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

It was supposed to be one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s first signature initiatives: ethics reform. What a fine way to signal the beginning of a new era, one washed of that Paint Creek musk. Ethics, it is generally held, are good. Reform? Even better. People love Ethics Reform.

There was never a great deal of substance to Abbott’s outline of what constituted cleaning up Texas politics. And the lawmakers who hammered out the details didn’t exactly reach for the stars either. As it unfolded during the session, Ethics Reform started to seem like it was more about political positioning than a substantive attempt to attack political corruption. But that didn’t much matter. The point was to Get Something Done.

We’re a few steps closer to mission accomplished. On Tuesday, nearing the end of a brutal death-march through the Legislature, Senate Bill 19, the main package of new ethics laws, limped to a preliminary House vote of 96 to 48.

It was in dubious shape when it left the Senate floor a few weeks back—some of its key provisions were gutted against its authors’ wishes in the upper chamber, and the bill was stuffed with petty and silly amendments. And the sweeping changes made to the House version, including provisions to bring transparency to political machines that run on so-called “dark money,” make it unlikely that a strong draft of SB 19 will make it to the governor’s desk in time—the House and Senate versions are so far apart that a conference committee would essentially have to write a third bill from scratch, one that might not have much in the way of teeth.

In an extremely strong statement, the bill’s author, state Sen. Van Taylor (R-Plano), “expressed astonishment for the elimination of meaningful ethics reforms” and faulted “Chairman Bryon Cook” [sic] for “one of those head shaking moments” that tore “a page from Hillary Clinton’s playbook.”

The debate in the House was, in effect, a proxy war between conservative moneyman Tim Dunn and House Speaker Joe Straus, between the House and the Senate, between the governor and the Legislature, and between House Democrats and the clock.

The bill’s dark money disclosure rules—the most significant addition Rep. Byron Cook made to the bill in committee—represent a threat to conservatives aligned with the wing of the Republican party associated with Midland moneyman Tim Dunn, who have been extremely vocal about denouncing the bill. Once a weak version of the bill emerged from the Senate, they seemed to know what was coming. The agitprop machine went into action—if Cook “repeal[ed] the First Amendment” by demanding shadow groups like Empower Texans disclose their donors, he would be tanking the bill. That didn’t stop him.

State Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R-Irving), a legislator backed by Dunn’s groups, offered an amendment that would return the bill to the Senate draft and kill the dark money rule—but he lost his vote 113-33.

By forcing a dark money disclosure rule through the House—and in the process, killing bills offered by further-right conservatives—Cook was, in effect, giving the middle finger to Dunn and his groups. They’ve hated Cook all session, and their contempt has only seemed to grow. As the chairman of House State Affairs, Cook has probably done more to kill bad right-wing bills than any other House Republican. Now, Cook gave them a reply.

Those conservatives have been raging over the idea that Cook “killed” Abbott’s prized ethics bill, by turning it into something that could not meet Senate approval in time before the end of the session. The Senate GOP, much more aligned with the faction railing against Cook, will almost certainly not let the dark money rule through. But they too deserve a share of the blame.

The version of the bill that escaped the Senate was weak, and became a plaything during floor debate. Senators inserted provisions just to mess with each other as individuals. One successful amendment would require legislators to undergo drug tests. The draft that left the upper chamber was a joke—and though Abbott praised the bill, he had no real reason to do so.

Now, the ethics bill will face a conference committee to resolve difference between the House and Senate, but the two versions are planets apart. There’s less than a week to close the gap and hand the governor something. Given Taylor’s militant statement, it seems doubtful they will.

Abbott made ethics one of his top five priorities for the session, but he probably didn’t have this fight in mind. If the bill doesn’t pass at all, will it be enough for him to call a special session? Or will he declare victory and move on if the bill passes in an emaciated form? Lesson learned: Legislators don’t much like binding themselves with additional rules and requirements. And in the absence of a serious scandal, strong ethics reform might not be possible—at least, certainly not without direction and a strong push from the governor. That was lacking here.

It did, however, give Democrats a chance to fight against the clock. At midnight, some of their most hated bills would die. They talked and talked and debated amendments to the bill. By the time debate on SB 19 ended, more than 100 amendments had been filed on legislation authorizing concealed handguns on college campuses. Though Republicans used a procedural maneuver to force a vote on campus carry, several other significant bills died, including legislation banning private insurance coverage of abortion and another measure to tighten the state’s spending cap.

So on one of the last long nights of the 84th Legislature, Cook walked away with a bill that serves as a strong statement about his displeasure with the current state of GOP intra-party politics. And in his wake, more dead bad bills. But if it’s strong, meaningful ethics reform you want, you’ll probably be waiting till next session.

Wimberley town hall on water
Steve Wood
Wimberley citizens express concerns over the Electro Purification project at Rep. Jason Isaac's town hall meeting in Wimberley.

Update:  The House parliamentarian sustained Rep. Mary Gonzalez’s points of order on House Bill 3405 late today, setting back the critical groundwater legislation with just four days left in the session. Rep. Isaac said the plan is to return the bill to the Senate, where Sen. Donna Campbell will likely pass the identical version that cleared the House in early May. That must happen by Friday.

“It’s an absolute slap in the face, while we’re sitting there having to dig out from the destruction we’ve seen over the last several days, that people behind the scenes are fighting our bill that don’t want to protect our groundwater,” said Isaac. “It’s appalling, it’s disgusting.”

