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Pastor Donnie Romero has gone viral.

“I’m going to explain to you why God wants these people to be put to death,” Romero declared during a sermon in December. “The word of God is very clear that God is against the sodomites, that they’re filthy, and it says they’re an abomination to God.”

A clip from Romero’s sermon, posted on YouTube by Right Wing Watch, has been viewed more than 28,000 times. It also helped land Romero’s Fort Worth church on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s annual list of active anti-LGBT hate groups.

“Their gay-bashing is intense,” said Heidi Beirich, director of SPLC’s Intelligence Project. “Stedfast Baptist Church is very crude in its hatred. That’s not a complicated thing to explain why we put them on the hate list.” Romero didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.

Stedfast Baptist is one of two Texas-based organizations added to the list this year. The other is Probe Ministries of Plano. They joined longstanding designee Tom Brown Ministries of El Paso. The increase in Texas contributed to a 10 percent jump in anti-LGBT hate groups nationwide, from 40 to 44.

Meanwhile, the overall number of hate groups of all types declined by roughly 17 percent in 2014, from 939 to 784. Beirich said she’s unsure whether anti-LGBT hate is on the rise or SPLC is simply doing a better job of tracking it.

“The rhetoric is becoming much harsher for sure,” she said. “I think some of the groups are becoming harder-line, whether we’ve listed them or not, because they’re losing on a lot of fronts.”

Probe Ministries, which has a syndicated radio show with more than 1 million weekly listeners, has published materials on its website saying gays molest children at higher rates and die younger, Beirich said.

“If an organization is knowingly putting out false propaganda to demonize a particular population—in our view, that qualifies them as a hate group,” she said. Probe Ministries President Kerby Anderson rejected the designation, saying his group is “compassionate” and pointing to its work with Living Hope Ministries, which offers so-called gay conversion therapy.

“That’s not the first time I’ve seen people that did not deserve that designation receive it, so I guess I’m not too surprised by what the Southern Poverty Law Center does,” Anderson said.

Beirich said SPLC maintains a high bar for the hate list. It’s not enough to oppose same-sex marriage or espouse Bible-based views about homosexuality. Rather, groups must use slurs or engage in demonization and propaganda, tactics that make the LGBT community more vulnerable to hate crimes.

“We don’t want to just list everybody in the world,” she said. “We want to point out what is particularly damaging.”

Asked why more prominent groups aren’t on the list—such as Texas Values and the Texas Pastor Council Beirich said SPLC hasn’t considered them. The Alabama-based organization relies heavily on the media to bring potential hate groups to its attention.

“We try our best to track these groups. We don’t get all of them,” Beirich said, adding she plans to review Texas Values and the Texas Pastor Council for possible inclusion on next year’s list.

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Too Young to Jail

Harris County Juvenile Justice Center
Harris County Juvenile Justice Center

Senate Committee on 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 has 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. But this year, the question of how that reform should proceed has split Whitmire from many of his usual allies.

His priority this session is to further reduce the number of youth in remote state lockups, placing more of them in probation and treatment programs near their homes and families. There’s widespread support for his bill that’s intended to accomplish that.

A coalition of child advocates and criminal justice reformers has argued for another big change this session: to raise the age of “criminal responsibility” from 17 to 18.

State Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Corpus Christi) has illustrated the law’s strange logic with a hypothetical: “A 17-year-old could go into a store and could not buy cigarettes,” he told the Associated Press in March, “but they could steal the cigarettes and be punished as an adult.”

In the House, there’s apparently plenty of support for changing the law, but Whitmire is against it in the Senate.

For one, he objects on philosophical grounds: The line between juvenile and adult must be drawn somewhere, and Whitmire likes it just where it is. “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,” he told the Observer.

He’s also concerned that the juvenile system isn’t ready for an influx of new 17-year-olds. He worries the 13-and 14-year-olds could be put at even greater risk, and he questions whether Texas juvenile lockups, in their current states, are any safer than a segregated spot in an adult jail.

“Raise the age” advocates note that even after the change, violent 17-year-olds could still be certified as adults. In 2013, 96 percent of the 17-year-olds arrested in Texas were caught for drug possession and other nonviolent crimes—and in those cases, a treatment program and a sealed record could change their lives.

