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Chef John Tesar
johntesar.com
Chef John Tesar

Last July, Dallas bad-boy chef John Tesar (who won’t hesitate to casually remind you that he’s buddies with ur-bad-boy chef Anthony Bourdain) apparently had some wine and took to Twitter to tell Dallas Morning News food critic Leslie Brenner exactly what he thought of her: “fuck you ! Your reviews are misleading poorly written, self serving and you have destroyed the star system and you really suck” [sic, sic, etc.]

Eater, the online restaurant news-and-gossip empire of which I am a former Austin editor, jumped on Tesar’s tweet, and chefs both known (think Mario Batali) and unknown lined up to defend Tesar’s willingness to talk back to a powerful critic, if not his delivery.

Tesar’s outburst—which was brought on by a pretty fair three-star review of his restaurant Knife in the Morning News—opened a festering wound in a food-journalism community that’s struggling to find its footing in a world where Yelp, Twitter and Facebook have democratized criticism and undermined the power of big-name print critics.

Tesar told me he just wanted to start a conversation about who gets to play tastemaker in these uncertain times, and he wants to see an end to a star-based rating system he believes encourages diners to write off restaurants too easily. But he followed his incendiary tweet with what can only be called an online harassment campaign targeting Brenner. He threatened to release photos of the critic, who until late 2014 had operated in traditional restaurant-reviewer anonymity. He called her a “terrible narcissistic person” and wrote a scathing letter to her bosses, accusing her of violating journalistic ethics.

The paper stood by its critic, and Brenner responded with aplomb, dropping the anonymity—a move she told me she’d been preparing even before the Tesar kerfuffle. The Morning News published her portrait.

It sounds so simple: chefs cook, critics review. To borrow a phrase from Ina Garten: How easy is that? But with the rise of the Food Network and foodie-tainment like Top Chef, chefs are grappling with the balance between simply cooking and the temptation to build personal brands on the festival-and-TV circuit.

The terrain is also changing for traditional restaurant critics and food journalists, who now compete with an Internet-empowered commentariat for influence at a time when daily newspapers and glossy magazines are shedding full-time food critics.

Brenner told me she enjoys the competition, which she says makes her a better writer. At the same time, the new cults of personality (around chefs and writers alike) mean that talent doesn’t always win out. Controversy plays especially well online, even when it’s unwarranted. People love a good Facebook fight.

Brenner has been on the receiving end of legitimate criticism—none of it particularly unusual in the hyper-vigilant world of food writers. There’s the 2010 “barbecuegate” incident, wherein she was accused of plagiarizing the work of current Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn back when he was but a wee blogger. Over the years she’s made some factual errors and issued some corrections, which aren’t especially uncommon in journalism.

But Tesar’s vitriol has largely obscured his original intention and his perhaps legitimate complaint. His palpable anger at Brenner—he needed no prompting to launch into an hour-long rant about her when I called him for this story—situates him as little more than another Twitter troll. And it’s no secret that women—particularly women journalists—get much more than their fair share of abuse online.

Some Dallas chefs and restaurateurs who initially joined Tesar in public opposition to what they believe is Brenner’s intentional capriciousness—they claim she unfairly targets specific chefs and restaurants and withholds information that would enable them to meet four- or five-star criteria—have distanced themselves from Tesar after a December Washington Post feature on the feud.

Things have simmered down, as it were, over the last few months. Brenner told me she is excited to be newly non-anonymous, meeting the readers from whom she hid her face for most of her six-year career at the newspaper. She’s blocked Tesar on social media.

But Tesar is holding firm. He says he wants to see an end to the star system. He wants critics to ignore bad restaurants and cover the good ones. He wants critics to do more or less what Tesar wants them to do.

It may be true that star ratings encourage laziness in some readers, but Tesar’s singular obsession with Brenner makes his beef seem more than a little overdone. If he can’t take some mild heat, well, you know what they say about kitchens.

A family looks on as a world  devoid of plastic bags and full of gay marriages is consumed by flames.
A family looks on as a world devoid of plastic bags and full of gay marriages is consumed by flames.

Like Lt. Gov. Patrick Dan, I don’t know if the end days are today or a thousand years from now.

But it sure as hell feels like they may already be here.

Moms pulling guns on 14-year-old rivals of their daughters. Firefighters shooting dogs and posting photos of the deed on Facebook. Llamas willfully disobeying traffic laws. Rick Perry, foreign policy expert.

While we wait for the seven-headed, 10-horned red dragon to appear, there’s plenty of bidness to get done. Let’s get to it.

1) Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) is growing into a RINO right before our eyes. Tea partiers, they grow up so fast. Earlier this week, Campbell presented her bill to keep the United Nations from Boutros Boutros Ghali-ing the Alamo. Senate Bill 191, Campbell explained, would “prevent vesting any ownership, control, or management of the Alamo to a foreign company or any entity formed under the laws of another country.”

Now, it just so happens that UNESCO is considering the Alamo as a World Heritage Site. This would put the Alamo in the company of the Statue of Liberty, the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China. Kind of a big deal—and one supported by almost every San Antonio civic leader and Alamo booster.

At the committee hearing on Tuesday, Campbell insisted her bill had nothing to do with UNESCO, but also warned her peers that “anything that starts with the ‘UN’ gives me cause for concern.” (Take that UNited States!)

Campbell seemed to think that Antonio López de Santa Anna had been reincarnated as a blue-helmeted UN-ista eager to reclaim the Alamo. As the San Antonio Current Express-News delicately put it, “Donna Campbell’s plan to protect the Alamo from the U.N. isn’t going well.”

