Google+ Back to mobile


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kyle Kacal
Kyle Kacal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He went even further with reporters after the hearing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

University of Texas-Pan American student Nahiely Garcia is consoled as she speaks at rally in support of Texas DREAM Act in January
Kelsey Jukam
University of Texas-Pan American student Nahiely Garcia speaks at rally in support of Texas DREAM Act in January

Update: Senators voted on party lines early Tuesday morning to send SB 1819 to the full Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

Original: During a debate over the repeal of the so-called Texas DREAM Act, Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) said in-state tuition at Texas colleges and universities acts as a magnet for undocumented immigrants.

“[The Texas DREAM Act] is bad policy that rewards illegal immigration in perpetuity,” Campbell said as she laid out Senate Bill 1819, which would shut down the program.

Several experts who testified against the bill, including Texas Commissioner of Higher Education Raymund Paredes, disagreed.

“We have absolutely no evidence that in-state tuition acts a magnet for undocumented immigrants,” Paredes said.

The act, passed in 2001, allows undocumented students who graduate from Texas high schools and who have been in the state at least three years to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities

Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) said that Campbell’s bill unfairly punishes hard-working students who were brought to Texas as children and will have negative economic consequences for the state.

“Our economic future depends on educating these young people,” Rodriguez said while observing the hearing from the dais.

Rodriguez also objected to the bill being heard in the Border Security Subcommittee of the Veterans Affairs and Military Installations Committee rather than the Higher Education Committee. Two of the three members of the subcommittee, Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) and  Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood), have taken a hard line on border security and immigration.

“There is not one single shred of evidence that suggests that DREAMers are a threat to the border or to Texas,” Rodriguez said. “I think this sends an inaccurate message about these students.”

Dozens of those students, many wearing graduation caps and gowns, waited hours to testify against Campbell’s bill.

Blanca Leyva, a sophomore at Texas A&M University, testified that she has been in the country for more than 14 years and graduated from her Dallas high school as valedictorian. She said she wouldn’t be able to attend college if not for the DREAM Act.

“As DREAMers we simply want to be successful. We want a better life. I want a better life,” Leyva said.

Texas became the first state to offer in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants almost 15 years ago, and at least 17 other states have followed suit. Almost 25,000 undocumented students currently pay in-state tuition, totaling more than $51 million, at colleges across Texas.

The law initially attracted widespread bipartisan support and was signed into law by former Gov. Rick Perry. In 2011, during presidential run, Perry took a lot of flak from fellow conservatives for defending the law.

“If you say that we should not educate children who come into our state for no other reason than that they’ve been brought here through no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart,” Perry said.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has made repeal of the DREAM Act a legislative priority. With the Senate’s repeal of the two-thirds rule in January, Campbell’s bill is expected to pass the Senate.

Under the two-thirds rule, bills could not be brought up for debate without the approval of 21 of 31 Senators. The Senate is composed of 20 Republicans and  and 11 Democrats.

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) said the “heartless” bill would face an uphill battle in the House.

“We stand ready to fight with our Senate colleagues against this draconian bill,” Rodriguez said. “Should it get to the House floor, it will be a heck of a fight.”

If the bill passes out of the subcommittee as expected, it will move on to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.


Arresting Development

A settlement for my illegal arrest at the 2004 Republican National Convention means the case is finished—but it doesn't feel like closure.
Republican National Convention 2004
AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
This Aug. 31, 2004 file photo shows a protester being arrested by New York City Police officers during the Republican National Convention in New York. New York City agreed Jan. 15, 2014, to pay $18 million to settle dozens of lawsuits filed by protesters, journalists and bystanders who said they were wrongly arrested at the 2004 Republican National Convention.

In August 2004, I went to New York City to protest the Republican National Convention. I’d wanted to go as a journalist, but no publication was interested in paying a fresh-out-of-college newbie with a handful of clips. In any case, I was an activist and I believed—as do many young people, naively and blessedly—that change could come from the sustained application of raw people power. It was just a matter of mobilizing enough voices with enough energy for enough time. In other words, I was kind of a hippie. I’m still a believer, but my democratic faith has been tempered by a decade of watching Texas descend into a mean-spirited pissing contest between right and far right, in the face of which one teeters between tears and laughter.

