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Floor Pass

Texas Log Cabin Republicans
John Wright
Log Cabin Republicans discuss their legislative agenda prior to the group's lobby day at the Texas Capitol on Thursday.

The Log Cabin Republicans are an LGBT group, but one might not have guessed it based on the legislative agenda for their lobby day at the Texas Capitol on Thursday.

Although Log Cabin’s 11-item agenda included some LGBT issues, it was also plump with conservative red meat, including support for open carry, tax cuts and border security.

Jeff Davis, president of Log Cabin’s nascent Texas chapter, provided a two-fold explanation.

“I’m gay, but I don’t define myself just based on my sexuality, so my politics aren’t defined by that either,” Davis said. “I think it’s also important for us to keep saying to the Republican Party: ‘We’re Republicans. We’re not Democrats. Just because we’re gay doesn’t make us Democrats. We are conservative.’ … We need to show commonality.”

Eight Log Cabin members from across the state attended lobby day, splitting up into two-person teams that were scheduled to meet with legislators or staffers from more than 50 offices. Davis said that’s a significant increase from two years ago and a sign Log Cabin is making inroads in the party, even though the group was denied a booth at last year’s state convention, where delegates added a plank to the GOP platform endorsing “ex-gay” therapy.

“At least with voters, there’s been an outcry against what happened at the state convention,” Davis said. “We’ve gotten a lot of calls, letters and emails from people all around the state saying, ‘I’m a very conservative Republican, but the way you guys have been treated has not been right, I don’t stand for that.'”

According to a recent poll, 42 percent of Texas voters—but only 20 percent of Republicans—support same-sex marriage. However, Davis said most young Republicans back LGBT rights and if the “big tent” party continues to oppose equality, it risks shooting itself in the foot in 2016 nationally, if not in Texas.

Log Cabin’s second-ever Texas lobby day came at a critical juncture for the state’s LGBT community, which faces a slew of attacks in the GOP-dominated Legislature fueled by backlash against the spread of same-sex marriage.

Log Cabin members were scheduled to visit offices belonging to authors of some of the anti-LGBT legislation, and Davis said the meetings themselves were a sign of progress.

“I don’t expect every person that we meet with to—if they are homophobic—to completely turn around,” he said. “That doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s building those relationships and continuing to talk about these issues that’s going to make a difference.”

Two lawmakers with anti-LGBT records downplayed the significance of scheduled meetings between their staffers and Log Cabin members.

“I think it speaks to the fact that we’re always willing to listen,” said Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth), who was named the most anti-LGBT member of the House by Equality Texas in 2013.

Krause said he’d be unable attend a meeting between his staff and Log Cabin members. He also confirmed his support for a religious freedom amendment that could create a “license to discriminate” against LGBT people. Asked about the effort to remove Texas’ unconstitutional sodomy law from the books—another item on Log Cabin’s agenda—Krause said, “I don’t see myself voting to repeal that at this point.”

Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia), the author of House Bill 623, which would revoke the salaries of county clerks who issue same-sex marriage licenses, said he wasn’t aware of the scheduled meeting between his staff and Log Cabin members.

“I don’t think I would jump to any conclusions other than the fact that we’re not trying to not hear what people have to say,” Bell said.

Although Krause acknowledged HB 623 may become “moot” if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Texas’ marriage ban, Bell disagreed, suggesting he’ll attempt an Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore-style stand.

“I will still continue with [HB] 623 and with any other efforts that I can put in place to make sure we affirm the power of Texas and of the citizens of Texas to regulate and define marriage,” he said.

Asked about the sodomy ban, Bell indicated he disagrees with the premise of the law—”What happens inside one’s house is one’s personal business,” he said—but wouldn’t commit to voting to repeal it.

Also scheduled to meet with Log Cabin were staffers from the offices of Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, the author of one of the proposed “license to discriminate” amendments.

“Every constituent is welcome to come by Senator Campbell’s office at any time to discuss issues important to them,” Campbell spokesman Jon Oliver said in a statement. “It was a general meeting with staff simply listening to their legislative priorities.”

