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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 Charlie Hebdo

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.

Dan Patrick and Greg Abbott at Ken Paxton's inauguration, January 5, 2015.
Christopher Hooks
Dan Patrick and Greg Abbott at Ken Paxton's inauguration, January 5, 2015.

When the 84th Legislature kicks off next week, the state’s new elected officials will be competing with each other for influence over the state’s finances. Each has proposals and pet policy priorities they owe their constituents—or lobbyists—after a lengthy election. The problem: Almost all of them require money. And there’s not that much to go around. The state’s budget is stretched thin even in good years, and more money is needed all the time to keep pace with population growth—and that’s even before you factor in a potential economic slowdown brought about by the oil slump.

Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick released the first draft of his agenda Thursday, at a press conference at the Capitol. In the plan, Patrick redoubles his call for tax cuts for property owners and businesses, calls for adding new spending restrictions to the state budget process, and pushes for significant changes in education, transportation, energy and border policy.

It’s an ambitious platform.

And it comes at a time when the fiscal situation is tightening. The comptroller’s revenue estimate, which restricts the maximum possible size of the state’s budget, doesn’t come out till next week—but there’s a lot of speculation about how crashing oil prices will affect the Texas economy. In 2011, the comptroller’s office overcorrected for a perceived economic slowdown, and the Legislature cut state services needlessly.

The political perception of the economic climate seems to matter a great deal to the comptroller’s estimates, and some suspect the oil shock will clip the wings of Texas’ recent economic growth. Legislators have been counting on a modest surplus this year—though, because of longstanding accounting trickery, even that would have amounted to less than it seemed. But now, even that small windfall may be dissipating a bit.

In this environment, Patrick could’ve scaled back some of his most expensive proposals—in particular, his calls for major tax cuts. But, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, the Dan is not for turning. He’s going full steam ahead. He won with 58 percent of the vote, he said, and he has a mandate for action.

The “people of Texas are very clear on the major issues they care about,” he told reporters yesterday. In response to their demands, he pledged that a “budget with significant dollars allocated for property tax and business tax relief will be passed.” (During his campaign, Patrick talked about raising sales taxes and lowering property taxes—but that didn’t come up.)

He pledged to expand “school choice” in Texas, and to do right by “parents in the inner cities trapped in failing schools.” By the end of the session, the state would fund “border security at the highest level we’ve ever funded it.” He’d fund programs to support math and science teachers, and medical students, and he’d work the slow the skyrocketing cost of college tuition, calling tuition deregulation a failure.

He called for the state to begin adopting a fleet of natural gas vehicles, and he echoed Greg Abbott’s plan to end road funding diversions and increase transportation funding.

All of this costs money, which either has to come from surplus tax revenue—we’ll find out how much the state actually has next week—or from elsewhere in the state budget. In the case of the transportation funding diversions—money that’s rerouted to the Texas Department of Transportation from other beneficiaries, like the Department of Public Safety—budget-writers have to scrounge up dollars from somewhere else, and so on and so on. Large tax cuts and additional money for services are not compatible goals, especially in a biennium in which the state’s economic prospects are fading a bit.

If legislators end up fighting for pieces of a smaller pie, Patrick will want to ensure that his priorities have a leg up on others. We’ve long known that Patrick would be consolidating GOP power in the Senate—he’s aiming to change longstanding rules that gave Democrats some leverage in the legislative process, and he’s likely to strip Democrats of control of powerful Senate committees.

But there’s another way Patrick is making himself a more important player in the legislative process—the Texas Tribune’s Ross Ramsey reported Wednesday that Patrick was likely to cut the number of Senate committees from 18 to 12, and would be appointing committee chairs later this month, instead of in February, as has normally been in the case.

As Ramsey writes, this means the Senate could be up and running much faster than the House, “perhaps setting up a flow of Senate bills to the lower chamber before the House is ready to send anything back.” It’s a not-so-subtle way of trying to get the jump on Speaker Straus and the House’s own priorities—and it foreshadows an uneasy relationship between the two chambers in the months to come.

There’s one other thing Patrick mentioned today—he pledged to continue the halt in funding for the Public Integrity Unit, the ethics watchdog that operates out of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office and was at the center of the conflict that led to Rick Perry’s indictment by a special prosecutor.

