Forrest for the Trees

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst
Patrick Michels

For the last week, activists, lawmakers and media have demanded that DPS produce evidence that protestors tried to bring jars of urine and feces into the Senate gallery last Friday. No DPS trooper has stepped forward to say he or she personally saw jars of urine or feces, although the law enforcement agency’s head Steve McCraw has defended the allegations. McCraw has said all of the items, including glitter, bricks and tampons, were discarded and no names were taken. But today, none other than the state’s second-highest elected official, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, claimed to have seen bottles of urine and bags of feces.

Dewhurst told Toby Marie Walker of the Waco Tea Party in a web-streamed interview that he “walked over to where [DPS] was screening” and saw DPS personnel “smelling” water bottles. “They had urine in it,” he said. Dewhurst, a former CIA operative, also said he saw DPS setting aside bags of feces to throw away. (A transcript is provided below.)

DPS’ original press release, from 4:49pm last Friday, stated that officers had discovered “one jar suspected to contain urine” and “18 jars suspected to contain feces.” Dewhurst said he saw an unspecified number of “water bottles” containing urine and an unspecified number of “bags” containing feces.

Dewhurst’s office didn’t respond to questions today about when and where he saw the bottles of urine and bags of feces. The lieutenant governor is six feet, five inches and the focus of intense media attention: It seems odd that in this era of ubiquitous social media, cameras and video his presence at the crowded Capitols security checkpoints would have gone unnoticed.

“Just like everything else with this, the more that is being told to us the more questions it raises,” said Scott Daigle, a spokesman in Rep. Donna Howard’s office.

In the interview, Dewhurst also said he personally met with DPS a “dozen times” after the Wendy Davis filibuster to go over security. “We had enough firepower that we could have defended the Capitol against a brigade of a thousand al-Qaida.”

**

[Begins ~27:20]

Toby Marie Walker: “There were—

David Dewhurst: “Bottles of urine, bags of feces. Awful.”

TMW: “I know there’s people who say, ‘Oh that didn’t happen because DPS didn’t save it’.”

DD: “It did. It did. It did. I saw some of it.”

TMW:”…I’ve heard from members and other people who saw some of it.”

DD: “Absolutely and it’s the same as myself I walked over to where they were screening and they were getting bottles out and smelling them, they were getting water bottles out and smelling and they had urine in it. And there were bags they had set aside and were going to put in the trash and throw it out, of feces. Just despicable. Despicable.”‘

Sen. Dan Patrick
Patrick Michels
Sen. Dan Patrick delivers a passionate speech in favor of House Bill 2 before its passage Friday night.

Lost in the dramatic events of Friday’s final showdown over the anti-abortion bill was a remarkable speech by Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston). It started out a critique of the Democrats’ legislative dealings with the Republican majority—inside baseball, really—but then built to a full-throated declaration of God’s wishes for the second special session of the Texas Legislature and a channeling of the wishes of women and the fetuses they carry.

Now, Patrick’s not known for his subtlety. After all, he came up in the world of right-wing radio and modestly titled his bible-inspiration manual The Second Most Important Book You Will Ever Read.

Patrick recently announced a run for lieutenant governor, challenging the bumbling Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and two other very conservative Republicans of somewhat different flavors, Ag Commissioner Todd Staples and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson. Patrick has made little secret of his disdain for Dewhurst’s mishandling of the anti-abortion bill but it was his venomous and unapologetically Christian-ist speech on Friday that really marked the beginning of the campaign and showed just how extreme Patrick can be.

The Senate doesn’t lack for members willing to wear their faith on their sleeve. Sen. Eddie Lucio, the only Democrat to vote for House Bill 2, gave a half-hour rambling seminar on his personal theology, quoting Mother Teresa and citing John Locke, to justify his belief that life begins at conception. But Patrick goes even further.

He has a history of invoking God to justify his far-right politics. He even knows God’s schedule. In February 2011, he said of a bill requiring women seeking an abortion to get a sonogram, “This is God’s time to pass the bill.”

Patrick reviewed his own book on Amazon.com, humbly writing, “Since God inspired me to write this book, He automatically gets 5 stars and the CREDIT!”

In a 1958 TV interview with Mike Wallace, theologian and minister Reinhold Niebuhr defined “a bad religion” as “one that gives an ultimate sanctity to some particular cause.” He may have had a politician like Dan Patrick in mind.

I suspect Patrick wouldn’t wear one of those “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelets so popular back in the Bush era. Not for him, the open-ended question. “Jesus Does as I Do” is more his cup.

In his Friday address, Patrick managed to speak for women seeking an abortion, unborn babies and God, practically in one breath. That proved too much for one woman in the gallery, who shouted “I can’t take it anymore”:

We talked about the choice, you ask us, well don’t we put ourselves in the place of the woman and her choice, what choice does the baby have? Who speaks for the baby? Do you think if the mother had a conversation with the baby and said, ‘you know, this just isn’t really convenient to give birth to you right now, do you mind dying?’”

Woman yells, “I can’t take it anymore.”

