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Rick Perry addresses a joint session of the Legislature near the end of his final term in office.
Christopher Hooks
Rick Perry addresses a joint session of the Legislature near the end of his final term in office.

A child born when Rick Perry became governor of Texas would now be in her freshman year of high school: The guv’s been with us for so long that it’s difficult to remember what life was like before his immaculately-coiffed visage appeared atop the state’s public life in that gleaming, pre-9/11 interregnum between the Clinton and W. Bush administrations. But now, he’s finally, finally, finally leaving.

Governor Goodhair, as the Observer’s Molly Ivins used to call him, said goodbye to the Texas Legislature today, where he’d gotten his start some 30 years ago. He’s been governor so long that we’ve seen several different iterations of Perry, as if he were a teenager exploring new trends—there was the handsome young fellow who was elevated to governor thanks in large part to Karl Rove and Bush-era machinations, but who nobody expected to last this long. He went through a more heavily Christian phase during the Bush years, and then joined the Tenthers. After his run for president, he bought glasses, and fashioned himself into the kind of man who wears glasses confidently.

This was an opportunity to wrap it all up into a cohesive whole—as well as all that had happened in the last decade and a half—and he made the attempt. The soaring eagle of Texas had flown through the canyon of adversity and found itself in the gentle forests of triumph. He quoted Lincoln, and recounted his biography and Texas’ job numbers.

“Texas doesn’t recognize artificial barriers of race, class, or creed. The most vivid dreams take flight from the most humble beginnings. And so it was for me,” he said. From Paint Creek, a mighty tree had grown, a tree named Perry. The Legislature, he said, was in the “business of making dreams possible. Every dream counts, every child matters, and in Texas, every child has a chance.”

His Texas had been tested, by the disintegration of a space shuttle—he meant Columbia, but called it Challenger—hurricanes, wildfires, Ebola and Central American teenagers. But Texans were a “people whose character has been refined by fire, whose souls are resilient, who respond to tragedy with grace and who look to the future with hope.”

There were a few digs at Barry O—“We do not accept the false choice the president offers between protecting the environment and declaring war on American industry”—a few brags on Texas’ cultural growth since 2000—more theater seats, performing arts centers, South by Southwest and Formula One.

He touted efforts that took place during his tenure on criminal sentencing reform, and he urged the next Legislature to “get beyond our differences and seek common ground,” which is the kind of thing a politician is expected to say when he’s about to leave office, even if he’s never cared about it much before. “Compromise is not a dirty word if it moves Texas forward.”

He praised Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick and Joe Straus, and said he knows the “future is in good hands.” His final admonition: “Be true to Texas, always, and she will be true to you. Good luck, Godspeed, God bless you, and through you, may God bless Texas.” He took his wife Anita by the hand and descended the stairs, to healthy applause.

Goodbye, governor. We’ll see you in Iowa.

Senate Education Committee chair Dan Patrick (R-Houston)
Patrick Michels
Sen. Dan Patrick presides over a committee meeting.

At a press conference this morning, Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick announced a new pillar of his transition: the creation of six advisory boards, filled with businesspeople, to guide him on public policy. At first, that might sound useful. The business community as a whole has sometimes been a helpful voice in favor of transportation, water infrastructure and education spending.

But the list of names Patrick released today aren’t neutral technocrats and disinterested businesspeople—many are longtime GOP donors, and many have a strong personal interest in what the state does and doesn’t do. As a whole, the six panels—economic and workforce development, economic forecasting, energy/oil & gas, tax policy, transportation and water—represent a potential rat’s nest of conflicts of interest and influence peddling.

At the press conference, Patrick touted the boards as an unprecedented effort to close the ever-narrowing gap between the public and private sectors. He was proud, he said, to be able to reach out to a marginalized and voiceless community in Texas: big business. Often in Texas, Patrick said, “the private sector is asked for help by a candidate but after they get elected, there’s not much follow up.”

He asked: “Why would you want a legislative body to disconnect themselves from the private sector?” Pointing to the fact that the state’s legislators work part-time and need to find income elsewhere, he said of the Legislature: “We’re all in business.” Indeed!

The boards, which will meet privately, will be called upon by the lieutenant governor to give advice, but will also generate their own policy proposals. Patrick said he wouldn’t be shy about telling the public which proposals had come from the advisory panels. One major proposal already has.

