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Floor Pass

Robert Nichols
State Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) is playing a leading role in transportation funding overhauls this session.

The story of Texas government is, by and large, the story of robbing Peter to pay Paul, and then promising to pay Peter back with Polly or Pedro’s money. The Legislature finds it pretty easy to hack money out of the budget in hard times, but balks at restoring funding during flush times.

So, how to pay for urgent needs? In those good times, like now, the Legislature goes looking for Peter to shake down. Today’s hard choice comes in the form of Senate Bill 5 and Senate Joint Resolution 5, both authored by state Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville), the chair of the Senate Committee on Transportation. Both passed out of Nichols’ committee 8-1 today.

Nichols’ legislation would take about half of the taxes generated by the sale of motor vehicles and give it to the state highway fund. Normally this money goes into the general revenue fund, which is the giant pot of money the Legislature uses to pay for education, health care and almost anything else that state agencies do. (The highway fund would actually receive a little less than half at first—the tax generates about $4 billion a year, and his proposal would have the first $2.5 billion go to general revenue, the next $2.5 billion go to the highway fund, with both funds taking half of whatever comes after.)

The Texas Department of Transportation badly needs the money—the agency has estimated it requires $10 billion in additional funding each biennium just to handle the current level of congestion in the highway system. And, as Nichols said in his opening remarks, TxDOT needs to know the money will be there. “They need to have reasonable assurances six, eight, 10 years out how much money they’re going to count on, so they can begin the process for these big projects require,” Nichols said,

Nearly every legislator would like TxDOT to be made whole, if for no other reason than almost everyone uses the state’s transportation network—unlike, say, public schools and state health services. And an impressive coalition of movers and shakers has coalesced behind Nichols’ plan. On Wednesday, a press conference with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also featured the kind of panel of besuited white businessmen that convene at the Capitol when something big is about to happen.

But there was also some discomfort at today’s committee hearing, from both the left and the right. State Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood) said that the new funding for TxDOT amounted to a drop in the bucket—he’d like to see more of the auto sales tax receipts go to road funding.

But others on the committee worried primarily about the opposite—the effect that pulling money from general revenue would have on the rest of the budget. State Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), in particular, asked how redirecting billions of dollars from the general revenue fund was complementary with the Legislature’s tax cut ambitions.

“If we take that out, how do we make it up? I know we say, it’s good not to raise taxes,” said Ellis. “How do we pay for this? It’s a very important concept, and something we do need to do. But I saw everybody yesterday feeling real good about giving some of our money back in property tax relief.”

He’d said he’d prefer that his personal property tax rebate be reinvested in infrastructure. “I guess my home might be worth a little bit more than the average cost of a home in my district, but I’d get my $180 and put it back into roads, to be honest with you,” Ellis said. “I’m just wondering how we do it all.”

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are hell-bent on passing tax cuts large enough that people notice—part of their compact with GOP primary voters. That’s what makes Nichols’ proposals difficult. If the state had plenty of money, connecting TxDOT to a steady revenue stream would be a no-brainer. But the Legislature’s current budget proposals are packed with spending items, and some of the tax cut proposals legislators are floating would restrict the ability of the state to take in revenue in the future.

In a recent editorial calling for the Legislature to fund real needs before cutting taxes, the San Antonio Express-News collected legislators’ competing budget promises and declared that “even a Ginsu knife might not be able to slice this budget fine enough.”

State Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay), no flaming liberal, voted for Nichols’ plan but said he was wary of tying the hands of future legislators, who might need the money for something else.

“I have a huge reservation about the dedication of funds and the lack of the Legislature’s discretionary ability,” says Fraser. Nichols’ SJR 5 would ask voters to enshrine the rerouting of the vehicle sales tax in the Texas Constitution, something that would be  difficult to undo. Fraser said he would “continue to explore whether it’s good public policy to dedicate” funds, he said. “But I’m going to vote for this bill to move this process along.”

Freshman state Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) was having none of it. “We’ve had 30 years … to put money into highways and we haven’t done it,” he said. “The only way we’re going to make a forced savings plan is to put it in a constitutional amendment.”

That irked Fraser a bit. With “respect,” he told Huffines, “you’ve only been here about a month. Some of us have been here for a long time.” There’s a “learning curve of institutional knowledge” to be acquired. Huffines laughed amiably.

Transportation has been named one of the governor’s emergency items, meaning the Senate can take up Nichols’ plan immediately. On Wednesday, Patrick said he expected the Senate to pass the bills as early as next week.

Texas Family Values Rally
Kelsey Jukam
Jonathan Saenz of Texas Values, right, stares at a cardboard wedding cake celebrating Texas' ban on same-sex marriages at a Texas Faith and Freedom Day rally, Feb. 24, 2015.

Hellfire may be licking at Texans’ heels, but bitter cold forced the righteous inside today. For months, groups such as Texas Values and the Texas Eagle Forum had planned to convene for Texas Faith and Family Day and give a mighty rebuke to changing cultural norms on the south steps of the Capitol, a venue that can lend grandeur to even small rallies. Instead, they filled a little more than half of the 350-seat Capitol auditorium.

In Texas, the Christian right did quite well in the 2014 election, but, true to form, social conservatives feel more persecuted than ever. In one respect, their sky really is falling: The state ban on gay marriage looks ready to collapse. There was the one-off marriage of a Travis County couple last week, and there’s a widespread expectation that marriage equality is coming to Texas soon, thanks to either the 5th Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court.