But on Wednesday, Campbell was waving the white flag: In a statement to Fox 29, she said, “I’m comfortable with the U.N. recognizing the Alamo as a World Heritage Site so long as Texans continue to own, control, and manage the official Shrine of Texas Liberty.”

One way to describe this is as a flip-flop. Another way is to say Donna Campbell was against U.N. control of the Alamo before she was against it. Still another is that she’s becoming the statesman we always knew she was.

All’s I know is, there may not be a basement at the Alamo, but there’s an attic, where we keep our politicians.

 

2) Meanwhile, some of our legislators are tackling our thorniest problems. No, not the threat of a super-mega-drought in the Southwest unlike anything modern civilization has ever survived. No, not the thousands of people literally dying from lack of health care. No, not the state’s crumbling infrastructure. No, not the fact that the rich are seceding from the rest of us. Our Leaders For Liberty™  have bigger things to worry about. Like: plastic bags. More specifically, liberating plastic bags from local government overreach.

Imagine: a world in which city councils pass ordinances strongly disincentivizing the use of plastic bags in an effort to reduce the incidence of said bags littering the local byways, parks and Big Lots! parking lots. A world where one is forced to bring one’s own tote bag (everyone’s an NPR liberal now) to the H-E-B. A world where businesses no longer have the right to provide a single-use plastic bag to a customer (or, bags, since those damn things always seem to rip unless the clerk double-bags one’s milk and one’s Hungry Man frozen dinner.)

Imagine: Austin, Brownsville, Dallas, Laredo.

State Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R-Irving) doesn’t want to live in that world. There’s no bag ban in his district… yet. But it’s right at the doorstep. Look it up: Domino Theory.

Others have come before in this fight. But now it’s Rinaldi’s turn. He has responded with House Bill 1939, which would establish a “RIGHT OF BUSINESS TO PROVIDE BAG TO CUSTOMER” and repeal all existing plastic-bag regulations in Texas. Call it the Freedom Bags Restoration Act of 2015.

Are the bag bans a silly effort for local elected officials to look like they’re doing something bold for the environment? Maybe. Are state GOP leaders, including Greg Abbott, weirdly obsessed with the decisions of every level of government but their own. You decide.

3) Finally, the gays. How far they’ve come! How upset that makes some people!  Almost 10 years ago, 13 percent of Texas voters voted for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Now that ban looks more fragile with every day as public opinion continues to shift in favor of marriage equality, the courts mow down same-sex marriage bans and two women got married in Travis County in a bit of a fluke.

In short, it’s the End Times. What to do?

One: Have a pity party with a cake celebrating a law that has been declared unconstitutional in 37 states and counting.

Two: Hand-write a complaint to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct about that Travis County judge that married those ladies. Bonus: Be so pro-straight marriage that you’ve gotten married five times.


Three: Do nothing. Wait for the end of days. They’ll be here soon.

Following Abbott’s Lead, House Members Propose Pre-K Grants

$100 million program would stop short of funding full-day pre-kindergarten
State Rep. Dan Huberty
State Rep. Dan Huberty

There’s widespread support around the Capitol for more state spending on pre-kindergarten programs, and much less agreement about how to do it.

State Reps. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) and Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown) have proposed a $300-million-a-year plan to fund full-day pre-K for some children in districts that agree to meet new quality standards. Meanwhile, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) has introduced a more ambitious plan: universal, full-day pre-K for all 4-year-olds in the state.

On the campaign trail last year, Gov. Greg Abbott also proposed more pre-K spending, but more cautiously. Rather than a blanket pre-K expansion, Abbott suggested rewarding districts with $1,500 per student if they meet new standards for program quality.

That’s the plan outlined in House Bill 4, filed today by state Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston). The bill creates a framework for defining the “high quality prekindergarten programs” eligible for extra state funding, but remains vague on how much each school district would get and how their programs would be evaluated. Under HB 4, those decisions would all be left up to the education commissioner.

Huberty formally unveiled his bill at a press conference Thursday morning. Flanked by House budget and education leaders, he said the House budget would include $100 million for the new pre-K program, the Texas Tribune reported. In a statement today, Huberty said many districts would qualify for the extra money with programs they already have in place. The bill, he said, would provide “up to” $1,500 per student on top of the $3,650 the state funds today.

That isn’t nearly enough to cover the cost of full-day pre-K, so the bill falls short of what many early education advocates have recently favored. In a statement Thursday afternoon, Rep. Johnson said that high-quality pre-K “is by definition full-day prekindergarten.”

He and Farney will now have to fight to win House members over to a plan that’s more ambitious, and three times as expensive, as the governor’s preferred pre-K plan. Johnson’s office offered a reminder of the advocacy groups and civic leaders around the state that support a full-day program like the one in his bill.

David Anthony, CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas and a former superintendent of Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, says HB 4 includes some important elements—encouraging districts to use the state pre-K standards, and rewarding districts for using qualified teachers—but the bill is a missed opportunity if it doesn’t fund full-day learning.

Our research shows students achieve the greatest gains when enrolled in high-quality, full-day pre-K,” Anthony says, with an emphasis on “full-day.” “We have seen first-hand in the research and talking with teachers that they can accomplish so much more in a full-day program than with the half-day.”

Full-day programs tend to fit better around working parents’ schedules. The state doesn’t track how each school district’s pre-K programs run, but a recent survey by the nonprofit Children At Risk found that 47 percent of Texas districts are paying to offer full-day programs beyond what the state covers.

Anthony says he’s worried districts that already fund their full-day programs will be temporarily satisfied with a little extra money from the state. That could relieve the pressure that’s been building lately to create a strong full-day system. “Our concern is they’re gonna see $1,500—that’s better than what they’ve been getting—and thinking that maybe there’s no need for further conversation.”

