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Andy Miller (left) and Brian Stephens with their son, Clark
Andy Miller (left), shown with his partner Brian Stephens and their adopted son, Clark, was among those who testified in favor of the bill Wednesday.

A Republican committee chairman smacked down an anti-LGBT witness Wednesday during a hearing on a proposal to allow same-sex parents to have both their names on the birth certificates of adopted children.

Julie Drenner, of Texas Values, claimed the bill would lead to threesomes adopting, affect all birth certificates and require the state to revise more than 20 forms.

But Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana), chairman of the House Committee on State Affairs, told Drenner he was “struggling” with those arguments, and suggested that same-sex couples have been more willing to adopt special-needs children than “the traditional community.”

“That’s a terrible indictment on one group, to be honest with you,” Cook told Drenner. “In regards to your issue that you have to change the forms, so what? I really don’t understand that argument at all. Right now in Texas, we are struggling. We do not have enough parents who are willing to adopt. Thank goodness for people that will adopt children and give them loving homes.”

In 1997, the Legislature amended the Texas Health & Safety Code to require supplemental birth certificates issued to adoptive parents to contain the name of one female, the mother, and one male, the father. Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas), the author of House Bill 537, said as a result, roughly 9,000 Texas children who are being raised by adoptive same-sex parents don’t have accurate birth certificates. That leads to problems enrolling children in school, adding them to insurance policies, admitting them for medical care and obtaining passports.

“Regardless of what you think about the parents, this state should be about promoting policies that protect children and foster adoption, and that’s what this bill does,” Anchia said.

Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana)
Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana)

Kirsten Edwards choked back tears as she told the committee that in addition to being a legal assistant to an adoption attorney, she’s the same-sex parent of a 2-year-old boy. Edwards, whose name is on her son’s birth certificate, said while the family hasn’t encountered any bureaucratic problems yet, she dreads the day her son asks why the document doesn’t include both mothers.

“I’ve thought about it a lot, and I have no idea what I’m going to tell him,” Edwards said.

Zoe Touchet, 14, said if her biological mom, who isn’t on her birth certificate, were to pass away, she’d be forced to go to court and unseal her adoption records to obtain Social Security benefits.

“I feel like as a child of same-gender parents, I’m not getting the same rights,” Zoe said. “I feel like I’m getting punished for something people shouldn’t be punished for.”

Anchia noted that two years ago, when Texas Values alleged the bill would lead to “mother” and “father” being removed from all birth certificates, PolitiFact said the claim was “mostly false.” Likewise, the bill states that “both” parents could be listed on birth certificates, thereby precluding threesomes.

“They’ve been fact-checked, and their contentions have not held up,” Anchia said of Texas Values. “I would not submit, members, to the politics of fear.”

Cook, who has an adopted child, left the bill pending but indicated he plans to call it back up.

“We owe it to young people like Zoe to give them some peace of mind on this issue and some clarity,” Cook said.

Dennis Bonnen
Dennis Bonnen

After four hours of debate on almost 50 amendments, the House passed, on an initial vote, a comprehensive border security bill by Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton).

House Bill 11 passed on a 131-12 vote.

The far-reaching bill would expedite hiring of additional Department of Public Safety troopers to serve in the border region, create a Texas Transnational Crime Intelligence Center in the Rio Grande Valley, enact more serious penalties for human smugglers and commission a study on the creation of checkpoints on southbound roads.

According to the Legislative Budget Board, the price-tag for the bill totals $4.1 billion over the next two years.

Bonnen said that creating a permanent DPS presence on the border would eliminate the need for so-called border surges. Texas’ latest deployment of law enforcement started last summer in response to a wave of unaccompanied Central American children crossing the border. An internal DPS report found that the surge had taken away from crime-fighting elsewhere in the state.

“For the first time in the history of our nation,” Bonnen said, “we’re having a consistent plan to fill the void of the federal government’s constitutional responsibility to secure the border, which for some reason they choose not to do.”

Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview) started today’s debate off on a combative note when he objected to the possible creation of southbound checkpoints.

Simpson said he spent a week at the border and never heard any calls for checkpoints going south into Mexico.

Bonnen argued that the checkpoints could be an important tool to catch transnational gangs smuggling money, guns or other weapons.

Democrats put up little resistance.

Most of the several dozen amendments were withdrawn before being voted on.