Recent research has noted that young people are more impulsive than adults, but they’re also more receptive to rehabilitation. Intervening early could keep many from re-offending—saving the state money in the long run.

Despite the added cost of treating 17-year-olds in the juvenile system, the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation has signed on. TPPF analyst Derek Cohen told House members at a hearing in April that 17-year-olds simply don’t belong in the adult system. “It’s about using the best particular tool for the job,” he said.

House members at that hearing, Republican and Democrat alike, seemed receptive to the idea. Some probation officers said they needed more time to prepare for the change, and county officials pleaded for help covering the costs. But all seemed to agree on the premise. Elizabeth Henneke of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition reflected at one point: “Not a single person has come up here and said 17-year-olds should not be treated as kids.” That may not be the case, though, if the bill comes up for debate in the Senate.

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.

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.

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?

Bad Bill: Forever Agenda 21

Molly White
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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.”

covenant marriage
Flickr/Juan Antonio Capó Alonso

Wedding vows not good enough for you? State Rep. James White (R-Woodville) has filed legislation that would allow some brides and grooms to one-up regular marriages by choosing to enter into a “covenant marriage.” House Bill 547 isn’t meant to disparage non-covenant marriages, White says.

“A covenant is an agreement not only between two mortal beings, a man and a woman, but it’s also a covenant between a man and a woman and God,” White said. (No same-sex marriages allowed, but throuples are apparently OK as long as they include a higher power.)

A couple who wants to enter a covenant with God will have to participate in premarital counseling, read a pamphlet and swear in an affidavit that they will take “all reasonable efforts to preserve” their marriage. That includes more counseling and a two-year period of legal separation before filing for divorce.

It’s not impossible to get divorced if you’re covenant-married; it’s just really, really difficult. The affidavit warns the couple:  “We understand that we can get divorced or separated only for a reason stated in the pamphlet on covenant marriage.”

Adultery, abandonment and abuse are get-out-of-marriage-free cards. So are felony charges.

(You can’t incriminate your spouse just to get a divorce. The bill stipulates that courts cannot order a legal separation if a spouse is convicted of a felony “solely on the testimony of the other spouse.”)

The bill would require only Hardin County to grant covenant marriages. It would allow other counties to offer covenant marriages if they choose. In previous sessions, covenant marriage bills have died in committee.

State Rep. James White
via Facebook
State Rep. James White

White says business leaders and clergy in Hardin County have lobbied for the covenant marriage option in the hope that “stronger families” will improve the community’s quality of life by averting many of the problems that weak families supposedly present to schoolteachers and police officers. Two parents, theoretically, are better at watching out for school-skippers (or meth-lab builders) than one.

“Families who are intact tend to weather economic challenges better than other scenarios,” White said.

Will contractual obligations save Texas families and cure society’s ills? Those who opt for a covenant marriage are likely to be members of religious groups that strongly discourage divorce, and already take the idea of marriage seriously. Most of the churches in Hardin County are Southern Baptist or evangelical denominations.

Louisiana was the first state to establish covenant marriage in 1997, expecting that it would lower the state’s divorce rate. But covenant marriages made up only 1 percent of all marriages that first year. Ten years later, that figure rose to nearly 2 percent. Louisiana has one of the higher divorce rates in the country, as does Texas.

But covenant marriages aren’t just ineffectual; they’re also potentially harmful to vulnerable populations. The stipulations for claiming abuse as a reason for divorce, as outlined in the bill, are particularly problematic. A spouse must report the domestic abuse to a law enforcement agency and file for a protective order.

It seems likely that lawmakers, many of whom are working on second and third marriages, may have a simple response to this bill: “I don’t.”

Kory Watkins open carry
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Kory Watkins

When the NRA shifted its focus from supporting hobbyists to political action in the late 1970s, the gun-rights cause fit neatly within a new Republican ethos. The gun came to symbolize something greater than itself; it became the nucleus of a complete worldview. NRA members styled themselves as self-sufficient, tough on crime, pro-police, hawkish on foreign policy, and the keepers of family traditions. By closely associating themselves with the Republican Party, they’ve found great success.

