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lost in detention

In the last year, Texas has become the epicenter of immigrant family detention. There are now at least 3,000 beds in the state run by private for-profit prison companies devoted to family detention. We’ve been through this before. In 2010, the controversial T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor stopped housing detained immigrant families after a protracted legal battle and public outcry at claims of abuse, including children made to wear prison uniforms and threats of isolation for children who didn’t behave.

Five years later, the number of immigrant families in detention vastly outnumbers the bad old days of T. Don Hutto. In late April, three women detained with their children at the Karnes County Residential Center, a 532-bed immigrant detention facility in South Texas, filed a class-action lawsuit against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and GEO Group Inc., the private for-profit prison company that runs the facility. The three plaintiffs, Delmy Pineda Cruz, Polyane Soares de Olveira dos Santos and Lilian Castillo Rosado, say they were put in isolation, threatened with separation from their children and interrogated after participating in hunger strikes at Karnes.

Their pro bono lawyer, Ranjana Natarajan, director of the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, says the women are allowed under the First Amendment to peacefully protest. “This lawsuit is saying that the campaign of retaliation and harassment by ICE and GEO Group needs to stop,” she says. “Their rights need to be respected.”

In March, the three plaintiffs joined more than 75 other women in circulating a petition for their release. The group began a hunger strike to protest their detention in prison-like conditions. Immigration judges are issuing exorbitant detention release bonds that range from $5,000 to $15,000. (Single men in detention are typically given bonds of $1,500.) Immigrant rights advocates say it’s part of the government’s strategy to prevent another influx of Central American families seeking political asylum at the southern border.

Faced with the impossibly high bonds, the women and children have no choice but to remain locked up in Karnes or to accept deportation. The majority of the families come from three countries—Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador—that have some of the highest rates of violence in the world. Being locked up only exacerbates the trauma they’ve already suffered. “I’ve represented women who have been in detention for nine months already,” Natarajan says. “These women are simply saying that they’re not a threat, and that they shouldn’t be detained.”

But the women suffered a setback in May. U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez denied their motion for a temporary restraining order to halt alleged retaliation against the women for participating in protests at the Karnes facility.

Rodriguez questioned whether the women, because they are undocumented, have legal standing to seek protection under the First Amendment, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

Government lawyers also argued that the undocumented women didn’t have the right to seek protections under the U.S. Constitution. If the U.S. government prevails on that argument, it could set a dangerous precedent: a two-tiered society of some who are protected under the U.S. Constitution, and some who are not.

wimberley flood damage


A Hays County groundwater protection bill that’s had a tumultuous ride through the Legislature has been dramatically revived in the session’s final days, and sources says Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s recent tour of the Wimberley flood damage is what resurrected the legislation.

After Patrick visited the flood zone in Hays County on Thursday he asked local officials if there was anything he could do to help. They told him that House Bill 3405, which would extend the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District to western Hays County, could use a little help from on high.

“County officials were able to talk to the lieutenant governor and leadership of the House yesterday with the encouragement of our own state official,” said Hays County Commissioner Will Conley, a Republican who represents Wimberley and met with Patrick. “We were just able to draw attention to the legislation and how important it is to our community, and the most powerful men in Texas made some agreements and moved it forward.”

For much of Thursday the legislation looked dead, after a technical objection raised by Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-El Paso) prevailed. Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs) looked defeated after he learned of the news, while citizens in Wimberley, who’ve fought for months to bring groundwater regulation to an unregulated “white zone” of the county targeted by a for-profit aquifer-mining company, reacted with disgust. But as the House was wrapping up for the day, the House parliamentarian suddenly reversed his decision—an extreme rarity in the Legislature. Other legislators gathered around a tearful Isaac as he expressed shock.

Isaac said he had suggested Conley talk to Patrick on the lieutenant governor’s tour of flood-ravaged Wimberley, but he told the Observer he didn’t think Patrick had anything to do with the parliamentarian’s sudden change of heart. “I’m just pleased that I was on the winning end of a mistake,” Isaac said.

Regardless, Conley said his conversation got the job done.

“Those two gentlemen took action on behalf of Hays County,” Conley said, referring to Straus and Patrick.

In a statement, Patrick said he was “grateful that the House reversed the P.O.O. because it is the number one legislative issue for Hays County. After visiting Wimberley to survey the flood damage, I believe this bill is even more critical.”

Dan Patrick
Texas Senate
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick

House Bill 3405 is still not a done deal. For the bill to pass, both chambers must appoint a conference committee to work out details in the bill and bring a corrected version of the bill to a vote in the House and Senate.

“There are a lot of unseen forces who seem to have had their hands in this,” said Isaac. “We just hope that they’ll keep their hands out of it at this time.”

For a local groundwater bill, usually a matter of only passing concern outside a legislative district, HB 3405 has been buffeted by powerful forces, many of them hidden from public debate on the legislation. One is Electro Purification, which wants to pump 5 million gallons per day from the Trinity Aquifer and sell it to customers in the I-35 corridor.

