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U.S. Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Andrew J. Palmer (left) reads to students at Sidney A. Wright Elementary in San Antonio on Jan. 4, 2012.


Throughout the legislative session, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has painted a dire portrait of hundreds of Texas public schools.

Currently, Patrick remarked during a March press conference, almost 150,000 students languish in nearly 300 failing schools across the state. He vowed to fix the problem.

The measures he championed include red-meat education reform proposals with appealing names: rating schools on an A-F scale; a state-run “opportunity school district” to oversee low-performing schools; a “parent empowerment” bill making it easier to close struggling schools or turn them into charters; expanding online classes (taxpayer funded, but often run by for-profit entities); and “taxpayer savings grants”—private school vouchers, effectively—to help students escape the woeful public system.

Patrick has long fought for many of these, but now that he holds one of the state’s most powerful offices it seemed, going into the session, that his reform agenda would be better positioned than ever before.

The president of Texans for Education Reform, Julie Linn, certainly believes so. She boasted in a January editorial about the potential for success under Patrick’s leadership. “The momentum is in place to make 2015 a banner year for education reform in Texas,” Linn wrote.

Teacher groups and public school advocates have a different take. As they see it, Patrick’s agenda is not a recipe for well-intended reforms but an attack on chronically underfunded public schools.

“There is a concerted, well-funded attempt to dismantle public education,” Rev. Charles Foster Johnson, executive director of the public school advocacy group Pastors for Texas Children, told the Observer in March. Johnson blamed elected officials who aim to “demonize and blame teachers and schools for the social ills and pathologies of our society at large.”

Patrick’s education proposals tap the reform zeitgeist that has increasingly gained political favor, both in Texas and nationally, during the last decade. From President Obama to presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush and Sen. Ted Cruz, education reform has created odd bedfellows, obscuring policy fault lines between Democrats and Republicans like perhaps no other issue.

Reform critics, though, point out that test scores have always closely tracked family income rather than school quality. They note how schools with high rates of poverty are more likely to be low-performing if the state uses test scores as the primary measuring stick. “The real problem,” Johnson said, “is that we don’t have the political will to assign those schools the resources they need.”

Regardless of where you stand in the debate, with less than two weeks left in the 84th Legislature we can begin to gauge the success of Patrick’s reform agenda, much of which is being carried by his successor as chair of the Senate Education Committee, Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood).

A-F Campus Ratings

Proponents say a simple A-F rating system gives parents a more transparent way to determine the quality of their local schools. Texas’ current rating system includes two categories: “met standard” and “needs improvement.”

Despite vehement opposition from educators across the state, Taylor’s Senate Bill 6 passed the Senate and was ready for a vote in the House Public Education Committee. But that did not happen.

Instead, Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) rolled the A-F rating language into his House Bill 2804 last week. HB 2804 is Aycock’s effort to reduce the importance of standardized tests, and he has argued that the new rating scale wouldn’t matter much. “We have to call them something,” he told House members repeatedly during debate about his bill last Thursday.

In an impassioned speech on the floor of the House that night, Rep. Larry Phillips (R-Sherman) pleaded with his colleagues to remove the A-F ratings from Aycock’s bill. “You think just because you rate someone ‘A’ through ‘F’ they are going to do a better job? No,” Phillips said.

Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) warned in March that an “F” rating would stigmatize schools, making it harder for low-rated schools to retain teachers, staff and students. “In assigning ‘F’ grades to some of these campuses,” Rodriguez said, “are we not really consigning them to failure permanently?”

But with House support for the measure in Aycock’s bill, Texas appears likely to join at least 14 other states in rating its schools like an elementary school spelling test.

Opportunity School District

royce west
Courtesy of
Sen. Royce West

Senate Bill 669 by Royce West (D-Dallas) would allow the state to take control of low-performing schools, thereby superseding the authority of locally elected school boards.

If schools have low-performance ratings for two consecutive years, the Texas Education Agency could move them into a statewide “opportunity” school district in the hopes of turning them around. The bill would then allow TEA to turn the schools over to private charter operators, among other options.

“We have a collective statewide responsibility to figure out how we turn around the cycle of despair in schools that have been failing year after year after year,” said Mike Feinberg, CEO of the KIPP charter school chain, at a Senate hearing in April.

At the same hearing, Patty Quinzi of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers argued that the new state-run district was “basically a business opportunity and that’s it. … This was a bill that was designed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is co-chaired by private charter school managers.”

The “opportunity” district bill passed the Senate on a 20-11 vote, but some observers say support for the measure is shakier in the House. The bill will be heard in the House Public Education Committee on Tuesday.

“Parent Empowerment”

Under a measure passed in 2011, parents can petition the state to turn schools with five consecutive years of poor state ratings into charter schools, to have the staff replaced, or even to close the school. It’s a tactic known as a “parent trigger,” and Taylor’s Senate Bill 14 would reduce that period to three years.

“This is about parent empowerment,” Taylor said when he introduced his bill in March. “[Five years] is too long to have young children stuck in a school and to have people defending that failing school district.”

California adopted the nation’s first parent trigger law, and its use there has prompted controversy. Critics say the few instances when the law has been invoked led to community conflict, teacher attrition, and dubious results. Nevertheless, reform advocates hope to spread and strengthen such laws across the country.

SB 14 easily passed the Senate in April but has less support in the House. The measure will also be heard in the House Public Education Committee on Tuesday.

Virtual Schools

Texas law allows public school students in grades 3-12 to take up to three online courses, paid for by the student’s school district at up to $400 per course. Senate Bill 894, by Taylor, would lift the three-course cap and extend online courses to students in kindergarten through second grade.

Texas needs to remove existing barriers and provide greater opportunity for students to access online courses, Taylor said as he introduced his bill in March.

David Anthony, CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas, a nonprofit education advocacy organization, has called SB 894 a “virtual voucher” that would drain funds from public schools and direct them to for-profit virtual school providers.