But at the Capitol auditorium today, there was no talk about that elephant in the room. Perhaps that would have been too depressing for the crowd. Instead, like prisoners of war awaiting a dawn execution, event organizers talked about the past. The ringleader was Jonathan Saenz, the anti-gay marriage activist whose ex-wife left him for a woman.

Saenz, who has tirelessly fought against non-discrimination ordinances around the state and who is the most visible face of anti-gay-marriage activism, stood onstage next to two pink-and-white birthday cakes and a facsimile cardboard wedding cake marking the 10th anniversary of the approval—by roughly 13 percent of the state’s voters—of Texas’ constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Might as well celebrate now, because the ban will likely be dead by the actual anniversary of its passage in November 2005.

In some ways, it was still 2005 in the room. The Texas Eagle Forum’s Cathie Adams introduced state Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia), who opened with a joke. “I always take a picture of the audience,” he told the crowd, pulling out his phone, to prove to his wife that he is where he said he would be. After all, “it’s until death do us part, and it’s me she was talking about killing.” Traditional marriage, you see, is the bond between a man and his nagging wife.

Bell is the author of a bill that would bar government employees that help perform or recognize same-sex marriages from getting paid or receiving benefits—one of a number of weird last-ditch efforts to keep the gays at bay. Polls show Texans are more and more in favor of recognizing same-sex unions of some kind. But Bell had a rejoinder to that. “Public polls are conducted by people who want to skew public opinion one way or another,” he softly reassured the crowd.

The sanctity of marriage wasn’t the only subject on the day’s agenda. State Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) rose to speak about his efforts to curb judicial bypass abortions. A slick lawyer could abduct your daughter on her way to school, he told attendees, and help her get an abortion without your knowledge.

It was, he said, the 179th anniversary of William Barret Travis’ famous last letter from the Alamo. Today’s culture wars are similar. “Either we win, or there’s going to be deaths,” Krause said of the fight to end legal abortion. “Victory or death,” he signed off.

Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) rose to talk about his anti-Sharia law bill. Was the bill pointless demagoguery? “Read the news,” Leach told the crowd. The menace of Sharia law was becoming more pressing every day. “There’s no judge in Texas that should even think twice about violating the U.S. Constitution,” Leach said.

Quite a few legislators dropped by, but the disparity between representatives and senators who elected to make the walk to the auditorium speaks volumes about the differences between the two chambers. Among reps, Molly White and Scott Turner (he of the failed speaker bid) came by. But neither they nor any of the event’s other speakers hold much sway in the House—they hail from the party’s fringy side. But the senators who showed are influential, including Brian Birdwell, Charles Perry and Donna Campbell, who’s well on her way from freshman wacko-bird to senior stateswoman. (In a few more cycles, one assumes, she’ll be primaried as a RINO.)

Their leader was there as well, and Campbell introduced Dan Patrick to a standing ovation. “He is our leader, he is strong and he has the same values we do,” she said. “He’s known for his hard work ethic, and he’s a strong family man.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick
Kelsey Jukam
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick speaks to attendees of the Texas Faith and Family Day rally.

No marriage in Texas is as sacred as the marriage between Patrick and his podium, and he showed his great love for it to the crowd. Relaxed and happy, he spoke with the knowledge that he was among friends, though he mostly avoided any talk about issues. Instead, he spoke about his great love for the Bible and his conviction that his allies share that love. What a shame, he said, that he had to wait to find God’s word until he was middle-aged. He mentioned his modestly titled book about the Bible, The Second Most Important Book You’ll Ever Read, written years ago when he was but a mere talk show host.

“I don’t know if the end days are today, or a thousand years from now,” Patrick told the crowd. “That’s why we have to stand for Christ in all that we do.”

A pastor—one of the so-called Houston Five who’ve been involved in a fight with Houston mayor Annise Parker—delivered a closing prayer: “We declare this state to be the sovereign territory of Jesus Christ,” he said, eliciting “amens” from the crowd. It fell to Bell to cut the banniversary cake, with White and Birdwell at his side.

Earlier, Leach had treated the crowd to his favorite Woodrow Wilson quote: “It’s better to temporarily fail at a cause that will ultimately succeed,” he said, “than to temporarily succeed at a cause that will ultimately fail.” On gay-rights issues, the true believers at the Capitol today are convinced they’re doing the former. What will happen when they come to terms with the fact that it’s really been the latter?

A United Nations flag looms large over the Alamo
State Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) has proposed a bill to ban foreign control of the Alamo.

On this day in 1836, a group of Texians battled to save the Alamo from an invading foreign force. They lost.

Today, 179 years later, Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) fought to legally ban foreign control of the Alamo.

To judge from the reaction of the members of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Economic Development, she may lose as well.

After invoking the brave Texans “that stood up for freedom” at the Alamo, Campbell laid out Senate Bill 191.

“The intent of this bill, Senate Bill 191, is to prevent vesting any ownership, control, or management of the Alamo to a foreign company or any entity formed under the laws of another country,” Campbell said.

The state of Texas owns the Alamo, but Campbell appears to be concerned that the United Nations could contaminate the site.

Last year the U.S. Department of the Interior nominated the Alamo for inclusion in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) list of World Heritage Sites.

World Heritage Sites must have “outstanding universal value to humanity,” according to the UNESCO website. The designation doesn’t affect ownership of a site. There are 22 such sites across the United States, including the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall and the Grand Canyon.