Another may be Greg LaMantia, a wealthy wholesale Budweiser distributor from McAllen and a major Democratic donor. LaMantia shares a lobbyist with Electro Purification, Ed McCarthy, a skilled legislative hand on water matters. LaMantia owns a 5,000-acre ranch near Wimberley that’s located partially in the “white zone.” Last session Isaac passed a bill creating a municipal utility district, or MUD, on LaMantia’s Needmore Ranch. MUDs are often used by developers to provide water and wastewater services for dense subdivisions. Because of tremendous pressure from Hays County citizens worried about a large residential development in a water-scarce and environmentally-sensitive area, Isaac included a provision in last session’s legislation prohibiting the Needmore Ranch MUD from pumping groundwater for new homes.

But under a separate bill carried by Isaac and Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) this session, that provision banning the use of local water would be eliminated if HB 3405 passes.

“Now that we will potentially have a groundwater district in place, we don’t necessarily need those provisions in the MUD,” Isaac said. Allowing LaMantia to pump groundwater at Needmore, Isaac said, is “a way to get additional outside support in passing our 3405.”

gay marriage rally
Gay marriage rally in Houston, Texas.


Did you know that Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, and Senate Republicans, oppose gay marriage? If you didn’t know before, you do now. There’s proof: It’s called Senate Resolution 1028, offered by state Sen. Kelly Hancock. Here’s part of it:

WHEREAS, 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; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the Senate of the State of Texas, 84th

Legislature, Regular Session, hereby 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.

The resolution was written, introduced and passed last night, circumventing the normal procedure for bringing up bills and resolutions. It’s signed by every GOP senator, and Patrick too.

The resolution has no significance and no effect—it carries exactly as much weight as Senate Resolution 997, recognizing March 26, 2015 as John Wayne Day. The House GOP caucus did the same thing a few weeks ago after House Bill 4105 died, except theirs was only a letter. It’s the kind of thing people do when they’re losing, and they know that they’re losing and they want to show somebody that they tried.

They’re losing because it seems almost a certainty that gay marriage is coming to Texas soon, and they’re losing because polls show the public is changing its mind on the issue. They’re losing because all of the anti-LGBT bills carried died this session.

But Patrick is also losing here. He and conservatives like to blame the House for failing to pass socially conservative bills, particularly ones to do with abortion and gay rights. But he doesn’t have a lot of success to show in this department either. In recent days, he’s tried to inject language from dead House bills and initiatives into Senate bills. All of them have failed.

When state Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) attempted to add an amendment to a bill that mirrored an amendment state Rep. Scott Sanford (R-McKinney) once hoped to add to a House bill, establishing the right of religiously affiliated child welfare agencies to discriminate against gay couples, it was easily knocked down on a point of order. There was talk on the Senate floor last night that language from a dead House bill that would prohibit insurance plans from covering abortions would be added to another of Campbell’s bills, but it never came up.

One fight in particular precipitated last night’s resolution. State Sen. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville) added the anti-gay marriage language from HB 4105 into a totally innocuous bill by state Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston).

When the language was discovered—it had been effectively hidden—it caused an uproar. Coleman pledged to kill his own bill if the language stayed in.

In last night’s “debate” over the resolution, Lucio, a passionate pro-life Catholic, rose to give a personal speech about his own convictions. “From our bibles, we learn of one man and one woman,” he said. “For me, nothing is more sacred than our biblical teachings.” The institution of marriage came from Jesus himself, and cheapening it was sacrilege. “By now, everybody knows how this senator from the Rio Grande Valley feels,” he told the chamber.

Nonetheless, he’d had a change of heart. He wouldn’t be signing the resolution, and he’d be withdrawing Coleman’s poor bill.

Patrick, who’d been listening to Lucio intently and rocking in his chair, stood to speak. With clasped hands, he told the chamber he’d given Lucio an ultimatum. If he tried to strip the anti-gay language out again, Patrick wouldn’t let the bill come to the floor. But Lucio had made his decision.

So, having been deprived of the chance to approve the strong, consequential language from HB 4105, senators drafted last night’s resolution on the fly. While it was being debated, the text of the resolution hadn’t even been uploaded to the Capitol website. The resolution was approved quickly. The thin document is the only real say-so the Legislature will have on the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court decision this summer.

It’s a comprehensive flop for the forces who oppose gay marriage. Nonetheless, Patrick told the Senate to buck up. They “should be proud,” he said. “The House decided not to have this debate.” That’s a dig at Speaker Joe Straus, of course. But since Patrick couldn’t get anything consequential out of his own chamber either, who is he pointing fingers at?

Harvey Milk Day - Austin

Back in March, Rep. Cecil Bell Jr. (R-Magnolia) stood in a hallway behind the Texas House chamber and declared he was “very confident” one or more of his four anti-gay marriage bills would become law.

On Wednesday, Bell occupied the same spot—this time without his trademark cowboy hat—and acknowledged that the last of the four still clinging to life was all but dead.

“It’s a system designed to kill bills,” Bell told the Observer. “That’s the whole nature of Texas government, the bicameral nature of it.”

