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WA Parish coal plant
The W.A. Parish coal plant in Ft. Bend County

Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency unveiled its long-awaited carbon pollution rules targeting coal plants. For President Obama and those increasingly concerned about the threat of climate change, the proposal could not be more welcome. It finally tackles global warming by proposing fairly concrete greenhouse gas reductions and pushes carbon kingdoms like Texas—the nation’s top carbon dioxide emitter—to build on successes with renewable power, energy efficiency and conservation.

Texas will have to come up with a plan to cut the rate of greenhouse gas emissions by 39 percent by 2030, relative to 2012 levels. Nationally, EPA expects a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gases from electricity generation by 2030, compared to pre-Recession 2005 levels. (Yes, the figures are confusing… more on that later.)

Although the 645-page proposal goes to great lengths to describe the flexibility and generous timeline granted to the states, Texas industry and political leaders are unlikely to play nice. When it comes to the Obama EPA and Texas, nothing is easy.

Gov. Perry has long been an ally of the Texas coal industry. In 2006, he issued a rare executive order—later struck down by a judge—”fast-tracking” 11 coal plants that were being delayed by grassroots opposition and legal challenges. In mid-May, Perry accused Obama of waging a “war on coal” and labeled the EPA a “den of activists.”

When, in May, the White House released an alarming scientific survey of global warming ravages already underway, the state environmental agency’s official response was to worry about how responding to climate change would “result in greatly reduced use of coal,” and to declare that purported higher energy costs were “the true environmental impact of the war on coal.”

And 29 members of Texas’ congressional delegation, including five of the 12 Democrats, signed a letter arguing that “climate change policy should be directed by Congress.” (That policy appears to be “do nothing.”)

The Texas Association of Business took a Chicken Little approach today. “This plan will also cause the cost of electricity to skyrocket, so, if you manage to keep your job you may not be able to afford to keep the lights on,” said the association’s CEO, Bill Hammond, in a statement.

The Clean Power Plan, as EPA has dubbed the proposed carbon rules, would give states two to three years to draft a plan, and largely leaves the details of how to achieve the reductions in greenhouse gases to the states. States could focus on building out renewable energy, making fossil fuel plants more efficient, setting up a regional cap-and-trade system, reducing energy consumption through energy efficiency and conservation, or, more likely, a combination of methods.

Still, the rule is expected to fall heavily on the embattled coal industry.

“The interesting thing about this rule is that it’s very targeted,” said Al Armendariz, a former regional EPA administrator in Texas who’s now with the Sierra Club. “It’s not going to affect our refineries; it’s not going to affect the chemical plants along the Gulf; it’s not going to affect the oil and gas fields. … It’s focused on the largest, most polluting sources of electricity, which in Texas are our coal-fired power plants and in particular those that burn lignite.”

Armendariz calculates that the six dirtiest power plants in Texas—all of them coal—account for more than 30 percent of all the carbon emitted, about 83.8 million tons, in Texas’ electricity sector. The Martin Lake plant in East Texas, owned by TXU, alone emits almost 7 percent of carbon emissions, out of the 118 power plants in the state.

“I suspect that what’s going to happen is that a small number of power plants are going to be phased out and be replaced with renewable energy,” Armendariz says.

But the reductions wouldn’t all have to come from directly cutting pollution from power plants. For example, Texas could get credit for cuts from energy efficiency improvements on homes, like weatherizing or more efficient appliances, or rolling out “demand response” measures such as programs that idle big power producers during those hot summer days.

Texas could also benefit from trends already powering a partial decarbonization in the utility sector.

For all the talk of a “war on coal,” regulations attacking the fuel source for its outsized contribution to mercury, smog, soot and greenhouse gases have only been a partial reason for the industry’s decline. Increasing competition from renewables—and in Texas, that means largely wind power—and the dramatic drop in natural gas prices have been perhaps an even bigger factor. There’s no better illustration of that than the colossally bad bet made by private equity firms when they purchased Energy Future Holdings (previously TXU) in 2007. Their bet was on the price of natural gas remaining high, which would have made profitability of that company’s fleet of coal and nuclear plants a very attractive investment. Instead, natural gas prices plummeted and EFH is now in bankruptcy proceedings.

San Antonio’s city-owned CPS Energy decided in 2011 to shutter one of its coal plants years ahead of schedule, making up the difference with wind, solar and energy efficiency—a decision the utility is now crowing about. Austin Energy is considering if, and how, to wind down its own coal plant.

And lots of coal plants are coming up for mothballing or retirement anyway. As the EPA rule points out, by 2025 the average of the coal fleet will be 49 years old and 20 percent of the plants would be more than 60 years old.

In other words, market forces are hard at work making coal obsolete, in the U.S. at least.

