Texas Barnett Shale gas drilling rig near Alvarado, Texas
Barnett Shale rig

New research suggests that pollution from fracking contributes a much larger share of Dallas-Fort Worth’s smog problem than state officials have said. The study, conducted by Mahdi Ahmadi, a graduate student at the University of North Texas, was presented at a clean-air meeting this morning in Arlington. The Observer received a copy of the presentation.

Ahmadi analyzed data from 16 air-quality monitors in the Metroplex going back to 1997, looking for a connection between oil and gas production and ozone. Seven of the sites were east of Denton, outside of the Barnett Shale, and nine were located in the shale area, close to oil and gas activity.

Ahmadi’s twist is that he adjusted for meteorological conditions, including air temperature, wind speed and sunlight—key ingredients in ozone formation. Backing natural factors out of the data allowed Ahmadi to better pinpoint human factors, including the link between fracking and ozone formation.

He found that while smog levels have dropped overall since the late 1990s, ozone levels in fracking areas have been increasing steadily and rising at a much higher rate than in areas without oil and gas activity.

“This is a small but important victory for real science in this process, as opposed to the completely politicized approach by TCEQ to prevent the imposition of new controls of any kind,” said Jim Schermbeck, director of North Texas clean-air group Downwinders at Risk.

Since 2008, meteorologically-adjusted ozone in the fracking region has increased 12 percent while in the non-fracking region ozone rose just 4 percent.

UNT ozone study

UNT air quality study winter monthsThe trend during the winter was “even more striking,” said Dr. Kuruvilla John, the UNT engineering professor who oversaw the study. During winter months, the fracking region saw a 21-percent increase in ozone, while in the non-fracking area it went up 5 percent.

That’s significant because ozone season has traditionally been confined to the summer months. Moreover, EPA’s smog standards have become increasingly stringent over time, as scientists find more evidence for health problems at lower levels. If the EPA were to lower the ozone standard to 60 or 65 parts per billion—it currently sits at 75 ppb—the Dallas-Fort Worth region could find itself out of compliance even during winter months.

Regardless, Ahmadi’s research directly challenges the message from Gov. Rick Perry and Texas’ top environmental officials, who routinely dismiss links between smog, and oil and gas activity. On its website, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality claims that because the wind “blows emissions from the Barnett Shale away from the DFW area,” those emissions from fracking are “not expected to significantly affect ozone in the DFW area.”

The new UNT research isn’t the only recent study suggesting that the state’s scientific understanding of ozone is shaky. A study conducted for the Alamo Area Council of Governments, released earlier this month, found that fracking activity in South Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale would drive large increases in the two main ozone ingredients and imperil San Antonio’s compliance with federal smog rules.

Apparently, the group’s public probing of the fracking-smog links didn’t sit too well with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The Austin American-Statesman reported on Monday:

“The Texas environmental agency has frozen funding for a San Antonio area governmental coalition’s air quality improvement work after an official there publicly shared modeling results that suggested fracking contributed pollution to the city.

“Last summer the Alamo Area Council of Governments made public a report that found that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the Eagle Ford shale field endangers air quality in the San Antonio area – and, to a milder extent, the Austin area.

“The Alamo group, composed of officials representing local governments over a 12-county area, did not share the report’s data beforehand with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which had paid for its collection.

“So when it came time last fall to dole out money to councils of government from across the state – including the council from the Austin area – all but the Alamo area council were rewarded with a roughly 30 percent uptick in Legislature-appropriated money to carry out air quality monitoring and planning work.”


F. Scott McCown
Steph Swope/
F. Scott McCown

Depending on whom you ask, the state of Texas is either rushing to implement potentially disastrous changes to its foster care system or taking bold action to fix serious problems.

On Tuesday, the House Human Services Committee heard testimony on so-called foster care redesign, a suite of changes meant to keep foster kids closer to home and provide them and their families more services. Under the redesign, the state is split into eleven regions and a private contractor is designated to oversee each, developing local resources and reporting to the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) on metrics like how many kids find placement in their original communities.

