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The Whole Star

State Rep. Eric Johnson
Courtesy Eric Johnson
State Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas), with Rep. Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown), has proposed a dramatic expansion of state-funded pre-K.

Thousands of 3- and 4-year-old Texans would get free, full-day pre-K, under a proposal from Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) and Rep. Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown).

Their House Bill 1100 would offer state funding for school districts to expand their pre-K programs if they agree to meet curriculum standards and follow best practices for instructional day length, classroom size, teacher development and parental involvement.

Texas currently funds half-day pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds who are English-language learners, eligible for free or reduced lunch, homeless, in foster care, or the child of an armed services member on active duty or who’s been disabled or killed in action. Johnson and Farney’s bill would provide full-day pre-K to those same students—an extension that would help working parents. Today, districts that offer full-day pre-K must pay the difference from their own budgets or outside grants.

In an announcement about the proposal, Johnson cites research showing that quality pre-K can cut the achievement gap in half for children in poverty, the equivalent of a 4-year-old jumping from the 30th percentile to the 50th in one year. Johnson and Farney point to research from Dallas showing that students who attended DISD’s full-day pre-K program were 3.5 times more likely to be kindergarten-ready than those students who didn’t.

Other studies have shown that for every dollar invested in high-quality, full-day pre-K, there’s a return to society of $3.50 in increased earnings, reduced need for remedial or special education, lower incarceration rates and less reliance on public assistance.

“Many of our children never have the opportunity to excel in school because even by the time they enter kindergarten, they are so far behind that they never catch up,” Johnson said in a press release. “This proposal is aimed at improving outcomes where we can get the most bang for the buck—children in poverty and English language learners.”

To receive additional funding, schools would have to follow the Texas Prekindergarten Guidelines in their curriculum, and assess students with kindergarten readiness tools and reports on the students’ skills. The proposal pointedly does not include standardized tests—a particularly unpopular proposal Gov. Greg Abbott floated during his campaign last year. Participating school districts must also publicly report classroom and student progress data and implement program improvements if they fail to demonstrate adequate student progress.

“The children of Texas deserve a first-class education, but the taxpayers of Texas deserve to know their dollars are being well spent,” said Farney. The current system of half-day, state-funded pre-K does not include any of these requirements. Today, kindergarten readiness tests are only voluntary.

The bipartisan measure comes as momentum builds to improve early education in the state. Gov. Abbott has said such reforms are a top priority this legislative session. As the Quorum Report’s Kimberly Reeves noted last week, the Johnson-Farney proposal is a greatly expanded version of Abbott’s plan, providing more money and a faster timeline for the program.

Johnson said the framework has support from business associations, school districts, children’s advocacy groups, private schools and city leaders. Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings have also endorsed the bill.

“We are optimistic that it will get a hearing and a fair shot because there are many people that will support it and testify for the bill. I feel good about it,” Johnson told the Observer.

Andrea Brauer, the early education policy associate for Texans Care for Children, said there’s a strong possibility that early childhood education will see increased funding this session, but she can’t make predictions about HB 1100.

“I know there are a lot of pre-K bills,” Brauer told the Observer, “but I do think it’s a great thing our governor supports it. I am optimistic that we will get increased funding.”

The program would cost an estimated $318 million and serve 87,000 students, according to Johnson. (Abbott’s plan would cost an estimated $118 million.)

Several advocacy groups are supporting expanded pre-K this session. The education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Texas has made expanding pre-K its top priority this year.

The group’s CEO, David Anthony, said he’d like to see the Legislature budget for pre-K programs using per-student formulas as it does for K-12 education, rather than grant funding, which is generally less stable.

For now, though, Anthony told the Observer that the expansion Johnson and Farney proposed is an important step.

“Let’s stop doing what looks or feels good,” Anthony said, “and let’s start implementing what the research shows is working.”

Austin Wallis
YouTube
Screenshot from Austin Wallis' (right) YouTube video

Earlier this week, a 17-year-old YouTube blogger posted an emotional video in which he recounted how he was forced to leave his high school because he’s gay.

In the video, Austin Wallis repeatedly breaks down crying as he sits with his boyfriend and explains how administrators gave him a choice between going back in the closet or finding a new school. Wallis’ story has gone viral, getting picked up by outlets including Huffington Post, and as of Thursday morning, the video had been viewed more than 170,000 times in the four days since it was posted.

Wallis doesn’t identify his former school in the video, saying he doesn’t want the controversy to reflect badly on teachers who supported him, but the Observer has learned that Wallis attended Houston’s Lutheran High North.

Dallas Lusk, head of school at LHN, sent the Observer a statement from Wayne Kramer, executive director of the Lutheran Education Association of Houston. The association covers three schools, including LHN, which has an enrollment of 162.

