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House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen)
Patrick Michels
House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) announces plans to pursue school finance reforms this session.

Crowded at a podium by 18 of his fellow representatives from both parties and all over the state, House education chair Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) announced his intention Wednesday morning to make major improvements to Texas’ school finance system before this legislative session runs out.

A major school finance case still awaits a hearing at the Texas Supreme Court, and many lawmakers have said there’s little incentive to rework the system before the court rules. But a district judge in Austin last year called the funding system uneven and “plainly insufficient to satisfy constitutional standards.” Aycock said he saw no reason to wait for a decision on the lawsuit before making improvements.

“It’s been in court for a long time,” Aycock said. “We need to do this while there’s funds available.”

Growth in property tax revenue has given lawmakers wiggle room to spend more on public schools this session; the House budget headed to a vote next week already includes a $2.2 billion increase in school spending. The plan announced this morning would add an extra $800 million, for a total of $3 billion in new school funding over the next two years.

The plan for distributing that extra $800 million isn’t set, but will eventually be written into a revised version of Aycock’s House Bill 1759.

Aycock said his priority is to correct illogical and outdated features in Texas’ school finance formulas, like adjustments for higher salaries in expensive urban districts or the extra cost of educating students with limited English proficiency, which haven’t been updated in more than 25 years. Tinkering with any of those would upset the delicate equilibrium of a system that, despite its flaws, has been in place since 2006.

“The fact is that when you change these complicated formulas, some people win, some people win more than others, some people lose,” Aycock said. “In order to mitigate that pain politically, you can only do this sort of modification when there’s more money going into the system.”

Some, but not all, members of the crowd around Aycock this morning have been meeting since last fall in an informal working group on school finance reform. The group includes Republicans and Democrats from both urban and rural districts.

In an interview, Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) said Aycock’s plan wouldn’t fix what’s wrong with Texas’ school finance system, but to Democrats who’ve been railing against the state’s chronic underfunding of schools, the extra money was welcome. “It was an offer we couldn’t refuse,” she said.

Still, adding more money this session to Aycock’s plan wouldn’t address the system’s basic flaws, or allow for reforms like pre-kindergarten expansion.

“I think it’s a huge step toward addressing what the court said we need to address,” Howard said, but “I take Chairman Aycock at his word that this is not about trying to make the lawsuit go away.”

In his ruling last year, District Judge John Dietz wrote that the state needed to spend an additional $800 per student to deliver the bare minimum education guaranteed by the state constitution—that’d mean an extra $8 billion in a two-year budget, well above what House leaders proposed today.

But a major infusion of money into the system and an update to the state’s formulas could certainly shake up the court case as it heads to the state’s conservative high court. Aycock said he had no idea what impact his plan might have on the case, but he and other members agreed that it ‘s better to act now than to “try to out-guess the lawyers.”

David Thompson, an attorney representing one group of school districts suing the state, told the Observer that without a bill to look at yet, it’s impossible to guess how the case might be affected. “I do very much appreciate the House’s willingness to spend some time to address the issue,” Thompson said, adding that the plans Aycock described include “some very positive features.” Thompson said he’s most interested in seeing a proposal that steers more money to districts that educate the state’s neediest children.

Had lawmakers completely punted on school finance reform—or if the House’s plan eventually falls through—a Supreme Court ruling against the state would likely prompt a special session in 2016 dedicated to fixing the system. If nothing else, the new reform effort could serve as a practice run for new members getting to know the arcane system for the first time.

“This is a House-led initiative,” Aycock said this morning, crafted without input from the governor or the Senate. Choosing to spend so much more on public schools could be a much tougher sell in a Senate that has been running on a very different philosophy than the House; just hours after Aycock’s announcement, the upper chamber agreed to $4.6 billion in tax cuts.

At the press conference, Aycock said he was confident the chambers could find common ground. “I believe there’s adequate funding to accomplish significant tax cuts and do what’s right for the children of the state of Texas at the same time,” he said.

Dan Huberty
Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston)

The anti-testing sentiment that drove lawmakers to scale back high school tests in 2013 was back on display at the Capitol late Tuesday night, as a House committee considered new bills that would reduce standardized testing even further.

House Bill 743, by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston), would reduce the amount of time students in grades three through eight spend taking state assessments.

Huberty held up a stack of papers several inches thick as he introduced the bill shortly after midnight.

“I have petitions from over 20,000 people who have actually said we’re taking too much time on the test, we’re spending too much time on the test, we’re wasting our children’s time on the test,” Huberty said.

The bill would place time limits on tests—two hours per test for students in grades three through five, and three hours for students in grades six through eight.

The bill also calls for an evaluation that shows Texas’ standardized tests are “valid and reliable,” to be performed by a group other than the Texas Education Agency or the test developer.

During the last several years, parents, teachers and school administrators have revolted against Texas’ testing regime, saying the tests are simply not an accurate measure of what students learn in school. They argue the tests have led to a too-narrow curriculum, teaching to the test, wasted instructional time and increased anxiety in students. Nearly 900 Texas school boards have signed a resolution urging lawmakers to deemphasize testing.