Sen. Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio) said Campbell’s bill may send the wrong message to UNESCO.

“World Heritage status is quite a prestigious honor to have bestowed upon the Alamo and the other missions. You would agree with that?” Uresti asked.

“Not necessarily,” Campbell replied.

“My bill is not regarding UNESCO, and I would say that if something saying that Texas owning, operating, and maintaining the Alamo gives cause of concern to the U.N., than that gives me cause for concern,” Campbell said.

Several senators said that as long as the state owns the Alamo there’s no threat from the U.N. or any foreign entity.

Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls) added that he couldn’t imagine Texas would sell the Alamo to a foreign entity with or without the bill.

“I’m trying to figure out what problem we’re trying to solve here,” Estes said.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) asked Campbell if there was support for the bill in San Antonio.

“I don’t know,” Campbell replied.

World Heritage status would positively impact San Antonio’s economy, according to a 2013 report by the Harbinger Consulting Group, boosting economic activity by  $105 million and create 1,100 new jobs.

From 1905 to 2011, the nonprofit group the Daughters of the Republic of Texas was the official caretaker of the Alamo. The group failed to adequately preserve the site, including failing to fix a leaky roof for some 14 years, and misused state funds for the organization’s own benefit, according to a report from the attorney general’s office. In 2011, the Legislature voted to transfer custody of the Alamo to the General Land Office.

Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) asked Campbell about other UNESCO World Heritage Sites across the country.

Campbell said she didn’t know of any.

The committee heard testimony from several witnesses against the bill, including representatives from the Bexar County Commissioners Court and the San Antonio Conservation Society.

“I can tell you anything that starts with the ‘UN’ gives me cause for concern,” Campbell said.

“The Kremlin has a World Heritage designation and [Russian President Vladimir Putin] wanted to change the landscape around the Kremlin, but UNESCO threatened to pull their designation so he couldn’t change the landscape around it, ” Campbell said.

The bill was left pending in committee.

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Here in the Patriotic People’s Republic of Kory (почему вы переводите это), things are actually looking up! True, it’s been a hard few weeks. Though our editorial staffers were forced to marry guns in a group ceremony yesterday, a court order won by our extremely competent Attorney General Ken Paxton annulled them (or at least that’s what we’re telling ourselves.)

1) We check in today on GREAT LEADER KORY, who’s developing a personality cult, as all great leaders should. The fear he’s put in the hearts of legislators has won him fans.

One Metroplex writer has been able to put Watkins’ role in the freedom movement in perspective. Read for yourself, on the website of Brett Sanders—the website’s logo renders the B in Brett as a Bitcoin—a feature-length treatment of Watkins: “Patriot Misunderstood, Kory Watkins a Rebel Without a Pause.” (sics throughout.)

There is a man who walks the line in Texas.

Go on…

A Freedom lover, Tarrant County Precinct chair, Radio Show host, Father, Brother, Husband, and Son. Kory Watkins who credits the discovery of Ron Paul for his awakening to the corruption and tyranny in government, and Paul’s strong stance for Freedom and Liberty.

Fair—Watkins is almost indisputably someone’s son. But haven’t a lot of his erstwhile allies denounced his tactics, like shouting at legislators that “treason is punishable by death?”

All the negativity thrown at Mr. Watkins about his choice of methods, have been simply petty and not very relevant. […] Why separate yourself from Samuel Adams and Thomas Jefferson type of Freedom Fighter?

Kory, the author says, is “fighting for the rights of not only himself but countless others. His aggressiveness and the utilization of his Freedoms to express and engage the battle to have our rights restored are trashed by many within the liberty movement.” This Thomas Jefferson look-a-like, in his period-appropriate MRA trilby, is a critical leader—the critical leader—of the state’s gun rights movement. “Just like a defense on any sports team needs an aggressor, an intimidator, one that goes head first into the melee.”

The bill that facilitates the installation of panic buttons in lege offices after Watkins stormed the office of state Rep. Poncho Nevárez was a #FalseFlag operation, says the author, “a pre determined plan” designed to discredit Kory. They’re scared of him because he’s effective.

“Kory is the modern day symbolism of ‘Don’t Tread on Me,’” Sanders writes. “We have been silent and nice for far to long.”

I’m sold. What will Watkins—son, husband, radio host, Thomas Jefferson, linebacker—do once he’s won his gun rights? Among other items, Watkins says he will fight to end “knife and sword regulations.”

Get excited, legislators. Come next session, these guys are going to be wandering around the capitol with broadswords.

Here’s a video of Kory Watkins rapping.


2) Ever since state Sen. Don Huffines won his primary bid last year, I’ve been preoccupied with the feeling that his face is familiar. Recently, with the help of the Observer’s photo-analytics team—unpaid interns we’ve pulled from Casis Elementary’s pre-trial diversion program—we’ve cracked it. Huffines bears a striking similarity to ’70s character actor Henry Gibson, of Nashville and The Blues Brothers fame:

Henry Gibson, in The Blues Brothers
Henry Gibson, in The Blues Brothers
Don Huffines, in the Senate
Don Huffines, in the Senate

Could it be a coincidence? Plausible. But eagle-eyed readers will note that “Don Huffines” and “Henry Gibson” share no fewer than seven letters between them, and the keener amongst you will be intrigued to know that Gibson “died” just six years before Huffines made his first bid for elected office. Peek into the dark recesses of this state, and ye know not what ye shall find.

Whatever his real name is, Huffines would like to wish “all the ladies out there” a “happy Valentime’s Day.”