Research has shown that student performance lags in corporate-run virtual schools compared to their traditional brick-and-mortar counterparts. “There is little high-quality research to call for expanding [virtual schools],” according to a 2014 report from the National Education Policy Center.

SB 894 was voted out of committee in April but has yet to be brought up on the Senate floor for a vote.


After numerous defeats by a coalition of rural Republicans and big-city Democrats during past sessions, the fight for school vouchers returned to the Capitol this session.

Senate Bill 4, by Taylor, would create scholarships to enable mostly low- and middle-income students to attend private and religious schools. Under the measure, private businesses would receive a tax credit for funding the scholarships.

Students from families with an income of not greater than 250 percent of the national free and reduced-price lunch guideline would qualify—for a family of five that means an annual income of about $130,000. Patrick proposed a very similar measure in 2013.

Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) memorably used a hearing on this measure to denigrate public education.

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

The bill passed the Senate, but several representatives told the Observer vouchers will be easily defeated in the House. SB 4 is currently stuck in the House Ways and Means Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Dan Bonnen (R-Angleton). Bonnen has emerged as a fierce foe to Patrick this session, and it is not clear if he will even bring the bill up for a vote.

One thing is certain, though, for all Patrick’s posturing and the money thrown at education reform in the last year, the only measure with a seemingly clear path to the governor’s desk is A-F campus ratings.

As for school vouchers, lawmakers dutifully played familiar roles in what has become a perennial fight, but the outcome isn’t likely to be any different this time around.

This session’s grade on advancing the education reform agenda will probably hinge on the measures left in play: the “opportunity” school district, “parent empowerment,” and virtual school expansion.

Depending on your perspective, that grade probably won’t be “A” or “F,” but somewhere in between.

Jonathan Saenz
Patrick Michels
Texas Values President Jonathan Saenz

The leader of an anti-LGBT group is accusing the Texas Association of Business of supporting “the homosexual agenda” and turning its back on values like faith, family and religious freedom.

In a radio interview last week, Texas Values President Jonathan Saenz blamed the state’s powerful chamber of commerce for the demise of anti-gay legislation, including Senate Bill 1155, by Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood), which would prohibit cities from enforcing LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances.

The TAB made headlines when it came out against two religious freedom proposals, but it did not publicly take a position on SB 1155 or other anti-LGBT legislation. However, in an appearance on the Family Research Council’s Washington Watch program, Saenz accused the TAB of working with “radical left” groups to defeat Hall’s bill, which never got a hearing.

“The business lobby, the Texas Association of Business, has decided now they’re going to put all their investment in the homosexual agenda, and that’s one of the things they did,” Saenz said. “It was a big surprise to a lot of lawmakers, and when they did that it had a very negative impact on the impression of what this law was really about. The Texas Association of Business has clearly turned their back on the values of Texas.”

Saenz couldn’t be reached for further comment. He told Washington Watch host Craig James he doesn’t think many TAB members are aware of the group’s opposition to anti-LGBT legislation. He called on people to find out if businesses are members of TAB and demand answers from the chamber’s leadership, which he said would result in a “shakeup.”

“It’s absolutely absurd, and the way that they’ve distorted legislation and misled people about what our legislation really does, some of the proposals we had during the session, it’s really not right at all,” Saenz said. “I think if a lot of members of the Texas Association of Business were aware of how left-leaning and liberal the organization’s leadership here at the Capitol has become, I think they’d be shocked.”

TAB President Chris Wallace confirmed in an email that the group took no position on SB 1155, but didn’t respond to a request for further comment. TAB’s opposition to the two religious freedom proposals was part of a national trend, most evident in Indiana earlier this year, of backlash from business interests over anti-LGBT legislation.

Saenz also criticized Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), chair of the Senate Committee on State Affairs, for not scheduling a hearing on SB 1155, one of more than 20 anti-LGBT proposals introduced in the 84th Legislature. With two weeks remaining in the session, none of the anti-LGBT legislation has passed, and a high-profile anti-gay marriage bill died in the House on Thursday. Huffman couldn’t immediately be reached.

Saenz said TAB and other groups have convinced lawmakers that “family values are bad for business,” while the opposite is true.

“Texas has been No. 1 for business for 10 straight years—that is during the same 10 years that our marriage laws have been between one man and one woman,” Saenz said. “It appears to me those policies have helped Texas and been a part of what makes Texas great. … This type of war on values from the Texas Association of Business within our state has got to end, and it’s been very damaging, and it’s been misleading, and it’s been disruptive.”

Listen to Saenz’s full interview here. Saenz is also scheduled to appear on Michelangelo Signorile’s Sirius XM Radio show—which is in Austin this week—on Monday afternoon.

Texas Family Values Rally
Kelsey Jukam
Jonathan Saenz of Texas Values, right, stares at a cardboard wedding cake celebrating Texas' ban on same-sex marriage in February.


There was a lot of posturing Friday about the death of House Bill 4105, a fairly bizarre anti-gay marriage bill from state Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia) that fell victim to a major House procedural deadline Thursday night.

Bell, who was one of the reps to cut that famous anti-gay wedding cake a couple months back, aimed to establish another last line of defense against the possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court would invalidate Texas’ constitutional ban on same-sex marriages. His bill, which was co-authored by so many GOP reps that they alone would have guaranteed passage, would have turned the current gay marriage ban to a super-duper superban.

It was a very dumb bill from the start, and mismanaged by its supporters even by the low standards of the Texas Legislature. It was filed very late—literally on the last day a bill could be filed, March 13—and then it sat around. By the time it was eligible to come to the House floor, it was so far back on the calendar that it became easy for Democrats to talk and talk and talk—a tactic known as “chubbing,” for some probably ungodly reason—until the midnight Thursday deadline for considering yet-unpassed House bills.

