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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.

Being Charlie Hebdo

Peter Klein #JeSuisCharlie Charlie Hebdo
Peter Klein

Allow me to dig up some long-forgotten high school French: Somme-nous Charlie?

Are we Charlie?

I’m referring, of course, to Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine that lost eight journalists, four of them cartoonists, in a terrorist attack in Paris in early January. In the wake of the attack—which killed a total of 12 people and injured 11 more—the phrase “Je suis Charlie,” or “I am Charlie,” became a worldwide rallying cry in support of free speech and solidarity with the magazine.

But what does “I am Charlie” mean in light of this leftist publication’s long history of publishing incendiary cartoons, many targeting Islam and other religions, that often use racist visual tropes—hook-nosed Arab men, big-lipped African women—in its South Park-esque crusade as an equal-opportunity offender?

I put the issue to Jen Sorensen, an award-winning Austin-based political cartoonist and graphic culture editor at Fusion.net.

“I was horrified by the attacks,” she told me. “It is a cartoonist’s worst nightmare.”

But she’s also struggling with responses to the attacks that demur from and even decry criticism of the cartoons themselves—a strange irony in light of the fact that Charlie Hebdo itself is a space where nothing is sacred.

“I’m seeing people imposing abstract principles onto realities without really taking into account the situation on the ground,” Sorensen said.

There is a tension here between the admirable and sometimes abstract principle of free speech and the real-world impact of cartoons that lampoon a marginalized population—for example, French Muslims, who have come under literal attack in the wake of the Hebdo murders, with bombing attempts at French mosques and Muslim businesses.

“I think you have to view this in a context and not in a vacuum,” said Sorensen. “And when you do, I think things become more complicated and you can’t be so simplistic.”

Standing up for and supporting the right to free speech, even—perhaps especially—for those with whom we might vehemently disagree, is honorable. But so too is using that same free speech to question, criticize and even condemn cultural artifacts that promote and reify damaging narratives about race, sexuality, gender, religion or any other trait for which people are oppressed or persecuted.

Who is empowered, and who is harmed, by depictions of hook-nosed Arab men in Muslim dress? Who are we laughing at, and who are we laughing with? We cannot simply stop at support for free speech when we talk about the murders at Charlie Hebdo; we must go further and ask: What do we do next?

Do we merely republish these cartoons—often without payment to their creators—and call it solidarity? Do we chant “Je suis Charlie” without considering the fact that many people—many of the most marginalized people—cannot align themselves with a publication that seeks to deliberately offend them? Do we empower those in French society who would oppress such marginalized people? Who is able to claim membership in the “Je” of “Je suis Charlie”?

“As a cartoonist, I feel a little like a doctor, where you want to do no harm,” Sorensen said. “I try very hard not to punch down. Yes, we can be irreverent and even tasteless at times, but you try not to punch down.”

Defending someone’s right to punch down is not at all the same as defending the downward punch itself. This is the problem with the idea of equal-opportunity offenders—it presumes that power is equally distributed. We know, of course, that it isn’t.

Take on the mantle of “Je suis Charlie” if you choose, but there is more to be done in the service of free speech worldwide. Sorensen’s suggestion: Support the work of Cartoonists Rights Network International, a nonprofit group that, per its mission statement, “defends the creative freedom and human rights of editorial cartoonists under threat throughout the world,” especially in countries where political cartoonists have been silenced, threatened and, yes, even killed for publishing their work.

“There are cartoonists around the world, people in the Middle East and South Africa, who really are doing intelligent cartoons that really do speak truth to power,” Sorensen said, but “they don’t get talked about when they get killed, it doesn’t make the news. We should give them the outpouring of respect and concern that we’re giving Charlie,” Sorensen said.

That’s not to take away from the terrible tragedy in Paris, but to add another layer of nuance to a difficult and ongoing conversation about Western privilege.

Don Huffines.
Sen. Don Huffines

Sen. Don Huffines, a Republican from Dallas, has filed a bill that would prohibit cities from enforcing LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances.

Huffines’ Senate Bill 343, introduced Friday, is a sweeping proposal that would bar local governments from implementing ordinances that are more stringent than state law on the same subject, unless otherwise authorized by statute.

