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Ken Paxton, after being sworn in, stands among Texas GOP VIP's: From left to right, Governor-elect Greg Abbott, Senator Ted Cruz, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Justice Don Willett, and Governor Rick Perry.
Christopher Hooks
Ken Paxton, after being sworn in, stands among Texas GOP VIPs: From left to right, Gov.-elect Greg Abbott, Sen. Ted Cruz, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Justice Don Willett, and Gov. Rick Perry.

On Wednesday night, news broke that a Collin County grand jury is exploring anew Attorney General Ken Paxton’s potential legal improprieties—another milestone in his declining fortunes. For the last few months, Paxton had seemed to have gotten away with it.

First, he had managed the spectacular task of getting elected to the top law enforcement job just months after admitting to violating securities law by shunting his legal clients into shady financial deals, then getting a kickback, without telling them about it. That was the easy part. (He’s a Republican; it’s Texas.)

But if someone were to simply indict him for the crime that he had apparently admitted to committing, he would likely be charged with a felony. No sweat, right? Paxton is not even a ham sandwich—he’s the lowest of low-hanging fruit. A prosecutor would just have to reach out and pluck him. But in late January, Paxton got an even bigger break. The Travis County District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit—the ethics watchdog that Republicans are convinced is out to get them at all costs—politely declined the case.

The PIU prosecutor said that only the district attorneys in Collin and Dallas counties, where Paxton was active at the time he allegedly violated the law, had the jurisdiction to charge him. Both Republicans, the DAs seem exceptionally unlikely to go after Paxton. Dallas DA Susan Hawk’s office has been barely functional amid a series of weird personal dramas, and Collin DA Greg Willis is a long-time best friend of Paxton’s—they’re former business partners, and supported each other’s election bids. If you go to Willis’ website, Paxton is still listed as heading up the host committee to one of Willis’ last big fundraisers.

So like the ill-fated villain of a noir, Paxton had arrived at the moment of false confidence that bad guys always reach right before the hammer comes down. After an election season in which his spokespeople were literally manhandling reporters to keep them from asking questions—any questions at all—of the big man, Paxton had something of a coming-out party. He was feted by GOP royalty, without reservations, at his inauguration. In February, he appeared with Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz at a high-profile Obama bashfest. He even wrote a column for Bill Buckley’s old rag.

If everyone on the GOP team just kept quiet, Paxton would be fine, and in four to eight years he’d move on to higher office. And it seemed initially like that’s how it would play out. When Craig McDonald, the head of the left-leaning accountability group Texans for Public Justice, tried to follow up with Willis’ office on the information on Paxton sent by the PIU, he says he “got the clear sense from Willis’ spokesman that our stuff was going straight into the paper shredder.” (Willis’ office didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Which is why three events in the last week have come as such a surprise. The first came last Thursday, when the editorial board of the Dallas Morning News called for Willis to seek the appointment of a special prosecutor to look into Paxton’s history. “The state’s top law enforcer, Attorney General Ken Paxton, also happens to be an admitted law breaker,” the editorial began. It continued:

These are not nitpicky issues. State securities law imposes registration requirements to protect the public from victimization by investment frauds and scams.

The fact that Paxton violated the law repeatedly over several years suggests a troubling pattern unbecoming of the esteemed office he now holds. That’s why an independent prosecutor needs to assume control of this case.

Then, on Friday, state Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) told the Houston Chronicle that he thought the case warranted more attention:

“How is going back to your home county and having a friend and business associate handling your prosecution better?” Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said. “I think it’s a clear case for a special prosecutor.”

Republicans are generally very good at tribal loyalty, but many serious GOPers can’t be happy with the fact that one of their most important statewide elected officials is so ethically challenged. (Though amid the ensuing firestorm, Seliger told one Lubbock radio station he’d been talking in hypotheticals.)

Seliger was also talking about Senate Bill 10, an attempt by state Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) to gut the PIU by routing ethics investigations through the Texas Rangers—run by an appointee of the governor—and ultimately to the hometown prosecutors of elected officials. It would be a grotesque way to do business, because many legislators have friendly relationships with their county DAs, just like Paxton does. SB 10 would take the most bizarre and screwed-up part of the Paxton saga so far and replicate it all over the state.