On campus, I’d thrown myself with almost reckless zeal into organizing against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We organized god knows how many teach-ins, die-ins, rallies and public forums. The high-water mark was a campus-wide walk-out in February 2003. Thousands of students left their classes and gathered on UT’s East Mall at noon. We spontaneously decided to march around campus and then proceed to an interminably long rally on the steps in front of The Tower. Two days later, Hans Blix told the U.N. Security Council that no weapons of mass destruction had been found. A month after the rally, I was sitting in a dining room in the student union watching the Iraq invasion on television.

What’s the point of protesting, some of my friends wondered. I didn’t have an answer.

Yet there I was in New York a year and a half later. This was after Mission Accomplished, after Abu Ghraib, long after it was apparent there were no WMDs in Iraq. Hadn’t we, the anti-war protesters, been proven right? Half the country didn’t seem to think so, still stuck in a post-9/11 boot-and-rally mode of almost hedonistic overreaction that the Bush administration was adept at stoking.

The scene in New York was shocking. Manhattan had basically been turned into a police state, and I do not use that term lightly or casually. Undercover NYPD officers infiltrated peaceful protest groups, surreptitiously recorded law-abiding activists, and acted as agents provocateur during the protests. Worse, cops illegally arrested and detained 1,800 people in the days leading up to Bush’s speech at the RNC, including legal observers, journalists and people who had nothing to do with the protests. I was arrested on Aug. 31, 2004, while walking with a small band of protesters on Broadway. Plainclothes police on scooters drove up on the sidewalk in front of us while uniformed cops in a van jumped out and surrounded us from behind. My friends ran but I hesitated and was thrown to the ground. I didn’t resist arrest but I hollered about my rights, as people do when they’re being unjustly arrested. While I was in handcuffs, a commanding officer put his fist near my face and threatened to punch me, calling me “punk scum.” (An odd thing to call a Texas boy wearing a pearl-snap western shirt, but that’s New York for you.) I was hauled off to Pier 57, a grimy old bus depot that came to be known as Guantanamo on the Hudson. About 18 hours later, I learned that I had been charged with multiple counts of disorderly conduct and parading without a permit. I was held for about 24 hours before being released. Some of my friends were illegally detained for almost 50 hours without ever being charged. For me, it was a formative experience: It reaffirmed my notion that military marauding abroad has corrosive effects on dissent at home. It solidified my sense that the police state was not an abstraction but a reality, comprised of hardware, tactics and ideology, that presents itself whenever power feels threatened. A few weeks later, still reeling, I wrote, “What I actually witnessed and experienced was the intolerance of dissent and the wholesale discarding of our constitutional rights to free speech.”

Almost a decade later, a federal judge agreed, ruling that those New York City arrests were illegal. Last year, the city finally agreed to an $18 million settlement with the arrested protesters. Last month, I received my part: a check for $1,000. I haven’t cashed it yet because I don’t know what to do with the money. Part of me wants to donate it to a police accountability project or a civil liberties group. Another part of me wants to blow it all on a trip to Mexico.

Legally, the case is closed, but this check doesn’t feel like closure. Today there is no anti-war movement in the U.S. to speak of, and other promising social movements—Occupy, Ferguson—have been throttled by police power. Which makes protesting seem futile. And that’s what they want, right?

Austin Mayor Steve Adler speaks during a rally to protest anti-LGBT legislation at the Capitol on Saturday.
John Wright
Austin Mayor Steve Adler speaks during a rally to protest anti-LGBT legislation at the Capitol on Saturday.

With only 7 percent of the state’s population, Austin has more than 30 percent of its patents and over half its venture capital, according to Mayor Steve Adler.

That’s partly because the city is known as inclusive, which attracts talented, creative people and the companies that employ them, Adler said.

But Austin’s reputation could be threatened by anti-LGBT proposals in the 84th Texas Legislature, he warned, pointing to recent backlash from businesses over “religious freedom” laws in Indiana and Arkansas.

“Apple is here, Google is here, because the people who work for Apple and Google, they want to live here,” Adler said. “It’s real important that we not go down that path, and it is scary to me that our state Legislature right now is considering doing that.”

Adler was among the speakers Saturday evening at a rally on the south steps of the Capitol to protest a record number of anti-LGBT bills in the Legislature, including proposals similar to the Indiana and Arkansas laws.

Activist Omar Lopez waves a Texas-gay Pride hybrid flag during Saturday's rally at the Capitol.
John Wright
Activist Omar Lopez waves a Texas-gay Pride hybrid flag during Saturday’s rally at the Capitol.

Nearly 100 people gathered below a banner reading, “We Are More Than Marriage. Full Equality Now.” With dusk falling, speakers addressed the crowd through a bullhorn while an activist waved a hybrid Texas-gay Pride flag in the light breeze.