Last week, Patrick released a rough draft of his agenda—among big-picture items like education reform and transportation funding, he included a curious provision. The state should strengthen and support the market for natural gas, Patrick said. Twenty percent of new vehicles purchased by state agencies should run on compressed natural gas, or CNG.

Today, Patrick said, his new love of natural gas had come from conversations with business leaders, like his new friends on the energy/oil & gas advisory board. The leader of the board is Dallas billionaire T. Boone Pickens, who for years has heavily invested in natural gas and has attempted, with limited success, to expand the market share of CNG vehicles.

His California-based company, Clean Energy Fuels Corp., has been angling to become a CNG leader. In January of 2014, the Los Angeles Times reported that Clean Energy was losing money and in need of finding new vehicle fleets it could serve.

Natural gas vehicles might well be a great idea, but that’s beside the point—the inclusion of people who stand to make money by advocating certain policies in the policy-making process in this very public way is problematic on its face. At a minimum, many citizens will perceive it as cronyism.

You see the potential for conflicts of interest up and down Patrick’s boards. Also on the energy/oil & gas panel are Tim Dunn, the Midland oilman who single-handedly finances important parts of the state’s conservative network, and who has been in a war with House Speaker Joe Straus for years, and Javaid Anwar, another Midland oilman and GOP donor who gave heavily to Rick Perry’s presidential run.

Then there’s Brint Ryan, who will lead Patrick’s new tax policy advisory board. He’s a tax consultant who specializes in helping companies like Raytheon and ExxonMobil win Texas tax breaks. He is, in other words, one of the top practitioners of what the left and tea party alike call “corporate welfare.” And, of course, he’s a major GOP donor—he gave $250,000 to Rick Perry’s presidential campaign effort alone.

Ned Holmes, who will lead Patrick’s transportation panel, is a Houston real estate developer, a major GOP donor, and a prominent supporter of Greg Abbott. He’s not exactly new to state government—someone who can bring fresh, outside ideas into play. He donated almost $200,000 to Rick Perry before Perry appointed him to the Texas Transportation Commission in 2007, where he made a special effort to support projects favored by Houston developers like himself. He’s a current board member of the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas. He has a strange and slightly cryptic business history.

There are 55 names on this morning’s list in total—the above is what resulted from a cursory scan and a few quick searches.

This morning, Patrick touted the panels as being like a “team of rivals,” the name of a Doris Kearns Goodwin book that describes how Abraham Lincoln convened political enemies to serve in his cabinet. Not all of the figures on the panels were his supporters, he said. But there’s only one notable Democrat, Alonzo Cantu from McAllen. The rest might not have supported him in his last primary, but it would seem highly likely that they’ll be donors next time.

Of course, influence peddling is not new to the Legislature, and we’ve had these kinds of advisory panels before—Patrick’s spokesman pointed to one in 1981. But this feels new, if only in scope. And it’s already affecting the policies the 84th Legislature generates.

In the past, a lieutenant governor might have tried to obscure, if only superficially, the fact that he took policy direction from some of the state’s richest oilmen. But Patrick’s approach is, in a way, a classically Texas approach: Make influence-peddling transparent, and, suddenly, it doesn’t seem so bad. Now, it’s the seamless interchange of ideas and policies between the public and private sector. Don’t you feel better already?

University of Texas-Pan American student Nahiely Garcia is consoled as she speaks at rally in support of Texas DREAM Act
Kelsey Jukam
University of Texas-Pan American student Nahiely Garcia is consoled as she speaks at a rally in support of the Texas DREAM Act.

On the second day of the 84th Texas Legislature, an alliance of students, Hispanic advocates and business leaders assembled on the south steps of the Capitol to announce their commitment to the Texas DREAM Act.

The act, passed in 2001, allows undocumented students who graduate from Texas high schools and who have been in the state at least three years to pay in-state tuition at community colleges and public universities.

Incoming Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has vowed to repeal the act, and state Reps. Mark Keogh (R-The Woodlands) and Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) have filed bills—HB 360 and HB 209 respectively—to do just that.

Advocates claim that the repeal of the Texas DREAM Act may have disastrous consequences.

