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Sen. Jane Nelson and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick
Kelsey Jukam
Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson's budget proposal doesn't provide funding for the Public Integrity Unit.

 

The director of the state’s criminal anti-corruption unit told a key Senate committee Monday that “there is no one else” in the state that could handle the cases his office does.

The Public Integrity Unit, which is housed within the Travis County DA’s office, has long been a target of Republican legislators, who argue that its prosecutions are politically motivated. In 2013, Rick Perry vetoed funding for the agency after Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg refused to step down over her embarrassing arrest for drunk driving. Some lawmakers want to transfer the cases handled by the Public Integrity Unit out of Travis County. But Public Integrity Unit director Gregg Cox told the Senate Finance Committee that a constitutional amendment would be required to do that. Many of the cases the unit deals with occur in Travis County because Austin is the state capital, he said.

Cox balked at Sen. Joan Huffman’s suggestion that cases could be referred to the counties where the defendant resides. Cox pointed out that an illegal action in Travis County might be beneficial to the home county of the “bad actor.” As a result, hometown prosecutors and juries may not be as keen to indict.

Cox also stressed that public corruption has never made up more than 7 to 8 percent of the Public Integrity Unit’s total caseload—and of the 19 public corruption cases currently pending, only one involves an elected official. (Cox declined to name the official; Perry’s prosecution is being handled by a special prosecutor not affiliated with the Public Integrity Unit)  The majority of the caseload, he said, has historically been ones in which the state is the victim, such as unemployment or welfare fraud.

Since Perry vetoed funding, Cox and his team have been referring fraud cases to other DA’s offices, but few have led to indictments. Such cases require specialized staffs that most prosecutors don’t have.

The Senate budget proposal doesn’t include any funding for the unit, which was defunded by Perry in 2013, making good on a threat that lead to his indictment in August on abuse of power charges. In a press conference last month, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said he didn’t see a reason to replace that funding in the next two-year budget.

Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) said in the meeting that she believes “the functions of the Public Integrity Unit are very important.” But she left funding out of the budget bill because the Legislature might decide to create another agency or assign cases to other offices.

Before the committee adjourned, Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) asked whether there was any constitutional obligation to provide funding for the Public Integrity Unit. The answer doesn’t bode well for the corruption watchdog:  no.

 

Students from Houston Quran Academy.
Kelsey Jukam
Students from Houston Quran Academy sing the national anthem at the Texas Capitol.

Condemnation of the anti-Muslim rage at the Capitol on Thursday was fairly widespread among the media, elected officials and other members of the political mainstream. House Speaker Joe Straus put out a statement saying, in part, “legislators have a responsibility to treat all visitors just as we expect to be treated—with dignity and respect.” The Dallas Morning News editorialized that the “disgusting spectacle at the state Capitol and Rep. Molly White’s ignorant Facebook babble make you embarrassed to be Texan.”

Even Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano), a Christian right pol who’s sponsoring an anti-Sharia bill, tried to elevate the day out of the muck.

It was a rare moment of unity among an increasingly bitter and partisan—and dare I say, extreme—environment at the Capitol.

Some were eager to paint the two dozen or so Islamophobic protesters as a marginal group unrepresentative of Texas. The Dallas Morning News, in a tone uncharacteristic of staid editorial pages, put forth a #NotAllTexans argument: “Tell your in-laws in New York that we’re not all hateful, hayseed, redneck, ignorant Bubbas. Yes, we do have hateful, hayseed, redneck ignorant Bubbas in Texas.”

And that’s true as far as it goes: Most Texans don’t spend their days screaming at middle- and high-school students and dragging their knuckles around in public. Explaining how a state rep came to believe that the way to greet her constituents was to taunt them with the flag of a foreign nation and demand they take a loyalty oath is a harder task, though. Still, some tried. Erica Grieder of Texas Monthly pointed out that Rep. Molly White is a true freshman (no redshirts in the Lege) and probably has a bit of “a learning curve” to deal with. And this is true in its way too.

Surely Rep. White will think twice before she lets loose with full-throated bigotry again. Someone will show her how to use a dog-whistle instead.

But Rep. White and the anti-Muslim protesters did not appear out of nowhere. What happened last week is merely an extreme manifestation of deep-seated Islamophobia in Texas. If you care to scratch beneath the surface, the hatred of Muslims in tea party circles is palpable. White, for example, has spoken at least three times in the past few months on Raging Elephants Radio—a tea party radio program run by Apostle Claver, a black tea partier from Beaumont. On one recent show, the host, Doc Greene praised mosque burnings in Sweden, said Islam should be made illegal in Texas and told his listeners, “We need to make Muslims in Texas feel unsafe.”

This is not conservatism. This is crypto-fascism, the kind of jackbooted thuggery that is on the march in Europe today. Is Rep. White aware of Greene’s views? Does she share them?

Granted, Greene and White are outliers on the political spectrum. But virulently racist and paranoid rhetoric directed at Muslims is far from unusual. The Oak Initiative, a religious right organization active in Texas, has been beating the drum about an Islamic takeover of America for years. Here’s an example from a recent email to supporters:

Islam is one of the biggest threats in the world.  It is the anti-Christ system that is rising and Christians are called to confront it head on.  In order to do so you must be informed.