Seliger and state Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) held up the bill over a proposal that the AG’s office play a role in ethics investigations—letting Paxton guard the henhouse. But once that was stripped, the two dropped their objections. On Wednesday, SB 10 passed the Senate along party lines, 21 to 10.

During the debate, state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) outlined a hypothetical scenario that mirrored the case of Paxton and Willis. Would Huffman, who used to work in the office of the Harris County DA, think it appropriate for the Willis-like figure to step aside and urge the appointment of a special prosecutor? Huffman answered that if she were the DA, “I would recuse myself.” But her bill would force more and more local DAs into that position, where not all might have Huffman’s sense of ethical responsibility.

But just a few hours after the Senate debate concluded, the Houston Chronicle broke word that Willis might not have to ask for a special prosecutor after all. A Collin County grand jury had gone rogue, in part, perhaps, because of the public attention conjured by the Dallas Morning News and others. The grand jury appeared to be circumventing Willis. They requested the information forwarded to his office by the PIU—the information Willis seemed intent to ignore.

“Collin County appears to be the venue where this evidence needs to be heard,” says the letter from the grand jury vice foreman. “Therefore, we are requesting the documents be sent to us as soon as possible.”

Once the grand jury hears the evidence in Paxton’s case, an indictment seems more likely than not.

“This case is absurd because Paxton has already admitted to a crime with Texas regulators,” says McDonald. His admission of guilt, passed off by his consultants during the election as the end of the matter, “in no way adjudicates his potential felony criminal behavior.” As a reminder of the surreal nature of the fact that he may not be prosecuted for a crime which he has apparently admitted to committing, McDonald says, he keeps Paxton’s “signed confession” on his desk.

Editor’s note: This story has been edited to remove a questionable historical reference in the original version. 

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 Wednesday's committee hearing.

If this was their last meaningful opportunity to put on a show for state legislators, opponents of same-sex marriage made the most of it.

Fifteen witnesses, including a who’s who of anti-LGBT activists in Texas, testified Wednesday in support of a proposal to bar state or local funds from being used “for an activity that includes the licensing or support of same-sex marriage.”

They invoked Nazi Germany and the Civil War, warned of the imminent demise of American civilization, compared gays to murderers and advocated defiance of a likely U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage in June.

“It’s not marriage—it’s a mirage, it’s a counterfeit, it’s a lie,” said Dr. Steve Hotze, president of the Conservative Republicans of Texas. “It will never be a marriage no matter what they say, because it violates God’s standards, and he sets the standards.”

Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston), a member of the House Committee on State Affairs, grilled Hotze about whether he wants Texas to ignore “the law of the land” if the high court rules in favor of marriage equality.

“If you passed a law that we’re going to go and round up people of an ethnic group and put them into jail and exterminate them, would you abide by that law?” Hotze responded. “What did they do in Nazi Germany? It was legal to round up Jews and put them in the chambers and kill them. And the defense they said is, that was the law.”

After Turner suggested all people should be treated equally regardless of ethnicity or sexual orientation, Hotze said there’s a difference because being gay is a choice.

“If people are involved in an activity that’s immoral and wrong, you can love them but you don’t respect what they do, and you try to help them find a way out,” Hotze said. “Whether they’re alcoholics, whether they’re murderers, whether they’re adulterers, whether they’re perverts or pornographers or whatever, you want to help them out—or homosexuals, you want to help them out.”

Nine people testified against the bill during a two-hour hearing that ran past 10 p.m., including Guadalupe County Clerk Teresa Kiel, who serves as legislative chair for the County and District Clerks’ Association of Texas.

Under House Bill 4105, by Reps. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia) and Drew Springer (R-Muenster), county clerks would send fees collected for marriage licenses to the state comptroller’s office, along with documentation of the couple’s identity. The comptroller would remand $30 from each license to the county clerk, unless it was issued to a same-sex couple, in which case the money would be deposited in the state’s general revenue fund.

Kiel said she was “confused” and “troubled” by the bill, noting it’s already illegal for clerks to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

“As an elected official, I took an oath to uphold the laws of the state of Texas,” Kiel told the committee. “If the law is already in existence, what are we trying to do?”

Daniel Williams, legislative director for Equality Texas, said HB 4105 is a “nifty” way to increase state revenue. He said if a federal court declares the state’s marriage ban unconstitutional, many of the bill’s provisions would be struck down, too.

