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2015 Inauguration Day Capitol
Kelsey Jukam

 

Inaugurations are an odd part of American civic life, and they vary wildly from state to state. In Oregon this year, the re-election campaign of Gov. John Kitzhaber was nice enough to distribute cookies to the public after his inaugural address. In Washington State, a “non-partisan, nonprofit committee of citizen volunteers” planned a few events, which could be attended by members of the public for a flat fee.

But this is Texas, where we do politics as God intended, and so the inaugural ceremony that ended the decade-and-a-half reign of James Richard Perry and began the bright new era of Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick was a $4.5 million corporate- and donor-powered blowout, complete with a flyover of F-16 fighter jets, cannon fire, and enough barbecue to feed a small army, and their horses and those horses’ horses.

It was a reminder that Texas disdains nothing more than modesty. It was also, of course, a chance to take the pulse of Abbott and Patrick as they take hold of power. Abbott spoke genially and tamely about the greatness and goodness of Texas, his family, and God, in no particular order; Patrick proved he can still stoke fires and poke eyes.

Patrick’s swearing-in came first, administered by his son, a Houston judge. It’s remarkable how little has changed since Patrick’s address to the state Republican Party convention this summer, the first time he declined a chance to swerve to the middle. He opened his speech by invoking Proverbs 21:31 to explain his election victory—“The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the Lord.” Patrick, one presumes, is the horse.

“I worked hard,” Patrick told the crowd, “but the victory was His.” He was now, as he had been during his primary run, “a Christian first, a conservative second, and a Republican third.” He would strive to be “trustworthy, encouraging to others, and humble.”

Dan and Jan Patrick pose for admirers.
Kelsey Jukam
Dan and Jan Patrick pose for admirers.

With humility close to mind, he would strive to be the “best lieutenant governor in the history of Texas.” He urged the crowd again and again to repeat with him his speech’s refrain: “It’s a new day in Texas.” The last decade of all-Republican government had been fine, as those things go, but Patrick would take it to 11. “As conservatives we have done many great things over the last 12 years since taking the majority,” he said to applause, “but it’s time to take it to the next level.”

Remaining humble, Patrick invoked Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most famous speech. “I don’t think he could have dreamed that 52 years later that many of our inner city schools would still be failing our children,” he said. Dan, too, had a dream. “Some in Austin tell me school choice will never pass, but Dr. King is not the only one who can dream.” Patrick’s voucher and charter agenda would give every left-behind child a way to “break the bounds of poverty.”

Patrick laid out, with a strong measure of certainty, his legislative agenda—school choice, tax cuts, transportation funding, increased use of natural gas, more and more funding for border security. He excels at painting bright lines around himself and his opponents. Will that work well for him this year, now that campaigning is done? Patrick’s grandiose pronouncements—“We’re going to secure the border in this legislative session,” he told the crowd at one point, as if it had never yet been tried—shows what he feels he must deliver to his voters. But as time goes on, the scope of what he can actually get accomplished will narrow. Can he sell it back to his supporters?

Abbott, for his part, gave a much more traditional inauguration speech, in that it was essentially about nothing. Policy did come up, inasmuch as he vaguely asserted he would do something about traffic congestion, and water shortages, and standing up to the feds, but the specifics will wait for another day.

Here is a fine measure of the rhetorical difference between the two men: Patrick, as mentioned, defines himself simply. Christian, conservative, Republican. How does Abbott? He’s proud to claim the title of governor, he says, but the name of which he’s most proud is “Dad.” Aw.

Abbott spoke of his personal struggles—his ascent from his Houston hospital bed some decades ago was thanks to God’s grace, and the boundless possibilities of Texas. His message was carefully post-partisan. “Our children transcend politics in this state,” Abbott said. Except, of course, for the precious moments where he was able to hit at D.C. “Any government that uses the guise of fairness to rob us of our freedom will get a uniquely Texan response,” he said, in one of his largest applause lines. “Come and take it!”

He closed by asking the crowd to look at the pavement and grass under their feet. That was more than just soil. It was the trophy won by the fathers of the Texas Revolution and all those who had fought to give us liberty. Under the shadow of an enormous Confederate cavalryman’s memorial, attendees nodded.

It would not be the end of the festivities—there was barbecue, and a parade replete with Hummers and oil-themed floats, and tonight’s ball, headlined by the country band Lady Antebellum, who had to change their name, one imagines, from “Lady Prewar and her Things Were Better Back Then Band.” Long live liberty.

Greg Abbott in the inaugural parade, the first since 2003.
Kelsey Jukam
Greg Abbott in the inaugural parade, the first since 2003.

There was a godly theme at the Capitol grounds today. Dr. Tony Evans, a Dallas preacher who bills himself as “the urban alternative,” urged his audience to remember that “government was created by God, for the benefit of the people it serves.” He hoped that the pink dome behind him would continue to be “His house,” belonging to the “ultimate King.” Abbott and Patrick’s speeches did their best to flesh out what this would mean in practice.

