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State Rep. Stuart Spitzer

Texas has the third highest rate of HIV infections in the country, but that didn’t stop lawmakers from passing an amendment that defunds HIV/STD prevention programs Tuesday. The amendment to the House budget proposal—offered by Rep. Stuart Spitzer (R-Kaufman)—diverts $3 million over the next biennium to abstinence-only sexual education programs.

House Democrats fought against the amendment in a debate that rapidly devolved into awkward farce, with Rep. Spitzer revealing details of his own sexual history as proof of the effectiveness of abstinence. For those keeping tabs at home, he was a virgin until marrying his wife at age 29, although he declined to answer a question from Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) on whether she was the first person he propositioned. “Decorum,” shouted state Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs).

Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) asked Spitzer just how much money is needed for abstinence education in Texas, which receives more federal funding than any other state. Spitzer responded that additional funds are needed as long as people are still having sex before marriage.  His goal, he said, was for everyone to know that “abstinence is the best way to prevent HIV.”

“My goal is for everyone to be HIV/AIDS free,” Turner said.

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Turner said that while he thinks abstinence programs are valid, HIV and STD prevention programs are too.

“Does it make sense if you have two children to take food from one to feed the other?” Turner said. “You’re taking from one valid program in order to go to the other and I think that is wrong.”

Spitzer is a doctor, but some legislators suggested he needed a refresher course in the basis of STD-transmission. When some Democrats pointed out that STDs could be spread without having sex, Spitzer replied: “You can, but it’s awful hard through your clothes.”

Spitzer’s amendment was adopted 97 aye votes and 47 nays on a largely party-line vote.

State Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria)
State Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria)

Terrell Graham, a mechanical engineer who lives near Goliad, says now that he was naive. Naive to ever think that he and his wife, Patricia, had a slam-dunk case against a developer that wanted to discharge 350,000 gallons of wastewater into a dry creek on their 112-year-old ranch in Bulverde. The drainage—the Grahams dispute the term “creek”—rarely holds any water, and calling it a public watercourse that the developer could use to convey the effluent seemed like a wild stretch.

“We thought this was a mistake, and if we simply explained the situation it to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality [the developer] would simply go away,” Terrell told a legislative committee this morning.

Instead, TCEQ tentatively approved the wastewater permit.

Graham and family members who own adjacent parcels of the ranch looked into their options. To challenge the wastewater permit, the family would need to go through what’s called a contested case hearing, a sort of mini-trial overseen by an administrative law judge. The Grahams were willing to spend the money to hire attorneys and experts and take on the developer. But they didn’t expect to find that the government would be a bigger adversary than the developer, DHJB Development LLC.

“Throughout this entire case they went overboard in protecting the developer,” Graham said. “Had we just been fighting with the developer, this would have ended by now.”

Graham said DHJB had indicated on its application to TCEQ that the drainage lacked “perennial pools”—a key factor in determining whether a watercourse is public for the purposes of wastewater discharge. But TCEQ insisted to the judge that the unnamed tributary did have perennial pools. “They were fitting the circumstances to the case law.”

During discovery, Graham says, he discovered that DHJB’s attorneys had extensive contact with TCEQ throughout the permitting process, though he’d never been able to get anyone at the agency on the phone. “The developer is wishing the staff attorney a Merry Christmas,” he said.

Nonetheless, Graham convinced the administrative judge on almost every issue. In early March the judge recommended that the permit be rejected, writing that the wastewater “would adversely impact protestants’ use and enjoyment of their property and might adversely affect the cattle that graze there.”

Now, it’s up the three TCEQ commissioners, who’ve been extraordinarily favorable to business interests on issues small and large, to decide whether to follow the judge’s recommendation.

Graham said he feels vindicated that the judge affirmed his issues but described the contested case process as a “fire drill” that few citizens have the patience or resources to deal with.

Even so, several lawmakers, including the chairwoman of the House Committee on Environmental Regulation, are proposing changes that would make it even more difficult for people like the Grahams to prevail.

The lawmakers are reviving efforts to expedite the contested case process, arguing that it’s too burdensome on businesses. While the House geared up today to for a marathon debate on the budget, the House Environmental Regulation Committee heard hours of testimony on House Bill 1865, introduced by Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria), that would overhaul the way citizens can challenge permits. Supported by heavy hitters like the Texas Chemical Council, the legislation would require judges to issue a decision within six months; subtly shift the burden of proof to the protestant; and presume that the issuance of a draft permit by TCEQ, a routine matter, is “prima facie demonstration” that the permit meets all state and federal law.

“We are at a serious disadvantage because of the length of time it takes” to get permitted, Morrison said today, comparing Texas to other states competing for major industries.

Citizens and environmental groups today described the legislation as a gift to polluters.

The “proposed legislation will limit rights of citizens to participate,” said Carol Birch, a former administrative law judge. It “fundamentally alters the nature of the process and greatly increases the burden on protestants.”