Texas rolled out the new system in a West Texas region about eight months ago. Another launch, for a region around Dallas, is scheduled for July. At the hearing, which was crowded, emotional and eight hours long, several child welfare advocates begged lawmakers not to proceed until they saw results from the first two regions. There’s little preliminary data, they said, and warning signs already, such as reports that the first region’s contractor, the Austin-based Providence Services Corporation, is already $2 million in the hole.

“First, we don’t have any outcome data to know whether this effort is improving things for kids so we don’t know if we’re going in the right direction,” said stakeholder Scott McCown, director of the Children’s Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law. “To go forward and further dismantle the [old] system before we find out if this is feasible in any way? We just wind up with a disaster.”

But DFPS Commissioner John Specia said more regional rollouts would allow for more data collection and help determine whether the redesign is going to work. Asked by state Rep. Elliott Naishtat (D-Austin) to grade the progress of the redesign, Specia said he’d give it an “incomplete.”

“There’s not enough data,” Specia said, “but we have to change the system. The current system is not working.”

Nobody disputes that. The changes, passed by the Texas Legislature in 2011, are the latest of several fixes proposed since 2005, when a rash of child deaths demanded action. Tragically, the past here seems prologue. Ten children in state custody died of abuse and neglect in the last fiscal year, up from two in 2012. Caseworker loads remain far higher than federal recommendations and contribute to massive turnover, meaning fewer and less experienced eyes on kids in care. Several young adults who aged out of the system described horrible abuses at the hands of their foster parents and being disbelieved by their caseworkers. Several child welfare advocates say these problems won’t be addressed by foster care redesign, even if it succeeds at the metrics to be studied.

“The [performance indicators] do not meaningfully measure a child’s well-being,” said Ashley Harris of the nonprofit Texans Care for Children. “Nor do they measure progress toward safety and stable and permanent placements.”

El Paso Abortion Clinic Remains Shut After Judge Withholds Relief

Judge Lee Yeakel said the legal fight over Texas’ new anti-abortion law would be resolved at the Supreme Court.
Access to Planned Parenthood

An El Paso abortion clinic will remain shuttered after a federal judge declined yesterday to issue a temporary restraining order that would suspend a provision of the new anti-abortion law requiring abortion clinics to obtain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. Since filing suit against the state two weeks ago, Reproductive Services in El Paso learned that it had lost temporary admitting privileges. As a result, abortion services at the clinic have been illegal since Friday. Yesterday, the El Paso abortion provider asked District Judge Lee Yeakel to put a temporary hold on the admitting privileges rule so they could legally continue operations until the full case can be heard. While Yeakel said he believed the clinic was harmed by the admitting privileges requirement, he didn’t see the point in litigating the law piecemeal when it was destined ultimately for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Since Monday, the El Paso clinic has cancelled 34 patient appointments. As a result of Judge Yeakel’s ruling, patients will continue to be turned away.

The El Paso closure is more fallout from Texas’ new anti-abortion bill. The admitting privileges requirement is part of House Bill 2, the omnibus anti-abortion legislation that imposes stricter regulations on abortion providers and bans abortions after 20 weeks. Since HB 2 went into effect last fall, approximately one-third of abortion clinics in Texas have closed down because of an inability to obtain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.

Like anything to do with House Bill 2, the backstory is somewhat convoluted. Earlier this year Reproductive Services gained temporary admitting privileges at nearby Foundation Surgical Hospital of El Paso in compliance. The privileges were set to expire on May 13. On April 2, Reproductive Services and Whole Woman’s Health abortion clinic in McAllen, filed a motion to permanently protect both clinics from HB 2’s admitting privileges provision, pointing to the scarcity of abortion providers in those parts of the state. But the day after the clinics filed the motion, the state health department informed the El Paso abortion clinic that they were already out of compliance with HB 2. The clinic then learned via a voicemail message from Foundation Surgical Hospital that their privileges were no longer valid, even though they still had four weeks to run on their permit. The hospital gave no explanation for the withdrawal.