Rep. Armando Walle (D-Houston) offered seven amendments to the bill, including one that would have required DPS to put contracts over $5,000 out for a competitive bid—a remedy for the no-bid contracting scandals that have rocked DPS and other agencies. All Walle’s amendments failed.

Rep. Eddie Lucio III (D-Brownsville) said that he supported the bill because of increased criminal threats from drug cartels on the border.

“They are very bad people, with very bad intentions,” he said.

Other border lawmakers say crime in border communities has been overstated and have questioned the need for an increased state law enforcement presence.

Walle and Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint) voiced concerns over spending more than $4 billion on a border security bill without having a clear definition of what constitutes a secure border. Gonzalez pointed out that El Paso is the safest large city in the country. Both representatives voted against the bill.

More than 70 members of the House co-authored HB 11. An almost identical Senate bill by Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) had a committee hearing today.

Vincent Lopez
Kelsey Jukam
Vincent Lopez, is founder of the Patient Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics.

Timothy Dasher’s 12-year-old daughter, Felicity, has epilepsy and suffers from frequent seizures. She usually has to wear a helmet to protect her head from the sudden falls, which have bruised and broken her small body. Today she wore an enormous pink-and-white bow in her hair as she and her father stood with dozens of activists at the Capitol in support of legislation that would allow Texans to legally access medical marijuana.

Dasher and other activists are getting behind House Bill 3785, and its companion Senate Bill 1839, legislation giving patients who have a doctor’s recommendation to acquire and use marijuana. Proponents of the legislation say that medical marijuana has many of the same treatment benefits as prescription medications without as many of the harmful side-effects.

Dasher says his daughter tried 15 different pharmaceutical drugs over 10 years to try to stop the seizures. None of them worked, he said. If anything, they seemed to make the condition worse. But when the family moved to Colorado, and started using medical marijuana. “We found her miracle,” he said. He hopes that medical marijuana will be legalized this session, so they don’t have to leave their Granbury home again.

Rep. Marisa Marquez (D-El Paso), author of HB 3785, said in a press conference this afternoon that Texas needs to take a “scientific and reasoned approach” to medical marijuana, and allow patients and doctors to choose their best treatment plan.

“The support we see here today is a clear indication that the Legislature needs to take the suffering of these Texans seriously,” Marquez said.

She calls her 40-page bill “comprehensive,” and says that it includes safeguards to prevent misuse of the drug. The bill would allow the Department of State Health Services to establish a regulated system of licensed cultivators and dispensaries.

Marquez’s legislation is more detailed and ambitious in scope than other medical marijuana bills filed this session and in previous ones. In 2013, Rep. Elliott Naisthat (D-Austin) carried a bill that would have given patients using medical marijuana an affirmative defense if they were arrested on charges of possession. That bill, HB 594, was left pending in committee.

This session, three Republican legislators filed bills that would legalize access to cannabidiol (CBD), one of the 85 active ingredients in cannabis. CBD has been effective at treating some epilepsy patients, but many patients need other components of marijuana, including THC, to effectively treat their symptoms. HB 3785 and SB 1839 would allow access to whole marijuana and oils that have a more balanced ratio of CBD and THC.

Vincent Lopez, outreach director for the Patient Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics, began using medical marijuana in 2009 to treat muscle spasms. For the last 25 years, Lopez has used a wheelchair, while struggling with Becker muscular dystrophy, a condition characterized by slowly worsening muscle weakness. He says marijuana acquired on the black market doesn’t have consistent results. There are multiple strains of cannabis, and some are more effective at treatment for certain medical conditions than others. With the black market product, Lopez says, you never know what strain you’re getting.

Rep. Marisa Marquez
Kelsey Jukam
Rep. Marisa Marquez discusses her bill that would legalize medical marijuana.

Under the proposed legislation, patients who have specific illnesses or disorders listed in the bill—such as cancer or epilepsy—would qualify for access. The bill also includes people who experiences chronic and severe pain, or suffer from a symptom deemed “debilitating” by the Department of State Health Services.

Medical marijuana is legal in 23 states. According to a 2013 poll by the Marijuana Policy Project, 58 percent of Texas voters believe that seriously ill patients should be allowed to use medical marijuana if they have a doctor’s recommendation to do so. A Texas Tribune poll from last year, found that 77 percent of Texans support the legalization of marijuana for at least some uses.