Since Texas law doesn’t prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, cities couldn’t do so, either.

SB 343 would amend the Local Government Code as follows:

Screen shot 2015-01-26 at 8.46.33 PM

 

Huffines didn’t immediately respond to a message left with his office.

Although in line with some of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent statements, Huffines’ proposal seems extraordinarily broad and would block cities from implementing an array of local laws.

Four House Republicans from Plano reportedly plan a more narrow bill targeting local nondiscrimination ordinances, but it hasn’t been introduced yet. In addition, proposed constitutional amendments creating broad religious exemptions to nondiscrimination ordinances have been introduced in both chambers.

Huffines, a tea partier, defeated state Sen. John Carona in last year’s Republican primary. Carona was among the first Republican Texas legislators in history to publicly express support for gay rights.

Shortly after being elected, Huffines slammed the Boy Scouts’ decision to lift its ban on gay youth.

“I think it was a big mistake what the BSA did,” Huffines said. “They can’t be trusted not to open the door for more infiltration from the gay agenda. Eventually we’ll have gay Scouts and gay Scoutmasters and gay troops. They’ll keep coming until their mission is fulfilled.”

If passed, Huffines’ bill would undo local LGBT protections covering 7.5 million Texans. Cities with LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances include Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston, Plano and San Antonio.

Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas, said since 1909, Texas has granted cities with over 5,000 people broad discretion to make local decisions under the home-rule provision in the state Constitution.

“This bill would be a significant change to over a century of Texas tradition,” Williams said. “In addition to nondiscrimination ordinances, any other local ordinance that deals with a subject covered by state law could be affected, including: plastic bag use, tree ordinances, fracking bans, land-use restrictions, sight line and building height restrictions. The 31 percent of Texans who live in cities with some level of protections based, not only on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, but on as race, sex, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, disability, religion, pregnancy, genetic information and student status deserve the ability to keep their locally adopted ordinances.”

Update: Huffines spokesman Matt Langston denied the bill is designed to undo city ordinances prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination.

“The bill aims to curtail local laws that hinder free enterprise and businesses or hamper liberty, counter to the free market, limited government policies enacted by the state,” Langston wrote in an email late Tuesday.

Asked if he could be more specific about the impetus for the bill, Langston wrote: “The focus of the bill is on free enterprise. Senator Huffines wants to put an end to ordinances, rules, and regulations that hinder the free market and directly undermine state policies designed to encourage the free market. Political subdivisions must not be allowed to undermine the free market, limited-government policies enacted by the duly elected officials of the state.”

Asked whether Huffines would consider adding language to the bill exempting LGBT nondiscrimination ordinances, Langston wrote: “We are still meeting with stakeholders to make sure this bill accomplishes its free market goals.”

Meanwhile, Equality Texas issued an action alert urging people to contact their lawmakers and ask them to oppose Huffines’ bill.

“Local elected officials are in the best position to know the best solutions to local problems: from water to flooding, from air quality to traffic control,” the group wrote.

Dallas Morning News editorial columnist Rudy Bush also panned Huffines’ proposal.

“So city councils that have voted to protect gay citizens from employment discrimination would see their laws trumped by a so-called small government Republican with a religious bent against the way they live their lives,” Bush wrote. “This is exactly where the focus of our legislators doesn’t need to be. We have real problems in this state. Turning back the clock on equal rights isn’t how anyone should be spending their time.”

Open Carry Texas rally
Kelsey Jukam
Members of Open Carry Texas rally at the Capitol Monday.

Dozens of gun rights activists gathered in front of the Capitol Monday morning to voice their support for a bill that would end Texas’ 144-year ban on the open carry of handguns.

If passed, House Bill 195 by state Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) would allow gun-owners to carry their handguns in plain sight, and would also eliminate the requirement that a person obtain a concealed handgun license.

Stickland told demonstrators at the event organized by Open Carry Texas that he was “sick and tired of begging for permission” to exercise his Second Amendment rights.

