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Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson
Patrick Michels
Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson at the 2012 Texas GOP Convention in Fort Worth.

It was, despite the gravity of the topic, a pretty standard college panel discussion. On the third floor of UT-Austin’s Texas Union, more than a hundred people convened to consider the “roots” of the humanitarian crisis that’s seized the Texas-Mexico border this year. Grievous human suffering was explored through PowerPoint. In the corner, there was lemonade and cookies.

The speakers exchanged heartbreaking stories of abuse and loss. Ana Lorena Siria de Lara, the consul for El Salvador in Houston, spoke of the anguish of seeing a generation of her country’s youth in humiliating positions in detention facilities in Texas border towns. Seated next to her were representatives from human rights groups in South Texas, and UT faculty members. And on the far side, next to NPR journalist John Burnett, there was the surprising sight of Jerry Patterson, Texas land commissioner.

Patterson was pissed.

“We’ve reached a point in this discourse where it’s not so much what you say, as who is saying it,” Patterson tells the crowd. “If a Republican says it, a Democrat has to disagree. And if a Democrat says it, a Republican has to disagree. And we’re in really sorry shape. Politicians are not serving you well.”

Patterson, a libertarian-minded iconoclast and staunch gun-rights advocate, has, in recent years, become the Texas Republican Party’s only voice in statewide office advocating for a pragmatic position on immigration and border security. He helped get a call for a guest worker program in the 2012 Texas GOP platform. A year later, he ran for lt. governor, where his talk on immigration played a significant role in his last-place primary finish.

So in January, he’ll be leaving office, and there won’t be anyone left to pick up the slack—on this issue, at least. The new slate of GOP heavies are all hardliners. This panel doesn’t mean much in the big scheme of things, but Patterson’s willingness to spend time here at all is a testament to what the state GOP will be losing. It’s hard to imagine Sid Miller here in his place, listening patiently to a Spanish-to-English translation of a consular official’s description of the bathroom facilities at a McAllen detention facility.

At the UT panel, Patterson, given a brief period to speak, was clearly still mulling over the results of his primary battle. “This subject has reached the point where you can’t talk about it. You cannot honestly, objectively discuss. If you are a candidate, you’re relegated to saying things that fit on a bumper sticker,” he said. “That’s your policy. And if you venture outside of a few bumper sticker-like comments, such as ‘Build a Fence,’ ‘No Amnesty,’ ‘Secure Our Borders,’ you’re in deep trouble. That’s where we are politically.”

Over the course of his primary campaign, Patterson became obsessed with halting the rise of Dan Patrick, who elevated hard-line immigration pandering to the level of self-parody. Patrick’s fence-shaped “Secure Our Border” sign has adorned every border rally in the state for months—and littered the 2014 Republican state convention, where delegates undid the guest worker provision Patterson helped add two years before.

The political impasse we’ve reached on immigration, Patterson says, is occurring despite the fact that things have been just as bad—or worse—at many points in the past. “If you think we’re in the dark ages now, go back and look at history,” he said. “There is nothing new that’s going on today. It’s all been done before. And of course we could learn something from that if we choose to. But unfortunately we’re not able to do so.”

He told the crowd of the race-baiting of past governors, including the probably apocryphal quote sometimes attributed to Gov. Miriam “Ma” Ferguson on the question of Spanish-language education: “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas.” None of the recent National Guard deployments, he said, mattered in scale next to Woodrow Wilson’s deployment of the Army during the Mexican Revolution “to fight real border violence. This stuff that’s going on now is not even violence. Most of it is occurring—it shouldn’t occur anywhere, but unfortunately most of it is occurring in Mexico,” Patterson said.

Patterson’s history lesson may have seemed slightly out of step to some of his listeners. It’s not entirely clear what the story of General John J. Pershing’s punitive expedition has to say about the question of whether the current National Guard deployment will have a positive or negative influence in the Rio Grande Valley. In truth, he’s probably much closer to the rest of his party on border issues than he is to the people in this room. But he’s still the one who came.

“Frankly, the illegal immigration scheme we had was working fairly well when it was circular—when someone could come here to work for two and three months and then go home to their family. That worked pretty well,” Patterson said. “We’ve taken that and made what was a circular scheme a unidirectional system. If you can get here, you can’t go home.” Since workers can’t risk or afford multiple border crossings now, they have an incentive to bring their families here with them and try to stay permanently.

Patterson didn’t offer much hope for a political breakthrough. “I don’t know what we’re gonna do to fix it,” he said. “But I know that the course we’re on right now is not a very good one.”

Afterwards, I caught up with Patterson to ask him if he thought there would be voices in the state GOP who could advocate for some degree of border pragmatism after he leaves office. “I don’t think there are,” Patterson said. “There are people who want to, but they’re afraid.”