“If Texas goes the wrong way on this issue, these dreamers will be virtually denied an education, said Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business

There are some 16,000 so-called dreamers—undocumented college students paying in-state tuition.

State Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) said the DREAM Act enables hard-working young people to graduate from college, obtain jobs and contribute to their communities and the state’s economy.

“Instead of being on defense, ladies and gentlemen, I’m going on offense,” Anchia said. “I’ll be filing a concurrent resolution to confirm and support the Texas DREAM Act.”

Eduardo Maldonado, a 21-year-old University of North Texas psychology major, was one of the dozens of dreamers at the rally.

“I’ve been here 17 years, and I consider myself American and Texan. I grew up here. This is who I am,” Maldonado told the Observer. “I deserve the chance to attend college.”

The rally came a day after another group of national and state Hispanic advocacy organizations, including the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) and Hispanics Organized for Political Education (Texas HOPE), held a gathering on the south steps of the Capitol.

“The DREAM Act is an amazing example of what’s right about Texas Education,” said Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin. “It is morally criminal to take it away.”

 

State Rep. Scott Turner speaks to party faithful at the 2014 state Republican convention.
Timothy Faust
State Rep. Scott Turner speaks to party faithful at the 2014 state Republican convention.

For a year, Scott Turner had been campaigning for House Speaker. He’d been campaigning in tiny tea party meeting rooms across the state and he had campaigned at the state Republican convention, where a vast trove of Turner-branded trinkets were distributed to the faithful. He was the champion of the considerable and monied machinery that had been trying to undo House Speaker Joe Straus, who’s carefully maintained a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans since he was elected to the position by his fellow representatives six years ago.

Turner had the backing of the tea party faithful, who he’d told he would help protect from a menacing and darkening world. He had the backing of the Christian right, whose leadership has never been altogether too comfortable with the fact that Straus is Jewish. He even had the backing of a number of senators, who spoke strongly in his favor at a rally yesterday. But he didn’t have the support of the only people who mattered in the end—the members of the House. And so he got trampled today, 127 to 19.

First, though, came a series of not-too-titillating speeches—four Straus allies, including Democrat Rene Oliveira (D-Brownsville), emphasized his record and policy credentials, while four Turner allies talked about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, and invoked Shakespeare and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (To be fair, the last three belonged to Fort Worth’s Matt Krause.)

It was unsurprising to anyone who’d been paying attention to the Lege, but it was still a margin Straus could feel good about. The House—while by no means a liberal body, or even that moderate—will serve as a check on the Senate’s most conservative instincts this year.

Amy Zimmerman, a Turner supporter from Grayson County who traveled down with the McKinney Tea Party, found herself wandering around the Capitol’s library after the vote in her Scott Turner t-shirt. She said the result wasn’t a surprise, but she still seemed a little emotional.

“We’re having an issue with what the people want, and what the legislators want,” she said, adding that conservatives like her, who have just emerged from their most successful election cycle in the state’s history, are “frustrated and at the breaking point.”

The representatives were scared, and they wouldn’t do what was right. Everyone knew what was right, she said. What had Straus done to frustrate people like her so much? He’d held up bills “on gun rights and Sharia law.” Straus’ “cronies” had killed them. Corruption carried the day whenever Devil Joe held the gavel.

Even tea party reps like Giovanni Capriglione (R-South Lake) had let them down. Maybe, some tea partiers have said, they need to be replaced. So tomorrow—with Tim Dunn’s money—they’d start anew. Straus’ allies were less solemn. When it came time to vote, Jason Embry, the speaker’s spokesman, tweeted: “Remember this moment.”

State Rep. Matt Shaheen
City of Plano
State Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano) speaks against the city's equal rights ordinance at a Dec. 8 City Council meeting.

Four Republican lawmakers from the Plano area plan to introduce legislation that would bar cities and counties from adopting ordinances prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people, the Observer has learned. The proposed legislation also threatens to nullify existing LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances in cities that are home to roughly 7.5 million Texans—or more than one-quarter of the state’s population.

The bill comes in response to the Plano City Council’s passage last month of an equal rights ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations.

“There is legislation that’s being worked on,” Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano) told a group of pastors who gathered in mid-December at Plano’s Prestonwood Baptist Church in response to passage of the city’s equal rights ordinance, according to an audio recording obtained by the Observer.

