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Purple Zone merchandise on the shelves.
Tom Cochran
Merchandise on the shelves at the Purple Zone in Alpine, Texas, the subject of repeated raids by police looking for synthetic drugs.

From the spice-ravaged wilds of East Texas to the incense-dusted Panhandle plains, lawmakers headed to Austin this year vowing to snuff out synthetic drug sales once and for all. Stories about horrific overdoses, particularly among children, are common today in the small-town papers; in early January the Beaumont Enterprise reported that “a particularly vile batch” of synthetic drugs sent 50 people to the hospital over one week, suffering from hallucinations, extreme paranoia, violent outbursts and seizures. As state Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) told the Longview News-Journal, “We need to do whatever it takes this legislative session to solve the problem.”

But what, exactly, will it take? Lawmakers thought they’d outlawed synthetic marijuana back in 2011, creating a new class of banned substances, and even banning chemical “analogs” similar to those listed in the law. But walk into the right gas station or head shop today, and you’ll still find foil pouches of “incense” with the same winking warnings that their contents are “not for human consumption.”

That’s partly a marketing issue; synthetic cannabinoids were unregulated for years, advertised as a legal high before the first federal and state bans took effect, and some shop owners may still think they’re legal. But it’s also a problem with the law—first because manufacturers can invent new chemical compounds faster than Texas’ biennial Legislature can add them to the banned list, and second, because the 2011 law only bans chemicals that “mimic the pharmacological effect” of natural marijuana.

That’s a judgment call that no lab chemist can make in court, says Texas District and County Attorneys Association spokesman Shannon Edmonds. “The lab folks say, ‘We can diagram this chemical compound for you, but we can’t tell you whether the effect was similar,’” Edmonds says.

Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) proposed a fix in 2013, but her bill fell victim to a brutal sort of Capitol justice, killed by Democratic Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon because Huffman torpedoed an important bill of hers. This session, Huffman has filed new proposals to clean up the language and ban a few new chemicals. Lubbock Republican Sen. Charles Perry has a similar bill.

But for now, Texas has a 4-year-old ban on synthetic drugs that simply can’t hold up in court. “Although the laws on the books are in place, we have not been able to prosecute those cases,” says Harris County Assistant District Attorney Justin Wood, “because of the wording of the statute.”

Despite being worthless at trial, the ban has been invoked to justify raids on smoke shops, including Glass Dragon shops in Longview and the Purple Zone in Alpine (see our story “The Thin Purple Line” from July 2014), letting police confiscate merchandise from the shelves. Prosecutors can either drop the case or bluff their way to a guilty plea.

Other officials have gotten more creative. Houston and Lubbock have city ordinances restricting synthetic drug sales. In the Lubbock County District Attorney’s Office, chief investigator Todd Smith says they focus on enforcing labeling requirements—like the contents’ weight and a list of ingredients—that most spice packets don’t meet. But if manufacturers start labeling their packets properly, Smith wonders how else he could stop them.

“I don’t know if you can ever beat it,” Smith says. “You have a group of people that are always going to be in the market for something like this, and … I’ve never underestimated somebody willing to make a dollar.”

Open Carry Tarrant County leader Kory Watkins
Open Carry Tarrant County leader Kory Watkins

Few people in Texas history have made enemies at the Capitol as quickly and decisively as Kory Watkins, the leader of Open Carry Tarrant County, a group that proved too radical for the main body of open carry demonstrators. Lobbying for the right to carry handguns openly in public and without a license, he’s almost single-handedly turned what should have been a sympathetic Legislature against his core cause, irritating and alienating natural friends and generally making himself a nuisance.

Today, he took a big step toward Travis Bickle territory, warning legislators that their behavior was “punishable by death” and that there’s “going to be trouble” if they don’t cave to his demands.

It’s not the first time he’s crossed the line from nuisance to threat: Open Carry Tarrant County’s shameful behavior in state Rep. Poncho Nevárez’s office freaked out the whole Legislature, and caused the Department of Public Safety to give Nevárez a security detail. Dan Patrick, after inadvertently infuriating the open carry guys, has tried to give them consolation prizes. The Senate would allow guns on college campuses, Patrick emphasized. Maybe licensed open carry had a chance.

But open carry activists like Watkins want unlicensed open carry, in part because quite a few of them have criminal backgrounds and can’t get a concealed handgun license under current law.

This morning, Watkins uploaded a video monologue to his Facebook page. It quickly got taken down, but not before anti-open carry activists took it and uploaded it to YouTube.

“Last week, we got to see the games of the legislators,” Watkins tells the camera. “Looks like we have campus carry, no problem. But open carry? I don’t know about that,” he says, mimicking a legislator.

He challenges his audience of activists not to take the bait: “Are you going to settle for the low-hanging fruit that your masters are putting on the tree for you? Or are you going to go to the top of the tree and grab that fruit at the very top?”

Watkins has had enough. “I’m tired of jacking around. I’m tired of playing politically correct games. I’m tired of saying, ‘Well, this is chess, and we gotta take this slowly.’ No, no, no, no, no. This isn’t a game. This is reality. And these are our rights they’re playing with.”