“So when I look at the bill, my question becomes what does it actually wind up doing, and the answer is it adds another level of bureaucracy in Austin … and I have trouble believing there’s any Texan who believes that’s a good idea,” Williams said.

Bell maintained HB 4105, which replaces a similar bill derailed amid budgetary concerns two weeks ago, would have no fiscal impact. And he said it would not adversely affect county clerks as long as they don’t issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

“I just want to be clear that I do respect people and I do love people, but that doesn’t negate law,” Bell told the committee in closing. “HB 4105 simply asserts the sovereign rights of Texas, using the legislative process, to codify marriage in Texas as one man and one woman, and to make certain that our dollars are used the way Texans want them to be.”

Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana), chair of the committee, left the bill pending. Earlier, Cook told the Observer he was unsure whether he’ll call it back up for a vote.

“What we try to do in State Affairs is give folks an opportunity to weigh in on the issues that are important to them,” Cook said. “We hear a lot of bills that need a lot of thought, and this is one of them.”

At least 12 anti-LGBT bills have been referred to Cook’s committee, more than half the record number introduced in the 84th Legislature. Cook made headlines recently when he came out in support of same-sex couples’ right to have both names on the birth certificates of adopted children.

Asked about backlash from major corporations over an anti-LGBT religious freedom law in Indiana, Cook noted that a similar proposal died in State Affairs two years ago.

“I think we’ve done a good job of being measured,” he said.

HB 4105 has 37 co-authors, all Republicans.

Dan Huberty
Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston)

Update: House Bill 4 got final approval in the House on Thursday, 128-17-2, and is headed to the Senate.

Original: Debate over funding for pre-K programs heated up the House today as legislators preliminarily passed House Bill 4 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston).

Huberty’s bill would provide additional funding to school districts that choose to offer high-quality pre-K programs. Texas currently requires districts to offer half-day pre-K to English-language learners as well as homeless, foster and low-income students—about 225,000 students at a cost of $800 million.

The Legislature cut nearly $300 million from pre-K programs in 2011, but restored $30 million of that in 2013. Huberty’s bill would increase pre-K funding by an estimated $130 million—still well below 2011 funding levels.

State funding of pre-K programs has not polled well with conservative GOP voters, and Huberty tried to assuage criticism from tea party-affiliated representatives.

“This bill does not expand pre-K. This is not universal pre-K. This is creating a high quality gold star standard program for educating our most vulnerable children,” Huberty said.

House tea party caucus member Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) tried to kill the bill by calling points of order, a legislative tactic. Stickland called three consecutive points of order before Huberty could finish introducing his bill.

Other tea party Republicans, including freshman Rep. Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington), voiced concerns that Huberty’s bill would further expand an already too-large state government.

“I don’t agree that government should always come forward and take responsibility, especially when it comes to children,” Tinderholt said.

“Parents should parent,” he said later.

Some Democratic critics, in contrast, argued that that Huberty’s bill doesn’t go far enough.

Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) pleaded with lawmakers to provide enough funding for school districts to offer full-day pre-K programs.

“I’ve got reams of paper from stakeholders that tell us that full-day pre-K is better than half-day pre-K,” Johnson said.

During several impassioned exchanges Huberty defended his bill.

“We should not be beholden to a conservative group, or some group, or any outside interest group. We should make these decisions,” Huberty said. Dozens of representatives cheered his comments.

In January Gov. Greg Abbott named expanding pre-K funding an emergency legislative item. “I applaud the Texas House of Representatives for recognizing the critical importance of providing high-quality pre-k,” Abbott said in a press release today.

HB 4 bill passed on second reading on a 129-18 vote. It will have to pass one more House vote before moving to the Senate.

 

Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood)
John Savage
Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood)

Lawmakers heard testimony today on bills designed to create a new school district, a so-called Opportunity School District, for struggling public schools.

Senate Bill 895 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) would allow the state to take over schools from locally elected school boards if they have low state performance ratings for two consecutive years.

Mike Feinberg, CEO of the KIPP charter school chain testified in support of Taylor’s bill.

“We have a collective statewide responsibility to figure out how we turn around the cycle of despair in schools that have been failing year after year after year,” Feinberg said. “We need to give those schools to a superintendent who focuses on nothing but turnaround.”