Patrick: “I think that baby would say –“

Dewhurst: “Could you pause for a moment, I think the lady is going to be escorted out.”

Patrick: “I don’t get mad with those folks, I pray for them.

He went on to focus on the key Republican talking point about House Bill 2—that it’s about women’s health more than anything else, but he soon pointed out that he knows how God would’ve voted on House Bill 2 on July 12, 2013.

So at the end of the day, I respect the arguments, it’s been a good day of debate, but I can’t sit here and listen to all this talk that leaves out the most important person in the process, the baby. So who do I listen to?

I don’t apologize for being pro-life and I don’t apologize for being a Christian, and I listen to the word of God on this issue. The Bible tells us we are born in the image of God, and I believe when a baby’s life is destroyed we are destroying the image of God. And there should be no one out there celebrating it. If they want to, fine. But I will never stand on this floor, and I will never cheer, and I will never support anyone who celebrates destroying the image of God.

Sen. Dan Patrick delivers a passionate speech in favor of House Bill 2.
Sen. Dan Patrick during debate on House Bill 2.

There’s two ways you can go in life, a lot of people say I believe in God, but there’s a quantum leap when you go from believing in God to believing God. A lot of people believe in God. If you believe God, how would God vote tonight if he were here?And I know I’ll get raked over by the liberal blogs and some people in the media for bringing this up on the floor, but let’s just be honest. Are we a nation that stands for a Judeo-Christian ethic, or are we not? Do we get down on our knees and pray when our children get sick, or when we have a tragedy in West, Texas, or 9/11, who do we turn to then? We turn to God, and say, “God please bless us. “But on this case, “no, no, no, God, sorry, we’re not with you on this one.”  Well, I say the people who are for this bill aren’t any better than people who are against it, aren’t any more godly. I’m just saying we’re listening a little closer.

So I’m proud to stand and vote for this bill. I believe we are improving women’s healthcare, and I believe we care about these children. As they said, when it comes to choice, when it comes to choice, the baby doesn’t have a choice, the baby doesn’t get a vote, but tonight the baby’s going to get, by my count, 19 votes. 19 votes, every Republican and one courageous Democrat will stand and vote for the babies and women’s healthcare.

And I respect everyone’s comments, and I hope you respect mine, because you’re passionate, I’ve heard the passion from my dear friend Senator Whitmire, from my good friend, I’ve heard your passion, but let me tell you, you don’t get to outrank me on passion. And I’m just as passionate, and I care just as much, and I know that this is the right vote on this bill, on this night, on this time. Thank you very much.”

Jesus wept.

Things have moved so fast and with such dramatic fashion during the roaring abortion debate at the Capitol that we’ve almost lost track of all the unbelievable things people have said over the past few weeks. So, we’ve gone back and tried to collect the best of the best, er, the worst of the worst—the craziest, stupidest and funniest stuff people have said, tweeted or—in the case of the sign guy—held… so far.

 

“We have funded what’s called rape kits that will help a woman, basically clean her out.”—State Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, June 23rd on House floor.

“Making abortion essentially inaccessible in Texas will add an anxiety to sex that will drastically undercut its joys. And don’t be surprised if casual sex outside of relationships becomes far more difficult to come by.”—Burnt Orange Report writer Ben Sherman in a post entitled “Bro-Choice: How #HB2 Hurts Texas Men Who Like Women,” July 3rd.

“I’m hear to bring another perspective, a country boy perspective. I’m here to bring you my country-boy wisdom. In the country we have crops. We have cows, we have sheep. If a crop doesn’t produce, it’s eliminated. If an animal doesn’t reproduce, it’s eliminated. …If America is going to survive and hold on we’ve got to reproduce. We’ve got to end abortion.”—Lee Kuty, Caldwell, Texas at Senate Health and Human Services Committee hearing on July 9.

“I regret my abortion.”—Sign held by unidentified male anti-abortion protester.

“David came about as a result of his mom and dad, who were just 16 at the time, going to a Planned Parenthood deal where they taught them how to use contraceptives. They were not sexually active at that point. They got into the car, and they were so hot and bothered from this deal, he couldn’t even get the condom on.”—Steve Toth on the dangers of sex ed, recorded talking to Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin).

“It’s just unfortunate that she hasn’t learned from her own example that every life must be given a chance to realize its full potential and that every life matters.”—Rick Perry on Wendy Davis, speaking at the National Right to Life Convention in Fort Worth.

“Some of them have been here chanting in the Capitol, ‘Hail to Satan, hail to Satan, hail to Satan,” he said tonight. “Anyone who opposes this bill, whether he realizes it or not, is a tool of Satan.”—First Baptist Dallas Pastor Robert Jeffress at the Stand For Life rally at the Capitol July 8.

“Seems to me we do more for eagle eggs, than babies in the womb.” —SB1 supporter in July 8 committee hearing.

“We have reports, and I have my staff taking a look at the video,” Dewhurst explained, “and if I find, as I’ve been told, examples of the media waving and trying to inflame the crowd, incite them in the direction of a riot, I’m going to take action against them.”—Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, June 28, in an interview with HotAir.com. Dewhurst later said he would not be arresting reporters.