Gonzalez was nowhere to be seen on the House floor while the parliamentarian handed down his ruling. The El Paso Democrat has said she’s upset with Isaac because he placed an unsuccessful point of order on her “revenge porn” bill, which passed the House 143-0. Today, the Texas Democratic Party issued a statement calling Isaac’s act “disgusting” and said it was an example of the tea party reaching “new lows trying to please their radical base.”

 

Original: While the citizens of Wimberley pick through the awesome damage wrought by the Memorial Day flooding, a different sort of water fight is reaching a climax at the Capitol.

In a last-minute surprise, an El Paso Democrat is holding up a bill that would bring groundwater regulation to the “white zone” of Hays County, an area without a groundwater district and potentially unlimited pumping. A private company plans to pump 5 million gallons of water a day from the stressed Trinity Aquifer and nearby residents worry the water mining will deplete their wells as well as springs and streams.

House Bill 3405 by state Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs) has passed both the House and Senate and has one final hurdle before it goes to the governor. The bill would extend the jurisdiction of the nearby Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District to the unregulated part of Hays County—the type of local issue that usually attracts little attention from other lawmakers.

But state Rep. Mary Gonzalez, a progressive Democrat who represents a district more than 500 miles away, is threatening to tank the bill with technical points of order. In a statement she said that HB 3405 is “a bad bill for rural Texans that sets a dangerous precedent, does not protect private property rights, and retroactively imposes regulation over certain legal contracts.”

Isaac said he was “furious” about Gonzalez’s gambit, especially because emotions are so raw in Wimberley where people are still missing from the floods. “This is just out of the blue,” he said. “She’s someone else’s pawn.”

Isaac blamed the tactic on a furious lobbying effort by Electro Purification, the company that plans to pump Trinity Aquifer water and sell it to the city of Buda and booming developments in the I-35 corridor.

“The lobby has done a pretty effective job to undermine his bill, to go behind the scenes to do anything and everything to kill it,” Isaac said.

Mary Gonzalez
Courtesy of Mary Gonzalez
Mary Gonzalez

HB 3405 is apparently part of a more wide-ranging legislative tit-for-tat. Gonzalez said an unsuccessful attempt by Isaac earlier on Tuesday to tank a bill she’s carrying that cracks down on revenge porn ”reflects poorly on him and is very disrespectful to numerous Texas victims.”

Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) is threatening to scotch Gonzalez’s legislation in the Senate if she doesn’t relent.

In Wimberley, folks are hoping for a breakthrough.

“We’re flooding her office with calls,” said Louie Bond, a long-time Wimberley resident who lives near the Electro Purification project. “We’ve been searching for missing flood victims and helping our neighbors and friends shovel what’s left of their homes into their dumpsters. … To stand in the way, particularly as we try to cope with this tragedy in our home, is outrageous.”

Jonathan Stickland

Most normal, God-fearing Texans spent their Memorial Day weekend barbecuing (indoors), watching Netflix and honoring—if only between kegstands—the fallen.

What did Texas legislators do for Memorial Day weekend, apart from debating whether to cut education benefits for veterans? Bickering about abortion, mostly. An odd sequence of events at the Capitol, culminating in a near-fistfight on the House floor, turned Sunday into a pretty good day for pro-choice activists. (That is, of course, relatively speaking.)

Though one major package of abortion restrictions is likely to win final approval in the next week, another significant anti-abortion initiative is dead and a third could meet the same fate Monday, victim of a legislative logjam in the House.

That’s strange in part because Sunday had been expected to be a day of abortion showdowns, in both chambers. State Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), a loud but hapless champion of conservative principles and himself a former fetus, issued yet another ultimatum to the RINOs: He’d drop an amendment to prevent abortions in the case of severe fetal abnormalities after 20 weeks gestation, if House leadership allowed Senate Bill 575, a held-up effort to ban insurance providers in the state from covering abortions, to move forward.

It was a Mexican standoff—but as it turned out, one in which both bandit’s guns were pointed in the same direction. Stickland and his pro-life allies seem to have gotten very little.

Why did Stickland make the trade? It’s not entirely clear.

If Stickland had gone on to raise the amendment, it likely would have passed—Republican lawmakers find it very difficult to vote against pro-life initiatives, even if they don’t much like how they’ve been offered. Trading a probable win for a tenuous promise that SB 575 would advance seemed like a weak plan.

Whatever he was thinking, Stickland got Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana), a senior Republican who chairs House State Affairs and has become one of the foremost bête noires of conservatives this session, to agree to vote SB 575 out of committee and push it to the Calendars Committee, which decides what gets heard on the House floor. Stickland withdrew his amendment, and the Health and Humans Services Commission sunset bill, the potential vehicle for the amendment, passed without the pro-life language in it.

Jonathan Stickland - former fetus signStickland had released his hostage. But when SB 575 got to calendars, it face-planted. Three Republicans—Rep. Sarah Davis (R-West University Place), Rep. Patricia Harless (R-Spring), and Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-Tomball)—voted with the Democrats to prevent the bill from being scheduled for a vote. Davis is a vocally pro-choice Republican, but the other two are very, very not.

It was a surprise, and pro-lifers were absolutely livid. Here’s what Byron Cook told the Texas Tribune:

“My commitment was to get the bill out [of State Affairs], to get it to Calendars,” Cook said. “I did everything I could do. What I can’t do is interfere with other members’ free will to vote their conscience. Everybody should be able to do that. And women sent a clear message that they weren’t comfortable with this legislation, probably weren’t comfortable with us men telling them what to do. And I respect that.”