The Opportunity School District would be comprised of failing schools from across the state.

Taylor’s bill would allow, but not require, schools in the district to be turned over to privately run charter operators. In the states where similar initiatives have been tried, Tennessee and Louisiana for example, that is precisely what has happened. The Recovery School District in Louisiana became the first all-charter district in the nation this school year.

Several witnesses criticized the measure that Texas uses to rate schools: the STAAR test.

“The only measure we’re using to make the judgment that these schools are failing and need to be turned over to state control is a test that you yourselves have called into question,” said Jim Nelson of the Texas Association of School Boards.

In Texas, school ratings rely mostly on test scores that closely track family income. Low-performing schools are more likely to have high rates of poverty, racial segregation and English language learners.

Several proponents of Taylor’s bill invoked Louisiana’s Recovery School District. Education reformers across the nation have called the Recovery School District an education miracle that has led to increased student achievement. But students in the school experiment have some of the lowest ACT scores in the nation, almost a decade after it began.

“The Opportunity School District is basically a business opportunity and that’s it,” said Patty Quinzi of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. “This was a bill that was designed by the American Legislative Exchange Council [ALEC], which is co-chaired by private charter school managers.”

ALEC is a deep-pocketed organization of state legislators and corporate leaders that promotes free-market legislation across the country.

The committee also heard testimony on Senate Bill 669 by Royce West (D-Dallas). West’s bill would create an Opportunity School District similar to Taylor’s bill, but with several differences. For one, West’s bill would require teachers in the district to be certified. Taylor’s bill would not.

Several other education reform bills, including hot-button voucher and parent trigger bills championed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, were voted out of the Senate Education Committee.

“These bills will provide much deserved ‘parental choice’ so students are not forced to go to a failing school or trapped in an undesirable educational geographic area because of their zip code,” Patrick said in a press release.

Both Opportunity School District bills were left pending in the committee.

 

West fertilizer plant disaster
Jonathan McNamara
A house destroyed by the West fertilizer plant explosion in the northern part of town.

As the second anniversary of the West, Texas fertilizer plant disaster approaches, lawmakers are running out of time to pass legislation addressing the catastrophe’s underlying causes. In the two years since the explosion in West, which killed 15 and injured more than 300, virtually nothing has been done to fix the patchwork regulations and lax system of oversight of ammonium nitrate facilities like the West Fertilizer Company.

With just 55 days left in the 140-day legislative session, a handful of legislators are trying to get something, anything done. On Tuesday, the House Committee on Environmental Regulation took less than an hour to discuss three bills filed in response to the West disaster.

But the legislation that received the most attention, HB 942 by Rep. Kyle Kacal (R-College Station), falls short of the most substantial proposal, drafted by Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso). When the West disaster unfolded on April 17, 2013, Pickett was chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, which was tasked with examining ammonium nitrate regulations. Pickett said he didn’t want to act hastily last legislative session and promised to craft a balanced approach during the interim that gave the State Fire Marshal’s Office more authority.

In the aftermath of West, State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy said voluntary inspections had identified widespread fire-safety problems in the state’s 90-something ammonium nitrate facilities, but that he was powerless to compel any changes.

While nearly identical to Kacal’s bill in other respects, Pickett’s HB 417 would give the state fire marshal the power to write his own fire-safety rules. Currently, the fire marshal must ask permission to inspect fertilizer plants and can only offer recommendations to facility owners.

Pickett said that ammonium nitrate businesses are “extremely important” but that people who get into the business need to take on more responsibility. When asked about the chances the Legislature would take steps to prevent another fertilizer disaster, he was fatalistic.

“We reflect on the loss of life and then that goes away and everyone starts looking at their special interests,” Pickett said. He added that the industry shouldn’t be afraid of additional regulations. “There’s nothing in this that will put anyone out of business.”

Kacal’s approach would allow the state fire marshal to inspect ammonium nitrate facilities but limits enforcement to four specific rules described in the bill. Facilities would be required to provide evidence of compliance with right-to-know laws, post warning placards and store ammonium nitrate away from combustible materials. They’d also be be required to keep ammonium nitrate in a separate structure from, say, an office or shop.

