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Forrest for the Trees

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announces his run for governor in San Antonio, July 14, 2013.

On Monday, Greg Abbott, who has been very light on the policy proposals so far, finally unveiled some Big Ideas at a campaign stop in Brownsville. In a sign that Abbott, like Rick Perry, is willing to borrow budgeting ideas from the libertarian fringe, he proposed a suite of changes to the fundamentals of state budgeting that would effectively put Texas in a permanent state of austerity and dramatically expand the governor’s budgeting authority. None of the ideas is new, exactly—and few, I think, have a chance of going anywhere.

Texas Monthly‘s Paul Burka, in blasting the proposal, probably spoke for a lot of people who were hoping Abbott would back away from some of Perry’s excesses: “The only solace one can take in Abbott’s vision for the future of the state is that it resolves the question of whether he would be better or worse than Rick Perry. Astonishing as it may seem, I think he is worse than Perry.”

Let that sink in: Worse than Perry.

Billed as “A Working Plan for Texans,” Abbott’s proposal is basically a list of proposed constitutional amendments he’d like the Legislature to put before voters. So, the Legislature would have to willingly give away some of its power and then voters would have to be convinced to sign off. That’s a long shot, at least where things stand now.

One of his amendments to the state constitution would link state spending to population growth and inflation. Currently, the Texas Constitution ties spending to personal income, a more generous limit because the state’s economy tends to grow faster than population plus inflation.

Another would impose restrictions on the use of the state’s Rainy Day Fund, a multi-billion-dollar fund that’s become the object of a perpetual legislative tug-of-war.

Abbott would also like to grant himself more power to line-item veto budgetary items. In addition, he would end so-called budgetary diversions—the practice of collecting taxes or fees intended for a specific purpose—e.g. the tax on sporting goods that’s supposed to pay for parks and wildlife—but instead holding the money in order to balance the budget. It’s the sort-of green-eye-shade alchemy that drives both left and right nuts, but could, under the strictures of the Abbott plan, lead to deep cuts to core services (read: public schools and health and human services).

The idea of tying spending to inflation and population growth is not a new one. It’s been popular among elements of the right for years. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, uber-activist Michael Quinn Sullivan and even Perry have flogged the proposal for years. But it’s never gone anywhere for two main reasons—one, there is little appetite in the Texas Legislature for tying their own hands; two, it’s a bad idea.

Texas is already a (relatively) low tax, minimal services, small government state. Indeed, as Nate Blakeslee pointed out in a January Texas Monthly profile of Sullivan, state spending as a share of both the state’s gross domestic product and personal income has been trending downward for two decades. For personal income, which is what the Comptroller uses to set a spending limit, the share of spending has decreased from around 5.2 percent in the early ’90s to just over 4 percent today. Even using the population-plus-inflation spending limit, Texas’ budget has stayed under that limit for the last decade, according to an analysis by the Legislative Budget Board.

In other words, there’s just not a spending problem in Texas. Which is not the same thing as saying there’s an inequity problem when it comes to how revenues are collected (not having a state income tax, for example, means the poor and middle class take it on the nose with regressive sales and property taxes).

Still, tying the state’s budget to inflation and population growth could further constrain state government. You could pretty much forget about ever investing more in public schools, higher education or infrastructure, at least during non-flush times.

In April, the Legislative Budget Board crunched the numbers. The growth in personal income used to set the spending cap for 2014-2015 was 10.71 percent. In other words, the state could spend almost 11 percent more than it had the previous biennium. Using population growth plus inflation instead would limit spending growth to 6.82 percent. That would mean $2.7 billion less for state leaders to work with. That’s not a huge number given that the 2014-2015 state budget includes $95 billion in general revenue. But lowering the spending limit now would have a compounding effect over time.

That’s probably the point—force future generations to subscribe to the current model of low-ish taxes and minimal services. Abbott more or less admitted as much during a press confab after his Brownsville speech.

“By imposing these standards by constitutional provision it means that for generations there will be limits in the growth of spending in this state,” he said, according to the Associated Press.

