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Cleopatra DeLeon and Nicole Dimetman, are one of the two plaintiff couples in the Texas marriage case.
Cleopatra DeLeon, left, and Nicole Dimetman, are one of the two plaintiff couples in the Texas marriage case.

Attorneys for two gay couples are asking a federal appeals court to allow same-sex marriages to begin in Texas immediately.

In a motion filed Thursday, attorneys for the couples asked the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to lift a district judge’s stay of his 2014 decision striking down Texas’ marriage ban.

If the 5th Circuit agrees to lift the stay, it would clear the way for same-sex marriages to begin in Texas. If the 5th Circuit doesn’t lift the stay for all same-sex couples, the motion asks that it be lifted for the limited purpose of establishing the parental rights of plaintiff Cleopatra DeLeon, whose wife, Nicole Dimetman, is expecting a child in March.

The motion cites the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to halt same-sex marriages in both Alabama and Florida, after federal district judges struck down bans in those states. The high court will hear appeals in April from four states where same-sex marriage bans were upheld.

“The Supreme Court’s actions indicate that the stay of the District Court’s decision is no longer necessary,” the motion states. “The District Court expressly found that the denial of the fundamental right to marry causes irreparable harm. Despite this, Plaintiffs continue to suffer irreparable harm—only now the potential consequences are graver. As discussed further below, Plaintiffs De Leon and Dimetman are expecting a child any day, and the State’s refusal to recognize their marriage risks grave harm both to the Plaintiffs and the child.”

Neel Lane, an attorney for the couples, said in a statement he remains confident the 5th Circuit will rule in favor of marriage equality.

“But same-sex marriages are proceeding across the South and Southwest, while Texas remains the most populous state where gays and lesbians are deprived of that right,” Lane said. “Today we urge the Fifth Circuit to remedy that omission immediately.”

Lane told the Observer the motion would be considered by the same three-judge panel that heard oral arguments in the case last month, which many observers said appeared likely to strike down the ban.

DeLeon and Dimetman said they are “overjoyed and incredibly excited” about the birth of their child.

“However, we can’t help but be disappointed that marriage equality has not been recognized by the great State of Texas,” they said. “This adds additional anxiety due to the fact that our child has two parents but Texas is denying her one of them. Should the worst occur, our child would be a legal stranger to Cleo, and become an orphan.”

Mark Phariss said he and his partner, Vic Holmes, who are the other plaintiff couple, “hope and pray” that the 5th Circuit will lift the stay.

“No straight couple would want to walk in our shoes—to have to wait over 17 years to marry the one we love,” Phariss said. “We shouldn’t have to wait any longer.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia struck down Texas’ marriage ban in February 2014, but stayed his decision pending the state’s appeal to the 5th Circuit. In December, Garcia denied a motion to lift the stay — but that was before the Supreme Court allowed marriages to begin in Alabama and Florida. The high court has also declined to hear appeals of federal appeals court decisions striking down marriage bans.

Texas is one of only 13 states where gay couples cannot marry.

Read the full motion below.

State Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin) speaks at a Wednesday press conference.
Christopher Hooks
State Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin) speaks at a Wednesday press conference.

The Speaker’s Committee Room just outside the House chamber is an unlikely gathering place for plotters and revolutionaries, men who would change the trajectory of the Republic, but there they were.

Led by state Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin), six legislators gathered yesterday to announce their push to amend the U.S. Constitution to add conservative reform measures like a balanced budget requirement, hopping on the bandwagon of a national movement that hopes to work through state legislatures and force the issue nationally.

“I’d like to begin today with the words of Thomas Jefferson,” said Workman, “one of our Founding Fathers, who said in 1798 that, quote, ‘I wish it were possible to obtain a single amendment to our Constitution. I mean an article taking from the federal government the power of borrowing.’ Jefferson knew that borrowing money would only lead to the demise of the nation.”

(Unlike most of the Founding Fathers quotes you hear these days, this one is mostly accurate—though Jefferson got over his earlier aversion to borrowing during his presidency in time to make the Louisiana Purchase, for which Texans should be glad, and came to accept the utility of government debt later in his life.)

“Here we are, 217 years later, and our nation has an insatiable appetite for government largesse,” said Workman. Something had to be done. So he and his buddies, among whom stood GOP state Reps. James White of Tyler, Dan Flynn of Canton, Phil King of Weatherford and Rick Miller of Sugar Land, were calling for a constitutional convention by way of Article V, a constitutional provision that allows three-fourths of the states to force Congress to order one.