Some of those critics were in the committee room Tuesday, cheering lawmakers who’ve come to share their concerns.

In an exchange with Rep. Dwayne Bohac (R-Houston), Huberty said the current testing system is “seriously flawed” and must be changed.

“If we follow that strain of logic, we might as well get rid of centralized testing completely,” Bohac said.

“Yes, I’m happy—let’s do it,” Huberty said, prompting cheers and applause from the audience.

Standardized testing is big business in Texas. The state currently has a five-year, $468 million contract with Pearson Education to create and grade the STAAR test. It’s a delicate time for the publishing giant, which is one of two finalists for the state’s next testing contract, which could be announced later this month. Some have criticized Pearson for soliciting test graders on Craigslist.

Bohac asked if the problem was Pearson or the tests themselves.

“That problem that we keep coming back to is that Pearson sucks when it comes to grading the test,” Bohac said.

A similar bill to Huberty’s, filed by former Rep. Bennett Ratliff (R-Coppell), passed last session, but was vetoed by former Gov. Rick Perry.

Texas is the epicenter of the national fight over standardized testing. In 1993, the Legislature first required all public school students to take an annual state assessment that would be used to measure student and school performance.

In the late 1990s, testing proponents, including former Gov. George W. Bush, boasted that testing and test-based accountability improved student achievement and lowered dropout rates. Boston College researcher Walt Haney has found that the “Texas education miracle” was more  statistical manipulation than reality, but the myth of Texas’ test-driven improvement was nevertheless widely accepted.

By 2010, Texas required a maximum of 32 state assessments over nine grades. In 2013, the Legislature reduced that number to 22.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires elementary school students to take 17 standardized tests in math, reading and science, but Texas requires additional writing and social studies tests in some grades.

Another proposal from Huberty heard last night, House Bill 742, would eliminate the tests not required by federal law. “It’s time to have the discussion about what we’re doing with our kids and the testing, “Huberty said.

Both of Huberty’s bills were left pending in committee.

Milly Wassum
Kelsey Jukam
Anti-Muslim protester Milly Wassum at the Texas Muslim Capitol Day.

Some state lawmakers are concerned that American courts may not follow American laws. There’s no evidence of, say, Swedish common law creeping into the Texas court system, but a few GOP legislators want to make sure foreign influence never stands a chance. That goal may seem innocuous—if not redundant—but the bill authors are fending off accusations that “American Laws for American Courts” legislation is intentionally discriminatory toward Muslims and could have unintended consequences for many other religious groups as well.

On Tuesday, Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Canton) told the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee that many of his constituents believe American liberties are “under attack” by nefarious foreign influences, and need to be assured that American law will continue to be enforced “on American soil.” Flynn’s  HJR 32 proposes a constitutional amendment directing the courts to “uphold and apply” the Texas and U.S. constitutions as well as state and federal law.

Flynn is also carrying HB 670, which says that a court’s ruling “may not be based on foreign law if the application of that law would violate a right guaranteed by the United States Constitution.”

Committee members asked the obvious questions: What’s the need for these bills? Isn’t it already the case that American courts follow American laws? When has this ever been a problem?

Flynn didn’t have any specific examples to share. Religious laws are often used to draw up civil contracts, and many mainstream religious groups have tribunals that issue non-binding rulings on civil disputes. Some believe that a mosque—or church, or synagogue—is a more appropriate arena to solve certain disputes than a courtroom. Participation in these tribunals is voluntary, and while a religious court’s decision may be referenced in a public court, those decisions do not legally supersede state or federal laws. According to Joshua Houston, an attorney with the interfaith advocacy organization Texas Impact, in the end the Constitution—and the legal order of authority—trumps all.

Flynn said that the bills were supposed to be preemptive, to ensure that there aren’t any problems down the road. He’s worried that without an explicit directive “activist judges” might begin to let foreign laws supersede American laws.

Rep. Travis Clardy (R-Nacogdoches) was the first of many committee members to express his skepticism.

“The buzzword everyone’s talking about is the use of Shariah law in Texas courts,” Clardy said. “I don’t know every judge in Texas, but I know a lot of them, and I have no fear or concern that the judges that I know and that I observe doing that in lieu of or in place of the federal constitution or the state constitution.”

Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) said his bill, HB 562, doesn’t target any specific foreign law or religion, and those who claim it’s directed at a certain belief system are “misguided.” The scope of Leach’s bill is narrower than Flynn’s, applying only to family law (proceedings involving marriage or suits “affecting the parent-child relationship”).

All three bills, however, are derived from model legislation that was specifically designed to be anti-Shariah. Commonly known as “American Laws for American Courts,” the concept is the brainchild of lawyer and anti-Shariah activist David Yerushalmi (profiled in this New York Times article). It’s been passed in several states, most recently in Alabama. According to the Times, the language in these bills is intentionally vague, “worded neutrally enough that they might withstand constitutional scrutiny while still limiting the way courts handle cases involving Muslims.”