As Christians, we do not hate muslim people, but we do stand against the spirit of Islam that has millions in bondage and is seeking to bring the United States under its subjection through the implementation of Sharia Law (Islamic Law).

In 2011, the Oak Initiative leadership, based in Kerrville, claimed to have helped former state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran (R-Kerrville) write an anti-Sharia bill. The legislation didn’t go anywhere, but the notion that Sharia is somehow taking over courts in Texas, where judges are elected, just won’t die. The whole interplay of Sharia and American law has been wildly distorted and exaggerated. And not just by obscure radio programs. Ted Cruz has been on the Sharia bandwagon for years, calling it an “enormous problem” in 2012. Breitbart Texas has moved from beating up on Central American child refugees to hyperventilating over a non-story about Sharia courts in North Texas, which was then picked up by Fox News.

Anti-Muslim protesters.
Kelsey Jukam
A small group of anti-Muslim protesters disrupted speakers.

And let’s not forget one of the opening acts of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s career. In 2007, as a freshman senator, he refused to stay in the Senate chamber while a Muslim imam gave the traditional opening prayer for the day. Later, he said, “I think that it’s important that we are tolerant as a people of all faiths, but that doesn’t mean we have to endorse all faiths, and that was my decision.”

In Patrick’s mind, listening to a prayer is to “endorse” it—a problematic standard given that there are several Jewish legislators, including House Speaker Joe Straus. Imagine if a Muslim served in the Legislature.

Earlier in the 2007 session, Patrick had gotten the Senate to agree to put “In God We Trust” at the front of the Senate. I guess we knew which God he had in mind: His.

It is in this context of powerful politicians and media demagogues that Islamophobia is on the rise. Consider the experience of Heba Said, the Muslim UT-Arlington student who attended the Texas Republican Party Convention as a reporter for The Shorthorn. Said wears hijab—an article of clothing that was apparently a provocation to some of the GOP attendees. Said described “a cult-like hatred that is simply disgusting.” She was harangued about being Muslim, treated like an unwelcome visitor and even watched by police.

A couple months ago we profiled Mohamed Elibiary, a Plano Republican who happens to be Muslim and helps law enforcement combat extremism. Despite having a government security clearance, Elibiary has become a target of right-wing activists, who believe he is in cahoots with the Muslim Brotherhood and, predictably, part of some Obama-led fifth column to destroy America.

A couple weeks ago, a conference in Garland dedicated in part to fighting Islamic extremism was swarmed by protesters carrying signs bearing messages such as “Stand for the Savior Jesus Christ” and “Insult Those Who Behead Others.” Similar protests erupted in Houston the next day.

This is the lizard brain at work: My religion leaves no room for your religion.

The Capitol can seem like a rarefied place, but it’s not immune from the free-floating bigotry that’s roiling outside those heavy oak doors. Sometimes it finds a home inside.

Updated: The original version of the story misquoted House Speaker Joe Straus’ statement. The post has been corrected. We regret the error.

George P. Bush
John Savage
Land Commissioner George P. Bush addresses crowd at school choice rally

Of the half dozen or so rallies during the first three weeks of the legislative session, today’s rally for school choice wins at least three awards: Largest, Slickest and Youngest.

Billed as the largest school choice rally in Texas history, hundreds of people, mostly children in matching yellow scarves (signifying their support of school choice) marched on the Capitol.

Among the marquee speakers were new Land Commissioner George P. Bush and Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), one of the most hardcore school choice champions in the Legislature.

Bush, channeling his voucher-loving father, gave the crowd a now-familiar pitch.

“A majority of our students are trapped in schools that are underperforming,” Bush said. “Some schools don’t work and refuse to change, and that’s why we need school choice.”

“We want our voices to be heard,” said Rebekah Anthony, a fundraiser for the charter school chain IDEA Public Schools. “Parents and families make the conscious effort to enroll their students here because they believe it is the best opportunity for their students.”

The Capitol rally was part of National School Choice Week—a slick nation-wide campaign funded by deep-pocketed organizations such as the Heritage Foundation and Americans for Prosperity.

The event comes with the trappings of corporate-funded public relations campaigns: expensive advertising, celebrity endorsements, and even an official song and dance.

In Texas, voucher plans have been scotched repeatedly at the Legislature, thanks largely to an alliance of rural Republicans and big-city Democrats.

Louis Malfaro, president of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), told the Observer the school choice movement doesn’t have popular support.

“The majority of Texans are against privatizing public schools,” Malfaro says. “This is a damn sideshow, and to waste time on it is still irrelevant to the vast majority of students in the state.”

Some voucher opponents, including Karen Miller, the former legislative chair for the Texas Parent Teacher Association, raised concerns about students missing school to attend a political rally.

“If busloads of public school kids missed school for a rally,” Miller said, “conservative groups would be hot on the case and very critical.”

Several charter school administrators said that the rally was a good learning experience for the students. “This is an opportunity for them to learn what it means to be engaged in government,” Anthony told the Observer.

Research has shown that vouchers and charter school have failed to improve student achievement consistently. Opponents also argue that the initiatives drain money from public schools and may lead to increased racial segregation.

Analysts say that vouchers have a better chance of passing this legislative session because of the elevation of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a diehard voucher supporter, and other conservative Republicans who favor school choice.

