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Rainbow flag - U.S. Supreme Court for Same Sex marriage
The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on same-sex marriage on Tuesday, April 28.

 

In what would be an unprecedented move, some leading LGBT advocates say they’re prepared to throw their support behind legislation related to same-sex marriage that’s been championed by anti-gay groups, including Texas Values and the Texas Pastor Council.

House Bill 3567, by Rep. Scott Sanford (R-McKinney), states that churches and clergy cannot be forced to participate in the “solemnization, formation, or celebration” of a same-sex marriage.

“It’s my job here at the ACLU to protect religious liberty, and if the bill is really about religious liberty, we’re going to come out in favor of it,” said Rebecca Robertson, legal and policy director for the ACLU of Texas. “There’s not a single example of any clergy being forced to perform a wedding that they don’t believe is consistent with their faith, but nevertheless we agree with the principle.”

The Texas Pastor Council, which has led efforts to overturn nondiscrimination ordinances in Houston and Plano, brought in dozens of religious leaders to testify in favor of the bill during a committee hearing last week. Meanwhile, LGBT advocates said the bill was too broad and could allow religiously affiliated organizations, including hospitals and universities, to discriminate against gay couples.

However, Sanford has since introduced a substitute that addresses many of those concerns by significantly narrowing the bill’s scope. In a letter to Sanford on Wednesday, Equality Texas, the Texas Freedom Network and the ACLU of Texas requested one additional minor change that the groups said, if made, would allow them to support HB 3567.

Robertson said other states have enacted similar protections in conjunction with marriage equality legislation or nondiscrimination laws. Texas is one of only 13 states where same-sex marriage is still banned, but the U.S. Supreme Court is widely expected to change that next month.

“There’s a reason that we can all get together on this bill,” Robertson said. “It’s a principle we all agree on, and people can take comfort in the fact that their personal faith traditions are not going to be threatened. There’s room for both religious liberty and equality. We have a big Constitution.”

Several media outlets reported Thursday that Senate Republicans had attempted to fast-track a companion bill at the request of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, only to have a hearing delayed by Democrats in a procedural move.

That bill, by Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls), is identical to the original version of HB 3567. The LGBT groups are hopeful Estes will be willing to address their concerns in the same way Sanford has. Neither Estes nor Sanford responded to messages seeking comment.

“There are ongoing conversations that are headed in the right direction, and if they continue in how they’re going, there’s every real possibility we’ll wind up with a bill we can support,” said Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas.

LGBT advocates say churches and clergy are already protected from being forced to participate in same-sex weddings under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Texas Constitution and the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“There are churches today that will refuse to perform a wedding for couples of different faiths, or for a couple where one of them has divorced, or for interracial couples, and these churches absolutely have that right,” Williams said, “and once the freedom to marry comes to the state of Texas, churches will absolutely have the right to refuse to perform or recognize those weddings.

“Absolutely no one is trying to change that, and so long as any proposed legislation conforms to the current standards, it will have our support.”

Dave Welch, executive director of the Texas Pastor Council, said his group continues to support the substitute version of HB 3567, and would not balk if SB 2065 is similarly revised.

“It’s frankly not one of the stronger bills,” Welch said. “It’s not one that deals with some of the other fundamental threats against religious liberty that we still need to see happen, so I’m not surprised [LGBT advocates would support it] because in reality all it’s saying is that pastors should have the right to continue to do what they’ve always done.”

Welch said his group is still pushing religious freedom measures that are more sweeping, including some that critics say would establish a “license to discriminate” against LGBT people. But most of those proposals appear stalled amid opposition from business leaders who fear the type of backlash seen in Indiana after it passed an anti-LGBT religious freedom law in March.

“Some of the Republican leadership are going to have to face the music if they don’t stand up for the principles upon which they were elected,” Welch said. “If they’re going to cater to the profit-at-all-cost corporate greed of the Texas Association of Business, which is basically standing on an empty platform of deception, they’ll ultimately lose the next election. … If Apple is going to pull out of Texas because we’re going to defend our religious freedom that has produced the same climate that brought them here to begin with, then frankly, move back to California.”

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Big Red Chair of Kilgore
KLTV instigates the big red chair east of Kilgore.

Strangest State is a recurring feature on local news you might have missed from around Texas. From profiles of small-town doctors to monstrous swamp creatures found by local kids, they’re stories that don’t fit… anywhere, really, but we want to be sure don’t go unnoticed. Got a local oddity or some small-town news to share? Tips are welcome at [email protected]

Richmond // An off-duty detective stumbled onto an apparent identity theft operation while working a side security job and turned the evidence over to the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office. That evidence, according to the Houston Press, included “several boxes and bags containing numerous wallets, 171 driver’s licenses, more than a dozen Social Security cards, several hundred credit and debit cards, and more than a dozen checkbooks.” To spread the word about their crime-fighting work, Craig Malisow reported, the sheriff’s office then issued a press release including high-resolution photos of the haul in which the victims’ identifying information was clearly visible. A second press release quickly followed the first: “If you can blur the cards, that would be fine. Otherwise, please discard the photos.”