Some in the fertilizer business have resisted giving a state agency more power. Jim Farley owns a farm supply company in DeLeon, Texas, that sells ammonium nitrate-based fertilizers. He was one of five people to testify in favor of Kacal’s bill, and the only person to testify against Pickett’s. Farley said he was “devastated” when he heard the news about West and that he’s made many changes to his business since the West explosion to improve safety. But he argued that new rules, which could be drafted by the state fire marshal under Pickett’s plan, might cost him too much money. As a small business owner, he says, he couldn’t afford to change his wood roof, or put in an automatic sprinkler system that might corrode.

Kyle Kacal
Kyle Kacal

Both bills also strengthen hazardous-chemical reporting. Companies would have to submit information about the chemicals they hold, via Tier II reports, to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) instead of the Department of State Health Services, an agency that’s always been an awkward fit. TCEQ would then share the reports with local first responders and the state fire marshal. One of the problems that emerged from the West disaster was that local first responders often lack the critical information about hazardous chemicals, or don’t have the proper training to know what to do in the event of a fire.

HB 2470, filed by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin), was the final ammonium nitrate-related bill heard by the committee on Tuesday. It would require ammonium nitrate operations to have liability insurance, which they are not currently required to have. The West Fertilizer Company carried just a $1 million policy. Property losses from the West explosion are now estimated to be as much as $230 million.

Cyrus Reed, representing the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, told the committee that it makes sense to require insurance, “because it will create market pressure to be safe.”

“Sometimes bills that require rulemaking leads to delay and poor rules, or the agency doesn’t actually enforce the rules,” Reed said.

“This is a very balanced attempt to make sure communities don’t suffer another explosion like this and if they do they will have the resources to rebuild,” said Ware Wendell, deputy director of the consumer group Texas Watch.

HB 417, HB 942, and HB 2470 were left pending in committee.

House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen)
Patrick Michels
House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) with House members last month.

Two weeks after announcing that he’d try to fix the school finance system in the current legislative session, House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Ayocck (R-Killeen) unveiled his plan in a committee hearing this afternoon. Aycock had already announced his plan would come with $800 million in new money; today he explained how it would work.

Like most things in school finance, it’s complicated stuff. You can read the details of his plan, and its projected effects on your favorite school district, here.

Generally speaking, Aycock’s proposal involves scrapping a number of outdated or impractical funding tools—the “Cost of Education Index,” for instance, is 24 years old and has never been updated—and putting all of that money into the basic per-student allotment.

“Part of my objective when I began this was to simplify this system that we’re in,” Aycock said as he explained his bill, later adding, “I wish I could make it simpler. It’s not a simple deal.”

Any tweaks to the school finance system would ripple out across Texas’ thousand-plus school districts in different ways. (Aycock said that modeling his possible fixes “literally crashed” a state computer.) To minimize the number of districts losing money under the proposal, the House has passed a budget with $3 billion in new spending for public schools—including $2.2 billion that budget writers agreed upon early in the session, and $800 million more announced as part of Aycock’s plan.

The Senate draft budget includes much less for schools, and Aycock has said his counterparts in the upper chamber haven’t been a part of the House school finance talks. If the Senate doesn’t sign to match the House’s proposal, Aycock said his restructuring must be scuttled too.

Without new money, he said, “the pain of making these changes would be insurmountable.”

But there are new and different sorts of pain in store if the Legislature does nothing.

For one, under the current system, Houston ISD will soon owe the state around $100 million in “Robing Hood” funding—money that wealthy districts pay the state to cover poorer ones. Aycock has mentioned this point repeatedly, saying Houston ISD would either have to cut its services or raise taxes to cover the cost—or both—and get its voters to agree to foot the bill.

For another, many school districts are about to get a whole lot less from the state after September 2017. That’s when a relic of the last school finance “fix” in 2006 will expire, and a whole bunch of districts whose funding has been artificially inflated, by a tool known as ASATR, will watch their funding deflate in a hurry. Aycock conveyed the point with a different image today: “We’re going to hit a cliff at that point, and we’re going to hit it at 100 miles per hour,” he said.

His bill would move all but 2 percent of school districts off that artificial funding mechanism and onto formula funding, which is generally more stable. “Those that do fall in ’18 fall a lot less,” he said. “When they fall off that cliff, they don’t fall as far.”

