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Vincent Lopez
Kelsey Jukam
Vincent Lopez, is founder of the Patient Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics.

Timothy Dasher’s 12-year-old daughter, Felicity, has epilepsy and suffers from frequent seizures. She usually has to wear a helmet to protect her head from the sudden falls, which have bruised and broken her small body. Today she wore an enormous pink-and-white bow in her hair as she and her father stood with dozens of activists at the Capitol in support of legislation that would allow Texans to legally access medical marijuana.

Dasher and other activists are getting behind House Bill 3785, and its companion Senate Bill 1839, legislation giving patients who have a doctor’s recommendation to acquire and use marijuana. Proponents of the legislation say that medical marijuana has many of the same treatment benefits as prescription medications without as many of the harmful side-effects.

Dasher says his daughter tried 15 different pharmaceutical drugs over 10 years to try to stop the seizures. None of them worked, he said. If anything, they seemed to make the condition worse. But when the family moved to Colorado, and started using medical marijuana. “We found her miracle,” he said. He hopes that medical marijuana will be legalized this session, so they don’t have to leave their Granbury home again.

Rep. Marisa Marquez (D-El Paso), author of HB 3785, said in a press conference this afternoon that Texas needs to take a “scientific and reasoned approach” to medical marijuana, and allow patients and doctors to choose their best treatment plan.

“The support we see here today is a clear indication that the Legislature needs to take the suffering of these Texans seriously,” Marquez said.

She calls her 40-page bill “comprehensive,” and says that it includes safeguards to prevent misuse of the drug. The bill would allow the Department of State Health Services to establish a regulated system of licensed cultivators and dispensaries.

Marquez’s legislation is more detailed and ambitious in scope than other medical marijuana bills filed this session and in previous ones. In 2013, Rep. Elliott Naisthat (D-Austin) carried a bill that would have given patients using medical marijuana an affirmative defense if they were arrested on charges of possession. That bill, HB 594, was left pending in committee.

This session, three Republican legislators filed bills that would legalize access to cannabidiol (CBD), one of the 85 active ingredients in cannabis. CBD has been effective at treating some epilepsy patients, but many patients need other components of marijuana, including THC, to effectively treat their symptoms. HB 3785 and SB 1839 would allow access to whole marijuana and oils that have a more balanced ratio of CBD and THC.

Vincent Lopez, outreach director for the Patient Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics, began using medical marijuana in 2009 to treat muscle spasms. For the last 25 years, Lopez has used a wheelchair, while struggling with Becker muscular dystrophy, a condition characterized by slowly worsening muscle weakness. He says marijuana acquired on the black market doesn’t have consistent results. There are multiple strains of cannabis, and some are more effective at treatment for certain medical conditions than others. With the black market product, Lopez says, you never know what strain you’re getting.

Rep. Marisa Marquez
Kelsey Jukam
Rep. Marisa Marquez discusses her bill that would legalize medical marijuana.

Under the proposed legislation, patients who have specific illnesses or disorders listed in the bill—such as cancer or epilepsy—would qualify for access. The bill also includes people who experiences chronic and severe pain, or suffer from a symptom deemed “debilitating” by the Department of State Health Services.

Medical marijuana is legal in 23 states. According to a 2013 poll by the Marijuana Policy Project, 58 percent of Texas voters believe that seriously ill patients should be allowed to use medical marijuana if they have a doctor’s recommendation to do so. A Texas Tribune poll from last year, found that 77 percent of Texans support the legalization of marijuana for at least some uses.

On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott said in a press conference that marijuana decriminalization is not likely to happen this session. He said that Texas should divert “away from activity that involves drug use and helping people lead more productive lives.”

Many patients argue that medical marijuana is the key to living a productive, pain-free life.

Marquez said in the press conference that the biggest challenge to passing this legislation is education.

“I think many people when they hear marijuana, immediately, there’s an apprehension about what exactly we’re trying to do here,” she said.

She hopes she’ll be able to help her colleagues understand every aspect of the bill, to alleviate those types of concerns. HB 3785 and SB 1839 were both filed last week and neither has been assigned to a committee.

Cecil Bell Jr.
Rep. Cecil Bell Jr. (R-Magnolia) is the author of four anti-LGBT bills, the most of any legislator.

Texas lawmakers have filed at least 20 anti-LGBT proposals this year—likely the most in the history of any state.

