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Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen)
Patrick Michels
Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen)

School district officials, researchers and education advocates had a week to study the school finance reforms proposed by House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock before bringing their opinions to his committee on Tuesday night.

Most began the way Drew Scheberle, an Austin Chamber of Commerce official, did: “Thank you.” Thanks for the $3 billion more for public schools, they told Aycock, and thanks for tackling the messy school finance system at all. In the past, lawmakers have rarely done so without a court ruling forcing their hands.

Houston ISD trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones appreciated that House Bill 1759 would save her district from a looming $200 million tab owed under the current “Robin Hood” recapture law. Others appreciated that it would begin funding career and technical education sooner, beginning in the eighth grade.

But the biggest change Aycock proposes is the elimination of the Cost of Education Index (CEI), which steers more funding to urban and high-poverty districts to pay for higher teacher salaries. In the last few weeks, Aycock has stressed that the index is hopelessly outdated—it was created in 1991 and hasn’t been updated since—and nobody argued that point Tuesday night. But many weren’t willing to simply let it go.

“The underlying premise of the CEI is undeniably sound,” said Lori Taylor of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, who has conducted a series of studies since 2000 on how the Legislature could update the index to reflect current costs.

Former state Rep. Paul Colbert (D-Houston), a school finance leader in the ‘80s and ‘90s, agreed that while the index is flawed, its purpose—steering more money to urban and high-poverty districts that must pay higher salaries—is still vital. “You can’t just do away with it and pretend the problem doesn’t exist. You’re merely not addressing an uncontrollable cost,” Colbert said. “And that’s not equitable.”

Aycock agreed the change would affect districts unevenly; changing any piece of the school finance system creates winners and losers. Aycock has said he’s trying to minimize the pain of simplifying the system. “The party that gets hit the worst removing the CEI is the Valley area,” he noted at one point last night.

“How do we fix that?” wondered Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston).

“I don’t know that I can,” Aycock told her. “I’ve done everything I think I can to fix that.”

Any talk about making the system more or less equitable conjures the specter of the school finance lawsuit that’s now before the Texas Supreme Court. Should Aycock’s proposal pass, nobody knows how it might affect the case, which hinged on, among other questions, whether the funding system is fair and adequate.

Aycock has suggested his bill would improve equity by moving more districts closer to the state average of per-student funding. But it would also enrich wealthy districts more than poor districts, which some analysts last night noted was basically the opposite of equity. San Antonio’s Edgewood ISD, with 96 percent students are from low-income families, would gain $171 per student under Aycock’s bill, while nearby Alamo Heights—with 22 percent low-income students—would gain $469. In South Texas, Los Fresnos CISD would gain $54 per student while the wealthier Point Isabel ISD. which includes South Padre Island, would gain $289.

Analysts outside the Capitol realm have noted these disparities too. Bellwether Education Partners analyst Jennifer Schiess recently told Education Week that Aycock’s bill “isn’t negative on equity. It just doesn’t move very far.” Schiess wonders whether such modest improvement is truly worth the fight.

Representatives from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Center for Public Policy Priorities and the Intercultural Development Research Association urged the committee to focus on steering money to students who need it most, and to follow Travis County District Judge John Dietz’s suggestion last year by updating the adjustments for poor students and those with limited English. Like the CEI, those weights have been untouched for decades.

Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-El Paso), who has co-authored a bill that would require a “comprehensive review” of those expenses, asked Aycock to run cost estimates of an updated CEI and an increased weight for bilingual education, and how they might fit within his plan. “I do think we want to talk about, in what ways does this bill increase or decrease equity?” she said.

Aycock has described his bill as part of a broad, ongoing conversation about reforming school finance in Texas. But last night, Aycock said he was interested only in how to partition the $3 billion already on the table, without spending any more. As the night went on, lawmakers seemed less interested in a comprehensive school finance debate. Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston) cut off CPPP analyst Chandra Villanueva after she raised concerns about the equity issues the bill left unresolved.

She pointed out that the bill’s elimination of the CEI could also have unintended effects on poor and urban districts. Because CEI is also used to calculate a district’s weighted attendance, eliminating CEI would hit some schools twice: once in their per-student allotment, and again in the number of students the state funds.

When lawmakers sounded unswayed, she offered, “I have a chart.”

“Everybody has a chart,” replied Rep. Ken King (R-Canadian). “One thing I know is that whoever wrote it, you can make it say whatever.”

Mike Baldree, superintendent of Leon ISD, a property-rich East Texas district, reflected the ambivalence—if not the mood, exactly—of much of the public testimony. Baldree wasn’t thrilled about everything the bill would do to the system, but he was grateful to have some relief from an old funding mechanism set to expire in 2018 that would cut 34 percent of his district’s funding without some action by the Legislature.

“For me, it’s kinda like kissing my sister,” Baldree said. “It’s wet and it don’t have a whole lot of kick, but it’s good for me.”

