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Ken Paxton, after being sworn in, stands among Texas GOP VIP's: From left to right, Governor-elect Greg Abbott, Senator Ted Cruz, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Justice Don Willett, and Governor Rick Perry.
Christopher Hooks
Ken Paxton, after being sworn in, stands among Texas GOP VIPs: From left to right, Gov.-elect Greg Abbott, Sen. Ted Cruz, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Justice Don Willett, and Gov. Rick Perry.

On Wednesday night, news broke that a Collin County grand jury is exploring anew Attorney General Ken Paxton’s potential legal improprieties—another milestone in his declining fortunes. For the last few months, Paxton had seemed to have gotten away with it.

First, he had managed the spectacular task of getting elected to the top law enforcement job just months after admitting to violating securities law by shunting his legal clients into shady financial deals, then getting a kickback, without telling them about it. That was the easy part. (He’s a Republican; it’s Texas.)

But if someone were to simply indict him for the crime that he had apparently admitted to committing, he would likely be charged with a felony. No sweat, right? Paxton is not even a ham sandwich—he’s the lowest of low-hanging fruit. A prosecutor would just have to reach out and pluck him. But in late January, Paxton got an even bigger break. The Travis County District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit—the ethics watchdog that Republicans are convinced is out to get them at all costs—politely declined the case.

The PIU prosecutor said that only the district attorneys in Collin and Dallas counties, where Paxton was active at the time he allegedly violated the law, had the jurisdiction to charge him. Both Republicans, the DAs seem exceptionally unlikely to go after Paxton. Dallas DA Susan Hawk’s office has been barely functional amid a series of weird personal dramas, and Collin DA Greg Willis is a long-time best friend of Paxton’s—they’re former business partners, and supported each other’s election bids. If you go to Willis’ website, Paxton is still listed as heading up the host committee to one of Willis’ last big fundraisers.

So like the ill-fated villain of a noir, Paxton had arrived at the moment of false confidence that bad guys always reach right before the hammer comes down. After an election season in which his spokespeople were literally manhandling reporters to keep them from asking questions—any questions at all—of the big man, Paxton had something of a coming-out party. He was feted by GOP royalty, without reservations, at his inauguration. In February, he appeared with Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz at a high-profile Obama bashfest. He even wrote a column for Bill Buckley’s old rag.

If everyone on the GOP team just kept quiet, Paxton would be fine, and in four to eight years he’d move on to higher office. And it seemed initially like that’s how it would play out. When Craig McDonald, the head of the left-leaning accountability group Texans for Public Justice, tried to follow up with Willis’ office on the information on Paxton sent by the PIU, he says he “got the clear sense from Willis’ spokesman that our stuff was going straight into the paper shredder.” (Willis’ office didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Which is why three events in the last week have come as such a surprise. The first came last Thursday, when the editorial board of the Dallas Morning News called for Willis to seek the appointment of a special prosecutor to look into Paxton’s history. “The state’s top law enforcer, Attorney General Ken Paxton, also happens to be an admitted law breaker,” the editorial began. It continued:

These are not nitpicky issues. State securities law imposes registration requirements to protect the public from victimization by investment frauds and scams.

The fact that Paxton violated the law repeatedly over several years suggests a troubling pattern unbecoming of the esteemed office he now holds. That’s why an independent prosecutor needs to assume control of this case.

Then, on Friday, state Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) told the Houston Chronicle that he thought the case warranted more attention:

“How is going back to your home county and having a friend and business associate handling your prosecution better?” Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said. “I think it’s a clear case for a special prosecutor.”

Republicans are generally very good at tribal loyalty, but many serious GOPers can’t be happy with the fact that one of their most important statewide elected officials is so ethically challenged. (Though amid the ensuing firestorm, Seliger told one Lubbock radio station he’d been talking in hypotheticals.)

Seliger was also talking about Senate Bill 10, an attempt by state Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) to gut the PIU by routing ethics investigations through the Texas Rangers—run by an appointee of the governor—and ultimately to the hometown prosecutors of elected officials. It would be a grotesque way to do business, because many legislators have friendly relationships with their county DAs, just like Paxton does. SB 10 would take the most bizarre and screwed-up part of the Paxton saga so far and replicate it all over the state.

Seliger and state Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) held up the bill over a proposal that the AG’s office play a role in ethics investigations—letting Paxton guard the henhouse. But once that was stripped, the two dropped their objections. On Wednesday, SB 10 passed the Senate along party lines, 21 to 10.