It’s the type of onslaught that was widely expected among LGBT advocates, due to backlash over the spread of same-sex marriage.

Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas, said the group is “well-positioned” to defeat every piece of anti-LGBT legislation. Williams called it the worst session for LGBT rights since 2005—when the state’s marriage amendment passed and a proposal to ban gay foster parents was defeated on the House floor.

But things have changed since then, he said, pointing to the Texas Association of Business’ decision to oppose one well-publicized anti-LGBT proposal—a “religious freedom” amendment that would protect discrimination—prompting its author to back down.

“What’s different about this Legislature than 2005 is that Texas, like most of the nation, has evolved on LGBT issues, and that mainstream voice is emerging and is being heard in the Texas Legislature,” Williams said. “It damages the Texas brand, and I think that’s why you’re seeing so many business voices get involved. … We also know how this process works better than our opposition does.”

Williams wouldn’t elaborate on strategy, but out lesbian Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin) suggested the best one may simply be to run out the clock.

“I feel good about our chances of stopping it, because there are so many major issues out there, that these small hateful and divisive bills will get pushed to the back of the agenda,” Israel said. “We’re going to run out of time, and we will be able to make a statement that there’s no place for that kind of law in the state of Texas.”

If LGBT advocates needs signs of encouragement, they can look north. Oklahoma lawmakers introduced 16 anti-LGBT bills this year, but 15 have already died. Israel noted that many of the anti-LGBT proposals in Texas are similar to those in other states—an indication they’re being shopped by national groups.

“I’m assuming that whatever they’ve seen in Oklahoma, they’ve brought that trash to Texas, and we’re going to clean it up,” Israel said.

Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia), the author of four anti-LGBT bills—the most of any legislator—said he’s “very confident” one or more will pass.

“Unfortunately, I think it gets couched as ‘anti.’ It’s not about ‘anti.’ It’s about being pro-states’ rights. It’s about being pro-traditional values,” Bell said. “We’re seeing the results of a federal court system that doesn’t seem to be respecting the rights, the sovereignty, of the states and of the people. Because of that, you see the state legislatures pushing back.”

Three of Bell’s bills directly target same-sex marriage, while the other would allow business owners to turn away customers on religious grounds. It’s one of several similar religious freedom proposals, including two constitutional amendments, that critics say would establish a “license to discriminate” against LGBT people.

Other bills would bar cities from enacting or enforcing LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances, and restrict access to restrooms and similar facilities for transgender people.

“This bill really is trying to establish the students’ rights to privacy,” said Rep. Gilbert Pena (R-Pasadena), who wants to make schools liable for damages if they allow transgender students to use restrooms based on how they identify. “How many girls in our high schools are going to be willing to allow some transgender male into their bathroom? Would you allow that for your daughter? I would not allow it for my daughter.”

Sarah Warbelow, legal director at the nation’s largest LGBT group, the Human Rights Campaign, said Texas has “the largest number of bills we’ve seen in a single state intended to harm the LGBT community at least in a very long time.”

Warbelow said based on what’s happened in other states, she believes bills targeting same-sex marriage have an “extraordinarily low” chance of passage.

“There is not an appetite among moderate Republicans to pass bills that are so blatantly unconstitutional,” she said.

But Warbelow said she’s concerned about proposals that would undermine local nondiscrimination ordinances.

“As we as a movement have greater success at the municipal level in states that are controlled by more conservative legislatures, it is something that we worry about,” she said.

And while some have characterized the current barrage of legislation across the U.S. as the last gasp of the anti-LGBT movement, Warbelow disagreed.

“I think this is likely to continue for some time,” she said. “I anticipate that this will not be the last year that we see a number of these bills move.”

Waco native Bryan Christopher spent 18 years trying to change his sexual orientation before coming out as gay.
Courtesy of Bryan Christopher
Waco native Bryan Christopher spent 18 years trying to change his sexual orientation before finally coming out as gay.

Bryan Christopher was born in 1970 to two Baylor University students in Waco—what he calls “the Southern Baptist epicenter of the world.”

At 13, Christopher realized his dad’s Playboy magazines didn’t appeal to him. But because he’d been taught that being gay was a sin, he’d spend the next 18 years trying to change his sexual orientation through both religious and mental health counseling.

At 25, when Christopher feared he was in love with a fraternity brother at UCLA, he felt the urge to jump off a cliff. He called a suicide hotline and spent three days in a psychiatric ward, but it wouldn’t be until six years later that he finally came out as gay.