Joe Gaston will be carrying his cross around the capitol grounds for three days of prayer and fasting.
Kelsey Jukam
Joe Gaston will be carrying his cross around the Capitol grounds for three days of prayer and fasting.

This was not lost on Joe Gaston, who came to the Capitol with an enormous, wheeled cross. He told the Observer he’d be circling the Capitol for the next two days, bearing the cross and praying for the state’s leadership. He was happy, he said, that “God was not hid” in the men’s speeches: “To hear a politician get up and publicly make that kind of statement, you’ve got to be bold.”

But beneath the godly gild today was a surfeit of earthly riches. Today’s big bash cost a hell of a lot of money, a modern record. To put it in context, it’s roughly comparable to the total amount of money Leticia Van de Putte, the Democratic nominee for lite guv, raised for her race in 2014. Some came from corporate donors like Comcast and Chesapeake Energy, companies with important business before the Legislature. There’s no requirement that donations for the inauguration be made public.

Some came from individual donors. Abbott’s appointees to the inaugural committee, which planned today’s events, include plenty of traditional GOP donor types, like Javaid Anwar, a Midland oilman who recently got named to serve on Dan Patrick’s advisory committee on energy. There’s even a member of the Walton family. Patrick’s appointees include more grassroots types—but that apparently didn’t inhibit them from raising the money they needed. In that respect, the new regime is the same as the old regime.

Additional reporting by Kelsey Jukam

Rick Perry
Patrick Michels

Rick Perry has been an elected official of the state of Texas for fully half of this magazine’s 60-year history, and governor for nearly a quarter of it. He is among the 20 longest-serving governors in American history. By virtue of lucky draws (a booming resource economy; uninspiring challengers) and skill (a genuine talent for retail politics), he has occupied the most bully of Texas pulpits longer than any of his 46 predecessors in the job. It’s an opportunity few men have been given, and fewer women. It’s fair to ask what he’s done with it.

He tried, and failed, to implement the Trans-Texas Corridor—a $150 billion boondoggle so unpopular that his own party’s platform opposed the project.

He tried, and failed, to mandate a vaccine for teenage girls—an intrusion so unpopular the state Legislature overrode his executive order.

He projected regressive attitudes regarding gay rights, creationism and capital punishment, on which latter count he has overseen the execution of 278 Texas inmates since taking office on December 21, 2000.

Perry’s most lasting legacy is probably his denial of Medicaid expansion, by which he chose to exchange the health and even the lives of Texans for cheap partisan posturing.

What has Rick Perry done for Texas? He has postured. He has played to his base, shooting coyotes and laughing off dual indictments for abuse of power, but he has not led it.

And even on the way out the door, with his so-called Texas miracle teetering on the edge of crashing oil prices, he dismisses factuality, telling The Washington Post in December that “We don’t grapple with” income inequality in Texas. Actually, Texas ranks among the top five states in terms of income inequality. But note that Perry didn’t say Texas doesn’t have an inequality problem. Just that he has no interest in doing anything about it.   

If it weren’t for all that still-remarkable hair, the temptation would be strong to dismiss Perry’s long tenure as a large, empty hat.

As Greg Abbott assumes office today, Perry’s three-decade run as an employee of the state government will come to an end and he will, to judge by appearances, turn his full attention to his quest to become an employee of the federal government.

What an opportunity for Texas. —The Editors

Leticia Van de Putte
Christopher Hooks
State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte at a campaign rally on the campus of the University of Texas-Pan American.

To the victors go the spoils. To the defeated, San Antonio. So goes the career arc, it seems, of state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who recently lost her bid for lieutenant governor. Soon after the election, Van de Putte announced a dramatic change in course: She’d run for mayor of her home city, abandoning an essentially tenured position in the Senate. That decision set off a cascade of political changes in the Alamo City—and illuminates the dilemma of Democratic political talent in Texas.

Van de Putte’s pivot surprised many, and not just because she told the San Antonio Express-News last summer that she’d run for mayor under “absolutely no circumstances.” But it makes sense. If she stayed in the Senate, she’d likely suffer at the hands of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has pledged to take committee chairmanships away from Democrats. Democratic influence in the Legislature seems on the decline yet again.

But the state’s largest cities shade bluer and bluer every year, and there, the party is at its most vital. The mayor’s office offers a tantalizing measure of executive power, a high profile, and the opportunity to build a useful political base. Some of the most celebrated Texas Democrats are local leaders such as former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, Houston Mayor Annise Parker and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins.

Van de Putte will face San Antonio state Rep. Mike Villarreal, another party prospect fleeing the Lege. Villarreal, a bright and well-liked figure, suffered through a frustrating session in 2013. As the chairman of the seven-member House Committee on Investments and Financial Services, it fell to him to get payday lending regulations past the committee’s five Republicans—a Sisyphean task.