 

“Jeff Leach, who’s also a state representative—he and I represent the majority of Plano—he’s actually leading an effort to nullify these types of ordinances statewide,” Shaheen said. “There’s actually four state representatives that represent Plano—all of us will be joint authors of that legislation—but Rep. Leach will lead that effort.”

Shaheen declined the Observer’s request for an interview about the legislation, which had not yet been filed as the session got under way Tuesday. Shaheen, Leach and the other two GOP Plano lawmakers—Reps. Pat Fallon and Jodie Laubenberg—wrote a letter to the Plano City Council opposing the equal rights irdinance prior to its passage. Calls to the offices of Fallon, Leach and Laubenberg went unreturned.

Texas Pastor Council Executive Director Dave Welch discusses efforts to repeal Houston's equal rights ordinance last year.
Via Vimeo
Texas Pastor Council Executive Director Dave Welch discusses efforts to repeal Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance last year.

Texas Pastor Council Executive Director David Welch, whose group is leading efforts to repeal equal rights ordinances in Plano and Houston, told the Observer the legislation would prohibit political subdivisions of the state from adding classes to nondiscrimination ordinances that aren’t protected under Texas or federal law—neither of which covers LGBT people.

“It should be a uniform standard statewide, and cities can’t just arbitrarily create new classes that criminalize a whole segment of the majority of the population,” Welch said. “It’s just self-evident that they’re going to try to do it city by city. We’re dealing with a broad public policy that creates criminal punishments. That’s a pretty serious issue, and when it’s based on a special agenda by a small, tiny fragment of the population … that’s a legitimate need and reason for the state Legislature to act.”

Welch’s group is facing a Jan. 20 deadline to gather enough signatures to place a repeal of Plano’s equal rights ordinance on the May ballot. On the same day, a trial is set to begin in the lawsuit aimed at repealing Houston’s equal rights ordinance.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers in both the House and Senate have introduced proposed constitutional amendments—branded by progressives as “license to discriminate” measures—that would carve out broad religious exemptions to local anti-bias laws.

But the Plano Republicans’ bill would need only simple majorities in both chambers, instead of two-thirds for a constitutional amendment. And the bill is effectively a nuclear option that could abruptly end fights in Houston and Plano. Other cities with LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances at risk of being nullified include Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth and San Antonio. In some cases, the laws are decades old.

“Nobody supports discrimination and nobody supports discriminating against anybody in the GLBT community,” Welch told the Observer. “What we’re against is laws that are passed that essentially give them privileged-class status and threaten with criminal penalties business owners and individuals and ultimately churches and pastors for practicing historic beliefs that have been part of this country since it’s founding, and that’s something that’s a direct threat against our First Amendment, and that’s what this is all about.”

LGBT advocates counter that Texas already provides strong protections for religious freedom in both the Texas Constitution and in a 1999 statute, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. According to a 2013 Equality Texas poll, more than 75 percent of Texans support bans on employment and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Currently, the only state with a law prohibiting cities from enacting LGBT nondiscrimination ordinances is Tennessee. The Tennessee law, passed in 2011, prompted a lawsuit from the National Center for Lesbian Rights, but a state appeals court recently dismissed the case, saying plaintiffs didn’t have standing because they couldn’t show harm.

Shannon Minter
Shannon Minter

Shannon Minter, a Texas native who serves as legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said he now plans to file a federal lawsuit challenging the Tennessee ban.

Lawmakers in several other states have introduced proposals to ban local nondiscrimination ordinances, but none has passed. Minter said in the last few years anti-LGBT lawmakers have shifted to a religious freedom approach to counter local nondiscrimination ordinances because the strategy is more appealing politically.

“Because the Tennessee-style bill is so punitive toward all localities, I think that it’s so blatantly taking democratic power away from local governments that legislators just don’t have the stomach to do it,” Minter said.

The lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s law was based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1996 decision in Romer v. Evans, which struck down a Colorado law banning local protections based on sexual orientation. Authors of the Tennessee bill  attempted to to get around Romer v. Evans by enacting a general prohibition on classes that aren’t covered under state law, rather than specifically targeting LGBT protections. However, Minter believes the law is still unconstitutional.