Reproductive Services immediately filed a request for a temporary restraining order, asking for permission to legally continue operations until the court ruled on the full case.

Yeakel said that the clinic had met three of the four legal tests: that irreparable harm is imminent if temporary relief isn’t granted; that the benefit to the plaintiff outweighs injury to the defendant; and that the order serves the public interest.

Judge Yeakel ruled that the first three prongs had been met but that the final prong—that it wouldn’t be overturned by appeal—didn’t hold water.

“All challenges must be viewed through the prism of the Fifth Circuit as held in its March 28 opinion [that the admitting privileges provision is constitutional],” he said. “That is the law at this time. We can slice it and dice it … but it’s hard to see how there is a significant likelihood of success on the merits. I believe the Fifth Circuit will apply existing law.”

On the courtroom machinations surrounding HB 2, Judge Yeakel was fatalistic about his own place in the legal firmament.

“Everybody thinks it’s really important what the District Court does, and it is for a brief starburst of activity,” said Yeakel, likening court rulings to a train that starts in Austin, where he’s based, goes on to New Orleans, home of the Fifth Circuit, and then whistles on to its final stop in Washington, D.C.

“Nobody will talk about how the District Court dealt with HB 2 or even how New Orleans dealt with it,” he said. “It’s pretty clear to me that admitting privileges is going to the Supreme Court.”

The constitutionality of the fourth provision of HB 2—that abortions clinics upgrade their facilities in line with ambulatory surgical care requirements—is due to return to Judge Yeakel’s court in the next few weeks. Meanwhile the El Paso abortion clinic continues to turn patients away and the McAllen clinic, closed since March, has put its building up for sale.

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Dan Patrick thinks it's simply shameful that you would try to politicize immigration.
Dan Patrick thinks it's simply shameful that you would try to politicize immigration.

The story of last night’s Dan Patrick/Julian Castro debate, entertaining though it was, is the story of two politicians, each with bright futures but on radically different trajectories, passing each other like ships in the night. (You can watch the whole thing here: If you enjoy political theater—or even if you just live in this state—it’s well worth it.) Each will feel like they did what they needed to do. Castro landed enough punches for his supporters to argue he “won,” but not enough to corner Patrick or do real damage to his election bid. The debate will become part of the Castro legend, and help him continue his seemingly effortless slide to some kind of higher office.

For his part, Patrick, now that he’s more-or-less freed from his primary runoff fight—Dewhurst’s name didn’t come up once—showed how he’ll be trying to pivot away from some of his more hard-line stances in the primary during this year’s lieutenant governor election. Patrick is a great showman, highly adept at verbal performance after years of hosting talk radio, and he succeeded in evading the campaign-damaging gaffes some hoped would take place in the San Antonio Univision studio that hosted the debate. He got dinged a little bit, but struck Castro too.

If that sounds like an overly clinical analysis, that’s in part because the policy problem at the heart of this thing—the question of what to do about the million-odd undocumented immigrants who live in Texas—wasn’t actually discussed much. The moderator, Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune, seemed aware of (and maybe, contributed to) the artifice of the event in his introduction. Smith ventured a guess as to what each politician needed to accomplish: Patrick needed to show he was tough, but compassionate, and Castro needed to show he was compassionate, but also tough.

“I’m compassionate, and I’m not tough,” opened Patrick. He expressed his hope that Castro would “stay away from politics” and address the “the most important public policy issue” that faces Texas. This is, in the immortal words of California Gov. Jerry Brown, barely a fart. As anyone who followed the GOP lieutenant governor primary can tell you, “Compassionate, not tough” is not a slogan that would have appeared on a Patrick campaign bumper sticker. When he talked about immigrants to voters, he emphasized the violence they brought to Texas, the drain on the economy. He expressed a belief in the general policy of “standing up for American citizens first;” he called himself “Dan Patrick, Border Champion.”