Since 2006, as Abby Rapoport explained in the Observer a few years back, ASATR has been a finger on the scales that has persistently privileged some districts over others in some weird and unfair ways. Moving all but 2 percent of districts onto formula funding instead makes the system more fair.

That question of equity isn’t just important for students in those districts. It’s a central issue in the ongoing school finance case that the Texas Supreme Court is set to take up months from now. Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) has said that Aycock’s proposal would mean new money for schools, but she doubts it would do enough for poor students or English-language learners to make the system truly equitable.

That was a major issue in District Judge John Dietz’s ruling against the state last year, and Aycock said this afternoon that his bill didn’t touch the funding weights that provide money for those students. But he did call his plan “the most equitable statistical sample that’s been proposed for many years,” and said, “I honestly move it helps the state’s position, moves the ball in the right direction.”

He went even further with reporters after the hearing:

The committee will hear public testimony on the bill next Tuesday.

Bill Hammond, Texas Association of Business
John Wright
Bill Hammond, CEO of the Texas Association of Business, speaks during Tuesday's press conference at the Capitol.

The Texas Association of Business forcefully reiterated its opposition Tuesday to two proposed “religious freedom” amendments that critics say would enshrine a license to discriminate against LGBT people in the Texas Constitution.

But the powerful, conservative state chamber of commerce stopped short of coming out against several other anti-LGBT proposals.

At an unprecedented news conference in the speaker’s room outside the House chamber, Bill Hammond, CEO of the TAB, joined Democratic lawmakers and LGBT advocates in denouncing Senate Joint Resolution 10 and House Joint Resolution 125, by Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) and Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth), respectively.

Hammond and others—including Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) and Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas)—referenced business backlash over similar laws in Indiana and Arkansas. And they pointed to large Texas employers, such as American Airlines and Apple, that have joined the chorus against them.

“These amendments are bad for business,” Hammond said. “They would devastate economic development, tourism and the convention business. One has to look no further than Indiana to realize what a detriment this would be, and how hard it would be to sell Texas to the rest of the country. The Super Bowl, the Final Four, all those things would be at risk in Texas if this were to become part of our Constitution.”

The two amendments are among more than 20 anti-LGBT proposals in the 84th Legislature, including statutory bills that would similarly allow businesses to discriminate based on religious beliefs. But Hammond said the TAB board hasn’t voted whether to come out against those measures.

TAB President Chris Wallace told the Observer on Monday that he and Hammond plan to recommend that the board oppose bills making it illegal for transgender people to use restrooms according to how they identify.

“Business owners are going to have to be enforcers of this legislation, and we certainly do not want to place any more burdens on business than there already are,” Wallace said.

Wallace said other proposals to bar cities from enforcing LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances may present a quandary for TAB. At least one of the bills, Senate Bill 343 by Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas), would also bar cities from regulating fracking, plastic bags and ride-sharing—a concept TAB supports.

Hammond said TAB likely will wait until other anti-LGBT legislation is scheduled for committee hearings to take an official position. None of the so-called religious freedom measures or bills targeting local LGBT protections has been scheduled for hearings as the session approaches its final 45 days.

“I think what happened in Indiana is hopefully a turning point,” said Chuck Smith, executive director of Equality Texas. “Every day that goes by without a negative bill having a hearing is a good thing.”

In others states, lawmakers have seized upon the controversy in Indiana and Arkansas to push for laws banning discrimination against LGBT people. But Smith acknowledged that’s unlikely in Texas, where anti-LGBT discrimination remains perfectly legal outside the handful of cities that have banned it.

“I don’t think it creates an opening necessarily in this session to be able to pass a statewide nondiscrimination law,” Smith said.

University of Texas-Pan American student Nahiely Garcia is consoled as she speaks at rally in support of Texas DREAM Act in January
Kelsey Jukam
University of Texas-Pan American student Nahiely Garcia speaks at rally in support of Texas DREAM Act in January

Update: Senators voted on party lines early Tuesday morning to send SB 1819 to the full Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

Original: During a debate over the repeal of the so-called Texas DREAM Act, Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) said in-state tuition at Texas colleges and universities acts as a magnet for undocumented immigrants.

“[The Texas DREAM Act] is bad policy that rewards illegal immigration in perpetuity,” Campbell said as she laid out Senate Bill 1819, which would shut down the program.