Representatives from Patrick’s office didn’t return a phone call seeking comment. On Feb. 24, Patrick is scheduled to be a featured speaker at Texas Faith and Family Day, hosted by Texas Values, the Eagle Forum and other anti-LGBT groups.

Rep. Mary Gonzalez, an openly LGBT Democrat from El Paso whose staff was scheduled to meet with Log Cabin members, said any substantive change will require bipartisan support.

“At least there’s somebody in the Republican Party who’s having those conversations,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve been trying to have some of those conversations on the floor, and I’ll be honest, this session it’s been harder. … I think Log Cabin Republicans’ work is necessary, especially considering the climate of this legislative session.”

Gun-rights advocates rally at the Alamo.
Jen Reel
Gun-rights advocates rally at the Alamo.

Two major gun bills got their first real test today, as a Senate committee heard testimony from more than 100 people on the wisdom of Senate Bill 11, which would allow holders of concealed handgun licenses to pack heat on college campuses, and Senate Bill 17, which would allow CHL holders to carry handguns openly in public. The bills passed out of the committee on a 7-2 vote, along party lines.

Gun rights legislation has been at the center of one of the weirdest circuses of the session so far. Bad behavior on the part of open carry advocates and a misstep by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick put the future of open carry in doubt, but the Senate set the legislation on a fast path to passage, hoping to reassure angry activists that have demanded nothing less than unconditional surrender from anyone who deviates from the party line. A significant portion of today’s debate focused on campus carry, even though it’s open carry that has seized most of the headlines recently. Both seem assured to eventually pass the Senate.

The chair of the Senate Committee on State Affairs, state Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), seemed eager to get the two bills out of her committee—it’s unusual to vote on a bill on the day of its first hearing, but that’s what happened.

Was that because Huffman loved the bills, or because she wanted to wash her hands of them? Either way, the bills can’t be considered on the floor until the 60th day of the session—which falls on March 13—unless Gov. Greg Abbott declares the gun bills an emergency priority. So there’s not a clear reason for the rush.

Introducing his bill, state Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) concentrated his fire on critics of campus carry. Adopting a blustery style that one observer compared to a Cormac McCarthy character, Birdwell was a font of quotes: “I’d rather be tried by 12 than carried by six,” he told Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, who was against Birdwell’s bill. When UT System Chancellor William H. McRaven’s position on campus carry was mentioned—he’s a former special operations commander who has strongly opposed guns on UT campuses—Birdwell said that once McRaven was given his marching orders from the Lege, “I expect the chancellor to salute and move out.”

When state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-San Antonio), one of only two Democrats on the nine-member committee, spoke about the risk of having loaded guns on college campuses, Birdwell tersely replied: “I’ve found unloaded weapons very un-useful, ma’am.” When Zaffirini asked why Birdwell’s bill wouldn’t let universities opt out of the gun law, Birdwell responded that college administrators didn’t have the right to meddle in the “rights that are granted from God,” which fall to the Legislature to protect.

Anti-gun groups, according to emails they released on social media, were told by Birdwell’s staff that there would be no invited testimony at the hearing. But there was, and it came exclusively from pro-gun groups (most notably from the NRA’s top regional lobbyist). That’s happened before—groups that don’t support expanding gun rights are almost never given equal footing with those that do at the Lege.

University chancellors like former state Sen. Robert Duncan, now the chancellor of the Texas Tech System, were allotted only brief comment periods, or had their comments read aloud. Duncan, in his characteristic style, stayed neutral on the bill, but suggested a few amendments for safety’s sake, like banning guns in medical clinics.

A letter from McRaven, read aloud, stressed that many mental health officials who work with college students are very uneasy about the prospect of more guns on campus: Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for college students, and easier access to guns on campus might make suicide even more common. John Sharp, Texas A&M’s chancellor, said he could not “speak to the effect that campus carry will have on other institutions, but it does not raise safety concerns for me.” But he emphasized that campus carry wasn’t an A&M priority.

Many came to spoke against campus carry, including a survivor of the Virginia Tech massacre, Colin Goddard, who asked legislators not to use the incident to justify the bill. And there were several survivors of the 1966 UT Tower shooting, including Ruth Heide Claire James, formerly Claire Wilson, who began her testimony with a jarring declaration: “I was the first one shot in the Whitman massacre.”