Stickland and the pro-lifers had been comprehensively defeated. His reaction, naturally, was to confront Cook on the floor, yelling at him. The two men had to be separated. (Stickland’s account of the encounter, in which he is assaulted by a bullying Cook, can be found here.)

Then, near midnight, the Calendars Committee seemed to reverse itself. At a quickly-scheduled meeting, Riddle and Harless switched votes, sending SB 575 to the floor. So the pro-lifers won after all, right? Stickland certainly thought so:

Well, maybe. SB 575 could still pass. Anything is possible. But because it was added to the calendar so late, it seems very possible it will never come to a vote. Tuesday at midnight is the deadline for Senate bills to pass the House. SB 575 has been slotted as the fourth of four items on that day’s major state portion of the House daily calendar. It’s easy to imagine it not making it out by the midnight deadline.

At this point, it’s possible for the Democrats to talk and delay until the calendar is chewed up—that’s what happened with the anti-gay House Bill 4105 a few weeks back. Successful points of order are lethal, because there’s not enough time to send bills back to committee and fix them. And when senior Republicans tack a bill on the end of a calendar like this, especially this close to a deadline, they’re effectively declaring that they don’t really care about it.

Tuesday’s House calendar is packed with potentially complicated and lengthy debates—it could be one of the most fascinating days of the session. On Tuesday, the House will debate the gutting of the Public Integrity Unit—part of the significant amount of postponed business the House didn’t get around to Monday. That’ll eat up a lot of time. Then when we move on to Senate Bill 19, an extremely convoluted and controversial ethics overhaul that will also take a lot of time if debated.

Next up are four items that involve lengthy debates. The only must-pass bill is the first one, the Department of Family Protective Services sunset bill, Senate Bill 206. There’s Senate Bill 9, a proposal to change the spending cap favored by Senate conservatives. Expect a lot of debate there. And then, there’s Senate Bill 11—campus carry. That could well be one of the most heated debates of the session, with a lot of uncertainty about how the House will react to certain provisions.

If lawmakers finish all that, then it’s SB 575’s turn. They could certainly still get around to it, and Tuesday will be a day of high drama on the House floor—must-see TV. But on Sunday morning, it was at least hypothetically possible that two sweeping new abortion restrictions could make it the governor’s desk. Now it seems more likely that neither will. Well-fought, fellows.

Reproductive rights activists gathered at the Capitol over the weekend to oppose a restrictive abortion bill that limits abortion access for vulnerable teens.
Kelsey Jukam
Reproductive rights activists gathered at the Capitol over the weekend to oppose a restrictive abortion bill that limits abortion access for vulnerable teens.

After hours of debate and more than a dozen failed amendments by Democrats, the Texas Senate gave preliminary approval Monday to a major anti-abortion bill that makes it harder for abused or neglected teenagers to get an abortion through the courts.

Current law requires that Texans under 18 get a parent’s permission to have an abortion. However, minors can turn to the courts to seek a confidential judicial bypass when they fear they’ll be abused at home because of their pregnancy or abortion, or if they don’t have a parent to consent.

House Bill 3994, approved with a 21-to-10 vote in the Senate, increases the burden of proof on the minor from a “preponderance of evidence” to “clear and convincing evidence,” essentially making it tougher to secure a bypass. The legislation also restricts where a minor can file a bypass application. Currently, a teen can file her request in any Texas county; HB 3994 restricts it to her home county, a neighboring county if she lives in one with fewer than 10,000 residents, or the county in which the abortion provider is located. Opponents say such a change may jeopardize confidentiality, especially in rural counties where minors might be easily recognized at the courthouse. The bill also increases the number of days the judge has to make a ruling from two to five.

While state Sen. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock), the bill’s Senate sponsor, insisted the changes would provide more “judicial clarity” and better “protections” for abused minors, state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) and his fellow Democrats raised concerns that the bill may violate a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the bypass process must be confidential and expeditious.

“Each day matters in the ability of a person to exercise their constitutional right to obtain an abortion,” Watson said while questioning Perry on the bill. “Time is important because of grave and indelible consequences that can play out if we deny a constitutional right. … The bottom line is, if we’re not careful and we’re not expeditious, as the Supreme Court said, that child becomes a parent.”

Under current law, if a judge doesn’t rule on a minor’s application, her request for a bypass is deemed granted. Perry’s legislation would reverse that: If a judge doesn’t issue a ruling, permission would be automatically denied.

“In essence, the judge can bypass the judicial bypass by simply not ruling,” Watson said during the debate.

Typical of abortion debates this session, attempts by Democrats to curb some of the far-reaching restrictions failed, including an amendment by Watson that would have created an exception for rape, assault or incest victims.

Often, young women turn to the bypass process when they have been raped or sexually abused by a relative. According to 2013 Department of Public Safety data, about 11 percent of sexual assault victims in Texas were abused by a family member. Nearly 10,000 of sexual assault victims in Texas in 2013 were between the ages of 10 and 19.

“I think we want to avoid victimizing the victim, but our policies can do that,” Watson said during debate.

Tina Hester, executive director of Jane’s Due Process, said the bill makes judicial bypass “unattainable” for many vulnerable teens.

