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Abbott supporters cheer on the attorney general as he begins his campaign for governor.
Patrick Michels
Greg Abbott supporters cheer on the attorney general as he begins his campaign for governor in July 2013.

After an intense week of news featuring major legal opinions on the most contentious issues of our time—public school funding, abortion access, single-use plastic bags—this short Labor Day week presented a welcome respite from the ideological canyons and petty rifts that divide us.

In the immortal words of Kris Kristofferson, “There’s no need to watch the bridges that we’re burning.” Plenty of time for that before November! For now, let’s just relax and enjoy the good times.

After all, it’s football season! With all the divisive strife in the world today, it’s nice to know that we can all kick back together on a Sunday afternoon, let everyone celebrate their fandom as they like, and may the best team win. A time to put politics aside!

Until Wednesday!

Sen. Wendy Davis Flip-Flops On Her Support For The Dallas Cowboys

SHOT: Today Sen. Davis Said She Has Been “Cheering For The Cowboys” Since She Was Young And Hasn’t Stopped Since.

[...]

CHASER: In August Sen. Davis’ Daughter Said Her And Her Mother Were Both “Big Fans” Of The New England Patriots.

That’s Greg Abbott’s campaign dinging Davis for daring to cheer for the Dallas Cowboys and for an entirely different team on some other occasions. Who knows? Maybe even at the same time! On any given Sunday, Wendy Davis, alone in the universe, may hope to see both the Cowboys and the Patriots win their football games.

Peggy Fikac at the Houston Chronicle followed up to ask the natural next question: So, what team is Abbott’s favorite?

Abbott spokesman Matt Hirsch said the attorney general favors two Texas teams: the Cowboys and the Texans.

[...]

“Either way, he’s no fan of liberal New England politics or their football team,” Hirsch said.

At Texas Monthly, Dan Solomon takes a deep dive into the many ways this fight is “silly,” but also notes how easily politicians can screw up the seemingly simple “local football team pander.” The funniest thing about the affair might be seeing Southern Methodist University political science professor Cal Jillson trotted out to provide the following expert analysis:

“There are more serious issues the candidates need to focus on.”

This week also brought us Greg Abbott’s new campaign ad, “Garage,” in which the gubernatorial candidate recalls his difficult training after being partially paralyzed, which included tackling eight floors of a parking garage in his wheelchair to build upper-body strength. Abbott could be running for governor here, or he might be trying to sell you some Under Armour.

Abbott conveys this simple and inspirational message about how he faces personal challenges, then makes a broad, anodyne leap to the challenges we all face as Texans.

“Just one more. I see life that way, and that’s how I’ll govern Texas.”

If only Rick Perry had used that one after his first term! Or his second!

But seriously, who could find fault in a message like this? And what everyday setting could be more unimpeachable than a parking garage? What could anyone possibly find to rebut in this unassailably upbeat little nugget of bumper-sticker-grade inspiration?

Take it away, Rebecca Acuña:

“If you had told me Greg Abbott was running an ad titled ‘Garage’, I would have assumed it would be an apology to the woman he sided against on the Texas Supreme Court after she was brutally raped in a parking garage.”

Acuña, a Davis campaign spokeswoman, is referring specifically to a case from 1999. The content of Abbott’s ad left little room for attack, but the name… oh, the name! Sure, using that one innocuous word as a cudgel may strike some as a bit of a stretch, but only until you think of all the wild rebuttals that didn’t make the cut. You know who else spent a lot of time in a concrete bunker?

Maybe Abbott can make a sport of this, and challenge Davis by giving his next ads even blander one-word titles. “Satchel.” “Receptacle.” “Spork.” This campaign’s getting hot already!

Is that a hybrid?
Christopher Hooks
Is that a hybrid?

Did you feel that? It’s as if there was a great disturbance in the Texas Republican Party, as if a voice said something very slightly unorthodox, hundreds screamed in terror, and the voice was suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible happened this past week—or, nothing did? It’s hard to say.

This is a play in three acts: A tale about an interview gone wrong (?) and ill-founded accusations of journalistic incompetence, framed by a true modern-day profile of political courage. It’s a story of one of the rarer feats in politics: The unforced, involuntary walkback. Take your seats, ladies and germs, and set your phones to vibrate. It’s P-time.

ACT I

If you haven’t been following the riveting race for Texas land commissioner, let’s catch up together. The Republican running is a fellow named George P. Bush, whose family you may be familiar with. He has millions of dollars at his disposal, despite the fact that he faced little opposition in the primary, and faces John Cook, a former mayor of El Paso with little funding, in November.

Despite his pedigree, Bush is new at this politics thing. His media strategy has been, essentially, don’t talk to the media. That’s understandable, because he has no strategic reason to do so until he’s more comfortable.

At the same time, he has some freedom to stake out unorthodox positions. He’s virtually guaranteed a victory in November, and he’s modeling himself as a GOP figure who stands slightly apart from the tea party—though not necessarily by his own choice. (They hate him.)