3) Remember Rick Perry? He’s slowly fading from the state’s memory. We find ourselves bathing in the Eternal Sunshine of the Rickless Mind. He has a new video out this week about his great love for a great state. Sing our praises, guv!

“We’re in beautiful New Hampshire, the Granite State,” narrates Yankee Rick, probably slathered in infidel maple syrup and wearing a Patriots jersey. “Granite’s tough and durable, just like the people who live in this fiercely independent state,” Perry says as B-roll of him patting a veteran on the shoulder plays.

Man. Even if you were happy to see him go, it hurts when your one-time lover finds another, doesn’t it? Do all our memories mean nothing, Rick? Just… adios, mofo, like that? In two weeks he’ll be wearing L.L. Bean flannels and bitching about that recent nor’easter. But pancakes are no substitute for brisket, Perry. You’ll regret this. Loyalty, Rick, it used to mean something.

Perry is in New Hampshire because he’s running for president. How is that going? Well, Perry has an easier route to win the Republican nomination than some others, which is not to say that he’ll be successful. It’s actually only a two-step plan:

Step One: Patiently wait until J.E.B. is eaten alive by the Right, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul flame out spectacularly, Scott Walker’s weird fetishes surface and Marco Rubio’s face falls off during a live debate, revealing an intricately machined system of whirring gears.

Step Two: Don’t look like a dolt.

Step One is going OK, inasmuch as Perry is still in the race. Step Two? In New Hampshire, Perry produced a novel historical claim at a county GOP Lincoln-Reagan Day dinner. According to Perry, old Abe “Rebel Annihilator” Lincoln was, it turns out, a vociferous proponent of state’s rights:

“Abraham Lincoln read the Constitution, and he also read the Bill of Rights, and he got down to the Tenth Amendment, and he liked it. That Tenth Amendment that talks about these states, these laboratories of democracy. […] The Tenth Amendment that the federal government is limited, its powers are limited by the Constitution.”

As historian Josh Zeitz writes in Politico Magazine, GOPers have always had a hard time incorporating Lincoln into their political narratives. They like to boast that he was a Republican, but he was a Republican before the American party system inverted itself several times during the course of the last 150 years. Lincoln was a big-time federalist whose most important domestic policies were quintessentially big-government projects—he championed federal investment in education and became deeply concerned about the trajectory of American capitalism as the war came to a close. His biggest achievement, of course, did have a little something to do with state’s rights. In Perry’s imagining, perhaps we could call it “The War of Northern Aggression for a Limited and Devolved Government with No Handouts.”

The grotesque thing about this, of course, is that Perry flirted with secession as governor.

Here’s the Gettysburg Address, as reimagined by Perry. If you’re on his campaign team, feel free to use this:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new loose federal compact, conceived in joint appreciation for family values and corporate power, and dedicated to the proposition that the states, the laboratories of Democracy, know how to create jobs better than some bureaucrat in D.C., I tell you what.

Now we are engaged in a problematic period in which both sides are at fault, testing whether that loose federal compact, or any loose federal compact so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of this unfortunate mutual dispute. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that this nation may continue to create jobs long into the future.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here to reduce the taxpayer’s burden. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion to the cause of limited government—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom from intrusive government mandates and burdensome federal regulation—and that government of the states, by the states, for the states, shall not perish from the earth.

Someday, a spiritual successor to me and my work will rise in a border state, with a handsome head of hair, and he will take the fight to tyranny just as I did. We’re Taxed Enough Already, people. It’s not a miracle, it’s a model. God bless America. Adios, mofos.

Access to Planned Parenthood

Haven Health Clinic in Amarillo provides gynecological care and cancer screenings to women across 26 counties in the Panhandle, serving a 25,000-square mile swath of the state. Under a Senate budget proposal that redistributes funding for a state breast and cervical cancer program for uninsured women, speciality clinics like Haven Health could lose money for Pap smears and mammograms.

“If we were to lose the money, there are women in our area who will die,” Carolena Cogdill, CEO of Haven Health Clinics, told the Observer. “We do see a lot of women who have a precursor to cervical and breast cancer.”

The Senate proposal is intended to keep Planned Parenthood from participating in the breast and cervical cancer program. According to the draft budget, funding would follow a three-tiered formula: Money would first go to public health entities, such as hospital districts and community health clinics, followed by providers that offer “comprehensive primary and preventative care.” The third and final tier would include specialty clinics like Planned Parenthood and Haven. Cogdill fears her clinic could be in that bottom tier because it’s privately-run and doesn’t clearly offer “comprehensive primary and preventative care.”

“So far I haven’t been able to get in touch with anybody at the Department of State Health Services who knows the answer,” she said.

According to a list of providers compiled by the Department of State Health Services and obtained by the Observer, at least 13 providers—many of which operate multiple clinics or are the only provider in their area—could fall into the second or third funding tier and risk losing money.

The Observer contacted five of the providers on the list, including Haven. Representatives for four of the five said they were concerned about losing funding but hadn’t been able to determine conclusively which tier they would fall into.

The fifth, Jennifer Riley of the YWCA of Lubbock, said that she’s unsure how the budget proposal would affect her organization. The YWCA doesn’t directly provide the cancer services, but instead  gives financial assistance to low-income women and refers them to clinics in the community for services and treatment.