Immediately, the posturing began. Democrats celebrated the death of 4105 as a triumph of legislative cunning and tenacity. Conservatives bashed House leadership while simultaneously claiming the bill’s existence was evidence they were “#StillWinning,” even if the bill got hara-kiri’ed. On Friday, the overwhelming majority of the House GOP caucus pledged their undying support of traditional marriage in a flowery letter. They wanted the bill to have passed so bad, they said.

It makes perfect sense for the Democrats to claim total victory here, especially since they will have few other chances this session. Gay marriage and gay rights are a huge issue for the party, though it’s hard to predict the practical consequences of Bell’s bill given that the Supreme Court soon might effectively sweep away the relevant statutes. And Democrats certainly were a major reason why the bill died: Chubbing isn’t as tough as filibustering, but they did smart work over the last week to slow the process just enough.

But if they hit a home run here, it’s because they got an easy pitch. Most House GOPers, whatever their other faults, still know a stupid bill when they see one. There’s a general level of acknowledgement in many quarters—even among some social conservatives—that the increasingly Sisyphean struggle against gay marriage is a lost cause, and a distraction from causes the godly folk really care about, like abortion. (Importantly, the business lobby, the Legislature’s one true Almighty Power, is tired of these shenanigans.)

In other words, if House Republicans wanted this to pass, it would have. There’s so much House leadership can do to a bill when it really cares.

But conservatives who want to pin this on House Speaker Joe Straus are ignoring their own glaring failures here. The bill was filed when the session was nearly half-over. Bell’s original gay marriage bill, HB 623, went nowhere, then was dropped and re-emerged, weakened, as 4105.

If anti-gay ringleaders like Jonathan Saenz wanted to maximize their leverage over reluctant pols, there were many other things they could have done, starting by using the more sympathetic Senate. They could enlist Sen. Brian Birdwell or Sen. Donna Campbell to carry a companion to Bell’s bill. Now the framing is different, and you have a lifeboat if Bell’s bill tanks. Instead, they launched a hastily folded paper airplane into anti-aircraft fire. Well done, fellas.

Ah, but Saenz would tell you, we’re still winning. Look at all those names that signed up to coauthor the bill. Look at the letter today, signed by 93 of the House’s 98 Republicans. Does he believe it, or is he putting on a good face? Saenz is, for whatever else he is, not dumb. It would be wise to suspect the latter.

That letter, though. Here’s a sampling of the prose:

Traditional marriage is the bedrock institution of both our society and the success Texas has been blessed to experience since our admission as the 28th state within these United States of America.

We, therefore, affirm the preservation of the present definition of marriage as being the legal union of one man and one woman as husband and wife, and pledge to uphold and defend this principle that is so dearly held by Texans far and wide.

This is a bit like forgetting to water your friend’s plants when she’s out of town, only to send an essay upon her return emphasizing the importance that you place in the concept of plants, and the value of keeping them alive.

None of this is to say that other anti-gay amendments or bills won’t pass in the coming weeks, or that a majority of Republicans in the Legislature are secretly pro-gay marriage. Far from it. If a vote occurs on some of the provisions of HB 4105, offered as amendments to other bills, they could easily pass. But the events of the last few days are evidence of the writing on the wall for Saenz & company.

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Christopher Duntsch
Dallas County Sheriff's Office

Christopher Duntsch may be the most famous neurosurgeon in Texas. In the last few years, he’s been the subject of multiple news features in the Observer, The Dallas Morning News and “The Today Show,” and even landed a starring role in a TV spot during the governor’s race last year.

But Duntsch is no Dr. Oz. He’s become so famous lately because of what he represents: the deadly web of protections under Texas law that keep even the most dangerously inept surgeons in the operating room, and protects them and the hospitals that employ them after they maim and kill their patients.

But a police report last month suggests that the law may finally have caught up with Duntsch. A bit.

Two years ago, Saul Elbein pieced together Duntsch’s career in Dallas from late 2010 to mid-2013, unfolding in a steady drumbeat of tragedy: patients paralyzed, injured and killed, one after another as other doctors looked on in horror and tried to repair his botched work. “Therapeutic misadventure” was the cause of death the medical examiner gave for Duntsch’s 55-year-old patient Kellie Martin, who died during a routine surgery to ease her chronic back pain. Records noted “impairment from drugs or alcohol” were affecting his performance. “The [Medical Board] must stop this sociopath Duntsch immediately or he will continue [to] maim and kill innocent patients,” Baylor surgeon Randall Kirby warned the board.

The state finally suspended Duntsch’s medical license in late 2013, and he’s kept a fairly low profile in the press since. His name comes up lately as a cautionary tale, amid news of a lawsuit filed by his former patients against Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano, and the legal roadblocks that prevent Duntsch from answering for his actions. Gubernatorial hopeful Wendy Davis attacked Greg Abbott for “using his office to go to court against the victims” after receiving large campaign contributions from the hospital system’s chairman.

Through it all, Duntsch has been cocooned by Texas law—until last month, at least, when he got caught on the wrong side of a Wal-Mart checkout line in a stolen pair of pants.

That’s according to a Dallas police affidavit filed on April 8, which says Duntsch was caught on camera at the Wal-Mart at Northwest Highway and Skillman Street, trying to walk out without paying for $887 worth of sunglasses, watches, ties, briefcases, cologne and other items. According to the police narrative, Duntsch changed into a pair of Wal-Mart pants in a dressing room, put his own pants into a cart, and pushed the whole cart out of the store without paying.

Duntsch agreed by voicemail to an interview for this story on Wednesday, but did not return subsequent calls for comment.

Even the steepest punishment—a maximum $4,000 fine and up to a year in jail—will come as little relief for Duntsch’s former patients and their families, but it’s another signifier of the priorities that guide Texas law: A man backed by a hospital’s insurance can injure patients with impunity, but he’ll surely know justice for trying to rip off a discount retailer.

