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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leal did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both bills were left pending in committee.

cell phone use while driving
Wikipedia
House Bill 80, by state Rep. Tom Craddick (R-Midland), would make texting while driving a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $99 for the first offense and $200 for subsequent violations.

“Text and drive? Pay a fine.” That may be a warning sign seen around Texas soon if a texting-while-driving ban approved by the House on Thursday makes it into law.

Lawmakers voted 104-39 for House Bill 80, by state Rep. Tom Craddick (R-Midland), after debate over whether it would lead to unnecessary police stops and put undue burden on innocent drivers to prove that they were not texting.

As approved, the bill would make texting while driving a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $99 for the first offense and $200 for subsequent violations.

Rep. Eddie Lucio III (D-Brownsville), a co-author of the bill, said he hopes the ban will be an effective deterrent.

“A large majority of distractive driving is defined as the use of cellphones,” Lucio said. “Text messaging in particular takes drivers’ eyes off the road, in order to read, type and message. … I hope by creating a fine and creating an offense, even if it’s a Class C citation versus an actual criminal jail type of offense, will act as a deterrent and change people’s behavior. That’s my hope.”

If signed into law, Texas would join 45 other states that have banned all drivers from texting while driving. Dozens of Texas cities also have passed texting-while-driving bans.

Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston) said a statewide Texas law is overdue.

“When we started two sessions ago, almost no states had passed this type of law,” Wu said. “By now, a third session trying to pass this law, 44 to 45 states around the nation have already passed some type of legislation banning texting while driving, and that’s not a coincidence. The reason is people that understand this issue know how dangerous texting while driving is.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that in 2012 driver distraction was the cause of 18 percent of all fatal crashes, with 3,328 people killed. Another 421,000 people were injured.

The Legislature passed texting-while-driving bans in 2011 and 2013, only to see them vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry.

Wu said he is hopeful that with a new governor in place things may take a different turn this session.

Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston)
Patrick Michels
Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston)

“We are hoping that Gov. Greg Abbott is going to take a more pragmatic approach than Gov. Perry and think about the citizens of the state and sign the bill,” Wu said.

But the bill also raised concerns among many lawmakers over the potential for racial profiling and unnecessary police stops.

A proposal by Rep. Harold Dutton, Jr. (D-Houston) to require law enforcement agencies to report how many citations they issue and the race of the individuals ticketed narrowly failed.

Dutton said the legislation “creates too much subjectivity on the part of the police officer” about who gets stopped and ticketed.

“I think it will lead to racial profiling,” he said.

Wu told the Observer that focusing on racial profiling for just one type of offense is too narrow.

“Let’s look at all crime,” he said. “Let’s look at all arrests. Let’s look at all types of citations. Let’s not narrow it down to just one thing. I think if we narrow it down to just one thing we might be falsely placated into believing there’s no problem.”

Lucio also said he is hopeful about the bill and hopes the governor will give it a chance this session.

“I am optimistic, without any doubt in my mind that this bill is necessary, so I’ll keep working until one day we achieve this goal,” Lucio said.

The Senate companion, SB 25 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), has yet to get a hearing.

How Senate Republicans Saved the Franchise Tax

Freshman hazing is a tradition in the Legislature, but Troy Fraser took it a little further on Wednesday.
Don-Huffines
State Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas)

In the end, the result of the debate over the package of tax cut bills considered by the Senate on Wednesday was pre-ordained—they’d pass. The three bills, beloved by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, would cut property taxes and franchise taxes to the tune of $4.6 billion. Even if they face an uncertain future in the House, they’d sail through this Senate, right?

But in the latest installment of this Senate’s continuing difficulties—Senate Republicans’ magical ability to make life harder for themselves than it needs to bethe tax debate on Wednesday produced one of the most revealing dust-ups of the session so far between the tea party caucus and its foes.

Right-wing Senate freshmen, led by state Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas), threatened to derail the whole thing by demanding that the Senate pass steeper tax cuts. And in response, state Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay) gave Huffines what amounted to a public dressing-down that threatens comity in the already uneasy Senate GOP caucus.

Huffines offered an amendment to Senate Bill 7, a franchise tax cut bill shepherded by Nelson and state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), that would phase out the franchise tax entirely over several years. Doing so would blow a giant hole in the state budget. Senate Republicans often talk about killing the franchise tax, and Huffines called their bluff.