Environmentalists have used the contested case process to slow, kill or improve permits for cement kilns, coal-fired power plants, landfills, refineries, quarries and other industrial facilities.

Out of some 1,900 environmental permit applications last year, only 10 were contested, according to Alliance for a Clean Texas.

Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen of Texas said similar legislation has been proposed half a dozen times in the last 20 years, but usually has been blocked in the Senate. This time, without the two-thirds rule, he expects it to pass both the House and Senate.

Graham said he and his family are “blessed” to have the resources to fight to the end. (He plans to appeal to district court if the TCEQ commissioners ignore the administrative judge’s findings.)

“But what about the average family that’s living paycheck to paycheck? What chance do they have?”

Morrison said the committee could return today to hear two more bills related to contested case hearings, HB 1113 by Rep. Travis Clardy (R-Nacogdoches) and HB 1247 by Rep. Wayne Smith (R-Baytown), depending on the course of the budget debate.

Marriage equality for lesbian and gay Americans is almost decided as a matter of national policy. Thirty-six states have it, and given recent remarks by Justice Clarence Thomas it’s hard to imagine that lesbian and gay Texans won’t be able to marry here this summer.

Unfortunately, a crowd with small minds and hateful hearts is working to keep lesbian and gay couples from being fully franchised in our state.

They often claim their right to religious expression should allow them to ignore legal marriages and to discriminate against lesbian and gay people in public accommodations. It’s a tired idea whose day passed long ago.

One of the great scenes in American film comes at the end of the 1956 epic Giant, when Leslie Benedict (Liz Taylor) tells her husband Jordan (Rock Hudson) that he never looked as tall to her as he did flat on his back on the floor of Sarge’s diner.

Earlier, on their way back to Reata, Sarge whipped Jordan in front of his family, but Jordan finally became “giant” in the eyes of the woman he worked the whole film to impress by squaring off against the bigoted chef who called his Mexican-American grandson “papoose” and refused to apologize.

It’s a cinematic clash choreographed to “The Yellow Rose of Texas” that ends with Sarge dropping a sign on Jordan’s chest with an old racist saw: “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.”

The hate behind that sign haunted this country for much of the twentieth century until a president from Texas (Lyndon Johnson) and a bipartisan Congressional majority ended discrimination in public accommodations with Title II of the Civil Rights Act.

We decided 50 years ago that you don’t have the right to offer services to the public then selectively discriminate against it. You can’t open a laundry and refuse to wash Jews’ shirts. You can’t open a diner and refuse to seat Latinos. That’s the law, and we are better for it.

Lesbian and gay citizens are not directly protected by the public accommodations act, but the intent is there. Thirty states extend public accommodation protections to gay and lesbian citizens.

Texans should remember our history and stand tall in the tradition of a former president from this state who understood constitutional liberties and their implications in a pluralistic society, and who fought demagogues whose only goal was to perpetuate their careers by pitting one group of Texans against another.

Andrea Grimes
Jen Reel
Andrea Grimes

When state Rep. Jonathan Stickland proudly declared himself a “former fetus” a few weeks ago by posting a sign over the nameplate near his office door, the first people to notice were habitués of the #txlege hashtag on Twitter, a repository for all news—and jokes—pertaining to the Texas Legislature. If you waited for the inevitable Texas Tribune story to catch up on the political posturing, you were already hours out of the loop.

Don’t let it happen again. Keeping an eye on #txlege is a must for policy wonks, politicos and people who don’t want to miss the latest Photoshopped Dan Patrick selfie. But the sheer volume of information parading by at #txlege—everything from daily news reporters posting their latest stories to your tea-partying uncle wildly tweeting his 50 favorite Obummer memes to Jonathan Saenz screeching about the gays—can make it more than a little difficult to parse.

First, rather than using Twitter in your browser, get an app like TweetDeck, which makes it easier to manage lists of Twitter users and separate the wheat from the chaff. In TweetDeck, you can set up and monitor customized feeds and easily put spammers on mute. I recommend setting up an overall #txlege hashtag feed, and then making a dedicated Twitter list for the best of the #txlege tweeters.

Many lawmakers have accounts, but most rarely use them or post nothing but self-congratulatory blather and humblebrags. Your best bet is to follow lawmakers who at least appear to run their own accounts. If you ever wonder how state Sen. Donna Campbell’s mind works—and who doesn’t?—her @DonnaCampbellTX account offers insight (and bible verses, because she’s #blessed). Other legislator accounts to watch, not just for the tweets, but for the shares and retweets, include Beaumont Rep. Joe Deshotel (@RepJoeDeshotel), Austin Sen. Kirk Watson (@KirkPWatson), Houston representatives Jessica Farrar (@JFarrarDist148) and Gene Wu (@GeneforTexas), and Dallas Rep. Jason Villalba (@JasonVillalba).

