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Judas thought he'd won. He was wrong. Jesus
Judas thought he'd won. He was wrong.

There’s a steep learning curve for a rookie reporter covering the Texas Legislature.

During my brief reportorial tenure, I’ve sat in the wrong committee meeting for an hour without realizing I was in the wrong room, conversed with a senator while thinking she was a reporter and lost my way numerous times in the Capitol.

Fortunately, my personal journalistic mishaps pale in comparison to other WTF moments that transpired under the pink dome this week.

1) Perhaps most notably, I learned that packing heat is an inalienable right bestowed by God (or at least one of his more bad-ass henchmen) who evidently speaks a heavenly dialect of Texan.

Yesterday, at a meeting of the Senate Committee on State Affairs, state Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) sought to establish himself as the shooting man’s Joel Osteen. During yesterday’s nine-hour committee meeting, where Birdwell’s campus carry bill was debated, Birdwell shot from the hip, telling Austin police chief Art Acevedo that he’d rather be “tried by 12 than carried by six,” inadvertently revealing himself to be a closeted fan of New York gangster rap from the ’90s.

But he went further. Ready access to guns were among those “rights that are granted by God that are ours to protect.”


Biblically piqued, the Observer’s skilled team of fact-checkers—self-aware 1999-model turquoise iMacs that we treat as unpaid interns, in contravention of moral, ethical and union codes, as well as the laws of nature—scoured the Good Book, or at least word-searched the thing, for gun talk. They have yet to find any, but they did find a great deal of corroborating evidence:

Returning to the 21st century, we turn our attention to the University of Texas, a hallowed place of learning.

On Monday, The Daily Texan reported that guests at a “Border Patrol” themed frat party partied sartorially by donning sombreros, ponchos and construction worker uniforms with Hispanic names written on them.

Did we mention that lawmakers are working feverishly to get guns into the hands of college students?

3) With fancy Yankee magazines such as the The New Yorker disparaging the Lone Star State at every opportunity, Texans can get a bit prickly about how we’re perceived.

Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood), though, doesn’t seem to give a damn.

During a meeting of the Senate Committee on Veteran Affairs, Hall channeled his inner greycoat, telling the audience that he was particularly honored to sit on the committee in part because his ancestors fought in the “War of Northern Aggression.”

Hall is a new member and we’re just learning about his legislative priorities. So far, he’s mentioned the EMP threat, Agenda 21 and now defending the honor of those men who waged war against aggression.

(Incidentally, it was soldiers from Bob Hall’s alma mater, The Citadel in South Carolina, who fired the first shots of Abraham Lincoln’s folly.)

SNAKEWATCH 2015: California has earthquakes and fires, Hawaii has volcanos and tsunamis, Washington state has Killer BOB, Florida has the Florida Man, New York has Wall Street. Texas has something far worse.

There’s only one reason they would want to take down our radar systems: They’re coming in by air. Birdwell was right: I’d rather be tried by 12 than buried by snakes. Lock. Load. Goodnight and good luck.

State Rep. David Simpson speaks to the Texas House.
Patrick Michels
State Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview) wants to curb synthetic drug sales without expanding the failed war on drugs.

Almost as soon as synthetic marijuana started appearing at smoke shops and gas stations—promising a legal alternative to more conventional, and more obviously illegal, highs—lawmakers have been trying to ban it.

But even with a statewide ban in place for the last four years, local cops have struggled to shut down the sale of “spice” and “incense” because—as we reported last week—the ban is effectively unenforceable in court. Synthetics are also expensive to test, and manufacturers are constantly re-engineering the drugs to steer clear of new chemical bans.

Shoehorning synthetics into our existing anti-drug framework has been maddening for prosecutors, too. In Lubbock, the DA’s office has hand-delivered letters pleading businesses not to sell the drugs. In Alpine, local police backed by the Brewster County DA’s office raided the same smoke shop four times in two years without finding any substances that were illegal at the time of the raids.

Horror stories keep cropping up around the state, and especially in rural Texas, of “bad batches” of spice hospitalizing people who don’t know what it is they’re smoking, or how much they can safely smoke. Decades of marijuana scaremongering have inured most of us to overblown claims about the drug’s dangers. Though the dangers vary from pouch to pouch, early research suggests synthetic marijuana has serious risks, much more so than marijuana.

So lawmakers face the challenge of cracking down on a dangerous new drug at a time of waning support for punitive drug-war policies, when the mood is swinging more toward legalization. Longview Republican Rep. David Simpson is suggesting a different approach, one he says could protect people without giving the state another excuse to lock them up.

“I don’t like the course of violence that is so often pursued on this so-called war on drugs,” Simpson says. “I think the better way to handle it is let the people who’ve been harmed have recourse to justice.”

To that end, one of Simpson’s bills would create a civil penalty for selling or giving synthetic drugs to a minor. Another would make the sale and manufacture of synthetic drugs a violation of Texas’ Deceptive Trade Practices-Consumer Protection Act.