“We are now a hundred years into congressional bad behavior, which has systematically and purposefully stripped the states of their sovereignty, and it’s going on as we speak,” said Workman. He and his allies want amendments that would require a balanced federal budget, impose restrictions on spending and impose term limits on Congress.

Workman’s House Joint Resolutions 78 and 79 propose spending limits. Miller has House Joint Resolution 77, which seeks spending and term limits, and wants to “limit the jurisdiction” of the federal government. King’s House Bill 1110 would lay out the procedure for selecting delegates to the convention. White’s House Bill 1109 takes a different approach: He’d have Texas enter into an interstate compact calling for a balanced budget amendment.

King, the chair of the Select Committee on State & Federal Power & Responsibility, said the proposals would be heard in his fiefdom two weeks hence. A representative from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) would come to educate legislators on constitutional procedures.

Pity our state’s Republican legislators: Congressmen find it much easier to grandstand, close as they are to the devil himself, B.H.O. But there aren’t many Democrats worth throwing punches at around Austin, so some reps try to work over the president too. But it’s harder to do from 1,300 miles away.

It’s not entirely a gimmick—there have been plenty of Article V attempts in American history. Texas has used the approach 12 times—among them, to attempt to ban school bussing in 1973. And it’s not coming out of nowhere—an Austin-based organization, Citizens for Self-Governance, is encouraging state legislators to push for constitutional changes through their Convention of States project, which recently brought former Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn on board as a senior adviser.

Seven states have passed an Article V appeal for a balanced budget amendment since 2012, and the group says it has support from legislators in 33 states. They need support from 34 to force Congress to call a constitutional convention. Last summer, the group had a summit in Indiana to discuss the group’s 2015 agenda—Workman was there.

Convention of States isn’t the only group going the Article V route—there’s also Wolf PAC, on the left, making a bid to end corporate personhood. There’s a sense in the air that the mechanisms of American governance aren’t working, and some, like Workman and friends, are looking to structural solutions. They have a long road ahead of them.

State Rep. Eric Johnson
Courtesy Eric Johnson
State Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas), with Rep. Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown), has proposed a dramatic expansion of state-funded pre-K.

Thousands of 3- and 4-year-old Texans would get free, full-day pre-K, under a proposal from Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) and Rep. Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown).

Their House Bill 1100 would offer state funding for school districts to expand their pre-K programs if they agree to meet curriculum standards and follow best practices for instructional day length, classroom size, teacher development and parental involvement.

Texas currently funds half-day pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds who are English-language learners, eligible for free or reduced lunch, homeless, in foster care, or the child of an armed services member on active duty or who’s been disabled or killed in action. Johnson and Farney’s bill would provide full-day pre-K to those same students—an extension that would help working parents. Today, districts that offer full-day pre-K must pay the difference from their own budgets or outside grants.

In an announcement about the proposal, Johnson cites research showing that quality pre-K can cut the achievement gap in half for children in poverty, the equivalent of a 4-year-old jumping from the 30th percentile to the 50th in one year. Johnson and Farney point to research from Dallas showing that students who attended DISD’s full-day pre-K program were 3.5 times more likely to be kindergarten-ready than those students who didn’t.

Other studies have shown that for every dollar invested in high-quality, full-day pre-K, there’s a return to society of $3.50 in increased earnings, reduced need for remedial or special education, lower incarceration rates and less reliance on public assistance.

“Many of our children never have the opportunity to excel in school because even by the time they enter kindergarten, they are so far behind that they never catch up,” Johnson said in a press release. “This proposal is aimed at improving outcomes where we can get the most bang for the buck—children in poverty and English language learners.”

To receive additional funding, schools would have to follow the Texas Prekindergarten Guidelines in their curriculum, and assess students with kindergarten readiness tools and reports on the students’ skills. The proposal pointedly does not include standardized tests—a particularly unpopular proposal Gov. Greg Abbott floated during his campaign last year. Participating school districts must also publicly report classroom and student progress data and implement program improvements if they fail to demonstrate adequate student progress.

“The children of Texas deserve a first-class education, but the taxpayers of Texas deserve to know their dollars are being well spent,” said Farney. The current system of half-day, state-funded pre-K does not include any of these requirements. Today, kindergarten readiness tests are only voluntary.