“The judicial bypass is in place to protect abused and neglected pregnant teens who cannot safely turn to a parent or cannot find a parent. When a minor is forced to go to her local courthouse in rural communities her confidentiality is near impossible to protect,” she said in a statement. Hester also said the organization will consider pursuing a lawsuit should the bill ultimately become law.

HB 3994 also includes an identification requirement for all abortion-seeking women, albeit one softened from earlier versions. The bill’s original language mandated that all Texans seeking an abortion present a government-issued form of identification, and instructed physicians to “presume” all women are minors until they prove otherwise.

After the constitutionality of that provision was called into question late last week, Perry tweaked the requirement. Now, if a woman doesn’t have one of these acceptable forms of ID, her physician must give her information on how to obtain one. If she still can’t get an ID, a physician can still perform the abortion, but must then report to the Department of State Health Services that an abortion was performed without age verification. While the language has changed, the effect remains the same, said Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas.

“The new version is still vague as to what a provider must do and could open them up to additional liability,” she said in a statement.

HB 3994 will likely get an easy final vote in the Senate on Tuesday. The House passed a version of HB 3994 two weeks ago, but after Monday’s changes in the Senate, the House must approve the updated version, or appoint a conference committee to discuss the differences by Friday.

Austin State Supported Living Center
Daniel King
The Austin State Supported Living Center

After several lengthy delays for back-room negotiation, the House passed a bill Saturday night that would restructure the Department of Aging and Disability Services, but only after removing a controversial provision to close an Austin institution for the intellectually disabled.

Senate Bill 204 by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen), as passed by the Senate, would close the Austin State Supported Living Center, one of 13 state-run institutions for people with intellectual disabilities, in 2017. The measure would also create a commission to identify other centers for later closure.

Closing the Austin facility would have been a major development in a long-running debate between advocates who say state-run institutions are an outdated model for care, and family members who would struggle to find a new home for loved ones who’ve been living at the center.

But a last-minute amendment by Rep. Susan King (R-Abilene) excised any mention of closure. The move drew praise from a group of residents’ relatives who have vehemently opposed shuttering the institution.

State Rep. Susan King (R-Abilene)
State Rep. Susan King (R-Abilene)

“It makes me cautiously optimistic,” said Liz Belile, whose sister lives in a state-supported living center. “I think we are at the beginning of a turn in the tide, possibly. Hopefully. We are seeing that shutting down institutions without preparing the community is proving disastrous.”

Citing high costs and a declining number of residents, the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, which evaluates other state agencies, issued a report last year that recommended closing the Austin center.

“Despite transitioning many residents into the community, Texas has not closed a facility since the 1990s. With the cost to taxpayers growing unsustainably, the State must close some of the most problematic centers,” the report states.

The population at state-supported living centers peaked at around 14,000 residents in 1974. But during the last half-century, partly in response to a series of troubling lapses in care, Texas has worked to move adults with intellectual disabilities out of institutions, and into community-based settings such as group homes. State living centers now serve fewer than 4,000 people, with 215 in the Austin facility.

Texas is not the only state moving people from large institutions to community-based settings. Between 1965 and 2009, the number of Americans with intellectual disabilities in state institutions declined by 85 percent. Many advocates have heralded deinstitutionalization, saying that smaller community settings foster independence.

But some residents’ relatives say they’re more wary of the level of care in privately run group homes. Last fall, a 24-year-old autistic man wandered from a privately run group home in South Austin and was killed by a neighbor as he tried to enter his house.

Citing that case, Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin) was an outspoken opponent of closing the Austin living center during debate yesterday. Central Texans must have a facility to house our most vulnerable, disabled citizens, Workman argued, and closing the center is not “the panacea some say it is.”

An amendment by Workman would have delayed closing the center by two years, but King’s last-minute amendment rendered it moot. House members voted overwhelmingly, 127-10, in favor of King’s measure to remove any mention at all of closing the facility.

Following Saturday’s vote, Senate and House members will negotiate their differences in conference committee within the next week—so for now, the future of the Austin living center remains uncertain.

A large gun
megan ann/Flickr

Friday’s Senate debate over the licensed open carry of handguns was supposed to be so easy.

Open carry, for all its detractors, had been one of the most fêted issues facing the 84th Legislature, passed pretty early in the session by both chambers. But after the House and Senate open carry bills became hostages of a protracted budget debate, it fell to the upper chamber to pass House Bill 910, the lower chamber’s open carry bill, in the last days of the session.

Much of the debate followed the script: Democrats offered amendments, and those amendments were voted down. Then, things went off the rails.

State Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) offered an amendment that would prohibit police officers from stopping someone solely because they are visibly carrying a handgun. One Democrat, state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), and a handful of senior Republicans, began talking in an effort to kill the amendment. But they failed, after an unusually heated and unscripted debate, especially by Senate standards. Huffines won a 19-to-12 vote on his proposal, thanks to an extremely unusual coalition of Democrats and tea party senators. And eight hours after the debate began, the Senate passed HB 910 by the same margin.

Don Huffines
Facebook
Don Huffines

Under Huffines’ amendment, if a law enforcement officer sees a man with a gun walking down the street, the officer can’t ask the man for verification that he’s carrying the gun legally unless the man is also breaking another law. Opponents say the provision amounts to de facto unlicensed open carry. Law enforcement organizations have fiercely opposed it, saying the inability to determine whether someone is carrying a weapon legally poses a lethal threat to them and the public.