The same cannot be said for the marauding gun activists that have besieged the Texas Capitol in recent weeks. Seeking the right to carry guns openly in public, without a license, they’ve taken a Legislature that’s pretty sympathetic to their cause and pushed it to the breaking point. Before the session started, it seemed certain that open-carry legislation would pass in some form, but as time goes on, the chances seem increasingly slight.

One reason for that is the tactics employed by the gun-rights crew. C.J. Grisham, who leads Open Carry Texas, has sought to win support the right way: building public pressure, then establishing relationships with legislators. But Kory Watkins, the head of the splinter group Open Carry Tarrant County, has soiled Grisham’s nest. State Rep. Poncho Nevárez (D-Eagle Pass) had to accept a Department of Public Safety security detail after Watkins and friends refused to leave his office following a verbal confrontation on the first day of the session. Lately, Watkins has been keen to warn lawmakers that they’re disregarding the Constitution, and to remind them that the “punishment for treason is death.” But the reason open carry isn’t gaining as much traction as it should goes beyond Watkins’ well-publicized screw-ups. The open-carry guys speak a slightly different language than the last generation of gun nuts, and it’s a language that sounds pretty foreign in the halls of the Capitol. Watkins and many of the open-carry activists are fed not by talk radio but by the conspiracy-libertarian wing typified by Alex Jones, who’s spoken at open-carry rallies in the past. Most of them are young, white and male, and you’d be more likely to see them on Reddit than at a hunting lease.

Some have criminal backgrounds, but many of them just seem like frustrated young men who see the ownership and display of firearms as a kind of empowerment they’re not getting elsewhere. Watkins, who’s almost never seen without a men’s rights-style fedora, is anti-war and anti-police; he got arrested in Fort Worth last year for hassling cops. None of that plays well at the Capitol. Politics is tribal, and many of the open-carry guys are members of the wrong tribe. So it seems increasingly unlikely they’ll get what they most want: unlicensed open carry. Even some of the most conservative new legislators are admitting it’s DOA, as is Joan Huffman, who leads the Senate committee considering the bills. Will the alienated libertarians learn to play with others in time to get a juicy consolation prize?

Jani Maselli Wood court fees
Harris County Public Defender's Office
Jani Maselli Wood, assistant public defender in Harris County

In Houston, one attorney is making real change by quibbling over loose change.

Jani Maselli Wood, an assistant public defender in Harris County, is waging a one-woman war against the way Texas uses the hundreds of different fees it collects from people involved in the criminal justice system. Most recently, Texas’ 1st Court of Appeals agreed with Wood that the $250 “DNA record fee” charged to her client was unconstitutional because the state splits that money between the highway fund and the general fund for criminal justice planning. Neither pot pays directly for the expense of trying a criminal case—ostensibly the purpose of court costs. Wood successfully argued that the $250 constitutes an unlawful tax.

That’s no small potatoes for an individual—especially for the indigent clients Wood represents, since $250 is almost a full week’s pay at minimum wage. But Wood has also gone to bat over 34 cents. “Obviously, it’s 34 cents for [my client], but how much is it across the state?” she says. “It’s just not right, so I keep chipping away.”

Those chips add up. Court costs and fees contribute hundreds of millions of dollars a year that lawmakers rely on to accomplish the one task they’re constitutionally obligated to complete during their brief biennial parley: passing a budget. A 2014 study by the Office of Court Administration identified 143 distinct criminal court costs and 211 different civil fees on the books that funneled more than $350 million into the state kitty, more than a quarter of which went to the general fund—which is to say, not to courts. In fact, some mandated expenses, such as providing support for county indigent defense programs, are paid entirely out of fees rather than the general revenue fund. That’s one way legislators keep from raising taxes. The poor, who are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system, end up footing the bill.

Case law requires that court fees be used for their stated purpose, but the Office of Court Administration review found that 14 fees didn’t even have a named purpose. Many more fees were imposed by statutes that suggested a purpose but didn’t restrict the money’s use to it. In other words, court costs are a ripe area for constitutional challenge.