As laughter spread through the room, King thanked Baldree: “I want to say I appreciate your comments, because I am not the biggest redneck here.”

Bob Byington
Jason Schwartzman in 7 Chinese Brothers.

I have a friend who would happily watch a two-hour industrial film about warehouse safety if Wes Anderson directed it. That’s how deeply he’s convinced that the director’s vocabulary was created to speak to him especially. Every slow-motion scene set to a song from the ’60s, every fussy bit of dollhouse set design, every delicately composed static shot, every whooshing horizontal tracking shot, every deadpan exchange: My friend believes it’s his language Anderson is speaking. Even regarding the films he can admit are misfires, his devotion remains intact. His love is unconditional. It transcends petty distinctions between good and bad.

There may be fewer of us who see and hear in Bob Byington’s cinematic language that same sort of very personal familiarity, that sense of connectedness, but we exist. We’re a small cult, but an avid one.

Over the last decade, as Robert Rodriguez, Richard Linklater and the Duplass brothers have risen to Hollywood’s heights, their fellow Austinite Byington has remained just to the side of success, quietly shooting four features over the last seven years. He’s a marginal figure revered by those who’ve discovered him, but not quite able or willing to break into the mainstream. To fans, this obscurity is part of Byington’s appeal. We feel like we’re in on a secret.

Considering how compelling a filmmaker Byington is, his relegation to cult status must be due to the attitudes of his heroes, who are sarcastic, acerbic and contemptuous of just about everything. The title character, “RSO,” in Registered Sex Offender; Harmony in Harmony and Me; Max in Somebody Up There Likes Me—they all use sarcasm to keep the world at arm’s length and mockery as a tool of self-defense, lashing out and blowing off. Byington’s white, male, shaggy-headed hipsters live to provoke.

Larry, the hero of Byington’s latest feature, 7 Chinese Brothers, which had its world premiere last month at South by Southwest, is no different. Larry, played by Jason Schwartzman, is the perfect embodiment of the Byington protagonist: mocking, mordant and full of biting contempt for the world. Fired from his job at a chain Italian restaurant for stealing and boozing, Larry starts working at a nearby lube shop, where he shows his affection for his new boss the only way he knows how: by ceaselessly antagonizing her. He’s the same with his best friend, his co-workers, even his grandmother.

Arguably the most cynical of Byington’s films, 7 Chinese Brothers is a character study of a young man in a slow collapse of his own making. To Larry, social conventions are lies best lampooned or ignored—so what if they lead to compassion or intimacy or human connection? He dismisses everything that everyone else holds dear: work, sex, money, family, tradition. But his attacks are just masks for depression, a thousand and one mirrors deflecting light and love.

Kevin Corrigan in 2008’s RSO [Registered Sex Offender].
Somehow, despite Larry’s faults, we keep rooting for him. Much of the credit for this goes to Schwartzman, who proves once and for all that he’s incapable of being unlikable (though he’s trying his best). But making unsympathetic characters relatable is a skill Byington has been cultivating since 2008’s Registered Sex Offender, which dared viewers to not hate an unrepentant pedophile. What redeems Byington and his heroes is his idiosyncratically deadpan sense of humor and elliptical, episodic approach to storytelling—in other words, his singular voice. Byington defies any number of filmmaking conventions, such as, say, narrative arc. His movies are more like collections of ironic koans than stories, inscrutable shrugs that, taken together, add up to something meaningful, even if it’s hard to put your finger on just what the meaning might be.

It takes a particular talent and a special aesthetic conviction to devise your own language as a filmmaker and to call on that language in every one of your films, so that each is unmistakably yours. As a movie fan, there’s nothing quite as rewarding as entering the world of an artist who has accomplished this, who owns a distinctive voice that gets richer and more varied with each film. Bob Byington, quietly, and mostly under Hollywood’s radar, has spent the last decade constructing a universe of comic misanthropy that could be mistaken for no one else’s.

Fracking protesters outside the Capitol
Patrick Michels
Lela Lofton, right, and Amanda Renfro in an overnight protest against attempts to curtail local control of fracking.


Despite vociferous opposition from local elected officials, environmentalists and citizens, many Democrats in the Texas Legislature are supporting controversial legislation that would strip local governments of the power to regulate or ban fracking.

House Bill 40, by Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo), is one of 11 measures in the Legislature filed in response to a fracking ban approved by Denton voters in November. Darby’s bill, which was temporarily delayed on Tuesday, would overturn Denton’s fracking ban, Dallas’ de facto prohibition on drilling and other cities’ oil and gas regulations, possibly even rules about the distance between rigs and homes not deemed “reasonable.”

Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a progressive Democrat and the longest-serving woman legislator in the House, is one of eight Democrats sponsoring the legislation.

“I think that fracking is a safe mechanism, which they can use to be able to extract oil,” she said. Asked about the practical impact of the bill and whether it would allow oil and gas companies to challenge ordinances they don’t deem “reasonable,” Thompson said, “You’re asking me a legal question, and I haven’t had oil and gas law since I was in law school.”