On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott said in a press conference that marijuana decriminalization is not likely to happen this session. He said that Texas should divert “away from activity that involves drug use and helping people lead more productive lives.”

Many patients argue that medical marijuana is the key to living a productive, pain-free life.

Marquez said in the press conference that the biggest challenge to passing this legislation is education.

“I think many people when they hear marijuana, immediately, there’s an apprehension about what exactly we’re trying to do here,” she said.

She hopes she’ll be able to help her colleagues understand every aspect of the bill, to alleviate those types of concerns. HB 3785 and SB 1839 were both filed last week and neither has been assigned to a committee.

Cecil Bell Jr.
Rep. Cecil Bell Jr. (R-Magnolia) is the author of four anti-LGBT bills, the most of any legislator.

Texas lawmakers have filed at least 20 anti-LGBT proposals this year—likely the most in the history of any state.

It’s the type of onslaught that was widely expected among LGBT advocates, due to backlash over the spread of same-sex marriage.

Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas, said the group is “well-positioned” to defeat every piece of anti-LGBT legislation. Williams called it the worst session for LGBT rights since 2005—when the state’s marriage amendment passed and a proposal to ban gay foster parents was defeated on the House floor.

But things have changed since then, he said, pointing to the Texas Association of Business’ decision to oppose one well-publicized anti-LGBT proposal—a “religious freedom” amendment that would protect discrimination—prompting its author to back down.

“What’s different about this Legislature than 2005 is that Texas, like most of the nation, has evolved on LGBT issues, and that mainstream voice is emerging and is being heard in the Texas Legislature,” Williams said. “It damages the Texas brand, and I think that’s why you’re seeing so many business voices get involved. … We also know how this process works better than our opposition does.”

Williams wouldn’t elaborate on strategy, but out lesbian Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin) suggested the best one may simply be to run out the clock.

“I feel good about our chances of stopping it, because there are so many major issues out there, that these small hateful and divisive bills will get pushed to the back of the agenda,” Israel said. “We’re going to run out of time, and we will be able to make a statement that there’s no place for that kind of law in the state of Texas.”

If LGBT advocates needs signs of encouragement, they can look north. Oklahoma lawmakers introduced 16 anti-LGBT bills this year, but 15 have already died. Israel noted that many of the anti-LGBT proposals in Texas are similar to those in other states—an indication they’re being shopped by national groups.

“I’m assuming that whatever they’ve seen in Oklahoma, they’ve brought that trash to Texas, and we’re going to clean it up,” Israel said.

Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia), the author of four anti-LGBT bills—the most of any legislator—said he’s “very confident” one or more will pass.

“Unfortunately, I think it gets couched as ‘anti.’ It’s not about ‘anti.’ It’s about being pro-states’ rights. It’s about being pro-traditional values,” Bell said. “We’re seeing the results of a federal court system that doesn’t seem to be respecting the rights, the sovereignty, of the states and of the people. Because of that, you see the state legislatures pushing back.”

Three of Bell’s bills directly target same-sex marriage, while the other would allow business owners to turn away customers on religious grounds. It’s one of several similar religious freedom proposals, including two constitutional amendments, that critics say would establish a “license to discriminate” against LGBT people.

Other bills would bar cities from enacting or enforcing LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances, and restrict access to restrooms and similar facilities for transgender people.

“This bill really is trying to establish the students’ rights to privacy,” said Rep. Gilbert Pena (R-Pasadena), who wants to make schools liable for damages if they allow transgender students to use restrooms based on how they identify. “How many girls in our high schools are going to be willing to allow some transgender male into their bathroom? Would you allow that for your daughter? I would not allow it for my daughter.”

Sarah Warbelow, legal director at the nation’s largest LGBT group, the Human Rights Campaign, said Texas has “the largest number of bills we’ve seen in a single state intended to harm the LGBT community at least in a very long time.”

Warbelow said based on what’s happened in other states, she believes bills targeting same-sex marriage have an “extraordinarily low” chance of passage.

“There is not an appetite among moderate Republicans to pass bills that are so blatantly unconstitutional,” she said.

But Warbelow said she’s concerned about proposals that would undermine local nondiscrimination ordinances.

“As we as a movement have greater success at the municipal level in states that are controlled by more conservative legislatures, it is something that we worry about,” she said.

And while some have characterized the current barrage of legislation across the U.S. as the last gasp of the anti-LGBT movement, Warbelow disagreed.