So why is Wood’s crusade, so far, so lonely? Because court cost constitutionality is not a very lucrative area of law. “I could not do this sort of litigation if I was in private practice,” Wood says. “No client would pay me to do it. And no judge would pay me to do it if I was court appointed.” But her employer, the Harris County public defender, is on board. “My boss is very supportive of impact litigation and systemic change.”

Before Wood’s efforts, many courts wouldn’t even provide an itemized bill of what citizens were being charged. Now, every case she wins builds legal precedent for improved honesty in budgeting.

The state, as it usually does when it loses, appealed the 1st Court ruling to the Court of Criminal Appeals, Texas’ highest court for criminal cases. Their ruling is likely months away. But Wood isn’t slowing down. She says, “I told my husband, it’s probably going to be a decade before I’m done.”

cupcake amnesty
Reshma Kirpalani / Austin American-Statesman
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller bites into a cupcake during a January press conference in Austin.

In his first big act as Texas agriculture commissioner, with reporters gathered ’round to record the moment, former state Rep. Sid Miller pardoned, and then ate, a pink-frosted cupcake.

Miller’s lighthearted “cupcake amnesty” press conference, a folksy affair with beloved Austin food trailer Hey Cupcake! as a backdrop, was a big hit on the evening news. The story spread fast that, thanks to the intervention of Miller’s nanny-state-bustin’ agriculture department, Texas parents were free at last to send their kids to school with birthday cake for the class. Miller also promised to repeal state bans on deep fryers in cafeteria kitchens and on soda sales at public schools.

“We’ve been raising big, strapping, healthy young kids here in Texas for 200 years,” Miller said, “and we don’t need Washington, D.C., telling us how to do it.”

The whole spectacle was typical Miller. Before losing his state House seat in the 2012 GOP primary, the Stephenville rancher and tree farmer was best known as the author of red-meat fare like Texas’ pre-abortion sonogram law and a bill sanctioning the sporting practice known as “pork-chopping” (shooting feral hogs from a helicopter). Rather than dwell too much on agriculture in his latest campaign, Miller reminded voters of his work defunding the “abortion industry,” named Ted Nugent his campaign treasurer, and even managed to call the Civil War “the War of Northern Aggression.”

The cupcake decree was a fitting reminder that Miller—white hat, gleaming grin and all—has returned to taunt Texas liberals again. But as reporters quickly realized, there was little of substance in his announcement. Texas had not, in fact, ever banned cupcakes brought from home to school. And the rule change behind Miller’s announcement took place April 2014, months before Miller was even elected. Last year, under former commissioner Todd Staples, the department repealed the 10-year-old Texas Public School Nutrition Policy because new federal rules for school lunch and food sold at fundraisers had made the state’s policies redundant.

“In other words,” as Houston child nutrition advocate Bettina Elias Siegel wrote in January, “the ‘repeal’ characterized by Mr. Miller as somehow courageously bucking restrictive regulations was actually a show of appropriate deference by our state to the federal government.”

On her blog, “The Lunch Tray,” Siegel struggled to make sense of Miller’s announcement—not only his taking credit for a change he had nothing to do with, but worse, his plans to further peel back nutrition safeguards in the name of local control. “To encourage deep-fat frying and soda and cupcakes is so shockingly backward thinking,” Siegel tells the Observer.

What’s most troubling about Miller’s announcement, Siegel says, is that his department is the one tasked with enforcing those federal regulations he deems so unnecessary. On Miller’s watch, the ag department “could essentially gut [the federal rules] through failure to enforce. And that’s really worrisome to me.”

Spokesman Bryan Black told the Observer that won’t happen; the department, he says, is still “required to comply with all federal regulations.”

But Miller sounds committed to getting around as much of that regulation as possible. Even though 16 percent of Texas’ “big, strapping” high schoolers are obese—a rate that’s higher than the national average, and even worse for low-income, Hispanic and African-American children—Miller takes Texas’ persistent childhood obesity as a sign of government ineptitude.

“These rules were put in 10 years ago, and those figures haven’t gotten any better,” he explained to Tucker Carlson of Fox and Friends. “Government intervention hasn’t worked. But individual responsibility, local control, is what works.”

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