During the debate, state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) outlined a hypothetical scenario that mirrored the case of Paxton and Willis. Would Huffman, who used to work in the office of the Harris County DA, think it appropriate for the Willis-like figure to step aside and urge the appointment of a special prosecutor? Huffman answered that if she were the DA, “I would recuse myself.” But her bill would force more and more local DAs into that position, where not all might have Huffman’s sense of ethical responsibility.

But just a few hours after the Senate debate concluded, the Houston Chronicle broke word that Willis might not have to ask for a special prosecutor after all. A Collin County grand jury had gone rogue, in part, perhaps, because of the public attention conjured by the Dallas Morning News and others. The grand jury appeared to be circumventing Willis. They requested the information forwarded to his office by the PIU—the information Willis seemed intent to ignore.

“Collin County appears to be the venue where this evidence needs to be heard,” says the letter from the grand jury vice foreman. “Therefore, we are requesting the documents be sent to us as soon as possible.”

Once the grand jury hears the evidence in Paxton’s case, an indictment seems more likely than not.

“This case is absurd because Paxton has already admitted to a crime with Texas regulators,” says McDonald. His admission of guilt, passed off by his consultants during the election as the end of the matter, “in no way adjudicates his potential felony criminal behavior.” As a reminder of the surreal nature of the fact that he may not be prosecuted for a crime which he has apparently admitted to committing, McDonald says, he keeps Paxton’s “signed confession” on his desk.

Editor’s note: This story has been edited to remove a questionable historical reference in the original version. 

John Wright
Texas Values President Jonathan Saenz, clockwise from left, Rep. Cecil Bell, Texas Pastor Council Executive Director Dave Welch, Rep. Rick Miller and his wife, Babs Miller, confer after Wednesday's committee hearing.

If this was their last meaningful opportunity to put on a show for state legislators, opponents of same-sex marriage made the most of it.

Fifteen witnesses, including a who’s who of anti-LGBT activists in Texas, testified Wednesday in support of a proposal to bar state or local funds from being used “for an activity that includes the licensing or support of same-sex marriage.”

They invoked Nazi Germany and the Civil War, warned of the imminent demise of American civilization, compared gays to murderers and advocated defiance of a likely U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage in June.

“It’s not marriage—it’s a mirage, it’s a counterfeit, it’s a lie,” said Dr. Steve Hotze, president of the Conservative Republicans of Texas. “It will never be a marriage no matter what they say, because it violates God’s standards, and he sets the standards.”

Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston), a member of the House Committee on State Affairs, grilled Hotze about whether he wants Texas to ignore “the law of the land” if the high court rules in favor of marriage equality.

“If you passed a law that we’re going to go and round up people of an ethnic group and put them into jail and exterminate them, would you abide by that law?” Hotze responded. “What did they do in Nazi Germany? It was legal to round up Jews and put them in the chambers and kill them. And the defense they said is, that was the law.”

After Turner suggested all people should be treated equally regardless of ethnicity or sexual orientation, Hotze said there’s a difference because being gay is a choice.

“If people are involved in an activity that’s immoral and wrong, you can love them but you don’t respect what they do, and you try to help them find a way out,” Hotze said. “Whether they’re alcoholics, whether they’re murderers, whether they’re adulterers, whether they’re perverts or pornographers or whatever, you want to help them out—or homosexuals, you want to help them out.”

Nine people testified against the bill during a two-hour hearing that ran past 10 p.m., including Guadalupe County Clerk Teresa Kiel, who serves as legislative chair for the County and District Clerks’ Association of Texas.

Under House Bill 4105, by Reps. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia) and Drew Springer (R-Muenster), county clerks would send fees collected for marriage licenses to the state comptroller’s office, along with documentation of the couple’s identity. The comptroller would remand $30 from each license to the county clerk, unless it was issued to a same-sex couple, in which case the money would be deposited in the state’s general revenue fund.

Kiel said she was “confused” and “troubled” by the bill, noting it’s already illegal for clerks to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

“As an elected official, I took an oath to uphold the laws of the state of Texas,” Kiel told the committee. “If the law is already in existence, what are we trying to do?”

Daniel Williams, legislative director for Equality Texas, said HB 4105 is a “nifty” way to increase state revenue. He said if a federal court declares the state’s marriage ban unconstitutional, many of the bill’s provisions would be struck down, too.

“So when I look at the bill, my question becomes what does it actually wind up doing, and the answer is it adds another level of bureaucracy in Austin … and I have trouble believing there’s any Texan who believes that’s a good idea,” Williams said.