Huffines’ amendment put Senate Republicans in the dangerous position of having to vote for the franchise tax—in other words, to keep it alive—or take a politically popular vote that would ruin the state’s finances in a couple of years. In effect, it poked senior Senate Republicans and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in the eye. His colleagues pleaded with him to drop it, but he steadfastly refused.

It took quite a while for SB 7 to come to the floor, the first hint of trouble. Senators spent hours on small, uncontroversial bills—like killing a tax on “combative sports events”—or doing nothing at all. Patrick, for his part, stayed away from the freshmen for most of the day. It should have been a proud day for him, but he seemed agitated and unhappy.

SB 7 came to the floor more than three hours after the Senate first came to order. Huffines’ amendment was first in line. But before he could introduce his amendment, Patrick directed the chamber’s attention to Fraser, who had a modest change to Huffines’ proposal. Fraser’s amendment would strike the lines about abolishing the franchise tax, and instead direct the comptroller’s office to study the issue. Fraser, in effect, put his boot down Huffines’ throat, with Patrick’s permission.

Fraser said he hated the franchise tax too, and this study would help them do away with it. State Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) rose to have a little fun. “This guts the Huffines amendment, right?” he asked Fraser. Huffines, ready to speak, lowered his mic and looked away in frustration. “No, this helps Huffines’ amendment,” Fraser said. “So you would say this perfects his amendment?” asked West.

Eventually Huffines was recognized to speak, and he started to talk about his proposal. But Fraser immediately jumped on him, with the tone of a father straightening out a young child. Right now, he said, they could only talk about Fraser’s amendment, not Huffines’ amendment. And didn’t Huffines know about Fraser’s hearing problems? Fraser would be much obliged, he said, if Huffines would turn to face him when he spoke.

Huffines turned and spoke slowly. “Senator,” he said. “I move that we table your amendment.”

The motion to table Fraser’s amendment failed 7 to 24, and his amendment passed 20 to 11. In the end, only three Republicans, all freshmen, stood with Huffines and against the Senate leadership: Konni Burton, Bob Hall and Van Taylor. Seven Democrats, hoping to cause trouble, joined them.

With Huffines defeated, the bill passed easily. So why is this important? It says something significant about how this Senate works—or doesn’t.

The freshmen, who are pretty far to the right, have not been getting along with the Senate’s senior figures for quite some time. Behind the scenes, the two groups have been sharply, bitingly critical of each other. They’ve clashed publicly over issues like Abbott’s nominations to the University of Texas System Board of Regents, but this is the first time the division has played out so prominently on the floor. And the humiliation of a freshman senator by a senior one will be remembered.

The dust-up makes it even less likely that the freshmen will play along with their senior counterparts. The only reason Fraser was able to head off Huffines so quickly was because Huffines played by the rules and let his colleagues know his intentions—in the future, he and his friends may be more reluctant to do so.

The disappearance of the two-thirds rule as a factor in Senate negotiations makes these kinds of intra-party rifts more dangerous. Last session, the Republicans could put some blame on Democrats for watering down or killing legislation. Now the Dems are no longer a factor. But to get legislation out of the Senate on a party-line vote, Patrick needs the Republicans who sided with Huffines.

If Patrick were still a senator himself, the freshman would be his ideological allies. But now that he’s lieutenant governor, he needs them to fall in line. Here’s his limp spin on his efforts to preserve the franchise tax:

Is this a terminal condition? Hardly. But it’s something to watch. Deteriorating relations within their caucus could push Senate Republicans in strange directions.

It’s also notable that the House leadership announced a plan to make fixes to the state’s dismal school finance system Wednesday morning, just an hour before the Senate went into session. Is the plan any good? That’s a subject for debate. But as the House and Senate begin to butt heads more seriously over the budget in the last two months of the session, the House is assiduously playing the role of the grown-up in the room. And the Senate is only too happy to help them with that.

The Rev. Carolyn Albert Donovan, of St. Martins Lutheran Church, waits to testify against House Bill 1745 on Wednesday.
John Wright
The Rev. Carolyn Albert Donovan, of St. Martins Lutheran Church in Austin, waits with her children to testify against House Bill 1745 on Wednesday.

Ten years after Texas lawmakers approved a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, the issue returned to the Legislature on Wednesday.

House Bill 1745, by Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia), seeks to bar Texas officials from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples or recognizing their marriages—regardless of whether courts determine the state’s ban is unconstitutional.