Michael Webber, a widely-respected energy professor at UT-Austin, told the Austin American-Statesman that the EPA rules are “a hug from Obama to Texas” because natural gas will gain so much.

In a sense, the carbon rules are pushing the energy sector in a direction it’s already headed, like a driver tapping the accelerator on a car that’s rolling downhill.

It’s also not clear how drastic the cuts would actually be. The 39 percent reduction required of Texas may sound like a huge number but it’s based on an emissions rate—pounds of carbon emitted per unit of energy—not the total tons of carbon. Texas will have to reduce its carbon intensity and experts are still puzzling out how that would translate into overall greenhouse gas reductions from the utility sector. Nationally, EPA expects carbon emissions to fall by 30 percent by 2030 but did not prescribe the exact tons of carbon per state.

Still, it’s likely that Texas officials will resist every step of the way. When the EPA ordered states to start issuing greenhouse gas permits for major industrial sources, Texas was the only state to refuse to comply, causing the feds to take over and delay the issuing of permits.

I asked a top Environmental Defense Fund attorney what she expected from Texas. She said that that greenhouse gas permitting program was instructive.

“At the end of the day industry stakeholders went to the state and said we want you to have this authority and not the EPA,” said Megan Ceronsky, EDF’s director of regulatory policy. “My assumption is that the same thing will happen here.”

Migrantchildren
Eugenio del Bosque
Mexican children waiting in Reynosa after being deported by the U.S.

President Obama issued a presidential memo Monday calling the huge number of unaccompanied children crossing the border—primarily into Texas—an “urgent humanitarian situation.” The White House announced it will put the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in charge of coordinating federal agencies to respond to the growing crisis.

Thousands of unaccompanied children—the majority between 7 and 18—are fleeing deteriorating security and economic conditions in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. They are primarily arriving in the Rio Grande Valley—the shortest distance from Central America to the U.S. border. The number of children has been climbing since 2009 from an average of 8,000 a year to an estimated 60,000 or more children in 2014.

In a media conference call arranged by the White House, Cecilia Muñoz, the White House director of domestic policy, said President Obama issued the memo to unify federal agencies and provide for a coordinated response. Muñoz acknowledged that the growing number of children crossing the border alone was not a new phenomenon, but the scale in the last few months caught the government off guard. “The number of children coming is much larger than we anticipated,” she said. “It’s a 90 percent increase from last year and we are seeing more girls and more children under the age of 13 compared to previous years.”

In response to the growing crisis, the Department of Defense opened the Lackland Air Force Base two weeks ago in San Antonio to house as many as 1,200 children. The government also plans to fly children to a naval base in Ventura County, California, which can serve as an emergency shelter for up to 600 children, said Mark Greenberg, assistant secretary of the U.S. Health and Human Service’s Administration for Children and Families, the agency primarily in charge of caring for the unaccompanied children. The nonprofit BCFS Health and Human Services will care for the children at Lackland, Greenberg said.

Craig Fugate, FEMA administrator, said the goal is that no child be in Border Patrol detention for more than 72 hours, when the law mandates that the child be transferred to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and a shelter that is appropriate for children. Currently, Border Patrol stations are at capacity or overflowing in South Texas with children in need of assistance. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is struggling with the overflow, Fugate said. “They are backing up in facilities that were never designed for children.”

 

Rick Perry shakes hands with a Toyota executive in 2009
RickPerry.org
Rick Perry shakes hands with a Toyota executive

Rick Perry’s office refuses to release any information about the $40 million it’s offering Toyota to relocate to Texas, despite providing the Observer with similar information last year for a $12 million grant to Chevron.

The Observer and the Houston Chronicle both filed open records requests with the governor’s office after Perry announced in April the $40 million incentive grant to Toyota from the Texas Enterprise Fund. The governor’s office promotes the Enterprise Fund as a “deal-closing” program that helps bring jobs to Texas. But in some cases evidence suggests that the fund does little but line the pockets of companies planning to move to Texas anyway. For example, the Observer reported last year Chevron already had plans to develop an office tower in downtown Houston, provided scant justification that it was considering other locations in its application and told the governor’s office that it planned to use the $12 million grant to pay for employee relocation perks.

It would be interesting to know if something similar happened with the Toyota grant. Especially since company executives have said the $40 million Texas Enterprise Fund grant had little to do with the relocation from California to Plano.

In an open records request, I asked for Toyota’s application, for the contract between Toyota and the state, and for any other related documents. The request was nearly identical to the one I filed for documents related to the Chevron deal in July. But unlike the Chevron request, the governor’s office refused to release anything other than a handful of news clips. Instead, it sought an opinion from Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office about whether it can keep the records hidden. Perry’s attorneys argue that releasing any information before the deal is finalized “would seriously disadvantage Texas by allowing other states to directly approach this entity with competing incentives.”