Advocating for these initiatives has become part of a larger right-wing agenda of privatizing government-run services.

Vouchers have been around for more than a century, but it wasn’t until the economist Milton Friedman’s influential 1955 paper, “The Role of Government Education,” that vouchers became a pet cause of the right. Friedman’s birthday has been an occasion for free-market advocates and school choice supporters in Texas to celebrate his ideas.

The popularity of charter schools has made them the fastest growing school choice option across the nation. A few states and city school systems have also adopted some form of school vouchers. The movement has attracted super-rich supporters and profiteers into what Jeb Bush dubs the “education marketplace.”

At today’s rally, his son George P. Bush said one thing that both sides of the debate can agree on.

“We are training the future leaders of Texas, right here and right now, and we have to do it right,” Bush said.

Kory Watkins, w/ gun, at a Target.
Facebook
Governor Kory Watkins, w/ gun, at a Target.

We’re sorry, Texas. When the Observer discontinued this quasi-liked and occasionally-read feature after last year’s election, it precipitated some two months of relative peace and stability. You did pretty good, Texas. At times, we discerned a sparkle in your eye and a spring in your step that we hadn’t seen since boats-and-hoes-ghazi kicked off the dark times.

But the return of the Legislature proved too tempting. We started to talk about bringing it back. And then everything went to shit.

1) The Texas Capitol is the people’s house, but, to crib from Marx, some of the people are revolting. That’s Groucho Marx, not Karl. Anyway, the beginning of the Legislature is a shining moment, a time for civic reconciliation after a contentious election. We must all recognize each other as coequal human beings and busy ourselves with the hard work of forging compromise, under the watchful eyes of our one true leader: Kory Watkins.

Watkins, the fedora-wearing champion who leads the splinter open carry protest group known as Open Carry Tarrant County, has managed to singlehandedly annex much of the Capitol in recent weeks to an anarcho-capitalist commune of his own making, the People’s Republic of Kory.

As we know from Machiavelli, one can rule through fear or love. Love would seem to be the easiest choice here for Open Carry protesters, seeing as the Legislature really, really loves guns, so much that it kind of gets weird if you think about it too long. For much of the past few months, the lawmakers seemed prepped to hand the open carry guys what they wanted on a silver platter.

But Watkins, despite his love of Honey Boo Boo, is a fear-man, seemingly incapable of adult communication or restraint. He made such an ass of himself in state Rep. Poncho Nevárez’ office that the House saw fit to make it easier for members to install panic buttons in their offices. Support for open carry started to melt away, almost singlehandedly because of Watkins. And yet he didn’t learn:

This would all be funnier if Rep. Nevárez, one of the all-around best dudes in the Lege, didn’t receive threats to himself and his family after his run-in with Watkins, requiring DPS protection.

But Watkins is taking things a little more seriously now, in song form.

If you’re going to be at the Capitol in the next few months, please remember one simple question: What would Kory do? Don’t do that.

On the other hand, though, like all of the most entitled bullies in Texas history, Kory is set to face zero consequences for his actions.

So maybe, do do that?

2) What’s left to say about state Rep. Molly White, who did her part to make the pink dome at the heart of the People’s Republic of Kory a more welcoming place this week? One tidbit got less attention than the rest:

Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 2.01.29 PM

People use the word “renounce” when they leave something they were once a part of, or supported. So think about that: Molly White accidentally asserted she’d once supported the Ku Klux Klan, and it was like the 30th worst thing she did that day. Stellar week for her communications team.

3) If you had the misfortune to follow Newt Gingrich’s last presidential run, you know he cares about one thing above all others, even more than revisiting child labor laws and that moon base. That’s the threat posed by EMPs. The idea of an EMP weapon, in case you’re not familiar, refers to the idea that an enemy could set off a nuclear device high in the atmosphere and fry electronic circuits down below. North Korea, or whoever, could set off a bomb over the Heartland and disable the electrical grid for much of the continental United States. It’s a fear that plays to a conservative love of self-sufficiency and distrust of centrally planned systems, and the fringe’s love of survivalism. Scientists say meh, but who cares?

On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Natural Resources & Economic Development met for the first time and heard testimony from the head of ERCOT, and freshman state Sen. Bob Hall (R-World Net Daily) raised his voice to the microphone for his first time as a legislator. He made it clear he knew he stood on the shoulders of giants. “I want to commend—those that have gone before me here have done a great job.”

But Hall was here now. He’d been to the bleeding razor’s edge of the neo-zeitgeist, and back, and he’d seen the threatscape matrix of tomorrow, thanks to his membership in the Newt Gingrich Book of the Month Club.

“I just want to make you aware of an issue that we will be addressing to make sure that we keep abreast and keep that protection up whether it be a natural or a manmade disaster, such as the EMP threat, that is becoming more important today than it has in the past.”

It’s almost as if a lobbyist gave him a bouncy rubber ball so he wouldn’t be meddling in anything important.

4) Do you read AgendaWise? I’m kidding, nobody does. The site, part of Tim Dunn and Michael Quinn Sullivan’s far-right messaging network that’s been trying for years to unseat House Speaker Joe Straus, provides a scribble-space for two bloggers, Weston Hicks and Daniel Greer. Under the noses of the Capitol establishment, they’ve carved out, with the help of a significant amount of pissed-away donor money, a space for some of the most surreal and hallucinatory writing about Austin’s politics scene.

