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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
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.”

Families in the hall at the notorious T. Don Hutto family detention center
Department of Homeland Security
Families in the hall at the notorious T. Don Hutto family detention center

Ever since thousands of Central Americans sought asylum in Texas last summer, the White House has been trying to stop other families from doing the same. One of its most controversial tactics is to lock up asylum-seeking women and children in detention facilities and charge such high immigration bonds that they can’t get out. Eventually, the mothers become desperate, give up their asylum claims and agree to be deported.

The United States has recognized valid asylum claims under international conventions and treaties since World War II. But the government’s treatment of the families currently detained in Texas defies basic U.S. asylum law, says Jonathan Ryan, executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, a San Antonio nonprofit assisting women and children in detention facilities in Karnes City and Dilley in South Texas.

“This is about politics, not about the law,” Ryan says. “I’ve never seen them apply such high bonds. It’s not only unusual, it’s extraordinary.”

It’s also inconsistent, says Ryan: “Single men who were taken into detention are given bonds of $1,500 but the women are being given bonds as high as $5,000 up to $15,000.”

Faced with impossibly high bonds, most women have no choice but to remain locked up with their children for several months, waiting for their court date with the asylum judge. Faced with this grim scenario many accept deportation instead.

RAICES is trying to change that. In October, it started a fund to raise money from individuals and from religious and other groups to help women and children get out of detention on bond. So far, the organization has collected $82,000 and helped 21 families. Bond money goes to the U.S. Treasury, where it collects interest. If the family doesn’t report to immigration court, the money is forfeited, but otherwise, it returns to the person or group that donated it once the case resolves.

The important thing, Ryan says, is to give the families a chance to start their lives over without the fear of persecution or death that caused them to flee their countries. “These women and children are being treated as if they are a national security threat,” he says. “You have these private companies that are making a profit from keeping women and children in a box against their will until they can pay enough money to get out.”

The two detention facilities in South Texas are capable of holding up to 3,000 women and children. Ryan says RAICES has nearly depleted its bond funds and is trying to raise additional money to free more families. “You want to cry tears of joy every time a woman and her child is released,” he says. “What we are doing is just a drop in a bucket. There’s still so much more to be done.”

State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas
State Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) has filed a bill that would require licensing groups to tell applicants—specifically and in writing—what parts of their records prompted rejection. It would also give applicants a chance to petition their deniers in person.

A mere decade and a half into the new millennium, state lawmakers appear to be grasping a basic tenet of facilitating employment: If you want all your citizens to have jobs, maybe don’t prevent them from getting jobs.

Texas law requires occupational licenses for more than 500 trades ranging from athletic trainer to funeral director, a sprawling bureaucracy that affects almost one-third of the state workforce. While merely a hassle for some, licensing regulations can pose an insurmountable barrier to employment for the 4.7 million Texans who have criminal records. People convicted of any felony or of a misdemeanor involving “moral turpitude”—a scary-sounding category that encompasses crimes as minor as writing a bad check—are statutorily barred by many licensing bodies, usually without regard for how long ago the offense happened or whether it was related to the job in question. (Naturally there are a few weird exceptions. If convicted of an asbestos-related crime, you’re banned from asbestos work… for three years. That’ll teach you.) In addition to these explicit bans, many licensing groups have implicit policies of rejecting any applicant with a criminal record.

That hurts citizens who’ve done their time, but it also hurts the state. People who find stable work within the first year after incarceration are the least likely to re-offend, saving taxpayer money and preventing crime. They’re also less likely to need state assistance programs for their families’ survival.

State researchers have been pointing out the problems with occupational licensing systems since at least 2008, but now a bipartisan coalition of reformers looks poised to make real progress. With support from the conservative Smart on Crime coalition, state Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) has filed a bill that would require licensing groups to tell applicants—specifically and in writing—what parts of their records prompted rejection. It would also give applicants a chance to petition their deniers in person.

Johnson’s clever bill walks a fine line. While careful not to deprive the various governing bodies of their power or discretion, it inserts a couple of humanizing steps, making it harder to rubber-stamp the “NO” that ends the ambitions of so many Texans trying to rebuild their lives.