Now, it’s not unusual for a Texas agency to ask the attorney general to rule on open records matters. And it’s not unusual for government agencies to try to keep government documents secret on the basis of competitive harm.

But the rationale a Perry spokesperson gave to the Houston Chronicle on Friday is peculiar.

In a similar case, details on the state’s $12 million TEF grant to Chevron, including the company’s application, were released to the Texas Observer late last year.

“It’s not uncommon for us to announce the incentive offer without a finalized contract, or prior to finalization of the local incentive package,” Nashed said. “The Chevron contract was released post AG ruling.”

That last sentence—“The Chevron contract was released post AG ruling”—is simply not true.

My Chevron request was filed on July 16, and the governor’s office released 400 pages of information to me on July 30, before any attorney general ruling on my request. (You can view the entire set here.) Among those documents were several versions of the agreement between Chevron and the state of Texas, including a “draft execution copy.” The attorney general did issue a ruling in September, and the governor’s office released additional documents, such as an economic impact analysis, but the contract had already been released.

Nashed, the Perry spokesperson, wrote in an email that she was referring to Chevron’s application, not the contract itself, in the Chronicle article. “The statement in the Houston Chronicle should have read ‘the Chevron contract application was released post AG ruling’,” she wrote.

She also said that the main difference between the Chevron and Toyota cases is that the Chevron contract was executed on the day of my July request. But in the Toyota case,  she wrote, “our office had not finalized the deal with Toyota.”

But the documents released to the Observer in the Chevron case didn’t include a finalized contract with signatures. All the contract versions were stamped “draft” and some included numerous revisions and comments in Microsoft Word.

The Chronicle also noted that officials with the city of Plano “were not concerned about releasing the details of their own local incentive offered to Toyota.”

The Toyota deal was a triumph for Perry. He scored—and then trumpeted—headlines like the AP’s from April 30: “Rick Perry Scores Big Win As Toyota Moves Headquarters To Texas.”

Toyota relocating to Texas is a big win—but it’s not clear what role, if any, Rick Perry or his Enterprise Fund played in it. The government documents that Perry’s office is refusing to release might help us answer that question out.

CarlosSpectorOffice
Carlos Spector in his El Paso office

El Paso immigration attorney Carlos Spector represents more than 100 families who have fled violence in Mexico. Many were forced to flee while investigating the disappearances of their loved ones by the military or law enforcement.

In Mexico, 98 percent of murder cases are never investigated or solved by the authorities. Even fewer cases are investigated when the disappearances or murders are linked to soldiers or law enforcement. Families who investigate on their own often risk their lives.

This was the case for the Alvarado Espinoza family from the small town of San Buenaventura 170 miles south of Juarez. On December 29, 2009, Mexican soldiers forced 32-year-old Nitza Paola Alvarado Espinoza and her cousin Jose Angel Alvarado into a military vehicle. Another cousin Rocio Irene Alvarado was also picked up the same day, according to a petition filed with the Organization of American States Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Their families haven’t seen them since and the Mexican military won’t provide any answers. So the family took it upon themselves to investigate the disappearances. But soon they began to receive death threats. Ultimately, they were forced to flee to the United States and seek political asylum.

Seeking justice in Mexico from the United States adds another layer of difficulty and frustration for families in exile. The three daughters of the disappeared Nitza Paola Alvarado Espinoza—18-year-old twins Mitzi and Nitza and fifteen-year-old Deisy who now live in the United States—formed a group called Hijos de Desaparecidos (children of the disappeared) to pressure Mexican officials to investigate the disappearance of their mother and countless others. The Mexican government estimates there are as many as 27,000 disappeared in Mexico since the drug war violence began in 2006. But many Mexican activists suspect the number is much higher since most families are too scared and distrustful of the authorities to report disappearances.

So it was a significant event last week when a Mexican federal law enforcement official, Salomon Baltazar, came to El Paso to meet with relatives of missing men and women. Baltazar was appointed in 2013 as the head of the newly-formed Special Unit to Search for Disappeared Persons within Mexico’s Attorney General’s office. For the first time, Baltazar traveled to the United States to take complaints and testimony from the Alvarado Espinoza family and other exiles searching for missing relatives. During a short press conference at the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, Baltazar said officials in Mexico were committed to investigating the missing persons cases. Baltazar’s meetings with the families were private. But Carlos Spector said another high-ranking Mexican human rights official, Ricardo Garcia Cervantes, also attended the meetings in El Paso and was visibly moved by the testimonies of the families. “He was the most vocal in pledging to do something about the disappearances,” Spector said.

Three days later, however, Mexico’s attorney general Jesus Murillo Karam announced that Garcia Cervantes would be resigning from his post. “Garcia Cervantes was the most open to doing something,” says Spector. “It seems odd he would leave his post three days later, which makes you wonder if he was fired and if so, why?”