More than a dozen witnesses gave nearly two hours of sometimes emotional testimony during a hearing on the bill—also known as “the Preservation of Marriage and Sovereignty Act”—before the House Committee on State Affairs. They debated the “biblical” definition of marriage, religious freedom and the principles of U.S. government, such as states’ rights, federalism and checks and balances.

However, the bill’s fate may ultimately hinge on something far more simple: dollars and cents.

HB 1745 would shift authority over marriage licenses from county clerks to the secretary of state, prompting a representative from the County and District Clerks’ Association of Texas to testify against it.

“The fiscal impact of that would be devastating to counties who are already struggling to balance their budgets,” said Teresa Kiel, legislative chair for the association and Guadalupe County clerk.

For example, Dallas County stands to lose $1.3 million in revenue from marriage licenses under the bill, Kiel said.

HB 1745 would cost state government almost $1.5 million in 2016, according to a fiscal note, in the form of labor and technology expenses in the secretary of state’s office. But Rep. Charlie Geren (R-River Oaks), a member of the committee, noted the estimate doesn’t take into account the loss of revenue to county clerks.

“I think there is a local impact and it’s in the millions of dollars, and I don’t know how we address that,” Geren said.

Bell said the secretary of state could still delegate marriage license duties to county clerks as long as they don’t issue them to same-sex couples, and he promised to introduce a substitute bill that allays Geren’s concerns.

But opponents of HB 1745 said its budgetary impact would go far beyond that.

If the U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of same-sex marriage in June, Texas would spend millions defending lawsuits against officials who refuse to issue licenses to same-sex couples, according to Chuck Smith, executive

director of Equality Texas.

Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) pressed one supporter of the bill about whether it’s intended to circumvent a high court decision, referencing previous rulings extending equal rights to African Americans.

“History tells us that is not a good precedent,” said Turner, who is black.

Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values, responded that it depends on how the Supreme Court rules in the four marriage cases justices are scheduled to hear next month.

Cecil Bell Jr.
Rep. Cecil Bell Jr. (R-Magnolia) is the author of four anti-LGBT bills, the most of any legislator.

“I certainly think whatever the Supreme Court rules has value,” Saenz said, eliciting laughter from the audience. “Until we see a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court, that’s when we decide what Texas has to do at that point.”

Saenz and others said the bill is needed because officials are flouting the current ban, pointing to the marriage of a lesbian couple in Travis County last month, as well as Houston Mayor Annise Parker’s recent decision to extend benefits to the same-sex spouses of employees.

Saenz said 76 percent of Texas voters ratified the marriage amendment, but witnesses against the bill noted turnout in the November 2005 special election was only 17 percent, and they referenced polls showing more Texans now support same-sex marriage than oppose it.

However, Rebecca Robertson, legal and policy director at the ACLU of Texas, said the 14th Amendment was enacted to protect minorities against the will of the majority, and interpreting its guarantee of equal protection is the duty of courts.

“Texas does not have the power to exempt itself from the rule of constitutional law,” Robertson said.

The bill, which has 24 co-sponsors, was left pending in the committee.

Sen. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock) has introduced an identical measure.

Access to Planned Parenthood

The number of women served by a state women’s health program has dropped by one-quarter since the Texas Legislature excluded Planned Parenthood from participating, according to state data released this week.

According to a biennial report released Tuesday by the Health and Human Services Commission, the number of women served by the Texas Women’s Health Program dropped from about 115,000 in fiscal year 2011 to approximately 86,000 in 2013.

The Texas Women’s Health Program was created as a substitute to the federally funded Medicaid Women’s Health Program, which was zeroed out after state GOP lawmakers excluded Planned Parenthood from the program in 2011.

The Texas Women’s Health Program covers annual exams, birth control, cancer screenings and STD tests for low-income women ages 18 to 44 who are not pregnant but would be eligible for Medicaid should they get pregnant. Money for the program comes entirely from the state of Texas, to the tune of $36 million per year—the same funding level as the defunct federal program. The Legislature requires the Health and Human Services Commission to report on the program’s performance every two years.

Utilization of services through the Texas Women’s Health Program decreased across the state, except in the upper Rio Grande Valley. West Texas saw the greatest decrease in women served, a 63 percent decline between 2011 and 2013. The report also shows that fewer women received birth control through the program over the same time period.