Most of the Democrats who signed onto HB 40 are from areas that don’t contend with the hazards of urban drilling: earthquakes, noise, pipelines through yards and air and water pollution. None are from North Texas, where drilling rigs and other oil-and-gas infrastructure often sits uncomfortably close to homes, churches and businesses.

“The cities are the ones who are truly affected, and we’re taking that out of their hands and saying that we’re going to be the ones doing it?” said Rep. Nicole Collier, a Democrat from Fort Worth who plans to vote against HB 40. “They’re the ones who have to answer every day, and we’re taking that out of their hands.”

On Monday night, activists set up a 15-foot mock drilling rig outside the Capitol and staged an all-night vigil in preparation for the vote that was expected to happen Tuesday. A technical error forced legislators to postpone HB 40, which likely will be back on the floor as soon as Friday.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson displays a hanger during a contentious abortion debate on the House floor in early July.
Patrick Michels
Rep. Senfronia Thompson displays a hanger during a contentious abortion debate on the House floor in early July.

Collier said she hopes to add a provision to the bill that would reimburse cities for costs associated with accidents, such as the leaking gas well that led to an evacuation of hundreds of Arlington residents over the weekend. But the Texas Municipal League, the Texas Oil and Gas Association and Darby have pledged to support the current version of the bill and oppose any changes. The municipal league, which represents local government, wrote on its website that “it’s nearly certain that further amendments to the bill would make it worse instead of better.”

In the Senate, a similar bill was unanimously voted out of committee in March. Two Democrats, Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) and Sen. Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio) voted for SB 1165. Zaffirini represents a portion of the Eagle Ford Shale, one of the most active shale plays in the world. She chairs the booster-ish Eagle Ford Shale Legislative Caucus.

Why would Democrats, who’ve complained all session that Republicans are eroding the long Texas tradition of local control, support HB 40?

“Because they can and not have any harm,” Collier said, referring to blowback from constituents.

Former Fort Worth state Rep. Lon Burnam, now a volunteer lobbyist with Public Citizen, had some tough words for his former colleagues. “These people have been here too long and have become jaded,” he said.

He said Democratic support for overturning fracking regulations is testament to the financial power of the oil and gas industry. Oil and gas interests donated $5.5 million to legislators in the 2014 cycle, according to a recent Texans for Public Justice report, about 17 cents of every dollar contributed during that period.

Environmentalists complain that banning fracking bans not only endangers the health and safety of citizens but also constitutes an assault on local democracy. If passed, HB 40 would overturn the Denton and Dallas measures that ban fracking. It’s also expected to invalidate many other municipalities’ ordinances governing fracking.

Fracking equipment near homes in Denton.
Fracking equipment near homes in Denton.

Supporters of the bill, backed by the power and money of the Texas oil and gas industry, argue that the Railroad Commission’s authority to regulate oil and gas operations preempts local governments from being able to ban or otherwise impede the practice.

The bill uses broad and convoluted language to describe allowable city ordinances. Only “commercially reasonable” laws pass muster. Cities also could only set rules for activities “at or above the surface of the ground”—the bill specifically mentions noise, lights, traffic and fire and emergency response—and the rules couldn’t prohibit a “reasonably prudent operator” from extracting oil or gas. Ordinances that have been in effect for five years and have allowed “oil and gas operations … to continue during that period” would generally be considered “commercially reasonable.” Got all that?

Opponents argue that industry attorneys will use the language to topple any rule they don’t like and take down established ordinances wherever they like.

Andrew Dobbs, who organized the Monday night vigil for Texas Campaign for the Environment, said he was frustrated to see Democrats playing along.

“I hear Democrats in this state say all the time, ‘If only we could get people to go out and vote for us, if only people didn’t stay home on Election Day,’ and then they go and do stuff like this and they wonder why people don’t want to vote for them,” he said.

women's health
Alexa Garcia-Ditta
Women, families and students gathered near the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville in early March to celebrate International Women’s Day. A march and rally highlighted women’s access to health care in the Rio Grande Valley.


Dina Nuñez, a 51-year-old mother of three and human rights organizer, used to go to the Planned Parenthood clinic in her hometown of Brownsville for her yearly checkup. The clinic closed in 2012 because of a $70 million budget cut in 2011 to the state’s family planning program that provides low-cost or free birth control, cancer screenings and other preventive care for uninsured and underinsured women.

Because of the closure, and after encountering long wait times at the remaining clinics in Brownsville, Nuñez missed a yearly screening. She finally found a clinic that could see her right away in McAllen, an hour’s drive from her home. When she went for her appointment, she received some bad news. “My outcomes didn’t turn out well,” she said. She had an abnormal Pap smear that required more testing. Nuñez made the trip two more times for follow-up appointments, costing her even more in gas money and hours lost at work. Before, at Planned Parenthood, her health screenings had been free. Now she pays $30 for every a visit in addition to the gas money it takes to get to the clinic.