That’s not to say that it’s good. Hicks and Greer write like children who were raised by wolves and learned to talk at an under-18 Ren Faire live-action role-playing tournament. They make extremely grandiose pronouncements, using curiously out-of-time language, about pretty ordinary shit. Did you know, for example, that our serially middling attorney general, Ken Paxton, is “a hope for all western governments?”

I’m being mean about their turgid prose because—and this is only slightly more important than the quality of their writing—they also have a tendency to be assholes. Greer had to take a brief leave of absence from AgendaWise when he got caught calling moderate GOP state reps “fags,” and “joked” that gay people got AIDS instead of making babies when they have sex because of “#naturallaw.”

This week brings another fine example of the AgendaWise canon. It’s got a juicy title.

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Woah! Two sentences in and we’ve already got our first zinger!

Here’s the meat of it: People who aren’t on the AgendaWise side are whores.

The grassroots don’t want their hard work capsized because of lechers in Austin who can’t protect their own influence from being hijacked by political concubines.

Political chastity is the discipline of interested political actors not to sleep with one another. The reason this is so important, and much more than a “private matter,” is that politics is a cold war.

Keep going…

In war, sleeping with the enemy is a serious offense. In World War II women who slept with German occupiers were treated harshly and ostracized. The reason is simple – the act signifies vulnerability and openness. Someone who has slept with the enemy has significantly compromised their ability to deny the enemy access to vital communal information, and, to some extent, they’ve compromised their ability to say “no” to the enemy.

The sex act “signifies vulnerability and openness”—spoken like a man who has definitely had the Sex. I like the cut of this guy’s jib! Keep going—

Believe it or not, Austin has actual political whores. They don’t think of themselves that way, but others do, and that is what they are. They may be a disgrace to their families, but they are rife in Austin.

In their minds they are just being “liberated women,” only they are professionally rewarded for being “liberated” in the vicinity of men with crucial intelligence or strategic access to power. It is especially important to find weak links to access in the Austin clan who don’t pledge allegiance to the current special interest regime – conservatives – and this caliber of woman can do this job uniquely well.

At parts, Hicks seems to be using the idea of this slutty whore woman as a metaphor, but at points it seems like he’s talking about an actual, specific woman. He caps the piece with a long and disturbing passage from the book of Proverbs about the dangers of consorting with bad, naughty, and slutty women, which ends thusly:

She seduces him with all her talk. She entices him with her flattery. He goes headlong after her, like an ox to the slaughter, like a deer leaping into a trap, until an arrow pierces his liver, like a bird hurrying to the snare, not aware that it will cost him his life.

The piece is a psychosexual nightmare and crazily misogynist, and if Hicks had written it in high school he’d be called to the counselor’s office. You could read the piece and believe that Hicks was calling almost all of the women who work at the capitol whores.

But I think we can discern, behind this dark mess, what has happened. Hicks, as we’ve previously discussed, knows deep of sex and love, like a man should. Perhaps … a woman caught his eye? A woman of the cause? Perhaps there was a spark, and perhaps, some weeks later, the woman left. Her heart led her in a different direction. She took a job in Straus’ office.

Students from Houston Quran Academy.
Kelsey Jukam
Students from Houston Quran Academy sing the national anthem during Texas Muslim Capitol Day.

While a couple dozen protesters at the Capitol today held signs decrying Islam and called for Muslims to “go home,” Najmus Saqib Hassan watched on placidly. “Wherever Muslims get together, there is this,” he said. “But they have a right to be here. It doesn’t bother me.”

Hassan joined several hundred other Texans at the Capitol today for “Texas Muslim Day.”

Over the course of the 140-day legislative session there are hundreds of lobby days—for towns, industries, farmers, veterans, universities and all sorts of other interest groups. But few attract the vitriol that Texas Muslim Capitol Day did today.

Hundreds of Muslims from all over the state attended the event, which started in 2003. Many were schoolchildren who crowded in close to the podium as CAIR-Texas Communications Director Ruth Nasrullah began to speak. Before she could barely get a word out, a protester pushed her aside and grabbed the microphone.

“I proclaim the name of the Lord Jesus Christ over the Capitol of Texas. I stand against Islam and the false prophet of Mohammed,” Christine Weick yelled, before she was taken away by security.

On the “Taking a Stand Against CAIR” Facebook event page, 212 protesters said they planned on attending, but barely two dozen showed up today. Those who did were loud and relentless, shouting throughout the press conference, even when a group of teenage girls from Houston’s Quran Academy sang the national anthem.

Milly Wassum
Kelsey Jukam
Anti-Muslim protester Milly Wassum

Security was visibly high at the event, and police kept the protesters at bay.

Representatives from Texas Impact, an interfaith-advocacy organization based in Austin and co-sponsors of the event, had requested extra security because of a bomb threat posted on Facebook on Jan. 20.

Participants, for the most part, took the protesters in stride. Alia Salam, executive director of CAIR-Dallas Forth Worth, told the crowd: “When you see that out there, that’s America. That’s a good thing.”

“We may not like it, but one day you are going to protest against something you don’t like and it is important that you are able to do so,” she said. “Don’t let anything make you afraid to be involved.”