Other representatives of specialty providers testified at a Senate Finance Committee hearing Thursday, many warning of the collateral damage that could come with a tiered system. In 2011, the Texas Legislature slashed $70 million from state family planning programs in part to defund Planned Parenthood and imposed the same tiered funding scheme, which resulted in the closure of more than 50 family planning clinics. Many of the clinics had nothing to do with Planned Parenthood.

The proposal “does exactly the opposite of investing in women’s health,” said Ana Rodriguez Defrates, Texas policy director with the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, in testimony before the committee. “It would have the effect of eliminating funding for many of the frontline clinics that provide breast and cervical cancer services in rural communities.”

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Hispanic women in Texas are more likely to develop cervical cancer than white or African-American women.

Martha Zuniga, executive director of the South Texas Family Planning and Health Corporation in the Corpus Christi area, said that her organization would likely be in the second tier of funding. Three of her clinics can see women immediately for screenings and diagnostic services, whereas patients may experience long wait times at the “tier one” public and community health centers.

“In my part of Texas, the [proposal] may eliminate organizations like us, which are an important part of the breast and cervical cancer safety net for the Coastal Bend community,” she told senators.

Health care providers and advocates also urged Senate Finance Committee members to protect women’s health services in the budget this session. In 2013, legislators restored the family planning funding lost in 2011. This session, the Texas Senate budget includes $50 million for a consolidated women’s health program. Still, as Dr. Janet Realini of the Texas Women’s Healthcare Coalition reminded the committee Thursday, only three in 10 eligible women are being served.

“We still have a long way to go,” she said.

Kel Seliger
Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo)

The high-stakes battle over high-stakes testing returned to the Capitol today as the Senate Committee on Education heard testimony on Senate Bill 149, which would allow students to graduate high school without passing state tests.

Without action from the Legislature, as many as 28,000 students will not graduate this year because they haven’t passed state tests, said the bill’s author, Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo).

Seliger’s bill would allow students who fail State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) exams to graduate if they pass all classes required for graduation, maintain a 2.0 GPA and meet other conditions outlined by an individual graduation committee.

According to Seliger’s proposal, the individual graduation committee—consisting of the student’s principal, teacher, school counselor and parent—would have to vote unanimously for a student to graduate.

Arguing in favor of the bill, committee chair Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) said there is a big disconnect between student achievement and test scores.

“It’s insanity when you see the level of achievement some of these kids are doing and they can’t pass the test,” Taylor said.

Testing is big business in Texas. The state currently pays the testing company Pearson almost half a billion dollars under a five-year contract to develop, distribute and score STAAR tests.

Aldine ISD superintendent Wanda Bamberg testified that she doesn’t trust Pearson.

“Every year we pay Pearson to have our [scored] papers returned to us … and we found a paper that was mis-scored,” Bamburg said. “We’re holding children accountable for graduation based on that type of scoring error.”

Seliger’s bill comes amid a broader movement to diminish the importance of high-stakes tests. During the 2013 legislative session almost 90 percent of Texas school boards signed an anti-testing resolution, and the Legislature reduced the number of tests required for graduation from 15 to five.

Texas started requiring that students pass standardized tests to graduate in the 1980s, and was one of the first states to do so. After the state implemented the tests, the graduation rate for Latinos and African Americans dropped significantly. In 1997 the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund sued the Texas Education Agency, arguing the test was racially discriminatory.

Courts ruled in favor of the agency, and the anti-testing movement didn’t reach critical mass until a few years ago when a coalition of advocacy groups started agitating. One much-publicized group, dubbed Moms Against Drunk Testing, testified at today’s hearing in favor of Seliger’s bill.

Clay Robison, spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association, said his organization hopes the work of advocacy groups will prod the Legislature to take a closer look at who benefits from the state’s testing requirement.

“The current testing regime enriches companies and transfers accountability from a Legislature that has historically underfunded education,” Robison told the Observer.

Senate Bill 149 did receive some pushback, primarily from Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) and Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham).

Kolkhorst said she was concerned the bill would create a disincentive for students to pass tests and questioned why the state should spend so much money on exams if students can graduate high school without passing them.

“Maybe we should just throw those out [the tests] and save the money,” Kolkhorst said.

“That’s a whole ‘nother discussion,” Taylor responded.

Access to Planned Parenthood

Another legislative session, another attempt to strip Planned Parenthood of funding.

This time, the proposed Texas Senate budget jeopardizes a screening program that serves Texas women who are at greatest risk for developing breast and cervical cancer. Some senators want to resurrect a strategy that would put Planned Parenthood and other specialty health clinics at the bottom of a list to receive funding for breast and cervical cancer services.

Administered by the Texas Department of State Health Services, the program provides a plethora of services for uninsured, poor women, including Pap smears and mammograms, diagnostic services such as biopsies and ultrasounds, as well as expedited assistance for Medicaid coverage for cancer patients.

“We’ve already reduced access to women with the greatest need,” said Ana Rodriguez Defrates, Texas policy director with the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. “We’re talking about reducing access for women who haven’t had a Pap smear in years. To do anything other than increase the number of providers when we know this to be true is a travesty.”

The Senate proposed budget includes a provision that would create a three-tiered system for program providers, putting Planned Parenthood last in line. Money would flow first to the top tier—public entities like state, county and community clinics. “Non-public” entities or clinics that offer cancer screenings as part of a broader “comprehensive primary and preventative care” package would be next in line. Finally, the third tier would consist of specialty providers, including Planned Parenthood.