In the Rio Grande Valley, where it already was difficult to find women’s health services, it has now become even harder. The funding cuts resulted in the loss of more than 50 clinics statewide, and at least nine in the Valley. Despite some funding being restored in 2013, not every clinic has reopened. Many of them can’t because of lengthy start-up times and high fixed costs.

For undocumented women who don’t qualify for publicly funded programs such as Medicaid, health screenings are difficult to come by. A proposed consolidation of the state’s three women’s health programs has providers and advocates wary of restructuring such a fragile safety net, and a budget proposal aimed at defunding Planned Parenthood would jeopardize a state breast and cervical cancer program for low-income women.

Abortion access was dramatically reduced in October 2013 by Texas’ omnibus abortion bill. Full implementation of the law, which is pending in the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, will leave no abortion clinics in the Rio Grande Valley or in West Texas.

Since finding the clinic in McAllen, Nuñez has encouraged her friends to schedule their appointments the same day, so they can carpool to save money on gas.

But women in the Rio Grande Valley aren’t standing idly by, said community health care worker Paula Saldaña. They are organizing around kitchen tables, in community centers and in churches, educating one another on their remaining options for health care.

Saldaña is an activist with the Latina Advocacy Network at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. She hosts reproductive health education classes in border cities and remote colonias often neglected by the state of Texas. She teaches Valley women how to give themselves breast exams, answers their basic health care questions and connects them to the few service providers that still exist in the border region.

She also encourages women to get involved politically. Saldaña’s organization, which has had a presence in Texas for nearly a decade, encourages its clients who are directly affected by the Legislature’s politicking to fight for increased health care access.

“I’ve seen the transformation of a woman that wouldn’t even open the door [to the community group] to a woman that is now talking to legislators, lawmakers, and organizing rallies,” Saldaña said. “This fight was already fought many, many years ago. Now, we’re needing to fight again.”

John Wright
Rep. Ron Reynolds speaks during Freedom Advocacy Day on the north steps of the Capitol on Monday.

Monday’s Freedom Advocacy Day at the Texas Capitol couldn’t have come at a more critical time.

With two anti-LGBT bills scheduled for hearings this week, hundreds of gay-rights supporters rallied on the north steps before fanning out to lawmakers’ offices during the lobby day organized by Equality Texas.

Rep. Ron Reynolds (D-Missouri City), who spoke at the rally, drew parallels to the civil rights movement, saying that just like racial bias, discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is “dead wrong.”

“We must have that same commitment, that same fire and determination, that those civil rights workers had,” Reynolds said. “They were willing to do anything, no matter what it took, to make sure they eradicated those discriminatory laws.”

With several attendees holding signs saying, “Don’t Indiana My Texas,” Reynolds also referenced backlash from major corporations over an anti-LGBT religious freedom law in the Hoosier State.

“People came forward from all over America to stand up against bigotry, and we have to do that same thing in Texas,” he said.

Republican lawmakers have introduced a record 22 anti-LGBT bills in the 84th Texas Legislature, but thus far only two dealing with same-sex marriage, an issue likely to be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court, have had hearings. And with fewer than 50 days remaining before sine die, time may be running out.

Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin)
Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin)

“Once you’re a couple of weeks past Easter, you’re in danger of not passing your bill,” said Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin). “This week, maybe next week, if you haven’t at least had a hearing, then you’re in trouble.”

House Bill 2801, by Rep. Gilbert Peña (R-Pasadena), which would prohibit schools from allowing students to use restrooms and similar facilities according to their gender identity, will be heard Wednesday by the House Committee on State Affairs. House Bill 3864, by Rep. Scott Sanford (R-McKinney), which would allow child welfare providers that contract with the state to discriminate based on sincerely held religious beliefs, will be heard Wednesday by the House Committee on Juvenile Justice & Family Issues.

Peña, who previously said the goal of HB 2801 is protecting students’ privacy, refused to further discuss the bill this week. Sanford didn’t respond to messages seeking comment about HB 3864.

Chuck Smith, executive director of Equality Texas, said he believes HB 3864 is designed to allow faith-based adoption and foster care agencies to refuse to place children with gay parents. But he said the bill is written so broadly that it would sanction discrimination based on a variety of factors, including minority religious beliefs, and even against children themselves.

“I think it points to the level of extremes that we’re reaching if in fact, in the interests of so-called religious freedom, we’re actually targeting children and youth in our state, and that I think is despicable and not a place where we want to go,” Smith said.

Smith said HB 2801 would take decisions about restroom use by transgender students out of the hands of educators, who are currently addressing it on a school-by-school and district-by-district basis. Under the bill, schools would be liable for damages if they allow transgender students to use restrooms according to how they identify.

“This legislation amounts to bullying and harassment of transgender students to the point of placing a bounty on their heads for them to be turned in for using a restroom,” Smith said.

Kenneth D. Upton Jr., senior counsel at the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal, said HB 2801 would run afoul of Title IX, which the U.S. Department of Education has said prohibits discrimination based on gender identity in schools.