The rally, organized by GetEQUAL, was among three this weekend in as many states as part of the group’s #HateOutbreak campaign, inspired by anti-LGBT legislation across the country in response to the spread of same-sex marriage.

Jan Soifer, chair of the Travis County Democratic Party, decried the use of religion to justify discrimination, pointing to proposals like Senate Joint Resolution 10, by Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels). Although religious opposition to homosexuality is often rooted in a single verse from the Book of Leviticus, other Old Testament passages forbid things like sex with women who are menstruating, and working on the Sabbath, Soifer said.

“If we adhere to biblical marriage, does that mean we should legalize men having concubines?” Soifer said. “In truth, there is no legitimate religious basis for discrimination against members of the LGBT community, and we must call people who advocate for it in the name of religion what they are. They are bigots, plain and simple, and we must fight bigotry everywhere we see it. … We cannot allow the Texas Legislature to enshrine hatred and discrimination into our laws.”

Former Rep. Glen Maxey (D-Austin), who was the state’s first openly LGBT legislator, said when he moved to Austin in 1981, he feared if anyone found out he was gay, it would ruin his political career.

Thirty-four years later, Maxey said, you can’t walk into an office in the Capitol where staffers and legislators don’t know an LGBT person. But the fight for equality is far from over.

“We cannot ever sit back and take it easy,” he said. “It saddens me on this weekend that’s seen as the holiest weekend of the Christian religion, to be here talking about bills that denigrate our community in the name of religion. I want the people in this building who call themselves Christian to remember the one single law that was put down by the leader of the Christian movement, Jesus Christ, and that was, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'”

Watch a clip from Maxey’s speech below.

Cleopatra de Leon, Nicole Dimetman, Vic Holmes and Mark Phariss
Patrick Michels
From left, Texas same-sex marriage plaintiffs Cleopatra De Leon, Nicole Dimetman, Vic Holmes and Mark Phariss outside San Antonio's federal courthouse in February 2014.

Gay couples shouldn’t plan on tying the knot in the Lone Star State before late June, according to two Texas-based attorneys challenging same-sex marriage bans in federal court.

Daniel McNeel Lane Jr., who represents two same-sex couples challenging Texas’ marriage ban, previously predicted the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals would bring marriage equality to the state before Easter.

But Lane said this week he now believes the 5th Circuit is waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear oral arguments later this month and is expected to rule by the end of June in marriage cases from four states.

“I thought that the 5th Circuit would want to have its voice heard … and we would not have to have the Supreme Court drag us kicking and screaming like bitter-enders to marriage equality, but it appears that’s the way it will have to occur,” said Lane, a partner with Akin Gump Srauss Hauer & Feld in San Antonio. “In a case involving a fundamental constitutional right, the court shouldn’t be waiting around. The court should have its voice heard, and it’s a pity that that hasn’t happened yet.”

A three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit heard oral arguments in marriage cases from Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi on Jan. 9. Seven times in the last year, federal appeals courts have heard same-sex marriage cases, but only once has it taken more than three months for them to rule after oral arguments.

Lane predicted that even if the Supreme Court issues a nationwide ruling in favor of marriage equality, as most experts predict, it could take a while for Texas comply. He said county clerks in places like Austin and San Antonio likely would begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples right away, but others would wait until the 5th Circuit issues a corresponding decision in the Texas case.

“I think that there will be some marriages in Texas this summer, and probably some pushback this summer,” Lane said. “Marriage equality in Texas this summer could be a hot mess, but who doesn’t like a hot mess?”

Kenneth D. Upton, Jr., senior counsel at Lambda Legal in Dallas, agreed that the 5th Circuit is unlikely to rule before the Supreme Court. Lambda Legal represents plaintiffs in the Louisiana case.

“I think if they were going to do it, they would have done it by now,” Upton said, adding that the 5th Circuit panel is delaying the inevitable. “Everybody knows the way it’s probably going to turn out.”

Upton said it’s possible that Republican Attorney Ken Paxton or other officials will continue to try to stand in the way of same-sex marriage. But he noted that once the Supreme Court rules, officials who refuse to comply with the ruling—from county clerks’ offices to the Bureau of Vital Statistics—can be sued personally.

A Texas House committee is set to hear another anti-gay marriage bill next week that would prohibit state or local funds from being used for “the licensing or support of a same-sex marriage.”

“They better be careful, because the stakes will be much higher once the Supreme Court rules if they rule in our favor, and playing games is just going to cost them attorney’s fees and damages,” Upton said.