Looking back, the now 45-year-old Christopher blames so-called “reparative therapy” for many of his struggles. He’s written a book about his experiences and speaks out in support of bills like one filed Friday at the Texas Legislature, which would ban reparative therapy for minors.

“It’s to protect the children from being forced into a therapy that just reinforces the fear and the shame that most of these kids already have, and it leads to people taking their own lives,” Christopher said. “There’s nothing good that ever comes out of it. … I think if you just were to poll all the survivors, I think they would probably echo what I’m saying, that it was a very destructive and painful chapter of their lives.”

Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin)
Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin)

The proposal introduced by out lesbian Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin) would prohibit mental health providers in Texas from attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of people under 18. Those who violate the law would face disciplinary action from state licensing boards.

Israel acknowledged that House Bill 3495 has little chance of passing the Republican-dominated Legislature, and it wouldn’t apply to faith-based practitioners, but she said it’s an important response to the Texas GOP’s 2014 platform plank endorsing reparative therapy.

“I don’t think that they recognize how hurtful these kinds of things can be,” Israel told the Observer. “To suggest that some young kid that happens to be gay is less than normal is very hurtful and harmful and dangerous, and I think I put myself back in those years when I was first discovering who I was. … I felt strongly about introducing a bill that was a counter to that, to say, ‘We don’t need fixing. We just need your love.'”

Virtually all of the major medical and mental health organizations have come out against reparative therapy, from the American Psychological Association to the American Medical Association and the American Counseling Association.

David Pickup
David Pickup

But David Pickup, a licensed counselor who practices reparative therapy in Dallas and Los Angeles, suggested those groups have a political agenda and haven’t done adequate research. Pickup said bans like the one proposed in Texas violate the free speech rights of counselors, as well as the rights of parents and children.

“It results in further abuse of children because it doesn’t let them become who they actually are,” Pickup said. “It also takes away any possibility at all of children who are sexually abused by same-sex pedophiles from getting any help whatsoever to reduce or eliminate homosexual feelings that are caused by that.”

Pickup, one of the authors of the Texas GOP plank endorsing reparative therapy, was also a plaintiff in an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging a similar law in California. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide soon whether to hear a challenge to New Jersey’s reparative therapy ban. The only other jurisdiction to outlaw reparative therapy for minors is Washington, D.C., but several other states are considering it.

Pickup, who describes himself as “ex-homosexual,” said his methods are nothing like horror stories in the media about electroshock and aversion therapy. Rather, he employs “time-tested psycho-dymanic and cognitive behavioral therapies” to address common issues such as “gender-identity inferiority” and “severely unmet male emotional needs.”

“If the gay agenda really cared about children, they wouldn’t create a law that would put children right back in the hands of some of the religious people who supposedly do all this harm that’s being done,” Pickup said.

Larry Taylor
Larry Taylor

Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) wants to change the way Texas grades its public schools, and during a hearing today he laid out his plan: grading schools like students, on an “A” to “F” scale.

Senate Bill 6 provides Texas parents with a more transparent way to determine the quality of their local schools in order to make the best decision for their child,” Taylor said.

Texas’ current rating system includes two categories—“met standard” and “needs improvement.” The ratings are based largely on standardized test scores.

Dozens of people testified against Taylor’s bill, including several school district superintendents. They argued that letter grades would do nothing to improve schools, would punish schools that serve large numbers of economically disadvantaged students and would sidestep the main problem struggling schools face: lack of adequate funding. Democrats on the committee seemed to agree.

“[Poor performance] is more because of lack of resources than anything else,” said Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) said. “I would really caution us from getting into any scheme that redlines school districts.”

Most of the Republicans on the committee supported the idea that an A-F system would better inform parents how public schools are performing, spur parent engagement, and lead to school improvement.

John Bailey of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an education reform think tank established by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, testified that the A-F rating system led to dramatic school improvement in Florida. In the program’s first six years, the number of “F”-rated schools fell and the number of “A” schools rose—but much of that change was the result of changing criteria for the letter grades.

Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) pressed Bailey to name specific schools that have improved because of the A-F rating system. Bailey couldn’t name any, but said he would get back to West.

An A-F rating system was adopted in Florida in the late 1990s when Bush was the state’s governor. The Florida Association for District School Superintendents opposed the A-F rating system, saying that it may not be an accurate measure of school performance.