“We train people in prison with job skills to help them get on the right track and not get re-arrested,” Johnson said. “But if they are arbitrarily denied professional licenses then all of us—taxpayers, ex-offenders and communities—lose.”

“We know that every single year, 70,000 [Texans] leave prisons, and there’s no way that they’re going to be able to do everything that society expects them to do if they don’t have jobs,” says Ana Yáñez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. Licensing reform is “a win-win situation,” she says, “both for the economy but also for the families that they have to support, as well as for public safety outcomes. If they have jobs, they have hope. And if they have hope, they’re more likely to live like law-abiding citizens.”

Purple Zone merchandise on the shelves.
Tom Cochran
Merchandise on the shelves at the Purple Zone in Alpine, Texas, the subject of repeated raids by police looking for synthetic drugs.

From the spice-ravaged wilds of East Texas to the incense-dusted Panhandle plains, lawmakers headed to Austin this year vowing to snuff out synthetic drug sales once and for all. Stories about horrific overdoses, particularly among children, are common today in the small-town papers; in early January the Beaumont Enterprise reported that “a particularly vile batch” of synthetic drugs sent 50 people to the hospital over one week, suffering from hallucinations, extreme paranoia, violent outbursts and seizures. As state Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) told the Longview News-Journal, “We need to do whatever it takes this legislative session to solve the problem.”

But what, exactly, will it take? Lawmakers thought they’d outlawed synthetic marijuana back in 2011, creating a new class of banned substances, and even banning chemical “analogs” similar to those listed in the law. But walk into the right gas station or head shop today, and you’ll still find foil pouches of “incense” with the same winking warnings that their contents are “not for human consumption.”

That’s partly a marketing issue; synthetic cannabinoids were unregulated for years, advertised as a legal high before the first federal and state bans took effect, and some shop owners may still think they’re legal. But it’s also a problem with the law—first because manufacturers can invent new chemical compounds faster than Texas’ biennial Legislature can add them to the banned list, and second, because the 2011 law only bans chemicals that “mimic the pharmacological effect” of natural marijuana.

That’s a judgment call that no lab chemist can make in court, says Texas District and County Attorneys Association spokesman Shannon Edmonds. “The lab folks say, ‘We can diagram this chemical compound for you, but we can’t tell you whether the effect was similar,’” Edmonds says.

Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) proposed a fix in 2013, but her bill fell victim to a brutal sort of Capitol justice, killed by Democratic Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon because Huffman torpedoed an important bill of hers. This session, Huffman has filed new proposals to clean up the language and ban a few new chemicals. Lubbock Republican Sen. Charles Perry has a similar bill.

But for now, Texas has a 4-year-old ban on synthetic drugs that simply can’t hold up in court. “Although the laws on the books are in place, we have not been able to prosecute those cases,” says Harris County Assistant District Attorney Justin Wood, “because of the wording of the statute.”

Despite being worthless at trial, the ban has been invoked to justify raids on smoke shops, including Glass Dragon shops in Longview and the Purple Zone in Alpine (see our story “The Thin Purple Line” from July 2014), letting police confiscate merchandise from the shelves. Prosecutors can either drop the case or bluff their way to a guilty plea.

Other officials have gotten more creative. Houston and Lubbock have city ordinances restricting synthetic drug sales. In the Lubbock County District Attorney’s Office, chief investigator Todd Smith says they focus on enforcing labeling requirements—like the contents’ weight and a list of ingredients—that most spice packets don’t meet. But if manufacturers start labeling their packets properly, Smith wonders how else he could stop them.

“I don’t know if you can ever beat it,” Smith says. “You have a group of people that are always going to be in the market for something like this, and … I’ve never underestimated somebody willing to make a dollar.”

Leticia Van de Putte
Christopher Hooks
State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte at a campaign rally on the campus of the University of Texas-Pan American.

To the victors go the spoils. To the defeated, San Antonio. So goes the career arc, it seems, of state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who recently lost her bid for lieutenant governor. Soon after the election, Van de Putte announced a dramatic change in course: She’d run for mayor of her home city, abandoning an essentially tenured position in the Senate. That decision set off a cascade of political changes in the Alamo City—and illuminates the dilemma of Democratic political talent in Texas.