So when Bush granted the Texas Tribune’s Neena Satija an interview and seemed to speak a little off the cuff about issues relating to climate change, it wasn’t that surprising. Satija is the Trib’s environmental reporter—Bush is running for a position where, as head of the General Land Office, he’ll oversee state lands and the Texas coastline, and play a role in monitoring oil and gas leases. So climate change would have been a natural topic of conversation, and maybe Bush was testing his independence a little.

In the interview, a lightly edited transcript of which was published alongside a shorter, fairly gentle article, Bush talked about carbon dioxide emissions and the risks posed by coastal erosion, and spoke of his intention to keep talking about related issues in office. He won’t have gone far enough for some people, but he unquestionably diverged from what’s become the Republican Party’s line on this issue, which is essentially to shrug and whistle in a studiously carefree manner.

It’s either refreshing, coolly calculated, or treasonous, depending on your point of view. Here are a few excerpts, although it’s definitely worth reading the interview in full.

Satija asks Bush about the transition to a natural gas economy. Bush says emphasizing gas use will have various practical benefits. But then, unprompted, Bush raises the idea that the switch will reduce greenhouse gas emissions:

Bush: But more importantly, it’s been proven to result in less CO2 emissions, as far as our vehicles, [and] in terms of our power plants. Regardless of your politics, the EPA is regulating coal and rationing down of its overall usage in our electricity grid. In my opinion, one of the big stories of this century will be natural gas filling in that void, because it’s readily abundant.
TT: I think you may be the first Republican politician running in Texas to ever talk about reducing CO2 emissions.
Bush: [laughs]
TT: Is that something you plan to talk about more during your campaign, or as land commissioner?
Bush: Well, I do … Absolutely.

Later, Satija asks about climate change directly:

TT: So, because you talked about reducing carbon dioxide emissions, what’s your view on climate change?
Bush: Well, I think people can agree that there has been warming, you know, in recent years. The question is whether or not it’s 100 percent anthropogenic, which means man-made.

OK, that’s not the bravest stance in the world, but it’s still a little unusual for Texas. Bush goes on to talk about the importance of adjusting to coastal erosion and other climate-related issues. And when asked again, he adopts the pose of the political straight-talker. (Emphasis added.)

TT: I am really struck by some of the things you said about climate change, or CO2 emissions, and even talking about leveraging federal funds. Most Republican politicians in Texas run away from all of those subjects. Do you think those are going to help you or hurt you as you continue in your political career?
Bush: Well, you know, I’ve said to myself, to my family, to my friends from day one, that I was always going to run based on my principles.
[...]
And if you look at the facts at hand, whether it’s beach mitigation issues or dealing with future generations so that they enjoy the Gulf Coast, I think most Texans will recognize that these investments are the prudent thing to do …

So, Bush has deviated slightly from the party line, but did so in a fairly oblique way. That’s Bush’s style, it seems, or the style that’s been foisted on him: Everyone assumes that he represents something new in Texas Republicanism, but he’s run an extraordinarily cautious campaign and the leash he’s worn has been pretty short. (I wrote about him a bit earlier this year.)

ACT II

Of course, this very gentle acknowledgement that we live in a world whose climate is changing—remember, Bush never said the warming was manmade—was, for some, an extraordinary apostasy.

“Um, climate change??? Did he let on to his obsession with that lie on the campaign trail?” asks Julie McCarty, with the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party, who was one of a number of conservative grassroots that tried to beat Bush in the primary. “According to the article he lies awake at night weeping over climate change!”

In the comments section of McCarty’s Facebook page, Texas tea partiers pile on. “I will vote for a Libertarian or a Democrat before I help give this guy a platform to do more damage,” writes Jamie Jordan. Others moot the possibility of organizing a write-in campaign. (It’s too late.) “To believe in ‘global warming or climate change’ you are either a democrat or a moron,” writes Gregory Parker. “I suspect he may be both!”

Bush owes nothing to these people, and he’s earned some plaudits from certain corners for his Real Talk. It will not affect his electability one iota. By the time he’s running for governor in 2022 or whenever, not a single soul will care about this episode. So of course he’ll stand by it, right?

ACT III

On Wednesday, Breitbart Texas released a story with a blustering title: REPORTER MISREPRESENTED GEORGE P. BUSH CLIMATE CHANGE INTERVIEW. Turns out Bush doesn’t even have to undo this—Breitbart will undo it for him.

Let’s break this apart. The Breitbart article accuses Satija of both incompetence and malice, which are, of course, really serious accusations! Firable ones, even! So I’m sure the evidence here is good. Here’s the contention: “In the article, Bush was portrayed as taking a more moderate position on climate change than the standard Republican position,” writes Sarah Rumpf, a Breitbart contributor. “Bush’s comments and positions have been seriously misrepresented.”

Did Bush take a more moderate position on climate change than the “standard Republican position” in Texas? He clearly did—compare Bush’s statements in the interview with other GOP notables, like Dan Patrick, who was once asked about climate change and responded: “Leave it in the hands of God—he’s handled our climate pretty well so far.”