The bipartisan measure comes as momentum builds to improve early education in the state. Gov. Abbott has said such reforms are a top priority this legislative session. As the Quorum Report’s Kimberly Reeves noted last week, the Johnson-Farney proposal is a greatly expanded version of Abbott’s plan, providing more money and a faster timeline for the program.

Johnson said the framework has support from business associations, school districts, children’s advocacy groups, private schools and city leaders. Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings have also endorsed the bill.

“We are optimistic that it will get a hearing and a fair shot because there are many people that will support it and testify for the bill. I feel good about it,” Johnson told the Observer.

Andrea Brauer, the early education policy associate for Texans Care for Children, said there’s a strong possibility that early childhood education will see increased funding this session, but she can’t make predictions about HB 1100.

“I know there are a lot of pre-K bills,” Brauer told the Observer, “but I do think it’s a great thing our governor supports it. I am optimistic that we will get increased funding.”

The program would cost an estimated $318 million and serve 87,000 students, according to Johnson. (Abbott’s plan would cost an estimated $118 million.)

Several advocacy groups are supporting expanded pre-K this session. The education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Texas has made expanding pre-K its top priority this year.

The group’s CEO, David Anthony, said he’d like to see the Legislature budget for pre-K programs using per-student formulas as it does for K-12 education, rather than grant funding, which is generally less stable.

For now, though, Anthony told the Observer that the expansion Johnson and Farney proposed is an important step.

“Let’s stop doing what looks or feels good,” Anthony said, “and let’s start implementing what the research shows is working.”

Why Dan Patrick Wants a Permanent Border ‘Surge’

The lieutenant governor's rhetoric on the border is shifting, and it could mean a split with House Speaker Joe Straus.
Dan Patrick's fence-shaped "Secure our Border" signs were ubiquitous at the state GOP convention last year.
Christopher Hooks
Dan Patrick's fence-shaped "Secure our Border" signs were ubiquitous at the state GOP convention last year.

Update: House Speaker Joe Straus released a statement that coolly responds to Patrick’s presser and seems to imply there’s more distance between Abbott and Patrick than the latter would like:

“I appreciate Governor Patrick’s remarks, but Governor Abbott is the Commander in Chief and he will decide whether to extend the National Guard’s deployment.”

Original: At a press conference today, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick pledged to continue the National Guard deployment for as long as it took to “secure the border.” Flanked by members of the Senate Republican Caucus, Patrick spoke for just six minutes, and took no questions.

The deployment of 1,000 National Guard troops last summer was originally intended to be a temporary response to the influx of Central American minors, and the Legislature only arranged funding through the end of March. But Patrick wants to make them a permanent feature of the state’s border security regimen—his plan would continue funding for the Guard presence through 2017.

His high-profile push for the border security funding could be an attempt to win positive headlines even as the legislative priorities he laid out in his primary campaign—like ending the Texas DREAM Act and doing something about so-called “sanctuary cities”—seem to have vanished from his legislative agenda, at least for the moment. And it could be a way to prepare for a fight with House Speaker Joe Straus, whose caucus would seem to be less eager about the National Guard deployment than Patrick’s senators.

Patrick said the National Guard deployment had been effective in slowing border traffic. According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, apprehensions of people crossing the border is down by about two-thirds in the Rio Grande Valley Sector—a small but active stretch of South Texas—since the border surge started, though that’s a bit like saying that a river is dry because it is only running a third as high as it did when it experienced its greatest flood in modern history.

In fact, the tapering off of the surge of unaccompanied minors is more suitably attributed to a variety of other factors. (Patrick’s predecessor David Dewhurst had tried to take credit for the drop as well.)

But for Patrick, the crisis goes on.

“However, as the director of the Department of Public Safety said in a report, the border is still not secure,” Patrick said today. “And we know it’s not secure because the federal government is shirking from their responsibilities of doing so.”

So Texas would continue to take charge. “Because of their success, now is not the time to remove the National Guard from the border,” Patrick said.

Patrick explained he would work with the governor and speaker to commit the $12 million needed to keep the National Guard on the border from the end of March through the end of May, at which time the Legislature should have a supplemental funding bill in place to cover the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends in August.

Meanwhile, the Senate budget proposal includes $815 million for border security efforts for the 2016-2017 biennium. Patrick boasted that the proposed funding was the “highest level in history.” The House budget proposal kept border funding flat, at less than half of the Senate proposal.