State Rep. Mike Villarreal
State Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio)

Villarreal and Van de Putte aren’t the only talented Democrats deciding the Lege isn’t the best use of their talents, but they’re unusual in that they’ve turned to fight each other. Though Van de Putte starts with significant advantages, Villarreal’s early entry in the race means he’s locked up significant donors and endorsements.

As the two take leave of an increasingly one-sided Legislature, though, there are still ambitious figures anxious to overtop the trenches. The special election to replace Van de Putte produced a runoff between state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, one of the punchiest Democrats in Texas, and state Rep. José Menéndez, a lower-key figure, with the former the favorite. Villarreal’s seat will be filled by a runoff as well.

If Fischer ascends to the Senate, Democrats will have a champion to spar with Patrick. But the long-term trend will hold: a more partisan Legislature, with fewer ways for Democrats to shine. Can Democrats turn the cities into a launchpad for their statewide aspirations? San Antonio’s Castro cast one vote: He left for a cabinet post in the Obama administration. But Van de Putte, if she wins, may be in a better position to test the proposition.

Introducing Myself

Joe Cutbirth

Well, Texas, I’m home.

There’s a story about Bob Bullock of Hillsboro who fought in the Korean War and came back to be one of the great public servants in state history. Tony Proffitt, Bullock’s legendary press secretary, once told me that when Bullock got home he literally got down, kissed the ground and promised he’d never leave Texas again.

I don’t know how apocryphal that is because Proffitt was known to spin a yarn, and I’m not on all fours yet—but almost. Texans appreciate manners so allow me to introduce myself. I’m Joe Cutbirth, the Observer’s new editor.

I left Austin 15 years ago after a good run in the capital press corps where some work I did around ethics helped close the career of a Democratic House Speaker. I also got some keen recognition for reporting on a Republican U.S. senator who had some ethical issues of her own but who survived a grand jury indictment.

After that I took time to reflect on things, which I highly recommend particularly if the scenery is nice. Teaching at Columbia University while working on a graduate degree in New York City is a great gig if you can get it. I got it, and I loved it, but it never was my terminal plan.

You see, the only job I ever wanted so bad I’d do anything legal to get it was to be a political reporter here in Austin. Before I went north I did that—first for a small bureau that the Lubbock and Amarillo papers shared in the late 80s and then for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram while Bill Clements and Ann Richards were governor.

In those days, large news organizations had big staffs that lived and worked full-time in Austin. We had six in our bureau, including Kaye Northcott and Molly Ivins, who made their names as co-editors at the Observer.

Molly once wrote: “I believe ignorance is the root of all evil. And that no one knows the truth. I believe that the people is (sic) not dumb. Ignorant, bigoted and mean-minded maybe, but not stupid. I just think it helps, anything and everything, if the people know. Know what the hell is going on. What they do about it once they know is not my problem.”

Kaye and Molly were mentors as well as friends. So, it seems I’ve come full circle, and it feels just great.

I’m not here to be the next Molly Ivins or the next Billy Brammer or the next Joe Holley or any other great editor who’s sat in this chair. I’m the first Joe Cutbirth and you can bet I’ll make a few mistakes, but one of them won’t be shying away from the truth. Truth matters.

The idea that truth can be found at some magic midpoint between two extremes if a reporter just gives them the same number of words or minutes and feigns indifference has just about destroyed American journalism. It’s what Jay Rosen has dubbed “the view from nowhere,” and you won’t get that on my watch.

I also think journalism works best as a public medium, not a mass medium. Journalism veered off course when it stopped helping people talk to each other and started talking at them. I took this job because I believe there is a progressive conversation already underway in Texas. The Observer that I edit is going to help that conversation develop and connect the people who are having it.

Jim Carey, the great media scholar I studied under at Columbia, once asked if I knew what the First Amendment really was about. Like a lot of people I had assumed it was a list of six freedoms, and that James Madison couldn’t decide which one was most important so he just lumped them all together.

Carey told me it was bigger than that.

It’s actually about one thing, he said, and it is the thing Madison thought was the most important thing for our democracy: a public sphere. If this new country was going to work, Madison knew there had to be a blueprint that guaranteed everything would start with citizens talking to each other. He put it right there in the Bill of Rights and made it No. 1.

The First Amendment tells us we have the right to get together when we want (freedom to assemble). When we do, we can talk about what we need (freedom of speech). We can write down the conversation and pass it round for those who couldn’t make the meeting (freedom of the press). Then, when everyone has participated and is fully informed we can go to our leaders and tell them what we want them to do (petition the government for redress of grievances). And no one can be barred from participating because of religion, which was the burning issue of the day (the establishment and free exercise clauses).