Here’s the weird part: Rumpf’s primary evidence is the transcript of the interview that the Texas Tribune posted and touted on its website. So the idea, I suppose, is that the Tribune, including Satija, knew it was falsely propagandizing and then published and promoted the evidence in the hopes that people would read it.

It’s a thin hit piece that performs amazing acrobatics to leave the reader with the impression that Bush didn’t say anything about climate change—didn’t go any further than Greg Abbott might go. In the interview transcript, there’s a section where Bush acknowledges that the earth is warming, then immediately pivots to a discussion about coastal erosion. Breitbart suggests, amazingly, that the two topics have nothing to do with each other:

For starters, Bush never attributes sea-level rise or coastal erosion to climate change. He remarks that Texas is facing challenges with coastal erosion in several areas, and discusses ways to help fight it, but does not state a cause for the erosion. Similarly, with the issue of sea-level rise, Satija asks Bush if he would support Texas conducting “a comprehensive study on the effects of sea-level rise on the Gulf Coast,” but again, a causal relationship to climate change is completely absent from Bush’s remarks.”

What are the causes of coastal erosion? The General Land Office’s own information—the office currently run by Jerry Patterson, mind you—tells us one major cause is that “sea level is rising in relation to the land surface along the Gulf Coast. Small increases in sea level can have profound storm surge impacts in low-lying coastal areas of Texas.” The rise in sea level, the GLO tells us, is part of a global trend.

There are other factors in coastal erosion—subsidence of land, lack of sediment to nourish beaches, storms—but sea-level rise driven by a warming planet (water expands when heated; ice sheets melt) is the coast’s biggest challenge now and in the future. Bush seems to recognize this.

Perhaps Bush was only referring to other erosion factors. But he was answering a question about climate change, and raised the issue of coastal erosion. It takes a willfully thick parsing of this language to create the false impression Bush is not speaking about climate change.

The Breitbart article objects to a number of other small perceived discrepancies between the transcript and the shorter article. Here’s one: The story suggests that Bush is OK with a move away from coal and toward natural gas and renewables for reasons that include environmental concerns, and Breitbart says that’s a lie. But in the transcript Bush explicitly argues that increased use of natural gas has “been proven to result in less CO2 emissions.”

Breitbart writers wrongly claim that the Tribune article reports that Bush is kept awake at night “by climate change,” when he meant to say that he was kept awake by the threat posed by storms. “Not OK,” writes Breitbart‘s editor.

But here’s the passage from the Trib‘s article:

The 38-year-old energy consultant added that the vulnerability of Texas’ Gulf Coast to storms, which he said is worsened by climate change-related problems like sea-level rise and coastal erosion, is something that “honestly keeps me up at night.”

What’s keeping Bush up at night? It’s “the vulnerability of Texas’ Gulf Coast to storms.”

The short of it is, one reporter accused another reporter of gross negligence (taking quotes out of context) by taking quotes out of context, and not reading particularly closely. But Breitbart’s gonna Breitbart—the sadder thing is the Bush team’s fury with the idea their candidate touched on climate issues, when … he did! Here’s Bush adviser Trey Newton: “This reporter obviously had an agenda. She came in with an agenda and completely misrepresented what he [Bush] said.”

Let’s all cherish this precious week when a rejuvenating wind of spontaneity briefly entered the P. Bush campaign: It could be quite a while before it comes back.

A portion of the San Jacinto River Waste Pits site, near the Interstate 10 bridge in Harris County, remains visible as the sandy area in the center left of this photograph.
Gulf Restoration Network/Lighthawk.org
A portion of the San Jacinto River Waste Pits site, near the Interstate 10 bridge in Harris County, remains visible as the sandy area in the center left of this photograph.

Not far from the San Jacinto Monument, the octagonal column that marks the site of the battle that brought the Texas Revolution to a close, near where Interstate 10 roars over the San Jacinto River, lies another shrine to Texas’ ambitions: 14 acres of partially submerged dioxin-laden waste leaching into the river and down to Galveston Bay. In a city littered with Superfund sites, the San Jacinto River Waste Pits, as they’re called, have become a signature environmental justice issue.

The EPA is overseeing a contentious debate over what to do with the site. And Harris County is suing the two companies that inherited the mess—International Paper and Waste Management—for $2 billion in penalties for damage it says was inflicted on area residents and the environment over four decades. Nearby communities, Galveston Bay guardians and Harris County authorities want the responsible parties to remove the waste, at an estimated cost of up to $636 million. But International Paper and Waste Management deny any liability and prefer the much cheaper option of capping the waste pits and leaving them in place.

The pits date to the 1960s, when Champion Paper contracted to have the waste from its nearby paper mill disposed of. The contractor, McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp., dumped hundreds of thousands of tons of waste contaminated with dioxins—a class of highly toxic chemicals—in open pits on the river’s west bank. By the late 1960s the site was abandoned and largely forgotten. Meanwhile, the river moved, the land sank, sea levels rose and storms and floods scoured the site. What was once a waste dump by the river became, at least partially, a waste dump in the river. Scientific research has linked dioxins from the pits to contaminated fish and crabs in Galveston Bay, potentially exposing residents—some of whom fish to put food on the table—to dangerous levels of the chemicals.