At an October candidate forum held by the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party, he told an awed crowd that the border was his No. 1 issue because of the “141,000 illegal aliens put in our jails who committed 447,000 crimes, committed 5,000 murders and 2,000 rapes” between 2008 and 2012. No time was given to the consideration of migrants who might not be rapists. (And four months later, the San Antonio Express-News pointed out Patrick’s numbers were inflated.)

If Patrick was indeed a compassionate man, he could have had no better character witness than Miguel “Mike” Andrade. Andrade came forward during the primary with the news that he had worked at Patrick’s chain of sports bars in the 1980s. He and his friends were undocumented, Andrade said. He told a Houston TV station that his boss “offered sympathy over their anguish at living so far from their loved ones and being constantly in fear of being deported.” When Andrade’s mother fell ill in Guanajuato, Patrick offered to help him find a way to visit. He said Patrick tried to help him gain legal status after President Reagan’s amnesty.

When Andrade’s claims surfaced in February, it presented a more appealingly complex picture of Patrick. Was he more thoughtful than he had pretended to be? Then Patrick fired an unforgettable reply to the “accusations” to Breitbart Texas: “The worker says I was personally very kind to him and goes on to allege other preposterous events that are not true and which he offers no evidence.”

Now, Patrick’s hoping to position himself to be the “compassionate” one by demanding a total clamp-down on the border. He seeks to substitute the problem of illegal immigration with the evils of human trafficking. The broken system “forces people to come here illegally,” which puts them in danger. “People should be able to come here in honor and dignity. It’s not right for a man who’s crossing the border with his family to watch his wife and daughter raped by a coyote at midnight as they cross the border.”

This is premised on a couple of nested fallacies. One is the idea that border really can be “secured”—it can’t be. Making it harder for people to come here gives coyotes and human traffickers more power, not less. And short of totally opening the doors to legal immigration, there will always be a greater number of people who want to come here than are permitted to legally. This is a fundamental truth.

Second, Patrick hasn’t been a reliable supporter of measures that would alleviate the demand for the services of coyotes. In 2007, after a tour of the Rio Grande Valley with the area’s legislative delegation, Patrick endorsed a guest worker program, arguing that it would help border security—that it could come before “securing the border.” By 2012, as conservative anger on border issues was ramping up, he opposed including a guest worker program in the state Republican platform. That plank was supported by Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, Patrick’s opponent in the recent lite guv primary, and Patrick gleefully used it against him. Now Patrick says he’s for a guest worker program in the future—not until we have a secure border—but against the concept of a guest worker program being included in the Republican party platform. He thinks the GOP should strip it back out this year. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

But this is still new rhetoric for Patrick. And it’s also a neat trick to get away from talking about what to do with the immigrants who are already here, some of whom were in the audience. Now that he’s about to gain real power, Patrick opposes letting people like Andrade become citizens despite the fact that many undocumented residents, if not most, will be here for decades to come. And that’s the main public policy problem Texas faces.

The other tactic Patrick employed last night—describing what he talks about as high-minded policy, and dismissing what others talk about as cheap politics—is nothing new. In the primary, when he was criticized for hypocrisy or untruthfulness by his opponents, he would charge them with launching personal attacks. When he attacked them, he would proudly announce that he was sticking to policy. But it’s amazing how often he uses it, and how successfully—it’s an effective way for him to set boundaries on the conversation and steer things to a place where he’s comfortable. All last night, Patrick criticized Castro for engaging in partisan demagoguery—then succeeded in spending a fair portion of the night talking about either Obamacare or abortion.

“If a mom comes across the border pregnant, I want her to have that child, I want her to have that Hispanic child,” Patrick said. “You believe she has a right to take that baby. I want to protect that baby, because we are born in the image of God.”

Castro, for his part, tried to steer Patrick back to the question of what to do with those living here without authorization now. He tried to goad Patrick into misstepping, contrasting his previous “big bad wolf” impersonation with his current “little red riding hood.” Or, memorably, “Cinderella.” That proved tough to do—Patrick is an excellent dissembler. But will changing the subject be enough this November? When Patrick asserted that he was the Republican candidate Democrats most feared, Castro disagreed. “You’re our meal ticket back in,” he said.