Bell maintained HB 4105, which replaces a similar bill derailed amid budgetary concerns two weeks ago, would have no fiscal impact. And he said it would not adversely affect county clerks as long as they don’t issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

“I just want to be clear that I do respect people and I do love people, but that doesn’t negate law,” Bell told the committee in closing. “HB 4105 simply asserts the sovereign rights of Texas, using the legislative process, to codify marriage in Texas as one man and one woman, and to make certain that our dollars are used the way Texans want them to be.”

Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana), chair of the committee, left the bill pending. Earlier, Cook told the Observer he was unsure whether he’ll call it back up for a vote.

“What we try to do in State Affairs is give folks an opportunity to weigh in on the issues that are important to them,” Cook said. “We hear a lot of bills that need a lot of thought, and this is one of them.”

At least 12 anti-LGBT bills have been referred to Cook’s committee, more than half the record number introduced in the 84th Legislature. Cook made headlines recently when he came out in support of same-sex couples’ right to have both names on the birth certificates of adopted children.

Asked about backlash from major corporations over an anti-LGBT religious freedom law in Indiana, Cook noted that a similar proposal died in State Affairs two years ago.

“I think we’ve done a good job of being measured,” he said.

HB 4105 has 37 co-authors, all Republicans.

Dan Huberty
Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston)

Update: House Bill 4 got final approval in the House on Thursday, 128-17-2, and is headed to the Senate.

Original: Debate over funding for pre-K programs heated up the House today as legislators preliminarily passed House Bill 4 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston).

Huberty’s bill would provide additional funding to school districts that choose to offer high-quality pre-K programs. Texas currently requires districts to offer half-day pre-K to English-language learners as well as homeless, foster and low-income students—about 225,000 students at a cost of $800 million.

The Legislature cut nearly $300 million from pre-K programs in 2011, but restored $30 million of that in 2013. Huberty’s bill would increase pre-K funding by an estimated $130 million—still well below 2011 funding levels.

State funding of pre-K programs has not polled well with conservative GOP voters, and Huberty tried to assuage criticism from tea party-affiliated representatives.

“This bill does not expand pre-K. This is not universal pre-K. This is creating a high quality gold star standard program for educating our most vulnerable children,” Huberty said.

House tea party caucus member Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) tried to kill the bill by calling points of order, a legislative tactic. Stickland called three consecutive points of order before Huberty could finish introducing his bill.

Other tea party Republicans, including freshman Rep. Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington), voiced concerns that Huberty’s bill would further expand an already too-large state government.

“I don’t agree that government should always come forward and take responsibility, especially when it comes to children,” Tinderholt said.

“Parents should parent,” he said later.

Some Democratic critics, in contrast, argued that that Huberty’s bill doesn’t go far enough.

Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) pleaded with lawmakers to provide enough funding for school districts to offer full-day pre-K programs.

“I’ve got reams of paper from stakeholders that tell us that full-day pre-K is better than half-day pre-K,” Johnson said.

During several impassioned exchanges Huberty defended his bill.

“We should not be beholden to a conservative group, or some group, or any outside interest group. We should make these decisions,” Huberty said. Dozens of representatives cheered his comments.

In January Gov. Greg Abbott named expanding pre-K funding an emergency legislative item. “I applaud the Texas House of Representatives for recognizing the critical importance of providing high-quality pre-k,” Abbott said in a press release today.

HB 4 bill passed on second reading on a 129-18 vote. It will have to pass one more House vote before moving to the Senate.


From Harlingen's "Treasure Hills STAAR Song"
From Harlingen CISD's "Treasure Hills STAAR Song"

This is where we are in 2015. The school year winding down, the big state test on the line, and teachers all looking for that little special something to kick the kids into beast mode. Last year, it was a new take on Pitbull and Shakira with “STAAR Test (It’s Goin’ Down),” the “Harlem Shake” before that. This year, Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars and even a ventriloquist lent their talents to the cause.

What’s big this year? Found objects continue to play key roles in the prop department. A few videos this year include a pre-music narrative set-up of the type that’s so popular in Nashville today. And thanks in part to the ubiquity of “Shake It Off,” many of these have an inspiring message of self-assuredeness, not to let the doubt and pressure get you down. And also: eat breakfast.

If you read the comments on these videos, a common response is to lament the way testing has seeped into the bedrock of school culture. Like cave paintings of horses or NASCAR hoods mounted on the barroom wall, these reflect what we cared about in the early 21st century: high scores on the test.