“On the flip side, I think there’s good uses for natural drugs such as marijuana,” Simpson says. “It’s really helping people in the district that I serve, but they’re having to go to Colorado because they’re felons if they bring it back.”

His bills would, in effect, give overdose victims recourse to sue their dealers, a novel anti-drug approach that’s only even possible because synthetics have proven so resistant to traditional criminal penalties.

“We’re hoping that the manufacturers say, ‘It’s better to take care of our clientele than to get sued by them,'” Simpson says. Today, someone buying a packet of spice can’t know much at all about what chemicals they’re about to inhale, or how their body will respond. Lighting up synthetic marijuana may seem like a familiar experience, Simpson says, but what’s actually happening to a person is less clear.

“They don’t realize this roller coaster, though it has a steel monorail, it’s connected to a rotten wooden structure that’s destined for derailment,” Simpson says. “Kids may expect to have some ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh,’ but they don’t expect the train on this fast woopty-doopty monorail to go off the tracks.”

In an op-ed published in the Longview News-Journal this week, Simpson presents another analogy:

Imagine having a beer with friends. You know your tolerance for alcohol will allow you to have one beer and drive home without impairment. Now imagine trying a “synthetic beer” and enjoying it. The next time, though, instead of being able to drive, you find yourself suffering from severe anxiety, nausea, an elevated heart rate, tremors, seizures, hallucinations or temporary blindness.

With no clear idea what’s in that foil pouch, Simpson says, and especially when the product is marketed as “potpourri” or “incense,” the sale is deceptive on its face. “It should be an honest transaction,” he says. “Most people know they’re not really getting potpourri, but they don’t know what they’re getting either.”

Another new bill, filed in the Senate, focuses on how spice packets are labeled. Lubbock Republican Sen. Charles Perry’s proposal creates a broad new legal definition of synthetic drugs, and requires sellers to include labels with the product’s weight and ingredients even if—as many synthetics are today—they’re branded “not for human consumption.”

Like Simpson’s proposals, Perry’s would target the people selling synthetic drugs, not the users.

One more proposal, filed Monday by Amarillo Republican Rep. Four Price, would let the commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission classify new synthetics as controlled substances on a temporary basis, until the Legislature reconvenes. His bill also provides some protection for consumers, who would be safe from prosecution for taking synthetics if they’d requested emergency medical help.

Simpson and Perry’s bills focus even more on the supply chain, and allow for enforcement in civil, not criminal, courts. Texas District and County Attorneys Association spokesman Shannon Edmonds says that’s an important distinction because the burden of proof is lower in civil cases, making it easier to prove a product meets Texas’ definition of a synthetic drug.

“The goal,” Edmonds explains, “is that you’re going after these businesses that are selling this stuff, and hitting them in the pocket book is the best way to stop them from putting deceptive products on the market.”

Texas Log Cabin Republicans
John Wright
Log Cabin Republicans discuss their legislative agenda prior to the group's lobby day at the Texas Capitol on Thursday.

The Log Cabin Republicans are an LGBT group, but one might not have guessed it based on the legislative agenda for their lobby day at the Texas Capitol on Thursday.

Although Log Cabin’s 11-item agenda included some LGBT issues, it was also plump with conservative red meat, including support for open carry, tax cuts and border security.

Jeff Davis, president of Log Cabin’s nascent Texas chapter, provided a two-fold explanation.

“I’m gay, but I don’t define myself just based on my sexuality, so my politics aren’t defined by that either,” Davis said. “I think it’s also important for us to keep saying to the Republican Party: ‘We’re Republicans. We’re not Democrats. Just because we’re gay doesn’t make us Democrats. We are conservative.’ … We need to show commonality.”

Eight Log Cabin members from across the state attended lobby day, splitting up into two-person teams that were scheduled to meet with legislators or staffers from more than 50 offices. Davis said that’s a significant increase from two years ago and a sign Log Cabin is making inroads in the party, even though the group was denied a booth at last year’s state convention, where delegates added a plank to the GOP platform endorsing “ex-gay” therapy.

“At least with voters, there’s been an outcry against what happened at the state convention,” Davis said. “We’ve gotten a lot of calls, letters and emails from people all around the state saying, ‘I’m a very conservative Republican, but the way you guys have been treated has not been right, I don’t stand for that.'”

According to a recent poll, 42 percent of Texas voters—but only 20 percent of Republicans—support same-sex marriage. However, Davis said most young Republicans back LGBT rights and if the “big tent” party continues to oppose equality, it risks shooting itself in the foot in 2016 nationally, if not in Texas.

Log Cabin’s second-ever Texas lobby day came at a critical juncture for the state’s LGBT community, which faces a slew of attacks in the GOP-dominated Legislature fueled by backlash against the spread of same-sex marriage.

Log Cabin members were scheduled to visit offices belonging to authors of some of the anti-LGBT legislation, and Davis said the meetings themselves were a sign of progress.