Spector and the nonprofit group Mexicanos en Exilio, as well as Mexico’s Women’s Center for Human Rights, were instrumental in persuading the Mexican officials to come to the United States. The next step for Spector and Mexicanos en Exilio is to persuade Mexican congressional members to hold a hearing in El Paso on the murders and disappearances as well as the numerous properties and businesses lost by people now living in exile. More than anything families want justice and they want closure after years of searching for missing loved ones. “So far there’s been symbolic gestures, which is a positive step,” Spector said of Mexican government officials. “But it’s not enough.”

(UPDATE: On May 31, Ricardo Garcia Cervantes told the Mexican magazine Proceso that he chose to resign and was not pushed out by the Peña Nieto administration. Garcia Cervantes said he left because Peña Nieto’s administration was giving less priority to investigating  the thousands of disappearances throughout the country, and that he could no longer bear the sorrow of so many families whose cases were not being investigated by the human rights agency.)

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Most mornings I join tens of thousands of fellow commuters who live south of Houston for our daily slog along I-45. There are few sources of frustration greater than this dense traffic corridor, but thanks to the absence of zoning laws, there are also few resources better for slow reading. Rather than seeing this slice of highway as a valley of death, why not consider it as a valley of texts? Flourishing along the banks of this great, concrete Nile are elegant copses of signs for the (upscale) malls and weedy patches of decaying signs for the (downscale) strip malls. Among the billboards touting Texas-tough trucks and Texas-sized tacos, you can savor sly logos: “God listens,” boasts our local Christian radio station, while the convenience chain Buc-ee’s reminds us of their clean restrooms with “Don’t worry, P happy.” At other signs we simply shudder. Gentlemen’s clubs? Anything but, we tell our kids.

Welcome to my world of signifiers, where franchises sacred and profane, megachurches and malls, invite exegesis. Several years ago, the evangelical Grace Community Church, with locations in San Diego and north Houston, opened a new storefront not too far from my own neighborhood. With its vast hexagonal buiilding already dwarfing its neighbors—including a Lexus dealership and a former strip club known as Vixxen—the 18,000-member congregation planned to further advertise its presence with a 200-foot cross. That plan was thwarted when the FAA noticed that the proposed cross conflicted with nearby Ellington Field’s flight path.

In lieu of a giant cross, Grace has had to make do with bright billboards emblazoned with blond families plugging their churchly community, cable station and conception of the world. Yet the setback has not stopped Steve and Becky Riggle, the church’s founders and senior pastors, from remaining fixtures on the local news.

Tune in to any of our talk and news stations during your daily commute and chances are you’ll have heard about the city’s proposed anti-discrimination ordinance. In particular, the ordinance is aimed at any business that refuses service on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Paint stores, pawnshops and pulperias—just a few of the plethora of businesses along I-45—could not deny you their services. Should they try, they would be subject to fines as high as $5,000.

As the vote approached, the ordinance mobilized not just the LBGT community and its supporters, but also a number of local megachurches. Second Baptist Church, whose membership of 64,000 beggars the adequacy of the “mega” prefix, and whose several locations lie close along Houston’s major traffic arteries, came out against the measure, with senior pastor Ed Young declaring that the rights of the LGBT community end where the prerogatives of Christian morality begin.

While the Riggles made the same argument, their efforts were both more colorful and more candid. The color came mostly from Steve Riggle during a public session at City Hall a few weeks ago. In an exchange with Councilmember Ellen Cohen, Riggle alluded to the now-legendary predicament of the Oregon baker whose Christian principles led him to refuse to take a cake order from a gay couple. Would it be any different, Riggle asked, if a Jewish baker refused an order for a cake decorated with a swastika? Cohen suggested that it would be different: Nazi pastry connoisseurs are not, like gays under the proposed ordinance, a protected class. When Cohen then asked if a Christian baker could deny service to a Jewish client because Judaism is an affront to his faith, Pastor Riggle realized he was about to slide down a slippery slope and declined to answer.

Becky Riggle barreled down that same slope, however, when she made a separate appearance before City Council. Councilwoman Cohen asked the same question she had posed to Steve: Should a Christian store owner, troubled by a customer’s Jewish faith, be able to deny her service? To general astonishment, Becky Riggle replied: “Yes, I am saying that. But that is not the issue that we’re talking about today.” With a poker face, Annise Parker, Houston’s unflappable gay mayor, then turned to the next speaker.

Of course, many Houstonians—Jewish, gay and otherwise—disagree with the pastor. And her claim that religious faith trumps civil rights and justifies discriminatory practices is precisely the issue. But as I drive by these vast fortresses of faith on my daily commute, I think I can begin to see the Riggles’ view.