However, the Legislature has shown little appetite for any of the proposals Abbott is touting. A bill tying the spending limit to population-plus-inflation is filed every session… and goes nowhere.

“I think that even the conservative Legislature of the past few cycles has come face-to-face with the reality that they need to spend money on our physical infrastructure and our human infrastructure too,” said Dick Lavine, with the liberal Center for Public Policy Priorities. “They understand that we’re scraping along the bottom as it is.”

Republican Party of Texas convention in Fort Worth, Tex.
Patrick Michels
Ted Cruz

Unless you have a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag in front of your home, you’ve probably never heard of Toby Marie Walker, president of the Waco Tea Party. But you can bet Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and lots of other top Texas Republicans have her number on speed dial.

A prominent conservative activist since 2009, Walker is part of a constellation of tea party leaders and groups around the state who are the real constituents of Texas Republicans. They have the ears of the politicians, not the business community or newspaper editorial boards or the other hoary “opinion leaders” who wield less influence than ever. They are the enforcers and counselors, the intermediaries between “The Base”—the rump of the GOP that runs this state by selecting candidates in the GOP primary—and the elected officials. They are the agents of radicalization. When people from outside the state marvel at Ted Cruz’s intransigence in the face of collapsing poll numbers and revulsion by his colleagues, just keep in mind that he is toasted as a hero by activists like Walker. And those polls are lies anyway.

“Do you really trust anything the polls have to say?” Walker asked on her radio show recently. “Polls can be so skewed.”

Even if you believe the polls that have found the Republican brand in deep trouble, it doesn’t matter for the moment. People like Walker are controlling the debate in Texas, and it’s her opinion that matters.

It was on Walker’s radio show that Dewhurst first claimed to have seen DPS troopers smelling bottles filled with urine and “bags” of feces at Capitol security checkpoints in July. It is on Walker’s radio show that he rehearses (and often butchers) his new tea party-approved lines. Texas, he said in October, would turn blue “over my dead, cold blood—cold body.”

When Dewhurst—poor Dewhurst—starts babbling about Benghazi and impeaching Obama, as he did in October to the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party, you can be assured that he’s hoping to get in the good graces of Toby Marie Walker, or Dallas-Fort Worth’s Alice Linahan, one of the prime movers behind the bizarre CSCOPE non-troversy. (Linahan, by the way, recently encouraged her Facebook and Twitter fans to “re-educate” me. One of my apparent crimes: writing about an email that Texas Attorney General candidate Barry Smitherman sent to his daughter’s school teacher in which he complained about a tolerance lesson put out by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Smitherman’s wife, Marijane, mentioned the email during a radio program hosted by Linahan. The Southern Poverty Law Center, Smitherman wrote, was unfairly labeling groups like Crusaders For Yahweh, a neo-Nazi organization, as a “hate” group.)

The troubling thing is that the pandering pays off. After his impeachment proclamation in Tarrant County, Dewhurst was roundly ridiculed and practically ran away from a TV camera crew the next day. But he notably picked up an endorsement from the Eagle Forum’s Cathie Adams, who, at the same event in which Dewhurst endorsed impeachment, gave a rambling, paranoid lecture on the Muslim Brotherhood in which she accused both CIA Director John Brennan and hardcore anti-tax veteran Grover Norquist of being crypto-Muslims.

Dewhurst is in the tragicomic phase of his bumbling lurch to the far right (the Houston Chronicle called it “painful to watch”). Ever since his humiliating defeat by Cruz in last year’s U.S. Senate primary, the lite guv has been appearing in front of more small groups of cranky white-haired folks than the bingo caller down at the local nursing home.

“You’re listening,” Walker told him on her show in October. Dewhurst replied that he’d been talking to small conservative clubs for years, but now, he said, “Maybe I’m listening harder.”

To the voices in his head? No, worse: to the voices in other people’s heads.