“This is my baby and I will fight! and I will fight! and I will fight! to protect my baby.”—Rep. Villalba (R-) waving a sonogram image of his 13-week old fetus. House debate, July 9.

rickperrymulti

Ever since Rick Perry flamed out in spectacular fashion as a presidential candidate, political prognosticators have been speculating—baselessly at times—about his next step. Would he run for re-election as governor, potentially serving an unprecedented 18 years? Would he make another run at the White House? Would he retire and join Rudy Giuliani on the lucrative motivational speaking circuit?

Today, Perry revealed what his staff had billed as “exciting future plans” and put to rest some of the speculation. At a press conference at the Holt Cat dealership in San Antonio, the longest serving governor in Texas history announced that he will not seek re-election. “The time has come to pass on the mantle of leadership,” he said, pausing to gather himself as he betrayed some emotion. Or, as Perry once put it, “Adios, mofo.”

As for another presidential bid, Perry didn’t address it directly, saying he would announce future plans at “an appropriate time.”

Perry’s speech was a laundry list of his accomplishments as governor, with a singular focus on his strong suit: Texas’ relatively robust job growth.

Fact-checkers could cancel their Thanksgiving plans just trying to account for all of his claims. My personal favorite: Perry said his policies have made “special interests… uncomfortable.” He said this speaking at a Caterpillar dealership owned by Peter Holt, who is Perry’s ninth largest donor. Holt and his wife, Juliana, have given Perry more than $637,000 since 2000.

Journalism is the first draft of history but the media is already writing his legacy. Here’s how the AP led its story today:

Rick Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history who famously muttered “oops” after forgetting during a 2011 presidential debate the third of three federal departments he’d pledged to close, announced Monday he won’t seek re-election next year to a fourth full term.

Oof.

Perry may be tempted to prove his critics wrong and rescue his reputation. But how successful could he possibly be? The field is going to be much tougher in 2016 and his polling at this point is abysmal. A recent PPP survey, found that Texas Republicans preferred Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Rand Paul. Only 18 percent of Texas Republicans thought he should run. “Rick Perry’s presidential aspirations appear to be dead in the Lone Star State,” the pollsters wrote in a synopsis.

There’s also the more important matter that he continues to have little appetite or knack for the hard stuff presidents deal with, e.g. foreign policy, complex policy questions. Just a few weeks ago, the governor mixed up Lebanon and Libya. Yes, anyone can make mistakes but Perry has a record of more than just the occasional gaffe: He seems genuinely uninterested in policy and tries to cover it up with bluster. There are plenty of other reasons a presidential bid, while making for great entertainment, would be a bad idea. Read Observer Editor Dave Mann’s post here for more.

Perry stepping aside clears the way for the first open-seat governor’s race in Texas since 1990 (the classic Ann Richards-Clayton Williams race). Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott will be heavily favored to win the governorship.

For Wendy Davis, it means she can’t run against her perfect foil. She can’t run against damaged goods and a governor that many Texans have grown weary of. If Davis makes a bid for the Governor’s Mansion, she’ll most likely have to face Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, currently sitting atop a campaign fortune of $18 million and counting. The silver lining, though, is that Abbott is every bit as right-wing, if not more so, than Rick Perry. And in recent polling, Davis actually performs better against Abbott than she does Perry. Abbott leads her 48-40 (still a big lead) vs. Perry’s 53-39 advantage.

Whoever’s the next governor, he or she will inherit an office that has been transformed. In his 12 years in office, Perry has found ways to turn a weak, largely ceremonial office into a powerful position that commands the state’s political structure. From cultivation of a large bench of loyalists doing his bidding in the sprawling apparatus of state agencies, to working with a pliant Legislature to set up multi-billion-dollar funds (see: the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, the Texas Enterprise Fund, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas) plagued by misappropriation and charges of cronyism, the governor’s office is now a real CEO position. What’s more important is how he used that office—and how his successor will use the accumulated power—but that’s a story for another day.

Containers of radioactive waste at the Waste Control Specialists' dump in Andrews, Texas.
Waste Control Specialists
Containers of radioactive waste at the Waste Control Specialists' dump in Andrews, Texas.

Updated below with a response from the company:

The preferred method for getting rid of radioactive waste is to bury it deep underground and hope to never see it again. Texas’ approach to regulating radioactive waste is similar. Instead of a public airing, problems with a burgeoning West Texas nuclear dump often get buried.

Case in point: In 2011, the Texas Legislature tasked the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) with studying whether Waste Control Specialists, the company that owns the dump in Andrews County, could cover potential liabilities and decommissioning costs.

It’s an important question because although the dump’s profits flow to its owner, Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, the state and federal governments will eventually own the dump and its millions of cubic feet of radioactive waste. In other words, the taxpayers could be on the hook for a lot of dough. What’s to guarantee that Waste Control won’t take the profits and run? What if the dump leaks? What if the company goes belly-up? That’s where, in theory, financial assurance comes in. Typically, high-risk facilities like those for hazardous and radioactive waste are secured with a bond, letter of credit or insurance. But in November 2011, TCEQ allowed Waste Control to use 12 million shares of Titanium Metals Corp., another Simmons company, to provide financial assurance for the dump.