“I think this is likely to continue for some time,” she said. “I anticipate that this will not be the last year that we see a number of these bills move.”

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.
Photo courtesy 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.

In another fight over local control this session, state Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth), one of the more powerful lawmakers in the House, is pushing a bill that would erode the ability of cities and counties to collect civil penalties from polluters. This morning, Geren described the latest version of his House Bill 1794 to the House Environmental Regulation Committee as a way to curb “lawsuit abuse” by capping the maximum penalties that can be assessed on environmental violators at $4.3 million and imposing a five-year statute of limitations on the filing of lawsuits.

The legislation appears to be a response to high-profile litigation between Harris County and three companies considered liable for the San Jacinto River waste pits, an EPA Superfund site that has been leaking dioxins into the San Jacinto River and Galveston Bay for decades.

While Geren jettisoned some of the most far-reaching parts of the original version of HB 1794—a requirement for local governments to prove that a company “knowingly or intentionally” violated the law, for example—local authorities and environmentalists said they were still opposed.

Tom “Smitty” Smith, the veteran head of Public Citizen’s Texas office, said cities and counties need the ability to force polluters to pay civil penalties because state enforcement of environmental laws is so weak.

“We think the [Texas Commission on Environmental Quality] is a toothless tiger,” he said. The agency doesn’t have the resources or “the guts to go after biggest polluters.”

First dug next to the river in 1965, the pits were only determined in 2005 to be the primary source of dioxins in upper Galveston Bay, which has been under a fish consumption advisory for two decades.

Local authorities, environmentalists and citizens of nearby neighborhoods contend that the waste pits have caused incalculable harm to the ecosystem and are responsible for a cluster of cancers and other diseases in Highlands and Channelview. In 2011, Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan sued the three companies he claims are liable for the damage caused by the dioxins in public waterways: International Paper, Waste Management of Texas and McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corporation. The county asked for an eye-popping $1 billion.

Last year, as the lawsuit barreled toward a jury trial, two of the companies—Waste Management and McGinnis—settled for $29.2 million. International Paper was found not-guilty by a jury on a 10-2 vote.

Jackie Young, a 28-year-old Houston woman and Miss Houston Rodeo 2013 who grew up in Highlands, a community near the waste pits, told the committee that dioxins from the waste pits poisoned her family and neighbors. Young’s father suffers from multiple myeloma, a rare bone marrow cancer that she says is shockingly common among citizens in the area around the pits. Young has had two surgeries on her reproductive organs since 2013 and has experienced seizures, fatigue and other symptoms she associates with exposure to dioxins.

“There’s no cap on our medical expenses,” she told the committee today, “and there’s no cap on the medical expenses that many of our residents have incurred.”

Cost estimates for remediating the waste pits range from $100 million to $600 million.

“My father may never walk me down the aisle and I may never have kids, but that is my reality, I believe, like many other families in Channelview and Highlands, because companies dumped in our environment. To think that legislation is seriously being considered to limit and minimize penalties … is ludicrous.”

State Rep. Charlie Geren
Facebook
State Rep. Charlie Geren

The Geren bill requires local government lawsuits against water polluters to be filed no later than five years after the company reports a violation or receives an enforcement notice. But Highlands and Channelview residents knew little to nothing about the waste pits for decades, in part because the successor companies didn’t bother to make the issue known to the community or regulators.

Young said her organization, the San Jacinto River Coalition, recently completed testing of the soil in 15 yards along the San Jacinto River in Highlands and Channelview. All 15 tested positive for the specific kind of dioxin leaching from the waste pits. The Harris County lawsuit, she said, was the first time many in the community were even aware of the waste pits—a popular spot for fishing, crabbing and, as one older man testified today, water-skiing in his youth.

County- or city-led lawsuits seeking penalties from water polluters are relatively rare, but Harris County, with its vast petrochemical facilities, 20 known Superfund sites and loose rules that allow homes next to industry, is probably the most litigious. In the last 19 years, the county has issued 18,000 violation notices to companies and filed 205 civil actions, said Cathy Sisk, a retired environmental attorney with Harris County. She said the county only resorted to the lawsuit because the three successor companies hadn’t done anything to clean up the site, even going so far as to defy EPA’s orders.

“We feel like in those cases we need a hammer,” she said.