In 2005, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department finally discovered—or rediscovered—the impoundments while looking into a request to dredge the area for sand. The San Jacinto River Waste Pits were listed as a Superfund site, setting off a continuing struggle over how the site should be dealt with—and who should pay. Texans Together, a Houston-based grassroots group, has helped organize the communities of Channelview, Highlands and Baytown, and pressed the EPA to prioritize the health of the nearly 17,000 people living within five miles of the site. Fred Lewis, president of Texans Together, warns that simply capping the waste and monitoring it is akin to “leaving a loaded gun in the river to blow up sooner or later.” A study paid for by Texans Together and conducted by Texas A&M-Galveston professor Sam Brody concludes that the combination of rapidly rising sea levels, flooding, tropical storms and increased development in the area “make the low-lying San Jacinto Waste Pits extremely vulnerable to inundation and erosive events.”

Supporters of a full remediation scored a big victory in late July when EPA rejected a site study that the two companies had paid for after Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan uncovered evidence that the report’s authors were biased and trying to steer EPA toward options that would leave the waste in the river. EPA isn’t expected to make a decision until 2015.

“This is a battle between money and people,” Lewis said. “And it’s going to be a fight until the EPA decides.”

The Harris County lawsuit is set for trial at the end of September.

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Save Texas Schools rally at the Texas Capitol, Saturday, February 25.
Patrick Michels
A contingent from San Antonio's Edgewood ISD at the Save Texas Schools rally in 2013.

A state district judge’s long-awaited ruling on Texas’ school finance case—siding with the more than two thirds of Texas school districts that sued the state claiming that our school funding system is unconstitutional—won’t be the final word on the matter. The Texas Supreme Court will ultimately decide the case, and if history is any guide, there’ll be another lawsuit like it within a decade.

But state District Judge John Dietz’s 383-page opinion in the case is important not only because it could be a step toward a better school system, but also because it covers so much ground. Backed by dozens of expert opinions, the ruling touches on the makeup of the student body to where Texas gets its teachers, from full-day bilingual learning to standardized test scores. Dietz’s ruling is an authoritative, exhaustive discourse on the state of Texas’ schools today.

There is one big point running through the sprawling opinion: When lawmakers have even attempted a close look at the real costs of education, they’ve ignored the results. Nor has the Legislature  reviewed the impact of the cuts it made in 2011. That ignorance alone, Dietz says, violates the Texas Constitution.

The Legislature has been raising the standards for Texas students and requiring schools to provide more elaborate programs—talking big in the Capitol about the state’s high expectations—all while refusing to give schools the resources needed to meet those standards. It’s time, Dietz writes, that the state put its money where its mouth is.

 

Not enough money?! Come on, I heard that Texas’ school spending has never been higher.

That’s what a state witness said, too, showing that total spending—including construction—is way up since 2000. Dietz disagreed, saying it’s better to focus on “operations” spending, which has a greater impact on the classroom.

In constant 2004 dollars, Texas spent $7,128 per student a decade ago, peaked at $7,415 in 2009 (thanks to federal stimulus money), and bottomed out in 2013. Contrary to what you might have heard, Texas spends $300 less per student than it did a decade ago.

 

But just a few years ago, the Texas Supreme Court said we were spending enough.

A lot has changed since then. In 2005, the court ruled that the funding was barely adequate, but today a greater share of Texas students are economically disadvantaged or have limited English—both groups that cost much more to educate. Of Texas’ five million public school students, more than three million are economically disadvantaged. Dietz notes often that schools do have good options for helping these students (like smaller classes or full-day pre-K), but that these programs aren’t free—and the state’s not paying for them. While Texas’ bilingual population grows, it’s spending less on bilingual education.

All the new students we’ve added need new school buildings too, but Dietz said districts can’t raise enough for new construction. To pay for the growth, they’ve had to dip into money they should be spending in the classroom.

 

They can deal with it! It’s not like school’s getting any harder.

Oh, but it is. Since the last school finance ruling in 2005, the Legislature has added an expectation that schools prepare students for college, and begun using a harder new test, STAAR, that’s designed to assess a higher level of learning than the old test, TAKS. Both sides in the case agreed this was a “dramatic increase” in what students are expected to do.

Even last year’s House Bill 5, which cut the number of tests and added “career-ready” alternatives to the college-ready standard, doesn’t change that. In fact, Dietz says, no state witness could point to any cost savings from the new law.

 

I dunno, you look around, seems like schools are doing just fine.

Dietz disagrees. Considering the low pass rates on STAAR, and the fact they haven’t risen much in the test’s first years, he sounds worried. “The failure rates on STAAR constitute a current crisis in the education system,” he writes. Dietz also draws a connection between the flat scores on STAAR, and the lack of new funding for schools. Earlier this week, Education Commissioner Michael Williams said scores hadn’t grown because “we haven’t jumped high enough in the classroom”; Dietz suggests classrooms haven’t been given the resources to allow for that jump.