Patrick told the press his sources told him that drug cartels are ramping up for a National Guard withdrawal, and predicted that another “spring and summer surge” of migrants, like the one last year, was imminent. Doing anything less than his plan would be hopelessly careless. He struck a defiant tone.

“The Republican Senators standing behind me of the Texas Senate are united and committed to doing everything possible to keep Texas and America safe from terrorists who many believe have already crossed the border,” Patrick said. “From drug cartels to the criminal gangs who bring crime to our state.”

Patrick got elected in large part through his fierce and fiery border rhetoric. It was his core issue, one he hammered ad nauseum at every tea party meeting and rally he attended in the state. His style—he described illegal immigration as an “invasion,” and had warned in the past of immigrants spreading third-world diseases such as leprosy and tuberculosis—seemed capable of getting him in serious trouble, but Democrats were never able to tie him down on it.

Since he’s gotten elected, though, he’s taken a different tack. In the past, he’s told crowds that repealing the Texas DREAM act, which allows undocumented Texas residents who graduated from state high schools to pay in-state tuition at state colleges, would be one of his top legislative priorities, but it vanished from his rhetoric once he took the gavel, and no serious effort has yet materialized to do away with it.

Senator Dan Patrick and DPS Director Steve McCraw pose with a message for border-crossers in Mission, Texas.
Senator Dan Patrick and DPS Director Steve McCraw pose with a message for border-crossers in Mission, Texas.

Emphasizing the National Guard deployment is a way to deliver red meat to his border-fearing constituents without having to take serious political risks, or push an agenda that’s doomed to fail in the House or by way of the governor’s veto pen. It mirrors his attempt to feed gun-rights activists a consolation prize by emphasizing his support for campus carry, instead of open carry bills.

It also foreshadows what will become one of the major story-lines this session: Disputes between Straus’ House and Patrick’s Senate. In December, Straus was part of a legislative troika, which alsoincluded former Gov. Rick Perry and former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, which kept funding for a DPS presence at the border through August but ended funding for the guard deployment in March.

“I did not have a say in that decision, nor did Gov. Abbott,” Patrick emphasized.

He repeated over and over that he stood in perfect unity with the governor’s office, but didn’t have much to say about Straus.

“I’ve spoken to Gov. Abbott on multiple occasions and we stand shoulder to shoulder in a commitment to border security. The governor and the Senate will have a comprehensive border security plan that we’re committed to passing this legislative session,” Patrick said.

The governor’s office and his senate, Patrick seemed to be saying, were like the two unified parents of a wayward child.

“The Senate stands behind [Abbott] and I stand behind him,” Patrick said again. “We stand shoulder to shoulder with the governor, and we will work with the speaker.” The senators behind Patrick applauded as he hurried out of the room.

Michael Morton and Rodney Ellis Aim to Improve DNA Testing Law
Kelsey Jukam
Michael Morton speaks in favor of DNA testing legislation filed by Sen. Rodney Ellis.

Michael Morton served 25 years in prison before DNA testing proved that he didn’t kill his wife. Post-conviction DNA testing has led to the exoneration of 52 Texans since 1989 and helped to identify the real perpetrators of the crime in 21 of those cases, including Morton’s. But because of some ambiguous language in current law, access to DNA evidence that could prove innocence is sometimes impeded.

“As it stands now, we have something of a catch-22 in Texas,” Morton said Monday at a press conference, where he spoke in support of new DNA testing legislation filed by Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston).

Morton, who was released from prison in 2011, said he may never have been able to prove his innocence under the current law, which went into effect in September 2011. In January 2010, Morton successfully convinced a court of appeals to test a bloody bandana that had been discovered behind his house. DNA testing found invisible cells on the bandana that excluded Morton and pointed to his wife’s real killer, Mark Norwood, whose profile was in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).

The Texas Criminal Court of Appeals ruled last year that current law requires those seeking DNA testing to prove the existence of microscopic material on the evidence before testing when there are no obvious indications of DNA evidence—like blood-stains. Often there’s DNA on evidence that’s invisible to the naked eye from saliva, sweat or skin cells.

Last week, Ellis filed legislation—Senate Bill 487—that would clarify the language of the current law in an effort to ensure that courts allow testing of evidence that could prove innocence. The bill also would enhance the use of CODIS to compare evidence to DNA records already on file.