Harris County Commissioner Jack Cagle, a Republican, made a pitch for keeping local control. “Government is best when it’s closest to the people,” he said. Sometimes, state officials are “removed from the passion of the folks who actually live in the neighborhoods, where we work, where we breathe, where we play and live.”

HB 1794 was left pending. A companion bill in the Senate, SB 1509, by Sen. Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills) has yet to be assigned a committee.

Thomas Lucas Jr. organized land deals in rural North Texas at inflated prices, promising investors prime access to a planned Disney resort that was entirely make-believe.
U.S. Attorney's Office
Thomas Lucas Jr. organized land deals in rural North Texas at inflated prices, promising investors prime access to a planned Disney resort that was entirely make-believe.

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

CELINA // Investors planning to turn this small North Texas town into the happiest place on earth claim their hopes were dashed by Dallas real estate scion Thomas W. Lucas Jr., who raised millions for a real estate scheme designed around a supposed Disney theme park. Lucas, 40, was convicted in February of bilking more than 100 international investors out of $60 million, using “sophisticated digital architectural plans” and a forged letter from Southwest Airlines regarding a fictional “Frontier Disney Airport.” Initial investors included retired NBA center Jon Koncak and some of his former Southern Methodist University classmates, who, according to The Dallas Morning News, gathered to watch the 2007 Super Bowl around a Mickey Mouse cake, anticipating an announcement from Disney during the game. Lucas promised a huge return on real estate near the resort, claiming advance information supplied by a secret source—a man the Morning News reported was a “Hurricane Katrina transplant with a drug habit who delivered milk and worked other odd jobs before committing suicide in 2012.”

EARTH // Federal authorities say Donald and Karlien Winberg were on the run from the law with their seven children when they were spotted by tourists and arrested in the Bahamas in February, far from their home in West Texas, and even farther from the Denver courtroom where they were supposed to stand trial earlier this year. The Winbergs, authorities say, marketed corn and hay online, gave potential customers tours of fields they didn’t own, and then accepted payment up front for grain they never delivered. The Winbergs apparently made a prior attempt to leave the country in the fall of 2014, paying cash for a sailboat, the Houston Chronicle reported, which they wrecked on their way out of Galveston Bay.

HUNTINGTON // KTRE news reporter Erika Bazaldua peeled back the mystery of the moon’s true nature in a mid-January news report, settling the “controversy” over whether the moon is a planet, a star or a moon. Soliciting opinions from local high-schoolers, fourth-graders, and even quoting an on-air argument broadcast by the shopping network QVC, Bazaldua settled the matter with a visit to a mobile science museum, where retired teacher V.J. Willis explained: “Contrary to common misconception, the moon is not a star or a planet. It is a moon. It orbits a planet.”

CRYSTAL BEACH // Vidor construction worker Larry Nash was working a job near the beach when, he said, a glowing orb in the sky caught his attention. “It was like a bubble,” Nash told the Beaumont Enterprise in late January—a bubble that changed from purple to green as he and co-workers watched. They observed the bubble for 45 minutes, “taking pictures and calling friends,” the Enterprise reported, until their boss told them to get back to work. “That was the last we saw of it,” Nash said.

DEL RIO // A ghost hunt during the town’s annual UFO festival revealed no evidence that the Kress Building downtown is haunted. “But there’s no denying that its dark and empty second and third floors are downright spooky,” Karen Gleason reported in the Del Rio News-Herald. Fifty brave souls joined in the hunt led by Rosa Linda Sanchez, who admitted that she’s “never had any strange experiences inside the Kress.” Amber Street, a San Antonio college student, psychic and “seeker of higher knowledge,” said there were in fact “spirits in the building, but none who wished to make contact with us.”

HOUSTON // Japanese Internet entrepreneur and businessman Takafumi Horie sued Houston attorney Art Dula late last year, alleging that Dula talked him into investing nearly $50 million in a private spaceflight startup called Excalibur Almaz that, Horie said, was never intended to make money. The company announced plans to convert Russian space capsules and space station parts into modern launch vehicles, and even mine asteroids for rare materials—but Horie said the equipment was never fit for anything more strenuous than display in a museum, according to the Houston Chronicle. Another investor made similar allegations in 2012, and in May 2014, the company auctioned off one of its space capsules for $1.39 million, according to the blog Parabolic Arc. In February, Dula denied Horie’s fraud allegations, noting that Horie had signed an agreement not to sue the company—before his own recent imprisonment in Japan for securities fraud.