While the representatives and several witnesses in support of the bill may have tiptoed around mentioning Islam in particular, the hearing was tinged with an uncomfortable disrespect for the religion. Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) asked one witness—Sarwat Husain, president of the San Antonio chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations—to explain Shariah. When Husain said that “Shariah law is just following the guidance of God,” the audience erupted in groans and laughter.

“Muslims are loyal, law-abiding and tax-paying citizens,” Husain said. “We expect to be treated as equals in society and do not wish to be stigmatized, demonized, or treated like second-class citizens.

The extent of the practical implications of the legislation is still unclear. Analysts say the laws might affect the way churches can govern their own internal affairs, and could also affect adoptions, wills, marriages and divorces. According to Houston, the vague language in the bills could affect the law in “really unpredictable ways.” Houston said he’d seen a substitute—yet to be finished and given to committee members—to Leach’s original bill, which refers not only to “unconstitutional” religious laws but also to laws that “violate good morals” or “natural justice.”

“If we’re worried about activist judges going off the reservation—that language actually invites them to do that,” Houston said.

Leach said that one-third of the House had signed onto his bill, but that’s no indication that it will make it out of committee. Members seemed confused and unconvinced by arguments in support of the bills, calling them a “solution in search of a problem.” Clardy said lawmakers should restrain from passing unnecessary laws and said “if we don’t have a true issue before us, then we need to leave it alone.”

“We’ve got real issues in this state,” Clardy said.

 

Parade in favor of Denton fracking ban
Garrett Graham
Parade in favor of Denton fracking ban

Even before voters in Denton passed a measure that made their city the first in the state to ban fracking, state lawmakers were talking about filing legislation to block the ban. On Monday, more than four months after the Denton vote, a House committee discussed two bills that would derail local efforts to curb fracking. House Bill 40 would generally block cities from regulating oil and gas activity, and House Bill 539 would make cities and municipalities that do ban fracking pay for it—literally.

The hearing Monday at the House Energy Resources Committee drew an overflow crowd of oil industry boosters, environmentalists, city officials and citizens. Most of the debate centered on HB 40, authored by Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo), the committee chairman.

Darby argued that the state already has the authority to regulate subsurface oil and gas activity, and that its authority preempts local governments from banning fracking. Local entities can continue to regulate surface activities and write ordinances that govern noise, traffic and odors, but they can’t control what goes on below the ground, he said.

But much of the day was spent parsing the confusing language of the legislation pertaining to what a city can and cannot do. The bill stipulates that local government is limited to regulating “only surface activity that is incident to an oil and gas operation” with ordinances that are “commercially reasonable” and don’t “effectively prohibit an oil and gas operation.” Elsewhere in the bill, “commercially reasonable” is defined as a “condition that permits a reasonably prudent operator to fully, effectively, and economically exploit, develop, produce, process, and transport oil and gas.”

Did you follow all that?

Opponents say the bill would undermine current city ordinances and allow operators to do whatever they want if they can prove that city ordinances aren’t “commercially reasonable.”

“We are experts in fracking loopholes,” said Sharon Wilson, a North Texas drilling reform advocate who was instrumental in getting the fracking ban on the ballot in Denton. “We know what they are; we live with them. [House Bill 40] is a fracking loophole.”

Darby and Rep. Jim Keffer (R-Eastland) tried to convince local government representatives that existing ordinances would likely hold up even if the bills passed.

State Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo)
State Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo)

“This bill … would have taken a whole different tack,” Darby said. “It could have done what you’re saying, what you think it’s going to do—it could have said there will be no city ordinances, no regulations, no rules that affect the operation of oil and gas. It did not. And that’s why I’m confused. Did any of you even read the bill?”

Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford), who is also on the committee, introduced HB 539, which would require cities and municipalities wishing to ban fracking to determine how much money their local and state governments would lose in tax revenue. Entities would have to spend the next five years paying the state and schools back for lost revenue.

Later, Darby and other committee members took turns grilling Denton officials, including Mayor Chris Watts.

Would the bill prevent a city from banning fracking, like Denton did?

“In my opinion if this bill passes as written today, it would make it very unlikely that a city would be able to ban fracking,” Watts finally said. Rep. Tom Craddick (R-Midland), a stalwart friend of the oil business, asked Watts how he voted when the fracking ban went to the City Council. “I voted against it, we passed it along to voters.”

“So you passed it?” Craddick responded, to laughs and “ooos” from the packed room. It was only one of many tense moments during the hearing, which lasted for almost nine hours.