Wilson was 18 when the shooting happened, and pregnant, and Whitman killed her unborn child and 18-year-old boyfriend. She lay bleeding in view of the Tower for some 90 minutes until she was rescued. Today, she said that gunfire from well-meaning civilians, causing confusion, was one of the reasons she wasn’t rescued earlier.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown), also had a connection to the shooting—his father, he said, had been carrying a scoped rifle that day, and police had instructed him to fire at Whitman.

Today’s hearing also covered what state Sen. Craig Estes jokingly called “a less controversial bill,” SB 17. Estes, the bill’s author, called on Texas “to boldly go where 46 other states have already gone” and pass a law authorizing the open carry of handguns.

But he didn’t say all that much about the bill, leaving it to the public to argue for and against it. Open carry activists want what they call “constitutional carry,” meaning that any member of the public could carry a gun in public without a license. Estes’ bill falls short of that, and they don’t like it.

Angela Rabke of Moms Demand Action, a gun-control group founded after the Sandy Hook massacre, talked about the harassment her group has received from open carry activists; in the overflow room, some of the activists laughed at her. Shortly after she began discussing the “near-constant threats of sexual violence” she’d had to contend with, her time ran out.

Next to her sat Kory Watkins, the leader of Open Carry Tarrant County, who has gotten into his fair share of trouble lately. If he failed to win the right to carry a handgun, and if the Legislature chose “to go against my God-given rights,” he said, “I will continue to walk around with an AK-47.” And he would “walk around until my feet bleed to make sure you’re never an elected official again,” he told the panel.

There were quite a few other sideshow moments. One man compared gun licenses to the yellow stars Jews had to wear in Nazi Germany.

But most witnesses on both sides were respectful and earnest. In the past, gun hearings like this have been overwhelmingly populated by gun rights activists. This time, the balance was closer to even. Those who oppose expanding gun rights are starting to turn out in more serious numbers.

Will that matter at the Lege? Probably not for now: The bills discussed today are on a trajectory to easy passage, at least in the Senate, even if they may have to wait over a month. But public pressure could be meaningful as the weeks go on and the rest of the Legislature considers making changes.

Michael Morton and Rodney Ellis Aim to Improve DNA Testing Law
Kelsey Jukam
Michael Morton speaks in favor of DNA testing legislation filed by Sen. Rodney Ellis.

Michael Morton served 25 years in prison before DNA testing proved that he didn’t kill his wife. Post-conviction DNA testing has led to the exoneration of 52 Texans since 1989 and helped to identify the real perpetrators of the crime in 21 of those cases, including Morton’s. But because of some ambiguous language in current law, access to DNA evidence that could prove innocence is sometimes impeded.

“As it stands now, we have something of a catch-22 in Texas,” Morton said Monday at a press conference, where he spoke in support of new DNA testing legislation filed by Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston).

Morton, who was released from prison in 2011, said he may never have been able to prove his innocence under the current law, which went into effect in September 2011. In January 2010, Morton successfully convinced a court of appeals to test a bloody bandana that had been discovered behind his house. DNA testing found invisible cells on the bandana that excluded Morton and pointed to his wife’s real killer, Mark Norwood, whose profile was in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).

The Texas Criminal Court of Appeals ruled last year that current law requires those seeking DNA testing to prove the existence of microscopic material on the evidence before testing when there are no obvious indications of DNA evidence—like blood-stains. Often there’s DNA on evidence that’s invisible to the naked eye from saliva, sweat or skin cells.

Last week, Ellis filed legislation—Senate Bill 487—that would clarify the language of the current law in an effort to ensure that courts allow testing of evidence that could prove innocence. The bill also would enhance the use of CODIS to compare evidence to DNA records already on file.

“These changes are simple and would provide the courts with the clear guidance that they requested,” Ellis said at the press conference. “This is about making sure that the right person is convicted and making sure that communities are safe. This is a law-and-order bill.”

Innocence Project attorney Nina Morrison, who represented Morton, said that the bill “strikes the right balance” by giving judges the appropriate amount of discretion to order testing without turning the courts into DNA testing mills.