Van de Putte’s pivot surprised many, and not just because she told the San Antonio Express-News last summer that she’d run for mayor under “absolutely no circumstances.” But it makes sense. If she stayed in the Senate, she’d likely suffer at the hands of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has pledged to take committee chairmanships away from Democrats. Democratic influence in the Legislature seems on the decline yet again.

But the state’s largest cities shade bluer and bluer every year, and there, the party is at its most vital. The mayor’s office offers a tantalizing measure of executive power, a high profile, and the opportunity to build a useful political base. Some of the most celebrated Texas Democrats are local leaders such as former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, Houston Mayor Annise Parker and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins.

Van de Putte will face San Antonio state Rep. Mike Villarreal, another party prospect fleeing the Lege. Villarreal, a bright and well-liked figure, suffered through a frustrating session in 2013. As the chairman of the seven-member House Committee on Investments and Financial Services, it fell to him to get payday lending regulations past the committee’s five Republicans—a Sisyphean task.

State Rep. Mike Villarreal
State Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio)

Villarreal and Van de Putte aren’t the only talented Democrats deciding the Lege isn’t the best use of their talents, but they’re unusual in that they’ve turned to fight each other. Though Van de Putte starts with significant advantages, Villarreal’s early entry in the race means he’s locked up significant donors and endorsements.

As the two take leave of an increasingly one-sided Legislature, though, there are still ambitious figures anxious to overtop the trenches. The special election to replace Van de Putte produced a runoff between state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, one of the punchiest Democrats in Texas, and state Rep. José Menéndez, a lower-key figure, with the former the favorite. Villarreal’s seat will be filled by a runoff as well.

If Fischer ascends to the Senate, Democrats will have a champion to spar with Patrick. But the long-term trend will hold: a more partisan Legislature, with fewer ways for Democrats to shine. Can Democrats turn the cities into a launchpad for their statewide aspirations? San Antonio’s Castro cast one vote: He left for a cabinet post in the Obama administration. But Van de Putte, if she wins, may be in a better position to test the proposition.

police body cameras
© Bob Owen/San Antonio Express-News/
San Antonio police officer Johnny Moreno wears a body camera on Dec. 10, 2014.

At a press conference in late November, Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland called universal body cameras on police inevitable. “I think that it’s a matter of time before every law enforcement agency in the United States has body cameras,” Chief McClelland said. The catalyst, he said, was the shooting death of an unarmed teen in Missouri by an officer who went uncharged. “It’s not ‘if’ anymore,” McClelland said. “It’s ‘when.’”

In Texas, that someday is well on its way. Fort Worth police began wearing body cameras three years ago and already have more than 600, the second-most cameras of any force in the nation. But they’ll soon be surpassed by Houston. Impressed with a successful 100-camera pilot program, Chief McClelland announced in August that he was seeking $8 million with which to equip 3,500 Houston officers with body cameras over the next three years. San Antonio has been conducting its own pilot program, and Dallas’ newly elected DA, Susan Hawk, has vowed to use civil forfeiture funds from her office to buy body cameras for Dallas police. In November, the Austin Police Department requested information from city purchasers on the specifics of outfitting their officers with body cameras.

Lawmakers are also getting into the act. One key concern of body cam critics is that law enforcement policies governing them—such as when the devices can be turned off, how the video is stored and who may access it—can vary wildly among departments. So state Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) and state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) have pre-filed identical bills that would codify certain body camera policies for any agency that uses state grant money to buy its cameras. Primarily, police would have to turn the camera on for traffic stops, arrests, searches, interrogations, pursuits or answers to calls for service. But there’s also plenty in the bills to pacify defenders of law enforcement autonomy. During “non-confrontational” encounters such as witness or victim interviews, the camera could be off. Video of any encounter subject to an investigation—such as in the case of deadly force—couldn’t be released to the public until the investigation is finished. Most interestingly, police officers would be entitled to view all video of an incident before making an official statement about it.

Popular momentum and standardization, however, have little bearing on the central question of body cameras: Do they help? A New York grand jury’s failure to charge an officer who choked an unarmed man to death on camera caused many to despair of video’s value. But the best information available—a multi-source study by the U.S. Justice Department—says yes. Multiple recent empirical studies found that body cameras did have a “civilizing effect,” lowering citizen complaints, police use of force and assaults on officers. If so, that inevitable someday can’t get here fast enough.