So, there it is. The First Amendment guaranteeing a free press for a specific reason: so people can connect and have the conversations they want to have in a marketplace of ideas. That is what the Observer is going to do on my watch.

Our first obligation will be to the truth. Our loyalty will be to our readers. We will work every day to give you the information you need to talk to each other and decide what you want our leaders to do to make this a better state.

That’s my pledge, and I’m sticking to it.

police body cameras
© Bob Owen/San Antonio Express-News/ZUMAPRESS.com
San Antonio police officer Johnny Moreno wears a body camera on Dec. 10, 2014.

At a press conference in late November, Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland called universal body cameras on police inevitable. “I think that it’s a matter of time before every law enforcement agency in the United States has body cameras,” Chief McClelland said. The catalyst, he said, was the shooting death of an unarmed teen in Missouri by an officer who went uncharged. “It’s not ‘if’ anymore,” McClelland said. “It’s ‘when.’”

In Texas, that someday is well on its way. Fort Worth police began wearing body cameras three years ago and already have more than 600, the second-most cameras of any force in the nation. But they’ll soon be surpassed by Houston. Impressed with a successful 100-camera pilot program, Chief McClelland announced in August that he was seeking $8 million with which to equip 3,500 Houston officers with body cameras over the next three years. San Antonio has been conducting its own pilot program, and Dallas’ newly elected DA, Susan Hawk, has vowed to use civil forfeiture funds from her office to buy body cameras for Dallas police. In November, the Austin Police Department requested information from city purchasers on the specifics of outfitting their officers with body cameras.

Lawmakers are also getting into the act. One key concern of body cam critics is that law enforcement policies governing them—such as when the devices can be turned off, how the video is stored and who may access it—can vary wildly among departments. So state Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) and state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) have pre-filed identical bills that would codify certain body camera policies for any agency that uses state grant money to buy its cameras. Primarily, police would have to turn the camera on for traffic stops, arrests, searches, interrogations, pursuits or answers to calls for service. But there’s also plenty in the bills to pacify defenders of law enforcement autonomy. During “non-confrontational” encounters such as witness or victim interviews, the camera could be off. Video of any encounter subject to an investigation—such as in the case of deadly force—couldn’t be released to the public until the investigation is finished. Most interestingly, police officers would be entitled to view all video of an incident before making an official statement about it.

Popular momentum and standardization, however, have little bearing on the central question of body cameras: Do they help? A New York grand jury’s failure to charge an officer who choked an unarmed man to death on camera caused many to despair of video’s value. But the best information available—a multi-source study by the U.S. Justice Department—says yes. Multiple recent empirical studies found that body cameras did have a “civilizing effect,” lowering citizen complaints, police use of force and assaults on officers. If so, that inevitable someday can’t get here fast enough.

Rick Perry addresses a joint session of the Legislature near the end of his final term in office.
Christopher Hooks
Rick Perry addresses a joint session of the Legislature near the end of his final term in office.

A child born when Rick Perry became governor of Texas would now be in her freshman year of high school: The guv’s been with us for so long that it’s difficult to remember what life was like before his immaculately-coiffed visage appeared atop the state’s public life in that gleaming, pre-9/11 interregnum between the Clinton and W. Bush administrations. But now, he’s finally, finally, finally leaving.

Governor Goodhair, as the Observer’s Molly Ivins used to call him, said goodbye to the Texas Legislature today, where he’d gotten his start some 30 years ago. He’s been governor so long that we’ve seen several different iterations of Perry, as if he were a teenager exploring new trends—there was the handsome young fellow who was elevated to governor thanks in large part to Karl Rove and Bush-era machinations, but who nobody expected to last this long. He went through a more heavily Christian phase during the Bush years, and then joined the Tenthers. After his run for president, he bought glasses, and fashioned himself into the kind of man who wears glasses confidently.

This was an opportunity to wrap it all up into a cohesive whole—as well as all that had happened in the last decade and a half—and he made the attempt. The soaring eagle of Texas had flown through the canyon of adversity and found itself in the gentle forests of triumph. He quoted Lincoln, and recounted his biography and Texas’ job numbers.

“Texas doesn’t recognize artificial barriers of race, class, or creed. The most vivid dreams take flight from the most humble beginnings. And so it was for me,” he said. From Paint Creek, a mighty tree had grown, a tree named Perry. The Legislature, he said, was in the “business of making dreams possible. Every dream counts, every child matters, and in Texas, every child has a chance.”

His Texas had been tested, by the disintegration of a space shuttle—he meant Columbia, but called it Challenger—hurricanes, wildfires, Ebola and Central American teenagers. But Texans were a “people whose character has been refined by fire, whose souls are resilient, who respond to tragedy with grace and who look to the future with hope.”