Israel noted that even if the bills clear committee, she helped derail two anti-LGBT budget amendments on the House floor two weeks ago.

“If the budget night was any indicator, some of my colleagues who identity themselves as Republican don’t want to have these kinds of battles any more than we do,” Israel said.

Watch speeches from Monday’s rally by Reynolds and openly LGBT Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-El Paso) below.

State Rep Phil King
State Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford)

After passing one of the most extreme anti-abortion laws in the country in 2013, conservative lawmakers have filed at least four bills this session targeting a legal process that allows minors seeking an abortion to do so without their parents’ consent.

Under current law, if a woman under 18 can’t get permission from a parent for an abortion—often because of abuse or repercussions from her family—she can seek a legal, confidential bypass from a judge. However, proposed laws would make the bypass process harder, longer and more cumbersome, abortion rights advocates warn.

In applying for a bypass, a minor must prove to a judge one of three reasons: that she is mature and well-informed enough to have an abortion without her parents’ consent; that notifying her parents is not in her best interest; or that notifying her parents would lead to physical, sexual or emotional abuse.

A bill by state Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford), scheduled for a hearing in the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee today, would require that a minor prove all three grounds rather than just one, creating a threshold that could be impossible to overcome for many pregnant teens.

“Together, if the standard were changed, Texas would have one of the most, if not the most, restrictive judicial bypass laws in the country,” said Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas. “It’s essentially a ban on abortion for anyone under the age of 18 unable to involve a parent.”

When minors seek a judicial bypass, the reasons are often complex and delicate. Jane’s Due Process reports that in 2013, 321 pregnant teens reached out to the organization for legal help, information on the bypass process, or pregnancy options. Of those, 17 percent of teens who sought help through Jane’s Due Process reported that they had experienced sexual or physical abuse by a parent at home, and 37 percent feared being kicked out or disowned for being pregnant. Sixteen percent were orphans or had no way to contact a parent for consent to an abortion.

“My older sister got pregnant when she was 17,” according to one of more than a dozen stories of anonymous pregnant teens posted on the Jane’s Due Process website. “I was in the kitchen when she told my mother. My mother pushed her against the wall, slapped her across the face, and then grabbed her by the hair, pulled her through the living room out the front door and threw her off the porch. I don’t know where my sister is now. I’m considered the good daughter. But I know what my mother is capable of.”

Two additional pieces of legislation that have yet to be scheduled for a hearing—House Bill 3994 by state Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria) and House Bill 2531 by state Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth)—are billed as “reform” legislation by anti-abortion groups, but abortion rights leaders see the bills as destroying the bypass process, which was first set up by the Texas Legislature in 1999.

“Minors who seek a judicial bypass don’t do it for frivolous reasons,” said Tina Hester, executive director of Jane’s Due Process. “They know what’s happened to their older sister or older cousins, and they have a real threat. The majority of young women in Texas do involve a parent; this is a safety net that they’re trying to dismantle.”

The two bills would require that a woman seeking an abortion provide her physician with a government-issued identification document to ensure that she is not younger than 18 years old. Morrison’s bill even requires that a physician “presume that a pregnant woman is a minor” unless she presents a government-issued ID.

Morrison’s and Krause’s bills also limit which courts a judicial bypass case can be heard. Currently, an attorney can file a bypass application on behalf of a minor in any county in Texas. Krause’s bill would mandate attorneys file in the minor’s county of residence, while Morrison’s would require the application 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.

Limiting the venue may compromise confidentiality and privacy, especially in small, rural parts of the state, said Susan Hays, an Austin-based family law attorney who works with Jane’s Due Process.

HB 3994 and HB 2531 both increase the burden of proof from a “preponderance of evidence” to “clear and convincing” evidence and require that the minor seeking a bypass appear in court in person.

“The bills have nothing to do with helping pregnant girls,” Hays said. “[They have) everything to do with punishing them and exposing them, and therefore endangering them.”

Melissa del Bosque
Left to Right: Valeria Ramirez, Salma Guzman, Ashlei Levrier-Howell, Yineli Carreon and Jesslyn Garay

It’s early Thursday morning at the Texas Capitol and Yineli Carreon, 18, and Ashlei Levrier-Howell, 17, huddle around a map with three other high school students. They’re trying to find House Speaker Joe Straus’ office but have gotten lost in the confusing maze of hallways and staircases. “We literally just did a circle,” Levrier-Howell laughs. “Yesterday I took the elevator and ended up outside.”

This isn’t a typical school field trip to the Capitol. These high school students are members of the South Texas Youth Congress, a nonprofit started in 2013 to involve South Texas high school students in public policymaking. The program’s executive director, a Corpus Christi educator named Armando Villarreal, modeled the STYC after the Iowa Youth Congress, which he started when he was director of the Iowa Division of Latino Affairs. The STYC currently has 28 members from 14 South Texas counties, each of them voted into the congress by their high school classmates, school administrators and alumni of STYC.