Until a few years ago, the Legislature offered more than $200 million in grants to help districts expand their pre-K programs. But that money was cut along with more than $5 billion in other education funding in 2011.

Compared to the old program, says Center for Public Policy Priorities analyst Chandra Villanueva, Huberty’s $100 million plan doesn’t look so exciting.

“Right now it looks like the governor’s proposal [as written in HB 4] is basically recreating a similar grant program,” she says. “This program just isn’t going far enough and meeting the needs that we really have.”

Villanueva, like many other early education advocates, says the Legislature should fund any pre-K expansion through the same funding formulas it uses to pay for K-12 education. Grant programs like the one cut in 2011, or the one proposed under HB 4, are much more susceptible to cuts from one session to the next.

Funding pre-K through the formulas, she says, would also help ensure students get more equal funding. HB 4, on the other hand, could reward wealthy districts that already have the money to meet new requirements for, say, class size or teacher qualifications.

“The governor’s bill that’s outside the formulas, it’s really increasing inequity in the system,” Villanueva says. “I think we need a systemic approach to dealing with pre-K, and increase the equity in the system.”

Lt. Gov and senators
Kelsey Jukam
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson were flanked by other senators, but no Democrats, as they announced a major tax cut plan Tuesday.

As the size of proposed tax cuts keep growing and hurtling toward seemingly inevitable adoption, Senate Democrats are divided.

At a press conference Tuesday, Senate leaders unveiled a new plan for $4.6 billion in tax relief, up from $4 billion in the first draft budget. But Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) stressed that proposal was “bipartisan.” That’s true to a certain extent; five out of 10 Senate Democrats have signed on to at least one part of the tax plan—$2.5 billion in property tax cuts by adjusting the homestead exemption.

Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), one of the five Democrats to sign on to Nelson’s Senate Bill 1, said in a statement that raising the homestead exemption is “the best way to provide every homeowner a break.” Sen. Chuy Hinojosa (D-McAllen), who also co-sponsored the bill, said that SB 1 will let taxpayers “keep more of the dollars they earn.”

The homestead exemption applies to the first $15,000 of a home’s taxable value. If SB 1 becomes law, homeowners will be exempt from paying taxes on 25 percent of the state median home value, which in 2016 is projected to be $134,500. That means the first $33,625 of a home’s worth is exempt from taxes.

At the average total school district tax rate of $1.25 per $100 in property value, SB 1 would save home-owning taxpayers about $233 in 2016.

The plan is also designed to prevent future increases in home values from eroding the tax break—a problem with past attempts at lowering property taxes.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) is skeptical of the benefits of SB 1. She said that although she strongly supports tax relief, she wants to “ensure that any tax relief legislation is meaningful for all Texas families, including those who are not homeowners.”

“Approximately $200 savings a year for homeowners, for example, may not have as great an impact on our state as would investing the $2.5 billion in our public schools or in our higher education system to help reduce tuition for Texas families,” Zaffirini said.

Texas Monthly’s R.G. Ratcliffe has pointed out that the savings from Nelson’s proposal will differ significantly from place to place in Texas. For homeowners in some areas—where values are “stagnant or declining”—the tax break is a “windfall,” he wrote. But homeowners who live in areas where property values are rapidly rising—Austin and Houston, for example—may not see their tax bills reduced. The tax relief will just keep these homeowner’s bills from going up as quickly—similar to how President Barack Obama described Obamacare as “bending the cost curve.”

The homestead exemption package also doesn’t directly help apartment-dwellers or other renters.

The property tax proposal also won some Democratic support because the state will make sure schools don’t lose any funding from the property tax reductions.

But that’s just to keep the school districts from being any worse off than they already are, said Eva DeLuna Castro, an analyst with the progressive Center for Public Policy Priorities. So although the state might be giving more aid to schools than it currently does, the schools will still be under-funded.

That worries Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso).

“If we decide to pass this legislation, the state needs to live up to its responsibility to adequately fund education,” Rodriguez said. “As it is, school districts are still recovering from cuts the state made in 2011, and we have hanging over our heads a district court ruling that our school funding system is inadequate and inequitable.”

Rodriguez doesn’t think that tax cuts in an already low-tax state should be a priority over access to quality education, or other infrastructure needs like health care, roads, water and pensions.

But if there have to be any tax cuts at all, progressive advocacy groups like the CPPP and Texas Forward agree that the homestead exemption is the way to go. The proposed homestead exemption is “a lot more noticeable for people at the bottom” of the economic spectrum says DeLuna Castro. It’s “progressive” policy to give almost every homeowner the same exemption, rather than structure reforms that largely benefit those with expensive homes, said DeLuna Castro.

Sen. Jane Nelson
Kelsey Jukam
Sen. Jane Nelson authored SB 1 and SB 7.

That’s probably why more Democrats are on board with the homestead exemption than the other proposed tax cuts, which reduce the tax burdens of Texas businesses. Four Democrats are co-sponsors of  Senate Bill 7, which would permanently reduce the franchise tax—the state’s primary business tax—by 15 percent for all businesses, shrinking the tax rolls by $1.5 billion.

Only three Democrats have signed onto Senate Bill 8—filed by Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown)—which would exempt businesses with an annual revenue of less than $4 million from paying the franchise tax.

Hinojosa is one of the few Democratic supporters.

“For many small businesses struggling to make it, the franchise tax represents an unnecessary and burdensome tax that limits job growth and economic investment,” Hinojosa said in a statement.