Bad Bill: Forever Agenda 21

Molly White
State Rep. Molly White (R-Belton)

In 1992, the United Nations adopted a nonbinding sustainable development plan called Agenda 21. Then-President George H.W. Bush, along with several dozen other heads of state, signed the plan.

In addition to promoting environmental conservation, Agenda 21 aims to combat poverty and promote public health. Like many U.N. initiatives, it contains lots of high-minded ideas, but not much in the way of an enforceable plan of action.

But according to a growing number of Texans, Agenda 21 represents something more sinister: a plan for U.N. global domination via a Soviet-style world government.

State Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood) and state Rep. Molly White (R-Belton) have filed identical bills that take aim at the program. Their efforts suggest that outrageous anti-Agenda 21 conspiracy theories aren’t confined to the lunatic fringe. (Or perhaps that the far-right wing of the Texas GOP may actually be the lunatic fringe.)

The bills would forbid any government entity from accepting money from, giving money to, or entering into a contract with any organization implementing Agenda 21 programs. The effect of the legislation remains unclear.

Michael Barkun, a Syracuse University political science professor and author of several books about conspiracy theories, says that Agenda 21 is simply an innocuous, nonbinding declaration of environmental principles.

“People imbue to this program a degree of power that it simply doesn’t have,” Barkun says.

White disagrees. “Agenda 21 is an overreaching, anti-American, anti-individual-rights plan to globalize the world using the fictitious global warming theory,” she wrote in a February Facebook post.

Conspiracy theories often offer a very simple solution to a broad range of problems, Barkun says. There’s something comforting in the belief that a secretive organization is responsible for all the world’s ills, he said.

Hall’s office didn’t respond to multiple interview requests, but the Observer did speak with John Marler, a former Georgetown mayoral candidate who says he has had numerous discussions with Hall and has given him “tremendous input” regarding Agenda 21.

Marler described himself as one of the five leading national experts on the U.N. program.

“[Agenda 21] is developing a Soviet-style über-government,” he said. “If you take Russia for a perfect example … the government appoints panels that regulate all the way down to whether or not the toilets should flush.”

Of course, some have been trying to save Texas, and the nation, from the specter of U.N.-controlled, Soviet-style toilet-flushing panels since long before Texans elected White and Hall. Texans famously attacked U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson on a 1963 visit to Dallas. And in the 1950s, Barkun said, popular Texas urban legend held that U.N. troops were amassed in Mexico preparing to invade.

“This fear of imminent occupation by the U.N. has been around virtually since the organization began,” he said, “but obviously Texas is not occupied by U.N. forces.”

John Whitmire
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston

Senate Criminal Justice Chairman John Whitmire has been on an eight-year march to clean up the Texas juvenile justice system, driving a messy process that’s involved the closure of state-run lockups, the restructuring of two state agencies and a reduction in the state’s population of juvenile offenders to one fifth of what it had been.

Not long ago, Texas was a cautionary tale of mismanagement and unchecked abuse; now it’s seen as a national leader in juvenile justice reform.

This session, Whitmire hopes to further reduce the number of youth locked up in remote state facilities, and place more of them in probation and treatment programs closer to their homes and families. A bill to accomplish that, Senate Bill 1630, passed unanimously out of his committee on Tuesday night.

“This is the next huge step to continuing to keep the youth closer to their communities and give them specialized care,” Whitmire explained last night. “Not only will it have better results in terms of recidivism, but it should save millions of dollars.”

Those two selling points neatly sum up the “smart on crime” approach that’s won broad consensus among Texas lawmakers, law enforcement and advocacy groups over the last decade, and continues to drive state policy.

But a competing interest has emerged this session that has split those groups in some surprising ways: a proposal to raise the age of “criminal responsibility” from 17 to 18 years old. For a century, Texas law has treated 17-year-olds as adults, but many reformers want to scrap what they say is an antiquated practice.

Armed with research on the dangers 17-year-olds face in adult jails and prisons, children’s groups and criminal justice advocates have made the cause a top priority this session. Texans Care for Children convened a summit on the issue last fall, and a January report from a House committee has recommended changing the law.

Texas’ law, the committee notes, is out of step with both federal law and all but eight other states. The report notes research that says adolescent brains are still developing, which calls into question whether they should be held as culpable as adults, and suggests they might have a better chance at rehabilitation.