“I don’t expect every person that we meet with to—if they are homophobic—to completely turn around,” he said. “That doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s building those relationships and continuing to talk about these issues that’s going to make a difference.”

Two lawmakers with anti-LGBT records downplayed the significance of scheduled meetings between their staffers and Log Cabin members.

“I think it speaks to the fact that we’re always willing to listen,” said Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth), who was named the most anti-LGBT member of the House by Equality Texas in 2013.

Krause said he’d be unable attend a meeting between his staff and Log Cabin members. He also confirmed his support for a religious freedom amendment that could create a “license to discriminate” against LGBT people. Asked about the effort to remove Texas’ unconstitutional sodomy law from the books—another item on Log Cabin’s agenda—Krause said, “I don’t see myself voting to repeal that at this point.”

Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia), the author of House Bill 623, which would revoke the salaries of county clerks who issue same-sex marriage licenses, said he wasn’t aware of the scheduled meeting between his staff and Log Cabin members.

“I don’t think I would jump to any conclusions other than the fact that we’re not trying to not hear what people have to say,” Bell said.

Although Krause acknowledged HB 623 may become “moot” if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Texas’ marriage ban, Bell disagreed, suggesting he’ll attempt an Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore-style stand.

“I will still continue with [HB] 623 and with any other efforts that I can put in place to make sure we affirm the power of Texas and of the citizens of Texas to regulate and define marriage,” he said.

Asked about the sodomy ban, Bell indicated he disagrees with the premise of the law—”What happens inside one’s house is one’s personal business,” he said—but wouldn’t commit to voting to repeal it.

Also scheduled to meet with Log Cabin were staffers from the offices of Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, the author of one of the proposed “license to discriminate” amendments.

“Every constituent is welcome to come by Senator Campbell’s office at any time to discuss issues important to them,” Campbell spokesman Jon Oliver said in a statement. “It was a general meeting with staff simply listening to their legislative priorities.”

Representatives from Patrick’s office didn’t return a phone call seeking comment. On Feb. 24, Patrick is scheduled to be a featured speaker at Texas Faith and Family Day, hosted by Texas Values, the Eagle Forum and other anti-LGBT groups.

Rep. Mary Gonzalez, an openly LGBT Democrat from El Paso whose staff was scheduled to meet with Log Cabin members, said any substantive change will require bipartisan support.

“At least there’s somebody in the Republican Party who’s having those conversations,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve been trying to have some of those conversations on the floor, and I’ll be honest, this session it’s been harder. … I think Log Cabin Republicans’ work is necessary, especially considering the climate of this legislative session.”

Gun-rights advocates rally at the Alamo.
Jen Reel
Gun-rights advocates rally at the Alamo.

Two major gun bills got their first real test today, as a Senate committee heard testimony from more than 100 people on the wisdom of Senate Bill 11, which would allow holders of concealed handgun licenses to pack heat on college campuses, and Senate Bill 17, which would allow CHL holders to carry handguns openly in public. The bills passed out of the committee on a 7-2 vote, along party lines.

Gun rights legislation has been at the center of one of the weirdest circuses of the session so far. Bad behavior on the part of open carry advocates and a misstep by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick put the future of open carry in doubt, but the Senate set the legislation on a fast path to passage, hoping to reassure angry activists that have demanded nothing less than unconditional surrender from anyone who deviates from the party line. A significant portion of today’s debate focused on campus carry, even though it’s open carry that has seized most of the headlines recently. Both seem assured to eventually pass the Senate.

The chair of the Senate Committee on State Affairs, state Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), seemed eager to get the two bills out of her committee—it’s unusual to vote on a bill on the day of its first hearing, but that’s what happened.

Was that because Huffman loved the bills, or because she wanted to wash her hands of them? Either way, the bills can’t be considered on the floor until the 60th day of the session—which falls on March 13—unless Gov. Greg Abbott declares the gun bills an emergency priority. So there’s not a clear reason for the rush.

Introducing his bill, state Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) concentrated his fire on critics of campus carry. Adopting a blustery style that one observer compared to a Cormac McCarthy character, Birdwell was a font of quotes: “I’d rather be tried by 12 than carried by six,” he told Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, who was against Birdwell’s bill. When UT System Chancellor William H. McRaven’s position on campus carry was mentioned—he’s a former special operations commander who has strongly opposed guns on UT campuses—Birdwell said that once McRaven was given his marching orders from the Lege, “I expect the chancellor to salute and move out.”

When state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-San Antonio), one of only two Democrats on the nine-member committee, spoke about the risk of having loaded guns on college campuses, Birdwell tersely replied: “I’ve found unloaded weapons very un-useful, ma’am.” When Zaffirini asked why Birdwell’s bill wouldn’t let universities opt out of the gun law, Birdwell responded that college administrators didn’t have the right to meddle in the “rights that are granted from God,” which fall to the Legislature to protect.