Industry representatives, a couple of mineral rights advocates and a handful of elected officials were happy with the bill’s current language, but most everyone else wasn’t. “If HB 40 was clear and concise, there wouldn’t be a room full of local elected officials here to testify against it,” said Calvin Tillman, a former mayor of Dish, a small North Texas town where many residents claim that fracking has made them and their animals sick. “I don’t think any of us would have driven all this way if we had interpreted HB 40 the way you guys have described it. We’re here because we have concerns and with all due respect, you and the industry telling us that everything will be OK is not quite as reassuring as we need.”

Even city staff from Forth Worth—whose city ordinance was lauded by industry, legislators and others in favor of the bills throughout the hearing—testified against the bills. “I do not want to sit down with every single operator and decide whether it is commercially reasonable for that operator to drill,” Fort Worth City Attorney Sarah Fullenwider said late in the night, about seven hours into the hearing.

At that point, Darby appeared fed up with having to reassure local officials that his bill wouldn’t undo their ordinances. He yelled at Fullenwider, “Yours works! Not all jurisdictions’ [ordinances] work!”

Both bills were left pending.

Anti-gay marriage
Kelsey Jukam
"Biblical marriage" supporters rally at the Capitol.

Judges don’t typically speak publicly on issues like same-sex marriage.

But Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore says if he didn’t speak out against it, he’d consider himself guilty of treason.

At a rally against same-sex marriage on the south steps of the Texas Capitol on Monday, Moore invoked Col. William Barret Travis, the namesake of Travis County, an Alabama native who came to Texas “to draw a line in the sand at the Alamo.”

“He took a stand in the face of an enemy that was far more numerous,” Moore told a crowd of hundreds, including dozens of Republican state lawmakers. “But he knew that he had to make a statement for the people of Texas, and that he would give his life. I hope I don’t give my life, but I’m going to tell you this is a very serious matter. … If we fail to stand up today, we will dishonor the memory, not only of Col. Travis, but all those who’ve died in the history of this great state.”

Moore, famous for once being kicked out of office for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the Alabama Supreme Court building, recently ordered probate judges not to issue licenses to same-sex couples despite a federal judge ruling the state’s marriage amendment unconstitutional. Reading from several court opinions, Moore told the crowd at the “Defense of Texas Marriage Amendment” rally that federal judges don’t have authority over domestic policy related to family and marriage in the states.

Counter-protesters at an anti-gay marriage rally
Kelsey Jukam
Counter-protesters at an anti-gay marriage rally

“No court has any authority to redefine what God proposed in Genesis,” Moore said. “The definition of marriage, you want it by man, it doesn’t come by man, it comes from God.”

Also speaking at the rally—the second anti-gay marriage event at the Capitol in as many months—were GOP Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton, as well as Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia) and Sen. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock).

Patrick said the rally, organized by the Conservative Republicans of Texas, was about two issues: supporting “traditional marriage” and defending states’ rights.

“It’s not about being anti-anyone,” Patrick said. “It’s about being for marriage between a man and a woman.”

Secondly, Patrick said, “It’s not the federal government’s business to tell Texans what to do in Texas on any issue.”

Paxton noted that during his first week in office in January, he defended Texas’ marriage amendment at the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, after a federal judge struck it down last year.

Last week, the AG’s office filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Labor over a rule that would extend benefits to same-sex couples in Texas under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

“We’re challenging the Obama administration once again, and we’re going to win this case for Texas,” Paxton said to cheers. “So please continue to pray for us, and I will pray that God blesses this great state of Texas. My office will continue to fight.”

Ken Paxton
Kelsey Jukam
Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at an anti-gay marriage rally at the Capitol.

Sen. Perry, who along with Rep. Bell has filed legislation seeking to prevent Texas clerks from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, introduced his pastor, Rev. David Wilson of Southcrest Baptist Church in Lubbock. Perry said the nation needs a revival that starts from the pulpits, and Wilson backed that up with a fiery speech.

“If humans invented marriage, then polygamy, the taking of several wives, polyandry, the sharing of a wife by several husbands, same-sex marriage, marriage between an adult and a child, marriage between relatives, might seem normal and acceptable,” Wilson said. “But if man created marriage, then monogamy, the lifelong union of one man to one woman, would have no more intrinsic value than any other type of marriage. But marriage is not human invention, it is God’s design.”

However, one counter-protester carried a sign noting that Rep. Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington)—who filed an ethics complaint against one of the judges who struck down the marriage ban—has been married five times.

“I’m just wondering what gay marriage destroyed his previous four marriages,” said Gary Campbell of Austin.

Another counter-protester, Joseph George, carried a sign saying, “Keep Your Theocracy Off Our Democracy.”

Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia) speaks during a press conference hosted by the Coalition of African-American Pastors at the Capitol on Monday morning.
John Wright
Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia) speaks during a press conference hosted by the Coalition of African-American Pastors at the Capitol on Monday morning.

“I’m tired of the right trying to push their religion on everyone,” George said. “These people live in insular bubbles, and they have a very narrow world-view, and they need to be exposed to other ideas.”