Then, he goes too far: “I dunno if they forgot what their duty is, but it’s to protect the Constitution. And let me remind you: Going against the Constitution is treason. And treason is punishable by death.”

The men and women of the Legislature would do well to heed his words. “We’re not playing around. I don’t think they wanna mess with us too much longer.” If they did, something new would be coming at them. “They better start giving us our rights, or this peaceful non-cooperation stuff is gonna be, um, gamed up. We’re gonna step it up a notch.”

He’d just about had it. “In Texas we’re tired of jacking around with people in suits who think they can take away freedoms in the name of safety,” Watkins says. “These politicians down there are jacking around with your head.”

In Nevárez’s office, Watkins had stuck his foot in the door, preventing the rep from kicking him fully out of his office. It’s time for more, Watkins says.

“I want to put more than my foot in that door. We should be doing way more than that. We should be demanding that these people give us our rights back. Or else it’s punishable by death. Treason,” Watkins says. “You understand how serious this is, Texas? We need to start sticking more than foots in doors. This is treason against the American people. You don’t sell my rights back to me. Or you’re gonna find trouble.”

With that, he ends the recording.

What Dan Patrick’s First Big Mistake Says About Him—and the Senate

Dan Patrick manages to assemble his own personal circular firing squad in the first weeks of the session.
In a campaign ad from 2013, Patrick says he'll support open carry in office.
In a campaign ad from 2013, Patrick says he'll support open carry in office.

Among the myriad embarrassments the Legislature has suffered through in the last week, one subplot has something important to say about the potential embarrassments it will suffer through going forward. Last week saw Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s first big bungle—a totally avoidable trial-by-fire that demonstrates some of Patrick’s possible shortcomings as a leader and political actor.

You may have seen parts of it crop up in the news, but here’s the whole thing, in three painfully mismanaged acts. Last Tuesday, Patrick was interviewed by the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith at an early morning event. Smith asked Patrick if open carry was a done deal given the conservative composition of the Senate.

“Second Amendment rights are very important,” Patrick said. “But the open carry does not reach the level of prioritizing at this point out of all the things we talked about.” In fact, he didn’t even “think there’s support in the Legislature to pass it,” adding that “the votes have not been there” in the past, and little had seemed to change. If the votes materialized, he’d let it pass, but he wasn’t going to be pushing for it.

Patrick had his own priorities—he shoehorned a plug for school vouchers into his answer—and open carry just wasn’t one of them.

This was a careless answer, even if—especially if—it were true. Republican senators may be privately apprehensive about open carry after January’s shenanigans, and Patrick may not care much about it personally. But Patrick ran in the Republican primary by repeatedly pledging he supported open carry. Moreover, he said he would “fight for open carry,” which is a bit more assertive than just saying he would let it pass.

The problem: Under the new rules Patrick forced on the Senate, he can no longer quietly ensure Democrats take the blame for the failure of gun bills, like his predecessor David Dewhurst did. Nineteen of the Senate’s 20 Republicans could vote as a block and pass open carry out of the chamber, but there are quite a few GOP senators who are skeptical.

Of the two proposed Senate bills, licensed open carry may yet show signs of life. But unlicensed open carry, which the loudest activists are demanding, seems unlikely to pass. Patrick and open carry’s backers would have to employ a great deal of arm-twisting and expend a lot of political capital to advance the measure, which may be doomed regardless, and Patrick has other priorities.

That said, why didn’t Patrick just say he’d fight for it now, and then see what happens? Perhaps Senate moderates would take the blame for open carry’s failure—if it does fail—or perhaps the measures would fall apart in the House, where Joe Straus’ merry band of RINOs would suffer the ire of the base instead.

Patrick's campaign website made clear he would "fight for open carry."
Patrick’s campaign website made clear he would “fight for open carry.”

Instead, Patrick appears to have told the truth when he should have lied, which in politics is the greatest gaffe of all. Just a few hours later, he had an easy opportunity to qualify his remarks and quash brewing dissent: At the unveiling of the Senate budget plan, a reporter asked him about his open carry talk. But Patrick snippily declined to answer, and took the reporter to task for asking a question that wasn’t about the budget.

Predictably, the open carry guys went nuts—or, more nuts. But why shouldn’t they? Patrick told them he was a fellow traveller when he needed their votes, but now he had seemingly flipped. So the gun activists turned up the heat on Republican senators, the people for whom Patrick is supposed to provide cover. The leader of Open Carry Tarrant County, Kory Watkins, issued a series of cryptic threats toward, and complaints about, Patrick that promised confrontation later in the week. Here’s a fun video of Watkins after getting off the phone with Patrick’s office.

At any point, Patrick’s communication team could have covered for their boss pretty simply: Patrick, they’d say, cares about gun rights and would fight for it this session, etc. But it took his office two days to put out a statement, which finally came late last Wednesday afternoon. It was a major walkback. Labeled “Senate Gun Bills Update,” Patrick’s office emphasized that the Senate’s campus carry bill, which would force colleges to allow guns on school property, had been co-authored by 19 of the Senate’s 20 Republicans.