“Legislatures are not permitted to enact laws that are designed to disadvantage a particular group, and it’s as clear as it could possibly be that the purpose of these laws is to prevent gay and transgender people from gaining local anti-discrimination protections,” he said.

Tennessee lawmakers introduced the legislation in response to a nondiscrimination ordinance in one city, Nashville, and Minter said the Texas proposals broader impact would also make it more vulnerable to legal challenges.

Minter said the Tennessee bill passed in part because businesses in the state were too late in voicing their opposition.

“Hopefully this time in Texas the response will be more immediate, and I hope the legislators listen to the business community and do not do something that’s going to really hurt the Texas economy,” Minter said.

It’s been widely speculated that Plano passed its equal rights ordinance in response to Toyota’s decision to relocate a major facility to the city, after the company’s employees expressed concern about the lack of LGBT protections in Texas. Plano-based Frito-Lay also sent a letter to the City Council in support of the equal rights ordinance.

But Welch dismissed the argument that efforts to undo local nondiscrimination ordinances will hurt business, calling it “a red herring.” He said one of the engines of Texas’ strong economy is its “family-friendly” climate.

“We’re not going to let corporations, Toyota or anybody else, come in and dictate to the community what our standards are going to be on a moral level and religious level,” Welch said. “Companies like Frito-Lay had better take thought of who their customers are before they start trying to step up and ramrod these things though, because we will remember.”

Swingset
Vivan Farinazzo

Back in 2011, when Texas legislators announced their plan to improve the child welfare system through privatization, advocates expressed alarm. In 2013, after partial implementation of the plan, an even larger chorus begged lawmakers to slow the rollout until it became clear whether it would work. Now, as the Texas legislature convenes again, a new voice is calling for a halt: the House and Human Services Committee.

Last week, the key legislative committee suggested that the state temporarily stop the rollout of controversial reforms to the child welfare system. Opponents have said the partial privatization of the state system responsible for thousands of foster children—known as “foster care redesign”—is a hasty and potentially detrimental overhaul.

In its interim report, the Committee recommending that the Department of Family and Protective Services stop contracting with any new private companies to manage the sprawling foster care system. The committee said lawmakers and child welfare experts need more time to study how effective foster care reforms have been so far. That’s exactly what stakeholders told the Observer last year, when we reported on potential problems with redesign that have since come to pass.

Foster care redesign is an effort by the Department of Family and Protectives Services, which oversees administration and regulation of the foster care system, to keep children who are removed from their families due to abuse and neglect closer to their home communities.

The “halt order” comes amid concern from critics about the cost of reform and safety of foster children in the new system.

The original 2011 legislation put into the motion the state’s foray into foster care reform, with one caveat: the redesign must cost the same to implement as the old system. Since then only two lead companies have been tapped to take over portions of the system.

But last time we checked, the first two contractors were considerably over budget, and more money will be needed to provide new services. The first company, the for-profit Providence Services Corporation, pulled out of their contract just 11 months into the rollout, citing cost as one of their reasons.

After a rash of child deaths in the system in 2013, child welfare advocates were wary reform efforts wouldn’t keep kids safe. And last year, the redesign was called a “risky endeavor” by the Sunset Advisory Commission, a legislative committee that monitors and has the authority to shut down government agencies.

The reform set up goes like this: the Department contracts some administrative and regulatory duties to the different private lead companies. Those contractors, in turn, manage willing private child-placing agencies within their allotted region of the state, or “catchment area.” Before reform began agencies contracted individually with the state to manage and recruit foster families, or run group homes or intensive treatment centers for children who wouldn’t do well in a family setting.

Since Providence pulled out, only one company currently contracts with the state to provide services under the redesign model. The not-for-profit Our Community Our Kids, a branch of the 100-year-old not-for-profit ACH Child and Family Services, has managed a small seven-county region near Dallas since December 2013. The Commission’s recommendation does not affect Our Community Our Kids’ continuing contract and service in their area, it only asks that the Department keep from implementing reform in the other 247 counties in the state.

Commissioner John Specia, who heads the Department of Family and Protective Services, said he has no plans to abandon foster care redesign.