“Could you imagine some of the outrage by the liberals and other people in this state, if we applied the same principles to the First Amendment that they say are reasonable for the Second Amendment?” Stickland said. “Could you imagine what a liberal would say to you if you told them you have to take a test, pass a test, take a class and pay a fee to exercise your First Amendment rights? It’s absolutely ludicrous.”

Texas is one of six states that doesn’t allow open carry of handguns, although it does permit the open carry of long-guns and antique handguns made before 1899. Thirty-one states currently allow open carry without a permit and 13 require a permit.

Open Carry members Colt and Kathryn Szczygiel moved to Texas from Connecticut last year, to flee the increasingly restrictive gun laws that state has passed since the Sandy Hook massacre. Colt Szczygiel said he was “extremely surprised” to learn that open carry of handguns was illegal in Texas, while it’s still legal in Connecticut. He says a common argument against open carry is that it will turn Texas into “the Wild West.”

“Look at us,” Kathryn Szczygiel said, pointing to her pregnant belly, “we’re not the Wild West.”

Jonathan Stickland
Kelsey Jukam
Rep. Jonathan Stickland authored a bill that would permit the open carry of handguns without a license.

Activists and speakers also argued that open carry is simply more comfortable and practical than concealed carry. After a bit of joking about nudists—”They need Open Carry more than anyone!”—Kathie Glass, a Libertarian candidate in Texas’ 2014 gubernatorial race, got down to business and talked to the audience about her handbag. Glass, who carried a can of hairspray in an empty gun holster, wondered how she was supposed to find her handgun if she had to keep it in her “U-Haul purse.”

“What if it’s not with me when I need it?” she asked.

Sterling Lands, a bishop with Family Life International Fellowship in Austin and the lone black face in the crowd of demonstrators, had a reason for supporting open carry that wasn’t articulated by the speakers. He believes that restrictive gun laws in Texas were created as a response to the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, and that current gun laws are discriminatory.

“The idea was to make certain that blacks were never able to rise up in any type of an armed revolt,” Lands said.

He supports HB 195, because he worries that current regulations discriminate against those who cannot afford the $140 concealed handgun license, and those who aren’t able to complete the written test required to obtain the license.

Stickland and Open Carry members support “constitutional carry,” asserting that most regulations on gun ownership are unconstitutional.

“The Second Amendment doesn’t come from a government institution, a bureaucracy or a politician,” Stickland said. “It comes from God almighty.”

According to CJ Grisham, the founder of Open Carry Texas, this hasn’t been an effective argument. He advised activists who planned to speak to their representatives after the rally not to “bring up the constitutional right thing” when speaking with representatives.

“If you say ‘constitution’ it will be like the wicked witch when you pour water on her: ‘I’m melting, melting,’” Grisham said. “You have to talk to them in terms that they understand.”

Grisham encouraged activists to stress that open carry can deter crime. “An armed society is a polite society,” he said, echoing a common NRA refrain.

Open carry activists were asked to wear empty gun holsters to the event.
Kelsey Jukam
Open carry activists were asked to wear empty gun holsters to the event.

Open carry supporters haven’t always followed their own advice. On Jan. 13, Open Carry Tarrant County stormed the office of Rep. Poncho Nevárez (D-Eagle Pass), calling Nevarez a “tyrant to the constitution.” The confrontation prompted lawmakers to pass a rule allowing the installation of panic buttons in Capitol offices.

Grisham was keen to prevent such an embarrassing display from occurring again. Attendees were asked on the “Carry to the Capitol” event page to look “as professional as possible,” and Grisham encouraged demonstrators to be respectful and polite, but “still firm.”

“Show them that we’re a very professional organization and we’re serious and committed to trying to get this legislation passed,” Grisham said.

Stickland is also committed to getting constitutional carry legislation passed, promising that he will offer an amendment on any gun-related bill, “no matter what my colleagues say.”

“We will force the vote,” Stickland said. “And if they have the gall to vote against this bill then we will replace them in the next primary.”

Plano Citizens United graphic
Via Plano Citizens United on Facebook
Despite an exemption for restrooms and similar facilities, opponents of Plano's equal rights ordinance have disseminated graphics like this one suggesting it would allow men to prey on children in women's restrooms.