In Morton’s case, it took a court five years to grant permission to run a DNA test on relevant evidence.

“For somebody to be in a court battle about whether there is evidence for testing when the labs can just tell us—it just seems like a real waste of everybody’s time,” Morrison said.

Ellis was also joined at the press conference by Cory Session, a policy advisor for the Innocence Project of Texas, who said that the bill will keep Texas on the forefront of criminal justice reform.

“We are still our brother’s keeper, whether they are here in the air-conditioned comfort of the statehouse or whether they are still languishing in the un-air-conditioned heat of the big house,” Session said.

Ellis expects bipartisan support for the bill but cautioned that it was still in the early stages and said that he did not have a House sponsor for the bill yet.

 

State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas
State Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) has filed a bill that would require licensing groups to tell applicants—specifically and in writing—what parts of their records prompted rejection. It would also give applicants a chance to petition their deniers in person.

A mere decade and a half into the new millennium, state lawmakers appear to be grasping a basic tenet of facilitating employment: If you want all your citizens to have jobs, maybe don’t prevent them from getting jobs.

Texas law requires occupational licenses for more than 500 trades ranging from athletic trainer to funeral director, a sprawling bureaucracy that affects almost one-third of the state workforce. While merely a hassle for some, licensing regulations can pose an insurmountable barrier to employment for the 4.7 million Texans who have criminal records. People convicted of any felony or of a misdemeanor involving “moral turpitude”—a scary-sounding category that encompasses crimes as minor as writing a bad check—are statutorily barred by many licensing bodies, usually without regard for how long ago the offense happened or whether it was related to the job in question. (Naturally there are a few weird exceptions. If convicted of an asbestos-related crime, you’re banned from asbestos work… for three years. That’ll teach you.) In addition to these explicit bans, many licensing groups have implicit policies of rejecting any applicant with a criminal record.

That hurts citizens who’ve done their time, but it also hurts the state. People who find stable work within the first year after incarceration are the least likely to re-offend, saving taxpayer money and preventing crime. They’re also less likely to need state assistance programs for their families’ survival.

State researchers have been pointing out the problems with occupational licensing systems since at least 2008, but now a bipartisan coalition of reformers looks poised to make real progress. With support from the conservative Smart on Crime coalition, state Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) has filed a bill that would require licensing groups to tell applicants—specifically and in writing—what parts of their records prompted rejection. It would also give applicants a chance to petition their deniers in person.

Johnson’s clever bill walks a fine line. While careful not to deprive the various governing bodies of their power or discretion, it inserts a couple of humanizing steps, making it harder to rubber-stamp the “NO” that ends the ambitions of so many Texans trying to rebuild their lives.

“We train people in prison with job skills to help them get on the right track and not get re-arrested,” Johnson said. “But if they are arbitrarily denied professional licenses then all of us—taxpayers, ex-offenders and communities—lose.”

“We know that every single year, 70,000 [Texans] leave prisons, and there’s no way that they’re going to be able to do everything that society expects them to do if they don’t have jobs,” says Ana Yáñez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. Licensing reform is “a win-win situation,” she says, “both for the economy but also for the families that they have to support, as well as for public safety outcomes. If they have jobs, they have hope. And if they have hope, they’re more likely to live like law-abiding citizens.”

DanFlynn
Dan Flynn

The 84th Texas Legislature has been in session more than three weeks and the Observer has yet to bestow our most dubious legislative accolade: the Bad Bill. We shall dally no more.

We present to you House Bill 868, by Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Canton).

Promisingly dubbed the Teacher’s Protection Act, the bill authorizes teachers to use “force or deadly force” to defend themselves, students, or school property. Flynn’s bill expands the Castle Doctrine—the 2007 law that has led to a rash of justifiable homicides in Texas—to include teachers.

As a former public school teacher, I understand the frustration of catching a student tagging a bathroom wall or having to break up a fight. But suggesting that teachers use deadly force underestimates the potential for hallway misfire. French teachers aren’t trained to use lethal force. Think back to your middle school P.E. teacher. Do you want him locked and loaded?

The bill is attracting ridicule from media outlets across the nation. The New Republic calls it “especially ill-considered, and especially cruel.” Think Progress wrote that the bill could have disastrous consequences for students of color and called it a “fatal can of worms.”