But some on the right say the fact that a person is carrying a gun shouldn’t give a police officer the right to compel identification, since carrying a gun is not necessarily an illegal act. And Democrats, particularly those with large minority constituencies, fear giving police officers more pretext to detain citizens. The Huffines amendment mirrored a provision originally added to HB 910 as it passed in the House, authored by state Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) and state Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R-Irving). The House amendment passed easily, 133 to 10.

But when the bill came to the Senate, Dutton and Rinaldi’s provision was stripped from the bill as it went through committee. Huffines’ bid to put it back seemed to seriously unnerve a number of senators, including those who had fought for open carry early on, like state Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls), the bill’s sponsor, and state Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), the chair of the Senate Committee on State Affairs, which initially gave the high sign to this session’s gun bills.

The heated debate pitted two unusual bipartisan coalitions against each other, starring an angry Whitmire and a cutting Huffman, who both grilled Huffines at length about his amendment, charging that the measure would have fatal consequences for police. Huffines did not seem particularly prepared for the fight. At one point, he falsely claimed his amendment had the support of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, bringing an immediate rebuke from the organization on Twitter, which Whitmire raised on the floor.

“Why won’t you listen to the people who put their lives on the line every day for us?” Whitmire asked a generally quiet Huffines. “We are really playing with a dangerous matter. It’s not something that we can afford to be wrong about.”

But as Huffines fumbled easy questions about his bill, he leaned heavily on support from state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) and state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), two of the more liberal senators in the chamber. Ellis said his group of allies on the amendment vote was “the strangest bed I have ever slept in.”

They prevailed. The Senate bill, with the cop-limiting amendment in it, will head back to the House for a final vote. If they concur with the Senate changes, the bill will go straight to the governor’s desk. If they don’t, for whatever reason, there could be trouble ahead for the bill.

Huffines has long desired to pass constitutional carry, which would allow individuals to carry handguns openly and without a license. This amendment, as many opposing senators pointed out, was an excellent way to accomplish that goal. If cops aren’t allowed to stop individuals openly carrying guns to ask for proof of their license, why would anyone need to carry a license? It was, it seemed, a great victory for the gun-rights crowd.

Huffman warned of future consequences. “This is a mistake, and I think it’s a mistake the state of Texas will come to regret,” she said. “I was raised with guns, I was raised with hunting. I believe in it. But I believe in some social order, too.”

But as the Senate was wrapping last night, a tweet from Gov. Abbott seemed to call into question the future of the bill as currently drafted. After the lengthy debate over whether the bill would put officers at risk, Abbott seemed to weigh in:

 

Abbott has been getting pressure from law enforcement groups who are nervous about this open carry bill. Was this empty signaling, or was it intended as a warning? Could there be a last-ditch attempt in the coming days to strike Huffines’ hard-won amendment?

Q&A with Dawn Paley, Author of Drug War Capitalism

In new her book, Paley breaks from a tired narrative to connect U.S. policy, free trade and the devastating war on drugs in Colombia and Mexico.
Dawn Paley - Drug War Captialism

Since Mexico sent the military into the streets to fight the drug war in 2006, at least 140,000 people have lost their lives. Drug capos are killed or jailed by the Mexican government, and still the violence escalates. Canadian journalist Dawn Paley peels back the layers of this complex conflict, dismissing the simple cops-versus-cartels narrative that dominates most U.S. media reporting on the drug war. Her new book, Drug War Capitalism, reveals how U.S. foreign policy, free trade and the ever-expanding drug war and militarization contribute to the bloodshed in Latin America. Currently living in Mexico, Paley covers dangerous territory: greed, political corruption and a battle for dwindling resources under the guise of a drug war.

In her courageous and ambitious book, Paley argues that there’s no longer a clear distinction between the drug cartels, the government forces supposedly fighting them and the rapacious global economy.

 

Texas Observer: Can you talk about the origins of your book Drug War Capitalism and why you decided to write it?

Dawn Paley: I was in Colombia and watching Mexico totally degrade over the first couple of years of the Merida Initiative, and I wanted to link what people were telling me in Colombia and the kind of experiences they were having there with what was happening in Mexico. It was instinctual. But I didn’t have a hypothesis at the beginning so I just started working. The first thing I did was go to Reynosa and Monterrey and started speaking with people. And then I met [Tamaulipas politician and businessman] Francisco Chavira Martinez, and his way of understanding what was happening in Reynosa was that it was the municipal politicians themselves that were working with drug cartels to set off explosions in public buildings so that people would be afraid to go and ask for transparency from the municipality. What is happening is that it’s about more than just controlling cocaine. The violence is bleeding into political life, creating this climate of fear that is useful in maintaining the current economic and political model.

TO: Why did you call the book Drug War Capitalism?

DP: When I was writing the book I was thinking about it along the lines of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine and the subtitle of her book “The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.” My book is a different take on a similar idea of these various strategies that are deployed to promote and expand capitalism and I argue that the drug war is one of them.

TO: It was very interesting to hear your March presentation in McAllen. You talked about how trade agreements are often linked with military expansionism in countries. It reminded me of the Keystone XL pipeline expansion in Texas. The company hired local police as security. The police are from the community but then they become this private security force protecting the pipeline.

DP: Yes, it’s a whole area where we can see how U.S. foreign and military policy is brought back to the U.S. It’s been talked about with Ferguson, for example, where you see military equipment that was used in Iraq and Afghanistan. And then there are former soldiers who have returned from overseas and are now policing communities. In the case of the drug war, the militarization is something that we know less about and it’s less documented.