For the past two days, Levrier-Howell, Carreon and 14 other teenagers have been lobbying legislators to pass House Bill 3467, which would allow graduate and medical students to take specialized classes from experts outside of the region via high-speed video streaming. The high school students came up with the idea for the bill, debated and agreed upon its language, and then persuaded state Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez (D-Weslaco) to carry it.

“This goes beyond student council,” says Salma Guzman, a 16-year-old STYC member from Laredo. “We are at the Legislature working to get bills passed. A lot of the representatives are surprised that we are still in high school.”

But now the bill is stuck in a House committee, and the students are making their case to legislators to get the bill moving. After a few minutes, the students find the speaker’s office and Levrier-Howell opens the stately etched-glass door that leads into the reception area. The five young women file inside. Levrier-Howell, the group’s vice president, is confident and poised. She asks the woman at the front desk, Megan Collins, if they can meet with an education policy analyst about their bill. Collins disappears into the depths of the cavernous office.

Levrier-Howell has another year of high school but she’s already mapped out her plans for college. She wants to become a pediatric oncologist. “I’m applying to UT-Austin and to Cornell,” she says, “but when I’m done I want to go back to the border.”

Carreon, the group’s president, will be attending Texas A&M in the fall, where she plans to study to become a certified dietician. She also wants to return home when she’s finished. “We have a high rate of diabetes in South Texas, especially in the colonias,” she says. “I want to help my community.”

The group isn’t happy that the border often gets a bad rap, especially at the Capitol. “I saw this trip as an opportunity to speak out on issues important to my community,” says Carreon. “I don’t appreciate when people try to stereotype us, that we are all the same because of our background and that we won’t get anywhere.”

Villarreal, the executive director of the South Texas Youth Congress, says these high school students represent the new Texas. “Our motto is: ‘The future is here and we are the future,’” he says, “They’re going to have an impact on social policy and bring a whole new type of politics with them. They are more focused on the application and allocation of resources where they are needed and less focused on ideology.”

At the speaker’s office, Collins, the young staffer, returns with disappointing news. The woman in charge of education policy is busy and can’t meet with them. Collins offers to meet with the group and pass their concerns along to Speaker Straus.

Levrier-Howell and the other students follow her into a meeting room, where she, Carreon and the others launch into a pitch for their bill, and how access to post-grad video courses will help their community. “How much will this cost?” Collins wonders, furrowing her brow.

“What we’re asking for first is a feasibility study to determine the cost and where the money might come from,” says Levrier-Howell.

Collins looks impressed. “Wow, so did you say you are in high school?”

Afterward, the students regroup in the hallway. Levrier-Howell says they’ll swing by Straus’ office again later to see if they can meet the education staffer then. “You have to keep going back,” she says.

“I was nervous when I first got to Austin,” Carreon says. “I thought they might question our knowledge on the bill because we are high school students. But now I’m really pumped. There’s a lot of energy in here.”

The high school students are pragmatic about their chances of passing their bill this session. More than most adults, they already understand that getting something passed in the Legislature takes persistence, and probably more than one legislative session. But they have their whole lives in front of them and plenty of time.

“We’ll be back,” Levrier-Howell says. “We’re just getting started.”

The Holy Mother
The Virgin Mary's likeness on a hospitalized boy's arm.

Strangest State is a recurring feature on local news you might have missed from around Texas. From profiles of small-town doctors to monstrous swamp creatures found by local kids, they’re stories that don’t fit… anywhere, really, but we want to be sure don’t go unnoticed. Got a local oddity or some small-town news to share? Tips are welcome at [email protected]

LUFKIN // The new film Fifty Shades of Grey might more aptly be titled “50 Shades of Sin,” according to some East Texas pastors’ recent sermons. “God is not gray, he’s black and white,” Harmony Hill Baptist Church Pastor John Greene told his congregation in late February. “I don’t think anyone can see the movie and leave unscathed.” Fredonia Hill Baptist Church Pastor Pat Kelly sermonized, “It is pornography. It is sickening. It will destroy marriages, OK? Can I just say that?” KTRE-TV’s Blair Ledet explained that the pastors “agree that seeing the film would stir up emotions that shouldn’t be stirred. … Mr. Grey’s version of submission was very different than the Bible’s use of the term.”

GRANBURY // The annual Handsome Hunks of Hood County benefit was a great success, the Hood County News reported, raising $83,000 for Ruth’s Place Clinic by giving some of Granbury’s leading male citizens a catwalk and an audience for suggestive dancing. Firefighter Todd Lane beat out H-E-B manager Pat Wilson and Dr. Romeo Bachand for top honors from the judges. “As the evening wore on at the packed Granbury Resort Conference Center, inhibitions seemed to lower,” the News reported, and emcees were forced to halt one performance after “Granbury City Council member Gary Couch engaged in a 50-Shades-of-Gray-like [sic] dance routine with a woman who seemed to have lost her skirt.”