Dewhurst is easy to pick on because he’s so obviously faking it. But if Texas Republicans seem to have descended into madness, it’s only because they’ve succumbed to an extreme fringe that now owns the party and is driving public policy in this state. There are 26 million Texans who, in theory, are Dewhurst’s and Cruz’s constituents. But in reality, the only ones who matter belong to the tea party.

WTF Friday: To the Barrycades!

Tom DeLay is not saying there should be revolution in the streets, but if that's what it takes...
Tom DeLay's booking photo
Tom DeLay's booking photo

Well, folks, it’s time once again for WTF Friday. Because it’s Friday, thank goodness, and it’s time to laugh, cry or spit your coffee, beer or other beverage of choice at the computer screen in reaction to the outrageous things our dear political friends said this week. After the Cruzapalooza of the last month, not to mention the lieutenant governor’s plumbing of new lows in his spirited run to the right, things were somewhat quieter in our fair land this week.

Louie Gohmert even managed to have a picknick near Dallas and as far as we can tell didn’t say anything quite up to the WTF standards of WTF Friday. Ted Cruz, meanwhile, was impugning Tex-Mex cuisine in cutesy interviews about what Ted likes. (No word on what his favorite color is, or what Sporting Team he most prefers.)

Sure, you had Alex Jones—with his dial set at 11, as usual—down at The Alamo this weekend hollering about “the globalists” and how there aren’t enough guns in blood-drenched Mexico, while hundreds of folks, including a few friendly neo-Nazis, carried loaded rifles and scaring the bejesus out of some Canadian tourists, dontchaknow?

But the week just wouldn’t have been nearly so WTF-y without a certain blast from the past shuffling back onto the national stage. Yep, it’s Hammer time again because Tom DeLay is back, baby. Tom DeLay—the nation’s only politician whose resumé includes pesticide sprayer, House majority leader, Dancing with the Stars punchline, convicted criminal and now… leader of the revolutionary vanguard! Speaking at a tea party event in Burleson Tuesday night, Tom DeLay urged the crowd to take to the Barrycades (get it?). Reported the Dallas Morning News:

“It’s time for a constitutional renewal, a constitutional revival,” DeLay said in Burleson, adding that this revival is inherently linked to a “spiritual awakening” he sees happening across the country. He said conservatives have allowed “the left to intimidate us, cut off our heads, put us in prison.”

“It’s time for a revolution,” DeLay said. “I am not advocating for revolution in the streets. But if that’s what it takes …

I’m not advocating that people just ignore Tom DeLay and maybe he’ll go away. But if that’s what it takes…

Speedy Roo, the mascot of the payday loan lender Speedy Cash, in an Austin advertisement.
Jen Reel
Speedy Roo, the mascot of the payday loan lender Speedy Cash, in an Austin advertisement.

Three months after an Observer investigation exposed how some payday loan companies aggressively pursue criminal charges against their customers, the state body that oversees the industry has issued an advisory telling companies to stop the practice.

State law prohibits payday lenders or debt collectors from “threaten[ing] or pursui[ing] criminal charges against a consumer,” except in limited cases. But, the Observer found at least 1,700 instances in which payday lenders pursued criminal complaints against customers who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay their payday loans. In some cases, people even ended up in jail.

To critics of the unregulated, booming payday loan market in Texas, the criminalization of borrowers—many of whom get trapped in a cycle of debt by rates that often exceed 500 percent—marked a new low in the industry’s tumultuous history.

In the advisory bulletin, the Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner warned payday loan companies that they run the risk of violating Texas laws, including the Texas Debt Collection Act. “For example, if a consumer postdates a check to pay for a payday loan, and that check later bounces, this is not sufficient evidence to show that the consumer committed criminal conduct.”

The bulletin also addresses another shady practice we uncovered: Prosecutors essentially functioning as debt collection services for payday lenders. Although on shaky legal ground, the threats of criminal prosecutions could prove lucrative for cash-strapped districts attorney and lenders alike. The Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner warns that a lender “should not use a district attorney’s hot-check division simply as a means for collecting on delinquent loans.”