The purpose of the day wasn’t to push a particularly Islamic agenda on the Legislature, but to encourage members of the Muslim community to become more involved in the democratic process. Despite the angry protests, attendees were eager to make the rounds at the Capitol and talk about an agenda that was calibrated to have broad appeal. Event organizers encouraged the crowd to tell their lawmakers that they support the Texas DREAM Act, which offers in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who graduate high school in Texas, and legislation that would require law enforcement to wear body cameras.

“When you’re a part of society, you should support things that are good for everyone,” CAIR-Houston Executive Director Mustafaa Carroll told the Observer. “Muslims aren’t just here to see what benefits them, but what benefits everybody.”

Participants did single out one bill for protest: House Bill 670 by Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Canton), an anti-Sharia bill that pertains to the application of “foreign laws” in U.S. courts.

Several states have already passed similar bills, based on model legislation known as “American Laws for American Courts,” which was originally drafted by anti-Sharia activist David Yerushalmi.

In April 2014, Flynn claimed in an email to his constituents that the British Parliament would now be allowing religious Islamic law “a place in their legal system” and approving “Muslim religious precepts” that discriminate against women and children.

“There is no question the Judeo-Christian heritage we covet and aim to protect is under attack,” Flynn said in the email. “We the American people must wake up and recognize the Spiritual Warfare raging in America.”

Carroll says the the likelihood of Sharia law ever having any influence over American courts is “slim to none” and that the bill makes it looks as if Muslims “have some nefarious plot” to take over the judicial system.

Najmus Saqib Hassan
Kelsey Jukam
Najmus Saqib Hassan listens during a social activism session at the First United Methodist Church.

The day also featured an uproar over a Facebook post from state Rep. Molly White (R-Belton) that called on Muslims visiting her office to pledge allegiance to the U.S.

Ideas about plotting Muslims and other misconceptions of those who practice Islam are bred by ignorance, Hassan said. Prejudices could be reduced, he says, if people simply made the effort to talk to Muslims. He suggested that folks visit mosques and Islamic centers, and extended an invitation for anyone interested to visit the place where he worships: the Maryam Islamic Center in Sugar Land, a facility that can accommodate 1,300 people (there are over 50,000 Muslims in Houston).

“If you live in a tunnel, you will be seen in a tunnel,” he said.

Texas Juvenile Justice Reformers Take A Victory Lap

A new study affirms Texas' juvenile justice reforms, and suggests improvements at local probation departments
Chief Justice Nathan Hecht  introduces a new study on Texas' juvenile justice system at the Texas Supreme Court, as officials and advocates look on.
Patrick Michels
Chief Justice Nathan Hecht introduces a new study on Texas' juvenile justice system at the Texas Supreme Court, as officials and advocates look on.

 

Since a 2007 sex abuse scandal at a state-run youth lockup in West Texas, state lawmakers have entirely remade Texas’ juvenile justice system, shuttering many of the state’s prison-like juvenile facilities and keeping many more kids under supervision close to home.

Today, a new report from the non-profit Council of State Governments, a team led by Texas criminal justice expert Tony Fabelo and researchers from Texas A&M, provides a sort of book-end to those reforms, affirming that Texas’ reforms over the last eight years have not only kept thousands of kids out of state-run lockups, but also offered better treatment to help them avoid another arrest.

At a press conference at the Texas Supreme Court Thursday morning, Mike Thompson, director of the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center, suggested Texas’ political leaders could indulge in a little self-congratulation. “You said kids would do better closer to home. You said the state would save money. You said the state would be safer.” On all those counts, Thompson said, Texas was right. The study, he said, also affirms Texas’ place as a national leader in juvenile justice reform, an instructive example for other states.

Among the report’s encouraging findings:

  • In 2007, before Texas lawmakers began these reforms, 4,305 youths were locked up in state-run facilities. Today, less than 1,000 kids are locked up in state facilities.
  • The state also cut its spending on state-run juvenile lockups by $179 million, and closed eight of its lockups. Over the same period, researchers found, statewide juvenile arrests fell by one third.
  • Per capita spending at county probation departments increased from $4,337 to $7,304 from 2005 to 2012—counties, in other words, had more money to spend on each child in the local justice system.

Those all reflect trends that have been pretty well-publicized here in the last few years. This study reaches even further, though, by connecting youth who’ve been in the juvenile justice system with eight years of local arrest data.

“It’s not just enough to know that the census is lower,” Thompson said, “we want to know what’s happened to those kids.” That was the question, from state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) and Texas Juvenile Justice Department officials, that prompted the study in late 2012. Researchers were able to track 95 percent of youths who’d been in the system, analyzing over one million records. Then, by considering variables like a child’s race, home county and criminal histories, they controlled for a youth’s likelihood of rearrest.

They found that kids who’d been steered to local probation departments instead of state-run lockups were 20 percent less likely to get arrested again.

The report, and a roundtable conversation at this morning’s briefing, also focused on how Texas can further improve its juvenile system. Based on the profiles they created, researchers said Texas is still sending juveniles to state-run facilities who’d be better off with local probation departments.

“The young kids who ought to be in the state facilities ought to only be those kids who cannot be managed or treated effectively outside the state system,” Texas Juvenile Justice Department director David Reilly said today, but he couldn’t say just how much smaller the agency should get. In the last few years, the agency has grappled with how to stem rising violence at its youth lockups, and lawmakers like Whitmire have trying to close even more of the facilities.