Bell touted broad support for the measures in both chambers, pointing to an anti-gay marriage letter signed by 93 of the House’s 98 Republicans this month. Later Wednesday, the Senate would vote 21-10 to approve a nonbinding anti-gay marriage resolution, in lieu of taking up one of Bell’s bills that had been resurrected as an amendment.

“Running out of calendar is a very different statement than, ‘Will it pass assuming you get the opportunity to debate it on the floor?’” Bell said, explaining his previous confidence. “It is a caustic environment for bills. The process in and of itself has no emotional attachment to issue.”

It’s a valid point—a small fraction of all legislation introduced each session passes. But Bell’s four bills targeting same-sex marriage were among more than 20 anti-LGBT proposals that died in the 84th Legislature, so it’s probably a stretch to blame it all on the calendar.

In any case, as the clock struck midnight Wednesday, the deadline for the Senate to pass bills, LGBT advocates were celebrating what amounted to a shutout against discriminatory legislation—one pitched amid fierce backlash over same-sex marriage in the nation’s largest red state.

“The combination of community activism, legislative allies, procedural maneuvers, all those things came together to make sure we weren’t doing anything to hurt the LGBT community,” said Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-El Paso), one of two openly LGBT members of the Legislature (the first in history to have more than one).

“There were some really strong, powerful forces trying to do some really bad things this session, and the fact we were able to push off all those advancements, I think was a huge victory,” Gonzalez said. “I think it never hurts to have the business community on your side.”

Gonzalez was referring to opposition to anti-LGBT measures from the state’s chamber of commerce, the Texas Association of Business, as well as from individual employers, hundreds of which joined the pro-LGBT Texas Competes coalition in April.

TAB publicly opposed only two anti-LGBT religious freedom measures, but CEO Bill Hammond stood alongside Democratic lawmakers at a news conference in early April where they denounced the ongoing legislative assault on gay rights. The presser served as a less dramatic, but arguably more effective, counterpoint to two earlier anti-gay marriage rallies on the Capitol steps, including a now-infamous cake-cutting ceremony and a visit from Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore.

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

Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas), who authored a proposal deemed anti-LGBT but eventually dropped it, said TAB’s opposition was reinforced by tremendous business backlash over passage of a similar religious freedom law in Indiana.

“I think Indiana was a hugely influential moment. That was a nationwide zeitgeist,” Villalba said, stressing his amendment was never meant to target LGBT rights. “For me, after TAB spoke, it was done, but when Indiana happened, then it was clear that I had made the right decision.”

The impact of TAB’s opposition was perhaps most evident when anti-LGBT leaders lashed out at the group, accusing it of abandoning “Texas values” in favor of “the homosexual agenda.” But Bell downplayed the influence of business opposition to his legislation, even though both Celanese Corp. and Dell Inc. publicly came out against the most high-profile anti-gay marriage bill.

“I don’t see Celanese taking that big plant down there on the Gulf Coast and setting it on a trailer,” he said.

Indeed, regardless of corporate pushback, 89 of 98 Republicans co-authored House Bill 4105, designed to undermine a potential June ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court favor of same-sex marriage. Villalba was among those who did not.

“I’m not in the business of telling the federal government that they are wrong and that we have a sovereignty that exceeds the authority of the Supreme Court of the United States,” he said.

Villalba also declined to sign the anti-gay marriage letter, which he called “meaningless.” And on Wednesday, he expressed opposition to an anti-LGBT child welfare amendment, moments before it finally died.

Villalba’s statements were a clear reminder that it wasn’t just Democrats who killed anti-LGBT proposals. And they were another sign of evolution, albeit glacially slow, on LGBT issues within the Republican caucus—punctuated by Rep. Sarah Davis (R-West University Place), who last week came out in support of same-sex marriage.

“I think of the 93 members of the House that signed the letter, I think if you had private conversations with them, a significant number of them would feel like I do,” Villalba said. “I’m not ready to go on record saying that I support marriage yet, like Sarah has. Sarah was very brave and courageous to do that. I think she feels confident that she represents her district well. I’m not certain that my district feels that way yet, and I also believe this decision is not going to be within our hands.”

Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) said at times during the session, he felt as though it was his freshman year in 2005, when he served on a small floor team of Democrats working unsuccessfully to defeat the state’s marriage amendment.

“I thought the Republicans had sort of played out the anti-gay thing, because we hadn’t seen it for a couple of sessions,” Anchia said. “It’s clear that public opinion is moving away from them rapidly. This feels like a desperate last gasp to pander to the most hateful elements of the Republican primary electorate.”

Nevertheless, Anchia acknowledged that when members of his party worked to defeat anti-LGBT bills, they sometimes did so with the quiet encouragement of Republicans—both “moderate” and “not-so-moderate.”

“I can’t tell you how many members of the House have come up to me and said, ‘Will y’all please kill these bills, Democrats? Because we don’t feel good about them,’” Anchia said. “The reality is there are many Republican members of this Legislature who have gay children, gay siblings, who may be gay themselves but are just not out. As a result, they understand firsthand how hateful this legislation is.”

Bell, of course, insists his anti-gay marriage bills were about preserving state sovereignty, not hate. He said he’s received three death threats, as well as two glitter bombs that were intercepted by Capitol mail staff. But he suggested this won’t be his last gasp.