Starving For A Dream

photo by Melissa del Bosque
A student speaks at the UT-Austin DREAM Act rally on Nov. 9 2010.

dept. of immigration

Thanksgiving week, while most of us were stuffing ourselves, eight undocumented students at the University of Texas at Austin joined hundreds of others across the country in a hunger strike. They were willing to starve themselves to push Congress to vote on the DREAM Act, legislation that provides a path to citizenship for undocumented students who attend college or serve in the military. Julie, 30, said that she joined the strike because it was her last hope. She’s supported the bill since it was introduced in 2001 and has graduated with a master’s degree in nursing from UT-Austin. “I’m a 30-year-old woman now, and I’m still undocumented,” she said. “I want to practice as a military nurse, helping soldiers heal, but I can’t because I don’t have a Social Security number.”

The DREAM legislation would cover students up to age 35, like Julie. She saw the current lame-duck session of Congress as her last chance. She and the other hunger strikers hoped to convince Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison to vote for the bill. (Hutchison supported the bill in 2007.) “We’ve done everything,” Julie said. “We’ve done calls, congressional visits, faxes and letters. We don’t have any more time to waste. Our lives could be decided on by the end of the year.”

listen to UT students talk about the DREAM Act

Every year, an estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school in the United States. Most students were brought to the U.S. by their parents at a young age. Some entered the country without documents; others overstayed visitor visas. At least a million students could become legal residents and eventually citizens if the DREAM Act passed.

At press time, it was doubtful that even starvation would move lawmakers to support the students. The legislation, which once had bipartisan support, lost nearly all Republican backing as the debate over immigration reform became increasingly polarized. Hutchison has said she’ll vote against the bill.

—Melissa del Bosque



dept. of good fortune

The SBOE Giveth

When the State Board of Education met just before Thanksgiving, members kept in mind those of us who have little to be thankful about this year: our beleaguered state legislators. Almost every House member is feeling pressure from the nasty, raging speaker’s race, the budget shortfall and redistricting.

But lo and behold, the board came up with a gift sure to bring smiles to lawmakers. The board, usually known for making textbooks palatable to religious zealots and historical whitewashers, decided to send almost $2 billion to the Legislature to spend on schools, an unusually large amount. They had one request: that the Legislature use some of the money to buy textbooks that incorporate the board’s latest curriculum. While the state board determines how much money goes to the legislators, it’s up to the House and Senate to decide how to spend it.

With the budget this tight, there’s no guarantee the Legislature will buy the books, though publishers have already produced most of them. The texts would likely cost around $550 million, but the Legislature could use almost all the money to fund schools’ basic operations. That would help legislators balance other parts of the budget. 

The board has sent a unanimous letter asking that lawmakers pony up. Whether legislators fund new textbooks or not, students will get tested on the materials starting next year. If schools can’t prepare kids for the tests, it’s hard to see how the system will work.

The board is already helping the Legislature cut corners. Rather than order new books that meet the state’s latest standards, the board is commissioning “supplemental materials” to fill gaps between the old books and new standards. Expect more creative solutions as lawmakers come to terms with one of the biggest budget gaps in recent history.

—Abby Rapoport


dept. of myth-busting

The Safe Place

If you believe the hype, El Paso should be one of the most crime-ridden cities in the country. It sits just across the river from Juarez, one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Quite a few politicians and commentators have warned about the escalating violence in Mexico “spilling over” into the United States. That hasn’t happened.

While there have been a few isolated incidents of drug-related violence, cities on the American side remain remarkably safe. Nowhere is that more evident than in El Paso, which recently became America’s “safest city,” according to a recent report by CQ Press, a Washington, D.C., publishing firm.

CQ Press ranked the safest and most dangerous cities by looking at 2009 FBI crime figures in six categories: murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and car theft. El Paso, which had just 13 murders in 2009, had the lowest crime rate of any city with a population more than 500,000. (So far in 2010, El Paso has seen four murders, according to the El Paso Times; across the river in Juarez, there have been at least 2,700 killings this year.) CQ Press also ranked another border city, San Diego, among the five safest. It’s worth noting that the five most dangerous cities—Detroit, Baltimore, Memphis, Washington and Atlanta—aren’t exactly overlooking the Rio Grande. So much for the spillover.