The goal, as lead budget writer Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) and Health and Human Services Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) have acknowledged in recent weeks, is to keep state money away from health care providers that also perform abortions, even though no public dollars fund the procedure and Planned Parenthood clinics that offer such services are completely independent from its health centers. Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) said he’s concerned about the proposal and the consequences it will likely have on access.

“This so-called three-tiered approach has the very intended consequence of wiping out at least a provider that is integral in making sure that women that don’t otherwise have access to care,” he said. “There’s collateral damage to that as well; there are providers that aren’t the targeted provider that also get hurt.”

In 2014, with $2.4 million in state funding and $7.8 million in federal funding, 41 providers offered services at 196 clinics statewide, according to the Department of State Health Services. Of the 34,000 women served, about 10 percent received cancer screenings and diagnostic services at a Planned Parenthood clinic, said Sarah Wheat of Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas. She sees the tiered funding strategy as a political move.

“What we know from experience is that when the Texas Legislature sets up a political goal for women’s health funding, uninsured women lose access to these essential services,” she said.

It’s a strategy Republican lawmakers have tried before. In 2011, on top of a two-thirds funding cut to the state’s family planning program aimed largely at defunding Planned Parenthood, lawmakers passed a budget that tiered funding for family planning providers. Planned Parenthood’s health centers and other specialty family planning clinics were bled even more by the tiered system. The fallout was catastrophic: More than 50 family planning clinics, largely non-Planned Parenthood clinics, closed and nearly 150,000 women lost services. While the Legislature did restore some of the funding in 2013, the programs are still only serving about 32 percent of the women in need. The state also lost federal money when it wrote Planned Parenthood out of the Medicaid Women’s Health Program, which provided birth control to poor, Medicaid-eligible women who weren’t pregnant. The state-funded program the Legislature has created since hasn’t quite kept up. Before losing the federal funding, the program served approximately 127,000 women, according to the Health and Human Services Commission. The state program now serves approximately 115,000.

Texas is likely to lose more providers if the Senate budget proposal goes through, advocates and providers fear. The regional impact and the number of other specialty, non-Planned Parenthood clinics that may fall into the third category are unclear.

Of the approximately 34,000 uninsured women served in the program, the majority are women of color. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the incidence rate of cervical cancer among Texas women is 17 percent higher than the national rate, and Hispanic women in Texas are more likely to be diagnosed with cervical cancer than African-American or white women every year. Hispanic women along the Texas-Mexico border are 31 percent more likely to die from cervical cancer compared to their peers living in non-border counties, said Rodriguez Defrates.

In his State of the State speech this week, Gov. Greg Abbott called for an additional $50 million for women’s health services, including life-saving breast and cervical cancer screenings. The governor’s office told the Observer further details on the budget, including how the women’s health funding would be allocated, aren’t available yet.

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Americans For Prosperity stands strong for new state Sen. José Menéndez

How did Republican mega-donors end up winning a race in which only Democrats were running?

This week’s sad installment in an ongoing saga—the Travails of Texas Democrats—involves a runoff in Senate District 26, which covers much of San Antonio, between two Democratic state reps, José Menéndez and Trey Martinez Fischer. Last night, Menéndez won Leticia Van de Putte’s former seat in the Senate after a bitter and partisan campaign in which much of his support against the liberal Martinez Fischer came from Republicans. It wasn’t exactly an upset, but it ran contrary to the expectations of some statewide observers. (Yours truly included.)

As political scientist Mark P. Jones outlines here, Menéndez was one of the most conservative Democrats in the House last session, and Martinez Fischer was one of the most liberal. Martinez Fischer, or TMF as he’s colloquially known, won almost 44 percent in a special election in early January. Menéndez took 25 percent.

From one angle, it looked like Menéndez had a path to victory. Two other Republican candidates in the five-way race together took almost 28 percent of the vote. If Menéndez could keep his voting base intact and add all of the Republican voters from the first round, he’d win.

But TMF was a formidable opponent. He was a rising star in the party—or at least, he’d appointed himself one. He’d become known in the House for his skill in using the lower chamber’s rules to kill bills. He’s vocal, tough and smart, and he has the ambition to match. He’s the chairman of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus. He’s won plaudits and attention from the media.

TMF poured money into the Texas Democratic Party convention last summer, where he had an unusually high profile for a lowly state representative. His party, featuring the Austin-based Spazmatics, was one of the convention’s headlining events. He gave away loteria cards emblazoned with the faces of Texas politicos, which became popular items—the Abbott card depicted the governor with devil horns. And his speech to the convention was full of the kind of fire that makes Democrats feel competitive again, even if his more pointed barbs—he joked that “GOP” stood for gringos y otros pendejos—drew stern disapproval from some more polite observers, and later became a big focus of anti-TMF attack ads.

In his race, he was supported by all kinds of Democratic heavies. He had the financial support of Houston mega-donor Steve Mostyn’s network, the strong backing of San Antonio bigwigs like the Castro family, and the endorsement of his hometown paper, the San Antonio Express-News.

Menéndez, meanwhile, was a fine rep, but quiet. He served in the House for 14 years. He was on the corporate-minded, conservative wing of his party. He won a committee chairmanship from House Speaker Joe Straus. Last session, he authored bills to raise criminal penalties for petty crimes like graffiti, even though his colleagues, even some Republicans, were generally trying to do the opposite.