KILGORE // KLTV news took Rusk County viewers to new heights with an April investigation: “How big is the big red chair east of Kilgore?” There, on the side of County Road 173, in “a place that looks much like the shire with its llamas and wild beasts,” reporter Jamey Boyum found the big red chair. “My wife’s dad wanted a big chair, and so he got a big chair,” Michael Truitt told the reporter. Boyum, who tried and failed to climb into the chair, reported that the chair cost $3,500. “They say they got the chair at the Home and Garden Center in Longview,” Boyum said. For the record, the chair is 12 feet tall.

ODESSA // Of all the reasons a person might have for dressing in uniform and outfitting his ride with the siren and lights of an unmarked police car, most are probably threatening, creepy or some other kind of awful. Michael Chico managed to get caught doing the merely unscrupulous: flashing his lights and running the siren in order to cruise to the front of the line at a Whataburger drive-thru, according to the Associated Press. Tough luck for Chico that a genuine Odessa cop was at the burger shop, too, and saw through the ruse. Face to face with the officer, Chico came clean, and now faces a charge of impersonating an officer. Per the Associated Press: “[W]hen confronted, Chico said he wasn’t an officer and also used the lights and sirens to get through traffic lights.”

CANUTILLO // Canutillo’s new Congressman Silvestre & Carolina Reyes Elementary School offers a striking facade that evokes an enormous American flag, with stars and stripes set into the wall. It’s also orange all over. Or cimarron, more specifically, in keeping with the surrounding homes of the Cimarron neighborhood, whose developer, Hunt Communities, complained that earlier plans to paint the flag-like wall red, white and blue would clash with the surrounding homes. With backing from former Congressman Reyes himself, the school district now plans to go ahead with a red, white and blue makeover for the wall, according to the El Paso Times. Hunt Communities has complained that the makeover plan is unpatriotic because the flag, which is also a wall, touches the ground.

MCALLEN // Marc Fantich, founder of McAllen-based Fantich Media Advertising Agency, was charged in March with burglary of a vehicle after police say he took keys, a checkbook and a radar detector from a Cadillac parked in the driveway next to his. The neighboring house belonged to Fantich’s ex-wife, The Monitor reported. The Cadillac belonged to her boyfriend. Further damage to the car included spilled tea on the driver’s seat and raw shrimp scattered throughout. The car’s owner, Eduardo Canales, told police that some of his clothes had been removed from the trunk and replaced with more raw shrimp. “Not until the next morning did Canales find the briny surprise,” wrote The Monitor.

BRAZORIA // Most places, the kids these days are always glued to their smartphones, so transfixed by city council agendas and proposed ordinances that they never even talk to their elders anymore. Not so in Brazoria! No, where other cities aim for accessibility, Brazoria still “keeps it personal.” While state law mandates that any city website include basic information about elections and city council meetings, the town of 3,000 masterfully navigates that minefield by… not having a website at all. “I don’t know anybody that doesn’t have a website except us,” Mayor Ken Corley told local newspaper The Facts with evident pride. Corley explained that the town is an early adopter of technology “that allows officials to send messages to residents’ phones, both landlines and mobile,” which is all the automation he cares to consider. “I would rather speak to a person than look at a machine,” Corley said.

 

border security
Staff Sgt. Terra C. Gatti, Virginia Guard Public Affairs/Flickr
Soldiers depart from the Virginia National Guard’s Army Aviation Support Facility in Sandston, Va., to provide aerial reconnaissance support to U.S. Customs and Border Protection as part of the national effort to counter illegal immigration along the Texas border.

The state’s republican leaders have made border security their top priority and are prepared to spend millions, perhaps even billions, on it. Now if they could only agree on what securing the border means.

In late February, the Senate Finance Committee began debating the state budget for the next biennium. But the state’s top budget analysts, the Legislative Budget Board, told the committee that since the state lacked any consensus on—or definition of—border security, it was nearly impossible for them to track expenditures or determine how effective the funding has been.

Despite the confusion, the Senate is proposing to spend as much as $815 million on border security in its draft of the budget. State Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), a member of the committee, said at the hearing that it was unclear to him why the extra funding is needed. “We’re crafting this out of a very vague set of numbers and comments,” he said. “Recently we had an influx of young children crossing the border that resulted in the reaction of putting a whole lot of money at the border. Now we’re doing something different … We all need to know what the goal looks like, not just, ‘The more money we put into it the tougher we are.’”

Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) said she left the draft budget vague on purpose. “My goal was to increase funding significantly, which we did … and to cover certain areas, but to leave it up to the committee’s discretion how we do that. … We do have a very clear goal and that’s a secure border,” Nelson said.

From the meeting it also became evident that the debate over border security spending isn’t entirely a partisan one. State Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) said he wanted to see clear goals and performance measures before voting on more money for border security. “On this subject in particular I’ve heard people say it polls well and that’s what voters are demanding. I get that,” he said. “I don’t care what it polls. Every dollar we spend has to be accounted for. We’re dealing with all of these contract fiascos. I don’t want to come back in another two years after spending $800 million to find out we have another boondoggle on our hands.”

Eltife has cause for concern. No-bid border security contracts have been doled out in the past. In 2012, the Austin American-Statesman revealed that the Texas Department of Public Safety had given at least $20 million in no-bid contracts to a private Virginia consulting firm called Abrams Learning and Information Systems Inc. (ALIS). The company, founded by retired Army Gen. John Abrams, is one of the main architects of the Texas border security plan.