The easiest argument to communicate to people who live in the United States, for example, is about how militarization benefits the corporate sector. People understand that. There are these environmental struggles and struggles around social justice and occupying public spaces, and the role that the police play here in the U.S. as protectors of banks, protectors of capital. It’s a role police play everywhere. Of course the police are good for big corporations that are conflictive and that create conflict in communities.

Drug War Capitalism
Dawn Paley via Facebook
Drug War Capitalism
By Dawn Paley
AK Press
$10.55; 255 pages

TO: In your book you talk a lot about the link between militarization and the extractive industries like mining and oil and gas exploration.

DP: In Colombia during Plan Colombia it was very overt. Part of Plan Colombia included funding for U.S. soldiers to train Colombian soldiers to protect a pipeline that belonged to Occidental Petroleum. And there were other developments in Plan Colombia where soldiers had protected mining companies in the exploitation phase and were carrying the product and actually guarding the sites. One of the things announced in 2010 was that the Colombian Army would also carry out security for corporations carrying out mining exploration. So it’s the militarization of the entire lifecycle of extractive projects. And it was being done in a very blatant way and in the case of the oil pipeline, which was specifically funded by the U.S. And it’s done always with the same argument that it’s crucial to improve the business climate because that’s the way to reduce poverty—but it’s an argument that I think doesn’t have any basis in reality.

In Mexico, the militarization of the extractive industries might be a little less obvious. But there are a couple of cases in my book of federal police bursting into ejido meetings and trying to influence landowners, and trying to influence their decision-making around a mining project. In the same area in Chihuahua the army used its trucks to bring mining employees across a strike blockade. Those were two instances I was able to find for the book, but I think unfortunately over time there will be more evidence of collusion between police, the military and the promotion of these types of extractive projects. It’s not like this activity is always part of Plan Mexico. But Plan Mexico is crucial in arming and equipping soldiers and police units. Also we have a very hard time knowing exactly what’s being done with the money the U.S. is dispersing through the Initiative.

TO: What do you think will happen in Tamaulipas with fracking opening up, especially in a place with so much insecurity and violence?

DP: Multiple mass displacements have taken place in the Burgos Fields (in Tamaulipas). The area of the Eagle Ford Shale that runs south from Nuevo Laredo is essentially one of the most violent areas in Mexico where there’s no free press, people live in fear and there’s been multiple displacements from that region. We’ll see what happens with the fracking. It depends on gas prices, depends on the auctions held by Pemex and it depends on the ability to access water and how residents react to it. But I feel like what my book is doing—in the case of fracking in Tamaulipas—is calling attention to this new energy boom in one of the scariest, most dangerous regions of Mexico and saying, “let’s be open to the possibility that that’s not a coincidence.”

TO: Do you think there will be a rise in paramilitaries? Will oil and gas companies use private security forces in Tamaulipas because of the insecurity?

DP: Well, you can look at a case that Pemex started in Houston around the sale of stolen condensate, which the Mexican government says was stolen by the Zetas, primarily in Tamaulipas and Coahuila, and then brought across the border and sold to a syndicate of Texas fossil fuel companies that knew they were buying product that had been extracted illegally. And so these companies in Texas had these direct links with these armed groups. So it’s not a stretch of the imagination to think that their cooperation with these armed groups could extend to playing other types of roles. Another thing is, I’ve interviewed a number of oil and gas workers in Reynosa who talk about how dozens of people over a handful of years have been kidnapped and disappeared while they were working at remote sites and Pemex doesn’t do anything about it. One man recently told me that part of his job is marking these men down every week as absent. Some of these men have been missing now for four years and he marks them down as absent because the company won’t acknowledge that they have disappeared. It’s this absurdity where these high-level Pemex people are allowing this to happen and there’s been no big public denouncement by Pemex. I think if there were attacks against private contractors and U.S. or Canadian companies then it would be a scandal and there would be things we would know about and there would be more security measures in place.

TO: After so many years of writing about the drug war in Mexico, the U.S. media still covers it mostly like a crime story with body counts and not a lot of depth. Why is that, do you think? Why is there no context?

DP: I feel like as a journalist there is this idea that if you’re not writing about the drug cartels and the battles and not chasing ambulances then you aren’t really covering the drug war, you’re covering something else. The dominant discourse in the media is so restrained and the language that they use is about Cartel X and Cartel Y fighting each other and the amount of drugs, and there are these sets of things that you have to say… the body counts. And what the police say and what the government is doing about it.

Going outside of those boundaries is something that could be risky for people’s careers. There is very little space in the mainstream media for telling other versions or for challenging that official version. People have built their careers on that version of events. I think that’s another part of it: There’s analysts, there’s journalists, there’s police officers, DEA officers there are all of these segments of society that depend on that official version. Challenges to that version of events could undermine the legitimacy.

TO: What are you working on now?

DP: I’m currently working on a book about clandestine mass graves in Mexico and the politics of exhumation and who is looking for these graves. It feels like my next logical step after this book. I think of the clandestine mass graves in Mexico as being one of the very important physical remnants that the drug war has left in Mexico. The drug war has transformed Mexico into a cemetery. We are talking about upwards of 24,000 people declared disappeared over the past six years. Meanwhile the state and federal governments are not following any type of protocol when it comes to finding these graves or matching them with folks who have been disappeared. Looking at the way the mass graves are treated reinforces this structural impunity that allows the war to continue.

tax cuts

Texans, you can put down your pitchforks and douse your torches: The edibles you’ve squirreled away in your emergency bunkers can be safely consumed. Life can begin anew. The tax cut war between House and Senate has been resolved, which means that barring a catastrophic screw-up—say, Comptroller Glenn Hegar realizing he misplaced a decimal point in the revenue estimate—we won’t need that special session on budget issues that legislative observers and hack journalists have worried you all about so much.