Several experts who testified against the bill, including Texas Commissioner of Higher Education Raymund Paredes, disagreed.

“We have absolutely no evidence that in-state tuition acts a magnet for undocumented immigrants,” Paredes said.

The act, passed in 2001, allows undocumented students who graduate from Texas high schools and who have been in the state at least three years to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities

Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) said that Campbell’s bill unfairly punishes hard-working students who were brought to Texas as children and will have negative economic consequences for the state.

“Our economic future depends on educating these young people,” Rodriguez said while observing the hearing from the dais.

Rodriguez also objected to the bill being heard in the Border Security Subcommittee of the Veterans Affairs and Military Installations Committee rather than the Higher Education Committee. Two of the three members of the subcommittee, Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) and  Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood), have taken a hard line on border security and immigration.

“There is not one single shred of evidence that suggests that DREAMers are a threat to the border or to Texas,” Rodriguez said. “I think this sends an inaccurate message about these students.”

Dozens of those students, many wearing graduation caps and gowns, waited hours to testify against Campbell’s bill.

Blanca Leyva, a sophomore at Texas A&M University, testified that she has been in the country for more than 14 years and graduated from her Dallas high school as valedictorian. She said she wouldn’t be able to attend college if not for the DREAM Act.

“As DREAMers we simply want to be successful. We want a better life. I want a better life,” Leyva said.

Texas became the first state to offer in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants almost 15 years ago, and at least 17 other states have followed suit. Almost 25,000 undocumented students currently pay in-state tuition, totaling more than $51 million, at colleges across Texas.

The law initially attracted widespread bipartisan support and was signed into law by former Gov. Rick Perry. In 2011, during presidential run, Perry took a lot of flak from fellow conservatives for defending the law.

“If you say that we should not educate children who come into our state for no other reason than that they’ve been brought here through no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart,” Perry said.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has made repeal of the DREAM Act a legislative priority. With the Senate’s repeal of the two-thirds rule in January, Campbell’s bill is expected to pass the Senate.

Under the two-thirds rule, bills could not be brought up for debate without the approval of 21 of 31 Senators. The Senate is composed of 20 Republicans and  and 11 Democrats.

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) said the “heartless” bill would face an uphill battle in the House.

“We stand ready to fight with our Senate colleagues against this draconian bill,” Rodriguez said. “Should it get to the House floor, it will be a heck of a fight.”

If the bill passes out of the subcommittee as expected, it will move on to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

 

Austin Mayor Steve Adler speaks during a rally to protest anti-LGBT legislation at the Capitol on Saturday.
John Wright
Austin Mayor Steve Adler speaks during a rally to protest anti-LGBT legislation at the Capitol on Saturday.

With only 7 percent of the state’s population, Austin has more than 30 percent of its patents and over half its venture capital, according to Mayor Steve Adler.

That’s partly because the city is known as inclusive, which attracts talented, creative people and the companies that employ them, Adler said.

But Austin’s reputation could be threatened by anti-LGBT proposals in the 84th Texas Legislature, he warned, pointing to recent backlash from businesses over “religious freedom” laws in Indiana and Arkansas.

“Apple is here, Google is here, because the people who work for Apple and Google, they want to live here,” Adler said. “It’s real important that we not go down that path, and it is scary to me that our state Legislature right now is considering doing that.”

Adler was among the speakers Saturday evening at a rally on the south steps of the Capitol to protest a record number of anti-LGBT bills in the Legislature, including proposals similar to the Indiana and Arkansas laws.

Activist Omar Lopez waves a Texas-gay Pride hybrid flag during Saturday's rally at the Capitol.
John Wright
Activist Omar Lopez waves a Texas-gay Pride hybrid flag during Saturday’s rally at the Capitol.

Nearly 100 people gathered below a banner reading, “We Are More Than Marriage. Full Equality Now.” With dusk falling, speakers addressed the crowd through a bullhorn while an activist waved a hybrid Texas-gay Pride flag in the light breeze.

The rally, organized by GetEQUAL, was among three this weekend in as many states as part of the group’s #HateOutbreak campaign, inspired by anti-LGBT legislation across the country in response to the spread of same-sex marriage.