“These changes are simple and would provide the courts with the clear guidance that they requested,” Ellis said at the press conference. “This is about making sure that the right person is convicted and making sure that communities are safe. This is a law-and-order bill.”

Innocence Project attorney Nina Morrison, who represented Morton, said that the bill “strikes the right balance” by giving judges the appropriate amount of discretion to order testing without turning the courts into DNA testing mills.

In Morton’s case, it took a court five years to grant permission to run a DNA test on relevant evidence.

“For somebody to be in a court battle about whether there is evidence for testing when the labs can just tell us—it just seems like a real waste of everybody’s time,” Morrison said.

Ellis was also joined at the press conference by Cory Session, a policy advisor for the Innocence Project of Texas, who said that the bill will keep Texas on the forefront of criminal justice reform.

“We are still our brother’s keeper, whether they are here in the air-conditioned comfort of the statehouse or whether they are still languishing in the un-air-conditioned heat of the big house,” Session said.

Ellis expects bipartisan support for the bill but cautioned that it was still in the early stages and said that he did not have a House sponsor for the bill yet.

 

State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas
State Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) has filed a bill that would require licensing groups to tell applicants—specifically and in writing—what parts of their records prompted rejection. It would also give applicants a chance to petition their deniers in person.

A mere decade and a half into the new millennium, state lawmakers appear to be grasping a basic tenet of facilitating employment: If you want all your citizens to have jobs, maybe don’t prevent them from getting jobs.

Texas law requires occupational licenses for more than 500 trades ranging from athletic trainer to funeral director, a sprawling bureaucracy that affects almost one-third of the state workforce. While merely a hassle for some, licensing regulations can pose an insurmountable barrier to employment for the 4.7 million Texans who have criminal records. People convicted of any felony or of a misdemeanor involving “moral turpitude”—a scary-sounding category that encompasses crimes as minor as writing a bad check—are statutorily barred by many licensing bodies, usually without regard for how long ago the offense happened or whether it was related to the job in question. (Naturally there are a few weird exceptions. If convicted of an asbestos-related crime, you’re banned from asbestos work… for three years. That’ll teach you.) In addition to these explicit bans, many licensing groups have implicit policies of rejecting any applicant with a criminal record.

That hurts citizens who’ve done their time, but it also hurts the state. People who find stable work within the first year after incarceration are the least likely to re-offend, saving taxpayer money and preventing crime. They’re also less likely to need state assistance programs for their families’ survival.

State researchers have been pointing out the problems with occupational licensing systems since at least 2008, but now a bipartisan coalition of reformers looks poised to make real progress. With support from the conservative Smart on Crime coalition, state Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) has filed a bill that would require licensing groups to tell applicants—specifically and in writing—what parts of their records prompted rejection. It would also give applicants a chance to petition their deniers in person.

Johnson’s clever bill walks a fine line. While careful not to deprive the various governing bodies of their power or discretion, it inserts a couple of humanizing steps, making it harder to rubber-stamp the “NO” that ends the ambitions of so many Texans trying to rebuild their lives.

“We train people in prison with job skills to help them get on the right track and not get re-arrested,” Johnson said. “But if they are arbitrarily denied professional licenses then all of us—taxpayers, ex-offenders and communities—lose.”

“We know that every single year, 70,000 [Texans] leave prisons, and there’s no way that they’re going to be able to do everything that society expects them to do if they don’t have jobs,” says Ana Yáñez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. Licensing reform is “a win-win situation,” she says, “both for the economy but also for the families that they have to support, as well as for public safety outcomes. If they have jobs, they have hope. And if they have hope, they’re more likely to live like law-abiding citizens.”

New friends of Representative Randy Weber (R-Caucasus)
New friends of Congressman Randy Weber (R-Caucasus)

It’s only been a week since we’ve brought back this accursed round-up, and things keep getting bleaker. The Texas Observer’s offices were annexed to the People’s Republic of Kory at some point during the night, and a certain gun rights activist has demanded that we not use his name, on pain of Facebook tirade and/or death. We will carry on, but we are also cowards. Long live ████ ██████!

1) Everyone knows that it’s fun to be a woman on the Internet. Case in point: Matt Beebe, a friendly Empower Texans fellow-traveler who tweets a lot and has run a series of not-too-successful primary challenges to noted tyrant House Speaker Joe Straus.