Is the package—a $3.8 billion dollar bundle of franchise and property tax cuts—any good? Well, that depends on your point of view. Most everyone, save some Democrats and probably a few right-wing senators, is about to tell you, loudly, that the budget deal is very, very good. There’s a great deal of face-saving to be done. This is the point of the session at which former enemies congratulate each other for the finest and most noble works of government since Periclean Athens: Patrick himself posited that this might have been the best legislative session in the state’s history.

The business lobby did pretty well in the tax deal, but the picture is a bit more complicated for most of the other players. The widespread perception outside the Capitol will be that Patrick “won” by getting some property tax cuts past the House. Meanwhile, Texans are getting a raw deal—with too small a tax break to make a real difference for most, and less money coming down the pike now and in the future for basic services like education.

The deal hasn’t been finalized quite yet, but here’s what we know so far: The two chambers have agreed on a 25 percent cut to the franchise tax. The huge property tax deal Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick bet nearly all of his chips on this session is dead, and in return for its death the House has agreed to a fixed increase in the property tax homestead exemption—from $15,000 to $25,000—which is smaller than Patrick’s original proposal.

The deal lets Patrick save face after abandoning his all-or-nothing approach to his property tax plan. But some of the key provisions that Patrick’s conservative backers most wanted, like tying the homestead exemption to median home values, are gone.

Did he, in the vulgar language of the Capitol, “win”? That depends on what you think the game was. If Patrick’s goal was to provide any kind or flavor of property tax “relief,” he succeeded. But the stakes here were always higher for Patrick than they were for the House.

Privately, many in the lower chamber didn’t really believe in a future for their plan, except as a negotiating tool to curb Patrick’s ambitions. When you take into account the different goals for the two chambers, it is harder to say who came out on top. The House won franchise tax cuts that the business lobby liked more than those offered by the Senate. By offering a larger overall tax cut plan than Patrick did, the House deprived Patrick of the political ammunition of claiming the House was standing in between you and cutting your property taxes. It’s very difficult for legislators to stand against property tax cuts, which are essentially political heroin, and yet they found an effective way to do so.

Patrick wanted and needed a signature victory for this session, his first. After all this furor, Patrick is likely to win for his constituents a smaller-than-expected tax break that most Texas homeowners—the people whom Patrick is expecting to give him credit—won’t even notice, because they’ll be swallowed up by rising rates and home values. Average homeowners might pay about $120 less in property taxes than they might have otherwise, but how many will notice or care as their taxes continue to go up? The only thing that can bend the property tax curve downward is a substantive reorganization of the state’s overall tax structure. Anything else is a band-aid, and not a long-lasting one at that.

It’s not really the stuff that launches political careers skyward. Some of Patrick’s supporters have said the Legislature can rededicate itself to real property tax reform next session, but that seems doubtful. The economy will likely have cooled, and the state may face a budget hole thanks to the school finance lawsuit and other looming budget issues. This session may have been the last, best opportunity to do a big tax cut deal.

If you think Patrick’s original plan stunk, you should be grateful to the House for somehow convincing him to abandon what was his biggest priority, one he kept doubling down on. And in the course of the standoff, the size of the offered tax plan, which at one point had almost reached $5 billion, has shrunk down to $3.8 billion. That’s a sizeable chunk of change the state will need in the 2017 session, or the next special session, when it’s likely to need it very badly.

But there’s still an opportunity cost to going along with even the small property tax cut. In the draft of the budget released by the conference committee Wednesday afternoon, a package of additional money that the House had attempted to allocate to public education had been scaled back from $2.2 billion to $1.5 billion. It cannot be said enough that Texas has not returned to the same level of investment in public services, particularly education, that it had before the last recession.

These are supposed to be flush times, when we store up our surplus and make prudent investments before the next winter. That’s fiscal conservatism. Instead, we’re ensuring that when hard times come again—as they inevitably will—the cuts we’ll have to make will cut even deeper. It’s a fundamentally reckless way to run the state.

texas tea party

The 2014 election cycle was the most rousing success the conservative wing of the Republican party has ever had in Texas, and the 84th Legislature is that election’s child. How do the people who made that victory happen feel about their session?

They are not pleased:

As sine die approaches, we recall the hours spent knocking on doors and making calls for candidates who promised government reforms that would make Texas a national leader in limited government and a true champion of liberty.

We remember every single rhetorical flourish that promised Texas would have a secure border, restored Second Amendment Rights, a ban on sanctuary cities, lasting property tax relief, an end to the franchise tax, an end to tolling, protections for life and traditional Texas values, and educational freedom through school choice. It’s beginning to look as if some of those campaign promises are “all hat and no cattle.”

With the condition our country is in, we’re in no mood for any stalling, slow walking, or backtracking from Texas leaders. We need Governor Abbott and Lt. Governor Patrick to make good on their campaign promises.

That’s from a letter signed by some 28 members of state’s tea party cognoscenti, to the extent such a thing exists. Several of them serve on the lite guv’s Grassroots Advisory Board—those are the guys who called Abbott’s pre-K plan, now passed by both chambers, “godless” and “socialistic.”