Mayor Julián Castro
Mayor Julián Castro

In town for yesterday’s debate between San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro and state Sen. Dan Patrick, The New York Times‘ Jason Horowitz filed a story that addressed one of the night’s several subtexts: the political future of the Castro brothers. It’s an interesting read in part because it helps to make more explicit the speculation that’s been mounting about Julián Castro and his congressman brother Joaquin since before Julián gave the keynote address at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. That was, of course, the same spot that propelled Barack Obama to national prominence in 2004.

Last year, a Texas Monthly cover depicted the Castros, along with Wendy Davis, as part of a triumvirate that represented the future of the Texas Democratic Party. But lately, the Castros have been playing it cool. The Times story makes clear there’s a substantial and considered effort at work behind the scenes.

Very few doubt that the mayor, the bigger political personality of the two, is angling for the vice-presidential spot on the 2016 Democratic ticket and that his brother is positioning himself for a potential run for statewide office, or against Senator Ted Cruz, the Republican Tea Party hero, in 2018.

Mayor Castro’s been working on a memoir, out in 2015—these pre-election books are now basically prerequisites for high national office. There are other fascinating details: Julián recently lunched with Bill Clinton in San Antonio, connected by a major figure in the city’s political establishment.

“It was good for Julián because Julián had not really had a chance to be around him much,” said Henry Cisneros, a former San Antonio mayor and Clinton cabinet official who brought Mr. Castro to the lunch and is considered by many to be his mentor. “Even if Julián was not vice president, I think he could very easily be in a Hillary Clinton cabinet.”

Read the whole thing here.

Janet Murguía
Janet Murguía

Comprehensive immigration reform is dead, for now at least. In February, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner signaled that House Republicans are unlikely to let immigration reform advance, underscoring again that the anti-amnesty caucus maintains its grip on the GOP. It’s a disappointing turn in the long push by undocumented families and their advocates to bring some sanity and fairness to the nation’s immigration laws.

But in the grand tradition of “Don’t mourn, organize!” some activists are turning their focus from the mess in Washington, D.C., to a deportation crisis back home. Immigration activists are urging local officials to end participation in the federal Secure Communities program, which turns local jails into deportation hubs for federal officials. The country’s largest Latino advocacy group is also attacking President Obama for presiding over the most deportations of any U.S. president.

In a March speech, National Council of La Raza President Janet Murguía called on Obama to use his executive authority to halt unnecessary deportations. In April, the Obama administration will surpass two million deportations—an unprecedented number in the United States’ long immigration history.

“For us, this president has been the deporter-in-chief,” Murguía said. It was a critical remark uncharacteristic of Murguía and the National Council of La Raza, which many activists consider a group of Washington insiders uncomfortable with calling out Democrats for broken promises.

In her March speech, however, Murguía acknowledged that even if Obama used an executive order to end unnecessary deportations, it would be only a temporary fix. “We do a grave disservice to our community and to ourselves if we focus on only one front in this battle,” she said. “Only Congress can deliver a broad, inclusive and lasting solution. So, to the House of Representatives, we say take up reform now, or suffer the political consequences.”

Still, activists aren’t content to wait for the House to have a come-to-Jesús moment. Many are focusing their efforts on local power brokers. In Travis County, ranked 11th nationally and second in the state for deportations, immigrants are deported at a rate of 19 per week. The majority were arrested for misdemeanors, according to recent data from TRAC, a project of Syracuse University.

The high rate of deportations is the work of the Secure Communities program, which requires county jails to send fingerprints of people in custody to federal authorities. If an individual is in the country without authorization, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) requests that local officials hold the person, at a cost of $105.10 a day in Travis County, to give ICE enough time to seize and deport the prisoner. The program was intended to deport dangerous criminals, but in practice many of the deportees have committed only misdemeanors. The result is that immigrants can be ripped from their families for an offense as minor as a busted taillight. And many are. A 2012 report by the Austin American-Statesman found that for every felon deported from Travis County between 2008 and 2011, two misdemeanor offenders were deported.