Megachurches like Grace and Second Baptist rise along our traffic corridors for the same reason that fast-food restaurants do: where better to advertise one’s merchandise than in front of a massive audience streaming past day and night? And where better to trumpet a transcendent faith than these polluted arteries lined with strip clubs, loan sharks, tattoo parlors, 24-hour video stores and Thai massage spas? Given the apparent corruption of this particular landscape, it’s hardly surprising that these churches become worlds unto themselves. The comfort of these faith-bound cocoons makes their members all the more vulnerable to culture shock. From pre-K to high school, fitness centers to financial advisers, concerts to cafés, members of these churches need confront the world outside the bubble only when they step into their places of work. Like a bakery. Or when they need to find a public restroom. Like at Buc-ee’s.

In fact, for Grace and Second Baptist, public restrooms are very much the issue. In a video released by Grace Church, the Riggles insisted that Houston’s ordinance, which covers transgender individuals, will transform women’s restrooms into hunting grounds for cross-dressing male predators. Rather than P happy, the Riggles warn, P afraid.

I am not so anxious. As I drive along I-45, the countless texts tumbling past the window reflect a world that is, to be sure, often disconcerting. But it’s also a world whose dissonance represents exuberance and tolerance.

Now that the ordinance has passed, I tell myself: P hopeful. And P certain that while the odds are long of finding a clean toilet along I-45, they are even longer of finding a bearded stalker waiting in the ladies’ room.

Rick Perry
Patrick Michels
Gov. Rick Perry

Back in March, Gov. Rick Perry sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder declaring his intent to defy a federal law designed to reduce sexual assault in prison. It was a very Perry letter, slinging around terms like “ridiculous” and “unacceptable” and “costly regulatory mess.” But perhaps the most Perry part was his vow to “encourage my fellow governors to follow suit.”

Now, saying a law is wrong for Texas is one thing. Saying governors of other states—you know, just anywhere—should defy the Prison Rape Elimination Act suggests Perry believes the law is wrong in general principle, not specific application. Or else he’s just grandstanding. (A Google search for “Rick Perry” and “grandstanding” returns 173,000 results.) Either way, Perry appears to have had limited success. May 15 was the deadline for governors either to certify their state prisons were compliant or promise to become so, and the Associated Press reported last week that just four other states joined Perry in saying they planned not to try: Idaho, Indiana, Utah and Arizona.

“Perry is sort of out on his own on this one, which is fantastic news,” says Jesse Lerner-Kinglake, who works for an advocacy group that fights prison sexual assault, Just Detention International.

Lerner-Kinglake is one of many observers who can’t work out why Perry picked this particular battle in the first place. The problems with the law that Perry lists are relatively minor, though he describes them as insurmountable—and some don’t actually exist. Lerner-Kinglake says Perry’s letter contains “so many basic errors. It’s really kind of simple stuff that anyone who took a minute to look at the standards would know.”

For example, Perry writes that governors must certify their state’s compliance “under threat of criminal penalties,” but that’s not true. The only enforcement mechanism is that a state can lose 5 percent of its federal corrections grant money. Perry also says the act’s compliance dates are “impossible to meet,” but governors can—and at least 10 did—give assurance letters by the May 15 deadline promising that they were actively working toward compliance.

Perry also seems to think the new requirements apply to “local jails” and would be too expensive for small counties to implement, but they wouldn’t have to, since the act covers only facilities under Perry’s operational control.

The further you get into the letter’s nitty-gritty, the stranger Perry’s defiance seems. “The rules appear to have been created in a vacuum,” Perry complains. But a 2010 letter to the Justice Department from the executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said just the opposite. The director wrote, “The agency had relatively few issues” with implementing the act, “because most of the recommendations were similar to agency policy… [I]t is apparent the Department of Justice gave careful consideration to the comments submitted by many interested parties…”

Livingston’s letter did bring up one of Perry’s big beefs, though: the law’s prohibition on cross-gender viewing of inmates showering, changing, or using the toilets. Perry and Livingston suggested that banning cross-gender viewing could force Texas to violate laws banning gender discrimination, since 40 percent of correctional officers are female. Poppycock, says Lerner-Kinglake. The area in which women couldn’t be stationed, he says, “is so limited in scope, and he’s making it out to be a deal-breaker. It’s just a matter of basic dignity.”

A 2013 report from an outside agency (uncovered by the blog Grits for Breakfast) also said half-walls could be used to shield inmates’ genitals and suggested more discreet camera positioning at one of the prisons. “[I]t is not a mainstream practice to have cameras pointed directly into toilet and shower areas,” the report noted. But Perry claimed re-positioning cameras would “increase the likelihood of assaults taking place, defeating the intent of the law.”