Even the state’s school ratings set the bar too low to guarantee the “general diffusion of knowledge” required by the constitution. Dietz says a district can have “incredibly poor performance results” on STAAR and still win the state’s “met standard” rating. According to other measures, Texas is losing ground to other states—a new development since the Supreme Court last heard a school finance case. One of the state’s own witnesses called Texas’ graduation rate “a disaster.”

 

OK, but I already got my diploma and I don’t have kids. Who cares?! Ron Paul 2016!

For one thing, this is bad news for students who won’t graduate because they’re not passing tests—disproportionately poor students and students with limited English. Dietz writes: “Waiting for school districts to make slow progress on improving the passing rate is not an option for the hundreds of thousands of ninth and tenth graders who are no longer on track to graduate because of their performance on [end of course] exams.”

You may not see much need for an properly funded public education system, but the constitution disagrees—and for good reason, Dietz says: “Texas’s future depends heavily on whether it meets the constitutional obligation to provide a general diffusion of knowledge such that all students have a meaningful opportunity to graduate college and career ready.”

 

So what, we just spend money forever?

Dietz acknowledges it’s tough to pin down a precise dollar amount for the proper cost of Texas’ education, but he disagrees with the state’s argument that it’s impossible to determine.

For argument’s sake, Dietz defines adequate somewhere in a range of $6,500 to $7,000 per student. By the lowest reasonable estimate he heard, Dietz says Texas needs to be pay at least $6,404 per student—around $800 more than it does today. Of Texas’ 1,020 school districts, only the 259 richest ones can cover the cost of an adequate education within legal tax rates.

 

But I heard the Lege replaced the 2011 education cuts last year.

The trial began as school districts were coming to grips with the $5.4 billion school budget cuts the Legislature passed in 2011; after the Lege replaced $3.5 billion of that in 2013, Dietz reopened the case to get updated testimony. But in his ruling he said the Legislature’s extra spending was “modest indeed—and plainly insufficient to satisfy constitutional standards.” Four hundred-eighty-eight school districts—almost half the districts in the state—are still worse off than they were before the 2011 cuts.

And the underlying problems with the funding formula remain.

 

But didn’t the Lege fix school finance in 2006?

Weeeellll… Not so much. In fact, Dietz says lawmakers only exacerbated problems in the system. Back then when the Supreme Court told the Legislature to fix school finance, Rick Perry took the opportunity to cut local property taxes and replace them with a new business tax that some warned would never make up the difference in the budget. Guess what happened? It didn’t cover the difference! Hence the multi-billion-dollar deficit the Legislature faces with every new session.

Lawmakers set up a delicate house of cards in 2006 that’s since gone all to hell, and the problems have even affected Texas’ wealthiest schools. Dietz notes that the current system makes it hard for so-called property-rich districts to raise more money, thanks to idiosyncrasies like target revenue.

 

More like off-target revenue, am I right?? I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Dietz’s opinion deals necessarily with some pretty obscure issues in the school budget, “target revenue” among them. Target revenue, or “ASATR” (which is seriously pronounced “ass-a-tar”), is a good example of how the Lege backtracked in a subtle way the last time it tried to fix the system. As Abby Rapoport explained in a 2011 Observer piece on school finance, target revenue was meant as a stopgap measure to ensure districts didn’t lose money too quickly as the state transitioned to its new funding system.

Instead of reducing the target revenue rate last session, the lege raised it from 92.35 to 92.63 to help ease the pain of those 2011 budget cuts. Under today’s system, target revenue would end in TK, creating a steep cliff for some school budgets. Dietz does not have a high opinion of how Target Revenue—and other neat legislative tricks from 2006, like “golden” and “copper pennies” for tax rates—have played out.

 

Yikes. Well maybe they’ll do the right thing next time!

It’s unlikely, but the Legislature could even take quick action next year to fix the system without a directive from the Supreme Court. The Houston Chronicle detailed a few possible outcomes over the weekend.

But hardly any red-blooded Republican lawmakers want to be seen growing the budget, so it’ll most likely take a firm Supreme Court ruling to force them to do so. Making the system more equitable for all districts, and fixing the local tax rates, will be an incredibly complex proposition that’s bound to hurt some folks and help others. It’s a little hard to imagine this Legislature—full of so many new members—coming to terms on a deal this contentious.

The courts do have a way to make lawmakers come to terms, and they’ve done it before, by threatening to cut off the school system if lawmakers can’t fund it correctly.

 

But won’t schools do better if we just fire all the bad teachers?

No. Or at least, according to Dietz, there’s no evidence that doing so would improve schools as much as giving them the proper resources. Plus, how do you decide which teachers are bad? After hearing from one of the nation’s leading proponents of this strategy, Stanford University researcher Eric Hanushek, Dietz wasn’t sold on its potential to turn the whole school system around.

 

So did Dietz buy every argument the plaintiffs threw at him?

No. One new wrinkle in this suit was a “taxpayer equity” claim from the Equity Center—essentially that, as a taxpayer, your return on your property taxes varies depending on where you live. Dietz didn’t go for this one, though he didn’t explain much about why.