The nation’s largest LGBT political advocacy group indicated this week it is unlikely to help defend a nondiscrimination ordinance in Plano due to exemptions affecting the transgender community.

The announcement from the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign could amount to a costly setback for supporters of the ordinance, as the organization recently poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a similar fight in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Opponents of the ordinance say they turned in petitions Tuesday with over 7,000 signatures—almost double the number needed to force the City Council to overturn the measure or place it on the ballot in May. Plano officials expect to complete the process of verifying the signatures by the end of this month.

Cathryn Oakley, HRC’s legislative counsel for state and municipal advocacy, told the Observer on Thursday that the organization hasn’t made a final decision about its role if the ordinance appears on the ballot. However, Oakley also made clear that HRC would be reluctant to join the fight due to exemptions including one that appears to bar people from using public restrooms according to their gender identity—a provision which she called “transphobic.”

“The language in Plano is very problematic and in terms of investing a lot of resources in an ordinance that has a lot of problems, it’s difficult to see why that’s necessarily the best use of resources,” Oakley said. “If we had been consulted in the drafting of this bill, we would have withdrawn our support, and given that, it’s hard to justify defending it as valid.”

After being approved in a 5-3 council vote on Dec. 8, the Plano ordinance immediately became the target of a repeal effort led by Texas Values, the Texas Pastor Council, the Liberty Institute and Prestonwood Baptist Church. Republican state lawmakers from Plano also say they’re drafting legislation to prohibit Texas cities from adopting LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances and nullify those already in place.

Trans Pride Initiative Nell Gaither has accused Equality Texas of selling out the transgender community.
Via Nell Gaither on Facebook
Trans Pride Initiative President Nell Gaither has posted graphics like this one accusing LGBT groups of selling out the transgender community.

But the Plano ordinance also quickly came under intense fire from transgender activists. Nell Gaither, president of Dallas-based Trans Pride Initiative, has posted blistering attacks on social media saying exemptions in the ordinance amount to bigotry and accusing other LGBT groups of signing off on them.

“This is not a Plano issue. This is a Texas issue, and more,” Gaither wrote recently. “If they get away with the lie that this is an LGBT equality policy it will set a dangerous precedent that will be very difficult to overcome for many, many years.”

This week, Trans Pride Initiative released an eight-page position paper criticizing exemptions in the ordinance related to not only restrooms, but also nonprofits and schools. The position paper says the exemptions run counter to federal laws and may ultimately promote violence and harassment against transgender people, suggesting it would be better to simply allow the ordinance to be repealed and start from scratch.

Representatives from Equality Texas and a Plano-based LGBT group, GALA North Texas, denied any role in drafting the ordinance. Plano spokesman Steve Stoler maintained this week that the ordinance was written exclusively by the city attorney’s office.

“We felt it was important to balance privacy interests and what best fit our city,” City Attorney Paige Mims said in a statement provided by Stoler. “We wanted to pave our own way, so we wrote our own ordinance. In balancing privacy interests with business interests, we felt the exemption was right for the City of Plano.”

Although adamant they didn’t sign off on the exemptions, both Equality Texas and GALA North Texas indicated they plan to defend the ordinance if it appears on the ballot.

“While the ordinance is not perfect, it is a fact that it includes protections from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations for LGBT residents and veterans in Plano that did not previously exist,” Equality Texas Executive Director Chuck Smith said in a statement to the Observer. “While criticisms expressed by leaders in the transgender community are valid, it is imperative that we work together to ensure that this ordinance is not repealed in the short term and is improved in the long term.”

Jeanne Rubin, a spokeswoman for GALA North Texas, called HRC’s likely decision to sit out the ballot fight disappointing.

“In politics, as much of a bummer as it is, everything is incremental, and I know that’s sort of a dirty word for our community,” said Rubin, who’s also an Equality Texas board member. “If this ordinance goes down, not only will Plano not touch this issue with a 10-foot pole, but no other suburban city out here will, and that doesn’t do L, G, B or T any good.”