Sheriffs and jailers have supported the idea as well, in part because federal law already requires them to keep 17-year-olds out of “sight and sound” from older inmates, which is an expensive proposition. In practice, especially in smaller county facilities, 17-year-olds are confined alone instead. Juvenile court judges in Bexar and Harris counties have also signed on, editorial boards at the Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express-NewsAustin American-Statesman have all called for change this year.

With such a drumbeat of support, moving 17-year-olds into the juvenile justice system seems like just the sort of research-based, bipartisan idea that a reform-minded Legislature would embrace. On Wednesday afternoon, a House committee will hear a handful of bills to do so.

But for now at least, the proposal is likely headed nowhere in the Senate, where the most visible opposition has come from an unlikely source: Whitmire.

“I personally, philosophically, believe that if a 17-year-old commits a violent act, I see no reason to change that they wouldn’t be [treated] as an adult. I just think that a 17-year-old knows right from wrong,” Whitmire told the Observer. “I just am not of the opinion that it’s a broken system, and I’m not prepared to change the law to assist the sheriffs in the management of their jails.”

Advocates have been heartened to have sheriffs like Lupe Valdez of Dallas County and Adrian Garcia of Harris County as allies in this effort, but Whitmire sees their support as a simple matter of trying to make 17-year-olds somebody else’s problem. “You know Adrian Garcia, any given day he’s got over 8,000 confinees, with 100 of them being 17-year-olds. And if he can’t manage that, then I’m sorry. But that’s not a reason to change the law.”

The change could be an expensive one, which would run counter to the state’s penchant for criminal justice reform in the name of cutting costs. The Legislative Budget Board estimates it would cost around $60 million per year to treat 8,000 extra 17-year-olds in the state’s juvenile probation programs and secure lockups. Counties would have to cover between $100,000 to over $10 million each year, depending on their size. (A 2012 analysis by University of Texas researcher Michele Deitch suggests that, in the long run, the change would actually save $89 million for each cohort of 17-year-olds, considering the economic benefits of rehabilitating youth before they can become serial offenders.)

Whitmire doesn’t mention the cost among his objections, but he sounds wary of adding the additional stress to a juvenile justice system that’s still a work in progress. He even doubt whether 17-year-olds would be any safer in juvenile facilities.

“Currently, the Juvenile Justice Department does not classify or segregate youth by age. I have a real problem with [placing] 14- and 15-year-olds in with the 17-year-olds.” While it may not be ideal to have 17-year-olds in adult facilities, Whitmire says he’s even more concerned with the juvenile lockups where 13-year-olds are housed near others as old as 19.

“In most instances, because the adult systems are better controlled and supervised,” Whitmire says. “If I was a vulnerable 17-year-old, I’d be much safer in the adult [system] because I’m going to be protected and recognized as a 17-year-old, versus going back and placing me in a juvenile facility, which I think certainly at the state level is out of control.”

Still, the vast majority of 17-year-olds in the system didn’t commit the sort of violent offenses that would land them in a state lockup. And state law would still allow courts to certify 17-year-olds as adults for particularly heinous crimes. Placing 17-year-olds in the juvenile system by default would have the greatest impact on low-level offenders who could get extra treatment or even avoid a criminal record.

Illinois is among a handful of states that has made the switch in recent years; it began in 2009 with 17-year-olds who committed misdemeanors, before extending the change to felonies as well. Today, Whitmire says he and his staff are “seriously reviewing” the way Texas handles 17-year-olds who commit misdemeanors.

Whitmire says he doesn’t expect the proposal to get a hearing in his committee this session—and as chairman, he should know. But he says the opposition, while it may have been fairly quiet, is much wider than his own.

Some of that concern surfaced during last night’s hearing on Whitmire’s bill. With his signature juvenile justice reform for the session just moments from passing to the full Senate, Whitmire fielded questions from a few generally supportive witnesses including Harris County Juvenile Probation Chief Tom Brooks. Brooks said he was glad to take on more youth from state lockups if he got the funding to cover them, and he talked about the expanded state oversight Whitmire proposed. But before leaving, he couldn’t help but mention the big, looming question hanging over his department.

“There’s a lot of bills out there with the age-of-jurisdiction change, and I think if that happens, I think it would impede the progress of this particular bill,” Brooks said, as awkward laughter spread among the senators surrounding Whitmire. “I think your facilities would fill up, and your commitments would increase to the state.”

“We were doing real good till you brought that up. Now we’re gonna be here a while,” Whitmire joked. “We will discuss that thoroughly in the future.”

1 7 8 9 10 11 300