Lawmakers aside, the Capitol press corps is teeming with reporters sharing their work via #txlege, but you need to follow just few folks to keep up with the goings-on. The Houston Chronicle’s Lauren McGaughy (@lmcgaughy) misses nothing on education, LGBTQ and gun-policy issues; The Texas Tribune’s Alexa Ura (@alexazura) is a fine follow for big-umbrella political issues; ditto Tribune executive editor Ross Ramsey (@RossRamsey). If you’re wondering what the left-leaning kids are into these days, Burnt Orange Report’s Joe Deshotel (son of Rep. Joe; @joethepleb) has you covered. The Austin American-Statesman’s Kiah Collier (@KiahCollier) breaks down wonky fiscal issues and is a dedicated live- tweeter of committee hearings. And Austin freelancer Kimberly Reeves lives up to her @edwonkkimmy username on education issues and much more.

On the policy side, the Center For Public Policy Priorities’ Dick Lavine (@dlavine) is a must-follow for perspectives on weedy fiscal issues. Texas Right to Life lobbyist Emily Horne (@missemhorne) tweets about the latest anti-choice machinations in complete sentences and without creepy fetus memes. And if anything’s happening on the other side of the fight for reproductive rights, Amanda Williams (@fullfrontalfem) is probably tweeting about it.

For a look behind the scenes, you’ll want to follow staffers, schmoozers and satirizers: Texas Legislative Service Capitol correspondent Robyn Hadley (@capitolcrowd) seems to be everywhere all at once, while Total Staffer Move (@StafferMove) is an ostensibly satirical account that offers snarky but salient insights into the day-to-day Capitol. Actual staffer Antonio Marcus (@AntonioMarcus_) brings humor and verve to his chronicle of an often thank- less job. And professional progressive Harold Cook (@HCookAustin) offers a meaty mix of insight and side-eye developed over decades—sorry, Harold—of dedicated Lege-watching.

Sadly, true jokester accounts can be hard to maintain on the ever-ephemeral platform that is Twitter, but I really hope the folks behind Dan Patrick Selfies (@DanPatrickTX) stick to their schtick: ’shopping the lieutenant governor’s head into a bunch of places it should never go. And no, I’m not talking about the Senate chamber.

But if #txlege ever gets to be a little too much to swallow, remember that you can always take a break and check in with Gov. Greg Abbott’s dogs, @OreoAbbott and @TexasPancake. You know, for when the going gets ruff.

What? That joke killed on Twitter.

Ted Cruz, Manchurian Candidate

How the junior senator from Texas helped precipitate a milestone in the growth of the Chinese state.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz speaks to a rapturous crowd on the second day of an Americans For Prosperity summit in Dallas.
Christopher Hooks
Ted Cruz receives rapturous applause at a conference put on by Americans For Prosperity in Dallas, August 2014.

Yes, Ted Cruz hails from a foreign land, as late-night comedians and the nation’s hackiest political commentators have been happy to inform you. But the headline is about something else. Something that you wouldn’t normally read about in the Observer: The games great powers play in Asia. In March, we’ve seen some important milestones in the gradual expansion of Chinese state power—events that our state’s junior senator had a small but significant role in bringing about.

If that sounds like a stretch, let’s go back a bit. Over the last few weeks, we’ve witnessed the growth of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, an international financial institution first proposed by the Chinese government in late 2013 that really got going in the second half of last year. The AIIB is intended to be China’s answer to other financial institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank, banks in which the United States, Europe and Japan have outsized influence.

The AIIB’s stated goal is to raise and distribute capital for the development of major infrastructure projects in Asia, for countries that can’t afford them on their own. Whatever you think of financial institutions like the IMF and ADB—they have plenty of detractors—the creation of a rival institution through which China can build influence in Asia is clearly suboptimal from the perspective of American power.

The primary reason China wanted the AIIB in the first place is that it has been getting cut out of the decision-making process at the international banks—it was growing wary of the ADB, in which its rival Japan is the biggest stakeholder. And despite putting more and more money into the World Bank and IMF, it didn’t have voting power in the organizations commensurate with its new financial power. This seriously irked China, and there’s good reason to believe that talk of the AIIB might have begun as nothing more than a threat intended to force change.

The thing is, almost everybody was willing to give China more votes. There was a plan worked out years ago to increase the voting power that emerging economies get in the banks—one which barely altered America’s power in the organizations. The IMF leadership endorsed it heartily. It was backed by all of its members, including the U.S. The Obama administration happily backed the deal, but it fell to Congress to confirm the new plan.

Congress being Congress, it went for years without doing so. But then, last spring, it finally looked as if it might act. Senate leadership attached the badly overdue IMF reforms to an aid package to the faltering Ukrainian government, which would be getting assistance through the bank. Cruz played a critical role in killing it. Here’s what the Observer wrote in April about how things went down:

Cruz released an open letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announcing his intention “to object to any floor consideration of Ukraine aid legislation that contains these IMF provisions.” It’s been reported that Cruz asked all Senate Republicans to co-sign the letter. In the end, only five did (stalwart Cruz ally Mike Lee and the idiosyncratic Rand Paul among them.) The letter is full of blank lines for signatures that were not provided. Nevertheless, the bill started to have problems.