Earlier, the Coalition of African-American Pastors hosted a press conference in a Capitol conference room to call on U.S. Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg to recuse themselves from hearing lawsuits challenging state marriage bans. However, the press conference, like the rally, focused largely on defending Texas’ ban.

“We are not going to let this erosion, death by a thousand cuts, tear down and destroy what’s left of the family in the state of Texas,” said Dave Welch, executive director of the Texas Pastor Council.

Welch pointed to legislation seeking to allow same-sex couples to have both names on the birth certificates of adopted children, as well as city ordinances “criminalizing Christian business owners for practicing their faith” and “allowing men into women’s restrooms.”

Rev. Bill Owens, founder and president of the Coalition of African-American Pastors, accused the gay community of stealing and hijacking the civil rights movement.

“They were never beaten. They were never hung from trees. They were never fired for nothing. They were never treated like we were treated,” Owens said, becoming animated in response to a reporter’s question. “You don’t have a clue how we were treated in the South. You don’t have a clue. … This is not a civil rights movement. It’s a civil wrong movement.”

Here’s Moore’s speech at the rally:

Here’s Patrick’s speech:

Here’s Paxton’s speech:

And here’s an exclusive interview with Moore prior to the rally:

Ted Cruz at a wildly popular event in the convention's exhibition hall.
Timothy Faust
Ted Cruz experiences a moment of self-satisfaction at the 2014 Texas Republican convention.

Now he belongs to the ages. Today Ted Cruz, one of the foremost representatives of the state’s persecuted Texan-Canadian community and the junior Senator from the North Texas tea parties, ascended from this state’s low mortal plane and affixed himself to the celestial realm of presidential politics, where he’s always thought he truly belonged. The announcement wasn’t a surprise, but when it happened (earlier than his competitors) and where it happened (at the evangelical Liberty University) was.

What to make of it? Is this the beginning of a long, slow grassroots groundswell of the kind that Cruz harnessed to trample David Dewhurst in 2012? Could 2015 be the year of national #Cruzmentum?

No and no.

Some conservatives—and the Democratic Party fundraising apparatus—would have you believe otherwise, but a bet against Cruz winning the Republican nomination for president would be among the safest possible uses of your money. Cruz isn’t in the same category as the Ben Carsons and Carly Fiorinas of the world—people who are running only to up their future speaking fees and maybe land a Fox News gig—but he has a roughly similar chance of winning the GOP nomination, much less the presidency.

There are political reasons and policy reasons this is the case, as well as personal ones—are Americans really going to cheer for an Ivy League snob with an affinity for paisley bathrobes and Jesse Helms who hung a giant oil painting of himself arguing in front of the Supreme Court in his office?

But there’s a simpler reason to doubt Cruz: In almost every presidential election since FDR’s last re-election, Republicans have nominated the more moderate, business-minded candidate over an ideologue, with 1964 being the only real exception. (There’s 1980, too, but that’s something of a special case.) The conservatives who love Cruz are right: The donor class—the people who care a lot about estate taxes and not all that much about the gays—run the national party, more or less. Cruz is a Barry Goldwater in an era that’s not looking for one.

In his address this morning at Liberty, he posited the existence of what we might start calling the “Silent Plurality”—evangelical and other voters who would come out to support the party if it had real leadership. He has, certainly, an almost fanatic appeal to a part of the Republican base, and especially so in Texas.

But winning a Republican primary in this state provides a very particular kind of political experience, one that is not easily translatable elsewhere. For years, he’s been deploying the same one-liners at rallies—his speeches to friendly crowds, who’ve surely heard his zingers many times before, sometimes have the feel of a stand-up comedian’s routine.

But when he puts himself in front of crowds that won’t give him the easy laughs, he often looks lost. He’s more comfortable provoking people than finding commonalities with them. And despite his lauded oratorical skills, he’s never really proved adept at using the politician’s most basic tool: Tailoring his speech to different audiences as the need arises. His base loves him for that, of course.

Cruz’s most significant contribution to the race—apart from the inherent entertainment value—might be his ability to scramble the GOP primary here in Texas, thanks in part to a set of weird new rules adopted for the contest.

Next year, Texas’ primary will be on March 1, much earlier on the calendar than previous years. After the early states, like Iowa and New Hampshire, it will have been the biggest state to vote, and it’ll be rich with delegates. Because the GOP field could easily still be crowded at that early date, the state might play an important role in determining the winner.

Why does that matter for Cruz? The event next year is going to be a bit more complicated than it used to be. The state’s many delegates will be allocated three ways: There will be a pool of delegates that represent the statewide vote, a pool of delegates that represent the vote of each congressional district, and a pool of delegates whose allegiance will be determined at a later date.

If one candidate takes a majority of the vote in Texas next year, or a majority of the vote in one of the state’s congressional districts, they’ll take all of those delegates. But if no one takes a clear majority statewide or in certain congressional districts, the candidates who win more than 20 percent of the vote split those delegates proportionally. Then, a quarter of the pot will be awarded to one candidate at the state Republican convention later in the summer.