It was a highly unorthodox arrangement that critics panned as a “polluters’ dream.” Titanium Metals’ stock plummeted not long after the deal was sealed. (Eventually, in November, another company purchased Titanium Metals for $2.9 billion. Simmons now uses 9.8 million shares of Kronos, another of his companies, to secure the dump.)

According to a 30-page draft of a legislative report obtained by the Observer, TCEQ staff expressed concern that the stock arrangement was risky and the state had underestimated its liabilities. While it concluded that “the financial assurance is adequate,” the study highlighted numerous “deficiencies.” But higher-ups at TCEQ apparently weren’t thrilled with the draft. The final version of the report that lawmakers received in November was half as long and stripped of almost all criticism.

“What we have is this suppression of anything that would harm Simmons,” said Public Citizen’s Tom “Smitty” Smith, who reviewed the document. “It’s becoming kind of a chronic problem, this ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.’”

In the draft, the TCEQ staff wrote that the agency had failed to properly account for expensive “unplanned events”—accidents or contamination—that could occur after the state takes over the dump.

“The cost for the remediation of soil or groundwater that may be contaminated should the liner fail was not included,” the report states. If that happened, radioactive waste would have to be dug up and hauled off to another facility. “Such an event would be a costly endeavor,” the report states.

Several state geologists and engineers quit the TCEQ a few years ago when their warnings that the dump would likely leak radioactive waste into the groundwater went unheeded. The company had also made changes to the facility, including building ponds and a wastewater treatment plant, that hadn’t been considered and “made the amount of financial assurance out of date,” the draft noted.

It also recommended that potential problems be addressed in an annual re-evaluation. The version sent to lawmakers, however, stated flatly that “these scenarios were all evaluated and proper financial assurance posted to address the issues.”

Little seems to have changed since the report’s issuance. TCEQ has made only modest adjustments to the required financial assurance, from $136.5 million to $143 million. Smith said his group has estimated clean-up costs at Waste Control’s Andrews site at $750 million on the low end and as high as $5 billion.


Updated July 9, 2013
: Waste Control Specialists provided a long written response following publication of the article. I am including the entirety of the letter. I am taking Lindquist up on his offer to visit the site, an opportunity that the company has turned down in the past.

July 9, 2013

Dear Forrest:

In reference to your July 3, 2013 article, Problems With a West Texas Radioactive Waste Dump Get Buried, I want to thank you for your continuing coverage of our facility. In this day and age of rapid media turnover, you have been one of the few constants. But I would have hoped by now that we would have been able to convince you, as we have with many of your constituents, that our business is the safest environmental alternative for this type of waste available to Texas.

We move low-level radioactive waste that is currently being stored in city centers and at other undesirable locations around Texas and the U.S. to a location in far west Texas that is ideal for its disposal. The Texas legislature understands that our business is environmentally sound. SB 791 which expanded the use of our landfill passed 131 – 10 in the House, with over 70% of the Democrats voting for it. This has become a bi-partisan issue and I hope you will include that fact in any future writings about WCS.

Before I get into specific comments regarding some inaccuracies in your article, I would like to invite you to tour our facility in Andrews County. The site has been transformed in the last two years now that construction is complete and we would be honored to have you come out and take a look. You might even want to invite Tom “Smitty” Smith to come along. Please contact Chuck McDonald if you would like to arrange a visit. 

Let me first dispense with the utter fantasy that there could be a potential leakage of waste into the groundwater. As we both know, this has been a continuing item of discussion for you and others. In terms of the waste, it is important to realize that no liquid can go into the landfill. Any liquid that arrives at WCS for disposal must first be processed and made into a solid waste form by using, most often, cement or fly ash. As a result, we dispose of a solid block of waste. This waste is most often contained in a transportation container, which is then placed in a concrete canister that is 6 inches thick and is made of wire mesh/rebar and weighs about 60,000 pounds.

The open spaces in the concrete canister are then grouted for stability. This is what gets buried in the Texas landfill. So as you can see, there is nothing to leak.

As for the landfill itself, it was specifically located in an area of far west Texas that contains more than 600 feet of red bed clay. However, the term “clay” really doesn’t do justice. For construction, we had to dynamite the landfill to dig it out. The chemical make-up of the “clay” is such that it has the same permeability to water as concrete. In addition, for redundancy, we have a seven foot liner system above the 600 feet of clay made up of concrete, compacted clay, geosynthtic liners, sand and crushed caliche.

In terms of any “water” being located under the site, there is no potable water located under the landfill. The Ogallala has been conclusively shown to be blocked by the red bed clays coming to the surface several miles down gradient from our site. With water being unable to travel uphill, the Ogallala cannot be contaminated by any waste buried at our site. In addition, contamination of any non-potable water source more than 600 feet below surface is not possible because of the impermeability of the red clays combined with the composition of the waste being disposed.