Researchers also found that local probation departments hadn’t gotten much more effective than they were in 2007. The departments are chronically underfunded, and supported mostly with county funding. Researchers studied hundreds of treatment programs employed at the county level, and suggested that counties weren’t always connecting the right child with the right treatment—a mismatch, they said, that “can also increase the likelihood a youth will come into contact with the justice system.”

Before a courtroom full of policy experts and reporters, Whitmire,who’s been one of the Legislature’s chief architects of the juvenile justice reforms, said he was looking forward to improving the system further. “From a global perspective, this is why you run for office, quite frankly,” he said.

Juvenile justice reform this session will probably also focus on the role schools play in steering children—disproportionately children of color—into the justice system, and on whether Texas should classify 17-year-olds as juveniles, a shift that other states have made recently, but that Whitmire opposes.

This morning, though, Whitmire suggested that one of the biggest fights this session could be to keep the current reforms in place, especially keeping kids in local probation departments, and out of state lockups far from home.

“We have nine new senators,” Whitmire said. “They have, really, not a great knowledge as we’re drilling down today with what juvenile probation really consists of. They will have a bad press article about a youth doing something horrendous, obviously violent, and they’ll paint with a broad brush. They do not understand … If you’re not close to home, so you’ll go to Giddings or Gainesville, you immediately do not have the professional help for drug or alcohol, you’re obviously away from your family.

“Some of my colleagues will say, ‘Oh you just want ‘em to be comfortable.’ No, I’m not trying to make them comfortable. I’m trying to turn their lives around.”

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State Rep. Molly White (R-Belton)

Freshman Rep. Molly White (R-Belton) is a fireball, and we knew that. Fiercely pro-life—she blames her two abortions for a history of substance abuse and mental anguish—she might be the only member of the Legislature to haul around plastic models of fetuses in her SUV. But she’s also a woman of the world, and abortion is not her only issue. Today, as part of an interfaith lobbying effort, a group of Texas Muslims descended on the Capitol to meet legislators. White left her staff specific instructions as to how to deal with the suspicious interlocutors, and was proud enough to post them on Facebook:

Today is Texas Muslim Capital day [sic] in Austin. The House is in recess until Monday. Most Members including myself are back in District. I did leave an Israeli flag on the reception desk in my office with instructions to staff to ask representatives from the Muslim community to renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws. We will see how long they stay in my office.

White sees the Muslims in her office as an enemy. One might make the assumption that Muslims looking to meet their elected representatives are a different subset than jihadis, but this is not within White’s power. Apart from the odd use of the Israeli flag—as if it were a wooden stake, to menace vampires—White’s desire to see every Muslim who has the singular misfortune to wander into her office pledge “allegiance to America” before they commune with an elected officeholder is insulting and dangerous for reasons that should be obvious. Only an idiot would demand White repudiate the butchers of abortion doctors every time she rose to speak about her core issue on the House floor.

By mid-morning, Molly White was trending on Twitter, and she’s going to catch some flak for this. But White’s words are a reminder that anti-Muslim bigotry is a core part of the worldview of the state’s far-right, which fears little more than Islam. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick boycotted the first prayer delivered by an Imam in the Texas Senate back in 2007. Last year, a hijab-clad reporter from UT-Arlington’s student newspaper wrote about her unpleasant experiences at the Republican Party of Texas’ convention. Cathie Adams, a former chairwoman of the state GOP, has been traveling the state educating tea party groups to the fact that important figures in the national Republican hierarchy and the intelligence community are secret Muslims.

Now, the Texas House has a leader not afraid to speak her mind—and that’s a frightening thought.

Conservatives took to social media after yesterday's ruling to express support for the governor.
Twitter
Conservatives took to social media after yesterday's ruling to express support for the governor.

Rick Perry, of course, is no longer governor, so the get-together he and his legal team arranged today took place not in his old official digs, but in a meeting room at the Omni Hotel in Austin. The raised speaking platform his team had assembled for the press conference put Perry’s head close to the Lone Star Room’s drab ceiling. American and Texan flags had been placed to the side of the podium, to give the ex-governor an official kind of flair, for the benefit of the national press corps that will elevate Perry—or not—to the rank of Presidential Contender as the year goes on. There were, truth be told, not that many of them in the seats.

Yesterday, Perry lost an early bid to get the felony indictments against him tossed by Judge Bert Richardson, a Republican, who is presiding over the case. The indictments were roundly dismissed by national observers when they dropped, but now seem likely to stick around for quite a while. It was widely perceived as a setback for his legal team—but Perry and his lawyers David Botford and Tony Buzbee sounded upbeat.

“Yesterday’s ruling didn’t change the fundamental argument that I’ve made from day one,” Perry said, “that a governor has a constitutional right to exercise line-item veto authority in Texas.”

He was the victim of persecution. “Under our constitution everyone has the right to speak their mind freely, without political interference or legal prosecution,” Perry said. Special prosecutor Michael McCrum’s case “directly assaults the United States Constitution.”

The indictments, in case you’ve lost track, relate to Perry’s bid to dethrone a local elected official, Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, who had publicly disgraced herself during a drunk driving episode.