Rubin and others said they believe the exemptions were included because officials hoped to head off attacks seen in other cities over transgender protections in public accommodations.

But if that’s the case, the strategy hasn’t worked. Despite the exemptions, opponents have repeatedly and publicly asserted that the ordinance would allow men to enter women’s restrooms and prey on children.

It’s a baseless, fear-mongering tactic, according to LGBT advocates, but it’s arguably still effective among conservative voters. And not only has the exemption failed to prevent such attacks, it has backfired, dividing the LGBT community along all-too-familiar lines over transgender inclusion and now threatening to undermine defense of the ordinance.

“I think the story coming out of Plano is about a city that really wanted to do the right thing, and I wish that this had unfolded differently, because I think that there were good intentions, but things fell apart,” HRC’s Oakley said. “I think incremental process is important, I think municipal work is incredibly important, but incremental doesn’t mean leaving part of the community behind. That’s not an acceptable version of incremental.”

State Sen. Kevin Eltife answers questions from State Sen. Rodney Ellis, while Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick listens intently.
Christopher Hooks
State Sen. Kevin Eltife answers questions from State Sen. Rodney Ellis, while Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick listens intently.

When death came for the two-thirds rule, the 68-year-old dictate of the Texas Senate that requires 21 of the chamber’s 31 senators to agree to vote on a bill, it wasn’t exactly swift, but it was a gentler demise than some might have expected. For years, then-Sen. Dan Patrick had fulminated against the rule, which he saw as an unnecessary restraint on the power of Senate Republicans.

In 2007, on Patrick’s first day on the floor, he proposed changing to the rule to a simple majority—and he was voted down 30 to 1. But as the years have passed, Patrick’s critique of the rule has gained traction, and a number of the chamber’s new GOP senators were elected having pledged to junk it. Patrick’s election made it a virtual certainty that the rule would be killed.

But when senators voted on the rules they’ll use for the 84th legislative session today, as part of a package authored by state Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler), it wasn’t Patrick’s simple majority that made it through—his original idea, and one he’d mentioned from time to time during his primary campaign—but a slightly reduced supermajority barrier. Instead of two-thirds, the Senate will now require three-fifths of the Senate, or 19 senators, to bring a bill to a vote.

There are 20 Republicans in the Senate, so the small change means quite a bit. Eltife’s floor speech in defense of the measure made a few simple points: Keeping a supermajority requirement would address some of the arguments made by backers of the two-thirds rule, namely that its disappearance would precipitate a split between urban and rural senators, who could find themselves competing for tight resources.

Winning 19 votes is a difficult thing, Eltife said, and wouldn’t be so different in practice from getting 21. He hoped that the change would bring more decorum to the Senate, not less. It wasn’t about partisanship, he said, but about good government.

The Democrats in the chamber, who will have less leverage than ever as a result of the rule change, had a hard time swallowing that. For nearly two hours, they took turns interrogating Eltife and attempting to poke holes in his reasoning. Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) argued that the rule changes as a whole would make it easier for Senate leadership to sneak through bills and rule changes later in the session. Many others argued from principle, saying that scrapping the two-thirds tradition would make the Senate a less bipartisan place, which was certainly the point.

Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) quoted from former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby’s memoirs, in which he called a 1979 attempt to circumvent the two-thirds rule the “biggest mistake I made as president of the Texas Senate.” Hobby added that “anything that doesn’t have the support of two-thirds of the Senate is seldom a good idea.” Ellis said he hoped those in the chamber today would have enough foresight to agree with Hobby by the time they wrote their books. “I think it’s a sad day for the Senate,” Ellis said, “and one we will look back on with regret.”

Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) was more pointed. The three-fifths standard, he reminded the room, was the same one used by the U.S. Senate, the world’s least effective deliberative body. “Members, I hate to say it,” he said, “but I think we’re going the way of Congress.”

“I have been an advocate of the two-thirds rule since the beginning of the tenure in my Senate,” Eltife said, but it was no longer tenable. He liked the idea of the supermajority requirement, he said, even though some Republican senators wanted to go to 50 percent, and he had worked to preserve it.