Ann Baddour, a consumer advocate with Texas Appleseed, said the credit commissioner has been seeing an “uptick” in complaints related to debt-collection. “It seems that the uptick, in combination with [the Observer] article made them feel they needed to issue the advisory.”

It’s not clear how much impact a simple advisory will have. The credit commissioner has long maintained that the law is clear: Payday lenders can’t even threaten criminal charges, except in some limited circumstances that rarely occur. But the agency’s policing has been spotty. It has no oversight over prosecutors or courts and only catches bad actors when people complain or they find violations during infrequent examinations.

“It will be interesting to see if it actually changes any practices,” Baddour said. “It may change the filing of criminal cases, but I doubt it will change the many threats of criminal repercussions that we hear anecdotally from borrowers.”

"Line in the Sand" rally at The Alamo
"Line in the Sand" rally flyer

Out-of-state and foreign visitors to the Alamo are in for a write-home-about-it treat tomorrow: Hundreds, possibly thousands, of gun-toting activists are showing up for a “family friendly,” “open carry” rally and march dubbed “Line in the Sand.” Organizers are encouraging participants to bring loaded shotguns, rifles and other “long guns” (i.e. non-handguns) to protest what they deem “a illegal ordinance [sic]” that prohibits “carry[ing] a loaded rifle or shotgun on any public street within the city.”

Well, that’s one of the goals, at least. So many gun-rights groups and other interests have been roped into this event—from Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson to conspiracy broadcaster Alex Jones to the Oathkeepers to Michael Vanderboegh, who’s fond of brick-throwing—that it’s morphed into a free-form gunapalooza, with militia overtones. During his show yesterday, Alex Jones called it “the real God-given civil rights movement” and compared the San Antonio effort to Rosa Parks’ sitting at the front of the bus and “Gandhi marching to the sea.”

In a Facebook post today, the organizers wrote, “Our goal is Open Carry of Handguns and this event, will be used as a tipping point landmark example.”

Got that? Bring your loaded rifle to protest in favor of open carry of handguns.

Further complicating things, the organizers are clearly trying to tamp down on grumblings about the safety precautions, especially “voluntary chamber checks” to make sure a round isn’t in the chamber, ready to fire.

One man wrote that he would decline a “chamber flag”—basically a plastic straw stuck into the chamber to indicate that’s it’s empty. “As I understand it, this is supposed to be a line in the sand, not a city-regulated gun show,” the man wrote.

The organizers wrote on Facebook today that they “understand some of these requests may offend some, but please understand that a lot was put on the line for this event for many people.”

The San Antonio police chief has said that his officers won’t be enforcing the offending ordinance but the gun guys are still on high alert:

We should avoid individual movement at all costs. Travel in groups to The Alamo. We don’t want to open ourselves to be picked off one or two at a time. SAPD chief has said on record they will not be enforcing the 21-16 ordinance at this event…. We shall see but it’s best just to cover your rear.

If you’re at the Alamo tomorrow as a tourist, there’s no need to worry that you’re around a lot of paranoid, angry men carrying loaded weapons who might be in a militia.

This event is not a field training….. And showing up in multi-cams,LBVs [load-bearing vests],PCs does nothing more than reinforce the stereotype that we are pushing against….. If you want to dress up in full battle rattle, join a local militia group and attend the FTX’s [field training exercise]… We are Texas patriots at this event, not a standing army. Yelling terms like, “pigs” and “natzi” at police is counter productive to this event. We are trying to foster a positive relationship with law enforcement to prevent negative encounters…. Not encourage them.

We’ll have a reporter and a photographer at the event tomorrow. Stay tuned here.

Blake Farenthold
Patrick Michels
U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Corpus Christi)

When we started WTF Friday last week, I was worried that we might have trouble pulling together a collection of crazy, weird and funny quotes every week. Boy was I wrong. With the tea party threatening to blow up the world and election silly primary season well underway in Texas, we are knee-deep in the derp. Our team of news sleuths have searched high and low (mostly low) to bring you only the freshest and finest, locally-sourced artisanal quotes for your reading pleasure.