In addition to the toll on families, the financial toll on taxpayers is significant. Reports from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards show that Travis County spent almost $26 million between October 2011 and January 2014 housing undocumented immigrants for the feds. Yet, on average, ICE reimburses just 18 percent of the costs.

The Democratic nominee for Travis County Judge, Sarah Eckhardt, promises, if elected in November, to try to end the county’s participation in the Secure Communities program by withholding funds for it.

Meanwhile, activists have been pressuring Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton to cease participation in Secure Communities. But activists are also lobbying officials with the city of Austin over the city’s agreement with Travis County to house Austin Police Department arrests, says Bob Libal, executive director of Austin-based Grassroots Leadership, an anti-private-prisons organization. With 70 percent of inmates in Travis County Jail coming from Austin police bookings, the city has the financial influence to sway county officials.

It’s a shame that the federal government asks local jurisdictions to shoulder the cost of Secure Communities, and activists should keep the pressure on. No one wins when we’re paying millions of dollars to tear families apart.

Wendy Davis speaks to the press at an election rally, April 14, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Wendy Davis speaks to the press at an election rally, April 14, 2014.

The left-leaning Public Policy Polling (PPP) released a survey this morning attempting to take the measure of elections in the state, and it doesn’t provide much comfort for Texas Democrats. There’s a relative paucity of good polling in Texas, so we don’t have much to compare it to. But soft numbers—coupled with the fact that PPP has historically produced poll results with a little extra margin for Dems—are cause for concern.

The top-level figures—for the gubernatorial election, for example—will be subject to spin. Democrats will say PPP’s samples didn’t model the “new” electorate they’re trying to turn out in November. But even if that’s true, the patterns that show down in the guts of the poll (press release here, full results here) aren’t great for Dems—regardless of whether the Abbott/Davis numbers are right. (They have Abbott leading Davis, 51 percent to 37 percent.)

Jim Henson, the director of UT’s Texas Politics Project, says the poll, together with others, shows the Texas political balance hasn’t changed much—yet—from where it was in 2010, when Bill White faced Rick Perry. “So far there’s no evidence that this race is disrupting the pattern,” said Henson. “We’re settling in to what we expect from the fundamentals.” The caveat: we’re at a point now, Henson says, where voters are just beginning to tune in. There’s time for the momentum to shift, but we’re settling in to the baseline.

Four takeaways:

1) Davis’ favorability ratings are sinking

When PPP last polled the state in November, 39 percent of Texas voters had a favorable opinion of her, while 29 percent held an unfavorable opinion. She’s now underwater in a big way, with 33 percent finding her favorable and 47 percent regarding her unfavorably. That’s a steep drop. Both campaigns have gone negative lately, but it hasn’t hurt Abbott as much—40 percent hold favorable opinions of him, with a third undecided.

2) Hispanics aren’t sure about Davis yet

Start with the caveat: Only 18 percent of the poll’s respondents identified as Hispanic. Still, Davis leads Abbott in the demographic by a relatively unimpressive margin, 43 percent to 33 percent, with 24 percent undecided.

But Henson warns against making too much of the result. “The Hispanic population is younger, and likelier to be less attentive” to the race at this stage, he says.

If a decent ratio of the undecided break for Davis, she’ll be in line with past Democratic candidates—but it means that the Davis campaign needs to spend more time and resources getting the campaign’s word out in Hispanic communities. Davis and Abbott both have essentially neutral favorable/unfavorable ratings among Hispanic respondents, with a high number of undecided.