House Republicans began announcing their intent to oppose the Senate language. A growing number of GOP Senators began to express disquiet. That left longtime Cruz nemesis John McCain sputtering with fury. Those who were hoping to slow or strip the bill were “on a fool’s errand,” just like the government shutdown. They had left him “embarrassed” by his party.

But the opposition to the bill grew. The aid bill slipped into the next week—then the next. What had begun as an uncontroversial provision had become a poison pill. Marco Rubio joined the crusade, though he didn’t go as far as Cruz. (He’d previously characterized the reforms as “Russian-backed.”) It became apparent that many were willing to kill the Ukraine aid bill rather than accept the IMF reforms. Early last week, Reid conceded defeat—he’d strip the bill.

It was the closest Congress had come to ratifying the IMF reform package, and its failure left congressional Republicans more unified in opposition to the reform measures. The fiasco seemed, to many observers, evidence that Congress would never let China and other emerging economies have more voting power.

And so the Chinese search for an alternative accelerated. A few months later, it unveiled grand plans for its new bank, and observers told the Financial Times the proposal was directly tied to the death of IMF reform:

“China feels it can’t get anything done in the World Bank or the IMF so it wants to set up its own World Bank that it can control itself,” said one person directly involved in discussions to establish the AIIB.

Now, Cruz’s quixotic killing of IMF reform wasn’t the only time Uncle Sam shot itself in the foot over the AIIB: As Dan Drezner writes in the Washington Post, the Obama administration’s hopeless bungling of the issue now means U.S. allies are becoming founding members of the bank against American wishes, while the U.S. is out in the cold—where the smart thing to do might just have been to join the bank, too.

But Congress—and Cruz specifically—bears a significant amount of blame. Plenty of Republicans were happy to vote for IMF reform until it was made a litmus-test issue. Some Republicans now acknowledge stalling on the IMF package was a mistake: Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, no hippie squish, told a policy forum in Brussels recently that the policy fumble was “an unfortunate event and it might be bigger than we understand today.”

Would the Chinese have launched the bank anyway if IMF reforms had been passed? Maybe so—but that’s a question historians might debate someday as they chart the rise of Chinese influence in Asia.

It’s a crummy way to manage a superpower whose influence is in relative, though not absolute, decline. It’s one of the few things Cruz has done in Congress that has had real consequences. Now, of course, he’s asking for control of American foreign policy.

In all things, Cruz and his friends don’t want the branches of American power to bend. They use words like “muscular” to define their approach to the world: They see compromise as a sin. Branches that don’t bend break, of course. But there’s a danger, too, that our friends will just go find another tree.

A patient gets her blood pressure checked at the Waco Planned Parenthood.
Jen Reel
A patient gets her blood pressure checked at the Waco Planned Parenthood.

The House version of the budget, which hits the floor Tuesday for what’s likely to be a spirited debate over funding for state programs, includes approximately $20 million more for women’s health services over the next two years than lawmakers originally proposed in January.

The state currently administers three similar women’s health programs that cover things like annual well woman exams, birth control and cancer screenings for low-income women.

The newest program, the Expanded Primary Health Care Program, created in 2013, is slated to get the funding bump, bringing the total for women’s health services in the House version of the budget to about $130 million per year.

Here is the breakdown of funding for each program:

  • Texas Women’s Health Program: $34.9 million in 2016, $35.1 million in 2017
  • Expanded Primary Health Care Program: $73.4 million in 2016, $73.4 million in 2017
  • Family planning program administered by Department of State Health Services: $21.4 million in 2016, $21.4 million in 2017

In 2011, motivated by a never-ending quest to defund Planned Parenthood, the Texas Legislature slashed family planning funding by nearly $70 million, leaving about $40 million for preventive and contraceptive services for low-income women. A recent study by the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Policy Evaluation Project, a research group that studies the effects of family planning budget cuts, found that more than 100,000 women lost services after the 2011 cuts and 82 family planning clinics closed. In 2013, the Legislature restored the $70 million and put it into the newly created Expanded Primary Health Care Program, which became a separate item in the state budget. Still, advocates and providers have consistently fought for more money, arguing that the state is only serving one-third of women eligible to receive services.

This session’s House budget also includes a rider that appropriates $4 million more per year for the controversial Alternatives to Abortion program, which largely funds crisis pregnancy centers. Often religiously affiliated, crisis pregnancy centers do not provide medical care, are virtually unregulated by the state and have been found by various investigations to offer inaccurate information designed to dissuade women from having an abortion. As the Observer reported in early March, some Democratic lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee raised concerns about adding more money to a program that has little oversight or accountability.

