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Texas House of Representatives
The Texas House in session on April 4, 2013.


This has been a fairly demoralizing few weeks for even those with low expectations for state government. Events point to a significant way in which the polarization of Texas state government is making it more like its dread enemy, Congress.

In recent years across the political spectrum, in Texas and nationally, we’ve seen the time between the end of one election and the beginning of the next shorten—constant political agitation powered in part by the scrutiny brought by new media, and the increasing demand for ideological purity, have dissolved the distance between governing and campaigning.

The 84th Texas Legislature is best understood as one part of a never-ending, ouroboros-like primary. The 2014 election brought us statewide elected officials who don’t know how to stop campaigning: They’ve never been forced to do otherwise. That’s true up and down the statewide ticket, from Gov. Greg Abbott to Ag Commissioner Sid Miller, but it’s manifested itself particularly in the Legislature this year. As a result, and partially because of the role of a number of outside instigators, the political atmosphere around the Capitol this session has been less conducive to governing and more conducive to showmanship and brinksmanship.

Start with Abbott, who must rue the fact that the story of his Jade Helm 15 letter is now entering its third week, and seems to continue ricocheting around national and international media like a stray bullet. It is the most widely covered thing Abbott has done as governor, if not in his entire career as a public servant.

On one hand, some members of the media have made too much of Abbott’s letter. It has few, if any, practical negative consequences.

But the wording of the letter—and the failure of Abbott’s team to comprehend how it would read to outsiders—is small evidence that the governor’s office hasn’t fully adapted to governing. He amplified nutters when he easily could have ignored them. A major responsibility of the governor of any state, one would think, would be to avoid embarrassing his constituents. Are these mistakes because of inexperience, or because he fears a future primary challenge?

Whatever it is, there’s little room to credit him with good faith here: Abbott has a long history of these pontifications. He loves to position himself as the protector of the vulnerable and frightened. When international election observers came to the United States to observe the 2012 presidential election, he threatened them with arrest, cheering conservative groups and earning a similar kind of backlash as the Jade Helm letter. Three years later, he’s using the same playbook.

When it comes to governing, though, Abbott has been less sure of himself. He’s at least partially responsible for the logjam between the House and Senate, thanks to his failure to articulate his positions, a gap the lobby has been only too willing to fill. His failure to speak clearly isn’t about policy confusion—one assumes his team has a preference—but about an unwillingness to take political risks by alienating one chamber or another. But those moments are precisely what governing is about.

Then there’s Dan Patrick, Abbott’s 2014 classmate. One of his first acts with the gavel was to polarize the Senate by killing the two-thirds rule. No longer would Democrats have very much of a say in anything, a change they said would make the upper chamber more like D.C. Still, many of the biggest items on Patrick’s wish list are unattainable to him. Instead, Patrick has developed a novel style of governance, which one could describe as the Senate of Forms.

He pledged to deliver “next level” conservatism to the Lege, but his tenure as lite guv seems to have been consumed primarily by the promotion of bills and policies that are doomed to failure and were perhaps never really even intended to pass. Patrick spent the first two months of the session holding press conferences about his policy agenda, piling those on top of a mountain of promises he’d already made as a candidate, as if he were a newly elected president. It’s a strange way to run the Senate, one that seems tailored solely to help Patrick with his next primary.

Take the effort to repeal the Texas DREAM Act, which allows some of the state’s undocumented residents to pay in-state tuition at state colleges. This was one of the things that Patrick talked most about on the campaign trail: He vowed that its repeal would be one of his first, if not his first, acts. But it was dead from the very beginning of the session, mostly because of his fellow Republicans.

But the shadow puppetry Patrick requires to justify himself to his base demanded that his Senate allies drag the zombie bill through committee hearings. So state Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) terrified an uncountable number of people with the prospect that they, their friends or family, could one day soon no longer afford college. They came to Austin in great numbers to pour their hearts out to the Senate. They couldn’t know the bill was dead, a weird ploy in a long-running conservative shadow war.

When Patrick’s voucher bill, which we know now was also essentially dead from the start, was heard in committee, Patrick came down himself to testify for it—and take a selfie. This is not, traditionally, how the second-most powerful man in the state exercises his influence. It was a show, designed to demonstrate that he cared. People who know how to use power do not normally need to show their hand in this way.

But Patrick’s most important contribution this session has been a tax plan and associated budget gimmicks that make no sense and have almost no value. His proposed tax package gives little to taxpayers and hurts the state. When Patrick next runs for office, few voters will remember the small and temporary tax break he won them. The only importance it holds is that if it passes, Patrick can say that he cut property taxes, and if others oppose him in doing so, he can say that they kept property taxes high.

Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick
Kelsey Jukam
Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick at the State of the State Address.
In this, he’s fighting House Speaker Joe Straus and his allies. The campaign against Straus is one of the longest-running grudge matches in the state, and the lieutenant governor is its new champion. They don’t often talk about policy, and when they do, it doesn’t always go well. To be sure, Straus has found his own pugilists to return fire, state Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) chief among them. But if the two chambers fail to come to an agreement on important issues in the coming weeks, remember that it’s not about policy. It’s the campaign. And if they do come to an agreement, it will be an agreement shaped by dueling egos, not principle.