He noted that SB 8 will exempt more than 61,000 businesses that would otherwise pay the state’s franchise tax. But small businesses with less than $1 million in gross receipts are already exempt from paying the franchise tax, and seven out of eight Texas businesses currently pay no franchise tax, according to the public investment advocacy group Texas Forward.

Gov. Greg Abbott has previously vowed that he won’t sign any budget that does not significantly lower—if not eliminate—the franchise tax. Lt. Gov Dan Patrick said that he and other senators want to eventually eliminate the franchise tax altogether. But that would be a cut totaling $9 billion, according to DeLuna Castro.

“That would eat up all the available general revenue, so no one is really taking that seriously,” DeLuna Castro said.

Although Watson supports the homestead exemption proposal, he said in a statement he couldn’t “get behind cutting the franchise tax.”

“It would be irresponsible to cut off an important stream of revenue before we know what the Legislature’s obligations will be to fulfill its constitutional responsibility to Texas schoolchildren,” he said in the statement.

Will Francis, co-chair of Texas Forward’s Steering Committee, says that businesses got their tax cuts last session, and now they need to “put their fair share” into essential state services like education and healthcare. Francis, who is also the government relations director for the Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said that “there’s a volatility of resources” in Texas. While there may be a surplus in the budget now, he said, the economic fortunes of the state could quickly change.

At least one Senate Republican agrees. Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler)—who didn’t sign onto either SB 1 or SB 7—told the Quorum Report that “we have got to meet the needs of the state before we cut taxes,” and noted that state pensions, the highway system and health care for teachers are all underfunded.

Patrick has claimed that even with the tax cuts, the budget has plenty of room to address other needs, including education, pensions and roads, but he didn’t say on Tuesday how these other needs might be funded, only that they’d be addressed in the coming weeks. DeLuna Castro said that while the money is available lawmakers have limited their options because of an unwillingness to raise the constitutional spending cap or touch the Rainy Day Fund.

“The issue isn’t available revenue,” DeLuna Castro said. “It’s ‘we don’t want to.’”

Nelson said that next week the Senate Finance Committee will hear any tax relief bill from any senator.

Robert Nichols
State Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) is playing a leading role in transportation funding overhauls this session.

The story of Texas government is, by and large, the story of robbing Peter to pay Paul, and then promising to pay Peter back with Polly or Pedro’s money. The Legislature finds it pretty easy to hack money out of the budget in hard times, but balks at restoring funding during flush times.

So, how to pay for urgent needs? In those good times, like now, the Legislature goes looking for Peter to shake down. Today’s hard choice comes in the form of Senate Bill 5 and Senate Joint Resolution 5, both authored by state Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville), the chair of the Senate Committee on Transportation. Both passed out of Nichols’ committee 8-1 today.

Nichols’ legislation would take about half of the taxes generated by the sale of motor vehicles and give it to the state highway fund. Normally this money goes into the general revenue fund, which is the giant pot of money the Legislature uses to pay for education, health care and almost anything else that state agencies do. (The highway fund would actually receive a little less than half at first—the tax generates about $4 billion a year, and his proposal would have the first $2.5 billion go to general revenue, the next $2.5 billion go to the highway fund, with both funds taking half of whatever comes after.)

The Texas Department of Transportation badly needs the money—the agency has estimated it requires $10 billion in additional funding each biennium just to handle the current level of congestion in the highway system. And, as Nichols said in his opening remarks, TxDOT needs to know the money will be there. “They need to have reasonable assurances six, eight, 10 years out how much money they’re going to count on, so they can begin the process for these big projects require,” Nichols said,

Nearly every legislator would like TxDOT to be made whole, if for no other reason than almost everyone uses the state’s transportation network—unlike, say, public schools and state health services. And an impressive coalition of movers and shakers has coalesced behind Nichols’ plan. On Wednesday, a press conference with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also featured the kind of panel of besuited white businessmen that convene at the Capitol when something big is about to happen.

But there was also some discomfort at today’s committee hearing, from both the left and the right. State Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood) said that the new funding for TxDOT amounted to a drop in the bucket—he’d like to see more of the auto sales tax receipts go to road funding.

But others on the committee worried primarily about the opposite—the effect that pulling money from general revenue would have on the rest of the budget. State Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), in particular, asked how redirecting billions of dollars from the general revenue fund was complementary with the Legislature’s tax cut ambitions.

“If we take that out, how do we make it up? I know we say, it’s good not to raise taxes,” said Ellis. “How do we pay for this? It’s a very important concept, and something we do need to do. But I saw everybody yesterday feeling real good about giving some of our money back in property tax relief.”

He’d said he’d prefer that his personal property tax rebate be reinvested in infrastructure. “I guess my home might be worth a little bit more than the average cost of a home in my district, but I’d get my $180 and put it back into roads, to be honest with you,” Ellis said. “I’m just wondering how we do it all.”

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are hell-bent on passing tax cuts large enough that people notice—part of their compact with GOP primary voters. That’s what makes Nichols’ proposals difficult. If the state had plenty of money, connecting TxDOT to a steady revenue stream would be a no-brainer. But the Legislature’s current budget proposals are packed with spending items, and some of the tax cut proposals legislators are floating would restrict the ability of the state to take in revenue in the future.

In a recent editorial calling for the Legislature to fund real needs before cutting taxes, the San Antonio Express-News collected legislators’ competing budget promises and declared that “even a Ginsu knife might not be able to slice this budget fine enough.”

State Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay), no flaming liberal, voted for Nichols’ plan but said he was wary of tying the hands of future legislators, who might need the money for something else.

