Google+ Back to mobile


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/
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
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.”

Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth)
Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth)

One of the state’s most anti-gay lawmakers is going forward with a “religious freedom” amendment dropped by another representative earlier this week amid opposition from the Texas Association of Business.

Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) announced Monday he would “reconsider entirely” House Joint Resolution 55, which critics say would enshrine a “license to discriminate” against LGBT people in the state Constitution. Villalba backed off HJR 55 after the Texas Association of Business passed a resolution opposing the measure over concerns about its economic impact.

On Wednesday, Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) introduced HJR 125, which is identical to HJR 55. When Villalba introduced HJR 55, he wrote on Facebook it was drafted with the help of Krause and Plano’s Liberty Institute.

Equality Texas rated Krause the state’s most anti-LGBT lawmaker following the 2013 session.

Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) is sponsoring a similar measure.

Ken Paxton, after being sworn in, stands among Texas GOP VIP's: From left to right, Governor-elect Greg Abbott, Senator Ted Cruz, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Justice Don Willett, and Governor Rick Perry.
Christopher Hooks
Ken Paxton is applauded by GOP bigwigs at his inauguration in January.

A bill that would give Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office sweeping power to allow or disallow local initiatives and referenda had its first hearing in the House Committee on State Affairs today. The bill is among several in the Legislature squashing local control—and while it got a cautious reception from the committee, it’s supported by some of the state’s most influential business interests.

In recent years, referenda and ballot initiatives have grown in importance as ways for Texans to enact change and hold local governments accountable. The most notable recent example is a ban on hydraulic fracturing in Denton, which passed a fairly conservative electorate by a wide margin. The Denton ban was the subject of much of today’s debate.

House Bill 540, sponsored by Phil King (R-Weatherford), would require any referendum or ballot initiative in one of Texas’ home-rule charter cities to be reviewed by the attorney general’s office. The attorney general would rule on whether the proposed ballot initiative or referendum would violate “the Texas or federal constitution, a state statute, or a rule adopted as authorized by state statute,” or if it would constitute a “government taking of private property.”

That may sound clear-cut, but it’s not. The normal method for deciding whether a law is constitutional involves months or years of careful scrutiny by the courts. Instead, King would give that power to bureaucrats in the AG’s office. If an initiative is detrimental to a powerful and GOP-allied interest group, would the AG’s office really let it slide?

In laying out the bill, King told the committee that Texas was a republic, run by the Legislature, and not a democracy, run by the people. “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch,” he said, misattributing the quote—which might have originated with a 1990 Los Angeles Times op-ed—to Benjamin Franklin. In places like Denton, powerful and monied outside environmental groups had agitated for change, he said, and the rule of law had to be imposed—by Ken Paxton.

He ran through the list of possible ballot initiatives that could come to Texas cities: bans on genetically modified foods, marijuana legalization, property restrictions—and, most frightening of all—increases to the minimum wage and new labor laws.

But it was fracking bans that motivated him to bring the bill. There are “almost 14,000 gas wells” in municipal areas, King said, and if what happened in Denton set off a wave of similar ordinances (it hasn’t, yet) all those wells, and the money they generate for their owners, would be under threat.

The fight over “local control” issues at the Legislature—it was once a concept that Republicans loved, but they seem to be turning against it, from Gov. Abbott on down—is in part due to the fragmented nature of Texas state government these days. State government is dominated by the right, but the state’s cities and urban counties are significantly to the left of state government.

Business interests would prefer a regulatory climate designed and maintained by the Legislature, since it’s a lot friendlier to them. City ordinances are a threat to that regulatory framework. Cities have taken action in a number of areas where they feel the state has failed to act—like ongoing attempts to regulate payday lenders—but their legal right to do so is such cases in constantly under scrutiny.

Today’s hearing heard testimony in favor of the bill from the Texas Oil & Gas Association (TxOGA), represented by former Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, as well as representatives from the powerful Texas Association of Business, the Texas Association of Builders and the Texas Restaurant Association. TxOGA fears restrictions on drilling. The restaurant and construction guys fear minimum wage hikes, among other items, and the Texas Association of Business fears all of the above, plus other local regulations such as the plastic bag bans that have passed in big Texas cities.

“You can’t have economic development if state law doesn’t mean anything,” said a Texas Association of Business representative.

A representative from the Texas Municipal League, which represents local governments, spoke against the bill but he was cautious in his condemnation—referenda and initiatives, he pointed out, are usually trying to override the will of the city council.

Among those who spoke against the bill was Mark Miller, the 2014 Libertarian candidate for a spot on the Railroad Commission. He said he thought the Denton ban was “unwise,” but that the referenda and initiative process should remain sacrosanct. “The good people of Denton were let down by government. So they organized for change,” he said. “What could be more American or more Texan?”

“Interference by the state government over local matters is no more wise or more welcome than interference by the state government in local matters,” Miller continued. “A well-functioning judicial system should never be replaced by the heavy hand of the executive branch.”

Curiously, on the same day this bill came before the committee, an op-ed that carried Ken Paxton’s name appeared in National Review. He blasted Obama’s use of his executive power, his expanding interpretation of his own powers and his arrogant overruling of the desires of other branches of government.

In the United States, no individual may or should have that much unchecked power. It flies in the face of the rule of law, which in any government is all that stands between freedom and tyranny.