Finally, there are the legislators themselves. There’s been a general lack of communication between members of the two chambers all session. Budding primary challenges and attack sites began rolling on basically as soon as the Legislature convened. Pretty much everyone, no matter the party or chamber or faction, is unhappy with the way the session has gone so far. Some legislators and staffers say the feeling in the Lege is worse even than it was in 2011, when the Lege had to contend with an apocalyptic budget shortfall.

There could be no better symbol of the ways Austin’s political culture has deteriorated than the news that a sneak of weasels calling themselves the American Phoenix Foundation—conservative activists who at the very least, have a number of mutual friends with the consultants who back Senate right-wingers like Burton, Hall, and Huffines—have been going around the Texas Capitol making secret recordings of legislators as they go about their business.

They claim to have some 800 hours of recordings, excerpts of which Breitbart Texas says it will release after the session. They’ve been walking around the halls of the Capitol, and around Austin, with cameras, hoping to entrap legislators. They’ve harassed reporters. Once their cover was blown, they’ve taken to using their presence to intimidate capitol-goers, offering false bravado in verbal form. They seem to use fake names, and their website lists a fake address. They’re creeps.

It’s the ultimate manifestation of the permanent campaign. The recordings themselves, and the recorders themselves, are almost certainly less impressive than they let on. But even if they caught nothing important, their presence deteriorates relations and trust between legislators further.

The perception will be that one team—the team that the Senate’s right-wing is on—is spying on the other team. And as Ross Ramsey pointed out in the Texas Tribune, the decision to hold whatever the cameras caught until after the session will leave some legislators who might waver on key votes thinking, “What do they have on me?”

So with a few weeks to go in the session, we find ourselves with game-playing leaders, a carnival sideshow in the halls and unhappy legislators who, by and large, trust each other about as far as you can see in The Cloak Room. It’s possible that by Abbott and Patrick’s second session in 2017, all involved will have gained a little maturity and wisdom. But then, we’ll be even closer to the next statewide primary. It’s not an especially promising recipe for the future.

Texas House - House Bill 3994
Alexa Garcia-Ditta

In many ways, it felt like every other debate in recent memory over a major abortion bill: long and painful, laced with an air of inevitability.

After hours of deliberation, and more than a dozen unsuccessful amendments by House Democrats, the Texas House gave preliminary approval late Wednesday night to House Bill 3994, which makes a litany of changes to a legal process set up for minors seeking an abortion. The bill also requires every person seeking an abortion, regardless of age, to show government-issued identification—in effect, it’s voter ID for abortions.

A parental notification law requires that Texans under the age of 18 get their parents’ consent before having an abortion. However, minors can turn to the courts to seek a legal, confidential judicial bypass when they fear they’ll be abused at home because of their pregnancy, or don’t have a parent to consent.

HB 3994 by state Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria), among many things, increases the burden of proof on the minor from a “preponderance of evidence” to “clear and convincing” evidence, a change House Democrats took issue with early in the debate.

An amendment by state Rep. Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio) tried to strike that change from Morrison’s bill altogether, while state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) attempted to add an exception for victims of rape, sexual assault or incest.

“What we put in place here is making a very traumatic situation even more traumatic,” Howard said while discussing her amendment. “She can’t just tell the judge that she’s been raped, that she’s had incest committed by a family member. … She has to be re-victimized and re-traumatized to repeat the circumstances in enough detail to obtain the court order that she seeks.”

State Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria)
State Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria)

Since the Legislature set up the bypass process in 1999, many right-to-life groups and legislators have worked to “reform” it. As state Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford), one of the bill’s authors, put it during Wednesday’s debate, if “government is going to step in between a parent and a child, they need to have a very, very good reason.” However, state Rep. Sarah Davis (R-West University) reminded her colleagues that the original language was in fact set up by conservatives.

Judicial bypass “was created and championed and governed all by Republicans,” she said during the debate. “Are you as confused as I am?”

Currently, a bypass application can be filed in any county in Texas, but HB 3994 would require an application to be filed in a minor’s county of residence; a neighboring county, if her home county has a population of 10,000 people or fewer; or the county in which her abortion provider is located. The bill also requires county clerks to gather and make public data that names judges who grant bypasses.

“Family law is rife with violence, and it is not unusual for judges to be targeted,” state Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-El Paso) said as she laid out an amendment to eliminate the data collection requirement.

Throughout the debate, Democrats made other fervent but unfruitful attempts to change Texas’ parental notification law, such as allowing a grandparent or older sibling to consent to a minor’s abortion in the absence of a parent, or exemptions for teenagers who are already mothers or who have graduated from high school or have their GED. As House Democrats tried to pepper Morrison with questions throughout the debate, she repeatedly declined to answer, or wasn’t in the chamber at all.

Another crop of amendments targeted the government-issued identification requirement, which many House Democrats see as a “de facto ban on abortion” for poor women or recent immigrants who may not have an ID. Democrats tried unsuccessfully to broaden the list of acceptable forms of identification to include student IDs or IDs issued by foreign countries, such as a birth certificate or passport.

An amendment by state Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth), which mirrors language from a bill he previously filed that imposes even greater restrictions, was the only one to make it onto HB 3994 before the debate came to a grinding halt, thanks to a point of order—an allegation that a procedural rule has not been followed—by state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) close to 11 p.m.