In 2011, along with excluding Planned Parenthood from the Medicaid Women’s Health Program, the Legislature slashed nearly $70 million from the family planning budget, which provided contraception, Pap smears and cancer screenings to low-income women. The budget cuts led to the closure of more than 50 family planning clinics, which also serve patients through the Texas Women’s Health Program. Some clinics have reopened and in 2013 lawmakers restored funding for family planning to pre-2011 levels.

But the report released on Tuesday suggests that the decrease in providers and clinics could be playing a role in fewer women being served. Anna Chatillon, policy coordinator with the Texas Women’s Healthcare Coalition, which represents dozens of health care advocacy groups, public policy organizations and health providers, attributes the drop in women served to the dramatic cuts to a related state family planning program.

“We lost a lot of the providers with the massive cuts in 2011, that’s one big piece of it,” she said. “It really devastated the safety net.”

Women may be unable to make longer trips to remaining clinics; there may be longer waiting times; and clinics that used to provide services for free are now charging. Chatillon and other experts say that the issue needs a lot more study to know for sure.

The report doesn’t count women who have been served by Planned Parenthood in the last year. Linda Edward Gockel, a Health and Human Services Commission spokesperson, wrote in an email to the Observer that the agency “had recruited enough providers to serve the women enrolled, but many women chose to stay with Planned Parenthood.”

However, as the report shows, when women do receive family planning services through the Texas Women’s Health Program, the state saves money. The report estimates that the state will save $38.1 million in avoided Medicaid-funded births.

The Senate Finance Committee has been meeting this week to put final touches on its version of the budget. On Tuesday, the committee approved a $50 million increase in funding for women’s health services. State Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), who served as the chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee when the Legislature approved the 2011 cuts and is now chief Senate budget writer, said in a written statement to the Observer that with this session’s funding increase, Texas is “headed in the right direction on women’s health.”

“Our goals this session are to strengthen family planning, improve education, make the system easier to navigate and ensure statewide coverage,” she said.

The House will debate its version of the budget next week, which includes a $20 million increase in women’s health services.

House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen)
Patrick Michels
House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) announces plans to pursue school finance reforms this session.

Crowded at a podium by 18 of his fellow representatives from both parties and all over the state, House education chair Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) announced his intention Wednesday morning to make major improvements to Texas’ school finance system before this legislative session runs out.

A major school finance case still awaits a hearing at the Texas Supreme Court, and many lawmakers have said there’s little incentive to rework the system before the court rules. But a district judge in Austin last year called the funding system uneven and “plainly insufficient to satisfy constitutional standards.” Aycock said he saw no reason to wait for a decision on the lawsuit before making improvements.

“It’s been in court for a long time,” Aycock said. “We need to do this while there’s funds available.”

Growth in property tax revenue has given lawmakers wiggle room to spend more on public schools this session; the House budget headed to a vote next week already includes a $2.2 billion increase in school spending. The plan announced this morning would add an extra $800 million, for a total of $3 billion in new school funding over the next two years.

The plan for distributing that extra $800 million isn’t set, but will eventually be written into a revised version of Aycock’s House Bill 1759.

Aycock said his priority is to correct illogical and outdated features in Texas’ school finance formulas, like adjustments for higher salaries in expensive urban districts or the extra cost of educating students with limited English proficiency, which haven’t been updated in more than 25 years. Tinkering with any of those would upset the delicate equilibrium of a system that, despite its flaws, has been in place since 2006.

“The fact is that when you change these complicated formulas, some people win, some people win more than others, some people lose,” Aycock said. “In order to mitigate that pain politically, you can only do this sort of modification when there’s more money going into the system.”

Some, but not all, members of the crowd around Aycock this morning have been meeting since last fall in an informal working group on school finance reform. The group includes Republicans and Democrats from both urban and rural districts.

In an interview, Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) said Aycock’s plan wouldn’t fix what’s wrong with Texas’ school finance system, but to Democrats who’ve been railing against the state’s chronic underfunding of schools, the extra money was welcome. “It was an offer we couldn’t refuse,” she said.

Still, adding more money this session to Aycock’s plan wouldn’t address the system’s basic flaws, or allow for reforms like pre-kindergarten expansion.

“I think it’s a huge step toward addressing what the court said we need to address,” Howard said, but “I take Chairman Aycock at his word that this is not about trying to make the lawsuit go away.”

In his ruling last year, District Judge John Dietz wrote that the state needed to spend an additional $800 per student to deliver the bare minimum education guaranteed by the state constitution—that’d mean an extra $8 billion in a two-year budget, well above what House leaders proposed today.