1) How Low Dew You Go?

“I don’t know about you, but Barack Obama ought to be impeached. Not only for trampling on our liberties, but what he did in Benghazi is just a crime.”
—Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst at a tea party event on Monday

2) My Bloody Mistake

“They’re trying… to turn this state blue. Over my dead, cold blood–cold body.”
—Dewhurst on Waco Tea Party Radio

This one’s actually from last week but it’s such a perfect combination of an inadvertently funny slip-up and an example of Dewhurst’s pandering, we had to include it.

3) These United States (minus New York, California, Connecticut and Massachusetts)

“I get lots of questions all the time, ‘Well, we should secede.’ I say, ‘No, I’ve got a better idea. Instead of succession I’m a proponent of expulsion. I want to kick about four states out of this union.”
—Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and candidate for lieutenant governor, arguing that there ought to just be 46 states in the Union

4) ‘If you don’t throw in your buck ‘o five/Who will?’

“I feel like my mandate when I was elected was to go reduce the size of government, lower taxes, and increase freedom, and freedom isn’t free, and sometimes you have to make a small sacrifice to move forward with what you’re after.”
Congressman Blake Farenthold (R-Corpus Christi) on his vote against the debt deal

We don’t know if Farenthold, he of the duckie pajamas, is a South Park fan or not but this one’s for you bud.

Sen. Dan Patrick
Patrick Michels
Sen. Dan Patrick delivers a passionate speech in favor of House Bill 2.

In Texas, we are blessed with wide open spaces, great food, friendly people and some of the craziest politicians to ever fall off the turnip truck. Laugh or cry, these guys and gals—especially our excitable tea party friends—say some pretty funny, weird and disturbing things, just about every day. Sometimes they’re speaking on the floor of the Legislature or Congress; sometimes they’re talking to a reporter; sometimes they’re caught on a “hot” mic or recorded by one of their staff or on a cop car camera.

Sometimes the remark is a classic “gaffe”; other times, they might just be speaking from the heart, God bless ‘em. Every Friday we will round up some of our favorite doozies, curveballs, gaffes, head scratchers, political glossolalia and goofball statements. Our only criteria is that the quote provokes a “WTF” reaction. TGI…WTF?

1) “What is the Fox formula? Beautiful women who wear skirts not behind a desk. I mean really…you know? They cross their legs very tightly and sit on a tall stool. That’s part of the presentation. And, uh, very conservative opinion makers and good guests. You know? That’s its 1, 2, 3. That’s how Roger Ailes built his empire.”
—State Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) speaking on his talk radio show this week

2) U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tyler) today, at the annual Value Voters Summit, referred to Sen. John McCain as “a guy who’s been to Syria and supported al-Qaeda and rebels.”

3) “That’s one of the reasons Japan didn’t attack us with ground forces, is because they saw all the guns here. And Chairman Mao, they asked him once, ‘how do you control the people?’ And he said, ‘take away all their guns.'”
—Jollyville chiropractor Mike VanDeWalle, Republican candidate in the House District 50 special election

sxsw eco logo
SXSW Eco

Now in its third year, South by Southwest Eco is part Aspen Ideas Festival, part grassroots movement-building and part corporate branding opportunity—all under the banner of environmentalism. You can feel the competing impulses. At SXSW Eco, there are grassroots activists still glowing from acts of civil disobedience brushing shoulders with brand experts and corporate sustainability officers.

Who owns environmentalism in 2013? Is it a tech entrepreneur with the Next Big Thing? The anti-fracking crusader on the frontlines of the shale play? Or Chipotle sponsoring a panel on sustainable meat and passing out cute packages of cilantro seeds extolling “family farmers” as the company’s “heroes”? Is it all of the above?