Sixteen other states have since adopted the so-called Florida formula. Researchers have shown that Maine’s A-F rating system tends to track the percentage of poor students in a school. Indeed, research has shown that there is a very tight link between socioeconomic status and academic achievement.

Some say the system can be easily gamed for political purposes. In 2013, former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett scandalously manipulated his state’s A-F system to benefit a major campaign donor.

At today’s hearing, Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) said one of his main concerns was the way an “F” rating would stigmatize schools, making it harder for low-rated schools to retain teachers, staff and students. “In assigning ‘F’ grades to some of these campuses,” Rodriguez wondered, “are we not really consigning them to failure permanently?”


Erick Muñoz, husband of Marlise Muñoz, addresses reporters at the Texas Capitol in March.
Alexa Garcia-Ditta
Erick Muñoz, husband of Marlise Muñoz, addresses reporters at the Texas Capitol.

For nearly two months, Lynne and Ernest Machado’s pregnant, brain-dead daughter was kept alive against the family’s wishes. After collapsing in her home and suffering a pulmonary embolism in November 2013, Marlise Muñoz was declared brain-dead by a hospital in Fort Worth and put on life support. She was 14 weeks pregnant with her second child.

Despite her family saying that Muñoz had communicated that she wanted to be immediately taken off life support should something catastrophic occur, the hospital refused, citing a provision of Texas’ advance directive law that states doctors “may not withdraw or withhold life-sustaining treatment … from a pregnant patient.” Muñoz’s husband, Erick, and her parents sued the hospital, ultimately winning their case and the right to bury Marlise.

Today, Lynne said her family was put through a “torturous hell” while fighting the hospital.

“It was horrible, it was traumatic, what they did to her body,” she told the Observer. “We knew she had died, we knew she was gone. What we didn’t plan on was that a pregnant woman in Texas forfeits her rights the minute she becomes pregnant.”

Now, more than a year later, Marlise’s family is working to make sure that no Texas family has to go through what they did. Today, they stood alongside state Rep. Elliott Naishtat (D-Austin) as he announced a bill called “Marlise’s Law,” which would remove the so-called pregnancy exclusion in Texas’ advance directive law.

“Doctors and hospitals should not be compelled by the law to impose medical interventions over the objections of a dying patient and her family,” Naishtat said at a press conference Thursday at the Capitol. “These changes will permit the pregnant patient to control her care, her treatment, by giving instructions to health care providers to administer, withhold, or withdraw life-sustaining treatment.”

Currently, more than 30 states have similar pregnancy exclusion provisions in their end-of-life laws. In Texas, the advance directive document includes this provision: “I understand that under Texas law this directive has no effect if I have been diagnosed as pregnant.”

Rebecca Robertson, a lawyer with the ACLU of Texas, pointed out that the law blatantly discriminates against pregnant patients.

“It makes pregnant women second-class citizens because they no longer have the right to decide for themselves,” she said.

Marlise and her family had decided long ago that should a catastrophe occur, none of them would want to be kept alive by machines. Still, they were forced to endure a weeks-long court battle because Marlise was pregnant. Erick told reporters that his wife was family-oriented, a good mother and confident in her decision to forego end-of-life medical treatment.

“It’s a family matter,” he said Thursday at the Capitol. “It should be handled as such.”

While Naishtat’s bill would remove the pregnancy exclusion provision, a bill by state Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) would tighten it. Filed at the end of February, Krause’s House Bill 1901 would require a hospital to keep a pregnant woman on life-support “regardless of whether there is irreversible cessation of all spontaneous brain function of the pregnant patient … and if the life-sustaining treatment is enabling the unborn child to mature.” Dubbed the “Unborn Child Due Process Act,” Krause’s bill would also require the Texas attorney general to appoint a lawyer for the unborn fetus from a “registry” that the attorney general’s office would create.

“It’s my position that if a baby is still continuing to grow and develop, then that means the mother cannot be brain dead, there has to be something that’s allowing that baby to grow and develop,” he told the Observer. The lawyer “would just give a voice to that unborn child during court proceedings.”

Robertson called Krause’s idea “unprecedented.”

“The government’s going to get involved on behalf of the fetus, as if the grandparents, husband, were somehow not looking out for the interest of the fetus,” she said. “You can see where that might be applied in much broader circumstances, this idea that when you become pregnant you lose your autonomy.”

Krause’s bill was been referred to the House State Affairs committee.