But a major infusion of money into the system and an update to the state’s formulas could certainly shake up the court case as it heads to the state’s conservative high court. Aycock said he had no idea what impact his plan might have on the case, but he and other members agreed that it ‘s better to act now than to “try to out-guess the lawyers.”

David Thompson, an attorney representing one group of school districts suing the state, told the Observer that without a bill to look at yet, it’s impossible to guess how the case might be affected. “I do very much appreciate the House’s willingness to spend some time to address the issue,” Thompson said, adding that the plans Aycock described include “some very positive features.” Thompson said he’s most interested in seeing a proposal that steers more money to districts that educate the state’s neediest children.

Had lawmakers completely punted on school finance reform—or if the House’s plan eventually falls through—a Supreme Court ruling against the state would likely prompt a special session in 2016 dedicated to fixing the system. If nothing else, the new reform effort could serve as a practice run for new members getting to know the arcane system for the first time.

“This is a House-led initiative,” Aycock said this morning, crafted without input from the governor or the Senate. Choosing to spend so much more on public schools could be a much tougher sell in a Senate that has been running on a very different philosophy than the House; just hours after Aycock’s announcement, the upper chamber agreed to $4.6 billion in tax cuts.

At the press conference, Aycock said he was confident the chambers could find common ground. “I believe there’s adequate funding to accomplish significant tax cuts and do what’s right for the children of the state of Texas at the same time,” he said.

Dan Huberty
Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston)

The anti-testing sentiment that drove lawmakers to scale back high school tests in 2013 was back on display at the Capitol late Tuesday night, as a House committee considered new bills that would reduce standardized testing even further.

House Bill 743, by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston), would reduce the amount of time students in grades three through eight spend taking state assessments.

Huberty held up a stack of papers several inches thick as he introduced the bill shortly after midnight.

“I have petitions from over 20,000 people who have actually said we’re taking too much time on the test, we’re spending too much time on the test, we’re wasting our children’s time on the test,” Huberty said.

The bill would place time limits on tests—two hours per test for students in grades three through five, and three hours for students in grades six through eight.

The bill also calls for an evaluation that shows Texas’ standardized tests are “valid and reliable,” to be performed by a group other than the Texas Education Agency or the test developer.

During the last several years, parents, teachers and school administrators have revolted against Texas’ testing regime, saying the tests are simply not an accurate measure of what students learn in school. They argue the tests have led to a too-narrow curriculum, teaching to the test, wasted instructional time and increased anxiety in students. Nearly 900 Texas school boards have signed a resolution urging lawmakers to deemphasize testing.

Some of those critics were in the committee room Tuesday, cheering lawmakers who’ve come to share their concerns.

In an exchange with Rep. Dwayne Bohac (R-Houston), Huberty said the current testing system is “seriously flawed” and must be changed.

“If we follow that strain of logic, we might as well get rid of centralized testing completely,” Bohac said.

“Yes, I’m happy—let’s do it,” Huberty said, prompting cheers and applause from the audience.

Standardized testing is big business in Texas. The state currently has a five-year, $468 million contract with Pearson Education to create and grade the STAAR test. It’s a delicate time for the publishing giant, which is one of two finalists for the state’s next testing contract, which could be announced later this month. Some have criticized Pearson for soliciting test graders on Craigslist.

Bohac asked if the problem was Pearson or the tests themselves.

“That problem that we keep coming back to is that Pearson sucks when it comes to grading the test,” Bohac said.

A similar bill to Huberty’s, filed by former Rep. Bennett Ratliff (R-Coppell), passed last session, but was vetoed by former Gov. Rick Perry.

Texas is the epicenter of the national fight over standardized testing. In 1993, the Legislature first required all public school students to take an annual state assessment that would be used to measure student and school performance.

In the late 1990s, testing proponents, including former Gov. George W. Bush, boasted that testing and test-based accountability improved student achievement and lowered dropout rates. Boston College researcher Walt Haney has found that the “Texas education miracle” was more  statistical manipulation than reality, but the myth of Texas’ test-driven improvement was nevertheless widely accepted.

By 2010, Texas required a maximum of 32 state assessments over nine grades. In 2013, the Legislature reduced that number to 22.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires elementary school students to take 17 standardized tests in math, reading and science, but Texas requires additional writing and social studies tests in some grades.