After the 2012 revelations, the Public Integrity Unit at the Travis County District Attorney’s Office began to investigate the ALIS contracts. But the unit was forced to end its investigation in 2013 after then-Gov. Rick Perry vetoed $7.5 million for the anti-corruption agency.

Don Huffines
Sen. Don Huffines approaches Peak Dallas

The Senate should eat its spinach, declared Gov. Greg Abbott, the Legislature’s kind-hearted but distant paterfamilias. Among the moderate and nutritious items he laid out as priorities for his first legislative session as governor, one would be good for the whole family: ethics reform.

Did you know that legislators do not much like being told how they can and cannot make money? On Tuesday, one of the Legislature’s signature ethics bills, Senate Bill 19, stepped on to the Senate floor a ghost of its former self, having been pilloried in committee. But once debate began, it was overhauled against the author’s wishes. Greatly strengthened in some ways and weakened in others, it eventually passed by a unanimous vote.

But could the debate—full of weird and acrimonious invective between senators, and involving the passage of a large number of amendments, including one which mandates drug testing for those who hope to become elected officials—threaten the bill’s future?

SB 19’s author, state Sen. Van Taylor (R-Plano), called his bill the “most significant ethics reform package of a generation” on Tuesday, as if it had already passed. His fellow senators seemed more doubtful. They made significant changes to Taylor’s bill, which seeks to make the ways lawmakers make money more transparent and to prevent legislators from immediately becoming lobbyists when they leave public service.

Their efforts to tweak the bill culminated in an unusual last-minute gutting of a key provision of Taylor’s bill against his wishes, making the events of Tuesday one of the stranger Senate floor debates of the session.

Abbott had wanted any ethics reform package to prohibit legislators and other elected state officials who practice law from earning referral fees—payments for referring a case to another lawyer. Taylor presented the provision as an urgent part of his ethics overhaul, prompted by the case of New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who was recently arrested and charged with making millions of dollars in a kickback scheme utilizing referral fees to mask what amounted to bribes, among other improprieties. “Referral fees are ripe for corruption,” Taylor said.

But several senators, lawyers themselves, opposed this provision—asking why other professions that deal with referral fees, such as realtors, weren’t included in the bill.

“I don’t think you know the full impact that this bill has on practicing [lawyers who are] legislators,” state Sen. Chuy Hinojosa (D-McAllen) said. “You’re putting most practicing lawyers out of business.”

And state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), a towering 43-year-veteran of the lege who personifies old-school wheeler-dealer politics as well as anybody currently in office, found himself aghast that Taylor would cast aspersions on state legislators’ keen ethical senses. When state Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) offered an amendment to prevent elected officials from hiring each other—ultimately killed, 6 to 25—Whitmire erupted at both Huffines and Taylor.

The whole bill was borne out of petty political grievances, Whitmire said, charging that Taylor still wanted to give former state Sen. Wendy Davis grief after last year’s election. And Huffines’ amendment seemed tailored to the case of his one-time primary opponent, former state Sen. John Carona, whose company once counted state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) on the payroll.

Why would Taylor and Huffines have a vendetta against two lawmakers who are well retired from the lege? Huffines seemed mystified by this assertion. When Whitmire suggested he felt he had a “score to settle,” Huffines replied: “The score was settled when I won.”

But Whitmire was angrier at the aspersions cast on the Senate as a whole. “I think you’ve done a horrible disservice to this outstanding body,” Whitmire said, speaking of the way in which Taylor laid out the bill. Wasn’t he implying, with his attempt to create new ethical guidelines for elected officials, that “we are all crooks?”

“Would you put a face on this for all of us?” Whitmire asked. If Taylor was aware of wrongdoing, “you need to name us.” And then, he added, “run over to the DA’s office.” Otherwise, he said, any suggestion of impropriety at the lege was, in effect, “incriminating outstanding, honest people.”

But though Whitmire felt Taylor’s bill and Huffines’ amendment were classless, he found himself physically “sick to my stomach” thanks to Taylor’s linkage of the Empire State with the Lone Star State. It was highly inappropriate, he said, to put Texas legislators in the same league as “the slime of the New York Legislature.”

After a long late-afternoon delay, state Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) came up with a fix for the debate over lawyer referrals. Although the Texas Government Code already requires referrals to be reported on personal financial statements, she said, “that wasn’t routinely being done.” Her amendment will allow elected officials who are lawyers to continue accepting referral fees, but they will have to report those fees and provide details of the associated court cases.

But remarkably, the compromise wasn’t accepted by Taylor, who felt it was a critical part of his bill and moved to table it. That’s commonplace in the House, but almost never done in the Senate. Even more unusual—Taylor convincingly lost the motion to table, and was forced to swallow Huffman’s provision. Senate leadership, with both Democrats and Republicans on board, effectively railroaded Taylor.

Other successful amendments to the bill will require candidates to disclose the full total of their income from whatever source, including pensions and retirement plans, and to post their personal financial statements online.

And state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville) took transparency to the next level with his amendment that would require state elected officials to take a drug test when they file for office and post the results of those tests online. The tests carry no penalty, so officials posting positive drug tests would only incur the wrath of public scrutiny.