Now that the campus carry bill was on its way, Patrick’s Senate could focus on “other 2nd Amendment issues, including Open Carry, which I have consistently supported.”

That night, Patrick took to Facebook, for a long post that put the blame for his statements on… the media.

There were inaccurate reports in the media and across the Internet yesterday regarding my comments concerning Open Carry legislation. Despite reports to the contrary, I have never changed my position on the issue. I remain a steadfast supporter of the second amendment and Open Carry legislation.

As is typical of the media looking to build wedges among conservatives, many stories took words out of context. I did not say the bill was dead but suggested instead that, because the votes were not there (at this time), it had not risen to a level of priority….at this point. That is far different than saying an issue is not a priority, it just means work still needs to be done.

It’s a crisis management tack that would be well-suited for a campaign, but not for governing. Watch the video for yourself—this is not what Patrick said. Certainly, he may have misspoken, but the confidence with which he talked at the Tribune event would seem to argue against that.

There are even some people who have argued that Patrick was playing a kind of three-dimensional chess here by forcing activists to apply pressure to waffling senators to support open carry, but this seems weirdly reminiscent of liberals who insist that President Obama is always following a master plan just slightly out of view. Moreover, his communications team’s response to this episode doesn’t seem especially thought-out.

Eventually, Patrick’s staff met with Watkins, the rogue open carry leader. By Monday, Patrick’s communications team was in full gear, attempting to reassure activists he would follow their lead on their favored gun bills. Many still don’t quite believe him—and again, why should they?

But here’s the crazy thing: The end result of Patrick’s few days of gun heresy could be that he becomes even more beholden to the gun activists than before. They’ll be watching him, and they will be difficult to satisfy.

Why is any of this notable, for those not interested in the pathetic saga of gun bills so far this session? This was Patrick’s first real test, and he didn’t acquit himself well. He let his mouth get far, far ahead of him at a high-profile event, and it took a long while for his team to do damage control. As a result, he’s getting pushed to lead the charge for an effort he may not care much about. The failure or success of open carry will now be more strongly tied to his personal efforts.

Patrick’s temperamental style here put a burden on the senators he leads: It exposed them to a lot of time-consuming ire from constituents and may force them into positions they don’t want to take. That can’t have gone over well. And while there won’t be many more opportunities for Patrick to mouth off like he did in Smith’s interview—his office has no particular love for the media—everything we know about Patrick suggests his shoot-from-the-hip style holds true in his private dealings with other legislators as well. Signs of that will be something to watch for as time goes on, though we won’t see much of it in public.

There’s another part of this: Patrick made a hell of a lot of outlandish promises during his primary and during the general election. The grassroots have invested in him remarkably high expectations. He can’t possibly deliver on all of his promises, this session or even in the next. How will he manage the inevitable disappointment from the people who made him lite guv? Will the gun activists accept campus carry as a consolation prize if open carry dies? Blaming the media will only work for so long.

Sen. Jane Nelson and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick
Kelsey Jukam
Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson's budget proposal doesn't provide funding for the Public Integrity Unit.

 

The director of the state’s criminal anti-corruption unit told a key Senate committee Monday that “there is no one else” in the state that could handle the cases his office does.

The Public Integrity Unit, which is housed within the Travis County DA’s office, has long been a target of Republican legislators, who argue that its prosecutions are politically motivated. In 2013, Rick Perry vetoed funding for the agency after Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg refused to step down over her embarrassing arrest for drunk driving. Some lawmakers want to transfer the cases handled by the Public Integrity Unit out of Travis County. But Public Integrity Unit director Gregg Cox told the Senate Finance Committee that a constitutional amendment would be required to do that. Many of the cases the unit deals with occur in Travis County because Austin is the state capital, he said.

Cox balked at Sen. Joan Huffman’s suggestion that cases could be referred to the counties where the defendant resides. Cox pointed out that an illegal action in Travis County might be beneficial to the home county of the “bad actor.” As a result, hometown prosecutors and juries may not be as keen to indict.

Cox also stressed that public corruption has never made up more than 7 to 8 percent of the Public Integrity Unit’s total caseload—and of the 19 public corruption cases currently pending, only one involves an elected official. (Cox declined to name the official; Perry’s prosecution is being handled by a special prosecutor not affiliated with the Public Integrity Unit)  The majority of the caseload, he said, has historically been ones in which the state is the victim, such as unemployment or welfare fraud.

Since Perry vetoed funding, Cox and his team have been referring fraud cases to other DA’s offices, but few have led to indictments. Such cases require specialized staffs that most prosecutors don’t have.

The Senate budget proposal doesn’t include any funding for the unit, which was defunded by Perry in 2013, making good on a threat that lead to his indictment in August on abuse of power charges. In a press conference last month, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said he didn’t see a reason to replace that funding in the next two-year budget.

Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) said in the meeting that she believes “the functions of the Public Integrity Unit are very important.” But she left funding out of the budget bill because the Legislature might decide to create another agency or assign cases to other offices.