Waco native Bryan Christopher spent 18 years trying to change his sexual orientation before coming out as gay.
Courtesy of Bryan Christopher
Waco native Bryan Christopher spent 18 years trying to change his sexual orientation before finally coming out as gay.

Bryan Christopher was born in 1970 to two Baylor University students in Waco—what he calls “the Southern Baptist epicenter of the world.”

At 13, Christopher realized his dad’s Playboy magazines didn’t appeal to him. But because he’d been taught that being gay was a sin, he’d spend the next 18 years trying to change his sexual orientation through both religious and mental health counseling.

At 25, when Christopher feared he was in love with a fraternity brother at UCLA, he felt the urge to jump off a cliff. He called a suicide hotline and spent three days in a psychiatric ward, but it wouldn’t be until six years later that he finally came out as gay.

Looking back, the now 45-year-old Christopher blames so-called “reparative therapy” for many of his struggles. He’s written a book about his experiences and speaks out in support of bills like one filed Friday at the Texas Legislature, which would ban reparative therapy for minors.

“It’s to protect the children from being forced into a therapy that just reinforces the fear and the shame that most of these kids already have, and it leads to people taking their own lives,” Christopher said. “There’s nothing good that ever comes out of it. … I think if you just were to poll all the survivors, I think they would probably echo what I’m saying, that it was a very destructive and painful chapter of their lives.”

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

The proposal introduced by out lesbian Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin) would prohibit mental health providers in Texas from attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of people under 18. Those who violate the law would face disciplinary action from state licensing boards.

Israel acknowledged that House Bill 3495 has little chance of passing the Republican-dominated Legislature, and it wouldn’t apply to faith-based practitioners, but she said it’s an important response to the Texas GOP’s 2014 platform plank endorsing reparative therapy.

“I don’t think that they recognize how hurtful these kinds of things can be,” Israel told the Observer. “To suggest that some young kid that happens to be gay is less than normal is very hurtful and harmful and dangerous, and I think I put myself back in those years when I was first discovering who I was. … I felt strongly about introducing a bill that was a counter to that, to say, ‘We don’t need fixing. We just need your love.'”

Virtually all of the major medical and mental health organizations have come out against reparative therapy, from the American Psychological Association to the American Medical Association and the American Counseling Association.

David Pickup
David Pickup

But David Pickup, a licensed counselor who practices reparative therapy in Dallas and Los Angeles, suggested those groups have a political agenda and haven’t done adequate research. Pickup said bans like the one proposed in Texas violate the free speech rights of counselors, as well as the rights of parents and children.

“It results in further abuse of children because it doesn’t let them become who they actually are,” Pickup said. “It also takes away any possibility at all of children who are sexually abused by same-sex pedophiles from getting any help whatsoever to reduce or eliminate homosexual feelings that are caused by that.”

Pickup, one of the authors of the Texas GOP plank endorsing reparative therapy, was also a plaintiff in an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging a similar law in California. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide soon whether to hear a challenge to New Jersey’s reparative therapy ban. The only other jurisdiction to outlaw reparative therapy for minors is Washington, D.C., but several other states are considering it.

Pickup, who describes himself as “ex-homosexual,” said his methods are nothing like horror stories in the media about electroshock and aversion therapy. Rather, he employs “time-tested psycho-dymanic and cognitive behavioral therapies” to address common issues such as “gender-identity inferiority” and “severely unmet male emotional needs.”

“If the gay agenda really cared about children, they wouldn’t create a law that would put children right back in the hands of some of the religious people who supposedly do all this harm that’s being done,” Pickup said.

Larry Taylor
Larry Taylor

Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) wants to change the way Texas grades its public schools, and during a hearing today he laid out his plan: grading schools like students, on an “A” to “F” scale.

Senate Bill 6 provides Texas parents with a more transparent way to determine the quality of their local schools in order to make the best decision for their child,” Taylor said.

Texas’ current rating system includes two categories—“met standard” and “needs improvement.” The ratings are based largely on standardized test scores.

Dozens of people testified against Taylor’s bill, including several school district superintendents. They argued that letter grades would do nothing to improve schools, would punish schools that serve large numbers of economically disadvantaged students and would sidestep the main problem struggling schools face: lack of adequate funding. Democrats on the committee seemed to agree.

“[Poor performance] is more because of lack of resources than anything else,” said Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) said. “I would really caution us from getting into any scheme that redlines school districts.”