There were a few digs at Barry O—“We do not accept the false choice the president offers between protecting the environment and declaring war on American industry”—a few brags on Texas’ cultural growth since 2000—more theater seats, performing arts centers, South by Southwest and Formula One.

He touted efforts that took place during his tenure on criminal sentencing reform, and he urged the next Legislature to “get beyond our differences and seek common ground,” which is the kind of thing a politician is expected to say when he’s about to leave office, even if he’s never cared about it much before. “Compromise is not a dirty word if it moves Texas forward.”

He praised Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick and Joe Straus, and said he knows the “future is in good hands.” His final admonition: “Be true to Texas, always, and she will be true to you. Good luck, Godspeed, God bless you, and through you, may God bless Texas.” He took his wife Anita by the hand and descended the stairs, to healthy applause.

Goodbye, governor. We’ll see you in Iowa.

Senate Education Committee chair Dan Patrick (R-Houston)
Patrick Michels
Sen. Dan Patrick presides over a committee meeting.

At a press conference this morning, Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick announced a new pillar of his transition: the creation of six advisory boards, filled with businesspeople, to guide him on public policy. At first, that might sound useful. The business community as a whole has sometimes been a helpful voice in favor of transportation, water infrastructure and education spending.

But the list of names Patrick released today aren’t neutral technocrats and disinterested businesspeople—many are longtime GOP donors, and many have a strong personal interest in what the state does and doesn’t do. As a whole, the six panels—economic and workforce development, economic forecasting, energy/oil & gas, tax policy, transportation and water—represent a potential rat’s nest of conflicts of interest and influence peddling.

At the press conference, Patrick touted the boards as an unprecedented effort to close the ever-narrowing gap between the public and private sectors. He was proud, he said, to be able to reach out to a marginalized and voiceless community in Texas: big business. Often in Texas, Patrick said, “the private sector is asked for help by a candidate but after they get elected, there’s not much follow up.”

He asked: “Why would you want a legislative body to disconnect themselves from the private sector?” Pointing to the fact that the state’s legislators work part-time and need to find income elsewhere, he said of the Legislature: “We’re all in business.” Indeed!

The boards, which will meet privately, will be called upon by the lieutenant governor to give advice, but will also generate their own policy proposals. Patrick said he wouldn’t be shy about telling the public which proposals had come from the advisory panels. One major proposal already has.

Last week, Patrick released a rough draft of his agenda—among big-picture items like education reform and transportation funding, he included a curious provision. The state should strengthen and support the market for natural gas, Patrick said. Twenty percent of new vehicles purchased by state agencies should run on compressed natural gas, or CNG.

Today, Patrick said, his new love of natural gas had come from conversations with business leaders, like his new friends on the energy/oil & gas advisory board. The leader of the board is Dallas billionaire T. Boone Pickens, who for years has heavily invested in natural gas and has attempted, with limited success, to expand the market share of CNG vehicles.

His California-based company, Clean Energy Fuels Corp., has been angling to become a CNG leader. In January of 2014, the Los Angeles Times reported that Clean Energy was losing money and in need of finding new vehicle fleets it could serve.

Natural gas vehicles might well be a great idea, but that’s beside the point—the inclusion of people who stand to make money by advocating certain policies in the policy-making process in this very public way is problematic on its face. At a minimum, many citizens will perceive it as cronyism.

You see the potential for conflicts of interest up and down Patrick’s boards. Also on the energy/oil & gas panel are Tim Dunn, the Midland oilman who single-handedly finances important parts of the state’s conservative network, and who has been in a war with House Speaker Joe Straus for years, and Javaid Anwar, another Midland oilman and GOP donor who gave heavily to Rick Perry’s presidential run.

Then there’s Brint Ryan, who will lead Patrick’s new tax policy advisory board. He’s a tax consultant who specializes in helping companies like Raytheon and ExxonMobil win Texas tax breaks. He is, in other words, one of the top practitioners of what the left and tea party alike call “corporate welfare.” And, of course, he’s a major GOP donor—he gave $250,000 to Rick Perry’s presidential campaign effort alone.

Ned Holmes, who will lead Patrick’s transportation panel, is a Houston real estate developer, a major GOP donor, and a prominent supporter of Greg Abbott. He’s not exactly new to state government—someone who can bring fresh, outside ideas into play. He donated almost $200,000 to Rick Perry before Perry appointed him to the Texas Transportation Commission in 2007, where he made a special effort to support projects favored by Houston developers like himself. He’s a current board member of the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas. He has a strange and slightly cryptic business history.

There are 55 names on this morning’s list in total—the above is what resulted from a cursory scan and a few quick searches.

This morning, Patrick touted the panels as being like a “team of rivals,” the name of a Doris Kearns Goodwin book that describes how Abraham Lincoln convened political enemies to serve in his cabinet. Not all of the figures on the panels were his supporters, he said. But there’s only one notable Democrat, Alonzo Cantu from McAllen. The rest might not have supported him in his last primary, but it would seem highly likely that they’ll be donors next time.