And how do we know that the closest non-potable water source under the landfill is more than 600 feet underground? Because we’ve drilled more than 600 wells across the site just to be sure.

This is the most geologically studied below surface landfill in history. Come visit the site. Your eyes, burning in the west Texas sun and filling with the dust from the red bed clay, won’t lie.

The roughly $140 million of financial assurance was initially calculated based on the assumptions contained in the license application which is almost 10 years old. The actual license issued by TCEQ was different than our application and included certain restrictions that changed what we ended up constructing. As a result, our landfill acreage and disposal capacity was significantly reduced in the license, yet the financial assurance computation was never corrected.

As a result of these license changes and other enhancement initiated by WCS, the financial assurance amount should be significantly less than $140 million. However, WCS has currently agreed to put the full amount of the incorrectly calculated $140 million into escrow.

In fact, we have more than $180 million of value sitting with TCEQ as of today to cover the financial assurance obligation. About $30 million of the obligation is in cash and $150 million is in marketable securities. The cash amount will build to $65 million by 2018 at which time the entire financial assurance obligation will be funded with cash, bond or insurance. The $30 million in cash today is more than enough to cover any potential liabilities for waste that has already been disposed and the same will be true for the $65 million in 2018. This pay-as-you-go methodology is the same that South Carolina used for funding the financial assurance obligation for its site in Barnwell.

A couple of other things you missed in your article. It is important to remember that the state collects a 25% gross revenue fee from WCS for imported commercial waste coming to the site.

That amounts to about $15 million per year or almost $200 million during the remaining 13-year license period. Recent legislation allocates a portion of this fee to a perpetual care account that could be used for the potential events listed in your article. However, we firmly believe that none of the funds in the perpetual care fund will be needed because the purported events will not occur and WCS has posted sufficient financial assurance.

Finally, having Smitty estimate the potential clean-up costs for our facility in the event of a seismic meltdown is like me giving up chicken fried steak – it isn’t going to happen and it’s not worth trying.

 I sincerely hope you will take me up on my offer to tour our Andrews facility.

 Sincerely,

 Bill Lindquist, CEO

Tx Rally, July 1, 2013.
Jen Reel

On Monday, Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) warned that he would end testimony on House Bill 2, the sweeping anti-abortion bill, at midnight tonight no matter how many people wanted to testify. He said the House Committee on State Affairs might vote on the bill. And that’s exactly what happened.

Shortly after midnight, Cook put the bill to a vote and it passed on a 8-3 vote. More than 1,000 people who had signed up to speak were cut off. Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) was left sputtering that he had amendments he wanted to propose to the committee. “You know you’re wrong,” he said to Cook. But the Republican plan for this second special has been obvious: Use their large majorities in the House and the Senate to muscle the bill through and avoid another star-making moment like the Wendy Davis filibuster.

Tonight’s hearing was theater. The author of HB 2, Republican Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, studiously stuck to her script, reading from prepared remarks or responding to questions from Democrats on the committee with terse responses focused on “the health and safety of the woman.” There wasn’t going to be any “rape kits” goof tonight.

Testimony on the bill ranged from the heart-breakingly personal to the completely bizarre. (One man said he knew of a woman’s get-rich-quick scheme whereby she would encourage high school girls to get pregnant and then provide them with abortions. Her goal was to make $1 million at a rate of $25 profit per abortion. Another man, in favor of HB 2, established his bona fides by telling the committee that he was a “professional juggler” and “sidewalk angel.” Yet another man complained that his sister getting an abortion deprived him of the chance to be an uncle.)

Meanwhile, anti-abortion activists and some Republican lawmakers worried that Satan had gotten personally involved in the debate.

All in all, though, it was a pretty tame and carefully stage-managed night considering the high drama of the past week. That’s almost certainly a win for the Republicans, who would like to pass House Bill 2 with as little drama as possible.

Up next: HB 2 goes to the full House for a vote.

voting sign

Updated 6/26/2013 at 2:45pm: A federal lawsuit filed today in Corpus Christi contends that Texas’ voter ID law is discriminatory and that Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott can’t put the law into effect. The legal challenge comes the day after the Supreme Court decision gutting the part of the Voting Rights Act that forces states with a history of discrimination at the polls to seek “pre-clearance” before making changes to voting laws. Almost immediately after the decision dropped yesterday, Abbott tweeted that Texas’ voter ID law “should go into effect immediately.”

The lawsuit filed today, however, argues that Abbott is jumping the gun. A three-judge panel in Washington, D.C. ruled last year that Texas’ voter ID requirements were “strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor” and would depress minority turnout. “At this time, the injunction issued by the D.C. court preventing the implementation
of SB 14 remains in effect,” the lawsuit argues.

The plaintiffs—minority voters and Democratic elected officials—contend that by trying to implement voter ID, the state of Texas is committing “additional acts of intentional discrimination.”

With Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act neutered, the plaintiffs are relying in part on Section 2 of the Act, which broadly prohibits discrimination against minority voters.