Most of the Republicans on the committee supported the idea that an A-F system would better inform parents how public schools are performing, spur parent engagement, and lead to school improvement.

John Bailey of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an education reform think tank established by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, testified that the A-F rating system led to dramatic school improvement in Florida. In the program’s first six years, the number of “F”-rated schools fell and the number of “A” schools rose—but much of that change was the result of changing criteria for the letter grades.

Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) pressed Bailey to name specific schools that have improved because of the A-F rating system. Bailey couldn’t name any, but said he would get back to West.

An A-F rating system was adopted in Florida in the late 1990s when Bush was the state’s governor. The Florida Association for District School Superintendents opposed the A-F rating system, saying that it may not be an accurate measure of school performance.

Sixteen other states have since adopted the so-called Florida formula. Researchers have shown that Maine’s A-F rating system tends to track the percentage of poor students in a school. Indeed, research has shown that there is a very tight link between socioeconomic status and academic achievement.

Some say the system can be easily gamed for political purposes. In 2013, former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett scandalously manipulated his state’s A-F system to benefit a major campaign donor.

At today’s hearing, Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) said one of his main concerns was the way an “F” rating would stigmatize schools, making it harder for low-rated schools to retain teachers, staff and students. “In assigning ‘F’ grades to some of these campuses,” Rodriguez wondered, “are we not really consigning them to failure permanently?”

 

Erick Muñoz, husband of Marlise Muñoz, addresses reporters at the Texas Capitol.
Alexa Garcia-Ditta
Erick Muñoz, husband of Marlise Muñoz, addresses reporters at the Texas Capitol.

For nearly two months, Lynne and Ernest Machado’s pregnant, brain-dead daughter was kept alive against the family’s wishes. After collapsing in her home and suffering a pulmonary embolism in November 2013, Marlise Muñoz was declared brain-dead by a hospital in Fort Worth and put on life support. She was 14 weeks pregnant with her second child.

Despite her family saying that Muñoz had communicated that she wanted to be immediately taken off life support should something catastrophic occur, the hospital refused, citing a provision of Texas’ advance directive law that states doctors “may not withdraw or withhold life-sustaining treatment … from a pregnant patient.” Muñoz’s husband, Erick, and her parents sued the hospital, ultimately winning their case and the right to bury Marlise.

Today, Lynne said her family was put through a “torturous hell” while fighting the hospital.

“It was horrible, it was traumatic, what they did to her body,” she told the Observer. “We knew she had died, we knew she was gone. What we didn’t plan on was that a pregnant woman in Texas forfeits her rights the minute she becomes pregnant.”

Now, more than a year later, Marlise’s family is working to make sure that no Texas family has to go through what they did. Today, they stood alongside state Rep. Elliott Naishtat (D-Austin) as he announced a bill called “Marlise’s Law,” which would remove the so-called pregnancy exclusion in Texas’ advance directive law.

“Doctors and hospitals should not be compelled by the law to impose medical interventions over the objections of a dying patient and her family,” Naishtat said at a press conference Thursday at the Capitol. “These changes will permit the pregnant patient to control her care, her treatment, by giving instructions to health care providers to administer, withhold, or withdraw life-sustaining treatment.”

Currently, more than 30 states have similar pregnancy exclusion provisions in their end-of-life laws. In Texas, the advance directive document includes this provision: “I understand that under Texas law this directive has no effect if I have been diagnosed as pregnant.”

Rebecca Robertson, a lawyer with the ACLU of Texas, pointed out that the law blatantly discriminates against pregnant patients.

“It makes pregnant women second-class citizens because they no longer have the right to decide for themselves,” she said.

Marlise and her family had decided long ago that should a catastrophe occur, none of them would want to be kept alive by machines. Still, they were forced to endure a weeks-long court battle because Marlise was pregnant. Erick told reporters that his wife was family-oriented, a good mother and confident in her decision to forego end-of-life medical treatment.

“It’s a family matter,” he said Thursday at the Capitol. “It should be handled as such.”

While Naishtat’s bill would remove the pregnancy exclusion provision, a bill by state Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) would tighten it. Filed at the end of February, Krause’s House Bill 1901 would require a hospital to keep a pregnant woman on life-support “regardless of whether there is irreversible cessation of all spontaneous brain function of the pregnant patient … and if the life-sustaining treatment is enabling the unborn child to mature.” Dubbed the “Unborn Child Due Process Act,” Krause’s bill would also require the Texas attorney general to appoint a lawyer for the unborn fetus from a “registry” that the attorney general’s office would create.