Gov. Rick Perry attends the ribbon cutting ceremony for a new crisis pregnancy center in Houston in 2012.
Emily Deprang
Gov. Rick Perry attends the ribbon cutting ceremony for a new crisis pregnancy center in Houston in 2012.

The House Appropriations Committee approved a budget rider Thursday that would add an additional $4 million per year to the Alternatives to Abortion program, which largely funds crisis pregnancy centers.

The House base budget, originally introduced in mid-January, includes about $5.1 million per year, a $1 million increase from the previous budget cycle, to the program. The rider, by state Rep. Greg Bonnen (R-Friendswood), increases state funding to more than $9 million per year.

The nonprofit Texas Pregnancy Care Network contracts with the state to distribute funding through the Alternatives to Abortion program to 61 subcontractors, including crisis pregnancy resource centers, maternity homes and adoption agencies. The network purports to “help women in crisis pregnancies via free and compassionate, practical and life-affirming services,” but many facilities do not provide medical care, are virtually unregulated by the state and have been found by various investigations to offer inaccurate information designed to dissuade women from having an abortion.

Bonnen’s rider is described as “increasing funds to pregnancy centers and early childhood care.”

Bonnen says his chief focus is early childhood care.

“One of the main focuses of this is really parenting services,” he said before the hearing. “So, moms that have a newborn that would like to have some guidance in terms of how to care for this child, and how to care for themselves as they’re caring for this child.”

During the Thursday hearing, state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) and state Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) raised concerns about the sizable funding increase, questioning whether there is enough oversight of the Texas Pregnancy Care Network. Right now, the network reports “deliverables and milestones” to the Health and Human Services Commission on a monthly basis, but beyond that, it’s hard to know how much of the state funds go toward services compared to administrative costs.

“I still have concerns about bang for the buck, so to speak,” Howard said.

State Rep. Four Price (R-Amarillo) said that 41 percent of the Alternatives to Abortion funds go to crisis pregnancy centers, 35 percent to maternity homes and 25 percent to adoption agencies. He also said that increased funding will lead to an increase in subcontractors with the Texas Pregnancy Care Network. Most of the crisis pregnancy centers and other facilities are located in Central and  North Texas, he said.

Originally, Bonnen’s rider called for an additional $9.7 million over two years, but was later reduced to $8 million. Another proposed rider, by state Rep. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), would have increased the funding by nearly $15 million over the next two years, but it was not approved by a budget subcommittee.

While legislators have cut funding for family planning and cancer screenings over the last few sessions, they’ve also pumped more money into crisis pregnancy centers.

From its inception in 2005 to 2012, the Alternatives to Abortion program received more than $26 million in state funding. A 2012 Texas Observer investigation found that crisis pregnancy centers deliver fewer services to women, while spending more per client than family planning providers.

State. Rep. Greg Bonnen
via Facebook
State. Rep. Greg Bonnen

Investigations by NARAL Pro-Choice Texas and multiple media outlets have raised questions about the Texas Pregnancy Care Network’s contract with the state and have found that crisis pregnancy centers use scientifically inaccurate information when talking to women, including telling clients that abortion is linked to breast cancer.

State Rep. Armando Walle (D-Houston) is member of the subcommittee that oversees the health and human services portion of the budget. He takes issue with Bonnen’s rider, raising concerns this week about the lax accountability standards set up for crisis pregnancy centers.

“I don’t think it’s a wise use of our resources,” he said. “With some of these centers there’s no accountability. Are only they gearing these young ladies to not have an abortion? Do they account for a young lady who might’ve been raped? Or a victim of incest? That’s where I come down on it.”

Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth)
Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth)

One of the state’s most anti-gay lawmakers is going forward with a “religious freedom” amendment dropped by another representative earlier this week amid opposition from the Texas Association of Business.

Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) announced Monday he would “reconsider entirely” House Joint Resolution 55, which critics say would enshrine a “license to discriminate” against LGBT people in the state Constitution. Villalba backed off HJR 55 after the Texas Association of Business passed a resolution opposing the measure over concerns about its economic impact.

On Wednesday, Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) introduced HJR 125, which is identical to HJR 55. When Villalba introduced HJR 55, he wrote on Facebook it was drafted with the help of Krause and Plano’s Liberty Institute.

Equality Texas rated Krause the state’s most anti-LGBT lawmaker following the 2013 session.

Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) is sponsoring a similar measure.