After deliberating, Martinez Fischer agreed to withdraw his point of order when Republicans also agreed to jettison their forthcoming amendments. Suddenly, it was a over in a snap—the House approved Krause’s amendment, and then ultimately passed HB 3994 with a 98 to 47 vote.

“In the end, there were probably several amendments that would have been controversial and very divisive [that] were avoided because of the point of order,” Martinez Fischer told reporters after the vote.

The House must give final approval on HB 3994 before midnight tonight; then the bill heads to the Senate.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen - tax cuts

How much does Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) hate Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s tax cut plan? Let him count the ways.

There’s his argument that Patrick’s proposed small break in school property taxes would be quickly swallowed up by higher appraisal rates, as a similar tax cut was in 2006. There’s his argument that’s it’s not really a tax cut at all, because the state can’t cut local property taxes. There’s his wonderment at the idea that the state giving local governments money to make up for their decreased tax revenues can really be called a “cut.” There’s his argument that, because the state can’t control local spending in the future, Patrick’s plan would result in more spending at the local level and more spending at the state level or, in his words, “spending $2 to get $1.”

Then there’s his political critique of Patrick. On Tuesday and Wednesday, at a meeting of the committee he chairs, House Ways & Means, and at a Texas Tribune event, he called Patrick, in essence, a fool. Bonnen, a Lege veteran, charged Patrick with making “some errors in his exuberance.” He laughed at the idea that Patrick offered his plan to boost local school districts. He suggested Patrick hadn’t done much “punching the numbers.”

We’re entering the last stages of one of the strangest and most consequential standoffs of the session: The fight over whether the crummy tax plan originating in the Senate or the crummy tax plan originating in the House should pass. The former would reduce property tax growth and cut business taxes, and the latter would cut sales taxes and business taxes.

Bonnen’s talk this week—along with op-eds he wrote for major Texas newspapers—are his way of laying down the law. He’s demonstrating, exhaustively, that property tax cuts will not pass the House this session—if there was any doubt about it before. (There shouldn’t have been, but some on the Senate side have been a bit slow on the uptake lately.)

In committee Tuesday, he emphasized something else: If the tax impasse results in a special session, the Legislature should be ashamed.

“I think there’s absolutely no excuse and we should all be embarrassed if we’re in a special session,” he said. “There’s no reason.”

But while Bonnen is shutting a door, he’s opening a window. In typical Lege style, he’s offered a compromise plan that’s even more ill-conceived than the two plans already on the table. His idea would be to do a tax cut package of a similar size to the two being discussed—about $4.5 billion—but make it all business tax cuts. In other words, individual Texas taxpayers wouldn’t see any tax relief at all, at least not directly. (There’s another plan being circulated now that would include a tiny amount of property tax relief as well, but the problem there is much the same.)

Dick Lavine, of the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities, endorsed Patrick’s plan over the House plan in committee last night, because, while he thought both were bad, more money would go to individuals with the Senate plan. (Businesses that make lots of purchases are the primary beneficiaries of the sales tax cut, and big businesses especially so.)

Bonnen’s compromise, Lavine told the Observer after his testimony, is even worse in this regard. The state would shed a huge amount of tax revenue exclusively for the benefit of businesses. And because a substantial portion of franchise taxes are paid by out-of-state shareholders, the benefit wouldn’t even all stay in Texas to be reinvested here.

So to sum up, the two chambers are having an ego contest over two poorly constructed and faulty tax cut packages. Privately, most reps don’t really care about the House plan, and most senators don’t care about the Senate plan. Neither is enthusiastic about the policy particulars involved. But because neither wants to let the other “win,” we’re headed toward either a pointless special session in which both sides still can’t “win,” or a third option, Bonnen’s proposed compromise, that’s even worse. Take pride, ladies and gentlemen, in your 84th Legislature.

texas churches

Pastor Donnie Romero has gone viral.

“I’m going to explain to you why God wants these people to be put to death,” Romero declared during a sermon in December. “The word of God is very clear that God is against the sodomites, that they’re filthy, and it says they’re an abomination to God.”

A clip from Romero’s sermon, posted on YouTube by Right Wing Watch, has been viewed more than 28,000 times. It also helped land Romero’s Fort Worth church on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s annual list of active anti-LGBT hate groups.

“Their gay-bashing is intense,” said Heidi Beirich, director of SPLC’s Intelligence Project. “Stedfast Baptist Church is very crude in its hatred. That’s not a complicated thing to explain why we put them on the hate list.” Romero didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.

Stedfast Baptist is one of two Texas-based organizations added to the list this year. The other is Probe Ministries of Plano. They joined longstanding designee Tom Brown Ministries of El Paso. The increase in Texas contributed to a 10 percent jump in anti-LGBT hate groups nationwide, from 40 to 44.

Meanwhile, the overall number of hate groups of all types declined by roughly 17 percent in 2014, from 939 to 784. Beirich said she’s unsure whether anti-LGBT hate is on the rise or SPLC is simply doing a better job of tracking it.

“The rhetoric is becoming much harsher for sure,” she said. “I think some of the groups are becoming harder-line, whether we’ve listed them or not, because they’re losing on a lot of fronts.”