And hanging over all of this—increasingly so, with every passing year—is the specter of climate change and the persistent question of what to do, what to do, what to do. In the panels and get-togethers and coffee klatches and mentoring sessions, these currents all pull, sometimes in the same direction, sometimes at cross purposes. Nothing perhaps defined the cognitive dissonance of SXSW Eco than a keynote speech yesterday (“Peak Stuff, Baby Pigeons and the Heartbeat of Cats”) by Adam Werbach, the Sierra Club wunderkind-turned-corporate-consultant-turned-tech-entrepreneur.

In Werbach—whose last book was about teaching corporations how to embrace “sustainability”—it all came together.

While most 23-year-olds are just starting their careers, Werbach was the youngest president of the Sierra Club ever, the hand-picked successor of the legendary David Brower when he took over in 1997. When he left the Sierra Club, Werbach made a break with traditional environmentalism by setting up a corporate consultancy and avowing, in 2004, that he was no longer an environmentalist. Then, in 2005, he went full heretic by going to work for Wal-Mart, a company he had once impugned as “a new breed of toxin.” Fast Company gleefully put him on its cover with the triumphant headline, “He Sold His Soul to Wal-Mart.”

(During his keynote, Werbach appraised his 7-8 years at Wal-Mart as “kind of a mixed bag,” though he added that the company “has taken stigma away from sustainability.”)

From his San Francisco base, Werbach is now peddling yerdle, an app that facilitates the sharing of stuff. Need a shovel to dig a hole once a year? Don’t run off to Home Depot and buy one; get on yerdle and find someone in your network who can loan you one. Cut down on your stuff by 25 percent!

Like almost all of the speakers here, Werbach wasn’t too sunny about the prospects of fighting climate change at this moment of government dysfunction. “Pretty dire,” was the phrase he used. What to do?

“I think we have a baby pigeon problem,” Werbach said. No one ever sees baby pigeons because they stay in the nest until they are fully-formed. Only then do they come into the public spaces where we, humans, see them. So it is with people. We have ideas but they are still on the nest, awaiting their public showing. “That makes me pretty hopeful actually,” Werbach said.

When it comes to having too much stuff, Americans are having a “baby pigeon moment” because we have reached something called “peak stuff,” that moment when we decide we recognize we have the problem of too much.

It’s not an easy realization to come to, Werbach argues, because the human brain is wired for accumulation. Marketers and advertisers certainly know this. “The most powerful word in marketing is ‘new,’” Werbach said. It’s not better we seek, it’s new. The six-bladed razor, not the five-. The squagel.

Werbach said he was inspired to create yerdle after visiting the “savings circles” of Mumbai, India—neighborhood-based networks of families who help each other save and pool resources. From that seed, Werbach came up with yerdle, a kind-of Craigslist for sharers.

Which seems kinda cool and also completely inadequate to any of the staggering challenges Werbach acknowledged. And also wholly unnecessary and missing the point of those Mumbai social circles. How about getting to know your neighbors so you can borrow a damn shovel when you need it? Or living close to your family? Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some squab to go eat.

Barry Smitherman
Facebook.com
Barry Smitherman

Ever heard of Crusaders for Yahweh?

We hadn’t, either, but Barry Smitherman has and apparently he’s upset that the Southern Poverty Law Center has listed the Crusaders of Yahweh—and other “patriot, mormon and judeo-christian religious groups”—as hate groups.

We’re thinking Smitherman, chairman of the Railroad Commission and a GOP candidate for Texas Attorney General, didn’t Google Crusaders for Yahweh. We did and we found two websites apparently associated with the group that display white supremacist language and Nazi imagery.

Turns out Crusaders for Yahweh is a white supremacist organization founded by neo-Nazi Paul Mullet, who’s been in and out of prison and believes Obama is the anti-Christ. The group registered to lobby in Washington, D.C., last year, explaining on its application that it would lobby on “any activities that adversly afect [sic] the White Race.”

The group claims that its “cause is… the advancement and survival of our Racial People’s the true children of Israel [sic].”

(A message left with Smitherman’s campaign was not immediately returned.)

Here’s the backstory: Smitherman wrote an email last year to his daughter’s teacher complaining of “study material provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center” that was apparently used in conjunction with the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Smitherman wrote to the unnamed teacher that while he didn’t object to studying the book, he believed the SPLC “has a more radical view of racism, hate, and intolerance.”