Leticia Van de Putte, who held the seat before she resigned to run for mayor of San Antonio, was no great liberal herself, but she regularly ran unopposed. This was a pretty Democratic district, so TMF, with his profile and money and support, would clench it, right? Austin journalists of all stripes were salivating at the notion of Martinez Fischer butting heads with Dan Patrick in the once-comatose Senate.

As it turns out, gringos y otros pendejos vote, and the Democratic base does not. TMF lost the early vote by 20 points, and stayed down all night, ultimately winning just under 41 percent of the vote. A whopping 6 percent of voters made it to the polls. Remarkably, not only did Menéndez expand his vote share to include (presumably) Republican voters, but TMF lost ground, slipping from 44 percent to 41 percent of the vote. In short, it was a drubbing.

Menéndez will probably be a fine senator, and his campaign team did a great job here. But it’s still a missed opportunity for Democrats. The tea party relentlessly primaries GOP senators in safe districts until they get the guys they want; they’ve succeeded in changing the face of the Legislature. Democrats have sometimes been successful at this. In 2013, Democrat Sylvia Garcia, backed by the same people who backed TMF, beat Carol Alvarado, a more conservative candidate who was backed by the same people who backed Menéndez, including Texans for Lawsuit Reform.

It’s probably safe to say to say that Menéndez won’t be the kind of fighter in the Senate that Democratic die-hards were hoping for. Menendez’s biggest donors include William Greehey, the CEO of Valero Energy, the irascible billionaire Red McCombs, and beer distributor John L. Nau. All have donated oceans of money to Republican candidates at the state and federal level. He was even effectively endorsed by the Texas branch of the Koch-funded Americans For Prosperity.

Meanwhile, Democratic base voters can’t seem to get out to the polls in non-presidential years unless someone is standing behind them with a cattle prod. Maybe they’ll try that next.

On Tuesday night, the state Democratic Party—and Battleground Texas—found themselves celebrating the election of a senator whose campaign was funded by Republicans and cheered by the political machine of the Koch brothers. Blue Texas is coming any day now.

Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick
Kelsey Jukam
Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick at the State of the State Address, February 17, 2015.

What kind of governor will Greg Abbott be? He ran a mostly policy-free campaign, save for an ad about how bad traffic is—though to be fair, his Democratic opponent was even worse on this front—and his inaugural speech was overwhelmed by both the pomp and circumstance of the occasion and the pomp and circumstance of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Abbott’s State of the State speech, delivered today before a joint session of the Legislature, was his first real chance to establish the tone of his tenure in office. He positioned himself, generally, as a somewhat cautious moderate. He outlined a few broadly acceptable policy priorities, such as expanding early education programs and ethics reform. Otherwise, he mostly followed the path set by the Legislature.

“I’m proud to report that as the sun arises on 2015, the state of Texas is strong, and together we’re about to make it stronger,” Abbott told the Legislature. (Combine Abbott’s flourish with Patrick’s inaugural declaration, and we have a motto for the 84th Legislature: The sun arises on a new day in Texas.)

As with any governor, Abbott’s emergency items—he laid out five today—probably tell us a lot about his priorities. Legislation pertaining to emergency items can be considered early and generally receive special consideration by the Lege. Rick Perry—remember him?—frequently used these emergency item declarations as a way to throw red meat to the base.

But four of Abbott’s items are relatively bread-and-butter issues—Abbott calls for expanding pre-K, boosting funding for university research programs, raising transportation funding and strengthening state ethics laws.

The fifth is border security, the closest Abbott gets to a red-meat issue. But his budget anticipates an end to the National Guard mission to the border as soon as the Department of Public Safety can reasonably replace them. Patrick wants funding for the National Guard deployment to be continued through the next biennium, and strongly implied the governor agreed with him. Abbott does not, apparently, but he did call for border security funding to be doubled for the next biennium, for a total of $735 million—putting himself closer to the Senate budget than the House budget.

On school choice, another of Patrick’s core issues, Abbott didn’t have much to say. He called for the state to work toward becoming “No. 1 in education”—a line he’s used repeatedly that has all the substance of a boat made from cotton candy—and said he’d like to give school districts the right to exempt themselves from certain parts of the state’s education code. But while he advocated for more “choice”—”real local control rests with parents,” he said—there was no mention of vouchers or much else Patrick would like to see passed.

That didn’t stop Patrick from giving his blessing. In a statement, Patrick said Abbott’s speech contained “everything I wanted to hear in the State of the State address,” and underlined Abbott’s call for “additional border security” and “school choice.” Patrick’s strategy for dealing with Abbott appears to be to hug him to death and hope compliance follows—we’ll see how well that works.

There was plenty else in the speech besides the emergency items. Many of Abbott’s proposals include additional spending, but he also called for $4.2 billion in tax cuts. The two just might be able to coexist this year, with a healthy budget surplus, but Abbott says he’d like to make the tax cuts permanent. He also called for a constitutional amendment to limit spending increases to population growth plus inflation, a measure long touted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation that’s never gained much traction. On some of these budget issues, he’s closer to the right wing of his party than the middle—so far, the House hasn’t seemed especially excited about sweeping tax cuts.

He’s pushing for more support of the state’s community college system, and wants more funding to support the state’s veterans. He told the Legislature that it was “time to put school finance litigation behind us”—the same litigation he was aggressively prosecuting as attorney general—but he didn’t say much about how the state should do that.