Duntsch has a court date next month for the shoplifting case along with the unrelated matter of a criminal trespass complaint filed against him last fall. In September, according to police reports, while his girlfriend was giving birth to their second child he hopped the fence at her sister’s home, snuck in an unlocked back door and wrested their eldest son free from the child’s grandmother before driving off with the boy. Duntsch’s girlfriend explained to police that “her family did not get along with Christopher.” The police report also notes Duntsch is on probation for drunk driving in Colorado.

He may not be licensed to practice medicine anymore, but Duntsch has remained active in other medical realms. He’s on the board of the journal “Cell Science and Report” from a year-old publisher named MedCrave, which is apparently based in a house in Oklahoma and may be an American “clone” of the Hyderabad, India-based OMICS Publishing Group. Duntsch also advertises his services as head of Hybrid Bioscience, Inc., which pledges to bridge the gap “between the great disciplines of modern world science and medicine,” and Synthetic Investments, Inc. The latter company, which shares a name with a complex financial services product, bills itself as a way to invest in experimental stem cell treatments.

Duntsch is also in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings in Colorado, and here in Texas, he faces a suit from his old roommate Jerry Summers—whose spinal cord was damaged in surgery performed by Dunsch—and his old hospital is facing an ongoing suit from Duntsch patient Kenneth Fennell. Even if Duntsch or Baylor lose those cases—which are scheduled for trial within a year—Texas law ensures neither will be responsible for sizeable malpractice damages.

The lawsuit from Duntsch’s former patient, Barry Morguloff, who detailed “what can only be described as one of the most prolific mass torts involving medical malpractice in Texas history,” is still chugging through federal court as well—but without either Duntsch or Baylor as defendants. They were each dropped from the suit in recent months, leaving Kimberly Morgan, the nurse who assisted Duntsch in his surgeries, as the only defendant in the case to answer for his dangerous work.


LGBT rights rainbow flag
LGBT rights rainbow flag
Michelangelo Signorile has a message for the LGBT community: Stay confrontational.


Michelangelo Signorile knows confrontation. He’s great at it. A lot of people are alive today because he is great at it. A lot more are likely to have better lives in the future because he keeps doing it.

You remember Signorile, the AIDS-activist-turned-journalist who in 1988 was handcuffed and dragged out of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York, after he leapt onto a marble platform and shouted down then-Cardinal (later Pope) Joseph Ratzinger, saying, “He’s no man of God. He is the devil.”

Twenty-seven years later, he’s still shouting—weekdays on his SiriusXM Radio show, and now with his new book, It’s Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia and Winning True Equality.

Signorile has a message for the LGBT community: Stay confrontational; there is a backlash coming that will threaten the hard-fought gains made in recent years.

He’s coined the phrase “victory blindness” for the title of his first chapter, where he warns that despite enormously positive gains in the areas of military service and marriage equality, homophobia rages on in America.

Signorile reminds us that: sports stars are practically rewarded after spouting hate; TV sitcoms still make gay and transgender people into insulting punchlines; the media respects and airs bigoted views of the “other side”; and businesses now brazenly flaunt no-gays-allowed policies while workers fear coming out on the job more than ever.

Michelangelo Signorile
Courtesy of Michelangelo Signorile
AIDS-activist-turned-journalist, Michelangelo Signorile.

He notes that federal civil rights protections seem further away than before, and that the LGBT community is not well-served by a gay establishment that apologizes for and lauds political leaders rather than demanding action from them.

“Maybe it’s time to wake up from the bedtime story and get a new dream,” he writes.

Next Monday and Tuesday, Signorile will broadcast his show from Austin beginning at 2 p.m. CDT (The program airs on SiriusXM Progress channel 127.) He also will speak about his book at 7 p.m. Monday at BookPeople. He discussed the decision to come to Texas during the final weeks of the legislative session during an interview with the Observer.

“Texas is a perfect example of why it is not over,” Signorile said. “In Texas and all across the country we have the enemies of equality still organizing.”

Earlier this year, a female couple found a brief loophole in state law and married in Austin. Texas is one of only 14 states that does not allow same-sex marriage, and more than 20 anti-LGBT bills have been filed during the 84th legislative session. Among them is a measure by Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia) designed to nullify in Texas any U.S. Supreme Court ruling that would force the state to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. A ruling from the court is expected this summer.

“Texas is a sovereign state and our citizens have the right to define marriage,” Bell wrote in a news release. “We as Texans voted in 2005 to define marriage as being solely between a man and a woman. In Texas marriage is sacred and traditional families are recognized as the fabric of our society.”

Signorile said he wrote his book because he started seeing a disconnect in the way the LGBT community is celebrating its successes and what is happening in many parts of the country. “People were saying it is inevitable that we are about to have full civil rights,” he said. “Yet, on the ground, people were still being fired, turned away from shops, experience gay bashing. Kids were still taking their lives.”

It's Not Over
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
It’s Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, and Winning True Equality
By Michelangelo Signorile
$27; 272

Signorile takes issue with people who are urging the LGBT community to take the high road now that history seems to be on their side, at least with marriage equality and the right to serve openly in the military.

“I started seeing people saying that we should be magnanimous toward these poor people who are losing,” he said. “They are saying we should show we are not poor winners instead of being confrontational, which is what we should continue to be. I started seeing people say we need to be nice.”

Signorile’s work has always straddled the line between public affairs journalism and what many consider political activism. During the late 1980s, he was chair of the media committee for the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) in New York. In that role, he organized and staged high-profile protests of the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institute of Health and New York City Hall, claiming government inaction was responsible for massive deaths in the LGBT community.

“When AIDS first happened, to a lot of us it was something easy for us to ignore,” he said. “ACT UP clearly invigorated the movement and showed us why we needed to be confrontational and that we needed to never allow this to happen again.

“It was massive death caused by homophobia and negligence. We thought we had won then. We thought that after Stonewall we thought we would come out and had gotten a few ordinances here and there and could dance all night on the dance floor and we thought we won something, and AIDS woke us up.