“I have a huge reservation about the dedication of funds and the lack of the Legislature’s discretionary ability,” says Fraser. Nichols’ SJR 5 would ask voters to enshrine the rerouting of the vehicle sales tax in the Texas Constitution, something that would be  difficult to undo. Fraser said he would “continue to explore whether it’s good public policy to dedicate” funds, he said. “But I’m going to vote for this bill to move this process along.”

Freshman state Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) was having none of it. “We’ve had 30 years … to put money into highways and we haven’t done it,” he said. “The only way we’re going to make a forced savings plan is to put it in a constitutional amendment.”

That irked Fraser a bit. With “respect,” he told Huffines, “you’ve only been here about a month. Some of us have been here for a long time.” There’s a “learning curve of institutional knowledge” to be acquired. Huffines laughed amiably.

Transportation has been named one of the governor’s emergency items, meaning the Senate can take up Nichols’ plan immediately. On Wednesday, Patrick said he expected the Senate to pass the bills as early as next week.

Greater State columnist Michelle Garcia
Jen Reel
Michelle García

To hear some of our elected officials, you might think that Texas and its politics belong to the world of miracles. In their Texas, men have little need for education when they can miraculously pull in six figures driving tractor-trailers or extracting the earth’s God-given wealth through the alchemy of fracking. In miracle world, a fat oil-and-gas royalty check landing in the mailbox is a more realistic expectation than health insurance. To our leaders, governing requires an unshakeable faith in the Texas Miracle, the presumption that a slash-and-burn approach to unions, taxes and regulation has produced economic gains and job growth.

Talk of miracles, however, ignores the multitude who toil at, or slightly above, the federal minimum wage rate of $7.25 an hour and make Texas a national leader in low-paying work. In our real world, raising the minimum wage to $10.10 would mean a shot in the wallet for an estimated 1.95 million working Texans, according to the Economic Policy Institute. That’s nearly as many workers as 20 other states combined, with an additional 920,000 Texas workers potentially benefiting through a ripple effect.

Who stands to gain the most from this proposed increase? Women. They account for 55 percent of low-wage workers and 65 percent of minimum-wage earners. But too many of our political leaders, women are mere vessels for the miracle of life. And that miracle is subject to the laws and costs of medicine. In the working world, where real women live, Texas’ reproductive health battles represent a class struggle.

According to an analysis by Oxfam America, South Texas, where state cuts to women’s health programs in 2013 gutted services, has one of the highest concentrations of low-wage workers in the U.S. In just two congressional districts between San Antonio and the border, some 130,000 workers stand to benefit from a wage increase, most of them women.

It’s no surprise that women in South Texas cited cost as the No. 1 barrier to contraception in a report by the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. In a survey of 318 Texas women seeking abortions in late 2012, 45 percent said they were unable to afford their preferred method of birth control the month before becoming pregnant.

Not raising the minimum wage, though, works a particular magic. It reinforces the notion, often repeated in the press and by politicians, that South Texas is “plagued with poverty” or “poverty-stricken,” as if the working poor were the result of a higher power, not policymakers in Austin.

Alas, Texas pols govern with a peculiar brand of miracles. A higher minimum wage increases the price of goods, Gov.-elect Greg Abbott said on a Houston radio show. Somehow the rich, whose growing wealth is helping drive the state’s inequality, are exempt from this “logic.” However, the U.S. Department of Labor found that job growth actually increased in 13 states that raised their minimum wage. Betting on economics, some 29 states and the District of Columbia have now raised their minimum wage, helping an estimated 2.3 million working people. Miraculously, these states include the red territories of South Dakota and Alaska.

But in the Texas Capitol, homespun often prevails over science, and economic models are traded for the Good Book. “Biblically, the poor are always going to be with us in some form or fashion,” former Gov. Rick Perry told The Washington Post by way of explaining why the state does not “grapple” with a growing chasm between rich and poor.

Perry conveniently omitted the rest of the passage, which refers to helping the poor, and he overlooked the original Old Testament reference with its instruction to be “open-handed” with the poor. Let’s also recall that glorious day some 2,000 years ago when five loaves of bread and two fish fed a multitude. A miracle.

Today, our bread is procured at a supermarket after being mixed and kneaded by a woman. Her magic pink sneakers see her through hours on her feet, working two or three low-paying jobs that feed her family. Like the forces behind true miracles, she is unheard and unseen, while working to survive in a world of sweat and blood.

Listen to Michelle García discus her column on “Texas Standard.”

Texas Family Values Rally
Kelsey Jukam
Jonathan Saenz of Texas Values, right, stares at a cardboard wedding cake celebrating Texas' ban on same-sex marriages at a Texas Faith and Freedom Day rally, Feb. 24, 2015.

Hellfire may be licking at Texans’ heels, but bitter cold forced the righteous inside today. For months, groups such as Texas Values and the Texas Eagle Forum had planned to convene for Texas Faith and Family Day and give a mighty rebuke to changing cultural norms on the south steps of the Capitol, a venue that can lend grandeur to even small rallies. Instead, they filled a little more than half of the 350-seat Capitol auditorium.

In Texas, the Christian right did quite well in the 2014 election, but, true to form, social conservatives feel more persecuted than ever. In one respect, their sky really is falling: The state ban on gay marriage looks ready to collapse. There was the one-off marriage of a Travis County couple last week, and there’s a widespread expectation that marriage equality is coming to Texas soon, thanks to either the 5th Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court.

But at the Capitol auditorium today, there was no talk about that elephant in the room. Perhaps that would have been too depressing for the crowd. Instead, like prisoners of war awaiting a dawn execution, event organizers talked about the past. The ringleader was Jonathan Saenz, the anti-gay marriage activist whose ex-wife left him for a woman.