Perhaps the most understandable of Perry’s objections is that while the Prison Rape Elimination Act requires the state to keep prisoners under 18 separate from adults, Texas considers 17-year-olds to be adults, so the two standards conflict. But none of the other nine states that incarcerate 17-year-olds as adults appear to have defied the law, and the separation requirement doesn’t kick in for three years. Just in March, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee held a hearing on raising Texas’ adult prosecution age from 17 to 18. Yet this issue and the alleged gender discrimination problem were the sticking points Perry reiterated in a May 16 letter that was much milder in tone.

Present in the first letter but missing from the second was Perry’s claim that Texas already effectively prevented sexual assault in its prisons. Actually, Texas reports almost four times as many prisoner sexual assaults as the national average, according to a federally-funded study from the JFA Institute. Elizabeth Henneke, an attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, warned at a House hearing that noncompliance could leave the state open to litigation and pointed out that one ex-inmate, who says he was raped at the Travis County Jail, is already suing for $2 million, alleging officials “displayed deliberate indifference to his safety by failing to comply with PREA.”

“Of all the misinformation that Perry puts out there,” Lerner-Kinglake says, “about what the standards require and exaggerating how onerous it is, the most problematic thing is that he tries to paint Texas as having prisons that are increasingly safe for inmates. The data from the federal government does not paint that same picture, and neither does what we [Just Detention International] hear from the inmates themselves… We get tons of letters from inmates who have been sexually assaulted in prison, and a disturbing number of them come from Texas.”

Bob Hall
Facebook/Bob Hall
Bob Hall

On Tuesday night, a political unknown named Bob Hall upset three-term state Sen. Bob Deuell, a conservative Republican from Greenville, in a GOP runoff. It was one of the least-followed, but most triumphant, victories for the tea party grassroots. But who’s Bob Hall and what does he believe? In speeches and interviews he’s given in the past year—many of them available on YouTube—Hall espouses far-right views, traffics in dark conspiracy theories and expresses a variety of tea-party antipathies.

He doesn’t understand “why the [immigrants] who are coming here want to turn it into a country like where they came from.” He thinks Obama is using public schools for “communist indoctrination.” He thinks bike paths are part of a United Nations plot. He believes a “confederation of states” can nullify federal laws. He thinks Bob Deuell was controlled by Satan.

Thanks to an extremely low turnout, Hall beat Deuell on Tuesday by a scant 300 votes. There’s no Democrat in the race, so come January, Hall will likely represent North Texas in the Texas Senate.

It’s a quick rise to political prominence in a state Hall has lived in for only five years. In 2009, Hall moved from Florida to East Texas, just as the tea party was bursting onto the national scene. A veteran of the Air Force and licensed pilot who’d recently sold his business helping companies secure government contracts, Hall retired with his wife to a quiet community for pilots and aviation enthusiasts near Canton that features a runway and hangars. But then he became politically active, as he’s frequently told tea party groups around the state, when Barack Obama began plunging America into a dark socialist nightmare.

Hall, 71, quickly became an adept organizer and assumed leadership of the Canton Tea Party, one of many active tea party groups in that conservative part of the state. A fan of American and Texas flag shirts, Hall combined his bona fides as a businessman and military veteran with an ability to articulate the many passions of the far right: Agenda 21, CSCOPE, an obsession with debt, anti-immigrant sentiments and a hatred of RINOs and anyone not sufficiently conservative.

Despite railing against lobbyists and special interests on the campaign trail, Hall was largely funded by two PACs loaded with special-interest money. Seventy-five percent of his $314,000 haul came from Empower Texans PAC, which is run by right-wing enforcer Michael Quinn Sullivan and his benefactor Midland oilman Tim Dunn, and the North Texas Conservative Coalition, a PAC largely funded by Carl Westcott, a Dallas developer and entrepreneur.

(Hall did not respond to requests for an interview.)

In the Senate, Hall will join a growing caucus of tea party activists—Donna Campbell of New Braunfels, Don Huffines of Dallas, Van Taylor of Plano, Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills and possibly Konni Burton of Fort Worth, if she beats Democrat Libby Willis this fall—who are redefining what it means to be conservative and taking the state into uncharted political territory.

If there were ever any doubst about the strength of the tea party grassroots in Texas, Hall’s victory over Deuell should lay them to rest. It proved that it’s nigh impossible to be too conservative—or too embracing of the bugaboos of the far right. It proved that it’s not a deal-killer to be accused, as Hall was, of domestic violence or have racked up $165,000 in tax liens over 20 years of unpaid federal taxes. When Deuell made an issue of Hall’s past, Hall told a tea party radio program that “Satan must have a stranglehold on [Deuell].”

Deuell was by no rational calculus a “liberal” or even a “moderate.” As The Texas Tribune’s Ross Ramsey has noted, he was once—just a decade or so ago—considered a “crazy right-winger,” a doctor who opposed abortion even in cases of rape or incest. But, occasionally, he took positions that evidently didn’t square with the grassroots. For example, Deuell championed legislation legalizing clean-needle exchanges for drug addicts, a public health-driven proposal that’s been embraced by at least 30 states.