Anti-gun groups, according to emails they released on social media, were told by Birdwell’s staff that there would be no invited testimony at the hearing. But there was, and it came exclusively from pro-gun groups (most notably from the NRA’s top regional lobbyist). That’s happened before—groups that don’t support expanding gun rights are almost never given equal footing with those that do at the Lege.

University chancellors like former state Sen. Robert Duncan, now the chancellor of the Texas Tech System, were allotted only brief comment periods, or had their comments read aloud. Duncan, in his characteristic style, stayed neutral on the bill, but suggested a few amendments for safety’s sake, like banning guns in medical clinics.

A letter from McRaven, read aloud, stressed that many mental health officials who work with college students are very uneasy about the prospect of more guns on campus: Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for college students, and easier access to guns on campus might make suicide even more common. John Sharp, Texas A&M’s chancellor, said he could not “speak to the effect that campus carry will have on other institutions, but it does not raise safety concerns for me.” But he emphasized that campus carry wasn’t an A&M priority.

Many came to spoke against campus carry, including a survivor of the Virginia Tech massacre, Colin Goddard, who asked legislators not to use the incident to justify the bill. And there were several survivors of the 1966 UT Tower shooting, including Ruth Heide Claire James, formerly Claire Wilson, who began her testimony with a jarring declaration: “I was the first one shot in the Whitman massacre.”

Wilson was 18 when the shooting happened, and pregnant, and Whitman killed her unborn child and 18-year-old boyfriend. She lay bleeding in view of the Tower for some 90 minutes until she was rescued. Today, she said that gunfire from well-meaning civilians, causing confusion, was one of the reasons she wasn’t rescued earlier.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown), also had a connection to the shooting—his father, he said, had been carrying a scoped rifle that day, and police had instructed him to fire at Whitman.

Today’s hearing also covered what state Sen. Craig Estes jokingly called “a less controversial bill,” SB 17. Estes, the bill’s author, called on Texas “to boldly go where 46 other states have already gone” and pass a law authorizing the open carry of handguns.

But he didn’t say all that much about the bill, leaving it to the public to argue for and against it. Open carry activists want what they call “constitutional carry,” meaning that any member of the public could carry a gun in public without a license. Estes’ bill falls short of that, and they don’t like it.

Angela Rabke of Moms Demand Action, a gun-control group founded after the Sandy Hook massacre, talked about the harassment her group has received from open carry activists; in the overflow room, some of the activists laughed at her. Shortly after she began discussing the “near-constant threats of sexual violence” she’d had to contend with, her time ran out.

Next to her sat Kory Watkins, the leader of Open Carry Tarrant County, who has gotten into his fair share of trouble lately. If he failed to win the right to carry a handgun, and if the Legislature chose “to go against my God-given rights,” he said, “I will continue to walk around with an AK-47.” And he would “walk around until my feet bleed to make sure you’re never an elected official again,” he told the panel.

There were quite a few other sideshow moments. One man compared gun licenses to the yellow stars Jews had to wear in Nazi Germany.

But most witnesses on both sides were respectful and earnest. In the past, gun hearings like this have been overwhelmingly populated by gun rights activists. This time, the balance was closer to even. Those who oppose expanding gun rights are starting to turn out in more serious numbers.

Will that matter at the Lege? Probably not for now: The bills discussed today are on a trajectory to easy passage, at least in the Senate, even if they may have to wait over a month. But public pressure could be meaningful as the weeks go on and the rest of the Legislature considers making changes.

Cleopatra DeLeon and Nicole Dimetman, are one of the two plaintiff couples in the Texas marriage case.
Cleopatra DeLeon, left, and Nicole Dimetman, are one of the two plaintiff couples in the Texas marriage case.

Attorneys for two gay couples are asking a federal appeals court to allow same-sex marriages to begin in Texas immediately.

In a motion filed Thursday, attorneys for the couples asked the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to lift a district judge’s stay of his 2014 decision striking down Texas’ marriage ban.

If the 5th Circuit agrees to lift the stay, it would clear the way for same-sex marriages to begin in Texas. If the 5th Circuit doesn’t lift the stay for all same-sex couples, the motion asks that it be lifted for the limited purpose of establishing the parental rights of plaintiff Cleopatra DeLeon, whose wife, Nicole Dimetman, is expecting a child in March.

The motion cites the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to halt same-sex marriages in both Alabama and Florida, after federal district judges struck down bans in those states. The high court will hear appeals in April from four states where same-sex marriage bans were upheld.

“The Supreme Court’s actions indicate that the stay of the District Court’s decision is no longer necessary,” the motion states. “The District Court expressly found that the denial of the fundamental right to marry causes irreparable harm. Despite this, Plaintiffs continue to suffer irreparable harm—only now the potential consequences are graver. As discussed further below, Plaintiffs De Leon and Dimetman are expecting a child any day, and the State’s refusal to recognize their marriage risks grave harm both to the Plaintiffs and the child.”