“It’s essential for us to remember that if we have no sovereignty, we are no longer free people, we are subjects,” Bell said. “I will not stop standing for the citizens of Texas or for the state, and again my religious foundation also affords me no recourse other than to stand for our traditional values.”


Colt Peacemaker

Debate on a bill that would allow license-holders to openly carry handguns pitted friends against friends and created some strange alliances in the House on Wednesday. After a topsy-turvy debate, lawmakers voted to send the bill to conference committee in an effort to try to strip the bill of an element that some say could endanger police. The move could unexpectedly put open carry legislation—once considered a done deal—in jeopardy.

At issue was a controversial amendment to the open carry legislation that’s on its second life. Otherwise, House Bill 910 would be sailing to the governor’s office right now. The amendment in question, originally authored by Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) and Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R-Irving), would ban police officers from stopping someone solely because they are visibly carrying a handgun.

The amendment was stripped from the bill in a committee before the Senate took it up. Then it was resurrected on the Senate floor by Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas), a staunch supporter of so-called constitutional carry (allowing individuals to carry a handgun openly, without a license). The “Dutton amendment” has the same effect as constitutional carry; if a police officer can’t stop you if you’re openly carrying a handgun, then why would you need a license?

Dutton actually strongly opposes open carry, and he voted against the bill when it first came up in the House last month. On Wednesday, however, he voted to “concur,” voting for the bill with the amendment the Senate had added. His reasoning? If open carry is going to be law, he wants to make sure that it applies “to people who look like [him].”

Dutton said he wanted to ensure that the law would be applied equally to black and white citizens. If there’s a black person and a white person standing on the same street, each carrying a gun, Dutton posits that the black person would be approached by a police officer first, and potentially harassed for doing something that’s legal.

Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) supported the amendment for the same reason, saying in a statement last week: “Our state has an unfortunate record on racial profiling and selective enforcement when it comes to detaining people of color.”

Eight Democrats voted to accept the Senate version today, five of whom had previously voted against the legislation.

Today’s debate split Republicans, too. Those in support of Dutton’s amendment argued that the amendment simply codified and clarified what is already law: Police officers aren’t supposed to detain a person unless they have a reasonable suspicion that the suspect is committing a crime. Under Dutton’s amendment, police could still use that standard.

Of course, that’s a bit of a problem considering police—and the general public—will have, up until the passage of open carry, lived in a society in which anyone openly carrying a weapon is automatically suspicious.

Two former police officers, Rep. Allen Fletcher (R-Cypress) and Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford) both support open carry, but urged the body to send the bill to conference committee, to try to reach an agreement on the amendment. They argued that it would make police officers less safe.

“We’re making a quantum shift here going into an open carry world,” King said.

Law enforcement officials from around the state gathered at the Capitol Wednesday to speak against the Dutton amendment and urge lawmakers to send the bill to conference committee, where they hope it will be stripped out. They called on Gov. Abbott to veto the bill if the provision remains on the bill after conference. Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said that the amendment would allow criminals to carry weapons “with impunity.”

Ultimately, the House heeded the advice of law enforcement, and 79 representatives voted against accepting the Senate changes, sending the bill to conference committee. That left some lawmakers predicting the end of open carry, and worrying that it won’t get out of committee quickly enough to pass before the Legislature wraps up on Monday. Rinaldi tweeted: “The House just killed Open Carry.”

The appointed House conferees include the bill’s author, and other supporters of open carry, which gives the legislation a good chance to get out of committee. Still, Rinaldi might be on to something. At a Texas Tribune event Thursday morning, Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) said he’d filibuster open carry if given the opportunity. The bill must go back to both chamber for final approval once it leaves committee, so if it gets out late enough, Rodriguez could have the power to keep open carry from becoming law.

LGBT homeless youth
John Wright
Thrive Youth Center residents Chanel Versace, left, and Damien Pena, who both identify as transgender, talk behind the front desk in San Antonio last month.


When Chanel Versace’s father discovered she was gay at 17, he threatened to kill her.

“He said, ‘I’m not going to have a faggot as a son. If that’s the case, I’ll kill your ass and then I’ll kill myself,'” Versace recalls. “So I’m like, ‘If that’s the case, I’ll just run away.'”

Versace, a California native who now identifies as transgender, ended up in San Antonio, where she lived on the streets for four years.

Versace would occasionally stay at the city’s Haven for Hope homeless shelter, but because of threats and harassment from other residents over her transgender status, she felt safer under a bridge.

In February, Versace became one of the first residents at Thrive Youth Center, the only homeless shelter in Texas specifically for LGBT people.

Thrive Youth Center occupies its own wing on the bottom floor of an office building at Haven for Hope, and unlike the main shelter, it includes private rooms and a bathroom with stalls and shower curtains.

Now 23, Chanel is finishing her GED and plans to become a certified nursing assistant. Since moving to Thrive, she’s also legally changed her name and gender marker, important steps toward finding employment.

Sandra Whitley, executive director of Thrive Youth Center, said Versace’s story is typical of many youth she encounters.