When he talks about testing Education Commissioner Michael Williams likes to say, “You measure what you treasure.” But just think how much you have to care to write a four-minute parody of “All About That Bass,” dance down the hallways singing it and put it on YouTube.


Wills Point Middle School: “WPMS is Shaking Off the STAAR”
In the style of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”

The message here: Don’t get distracted by the liars and the dirty, dirty cheats of the world get you down, and do your best.

Cause others like to play, play, play, play, play
laugh at how long we’ll take, take, take, take, take
But we’re just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
Shake it off, we’ll shake it off


Denton ISD McMath Middle School: “STAAR Test Funk”
In the style of “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars.

This is the year’s big hit—almost half a million views so far. Great production, impressive choreography and solid lyrical adaptation; it’s funny, with a big finish that actually could fired up for an all-day test.

Denton, get pumped up
Our schools will triumph
STAAR test don’t mop you up
Our scores will measure up


Marcus W. Johnson, UT-Austin: “STAAR Test Motivation”

A motivational talk set to epic movie music and clips of epic things like battle scenes, space shuttles and pencils getting sharpened.

It’s always going to be something. It used to be the TAAS test, then it was the TAKS test. Now it’s the STAAR test.

Next thing you know it’s going to be the moon test and the sun test, and the Neptune.


This is a test of your willpower and your determination. This is an opportunity to prove yourself to yourself.

Right now anything they put in front of you, any test they put in front of you is food.
And it’s time to eat. 


Dallas ISD Ebby Halladay Elementary: “I’m Gonna Pass the STAAR”
In the style of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop.”

Extra points for not taking the easy route and riffing on “Shake It Off” or “Uptown Funk” this year. Bold, broad costuming and prop design, and an impressively large cast of teachers.

I’m gonna pass the STAAR
Only got pencils in my pocket


Harlingen CISD Treasure Hills Elementary: “STAAR Song”
In the style of One Republic’s “Counting Stars.”

Shocking that this wasn’t a more popular parody choice this year—the song title is a gimme. Wait for the drone-powered aerial shots, and a clever narrative framing device at the end. Also, Principal Roland Ingram really nails the high notes here—that’s school leadership with some serious range.

Lately I been, I been losing sleep
Dreaming about the things that you could be
But students, I know you’ve been working hard
There’s no denying that you will, you will pass the STAAR



Honorable mention:
La Joya ISD Tabasco Elementary: “TABASCO PASS THE STAAR”
“Say our name, you know who we are. We’re too hot.”

Mesquite ISD: “Shake it off (Take the STAAR)”
The student vocals lend this one an honesty you just can’t produce in a studio.

Katy ISD WoodCreek Elementary: “STAAR Test Video”

Richardson ISD Forest Lane Academy: “Pass the STAAR”

Here’s a playlist with all those and many more.


Your Brain on the Border

Children waiting in the Desarrollo Integral de la Familia in Reynosa, Mexico.
Eugenio del Bosque
Children waiting in the Desarrollo Integral de la Familia in Reynosa, Mexico.

For insights into the thinking behind the Texas Legislature’s proposed border policy—which amounts to more boots, guns and money—we look to the science of the brain. Mind you, left-brain/right-brain dominance won’t explain the record $815 million in proposed border security funding at a time of historically low insert-your-descriptor border crossers. Higher thinking dims when state lawmakers approve $85 million for an ongoing border “surge” despite the lack of clear goals and the fact that border security remains the province of the federal government.

The surge, mainly a deployment of state troopers and the National Guard, was meant to address perceived vulnerabilities created by a distracted Border Patrol coping with the tens of thousands of Central American children arriving in the Rio Grande Valley last summer. The children’s presence triggered an aggressive, deport-them-now stance, along with calls for more boots on the ground. Quickly, the children came to symbolize the “porous border” and provided ammo for pols to justify the unfolding chapter in the Texas border battles.

But the children also provoked humanitarian responses from the mayor of McAllen and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who told Mother Jones magazine, “In Texas, we don’t turn our back on children.” Clergy and regular folks in Houston, San Antonio and across the border established shelters, attorneys and psychologists volunteered their services, and countless people donated food and clothing.

Science suggests these starkly different responses likely emanated from the same brain functions. According to the academic article “Violence and compassion: a bioethical insight into their cognitive bases and social manifestations,” researchers from the National Autonomous University of Mexico found that “the activation of similar neuro-cognitive regulatory systems” produces compassion and violence. A key factor, they concluded, is “the sociocultural settings in which individuals live.” In Texas, the children became swept up in a cultural context that likens the border to a war zone.