Probe Ministries, which has a syndicated radio show with more than 1 million weekly listeners, has published materials on its website saying gays molest children at higher rates and die younger, Beirich said.

“If an organization is knowingly putting out false propaganda to demonize a particular population—in our view, that qualifies them as a hate group,” she said. Probe Ministries President Kerby Anderson rejected the designation, saying his group is “compassionate” and pointing to its work with Living Hope Ministries, which offers so-called gay conversion therapy.

“That’s not the first time I’ve seen people that did not deserve that designation receive it, so I guess I’m not too surprised by what the Southern Poverty Law Center does,” Anderson said.

Beirich said SPLC maintains a high bar for the hate list. It’s not enough to oppose same-sex marriage or espouse Bible-based views about homosexuality. Rather, groups must use slurs or engage in demonization and propaganda, tactics that make the LGBT community more vulnerable to hate crimes.

“We don’t want to just list everybody in the world,” she said. “We want to point out what is particularly damaging.”

Asked why more prominent groups aren’t on the list—such as Texas Values and the Texas Pastor Council Beirich said SPLC hasn’t considered them. The Alabama-based organization relies heavily on the media to bring potential hate groups to its attention.

“We try our best to track these groups. We don’t get all of them,” Beirich said, adding she plans to review Texas Values and the Texas Pastor Council for possible inclusion on next year’s list.

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video visitation

In 2013, the Federal Communications Commission announced that it was taking action to make long-distance prison phone calls much more affordable. Instead of $17 for a 15-minute call, the new cost would be no more than $4. The reform was a long overdue response to a petition that had been filed 10 years earlier by an elderly grandmother, Martha Wright, who fought for fair phone rates so she wouldn’t have to choose between buying her medicine and calling her grandson in prison. In the wake of FCC crackdowns, the industry, which generates $1.2 billion a year, went looking for a new revenue stream.

Prison phone service companies like Dallas-based Securus Technologies, Inc. have found a new way to profit from their captive audience: video visitation systems. In the last two years, at least 25 county jails in Texas have installed video terminals that allow inmates to chat with friends, family and others on the outside. Like the phone systems, the cost of using the service is steep: up to $1 per minute for a Skype-like chat, not including usage fees and taxes. But the real kicker is that in many cases the video systems are replacing in-person visits.

That trend is concerning to some lawmakers who are trying to pass legislation this session that would preserve in-person visits at county jails. A bill by Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) to do just that overwhelmingly passed in the House Monday, but only after an amendment was added that leaves a significant portion of the jail population out. The Senate is likely to hear the bill next week, and Johnson thinks that it has a good chance of passing there, too.

Since adopting the video technology, at least 14 counties in Texas have eliminated the ability of inmates to meet face-to-face with family and loved ones—a move that activists have called unconscionable. Some Securus contracts require jails to eliminate in-person visits. Until last week, that was a standard stipulation in Securus’ contracts. Other lock-ups, like the Travis County Jail, have independently decided to offer video visits only.

Rep. Eric Johnson authored a bill to preserve in-person visits at county jails.
Courtesy of
Rep. Eric Johnson

That means visitors have two options: travel to the jail to use the terminals—which have been described as low-quality, with glitches and lag time—for free, or pay the steep fees to chat remotely. Either way, visitors and inmates report having trouble maintaining eye contact with each other, since the systems have cameras that are set higher than the screen. Video chats are no replacement, they say, for human contact that can benefit both inmates and their families.

“New technology could be used in a really wonderful way that would enhance people’s abilities to see loved ones who are locked up,” says Quong Charles, who is the criminal justice programs director for the prison reform group Grassroots Leadership.

But she says the system doesn’t work well, and that seeing someone through a screen is a “disembodied experience.”

“In the free world we wouldn’t pay for this service,” she said.

Grassroots Leadership has been trying to get in-person visitations restored at the Travis County Jail for almost two years. The group was alerted to the situation there after the Texas Civil Rights Project filed a lawsuit against Securus and the Travis County Sheriff’s Office for allegedly unlawfully recording the video chats. Another lawsuit was filed in March on behalf of Derrick Matthew Rice, a 29-year-old inmate at the Denton County Jail, against Securus, the Denton County Sheriff’s Office, and the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. The suit claims that eliminating in-person visits is a violation of what’s already stipulated in jail standards.

Johnson’s bill won’t eliminate video visitation, but instead ensures that most county jails still offer in-person visits as an option. In a committee hearing in April, Johnson noted that more than half of county jail inmates haven’t been convicted of any crime. Most are in jail because they couldn’t afford to pay their bond. And with video-visitation systems, families who could be using money to pay to get their loved one out of jail end up spending money that money just to see him or her on a screen.

“Their family members aren’t guilty of anything,” Johnson said. “Unless you consider being poor a crime.”

But during Monday’s floor debate on HB 549, some lawmakers seemed more concerned with whether the bill would place an unacceptable financial burden on counties. Rep. John Frullo (R-Lubbock) said Lubbock County just spent $80 million dollars on a new jail, and that it would cost $8 million to adjust the facility to comply with the bill. He and 131 other legislators voted to add an amendment to the bill that essentially excludes those 14 counties that have already eliminated video-only visitations.

Legislators supporting the amendment argued that some jails have been retrofitted for the video systems, or recently built without the facilities necessary for in-person visitations. Altering those facilities to comply with the in-person visit requirement would be too costly, they claim.