They may come around to it later when the political winds shift, he added. “Frequently, you can be on the right side of something, but be there at the wrong time. I think maybe I was a little too early.”

The awful state of the debate was frustrating to him, he said, because “if I was a dictator, I could, if not fix this, I could make it dramatically better in about three years.” There had to be a strong and accessible guest worker program, and the full weight of law enforcement had to go after coyotes and traffickers, not individual undocumented migrants. The conditions in Mexico and Central American countries had to be improved.

But he didn’t see much prospect for any of that, because of the “incomplete narrative” held to by so many—that is, those who talk about border security as being a wholly separate subject from immigration reform, like Patrick.

“You can say, ‘secure the border, build a fence, no amnesty.’ OK, fine. I’m not necessarily opposed to building a fence where it makes sense,” he said. “But that’s not enough. You know, politicians play to the lowest common denominator. Whatever it takes to get by. Whatever you can say to get you the votes. That’s the way it’s always been.”

If the GOP takes the U.S. Senate this year, as some think is likely, “we’ll no longer have an excuse that an immigration bill can’t be passed.” But Patterson doesn’t think we’ll see a breakthrough anytime soon. “I don’t think it’s going to get any better until it gets worse.” Then he set off down the Drag.

A graphic, Dan Patrick offers on his campaign site for users to upload to their Facebook and Twitter profiles.
danpatrick.org
A graphic Dan Patrick offers on his campaign site for users to upload to their Facebook and Twitter profiles.

When the David Dewhurst campaign slapped a spinning bowtie on state Sen. Dan Patrick this spring, I knew Texas voters were in for something special in 2014, something that screams “elevated political discourse.”

Ideologically, every tea party race is a race to the bottom, but the guys vying for the Republican lieutenant governor nomination made sure the campaign aesthetics matched the overall tenor of the conversation: vague, sloppy, carnivalesque. 

Hence the spinning red bowtie pasted on a dancing Dan Patrick GIF featured on the now-defunct attack site TheRealDanPatrick.com, which made it appear as though the scariest thing about Dan Patrick is the possibility that he might try guessing your weight.

The pre-primary exchanges between Dewhurst and Patrick read as little more than juvenile schoolyard tiffs, scuffles between the boy whose daddy runs the factory and the boy whose daddy runs the coal mine, and Patrick ultimately trounced Dewhurst to secure the nomination. 

It’s probably a good thing we lost “Mountain Dew” back in May. One shudders to consider the chicanery his team might have pulled on Democrat opponent Leticia Van de Putte, an eminently qualified lieutenant gubernatorial candidate with the well-earned gravitas of a longtime stateswoman and a clean, forward-thinking campaign aesthetic that reflects the same.

Indeed, this year’s Democratic candidates roundly outclass their Republican opponents when it comes to graphic design, producing a steady stream of social media-friendly ads and online signage neatly tailored to target demographics, from purple LGBTQ placards to pink-tinged paraphernalia meant to appeal to much-coveted lady voters.

The Wendy Davis and Van de Putte campaigns cast a wide, generally well-designed net, their Twitter feeds full of grinning candidate photos and pithy quotes artfully arranged for Facebook users who love to post inspirational memes. Not feeling the stark, square, official “Wendy Davis For Texas” logo? Grab yourself a blue, cursive, “Generation Wendy” sign. Want to signal your support for a Latina lieutenant governor? There’s a “Viva Leticia” sign for that.

Meanwhile, the Dan Patrick campaign is constantly searching for new fonts in which to print “SECURE THE BORDER,” and GOP attorney general candidate Ken Paxton’s website features an unsettling and poorly clipped lineup of floating-head endorsements from right-wing lawmakers and lobbyists. Greg Abbott renders his name in a blocky, blue, seriffed type on a white background, which looks especially cheap on T-shirts, like something your church might print for its fall fun-run.

The cover of Wendy Davis' memoir <i>Forgetting to Be Afraid</i>.
Blue Rider Press
The cover of Wendy Davis’ memoir Forgetting to Be Afraid.

And yet the most notable design flub of any 2014 campaign so far is the inexplicably cringe-worthy cover of Davis’ memoir, scheduled for release this month. Davis is posed as if being photographed by the lesser of a very small town’s two portrait makers, then Photoshopped onto a despair-gray background. The title (Forgetting to Be Afraid—not so bad as fluffy political memoirs go) floats directly over her torso in an insubstantial blue sans-serif font that might be named “error: font not found.”

It looks like the cover of a self-published e-book, and we are going to see it over and over as journalists, talk-show hosts and reviewers plumb it for clues about what kind of governor Wendy Davis might be.

But shouldn’t voters cast ballots based on issues? Why should anyone care about kerning while the state’s water runs dry and our public education system is slated for sale to the highest charter-school bidder?