Neel Lane, an attorney for the couples, said in a statement he remains confident the 5th Circuit will rule in favor of marriage equality.

“But same-sex marriages are proceeding across the South and Southwest, while Texas remains the most populous state where gays and lesbians are deprived of that right,” Lane said. “Today we urge the Fifth Circuit to remedy that omission immediately.”

Lane told the Observer the motion would be considered by the same three-judge panel that heard oral arguments in the case last month, which many observers said appeared likely to strike down the ban.

DeLeon and Dimetman said they are “overjoyed and incredibly excited” about the birth of their child.

“However, we can’t help but be disappointed that marriage equality has not been recognized by the great State of Texas,” they said. “This adds additional anxiety due to the fact that our child has two parents but Texas is denying her one of them. Should the worst occur, our child would be a legal stranger to Cleo, and become an orphan.”

Mark Phariss said he and his partner, Vic Holmes, who are the other plaintiff couple, “hope and pray” that the 5th Circuit will lift the stay.

“No straight couple would want to walk in our shoes—to have to wait over 17 years to marry the one we love,” Phariss said. “We shouldn’t have to wait any longer.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia struck down Texas’ marriage ban in February 2014, but stayed his decision pending the state’s appeal to the 5th Circuit. In December, Garcia denied a motion to lift the stay — but that was before the Supreme Court allowed marriages to begin in Alabama and Florida. The high court has also declined to hear appeals of federal appeals court decisions striking down marriage bans.

Texas is one of only 13 states where gay couples cannot marry.

Read the full motion below.

State Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin) speaks at a Wednesday press conference.
Christopher Hooks
State Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin) speaks at a Wednesday press conference.

The Speaker’s Committee Room just outside the House chamber is an unlikely gathering place for plotters and revolutionaries, men who would change the trajectory of the Republic, but there they were.

Led by state Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin), six legislators gathered yesterday to announce their push to amend the U.S. Constitution to add conservative reform measures like a balanced budget requirement, hopping on the bandwagon of a national movement that hopes to work through state legislatures and force the issue nationally.

“I’d like to begin today with the words of Thomas Jefferson,” said Workman, “one of our Founding Fathers, who said in 1798 that, quote, ‘I wish it were possible to obtain a single amendment to our Constitution. I mean an article taking from the federal government the power of borrowing.’ Jefferson knew that borrowing money would only lead to the demise of the nation.”

(Unlike most of the Founding Fathers quotes you hear these days, this one is mostly accurate—though Jefferson got over his earlier aversion to borrowing during his presidency in time to make the Louisiana Purchase, for which Texans should be glad, and came to accept the utility of government debt later in his life.)

“Here we are, 217 years later, and our nation has an insatiable appetite for government largesse,” said Workman. Something had to be done. So he and his buddies, among whom stood GOP state Reps. James White of Tyler, Dan Flynn of Canton, Phil King of Weatherford and Rick Miller of Sugar Land, were calling for a constitutional convention by way of Article V, a constitutional provision that allows three-fourths of the states to force Congress to order one.

“We are now a hundred years into congressional bad behavior, which has systematically and purposefully stripped the states of their sovereignty, and it’s going on as we speak,” said Workman. He and his allies want amendments that would require a balanced federal budget, impose restrictions on spending and impose term limits on Congress.

Workman’s House Joint Resolutions 78 and 79 propose spending limits. Miller has House Joint Resolution 77, which seeks spending and term limits, and wants to “limit the jurisdiction” of the federal government. King’s House Bill 1110 would lay out the procedure for selecting delegates to the convention. White’s House Bill 1109 takes a different approach: He’d have Texas enter into an interstate compact calling for a balanced budget amendment.

King, the chair of the Select Committee on State & Federal Power & Responsibility, said the proposals would be heard in his fiefdom two weeks hence. A representative from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) would come to educate legislators on constitutional procedures.

Pity our state’s Republican legislators: Congressmen find it much easier to grandstand, close as they are to the devil himself, B.H.O. But there aren’t many Democrats worth throwing punches at around Austin, so some reps try to work over the president too. But it’s harder to do from 1,300 miles away.

It’s not entirely a gimmick—there have been plenty of Article V attempts in American history. Texas has used the approach 12 times—among them, to attempt to ban school bussing in 1973. And it’s not coming out of nowhere—an Austin-based organization, Citizens for Self-Governance, is encouraging state legislators to push for constitutional changes through their Convention of States project, which recently brought former Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn on board as a senior adviser.

Seven states have passed an Article V appeal for a balanced budget amendment since 2012, and the group says it has support from legislators in 33 states. They need support from 34 to force Congress to call a constitutional convention. Last summer, the group had a summit in Indiana to discuss the group’s 2015 agenda—Workman was there.