This is Cruz country, and if he’s still in the race by the Texas primary—you can bet he’ll stay in till at least then—he’s likely to take a big share of the vote, if not win it outright. If he does, it’ll have the effect of hurting other candidates who might do well here—candidates with Texas connections such as Rick Perry, Jeb Bush and Rand Paul.

With Cruz in the race, some might struggle to pass the 20 percent barrier. And if Cruz can lay a credible claim to having “won” the messy Texas primary, you can bet his supporters will be pushing hard to award those floating delegates to Cruz at a convention if there’s still a contest to be had.

Still, don’t worry too much about President Cruz. But don’t get too eager if you think a failed presidential campaign will knock him out of the spotlight. He’s up for reelection in 2018. Democrats used to fantasize about running a credible challenger against him—particularly, they talked about convincing one of the Castro brothers—but after the Democrats’ 2014 electoral disaster, that possibility seems remote. So despite the hundreds of thousands of words that will be written today, in most of earth’s languages, about Mr. Cruz’s chances, expect everything to stay the same, more or less.

Mary Gonzalez
Courtesy of Mary Gonzalez
State Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint)

This week, the House State Affairs Committee heard testimony on a bill that would allow teenagers who have already had a child to get birth control without their parents’ permission. Under current law, all minors under the age of 18 must get parental consent before receiving contraception from their doctors.

House Bill 468, filed by state Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint), would apply to teenage mothers ages 15 to 17.

“Teen mothers can consent to the medical treatment of their own children, but cannot consent to their own access to contraception,” Gonzalez told committee members on Wednesday. “If we trust teen mothers with the care of their own children, we must trust them to make their own decisions for their own reproductive health.”

Texas consistently ranks among the top three states for highest teen pregnancy rates, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. The Lone Star State teeters between first and second in highest repeat teen births, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Approximately 21 percent of babies in Texas born to teen moms in 2013 were repeat births, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. That translates to more than 8,200 births, said Anna Chatillon, a policy coordinator with the Healthy Futures Alliance of Texas, which works to reduce teen pregnancy and unplanned pregnancy.

“Right now we’re withholding the ability for teen mothers to make one of the best and sometimes one of the simplest health care decisions for themselves, and that’s waiting to have additional children until they’re older and ready for them,” she said.

Greg Guggenmos with the Texas Home School Coalition testified against the bill, arguing that giving teenage mothers the ability to decide for themselves if they want contraception compromises a parent’s right to “direct the control, care and upbringing of their children.”

Not every teen has the luxury of a parent who can comfortably talk about sex and birth control. Often, as several witnesses pointed out, teens don’t feel comfortable talking about sexual health with their parents, or they fear disappointing them. Sometimes, parents aren’t around talk to in the first place. Or, they’re uninterested.

“I wish the world were so neat that it was always safe for teens and they had a parent around who they can trust and talk to, but it’s just not like that,” said Susan Hays, a family lawyer who for 15 years has represented teenage girls seeking abortions without parental consent in bypass cases.

Some Texas public schools’ strict adherence to abstinence-only sex education, along with requiring minors get their parents’ permission for birth control, make it tough for teenage girls to make their own health care decisions, Hays said.

“We set teenage girls up to fail in terms of their access to medically and scientifically accurate sex ed and their access to birth control,” she said.

But Cecilia Wood, a family lawyer based in Austin, questioned whether teenage mothers are mature enough to decide whether they need birth control.

“I think if you’ve had one child, and you’re already putting yourself back in that situation, if you’re not mature enough to go to your parents and say, ‘Hey we need to talk about this,’ or go to a grandparent or an older sibling, or find someone who can engage your parents, you’re probably not mature enough to be making this decision in a vacuum for yourself,” Wood told the committee.

Norma Leal, a social work student, gave birth to her son when she was 16. She told the committee that she was lucky to have a supportive family that allowed her and her boyfriend to live in their home to raise the baby. Still, after she delivered, she said her mother didn’t talk to her about her future sexual health.

“I was told to come back with my mom” when she asked her doctor about contraception, she told the committee, adding that she and her mom went back a few weeks later and Leal got the birth control she wanted. “There were several weeks in between in which I could’ve had a second, and unplanned, pregnancy,” she said.

The committee left Gonzalez’s bill pending.

 

Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) confers with Sen. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville)
Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) confers with Sen. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville)

On Thursday, the Senate Education Committee debated strengthening a law that makes it easier for parents to make changes at low-performing schools.

A measure, passed in 2011, lets parents petition the state to turn schools with five consecutive years of poor state ratings into charter schools, to have the staff replaced, or even to close the school—an education reform strategy known as a “parent trigger.”

Senate Bill 14 by Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) would reduce that period to two years, a kind of parental “hair trigger.”

(This session, it’s hard to escape the loaded language of gun debates.)

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

Proponents of the law, which requires half the school’s parents to sign on, say it would help parents to take a lead role in school improvement, while critics call it a coordinated attempt to convert schools to privately run charters that lack oversight.