MIDLAND // Upon waking in a West Texas hospital bed, a boy discovered the likeness of the Virgin Mary imprinted on his arm. Bedsheets had apparently left the mark, either by coincidence or divine intervention, NewsWest9 reported, and though the boy and his family declined to speak with the station, “a friend acknowledges the faith instilled in the family after seeing this image.” Monsignor James Bridges of St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Midland testified to the power of personal revelations, even when the rest of the world expresses doubt. “Others may not be convinced even when they see what you’re pointing out,” Bridges said. “They may not get the same impression.”

ROUND TOP // “While many Fayette County residents will spend Holy Week in church seeking spiritual renewal, others might be worshipping at a different altar, reported The Fayette County Record, thanks to a planned show by an “all-male erotic dance troupe calling itself’American Cowboy Las Vegas Revue.'” Round Top resident Stephanie Welch booked the act to help liven up the annual antiques festival, but some locals told KXAN-TV the antiques show was doing just fine without semi-nude country dancing. Innkeeper Kiki Teague complained that the planned performance “just doesn’t fit. … That’s just not really what Round Top’s been about.” The town of about 80 residents is otherwise best known for pie and antiques, and former Gov. Rick Perry is building a house nearby. County Judge Ed Janecka told KXAN that the show’s timing on Easter weekend, and its location across from a church, “really makes it distasteful to me and the vast population.”

GOLIAD // Rev. Darryl Edwards of Fannin Street United Methodist Church was in the midst of eulogizing church member Sally Bland with a “sermon about God’s timing and love, mentioning that anyone, at any time, can be called to heaven,” when he collapsed and died. “He was talking about how you need to be ready for death because you never know the day or hour,” Edwards’ sister Sheila told the Victoria Advocate, “and about then, it happened.” According to family members, Edwards, 55, had spent his adult life ministering to the Goliad community, at nursing homes, traveling on his motorcycle, or by donating meals from his restaurant, Hack’s Backyard Barbecue. “Those who knew him best say Edwards died doing what he loved. And if he had to die, they wouldn’t have wanted to see him go any other way,” the Advocate reported. “He always said you never know when you’re going to go, so you have got to do what’s right, right now,” his sister said. “His life and death is a ministry.”

WEST COLUMBIA // Brazoria County’s The Facts explored young romance at West Columbia Elementary School on Valentine’s Day, finding the students generally ill-equipped to answer questions about the matter. “That’s because they relate more to having a crush than being in love,” reporter Andy Packard learned. According to his report, second-grader Hailey Eulenfeld’s sister Kayla has a crush on someone, and second-grader Rhett Roundtree claims that two girls in his class like him. Though none were planning to attend the fifth-grade Valentine’s Day dance, the children did provide secondhand confirmation that “dancing and kissing” were common. Having satisfied The Facts’ inquiries, the children then returned to class. “It turns out,” Packard concluded, “the one love they already embrace awaited them back in their classroom: Candy.”

Dennis Bonnen
State Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton)

Who would have thought the biggest fight of the 84th Legislature would be over cutting taxes, an act normally beloved in the halls of the Capitol? Most of the headlines we’ve seen this session have been over guns, gay rights, the border and vouchers, but as the session comes to a close over the next month and a half, it seems likely that the headlining bout will be over two competing tax cut plans. It’s a showdown that is hugely consequential for the future of the state. And the plans offered by the two chambers seem, for now, irreconcilable.

There was some strangeness around the matter of tax cuts early on, as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott seemed to compete over who would call for the biggest, boldest proposal. Dan Patrick asked for $4 billion initially, so Abbott called for $4.4 billion. The Senate answered with a proposal for $4.6 billion in cuts. All the while, the House budget writers kept mum, leaving room in their early budget proposals for tax cuts, but not producing a detailed plan at first.

The Senate proposal is strangely nonsensical. It chops the franchise tax, which is acceptable to almost all parties at the Lege, even Democrats. But the rest of Patrick’s proposal seems less than ideal. He aims to cut Texans’ property taxes. But the state doesn’t administer property taxes; local jurisdictions do. Patrick’s proposals would reimburse local jurisdictions to some degree, but other Senate proposals would greatly restrict the ability of cities and counties to take in revenue.

So Patrick would get to take credit for cutting taxes now, even though local governments around Texas, which are already swimming in debt and face uncertain fiscal futures, would pay the price. There’s also the fact that to make the math work on his proposal, Patrick wants to allow legislators to circumvent the constitutionally enshrined spending cap to pay for tax cuts, now and in the future…. while also tightening the spending cap to ensure that the state has less money to spend. If that doesn’t make sense to you, that’s because it doesn’t make sense.

The House took its time to respond. But last Wednesday, a top lieutenant of House Speaker Joe Straus, state Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), released the House tax plan. The lower chamber would cut franchise taxes too, but property tax relief is nowhere to be found. Instead, the House would lower the state sales tax rate from 6.25 percent to 5.95 percent.