“I identify myself as a Christian and find it intolerant for the SPLC to label me as intolerant,” wrote Smitherman. “Same with many of the patriot groups that have organized in Texas over the last several years. I personally know members of these groups and they are focused not on racism, but on balancing the federal budget and reducing or eliminating our $16 trillion national debt.”

The tea party group Voices Empower posted the text of the email on its Facebook page today.

“For example,” Smitherman wrote in his email, “the group ‘Crusaders for Yahweh’ is labeled by the SPLC to be a ‘Christian identity’ group and is placed on the SPLC’s ‘hate map. The same with the ‘Evangelical Latter Day Saints’ (mormons), the Jewish Defense League, which SPLC calls ‘anti-Arab’, and the Border Guardians, which is labeled by the SPLC as “anti-immigration.”

In an interview this morning with tea-party group Women on the Wall, Smitherman’s wife, Marijane, said the email worked. “I’m happy to report that at least in my daughter’s class the assignment was discontinued,” she said. “It’s a fight and it’s a war.”

Mark Potok, senior fellow at the SPLC, said Smitherman badly misunderstood the nature of the groups he was writing about.

“Mr. Smitherman needs to relearn how to read, maybe return for a comprehensive reading course,” Potok said. “The idea that criticizing a Christian Identity group is somehow calling him, as a Christian, intolerant is entirely ludicrous. Christian Identity believers believe the bible is the story of white people. … They think that the people who call themselves Jews today are preparing for the return of their biological father, Satan.”

The Jewish Defense League is a militant extremist organization linked to beatings, bombings and assassination attempts, including Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, in the name of repelling anti-Semitism. In 2001, the FBI classified the JDL as a “right-wing terrorist group.”

“JDL has something like a 30-year history of real-life terrorism,” said Potok.

In 2006, the founder of the Livingston, Texas-based Border Guardians, Laine Lawless, urged a leader in the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement to undertake a campaign of harassment and violence against undocumented immigrants. Lawless also continued to defend fellow border vigilante Shawna Forde after she was arrested for murdering an Arizona man and his 9-year-old daughter in Arizona.

Potok said there is no such group as the “Evangelical Latter Day Saints” and that Smitherman was likely thinking of the breakaway sect the “Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints” (FLDS), whose leader, Warren Jeffs, is serving a life sentence in Texas on two child sex assault convictions.

Full text of the email below (we’ve removed the name of Smitherman’s daughter):

Dear Ms.

This is Barry Smitherman, [name omitted]’s dad. I am presently helping [name omitted] with this project. While I’m incredibly supportive of reading and analyzing “To Kill a Mockingbird,” an American Classic set in the early part of the 20th century in the rural south, I’m troubled by the “Us and Them” study material provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). “To Kill a Mockingbird” not only shows us the tragedy of the Jim Crow south of 60 years ago, played out horribly in the conviction of Tom Robinson for a rape that he didn’t commit, the book also highlights the strength and integrity of Atticus Finch, some of the townspeople of Maycomb, and even apparently a few of the jury members who struggled with their verdict. At the conclusion of the book, Harper Lee has given us hope that the South is moving away from discrimination based upon skin color and toward judging a man (or woman), as Dr. King would say, “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center, however, has a more radical view of racism, hate, and intolerance. A quick review of their website shows that the SPLC considers many patriot, mormon, and judeo-christian religious groups across America, including some in Texas, to be hate groups. For example, the group “Crusaders for Yahweh” is labeled by the SPLC to be a “Christian identity” group and is placed on the SPLC’s national “hate map.” The same with the “Evangelical Latter Day Saints” (mormons), the Jewish Defense League, which SPLC calls “anti-Arab”, and the Border Guardians, which is labeled by the SPLC as “anti-immigration.” Equally disturbing, the SPLC calls out groups like “We the People”, “patriots”, The “Constitution Party,” and “oath keepers” as groups which subscribe to unfounded conspiracy theories and are “opposed to one world order”.