“A civilization has to create an enemy to be violent and the migrant is the enemy in many places,” one of the authors told me.

Across the state, virulent rhetoric relied on the argument that the children had “breached” the border. The perceived threat obliterated the fact that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees found that 58 percent of child migrants sampled “were forcibly displaced because they suffered or faced harms that indicated a potential or actual need for international protection.” The refugee and immigrant rights center RAICES screened 925 children and found that 63 percent likely were eligible to be granted relief by an immigration judge. Indeed, most later passed this initial hurdle.

Although the children likely were victims in need of help, within the threat paradigm they were described as a staggering burden on state resources or, at least, an unwelcome addition to the state’s undocumented population. But consider this: While 8,085 kids stayed on with family or a sponsor in Texas, according to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, most went off to Florida, New York or California. The majority of those who stayed in Texas reunited with family in Houston and Dallas.

“When you’re not directly in contact with the person who is suffering, you don’t have a form to understand their suffering. You only have the rhetoric,” said Mercadillo.
Cultural context, however, abides by no political affiliation. Gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis responded to the “crisis” by calling for speedy deportation hearings and support for the surge.

Compassion does not mean flinging open the border, but remembering we are a nation of laws with rules for processing refugee claims. Compassion arouses concern that state health inspectors have not returned to assess the Border Patrol stations where children were housed in deplorable conditions. Compassion demands accountability for alleged sexual and other abuse suffered by the children. And critical thinking should question the wisdom behind a cartel-fighting strategy that emphasizes highway stops over dismantling networks.

Such details scarcely matter. Lawmakers claim success when drug seizures decrease, saying it represents effective deterrence, and when seizures increase, applauding it as successful interdiction. Either way, Texas border policy succeeds immeasurably by shaping the cultural context that informs the very minds and actions of Texans.

Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood)
John Savage
Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood)

Lawmakers heard testimony today on bills designed to create a new school district, a so-called Opportunity School District, for struggling public schools.

Senate Bill 895 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) would allow the state to take over schools from locally elected school boards if they have low state performance ratings for two consecutive years.

Mike Feinberg, CEO of the KIPP charter school chain testified in support of Taylor’s bill.

“We have a collective statewide responsibility to figure out how we turn around the cycle of despair in schools that have been failing year after year after year,” Feinberg said. “We need to give those schools to a superintendent who focuses on nothing but turnaround.”

The Opportunity School District would be comprised of failing schools from across the state.

Taylor’s bill would allow, but not require, schools in the district to be turned over to privately run charter operators. In the states where similar initiatives have been tried, Tennessee and Louisiana for example, that is precisely what has happened. The Recovery School District in Louisiana became the first all-charter district in the nation this school year.

Several witnesses criticized the measure that Texas uses to rate schools: the STAAR test.

“The only measure we’re using to make the judgment that these schools are failing and need to be turned over to state control is a test that you yourselves have called into question,” said Jim Nelson of the Texas Association of School Boards.

In Texas, school ratings rely mostly on test scores that closely track family income. Low-performing schools are more likely to have high rates of poverty, racial segregation and English language learners.

Several proponents of Taylor’s bill invoked Louisiana’s Recovery School District. Education reformers across the nation have called the Recovery School District an education miracle that has led to increased student achievement. But students in the school experiment have some of the lowest ACT scores in the nation, almost a decade after it began.

“The Opportunity School District is basically a business opportunity and that’s it,” said Patty Quinzi of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. “This was a bill that was designed by the American Legislative Exchange Council [ALEC], which is co-chaired by private charter school managers.”

ALEC is a deep-pocketed organization of state legislators and corporate leaders that promotes free-market legislation across the country.

The committee also heard testimony on Senate Bill 669 by Royce West (D-Dallas). West’s bill would create an Opportunity School District similar to Taylor’s bill, but with several differences. For one, West’s bill would require teachers in the district to be certified. Taylor’s bill would not.

Several other education reform bills, including hot-button voucher and parent trigger bills championed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, were voted out of the Senate Education Committee.

“These bills will provide much deserved ‘parental choice’ so students are not forced to go to a failing school or trapped in an undesirable educational geographic area because of their zip code,” Patrick said in a press release.

Both Opportunity School District bills were left pending in the committee.


West fertilizer plant disaster
Jonathan McNamara
A house destroyed by the West fertilizer plant explosion in the northern part of town.