Dietz also shot down arguments from both of the new plaintiffs’ groups in this trial. One, a charter school group, argued that the school finance system is unfair because it allows traditional districts to raise money just for facilities, but charters don’t get any money for buildings. (But because the funding for charter schools is based on an average of the state’s funding for ISDs, he ruled that charter funding is inadequate too.)

Another group, led by former state Rep. Kent Grusendorf and the Texas Association of Business, argued that the system should include a guarantee that districts spend money efficiently. Dietz was unswayed by arguments that schools are, broadly speaking, spending wastefully. Had Dietz ruled differently on their claims, he could have opened the door to an unlimited number of charters, or even school vouchers.

 

This sounds like it was a lot of work! Are the lawyers going to get paid?

Um, yes.

One of this case’s many exciting twists is that school boards had to devote scarce public resources to teams of lawyers to argue on the schools’ behalf. If Dietz’s ruling holds, the state will have to directly pay the school district lawyers’ costs. The charter schools and Grusendorf’s “efficiency intervenors” had no such luck. Here’s how the costs broke down:

  • TTSFC (Equity Center) attorney fees: $1,888,705.91 plus $325,000 on appeal to the Supreme Court
  • Calhoun County (Haynes & Boone) attorney fees: $2,609,642.57 plus $500,000 on appeal to the Supreme Court
  • Fort Bend ISD (Thompson & Horton) attorney fees: $1,733,676.75 plus $400,000 on appeal to the Supreme Court
  • Edgewood ISD (MALDEF) attorney fees: $2,194,027.92 plus $325,000 on appeal to the Supreme Court

The school districts may or may not end up with enough money, but one thing we’re sure of is that the lawyers will get paid.

 

 

rickperrybooking3
Forrest Wilder
At his booking, Rick Perry laughs at his own joke. He forgot the punch line.

Somewhere out there Molly Ivins is having one hell of a laugh. Gov. GoodHair provided an unintentionally awesome twist to her old line that the Texas Legislature is “the national laboratory for bad government.”

As part of his post-felony indictment victory tour (never dreamed I’d be typing that line), Perry spoke at an event hosted by the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity group in Manchester, New Hampshire, last Friday, during which he called the states “lavatories of democracy.” Yep, and he’s the man on the throne.

Down here in the toilet bowl of gubmint, we’ve come to expect a few clogs in the ol’ plumbing. Like that time that Rick Perry responded to a massive humanitarian crisis of children and families fleeing Central America for the calmer climes of Texas by deploying troops to the border, only he forgot to pay said troops on time—resulting in the little snafu that some of the guardsmen had to pay a visit to a Rio Grande Valley food bank for their MREs. Wasn’t Sun Tzu’s No. 1 rule that you can’t fight narcos on an empty stomach? I guess you go to war with the army you have, right?

State officials have repeatedly said, though, that the border “surge” isn’t a militarization of the Rio Grande Valley… Except, perhaps, when they think no one is listening to their conversations with their pals in the tea party. As David Dewhurst told Waco Tea Party Radio recently:

“I don’t want to see any loss of life, but if anyone is listening from south of the border I’d recommend them that if they are approached by the DPS put your hands in the air and don’t fight, otherwise it’s not going to be pretty.”

“Hands up, don’t shoot” worked out pretty well for Michael Brown. No reason to think it wouldn’t for undocumented immigrants.

Meanwhile, in the race to the Governor’s Mansion—the veritable toilet seat of our Lavatory—democracy is on the march. Today Greg Abbott announced that he was backing out of the only statewide televised gubernatorial debate. “Due to our inability to agree on specific details of the format, Attorney General Greg Abbott will regretfully not be participating in the WFAA debate,” said Robert Black, senior campaign adviser.

And what might those details be? Did Abbott’s team not like the chyron that WFAA was planning? Did they not approve of the lighting or the color of the walls? Did they want to dictate what color blouse Davis might wear. We don’t know. What we do know is that Abbott and Davis have nailed down just one debate—in McAllen, with no live audience (per Abbott’s request) and no statewide TV coverage. On a Friday at 6 p.m. You know when governments and corporations release stuff they want to bury in a news cycle? Late on a Friday.

Since 2002, there have been a total of just three (3!) gubernatorial debates. (No, I am not counting 2010’s match-up of Democrat Bill White and Libertarian Kathie Glass. That wasn’t a debate; it was a hater’s ball.)

In 2002, Democrat Tony Sanchez and Rick Perry had two debates. In 2006, there was one four-way debate among Perry, Democrat Chris Bell, and independents Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman. Perry refused to debate Bill White in 2010.

(Compare that to the umpteen debates among the four GOP candidates for lieutenant governor.)

Down here in the lavatory of democracy, it seems we’ve washed our hands of democracy.

Rick Perry at a press conference in Weslaco.
Office of the Governor
Rick Perry at a press conference in Weslaco.