Convention of States isn’t the only group going the Article V route—there’s also Wolf PAC, on the left, making a bid to end corporate personhood. There’s a sense in the air that the mechanisms of American governance aren’t working, and some, like Workman and friends, are looking to structural solutions. They have a long road ahead of them.

State Rep. Eric Johnson
Courtesy Eric Johnson
State Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas), with Rep. Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown), has proposed a dramatic expansion of state-funded pre-K.

Thousands of 3- and 4-year-old Texans would get free, full-day pre-K, under a proposal from Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) and Rep. Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown).

Their House Bill 1100 would offer state funding for school districts to expand their pre-K programs if they agree to meet curriculum standards and follow best practices for instructional day length, classroom size, teacher development and parental involvement.

Texas currently funds half-day pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds who are English-language learners, eligible for free or reduced lunch, homeless, in foster care, or the child of an armed services member on active duty or who’s been disabled or killed in action. Johnson and Farney’s bill would provide full-day pre-K to those same students—an extension that would help working parents. Today, districts that offer full-day pre-K must pay the difference from their own budgets or outside grants.

In an announcement about the proposal, Johnson cites research showing that quality pre-K can cut the achievement gap in half for children in poverty, the equivalent of a 4-year-old jumping from the 30th percentile to the 50th in one year. Johnson and Farney point to research from Dallas showing that students who attended DISD’s full-day pre-K program were 3.5 times more likely to be kindergarten-ready than those students who didn’t.

Other studies have shown that for every dollar invested in high-quality, full-day pre-K, there’s a return to society of $3.50 in increased earnings, reduced need for remedial or special education, lower incarceration rates and less reliance on public assistance.

“Many of our children never have the opportunity to excel in school because even by the time they enter kindergarten, they are so far behind that they never catch up,” Johnson said in a press release. “This proposal is aimed at improving outcomes where we can get the most bang for the buck—children in poverty and English language learners.”

To receive additional funding, schools would have to follow the Texas Prekindergarten Guidelines in their curriculum, and assess students with kindergarten readiness tools and reports on the students’ skills. The proposal pointedly does not include standardized tests—a particularly unpopular proposal Gov. Greg Abbott floated during his campaign last year. Participating school districts must also publicly report classroom and student progress data and implement program improvements if they fail to demonstrate adequate student progress.

“The children of Texas deserve a first-class education, but the taxpayers of Texas deserve to know their dollars are being well spent,” said Farney. The current system of half-day, state-funded pre-K does not include any of these requirements. Today, kindergarten readiness tests are only voluntary.

The bipartisan measure comes as momentum builds to improve early education in the state. Gov. Abbott has said such reforms are a top priority this legislative session. As the Quorum Report’s Kimberly Reeves noted last week, the Johnson-Farney proposal is a greatly expanded version of Abbott’s plan, providing more money and a faster timeline for the program.

Johnson said the framework has support from business associations, school districts, children’s advocacy groups, private schools and city leaders. Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings have also endorsed the bill.

“We are optimistic that it will get a hearing and a fair shot because there are many people that will support it and testify for the bill. I feel good about it,” Johnson told the Observer.

Andrea Brauer, the early education policy associate for Texans Care for Children, said there’s a strong possibility that early childhood education will see increased funding this session, but she can’t make predictions about HB 1100.

“I know there are a lot of pre-K bills,” Brauer told the Observer, “but I do think it’s a great thing our governor supports it. I am optimistic that we will get increased funding.”

The program would cost an estimated $318 million and serve 87,000 students, according to Johnson. (Abbott’s plan would cost an estimated $118 million.)

Several advocacy groups are supporting expanded pre-K this session. The education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Texas has made expanding pre-K its top priority this year.

The group’s CEO, David Anthony, said he’d like to see the Legislature budget for pre-K programs using per-student formulas as it does for K-12 education, rather than grant funding, which is generally less stable.

For now, though, Anthony told the Observer that the expansion Johnson and Farney proposed is an important step.

“Let’s stop doing what looks or feels good,” Anthony said, “and let’s start implementing what the research shows is working.”

Why Dan Patrick Wants a Permanent Border ‘Surge’

The lieutenant governor's rhetoric on the border is shifting, and it could mean a split with House Speaker Joe Straus.
Dan Patrick's fence-shaped "Secure our Border" signs were ubiquitous at the state GOP convention last year.
Christopher Hooks
Dan Patrick's fence-shaped "Secure our Border" signs were ubiquitous at the state GOP convention last year.

Update: House Speaker Joe Straus released a statement that coolly responds to Patrick’s presser and seems to imply there’s more distance between Abbott and Patrick than the latter would like:

“I appreciate Governor Patrick’s remarks, but Governor Abbott is the Commander in Chief and he will decide whether to extend the National Guard’s deployment.”

Original: At a press conference today, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick pledged to continue the National Guard deployment for as long as it took to “secure the border.” Flanked by members of the Senate Republican Caucus, Patrick spoke for just six minutes, and took no questions.