Quong Charles says it’s good that the bill would prohibit more than 200 Texas counties from eliminating in-person visitations in the future. But because many of the grandfathered jails are some of the most biggest in the state, the current version of the legislation, she says, is “unfortunately not going to protect a large number of people.”

Those counties could choose to bring back in-person visitations, but they have little financial incentive to do so. Jails receive a commission from companies like Securus for every video call, and can save money in staffing costs by eliminating the need for visitation receptionists.

Mary King, jail programs and project coordinator for Bastrop County, spoke to the Observer last fall as that county’s jail was getting ready to eliminate in-person visits. She said Bastrop County has a powerful incentive to limit visits to the jail altogether.

“To be honest, yes, you really want to reduce the number of on-site visits because of the amount of staff time it’s still going to take,” she said.

More important, Bastrop County doesn’t a get commission for video chats made on-site. Furthermore, Bastrop County’s contract with Securus stipulates that the company will pay the jail a 20 percent commission only for months during which 534 or more remote calls have been made. If the facility fails to meet that quota, they don’t get paid at all.

She agreed with those who say that face-to-face visits are better than video conferencing.

“I’m not sure if I had a family member here and I lived here, that I’d like it either,” King said.

But she sees the other side of it, too: “Honestly, the jail is no different from any other business. The county is just a business.”

Additional reporting by Forrest Wilder

Too Young to Jail

Harris County Juvenile Justice Center
Harris County Juvenile Justice Center

Senate Committee on Criminal Justice Chairman John Whitmire has been on an eight-year march to clean up the Texas juvenile justice system, driving a messy process that has involved the closure of state-run lockups, the restructuring of two state agencies and a reduction in the state’s population of juvenile offenders to one-fifth of what it had been.

Not long ago, Texas was a cautionary tale of mismanagement and unchecked abuse; now it’s seen as a national leader in juvenile justice reform. But this year, the question of how that reform should proceed has split Whitmire from many of his usual allies.

His priority this session is to further reduce the number of youth in remote state lockups, placing more of them in probation and treatment programs near their homes and families. There’s widespread support for his bill that’s intended to accomplish that.

A coalition of child advocates and criminal justice reformers has argued for another big change this session: to raise the age of “criminal responsibility” from 17 to 18.

State Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Corpus Christi) has illustrated the law’s strange logic with a hypothetical: “A 17-year-old could go into a store and could not buy cigarettes,” he told the Associated Press in March, “but they could steal the cigarettes and be punished as an adult.”

In the House, there’s apparently plenty of support for changing the law, but Whitmire is against it in the Senate.

For one, he objects on philosophical grounds: The line between juvenile and adult must be drawn somewhere, and Whitmire likes it just where it is. “I personally, philosophically, believe that if a 17-year old commits a violent act, I see no reason to change that they wouldn’t be [treated] as an adult,” he told the Observer.

He’s also concerned that the juvenile system isn’t ready for an influx of new 17-year-olds. He worries the 13-and 14-year-olds could be put at even greater risk, and he questions whether Texas juvenile lockups, in their current states, are any safer than a segregated spot in an adult jail.

“Raise the age” advocates note that even after the change, violent 17-year-olds could still be certified as adults. In 2013, 96 percent of the 17-year-olds arrested in Texas were caught for drug possession and other nonviolent crimes—and in those cases, a treatment program and a sealed record could change their lives.

Recent research has noted that young people are more impulsive than adults, but they’re also more receptive to rehabilitation. Intervening early could keep many from re-offending—saving the state money in the long run.

Despite the added cost of treating 17-year-olds in the juvenile system, the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation has signed on. TPPF analyst Derek Cohen told House members at a hearing in April that 17-year-olds simply don’t belong in the adult system. “It’s about using the best particular tool for the job,” he said.

House members at that hearing, Republican and Democrat alike, seemed receptive to the idea. Some probation officers said they needed more time to prepare for the change, and county officials pleaded for help covering the costs. But all seemed to agree on the premise. Elizabeth Henneke of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition reflected at one point: “Not a single person has come up here and said 17-year-olds should not be treated as kids.” That may not be the case, though, if the bill comes up for debate in the Senate.

Richard Pena Raymond
Rep. Richard Raymond

After about half an hour of debate Friday, House lawmakers passed House Joint Resolution 79, by Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin). The resolution requests that Congress convene a convention of states to consider amending the U.S. Constitution to require a balanced budget. Though little more than a huffy paper protest, the Legislature is fond of such exercises blasting the feds.

HJR 79 requests that Congress call a convention “for the limited purpose of proposing an amendment to the constitution to provide for a federal balanced budget.”

While mostly Republicans supported the resolution, which passed 100-40, Rep. Richard Raymond (D-Laredo) co-authored the legislation and more than a dozen Democrats voted for it.

“The deficit is bad for the economy, and it won’t get fixed without an amendment,” Raymond told the Observer. “I firmly believe this.”

Article V of the U.S. Constitution requires that Congress convene a national convention for the purpose of amending the Constitution if two-thirds of the states call for one. It’s never been done and no one really knows how it would work, but conservative groups are increasingly championing the idea.