Of course, influence peddling is not new to the Legislature, and we’ve had these kinds of advisory panels before—Patrick’s spokesman pointed to one in 1981. But this feels new, if only in scope. And it’s already affecting the policies the 84th Legislature generates.

In the past, a lieutenant governor might have tried to obscure, if only superficially, the fact that he took policy direction from some of the state’s richest oilmen. But Patrick’s approach is, in a way, a classically Texas approach: Make influence-peddling transparent, and, suddenly, it doesn’t seem so bad. Now, it’s the seamless interchange of ideas and policies between the public and private sector. Don’t you feel better already?

University of Texas-Pan American student Nahiely Garcia is consoled as she speaks at rally in support of Texas DREAM Act
Kelsey Jukam
University of Texas-Pan American student Nahiely Garcia is consoled as she speaks at a rally in support of the Texas DREAM Act.

On the second day of the 84th Texas Legislature, an alliance of students, Hispanic advocates and business leaders assembled on the south steps of the Capitol to announce their commitment to the Texas DREAM Act.

The act, passed in 2001, allows undocumented students who graduate from Texas high schools and who have been in the state at least three years to pay in-state tuition at community colleges and public universities.

Incoming Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has vowed to repeal the act, and state Reps. Mark Keogh (R-The Woodlands) and Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) have filed bills—HB 360 and HB 209 respectively—to do just that.

Advocates claim that the repeal of the Texas DREAM Act may have disastrous consequences.

“If Texas goes the wrong way on this issue, these dreamers will be virtually denied an education, said Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business

There are some 16,000 so-called dreamers—undocumented college students paying in-state tuition.

State Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) said the DREAM Act enables hard-working young people to graduate from college, obtain jobs and contribute to their communities and the state’s economy.

“Instead of being on defense, ladies and gentlemen, I’m going on offense,” Anchia said. “I’ll be filing a concurrent resolution to confirm and support the Texas DREAM Act.”

Eduardo Maldonado, a 21-year-old University of North Texas psychology major, was one of the dozens of dreamers at the rally.

“I’ve been here 17 years, and I consider myself American and Texan. I grew up here. This is who I am,” Maldonado told the Observer. “I deserve the chance to attend college.”

The rally came a day after another group of national and state Hispanic advocacy organizations, including the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) and Hispanics Organized for Political Education (Texas HOPE), held a gathering on the south steps of the Capitol.

“The DREAM Act is an amazing example of what’s right about Texas Education,” said Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin. “It is morally criminal to take it away.”

 

State Rep. Scott Turner speaks to party faithful at the 2014 state Republican convention.
Timothy Faust
State Rep. Scott Turner speaks to party faithful at the 2014 state Republican convention.

For a year, Scott Turner had been campaigning for House Speaker. He’d been campaigning in tiny tea party meeting rooms across the state and he had campaigned at the state Republican convention, where a vast trove of Turner-branded trinkets were distributed to the faithful. He was the champion of the considerable and monied machinery that had been trying to undo House Speaker Joe Straus, who’s carefully maintained a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans since he was elected to the position by his fellow representatives six years ago.

Turner had the backing of the tea party faithful, who he’d told he would help protect from a menacing and darkening world. He had the backing of the Christian right, whose leadership has never been altogether too comfortable with the fact that Straus is Jewish. He even had the backing of a number of senators, who spoke strongly in his favor at a rally yesterday. But he didn’t have the support of the only people who mattered in the end—the members of the House. And so he got trampled today, 127 to 19.

First, though, came a series of not-too-titillating speeches—four Straus allies, including Democrat Rene Oliveira (D-Brownsville), emphasized his record and policy credentials, while four Turner allies talked about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, and invoked Shakespeare and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (To be fair, the last three belonged to Fort Worth’s Matt Krause.)

It was unsurprising to anyone who’d been paying attention to the Lege, but it was still a margin Straus could feel good about. The House—while by no means a liberal body, or even that moderate—will serve as a check on the Senate’s most conservative instincts this year.

Amy Zimmerman, a Turner supporter from Grayson County who traveled down with the McKinney Tea Party, found herself wandering around the Capitol’s library after the vote in her Scott Turner t-shirt. She said the result wasn’t a surprise, but she still seemed a little emotional.

“We’re having an issue with what the people want, and what the legislators want,” she said, adding that conservatives like her, who have just emerged from their most successful election cycle in the state’s history, are “frustrated and at the breaking point.”

The representatives were scared, and they wouldn’t do what was right. Everyone knew what was right, she said. What had Straus done to frustrate people like her so much? He’d held up bills “on gun rights and Sharia law.” Straus’ “cronies” had killed them. Corruption carried the day whenever Devil Joe held the gavel.