—Dave Mann



reality check dept.

Medicaid Meshugas

Texas is withdrawing from Medicaid. That’s what you might think, judging from the recent headlines. The notion that state lawmakers might opt out of the health insurance program for the poor—largely paid for by the federal government—has been one of the major stories in Texas politics since the Republican election night romp on Nov. 2. “No More Medicaid?” was the headline in the online Texas Tribune four days after the election. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram followed with a story headlined, “Conservative legislators in Texas seek to opt out of Medicaid,” and the Houston Chronicle wondered, “No Medicaid in Texas?”

These stories were based largely on speculative quotes from two elected officials: state Rep. Warren Chisum, a Panhandle Republican who’s running for speaker of the Texas House, and newly re-elected Gov. Rick Perry. They’ve suggested that Texas, facing a massive budget shortfall, could save billions by pulling out of Medicaid, forfeiting the $16 billion a year the state receives in federal matching funds and replacing it with a state program. You might wonder how the state could turn away $16 billion from the feds and save money. Neither lawmaker has provided details.

Both have their motivations, though. Chisum needs to win support from right-wing House members if he hopes to unseat current House Speaker (and fellow Republican) Joe Straus. Perry has a book to sell—Fed Up!—and a national profile to raise.

In the rush for a good story, few reporters have paused to ask if a Medicaid withdrawal is feasible or under serious consideration. In reality, it seems doubtful the Legislature could opt out of Medicaid, and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst—who, unlike Chisum and Perry, will likely have a large say in the budget the Legislature creates next year—recently said as much.

Dewhurst released a statement that read, “In light of the revenue shortfall facing Texas, we need to take a serious look at any option that will help us balance the budget, but preliminary indications from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission indicate that opting out of Medicaid may not be the most cost-effective alternative.”

Here was perhaps the most powerful man in the Legislature saying that a Medicaid withdrawal made little financial sense. With good reason: Medicaid covers 70 percent of nursing home residents, more than 2 million children and more than half the births in the state. Ditching the program would cost Texas tens of billions in economic activity, might put doctors and pharmacies out of business, and could flood public hospitals with uninsured patients, leading to a spike in local property taxes.

Yet Dewhurst’s statement received scant media attention. Only one story—in the Chronicle—mentioned it. Medicaid withdrawal may make a good story, but unless the budget arithmetic changes, it ain’t gonna happen.

—Dave Mann


dept. of miseducation

El “Fracaso” in Brownsville

It’s a bad time to play chicken with the University of Texas Board of Regents. With an estimated $20 billion budget shortfall looming, the board of Texas Southmost College in Brownsville thought it would renegotiate the contract with the UT system to force UT to pay more than $10 million in back rent. Instead, the regents announced in mid-November they’d dissolve the 99-year contract with Southmost.

The University of Texas Brownsville-Texas Southmost College is a unique hybrid. It’s a community college and a four-year university combined. In 1991, the community college, which is funded by local property taxes in Brownsville, forged a partnership with the UT system and signed a 99-year contract. The UT system rents many of the buildings from Southmost and handles most of the administrative duties. UT-Brownsville and Southmost President Juliet Garcia summed up the impending divorce from UT as a “fracaso,” a failure.

Garcia tried to paint a rosier picture to staff and faculty. She promised that the UT System was still committed to building a four-year university in Brownsville without Southmost. Garcia said UT Brownsville’s growth was passing through a “cocoon phase” like other universities, such as the University of Texas at El Paso. The metamorphosis from homely caterpillar to butterfly will be difficult during the state’s worst budget crisis in history.

Southmost Trustee David Oliveira had a darker spin. “I am extremely disappointed, but I can’t say I am shocked because I warned the other trustees that this was going to happen,” Oliveira told the Brownsville Herald. “This could have disastrous consequences for our community and could set us back 50 years if the University of Texas Board of Regents follows through with this. I don’t know where we are going to get the funds to continue the programs we have, at the level we have, without raising taxes.”

—Melissa del Bosque