Original story: This morning, the Supreme Court gutted a key part of the Voting Rights Act, the transformative 1965 law that swept away literacy tests, poll taxes and established protections for minority voters. The fallout in Texas is likely to be significant. Here’s our explainer.

What did the Court decide?

In a 5-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the majority ruled that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional. Section 4 establishes formulas for which parts of the United States are subject to certain Department of Justice oversight because of a history of discrimination at the polls. Nine states, including Texas, are covered. The Supreme Court decision did not directly strike down Section 5—which forces those states seek “pre clearance” from the Justice Department to any changes in election procedures—but eliminating Section 4 makes Section 5 toothless. The majority told Congress that it needed to rewrite the Section 4 formulas based on current data. It is unlikely that Congress will take up this cause anytime soon.

The High Court left in place Section 2, which imposes a nationwide ban on discriminatory voting practices.

Wait, why won’t Congress bring Section 4 up to date if the Supreme Court thinks that is what’s needed?

Have you watched Congress lately?

Fine, what are Texans saying about the decision?

Republicans, especially Attorney General Greg Abbott, a zealous proponent of voter ID laws, are ecstatic.

Rick Perry: “Today’s ruling by the United States Supreme Court is a clear victory for federalism and the states. Texas may now implement the will of the people without being subject to outdated and unnecessary oversight and the overreach of federal power.”

Democrats and civil rights leaders were generally dismayed at the ruling but promised to fight on.

“It is an outrageous and nonsensical ruling,“ said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who is African American. “I don’t know what America those five Supreme Court justices are living in to be able to pretend that deliberate and blatant attempts to disenfranchise people of color at the ballot box do not exist. This is Plessy v. Ferguson for the 21st century and will go down in history as one of the most wrong-headed and out-of-line decisions of the modern era.”

What impact does the Supreme Court ruling have on Texas?

It’s huge. Eliminating pre-clearance required by the Voting Rights Act means that GOP-run Texas no longer has to get permission *before* it puts into place potentially discriminatory laws. Texas will still be subject to federal oversight and judicial review, but it no longer needs to ask for permission, just forgiveness after the fact.

Huh, in what ways?

Voter ID: The voter ID law passed by the Texas Legislature in 2011 can immediately go into effect. The law requires voters to present a government-approved ID at the polls in order to cast a ballot. Despite virtually no evidence of voter fraud, Republicans made voter ID a top priority, arguing that it was needed to protect elections. Democrats and civil rights group accused the GOP of trying to depress minority turnout in a cynical bid to hold onto power. In August, a three-judge panel found that Texas’ voter ID law was discriminatory under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. “Simply put, many Hispanics and African Americans who voted in the last election will, because of the burdens imposed by SB 14, likely be unable to vote in the next election,” the panel wrote.

With Texas now liberated from Section 5, the state is free to implement its voter ID law immediately. It may take some time to stand up the new system but it’s possible that, because of today’s ruling, voters will have to present ID at the polls in November when Texans will be faced with at least one major constitutional question—whether to fund the state’s $2 billion water fund.

However, litigation is likely to continue. Buck Wood, a veteran election law attorney in Austin who mostly represents Democrats, said a lawsuit will be filed tomorrow in Houston based on Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. But Michael Li, a Dallas attorney who runs the site txredistricting.org/, said the “bar is pretty high” for securing an injunction blocking Texas’ voter ID law. Section 2 cases, Wood said, “have been successful but they’re expensive and take years.”

Redistricting maps: Last year, a panel of federal judges found the legislative maps drawn up by the GOP-controlled Texas Legislature in 2011 were intentionally discriminatory under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. That ruling devastated Republican plans to draw themselves safe districts and confirmed suspicions that Texas Republicans were targeting black and Hispanic voters.

A San Antonio court drew “interim maps” for the 2012 general election, which saved some Democrats like state Sen. Wendy Davis from running in much redder districts. During the current special session, the Legislature made just a few tweaks to interim maps and sent the plan to Gov. Perry. It’s now up to Perry to decide whether to accept the interim maps or go back to the plan originally passed by the Legislature two years ago that the courts struck down. Greg Abbott, who has proven to be one of the most aggressively partisan statewide officials, seems to be pushing for the latter

Soon after the Supreme Court decision, Abbott stated, “Redistricting maps passed by the Legislature may also take effect without approval from the federal government.”

But Abbott may be getting ahead of himself on that one. Voting rights experts say it may not be that easy. For one, the federal appeals court’s finding of intentional discrimination may open the door to legal challenges. The San Antonio district court still has oversight under other parts of the Voting Rights Act and could reject changes that conflict with Section 2′s prohibition on discrimination.

“I think a lot of ways you get to the same result with Section 2,” says Li. “It’s like taking the scenic route to the same place.”

From a long-term perspective, removing pre-clearance is a major change. Before, Li points out, it was much less likely that an election would be held with “bad” maps. Now, if you don’t like a map, you’ll have wait to till after an election—once the damage is done—to challenge districts that run afoul of voting rights.

What else?