Before the committee adjourned, Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) asked whether there was any constitutional obligation to provide funding for the Public Integrity Unit. The answer doesn’t bode well for the corruption watchdog:  no.

 

Students from Houston Quran Academy.
Kelsey Jukam
Students from Houston Quran Academy sing the national anthem at the Texas Capitol.

Condemnation of the anti-Muslim rage at the Capitol on Thursday was fairly widespread among the media, elected officials and other members of the political mainstream. House Speaker Joe Straus put out a statement saying, in part, “legislators have a responsibility to treat all visitors just as we expect to be treated—with dignity and respect.” The Dallas Morning News editorialized that the “disgusting spectacle at the state Capitol and Rep. Molly White’s ignorant Facebook babble make you embarrassed to be Texan.”

Even Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano), a Christian right pol who’s sponsoring an anti-Sharia bill, tried to elevate the day out of the muck.

It was a rare moment of unity among an increasingly bitter and partisan—and dare I say, extreme—environment at the Capitol.

Some were eager to paint the two dozen or so Islamophobic protesters as a marginal group unrepresentative of Texas. The Dallas Morning News, in a tone uncharacteristic of staid editorial pages, put forth a #NotAllTexans argument: “Tell your in-laws in New York that we’re not all hateful, hayseed, redneck, ignorant Bubbas. Yes, we do have hateful, hayseed, redneck ignorant Bubbas in Texas.”

And that’s true as far as it goes: Most Texans don’t spend their days screaming at middle- and high-school students and dragging their knuckles around in public. Explaining how a state rep came to believe that the way to greet her constituents was to taunt them with the flag of a foreign nation and demand they take a loyalty oath is a harder task, though. Still, some tried. Erica Grieder of Texas Monthly pointed out that Rep. Molly White is a true freshman (no redshirts in the Lege) and probably has a bit of “a learning curve” to deal with. And this is true in its way too.

Surely Rep. White will think twice before she lets loose with full-throated bigotry again. Someone will show her how to use a dog-whistle instead.

But Rep. White and the anti-Muslim protesters did not appear out of nowhere. What happened last week is merely an extreme manifestation of deep-seated Islamophobia in Texas. If you care to scratch beneath the surface, the hatred of Muslims in tea party circles is palpable. White, for example, has spoken at least three times in the past few months on Raging Elephants Radio—a tea party radio program run by Apostle Claver, a black tea partier from Beaumont. On one recent show, the host, Doc Greene praised mosque burnings in Sweden, said Islam should be made illegal in Texas and told his listeners, “We need to make Muslims in Texas feel unsafe.”

This is not conservatism. This is crypto-fascism, the kind of jackbooted thuggery that is on the march in Europe today. Is Rep. White aware of Greene’s views? Does she share them?

Granted, Greene and White are outliers on the political spectrum. But virulently racist and paranoid rhetoric directed at Muslims is far from unusual. The Oak Initiative, a religious right organization active in Texas, has been beating the drum about an Islamic takeover of America for years. Here’s an example from a recent email to supporters:

Islam is one of the biggest threats in the world.  It is the anti-Christ system that is rising and Christians are called to confront it head on.  In order to do so you must be informed.

As Christians, we do not hate muslim people, but we do stand against the spirit of Islam that has millions in bondage and is seeking to bring the United States under its subjection through the implementation of Sharia Law (Islamic Law).

In 2011, the Oak Initiative leadership, based in Kerrville, claimed to have helped former state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran (R-Kerrville) write an anti-Sharia bill. The legislation didn’t go anywhere, but the notion that Sharia is somehow taking over courts in Texas, where judges are elected, just won’t die. The whole interplay of Sharia and American law has been wildly distorted and exaggerated. And not just by obscure radio programs. Ted Cruz has been on the Sharia bandwagon for years, calling it an “enormous problem” in 2012. Breitbart Texas has moved from beating up on Central American child refugees to hyperventilating over a non-story about Sharia courts in North Texas, which was then picked up by Fox News.

Anti-Muslim protesters.
Kelsey Jukam
A small group of anti-Muslim protesters disrupted speakers.

And let’s not forget one of the opening acts of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s career. In 2007, as a freshman senator, he refused to stay in the Senate chamber while a Muslim imam gave the traditional opening prayer for the day. Later, he said, “I think that it’s important that we are tolerant as a people of all faiths, but that doesn’t mean we have to endorse all faiths, and that was my decision.”

In Patrick’s mind, listening to a prayer is to “endorse” it—a problematic standard given that there are several Jewish legislators, including House Speaker Joe Straus. Imagine if a Muslim served in the Legislature.

Earlier in the 2007 session, Patrick had gotten the Senate to agree to put “In God We Trust” at the front of the Senate. I guess we knew which God he had in mind: His.

It is in this context of powerful politicians and media demagogues that Islamophobia is on the rise. Consider the experience of Heba Said, the Muslim UT-Arlington student who attended the Texas Republican Party Convention as a reporter for The Shorthorn. Said wears hijab—an article of clothing that was apparently a provocation to some of the GOP attendees. Said described “a cult-like hatred that is simply disgusting.” She was harangued about being Muslim, treated like an unwelcome visitor and even watched by police.