I identify myself as a Christian and find it intolerant for the SPLC to label me as intolerant. Same with many of the patriot groups that have organized in Texas over the last several years. I personally know members of these groups and they are focused not on racism, but on balancing the federal budget and reducing or eliminating our $16 trillion national debt.

Perhaps you are unaware of the tenants of the SPLC; I encourage you to research it thoroughly during this exercise and to explain to your students that SPLC, which allegedly fights intolerance, is itself often intolerant. Thanks for your consideration of this issue. Barry

TCEQ Chairman Bryan Shaw
TCEQ
TCEQ Chairman Bryan Shaw

The global scientific authority on climate change released its fifth global assessment this month, finding that human-induced warming of the planet is “unequivocal” and warning that unless “substantial and sustained” reductions in greenhouse gases occur we will cross dangerous temperature thresholds in the coming decades. Meanwhile, a Yale University poll found this month that Texans are not so different than the rest of the country when it comes to views on climate change. A solid majority (55 percent) even believe that the U.S. should cut emissions regardless of what the rest of the world does.

The climate panel at the Texas Tribune Festival yesterday, in contrast, might as well have taken place on some other planet—a planet where the laws of physics are suspended and the mere act of thinking makes things so. Invited to the panel, “The Fight Over Climate Change,” were three climate deniers and two people—a journalist and a scientist/environmentalist—who reflect mainstream views on the issue.

With U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) away in Washington voting to delay Obamacare, and inch the federal government toward a shutdown, that left the discussion evenly “balanced” between the “two sides.” On one side: Kathleen Hartnett White, former chairwoman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and energy analyst with the corporate-funded Texas Public Policy Foundation, and current TCEQ chairman Bryan Shaw. On the other: Ramon Alvarez of Environmental Defense Fund and David Sassoon, publisher of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Inside Climate News.

Moderator Kate Galbraith did her best to challenge Shaw and Hartnett White by pointing out the overwhelming scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change. And the audience generally responded to the duo with grumbling; one gentleman even loudly said “liar” while Shaw was speaking. But the two stuck to their potpourri of long-discredited talking points and red herrings: the models are flawed (Shaw); warming stopped 16 years ago (White); the IPCC—which produced the recent report—is politicized (Shaw), and the costs of doing something about climate change are too high (Shaw and White).

“Perhaps CO2 may not be the culprit,” said Shaw at one point. Carbon dioxide, he conceded, is a greenhouse gas. But, “we don’t know if additional CO2 is having the additional warming” effect.

Shaw also briefly pointed to the “recovery” of Arctic sea ice this summer as proof-positive that global warming, if it ever existed, has stopped.

During the question-and-answer session, an audience member pointed out that the extent of sea ice in the Arctic hit a record low last summer and this year it was the sixth lowest ever, well below the historical average. The suggestion was that Shaw’s point wasn’t really a point at all, but a flimsy, almost lazy, isolation of a single data point that, given just a bit more context, actually counters Shaw’s argument.

Extent of Arctic summer sea ice
National Snow and Ice Data Center
Extent of Arctic summer sea ice

Still, Shaw was unperturbed. “Glaciers, oceans and temperature—none have been doing what the models suggest.”

(For the record, the IPCC reported: “Over the last two decades, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass, glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide, and Arctic sea ice and Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover have continued to decrease in extent.”)

David Sassoon, the Inside Climate News publisher, looked a man who had gotten off at the wrong stop and found himself in Crazytown.

“Let’s not argue science,” said Sassoon to Shaw. “You’re not a climate scientist. … It’s silly for us to be arguing over science. That’s what’s been going on for 20 years and in that time a lot more could’ve been done to resolve differences and take action. Let’s not waste any more time on that.”

Texans believe climate change is happening and that government should take action. Yet, we’re almost evenly divided about whether there is agreement among scientists.

Yale climate poll of Texans
Yale University
Yale climate poll of Texans

I wonder why.

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