Cindy Burkett foster care
State Rep. Cindy Burkett (R-Garland)

This session, lawmakers are trying to fix one of the biggest gaps in the troubled foster care system: The training requirements for the majority of foster parents, kinship caregivers and adoptive parents are minimal, and the state doesn’t know how closely private placement agencies are adhering to the standards.

House Bill 781, authored by state Rep. Cindy Burkett (R-Garland), would require additional oversight of the 340 private, nonprofit and for-profit agencies that recruit and train foster parents. Burkett introduced the bill Monday evening to the House Committee on Human Services. State child welfare advocates say the bill is a first step in furthering the transparency of the system. Thirteen children died last year while under the protection of licensed caregivers.

“Countless measures have been implemented to assure the safety of children who are in custody of the state,” Burkett said. “We want to feel confident that the best providers are being approved to provide services to children in foster care, and we also want to ensure they acquire the knowledge needed to take on these important roles.”

Currently, the Department of Family and Protective Services has little oversight of the programs that private agencies use to train caregivers, nor does the state know how many training hours each agency requires, or what curricula agencies use for training. There’s also no way to assess whether such trainings are effective or appropriate for the needs of children, many of whom have suffered physical and relational trauma.

The Department of Family and Protective Services requires at least 16 hours of instruction, a woefully inadequate minimum, according to critics.

As part of their training, the state mandates that foster parents be instructed on behavior intervention, psychotropic medicine administration, medical consent, CPR and care for children who have experienced trauma. There’s no state guidance on how much training time is required for each subject, leaving it up to each individual agency.

Burkett’s bill would promote “best practice standards”—undefined in the legislation—by requiring all agencies to tell the state how they’re going to train potential parents. It also mandates that the state evaluate the trainings.

Ashley Harris, with the nonprofit child advocacy organization Texans Care for Children, said the legislation is an important first step in changing how the state trains and regulates private agencies that train potential parents.

“Hopefully in the future we can be able to determine what are some best practices around training and screening [and] what types of trainings are actually resulting in better outcomes,” she said. “We can’t identify what is best if we don’t know what everyone is doing.”

Knox Kimberly, spokesman for Lutheran Social Services of the South, a faith-based organization, said the bill will “provide a needed dose of transparency with respect to training methods.”

Lutheran Social Services operates 16 child-placement programs in cities around the state. Through a program called Foster In Texas, the group provides just under 35 hours of the state-required training, held in both English and Spanish, for potential caregivers. As part of the 35-hour curriculum, the organization includes classes on sexual abuse, disruptive behavior, cultural diversity and self-care for foster parents.

“For our part, we invest considerable time and resources in training, blending a number of different methods that we believe constitute the right combination for training prospective foster parents,” Kimberly told the committee.

Kimberly also pointed out that smaller placement agencies may not have the resources to develop their own curricula. Kimberly said small agencies could benefit from the example of bigger agencies, such as Lutheran Social Services.

He also suggested that the bill could go further by requiring annual caregiver training after children have been placed in the home. Lutheran Social Services, for example, requires annual water-safety training for all its parents. Last year, two foster siblings drowned while visiting Lake Georgetown.

Burkett’s bill would also increase the minimum training hours for foster parents from 16 to 35 hours. (By comparison, the state requires that would-be nail technicians receive 600 hours of training.)

“Why would you only require 16 [hours], when it’s more than obvious—and even on the website for DFPS they say this—it is not enough,” Burkett told the Observer. “We need to make sure that [the kids] are coming into an environment that’s safer. It’s our children, and we’re talking health, safety, lives, so it’s important.” 

The Department of Family and Protective Services, apart from contracting out child-placement services, also runs its own service and training for foster and adoptive parents. The department estimates in the bill’s fiscal note that it would need about $268,000 a year to implement the new standards mandated by the bill. At the hearing, no one was able to provide an estimate of the cost for private placement agencies to step up the training of foster and adoptive parents.

Burkett said she is optimistic that budget-writers will find the money.

“I think that [we’ve] got a little bit of give built in the bill for things that are directly related to safety issues,” she told the Observer. “I don’t anticipate a problem.” 

On Monday the House Committee on Human Services tabled the bill after 16 minutes.

HB 781 comes in the wake of recommendations from the House Select Committee on Child Protection, led by Rep. Dawnna Dukes (D-Austin), which was created after a rash of child deaths within the system. The committee’s interim report suggested that the state review and strengthen foster care screening and training. Burkett said the bill has received no pushback so far. Spokespeople for a gamut of child welfare advocacy and public policy organizations, including the Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services, Center for Public Policy Priorities, One Voice Texas and Court Appointed Special Advocates, registered as “for” the bill, but did not testify.