A couple months ago we profiled Mohamed Elibiary, a Plano Republican who happens to be Muslim and helps law enforcement combat extremism. Despite having a government security clearance, Elibiary has become a target of right-wing activists, who believe he is in cahoots with the Muslim Brotherhood and, predictably, part of some Obama-led fifth column to destroy America.

A couple weeks ago, a conference in Garland dedicated in part to fighting Islamic extremism was swarmed by protesters carrying signs bearing messages such as “Stand for the Savior Jesus Christ” and “Insult Those Who Behead Others.” Similar protests erupted in Houston the next day.

This is the lizard brain at work: My religion leaves no room for your religion.

The Capitol can seem like a rarefied place, but it’s not immune from the free-floating bigotry that’s roiling outside those heavy oak doors. Sometimes it finds a home inside.

Updated: The original version of the story misquoted House Speaker Joe Straus’ statement. The post has been corrected. We regret the error.

George P. Bush
John Savage
Land Commissioner George P. Bush addresses crowd at school choice rally

Of the half dozen or so rallies during the first three weeks of the legislative session, today’s rally for school choice wins at least three awards: Largest, Slickest and Youngest.

Billed as the largest school choice rally in Texas history, hundreds of people, mostly children in matching yellow scarves (signifying their support of school choice) marched on the Capitol.

Among the marquee speakers were new Land Commissioner George P. Bush and Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), one of the most hardcore school choice champions in the Legislature.

Bush, channeling his voucher-loving father, gave the crowd a now-familiar pitch.

“A majority of our students are trapped in schools that are underperforming,” Bush said. “Some schools don’t work and refuse to change, and that’s why we need school choice.”

“We want our voices to be heard,” said Rebekah Anthony, a fundraiser for the charter school chain IDEA Public Schools. “Parents and families make the conscious effort to enroll their students here because they believe it is the best opportunity for their students.”

The Capitol rally was part of National School Choice Week—a slick nation-wide campaign funded by deep-pocketed organizations such as the Heritage Foundation and Americans for Prosperity.

The event comes with the trappings of corporate-funded public relations campaigns: expensive advertising, celebrity endorsements, and even an official song and dance.

In Texas, voucher plans have been scotched repeatedly at the Legislature, thanks largely to an alliance of rural Republicans and big-city Democrats.

Louis Malfaro, president of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), told the Observer the school choice movement doesn’t have popular support.

“The majority of Texans are against privatizing public schools,” Malfaro says. “This is a damn sideshow, and to waste time on it is still irrelevant to the vast majority of students in the state.”

Some voucher opponents, including Karen Miller, the former legislative chair for the Texas Parent Teacher Association, raised concerns about students missing school to attend a political rally.

“If busloads of public school kids missed school for a rally,” Miller said, “conservative groups would be hot on the case and very critical.”

Several charter school administrators said that the rally was a good learning experience for the students. “This is an opportunity for them to learn what it means to be engaged in government,” Anthony told the Observer.

Research has shown that vouchers and charter school have failed to improve student achievement consistently. Opponents also argue that the initiatives drain money from public schools and may lead to increased racial segregation.

Analysts say that vouchers have a better chance of passing this legislative session because of the elevation of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a diehard voucher supporter, and other conservative Republicans who favor school choice.

Advocating for these initiatives has become part of a larger right-wing agenda of privatizing government-run services.

Vouchers have been around for more than a century, but it wasn’t until the economist Milton Friedman’s influential 1955 paper, “The Role of Government Education,” that vouchers became a pet cause of the right. Friedman’s birthday has been an occasion for free-market advocates and school choice supporters in Texas to celebrate his ideas.

The popularity of charter schools has made them the fastest growing school choice option across the nation. A few states and city school systems have also adopted some form of school vouchers. The movement has attracted super-rich supporters and profiteers into what Jeb Bush dubs the “education marketplace.”

At today’s rally, his son George P. Bush said one thing that both sides of the debate can agree on.

“We are training the future leaders of Texas, right here and right now, and we have to do it right,” Bush said.

Students from Houston Quran Academy.
Kelsey Jukam
Students from Houston Quran Academy sing the national anthem during Texas Muslim Capitol Day.

While a couple dozen protesters at the Capitol today held signs decrying Islam and called for Muslims to “go home,” Najmus Saqib Hassan watched on placidly. “Wherever Muslims get together, there is this,” he said. “But they have a right to be here. It doesn’t bother me.”

Hassan joined several hundred other Texans at the Capitol today for “Texas Muslim Day.”

Over the course of the 140-day legislative session there are hundreds of lobby days—for towns, industries, farmers, veterans, universities and all sorts of other interest groups. But few attract the vitriol that Texas Muslim Capitol Day did today.

Hundreds of Muslims from all over the state attended the event, which started in 2003. Many were schoolchildren who crowded in close to the podium as CAIR-Texas Communications Director Ruth Nasrullah began to speak. Before she could barely get a word out, a protester pushed her aside and grabbed the microphone.