Sales taxes are paid by everyone, not just property owners. And cutting the state sales tax doesn’t hurt local jurisdictions in the same way. What’s more, Bonnen and the House gave themselves a trump card—their tax plan totals $4.87 billion, allowing them to cutely claim that Patrick wants “smaller tax cuts.” Bonnen’s plan will have public testimony on Tuesday morning at the House Committee on Ways and Means meeting.

Neither tax cut package will mean much to the average Texan—certainly not compared to the size of the hole it blows in the state budget. The property tax cuts might mean about $200 a year for the average homeowner. But if you don’t pay property taxes—if you live in an apartment, for example—you get nothing.

Bonnen, meanwhile, boasts that the sales tax cut could mean $172 a year for “a family of four.” If that savings comes only from the reduced sales tax the family pays at stores, it assumes that the family of four is spending $57,000 on taxed goods every year, which is just a little bit less than the median total income of a four-person family in Texas.

To be fair, Bonnen’s analysis probably also assumes the family will save money from cheaper goods and services as a result of the business-side implications of the tax. Big businesses are the main beneficiaries of a sales tax cut, though its advocates would say the savings will get passed on to you.

To put it a different way, under the House plan, you’ll save 30 cents with each purchase of $100 of taxable goods. For every $1,000 of stuff you buy, then, you’ll be able to afford three hours of parking in downtown Austin. Oh happy day!

But the efficacy of these plans is beside the point—the fight has become a measuring contest of the virility of each chamber. Patrick slammed Bonnen’s plan, which he said in an unusually cutting statement was “out of step with Texans, my office, the Senate and the Governor.” He noted that Abbott had called for property tax relief in his State of the State speech and implied Abbott was on his side in this dispute, continuing his habit of putting words in the governor’s mouth, which is surely appreciated by Abbott’s team. (On Thursday, Abbott spoke briefly about tax cuts in Houston but said nothing specific on the issue of property vs. sales tax cuts.)

During a TV interview, Bonnen punched back. “It’s not my role to say what the governor thinks about tax cuts. Respectfully, it’s not the lieutenant governor’s either,” he said. Why was Patrick so focused on property taxes? “I think he’s just concerned about campaign promises he’s made,” said Bonnen.

How does this get resolved? Big business is steadfastly behind the House plan, while Patrick’s base loathes property taxes. Patrick and state Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), who runs the Senate Finance Committee, show no sign of backing down. “I have never had a constituent tell me they want a cut in sales tax—ever,” Nelson told reporters. “I’ve had lots of constituents come and complain about property taxes.”

Patrick can’t retreat completely from his property tax plan—he’s too far in. And, moreover, he needs a big and flashy signature accomplishment for his first session. He came in with too much bluster, and with too many promises made to the people who elected him, to leave the session with a few smaller education bills, and some money for border security wrestled from the House. This was a man who, in his inaugural address, promised to “secure the border in this session” and invoked the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. to sell the changes he wants to make to state government. One imagines him staring intently at a full bathtub, attempting to part the waters with his mind.

Whatever his future plans are, he needs a trophy come June. And at this point, the best candidate for that trophy is a tax plan that doesn’t do much for most Texans, blows a giant hole in the budget of state and local governments, and requires trick budget math to pull off. Go figure, right? And the House is doubling down in its efforts to keep it from him with bad policy of its own.


With more than 20 anti-LGBT bills pending in the Texas Legislature, a coalition of major employers in the state — including Dell, Samsung and Southwest Airlines — is making the business case for fair treatment of gay, bisexual and transgender people.

More than 50 businesses have joined the coalition, called Texas Competes, by signing a pledge saying LGBT inclusion is essential to maintaining the Texas brand, attracting top talent and new companies to the state, and supporting a healthy tourism industry.

The full list of businesses, which includes 13 from the Fortune 500, will be unveiled Tuesday at a press conference in Austin featuring representatives from the Texas Association of Business, South By Southwest and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

Texas Competes spokesman James Shackelford said the coalition won’t take positions on specific legislation and that the effort has been in the works for months, long before anti-LGBT religious freedom laws in Indiana and Arkansas sparked historic backlash from the corporate sector.

“But obviously the timing, when it’s launching and when we’re going public with it, is important,” Shackelford told the Observer.

The Texas Association of Business, the state’s powerful chamber of commerce, has come out against two religious freedom amendments that critics say would enshrine a license to discriminate against LGBT people in the constitution. However, dozens of other measures also target LGBT rights, from statutory religious exemption bills to proposals that would ban local nondiscrimination protections and transgender restroom use.

“Texas is an economic powerhouse because it’s a place where talented people, entrepreneurs and companies want to call home. But our competitiveness is in jeopardy if Texas does not become a place that is welcoming to LGBT workers and families,” Texas Competes advisory board member and former Dell CFO Tom Meredith said in a statement. “Businesses that embrace diversity are doing both the right thing and the economically smart thing.”

UPDATE, 4/14: Below is an update list of those who’ve signed the Texas Competes pledge: