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University of Texas Tower Austin
Under the compromise legislation, presidents of public universities like the University of Texas at Austin will be able to write "reasonable rules" about where concealed handguns may be carried.

As in a Chekhov story, a gun introduced in the first chapter of the 84th Texas Legislature was bound to be fired later in the session. The session began with guns, and so it ended. On Sunday, the last day to pass legislation, the Legislature finally approved a “campus carry” bill, allowing concealed handgun license holders to carry handguns on college campuses.

From the beginning of the session, the fate of campus carry was uncertain. Gov. Greg Abbott and House Speaker Joe Straus never showed much enthusiasm for the idea, and most university administrators and faculty despised the idea of guns on campus. As late as mid-May, Senate Bill 11 was stuck in a House committee, where many observers expected it to perish. Still, campus carry has been a fetish of some gun rights activists for years and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had pledged during his campaign to pass a bill allowing guns on campus. Late in the session, lawmakers managed to cobble together a version that ultimately pleases very few.

That version, now on the governor’s desk, contains a major concession to opponents of campus carry. Public universities can’t opt-out of the law, but university presidents will be allowed to write “reasonable rules” about where concealed handguns may be carried. Those rules can be changed by a two-thirds vote of the university system’s board of regents.

The bill’s author, Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury), said that even with that change, the intent of the bill is for “public colleges to be as permissive and accessible to CHL holders as possible” and for universities to be as “minimalistic as possible” when establishing restrictions. The bill’s language states that university leaders may not establish rules that “generally prohibit” or “have the effect of generally prohibiting” campus carry.

But the bill’s text doesn’t provide a definition of “reasonable rules.” Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) said he “completely disagreed” with Birdwell’s interpretation of the bill. He said that “reasonable rules” provision was offered by the House to give universities broad discretion in implementing the policy.

Martinez Fischer and several other House Democrats, opposing campus carry in any form, voted against the bill.

With the messy and uncertain ending to the campus carry fight, it’s worth asking: Who won?

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick:

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has long been a supporter of campus carry. In 2013 he co-authored a bill to allow concealed handgun license holders to carry handguns into buildings on college campuses. (CHL holders are currently allowed to carry concealed handguns on college campuses outdoors.) That bill was referred to committee but never got a hearing. In a campaign ad for the lieutenant governor’s race in 2013, he promised to pass campus carry this session, and said in a Jan. 28 Facebook post: “regarding the Second Amendment, our first priority this session is to pass Campus Carry.”

But Patrick shifted his focus after he ran afoul of open carry activists. In a January interview with Texas Tribune editor Evan Smith, Patrick said he didn’t think there were enough votes to pass open carry. The activists were livid. Patrick quickly backpedaled, calling for a committee hearing on open carry legislation as soon as possible. He even had his staff meet with open carry activists just a week after several members of Open Carry Tarrant County threatened Rep. Alfonso “Poncho” Nevarez (D-Eagle Pass) in his office.

In March, after the Senate voted to send SB 11, the campus carry bill, to the House, Patrick released a statement that applauded Sen. Birdwell’s leadership and said the bill “expands and protects Second Amendment Right legislation in a historic way.”

Patrick has been mum on the bill since, so it’s unclear how he feels about the version that was sent the governor.

Although the current legislation is a watered-down version of the bill Patrick co-authored last session, its passage is a win for the lieutenant governor, who will no doubt retain his “A” rating from the NRA and get to claim that he passed a bill important to some gun activists.

Verdict: A win for Patrick.

Gov. Greg Abbott:

The version of campus carry that was finally passed last weekend closely aligns with Gov. Greg Abbott’s original stance on the issue. Abbott’s policy plan, released in 2013, recommends that CHL holders be allowed to carry weapons on college campuses “subject to appropriate limits.” It goes on to state that public institutions should be allowed to “opt out of campus carry requirements” and that private institutions should not be required to opt in.

But at a press conference in February, Abbott said he would sign “whatever legislation reaches my desk that expands Second Amendment rights in Texas,” including campus carry legislation, with or without an opt-out provision.

Throughout the session, Abbott has been a vocal supporter of legislation allowing CHL holders to openly carry handguns. In his State of the State address, he gave a shout-out to open carry, and almost immediately after both chambers gave their final approval to the bill, Abbott tweeted: “Open Carry just passed in both the Texas House & Senate. Next destination: My Pen.” Campus carry didn’t get the same tweet of approval, but Abbott indicated in a radio interview Tuesday morning that he’d sign the bill.

Verdict: A win for Abbott.

Gun Rights Groups:

Overall, gun rights groups this session have been focused more on open carry than on campus carry. The usual suspects—the NRA and the Texas State Rifle Association—testified in support of campus carry during public hearings on SB 11 and House companion HB 937. Open Carry Texas, one of the more extreme Second Amendments groups, got in on the game, too, although that group has prioritized constitutional carry—the right to openly carry a handgun without a license.

Open Carry Texas leader C.J. Grisham released a statement on the group’s Facebook page saying he appreciates that he will now be able to defend himself and others “in the unlikely event that there is an active shooter.”

Piers Morgan and Dan Patrick
Dan Patrick and Piers Morgan talk about guns.

He called the legislation “common sense” and said that it abolishes a “major gun-free, victim-spree zone.”

Students for Concealed Carry—a national lobbying group with chapters at a few Texas universities—wasn’t so quick to declare the bill’s passage a victory. In a statement published on Twitter by Houston Chronicle reporter Lauren McGaughy, the group declared “we’ve lost” and said it would “appreciate it if the bill’s authors and sponsors would quit confusing the issue by claiming a victory for our side.”

The group is unhappy with the bill’s provision giving university leaders discretion to prohibit guns in certain buildings, and has vowed to lobby during the next session to remove that provision.

Verdict: A partial victory.

Campus Carry Opponents:

Gun violence prevention groups like Moms Demand Action and Texans for Gun Sense banded together with student groups to try to stop campus carry legislation from passing this session. William McRaven, chancellor of the University of Texas System—and a retired U.S. Navy admiral—supported their cause, writing letters to the Legislature to discourage passage of the bills. In one he wrote, “the presence of concealed weapons will make campus a less safe environment.”

During House debate on the conference committee report on Sunday, Rep. Helen Giddings (D-DeSoto) said she’d received more letters and phone calls from people about campus carry legislation than about any other bill during her decade in the Legislature.

Lawmakers, mostly Democrats, attempted to add more than 100 amendments to the bill and challenged it with points of order.

Sunday night, Julie Gavran, with the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus, was exhilarated as she watched the House video stream in Rep. Chris Turner’s (D-Grand Prairie) office. It appeared that the bill might fail to meet the session’s midnight deadline and die in the House. She said that the moment was “uplifting in a very depressing session.” But she was also skeptical, and with good reason. Shortly before the deadline, Democrats made a deal to pass the bill with altered language, sending it to conference committee.

The Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus doesn’t view the watered-down bill as a win, because the rules can be changed with a two-thirds vote by each university system’s appointed board of regents.

Moms Demand Action, one of the most vocal gun control groups, said that the “compromise respects the wishes of the vast majority of university stakeholders” and called it a “drastic improvement” to the original language of the bill. McRaven said in a statement that he appreciated legislators “for recognizing the very specific safety considerations that are unique to campus environments.”

Verdict: A loss. But it could have been worse.

Everyone Else:

Arguably, the biggest losers in the campus carry battle are ordinary Texans. Not because college students are going to be met with an “entourage of guns,” as Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston) said during the debate on Sunday. Only 3 percent of Texans possess concealed handgun licenses, and few of those are likely to be students, since a person must be 21 years of age or older to qualify.

Texans lost because the campus carry debate took up an inordinate amount of energy and time—precious resources for a Legislature that meets for only 140 days every two years. That’s time and energy that could have been used to deal with pressing problems—rising tuition comes to mind—instead of catering to a loud but small subset of gun owners.

The campus carry bill that passed is classic legislative sausage: an amalgam of different ideas compounded into a mess of a policy that no one is thrilled about. The bill is apparently intended to appease a vocal minority while trying to mollify the concerns of students, faculty and administrators, who didn’t ask for more guns on campus. It seems to have done neither.

In a speech on the House floor on Sunday, Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) lamented that campus carry would be a “banner headline” from this session. He said he wants Texas to be known as a state that makes sure kids are adequately educated and gives universities the resources they need to become the best in the world.

“I’d rather that Texas be known for that than for this bill that does nothing to further the education of our college students,” Turner said. “This bill does not serve the best interests of the students of the state of Texas.”

Konni Burton

Greg Abbott launched his term as governor earlier this year by bucking a long-held GOP conviction: local control. Addressing a conservative policy foundation in Austin, Abbott said that liberty-depriving city regulations, such as a ban on plastic bags, are “a form of collectivism” that’s “eroding the Texas Model.”

Abbott’s give-me-plastic-bags-or-give-me-death declaration presented an ideological conundrum for Texas conservatives: How does one defend local control while denying municipalities the freedom to enact regulations preferred by local officials? Enter stage (far) right state Sen. Konni Burton (R-Colleyville), a liberty-loving hero.

Burton is pushing legislation designed to create a new type of municipality: a liberty city. A liberty city must be established on the principles of limited government, preservation of individual and property rights, and restrictions on debt and taxing authority, says Burton’s chief of staff, Art Martinez de Vara.

Martinez de Vara also happens to be the mayor of Von Ormy, a small town in southwest Bexar County. Von Ormy is the self-described “freest little city in Texas” and the first Texas city established precisely on the tenets outlined in Burton’s bill. Burton is so serious about the idea that she lists the principles as a “Bill of Rights” in her legislation.

The first “article” in the bill takes aim at city regulations. It states that liberty cities “shall not enact an ordinance, resolution, or similar measure, or take any action, that infringes on the basic absolute and essential rights of the people.” That raises important questions. Where do the “basic absolute and essential rights of the people” begin? Where do they end? And where on that spectrum does the inalienable right to carry home your groceries in a plastic sack fall? Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, says cities already can choose to limit regulations and taxes. “Nothing says [cities] have to have a property tax or do zoning,” Sandlin says. “The bill is probably unnecessary.”

Martinez de Vara disagrees. To understand what a liberty city looks like in practice, take a closer look at Von Ormy.

Von Ormy incorporated six years ago and has roughly 1,300 residents. Von Ormy has no city property taxes. It relies on sales tax revenue from several truck stops—I-35 passes through town—to pay for public services. Its animal control officer, firefighters, and most of the police force are volunteers.

Martinez de Vara said the city doesn’t charge residents fees for anything. So, what can we learn from Von Ormy? Well, the town won’t be denying anyone the right to carry plastic.

But if a wild cur or wildfire wreaks havoc within the city limits, the tax-averse, freedom-loving citizenry might well be on its own.

walmart

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

PARIS // Recent North Lamar High School graduate Tony Bost has found his calling as a “frustrations detective”—in other words, an inventor. Now that he’s figured out how to apply for patents, according to a Paris News profile, Bost is “prepared to amaze the world with the potential of his ambition.” So far, according to the News, Bost “has [had] well over 100 ideas and patented four.” They include the “Vapor Master,” the “Pack ‘N’ Push,” the “XtendAbend” and the “S.S.K.K.” (aka “Super Spider Korner Killer”). The last-mentioned device, Bost says, “pertains to eliminating spiders and any other insect that ever goes to any corner of a home or business.”

STEPHENVILLE // Bethel Baker discovered a copy of the Granbury News from 1938 while looking for something else in his cabinets. “Inside the yellowed newsprint,” the Stephenville Empire-Tribune reported, “was a fascinating glimpse into the world of journalism long ago. Noticeably absent was [sic] the Twitter handles and email addresses found below most journalist’s bylines these days.” Articles in the old newspaper included a piece on “practical, pretty designs” for women’s fashion, and a reminder to drivers not to hit children on their way to school. “Drive carefully and don’t be the cause of the maiming or death of any of these little ones,” the paper advised.

GRANBURY // “[W]ith adrenaline pumping through his 9-year-old veins,” D.J. Pritchett ran from his home after discovering a rattlesnake in the living room in late March. The scare happened just before April Fool’s Day, but the Hood County News reported that it was no joke: “April Fool’s Day tricks don’t usually have fangs, rattlers and a diamond-shaped pattern.” When first discovered in the house, the western diamondback “was stretched out, as if relaxing in front of the television”—at least until D.J.’s father dispatched the intruder with a shovel. “It managed to coil up one last time, for old time’s sake, before dying,” the News reported. “It was about 15 inches long.”

TYLER // While awaiting his murder trial in the county jail, James Calvert is alleged to have illegally counseled other inmates on their cases. After a county investigator searched Calvert’s cell for evidence of an unauthorized law practice, Calvert demonstrated his legal acumen by representing himself at a court hearing in April and calling on himself to testify. To help everyone follow along, he offered to raise his hand when he was “talking as an attorney.” According to KLTV, “Calvert questioned himself as a witness with a
monologue of back and forth questions and answers,” until the State interjected. “Objection, Your Honor. He’s leading the witness,” District Attorney Matt Bingham complained. Calvert apologized: “I’m sorry, it gets confusing.”

GROVETON // Trinity County Sheriff Woody Wallace became the latest East Texas lawman to embrace the power of social media when, in April, his office alerted drug users that they were now eligible for a $500 reward in exchange for turning in their dealers. “Everybody watches Facebook,” the sheriff told KTRE-TV. The “Help Wanted” post on the sheriff’s office Facebook page promises respondents help entering a drug rehab program and a $500 bounty if the dealer is ultimately convicted. “Serious inquiries only!” the post reads. In February, the Rusk Police Department took a customer-service approach on its Facebook page: “Hey Everybody!!! If you have a drug dealer that is selling you bunk dope, stemmy or seedy weed, or generally providing low quality of service—WE WANT TO KNOW!!!”

MIDLAND/LIVINGSTON // The abrupt and coordinated closure of Wal-Mart stores in two cities left some savvy shoppers smelling conspiracy. The mega-retailer’s Livingston location announced its six-month “hiatus” in April with just a few hours’ notice, inciting a run on its steeply discounted perishable goods. Prices may have fallen, but in the eyes of some, the real reason for the closures remained just out of reach. Wal-Mart officials said the stores were closing for maintenance, but one Midland Reporter-Telegram commenter urged the newspaper to dig deeper: “There is clearly a lot more to the closure story and we are all being disrespected and lied to, with the kinderspiel cover story you were given.” Another wondered about “military vehicles” parked outside the Midland store, while a KHOU-TV commenter urged vigilance in Livingston: “Do not believe anything that Wal-Mart is saying; it’s a trick, part of the ‘Operation Jade Helm,’” he wrote, referencing a planned covert military training exercise in the southwestern United States. A national workers’ union has said the closures—which left nearly 900 employees in Texas suddenly without work—were a targeted retaliation in a labor dispute. Wal-Mart denied that claim.

 

2015 Inauguration Day Capitol
Kelsey Jukam
The 84th Texas Legislature has made sure the state will keep its nationally renowned status for nutty politics.

 

The Texas Legislature bids us goodbye today: For the next 19 months—barring a special session on school finance—the state’s residents are more or less safe, as long as you avoid Kory Watkins and Borris Miles. It’s a session that has seen its fair share of comic interludes, and Texas has once again kept secure its nationally renowned status as a nutty state for politics.

But in many ways, the Texas Legislature is probably calmer and more professional than it has ever been. For much of the state’s history, the session was a time where men from far-flung reaches of the state came to a relatively large city to booze and whore for five-month interludes before returning to the Gulf coast or the Panhandle or Highland Park. That held true for longer than you might expect. Billy Lee Brammer wrote in Texas Monthly in 1973 that “the Capitol itself, along with all House and Senate office buildings, is honeycombed with secret lovenests.” The past is filled with many fine statesmen, of course; one shouldn’t generalize.

To be sure, there’s still boozing and whoring, though probably less, and definitely done more discreetly. But in other areas, things are, in many ways, better. Until relatively recently, many legislators had no office at the Capitol and no staff to speak of. With less public scrutiny, they were even easier pickings for the lobby, which operated with zero transparency. Austin’s brothels, no great secret, did a healthy trade. And legislators faced a generally more forgiving attitude from the press corps.

There are still ignorant and corrupt legislators. The lobby still watches each incoming freshman class like vultures. But on the whole, the dysfunction of the recent past can’t hold a candle to its historical counterpart.

Here’s a very short list of some highlights. If you have a favorite story—one that ought to be here—email it to me at [email protected] and we’ll add the best ones.
 

Masonic cabals!

 
The Legislature can, at the best of times, sort of run the state, so imagine the sheer drama of watching its predecessor, the Congress of the Republic of Texas, run a nation. It was filled with rough men, and they often had a rough go of things.

On April 14, 1838, President Sam Houston gave an address to a joint session of Congress. Just after, Thomas William “Peg Leg” Ward, a fearsome Irish-born Texas pol, hit Francis R. Lubbock, then the Republic’s comptroller, with a stick. (History does not specify that the stick was, in fact, Peg Leg’s leg, though it is fun to think so.) Lubbock pulled a derringer and fired, with only the “timely intervention of a bystander” preventing Lubbock’s aim from being true.

The two were arrested and brought before the Senate, but, as is recorded in The Texas Senate: Volume I, Lubbock was “honorably discharged” from his arrest by Sen. Jonathan Russell. Both were brothers in the Holland Lodge, a Masonic organization that met in the Senate chamber and was instrumental in setting Republic policy. The group counted eight of the upper chamber’s 17 senators as members. Poor Peg Leg, the guy who was the one actually shot at, was officially reprimanded.

Volume I goes on to note, cautiously: “It is interesting to note that Lubbock earlier had sold his warehouse to be converted into an official residence for President Houston, also a Mason.”

Shady real estate deals involving Texas’ chief executive? Things really have changed.
 

Coups!

 
We had some tense committee meetings this session, and some tense floor debates. None match the furor caused in 1870, when a bill authorizing the governor to declare martial law and deploy the state militia hit the Senate floor.

When 13 senators opposed to the bill left the chamber to deny the Senate a quorum, and bolted the door of their conference room behind them, the radical Republicans who ran the Senate sent the long arm of the law after them. Windows of the room were smashed, and the senators were arrested. The Republicans voted for the militia bill without them. They released four—just enough to maintain a quorum—and kept the others under arrest for some three weeks while they passed bills.

When one senator involved in the walk-out, E.L. Alford, was stripped of his seat and a special election selected his replacement, Alford came to work anyway. His elected replacement had to sit in the wings.

Next session: Bob Hall passes his EMP bill—by any means necessary.
 

Heroes!

 
A frequent complaint among tea partiers is that no one in Austin reads the bills they pass. But even here, things are better than they used to be, in part because of the addition of legislative staff.

In 1969, state Rep. Tom Moore introduced and passed a resolution through the House, honoring a man he said had done important work in the field of “population control.”

This compassionate gentleman’s dedication and devotion to his work has enabled the weak and the lonely throughout the nation to achieve and maintain a new degree of concern for their future. He has been officially recognized by the state of Massachusetts for his noted activities and unconventional techniques involving population control and applied psychology.

The resolution honored Albert DeSalvo, otherwise known as the Boston Strangler.
 

Shootouts!

 
State Rep. Curtis Graves, a liberal African-American legislator from Houston elected in 1966, had to improvise in order to be heard. Once, he railed against a tax bill by standing and yelling on the House press table. In 1971, concerned about measures that made it easier to purchase handguns—thankfully, an issue we no longer face—he took the back mic in the House, pulled a revolver out of his pocket, and fired twice at the House ceiling.

Screen Shot 2015-05-30 at 5.51.57 PM
Screen Shot 2015-05-30 at 5.52.02 PM

Please, nobody tell Stickland (R-Highlander).
 

Ballads!

 
Writeth Paul Burka, in 1976, of one of the greatest Sine Die nights ever:

The scene on the floor of the House was bedlam: representatives clustered around the Speaker’s desk whispering advice; others gathered at the back microphone bellowing for recognition; and smaller groups huddled at scattered spots across the giant chamber where members passed rumors or strained to hear them. It was the closing hour of the 1971 regular session of the Texas Legislature, and the legislative process had broken down under the weight of the Sharpstown Scandal.

The heavy-handed tactics of Speaker Gus Mutscher, under attack for shepherding two suspicious-looking banking bills through a previous special session for discredited Houston promoter Frank Sharp, had divided the House into three groups: blind loyalists, troubled conservatives, and a coalition of liberals and Republicans known as the Dirty Thirty. A huge backlog of legislation was hopelessly stalled, and time was running out. Would Mutscher ask the governor to call a special session? Or would he order the hands of the clock turned back at midnight, extending the session while he tried to arm-twist members into passing a few of the more important bills? Or perhaps he would make a dramatic appeal to the House, asking members to put aside animosities and try to pass something in the little time remaining.

“May I have your attention, members?” Mutscher for once had no trouble with this request; all eyes were on him. “The Chair recognizes Mr. Nelms.”

The legislators were stunned. Why Nelms, everyone was thinking. Johnny Nelms of Pasadena was only a freshman, and a mediocre one at that. What could he do? The silence was broken by the sound of a guitar. Johnny Nelms could sing, that’s what he could do. And as the clock at the back of the chamber ticked away the final minutes of Gus Mutscher’s hegemony over the House, Johnny Nelms serenaded his colleagues with a song the Speaker particularly liked. It was called “Everything I Touch Turns to Dirt.”

Shortly after, Mutscher was indicted.
 

Anuses!

 
Earlier this session, Rep. Harold Dutton quizzed Rep. Stuart Spitzer about his sexual history, in what some felt was a session low point for the gentlemanly decorum the Texas House has become world-renowned for.

That’s nothing.

In 1993, state Rep. Warren Chisum, terrified that the state’s ban on sodomy would someday be overturned, offered an amendment that was very nondiscriminatory—it would have banned everyone from having anal sex. Chisum read his amendment, though he said it was “quite offensive to me to have to read it in public.” The amendment would make it a Class C misdemeanor for the “sexual organs” of one person to touch the “anus of another.” The following debate ensued:

State Rep. Debra Danburg: You’re trying to criminalize behavior between the opposite sex, is that right?
Chisum: That’s right.
Danburg: Even if they’re married.
Chisum: More especially if they’re married. Can’t believe anyone would do that if they were married.
Danburg: Even if it’s consensual.
Chisum: Under any circumstances.
Danburg: Even if they slip. Is that right, Mr. Chisum?
[laughter]
Chisum: A violation of the law is a violation of the law.
Danburg: OK, Warren. […] Say my husband and I were having intercourse, and it slipped. And it touched my anus. Do I need to go turn myself in to some health official?
Chisum: I would suggest you see a doctor about his aim.
 

~ Bonus Whitmire! ~

 
This session, a couple senators—though especially poor state Sen. Don Huffines—got the full-on Boogie treatment from state Sen. John Whitmire, who from time to time feels his ire rise on the Senate floor and verbally, brutally bludgeons his opponents like a partially-reformed loan shark collecting gambling debts.

This doesn’t really belong on the list, but at the end of this session in particular it needs to be seen. Here’s Whitmire giving the full dressing-down to then freshman state Sen. Dan Patrick in 2007:

They’re debating the budget. Patrick has suggested that there are $3 billion in cuts to be made, and Whitmire smells bullshit. He starts pacing and throwing fingers around.

“Give me the method of financing that you would use to make those cuts. It’s your time to show this body that you know what you’re talking about. Give us the $3 billion in cuts,” he half shouts. “And take your time.”

“I will take my time, senator,” Patrick says, “and I do know what I’m talking about. And I don’t have to stand here and be lectured by you.” To which Whitmire shouts: “Let’s GO!”

Patrick: “I don’t have to be lectured to by you.” Whitmire shouts back: “You can dish it out but you can’t take it, huh?

It goes on for a while. The whole thing is worth watching, with headphones, if the Legislature entertains you. Eight years later, Whitmire is still a shouty, fierce maniac who terrifies freshmen. And Patrick still wants to cut government, but doesn’t seem to know now. The more things change …

truancy court - Dallas \
Outside a truancy court in Dallas, Texas.

After a back-and-forth struggle between the House and Senate over which bill would advance, the Legislature finally managed—with little time to spare—to send legislation to the governor that would decriminalize Texas’ punitive system for handling truant students. On Saturday, the House and Senate both signed off on House Bill 2398, by Rep. James White (R-Woodville), which would bring to an end Texas’ 20-year experiment with treating school absences as a criminal matter.

Under HB 2398, students who miss school would no longer face fines (unless found in contempt of a court order), arrest and even jail time. Instead, those who wrack up unexcused absences would be subject to truancy prevention programs, such as behavior modification plans or in-school community service. If that doesn’t work, school administrators can refer students to a truancy court, where the problem will be treated as a civil rather than criminal matter. The court could order students to counseling or tutoring.

“Truancy, like school discipline, is a schoolhouse issue primarily, and we want to provide our school districts with discretion and tools,” White said. “But at the same time we want to give them a floor of expectations.”

Texas is one of only two states to prosecute minors for truancy. “Failure to Attend School” is currently a Class C misdemeanor for which schoolchildren are prosecuted, punished and fined for cutting classes and missing school.

In a report released earlier this year, Texas Appleseed, an advocacy organization at the forefront of fighting for truancy reform, found that Texas filed approximately 115,000 truancy cases in 2013—more than twice the number of truancy cases, including civil ones, in all other states combined.

The report also found that there is little evidence to support the notion that most truant children are simply “skipping class.” Many youth have other pressing problems: taking care of a sick parent, homelessness, undiagnosed special education needs and bullying. Under HB 2398, students who are pregnant, foster children, homeless kids or students who are the principal income earners for their families can’t be sent to truancy court.

“We celebrate this monumental victory for Texas children and families across our state,” said Texas Appleseed Executive Director Deborah Fowler. “This bill makes great strides towards keeping students who are struggling with school attendance in school and on track to graduate.”

Truancy reform seemed in jeopardy at many junctures late in the legislative session. A standoff between Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) and Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) put the effort at risk after both chambers overwhelmingly signed off on competing bills.

However, widespread bipartisan support for truancy reform won out. HB 2398 was endorsed by the Texas Association of School Boards, the Texas Association of Business, the Juvenile Justice Association of Texas, the Texas Justices of the Peace and Constables Association and the Texas PTA.

“This has become a bipartisan issue. You see Republicans, Democrats, tea party, all fighting against truancy,” said Derek Cohen, policy analyst for the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. “They realize skipping school should not be handled in a criminal process.”

The bill now goes to Gov. Greg Abbott. In 2013, Gov. Rick Perry vetoed similar legislation.

phantomkiller

It’s been five years since the last new episode of Unsolved Mysteries aired, but that doesn’t mean Americans have lost their appetite for cold cases, especially ones involving murder—witness the runaway success of HBO’s The Jinx, which turned Robert Durst into a household name. So it’s no surprise that an author would turn to what are commonly referred to as the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, a 1946 series of slayings, shootings and beatings in and near the Texas-Arkansas border city. The man responsible, known as “the Phantom Killer,” was never caught.

For years, true-crime aficionados and armchair detectives have debated what the Texas Department of Public Safety called “the Number One unsolved murder case” in the history of the state. The Phantom Killer has been the subject of books and at least one cult-classic film (the relentlessly cheesy 1976 B movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown; remade in 2014). But it’s likely that no writer has researched the case more deeply than Texarkana historian James Presley, author of The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders: The Story of a Town in Terror.

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The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders: The Story of a Town in Terror
James Presley
Pegasus Books
400 pages; $26.95

Presley has good reason to be obsessed with the case. One of the lead investigators of the slayings was Bowie County Sheriff Bill Presley, the author’s uncle. But The Phantom Killer isn’t just the work of a historian determined to solve the case whose solution eluded his uncle—it’s an exhaustive and, one could argue, definitive look at one of the most mysterious crimes in the region’s history, and a town forced to reckon with the aftermath.

Presley sets up The Phantom Killer with a great depiction of 1946 Texarkana: “unnoticed, the abandoned stepchild of both states.” The city had been known for violence and general lawlessness for years, even if it hadn’t yet been subjected to a series of killings as brutal as the Moonlight Murders. Presley narrates the escalating violence in grim detail: Jimmy Hollis, beaten nearly to death, and his girlfriend Mary Jeanne Larey, sexually assaulted with a gun; Richard Griffin and Polly Ann Moore, shot to death on a lovers’ lane; teenagers Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker, shot to death; and Katie and Virgil Starks, shot in their home, fatally in Virgil’s case.

Presley’s depiction of the assaults and the long, tortuous investigation that followed is as detailed and well-researched as one could hope for. And while the inside-baseball sections tracking the law enforcement response can be a bit plodding, Presley makes up for it by painting a fascinating portrait of the city in the days after World War II, and of the people trying desperately to find the killer—in particular, the legendary and endlessly colorful Texas Ranger Manuel T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas.

Does Presley succeed in identifying the Phantom Killer? It’s impossible to know at this point, but he makes an extremely compelling case that the murderer was Youell Swinney, an Arkansas man with a history of petty crimes. Swinney died in 1998, but, Presley writes, “received the notoriety he craved, in this book.” It’s hard to argue with Presley’s detective work, and it’s definitely fascinating to see how he arrives at the conclusion.

The Phantom Killer probably isn’t for everyone. Presley’s prose can be repetitive, and he includes an almost overwhelming amount of detail about every possible aspect of the case. But while that might turn off some casual readers, his intended audience of true-crime devotees, Texas history fans and readers with an interest in the Texarkana area will find the book an admirably detailed account of one of the most horrifying crime sprees ever to hit the Lone Star State.

Norman Adams, left, and Steven Hotze, right, two prominent supporters of the so-called Texas Solution, at the back mike during a heated floor debate.
Christopher Hooks
Steve Hotze, right, at the 2014 convention of the Republican Party of Texas

It’s nice to be read. On Thursday, the Observer published a short item on the anti-gay marriage resolution Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s Senate passed this week. The gist of the piece: The resolution amounted to nothing, and reflected Patrick’s failure to pass other socially conservative legislation through his chamber. Because of that, his conscious attempts to blame the House for not passing gay-baiting bills are a bit… strange.

The piece was endorsed by an unusual source—would-be conservative warlord and pseudo-medical quack Steve Hotze, who leads the Conservative Republicans of Texas. Hotze is a considerable, oddball force in GOP politics here in Texas. Yes, he raps. But he’s not simply a joke: his endorsements carry real weight, and the CRT is an influential group. He was a huge fan of Patrick during the election last year:

Yesterday, the CRT sent out a lengthy email to its supporters, excerpting much of our piece. The headline—“Republican Leadership Fails to Defend Biblical Marriage: Huge Opportunity Squandered.”

Here’s a sample of the juicier bits. (Emphasis Hotze’s, throughout, and pics of the full email here.)

The reason the Republican leadership in the House and Senate did not pass a law prohibiting the issuance of homosexual marriage licenses is because they chose not to bring it up for a vote. […] Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and his lieutenant, Senator Joan Huffman, refused even to give a hearing in the Senate State Affairs Committee on SB 673, the senate companion bill to HB 4105, the Preservation of State Sovereignty and Marriage Act.

Hotze blames Abbott and Straus too, at length, but his criticism of Patrick is the most notable part. What are the stakes here? Gay people, you see, are “fascists” who going to force “the practice of sodomy” on Texas “families, churches, schools and businesses.” (Wait, how does a business practice sodomy?)

A bill preserving Biblical marriage in Texas should have been passed by the Texas Legislature months ago. The legislature has passed hundreds of other bills, but the Republican leaders chose not to pass legislation that would defend the Texas Marriage Amendment against the usurpation of our state sovereignty by the federal courts. Their lack of action and cowardice is inexcusable.

The homosexuals are intent on destroying Biblical marriage and throwing our state and nation into sexual and moral anarchy. They are fascists who want to force the acceptance and normalization of the homosexual lifestyle, the practice of sodomy, upon individuals, families, churches, schools and businesses. They want the government to mandate that homosexual conduct be taught to school children starting in kindergarten. The teachers will encourage the children to experiment with homosexual activity so that they can more easily be recruited into the homosexual lifestyle. The homosexuals and their pro-homosexual allies in the media are demonizing Christians and intend to criminalize Biblical Christianity.

Hotze instructs his email recipients to call Abbott and ask for a special session on gay-baiting. Good luck with that.

Then, he copy-and-pastes much of the Observer’s piece. Here’s the last graph quoted from our story—again, emphasis his—followed by his commentary:

It’s a comprehensive flop for the forces who oppose gay marriage. Nonetheless, Patrick told the Senate to buck up. They “should be proud,” he said. “The House decided not to have this debate.” That’s a dig at Speaker Joe Straus, of course. But since Patrick couldn’t get anything consequential out of his own chamber either, who is he pointing fingers at?
**************************************************************************************************
Texas failed to lead the nation in defense of Biblical marriage. How tragic! This was so avoidable!

Hotze is a clown—a lot of Republicans think so, too—but he’s an important and powerful clown. A session in which both the tea party and Hotze are unhappy with Patrick is not the worst session the state could have had.

After the 2014 election, there was some talk that Hotze had drawn up a nefarious “Contract for Texas” as a plan to advance socially conservative legislation, with the knowledge of some people in Patrick’s camp. So much for that, I guess.

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payday loan
Courtesy of Taber Andrew Bain via Flickr

Last session, legislators took sides in a marathon brawl over payday lending reform. But after those reforms died, there seemed to be little hope for action on the issue this year. As the 84th Legislature unfurled, though, a few small bills advanced. One of them, Senate Bill 1282, was hailed by some reformers as a modest but helpful augmentation of the ability of the Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner to regulate short-term lenders, including payday lenders. On Wednesday, it was killed by state Rep. Marisa Márquez (D-El Paso).

It’s a move one reformer who supported the bill called “disrespectful.” Márquez says her distaste for the bill didn’t necessarily have to do with the bill’s provisions, but rather the lack of opportunity lawmakers had to change it—something advocates of the bill had been trying to avoid. “With an issue this important, there should have been an opportunity for the rest of us to participate in it,” said Márquez.

The legislation—authored by state Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) and carried in the House by state Rep. Tan Parker (R-Flower Mound)—was a relatively simple “clean-up” bill that would have clarified the powers of the little-known Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner, or OCCC, the state agency that licenses and regulates lenders. The agency had been asking for the bill for several sessions, and reform groups had been helping to drag it to the finish line.

Bee Moorhead, the executive director of Texas Impact, an interfaith advocacy group, said the bill was “not radical reform legislation,” but a series of needed technical changes. Among other things, the bill would have added references to the newly-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to state law. And it would have given the OCCC clear authority to regulate lawsuit lenders, who loan cash to plaintiffs awaiting judgements or settlements in civil lawsuits. “Regulating this relatively new product early would help Texas avoid future conflicts,” Moorhead said, “like those that have occurred in other markets, such as payday lending.”

SB 1282 had already traveled a rocky road through the session. Some, including Republicans like state Rep. Tom Craddick (R-Midland), wanted to add other, stronger reform measures as amendments to the bill. But progress slowed, and Craddick never got the chance. That’s a familiar story for legislation reforming consumer loans, such as payday, auto title and property tax loans—only simple and carefully negotiated bills can make it through the process, and advocates are divided between those who want to push for more and those who are happy with incremental reform.

But SB 1282 wound up on the Local & Consent calendar on Wednesday, giving the House one more chance to send it to the governor’s desk. That’s when Márquez knocked it off the calendar—a procedural move that effectively killed it.

“There was concern that language in there could promote cash lending. So it was something that we probably should have debated on the House floor,” said Márquez. “I’m sorry it was there so late, but it wasn’t something we could just pass without debate.”

But opening the bill up to amendments could have tanked it by making the legislation unpalatable to lenders—something that has happened to other payday lending bills in the past. And the result of the bill’s death is simply that state regulators will go for the next two years without the tools they say they need to do their job.

Moorhead, who denies the bill would have “promote[d] cash lending,” says the bill was a simple matter of upholding good government. “It seems irresponsible for legislators to talk so much about the need for efficiency and accountability at agencies, and then to allow routine agency legislation to become collateral in political showdowns.” She added: “It’s a small moment in a legislative session that has been full of big moments, but that should not be an excuse to let it go by unnoticed.”

Márquez, though, puts the blame back on the reformers. If they wanted the bill to pass, she says, “they probably should have involved more of us in the conversation about it.”

lost in detention

In the last year, Texas has become the epicenter of immigrant family detention. There are now at least 3,000 beds in the state run by private for-profit prison companies devoted to family detention. We’ve been through this before. In 2010, the controversial T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor stopped housing detained immigrant families after a protracted legal battle and public outcry at claims of abuse, including children made to wear prison uniforms and threats of isolation for children who didn’t behave.

Five years later, the number of immigrant families in detention vastly outnumbers the bad old days of T. Don Hutto. In late April, three women detained with their children at the Karnes County Residential Center, a 532-bed immigrant detention facility in South Texas, filed a class-action lawsuit against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and GEO Group Inc., the private for-profit prison company that runs the facility. The three plaintiffs, Delmy Pineda Cruz, Polyane Soares de Olveira dos Santos and Lilian Castillo Rosado, say they were put in isolation, threatened with separation from their children and interrogated after participating in hunger strikes at Karnes.

Their pro bono lawyer, Ranjana Natarajan, director of the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, says the women are allowed under the First Amendment to peacefully protest. “This lawsuit is saying that the campaign of retaliation and harassment by ICE and GEO Group needs to stop,” she says. “Their rights need to be respected.”

In March, the three plaintiffs joined more than 75 other women in circulating a petition for their release. The group began a hunger strike to protest their detention in prison-like conditions. Immigration judges are issuing exorbitant detention release bonds that range from $5,000 to $15,000. (Single men in detention are typically given bonds of $1,500.) Immigrant rights advocates say it’s part of the government’s strategy to prevent another influx of Central American families seeking political asylum at the southern border.

Faced with the impossibly high bonds, the women and children have no choice but to remain locked up in Karnes or to accept deportation. The majority of the families come from three countries—Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador—that have some of the highest rates of violence in the world. Being locked up only exacerbates the trauma they’ve already suffered. “I’ve represented women who have been in detention for nine months already,” Natarajan says. “These women are simply saying that they’re not a threat, and that they shouldn’t be detained.”

But the women suffered a setback in May. U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez denied their motion for a temporary restraining order to halt alleged retaliation against the women for participating in protests at the Karnes facility.

Rodriguez questioned whether the women, because they are undocumented, have legal standing to seek protection under the First Amendment, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

Government lawyers also argued that the undocumented women didn’t have the right to seek protections under the U.S. Constitution. If the U.S. government prevails on that argument, it could set a dangerous precedent: a two-tiered society of some who are protected under the U.S. Constitution, and some who are not.

wimberley flood damage

 

A Hays County groundwater protection bill that’s had a tumultuous ride through the Legislature has been dramatically revived in the session’s final days, and sources says Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s recent tour of the Wimberley flood damage is what resurrected the legislation.

After Patrick visited the flood zone in Hays County on Thursday he asked local officials if there was anything he could do to help. They told him that House Bill 3405, which would extend the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District to western Hays County, could use a little help from on high.

“County officials were able to talk to the lieutenant governor and leadership of the House yesterday with the encouragement of our own state official,” said Hays County Commissioner Will Conley, a Republican who represents Wimberley and met with Patrick. “We were just able to draw attention to the legislation and how important it is to our community, and the most powerful men in Texas made some agreements and moved it forward.”

For much of Thursday the legislation looked dead, after a technical objection raised by Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-El Paso) prevailed. Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs) looked defeated after he learned of the news, while citizens in Wimberley, who’ve fought for months to bring groundwater regulation to an unregulated “white zone” of the county targeted by a for-profit aquifer-mining company, reacted with disgust. But as the House was wrapping up for the day, the House parliamentarian suddenly reversed his decision—an extreme rarity in the Legislature. Other legislators gathered around a tearful Isaac as he expressed shock.

Isaac said he had suggested Conley talk to Patrick on the lieutenant governor’s tour of flood-ravaged Wimberley, but he told the Observer he didn’t think Patrick had anything to do with the parliamentarian’s sudden change of heart. “I’m just pleased that I was on the winning end of a mistake,” Isaac said.

Regardless, Conley said his conversation got the job done.

“Those two gentlemen took action on behalf of Hays County,” Conley said, referring to Straus and Patrick.

In a statement, Patrick said he was “grateful that the House reversed the P.O.O. because it is the number one legislative issue for Hays County. After visiting Wimberley to survey the flood damage, I believe this bill is even more critical.”

Dan Patrick
Texas Senate
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick

House Bill 3405 is still not a done deal. For the bill to pass, both chambers must appoint a conference committee to work out details in the bill and bring a corrected version of the bill to a vote in the House and Senate.

“There are a lot of unseen forces who seem to have had their hands in this,” said Isaac. “We just hope that they’ll keep their hands out of it at this time.”

For a local groundwater bill, usually a matter of only passing concern outside a legislative district, HB 3405 has been buffeted by powerful forces, many of them hidden from public debate on the legislation. One is Electro Purification, which wants to pump 5 million gallons per day from the Trinity Aquifer and sell it to customers in the I-35 corridor.

Another may be Greg LaMantia, a wealthy wholesale Budweiser distributor from McAllen and a major Democratic donor. LaMantia shares a lobbyist with Electro Purification, Ed McCarthy, a skilled legislative hand on water matters. LaMantia owns a 5,000-acre ranch near Wimberley that’s located partially in the “white zone.” Last session Isaac passed a bill creating a municipal utility district, or MUD, on LaMantia’s Needmore Ranch. MUDs are often used by developers to provide water and wastewater services for dense subdivisions. Because of tremendous pressure from Hays County citizens worried about a large residential development in a water-scarce and environmentally-sensitive area, Isaac included a provision in last session’s legislation prohibiting the Needmore Ranch MUD from pumping groundwater for new homes.

But under a separate bill carried by Isaac and Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) this session, that provision banning the use of local water would be eliminated if HB 3405 passes.

“Now that we will potentially have a groundwater district in place, we don’t necessarily need those provisions in the MUD,” Isaac said. Allowing LaMantia to pump groundwater at Needmore, Isaac said, is “a way to get additional outside support in passing our 3405.”