“I proclaim the name of the Lord Jesus Christ over the Capitol of Texas. I stand against Islam and the false prophet of Mohammed,” Christine Weick yelled, before she was taken away by security.

On the “Taking a Stand Against CAIR” Facebook event page, 212 protesters said they planned on attending, but barely two dozen showed up today. Those who did were loud and relentless, shouting throughout the press conference, even when a group of teenage girls from Houston’s Quran Academy sang the national anthem.

Milly Wassum
Kelsey Jukam
Anti-Muslim protester Milly Wassum

Security was visibly high at the event, and police kept the protesters at bay.

Representatives from Texas Impact, an interfaith-advocacy organization based in Austin and co-sponsors of the event, had requested extra security because of a bomb threat posted on Facebook on Jan. 20.

Participants, for the most part, took the protesters in stride. Alia Salam, executive director of CAIR-Dallas Forth Worth, told the crowd: “When you see that out there, that’s America. That’s a good thing.”

“We may not like it, but one day you are going to protest against something you don’t like and it is important that you are able to do so,” she said. “Don’t let anything make you afraid to be involved.”

The purpose of the day wasn’t to push a particularly Islamic agenda on the Legislature, but to encourage members of the Muslim community to become more involved in the democratic process. Despite the angry protests, attendees were eager to make the rounds at the Capitol and talk about an agenda that was calibrated to have broad appeal. Event organizers encouraged the crowd to tell their lawmakers that they support the Texas DREAM Act, which offers in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who graduate high school in Texas, and legislation that would require law enforcement to wear body cameras.

“When you’re a part of society, you should support things that are good for everyone,” CAIR-Houston Executive Director Mustafaa Carroll told the Observer. “Muslims aren’t just here to see what benefits them, but what benefits everybody.”

Participants did single out one bill for protest: House Bill 670 by Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Canton), an anti-Sharia bill that pertains to the application of “foreign laws” in U.S. courts.

Several states have already passed similar bills, based on model legislation known as “American Laws for American Courts,” which was originally drafted by anti-Sharia activist David Yerushalmi.

In April 2014, Flynn claimed in an email to his constituents that the British Parliament would now be allowing religious Islamic law “a place in their legal system” and approving “Muslim religious precepts” that discriminate against women and children.

“There is no question the Judeo-Christian heritage we covet and aim to protect is under attack,” Flynn said in the email. “We the American people must wake up and recognize the Spiritual Warfare raging in America.”

Carroll says the the likelihood of Sharia law ever having any influence over American courts is “slim to none” and that the bill makes it looks as if Muslims “have some nefarious plot” to take over the judicial system.

Najmus Saqib Hassan
Kelsey Jukam
Najmus Saqib Hassan listens during a social activism session at the First United Methodist Church.

The day also featured an uproar over a Facebook post from state Rep. Molly White (R-Belton) that called on Muslims visiting her office to pledge allegiance to the U.S.

Ideas about plotting Muslims and other misconceptions of those who practice Islam are bred by ignorance, Hassan said. Prejudices could be reduced, he says, if people simply made the effort to talk to Muslims. He suggested that folks visit mosques and Islamic centers, and extended an invitation for anyone interested to visit the place where he worships: the Maryam Islamic Center in Sugar Land, a facility that can accommodate 1,300 people (there are over 50,000 Muslims in Houston).

“If you live in a tunnel, you will be seen in a tunnel,” he said.

1394472_1418067878423489_465099209_n
facebook
State Rep. Molly White (R-Belton)

Freshman Rep. Molly White (R-Belton) is a fireball, and we knew that. Fiercely pro-life—she blames her two abortions for a history of substance abuse and mental anguish—she might be the only member of the Legislature to haul around plastic models of fetuses in her SUV. But she’s also a woman of the world, and abortion is not her only issue. Today, as part of an interfaith lobbying effort, a group of Texas Muslims descended on the Capitol to meet legislators. White left her staff specific instructions as to how to deal with the suspicious interlocutors, and was proud enough to post them on Facebook:

Today is Texas Muslim Capital day [sic] in Austin. The House is in recess until Monday. Most Members including myself are back in District. I did leave an Israeli flag on the reception desk in my office with instructions to staff to ask representatives from the Muslim community to renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws. We will see how long they stay in my office.

White sees the Muslims in her office as an enemy. One might make the assumption that Muslims looking to meet their elected representatives are a different subset than jihadis, but this is not within White’s power. Apart from the odd use of the Israeli flag—as if it were a wooden stake, to menace vampires—White’s desire to see every Muslim who has the singular misfortune to wander into her office pledge “allegiance to America” before they commune with an elected officeholder is insulting and dangerous for reasons that should be obvious. Only an idiot would demand White repudiate the butchers of abortion doctors every time she rose to speak about her core issue on the House floor.

