head. When Stickland tried to derail a Pickett bill giving Federal Reserve security officers limited law enforcement powers in Texas, which was set to sail through the Local & Consent calendar—yes, he’s still doing that—Pickett came prepared. He walked to the back mic to give Stickland a large-font printout of his bill with two carefully drawn stick figures—one labeled “good guy” and one labeled “bad guy”-to illustrate the intent of the bill.

Inappropriate? Maybe. But that was nothing compared to what happened later in Pickett’s committee. Pickett and another rep slowly came to the realization that a lot of the people who signed up as witnesses to support one of Stickland’s bills, a ban on city red-light cameras, weren’t actually at the Capitol or even in Austin. That means someone had to sign them up—a potentially illegal act. (All witnesses who testify or register positions on bills have to sign up personally and swear an oath the information they provide is correct.)

When Stickland came to the mic to introduce his bill, Pickett began calling the fake witnesses on the phone, revealing that they couldn’t have signed themselves up to testify on the bill. And then, sputtering fury commenced. Pickett and Stickland began arguing. And Pickett had Stickland physically ejected from the meeting by House security. You can watch one video of the ejection here. (The meeting was taped officially, but that hasn’t been released yet.)

This is the quintessential Stickland Event: A tremendous amount of preparation and planning and noise and fury for no reward at all, even if the thing had worked. The number of witnesses had no material bearing on whether the bill would ultimately be passed. And because of the false sign-ins, a House ethics body is now investigating, with potentially serious consequences for those involved. (Stickland denies he knew anything about it.)

Shenanigans: Be more chill, man. 9.
Stickland’s impact: Bill dead, as it probably was already. Did Stickland or his staff expose him or his supporters to perjury charges? 1.
Stickland Number: 9.

I, for one, am excited to see what the next month holds.

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.”

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