To clarify, Beebe is not a woman on the Internet, but he knows some. Last week, we talked a bit about AgendaWise’s super-strange treatment of women under the pink dome. (Spoiler alert: They’re “political concubines.”) Beebe had some thoughts about the “myth of female empowerment,” and he tweeted them at Texas Monthly’s Erica Grieder, with a helpful illustration:

This is weird, you say? Open your mind. Let he who has never sent a woman an unsolicited Reddit pic of a woman getting peed on cast the first stone.

Naturally, Beebe got mad when Grieder didn’t take the pee-picture in the manner in which it was intended. These ladies get hysterical at the drop of a hat, amirite?

2) Dan Flynn knows, presumably, that children are our future, but adults are our present and he’s an adult, living in the present, and have you seen children lately? Those dudes are terrifying.

So he’s got a bill to allow teachers to defend themselves or school property with deadly force. To explain himself, he pointed an Observer reporter to a YouTube video entitled, partially, “Black Student Slams Teacher.”

When you get old enough, I imagine the whole world looks like this:


3)
You might have thought state Rep. Steve Toth would stop Tothing when he lost his seat after a failed bid for the Senate. You would be wrong. He’s as Tothy as ever: He can’t help it.

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There’s a service called Poetweet which composes rhyming poems from portions of your tweets. Here’s a Rondel from Steve Toth:

Screen Shot 2015-02-06 at 1.55.12 PM


4)
Randy Weber, the able-minded Texas congressman who gained immortality for calling Barack Obama a “socialistic dictator” and “Kommandant-in-chief” before last year’s State of the Union address and who recently compared the president unfavorably to “Adolph Hitler,” (sic) normally has trouble stringing two syntactically correct sentences together. But now he plays an important role on the House Committee on Foreign Relations. So he’s branching out.

Last week, the Washington Times published a special section in the paper entitled “Azerbaijan: A Quarter Century Since Restoring Independence, A Thriving U.S. Ally.” It looked like part of the newspaper, but it was paid for by “friends” of the little Caucasus state, a dictatorship with unresolved borders and lot of oil that has been cracking down on journalists and dissidents. In the section, Weber gave us some of his carefully thought-out thoughts, in an op-ed titled “Why Azerbaijan matters to the United States.

Why would a relatively stable country at the intersection of the Middle East, Europe and Asia, with a strong economy and burgeoning energy supply, matter to the United States? It’s a great question with a relatively easy answer.

Woah! Tell us more, Randy!

Now, more than ever, we must strengthen our current relationships with allies new and old. Azerbaijan has continually shown their willingness to cooperate with our government to foster a healthier, more stable Middle East and Eurasia. It is imperative for the future of our national security that we continue down a path of collaboration and show that we will be a strong and strategic partner to Azerbaijan for years to come.

All hail Azerbaijan! When cleansing fires come, Azerbaijan will stand strong. Azerbaijan best country #1. Someday, Great Leader Ilham Heydar oglu Aliyev will wipe Armenian scum from earth and connect Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic with Azerbaijan motherland, and a thousand years of peace will follow, as was foretold.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the junkets, congressman.

CAKE: The UT-Austin chapter of the Young Conservatives of Texas is celebrating Ronald Reagan’s birthday by providing welfare cake to passersby on campus. Get it while you can!

DanFlynn
Dan Flynn

The 84th Texas Legislature has been in session more than three weeks and the Observer has yet to bestow our most dubious legislative accolade: the Bad Bill. We shall dally no more.

We present to you House Bill 868, by Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Canton).

Promisingly dubbed the Teacher’s Protection Act, the bill authorizes teachers to use “force or deadly force” to defend themselves, students, or school property. Flynn’s bill expands the Castle Doctrine—the 2007 law that has led to a rash of justifiable homicides in Texas—to include teachers.

As a former public school teacher, I understand the frustration of catching a student tagging a bathroom wall or having to break up a fight. But suggesting that teachers use deadly force underestimates the potential for hallway misfire. French teachers aren’t trained to use lethal force. Think back to your middle school P.E. teacher. Do you want him locked and loaded?

The bill is attracting ridicule from media outlets across the nation. The New Republic calls it “especially ill-considered, and especially cruel.” Think Progress wrote that the bill could have disastrous consequences for students of color and called it a “fatal can of worms.”