The key thing: Lehmberg had control over a major state ethics watchdog, the Public Integrity Unit. Perry alternately cajoled Lehmberg, offering to let her take another job instead, and threatened her office. Perry ultimately cut state funding for the PIU, which interrupted corruption investigations into state government misdealings.

The judge seemed to treat McCrum’s arguments fairly skeptically, but nonetheless held that the case needed to proceed, at least for now. But Perry’s lawyers can appeal, which means that an actual trial might not start until next year. And it’s an important year for Perry—he’s hoping against hope that with Oopsghazi in his rear-view mirror, he can prove F. Scott Fitzgerald wrong.

Tony Buzbee,  a member of Perry's legal team, reads a statement.
Tony Buzbee, a member of Perry’s legal team, reads a statement.

So, the next months will bring a lot of bluster and bluff from his legal team. The louder they are in attempting to discredit their enemy, McCrum, the better the headlines are for their client, and the more Republicans will rally to his cause.

Perry spoke for just two minutes, and his lawyers spoke for just a few minutes more. They would move swiftly, they said. They would be dropping daisy cutters on McCrumb. “Understand: We’re not going to let any grass grow under our feet,” said Buzbee, causing Perry and Botford to smile at each other and bob their heads. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Fortunately for Perry, the national press has never been that interested in Perry’s case or his history of shady dealings in state government, and they seem unlikely to get more interested now even though the case looks a little more durable now than it did last week.

When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie did that thing with the bridge, the most consequential thing to come of it was that the national media starting paying attention to other skeletons in Christie’s closet. But that hasn’t happened here—national reporters on the 2016 beat aren’t overly curious about Perry’s past, and the context of the PIU veto.

Maybe that’s because the presidential race is still young, and maybe it’s partly because reporters don’t want to waste time on a guy they figure won’t last through the South Carolina primary. Maybe it’s because the flight time from Washington, D.C. and New York City to Austin is so long.

At any rate, coverage of Perry confirms that most #2016 stories tell us extremely little about the quality and character of the emerging presidential candidates, and instead centers mostly on how they choose to position themselves, and their brief interactions with each other, which can be fascinating in its own way, but is more or less all noise. All of us in the media do it, partly because it’s easy.

Today’s press conference was an exercise in messaging. One reporter asked Perry: “Will this affect your run for the White House?”

Perry took the mic and answered energetically, without denying the premise. “No, we’re gonna continue on. As a matter of fact, we’re just back from South Carolina. Where we had great crowds and great enthusiasm. We spent two days in Iowa, again, an opportunity to talk to people. What I hear overwhelmingly from folks out there is great support for standing up for the Constitution. Americans are looking for a leader who’s not afraid to stand up. Not be intimidated.”

In other words, Perry wants to be both persecuted and a champion. Perry will stand up to Putin, and he’ll stand up to McCrum. Can he spin this into a winning narrative? Last night, the GOP’s leading lights, including many of his future presidential campaign rivals like Ted Cruz, Scott Walker and Rand Paul, lined up behind the ex-guv on social media: They told the world they’d #StandWithRick.

It might have warmed the governor’s heart, but he should be careful. Yesterday’s ruling means Perry’s case might go on for quite a while: That expression of solidarity, from Paul to Cruz to Walker, already has an edge of pity.

Greater State columnist Michelle Garcia
Jen Reel
Michelle García

As a kid I learned that being Texan meant having an independent spirit, big trucks, boots and good manners. We had all of that in South Texas, but I also noticed that the Texas myth did not include Latinas. After I landed in college, I saw that the mastheads and bylines in most Texas publications made clear who were the recognized arbiters of our world, and whose opinions counted. Not seeing much of a future in Texas, I set off north.

The Texas myth narrates our past and often defines our present, informing seemingly rational decisions. Powerful stories convince us to vote against our self-interests and shape whom we believe we can love. We can see our Texas narrative reflected in policy, politics and policing.

In late November, an Austin man, described by police as a “homegrown extremist” and “terrorist” fueled by anti-immigrant hate, went on a shooting rampage. Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo vividly described how a police officer shot the gunman. “As he held two horses with one hand, he discharged at least one round with a single-handed shot,” Acevedo said. “That’d be one heck of a shot.”

The made-for-Hollywood image is what we might call True Texan. But it left me cold that police brass characterized a violent confrontation as if it were a scene from a Western. That’s the power of the Texas story: It enlivens the spirit, but it can also serve as blinders, deflecting attention from our real problems.

In 2009, Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw told the Texas Legislature that the “command and control elements” of transnational criminal gangs were located closer to Houston than the border. Yet this summer, an influx of Central American children at the Texas-Mexico border triggered a deployment of state police and the National Guard. That made for a powerful visual but it’s unclear what problem, if any, it solved.

Many of the common notions of “us” draw on a distorted sense of history. I once phoned a city office in Killeen to obtain a police report and, when the clerk mangled the name of her co-worker, I correctly pronounced it, saying, “Oh, Montemayor.” She replied, “Honey, I’m just a white girl from Texas.” The implication was that being white precluded her from speaking Spanish or even properly pronouncing the name of someone whose company she kept for eight hours a day, five days a week. By extension, claiming Texas meant disavowing Spanish.