With Section 5 gone, the door is now open to all sorts of small and large changes to how states run their elections. “Just look at the ones [state legislatures] did in 2011 and ’12,” said Buck Wood. “They shortened the absentee voting period, they did away with same-day registration at the polls. There were a whole series of bills that were passed over the past three years aimed at reducing minority participation. Anything Republicans can do to make it harder to vote and allow white guys to maintain their position, they’re gonna try.”

Li said some of the most draconian change can be expected at the local level—school boards, city council and county commissioners courts. In a number of instances, the Justice Department has stepped in to block maps that diluted Hispanic and black voting power. In Texas, the DOJ has intervened in elections in Nueces County, Galveston County and the Beaumont ISD. But no more.

What’s the upshot of all this?

Texas politicians will have a lot more freedom to change the way people vote. Challenging discrimination at the polls in Texas is still possible, it’s just a lot harder now.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst
Patrick Michels
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst

Update at 7:52 PM: For some reason, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst brought everyone back for a second vote on suspending the rules to take up SB 5. The motion failed 19-10. It is expected that SB 5 will be taken up tomorrow when the rule requiring a bill to lay out for 24 hours will have been met. A simple majority could pass the legislation. However, it is expected that Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) will mount a filibuster that could last up to 13 hours.

Original story: Although the live video feed for the Texas Senate showed little apparent action on the floor today, the behind-the-scenes machinations over harsh anti-abortion legislation have been intense. The key question was whether Senate Bill 5, which would ban abortions after 20 weeks and impose strict measures that could close all but five of the state’s abortion facilities, would clear a procedural vote that requires a two-thirds majority. The session ends tomorrow at 11:59 p.m. But Republicans wanted to vote today in order to avoid a filibuster tomorrow that would last no more than 13 hours. So far, they’ve failed and SB 5 is in jeopardy.

Things changed minute to minute as the upper chamber raced against the clock.

The drama culminated with a late afternoon vote split on party lines, 19-11, one vote shy of what the GOP needed to advance the legislation.

The Senate will return at 7 p.m., the same hour that a rosary is scheduled for Sen. Leticia Van de Putte’s father. Democrats predicted that the bill will be taken up tomorrow when a simple majority is required. Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) has promised to filibuster SB 5, which would force Gov. Rick Perry to decide whether to call another special session. (Many fashionistas noticed that she was wearing pumps, not her omnipresent high heels today.)

The bill’s failure—although there were no bizarre comments about rape kits—was an embarrassment for Dewhurst. Finger-pointing commenced right away. Lt. Gov. Dewhurst blamed the House for failing to get a bill over in time to avoid a filibuster, though he hastened to add, “I’m not playing the blame game at all.”

Sen. Dan Patrick, the Houston tea partier, could barely contain his disgust with the leadership. A Republican governor, a Republican Lt. Gov, large GOP majorities in both the House and Senate—how could these pro-life bills come down to the wire? “It’s clear,” he said, that we’re “flying a little bit by the seat of our pants.”

Asked if he though Perry should’ve added abortion to the special session agenda earlier, he said, “I’m not going to second-guess the governor.”

The sense of a rudderless state government was evident—almost comically so—from the get-go. Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) was off somewhere and it was rumored that Dewhurst had dispatched a plane to pick him up. (In fact, Eltife took a charter plane to Austin from an undisclosed location; he looked suspiciously tan.)

Meanwhile, Sen. Van de Putte, a San Antonio Democrat, was absent due to her father’s death, forcing Dewhurst to decide whether to march ahead while Van de Putte grieved. Initially, it seemed that if he went that unseemly route, SB 5 would have the votes to pass. However, Sen. Eddie Lucio, a Valley Democrat who is staunchly anti-abortion, announced later that he wouldn’t vote with the Republicans until Van de Putte was back in the Senate.

This is your democracy, folks. Tune back in at 7 p.m. for more.

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There’s undoubtedly something romantic about driving a taxi: working your own hours in your own way, cruising the city streets instead of being anchored to a desk, picking up total strangers and never knowing where you might take them. And then there’s the economic reality. In Austin, cab drivers earn, on average, just $2.75 an hour after deductions for insurance, taxes and paying one of the city’s three cab companies for the privilege of driving their cars. Austin cabbies have brutally long hours—many work 12- to 14-hour shifts, seven days a week, 50-plus weeks a year—and as independent contractors, they have little job security, no unemployment benefits and no employer-provided retirement or health insurance.

For the three taxi franchises in Austin—Austin Cab, Lone Star Cab and Yellow Cab—the economics are much sweeter. The city has granted the three companies a total of 744 permits. In turn, they pay the city $400 a year per taxi. The companies then lease the permits to the drivers for $250 to $295 a week, or between $13,000 and $15,340 a year (a 3,000-percent markup). For Yellow Cab, which controls more than 60 percent of the market, that works out to nearly $6.8 million a year in revenue from permits alone.

“And nobody sees the discrepancy between those numbers?” asks David Passmore, president of the Taxi Drivers Association of Austin. “We’ve been going to City Council for years saying these things and they say, ‘We hear you.’ But they always vote in favor of the franchise.”