The fact that the PIU showed up on Patrick’s agenda along with weighty issues like education and transportation tells you how important it is to a lot of GOPers. The Senate, Patrick said, would decide what to do with the PIU’s funding. One option, Patrick said, would be to give it to Attorney General Ken Paxton so he could bolster his own ethics outfit. Paxton, you might remember, stands a good chance of being under indictment himself by the time the Legislature appoints him the new guardian of civic virtue. It’s going to be an interesting year.

Cecil Bell Jr.
Cecil Bell Jr.

On the eve of a federal appeals court hearing in a lawsuit challenging Texas’ same-sex marriage bans, a Republican legislator has introduced a bill that would prohibit county clerks from issuing same-sex marriage licenses.

Rep. Cecil Bell Jr. (R-Magnolia) on Wednesday introduced House Bill 623, which he’s calling the “Texas Preservation of Sovereignty and Marriage Act.”

HB 623 would amend the Texas Family Code to prohibit the use of  taxpayer funds for the “the licensing or support of same-sex marriage.” It would also bar government employees from recognizing, granting or enforcing same-sex marriage licenses. Any government employee who violates the provision would be barred from collecting “a salary, pension, or other employee benefit.”

HB 623 would also require Texas courts to dismiss challenges to the law and award attorneys’ fees to defendants. And it would grant Texas sovereign immunity under the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when it comes to enforcing the law, “regardless of a contrary federal court ruling.”

“When I was elected, I made a promise to my constituents to fight to protect our traditional values and to stand strong in the defense of our constitutional rights as Texans and Americans,” Bell said in a release. “Texas is a sovereign state and our citizens have the right to define marriage. We as Texans voted in 2005 to define marriage as being solely between a man and a woman. In Texas marriage is sacred and traditional families are recognized as the fabric of our society.”

Bell said he was “disappointed, to say the least” when U.S. District Judge Orlando L. Garcia struck down Texas’ marriage bans as unconstitutional last February.

“The 10th Amendment protects the right of Texas to pass Prop 2 [the 2005 marriage amendment],” Bell said in the release. “With the 84th Session around the corner, Texas will stand up and defend its constitutional right against federal overreach.”

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments Friday in the state’s appeal of Garcia’s ruling.

Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas, told the Observer that Bell’s assertion that Texas can ignore federal law is “preposterous.”

“To then turn around and threaten the pensions, benefits and jobs of state employees for just doing their jobs is abhorrent,” Williams said. “It’s buying a lawsuit for the state.”

With the session set to begin Jan. 13, Williams said it’s too early to predict whether Bell’s bill has a chance of passing.

“It’s certainly far outside the mainstream, but it’s something we’ll be watching very carefully,” Williams said. “The Legislature can always pass unconstitutional laws, and then it’s litigated in the courts. I’m guessing Cecil Bell wants to make sure Ken Paxton has plenty of work to do in his new job as attorney general.”

Equality Texas is predicting a defensive session for the LGBT community, due to backlash from the spread of marriage equality to 36 states and counting. HB 623 is at least the third piece of anti-LGBT legislation that’s been pre-filed for the session. The first two took the form of proposed constitutional amendments that would grant businesses a “license to discriminate” against same-sex couples.

Donna Campbell
Patrick Michels
State Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) promotes her new school choice bill at a Texas Public Policy Foundation event with, from left, former state Rep. Kent Grusendorf and economist Arthur Laffer.

 

If ballplayers wore suits with their pinstripes and vendors walked the stands hawking copies of Steve Forbes’ new book (it’s actually just called Money), then the Sheraton by the Capitol would feel an awful lot like spring training. Here at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s pre-session policy confab, the air is thick with free-market dreams for another Lege session.

There’s a little extra spring in Rep. Bill Zedler’s step as he strolls by, a little extra shine on the ostrich boots shuffling across the lobby floor. And nobody in this hotel is half as excited as Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) telling the press about her hottest prospect for the new session, filed just yesterday: Senate Bill 276, “Relating to state savings and government efficiency achieved through a taxpayer savings grant program administered by the comptroller of public accounts.”

In a word: vouchers.

Or, as Campbell suggested today: “universal school choice,” because “voucher” suggested a golden ticket in limited supply. Her plan is unlimited.