The deployment of 1,000 National Guard troops last summer was originally intended to be a temporary response to the influx of Central American minors, and the Legislature only arranged funding through the end of March. But Patrick wants to make them a permanent feature of the state’s border security regimen—his plan would continue funding for the Guard presence through 2017.

His high-profile push for the border security funding could be an attempt to win positive headlines even as the legislative priorities he laid out in his primary campaign—like ending the Texas DREAM Act and doing something about so-called “sanctuary cities”—seem to have vanished from his legislative agenda, at least for the moment. And it could be a way to prepare for a fight with House Speaker Joe Straus, whose caucus would seem to be less eager about the National Guard deployment than Patrick’s senators.

Patrick said the National Guard deployment had been effective in slowing border traffic. According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, apprehensions of people crossing the border is down by about two-thirds in the Rio Grande Valley Sector—a small but active stretch of South Texas—since the border surge started, though that’s a bit like saying that a river is dry because it is only running a third as high as it did when it experienced its greatest flood in modern history.

In fact, the tapering off of the surge of unaccompanied minors is more suitably attributed to a variety of other factors. (Patrick’s predecessor David Dewhurst had tried to take credit for the drop as well.)

But for Patrick, the crisis goes on.

“However, as the director of the Department of Public Safety said in a report, the border is still not secure,” Patrick said today. “And we know it’s not secure because the federal government is shirking from their responsibilities of doing so.”

So Texas would continue to take charge. “Because of their success, now is not the time to remove the National Guard from the border,” Patrick said.

Patrick explained he would work with the governor and speaker to commit the $12 million needed to keep the National Guard on the border from the end of March through the end of May, at which time the Legislature should have a supplemental funding bill in place to cover the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends in August.

Meanwhile, the Senate budget proposal includes $815 million for border security efforts for the 2016-2017 biennium. Patrick boasted that the proposed funding was the “highest level in history.” The House budget proposal kept border funding flat, at less than half of the Senate proposal.

Patrick told the press his sources told him that drug cartels are ramping up for a National Guard withdrawal, and predicted that another “spring and summer surge” of migrants, like the one last year, was imminent. Doing anything less than his plan would be hopelessly careless. He struck a defiant tone.

“The Republican Senators standing behind me of the Texas Senate are united and committed to doing everything possible to keep Texas and America safe from terrorists who many believe have already crossed the border,” Patrick said. “From drug cartels to the criminal gangs who bring crime to our state.”

Patrick got elected in large part through his fierce and fiery border rhetoric. It was his core issue, one he hammered ad nauseum at every tea party meeting and rally he attended in the state. His style—he described illegal immigration as an “invasion,” and had warned in the past of immigrants spreading third-world diseases such as leprosy and tuberculosis—seemed capable of getting him in serious trouble, but Democrats were never able to tie him down on it.

Since he’s gotten elected, though, he’s taken a different tack. In the past, he’s told crowds that repealing the Texas DREAM act, which allows undocumented Texas residents who graduated from state high schools to pay in-state tuition at state colleges, would be one of his top legislative priorities, but it vanished from his rhetoric once he took the gavel, and no serious effort has yet materialized to do away with it.

Senator Dan Patrick and DPS Director Steve McCraw pose with a message for border-crossers in Mission, Texas.
Senator Dan Patrick and DPS Director Steve McCraw pose with a message for border-crossers in Mission, Texas.

Emphasizing the National Guard deployment is a way to deliver red meat to his border-fearing constituents without having to take serious political risks, or push an agenda that’s doomed to fail in the House or by way of the governor’s veto pen. It mirrors his attempt to feed gun-rights activists a consolation prize by emphasizing his support for campus carry, instead of open carry bills.

It also foreshadows what will become one of the major story-lines this session: Disputes between Straus’ House and Patrick’s Senate. In December, Straus was part of a legislative troika, which alsoincluded former Gov. Rick Perry and former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, which kept funding for a DPS presence at the border through August but ended funding for the guard deployment in March.

“I did not have a say in that decision, nor did Gov. Abbott,” Patrick emphasized.

He repeated over and over that he stood in perfect unity with the governor’s office, but didn’t have much to say about Straus.

“I’ve spoken to Gov. Abbott on multiple occasions and we stand shoulder to shoulder in a commitment to border security. The governor and the Senate will have a comprehensive border security plan that we’re committed to passing this legislative session,” Patrick said.

The governor’s office and his senate, Patrick seemed to be saying, were like the two unified parents of a wayward child.

“The Senate stands behind [Abbott] and I stand behind him,” Patrick said again. “We stand shoulder to shoulder with the governor, and we will work with the speaker.” The senators behind Patrick applauded as he hurried out of the room.

Michael Morton and Rodney Ellis Aim to Improve DNA Testing Law
Kelsey Jukam
Michael Morton speaks in favor of DNA testing legislation filed by Sen. Rodney Ellis.