Funding levels and riders in the House budget aren’t set in stone, though. Tuesday’s debate will bring a flurry of floor amendments, with lawmakers from both parties trying to add funding to their favorite programs and take money from those they aren’t too keen on.

As of Monday, in reviewing the pre-filed amendments, the Observer found at least 10 amendments by House Democrats that aim to decrease funding for the Alternatives to Abortion program and funnel it to other health and human service programs, like substance abuse prevention and early childhood intervention services. State Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) and state Rep. Jessica Farrar (D-Houston), want to increase oversight of the Alternatives to Abortion program, proposing riders that strengthen reporting requirements.

Here is a list of other women’s health amendments and riders to watch for:

  • State Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint) filed an amendment that would allow teenagers who are 15 to 17 years old and already mothers to get contraception without their parents’ consent. Right now, state law requires that all teenagers under the age of 18 get their parent’s permission for birth control. The amendment mirrors Gonzalez’s House Bill 468, which she presented to the House State Affairs Committee in mid-March.
  • State Rep. Chris Turner (D-Arlington) has proposed a rider that would ensure sex education programs teach “medically accurate” information to public school students.
  • State Rep. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) proposes adding even more money to the Alternatives to Abortion program by taking almost $7 million from the Commission on Environmental Quality.
  • A House budget rider by state Rep. Sarah Davis (R-Houston) protects the state’s Breast and Cervical Cancer Services program that provides breast and cervical cancer screenings for uninsured women, under attack this session by conservative lawmakers hell bent on, you guessed it, defunding Planned Parenthood.

The budget debate begins at 12 p.m. Tuesday.

Via Facebook
Rep. Drew Springer (R-Muenster) used the above graphic to promote a 2013 bill to defund school districts that offer domestic partner benefits.

Rep. Drew Springer (R-Muenster) is again trying to bar Texas school districts from offering benefits to the same-sex partners of employees.

Springer has introduced a budget amendment that would eliminate state funding for districts that violate the Texas Constitution, which prohibits recognition of same-sex partnerships.

The amendment is similar to a bill Springer authored two years ago, which cleared committee but was never considered on the floor. Under Springer’s budget amendment, the education commissioner, in consultation with the attorney general, would decide whether districts have violated the Constitution. Districts would have 60 days to correct the problem.

According to Equality Texas, Springer’s amendment is aimed at the Austin, Pflugerville and San Antonio school districts, which offer “plus-one” benefits that are inclusive of same-sex partners. But the group says those benefits are in line with a 2013 opinion from former Attorney General Greg Abbott, which found that such programs are only illegal if they create or recognize a status similar to marriage.

Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston)
Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston)

“The benefit programs allow an employee to name a second person who is financially interdependent with them and co-resides with them to receive benefits,” the group said. “The programs were constructed to comply with Attorney General guidance. Although Rep. Springer believes these programs to be in violation of the state Constitution, absent additional attorney general opinions, they would not be affected by the new level of bureaucracy his amendment attempts to create.”

Springer couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

The danger for LGBT advocates, of course, is that GOP Attorney General Ken Paxton—who is suing to block benefits for same-sex couples under the Family and Medical Leave Act—would take the position that the “plus-one” programs violate the Constitution. However, like much of the anti-gay marriage legislation introduced this year, Springer’s amendment—even if it passes—would presumably be negated by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality in June.

Another budget amendment, from Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston), would require school districts to collect data on incidents of discrimination and harassment against LGBT students and employees. A similar amendment was defeated in a 90-43 House vote in 2013.

The House begins debating the budget Tuesday. The proposed amendments from Springer and Coleman are below:




dan patrick tire fire
Twitter // @DanPatrickTX

This was a topsy-turvy week, fellas. We’re only halfway through the legislative session, but we’re already at a Sine Die level of nuttiness. Normally sage and cautious political figures seem to be becoming unglued from reality. Dan Patrick is Patricking to the point where it may be getting dangerous for those in physical proximity. And people are pretending that Ted Cruz has a chance to be president. What’s happening?

Cruz has the look of a man receiving fawning adulation permanently attached to his face—it's what people in the Heartland™ love the most.
Cruz has the look of a man receiving fawning adulation permanently attached to his face—it’s what people in the Heartland™ love the most.

1) Of all the presidential campaigns ever launched, never let it be said that Ted Cruz did not launch one of those campaigns. Was it a good launch? Well, the filthy libs who run the media wouldn’t tell you if it was, would they? They’ve been out to get Ted from the start. They know the power he’ll wield when he reaches his final form and becomes Mechacruz, a giant robot—powered by the finest Ontario steel, Albertan oil, Cuban tobacco and Nunavut whale blubber—that will not rest until it lays waste to the District of Columbia, shunts the RINOS onto a melting iceberg in the middle of the vast Canadian arctic, and returns power to the States, as was envisioned by James Madison in Federalist No. 56.