Jan Soifer, chair of the Travis County Democratic Party, decried the use of religion to justify discrimination, pointing to proposals like Senate Joint Resolution 10, by Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels). Although religious opposition to homosexuality is often rooted in a single verse from the Book of Leviticus, other Old Testament passages forbid things like sex with women who are menstruating, and working on the Sabbath, Soifer said.

“If we adhere to biblical marriage, does that mean we should legalize men having concubines?” Soifer said. “In truth, there is no legitimate religious basis for discrimination against members of the LGBT community, and we must call people who advocate for it in the name of religion what they are. They are bigots, plain and simple, and we must fight bigotry everywhere we see it. … We cannot allow the Texas Legislature to enshrine hatred and discrimination into our laws.”

Former Rep. Glen Maxey (D-Austin), who was the state’s first openly LGBT legislator, said when he moved to Austin in 1981, he feared if anyone found out he was gay, it would ruin his political career.

Thirty-four years later, Maxey said, you can’t walk into an office in the Capitol where staffers and legislators don’t know an LGBT person. But the fight for equality is far from over.

“We cannot ever sit back and take it easy,” he said. “It saddens me on this weekend that’s seen as the holiest weekend of the Christian religion, to be here talking about bills that denigrate our community in the name of religion. I want the people in this building who call themselves Christian to remember the one single law that was put down by the leader of the Christian movement, Jesus Christ, and that was, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'”

Watch a clip from Maxey’s speech below.

Cleopatra de Leon, Nicole Dimetman, Vic Holmes and Mark Phariss
Patrick Michels
From left, Texas same-sex marriage plaintiffs Cleopatra De Leon, Nicole Dimetman, Vic Holmes and Mark Phariss outside San Antonio's federal courthouse in February 2014.

Gay couples shouldn’t plan on tying the knot in the Lone Star State before late June, according to two Texas-based attorneys challenging same-sex marriage bans in federal court.

Daniel McNeel Lane Jr., who represents two same-sex couples challenging Texas’ marriage ban, previously predicted the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals would bring marriage equality to the state before Easter.

But Lane said this week he now believes the 5th Circuit is waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear oral arguments later this month and is expected to rule by the end of June in marriage cases from four states.

“I thought that the 5th Circuit would want to have its voice heard … and we would not have to have the Supreme Court drag us kicking and screaming like bitter-enders to marriage equality, but it appears that’s the way it will have to occur,” said Lane, a partner with Akin Gump Srauss Hauer & Feld in San Antonio. “In a case involving a fundamental constitutional right, the court shouldn’t be waiting around. The court should have its voice heard, and it’s a pity that that hasn’t happened yet.”

A three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit heard oral arguments in marriage cases from Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi on Jan. 9. Seven times in the last year, federal appeals courts have heard same-sex marriage cases, but only once has it taken more than three months for them to rule after oral arguments.

Lane predicted that even if the Supreme Court issues a nationwide ruling in favor of marriage equality, as most experts predict, it could take a while for Texas comply. He said county clerks in places like Austin and San Antonio likely would begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples right away, but others would wait until the 5th Circuit issues a corresponding decision in the Texas case.

“I think that there will be some marriages in Texas this summer, and probably some pushback this summer,” Lane said. “Marriage equality in Texas this summer could be a hot mess, but who doesn’t like a hot mess?”

Kenneth D. Upton, Jr., senior counsel at Lambda Legal in Dallas, agreed that the 5th Circuit is unlikely to rule before the Supreme Court. Lambda Legal represents plaintiffs in the Louisiana case.

“I think if they were going to do it, they would have done it by now,” Upton said, adding that the 5th Circuit panel is delaying the inevitable. “Everybody knows the way it’s probably going to turn out.”

Upton said it’s possible that Republican Attorney Ken Paxton or other officials will continue to try to stand in the way of same-sex marriage. But he noted that once the Supreme Court rules, officials who refuse to comply with the ruling—from county clerks’ offices to the Bureau of Vital Statistics—can be sued personally.

A Texas House committee is set to hear another anti-gay marriage bill next week that would prohibit state or local funds from being used for “the licensing or support of a same-sex marriage.”

“They better be careful, because the stakes will be much higher once the Supreme Court rules if they rule in our favor, and playing games is just going to cost them attorney’s fees and damages,” Upton said.