As the second anniversary of the West, Texas fertilizer plant disaster approaches, lawmakers are running out of time to pass legislation addressing the catastrophe’s underlying causes. In the two years since the explosion in West, which killed 15 and injured more than 300, virtually nothing has been done to fix the patchwork regulations and lax system of oversight of ammonium nitrate facilities like the West Fertilizer Company.

With just 55 days left in the 140-day legislative session, a handful of legislators are trying to get something, anything done. On Tuesday, the House Committee on Environmental Regulation took less than an hour to discuss three bills filed in response to the West disaster.

But the legislation that received the most attention, HB 942 by Rep. Kyle Kacal (R-College Station), falls short of the most substantial proposal, drafted by Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso). When the West disaster unfolded on April 17, 2013, Pickett was chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, which was tasked with examining ammonium nitrate regulations. Pickett said he didn’t want to act hastily last legislative session and promised to craft a balanced approach during the interim that gave the State Fire Marshal’s Office more authority.

In the aftermath of West, State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy said voluntary inspections had identified widespread fire-safety problems in the state’s 90-something ammonium nitrate facilities, but that he was powerless to compel any changes.

While nearly identical to Kacal’s bill in other respects, Pickett’s HB 417 would give the state fire marshal the power to write his own fire-safety rules. Currently, the fire marshal must ask permission to inspect fertilizer plants and can only offer recommendations to facility owners.

Pickett said that ammonium nitrate businesses are “extremely important” but that people who get into the business need to take on more responsibility. When asked about the chances the Legislature would take steps to prevent another fertilizer disaster, he was fatalistic.

“We reflect on the loss of life and then that goes away and everyone starts looking at their special interests,” Pickett said. He added that the industry shouldn’t be afraid of additional regulations. “There’s nothing in this that will put anyone out of business.”

Kacal’s approach would allow the state fire marshal to inspect ammonium nitrate facilities but limits enforcement to four specific rules described in the bill. Facilities would be required to provide evidence of compliance with right-to-know laws, post warning placards and store ammonium nitrate away from combustible materials. They’d also be be required to keep ammonium nitrate in a separate structure from, say, an office or shop.

Some in the fertilizer business have resisted giving a state agency more power. Jim Farley owns a farm supply company in DeLeon, Texas, that sells ammonium nitrate-based fertilizers. He was one of five people to testify in favor of Kacal’s bill, and the only person to testify against Pickett’s. Farley said he was “devastated” when he heard the news about West and that he’s made many changes to his business since the West explosion to improve safety. But he argued that new rules, which could be drafted by the state fire marshal under Pickett’s plan, might cost him too much money. As a small business owner, he says, he couldn’t afford to change his wood roof, or put in an automatic sprinkler system that might corrode.

Kyle Kacal
Kyle Kacal

Both bills also strengthen hazardous-chemical reporting. Companies would have to submit information about the chemicals they hold, via Tier II reports, to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) instead of the Department of State Health Services, an agency that’s always been an awkward fit. TCEQ would then share the reports with local first responders and the state fire marshal. One of the problems that emerged from the West disaster was that local first responders often lack the critical information about hazardous chemicals, or don’t have the proper training to know what to do in the event of a fire.

HB 2470, filed by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin), was the final ammonium nitrate-related bill heard by the committee on Tuesday. It would require ammonium nitrate operations to have liability insurance, which they are not currently required to have. The West Fertilizer Company carried just a $1 million policy. Property losses from the West explosion are now estimated to be as much as $230 million.

Cyrus Reed, representing the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, told the committee that it makes sense to require insurance, “because it will create market pressure to be safe.”

“Sometimes bills that require rulemaking leads to delay and poor rules, or the agency doesn’t actually enforce the rules,” Reed said.

“This is a very balanced attempt to make sure communities don’t suffer another explosion like this and if they do they will have the resources to rebuild,” said Ware Wendell, deputy director of the consumer group Texas Watch.

HB 417, HB 942, and HB 2470 were left pending in committee.

House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen)
Patrick Michels
House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) with House members last month.

Two weeks after announcing that he’d try to fix the school finance system in the current legislative session, House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Ayocck (R-Killeen) unveiled his plan in a committee hearing this afternoon. Aycock had already announced his plan would come with $800 million in new money; today he explained how it would work.

Like most things in school finance, it’s complicated stuff. You can read the details of his plan, and its projected effects on your favorite school district, here.

Generally speaking, Aycock’s proposal involves scrapping a number of outdated or impractical funding tools—the “Cost of Education Index,” for instance, is 24 years old and has never been updated—and putting all of that money into the basic per-student allotment.