Flynn is disappointed with the reaction. He complained to the Observer that the bill is “being styled that we’re going to give them guns and they are going to shoot people. It’s unfair.”

“I just want teachers to feel like they can protect themselves,” Flynn said. “There’s a lot of fear on the part of some teachers of students attacking them, and if they try to protect themselves then they become the person that is the culprit.”

As evidence, Flynn mentioned a video of a 16-year-old student body-slamming his teacher in New Jersey.

 

“You can tell the teacher is holding his hands up, not wanting to do anything to get himself fired,” Flynn said.  “And the student is bigger than the teacher.”

Others are not so thrilled about a bill encouraging teachers to protect themselves with “force or deadly force.” Louis Malfaro, president of the Texas Chapter of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), says of the bill that there is no desire among educators for “another dumb idea like this.”

If legislators want to make schools safer, Malfaro said, they should provide funding for smaller class sizes so teachers can give students more attention, more school counselors and properly trained security personnel.

“They focus on things like this [arming teachers] because they don’t want to give schools the funding that is needed to address the underlying issues that may cause a child to act out,” Malfaro said.

Ironically, despite all the controversy surrounding the bill, it’s largely redundant.

“Texas already has expansive laws in place allowing the use of deadly force to protect people and property,” said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association.

“The bill just restates criminal law, I don’t know why teachers would be different from any other citizen,” he added.

The Castle Doctrine—sometimes called “Stand Your Ground” laws—empowers Texans to use deadly force to protect themselves and their property and has been invoked in several infamous cases.

In 2010 a Houston taco truck owner shot and killed a 24-year-old man who stole a tip jar, and last year a San Antonio man shot and killed a prostitute who took his money and refused to have sex with him. Neither man was convicted of a crime.

Flynn admitted the law may be redundant, but he said that’s of no importance.

“If it has to be redundant for teachers to feel safer, then I’m OK with that,” Flynn said.

Check out our very bad archive of Bad Bills here.

Kevin Eltife
Kevin Eltife

In Texas GOP circles these days almost nothing is as sacrosanct as tax relief.

In fact, you’re about as likely to catch a Republican arguing against a tax cut as you are to nab the elusive chupacabra.

At today’s Senate Finance Committee Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) pretty much went there.

Eltife said state pension funds have been “shortchanged for years,” and something needs to be done before lawmakers consider cutting taxes.

“We should have made the tough decisions to either raise taxes or cut [benefits],” Eltife said. “The reason we’re in this mess is because we haven’t made the tough decisions over the last 10 years.”

The senator’s comments come on the heels of last month’s report from Moody’s, a bond credit rating business, warning state lawmakers to shore up Texas pension funds.

Texas has several state-funded pension funds. The largest, the $128 billion Teacher Retirement System, has unfunded liabilities of $28.9 billion. The second largest, the $25 billion Employee Retirement System (ERS), faces a $7.2 billion shortfall. It is normal for large pension funds to have unfunded liabilities but if they grow too large, it can be difficult for the pensions to make good on promises to future retirees. A rule of thumb for a fund’s health is that the assets-to-benefits ratio not dip below 80 percent. TRS’ ratio sits at about 81 percent. As a result of changes made last session—the Legislature changed benefit plans and chipped in more money—TRS is “actuarially sound,” according to the fund’s managers in a report to the Legislature. It is “one of the best funded public pensions in the nation,” the report states.

Still, lawmakers are concerned with the long-term performance of the funds, especially ERS, which has a funded ratio of about 77 percent.

“Eighteen of the past 20 years the Legislature has underfunded the ERS retirement system,” said Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin). “It is the fault of the Legislature that we’re having this discussion. We’re concerned about how big the nut is that we’re going to need to crack.”

According to the Moody’s report, Texas faces “rising pension costs due to a history of contributions below actuarial requirements.”

Moody’s laid out the options: Increase funding, reduce benefits, or eventually run out of money.

Eltife’s position got plenty of pushback from other committee members.

Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) and Sen. Joan Huffman, (R-Houston) both seemed to reject Eltife’s comments about the urgency of pension funding.