3) Davis and Van de Putte aren’t doing any better than David Alameel

That’s remarkable because Alameel, the self-financed dentist from Dallas who failed to clinch the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate without a runoff against Lyndon LaRouche-acolyte Kesha Rogers, is essentially an empty candidate. No Democrats are excited about David Alameel. Few know who he is—in the PPP poll, 67 percent of respondents are undecided about him. He’s run ads and sent mailers, but that’s it. But he’s losing by roughly the same margin as Van de Putte is to Dewhurst or Patrick, and is only slightly underperforming Davis. Henson says that’s evidence that party affiliation is the primary driver of the poll’s results. But the flip side of that is Van de Putte and Davis haven’t yet won much support outside of their traditional bases.

4) Patrick’s primary win doesn’t yet seem to make a difference for Van de Putte

One of Democrats’ whispered hopes lately has been that Patrick’s shocking victory over Dewhurst in the Republican primary would create space for Van de Putte. Patrick, who’s taken to characterizing illegal immigrants as diseased, violent, bottom-feeding moochers, was too extreme for Texas, they reasoned. Some suggested that if Patrick could pull a runoff victory, Van de Putte would be the Democrat most likely to win a statewide seat this cycle, not Davis. But PPP’s results show Patrick’s tics haven’t made much of a negative impression on Texas voters, yet. If the election were held today, Van de Putte would lose to Dewhurst by 18 points, and Patrick by 16. Patrick hasn’t yet won his runoff, of course, meaning Van de Putte hasn’t been able to highlight his past statements and policy positions. But Patrick isn’t a fool. He’ll flatten out his public profile when he needs to—Van de Putte won’t be running against the same Patrick who was riling the base in January.

The election is a long way away, but this isn’t quite where Democrats want to be. Hell, PPP has Perry’s approval rating in Texas above water for the first time in years. If you were wondering what would get Texas conservatives to finally swing back around to Perry, the answer, apparently, is the threat of criminal charges.

Photo from Lupe Treviño's Facebook page
The sheriff and his sons (from left to right) Juan Carlos and Jonathan

Former Hidalgo County Sheriff Guadalupe “Lupe” Treviño pleaded guilty Monday to money laundering, just two weeks after resigning from office.

For several months federal investigators had been looking into cash donations to the former sheriff’s campaign from a convicted drug trafficker named Tomas “El Gallo” Gonzalez. Last Friday, Treviño’s former chief of staff, Maria Patricia Medina, who also served as his campaign treasurer, pleaded guilty to withholding information from a crime.

During a hearing Friday in McAllen, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Sturgis said that Medina knew that Treviño had deposited money from Gonzalez in banks under false names. Medina then falsified campaign reports to make it look like Treviño had returned the money to Gonzalez after it became public, according to the Monitor.

Scandal has shadowed Treviño since ICE’s homeland security investigations and the FBI arrested his son Jonathan Treviño, a former Mission police officer, in December 2012. Since at least 2006, 30-year-old Jonathan Treviño had run a street-level narcotics task force called the Panama Unit in Hidalgo County. In March 2013, Jonathan and other officers associated with the Panama Unit—including five Hidalgo County deputies—were indicted for “conspiring to possess with intent to distribute” cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine.

Deputies and former deputies also told the Observer that Treviño had forced employees to work on his campaigns or be demoted. They said they were forced to buy and sell tickets to fundraisers to pay off Treviño’s campaign debt. Many of the deputies said that one of the sheriff’s commanders, Jose “Joe” Padilla, served as the sheriff’s chief enforcer, making sure deputies carried out his wishes. In December, Padilla was arrested on a seven-count indictment for drug trafficking and money laundering related to the El Gallo case. Padilla is still awaiting trial.

Miguel Flores, a former narcotics investigator at the sheriff’s office, said he felt relief after the sheriff’s admission of guilt Monday. For more than six months, Flores wore a wire and worked as an informant for the FBI to bring down the corrupt Panama Unit task force. Last May, Flores revealed for the first time to the Observer that he was an informant because he felt Treviño was retaliating against him after he found out Flores had been instrumental in his son’s indictment. Eventually, Flores was forced out of the department and was unemployed for several months. He recently found another job with a local police department. “This has ruined a lot of lives,” he said. “And It’s been a long hard journey for me, but I feel that it was worth it,” Flores said. “No one wanted to believe me but now they’ll know the truth.”