This week treated us to a glimpse of the raw power and political acumen the Cruzmaster will be harnessing on his way to the White House. Some said his choice of Liberty University, an evangelical school founded by a guy who thought gay teletubbies caused 9/11, was odd—essentially, a declaration that he wouldn’t be trying to broaden his narrow appeal to American voters. But speaking at a university event—yes, attendance was mandatory—allowed him to benefit from a free media boost, as our dumb media became completely transfixed by what Liberty students were saying on a hot new app. Our dumb media loves apps:

The rest of the week went even better. Cruz needs to humanize himself—not many people know about him, and a lot of people, perhaps after reading accounts of his deeply ingrained snobbery, the oil painting of himself he keeps in his office, and his salad days roaming the halls of Princeton’s dorms in a paisley bathrobe, find him wooden.

So on a CBS morning show, Cruz told a Very Relatable Story: On that clear blue morning sky on that September Tuesday so many years ago, everything changed. Everything.

“My music taste changed on 9/11,” [Cruz] said, followed by a pause.

Co-host Gayle King nodded.

“I actually intellectually find this very curious, but on 9/11, I didn’t like how rock music responded,” the senator went on. “And country music, collectively, the way they responded, it resonated with me.”

This is either a weird way of admitting that you don’t actually care that much about music, which is fine, or fascinating evidence that the A.I. unit that governs Cruz is capable of adjusting to its surroundings, which is something that we haven’t seen during his tenure in the Senate.

One imagines Cruz in his bedroom, staring at the cover of his copy of AC/DC’s Highway to Hell, silently imploring Angus Young to shed a tear for the fallen. Or was he a Green Day fan who took the advice to sleep through September the wrong way? Does Ted Cruz, like many right-thinking Americans, believe that Supertramp did 9/11?

The week’s not over. How will he sell his beliefs to the good folks of Not-Texas?

The similarities between Texas Senator Ted Cruz and 16th-century astronomer Galileo Galilei are remarkable, according to Cruz. […]

“Today the global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the flat-Earthers,” Cruz said. “You know it used to be it is accepted scientific wisdom the Earth is flat, and this heretic named Galileo was branded a denier.”

OK, yes, that’s weird. But, all told, it wasn’t a bad week. Conservative opinion-makers really took a shine to the Texan—here’s Charles C.W. Cooke of National Review:

Striking a pose that lands somewhere between the oleaginousness of a Joel Osteen and the self-assuredness of a midwestern vacuum-cleaner salesman, Cruz delivers his speeches as might a mass-market motivational speaker in an Atlantic City Convention Center.

Texans used to know how to run campaigns. What the hell happened? I blame the schools. What will it say about our state if Rick Perry ends up running the most competent campaign of our hometown heroes?

2) The three or so hours that Louie Gohmert was considering running for president was proof of what I’d always hoped to be true: This is, after all, the best of all possible worlds.

Then it came crashing down. If you’re in the market for a metric ton of uninflated party balloons and a chassis for a parade float, please contact Observer HQ.

(Bonus Gohmert.)

3) While Cruz is abroad, here at home the Legislature did critically important work this week in delivering another hit to the state’s greatest enemy—public schools. For years, the Lege has helped to slowly undermine the beast, starving it of the resources it needs to function well and mocking its inability to adjust—but the time has come for stronger measures. Enter state Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels).

“Today we have a monstrosity, a monopoly,” Campbell said. “It’s called public school.”

Vouchers—helping kids go to private schools with state money—has led to many fine things in other states. In Louisiana, state money has been used to do some educatin’ of young pups in Christian schools where the existence of the Loch Ness Monster is used to disprove evolution and the fine fellers of the Ku Klux Klan are described as a “a means of reform, fighting the decline in morality and using the symbol of the cross.”

However, no less a source than Reagan-era economist and Ponzi scheme participator Arthur Laffer has done a study that scientifically proves that vouchers, if done here in Texas, would be statistically, verifiably Good. Also, as former senator Phil Gramm said in a lengthy back and forth with Campbell: “What do I like about vouchers? Freedom! What is questionable about freedom? Nothing.” Q.E.D.

But the best part might have come when state Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) asked Campbell a challenging hypothetical question: What if a Muslim school opened that taught its students to hate America and hate Christians? Should they be able to take state money?

Miraculously, Campbell came out in favor of the teaching of radical Islam. “I wouldn’t send my child to a school that was contra to my beliefs,” said Campbell. “I am willing to allow the dollars to follow the child to the school of the parent’s choice.”

So here is where the Legislature is at at the end of March: Anti-Shariah law, but pro state-funded madrasas.

Actually, here’s where the Legislature is at. Patrick, in an extremely weird move, came to testify on the bill himself. Here’s how he celebrated:

When Patrick becomes governor, selfies will be mandatory for all Texans.
When Patrick becomes governor, selfies will be mandatory for all Texans.

BONUS #2016 NEWS: Don’t count Stickland out.