The two-thirds rule was broken anyways, he said. The most partisan bills the Legislature has passed in recent years found a way around the requirement. When bills are brought up during a special session, as 2013’s abortion restrictions were, only a simple majority is needed to get them through the sausage factory. And legislators have plenty of ways to ignore or avoid the two-thirds rule when they really want to during session—that’s the way they passed voter ID.

Senate freshmen like Don Huffines (front) and Bob Hall (back) stayed silent as the chamber's elders debated the rules change.
Christopher Hooks
Senate freshmen like Don Huffines (front) and Bob Hall (back) stayed silent as the chamber’s elders debated the rules change.

He has a point. Many Democrats stormed social media today with the hashtag #lockout—the rule change, many said, was patently unfair and would make Texas government dramatically less transparent. But this isn’t a tipping point—it’s more like the Legislature has taken a few more steps down the grand staircase of partisanship that it’s been descending for years. Democrats had very little leverage last session, and they have less now.

At any rate, you could see the two-thirds rule as a sort of artifact of one-party Texas—when the Senate was filled with Democrats, as it was in 1947 when the rule was introduced, the rule helped ensure that broad coalitions were being built and maintained within the party. Its late role as a safeguard for the minority party seems fairly accidental. When then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid saw the need to change the rules of the U.S. Senate to overcome gridlock over nominations, he did so, and Democrats cheered. Politics is about power, and sometimes talk about “principle” can obscure that.

It was Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) who might have put it best, with what we should call Whitmire’s Dialectic: “It’s probably not as bad as I’m making it out to be,” he said during his remarks, “but it’s probably not as good as you’re making it out to be.”

The two-thirds rule was junked by a vote of 20 to 10: One Republican, Craig Estes of Wichita Falls, abstained from voting, and one Democrat, the ever-independent Eddie Lucio of Brownsville, voted for it.

In a separate vote, senators cut the number of the chamber’s committees from 18 to 14. Getting the axe are Jurisprudence, Economic Development, Government Organization and Open Government committees. Three were chaired by Democrats last session, and one by Republican Bob Deuell, who was beaten in his primary.

It’s possible that years from now, we might look back, as Ellis suggested more than once, and see this as an historic moment in Texas government. Ellis predicted that moving to a simple majority vote system was inevitable. It seems clear that Patrick, when he writes his memoirs, will not be able to declare what Lt. Gov. Albert Clinton Horton did, on the last day of Texas’ 1st Legislature, May 13, 1846:

I can safely place my hand upon my heart and say that I have never taken advantage of my station, nor endeavored to pervert the Rules of the Senate, for the purpose of carrying into effect favorite views or projects.

Still, Patrick seemed at peace with himself. As he gaveled the Senate to a close on the first day he’d spent in control of it, he offered the chamber a brief benediction: “Go with god,” he said. “Go safely.”

WellsBrownothersiderebelyell

The National Book Critics Circle announced its 2014 awards finalists on Monday, and three Texas writers made the cut:

— Houston’s Lacy M. Johnson, in the Autobiography category, for her harrowing abuse memoir, The Other Side

— Austin’s S.C. Gwynne, in the Biography category, for Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson

— Dallas’ Ezra Greenspan, in the Biography category, for William Wells Brown: An African-American Life

The Observer reviewed both The Other Side and William Wells Brown last year

The full list of NBCC Award finalists is here.

The NBCC Awards dinner will be held, and winners announced, March 12, 2015, in New York City.

 

 

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings
Patrick Michels
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings was an early supporter of the home-rule drive for Dallas ISD, which came to an end Tuesday night.

Last night in Dallas, the commission that could have completely redesigned the city’s school system—handed control to the mayor, done away with elected trustees or rewritten teacher contracts—voted instead to call off its school reform experiment entirely.

It’s a quiet end to a dramatic reform drive that began almost a year ago, when a group called Support Our Public Schools announced its plans to make the state’s second-largest school system into its first “home-rule charter” district.

As Matt Haag at The Dallas Morning News wrote last night, the home-rule effort had already been slowly fizzling away for a while. Bob Weiss, the commission’s chairman, worried last night that, as Haag put it, “a home-rule district could undermine people’s democratic rights.”