Dan Huberty
Dan Huberty

Texas legislators of all political stripes have agreed on at least one thing during the 84th legislative session: the need to expand the state’s limited pre-K program.

But, when it comes to just how much to expand pre-K—whether to pony up for full-day pre-K programs or settle for a half-day option—there is less accord.

This divide was on display during Tuesday’s standing-room-only, marathon meeting of the House Committee on Public Education. The committee debated six pre-K bills, but Rep. Dan Huberty’s House Bill 4—the most likely to pass out of committee—got the most attention.

HB 4 would provide an additional $130 million for school districts across the state to improve pre-K programs. Currently districts are required 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.

Some say that HB 4, while a step in the right direction, doesn’t go far enough . They’d like to see the state provide enough funding for districts to offer full-day programs.

“It’s crucial to try to get to full-day [pre-K] as soon as possible,” said Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) as he laid out House Bill 1100.

Coauthored with Rep. Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown), HB 1100 would provide funding to districts that offer full-day programs, provided they limit class sizes and train teachers.

Research has shown that students in quality full-day pre-K programs outperform their peers in half-day programs on assessments of social-emotional skills, math and language.

Huberty defended his bill as “a first step.”

Dozens of people, including several superintendents, testified in favor of increasing pre-K funding—most of them advocating for full-day pre-K.

The Obama administration has made full-day pre-K for low-income students a top education priority, and dozens of states have expanded spending on early childhood education. Last month, Gov. Greg Abbott named early education one of five emergency legislative items.

In 2011, the Legislature cut $300 million in early education funding. During today’s hearing, Huberty acknowledged that HB 4 would only replace about a third of that.

CORRECTION: Rep. Eric Johnson’s first name previously was incorrect in the story above. It has been updated.

Sen. Jose Rodriguez, Sen. Sylvia Garcia and Sen. Kirk Watson
Kelsey Jukam
Sen. Jose Rodriguez, Sen. Sylvia Garcia and Sen. Kirk Watson speak at a press conference Monday morning.

Update: Senate Bill 185 has been rescheduled for Monday, March 16 at 8 a.m.

Original: The Senate Border Security Subcommittee adjourned after just six minutes Monday morning as senators delayed a hearing on legislation that would outlaw “sanctuary cities.” Some Democrats were frustrated that the hearing, which was publicly scheduled on Friday, was called with such little notice, especially since the bill is so controversial.

Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) made a procedural move called “tagging” to require at least 48 hours advance notice of the hearing. He said that the last-minute scheduling of Senate Bill 185 violated Senate rules. Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) said in a press conference later that many Texans would have come had they been given proper notice.

SB 185 would prohibit local government from adopting policies blocking police and other authorities from inquiring about immigration status; assisting federal immigration agents in enforcement; or allowing federal authorities to operate in local jails.

The term “sanctuary cities” has no legal meaning, but is commonly used to describe cities that prohibit local law enforcement from inquiring about a person’s immigration status. Some police departments as well as immigrant rights groups say that laws such as SB 185 discourage cooperation with the police and encourage racial profiling. Rodriguez says that Texans don’t want their state to become Arizona, where the notorious SB 1070 passed in 2010.

“We don’t want to become a ‘show me your papers’ state,” Rodriguez said.

He says that “anti-immigrant” proposals like SB 185 should be rejected on economic, legal and moral grounds.

In 2011, Gov. Rick Perry declared sanctuary cities an emergency item, helping to expedite legislation similar to SB 185. The legislation was met with opposition by both business leaders and immigrant rights groups, and failed to get enough votes in the Senate.

Lynn Godsey, president of the Hispanic Evangelical Ministerial Alliance, said in the press conference today that it was a “bad move” to try to slip this hearing through so hastily. He promised to bring hundreds of people to the next hearing on SB 185, which hasn’t been rescheduled. Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury), the committee chair, said that the committee probably won’t hear SB 185 next week and didn’t know when the committee might revisit the bill.

Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) said that “because of the way this has played out this morning” he hopes that other legislators will go out of their way to “make sure there’s a complete and robust discussion” during the next hearing on this issue.

“Something of this importance—if you believe in it, then let’s have a full debate,” Watson said.

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