“Texas is doing much better than other states,” Schwertner said. The problem is not how much the state is taxing, but “how much we are obliged to pay through entitlement programs.“

House staffers wait for their bosses' committee assignments outside of the House post office.
Christopher Hooks
House staffers wait for their bosses' committee assignments outside of the House post office.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick released his committee assignments almost two weeks ago, but House Speaker Joe Straus took his time, as is Legislature tradition. House committee assignments, which came down late this afternoon, are the last piece of the Legislature’s machinery to be assembled before it kicks into high gear.

Because Patrick had a bounty of freshman senators to deal with and a desire to boot Democrats from positions of influence, the makeup of some of his committees is dramatically different than last session. But for Straus the rule of thumb appears to be: more of the same. In general, the same kind of legislators who had influence last year—moderate, Straus-friendly Republicans and moderate Democrats, each of whom share a love of business and the status quo—will hold the reins of power this year.

The most important is the Appropriations Committee, which handles the budget. Moderate state Rep. Jim Pitts had it last year, but he retired. This year the top gig goes to state Rep. John Otto (R-Dayton), another moderate and the former vice-chair of the Ways and Means Committee, which handles taxes. Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) keeps his vice-chairmanship. An accountant in private life, Otto is the kind of lawmaker who wins plaudits from Texas Monthly, which once described him as having “the stolid look of a subject of a Rembrandt portrait.” Well.

Ways and Means, in turn, goes to Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), who was a top Straus lieutenant last session, frequently holding the gavel in the speaker’s absence. Dallas Democrat Yvonne Davis becomes the vice chair—the committee was headed by two Republicans last cycle.

The all-important Calendars Committee, which breathes life into (or takes life away from) bills as they move through the legislative process, stays pretty much the same, with Republican Todd Hunter and Democrat Eddie Lucio III retaining the chair and vice-chair positions, respectively, and keeping the same mix of Democrats to Republicans—five of 15.

Public Education, usually a hotbed of activity during the session, could pose challenges for Patrick’s school choice agenda. Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) keeps his chairmanship. There are a number of rural Republicans, who are generally disinclined to vote for vouchers and are protective of public schools. Of all the committee members, the rep most likely to endorse education reforms might be Rep. Harold Dutton, Jr. (D-Houston).

Committees that have been used to shut down regulatory and reform efforts in the past remain big obstacles to change. Environmental Regulation lost one of its few Democrats—there are now only two donkeys among the committee’s nine members. Investments and Financial Services, which effectively killed payday lending regulation last year, has two Democrats out of seven.

But some committees look better for Democrats. Transportation, which could be a busy committee this cycle, is actually led by two Ds, Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso) taking the top spot and Rep. Armando Martinez (D-Weslaco) taking vice-chair. Neither held those spots last year. And Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) leads County Affairs, an unsexy committee that handles important business.

And there are plenty of unusual footnotes. Rep. Gary Elkins (R-Houston), the Sith lord of Texas payday lending, was named the chairman of Government Transparency and Operations. Molly White, the freshman rep who’s off to a rough start, will now have a venue for her theories about Muslims in Homeland Security and Public Safety. Homeland Security’s vice-chair, Rep. Poncho Nevárez (D-Eagle Pass), has had some experiences at the Capitol lately that might inform his understanding of the need for public safety.

Legislators who voted against Straus in the leadership election got hosed, more or less, as you’d expect they would. Poor Scott Turner, who ran a hapless campaign against Straus for the speaker’s gavel, got shunted all the way down to International Trade and Intergovernmental Affairs, which has been known in past years as a place for the speaker to stick too-promising Democrats—Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) is the chair—and unloved Republicans. (Perhaps unfairly.)

But Giovanni Capriglione, a Republican from the Metroplex who bucked his tea party supporters and loudly supported Straus, came out of his ordeal pretty decently. He sits on Appropriations, Local and Consent Calendars, and Investments and Financial Services—the last committee is sought-after for its members ability to raise money from the many well-heeled outsiders who have business before it.

Here’s a last thing to chew on: While almost all of the committees have a masculine, musky flavor, seven of the House’s 38 committees don’t have a single woman.

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.”

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.

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