Department spokesman Patrick Crimmins sent the Observer this email response when asked what their plans were:

“Our comment: We understand the committee’s recommendation and we are proceeding very deliberately with [redesign], and continuing careful analysis of the data, and will not be expanding to any other catchment areas until authorized by the Legislature. We’re continuing work on a long-term implementation plan for redesign as recommended by the Sunset Advisory Commission, and hope to have that completed in a few months.” 

Ashley Harris, with children’s advocacy group Texans Care for Children, said the state should stop its privatization bid and called on the Legislature to give more direction on the issue.

“It’s been made pretty clear especially with this latest house interim report that the Department really needs to step back and get some things in order before they continue their privatization effort,” she said. “When it comes to kids in foster care maybe we should actually make well-informed decisions before moving forward with things that could be ultimately more detrimental, if not harmful to [kids’] stability and well-being.”

Comptroller Glenn Hegar
Comptroller Glenn Hegar

The legislative session won’t kick off in earnest until tomorrow, but the starting pistol shot came today, when new Comptroller Glenn Hegar released his first biennial revenue estimate. It’s Hegar’s job to predict the levels of funding the state can count on for each biennial budget period, and his estimates set the boundaries of the Legislature’s budget negotiations. He’s basically asked to predict the future and set a ceiling on how much lawmakers can spend.

A number of Lege-watchers, including a number of legislators, expected Hegar to produce a fairly conservative budget estimate. In 2011, the office dramatically overcorrected during the economic slowdown, and the Legislature ended up having to make a lot of unnecessary cuts, especially to public education. The recent oil shock, and some unhappy predictions for the state from a number of national economists, had some thinking that the comptroller’s office would once again play it safe.

But Hegar’s estimate is comparatively rosy, actually. The comptroller’s office estimates that the state is going to pull in a little over $110 billion dollars during the next biennium, plus $7.5 billion in “surplus” revenue at the end of the current one. With $5 billion of that $110 billion being split between the state highway fund and the state’s rainy day fund, the men and women of the 84th session will have, Hegar says, about $113 billion for the next budget.

To put that into perspective, the budget for the 2014-15 biennium was about $95 billion. According to the left-leaning think tank Center for Public Policy Priorities, it would take $101 billion this session just to maintain the level of services that were provided for in the old budget—new money needed in part because of the state’s rapid population growth. But that would still leave $12 billion for legislators to play with.
why-it-counts

On one hand, it’s not a crisis budget, and it’s not one that will require legislators to make cuts (though they might anyway.) The office of Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick released a brief statement that characterized the comptroller’s estimate as a green light for his agenda, which has included the promise of significant tax cuts: It provided “adequate revenue to secure our border, provide property and business tax relief while focusing on education and infrastructure. I intend to accomplish these goals.”

On the other, the “surplus” is a lot less than it looks at first glance, in part because the amount of budget trickery the Legislature has employed over the years. Gov.-elect Greg Abbott and Patrick have called for ending road funding diversions and making the Texas Department of Transportation whole again. But about $3 billion in additional revenue is needed to end diversions, and TxDOT says it needs an additional $5 billion just to keep the system at the current level of congestion—that is, without making any forward progress.

In education, the state has not yet gotten back to the level of funding that preceded 2011’s gargantuan cuts to public ed—a portion was restored in 2013, but a significant amount of money is needed even beyond what was the case in 2011, thanks to population growth. And it’s unclear how proposed voucher programs would affect the system’s overall cost.

And then there’s tax cuts. The truly sweeping tax overhauls that were talked about during the election, like substituting property taxes for increased sales taxes, seem to have fallen off the radar for now. In the past, GOP lawmakers of all stripes have passed minor tax bills and sold them to the voters as massive ones. That may be Patrick’s play, but even modest tax reductions will shave the “surplus” down in a hurry.

On the general state of the economy, Hegar told reporters that he didn’t see Texas heading toward a recession this year. The economy, he said, “will continue to expand, but at a much slower pace than we’ve seen recently.” His estimate, he said, was premised on the price for a barrel of oil returning to $65 a barrel in the last four months of this year, with it continuing an upward trajectory thereafter. That’s roughly in line with Goldman Sachs’ projection, though the Houston Chronicle’s Chris Tomlinson reported industry speculation that the price slump would last 18 months to two years. A lot depends on how it unwinds.