Another proposal from Huberty heard last night, House Bill 742, would eliminate the tests not required by federal law. “It’s time to have the discussion about what we’re doing with our kids and the testing, “Huberty said.

Both of Huberty’s bills were left pending in committee.

Milly Wassum
Kelsey Jukam
Anti-Muslim protester Milly Wassum at the Texas Muslim Capitol Day.

Some state lawmakers are concerned that American courts may not follow American laws. There’s no evidence of, say, Swedish common law creeping into the Texas court system, but a few GOP legislators want to make sure foreign influence never stands a chance. That goal may seem innocuous—if not redundant—but the bill authors are fending off accusations that “American Laws for American Courts” legislation is intentionally discriminatory toward Muslims and could have unintended consequences for many other religious groups as well.

On Tuesday, Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Canton) told the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee that many of his constituents believe American liberties are “under attack” by nefarious foreign influences, and need to be assured that American law will continue to be enforced “on American soil.” Flynn’s  HJR 32 proposes a constitutional amendment directing the courts to “uphold and apply” the Texas and U.S. constitutions as well as state and federal law.

Flynn is also carrying HB 670, which says that a court’s ruling “may not be based on foreign law if the application of that law would violate a right guaranteed by the United States Constitution.”

Committee members asked the obvious questions: What’s the need for these bills? Isn’t it already the case that American courts follow American laws? When has this ever been a problem?

Flynn didn’t have any specific examples to share. Religious laws are often used to draw up civil contracts, and many mainstream religious groups have tribunals that issue non-binding rulings on civil disputes. Some believe that a mosque—or church, or synagogue—is a more appropriate arena to solve certain disputes than a courtroom. Participation in these tribunals is voluntary, and while a religious court’s decision may be referenced in a public court, those decisions do not legally supersede state or federal laws. According to Joshua Houston, an attorney with the interfaith advocacy organization Texas Impact, in the end the Constitution—and the legal order of authority—trumps all.

Flynn said that the bills were supposed to be preemptive, to ensure that there aren’t any problems down the road. He’s worried that without an explicit directive “activist judges” might begin to let foreign laws supersede American laws.

Rep. Travis Clardy (R-Nacogdoches) was the first of many committee members to express his skepticism.

“The buzzword everyone’s talking about is the use of Shariah law in Texas courts,” Clardy said. “I don’t know every judge in Texas, but I know a lot of them, and I have no fear or concern that the judges that I know and that I observe doing that in lieu of or in place of the federal constitution or the state constitution.”

Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) said his bill, HB 562, doesn’t target any specific foreign law or religion, and those who claim it’s directed at a certain belief system are “misguided.” The scope of Leach’s bill is narrower than Flynn’s, applying only to family law (proceedings involving marriage or suits “affecting the parent-child relationship”).

All three bills, however, are derived from model legislation that was specifically designed to be anti-Shariah. Commonly known as “American Laws for American Courts,” the concept is the brainchild of lawyer and anti-Shariah activist David Yerushalmi (profiled in this New York Times article). It’s been passed in several states, most recently in Alabama. According to the Times, the language in these bills is intentionally vague, “worded neutrally enough that they might withstand constitutional scrutiny while still limiting the way courts handle cases involving Muslims.”

While the representatives and several witnesses in support of the bill may have tiptoed around mentioning Islam in particular, the hearing was tinged with an uncomfortable disrespect for the religion. Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) asked one witness—Sarwat Husain, president of the San Antonio chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations—to explain Shariah. When Husain said that “Shariah law is just following the guidance of God,” the audience erupted in groans and laughter.

“Muslims are loyal, law-abiding and tax-paying citizens,” Husain said. “We expect to be treated as equals in society and do not wish to be stigmatized, demonized, or treated like second-class citizens.

The extent of the practical implications of the legislation is still unclear. Analysts say the laws might affect the way churches can govern their own internal affairs, and could also affect adoptions, wills, marriages and divorces. According to Houston, the vague language in the bills could affect the law in “really unpredictable ways.” Houston said he’d seen a substitute—yet to be finished and given to committee members—to Leach’s original bill, which refers not only to “unconstitutional” religious laws but also to laws that “violate good morals” or “natural justice.”

“If we’re worried about activist judges going off the reservation—that language actually invites them to do that,” Houston said.