The Senate passed the drug-test amendment, but not without some eye rolling. In response to Lucio’s amendment, state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) suggested he should propose that elected officials also take an IQ test—and maybe test for alcohol abuse as well. Ultimately, mandatory drug tests for elected state officials are probably not even legal. In the 1997 case of Chandler v. Miller, the Supreme Court found that mandatory drug tests of elected officials are unconstitutional, violating the fourth amendment.

All in all, Tuesday’s debate was reminiscent of another Senate tango that took place a little over two years ago. Carona, the former Dallas senator who was replaced by Huffines, found himself trying to wrangle a huge payday lending regulatory effort through the upper chamber. It came to the Senate weak, the product of lengthy negotiations between reformers and the industry—but a miracle happened. Amendments kept getting added to the bill, including several by liberals like Davis and Ellis, strengthening it and its provisions.

But Carona knew what was happening. The bill was tanking. It had become so top-heavy, and so strong against the industry, that it was effectively being killed on the floor, with little chance of future passage. He began acquiescing to the amendments, defeated. He told the chamber: “I just want to go home and feed my cat.”

Taylor seemed to be in a similar mood Tuesday. SB 19 is now an ungainly collection of weak and strong provisions—a mess that House members will have to work to untangle, if they pass it at all. The Senate, apparently amending out of spite, even passed a special amendment to prevent legislators for being paid to serve on bank boards. (Taylor serves on a bank board.)

Is SB 19 on the road to passage? Maybe. Will it be anything close to what the governor wanted when he called for ethics reform? No, almost certainly not. Taylor, Patrick and Abbott insisted they were thrilled with the bill, but one has to wonder how Taylor is feeling about his education in Senate decorum. Maybe he should get a cat.

Segregation Texas Style

Downtown San Antonio
Historic downtown San Antonio.

 

We Texans are a tribal bunch with a strong state identity. We also are defined by a unique brand of disunion. Our culture of exclusion explains why Texas metro areas—San Antonio, Dallas, Houston and Austin topping the list—are among the nation’s more economically and educationally segregated.

In these cities, the wealthy have walled off themselves from the working class, and educated professionals rarely share a neighborhood sidewalk with laborers, according to a study by the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto. “It is not just that divide in America has grown wider,” writes urban theorist Richard Florida. “It’s that the rich and poor effectively occupy different worlds, even when they live in the same cities and metros.”

In Texas, white and brown belong to two worlds. In 2014, the state’s demographer put it plainly: Latinos have lower educational levels and are less represented in high-skilled occupations than other groups. More than 2 million Texas children attend segregated schools that easily belong to the era when Jim Crow was the law of the South.

But the Texas brand of segregation not only divides, it defines the contours of a Texas identity. What distinguishes Texas segregation from, say, New York City, where I lived for many years, is a Texas identity that was born fighting against “the Mexican.” Remember the Alamo! At the same time, Texas segregation allows the two worlds to join in the embrace of cultural appropriation, which explains why some equate “Texas Mexican” not with people deeply rooted in the state, but with a salted mug, a sizzling platter and a bowl of queso.

Our cities and streets reflect the unique interdependence of two worlds, side by side. In Remembering the Alamo, Richard Flores describes San Antonio’s historic downtown streets as a contrast between “the new, the modern, the American … while the old, the traditional, the Mexican is dissolved into the folkloric, the quaint, the foreign.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that a fraternity at the University of Texas at Austin recently hosted a “Border Patrol”-themed party, ostensibly inspired by tales of the Old West. When partygoers donned sombreros, draped their shoulders with serapes or dressed as construction workers, they were reflecting back to us the segregated world they inhabit, one in which Mexicans and U.S.-born Latinos occupy low-paying jobs and serve an ornamental role.

Apart from its cultural weight, the entrenchment of Texas segregation served an economic purpose, fueling the expansion of the farming industry of the early 20th century, when Mexicans picked cotton on white-owned fields. “Race ideas…also provided a basis for control of the Mexican, a critical element for the stability of the new farm order wrote David Montejano in Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836-1986.

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson invoked the Texas social order in his address to Congress after the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama. His intimate experience with the misshapen hand of segregation, he said, began while teaching at a Mexican-American school in Texas: “Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child.”

Decades later, the tech industry has become an economic engine and, like cotton farming, it reflects a segregated social order with Latinos mainly occupying the rungs of laborers—cleaning offices and serving up breakfast tacos—while the farms of the new Texas economy largely belong to whites.

Despite our bifurcated world, low voter turnout among Latinos is blamed on apathy or a cultural shortcoming. How many reporters venture into segregated communities to probe why voters shun the political system of their divided cities? Segregation studies underestimate the reach of Texas’ culture of exclusion across class lines. Segregation can’t begin to explain the experience of witnessing a nightclub filled with older whites clear out when a Latin jazz band takes the stage. Within moments, the room is packed with Latinos—young professionals, graduate students, hipsters and at least one underpaid writer.

That’s the most insidious part of segregation, the obliviousness to it. Simply consider the much-celebrated coming-of-age film Boyhood. The story tracks 12 years of a white family’s life in Central Texas, in which we see them at school, at work, and playing with friends—somehow completely without any encounters with Latinos, except for one with the “help.”

Bernie Sanders
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, photographed at Serranos restaurant in Austin after a Q&A luncheon with potential donors and supporters of his possible presidential primary run.