Economists say that forcing a balanced budget during an economic turndown could cripple the national economy. In a January New York Times column, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman called the “balanced-budget fetish” deeply irresponsible.

More than two dozen states have passed resolutions calling for a balanced budget amendment by way of Article V, though there is some debate about the validity of some of the requests.

San Antonio-based political scientist Jonathan Bernstein calls a balanced budget amendment via constitutional convention “the worst idea in American politics.”

Washington Monthly went a step further, calling it “the dumbest constitutional amendment of all time.”

And while it’s no surprise that GOP lawmakers support the measure—tweaking the Obama administration over deficits is de rigueur in Congress—some Texas Democrats have jumped on the bandwagon.

Balancing the federal budget would likely require large tax increases, spending cuts, or both. Supporters, including three Texas Democrats who voted for HJR 79, were loath to name specific tax increases or spending cuts they would support in order to balance the budget.

“I believe in a balanced budget,” said Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) after he voted for the resolution. When asked which programs he would cut or which taxes he would raise to accomplish that goal, Turner demurred.

“I’m not in D.C., I can’t tell you about the federal budget,” Turner said.

All states except Vermont require balanced state budgets, but unlike the federal government states don’t pay for wars or provide for Social Security.

This is not Texas’ first Article V gambit. Texas passed convention-of-states resolutions in 1973, to prevent school desegregation, and in 1977, to balance the federal budget. Both measures failed.

“I think a balanced budget is a good thing,” said Rep. Joe Deshotel (D-Beaumont). But Deshotel admits that it will likely be a long time before Congress calls a constitutional convention.

“It was just a philosophical vote. We know nothing is going to happen with this,” he said.

John Wright
Texas Values President Jonathan Saenz, clockwise from left, Rep. Cecil Bell, Texas Pastor Council Executive Director Dave Welch, Rep. Rick Miller and his wife, Babs Miller, confer after a committee hearing on House Bill 4105 last month.

The future of the battle over gay marriage in Texas—and possibly in other states—is likely to be determined by the House of Representatives in the next 72 hours, according to LGBT advocates.

House Bill 4105, by Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia), which is designed to undermine a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage, is scheduled for a floor vote Tuesday.

Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, said if HB 4105 passes the House, it’s very likely to clear the more conservative Senate before being signed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. There were 204 bills ahead of HB 4105 on the House calendar, and the deadline for it to pass the chamber is midnight Thursday.

“This House vote is a critical showdown. If the bill is delayed in coming up, if there are procedural issues with the bill, or if the leadership persuades the bill’s author to take the bill down, then it will not get passed and we will have dodged a bullet,” Miller told reporters during a phone conference Monday morning. “The ball game is really all being played in the Texas House of Representatives in the next 72 hours, and if I had to say, I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s critical that people speak out.”

HB 4105 is one of more than 20 anti-LGBT bills introduced in the 84th Legislature, believed to be the most in the history of any state. However, with time running out in the session, only four have cleared committee, and of those LGBT advocates view HB 4105 as the most significant threat to equality.

The bill would bar state and local employees from issuing, enforcing or recognizing same-sex marriage licenses—and prohibit public monies from being used to do so—regardless of any court order.

LGBT advocates say if the high court rules in favor of same-sex marriage, HB 4105 would set up a showdown between state and federal law, costing Texas millions of dollars in litigation and potentially delaying the effectiveness of the decision by years. They say the bill would unleash chaos similar to what’s been seen in Alabama over same-sex marriage, and generate the type of business backlash associated with passage of an anti-LGBT religious freedom law in Indiana.

Unless it receives a two-thirds supermajority of 100 votes in the House and 21 in the Senate, HB 4015 wouldn’t take effect until Sept. 1, more than two months after the high court rules in same-sex marriage cases from four other states in late June.

In addition to Bell, HB 4105 is co-authored by 88 other House Republicans. Only nine Republicans hadn’t signed on as co-authors as of Monday morning: Rodney Anderson (Grand Prairie), Sarah Davis (Houston), Craig Goldman (Fort Worth), Todd Hunter (Corpus Christi), Linda Koop (Dallas), Morgan Meyer (Dallas), John Smithee (Amarillo), Speaker Joe Straus (San Antonio) and Jason Villalba (Dallas).

None of the chamber’s 52 Democrats were listed as co-authors.

“There’s a great deal of opposition to this bill too, primarily from Democrats,” Miller said. “I think there is a lot of quiet opposition from moderate Republicans, so I think the supermajority would be much more difficult to achieve.”

Rebecca Robertson, legal and policy director at the ACLU of Texas, said HB 4105 is designed to give Texas another legal basis for challenging same-sex marriage in court: state sovereignty. And she said it could be used as a model by other states for resisting the Supreme Court ruling.

“The last time that we saw similar efforts to undermine court rulings about what the Constitution requires was when Southern states attempted to use the power of the purse to avoid having to comply with federal court orders ordering school desegregation,” Robertson said. “Those tactics were rejected, but obviously it took years of litigation to get to that point. HB 4105 is trying to do the same kind of end run around the Constitution.”

If the bill passes, state and local officials likely would face lawsuits from either side depending on whether they choose to issue or recognize same-sex marriage licenses, Robertson said.