By mid-morning, Molly White was trending on Twitter, and she’s going to catch some flak for this. But White’s words are a reminder that anti-Muslim bigotry is a core part of the worldview of the state’s far-right, which fears little more than Islam. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick boycotted the first prayer delivered by an Imam in the Texas Senate back in 2007. Last year, a hijab-clad reporter from UT-Arlington’s student newspaper wrote about her unpleasant experiences at the Republican Party of Texas’ convention. Cathie Adams, a former chairwoman of the state GOP, has been traveling the state educating tea party groups to the fact that important figures in the national Republican hierarchy and the intelligence community are secret Muslims.

Now, the Texas House has a leader not afraid to speak her mind—and that’s a frightening thought.

Sen. Jane Nelson and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick
Kelsey Jukam
Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick released the first draft of the Senate's budget plan Tuesday morning.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson released the first draft of the Senate’s budget plan Tuesday morning, outlining a proposal which places a heavy emphasis on tax cuts and transportation funding. Nelson’s budget, she told reporters in her characteristically upbeat manner, was “compassionate” yet fiscally restrained, a document that would “create a Texas miracle tomorrow that will surpass the Texas miracle of today.”

In pursuit of that “miracle” the Senate has drawn up a $205.1 billion budget for 2016-2017, up 1.5 percent from the previous biennium’s $202 billion budget. The House’s budget proposal, released the first week of the session, was just $202.4 billion.

The Senate’s proposed budget is higher than the House budget in part because it includes $4 billion in tax cuts—$3 billion of property tax cuts and $1 billion of cuts to the franchise tax, Texas’ business tax. “We have an obligation to return a large share of dollars to the people that worked hard and gave us that money in the first place,” Nelson said.

Patrick and Nelson talked about the need to restrict property tax growth—the tax is levied by localities, not the state—but the Senate budget attempts to compensate by giving more state aid to school districts.

After talking up the budget’s approach to taxes, transportation and border security, Nelson rounded to the topic of public education, which she said “is a priority for us.” The Senate budget actually adds about $2.5 billion to public education, but that’s only to compensate for an expected enrollment increase of 83,000 students—in other words, there’s no attempt to return to the level of school funding that existed before 2011’s enormous cuts.

Eva DeLuna Castro, a policy analyst at the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities, says that proposed education funding is still “way lower” than what is needed to carry out standardized testing and curriculum requirements.

The Texas Department of Transportation fares better. Through a number of funding sources, including 2014’s Proposition 1, which diverts money from the Rainy Day Fund to the State Highway Fund, Nelson said an additional $5 billion over the biennium would be made available to TxDOT, allowing the agency to jump-start new construction projects. That might be too optimistic. According to Castro, TxDOT has said that it needs $8 to $10 billion over the biennium just to maintain the present level of congestion and keep up with current projects.

As part of that increase in funds for TxDOT, Nelson’s budget eliminates diversions from the gas tax, which has been used, in recent years, for the budget of the Department of Public Safety. Money for DPS will now have to come from general revenue. There’s also a one-time $1.2 billion infusion for TxDOT from motor vehicle sales taxes, which normally feed into the rest of the state’s budget.

The budget proposal also allocates $2.6 billion for mental health programs. This is the same as last year’s budget, although Nelson noted that certain programs that fall under the mental health umbrella would see an increase in funding. Texas is spends less money on mental health services than nearly every other state in the country.

The budget also allocates $815 million for border security—a significant increase from previous years, and more than double what was in the House’s proposal. It adds $60 million for graduate medical education and $50 million for women’s health.

Nelson’s committee will begin its deliberations on the base budget tomorrow morning, before the House has even formed its committees. The early start on appropriations is one way Patrick’s Senate is hoping to get a jump on the less-conservative House.

At the press conference today, Patrick said he was front-loading the Senate calendar to avoid chaos as the Lege winds down months from now. But it also serves to put his priorities first in line.

The House budget proposal, released two weeks ago, more or less punted on the tougher budgetary questions, keeping spending roughly flat in most areas. The tax cuts Nelson and Patrick are proposing will be driving much of the Legislature’s conversation about the budget going forward.

At the start of the press conference, Patrick teased a tardy reporter who said he’d been over by the House chamber. “Why?” Patrick asked. “This is where the action’s gonna be this session.”

If you want to follow along at home, Nelson’s budget bill is Senate Bill 2. Later, Nelson will file Senate Bill 1, legislation that will deal with the specifics of cutting property taxes, Patrick said.

State Sen. Kevin Eltife answers questions from State Sen. Rodney Ellis, while Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick listens intently.
Christopher Hooks
State Sen. Kevin Eltife answers questions from State Sen. Rodney Ellis, while Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick listens intently.

When death came for the two-thirds rule, the 68-year-old dictate of the Texas Senate that requires 21 of the chamber’s 31 senators to agree to vote on a bill, it wasn’t exactly swift, but it was a gentler demise than some might have expected. For years, then-Sen. Dan Patrick had fulminated against the rule, which he saw as an unnecessary restraint on the power of Senate Republicans.

In 2007, on Patrick’s first day on the floor, he proposed changing to the rule to a simple majority—and he was voted down 30 to 1. But as the years have passed, Patrick’s critique of the rule has gained traction, and a number of the chamber’s new GOP senators were elected having pledged to junk it. Patrick’s election made it a virtual certainty that the rule would be killed.