“Act UP epitomizes that we should be confrontational and say, ‘Never again.’”

Signorile’s book is peppered with stories of individual bravery, people who fought enormous adversity and won—powerless people reclaiming their power, like a bullied kid learning self-defense.

Another example is Pamela Raintree, a transgender woman in Shreveport, La., who went to a local town meeting last year to challenge city councilman Ron Webb, who was trying to repeal an LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance that had passed three months earlier.

Raintree collects rocks, and she brought one with her. When her time came to address the council she stood in front of Webb and lifted the stone high in the air. “Leviticus 20:13 states, ‘If a man lie also with mankind as he lieth with a woman, they shall surely put him to death.’ I brought the first stone, Mr. Webb in case your Bible talk isn’t just a smokescreen for personal prejudices.”

She told Signorile in an interview for the book that she saw him cast his eyes down and that she could see his facial expression: “Oh, this one is over.”

“Raintree is a hero,” Signorile writes. “We can be heroes by speaking out, using traditional protests—marching and putting our bodies on the line—as well as online organizing and creative actions like Raintree’s. Each instance of just being our fullest selves, resisting the victory narrative and not covering moves the needle.”

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Texas House of Representatives
The Texas House in session on April 4, 2013.


This has been a fairly demoralizing few weeks for even those with low expectations for state government. Events point to a significant way in which the polarization of Texas state government is making it more like its dread enemy, Congress.

In recent years across the political spectrum, in Texas and nationally, we’ve seen the time between the end of one election and the beginning of the next shorten—constant political agitation powered in part by the scrutiny brought by new media, and the increasing demand for ideological purity, have dissolved the distance between governing and campaigning.

The 84th Texas Legislature is best understood as one part of a never-ending, ouroboros-like primary. The 2014 election brought us statewide elected officials who don’t know how to stop campaigning: They’ve never been forced to do otherwise. That’s true up and down the statewide ticket, from Gov. Greg Abbott to Ag Commissioner Sid Miller, but it’s manifested itself particularly in the Legislature this year. As a result, and partially because of the role of a number of outside instigators, the political atmosphere around the Capitol this session has been less conducive to governing and more conducive to showmanship and brinksmanship.

Start with Abbott, who must rue the fact that the story of his Jade Helm 15 letter is now entering its third week, and seems to continue ricocheting around national and international media like a stray bullet. It is the most widely covered thing Abbott has done as governor, if not in his entire career as a public servant.

On one hand, some members of the media have made too much of Abbott’s letter. It has few, if any, practical negative consequences.

But the wording of the letter—and the failure of Abbott’s team to comprehend how it would read to outsiders—is small evidence that the governor’s office hasn’t fully adapted to governing. He amplified nutters when he easily could have ignored them. A major responsibility of the governor of any state, one would think, would be to avoid embarrassing his constituents. Are these mistakes because of inexperience, or because he fears a future primary challenge?

Whatever it is, there’s little room to credit him with good faith here: Abbott has a long history of these pontifications. He loves to position himself as the protector of the vulnerable and frightened. When international election observers came to the United States to observe the 2012 presidential election, he threatened them with arrest, cheering conservative groups and earning a similar kind of backlash as the Jade Helm letter. Three years later, he’s using the same playbook.

When it comes to governing, though, Abbott has been less sure of himself. He’s at least partially responsible for the logjam between the House and Senate, thanks to his failure to articulate his positions, a gap the lobby has been only too willing to fill. His failure to speak clearly isn’t about policy confusion—one assumes his team has a preference—but about an unwillingness to take political risks by alienating one chamber or another. But those moments are precisely what governing is about.

Then there’s Dan Patrick, Abbott’s 2014 classmate. One of his first acts with the gavel was to polarize the Senate by killing the two-thirds rule. No longer would Democrats have very much of a say in anything, a change they said would make the upper chamber more like D.C. Still, many of the biggest items on Patrick’s wish list are unattainable to him. Instead, Patrick has developed a novel style of governance, which one could describe as the Senate of Forms.

He pledged to deliver “next level” conservatism to the Lege, but his tenure as lite guv seems to have been consumed primarily by the promotion of bills and policies that are doomed to failure and were perhaps never really even intended to pass. Patrick spent the first two months of the session holding press conferences about his policy agenda, piling those on top of a mountain of promises he’d already made as a candidate, as if he were a newly elected president. It’s a strange way to run the Senate, one that seems tailored solely to help Patrick with his next primary.

Take the effort to repeal the Texas DREAM Act, which allows some of the state’s undocumented residents to pay in-state tuition at state colleges. This was one of the things that Patrick talked most about on the campaign trail: He vowed that its repeal would be one of his first, if not his first, acts. But it was dead from the very beginning of the session, mostly because of his fellow Republicans.

But the shadow puppetry Patrick requires to justify himself to his base demanded that his Senate allies drag the zombie bill through committee hearings. So state Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) terrified an uncountable number of people with the prospect that they, their friends or family, could one day soon no longer afford college. They came to Austin in great numbers to pour their hearts out to the Senate. They couldn’t know the bill was dead, a weird ploy in a long-running conservative shadow war.

When Patrick’s voucher bill, which we know now was also essentially dead from the start, was heard in committee, Patrick came down himself to testify for it—and take a selfie. This is not, traditionally, how the second-most powerful man in the state exercises his influence. It was a show, designed to demonstrate that he cared. People who know how to use power do not normally need to show their hand in this way.

But Patrick’s most important contribution this session has been a tax plan and associated budget gimmicks that make no sense and have almost no value. His proposed tax package gives little to taxpayers and hurts the state. When Patrick next runs for office, few voters will remember the small and temporary tax break he won them. The only importance it holds is that if it passes, Patrick can say that he cut property taxes, and if others oppose him in doing so, he can say that they kept property taxes high.

Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick
Kelsey Jukam
Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick at the State of the State Address.
In this, he’s fighting House Speaker Joe Straus and his allies. The campaign against Straus is one of the longest-running grudge matches in the state, and the lieutenant governor is its new champion. They don’t often talk about policy, and when they do, it doesn’t always go well. To be sure, Straus has found his own pugilists to return fire, state Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) chief among them. But if the two chambers fail to come to an agreement on important issues in the coming weeks, remember that it’s not about policy. It’s the campaign. And if they do come to an agreement, it will be an agreement shaped by dueling egos, not principle.

Finally, there are the legislators themselves. There’s been a general lack of communication between members of the two chambers all session. Budding primary challenges and attack sites began rolling on basically as soon as the Legislature convened. Pretty much everyone, no matter the party or chamber or faction, is unhappy with the way the session has gone so far. Some legislators and staffers say the feeling in the Lege is worse even than it was in 2011, when the Lege had to contend with an apocalyptic budget shortfall.

There could be no better symbol of the ways Austin’s political culture has deteriorated than the news that a sneak of weasels calling themselves the American Phoenix Foundation—conservative activists who at the very least, have a number of mutual friends with the consultants who back Senate right-wingers like Burton, Hall, and Huffines—have been going around the Texas Capitol making secret recordings of legislators as they go about their business.

They claim to have some 800 hours of recordings, excerpts of which Breitbart Texas says it will release after the session. They’ve been walking around the halls of the Capitol, and around Austin, with cameras, hoping to entrap legislators. They’ve harassed reporters. Once their cover was blown, they’ve taken to using their presence to intimidate capitol-goers, offering false bravado in verbal form. They seem to use fake names, and their website lists a fake address. They’re creeps.

It’s the ultimate manifestation of the permanent campaign. The recordings themselves, and the recorders themselves, are almost certainly less impressive than they let on. But even if they caught nothing important, their presence deteriorates relations and trust between legislators further.

The perception will be that one team—the team that the Senate’s right-wing is on—is spying on the other team. And as Ross Ramsey pointed out in the Texas Tribune, the decision to hold whatever the cameras caught until after the session will leave some legislators who might waver on key votes thinking, “What do they have on me?”

So with a few weeks to go in the session, we find ourselves with game-playing leaders, a carnival sideshow in the halls and unhappy legislators who, by and large, trust each other about as far as you can see in The Cloak Room. It’s possible that by Abbott and Patrick’s second session in 2017, all involved will have gained a little maturity and wisdom. But then, we’ll be even closer to the next statewide primary. It’s not an especially promising recipe for the future.

Texas House - House Bill 3994
Alexa Garcia-Ditta

In many ways, it felt like every other debate in recent memory over a major abortion bill: long and painful, laced with an air of inevitability.

After hours of deliberation, and more than a dozen unsuccessful amendments by House Democrats, the Texas House gave preliminary approval late Wednesday night to House Bill 3994, which makes a litany of changes to a legal process set up for minors seeking an abortion. The bill also requires every person seeking an abortion, regardless of age, to show government-issued identification—in effect, it’s voter ID for abortions.

A parental notification law requires that Texans under the age of 18 get their parents’ consent before having an abortion. However, minors can turn to the courts to seek a legal, confidential judicial bypass when they fear they’ll be abused at home because of their pregnancy, or don’t have a parent to consent.

HB 3994 by state Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria), among many things, increases the burden of proof on the minor from a “preponderance of evidence” to “clear and convincing” evidence, a change House Democrats took issue with early in the debate.

An amendment by state Rep. Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio) tried to strike that change from Morrison’s bill altogether, while state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) attempted to add an exception for victims of rape, sexual assault or incest.

“What we put in place here is making a very traumatic situation even more traumatic,” Howard said while discussing her amendment. “She can’t just tell the judge that she’s been raped, that she’s had incest committed by a family member. … She has to be re-victimized and re-traumatized to repeat the circumstances in enough detail to obtain the court order that she seeks.”

State Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria)
State Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria)

Since the Legislature set up the bypass process in 1999, many right-to-life groups and legislators have worked to “reform” it. As state Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford), one of the bill’s authors, put it during Wednesday’s debate, if “government is going to step in between a parent and a child, they need to have a very, very good reason.” However, state Rep. Sarah Davis (R-West University) reminded her colleagues that the original language was in fact set up by conservatives.

Judicial bypass “was created and championed and governed all by Republicans,” she said during the debate. “Are you as confused as I am?”

Currently, a bypass application can be filed in any county in Texas, but HB 3994 would require an application to be filed in a minor’s county of residence; a neighboring county, if her home county has a population of 10,000 people or fewer; or the county in which her abortion provider is located. The bill also requires county clerks to gather and make public data that names judges who grant bypasses.

“Family law is rife with violence, and it is not unusual for judges to be targeted,” state Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-El Paso) said as she laid out an amendment to eliminate the data collection requirement.

Throughout the debate, Democrats made other fervent but unfruitful attempts to change Texas’ parental notification law, such as allowing a grandparent or older sibling to consent to a minor’s abortion in the absence of a parent, or exemptions for teenagers who are already mothers or who have graduated from high school or have their GED. As House Democrats tried to pepper Morrison with questions throughout the debate, she repeatedly declined to answer, or wasn’t in the chamber at all.

Another crop of amendments targeted the government-issued identification requirement, which many House Democrats see as a “de facto ban on abortion” for poor women or recent immigrants who may not have an ID. Democrats tried unsuccessfully to broaden the list of acceptable forms of identification to include student IDs or IDs issued by foreign countries, such as a birth certificate or passport.

An amendment by state Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth), which mirrors language from a bill he previously filed that imposes even greater restrictions, was the only one to make it onto HB 3994 before the debate came to a grinding halt, thanks to a point of order—an allegation that a procedural rule has not been followed—by state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) close to 11 p.m.