Passmore has been driving for Yellow Cab for five years. He likes the flexibility of the work but thinks the city has allowed the drivers to be exploited.

“I’m struggling right now, man,” he said. “It’s that uncertainty you have to work with each day—each day we start off in the negative.”

That’s where the Taxi Drivers Association of Austin comes in. Formed in 2009, the association is a formal vehicle for representing drivers’ interests. In late April, the association went one step further and formally affiliated with the AFL-CIO, making Austin the third city in the U.S. to see its taxi drivers unionize. But the catch is that with a membership of independent contractors, the association isn’t covered by most U.S. labor laws. Still, Passmore said, the affiliation is an important step in securing better pay, improved conditions and bargaining power.

“I do believe that it will give us some leverage,” he said. “It will better our position, speaking with one voice rather than being individual drivers.”

For the AFL-CIO, the affiliation represents a new tack in labor organizing. “How many workers are filing for union recognition and bargaining for a first contract?” asked Aaron Chappell, an Austin-based labor organizer with the AFL-CIO. The traditional methods of growing new unions are “broken,” he said. “People are going to use nontraditional means to make economic gains.”

The taxi drivers plan to ask City Council to cap the fees that cab companies charge their drivers, create a fairer insurance system that doesn’t leave drivers in the hole after an accident, and impose anti-retaliation clauses to protect union members from being punished or fired for their activities.


Rick Perry
Patrick Michels
Rick Perry.

Here we are in 2013, and public opinion is rapidly shifting in favor of gay rights. More states and more Americans, especially young people, are endorsing marriage equality. Unvarnished homophobia is becoming taboo. But Rick Perry is still at it.

In early May, the Texas governor participated in a webcast to promote his opposition to lifting the Boy Scouts’ ban on gays. In the video, Perry said lifting the ban would allow “pop culture” to “tear up” tradition for “the flavor of the month.” He compared (his own?) opposition to gay rights to Sam Houston’s resistance to Texas joining the Confederacy. This isn’t the first time Perry has engaged in a round of gay-bashing.

In 2005, Perry signed a state constitutional amendment restricting marriage to one man and one woman. He chose as the bill-signing venue a conservative church school in Fort Worth. Rod Parsley, a pastor from Ohio, spoke at the signing, calling gay sex “a veritable breeding ground of disease.” Later, when asked about gay Iraq War veterans, Perry suggested they move to “some other state that has a more lenient view than Texas.” In his bizarre 2008 book on the Boy Scouts, Perry compared homosexuality to alcoholism and begged for tolerance … for those who are “proponents of traditional values.” And during the presidential campaign, he complained in a widely mocked TV ad that “gays can serve openly in the military, but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas.”

Perry, like a lot of politically conservative Christians, would like us to believe that his views are all about loving the sinner and hating the sin. But being gay is no sin, and hating the way someone is can be destructive, as I saw growing up.

When I was in high school in a small Texas town, a close friend of mine—one of the most intelligent and charismatic people I’ve ever known, a person I’ll call “John”—came out. To his friends, it was like discovering that the sky was blue. We knew. But for his family and many in the evangelical church he and I attended, it was a scandal. Gay men, our church taught, are weak, mentally diseased, feminized, hedonistic and materialistic—the very opposite of the masculine Jesus that we had all had a “personal relationship” with.

Homosexuality was a special sin, a mental disorder that required more than just repentance; it necessitated conversion. To this day, the church offers gay-to-straight counseling, a thoroughly discredited and destructive practice that has been condemned by the American Psychiatric Association. The church leadership teaches that same-sex attraction for men—lesbians are conspicuously absent—arises from the lack of a strong male father figure and the overbearing presence of mothers during childhood.

“We were disconnected from other boys and were often called upon to provide emotional support to our mothers,” reads a pamphlet advertising group same-sex therapy sessions.  “Many of us lived in shame and secrecy always fearful that others would discover our pain. We were trapped in a seemingly hopeless state.”

These are the poisonous waters in which John and his parents—all of us in the church—swam. The “counseling” the church offered, you’ll be shocked to learn, didn’t scare John straight, but it did poison his faith, poison his relationship with his dad and drive him to the destructive habits that “conversion” was supposed to fix. I can’t imagine what it was like for John. Even at a comfortable emotional distance, I found the church’s efforts revolting.

When we were in college, John’s dad—let’s call him Mike—was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He was dead within a year, still struggling to make peace with his son. At Mike’s funeral service, one of the pastors of the church gave the eulogy. First, the pastor praised at length the relationship Mike had with John’s younger (straight) brother: sports, fishing, Christian missionary work—the model (straight) son. “And then there was [John],” he said chuckling and smiling along with the audience. “[John] and [Mike] didn’t see eye to eye. [John] was a little different.”

Here was this crisply dressed, well-respected worship leader—someone I’d once admired—smearing a grieving son at his father’s funeral. The pastor’s hurtful words, the knowing chuckles in the church that day, are seared into my memory. I think about them often. I think about them every time the governor of Texas says that non-straight Texans are undeserving of equal treatment.

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