Even tea party reps like Giovanni Capriglione (R-South Lake) had let them down. Maybe, some tea partiers have said, they need to be replaced. So tomorrow—with Tim Dunn’s money—they’d start anew. Straus’ allies were less solemn. When it came time to vote, Jason Embry, the speaker’s spokesman, tweeted: “Remember this moment.”

Texas Capitol building illustration
Pascal Hassenforder/Flickr

Vouchers and School Choice

If school choice is “the civil rights issue of our time,” then Dan Patrick is the next Frederick Douglass.

Our new lite guv is, of course, too humble to say so himself, but every time he compares school choice to, say, ending slavery or segregation, the subtext is clear. So count on hearing that old saw again and again from Patrick this year, not only because it makes such tidy work of Texas’ complex and abiding inequality, but because it lends a moral core to schemes long championed by free-marketeers who so often seem to lack one.

Patrick used the line repeatedly in his short-lived charge for school vouchers last session, when he introduced a “taxpayer savings grant” program to let companies fund private-school scholarships with money they were otherwise obliged to pay the state. The plan’s supporters insisted the comparison to vouchers was unfair.

Patrick has promised to fight for vouchers again this session, so expect to see another “taxpayer savings grant” or a school-voucher program for special-needs students that may slightly open a door the Legislature has, for decades, firmly held shut.

“We don’t know what type of voucher bills will be filed, but we hear they’re coming,” Raise Your Hand Texas CEO David Anthony told a crowd at the Capitol in December. He said proposals might include “anything that is humanly possible to pull on the heartstrings.” And indeed, days before the session began, Sen. Donna Campbell filed her “universal school choice” proposal, promising to improve poor children’s education while growing Texas’ economy.

Expect hearings and press conferences stacked with parents demanding a private-sector solution to their children’s lousy public schools. But a voucher system would direct public money to schools with no requirement to teach a state-approved curriculum or provide services for students with special needs or limited English, and with the freedom to turn students away as they see fit. A long-running voucher program in Milwaukee has shown that public school students don’t fare any better in private schools, but that may be beside the point. Gov. Bobby Jindal’s voucher plan in Louisiana built a whole new industry rife with low-cost, low-quality schools to meet the new demand.

With a more conservative Senate and Patrick in charge, vouchers stand a better chance of passing than ever. Now, as in 2013, the fight will come down to whether the House, under Speaker Joe Straus and Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen), chair of the public education committee, can still hold the door shut tight.

Border and Immigration

This session, expect plenty of heated rhetoric from an influx of new tea party legislators who won elections by bashing immigrants and hollering about border security. Dan Patrick will likely lead the pack. In a campaign TV ad, he claimed ISIS fighters had threatened to cross the border and “kill Americans.” He’s also referred to undocumented crossers as an “invasion” and warned that immigrants carry “Third World diseases.”

Despite the border bombast, there hasn’t been an early outpouring of anti-immigrant bills like there was in 2011. (Remember when Tomball Republican Rep. Debbie Riddle camped out at the door of the chief clerk’s office so she could be the first one to file her immigration bills?) Among those earliest out of the gate in December: a bill by freshman Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) that requires the Texas comptroller to send a bill to the federal government for Texas’ border security expenses. No doubt, President Obama will cut that check just as soon as he gets the invoice.

But the slow start at the Lege doesn’t mean the anti-immigrant bills aren’t in the works.

“The general consensus among immigrant rights groups and advocates is that we’re going to see sanctuary city bills [allowing police to ask for immigration status] and legislation doing away with in-state tuition for undocumented students, among other things,” says Cristina Parker, a spokesperson for the nonprofit Grassroots Leadership.

Parker also worries that legislators will try to make statewide the approach taken by Farmers Branch, which attempted to bar immigrants from renting houses or paying for public utilities. The city’s ordinances were found unconstitutional. Parker says her organization and others are preparing for a fight, probably the toughest since 2011: “I think both chambers are going to be rough.”

Guns, Guns, Guns

This winter, in preparation for their brief biennial labors, at least a dozen Texas legislators surveyed our great state, and its diverse citizens’ struggles, ambitions, fears and dreams, and arrived at a unified conclusion about what Texans most urgently need: more guns.

Guns for everyone! Guns everywhere! At press time, Texas lawmakers had pre-filed 20 bills expanding or defending handgun rights. Not all those bills will pass, but if they did, the result would be downright Seussian. You could carry a gun when you turned 18; you could carry a gun where it could be seen. You could arm yourself while attending court or watching your kid give a book report. To a bar, a church, or the DMV, you could bear your arms both proudly and freely, and because Texas parents are calm and sane, you could pack heat at a high school football game.

And those are just the places that rhyme easily. Try working in “synagogue” and “correctional facility.”