They came to the forbidding landscape of the Rio Grande Valley from miles away, for reasons beyond their control. Their fates were written in the stars. Strangers to the region, faced with a new and imposing culture, they tried to make the best of it. Hungry, thirsty and lacking the means to make it to their intended destination after they were dumped by the border, they fell on the region’s inhabitants for Christian charity and goodwill. Yes, the National Guard are having a rough go of it in the Rio Grande Sector:

They came here to help protect the border but now the first wave of Texas National Guard troops deployed after Governor Rick Perry made the call are needing assistance to pay for food and gas.

“We were contacted that 50 troops that are in the Valley don’t have any money for food and gas and they need our assistance,” said Food Bank [Rio Grande Valley] Executive Director Terri Drefke.

The Texas Military Forces may have a king’s ransom of gunboats and choppers and night vision goggles and what have you, but none of that’s much good if, as the RGV’s Action 4 News reports, you “won’t get paid until September 5th and have been in the Valley since August 11th.”

These are the guys that were supposed to be so threatening that fearful drug cartels would be forced to conduct their business a hundred miles up the river. Or—well, nobody’s really been able to say what they’re doing, or why. At least they’re not shooting anybody.

Seriously, let’s hope the good folks of the Texas National Guard get through this with a minimum of discomfort and without any serious mishaps. But at the same time, keep this in mind the next time Gov. Perry starts bragging about flexing the state’s military might on Fox News Sunday.

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.

There’s something weird about the Wendy Davis campaign’s recent ads. Have you seen them? If not, you probably will soon.

We’re at the stage of the campaign where candidates start to open their coffers. This is the most expensive race in Texas history, and at the top of the ticket, Davis has amassed a small fortune, which is absolutely dwarfed by the Abbott’s much larger fortune. These campaigns are set to run a formidable air war against each other come the fall, and it’s starting. But Abbott’s cash advantage—he had $35.6 million to Davis’ $11.1 million mid-summer—means he can run pretty much whatever he wants, when he wants. Abbott has ads running in movie theaters, for Christ’s sake.

Davis needs to be more selective. What the campaign can’t do in quantity, it needs to achieve with quality. So her first ads are an interesting reflection of the campaign’s priorities and direction as we close in on the election.

Her first ad, which dropped earlier this month, is called “A Texas Story.” That sounds promising, right? Davis has an incredible personal story: Remarkable individual achievement and perseverance, coming from a highly disadvantaged background. Her story, you could say, is the state’s story writ small. There’s so much most voters still don’t know about who she is. This could make a great ad.

Of course, “A Texas Story” wasn’t about Davis: It was about a “young mother” getting “brutally raped” while “her children slept in the very next room.” Those quotes are from the Davis campaign’s own copy. It’s one of the most disturbing campaign ads you’ll ever see: It makes the Willie Horton ad look like a documentary about a cupcake factory (albeit, a racist one.) It’s the only campaign ad I’ve ever seen that needs a trigger warning.

It’s an extremely slick and exploitative video. It feels like it was pulled from one of the more sordid true crime shows that populate basic cable. A carefully placed upturned tricycle, near the end, signals the lost innocence of the “brutally raped” woman’s children.

About 45 seconds into the ad, we get to the point: The rapist was a door-to-door salesman for a vacuum cleaner company, and the woman sued that company. When Abbott was a Texas Supreme Court Justice, he heard the case and opined that the company didn’t owe damages. He was in the minority.

There’s a lot of weird things about the ad, like the fact that Abbott doesn’t appear until the end. The worst thing might be that the Davis campaign, when asked the obvious question, didn’t seem to know whether they had told the “brutally raped” “young mother” that her story would be on TV, inviting a flood of scrutiny. Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson, who’s the closest thing we have to a referee on these sorts of things, told the Houston Chronicle that if the campaign hadn’t informed the woman, they were at “moral and political fault.”

But that’s not the weird thing I was thinking of at the top of this piece. The rape-y ad was from earlier this month—here’s a more recent one:

In it, Manuel Alvarado, a cancer survivor from Fort Worth, bemoans the failure of CPRIT and ties its failures to Greg Abbott. It’s a much more conventional political attack ad.

Here’s the thing: Where’s Wendy? Does this look to anyone like the kind of campaign people thought Davis was going to be running when she jumped in the race last year?

A caveat: I don’t know how to run campaigns. Bill White ran a bunch of positive ads in 2010 and lost. Maybe these are really, really smart ads. Maybe they’re effective on apathetic, low-information voters, and maybe they’ve tested alternatives and come to the conclusion that this is the best option.

But think about what Democrats were most excited about after Davis filibustered, and declared her candidacy. They were excited to have a Candidate. Bill White and Chris Bell were nice fellows who were OK candidates and probably would have been good governors, but they weren’t Candidates. Davis was a Candidate.

She had massive star power among the Democratic base, and she had a unbelievably impressive biography. She could draw big money from out-of-state liberals. She represented a seemingly center-right district and held it as a Democrat in two rough cycles. Suburban Republican women loved her. Through the strength of her personality and sheer force of will, she would make this a fight. Whatever it was, she had it.

So where is it?