Saenz, who has tirelessly fought against non-discrimination ordinances around the state and who is the most visible face of anti-gay-marriage activism, stood onstage next to two pink-and-white birthday cakes and a facsimile cardboard wedding cake marking the 10th anniversary of the approval—by roughly 13 percent of the state’s voters—of Texas’ constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Might as well celebrate now, because the ban will likely be dead by the actual anniversary of its passage in November 2005.

In some ways, it was still 2005 in the room. The Texas Eagle Forum’s Cathie Adams introduced state Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia), who opened with a joke. “I always take a picture of the audience,” he told the crowd, pulling out his phone, to prove to his wife that he is where he said he would be. After all, “it’s until death do us part, and it’s me she was talking about killing.” Traditional marriage, you see, is the bond between a man and his nagging wife.

Bell is the author of a bill that would bar government employees that help perform or recognize same-sex marriages from getting paid or receiving benefits—one of a number of weird last-ditch efforts to keep the gays at bay. Polls show Texans are more and more in favor of recognizing same-sex unions of some kind. But Bell had a rejoinder to that. “Public polls are conducted by people who want to skew public opinion one way or another,” he softly reassured the crowd.

The sanctity of marriage wasn’t the only subject on the day’s agenda. State Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) rose to speak about his efforts to curb judicial bypass abortions. A slick lawyer could abduct your daughter on her way to school, he told attendees, and help her get an abortion without your knowledge.

It was, he said, the 179th anniversary of William Barret Travis’ famous last letter from the Alamo. Today’s culture wars are similar. “Either we win, or there’s going to be deaths,” Krause said of the fight to end legal abortion. “Victory or death,” he signed off.

Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) rose to talk about his anti-Sharia law bill. Was the bill pointless demagoguery? “Read the news,” Leach told the crowd. The menace of Sharia law was becoming more pressing every day. “There’s no judge in Texas that should even think twice about violating the U.S. Constitution,” Leach said.

Quite a few legislators dropped by, but the disparity between representatives and senators who elected to make the walk to the auditorium speaks volumes about the differences between the two chambers. Among reps, Molly White and Scott Turner (he of the failed speaker bid) came by. But neither they nor any of the event’s other speakers hold much sway in the House—they hail from the party’s fringy side. But the senators who showed are influential, including Brian Birdwell, Charles Perry and Donna Campbell, who’s well on her way from freshman wacko-bird to senior stateswoman. (In a few more cycles, one assumes, she’ll be primaried as a RINO.)

Their leader was there as well, and Campbell introduced Dan Patrick to a standing ovation. “He is our leader, he is strong and he has the same values we do,” she said. “He’s known for his hard work ethic, and he’s a strong family man.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick
Kelsey Jukam
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick speaks to attendees of the Texas Faith and Family Day rally.

No marriage in Texas is as sacred as the marriage between Patrick and his podium, and he showed his great love for it to the crowd. Relaxed and happy, he spoke with the knowledge that he was among friends, though he mostly avoided any talk about issues. Instead, he spoke about his great love for the Bible and his conviction that his allies share that love. What a shame, he said, that he had to wait to find God’s word until he was middle-aged. He mentioned his modestly titled book about the Bible, The Second Most Important Book You’ll Ever Read, written years ago when he was but a mere talk show host.

“I don’t know if the end days are today, or a thousand years from now,” Patrick told the crowd. “That’s why we have to stand for Christ in all that we do.”

A pastor—one of the so-called Houston Five who’ve been involved in a fight with Houston mayor Annise Parker—delivered a closing prayer: “We declare this state to be the sovereign territory of Jesus Christ,” he said, eliciting “amens” from the crowd. It fell to Bell to cut the banniversary cake, with White and Birdwell at his side.

Earlier, Leach had treated the crowd to his favorite Woodrow Wilson quote: “It’s better to temporarily fail at a cause that will ultimately succeed,” he said, “than to temporarily succeed at a cause that will ultimately fail.” On gay-rights issues, the true believers at the Capitol today are convinced they’re doing the former. What will happen when they come to terms with the fact that it’s really been the latter?

A United Nations flag looms large over the Alamo
State Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) has proposed a bill to ban foreign control of the Alamo.

On this day in 1836, a group of Texians battled to save the Alamo from an invading foreign force. They lost.

Today, 179 years later, Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) fought to legally ban foreign control of the Alamo.

To judge from the reaction of the members of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Economic Development, she may lose as well.

After invoking the brave Texans “that stood up for freedom” at the Alamo, Campbell laid out Senate Bill 191.

“The intent of this bill, Senate Bill 191, is to prevent vesting any ownership, control, or management of the Alamo to a foreign company or any entity formed under the laws of another country,” Campbell said.

The state of Texas owns the Alamo, but Campbell appears to be concerned that the United Nations could contaminate the site.

Last year the U.S. Department of the Interior nominated the Alamo for inclusion in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) list of World Heritage Sites.

World Heritage Sites must have “outstanding universal value to humanity,” according to the UNESCO website. The designation doesn’t affect ownership of a site. There are 22 such sites across the United States, including the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall and the Grand Canyon.

Sen. Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio) said Campbell’s bill may send the wrong message to UNESCO.

“World Heritage status is quite a prestigious honor to have bestowed upon the Alamo and the other missions. You would agree with that?” Uresti asked.

“Not necessarily,” Campbell replied.

“My bill is not regarding UNESCO, and I would say that if something saying that Texas owning, operating, and maintaining the Alamo gives cause of concern to the U.N., than that gives me cause for concern,” Campbell said.