“Lutheran High North welcomes all students and their families to the LHN community,” Kramer said in the statement. “We profess and proclaim our Christian beliefs with the foundations and authority taught in the Bible, all within the teachings of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. We respectfully require students to adhere to these accepted values and moral beliefs. Sometimes, as in this case, students have to make choices and decide whether their beliefs align with our community and we respect their choices. We also respect student privacy and do not comment on any individual student or their actions.”

In his email accompanying the statement, Lusk wrote, “The allegations you received have been misrepresented.” Asked for clarification, Lusk said he couldn’t discuss specifics about Wallis but called the situation “frustrating.”

He also indicated that LHN students are barred from promoting “anything sinful” and referred the Observer to a “morals clause” in the school’s handbook.

“Lutheran High North reserves the right, within its sole discretion, to refuse admission of an applicant and/or to discontinue enrollment of a current student participating in, promoting, supporting or condoning: pornography, sexual immorality, homosexual activity or bisexual activity; or displaying an inability or resistance to support the qualities and characteristics required of a Biblically based and Christ-like lifestyle,” the clause states.

According to the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod’s website, the denomination views homosexual behavior as “intrinsically sinful.” The LCMS is the second-largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S., behind the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America, which voted in 2009 to ordain gays and lesbians.

“The Missouri Synod believes the Bible teaches homosexual behavior is contrary to God’s Word and will, and the LCMS seeks to minister to those who are struggling with homosexual inclinations,” the denomination’s website states.

Wallis posted a coming out video on his YouTube channel six months ago. Since then, he and his boyfriend have posted dozens of others, including one in which they take off their shirts off and draw on each other’s chests.

In the video about LHN, Wallis notes that he had never previously mentioned the school on YouTube. Nevertheless, he alleges that approximately two weeks ago, he was summoned to the principal’s office. The principal said he knew Wallace was gay and was going to get his parents involved. The next day, Wallis returned to the principal’s office accompanied by his mother.

He said the principal told him that if he wanted to stay at LHN, he had to go back in the closet and delete his social media, including his YouTube account, which he said “means the world” to him.

“It means a lot to me that I can, you know, help a few people who might be feeling like they’re not worth it, or like being gay is too hard, or they need to hide from everybody, and I don’t want people to feel like that,” he says in the video.

Two days after the second meeting with the principal, Wallis says he decided to leave LHN. Although technically it was his choice, Wallis says he felt as though he was in danger of being expelled and didn’t want to attend a school that considered him immoral.

Wallis says he was a good student, and although it seemed the principal was doing everything possible to keep him at LHN, he was baffled by the fact that his sexual orientation had even become an issue.

“I think it’s ridiculous that in this day and age you can be excluded from your own school for being gay,” he said. “When I came out, I knew I was going to have bullies … but I never expected it to be from the people who are supposed to protect you from the bullies, who are supposed to try to stop that.”

Wallis goes on to call LHN’s actions “absolutely disgusting” and says he can’t believe they were legal, even though it’s a private religious school. He says he posted the video because he wants to change the world for the better.

“I am a Christian and I love my God, and I don’t feel like this is what He would have wanted, and I don’t feel like excluding someone for who they are is anything near Christian,” Wallis says.

Ken Upton, senior counsel at the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal, told the Observer he personally believes the school’s actions qualify as “abuse.” However, Upton conceded it’s unlikely school administrators violated Wallis’ rights to free speech or privacy.

“The short answer is that if it’s not a government school, if it’s a strictly private school, the First Amendment doesn’t apply to them,” Upton said. “If they’re a private school, then I think it’s game over. They’re entitled to discriminate.”

Sen. Jane Nelson and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick
Kelsey Jukam
Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson's budget proposal doesn't provide funding for the Public Integrity Unit.

 

The director of the state’s criminal anti-corruption unit told a key Senate committee Monday that “there is no one else” in the state that could handle the cases his office does.

The Public Integrity Unit, which is housed within the Travis County DA’s office, has long been a target of Republican legislators, who argue that its prosecutions are politically motivated. In 2013, Rick Perry vetoed funding for the agency after Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg refused to step down over her embarrassing arrest for drunk driving. Some lawmakers want to transfer the cases handled by the Public Integrity Unit out of Travis County. But Public Integrity Unit director Gregg Cox told the Senate Finance Committee that a constitutional amendment would be required to do that. Many of the cases the unit deals with occur in Travis County because Austin is the state capital, he said.

Cox balked at Sen. Joan Huffman’s suggestion that cases could be referred to the counties where the defendant resides. Cox pointed out that an illegal action in Travis County might be beneficial to the home county of the “bad actor.” As a result, hometown prosecutors and juries may not be as keen to indict.