After deliberating, Martinez Fischer agreed to withdraw his point of order when Republicans also agreed to jettison their forthcoming amendments. Suddenly, it was a over in a snap—the House approved Krause’s amendment, and then ultimately passed HB 3994 with a 98 to 47 vote.

“In the end, there were probably several amendments that would have been controversial and very divisive [that] were avoided because of the point of order,” Martinez Fischer told reporters after the vote.

The House must give final approval on HB 3994 before midnight tonight; then the bill heads to the Senate.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen - tax cuts

How much does Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) hate Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s tax cut plan? Let him count the ways.

There’s his argument that Patrick’s proposed small break in school property taxes would be quickly swallowed up by higher appraisal rates, as a similar tax cut was in 2006. There’s his argument that’s it’s not really a tax cut at all, because the state can’t cut local property taxes. There’s his wonderment at the idea that the state giving local governments money to make up for their decreased tax revenues can really be called a “cut.” There’s his argument that, because the state can’t control local spending in the future, Patrick’s plan would result in more spending at the local level and more spending at the state level or, in his words, “spending $2 to get $1.”

Then there’s his political critique of Patrick. On Tuesday and Wednesday, at a meeting of the committee he chairs, House Ways & Means, and at a Texas Tribune event, he called Patrick, in essence, a fool. Bonnen, a Lege veteran, charged Patrick with making “some errors in his exuberance.” He laughed at the idea that Patrick offered his plan to boost local school districts. He suggested Patrick hadn’t done much “punching the numbers.”

We’re entering the last stages of one of the strangest and most consequential standoffs of the session: The fight over whether the crummy tax plan originating in the Senate or the crummy tax plan originating in the House should pass. The former would reduce property tax growth and cut business taxes, and the latter would cut sales taxes and business taxes.

Bonnen’s talk this week—along with op-eds he wrote for major Texas newspapers—are his way of laying down the law. He’s demonstrating, exhaustively, that property tax cuts will not pass the House this session—if there was any doubt about it before. (There shouldn’t have been, but some on the Senate side have been a bit slow on the uptake lately.)

In committee Tuesday, he emphasized something else: If the tax impasse results in a special session, the Legislature should be ashamed.

“I think there’s absolutely no excuse and we should all be embarrassed if we’re in a special session,” he said. “There’s no reason.”

But while Bonnen is shutting a door, he’s opening a window. In typical Lege style, he’s offered a compromise plan that’s even more ill-conceived than the two plans already on the table. His idea would be to do a tax cut package of a similar size to the two being discussed—about $4.5 billion—but make it all business tax cuts. In other words, individual Texas taxpayers wouldn’t see any tax relief at all, at least not directly. (There’s another plan being circulated now that would include a tiny amount of property tax relief as well, but the problem there is much the same.)

Dick Lavine, of the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities, endorsed Patrick’s plan over the House plan in committee last night, because, while he thought both were bad, more money would go to individuals with the Senate plan. (Businesses that make lots of purchases are the primary beneficiaries of the sales tax cut, and big businesses especially so.)

Bonnen’s compromise, Lavine told the Observer after his testimony, is even worse in this regard. The state would shed a huge amount of tax revenue exclusively for the benefit of businesses. And because a substantial portion of franchise taxes are paid by out-of-state shareholders, the benefit wouldn’t even all stay in Texas to be reinvested here.

So to sum up, the two chambers are having an ego contest over two poorly constructed and faulty tax cut packages. Privately, most reps don’t really care about the House plan, and most senators don’t care about the Senate plan. Neither is enthusiastic about the policy particulars involved. But because neither wants to let the other “win,” we’re headed toward either a pointless special session in which both sides still can’t “win,” or a third option, Bonnen’s proposed compromise, that’s even worse. Take pride, ladies and gentlemen, in your 84th Legislature.

texas churches

Pastor Donnie Romero has gone viral.

“I’m going to explain to you why God wants these people to be put to death,” Romero declared during a sermon in December. “The word of God is very clear that God is against the sodomites, that they’re filthy, and it says they’re an abomination to God.”

A clip from Romero’s sermon, posted on YouTube by Right Wing Watch, has been viewed more than 28,000 times. It also helped land Romero’s Fort Worth church on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s annual list of active anti-LGBT hate groups.

“Their gay-bashing is intense,” said Heidi Beirich, director of SPLC’s Intelligence Project. “Stedfast Baptist Church is very crude in its hatred. That’s not a complicated thing to explain why we put them on the hate list.” Romero didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.

Stedfast Baptist is one of two Texas-based organizations added to the list this year. The other is Probe Ministries of Plano. They joined longstanding designee Tom Brown Ministries of El Paso. The increase in Texas contributed to a 10 percent jump in anti-LGBT hate groups nationwide, from 40 to 44.

Meanwhile, the overall number of hate groups of all types declined by roughly 17 percent in 2014, from 939 to 784. Beirich said she’s unsure whether anti-LGBT hate is on the rise or SPLC is simply doing a better job of tracking it.

“The rhetoric is becoming much harsher for sure,” she said. “I think some of the groups are becoming harder-line, whether we’ve listed them or not, because they’re losing on a lot of fronts.”

Probe Ministries, which has a syndicated radio show with more than 1 million weekly listeners, has published materials on its website saying gays molest children at higher rates and die younger, Beirich said.

“If an organization is knowingly putting out false propaganda to demonize a particular population—in our view, that qualifies them as a hate group,” she said. Probe Ministries President Kerby Anderson rejected the designation, saying his group is “compassionate” and pointing to its work with Living Hope Ministries, which offers so-called gay conversion therapy.

“That’s not the first time I’ve seen people that did not deserve that designation receive it, so I guess I’m not too surprised by what the Southern Poverty Law Center does,” Anderson said.

Beirich said SPLC maintains a high bar for the hate list. It’s not enough to oppose same-sex marriage or espouse Bible-based views about homosexuality. Rather, groups must use slurs or engage in demonization and propaganda, tactics that make the LGBT community more vulnerable to hate crimes.