Into the mid-1800s multiple languages were spoken in Texas. Indeed, the street signs of San Antonio could be read in English, Spanish and German. Juan Seguín and Jose Antonio Navarro, among Texas’ founding fathers, conducted their dealings in Spanish, historian Raul Ramos told me, and Seguín shepherded legislation to fund the translation of laws and regulations into Spanish.

In our mythmaking, we decide who counts as “us.” A few years back, an El Paso activist handed me a report prepared for city officials that offered rebranding solutions for that border city. Inside, a photograph of an elderly Latino man driving a truck, representing “old” El Paso, was juxtaposed with the image of “new” El Paso—a young, white, seemingly upwardly mobile couple. In the years since, the city has given its blessing to the demise of “old” El Paso by permitting the demolition of historic buildings that embody a cross-border history as true to our frontier spirit as a single-handed shot.

When we write certain people—black, brown, poor—out of the Texas myth, policymakers tend to make decisions that benefit the few. In Austin, city officials are debating whether to convert more than 700 acres of parkland into a PGA golf course. Austin is defining its public face by choosing whether public lands should be in the service of the working class or a select elite. After all, who plays golf?

After years of reporting on Texas but keeping my distance, I had to choose whether to become a prisoner of my tales or revisit them, with matured eyes and wisdom. I decided to return to Texas. With that mission in mind, I inaugurate this column. Bylines and mastheads remain woefully unreflective of our Texas, but the folks at the Observer have invited me to contribute to a change. I will explore the state of our state with a focus on defining the myths and stories that shape our politics and policies, but that can also inspire us to undertake the path to a greater self, a greater state.

Sen. Jane Nelson and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick
Kelsey Jukam
Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick released the first draft of the Senate's budget plan Tuesday morning.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson released the first draft of the Senate’s budget plan Tuesday morning, outlining a proposal which places a heavy emphasis on tax cuts and transportation funding. Nelson’s budget, she told reporters in her characteristically upbeat manner, was “compassionate” yet fiscally restrained, a document that would “create a Texas miracle tomorrow that will surpass the Texas miracle of today.”

In pursuit of that “miracle” the Senate has drawn up a $205.1 billion budget for 2016-2017, up 1.5 percent from the previous biennium’s $202 billion budget. The House’s budget proposal, released the first week of the session, was just $202.4 billion.

The Senate’s proposed budget is higher than the House budget in part because it includes $4 billion in tax cuts—$3 billion of property tax cuts and $1 billion of cuts to the franchise tax, Texas’ business tax. “We have an obligation to return a large share of dollars to the people that worked hard and gave us that money in the first place,” Nelson said.

Patrick and Nelson talked about the need to restrict property tax growth—the tax is levied by localities, not the state—but the Senate budget attempts to compensate by giving more state aid to school districts.

After talking up the budget’s approach to taxes, transportation and border security, Nelson rounded to the topic of public education, which she said “is a priority for us.” The Senate budget actually adds about $2.5 billion to public education, but that’s only to compensate for an expected enrollment increase of 83,000 students—in other words, there’s no attempt to return to the level of school funding that existed before 2011’s enormous cuts.

Eva DeLuna Castro, a policy analyst at the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities, says that proposed education funding is still “way lower” than what is needed to carry out standardized testing and curriculum requirements.

The Texas Department of Transportation fares better. Through a number of funding sources, including 2014’s Proposition 1, which diverts money from the Rainy Day Fund to the State Highway Fund, Nelson said an additional $5 billion over the biennium would be made available to TxDOT, allowing the agency to jump-start new construction projects. That might be too optimistic. According to Castro, TxDOT has said that it needs $8 to $10 billion over the biennium just to maintain the present level of congestion and keep up with current projects.

As part of that increase in funds for TxDOT, Nelson’s budget eliminates diversions from the gas tax, which has been used, in recent years, for the budget of the Department of Public Safety. Money for DPS will now have to come from general revenue. There’s also a one-time $1.2 billion infusion for TxDOT from motor vehicle sales taxes, which normally feed into the rest of the state’s budget.

The budget proposal also allocates $2.6 billion for mental health programs. This is the same as last year’s budget, although Nelson noted that certain programs that fall under the mental health umbrella would see an increase in funding. Texas is spends less money on mental health services than nearly every other state in the country.

The budget also allocates $815 million for border security—a significant increase from previous years, and more than double what was in the House’s proposal. It adds $60 million for graduate medical education and $50 million for women’s health.

Nelson’s committee will begin its deliberations on the base budget tomorrow morning, before the House has even formed its committees. The early start on appropriations is one way Patrick’s Senate is hoping to get a jump on the less-conservative House.

At the press conference today, Patrick said he was front-loading the Senate calendar to avoid chaos as the Lege winds down months from now. But it also serves to put his priorities first in line.

The House budget proposal, released two weeks ago, more or less punted on the tougher budgetary questions, keeping spending roughly flat in most areas. The tax cuts Nelson and Patrick are proposing will be driving much of the Legislature’s conversation about the budget going forward.

At the start of the press conference, Patrick teased a tardy reporter who said he’d been over by the House chamber. “Why?” Patrick asked. “This is where the action’s gonna be this session.”

If you want to follow along at home, Nelson’s budget bill is Senate Bill 2. Later, Nelson will file Senate Bill 1, legislation that will deal with the specifics of cutting property taxes, Patrick said.

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