Leach said that one-third of the House had signed onto his bill, but that’s no indication that it will make it out of committee. Members seemed confused and unconvinced by arguments in support of the bills, calling them a “solution in search of a problem.” Clardy said lawmakers should restrain from passing unnecessary laws and said “if we don’t have a true issue before us, then we need to leave it alone.”

“We’ve got real issues in this state,” Clardy said.

 

Parade in favor of Denton fracking ban
Garrett Graham
Parade in favor of Denton fracking ban

Even before voters in Denton passed a measure that made their city the first in the state to ban fracking, state lawmakers were talking about filing legislation to block the ban. On Monday, more than four months after the Denton vote, a House committee discussed two bills that would derail local efforts to curb fracking. House Bill 40 would generally block cities from regulating oil and gas activity, and House Bill 539 would make cities and municipalities that do ban fracking pay for it—literally.

The hearing Monday at the House Energy Resources Committee drew an overflow crowd of oil industry boosters, environmentalists, city officials and citizens. Most of the debate centered on HB 40, authored by Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo), the committee chairman.

Darby argued that the state already has the authority to regulate subsurface oil and gas activity, and that its authority preempts local governments from banning fracking. Local entities can continue to regulate surface activities and write ordinances that govern noise, traffic and odors, but they can’t control what goes on below the ground, he said.

But much of the day was spent parsing the confusing language of the legislation pertaining to what a city can and cannot do. The bill stipulates that local government is limited to regulating “only surface activity that is incident to an oil and gas operation” with ordinances that are “commercially reasonable” and don’t “effectively prohibit an oil and gas operation.” Elsewhere in the bill, “commercially reasonable” is defined as a “condition that permits a reasonably prudent operator to fully, effectively, and economically exploit, develop, produce, process, and transport oil and gas.”

Did you follow all that?

Opponents say the bill would undermine current city ordinances and allow operators to do whatever they want if they can prove that city ordinances aren’t “commercially reasonable.”

“We are experts in fracking loopholes,” said Sharon Wilson, a North Texas drilling reform advocate who was instrumental in getting the fracking ban on the ballot in Denton. “We know what they are; we live with them. [House Bill 40] is a fracking loophole.”

Darby and Rep. Jim Keffer (R-Eastland) tried to convince local government representatives that existing ordinances would likely hold up even if the bills passed.

State Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo)
State Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo)

“This bill … would have taken a whole different tack,” Darby said. “It could have done what you’re saying, what you think it’s going to do—it could have said there will be no city ordinances, no regulations, no rules that affect the operation of oil and gas. It did not. And that’s why I’m confused. Did any of you even read the bill?”

Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford), who is also on the committee, introduced HB 539, which would require cities and municipalities wishing to ban fracking to determine how much money their local and state governments would lose in tax revenue. Entities would have to spend the next five years paying the state and schools back for lost revenue.

Later, Darby and other committee members took turns grilling Denton officials, including Mayor Chris Watts.

Would the bill prevent a city from banning fracking, like Denton did?

“In my opinion if this bill passes as written today, it would make it very unlikely that a city would be able to ban fracking,” Watts finally said. Rep. Tom Craddick (R-Midland), a stalwart friend of the oil business, asked Watts how he voted when the fracking ban went to the City Council. “I voted against it, we passed it along to voters.”

“So you passed it?” Craddick responded, to laughs and “ooos” from the packed room. It was only one of many tense moments during the hearing, which lasted for almost nine hours.

Industry representatives, a couple of mineral rights advocates and a handful of elected officials were happy with the bill’s current language, but most everyone else wasn’t. “If HB 40 was clear and concise, there wouldn’t be a room full of local elected officials here to testify against it,” said Calvin Tillman, a former mayor of Dish, a small North Texas town where many residents claim that fracking has made them and their animals sick. “I don’t think any of us would have driven all this way if we had interpreted HB 40 the way you guys have described it. We’re here because we have concerns and with all due respect, you and the industry telling us that everything will be OK is not quite as reassuring as we need.”

Even city staff from Forth Worth—whose city ordinance was lauded by industry, legislators and others in favor of the bills throughout the hearing—testified against the bills. “I do not want to sit down with every single operator and decide whether it is commercially reasonable for that operator to drill,” Fort Worth City Attorney Sarah Fullenwider said late in the night, about seven hours into the hearing.

At that point, Darby appeared fed up with having to reassure local officials that his bill wouldn’t undo their ordinances. He yelled at Fullenwider, “Yours works! Not all jurisdictions’ [ordinances] work!”

Both bills were left pending.

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