“We don’t want to just list everybody in the world,” she said. “We want to point out what is particularly damaging.”

Asked why more prominent groups aren’t on the list—such as Texas Values and the Texas Pastor Council Beirich said SPLC hasn’t considered them. The Alabama-based organization relies heavily on the media to bring potential hate groups to its attention.

“We try our best to track these groups. We don’t get all of them,” Beirich said, adding she plans to review Texas Values and the Texas Pastor Council for possible inclusion on next year’s list.

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video visitation

In 2013, the Federal Communications Commission announced that it was taking action to make long-distance prison phone calls much more affordable. Instead of $17 for a 15-minute call, the new cost would be no more than $4. The reform was a long overdue response to a petition that had been filed 10 years earlier by an elderly grandmother, Martha Wright, who fought for fair phone rates so she wouldn’t have to choose between buying her medicine and calling her grandson in prison. In the wake of FCC crackdowns, the industry, which generates $1.2 billion a year, went looking for a new revenue stream.

Prison phone service companies like Dallas-based Securus Technologies, Inc. have found a new way to profit from their captive audience: video visitation systems. In the last two years, at least 25 county jails in Texas have installed video terminals that allow inmates to chat with friends, family and others on the outside. Like the phone systems, the cost of using the service is steep: up to $1 per minute for a Skype-like chat, not including usage fees and taxes. But the real kicker is that in many cases the video systems are replacing in-person visits.

That trend is concerning to some lawmakers who are trying to pass legislation this session that would preserve in-person visits at county jails. A bill by Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) to do just that overwhelmingly passed in the House Monday, but only after an amendment was added that leaves a significant portion of the jail population out. The Senate is likely to hear the bill next week, and Johnson thinks that it has a good chance of passing there, too.

Since adopting the video technology, at least 14 counties in Texas have eliminated the ability of inmates to meet face-to-face with family and loved ones—a move that activists have called unconscionable. Some Securus contracts require jails to eliminate in-person visits. Until last week, that was a standard stipulation in Securus’ contracts. Other lock-ups, like the Travis County Jail, have independently decided to offer video visits only.

Rep. Eric Johnson authored a bill to preserve in-person visits at county jails.
Courtesy of
Rep. Eric Johnson

That means visitors have two options: travel to the jail to use the terminals—which have been described as low-quality, with glitches and lag time—for free, or pay the steep fees to chat remotely. Either way, visitors and inmates report having trouble maintaining eye contact with each other, since the systems have cameras that are set higher than the screen. Video chats are no replacement, they say, for human contact that can benefit both inmates and their families.

“New technology could be used in a really wonderful way that would enhance people’s abilities to see loved ones who are locked up,” says Quong Charles, who is the criminal justice programs director for the prison reform group Grassroots Leadership.

But she says the system doesn’t work well, and that seeing someone through a screen is a “disembodied experience.”

“In the free world we wouldn’t pay for this service,” she said.

Grassroots Leadership has been trying to get in-person visitations restored at the Travis County Jail for almost two years. The group was alerted to the situation there after the Texas Civil Rights Project filed a lawsuit against Securus and the Travis County Sheriff’s Office for allegedly unlawfully recording the video chats. Another lawsuit was filed in March on behalf of Derrick Matthew Rice, a 29-year-old inmate at the Denton County Jail, against Securus, the Denton County Sheriff’s Office, and the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. The suit claims that eliminating in-person visits is a violation of what’s already stipulated in jail standards.

Johnson’s bill won’t eliminate video visitation, but instead ensures that most county jails still offer in-person visits as an option. In a committee hearing in April, Johnson noted that more than half of county jail inmates haven’t been convicted of any crime. Most are in jail because they couldn’t afford to pay their bond. And with video-visitation systems, families who could be using money to pay to get their loved one out of jail end up spending money that money just to see him or her on a screen.

“Their family members aren’t guilty of anything,” Johnson said. “Unless you consider being poor a crime.”

But during Monday’s floor debate on HB 549, some lawmakers seemed more concerned with whether the bill would place an unacceptable financial burden on counties. Rep. John Frullo (R-Lubbock) said Lubbock County just spent $80 million dollars on a new jail, and that it would cost $8 million to adjust the facility to comply with the bill. He and 131 other legislators voted to add an amendment to the bill that essentially excludes those 14 counties that have already instituted video-only visitations.

Legislators supporting the amendment argued that some jails have been retrofitted for the video systems, or recently built without the facilities necessary for in-person visitations. Altering those facilities to comply with the in-person visit requirement would be too costly, they claim.

Quong Charles says it’s good that the bill would prohibit more than 200 Texas counties from eliminating in-person visitations in the future. But because many of the grandfathered jails are some of the biggest in the state, the current version of the legislation, she says, is “unfortunately not going to protect a large number of people.”

Those counties could choose to bring back in-person visitations, but they have little financial incentive to do so. Jails receive a commission from companies like Securus for every video call, and can save money in staffing costs by eliminating the need for visitation receptionists.

Mary King, jail programs and project coordinator for Bastrop County, spoke to the Observer last fall as that county’s jail was getting ready to eliminate in-person visits. She said Bastrop County has a powerful incentive to limit visits to the jail altogether.

“To be honest, yes, you really want to reduce the number of on-site visits because of the amount of staff time it’s still going to take,” she said.

More important, Bastrop County doesn’t a get commission for video chats made on-site. Furthermore, Bastrop County’s contract with Securus stipulates that the company will pay the jail a 20 percent commission only for months during which 534 or more remote calls have been made. If the facility fails to meet that quota, they don’t get paid at all.

She agreed with those who say that face-to-face visits are better than video conferencing.

“I’m not sure if I had a family member here and I lived here, that I’d like it either,” King said.

But she sees the other side of it, too: “Honestly, the jail is no different from any other business. The county is just a business.”

Additional reporting by Forrest Wilder

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