He didn’t have much to say about guns, one of the hot issues at the Capitol right now, except for a line that pledged he would “expand liberty in Texas by signing a law that makes Texas the 45th state to allow open carry” of handguns. That wasn’t enough for one of the Legislature’s biggest proponents of open carry, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), who told the Observer after the speech that open carry “should have been an emergency item,” and that he was skeptical of all the spending proposals in Abbott’s speech.

Greg Abbott
Kelsey Jukam
Greg Abbott at the State of the State Address.

We learned a bit more about the personal style of a governor who still, despite all of the theatrics last year, remains a bit cryptic. Twice, he deployed anecdotes about young girls to pull at legislators’ paternalistic heart strings: While talking about border security, he talked about meeting a “young Latina” in the Rio Grande Valley who “pleaded with me to keep my promise to secure the border.” She knew the children of cartel members, Abbott said, and they frightened her. And then there was Keisha Riley of Houston, whose young daughter wiped tears from her cheek as she asked Abbott for better schools.”

Abbott positioned himself today as a pragmatic and thoughtful problem-solver.

“Our fellow Texans face so many challenges: the need for better schools, more roads, border security, better healthcare, more jobs. They want more liberty and less government, and they deserve ethics reform,” Abbott said. “We can’t let their future be defined by these challenges.”

But the as-yet unwritten history of the 84th and 85th Legislatures, over which Abbott will preside, will be determined by factors and circumstances largely outside of his control. For a reminder of how that can manifest itself, look no further than Rick Perry’s first State of the State address, from January 2001.

Back then, with a handsome young face and an even more magnificent head of hair, Perry sounded almost like a Democrat. The state needed to make changes, Perry said: better schools, more roads, better health care, more jobs, better government. The poor residents of the border colonias, he said, needed better access to health care and the state needed to do more to eradicate infectious diseases among border communities. These challenges, Perry told the Legislature at the dawn of a bright new era, are “all worthy of our ever-vigilant effort.”

But for the next 14 years, the Legislature lurched from strained budget to strained budget. Perry found it more beneficial to move to the right, and an increasingly fractious Legislature started to look to the right too. The center couldn’t hold. Fourteen years after that speech, the problems Texas face are still more or less the same.

So although observers are going to point to Abbott staking out ground in the middle—and he is, on some issues—be careful of drawing too many conclusions about what that will ultimately mean. And enjoy the new day’s new dawn while it lasts.

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State Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) isn’t exactly a communist. Taciturn and serious, he’s represented his East Texas district since 2007. As head of the Senate Committee on Transportation, he’s pursued modest policy proposals and generally eschewed five-year plans. An analysis by Mark P. Jones of Rice University pegged Nichols as the sixth most conservative senator of the 83rd legislative session, with only tea partiers like Dan Patrick and Donna Campbell to his right. So, naturally, some people think he’s a pinko.

In the last few weeks, an attack site surfaced targeting Nichols. The senator, it turns out, is “one of the more liberal Republicans in Texas,” a tyrant’s friend who “has overseen unprecedented growth in government” and “has opposed conservatives for many years.” He’s empowered government bureaucrats and zealously protected shady slush funds.

It looks like the kind of site that’s employed in campaigns, but the campaign season is over. Nichols was unopposed in his primary race, and effectively unopposed in the general election, where he won more than 90 percent of the vote. The domain name——was bought on January 21, more than a week after the start of the session.

There’s nothing on the site to identify its author, and the information that might normally be used to identify the domain name’s owner has been scrubbed, leaving the site effectively anonymous. Nichols’ office says they don’t know for sure who is responsible.

But it seems likely that the site comes from the Tim Dunn/Michael Quinn Sullivan messaging network. There’s the emphasis on higher education policy. But more tellingly, there’s the invocation of a 2013 Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Texas Goes Sacramento,” which Dunn’s groups love.

And they have a motive to attack Nichols—he co-authored Senate Bill 346 last session, a bill that would require disclosure of so-called “dark money” expenditures. The bill, which easily passed both chambers but was vetoed by Gov. Perry, was widely understood to be targeting Michael Quinn Sullivan’s groups in particular.

Still, why? What use is the site to anyone?

That’s harder to determine, and it seems like a pretty poor use of Dunn’s money. It’s probably best understood as a shot across Nichols’ bow, coming as it does at the start of a session in which Nichols, through his leadership of Senate Transportation, will have an outsized footprint on policy. But hardly anyone has seen it. It stayed off social media altogether until it was tweeted out by Dwayne Stovall, last year’s hapless primary challenger to John Cornyn, last weekend.

Movement conservatives had an amazing amount of success at launching primary challengers to Senate Republicans they deemed too moderate last cycle. For one, they knocked off incumbent Bob Deuell and replaced him with Bob Hall, a guy with a troubled past who’s been wandering around the Capitol the last few weeks talking about the United Nations, EMPs, and “the War of Northern Aggression.” But the campaign to subvert Nichols is another thing altogether—it’s actually kind of surreal. If he’s a liberal, who’s left?

“If the person or organization that created this website would like to identify themselves, we would be happy to sit down and discuss the issues and concerns they have,” Nichols told the Observer in a statement. “I stand by my record of representing East Texas values and do not hide from it. That’s unlike the people or organization who created this website, who can’t even put their name on it, because they know they are distorting the truth and trying to mislead my constituents.”

If creating anonymous attack sites to bully legislators who are your allies on most issues and hiding your identity while doing it sounds like a slightly seedy way to do politics, remember that Sullivan’s Empower Texans decided to use a song about a stalker and sexual predator to characterize their legislative agenda this cycle:

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