The bills range in specificity. One by state Rep. Drew Springer (R-Muenster) would allow guns basically everywhere they’re now banned, like hospitals, nursing homes, sporting events and amusement parks. Others are one-offs, such as the bills by state Reps. Dan Huberty (R-Houston) and Ken King (R-Canadian) permitting guns in school board meetings and to be carried by small-town medical responders, respectively. Some seem particularly pandering, such as the bill by state Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) proposing a tax-free weekend for firearms and hunting accessories. And state Rep. Ryan Guillen (D-Rio Grande City) wins “Most Creative” for a bill protecting the right of grade-school children to play with pretend guns, specifically allowing “brandishing a partially consumed pastry … to simulate a firearm.” That’s referencing an incident in Maryland where a second-grader was suspended after chewing his Pop-Tart into a gun shape.

But those are all side dishes and dessert. The main course for gun-hungry legislators is open carry. It’s been proposed before, but there’s a bigger push this year; four state representatives have already filed matching open-carry bills. Yet even they won’t win the big Second Amendment prize. So far, that’s going to state Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), who proposed what’s called “constitutional carry,” eliminating the need for a license to carry a gun.

That may sound radical, but Alice Tripp, a lobbyist for the Texas State Rifle Association, suggests the most dramatic proposals are still to come. “We support all pro-gun legislation,” she says. “But there’s many, many bills that are not pre-filed. Those will be aggressively supported.”

Abortion

After the drama of the summer of 2013, the idea that the Legislature might have further to go in restricting access to abortion could strike some as absurd. House Bill 2, the legislation that emerged from the special sessions that year, tested the limits of what was allowed under the U.S. Supreme Court’s past decisions, and it will be a while before the legal status of the law is ultimately resolved.

But while that battle continues in the background, there are peripheral issues that some pro-lifers are eager to address. The most significant point of contention may be over rules governing a legal procedure known as a “judicial bypass,” in which minors whose parents won’t give consent for an abortion can seek it through a judge. One prominent legal aid group in the state, Jane’s Due Process, specializes in helping young women secure this permission.

Minors who seek a judicial bypass often come from abusive homes or are at risk of abuse if they seek an abortion. But many pro-life activists consider judicial bypass a “loophole” that negates a parent’s say in what they see as a moral issue, and they’d like to limit it. If that effort gains traction, activists wouldn’t have to look far for champions—this year’s new crop of legislators are set to make the Texas Capitol more stalwartly pro-life than ever before. State Sen. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock) compared legalized abortion to the Holocaust at great length in his swearing-in speech.

And there’s new state Rep. Molly White (R-Belton), a crusading pro-life activist who keeps rubber fetuses in her SUV and pictures of young dead mothers in her wallet, both with the aim of explaining the human cost of abortion. She blames her two abortions as a youth on her history of drug and alcohol abuse, and she’s set to be one of the most colorful freshman reps next session. At the top of her agenda is overhauling judicial bypass.

The Budget

In bad times, the state budget is brutal; in good times it is merely austere. That is the basic dynamic we’ve come to expect from an increasingly stingy Legislature. These are good times, relatively speaking. The Texas economy is growing at a steady clip; unemployment is just north of 5 percent; the oil boom continues (although a slide in oil prices has slowed things a bit); and state revenues have exceeded projections. Some budget analysts and lawmakers are eager to point to a “surplus” of as much as $10 billion for the biennium that ends on Aug. 31. (We won’t know for sure until January, when the comptroller provides an official revenue estimate and sets limits on how much the Legislature can appropriate for 2015-2016.)

Ten billion dollars sounds like a lot, but it will go quickly. Let us count the ways: The state begins every two-year fiscal cycle with an $8 billion structural deficit—a fancy way of saying unpaid bills, the result of a 2006 Rick Perry-engineered tax swap that never penciled out. Then there’s the hole from 2011’s frenzy of cuts. The Lege has only restored about $3.4 billion of the $5.4 billion it sliced from public schools in 2011. That’s not even accounting for growing enrollment and increasing costs. (Eva DeLuna Castro, the budget guru for the liberal Center for Public Policy Priorities, estimates that another $20 billion per biennium is needed to have “schools everyone can be really proud of.”) Looking at the state’s core services—largely education and health and human services—lawmakers need to provide an additional $7 billion just to maintain the status quo. The Texas Department of Transportation says it needs another $5 billion merely to keep pace with the state’s booming population. If you’re following along at home, that big “surplus” evaporates pretty quickly.

“The economy is growing in a way that is not reached by our state tax system,” said DeLuna Castro. “That’s what this all boils down to.”

Yet many Republicans campaigned on, and are clamoring for, more tax cuts. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, in particular, has promised some sort of property tax relief “for all Texans.” DeLuna Castro said for it to be meaningful, i.e., for people to really notice it, would require $10 billion. Clearly, you cannot meet the basic needs of the state—much less reverse more than a decade of disinvestment—and pass a big tax cut. Still, they may try. 

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