 

There’s one question Democrats face as they head into the 2016 presidential election. How should they feel about Hillary Clinton? The coalition Barack Obama built happily came out to vote in his two presidential elections, but turnout was pathetic in 2010 and 2014 when he wasn’t on the ticket. Clinton’s ability to inherit that coalition is debatable.

Some of the party’s faithful just want to maximize their chances of taking a third consecutive term, and they think the Clintons’ careful and calculated brand of center-left politics is the thing to do it. Others are antsy. They’ve seen the GOP’s far right drag their party to them with great success, and they want someone to subject Clinton to the same type of pressures. But they need a candidate. Elizabeth Warren has declined to run, and Martin O’Malley is a ball of ambition.

Enter U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), Congress’ sole self-avowed socialist, who came through Texas at the beginning of April in the middle of a cross-country trip whose purpose, he said, was to judge the energies of the left and to raise money in anticipation of a possible primary run against Clinton. Sanders would be as unusual a candidate as we’ve seen in America for quite some time. He’s not quite a Dennis Kucinich or a Mike Gravel, but it’s not that he’s setting out to win either. His self-proclaimed models are people such as Jesse Jackson and Howard Dean, who ran and lost, but inspired future political activists.

Obama’s 2008 campaign, Sanders told the Observer at an Austin Tex-Mex restaurant, “will go down in history as one of the great campaigns ever run.” But, he continued, “the day after the election, he said, ‘Thank you for electing me, but I think I can go on from here without you. I do not need the millions of people who were actively involved in my campaign.’” The kind of change the left wants, he said, is not possible without “mass organized activity” of the kind that has not existed in the country in some five decades—the kind Sanders experienced as a young man in the civil rights, anti-war and kibbutz movements.

As he talks, he has the feel of a radical giving it one last college try. But his reception in Austin was decidedly warm. In addition to small venues—he spoke to a union hall—he gave the keynote at one of the Travis County Democratic Party’s main annual fundraisers. Outside, his communications director, a silver-haired former Chicago newspaperman who dimly recalls his last trip to Texas some decades ago, marvels at the previous day’s turnout: He calls it a “field of dreams” moment.

Inside, Sanders, with a mishmash accent that’s part Brooklyn and part New England, speaks in front of a giant Texas flag. “The biggest problem this country faces,” he tells the crowd, “is that we don’t talk about our serious problems.” He gives a 20-minute lecture on rising economic inequality, student debt, Wall Street and America’s diminishing middle class. He’s treated to an unusual number of standing ovations for a speech so filled with numbers. It’s not exactly Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America,” but it’s a tune a lot of Democrats will feel pulled to sing along to.

Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick
Kelsey Jukam
Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick at the State of the State Address.

Many of us have been the target of bullying, but few of us have been lieutenant governor. Dan Patrick has the misfortune to be both at the same time. Who is bullying the second-most powerful elected official in the great state of Texas, you ask? His peers in state government, says Dan.

By now, you’ve probably heard the story of The Breakfast, as characterized last week by Texas Monthly. At a regularly scheduled weekly breakfast between Patrick, Gov. Greg Abbott, and House Speaker Joe Straus, things got heated: Patrick and Straus confronted each other over long-simmering resentments between the two chambers, and Abbott got up the nerve to ask Patrick about Patrick’s best friends calling Abbott’s pre-K plan godless welfare socialism. Patrick responded, in the only quote that left the room, that the two were “picking on me.”

The confrontation was the subject of feverish speculation through this weekend. Did the tale have substance? Was it fluff? Was Patrick not as weaselly, or the three as far apart, as the story has them?

To some extent, the full picture doesn’t matter: The Breakfast is a perfect #txlege meta-narrative. The highly unflattering story about Patrick had to be given to the media by multiple people with knowledge of the event—certainly from friends of House leadership, and probably from people in the governor’s camp, too—which is itself evidence that things are not going well between the three.

The weekly breakfasts have long been offered by one or another of its participants as evidence that things were going smoothly in the 84th—and that the governor, contrary to an increasingly popular perception around Austin, has a hand in how the Legislature is running. Eggs! Friendship! Fun!

But they’ve been extra-important this session because two of the Big Three are new. Patrick was a highly unknown quantity whose ability to play with others was in question when the session commenced in January. Abbott, who was attorney general before he took the top job, had no experience as a legislator. And would Straus and his team of streetfighters accept the new order?

With a little over a month to go in the session, we’re not much closer to getting a satisfactory resolution on these questions. There are some signs now that the causes of last Wednesday’s tension—the logjam in the House and Senate, and the drama over pre-K—are ebbing a bit. But other fights loom large on the horizon, and the underlying causes of this session’s dysfunction so far have not materially changed.

—Abbott’s out to lunch.

Unlike Rick Perry, who served in the Legislature for six years and had no reluctance about throwing his weight around as governor, no one really knew how Abbott was going to handle the Lege. He’s been making appearances at sporting events and music award shows far from Austin. A gap has opened up between the more moderate-minded guv and his right, giving oxygen to the persistent speculation in Austin that he should worry about a primary challenge in 2018.

When Patrick’s lieutenants—members of his so-called Grassroots Advisory Board—wrote a letter for the world to see that proclaimed one of Abbott’s most important policy priorities straight out of the pits of hell, he had to confront Patrick. Here’s how one person “familiar with the breakfast conservation” spun it to the Texas Tribune:

“I will say this for anyone who’s been wondering where Abbott has been,” said one. “He arrived today.”