Put that way, it almost sounds like a bad thing.

But to Houston billionaire John Arnold, the home-rule effort’s only financial backer to ever publicly come forward, that was kind of the point. As Arnold explained to the Morning News last year, “It’s very difficult to pass effective reforms with elected school boards. … What happens is you have window dressing of small reforms that collectively add up to very little effect.” To really focus on school improvement, he said, a school board needs to be free from “the ugly parts of politics.”

That willingness to blow up the current system, even at the expense of, say, democracy, is a hallmark of the philanthropy-driven school reform movement that is urging parents away from a system driven by elected school boards and influential teachers’ groups.

Dallas is an appropriate crucible for this sort of fight: plenty of poor urban schools with a track record of low graduation rates and poor performance on state tests, and a wealthy business class used to tackling problems with fistfuls of money. Not enough money to fund smaller classrooms or more bilingual programs for DISD’s 65,000 English-language learners, but enough to direct the conversation around reform. Arnold, for instance, would like to talk more about cost-cutting pension reform for public employees.

In Dallas’ ongoing school reform drama, which began in earnest when Superintendent Mike Miles was hired in 2012, the home-rule drive was just one particularly dramatic episode. Home rule could have had sweeping implications for the district, but it was never clear just what they would be—the commission never got around to writing the plan.

On Tuesday night, Weiss, the home-rule commission’s chairman, called the legal mechanism that allows for home-rule—a little-known piece of Texas’ original charter school law—”a very bad piece of legislation.” At the very least, it’s a complicated one.

In the next few months, lawmakers may try to rework the law to make it easier for districts to make the shift—Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick introduced such a proposal in 2013—within a broader movement of free-market school reform. If they do come up for discussion, you can bet Dallas’ near-miss with home rule will be Exhibit A.

Rodney Reed
AP Photo/Texas Department of Criminal Justice

While a joyful crowd celebrated the inauguration of Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, about 20 people gathered Tuesday near the Capitol in hopes of persuading the new governor to grant clemency to Rodney Reed, a black man sent to death row for the 1996 rape and murder of a white woman, Stacey Stites, near Bastrop.

Reed has maintained his innocence, and supporters have criticized the state for not taking a closer look at Stites’ fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, a Georgetown police officer who was later convicted of raping a woman while on duty.

At the protest yesterday, supporters chanted and held signs that read “Governor Abbott don’t kill an innocent man” and “Drop the Date! Test the DNA,” while cars driving by blew their horns in support.

Reed was convicted of killing Stites and sentenced to death in 1998. He is scheduled for execution on March 5. His family and supporters, including members of Stites’ family, are requesting that evidence in the case be tested for DNA. They’re also calling on Abbott to grant him clemency if the courts fail to order additional DNA testing.

“If they are so sure he is guilty, why not let them prove it and let us test the DNA?” said Cindy Beringer, an Austin volunteer with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. “Just to deny this extra testing and new technology to me seems illogical, but the town of Bastrop has really tried to cover up a lot.”

On Nov. 25, 2014, visiting Judge Doug Shaver denied Reed’s request to have various pieces of evidence related to the crime tested, including a leather belt used to strangle Stites. Supporters believe that Fennell’s DNA could be found, clearing Reed of wrongdoing. The sole physical evidence linking Reed to the murder was semen found inside Stites’ body. However, Reed has acknowledged having an affair with Stites. Shaver denied the request, stating that even if the evidence had been tested during Reed’s trial, the jury’s decision wouldn’t have changed.

The decision is on appeal at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, according to The Intercept.

Lily Hughes, the national director of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, said Reed has been frustrated in his search for justice in the courts.

“Over the years we have been trying to get a hearing from everybody from the district attorney in Bastrop County to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to the federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Louisiana, all the way to the Supreme Court,” Hughes said.

Abbott has remained silent on the issue, and former Gov. Rick Perry has apparently never acknowledged the case.

Organizers say they will continue to fight for Reed even though his execution date is just six weeks away.

“We are trying to think of everything we can to save his life,” Beringer said.

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