Flynn is disappointed with the reaction. He complained to the Observer that the bill is “being styled that we’re going to give them guns and they are going to shoot people. It’s unfair.”

“I just want teachers to feel like they can protect themselves,” Flynn said. “There’s a lot of fear on the part of some teachers of students attacking them, and if they try to protect themselves then they become the person that is the culprit.”

As evidence, Flynn mentioned a video of a 16-year-old student body-slamming his teacher in New Jersey.

 

“You can tell the teacher is holding his hands up, not wanting to do anything to get himself fired,” Flynn said.  “And the student is bigger than the teacher.”

Others are not so thrilled about a bill encouraging teachers to protect themselves with “force or deadly force.” Louis Malfaro, president of the Texas Chapter of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), says of the bill that there is no desire among educators for “another dumb idea like this.”

If legislators want to make schools safer, Malfaro said, they should provide funding for smaller class sizes so teachers can give students more attention, more school counselors and properly trained security personnel.

“They focus on things like this [arming teachers] because they don’t want to give schools the funding that is needed to address the underlying issues that may cause a child to act out,” Malfaro said.

Ironically, despite all the controversy surrounding the bill, it’s largely redundant.

“Texas already has expansive laws in place allowing the use of deadly force to protect people and property,” said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association.

“The bill just restates criminal law, I don’t know why teachers would be different from any other citizen,” he added.

The Castle Doctrine—sometimes called “Stand Your Ground” laws—empowers Texans to use deadly force to protect themselves and their property and has been invoked in several infamous cases.

In 2010 a Houston taco truck owner shot and killed a 24-year-old man who stole a tip jar, and last year a San Antonio man shot and killed a prostitute who took his money and refused to have sex with him. Neither man was convicted of a crime.

Flynn admitted the law may be redundant, but he said that’s of no importance.

“If it has to be redundant for teachers to feel safer, then I’m OK with that,” Flynn said.

Check out our very bad archive of Bad Bills here.

Kevin Eltife
Kevin Eltife

In Texas GOP circles these days almost nothing is as sacrosanct as tax relief.

In fact, you’re about as likely to catch a Republican arguing against a tax cut as you are to nab the elusive chupacabra.

At today’s Senate Finance Committee Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) pretty much went there.

Eltife said state pension funds have been “shortchanged for years,” and something needs to be done before lawmakers consider cutting taxes.

“We should have made the tough decisions to either raise taxes or cut [benefits],” Eltife said. “The reason we’re in this mess is because we haven’t made the tough decisions over the last 10 years.”

The senator’s comments come on the heels of last month’s report from Moody’s, a bond credit rating business, warning state lawmakers to shore up Texas pension funds.

Texas has several state-funded pension funds. The largest, the $128 billion Teacher Retirement System, has unfunded liabilities of $28.9 billion. The second largest, the $25 billion Employee Retirement System (ERS), faces a $7.2 billion shortfall. It is normal for large pension funds to have unfunded liabilities but if they grow too large, it can be difficult for the pensions to make good on promises to future retirees. A rule of thumb for a fund’s health is that the assets-to-benefits ratio not dip below 80 percent. TRS’ ratio sits at about 81 percent. As a result of changes made last session—the Legislature changed benefit plans and chipped in more money—TRS is “actuarially sound,” according to the fund’s managers in a report to the Legislature. It is “one of the best funded public pensions in the nation,” the report states.

Still, lawmakers are concerned with the long-term performance of the funds, especially ERS, which has a funded ratio of about 77 percent.

“Eighteen of the past 20 years the Legislature has underfunded the ERS retirement system,” said Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin). “It is the fault of the Legislature that we’re having this discussion. We’re concerned about how big the nut is that we’re going to need to crack.”

According to the Moody’s report, Texas faces “rising pension costs due to a history of contributions below actuarial requirements.”

Moody’s laid out the options: Increase funding, reduce benefits, or eventually run out of money.

Eltife’s position got plenty of pushback from other committee members.

Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) and Sen. Joan Huffman, (R-Houston) both seemed to reject Eltife’s comments about the urgency of pension funding.

“Texas is doing much better than other states,” Schwertner said. The problem is not how much the state is taxing, but “how much we are obliged to pay through entitlement programs.“

Austin Wallis
YouTube
Screenshot from Austin Wallis' (right) YouTube video

Earlier this week, a 17-year-old YouTube blogger posted an emotional video in which he recounted how he was forced to leave his high school because he’s gay.