Two years ago, it was then-Sen. Dan Patrick who delivered an enthusiastic pitch for vouchers just before the session’s start. Today, with Patrick in the lieutenant governor’s office, it was Campbell’s turn to beam about the miracles school choice will bring, to help us forget how decisively the Legislature has rejected vouchers in the past, and inject her voice with a little extra gravity as she describes our “moral obligation” to spend public money on private schools.

Her plan was simple: parents who move their kids from public to private schools get a tuition reimbursement of up to 60 percent of the state’s average payout—for classroom operations, but not facilities funding—for each public school student. Campbell and new Attorney General Ken Paxton offered the same proposal in 2013; back then, the maximum grant would be $5,000. In five years, the Legislative Budget Board estimated, the program would save the state $1.1 billion.

She spoke quickly—too fast to catch it all—as she related the miracles in store for a Texas that embraces school choice. “It will turn poor performing schools into better schools,” Campbell said. “It will equalize the playing fields. … It will improve our economy. … It decreases the number of dropouts. It improves the graduation rates.”

Many of these are familiar arguments for school choice, but then there’s so much more. At some point, standing there circled around the podium, you had to stop and wonder, where’s she getting this stuff?

The answer was in a booklet on a table beside her, a new 43-page literature review produced for the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Texas Association of Business, written by the man standing next to her: Art Laffer, namesake of the “Laffer curve”—an economic model often wielded as a cudgel against higher taxes—who hugged Campbell at the podium and called her a hero.

“There’s not one thing that isn’t improved by charters and choice,” Laffer explained.

At a panel discussion later, Laffer elaborated. His report, he said, reviewed the research out there already on the subject. What he found, he said, was “just a huge volume of evidence, all supporting school choice. There’s almost nothing negative about school choice at all.”

Laffer was clear that his report doesn’t break new ground. The handful of voucher programs around the country have been studied closely, and there are plenty of meta-analyses on school choice out there already. Laffer’s is hardly the only example of cherry-picked research on vouchers, but with its bold promises that school choice will mean “$260 – $460 billion more in our economy,” it could grab plenty of attention at the Legislature.

Arthur Laffer
Patrick Michels
Economist Arthur Laffer speaks on school choice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s policy orientation in Austin.

Many times today, Laffer joked that the research he reviewed—”all these boring articles, and they truly are boring”—was too dry for the audience to worry much about. (For what it’s worth, the University of Colorado’s National Education Policy Center has found plenty of negative findings about the impact of voucher programs.) But Laffer impressed on the audience that school choice isn’t all about the bottom line, after all, but about “bringing ethnic minorities into the mainstream. … Once you lose these kids, you lose them forever. And they become hostile, and you have to spend a fortune protecting yourself from them.”

And then it’s about the bottom line again.

Laffer made three speaking appearances for TPPF today—probably a sign of how important this issue is to the group—and always returned to the question of race. On a panel with Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick, Laffer put it this way: “We’ve seen it on CNN, and Al Sharptons [sic] and what’s going on with Trayvon Martin. … The opportunities for inner city kids are not there. School choice will bring those opportunities for those kids.”

Laffer strolled further down this path earlier in the day, explaining that the higher property values sure to follow school choice would, on their own, make racism a thing of the past.

“There may be racists on both sides of the aisle, but when these racists have good paying jobs and they’re making money hand over fist, they don’t have time to be racist.” After all, he said, employers only have the luxury of discrimination if there’s competition for their job. “If you have 15 job openings and one person applies, you hire the son of a gun as quick as you can.”

To hear Campbell tell it today, you’d think she had hit on a big new idea—and not that vouchers have been proposed, and even tried once, and then shot back down again for decades in Texas. Every two years TPPF, or its founder James Leininger, shepherds a voucher bill into the Capitol and every two years a coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans shoots it down. Last session the House made a big show by preemptively banning voucher funding even before a bill came over from the Senate.

The new school choice bills are sure to face similar concerns—private schools are specifically exempted from state testing under Campbell’s bill, for instance, and most private schools (see anecdotal accounts from Dallas, Houston and Austin) charge more than $5,000 a year, so parents would have to pony up the rest.

Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond briefly alluded to Dan Patrick’s bill last session, saying only that “for whatever reason, it didn’t gather momentum.” The game for Campbell today was to build new momentum for the coming session, armed with Laffer’s report and her own emotional appeals. As she explained today, probably not for the last time, “Every year that we wait is another precious year for a child that passes.”