Several senators said that as long as the state owns the Alamo there’s no threat from the U.N. or any foreign entity.

Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls) added that he couldn’t imagine Texas would sell the Alamo to a foreign entity with or without the bill.

“I’m trying to figure out what problem we’re trying to solve here,” Estes said.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) asked Campbell if there was support for the bill in San Antonio.

“I don’t know,” Campbell replied.

World Heritage status would positively impact San Antonio’s economy, according to a 2013 report by the Harbinger Consulting Group, boosting economic activity by  $105 million and create 1,100 new jobs.

From 1905 to 2011, the nonprofit group the Daughters of the Republic of Texas was the official caretaker of the Alamo. The group failed to adequately preserve the site, including failing to fix a leaky roof for some 14 years, and misused state funds for the organization’s own benefit, according to a report from the attorney general’s office. In 2011, the Legislature voted to transfer custody of the Alamo to the General Land Office.

Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) asked Campbell about other UNESCO World Heritage Sites across the country.

Campbell said she didn’t know of any.

The committee heard testimony from several witnesses against the bill, including representatives from the Bexar County Commissioners Court and the San Antonio Conservation Society.

“I can tell you anything that starts with the ‘UN’ gives me cause for concern,” Campbell said.

“The Kremlin has a World Heritage designation and [Russian President Vladimir Putin] wanted to change the landscape around the Kremlin, but UNESCO threatened to pull their designation so he couldn’t change the landscape around it, ” Campbell said.

The bill was left pending in committee.

Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 1.26.23 PM

Here in the Patriotic People’s Republic of Kory (почему вы переводите это), things are actually looking up! True, it’s been a hard few weeks. Though our editorial staffers were forced to marry guns in a group ceremony yesterday, a court order won by our extremely competent Attorney General Ken Paxton annulled them (or at least that’s what we’re telling ourselves.)

1) We check in today on GREAT LEADER KORY, who’s developing a personality cult, as all great leaders should. The fear he’s put in the hearts of legislators has won him fans.

One Metroplex writer has been able to put Watkins’ role in the freedom movement in perspective. Read for yourself, on the website of Brett Sanders—the website’s logo renders the B in Brett as a Bitcoin—a feature-length treatment of Watkins: “Patriot Misunderstood, Kory Watkins a Rebel Without a Pause.” (sics throughout.)

There is a man who walks the line in Texas.

Go on…

A Freedom lover, Tarrant County Precinct chair, Radio Show host, Father, Brother, Husband, and Son. Kory Watkins who credits the discovery of Ron Paul for his awakening to the corruption and tyranny in government, and Paul’s strong stance for Freedom and Liberty.

Fair—Watkins is almost indisputably someone’s son. But haven’t a lot of his erstwhile allies denounced his tactics, like shouting at legislators that “treason is punishable by death?”

All the negativity thrown at Mr. Watkins about his choice of methods, have been simply petty and not very relevant. […] Why separate yourself from Samuel Adams and Thomas Jefferson type of Freedom Fighter?

Kory, the author says, is “fighting for the rights of not only himself but countless others. His aggressiveness and the utilization of his Freedoms to express and engage the battle to have our rights restored are trashed by many within the liberty movement.” This Thomas Jefferson look-a-like, in his period-appropriate MRA trilby, is a critical leader—the critical leader—of the state’s gun rights movement. “Just like a defense on any sports team needs an aggressor, an intimidator, one that goes head first into the melee.”

The bill that facilitates the installation of panic buttons in lege offices after Watkins stormed the office of state Rep. Poncho Nevárez was a #FalseFlag operation, says the author, “a pre determined plan” designed to discredit Kory. They’re scared of him because he’s effective.

“Kory is the modern day symbolism of ‘Don’t Tread on Me,’” Sanders writes. “We have been silent and nice for far to long.”

I’m sold. What will Watkins—son, husband, radio host, Thomas Jefferson, linebacker—do once he’s won his gun rights? Among other items, Watkins says he will fight to end “knife and sword regulations.”

Get excited, legislators. Come next session, these guys are going to be wandering around the capitol with broadswords.

Here’s a video of Kory Watkins rapping.

 

2) Ever since state Sen. Don Huffines won his primary bid last year, I’ve been preoccupied with the feeling that his face is familiar. Recently, with the help of the Observer’s photo-analytics team—unpaid interns we’ve pulled from Casis Elementary’s pre-trial diversion program—we’ve cracked it. Huffines bears a striking similarity to ’70s character actor Henry Gibson, of Nashville and The Blues Brothers fame:

Henry Gibson, in The Blues Brothers
Henry Gibson, in The Blues Brothers
Don Huffines, in the Senate
Don Huffines, in the Senate

Could it be a coincidence? Plausible. But eagle-eyed readers will note that “Don Huffines” and “Henry Gibson” share no fewer than seven letters between them, and the keener amongst you will be intrigued to know that Gibson “died” just six years before Huffines made his first bid for elected office. Peek into the dark recesses of this state, and ye know not what ye shall find.

Whatever his real name is, Huffines would like to wish “all the ladies out there” a “happy Valentime’s Day.”

3) Remember Rick Perry? He’s slowly fading from the state’s memory. We find ourselves bathing in the Eternal Sunshine of the Rickless Mind. He has a new video out this week about his great love for a great state. Sing our praises, guv!

“We’re in beautiful New Hampshire, the Granite State,” narrates Yankee Rick, probably slathered in infidel maple syrup and wearing a Patriots jersey. “Granite’s tough and durable, just like the people who live in this fiercely independent state,” Perry says as B-roll of him patting a veteran on the shoulder plays.