In the video, Austin Wallis repeatedly breaks down crying as he sits with his boyfriend and explains how administrators gave him a choice between going back in the closet or finding a new school. Wallis’ story has gone viral, getting picked up by outlets including Huffington Post, and as of Thursday morning, the video had been viewed more than 170,000 times in the four days since it was posted.

Wallis doesn’t identify his former school in the video, saying he doesn’t want the controversy to reflect badly on teachers who supported him, but the Observer has learned that Wallis attended Houston’s Lutheran High North.

Dallas Lusk, head of school at LHN, sent the Observer a statement from Wayne Kramer, executive director of the Lutheran Education Association of Houston. The association covers three schools, including LHN, which has an enrollment of 162.

“Lutheran High North welcomes all students and their families to the LHN community,” Kramer said in the statement. “We profess and proclaim our Christian beliefs with the foundations and authority taught in the Bible, all within the teachings of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. We respectfully require students to adhere to these accepted values and moral beliefs. Sometimes, as in this case, students have to make choices and decide whether their beliefs align with our community and we respect their choices. We also respect student privacy and do not comment on any individual student or their actions.”

In his email accompanying the statement, Lusk wrote, “The allegations you received have been misrepresented.” Asked for clarification, Lusk said he couldn’t discuss specifics about Wallis but called the situation “frustrating.”

He also indicated that LHN students are barred from promoting “anything sinful” and referred the Observer to a “morals clause” in the school’s handbook.

“Lutheran High North reserves the right, within its sole discretion, to refuse admission of an applicant and/or to discontinue enrollment of a current student participating in, promoting, supporting or condoning: pornography, sexual immorality, homosexual activity or bisexual activity; or displaying an inability or resistance to support the qualities and characteristics required of a Biblically based and Christ-like lifestyle,” the clause states.

According to the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod’s website, the denomination views homosexual behavior as “intrinsically sinful.” The LCMS is the second-largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S., behind the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America, which voted in 2009 to ordain gays and lesbians.

“The Missouri Synod believes the Bible teaches homosexual behavior is contrary to God’s Word and will, and the LCMS seeks to minister to those who are struggling with homosexual inclinations,” the denomination’s website states.

Wallis posted a coming out video on his YouTube channel six months ago. Since then, he and his boyfriend have posted dozens of others, including one in which they take off their shirts off and draw on each other’s chests.

In the video about LHN, Wallis notes that he had never previously mentioned the school on YouTube. Nevertheless, he alleges that approximately two weeks ago, he was summoned to the principal’s office. The principal said he knew Wallace was gay and was going to get his parents involved. The next day, Wallis returned to the principal’s office accompanied by his mother.

He said the principal told him that if he wanted to stay at LHN, he had to go back in the closet and delete his social media, including his YouTube account, which he said “means the world” to him.

“It means a lot to me that I can, you know, help a few people who might be feeling like they’re not worth it, or like being gay is too hard, or they need to hide from everybody, and I don’t want people to feel like that,” he says in the video.

Two days after the second meeting with the principal, Wallis says he decided to leave LHN. Although technically it was his choice, Wallis says he felt as though he was in danger of being expelled and didn’t want to attend a school that considered him immoral.

Wallis says he was a good student, and although it seemed the principal was doing everything possible to keep him at LHN, he was baffled by the fact that his sexual orientation had even become an issue.

“I think it’s ridiculous that in this day and age you can be excluded from your own school for being gay,” he said. “When I came out, I knew I was going to have bullies … but I never expected it to be from the people who are supposed to protect you from the bullies, who are supposed to try to stop that.”

Wallis goes on to call LHN’s actions “absolutely disgusting” and says he can’t believe they were legal, even though it’s a private religious school. He says he posted the video because he wants to change the world for the better.

“I am a Christian and I love my God, and I don’t feel like this is what He would have wanted, and I don’t feel like excluding someone for who they are is anything near Christian,” Wallis says.

Ken Upton, senior counsel at the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal, told the Observer he personally believes the school’s actions qualify as “abuse.” However, Upton conceded it’s unlikely school administrators violated Wallis’ rights to free speech or privacy.

“The short answer is that if it’s not a government school, if it’s a strictly private school, the First Amendment doesn’t apply to them,” Upton said. “If they’re a private school, then I think it’s game over. They’re entitled to discriminate.”