Under the bill, if a county clerk were to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple, the state would retain $30 from the fee that’s normally returned to counties. The bill would also prohibit the state Vital Statics Unit from recording the license, and require that it be turned over to the attorney general’s office.

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir estimated the bill would cost her county $40,000 annually in fees from same-sex marriage licenses. Nevertheless, if the high court rules in favor of marriage equality, her office likely would begin issuing licenses to gay couples shortly thereafter.

Other county clerks said they’re taking a wait-and-see approach but would be reluctant to alter the marriage license application forms.

Attorney General Ken Paxton, who staunchly opposes same-sex marriage, didn’t respond to a request for comment about HB 4105.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who vigorously defended the state’s marriage ban as Paxton’s predecessor, has not said whether he would sign HB 4105.

“Typically, we don’t comment until it’s either passed both chambers or on the way to his desk,” Abbott spokesman Sam Taylor said. “There are rare exceptions.”

One of those exceptions came last week, when Abbott announced support for Senate Bill 2065 and House Bill 3567, which are designed to prevent pastors and churches from being forced to participate in same-sex weddings. The Senate tentatively approved SB 2065 in a 21-10 vote Monday, and the House is scheduled to vote on HB 3567 Tuesday. 

LGBT advocates say they’d support SB 2065 and HB 3567 if the proposals are narrowed so they merely mirror existing protections, but the authors have refused to do so. 

Leticia Van de Putte conducts a post-election interview with Univision after her victory speech.
Christopher Hooks
Leticia Van de Putte conducts a post-election interview with Univision after her victory speech.

Update: Congratulations, San Antonio—It’s a runoff!

As most predicted, the four-way electoral brawl to become mayor of the Alamo City has shrunk to two members. Leticia Van de Putte took 30.4 percent of the vote, followed by current mayor Ivy Taylor, who took 28.4 percent. Edged out are the runoff are Mike Villarreal, with 26 percent, and Tommy Adkisson, who took just 9.7 percent.

Though Taylor seems to have kept pace with Van de Putte through the first round of voting, she’s the underdog in the runoff. It’s much more likely that Villarreal and Adkisson voters will find a home with Van de Putte camp than Taylor.

It’s a major turnabout for Van de Putte, who got trounced in the 2014 lieutenant governor contest and resigned her seat just a few months ago. As the mayor of San Antonio, Van de Putte would again be a visible and important part of the state Democratic party hierarchy.

But in a victory-ish speech in which she appeared with her family, Van de Putte acknowledged that there’s a “lot of work left to do.” She’d need to win the support of Villarreal and Adkisson supporters after a campaign in which Van de Putte and former state Rep. Villarreal were frequently at each other’s throats. In her speech, Van de Putte called Adkisson “a dear friend” but said only that Villarreal had run “a tough campaign.” She thanked them both for their “tenacity.”

In talking to reporters afterward, she was more effusive. Adkisson had “the heart of a warrior,” she said, and Villarreal ran “an amazing campaign. Relentless, energetic, focused. I’ve got to take my hat off to him.” She said she’d be aggressive about courting both of them and their supporters.

When asked for the primary difference between herself and Taylor, VDP touted her experience in the Legislature. “If there was a major issue, I was usually in the center of it,” she said, adding that she has “the ability to work with people with very different political positions.”

Taylor, the de facto GOP candidate in the non-partisan race, faces an uphill climb. But in her speech Saturday night, she touted the passage of a ballot measure giving City Council members and the mayor a salary for the first time in the city’s history—before, they were paid a small stipend per meeting.

Another ballot measure that passed would require a vote before a streetcar or light rail system is built—a proxy vote of sorts on former Mayor Julian Castro’s plan to build a streetcar system, killed by Ivy Taylor just hours after Castro left for D.C.

Original story: On Saturday, voters in San Antonio will go to the polls to elect a new mayor—the beginning of the end of a seemingly endless series of cascading elections triggered by the departure of former Mayor Julian Castro last year to head the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The result probably won’t be determined tonight—with four major candidates, a runoff is almost inevitable—but tonight’s vote count isn’t just important for the residents of San Antonio, the nation’s seventh-largest city. Much like the upcoming mayoral election in Houston, slated for November, the election in San Antonio provides an opportunity to take stock of Democratic politics in the state as we head toward 2016.

The contenders are a diverse bunch. There’s former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, last year’s Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor. Most observers feel VDP, as she’s known, is assured a spot in the runoff.

As one of the party’s standard-bearers in 2014—and for her role in Wendy Davis’ 2013 filibuster—VDP has had an almost mythic status among the state’s liberals. As Dan Patrick’s opponent, she was an underdog. An excellent retail politician, she roamed the state with not enough money and not enough free airtime to counter her opponent and went down hard with the rest of the ticket.

But in the mayor’s race, she holds the opposite position. With a huge financial advantage and the status of the presumptive favorite, she’s been able to bludgeon her opponents—particularly former state Rep. Mike Villarreal, who is attempting to fight his way to a spot in the runoff. Van de Putte dumped oodles of leftover money from her statewide race into the fund for her mayoral run, leaving some observers to wonder if that was her plan all along. And despite that, she’s struggled, firing most of her campaign staff in February and bringing in hired gun Christian Archer to lead a turnaround.