“It’s my position that if a baby is still continuing to grow and develop, then that means the mother cannot be brain dead, there has to be something that’s allowing that baby to grow and develop,” he told the Observer. The lawyer “would just give a voice to that unborn child during court proceedings.”

Robertson called Krause’s idea “unprecedented.”

“The government’s going to get involved on behalf of the fetus, as if the grandparents, husband, were somehow not looking out for the interest of the fetus,” she said. “You can see where that might be applied in much broader circumstances, this idea that when you become pregnant you lose your autonomy.”

Krause’s bill was been referred to the House State Affairs committee.

Gov. Rick Perry attends the ribbon cutting ceremony for a new crisis pregnancy center in Houston in 2012.
Emily Deprang
Gov. Rick Perry attends the ribbon cutting ceremony for a new crisis pregnancy center in Houston in 2012.

The House Appropriations Committee approved a budget rider Thursday that would add an additional $4 million per year to the Alternatives to Abortion program, which largely funds crisis pregnancy centers.

The House base budget, originally introduced in mid-January, includes about $5.1 million per year, a $1 million increase from the previous budget cycle, to the program. The rider, by state Rep. Greg Bonnen (R-Friendswood), increases state funding to more than $9 million per year.

The nonprofit Texas Pregnancy Care Network contracts with the state to distribute funding through the Alternatives to Abortion program to 61 subcontractors, including crisis pregnancy resource centers, maternity homes and adoption agencies. The network purports to “help women in crisis pregnancies via free and compassionate, practical and life-affirming services,” but many facilities do not provide medical care, are virtually unregulated by the state and have been found by various investigations to offer inaccurate information designed to dissuade women from having an abortion.

Bonnen’s rider is described as “increasing funds to pregnancy centers and early childhood care.”

Bonnen says his chief focus is early childhood care.

“One of the main focuses of this is really parenting services,” he said before the hearing. “So, moms that have a newborn that would like to have some guidance in terms of how to care for this child, and how to care for themselves as they’re caring for this child.”

During the Thursday hearing, state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) and state Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) raised concerns about the sizable funding increase, questioning whether there is enough oversight of the Texas Pregnancy Care Network. Right now, the network reports “deliverables and milestones” to the Health and Human Services Commission on a monthly basis, but beyond that, it’s hard to know how much of the state funds go toward services compared to administrative costs.

“I still have concerns about bang for the buck, so to speak,” Howard said.

State Rep. Four Price (R-Amarillo) said that 41 percent of the Alternatives to Abortion funds go to crisis pregnancy centers, 35 percent to maternity homes and 25 percent to adoption agencies. He also said that increased funding will lead to an increase in subcontractors with the Texas Pregnancy Care Network. Most of the crisis pregnancy centers and other facilities are located in Central and  North Texas, he said.

Originally, Bonnen’s rider called for an additional $9.7 million over two years, but was later reduced to $8 million. Another proposed rider, by state Rep. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), would have increased the funding by nearly $15 million over the next two years, but it was not approved by a budget subcommittee.

While legislators have cut funding for family planning and cancer screenings over the last few sessions, they’ve also pumped more money into crisis pregnancy centers.

From its inception in 2005 to 2012, the Alternatives to Abortion program received more than $26 million in state funding. A 2012 Texas Observer investigation found that crisis pregnancy centers deliver fewer services to women, while spending more per client than family planning providers.

State. Rep. Greg Bonnen
via Facebook
State. Rep. Greg Bonnen

Investigations by NARAL Pro-Choice Texas and multiple media outlets have raised questions about the Texas Pregnancy Care Network’s contract with the state and have found that crisis pregnancy centers use scientifically inaccurate information when talking to women, including telling clients that abortion is linked to breast cancer.

State Rep. Armando Walle (D-Houston) is member of the subcommittee that oversees the health and human services portion of the budget. He takes issue with Bonnen’s rider, raising concerns this week about the lax accountability standards set up for crisis pregnancy centers.

“I don’t think it’s a wise use of our resources,” he said. “With some of these centers there’s no accountability. Are only they gearing these young ladies to not have an abortion? Do they account for a young lady who might’ve been raped? Or a victim of incest? That’s where I come down on it.”