Studies suggest up to 40 percent of the nation’s 1.6 million homeless youth identify as LGBT, with most having been kicked out or run away due to parental rejection. Whitley said she believes the figure is more like 50 percent in San Antonio and other parts of the South, but no study has ever examined how many homeless youth in Texas are LGBT.

Whitley and other advocates are hoping that will soon change, thanks to a proposal from Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) that is on its way to the governor’s desk after clearing the House and Senate. Under House Bill 679, the state would conduct a study of homeless youth, including collecting data, examining needs, identifying funding sources and developing a strategic plan.

Turner said the study would take a “holistic” look at homeless youth, including who they are and why they’re on the street. He said homeless youth are more susceptible to sex trafficking than any other group.

“There are schools within my district that have washers and dryers at the schools because there are kids who are homeless and don’t have a place to wash their clothes,” Turner said. “There is a need out there, but the depth of that need and whether or not we have adequate services to respond appropriately, we don’t really know. ”

Turner also stressed that the bill applies to all homeless youth, not just those who are LGBT.

“It doesn’t matter whether a child is black or white, Jew or gentile,” he said. “The reality is, these are our children, and I think we have a responsibility to create an environment and a society that gives all of our children an opportunity to succeed and live and prosper.”

Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas, said although the bill doesn’t specifically mention it, he’s confident the study would include information about whether homeless youth are LGBT. Either way, Equality Texas backs the measure and considers it one of the few pro-LGBT bills to ever pass the Legislature.

Sandra Whitley, executive director at Thrive Youth Center, says shower curtains have been one of the biggest benefits to transgender youth.
John Wright
Sandra Whitley, executive director at Thrive Youth Center, says shower curtains have been one of the biggest benefits to transgender youth.

“Anything that can be done to better serve homeless youth is an LGBT issue,” Williams said.

While there is no data on LGBT homeless youth in Texas, Thrive Youth Center is amassing anecdotal evidence. The shelter—which has five rooms with two beds each for people 25 and up, along with a large dorm room with eight bunk beds for those ages 18 to 24—has been at capacity with a waiting list since opening. Whitley said she hopes to eventually serve those under 18, too.

“LGBT young adults face the same discrimination in regular shelters that they do in school or with their families,” Whitley said, adding that most Thrive residents thus far have been transgender. “To them, it was the biggest thing that they had privacy while taking a shower.”

After selling her business and devoting her life to helping LGBT youth a few years ago, the 53-year-old Whitley quickly zeroed in on the “epidemic” of homelessness. She recalled that when she came out as lesbian in 1975 in the Texas Panhandle, her parents put her in an institution.

“I think society as a whole has gotten better, because there’s gay marriage in many states, it’s about to be in every state,” Whitley said. “But I think because it’s gotten better in society as a whole, kids are coming out at an earlier age, and their parents for religious reasons or whatever reasons are kicking their kids out of their house.”

Whitley said most residents have been on the streets since they were 13 or 14. But thanks to Thrive, they finally have a safe haven.

Rep. Byron Cook
State Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana)

It was supposed to be one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s first signature initiatives: ethics reform. What a fine way to signal the beginning of a new era, one washed of that Paint Creek musk. Ethics, it is generally held, are good. Reform? Even better. People love Ethics Reform.

There was never a great deal of substance to Abbott’s outline of what constituted cleaning up Texas politics. And the lawmakers who hammered out the details didn’t exactly reach for the stars either. As it unfolded during the session, Ethics Reform started to seem like it was more about political positioning than a substantive attempt to attack political corruption. But that didn’t much matter. The point was to Get Something Done.

We’re a few steps closer to mission accomplished. On Tuesday, nearing the end of a brutal death-march through the Legislature, Senate Bill 19, the main package of new ethics laws, limped to a preliminary House vote of 96 to 48.

It was in dubious shape when it left the Senate floor a few weeks back—some of its key provisions were gutted against its authors’ wishes in the upper chamber, and the bill was stuffed with petty and silly amendments. And the sweeping changes made to the House version, including provisions to bring transparency to political machines that run on so-called “dark money,” make it unlikely that a strong draft of SB 19 will make it to the governor’s desk in time—the House and Senate versions are so far apart that a conference committee would essentially have to write a third bill from scratch, one that might not have much in the way of teeth.

In an extremely strong statement, the bill’s author, state Sen. Van Taylor (R-Plano), “expressed astonishment for the elimination of meaningful ethics reforms” and faulted “Chairman Bryon Cook” [sic] for “one of those head shaking moments” that tore “a page from Hillary Clinton’s playbook.”

The debate in the House was, in effect, a proxy war between conservative moneyman Tim Dunn and House Speaker Joe Straus, between the House and the Senate, between the governor and the Legislature, and between House Democrats and the clock.

The bill’s dark money disclosure rules—the most significant addition Rep. Byron Cook made to the bill in committee—represent a threat to conservatives aligned with the wing of the Republican party associated with Midland moneyman Tim Dunn, who have been extremely vocal about denouncing the bill. Once a weak version of the bill emerged from the Senate, they seemed to know what was coming. The agitprop machine went into action—if Cook “repeal[ed] the First Amendment” by demanding shadow groups like Empower Texans disclose their donors, he would be tanking the bill. That didn’t stop him.

State Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R-Irving), a legislator backed by Dunn’s groups, offered an amendment that would return the bill to the Senate draft and kill the dark money rule—but he lost his vote 113-33.

By forcing a dark money disclosure rule through the House—and in the process, killing bills offered by further-right conservatives—Cook was, in effect, giving the middle finger to Dunn and his groups. They’ve hated Cook all session, and their contempt has only seemed to grow. As the chairman of House State Affairs, Cook has probably done more to kill bad right-wing bills than any other House Republican. Now, Cook gave them a reply.

Those conservatives have been raging over the idea that Cook “killed” Abbott’s prized ethics bill, by turning it into something that could not meet Senate approval in time before the end of the session. The Senate GOP, much more aligned with the faction railing against Cook, will almost certainly not let the dark money rule through. But they too deserve a share of the blame.

The version of the bill that escaped the Senate was weak, and became a plaything during floor debate. Senators inserted provisions just to mess with each other as individuals. One successful amendment would require legislators to undergo drug tests. The draft that left the upper chamber was a joke—and though Abbott praised the bill, he had no real reason to do so.

Now, the ethics bill will face a conference committee to resolve difference between the House and Senate, but the two versions are planets apart. There’s less than a week to close the gap and hand the governor something. Given Taylor’s militant statement, it seems doubtful they will.

Abbott made ethics one of his top five priorities for the session, but he probably didn’t have this fight in mind. If the bill doesn’t pass at all, will it be enough for him to call a special session? Or will he declare victory and move on if the bill passes in an emaciated form? Lesson learned: Legislators don’t much like binding themselves with additional rules and requirements. And in the absence of a serious scandal, strong ethics reform might not be possible—at least, certainly not without direction and a strong push from the governor. That was lacking here.

It did, however, give Democrats a chance to fight against the clock. At midnight, some of their most hated bills would die. They talked and talked and debated amendments to the bill. By the time debate on SB 19 ended, more than 100 amendments had been filed on legislation authorizing concealed handguns on college campuses. Though Republicans used a procedural maneuver to force a vote on campus carry, several other significant bills died, including legislation banning private insurance coverage of abortion and another measure to tighten the state’s spending cap.

So on one of the last long nights of the 84th Legislature, Cook walked away with a bill that serves as a strong statement about his displeasure with the current state of GOP intra-party politics. And in his wake, more dead bad bills. But if it’s strong, meaningful ethics reform you want, you’ll probably be waiting till next session.

Wimberley town hall on water
Steve Wood
Wimberley citizens express concerns over the Electro Purification project at Rep. Jason Isaac's town hall meeting in Wimberley.

Update:  The House parliamentarian sustained Rep. Mary Gonzalez’s points of order on House Bill 3405 late today, setting back the critical groundwater legislation with just four days left in the session. Rep. Isaac said the plan is to return the bill to the Senate, where Sen. Donna Campbell will likely pass the identical version that cleared the House in early May. That must happen by Friday.

“It’s an absolute slap in the face, while we’re sitting there having to dig out from the destruction we’ve seen over the last several days, that people behind the scenes are fighting our bill that don’t want to protect our groundwater,” said Isaac. “It’s appalling, it’s disgusting.”

Gonzalez was nowhere to be seen on the House floor while the parliamentarian handed down his ruling. The El Paso Democrat has said she’s upset with Isaac because he placed an unsuccessful point of order on her “revenge porn” bill, which passed the House 143-0. Today, the Texas Democratic Party issued a statement calling Isaac’s act “disgusting” and said it was an example of the tea party reaching “new lows trying to please their radical base.”


Original: While the citizens of Wimberley pick through the awesome damage wrought by the Memorial Day flooding, a different sort of water fight is reaching a climax at the Capitol.

In a last-minute surprise, an El Paso Democrat is holding up a bill that would bring groundwater regulation to the “white zone” of Hays County, an area without a groundwater district and potentially unlimited pumping. A private company plans to pump 5 million gallons of water a day from the stressed Trinity Aquifer and nearby residents worry the water mining will deplete their wells as well as springs and streams.

House Bill 3405 by state Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs) has passed both the House and Senate and has one final hurdle before it goes to the governor. The bill would extend the jurisdiction of the nearby Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District to the unregulated part of Hays County—the type of local issue that usually attracts little attention from other lawmakers.

But state Rep. Mary Gonzalez, a progressive Democrat who represents a district more than 500 miles away, is threatening to tank the bill with technical points of order. In a statement she said that HB 3405 is “a bad bill for rural Texans that sets a dangerous precedent, does not protect private property rights, and retroactively imposes regulation over certain legal contracts.”

Isaac said he was “furious” about Gonzalez’s gambit, especially because emotions are so raw in Wimberley where people are still missing from the floods. “This is just out of the blue,” he said. “She’s someone else’s pawn.”

Isaac blamed the tactic on a furious lobbying effort by Electro Purification, the company that plans to pump Trinity Aquifer water and sell it to the city of Buda and booming developments in the I-35 corridor.