Hall mocked the idea. “Do they get sick using the needles? Yes they do,” he told a group of voters in Rains County in October. “But do they also get sick by using bad drugs. So is our next step to provide them state-provided drugs so they don’t get bad drugs. The next thing to do is to hand out handguns to bank robbers.”

A bill that Deuell co-sponsored pushing the Texas Department of Transportation to adopt a “complete streets policy” that would give greater emphasis to pedestrians and bicyclists was actually part of a sweeping United Nations plot.

It was “an Agenda 21 issue that would’ve required bicycle paths on all of our highways in Texas,” Hall said.

(No matter that the bill would have done no such thing.)

“Now, folks we built highways for automobiles. Automobiles paid for those highways, and if you’ve been around any communities where they’ve put in the bicycle paths traffic is a nightmare.”

But Hall really took Deuell to task for sponsoring a bill that tried to sort out some very tricky end-of-life issues by balancing the medical judgment of doctors against the rights of patients and their families. The bill actually extended the period of time families could dispute a medical decision to end medical treatment and it was supported by groups like the Texas Medical Association and some pro-life groups, including the Texas Alliance for Life. But Texas Right to Life, an influential and hardline anti-abortion organization that frequently attacks Republicans, protested it as an unconscionable breach of pro-life values. Hall went even further in his campaign.

Bob Deuell
Bob Deuell

“If it had passed… it would have codified—that is, made it law in Texas—medical death panels just like you’ll find in Obamacare,” he told a group in Emory. “That’s hard to imagine but it would have.”

It’s hard to find an issue on which Hall doesn’t stake out an extreme right-wing position. But he does have a tiny bit of nuance on secession: He’s against it… but is for the old idea—last advanced during school desegregation—of nullification.

“We have the power of nullification but we don’t use it,” he said at an October candidate forum in Emory. “Instead we go with lawsuits. I think with a confederation of states agreeing to work and doing the same thing we can achieve similar goals.”

On eliminating property taxes: “I think the more we move toward a total consumption tax the fairer it becomes. I think the issue of us renting our property from the government, which is all we’re doing as long as we pay property taxes.”

On immigration: “ think we need to be looking at how we can shut down the candy stores, the attractions that bring them here.”

On immigrants: “The reason America achieved so much in such a short time period was the American exceptionalism. It was not like the countries people came from. It was no Ireland, it was not England, it was not Germany, France, Italy any of these countries. It was America, and as such it offered opportunities they did not have. I don’t understand why the people who are coming here want to turn it into a country like where they came from.”

On Common Core: “It is every bit as bad as CSCOPE or worse. It is true communist indoctrination of our kids, no question about it.”

On Wendy Davis: “The one thing we can hope for is that the message of being the baby killer will resonate with enough people that they won’t buy into it. Those are strong words but that’s exactly what it is.”

On democracy: “I think we’re sliding into Gomorrah… If we do not change what we’re doing by changing the leaders when we go to the ballot box, our children and grandchildren may be having to change their leaders with the ammo box.”

The man who said all that will—thanks to the support of a little more than 3 percent of the voting age population—represent Senate District 2 in the state Senate. He won’t come up for re-election until 2018.

State Board of Education Vice Chairman Thomas Ratliff (R-Mount Pleasant)
State Board of Education Vice Chairman Thomas Ratliff (R-Mount Pleasant)

Dr. David Fuller earns $125,000 a year as superintendent of the new C.O.R.E. Academy charter school in Houston. His school has 74 students this year. Do the math: He makes $1,689 per student.

Fuller’s former business partner, Kevin Hicks, earns $248,000 as superintendent of Houston’s Accelerated Intermediate Academy. The charter school, which Fuller and Hicks founded together in 2001, now serves 250 students. $992 per student.

Ollie Hilliard, superintendent of Jamie’s House Charter School in Houston, earns $123,000 to run a school of 131 students—though she may not for much longer. Hers is one of six charters now slated for closure after years of poor performance. In 2001, the state closed another Hilliard project—a residential facility for foster children, also called Jamie’s House—due to health and safety risks. Today, Hilliard makes $939 per student.

Per student, they are the three best-paid charter school superintendents in the state. And though he won’t single them out by name, State Board of Education Vice Chairman Thomas Ratliff says some Texas charters pay their leaders far too much, with little public input to hold them accountable.

Earlier this month, he laid out his concerns in a letter to fellow board members, noting that the 10 best-paid charter school leaders earned $79.74 per student, while the top 10 superintendents at traditional public schools earned  $6.39 per student. Ratliff called on the Legislature or the commissioner of education to rein in the top salaries at charter schools:

“I find it ironic that charter schools were supposed to bring free market principals into the education marketplace but they are obviously paying way above free market rates for their superintendents. I would also like to point out that these entities are supposed to be non-profit organizations, but at these salary levels, some people are clearly doing quite well.”