The bottom line: The budgetary picture legislators will be pondering as the session starts is not nearly as bad as it might have been—but it remains difficult to see the state fully coping with long-standing under-investment in schools, roads and social services.

Peter Klein #JeSuisCharlie

Editor’s note: As director of the Global Reporting Centre at the University of British Columbia, Peter Klein travels to Europe, Asia and Africa to report under-covered stories with impact on North America. The Observer asked him to reflect on the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, on the alarming rise in ethnic tensions across Europe and how journalism education is fighting xenophobia by empowering marginalized European communities.

VANCOUVER—On the day of the horrific attack on the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, people around the world tweeted the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie and held up a pen in solidarity with the journalists who were brutally murdered. I joined the crowd, putting the message pictured at right on the Global Reporting Centre’s Facebook page.

The next day, pundits weighed in, calling the hashtag callow and shallow and, even worse, racist. Charlie Hebdo published admittedly offensive images of the prophet Mohammed, which surely offended many people beyond just the fundamentalist Muslims who decided to shoot up the office and murder a dozen journalists and artists. The argument goes: Those who proclaimed “I am Charlie” were essentially saying “I am a bigot.”

On Friday, the same group of terrorists attacked a Jewish deli, taking hostages, murdering several people and eventually committing suicide by cop. They hijacked the narrative they themselves created and confounded the world community that had come together in solidarity of the satirical newspaper. So they don’t like journalists and they don’t like Jews?

Theodor Herzl, a secular Jewish Hungarian journalist in the late 1800s, experienced such deep hostility that he was convinced the only safe place for someone like him was a new Jewish homeland. He went on to found modern Zionism, which has been one of the sources of anger for French Muslims.

Last summer, a violent anti-Jewish riot broke out in a Paris suburb, with stores looted and two synagogues attacked. A week later a man in Toulouse firebombed a Jewish community center, in the same community where a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school were murdered a couple years before. Jewish headstones have been sprayed with swastikas, and a bizarre backward Nazi salute, known as the quenelle salute, seems to be gaining popularity.

At the same time, the Pegida movement—Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West—is gaining popularity. Last Monday, two days before the Charlie Hebdo attack, the group organized a record 18,000-person anti-Muslim march in the German city of Dresden—the same city that was leveled by the Allies the last time they exhibited Nazi sympathies. In France, tensions between the largely disenfranchised Muslim communities and the country have been increasing for years, which is precisely what Charlie Hebdo was trying to highlight. Since the attack last week, several mosques have been attacked with racist graffiti and small explosives.

So what’s going on here? Who should we hate? Who should get our sympathies? The Muslims, who are relegated to slums and derision, but in whose name the recent terrorists acts were carried out? The Jews, who have a long history of trouble in Europe?

This week, in a stroke of sad serendipity, we are launching Strangers at Home, which aims to empower the voices of marginalized Europeans who have been targets of the rising xenophobia throughout the continent.

There’s a quiet ethnic war going on in Europe that much of the world has ignored. In addition to the troubling and familiar trend of anti-Semitism and the sure-to-increase animosity towards Muslims, immigrant groups throughout the continent have come under attack. And Europe’s largest “minority” group, the Roma, is increasingly being targeted by both racist groups and politicians—with more than 10,000 so-called “gypsies” deported from France last year alone. The Global Reporting Centre is funding and empowering European storytellers to tell these stories.

Discussing these complex issues is the only way to stop the violence that seems to be simmering. So I stand by the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie, because the magazine was for free expression. #JeSuisMusulman, because much of Europe seems to be against them these days. #JeSuisRoma, since much of Europe has been against them for centuries. #JeSuisJuif, because we’ve seen this all before.

#JeSuisEverythingButTheTerrorists.

Craig Estes
Craig Estes

During a panel on immigration at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s annual policy orientation in Austin, Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls) was asked by the moderator, John Fund of National Review, what can be done about the ideological divide over immigration policy between traditional Republicans and the tea party.

Estes’ response: “We have to realize we’re not a bunch of white people, we’re not a party of skin color, we’re a party of ideas.”

During the last few years, some mainline and business-oriented Republicans have cautiously favored comprehensive immigration reform, fearing a demographic future where whites are a voting minority, while tea partiers have pushed for a nativist approach: simply deporting the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

What “ideas” did Estes have in mind? He went on to articulate a fairly standard tea party line on immigration and border security.