A recent Rasmussen poll had Abbott’s favorability numbers dipping, so maybe the attack lines are working. But Davis’ favorability numbers have been a problem the whole campaign—one PPP poll from April had her unfavorability rating at 47 percent. (Abbott’s was 27 percent.) A lot of voters don’t seem to know much about her, and she has trouble with the ones that do.

There’s a little over two months left, which, in politics, is both an eon and not very much time at all. Can the Davis that Democrats were excited about last year break through the smooth machining of a consultant-driven, attack ad-heavy campaign?

As a coda, consider two other videos. Leticia Van de Putte’s campaign hasn’t had enough money to participate in the ad war yet, but it will at some point. But here’s a video her campaign put together to use as an intro at the Democratic convention in June. It’s a bit corny at points, but it’s humanizing and warm and funny, and it’s hard not to come away from it liking Van de Putte more. It’s the polar opposite of “A Texas Story.”

And here’s one of the zillions of web ads that Greg Abbott has produced—here’s, effectively, what “A Texas Story” stands in opposition to. Consider that Abbott, frankly speaking, is not a charismatic guy, or a particularly talented politician. Watch how effectively the ad masks that:

Look at that smiling, happy man. Look at the pretty boats and sky and fish, and how hard those guys are working. Listen to how he’ll fight for you. Don’t you want him to be your governor?

Travis County District Judge John Dietz
Patrick Michels
Juge John Dietz

Fifteen legislatures and a million years ago (give or take), school districts, parents and their lawyers—oh, the lawyers!—embarked upon an epic quest to wring more money for public education from state lawmakers: to devise an equitable formula for funding Texas’ schools and to provide sustainable support for students in our fast-growing state.

Today, state District Judge John Dietz ruled on Texas’ most recent school finance case—the seventh in 30 years—finding, once again, that our funding system runs afoul of the Texas Constitution.

In the grand scheme of this Texas epic, today’s ruling is a small victory for school districts—the equivalent of the end of a minor battle somewhere in the middle of one of the Lord of the Rings sequels.

It can be hard to cut through all the noise and political spin around school finance. The suit was a complicated one from the start, with a huge cast of players and competing interests. And it’s far from over. From here, the case goes to the Texas Supreme Court—barring a possible stop at an appeals court—but probably not until early next year. If the high court agrees the system needs a fix, it’ll be the Texas Legislature’s job to draft a plan that satisfies the courts.

The stakes are high. Reworking the entire funding system will have a major impact on Texas’ five million students. Since the first Edgewood ISD case in the ’80s, the Legislature has been happy to let the courts force its hand on school finance, so for anyone hoping schools get more resources or smarter funding for the future, this lawsuit is the only hope.

In his initial ruling in February 2013—which he delivered in brief remarks from the bench after months of testimony and detailed statistics—Dietz offered a poetic consideration of the “miracle of education,” and the “civic, altruistic and economic” rationale behind offering every child a free public education.

Lawyers for more than two-thirds of Texas’ school districts argued that the state had cut funding in recent years, even as it required more from them and as enrollment ballooned. Poorer districts, they said, have been forced to max out their local property taxes, and even then couldn’t keep up with property-rich districts.

Of all the testimony he heard, Dietz said, one chart conveyed the problem best: a graph that showed Texas’ spending (adjusted for inflation) remained basically flat while its enrollment grew by 1 million students:

LBB chart

The schools’ lawyers noted that the state’s estimates of what a good education costs—or how to adjust those costs for different students’ needs or different parts of the state—are decades old. As the situation grows more dire, Dietz said in his ruling today, “the state has buried its head in the sand.” It’s time, he said, for elected leaders to decide what kind of education we want and are willing to pay for.

Dietz reopened the case after lawmakers put $3.4 billion back into public education last year (only partially undoing a $5.4 billion cut in 2011), but his decision today is the same as his ruling last year.

Though today’s ruling is just a step in the case’s long journey, it’s been enough to warrant a new round of political posturing. Attorney General Greg Abbott already tried to get Dietz tossed from the case by claiming he’d shown favor to the schools during the trial. Abbott was unsuccessful, but the ordeal supported an impression that Dietz was an activist who’d rule against the state no matter what. Today, his office said it would appeal, while his campaign avoided commenting directly on the case. “Our obligation is to improve education for our children rather than just doubling down on an outdated education system constructed decades ago,” Abbott said in a statement.

Abbott’s rival in the governor’s race, Wendy Davis, called the ruling “a victory for our schools, for the future of our state and for the promise of opportunity that’s at the core of who we are as Texans.” She repeated her long-standing call for Abbott to drop the state’s defense and get busy fixing the system.

The issue isn’t strictly partisan. State Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Van) recently complained to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal that while the rural districts in his districts get less than $5,000 per student, “You’ve got schools all over the state that are getting in excess of $10,000. It is not right.”

When lawmakers return to the Capitol next year, they’ll be in basically the same position they were in last session: forced to draft another two-year budget knowing there’s a lower court ruling against them, but with no guidance from the Supreme Court.

You can read Dietz’s final judgment here, and his (much longer) fact-finding conclusions here. I’ll update our coverage soon with more detail from Dietz’s ruling.