They charge that Abbott, Patrick and Straus are on the cusp of “failure,” and the session has been a waste. These people have always loathed Straus, and Abbott was never really one of them, though some of the signers here have been slow to realize that. But it’s significant that Patrick is being charged with crimes against the revolution here too. After all, some of these people have been empanelled as his “advisors.”

Ok, so what would they like to happen? Keep in mind—there’s 10 days left in the session. Pretty much everything that’s not already on the path to final passage is doomed.

Greg Abbott
Gage Skidmore
Gov. Greg Abbott

Secure the border […] End social service magnets (including in-state tuition breaks) for illegal aliens; ban sanctuary cities; mandate employment verification such as E-verify, and impose penalties for violators

Advance & protect the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death

Restore Second Amendment rights

Protect religious liberty – the right to resist violation of personal conscience

Protect religious freedom of clergy, pastors, and churches Protect Texas from a federal redefinition of marriage-HB 4105/SB 673

Prohibit the use of foreign laws, which do not guarantee our fundamental constitutional rights, from being used in Texas courts (ALAC)

Protect and harden the Texas electric grid—a life, security and economic issue

Provide educational freedom and choice for all parents and students

Advance fiscal responsibility through constitutional spending limits, budget transparency, debt and tax reform

Reform state transportation policy to end dependence on debt and tolling

Advance private property rights with eminent domain and annexation reforms

Sounds easy enough, right? Yes, some of the bills they single out literally cannot be passed, and some issues were effectively shut down months ago—the anti-LGBT House Bill 4105 is and has been dead. But now that the fire has been lit under them, Abbott, Patrick and Straus will get moving quickly to protect the electrical grid from electromagnetic pulse weapons, one presumes. This session has swung, with metronomic regularity, from quiet bleakness to high comedy. This is a fine entry in the latter category as the last days roll by.

It’s funny, but these aren’t just cranks. They have real influence in the Republican primary. When Capitol observers wondered about the feasibility of a Patrick primary challenge to Abbott in 2018, these are the people who were supposed to have been his footsoldiers—very good people to have in a fight. Maybe they still are. They’ll certainly take to Patrick more than the alternative.

But it’s a sign that he hasn’t done as good a job of managing expectations among his core supporters as he might have. It’s an interesting political problem: How do you satisfy a political base that literally cannot be satisfied?

Well, maybe they can: But it takes a special kind of leader. Recently, the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party delivered a flag signed by their members to an exceptional kind of guy who needs their support and prayers as he fights to pass the many bills he’s advanced on behalf of conservative values this session: Jonathan Stickland.

Planned Parenthood Rally

After nearly a month of negotiating the two-year state budget, House and Senate budget writers approved a provision this week that excludes Planned Parenthood from the state Breast and Cervical Cancer Services program, which thousands of poor women in Texas rely on for cancer screenings and diagnostic services. The program also allows providers to quickly enroll cancer patients in Medicaid for follow-up treatment.

The idea to exclude the longtime provider originated earlier this session, when lawmakers proposed reorganizing the program’s funding into a three-tiered system, putting Planned Parenthood and other specialized family planning providers last in line to get funds.

In January, key budget writers state Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) and state Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) acknowledged that they want to keep state money away from health care providers that also perform abortions, even though no public dollars fund the procedure and Planned Parenthood clinics that offer such services are completely independent from its health centers.

Along the way, as the Observer reported, women’s health advocates, providers and Democratic lawmakers raised concerns about the collateral damage that would follow from suddenly cutting major providers from the cancer program.

“This so-called three-tiered approach has the very intended consequence of wiping out at least a provider that is integral in making sure that women that don’t otherwise have access to care,” state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) told the Observer in February. “There are providers that aren’t the targeted provider that also get hurt.”

The negotiated provision approved Wednesday appears to quell the concern that non-Planned Parenthood providers would lose funding from the program. However, it does specify that no abortion provider or an affiliate of an abortion provider (read: Planned Parenthood) may participate in the program. Planned Parenthood has been a BCCS provider for 20 years and serves about 10 percent of the 34,000 women served every year.

“Once again, Texas legislators have ignored their constituents and jeopardized the lives of Texas women,” Yvonne Gutierrez, president of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, said in a statement released late Wednesday.

Does all this sound familiar? It’s a strategy the Legislature has used in the past: In 2011, the GOP-led Lege implored the same criteria on providers that participated in the Medicaid Women’s Health Program. However, when the Legislature wrote the single largest provider out of the program, the federal government yanked its generous $9-to-$1 matching funds. Texas then created its own Texas Women’s Health Program, without Planned Parenthood. That change, along with nearly $70 million in family planning budget cuts, resulted in the loss of more than 50 family planning clinics statewide.

While the 2013 Legislature restored some of the cut funding, several studies have shown that women are still going without services. According a recent survey by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project, more than 50 percent of women seeking family planning services in Texas reported encountering at least one barrier along the way.

The exclusion of Planned Parenthood from BCCS is just another blow to reproductive and women’s health this session. Bills moving quickly through both chambers will undoubtedly restrict access to abortion for Texas women: Senate Bill 575 bans private insurance plans from covering abortions and would require women to buy a supplemental policy to cover the procedure, and House Bill 3994 would dramatically reduce access to abortion for minors in Texas who are victims of abuse or assault. HB 3994 would also require all women seeking an abortion in Texas to present a government-issued ID.

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