John Gray spoke against the bill on behalf of the Texas State Teachers Association.

“Our concern on this bill is the profit motive that could be driven by some educational management organizations,” Gray said. “You are calling it a parent empowerment law, but looking at the for-profit motive, once those parents sign the petition they are done.”

California adopted the nation’s first parent trigger law in 2010, and similar laws have been adopted in at least seven states. California is the only state where the law has been used to force changes at a school.

David Anthony, CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas, said he spent time in California interviewing parents and stakeholders in schools where the parent trigger had been used.

California found that paid operatives influenced the parent trigger petition process at Desert Trails Elementary School.

“Even where parent trigger created change, campaigns produced lasting divisions in the community,” Anthony said.

Last year, the Texas Education Agency rated 750 of Texas’ 8,000 schools academically unacceptable. Those school ratings rely mostly on standardized test scores that closely track family income, and low-performing schools are more likely to have high rates of poverty, racial segregation and students with limited English.

Gabe Rose is the chief strategy officer of Parent Revolution, a nonprofit group that has encouraged parent trigger laws nationwide, beginning with the California law passed in 2010.

“I agree that test scores in general correlate with student income,” Rose told the Observer. He said the bill would affect schools serving large percentages of economically disadvantaged students. “Under the proposed move in Texas it’ll only be about 300 schools—I think it’s 290 or so—that are eligible for the law,” Rose said.

Parent-trigger petitions wouldn’t necessarily request conversion to a charter school; parents could also ask to close the school or replace the staff.

Still, the groups pushing parent-trigger laws have roots in the charter community. Parent Revolution was founded by leaders from the charter school network Green Dot, and is funded largely by the Walton Family Foundation, one of the nation’s largest financial backers of charter schools.

Taylor filed a bill similar to SB 14 last session, which the Senate passed but never came up for a vote in the House Public Education Committee. This session, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has named parent trigger one of his top education priorities.

DSC_0329_web
Eugenio del Bosque
Omar Garcia and Maria de Jesus Tlatempa Bello

“I am Maria de Jesus of Tlapa, Guerrero, and I am here to ask for your help.” The mother of three stood before state Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin) and about 15 legislative staffers in a hearing room early Thursday at the Texas Capitol.

Maria de Jesus Tlatempa Bello had come more than 1,110 miles from her home in Guerrero, Mexico, to tell the story of her son, Jose Eduardo, one of the Ayotzinapa 43. On the night of Sept. 26, police in Iguala, Guerrero, opened fired on the three buses he and other students of the Ayotzinapa Normal School were riding in, and then kidnapped 43 of the students, including Jose Eduardo.

Maria de Jesus has been looking for her 19-year old son ever since. Meanwhile, Mexicans have been searching for answers about the fate of the 43 students. “They were taken alive, we want them back alive” has become a national rallying cry, even though federal prosecutors insist the students were burned to death in a garbage dump.

The truth, like many cases of forced disappearance and violence in Mexico, has been hard to find, obscured by cynical political theater and deliberate misinformation. But it is clear that elected officials were involved in the disappearance of the students.

The mayor of Iguala and his wife are in jail facing allegations they ordered the attack on the Ayotzinapa 43 over fears that the students, with their long tradition of radical politics, would interfere with the wife’s bid for office. The governor of Guerrero has resigned under pressure from the public.

The federal government’s callousness toward the the victims’ families, and its refusal to conduct a transparent investigation, has helped spark a massive protest movement in Mexico and around the globe. The fallout from the Ayotzinapa atrocity has also become a political and public security crisis for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. Human Rights Watch has called it the worst human-rights crisis facing Mexico since soldiers massacred unarmed students at Tlatelolco in 1968.

Maria de Jesus and 24-year old Omar Garcia, an Ayotzinapa student who survived the police assault, arrived in Austin Tuesday on the Caravana 43. Organized by a coalition of grassroots organizations in the United States, they are traveling across the U.S. to raise awareness about the growing number of disappearances in Mexico and to put pressure on the Mexican government to find the 43 students.

“We’ve had enough,” Maria de Jesus said. “We’re tired of the kidnappings, the murders and disappearances. The Mexican government doesn’t help, it only abuses its power. We come here to ask for your help because we know the U.S. gives Mexico a lot of funding. Some of that money goes to pay the police, the military to fight the drug cartels. But this money is being used to repress the people, not fight the drug cartels.”

The two were invited to the Capitol by Rep. Israel (D-Austin) and state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin). Afterward, state Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) presented a memorial resolution on the Senate floor to the families of the 43 students.

The caravan, which began on March 15 in McAllen, is one of three criss-crossing the United States. All three caravans will converge in Washington, D.C. for meetings with Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, according to Julio Cesar Guerrero, a community organizer from San Antonio and a national coordinator for Caravana 43.