“Part of my objective when I began this was to simplify this system that we’re in,” Aycock said as he explained his bill, later adding, “I wish I could make it simpler. It’s not a simple deal.”

Any tweaks to the school finance system would ripple out across Texas’ thousand-plus school districts in different ways. (Aycock said that modeling his possible fixes “literally crashed” a state computer.) To minimize the number of districts losing money under the proposal, the House has passed a budget with $3 billion in new spending for public schools—including $2.2 billion that budget writers agreed upon early in the session, and $800 million more announced as part of Aycock’s plan.

The Senate draft budget includes much less for schools, and Aycock has said his counterparts in the upper chamber haven’t been a part of the House school finance talks. If the Senate doesn’t sign to match the House’s proposal, Aycock said his restructuring must be scuttled too.

Without new money, he said, “the pain of making these changes would be insurmountable.”

But there are new and different sorts of pain in store if the Legislature does nothing.

For one, under the current system, Houston ISD will soon owe the state around $100 million in “Robing Hood” funding—money that wealthy districts pay the state to cover poorer ones. Aycock has mentioned this point repeatedly, saying Houston ISD would either have to cut its services or raise taxes to cover the cost—or both—and get its voters to agree to foot the bill.

For another, many school districts are about to get a whole lot less from the state after September 2017. That’s when a relic of the last school finance “fix” in 2006 will expire, and a whole bunch of districts whose funding has been artificially inflated, by a tool known as ASATR, will watch their funding deflate in a hurry. Aycock conveyed the point with a different image today: “We’re going to hit a cliff at that point, and we’re going to hit it at 100 miles per hour,” he said.

His bill would move all but 2 percent of school districts off that artificial funding mechanism and onto formula funding, which is generally more stable. “Those that do fall in ’18 fall a lot less,” he said. “When they fall off that cliff, they don’t fall as far.”

Since 2006, as Abby Rapoport explained in the Observer a few years back, ASATR has been a finger on the scales that has persistently privileged some districts over others in some weird and unfair ways. Moving all but 2 percent of districts onto formula funding instead makes the system more fair.

That question of equity isn’t just important for students in those districts. It’s a central issue in the ongoing school finance case that the Texas Supreme Court is set to take up months from now. Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) has said that Aycock’s proposal would mean new money for schools, but she doubts it would do enough for poor students or English-language learners to make the system truly equitable.

That was a major issue in District Judge John Dietz’s ruling against the state last year, and Aycock said this afternoon that his bill didn’t touch the funding weights that provide money for those students. But he did call his plan “the most equitable statistical sample that’s been proposed for many years,” and said, “I honestly move it helps the state’s position, moves the ball in the right direction.”

He went even further with reporters after the hearing:

The committee will hear public testimony on the bill next Tuesday.

Bill Hammond, Texas Association of Business
John Wright
Bill Hammond, CEO of the Texas Association of Business, speaks during Tuesday's press conference at the Capitol.

The Texas Association of Business forcefully reiterated its opposition Tuesday to two proposed “religious freedom” amendments that critics say would enshrine a license to discriminate against LGBT people in the Texas Constitution.

But the powerful, conservative state chamber of commerce stopped short of coming out against several other anti-LGBT proposals.

At an unprecedented news conference in the speaker’s room outside the House chamber, Bill Hammond, CEO of the TAB, joined Democratic lawmakers and LGBT advocates in denouncing Senate Joint Resolution 10 and House Joint Resolution 125, by Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) and Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth), respectively.

Hammond and others—including Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) and Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas)—referenced business backlash over similar laws in Indiana and Arkansas. And they pointed to large Texas employers, such as American Airlines and Apple, that have joined the chorus against them.

“These amendments are bad for business,” Hammond said. “They would devastate economic development, tourism and the convention business. One has to look no further than Indiana to realize what a detriment this would be, and how hard it would be to sell Texas to the rest of the country. The Super Bowl, the Final Four, all those things would be at risk in Texas if this were to become part of our Constitution.”

The two amendments are among more than 20 anti-LGBT proposals in the 84th Legislature, including statutory bills that would similarly allow businesses to discriminate based on religious beliefs. But Hammond said the TAB board hasn’t voted whether to come out against those measures.

TAB President Chris Wallace told the Observer on Monday that he and Hammond plan to recommend that the board oppose bills making it illegal for transgender people to use restrooms according to how they identify.

“Business owners are going to have to be enforcers of this legislation, and we certainly do not want to place any more burdens on business than there already are,” Wallace said.