This is too little, too late, isn’t it? It’s late April, and we’ve not long to go till Sine Die. The House and the Senate have gotten hopelessly crosswise on issues like their rival tax cut plans that will be very difficult to resolve without one side winning outright. Patrick can rightfully point to the governor’s past statements, like his seeming endorsement of property tax cuts in his State of the State address, as helping to create that confusion. (Patrick has repeatedly attempted to use Abbott’s past tax talk against him.)

Abbott’s priorities, from his university research initiative to the pre-K bills, have gotten batted around like a chew-toy. His ethics reform proposals have been hollowed out, and today one of the most important ethics bills this session was practically turned inside out by a hostile Senate. If the advisor here is suggesting he’s learned his lesson, he’s got a lot of ground to make up for.

—Patrick is still playing games.

Patrick burst into the Lege like Napoleon in a Whataburger drive-thru. He’d whip the place into shape. He set extraordinarily high expectations for himself, and many different sets of expectations as well. He could not possibly live up to them all. So the fight during the next month will be to preserve as much of his program as possible, against a speaker and governor he seems to view as undermining him.

Since Wednesday, Straus has referred a number of Senate bills to committee, and Patrick has done the same with some House bills. Significantly, Patrick referred House Bill 4, the pre-K bill that Abbott wants, to committee. So did the breakfast serve to break the tension? Are things working smoothly again now? Patrick soothingly told the Houston Chronicle he thought there was a less than 20 percent chance of a special session.

But is Patrick really backing down? At the breakfast, reports the Texas Tribune, Abbott emphasized that Patrick shouldn’t take his pre-K plan hostage: He “cautioned the lieutenant governor against holding that pre-K legislation hostage until the House acted on school choice or other bills dear to Patrick.”

The day after The Breakfast, Patrick called Julie McCarty of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party. She’s one of the most prominent tea party leaders in the state, and she’s on Patrick’s Grassroots Advisory Board—the one that kicked off the pre-K furor early last week. She described his call on her Facebook page. Here’s what she wrote:

From what I can tell, Dan is ok with the pre-k issue because it’s not full day, and it’s less money that it has been previously. Plus for some unknown reason Abbott is obsessed with it. But he believes it needs to be part of a full package deal of education issues.

In other words, Patrick continues to sell the tea party on his support of pre-K by using exactly the framework that Abbott sought to dissuade him from using. How much will he try to get in exchange for letting the guv’s wishlist through?

Patrick says he didn’t know about the pre-K letter that got him in hot water. But it plays into his hands, in a way. Anything he can do to widen the gap between Abbott and the GOP right is good for Patrick. Even if he doesn’t want Abbott’s job, the pressure might force Abbott to the right, too. And now that the distance between Patrick and the governor is clearly established, he might be blamed less by his base for having to pass bills written by the dreaded RINOs.

—The House wants to fight.

The Senate began moving on some smaller House bills last week, and the House began moving on an even smaller number of Senate bills. OK. There are real differences on important bills, but there always are. Much of the hold-up has been over which chamber gets to take credit for authoring bills, and that’s relatively easy to sort out—just divide them up.

But the biggest fight to come will be over tax cuts. Here, it’s very difficult to see a compromise without the other side yielding completely. But the two sides keep raising the stakes, which makes that option more and more unpalatable for the two jousters. Patrick’s team is digging in over his shoddily constructed plan to lower what Texans pay in property taxes by a small amount.

On Saturday, the House GOP caucus sent a message of its own: 90 of the 98 House Republicans signed a letter arguing for the House plan, which would cut sales taxes by an even tinier amount. The missive, unusual in the way that it’s addressed to the public, lays out in a fairly in-depth way why the authors think Patrick’s tax cut plan sucks. (You can read it here.)

The letter is wholly unnecessary—it’s just a way to poke the Senate in the eye. The House hadn’t even passed its tax cut plan yet. (It did on Tuesday, with Speaker Straus himself voting for some of the package’s provisions, a highly unusual gesture.) And the letter was signed by almost every member of the House’s far-right, who might have been expected to side with Patrick. When members of Straus’ leadership team speak—particularly state Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton)—viscous, oily disdain for Patrick seeps to the surface.

Was The Breakfast overhyped? Maybe. But the problems between the Big 3 aren’t just the product of personality quirks, to be worked out over muffins and coffee. They’re the product of ideology. That portends difficulties in the long term—mid-morning snacks or no.

Rape - Reproductive rights activist Shelby Knox
Reproductive rights activist Shelby Knox

Data released this week shows that 413,000 Texans have experienced some form of sexual assault in the past year.

The analysis, conducted by a research team at the University of Texas School of Social Work and Institute for Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, also estimated that 6.3 million Texans—4.2 million women and 2.1 million men—have experienced a form a sexual assault in their lifetime. In 2003, a similar study found that 1.9 million Texans experienced a form sexual assault in their lifetime.

“It’s alarming that the prevalence of sexual assault has grown significantly since 2003,” Annette Burrhus-Clay, executive director of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, said in a statement. “As a state it’s imperative that we devote adequate resources to preventing sexual violence and serving survivor needs…To do otherwise seems both reckless and heartless.”