Estes warned of dangerous drug cartels, sex slaves and mules coming across the border.

“These people are vicious,” Estes said. “They have no place in our country, and the Texas Legislature will do everything we can to stop it.”

Estes said he would work to close the social safety net for undocumented immigrants and repeal the Texas DREAM Act, which allows undocumented students who graduate from Texas high schools and who have been here at least three years to pay in-state tuition at community colleges and public universities.

JoAnn Fleming, chair of the Texas Legislature’s TEA Party Caucus Advisory Committee, spoke after Estes.

“The rule of law has been abandoned in the United States,” Fleming said. “If we continue we’ll end up with problems like we see in Europe.”

Estes nodded as Fleming spoke. “You can tell I get worked up about this,” he said.

Perry's eagerness and Gingrich's grim affect provided a strong contrast.
TPPF
Perry's eagerness and Gingrich's grim affect provided a strong contrast.

Today’s attendees of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s pre-session policy conference were treated to an unusual privilege—the chance to see two figures at the bleeding edge of Republican politics in the same room. Yes, you got it right: Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich, together again. The two sat for a lunchtime talk with Stephen Moore of the Heritage Foundation.

Every public appearance Perry makes these days is an opportunity to gauge how much progress he’s made since the “oops” days. In his formal speeches, and in media appearances, the answer is “not much,” more often than not. When he’s suitably relaxed and in a casual setting, like today, it’s a bit more complicated. You can see parts of his personality that would do well in another presidential run, and Newt’s dour presence on stage helped highlight them.

And boy, does Perry want it. Both men flamed out in the 2012 presidential election, but it’s easy to forget that Gingrich—who even at the time seemed to be one of the numerous GOP candidates who run for president solely to refresh their personal brand and juice their future speaking fees—did significantly better than Perry, who was running in earnest. Gingrich won two states, South Carolina and Georgia; Perry won some punchlines.

But Gingrich, who gives off a weirdly antisocial vibe much of the time, clearly doesn’t care anymore, if he ever did. Slumped in his chair like an overstuffed tourist in a beach chair, he launched into periodic wordy invective of the kind that briefly charmed Southern voters during the last go-round.

The EPA, he intoned to his audience, was a tool of “liberal ideological implementation” purposefully designed to destroy American industry. He called New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio a “quintessential nut-case left-wing fantasist,” while Perry, momentarily distracted, played with his fingertips. When Gingrich was asked for the first three things he would do as president, Gingrich told the crowd he agreed with Perry’s list, then told the audience they should buy his friend’s recently-written thriller, Day of Wrath, a chilling tale about ISIS and the Mexican border.

If Gingrich was dour, Perry was a bit of a doofus, but not in an altogether unappealing way. He had no books to sell. He spoke about the need for Republicans to peel away Democratic constituencies with a message of opportunity: The party of the donkey had failed to craft an economic message for the middle and working class, and his experience in Texas, he said, would allow him to take advantage.

But the party had to “not take the bait on social issues that pull us apart.” That wasn’t advice he had followed in his last campaign, when his advisors responded to a slide in popularity with crude gay-baiting. But he seemed to believe it well enough today.

In formal settings, Perry comes off as stiff and a little lost: Today, he wore the sunny effusiveness that wins rooms. While Gingrich dropped references to Faulkner and grimly intoned about the country’s future, Perry impressed upon the crowd his marketable background: “When the child of tenant farmers can become governor of Texas, that’s a great story.”

And while Gingrich talked about the necessity of getting teens to work to keep them out of gangs—”Benjamin Franklin was apprenticed when he was 13”—Perry told the room that “the best days of this country, the best days of this state are in front of us.”

He leaned eagerly toward the crowd to speak, and toward Gingrich when Newt spoke. When he concluded his last riff on the universality of the “Texas model”—he’s made a decision not to call it a miracle anymore—he clenched his fist in satisfaction with his message and delivery.

Still, it’s possible to imagine this Perry impressing rooms full of Iowans and South Carolinians. And though the 14-year governor might feel like old news, it’s worth remembering that the two GOPers most in the news now for their 2016 prospects, Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney, both last held office in 2007.