Will the Legislature grant Paxton power to approve or disapprove prospective city ordinances? The committee seemed a bit skeptical: Chair Byron Cook asked King whether it was possible to “get a fair ruling” by putting the review process in the office of a statewide elected official. King replied that there was no other real option.

But the business groups that endorsed the measure frequently get what they want at the Lege. A representative of Paxton’s office happily told the committee no additional staff was required to fulfill the bill’s responsibilities. Even if King’s bill doesn’t succeed this session, the winds are changing when it comes to the balance between state and local power.

Cindy Burkett foster care
State Rep. Cindy Burkett (R-Garland)

This session, lawmakers are trying to fix one of the biggest gaps in the troubled foster care system: The training requirements for the majority of foster parents, kinship caregivers and adoptive parents are minimal, and the state doesn’t know how closely private placement agencies are adhering to the standards.

House Bill 781, authored by state Rep. Cindy Burkett (R-Garland), would require additional oversight of the 340 private, nonprofit and for-profit agencies that recruit and train foster parents. Burkett introduced the bill Monday evening to the House Committee on Human Services. State child welfare advocates say the bill is a first step in furthering the transparency of the system. Thirteen children died last year while under the protection of licensed caregivers.

“Countless measures have been implemented to assure the safety of children who are in custody of the state,” Burkett said. “We want to feel confident that the best providers are being approved to provide services to children in foster care, and we also want to ensure they acquire the knowledge needed to take on these important roles.”

Currently, the Department of Family and Protective Services has little oversight of the programs that private agencies use to train caregivers, nor does the state know how many training hours each agency requires, or what curricula agencies use for training. There’s also no way to assess whether such trainings are effective or appropriate for the needs of children, many of whom have suffered physical and relational trauma.

The Department of Family and Protective Services requires at least 16 hours of instruction, a woefully inadequate minimum, according to critics.

As part of their training, the state mandates that foster parents be instructed on behavior intervention, psychotropic medicine administration, medical consent, CPR and care for children who have experienced trauma. There’s no state guidance on how much training time is required for each subject, leaving it up to each individual agency.

Burkett’s bill would promote “best practice standards”—undefined in the legislation—by requiring all agencies to tell the state how they’re going to train potential parents. It also mandates that the state evaluate the trainings.

Ashley Harris, with the nonprofit child advocacy organization Texans Care for Children, said the legislation is an important first step in changing how the state trains and regulates private agencies that train potential parents.

“Hopefully in the future we can be able to determine what are some best practices around training and screening [and] what types of trainings are actually resulting in better outcomes,” she said. “We can’t identify what is best if we don’t know what everyone is doing.”

Knox Kimberly, spokesman for Lutheran Social Services of the South, a faith-based organization, said the bill will “provide a needed dose of transparency with respect to training methods.”

Lutheran Social Services operates 16 child-placement programs in cities around the state. Through a program called Foster In Texas, the group provides just under 35 hours of the state-required training, held in both English and Spanish, for potential caregivers. As part of the 35-hour curriculum, the organization includes classes on sexual abuse, disruptive behavior, cultural diversity and self-care for foster parents.

“For our part, we invest considerable time and resources in training, blending a number of different methods that we believe constitute the right combination for training prospective foster parents,” Kimberly told the committee.

Kimberly also pointed out that smaller placement agencies may not have the resources to develop their own curricula. Kimberly said small agencies could benefit from the example of bigger agencies, such as Lutheran Social Services.

He also suggested that the bill could go further by requiring annual caregiver training after children have been placed in the home. Lutheran Social Services, for example, requires annual water-safety training for all its parents. Last year, two foster siblings drowned while visiting Lake Georgetown.

Burkett’s bill would also increase the minimum training hours for foster parents from 16 to 35 hours. (By comparison, the state requires that would-be nail technicians receive 600 hours of training.)

“Why would you only require 16 [hours], when it’s more than obvious—and even on the website for DFPS they say this—it is not enough,” Burkett told the Observer. “We need to make sure that [the kids] are coming into an environment that’s safer. It’s our children, and we’re talking health, safety, lives, so it’s important.” 

The Department of Family and Protective Services, apart from contracting out child-placement services, also runs its own service and training for foster and adoptive parents. The department estimates in the bill’s fiscal note that it would need about $268,000 a year to implement the new standards mandated by the bill. At the hearing, no one was able to provide an estimate of the cost for private placement agencies to step up the training of foster and adoptive parents.

Burkett said she is optimistic that budget-writers will find the money.

“I think that [we’ve] got a little bit of give built in the bill for things that are directly related to safety issues,” she told the Observer. “I don’t anticipate a problem.” 

On Monday the House Committee on Human Services tabled the bill after 16 minutes.

HB 781 comes in the wake of recommendations from the House Select Committee on Child Protection, led by Rep. Dawnna Dukes (D-Austin), which was created after a rash of child deaths within the system. The committee’s interim report suggested that the state review and strengthen foster care screening and training. Burkett said the bill has received no pushback so far. Spokespeople for a gamut of child welfare advocacy and public policy organizations, including the Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services, Center for Public Policy Priorities, One Voice Texas and Court Appointed Special Advocates, registered as “for” the bill, but did not testify.