Wendy Davis speaks at a rally in the basement of the Texas State Teacher's Association building in Austin. April 14, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Wendy Davis speaks at a rally in the basement of the Texas State Teachers Association building in Austin. April 14, 2014.

Think of the most damaging association you could pin on a political opponent in Texas—assuming you can’t get them to pose with Bob Stoops. Standardized testing is a good bet. Teachers hate it; parents hate it; students hate it. Only testing companies and a small number of education reformers are for the current standardized testing system. A measure to reduce testing passed the 150-member Texas House last session with only two votes against. A growing number of parents are keeping their kids home on test days—approximating something like a civil resistance movement.

So it’s easy to understand why gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis is hammering Greg Abbott’s proposal to expand pre-K programs and measure their success with an “assessment” regimen. Abbott’s campaign has made a mess of the whole thing. They told reporters Abbott’s policy paper was “for informational purposes only,” which doesn’t mean anything at all. From a political standpoint, it would have been best to leave the testing bit out of the proposal. It joins other small unforced errors—like his citation of one of Charles Murray’s books—that the suddenly hyper-aggressive Davis campaign are picking at like velociraptors at drumsticks.

In truth, there’s less to these errors than meets the eye. Murray is an extremely provocative figure, but his role in Abbott’s paper is minor. As for the testing bit—Abbott’s pre-K plan calls for some kind of assessment program, but it leaves ambiguity about how to do it. There are three proposals in the plan. The first, which the Davis campaign has pounced on, is testing.

But the proposal notes that using tests is “in some views deficient because they do not capture the full spectrum of the students skill set [sic] and cannot truly be used to determine quality of the program.” Then the paper lays out two other methods, which have nothing to do with testing, and gives their pros and cons. The paper itself seems undecided about which is best.

It’s not exactly a full-throated endorsement, and when you read the whole thing, the prospect of future 4-year-olds filling in answer bubbles with crayons seems pretty distant. But the Davis campaign is going in, as they say, whole hog. On Monday, Davis spoke at a rally in the basement of the Texas State Teachers Association building, behind a podium with the particularly unsubtle slogan, “Greg Abbott’s plan: Standardized Tests for 4-year-olds.”

At length, Davis expounded upon the testing controversy, Abbott’s mishandling of it, and last month’s Murray-gate. “We have all the information we need about Greg Abbott’s plan,” she said. “Four-year-olds should be coloring with crayons, not filling in bubbles” on tests.

Davis rally’ was held during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Education, chaired by state Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston). That hearing was called to take stock of a number of public education overhauls, including testing, undertaken last session. Both Davis and leiutenant governor candidate Leticia Van de Putte were in attendance. Patrick played a prominent role in the passage of last session’s testing reforms—and pushed for a sweeping expansion of the charter school system in the state that ultimately failed. If Patrick becomes our next lieutenant governor he’ll get another shot at those reforms—and from a position of power. That would be a huge and fundamental change to the way Texas works, and the state’s citizens would benefit from a lengthy debate on it.

Davis is pushing her own education reform plan, but that hasn’t gotten as much coverage as her spats with Abbott: Nugent-gate, Murray-gate, and now test-gate. Davis seems to be using the recent fights to talk up her policy proposals a bit. Today, she spoke about the work of Steve Murdock of Rice University, a demographer and former director of the U.S. Census Bureau under George W. Bush.

“One of his most important recommendations, that’s come out of reams of data and years and years of study, is that we invest in our youngest,” Davis said. Her plan was set on “ensuring that every single four-year-old in this state will have access to quality full-day pre-K programs,” while Abbott’s chips away at the problem on a tight budget.

We’ve had a relative paucity of policy discussion in this campaign so far, on both sides. If the Davis campaign can find a way to use test-gate as a way to tout her education policy credentials, that would be a great thing. But it might just end up getting lost in the noise.