Guerrero says the U.S. coalition brought 15 family members and students from Mexico to participate in the three caravans. “There aren’t just 43 students missing,” he said. “There is at least 23,000 people forcefully disappeared in Mexico. They have become a symbol of thousands of deaths because of the senseless war on drugs.”

In the legislative hearing room at the Capitol Thursday, Omar Garcia told legislative staffers that he is lucky to have survived the brutal attacks in Iguala. “We are very happy that the voice of Ayotzinapa is resounding around the whole world. This case has gotten a lot of attention but it still has not been resolved. Imagine what happens with the other cases that receive less attention. Just in Iguala, 600 families are searching for missing family members. Our task is to not only seek justice for ourselves but others violated in Mexico.”

Rep. Israel said she was thankful for the caravan visit. “Maria de Jesus is taking a big risk being here and being critical of the Mexican government,” she said. “You have incredible strength to have gone through all of that and to be here today.”

Omar Garcia said some parents have been killed in Mexico for refusing to give up the search for their children. “We worry that that could happen to some of the parents of the 43 students,” he said. “But we will continue knocking on doors and urge the Mexican government to do an honest investigation of what happened. We refuse to accept that our classmates are dead.”

Open Carry Texas rally
Kelsey Jukam
Members of Open Carry Texas rally at the Capitol.

The right to bear arms wasn’t one of the five emergency items outlined in Gov. Greg Abbott’s State of the State address in February, but you might think otherwise if you’ve been watching the Senate lately. The Second Amendment took center stage this week as the Senate OK’d bills that would allow licensed gun-owners to carry handguns concealed on college campuses and openly everywhere else in public. Similar legislation has come up in the last three sessions, without much success. But with a fresh crop of senators, and the leadership of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the political climate has become ripe for passing gun bills that were once considered outside the political mainstream of the Capitol.

On Monday, Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls), the author of the Senate open carry legislation, confidently batted down Democratic opposition as they pitched questions and offered up amendments to Senate Bill 17.

Sens. John Whitmire (D-Houston) and Kirk Watson (D-Austin) clearly did their homework, forcing Estes to consult with his staff numerous times to answer questions that should have been easy to answer (like whether a proposed amendment was germane to the bill—Estes said he didn’t know, but was going to move to table it anyway). But Estes and many of the Democrats acknowledged during the course of the debate that open carry wasn’t going to be stopped in the Senate.

There were numerous last-minute amendments to the bill. Three passed: one postponing implementation of the law until Jan. 1, 2016; another requiring extra training in weapon retention (how to hold onto your gun if it’s grabbed by an attacker); and one that would prohibit open carry on college campuses. The rest died quickly as votes split on party lines, 20-11.

Open carry legislation has never come this far. Last year, two open carry bills were left pending in the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee.

Sen. John Whitmire
Sen. John Whitmire was one of the most vocal opponents to SB11 and SB17.

C.J. Grisham, founder of Open Carry Texas, told the Observer that groups like his forced legislators to deal with gun bills this session. He says in the past, only a few lobbyists—most for the National Rifle Association and the Texas State Rifle Association—worked on these issues. But this time grassroots activists “mobilizing Texans all around the state” made the difference.

The success of open carry legislation in the Senate this year was more surprising than that of campus carry. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said during a Texas Tribune forum in January that he didn’t think there was enough support in the Legislature for open carry to pass, but the odds were much better for campus carry. Legislation to allow guns on campus has also gained more traction in past sessions than open carry. Last year, the Legislature passed a law to allow concealed handgun license-holders to store their weapons and ammunition in private vehicles on college campuses.

During the debate, Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) said he hoped that the “extended conversation” between senators on the floor would at least lead House colleagues to “taking a deep breath and not feeling the political pressure, and really deliberating” on campus carry.

Many legislators and activists are hoping that campus carry will face a greater challenge in the House this year than it has in the Senate. But in 2013, a campus carry bill passed in the House 102-41. Notably, 78 of the members who voted ‘yes’ on that bill are still in the House.

That legislation, however, included a provision allowing individual universities to decide whether to allow guns on campus. On Wednesday, Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury), author of the campus carry legislation SB 11, shot down a proposed amendment to let public universities opt out, though private universities can. Birdwell argues that private property rights must be respected as much as one’s “God-given” right to bear arms.

Referencing a recent poll that found most Texans don’t support campus carry, Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) asked Sen. Birdwell, “What are we really doing here?” She echoed the sentiments of a few other senators, saying that local campuses should be allowed to decide whether to allow guns on campus or not. Birdwell said his aim is to advance to the ability of concealed handgun license holders to keep their rights, and though he values the opinions of those in charge of public universities, the “No. 1” opinion is that of “the people who sent us here.”

After four hours and 25 proposed amendments, SB 11 passed to engrossment, with all Republicans voting for it and all Democrats voting against it. The final vote on the bill will take place Thursday.

Correction: The original story stated that Sen. Craig Estes is a Republican from Granbury. In fact, he is a Republican from Wichita Falls. The Observer regrets the error.

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