Screen Shot 2015-03-27 at 1.51.10 PM

Karnes County Residential Center photographed in 2014, during its change of name from a "Civil Detention  Center" to a "Residential Center."
Virginia Raymond

First of all: No, she does not regret writing it.

“It” being “Seeking Asylum in Karnes City,” which ran in the February issue of the Observer. The 4,500-word story reported Victoria Rossi’s firsthand experience as a paralegal assisting Austin immigration attorney Virginia Raymond inside the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, 50 miles southeast of San Antonio. When the detention center opened in 2012 it was hailed by the Obama administration as a model for a more humane, less penal facility for holding immigrants.

The facility has 532 beds for women and children awaiting processing of asylum claims or immigration cases. It’s operated by the private prison company GEO Group under a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The residential center—originally named a “detention” center—is rarely the subject of firsthand reporting, and access is tightly controlled. In January, for instance, ICE denied the Observer‘s request to photograph at the facility in conjunction with Rossi’s story.

Now, possibly as a result of that story, Rossi, a former Observer intern, has herself been denied further access to Karnes.

As befits any attempted navigation of the overlapping bureaucracies of a non-transparent public-private governmental entity, the story is of course convoluted.

There is a process for applying for access to Karnes, and in this case the process is managed by Raymond, who handles a pro bono load of immigration cases related to Karnes residents, and who employs Rossi as a part-time paralegal. In October, Raymond submitted a security clearance application for Rossi in her capacity as a paralegal. In response, ICE approved a categorically distinct clearance for Rossi as an interpreter—an apparent clerical error on ICE’s part that neither Raymond nor Rossi noticed at the time.

Once that clearance was granted, Rossi, per standard protocol, was further required to fax to Karnes intent-to-visit notices 24 hours in advance of her visits to the facility. Those notices included a copy of ICE’s original clearance, and specified the time of Rossi’s visits and the names of the clients she planned to speak with.

On Jan. 15, having faxed her intent-to-visit notice as usual, Rossi arrived at the facility to face officers—Rossi isn’t certain whether they were employed by ICE or by GEO—questioning the purpose of her visit. The Observer had recently requested access to photograph at Karnes, making staff aware that Rossi was working on a story. The officers examined Rossi’s ICE-granted permission and determined that it allowed her access not as a paralegal, but only as an interpreter—a category of access that Raymond had never applied for and a job at which Rossi had never been employed. Rossi was denied entry and told that she would have to reapply for a new security clearance as a paralegal.

That re-application was complicated and delayed by the fact that Rossi had to first reapply for and receive a lost passport, but once she had that document in hand—along with the also-required driver’s license and Social Security number—Raymond put the security-clearance application in process.

On Monday, March 23, Rossi got the news that her re-application had been denied. The denial letter, dated March 19, gave no reason. But neither Raymond nor Rossi has much doubt about the why.

“I’m hoping it’s just a technical error, but the timing of it, I worry that it’s reactive to the article,” Rossi says.

Raymond is less circumspect: “It’s straight-up interference with access to counsel. It’s an intimidation tactic.”

Per the letter’s recommendation, Raymond got on the phone with Hilario Leal, ICE’s supervisory deportation and detention officer at Karnes, who disclaimed any knowledge of the decision and said he’d have to look into it. Raymond says that Leal later called back and explained to Raymond and Rossi that Rossi was being denied clearance to visit Karnes as a paralegal because she had previously visited Karnes as a paralegal while having been approved only as an interpreter.

As recently as Friday, March 20, Rossi visited Karnes with Raymond and was allowed access. In retrospect, Rossi isn’t sure why she was let in.

Leal did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

It remains unclear whether Rossi may still access Karnes as an interpreter for Raymond, though, again, that’s never been the purpose, stated or otherwise, of Rossi’s visits. Regardless, she apparently is not allowed to visit Karnes unaccompanied, which by itself constitutes a major impediment to Raymond’s work.

“It’s very damaging,” Raymond says. “I can’t do this by myself. I’m a solo practitioner. One of the two main reasons why I hired [Rossi] is she’s an outstanding interviewer. So [now] she can’t do that. It’s a lot of work to prepare asylum applications, and a lot of it has to be done at Karnes.”

Raymond is clear that Rossi’s job is not at risk, but she’s equally clear that the ICE decision will have a negative effect.

“It hurts the clients,” she says. “It hurts the children and women refugees at Karnes when ICE and GEO throw up additional roadblocks to legal representation.”

Raymond is appealing the decision up the dual chains of command at Karnes—GEO and ICE—and spreading the word among the legal community.

“We are going to fight this thing,” she says. “And I feel confident that when it gets to someone high enough, they’ll realize it’s not right.”

Rossi says she’s experienced a supportive response from activists and lawyers, but she remains “very worried that after some of the sense of outrage has died down, it’s going to become a huge burden on Virginia.”

That aside, she has no regrets about writing about her experience, and about the view afforded her by access, however fleeting, to the world of immigrant detention.