Strangest State: Death by Donkey, Popular Plots and Meth by the Mail

Notes from far-flung Texas for January 2015
Officials in Jasper gather to appreciate nature's majesty.
Officials in Jasper gather to appreciate nature's majesty.

In this month’s issue of the Observer, we’re debuting “Strangest State,” 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]

The family of late Hollywood Park Mayor Bill Bohlke spent the last two years lobbying, apparently in vain, for Atascosa County officials to investigate Bohlke’s 2012 death as a cold case, rather than stand by the long-unquestioned conventional wisdom: that Bohlke was fatally trampled by an angry 500-pound donkey. Bohlke’s widow managed to secure a court order to exhume the mayor’s body for a proper forensic examination—he’d been buried without one, the San Antonio Express-News reported, because the local morgue was full—but per the judge’s ruling, the family must pay for the procedure. The family’s fundraising campaign—“Help us get the body of Bill Bohlke exhumed!”—had raised $575 by late October, when, according to News 4 San Antonio, Tonia Bohlke was shocked to find a fresh layer of sod at her husband’s gravesite. Without alerting Bohlke’s widow, the county had apparently exhumed his body. County officials wouldn’t comment except to say that an investigation is ongoing. The family’s lawyer, Edgardo Baez, explained: “This is a very peculiar case.”

Stephenville // Demand for new plots at the expanding West End Cemetery has outpaced the city’s best-laid plans. Per the Stephenville Empire-Tribune, a crowd of prospectors braved freezing temperatures to line up well before the cemetery opened on the morning of Nov. 12, hoping to secure prime real estate for their eternal homes. “We thought we’d have, at the most, five people,” Butch Lovvorn told the Empire-Tribune. “We’ve tripled that already.”

Jasper // A record half-ton alligator was discovered in the Rayburn Country Resort, the Jasper Newsboy reported, when game warden Morgan Inman noticed kids throwing rocks at it. Harley Hatcher, “a nuisance hunter and a star on Swamp People who lives in Fannett,” was called in to dispatch the gator, but circumstances required Inman to subdue the beast before Hatcher’s arrival. “It required several shots,” the Newsboy explained, “as it was moving and Inman could not get very close to it as aggressive as it was acting.”

Lubbock // The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal’s advertising department did brisk holiday business, according to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. The newspaper’s Thanksgiving edition included a whopping 800 pages of advertising—which meant heavy lifting for delivery crews. In a candid interview, circulation director James Grimmett admitted to his employer: “Quite frankly, our carriers do a great job.”

Hooks // Chris Harris resigned from the Hooks Independent School District board after jokes he posted to Facebook, in his words, “got taken way out of context.” According to Raw Story, Harris posted a logo for a “Black Panther Hunting Club,” a photo of a hooded Klansman emblazoned with the words “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” and the following commentary on Ferguson, Missouri: “I say the hell with the national guard let’s bring the KKK in they will settle shit down.”

Lorena // A federal task force busted mail carrier Edward Flores for delivering methamphetamine on his route. Officials told the Waco Tribune-Herald that Flores had been selling meth for years using his job as a cover.

Dallas // City records show Dallas spent $26,000 to care for nurse Nina Pham’s Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Bentley, while Pham was being treated for Ebola last year, The Dallas Morning News reported.

Nueces County // Sheriff Jim Kaelin vowed that Todd Hebert, an inmate at the Nueces County Jail, will be “held accountable” for causing a five-hour lockdown and incurring costs “in the five digits” by telling jail staff he’d ridden on a Mexican bus with a fellow passenger who had Ebola, according to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Medical officials determined that Hebert had not, in fact, been in Mexico.

Madisonville // Madisonville’s newest doctor, Yemi Chukwuogo, is enjoying life in East Texas, according to The Madisonville Meteor. “Chukquogo [sic] knows and accepts the fact that differences exist,” the Meteor wrote in a recent profile. “I love change and differences. We’re all people and we all bleed red,” Chukwuogo told the paper, sharing a bit of her medical knowledge. The paper reported that Chukwuogo studied medicine in New York, Dominica and New Jersey. “Dominica,” the Meteor clarified helpfully, “is an island in the Caribbean.”

Denton // Kids at a birthday party found Vicodin tablets among leftover Halloween candy in a piñata, WFAA-TV reported.