A little more irony: Ratliff’s father, former state Sen. Bill Ratliff, wrote the law that first allowed charter schools in Texas in the mid-’90s.

“I’m not anti-charter,” the younger Ratliff tells the Observer this week. “There are some very good charters and I think there are some kids’ lives that have been saved because of some good charters. But I think the majority of charters are mediocre at best, and they graft off the good press and goodwill from a lot of the best ones.”

Ratliff says what he wants is an honest accounting of how much charter schools spend on their students, and a more open process for setting top administrators’ pay. Each charter school has a board that sets salaries, just like any traditional school district. But most charter board meetings aren’t well publicized or attended, so much of their business happens quietly. Ratliff suggests requiring that half the seats on a charter school board go to parents. “If I’m a parent of a kid in the charter school,” Ratliff says, “and I have a vote on whether to pay our superintendent $250,000 a year for 250 kids, I know how I’m gonna vote every time.”

Partly because charters’ operations can be so opaque, most debate about charter schools tends to treat them like a monolithic group. But the differences from one charter to the next run far deeper than between traditional school districts.

Three more examples:

  • Tom Torkelson makes $299,000 a year running the well-respected and growing IDEA Public Schools network, with 15 schools serving 15,535 students. IDEA supplements its state funding with major foundation grants.
  • Honors Academy superintendent John Dodd makes $250,000 a year heading a single school in Dallas with 759 students. The state is closing his school for poor performance.
  • Westlake Academy Charter School—one of the best schools in the state—serves some of Texas’ poshest neighborhoods, doesn’t provide bus transportation from outside, and supplements its state funding with a $2,000 recommended annual donation from parents. But the school doesn’t pay its superintendent Tom Brymer at all, because he makes his salary as Westlake’s town manager.

As part of the big charter school reforms the Legislature passed last year, charters are now required to post their superintendents’ salaries on their websites. A quick look around shows that many still haven’t done that—but most report their salaries to the Texas Education Agency. An Observer analysis of that data, with some extra reporting to fill in a few gaps, shows that charter superintendents do tend to make more, per student, than their traditional district counterparts:

Distribution of superintendent salaries, as a percentage of total charter or traditional school districts.
Source: Texas Education Agency/Texas Observer
Distribution of superintendent salaries, as a percentage of total charter or traditional school districts.

The Texas Charter Schools Association made a similar analysis of charter superintendent salaries, charting the total number of districts in each salary range. Comparing charters to ISDs that way, says the group’s executive director David Dunn, you’ll see “the distribution among salaries is very similar. … Rather than overreacting to specific cases, you really do need to look at the patterns that are established.”

Overall, charter schools get less money per student than ISDs because they don’t get money for school buildings (a group of charter schools has sued to change that). And, Dunn notes, the state holds charter schools to financial accountability measures that ISDs don’t have.

State Board of Education member Dana Bahorich replied to Ratliff’s note about salaries earlier this month with one of her own, noting that some traditional school districts pay far more than others per student, too. Comparing the median salaries in charter and traditional districts of under 5,000 students, she finds the two sectors aren’t so far off: “about $9,000 for charters and $103,000 for ISDs.”

“There are some variances and outliers in both sectors, but I just don’t see a problem necessitating government regulation over superintendents’ salaries,” she writes, in either charters or traditional schools.

Anyway, says Dunn, nobody’s salary ought to matter as much as whether the schools are helping students. “The key here is outcomes: Are we delivering outcomes for kids, and [do] parents have an opportunity to make choices so they can get he best educational program for their student?”

But Ratliff—who has since fired a second volley of criticism focused on charters’ overall money management—says if more people knew how some charter schools were spending public money, there’d be more of an outcry to fix the system. “I don’t think anybody realizes what kind of money folks are pulling in in these so-called nonprofits,” he says.

thetruthaboutaliceWe don’t cover an awful lot of Young Adult literature here at the Observer, premature fogeys that (some of us) are, but when we do, we tend to turn to Houston writer/schoolteacher Jennifer Mathieu. Jennifer covered last fall’s Austin Teen Book Festival for us, and then reviewed Austin author P.J. Hoover’s novel Solstice for our 2013 Books Issue. (She also wrote about the aftermath of Hurricane Ike for the magazine back in 2009).

Now Mathieu has her own first YA book hitting shelves. It’s called The Truth About Alice, and Mathieu will debut it at 7 p.m. tomorrow night, Friday, May 30, at Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston.

She’ll also be on a panel of four YA authors at Austin’s BookPeople next month on Friday, June 27.

Go meet Alice, say hi to Jennifer, and tell her the Observer sent ya.

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