Noel Busch-Armendariz, lead researcher and associate dean for research at the School of Social Work, called the numbers “staggering.” The increase from 2003, however, isn’t necessarily due to more occurrences, but rather stronger measurements and legal definitions of what constitutes sexual assault and increased awareness over the last decade, Busch-Armendariz said.

“I think that once we started to understand the crime better and we started to describe it better in how we measured it, people say, ‘Oh wow, that happened to me,’” she said.

In addition to the statewide prevalence of sexual assault, the study found that 61 percent of women, and three in 10 men, were assaulted by someone that they were related to or had a close relationship with, such as a spouse or dating partner.

“A lot of times we go after those who commit complete stranger assaults,” Busch-Armendariz said. In situations where a victim is related to or knows his or her assailant, “it makes it really complicated for the victim to report and seek help. They may have a difficult time understanding what happened, that this was a person [they] trusted.”

Data also show that only 9 percent of victims reported the assault to law enforcement.

“When victims feel blame or a sense of culpability, they don’t get the help they need and they don’t report the crime to the police,” Busch-Armendariz said. “Then we’re in the perpetual cycle of not being able to hold offenders accountable.”

During the last 12 years, Texas has expanded some support services for survivors, though the state must do more, said Chris Kaiser, staff attorney with the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault. For example, in 2003, the Legislature passed a law allowing sexual assault survivors to seek protective orders.

The state also has strengthened the Crime Victims’ Compensation Program, which helps sexual assault victims cover things like lease termination fees and relocation costs should they need to move away from their assailant. Kaiser also said some local police departments have improved the way they interview victims and witnesses of assault.

“The more we can expand options and meet people where they are, the better able we are to support them and help them follow through the criminal justice process,” Kaiser said.

Funding for things like rape crisis centers and sexual assault nurse examiners remains a challenge. In 2011, a study by the University of Texas’s Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault led by Busch-Armendariz found that the state spends approximately $42.8 million per year on those services.

“We should be paying attention to this crime. It’s affecting all of us as taxpayers,” Busch-Armendariz said.

This session, multiple measures related to sexual assault are moving through the Legislature. They include House Bill 1102, which would eliminate the civil statute of limitations for childhood sexual assault incidents. Senate Bill 145 by state Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso), scheduled for a hearing on Tuesday, would make medical forensic exams free for all sexual assault victims.

On Monday, the House passed a measure by state Rep. Poncho Nevárez (D-Eagle Pass) requiring college campuses to create robust policies for addressing sexual assault, though members voted down an amendment that would’ve created a statewide task force to study the issue. The amendment by state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) on behalf of state Rep. Dawnna Dukes (D-Austin) is identical to Dukes’ House Bill 808, which has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.

“What do we need to do to make sure that this body protects the women in this state?” Howard asked House members as the amendment was defeated Monday.

Ann Elder - Transgender Lobby Day
John Wright
Ann Elder, left, shares a photo of her transgender son with a staffer for Rep. Dennis Paul (R-Houston) as Mitchel Roth and Lisa Mauldin look on during Monday's lobby day at the Texas Capitol.

 

Mitchel Roth hasn’t been involved in politics since he protested the Vietnam War.

But Roth, an author and criminology professor at Sam Houston State University, spent Monday at the Texas Capitol lobbying against bills that would require transgender people to use public restrooms according to their birth sex.

Roth traveled to Austin on behalf of his 10-year-old son, who’d become suicidal before his parents realized last year that he was transgender.

“There’s so much wrong in this state,” Roth said. “We’re like No. 50 in education and insurance and everything, and they’re worried about guns in holsters and someone going to the wrong bathroom. That’s what pisses me off. It’s hateful, non-necessary legislation.”

Roth was one of several parents with young transgender children who joined dozens of other LGBT advocates at the lobby day organized by Transgender Education Network of Texas.

For Roth and other parents, the prime target was House Bill 2801, by Rep. Gilbert Peña (R-Pasadena), which would make school districts liable for damages if they allow transgender students to use restrooms according to the gender with which they identify.

HB 2801 was scheduled for a hearing two weeks ago, but Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana), chair of the House Committee on State Affairs, abruptly asked Peña to rewrite it.

Peña, who previously told the Observer that HB 2801 is designed to protect students’ privacy, has declined to discuss the measure further.

“I have no idea what’s going on with it,” Peña said Monday. “You’ll have to ask the committee chair.”

Cook said Peña hasn’t offered a substitute bill or asked for another hearing to be scheduled.

“This looks like something that’s not likely to be addressed this session,” Cook said, adding that the liability for school districts presented “a huge issue.”

Another proposal, House Bill 1748 by Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-Spring), would make it a misdemeanor for transgender people to use public restrooms according to how they identify and a felony for business owners to allow them to do so.

Riddle, whose bill was also referred to Cook’s committee, has repeatedly declined to discuss it with the Observer. She recently told Breitbart Texas that HB 1748 is “simple common sense” because “men go to the men’s room and women go to the women’s room.”

“It protects the privacy and safety of women and children,” Riddle told Breitbart. “It is sad we even need a bill like this in today’s society.”

Lisa Strnad - transgender lobby day
John Wright
Trans woman Kerri Strnad, left, prepares to visit lawmakers’ offices with her wife, Lisa Strnad, during Monday’s lobby day at the Texas Capitol.

Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas, said it’s too soon to declare anti-trans legislation dead, noting the deadline for committees to report bills to the House is May 11.

“Amendments are still a risk, but I think events like this are what’s keeping those bills down,” Williams said before a press conference to kick off the lobby day on the north steps of the Capitol. “There are 35 days left in the session. At this point, every hour is a victory.”

Monday’s event was the third trans lobby day this year. That’s unprecedented, and Williams said anti-trans legislation has had a galvanizing effect for people who support transgender rights.

“Before this session, I think 90 percent of lawmakers could have said they’ve never had a conversation with a transgender person,” Williams said. “I don’t think any of them can say that now.”

On the eve of same-sex marriage arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court, the lobby day also served as a timely reminder that the LGBT movement is about more than marriage, said Mara Keisling, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Transgender Equality. In addition to fighting negative bills, participants advocated for statewide nondiscrimination laws.

“In states like Texas, a gay couple could get married in the morning and go back to work and tell their co-workers and get fired,” said Keisling, who traveled to Austin for the event. “Marriage was never the most important or only part of our agenda.”

Keisling said similar anti-trans bills have been introduced in eight states, but none has passed.

“It really is almost exactly the same bill in every state,” she said. “It’s based on, clearly, some radical think tank putting these things forward, because there’s no problem in Texas with people using the bathroom. While every legislature has a few knuckleheads, the leadership in most of these state legislatures has understood what sort of boneheaded policy it is.”

Keisling accompanied Roth and other parents of transgender children as they visited legislative offices throughout the afternoon.

Ann Elder, of Friendswood, said her son transitioned from female to male at 7. He was allowed to use a nurse’s bathroom at school but stopped when other students started asking him why.

“He just stopped drinking at school and stopped going to the bathroom,” Elder said. “He comes home dehydrated, starved, because he’s so afraid to use the bathroom.”

During a visit to the office of Rep. Mark Keough (R-The Woodlands), co-author of an anti-trans bill, legislative director Kurt Jones told Elder and other parents that Keough supports the measures because he’s pastor of a conservative Christian church.

“His worldview is obviously going to come from that,” Jones said.

Elder responded that her son is a foster child whom she and her husband adopted because they were unable to have kids.

“My child came to me from God,” Elder told Jones. “Tell [Keough] that God sometimes gives people challenges.”

Leticia Van De Putte
Courtesy of leticiaformayor.com

When Leticia Van De Putte ran for Lieutenant Governor, she was beloved by the Texas Democrats. She was a long shot, with a fraction of the resources allocated to her ticket mate Wendy Davis and to her opponent, Dan Patrick. A better retail candidate than either, Van de Putte was forced to rely on free media and a statewide bus tour that never gained much traction. But to her supporters, she furthered her mythic status.

Now, the tables are turned. Shortly after losing the election, Van de Putte dropped off of her longtime perch in the Senate to run for mayor of San Antonio. She’s no longer a fearless underdog: At the beginning of the race, her name recognition and ability to raise money seemed to make her a formidable challenger for the city’s top job—perhaps, for her three opponents, prohibitively so. And yet Van de Putte has struggled mightily, partly because of that dominance.

In the run-up to the May 9 election, likely to result in a runoff, the former state senator fired virtually her entire campaign staff, something campaigns usually avoid at all costs to avoid the perception of panic. But it’s her attempt to play her biggest trump card—using her state campaign account, flush with money from the lieutenant governor race—that’s caused the most consternation in San Antonio.

The Alamo City has fairly strict campaign finance laws for municipal races, including a $1,000 limit on donations from individuals. That’s decidedly unlike laws for statewide races, in which pretty much anything goes. Van de Putte’s opponents—former state Rep. Mike Villarreal, current mayor Ivy Taylor, and county commissioner Tommy Adkisson—have always had to raise money with these restrictions. Villarreal transferred a small amount of money from his statewide account, but took special steps outlined in the law to ensure that the contribution limit was not violated, including sending money past the limit back to his donors.

So when Van de Putte announced in the last week of March that she would be rolling over roughly $300,000 from her statewide account to her municipal campaign, heads turned. That’s a hugely consequential amount of money in the context of a mayoral race, and Van de Putte’s campaign initially declared that it would take none of the steps Villarreal did to ensure strict compliance with San Antonio law. That provoked a lot of bluster from her opponents. Adkisson and Villarreal, generally presumed to be in third and fourth place as the campaign rolls on, held a joint press conference in which an Adkisson strategist called the plan a “money laundering scheme.” Villarreal later filed an ethics complaint.

The bid to drown her opponents in statewide money absolutely violated the spirit, if not the letter, of San Antonio’s campaign finance law, and it became a story in itself. Like many Democrats who were desperate to beat Patrick, Villarreal gave $25,000 to Van de Putte’s lieutenant governor campaign. Was Van de Putte raising money for her statewide account in the closing weeks of her race, when victory was clearly out of her grasp, knowing that she’d use it to run for mayor?

Eventually, Van de Putte retreated under pressure. She would apply the same strict scrutiny Villarreal had used to her own funds. She’ll only be able to use about half of the $300,000 now—still a consequential amount. But the strangely ill-considered attempt poses a question: Is Van de Putte acting from a position of strength, or weakness?

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