Wallace said other proposals to bar cities from enforcing LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances may present a quandary for TAB. At least one of the bills, Senate Bill 343 by Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas), would also bar cities from regulating fracking, plastic bags and ride-sharing—a concept TAB supports.

Hammond said TAB likely will wait until other anti-LGBT legislation is scheduled for committee hearings to take an official position. None of the so-called religious freedom measures or bills targeting local LGBT protections has been scheduled for hearings as the session approaches its final 45 days.

“I think what happened in Indiana is hopefully a turning point,” said Chuck Smith, executive director of Equality Texas. “Every day that goes by without a negative bill having a hearing is a good thing.”

In others states, lawmakers have seized upon the controversy in Indiana and Arkansas to push for laws banning discrimination against LGBT people. But Smith acknowledged that’s unlikely in Texas, where anti-LGBT discrimination remains perfectly legal outside the handful of cities that have banned it.

“I don’t think it creates an opening necessarily in this session to be able to pass a statewide nondiscrimination law,” Smith said.

Ebola orphan in Sierra Leone
Shitu survived Ebola, but both her parents died from the disease at Kenema Government Hospital in eastern Sierra Leone.

Remember Bentley, the Ebola-exposed dog adopted by a Dallas nurse who became infected with the disease?

The dog had to be isolated to ensure he was not carrying the highly contagious disease, and the city of Dallas spent $27,000 on facilities and personnel during his 21-day quarantine period.

These days Bentley enjoys a celebrity status, making the rounds at veterinary conferences, most recently in sunny Orlando. President Barack Obama took time to check on the 2-year-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel. Bentley’s mug even appears on a T-shirt, part of a fundraising effort for the city-run Dallas animal shelter that oversaw the canine’s quarantine.

Texas became intimately tied to the epidemic that broke out in West Africa last year when Thomas Eric Duncan fell ill in Dallas in September after a visit to his native Liberia—the only Ebola patient to be diagnosed and die in the U.S. By November, health officials had cleared the 177 people exposed to Ebola in Dallas and declared the city “Ebola-free.” In March, Bentley’s owner, Nina Pham, sued the parent company of the Dallas hospital where she worked claiming negligence was to blame for her exposure to the deadly pathogen.

The legacy of Ebola in Texas pales to its enduring effects in Africa. Even as experts predict the epidemic could be gone by the summer, and the crisis fades from the headline, international aid groups are struggling to meet their needs with limited resources. The legacy of Ebola won’t simply disappear for the children left orphaned by the disease. The Texans who donated to the Bentley cause and supported Dallas through its scare, should consider extending some support to the thousands of Ebola survivors most in need of help: the children.

UNICEF estimates that 16,000 children in West Africa have lost one or both parents to the disease. In the last year, Ebola has infected about 25,000 people, including adults across Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. Approximately 40 percent later died.

I worked in public health in Africa on HIV/AIDS pediatric issues and international adoption. Caring for one child orphaned by AIDS costs roughly $700 to $2,000 per year, including primary school, preventive medicine and everything else that goes into keeping a child healthy and alive. The costs for treating Ebola are comparable, and that’s $25,000 less than Bentley’s stay in quarantine.

But there are some key differences. It can take years for a person to succumb to AIDS. Some Ebola patients often die within a week or two. In short, there’s less time to do any planning for who might take care of surviving children, whether they are infected or not.

Imagine your child is the one in an Ebola treatment ward. He or she screams, cries, begs to be picked up and held. Any Ebola patient, child or not, is likely to have vomiting and diarrhea. Nobody gets much hugging because no-touch is the rule.

Three weeks later, the child has been tested to make sure he or she is no longer infectious, leaves the Ebola ward and emerges into a world of stigma. His or her parents may be dead or perhaps just can’t be located. Relatives often don’t want to touch or take in the surviving child.

In Texas, we saw a similar reaction. Months after the Dallas cases were cleared, doctors and nurses who work at the hospital reported that even pizza places won’t deliver to them. Pham’s attorney has said that she’s been stigmatized and that some people are apprehensive about being near her.

Imagine the stigma in West Africa. Shunned by their community and family or orphaned, the children emerge from illness alone and with nothing. UNICEF and other charities have teams working to place the orphans with extended family members or in special children centers.

It’s important to support the people who care, feed and give these Ebola orphans some of the affection heaped on Bentley.

UNICEF guidelines define a child’s basic material needs as having been met if he or she has at least one pair of shoes, two sets of clothes and a blanket. In West Africa, that would be a good but minimal start, along with having a safe and stable shelter.

A city and country that thinks enough of animals to save a dog should do better by the orphans in West Africa.

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