“The lobby has done a pretty effective job to undermine his bill, to go behind the scenes to do anything and everything to kill it,” Isaac said.

Mary Gonzalez
Courtesy of Mary Gonzalez
Mary Gonzalez

HB 3405 is apparently part of a more wide-ranging legislative tit-for-tat. Gonzalez said an unsuccessful attempt by Isaac earlier on Tuesday to tank a bill she’s carrying that cracks down on revenge porn ”reflects poorly on him and is very disrespectful to numerous Texas victims.”

Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) is threatening to scotch Gonzalez’s legislation in the Senate if she doesn’t relent.

In Wimberley, folks are hoping for a breakthrough.

“We’re flooding her office with calls,” said Louie Bond, a long-time Wimberley resident who lives near the Electro Purification project. “We’ve been searching for missing flood victims and helping our neighbors and friends shovel what’s left of their homes into their dumpsters. … To stand in the way, particularly as we try to cope with this tragedy in our home, is outrageous.”

Jonathan Stickland

Most normal, God-fearing Texans spent their Memorial Day weekend barbecuing (indoors), watching Netflix and honoring—if only between kegstands—the fallen.

What did Texas legislators do for Memorial Day weekend, apart from debating whether to cut education benefits for veterans? Bickering about abortion, mostly. An odd sequence of events at the Capitol, culminating in a near-fistfight on the House floor, turned Sunday into a pretty good day for pro-choice activists. (That is, of course, relatively speaking.)

Though one major package of abortion restrictions is likely to win final approval in the next week, another significant anti-abortion initiative is dead and a third could meet the same fate Monday, victim of a legislative logjam in the House.

That’s strange in part because Sunday had been expected to be a day of abortion showdowns, in both chambers. State Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), a loud but hapless champion of conservative principles and himself a former fetus, issued yet another ultimatum to the RINOs: He’d drop an amendment to prevent abortions in the case of severe fetal abnormalities after 20 weeks gestation, if House leadership allowed Senate Bill 575, a held-up effort to ban insurance providers in the state from covering abortions, to move forward.

It was a Mexican standoff—but as it turned out, one in which both bandit’s guns were pointed in the same direction. Stickland and his pro-life allies seem to have gotten very little.

Why did Stickland make the trade? It’s not entirely clear.

If Stickland had gone on to raise the amendment, it likely would have passed—Republican lawmakers find it very difficult to vote against pro-life initiatives, even if they don’t much like how they’ve been offered. Trading a probable win for a tenuous promise that SB 575 would advance seemed like a weak plan.

Whatever he was thinking, Stickland got Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana), a senior Republican who chairs House State Affairs and has become one of the foremost bête noires of conservatives this session, to agree to vote SB 575 out of committee and push it to the Calendars Committee, which decides what gets heard on the House floor. Stickland withdrew his amendment, and the Health and Humans Services Commission sunset bill, the potential vehicle for the amendment, passed without the pro-life language in it.

Jonathan Stickland - former fetus signStickland had released his hostage. But when SB 575 got to calendars, it face-planted. Three Republicans—Rep. Sarah Davis (R-West University Place), Rep. Patricia Harless (R-Spring), and Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-Tomball)—voted with the Democrats to prevent the bill from being scheduled for a vote. Davis is a vocally pro-choice Republican, but the other two are very, very not.

It was a surprise, and pro-lifers were absolutely livid. Here’s what Byron Cook told the Texas Tribune:

“My commitment was to get the bill out [of State Affairs], to get it to Calendars,” Cook said. “I did everything I could do. What I can’t do is interfere with other members’ free will to vote their conscience. Everybody should be able to do that. And women sent a clear message that they weren’t comfortable with this legislation, probably weren’t comfortable with us men telling them what to do. And I respect that.”

Stickland and the pro-lifers had been comprehensively defeated. His reaction, naturally, was to confront Cook on the floor, yelling at him. The two men had to be separated. (Stickland’s account of the encounter, in which he is assaulted by a bullying Cook, can be found here.)

Then, near midnight, the Calendars Committee seemed to reverse itself. At a quickly-scheduled meeting, Riddle and Harless switched votes, sending SB 575 to the floor. So the pro-lifers won after all, right? Stickland certainly thought so:

Well, maybe. SB 575 could still pass. Anything is possible. But because it was added to the calendar so late, it seems very possible it will never come to a vote. Tuesday at midnight is the deadline for Senate bills to pass the House. SB 575 has been slotted as the fourth of four items on that day’s major state portion of the House daily calendar. It’s easy to imagine it not making it out by the midnight deadline.

At this point, it’s possible for the Democrats to talk and delay until the calendar is chewed up—that’s what happened with the anti-gay House Bill 4105 a few weeks back. Successful points of order are lethal, because there’s not enough time to send bills back to committee and fix them. And when senior Republicans tack a bill on the end of a calendar like this, especially this close to a deadline, they’re effectively declaring that they don’t really care about it.