Man. Even if you were happy to see him go, it hurts when your one-time lover finds another, doesn’t it? Do all our memories mean nothing, Rick? Just… adios, mofo, like that? In two weeks he’ll be wearing L.L. Bean flannels and bitching about that recent nor’easter. But pancakes are no substitute for brisket, Perry. You’ll regret this. Loyalty, Rick, it used to mean something.

Perry is in New Hampshire because he’s running for president. How is that going? Well, Perry has an easier route to win the Republican nomination than some others, which is not to say that he’ll be successful. It’s actually only a two-step plan:

Step One: Patiently wait until J.E.B. is eaten alive by the Right, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul flame out spectacularly, Scott Walker’s weird fetishes surface and Marco Rubio’s face falls off during a live debate, revealing an intricately machined system of whirring gears.

Step Two: Don’t look like a dolt.

Step One is going OK, inasmuch as Perry is still in the race. Step Two? In New Hampshire, Perry produced a novel historical claim at a county GOP Lincoln-Reagan Day dinner. According to Perry, old Abe “Rebel Annihilator” Lincoln was, it turns out, a vociferous proponent of state’s rights:

“Abraham Lincoln read the Constitution, and he also read the Bill of Rights, and he got down to the Tenth Amendment, and he liked it. That Tenth Amendment that talks about these states, these laboratories of democracy. […] The Tenth Amendment that the federal government is limited, its powers are limited by the Constitution.”

As historian Josh Zeitz writes in Politico Magazine, GOPers have always had a hard time incorporating Lincoln into their political narratives. They like to boast that he was a Republican, but he was a Republican before the American party system inverted itself several times during the course of the last 150 years. Lincoln was a big-time federalist whose most important domestic policies were quintessentially big-government projects—he championed federal investment in education and became deeply concerned about the trajectory of American capitalism as the war came to a close. His biggest achievement, of course, did have a little something to do with state’s rights. In Perry’s imagining, perhaps we could call it “The War of Northern Aggression for a Limited and Devolved Government with No Handouts.”

The grotesque thing about this, of course, is that Perry flirted with secession as governor.

Here’s the Gettysburg Address, as reimagined by Perry. If you’re on his campaign team, feel free to use this:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new loose federal compact, conceived in joint appreciation for family values and corporate power, and dedicated to the proposition that the states, the laboratories of Democracy, know how to create jobs better than some bureaucrat in D.C., I tell you what.

Now we are engaged in a problematic period in which both sides are at fault, testing whether that loose federal compact, or any loose federal compact so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of this unfortunate mutual dispute. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that this nation may continue to create jobs long into the future.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here to reduce the taxpayer’s burden. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion to the cause of limited government—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom from intrusive government mandates and burdensome federal regulation—and that government of the states, by the states, for the states, shall not perish from the earth.

Someday, a spiritual successor to me and my work will rise in a border state, with a handsome head of hair, and he will take the fight to tyranny just as I did. We’re Taxed Enough Already, people. It’s not a miracle, it’s a model. God bless America. Adios, mofos.

Garnet Coleman
Kelsey Jukam
Rep. Garnet Coleman wants to repeal Texas' "Stand Your Ground" law.

Texas’ current self-defense law has put a target on the backs of men of color and needs to go, says Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston). Coleman filed a bill Thursday that would repeal Texas’ so-called “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows the use of deadly force wherever and whenever citizens perceive a threat to their personal safety or property.

The proposed legislation, HB 1627, would not affect the “Castle Doctrine” that permits deadly force in defense of one’s home. Coleman’s bill also specifies situations in which deadly force could still be used outside the home, such as to prevent kidnapping, murder, or sexual assault, or if a person has no ability to escape from harm.

Under current law, citizens have no duty to retreat if they believe they are in danger, but Coleman’s bill requires that a person avoids or flees a dangerous situation if he or she can safely do so. As an example, Coleman referenced the controversial Joe Horn shooting case in Pasadena, Texas. In 2007, shortly after Texas’ “Stand Your Ground” law passed, Horn shot and killed two men who were burglarizing his neighbor’s house. Emergency dispatchers told Horn to leave matters to the police, but Horn was familiar with the new law, and was eventually cleared by a grand jury. In this case, Horn could have safely avoided the situation.

“I’ve never seen anybody get the death penalty for burglary,” Coleman said. “We can’t have citizens becoming the judge, the jury, and the executioner in these circumstances.”

Under current law, an individual doesn’t have to see a weapon to perceive a threat. A perceived threat—like a person dressed a certain way—could turn out to be no threat at all, but you could be acquitted for killing that person as long as you thought that maybe, possibly, that person was going to hurt you or steal your property.

Coleman says that people’s perception of a threatening situation is distorted by the opinions they already have and that people are conditioned to believe that certain people, especially black men, are there to hurt them.

“Shooting them because they perceive that that individual is going to hurt them, and having that be legal under the law, is just not appropriate,” Coleman said.

A 2012 Texas A&M study found that “Stand Your Ground” laws do not deter burglary, robbery, or aggravated assault, and that the number of homicides has significantly increased in the 20 states that have passed these laws, including Texas. Since 2007, the average annual number of “justifiable homicides” in Texas rose by 54 percent, according to a 2013 report published by Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

Coleman says the law has effectively given people the license to shoot first, ask questions later, with “an affirmative defense.”

Attempts to repeal or modify “Stand Your Ground” in Texas have failed during previous legislative sessions, and Coleman doesn’t seem to think that his bill will have a different fate. But he says he doesn’t give up on an issue like this just because there isn’t a lot of support.

“This is about creating an understanding of why something doesn’t work,” Coleman said. “Sometimes it takes time.”

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