But when senators voted on the rules they’ll use for the 84th legislative session today, as part of a package authored by state Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler), it wasn’t Patrick’s simple majority that made it through—his original idea, and one he’d mentioned from time to time during his primary campaign—but a slightly reduced supermajority barrier. Instead of two-thirds, the Senate will now require three-fifths of the Senate, or 19 senators, to bring a bill to a vote.

There are 20 Republicans in the Senate, so the small change means quite a bit. Eltife’s floor speech in defense of the measure made a few simple points: Keeping a supermajority requirement would address some of the arguments made by backers of the two-thirds rule, namely that its disappearance would precipitate a split between urban and rural senators, who could find themselves competing for tight resources.

Winning 19 votes is a difficult thing, Eltife said, and wouldn’t be so different in practice from getting 21. He hoped that the change would bring more decorum to the Senate, not less. It wasn’t about partisanship, he said, but about good government.

The Democrats in the chamber, who will have less leverage than ever as a result of the rule change, had a hard time swallowing that. For nearly two hours, they took turns interrogating Eltife and attempting to poke holes in his reasoning. Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) argued that the rule changes as a whole would make it easier for Senate leadership to sneak through bills and rule changes later in the session. Many others argued from principle, saying that scrapping the two-thirds tradition would make the Senate a less bipartisan place, which was certainly the point.

Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) quoted from former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby’s memoirs, in which he called a 1979 attempt to circumvent the two-thirds rule the “biggest mistake I made as president of the Texas Senate.” Hobby added that “anything that doesn’t have the support of two-thirds of the Senate is seldom a good idea.” Ellis said he hoped those in the chamber today would have enough foresight to agree with Hobby by the time they wrote their books. “I think it’s a sad day for the Senate,” Ellis said, “and one we will look back on with regret.”

Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) was more pointed. The three-fifths standard, he reminded the room, was the same one used by the U.S. Senate, the world’s least effective deliberative body. “Members, I hate to say it,” he said, “but I think we’re going the way of Congress.”

“I have been an advocate of the two-thirds rule since the beginning of the tenure in my Senate,” Eltife said, but it was no longer tenable. He liked the idea of the supermajority requirement, he said, even though some Republican senators wanted to go to 50 percent, and he had worked to preserve it.

The two-thirds rule was broken anyways, he said. The most partisan bills the Legislature has passed in recent years found a way around the requirement. When bills are brought up during a special session, as 2013’s abortion restrictions were, only a simple majority is needed to get them through the sausage factory. And legislators have plenty of ways to ignore or avoid the two-thirds rule when they really want to during session—that’s the way they passed voter ID.

Senate freshmen like Don Huffines (front) and Bob Hall (back) stayed silent as the chamber's elders debated the rules change.
Christopher Hooks
Senate freshmen like Don Huffines (front) and Bob Hall (back) stayed silent as the chamber’s elders debated the rules change.

He has a point. Many Democrats stormed social media today with the hashtag #lockout—the rule change, many said, was patently unfair and would make Texas government dramatically less transparent. But this isn’t a tipping point—it’s more like the Legislature has taken a few more steps down the grand staircase of partisanship that it’s been descending for years. Democrats had very little leverage last session, and they have less now.

At any rate, you could see the two-thirds rule as a sort of artifact of one-party Texas—when the Senate was filled with Democrats, as it was in 1947 when the rule was introduced, the rule helped ensure that broad coalitions were being built and maintained within the party. Its late role as a safeguard for the minority party seems fairly accidental. When then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid saw the need to change the rules of the U.S. Senate to overcome gridlock over nominations, he did so, and Democrats cheered. Politics is about power, and sometimes talk about “principle” can obscure that.

It was Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) who might have put it best, with what we should call Whitmire’s Dialectic: “It’s probably not as bad as I’m making it out to be,” he said during his remarks, “but it’s probably not as good as you’re making it out to be.”

The two-thirds rule was junked by a vote of 20 to 10: One Republican, Craig Estes of Wichita Falls, abstained from voting, and one Democrat, the ever-independent Eddie Lucio of Brownsville, voted for it.

In a separate vote, senators cut the number of the chamber’s committees from 18 to 14. Getting the axe are Jurisprudence, Economic Development, Government Organization and Open Government committees. Three were chaired by Democrats last session, and one by Republican Bob Deuell, who was beaten in his primary.

It’s possible that years from now, we might look back, as Ellis suggested more than once, and see this as an historic moment in Texas government. Ellis predicted that moving to a simple majority vote system was inevitable. It seems clear that Patrick, when he writes his memoirs, will not be able to declare what Lt. Gov. Albert Clinton Horton did, on the last day of Texas’ 1st Legislature, May 13, 1846:

I can safely place my hand upon my heart and say that I have never taken advantage of my station, nor endeavored to pervert the Rules of the Senate, for the purpose of carrying into effect favorite views or projects.

Still, Patrick seemed at peace with himself. As he gaveled the Senate to a close on the first day he’d spent in control of it, he offered the chamber a brief benediction: “Go with god,” he said. “Go safely.”