Tuesday’s House calendar is packed with potentially complicated and lengthy debates—it could be one of the most fascinating days of the session. On Tuesday, the House will debate the gutting of the Public Integrity Unit—part of the significant amount of postponed business the House didn’t get around to Monday. That’ll eat up a lot of time. Then when we move on to Senate Bill 19, an extremely convoluted and controversial ethics overhaul that will also take a lot of time if debated.

Next up are four items that involve lengthy debates. The only must-pass bill is the first one, the Department of Family Protective Services sunset bill, Senate Bill 206. There’s Senate Bill 9, a proposal to change the spending cap favored by Senate conservatives. Expect a lot of debate there. And then, there’s Senate Bill 11—campus carry. That could well be one of the most heated debates of the session, with a lot of uncertainty about how the House will react to certain provisions.

If lawmakers finish all that, then it’s SB 575’s turn. They could certainly still get around to it, and Tuesday will be a day of high drama on the House floor—must-see TV. But on Sunday morning, it was at least hypothetically possible that two sweeping new abortion restrictions could make it the governor’s desk. Now it seems more likely that neither will. Well-fought, fellows.

Reproductive rights activists gathered at the Capitol over the weekend to oppose a restrictive abortion bill that limits abortion access for vulnerable teens.
Kelsey Jukam
Reproductive rights activists gathered at the Capitol over the weekend to oppose a restrictive abortion bill that limits abortion access for vulnerable teens.

After hours of debate and more than a dozen failed amendments by Democrats, the Texas Senate gave preliminary approval Monday to a major anti-abortion bill that makes it harder for abused or neglected teenagers to get an abortion through the courts.

Current law requires that Texans under 18 get a parent’s permission to have an abortion. However, minors can turn to the courts to seek a confidential judicial bypass when they fear they’ll be abused at home because of their pregnancy or abortion, or if they don’t have a parent to consent.

House Bill 3994, approved with a 21-to-10 vote in the Senate, increases the burden of proof on the minor from a “preponderance of evidence” to “clear and convincing evidence,” essentially making it tougher to secure a bypass. The legislation also restricts where a minor can file a bypass application. Currently, a teen can file her request in any Texas county; HB 3994 restricts it to her home county, a neighboring county if she lives in one with fewer than 10,000 residents, or the county in which the abortion provider is located. Opponents say such a change may jeopardize confidentiality, especially in rural counties where minors might be easily recognized at the courthouse. The bill also increases the number of days the judge has to make a ruling from two to five.

While state Sen. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock), the bill’s Senate sponsor, insisted the changes would provide more “judicial clarity” and better “protections” for abused minors, state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) and his fellow Democrats raised concerns that the bill may violate a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the bypass process must be confidential and expeditious.

“Each day matters in the ability of a person to exercise their constitutional right to obtain an abortion,” Watson said while questioning Perry on the bill. “Time is important because of grave and indelible consequences that can play out if we deny a constitutional right. … The bottom line is, if we’re not careful and we’re not expeditious, as the Supreme Court said, that child becomes a parent.”

Under current law, if a judge doesn’t rule on a minor’s application, her request for a bypass is deemed granted. Perry’s legislation would reverse that: If a judge doesn’t issue a ruling, permission would be automatically denied.

“In essence, the judge can bypass the judicial bypass by simply not ruling,” Watson said during the debate.

Typical of abortion debates this session, attempts by Democrats to curb some of the far-reaching restrictions failed, including an amendment by Watson that would have created an exception for rape, assault or incest victims.

Often, young women turn to the bypass process when they have been raped or sexually abused by a relative. According to 2013 Department of Public Safety data, about 11 percent of sexual assault victims in Texas were abused by a family member. Nearly 10,000 of sexual assault victims in Texas in 2013 were between the ages of 10 and 19.

“I think we want to avoid victimizing the victim, but our policies can do that,” Watson said during debate.

Tina Hester, executive director of Jane’s Due Process, said the bill makes judicial bypass “unattainable” for many vulnerable teens.

“The judicial bypass is in place to protect abused and neglected pregnant teens who cannot safely turn to a parent or cannot find a parent. When a minor is forced to go to her local courthouse in rural communities her confidentiality is near impossible to protect,” she said in a statement. Hester also said the organization will consider pursuing a lawsuit should the bill ultimately become law.

HB 3994 also includes an identification requirement for all abortion-seeking women, albeit one softened from earlier versions. The bill’s original language mandated that all Texans seeking an abortion present a government-issued form of identification, and instructed physicians to “presume” all women are minors until they prove otherwise.

After the constitutionality of that provision was called into question late last week, Perry tweaked the requirement. Now, if a woman doesn’t have one of these acceptable forms of ID, her physician must give her information on how to obtain one. If she still can’t get an ID, a physician can still perform the abortion, but must then report to the Department of State Health Services that an abortion was performed without age verification. While the language has changed, the effect remains the same, said Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas.

“The new version is still vague as to what a provider must do and could open them up to additional liability,” she said in a statement.

HB 3994 will likely get an easy final vote in the Senate on Tuesday. The House passed a version of HB 3994 two weeks ago, but after Monday’s changes in the Senate, the House must approve the updated version, or appoint a conference committee to discuss the differences by Friday.

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