“From what I can tell,” she says, “it’s been very difficult for journalists to get access to these new family detention centers they’re opening up, and I think it’s important for anyone to write about what they see inside there.”

To that point, she notes that some residents of the Karnes facility have begun writing their own stories, some of which are available at

For instance, a recent “Statement by 20 Families Held at the Karnes Family Prison in Texas” reads, in part:

Please help us, we don’t want to return to that life of violence in our countries, we want to live in peace with our children. We seek refuge in this country because we believe that this country has laws that are upheld and that violence doesn’t exist in the same way it does in our countries.

Raymond points out that “refugees who have legal assistance are far more likely to persuade judges to grant them asylum,” and says she’s “disturbed that ICE is impeding our provision of legal services to these women.

“Whether ICE is retaliating against Victoria for her writing, or arbitrarily preventing her from coming as a paralegal, the people who are really hurt by this are the refugee families.”

Sen. Donna Campbell
John Savage
Sen. Donna Campbell responds to a question from Sen. Kel Seliger

Like an obstinate weed that just won’t die, the debate over school vouchers returned to the Capitol for the 11th straight legislative session on Thursday.

With former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm and GOP mega-donor James Leininger on hand to testify in front of dozens of adamant voucher supporters, the hearing took on a carnival-like atmosphere at times.

Some voucher advocates, including Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), used Thursday’s hearing on a pair of school voucher bills to rail about the state of public schools.

“Today we have a monstrosity, a monopoly,” Campbell said. “It’s called public school.”

Campbell’s solution to the monstrous public school system, Senate Bill 276, would pay parents up to 60 percent of the statewide average per-student cost of operating public schools if they move their children to private schools. That would amount to about $5,200 per student, Campbell said.

Testifying in favor Campbell’s bill, Gramm repeated the common, if vehemently disputed, trope: Our public schools are failing.

“I believe we need dramatic action,” Gramm said. “When you have over a 40 percent dropout rate, and when you have schools that year after year after year cannot meet minimum standards, something is wrong.”

According to the Texas Education Agency, Gramm was wrong. Texas’ annual dropout rate for grades 7-12 was only 1.6 percent in 2012-2013. The long-term dropout rate for the class of 2013 was 6.6 percent. And just a few days ago, Gov. Greg Abbott shared the exciting news on Twitter that Texas’ graduation rate among black and Hispanic students was first in the nation.

Former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm
John Savage
Former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm testifying in support of school vouchers

Despite being scotched repeatedly in the past by an alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans, proponents of vouchers—Campbell calls them “taxpayer savings grants”—say they may have a chance of passing this session.

“If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen this session,”  Vance Ginn of the right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation told the Observer. “This is the best opportunity that we’ve seen because of the push that we are getting from leadership.”

Ginn was referring to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who is an adamant supporter of vouchers and has made them one of his legislative priorities.

Patrick even showed up to testify—and snap a selfie. Patrick invoked the experience of Leininger, who funded thousands of private school scholarships for students in San Antonio’s Edgewood ISD.

“Guess what happens in the Edgewood school district?” Patrick said. “[Their test scores] went up dramatically because of the competition that was created.”

Leininger, a multi-millionaire who founded TPPF and is considered one of Texas’ most powerful political powerbrokers, testified earlier in the day about his positive experience with private school scholarships in the Edgewood district.

According to a report from the National Education Association, Edgewood lost $5,800 for every student who used a scholarship to leave the district, and “the resulting loss of $4.8 million caused numerous disruptions and dimunitions [sic] in the quality of education for public school students.”

In addition to draining funds from public schools, critics voiced other major concerns: lack of accountability for private schools, which are exempted from state testing, and the high cost of private school tuition. While Campbell’s bill may provide up to $5,200 to cover that tuition, the average private high school tuition cost is almost $9,000 per year in Texas. Upper-echelon schools often charge more than $20,000 per year.

While Ginn says Campbell’s bill has the best chance of passing out of committee, the Education Committee also heard testimony on Senate Bill 642 by Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston).

Bettencourt’s bill would give private businesses a tax credit for creating private school scholarships, a plan similar to one proposed by Patrick and Campbell in 2013.

Pastor Kyle Henderson of First Baptist Church in Athens testified that voucher proponent’s attacks on public schools and teachers bothered him.

“I am stunned by the disdain expressed to public school teachers in this room,” Henderson said.

Joanna Sanchez, University of Texas education policy researcher and policy fellow for Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint), says that studies on vouchers and student outcomes don’t suggest they can improve student achievement on a large scale.

“The empirical evidence shows that vouchers lead to increased sorting of students by socioeconomic status, and does not support the claim that vouchers help disadvantaged children” Sanchez told the Observer.

Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-houston) voiced perhaps the most vehement opposition to the bills.

“Isn’t this just a money grab by non-public schools?” Garca asked.

Both bills were left pending in committee.

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