Particularly for Democrats, good design can build a bridge between unengaged voters and the candidates who need their support if anything is to change this November. It makes perfect sense that Democrats would try to wrap their appeals in prettily designed bows, and that Republicans wouldn’t bother.

Everything about the Republican reliance on stodgy serifs says, “Don’t you like things the way they are?” while everything about the Democrats’ aesthetically accessible imagery—some of which is sourced directly from fan-like supporters who love making Wendy Davis sneaker cakes and Photoshopping the candidate as the “mother of dragons” a la Game of Thrones—says, “We’re as different as y’all are.”

How that will play out in November remains to be seen, but if elections were won in Adobe Illustrator, Texas would turn blue in a brushstroke. 

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Families in the hall at the notorious T. Don Hutto family detention center
Department of Homeland Security
Families in the hall at the notorious T. Don Hutto family detention center

Federal officials are planning a new for-profit family detention lockup for immigrant children and their parents in South Texas. The 2,400-bed “South Texas Family Detention Center”—as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is referring to it—is slated for a 50-acre site just outside the town of Dilley, 70 miles southwest of San Antonio.

The detention center is part of the Obama administration’s response to the surge in children and families from Central America crossing the Texas-Mexico border. In a statement to the Observer, ICE spokeswoman Nina Pruneda said the facility was intended “to accommodate the influx of individuals arriving illegally on the Southwest border.”

The property is part of Sendero Ranch, a “workforce housing community,” better known in the oil patch as a “man camp” for oilfield workers. Sendero Ranch is owned by Koontz McCombs, a commercial real estate firm connected to San Antonio mogul Red McCombs. Loren Gulley, vice president for Koontz McCombs, said the company is still negotiating the deal but Corrections Corporation of America—the world’s largest for-private prison company—is expected to run the detention center, and Koontz McCombs would lease the existing “man camp” to ICE. A detailed site map provided to Frio County shows a large fenced campus, including both residential housing as well as a gym, chapel and “community pavilions.” The “man camp” has enough space to temporarily house 680 detainees while new structures are being built, ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said.

Frio County Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Flores said local officials had recently met with CCA and the landowner but no one from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The massive facility would double the existing federal capacity for immigrant families and is certain to anger immigrant advocates who say a for-profit lockup is inappropriate for families, especially young children. They point to the failed experiment with detaining immigrant families at T. Don Hutto Family Residential Center, a CCA-run facility about 45 minutes northeast of Austin. The Obama administration removed families from the former jail in 2009 after numerous allegations of human rights abuses, accounts of children suffering psychological trauma and a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the University of Texas Law School Immigration Clinic.

“Given the shameful history of family detention at Hutto, it’s beyond troubling that ICE would turn back to Corrections Corporation of America to operate what would be by far the nation’s largest family detention center,” said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit that opposes for-profit prisons. “While little kids and their families will suffer in this remote private prison, far away from legal or social services, this multi-billion-dollar private prison company stands to make enormous profits.”

Cox, the spokesman for ICE, wouldn’t confirm or deny CCA’s involvement, saying negotiations for the project were ongoing. “We’re in negotiations,” Cox said. “We haven’t signed a contract with anybody yet.” He said the number of beds and other details of the project could change.

Gulley, the Koontz McCombs vice president, said there was no time frame to close the deal but, he said, “if it does happen, it will happen fairly quickly.”

The Obama administration has pledged a ”truly civil” detention model for housing undocumented immigrants, though immigrant advocates have said progress has been halting at best. The influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America has sent private-prison company stocks soaring, while it has helped derail the administration’s commitment to reforming the Bush-era detention system.

Just in the past month, activists were in a fury because federal immigration officials refused to release from a Karnes County detention center a 7-year-old Salvadoran girl so she could get treatment for a life-threatening cancer. The girl and her mother had fled violence in El Salvador that the mother said prevented the girl from getting treatment. After mounting pressure, ICE finally relented and freed the girl and her mom. The Karnes facility was unveiled in 2012 as a model for a more humane approach to detention.

Over the summer, ICE converted a law enforcement training center in Artesia, New Mexico to a detention center housing immigrant families, many of whom are seeking asylum. Attorneys working at the remote facility told the Observer the conditions are poor and that the government is doing whatever it can to deport people as quickly as possible, returning some folks to the extreme violence and persecution they were fleeing

Libal said he was not impressed by the Obama administration’s promise to make the familiy facilites more like residential living center than jails.

“The stories that are coming out [of Karnes] would show that…detaining families has the exact same effect it had at Hutto, the exact same disastrous impact on families.”

County officials said they were generally supportive of the project, though County Commissioner Pepe Flores said he worried that the city’s water supply might be stretched. “We can furnish the water,” he said, “but later on it might put a dent on the economic development.”

“They come in here and tell us, ‘We want your input on this and that,’ but the bottom line is they’ll do it anyway.”

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.