Lately, Van de Putte has gone for Villarreal’s jugular, using remarkably strong language to decry Villarreal as a many-faced “backroom dealmaker” and “corporate crony” who is bought and paid for by monied interests that would destroy San Antonio. It makes the language Van de Putte used against Patrick last year look like mash notes.

Villarreal and VDP have some history—the latter opposed the former when he ran for VDP’s old house district in 1999. But the level of vitriol between the two now has been pretty remarkable. And it’s somewhat surprising to lege-watchers, who remembered Villarreal as a decent guy and policy-minded rep. who was pretty well respected by his Democratic colleagues, Van de Putte included.

But the more likely candidate for the second slot in the runoff is current San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor, appointed to the job by the City Council after Castro’s departure. A socially conservative African-American woman who was born in Brooklyn, Taylor has made her mark on the city during her brief tenure—she helped cancel one of Castro’s prestige projects, a proposed streetcar system. She earned some opprobrium for calling the effort to protect the city’s LGBT communities with a non-discrimination ordinance a “waste of time.”

Of the four major contenders, she’s essentially the de facto GOP candidate—she can count among her supporters men like Red McCombs, a perennial top-dollar Republican donor. She stands to benefit from GOP votes while the Democratic vote is fractioned. In a low-turnout scenario—San Antonio has seen more than its fair share of special elections lately, and the city’s voters might just be fatigued—Taylor could outperform.

In one recent state senate special election in San Antonio, the more conservative Democratic candidate, Jose Menendez, won out over progressive Trey Martinez Fischer, thanks in part to a flood of votes from Republicans on Menendez’s behalf. If Taylor does well tomorrow, expect more head-scratching about Democratic turnout problems.

There’s also Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, but few expect him to win a runoff spot at this point.

Protesters for the DREAM act demonstrated during President Obama's visit to Austin on May 10, 2011.

Soon after last year’s elections my cousin and I tangled over his voting preferences after he invoked buzzwords such as “small government” and “low taxes.” I responded by listing the examples of our family’s connections to “big government”: a G.I. Bill here, a government job there, a teacher drawing her paycheck from the state’s coffers. For good measure, I reminded him that public education spending paved his way and mine from hide-and-seek to Hook ’em Horns.

Regardless of the caliber of their logic or the capacity people have to cite government reports and statistics, there is a certain futility to these types of arguments. Sooner or later, they hit the bedrock of a deeper belief, vaguely defined but often essential to forming our political opinions—a belief in a just world.

In the 1960s, psychologist Melvin Lerner developed the “just-world theory” to describe the tendency for people to believe that the world is an inherently fair place. He found that most people, presented with an injustice, try to correct it. Simple enough. But, through a series of experiments, Lerner discovered that when people are helpless to resolve the situation, they rationalize the injustice and blame the victim.

Lerner found that people would rather hold onto their belief that the world is fair than accept the idea that harm had fallen on the undeserving. We hear it all the time: “It happened for a reason” or “They must have done something.” But one of life’s painful lessons is that life isn’t fair. Bad people get ahead. Good people lose jobs, their money. The least qualified is promoted.

My cousin and I weren’t simply debating candidates. We were clashing over perceptions of the world. If people see the world as just, according to a study published in Policy Studies Journal last year, they are less likely to support government programs and are more likely to oppose affirmative action. After all, they believe, the deserving will be rewarded.

In truth, the playing field is unfair, and it’s getting worse with growing inequality and shrinking social mobility. Indeed, rich kids who drop out of school stay rich, while low-income kids who go to college stay in roughly the same economic class, according to a 2014 report presented at a Federal Reserve Bank of Boston conference.

My cousin knows life is unfair too, but remember, we cling to the illusion of a just world to cope with seemingly insurmountable challenges. As a result, academic researchers over the past decades have found that people with a deeply held faith in a just world lean toward conservatism and authoritarianism and have little sympathy for people of color, the marginalized and ill. “Ironically, then, the belief in a just world may take the place of a genuine commitment to justice,” according to a 1990 article in Issues in Ethics. “For some people, it is simply easier to assume that forces beyond their control mete out justice.”

The news is filled with examples of politicians needlessly pitting people against each other. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has argued for the repeal of the Texas Dream Act, which grants in-state tuition rates to undocumented students. To make his case, according to The Daily Texan, he concocted a scenario in which a Dreamer and the child of a Mexican-American veteran in Oklahoma were vying for the same admission slot. Never mind that denying the undocumented student in-state tuition won’t reduce the Okie’s out-of-state rate. Patrick’s argument represents an attempt to reframe his effort to institutionalize injustice by forcing us to choose who is more deserving.

Most insidiously, such beliefs confuse privilege with merit. I recently congratulated a friend on the purchase of a new house by complimenting her business savvy, but she was quick to correct me. It was my privilege, she said. An inheritance, a family loan, those were critical. By recognizing that privilege had smoothed the road, she had a more accurate picture of herself; but more important, she acknowledged that others struggle without the same advantages. That’s why government programs exist to help people buy their first home, to help working-class students get through college, or to prevent foreclosure due to illness or joblessness.

Most people want a just world. Experiments aren’t necessary to know that good-hearted people do their part to make things right. But a just world is born from decisions, not simple belief. Creating that world remains a noble endeavor that reflects our highest ideals, and we are anything but helpless.