Michael Morton served 25 years in prison before DNA testing proved that he didn’t kill his wife. Post-conviction DNA testing has led to the exoneration of 52 Texans since 1989 and helped to identify the real perpetrators of the crime in 21 of those cases, including Morton’s. But because of some ambiguous language in current law, access to DNA evidence that could prove innocence is sometimes impeded.

“As it stands now, we have something of a catch-22 in Texas,” Morton said Monday at a press conference, where he spoke in support of new DNA testing legislation filed by Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston).

Morton, who was released from prison in 2011, said he may never have been able to prove his innocence under the current law, which went into effect in September 2011. In January 2010, Morton successfully convinced a court of appeals to test a bloody bandana that had been discovered behind his house. DNA testing found invisible cells on the bandana that excluded Morton and pointed to his wife’s real killer, Mark Norwood, whose profile was in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).

The Texas Criminal Court of Appeals ruled last year that current law requires those seeking DNA testing to prove the existence of microscopic material on the evidence before testing when there are no obvious indications of DNA evidence—like blood-stains. Often there’s DNA on evidence that’s invisible to the naked eye from saliva, sweat or skin cells.

Last week, Ellis filed legislation—Senate Bill 487—that would clarify the language of the current law in an effort to ensure that courts allow testing of evidence that could prove innocence. The bill also would enhance the use of CODIS to compare evidence to DNA records already on file.

“These changes are simple and would provide the courts with the clear guidance that they requested,” Ellis said at the press conference. “This is about making sure that the right person is convicted and making sure that communities are safe. This is a law-and-order bill.”

Innocence Project attorney Nina Morrison, who represented Morton, said that the bill “strikes the right balance” by giving judges the appropriate amount of discretion to order testing without turning the courts into DNA testing mills.

In Morton’s case, it took a court five years to grant permission to run a DNA test on relevant evidence.

“For somebody to be in a court battle about whether there is evidence for testing when the labs can just tell us—it just seems like a real waste of everybody’s time,” Morrison said.

Ellis was also joined at the press conference by Cory Session, a policy advisor for the Innocence Project of Texas, who said that the bill will keep Texas on the forefront of criminal justice reform.

“We are still our brother’s keeper, whether they are here in the air-conditioned comfort of the statehouse or whether they are still languishing in the un-air-conditioned heat of the big house,” Session said.

Ellis expects bipartisan support for the bill but cautioned that it was still in the early stages and said that he did not have a House sponsor for the bill yet.


State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas
State Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) has filed a bill that would require licensing groups to tell applicants—specifically and in writing—what parts of their records prompted rejection. It would also give applicants a chance to petition their deniers in person.

A mere decade and a half into the new millennium, state lawmakers appear to be grasping a basic tenet of facilitating employment: If you want all your citizens to have jobs, maybe don’t prevent them from getting jobs.

Texas law requires occupational licenses for more than 500 trades ranging from athletic trainer to funeral director, a sprawling bureaucracy that affects almost one-third of the state workforce. While merely a hassle for some, licensing regulations can pose an insurmountable barrier to employment for the 4.7 million Texans who have criminal records. People convicted of any felony or of a misdemeanor involving “moral turpitude”—a scary-sounding category that encompasses crimes as minor as writing a bad check—are statutorily barred by many licensing bodies, usually without regard for how long ago the offense happened or whether it was related to the job in question. (Naturally there are a few weird exceptions. If convicted of an asbestos-related crime, you’re banned from asbestos work… for three years. That’ll teach you.) In addition to these explicit bans, many licensing groups have implicit policies of rejecting any applicant with a criminal record.

That hurts citizens who’ve done their time, but it also hurts the state. People who find stable work within the first year after incarceration are the least likely to re-offend, saving taxpayer money and preventing crime. They’re also less likely to need state assistance programs for their families’ survival.

State researchers have been pointing out the problems with occupational licensing systems since at least 2008, but now a bipartisan coalition of reformers looks poised to make real progress. With support from the conservative Smart on Crime coalition, state Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) has filed a bill that would require licensing groups to tell applicants—specifically and in writing—what parts of their records prompted rejection. It would also give applicants a chance to petition their deniers in person.

Johnson’s clever bill walks a fine line. While careful not to deprive the various governing bodies of their power or discretion, it inserts a couple of humanizing steps, making it harder to rubber-stamp the “NO” that ends the ambitions of so many Texans trying to rebuild their lives.

“We train people in prison with job skills to help them get on the right track and not get re-arrested,” Johnson said. “But if they are arbitrarily denied professional licenses then all of us—taxpayers, ex-offenders and communities—lose.”

“We know that every single year, 70,000 [Texans] leave prisons, and there’s no way that they’re going to be able to do everything that society expects them to do if they don’t have jobs,” says Ana Yáñez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. Licensing reform is “a win-win situation,” she says, “both for the economy but also for the families that they have to support, as well as for public safety outcomes. If they have jobs, they have hope. And if they have hope, they’re more likely to live like law-abiding citizens.”

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