Cox also stressed that public corruption has never made up more than 7 to 8 percent of the Public Integrity Unit’s total caseload—and of the 19 public corruption cases currently pending, only one involves an elected official. (Cox declined to name the official; Perry’s prosecution is being handled by a special prosecutor not affiliated with the Public Integrity Unit)  The majority of the caseload, he said, has historically been ones in which the state is the victim, such as unemployment or welfare fraud.

Since Perry vetoed funding, Cox and his team have been referring fraud cases to other DA’s offices, but few have led to indictments. Such cases require specialized staffs that most prosecutors don’t have.

The Senate budget proposal doesn’t include any funding for the unit, which was defunded by Perry in 2013, making good on a threat that lead to his indictment in August on abuse of power charges. In a press conference last month, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said he didn’t see a reason to replace that funding in the next two-year budget.

Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) said in the meeting that she believes “the functions of the Public Integrity Unit are very important.” But she left funding out of the budget bill because the Legislature might decide to create another agency or assign cases to other offices.

Before the committee adjourned, Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) asked whether there was any constitutional obligation to provide funding for the Public Integrity Unit. The answer doesn’t bode well for the corruption watchdog:  no.

 

George P. Bush
John Savage
Land Commissioner George P. Bush addresses crowd at school choice rally

Of the half dozen or so rallies during the first three weeks of the legislative session, today’s rally for school choice wins at least three awards: Largest, Slickest and Youngest.

Billed as the largest school choice rally in Texas history, hundreds of people, mostly children in matching yellow scarves (signifying their support of school choice) marched on the Capitol.

Among the marquee speakers were new Land Commissioner George P. Bush and Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), one of the most hardcore school choice champions in the Legislature.

Bush, channeling his voucher-loving father, gave the crowd a now-familiar pitch.

“A majority of our students are trapped in schools that are underperforming,” Bush said. “Some schools don’t work and refuse to change, and that’s why we need school choice.”

“We want our voices to be heard,” said Rebekah Anthony, a fundraiser for the charter school chain IDEA Public Schools. “Parents and families make the conscious effort to enroll their students here because they believe it is the best opportunity for their students.”

The Capitol rally was part of National School Choice Week—a slick nation-wide campaign funded by deep-pocketed organizations such as the Heritage Foundation and Americans for Prosperity.

The event comes with the trappings of corporate-funded public relations campaigns: expensive advertising, celebrity endorsements, and even an official song and dance.

In Texas, voucher plans have been scotched repeatedly at the Legislature, thanks largely to an alliance of rural Republicans and big-city Democrats.

Louis Malfaro, president of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), told the Observer the school choice movement doesn’t have popular support.

“The majority of Texans are against privatizing public schools,” Malfaro says. “This is a damn sideshow, and to waste time on it is still irrelevant to the vast majority of students in the state.”

Some voucher opponents, including Karen Miller, the former legislative chair for the Texas Parent Teacher Association, raised concerns about students missing school to attend a political rally.

“If busloads of public school kids missed school for a rally,” Miller said, “conservative groups would be hot on the case and very critical.”

Several charter school administrators said that the rally was a good learning experience for the students. “This is an opportunity for them to learn what it means to be engaged in government,” Anthony told the Observer.

Research has shown that vouchers and charter school have failed to improve student achievement consistently. Opponents also argue that the initiatives drain money from public schools and may lead to increased racial segregation.

Analysts say that vouchers have a better chance of passing this legislative session because of the elevation of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a diehard voucher supporter, and other conservative Republicans who favor school choice.

Advocating for these initiatives has become part of a larger right-wing agenda of privatizing government-run services.

Vouchers have been around for more than a century, but it wasn’t until the economist Milton Friedman’s influential 1955 paper, “The Role of Government Education,” that vouchers became a pet cause of the right. Friedman’s birthday has been an occasion for free-market advocates and school choice supporters in Texas to celebrate his ideas.

The popularity of charter schools has made them the fastest growing school choice option across the nation. A few states and city school systems have also adopted some form of school vouchers. The movement has attracted super-rich supporters and profiteers into what Jeb Bush dubs the “education marketplace.”

At today’s rally, his son George P. Bush said one thing that both sides of the debate can agree on.

“We are training the future leaders of Texas, right here and right now, and we have to do it right,” Bush said.

Students from Houston Quran Academy.
Kelsey Jukam
Students from Houston Quran Academy sing the national anthem during Texas Muslim Capitol Day.

While a couple dozen protesters at the Capitol today held signs decrying Islam and called for Muslims to “go home,” Najmus Saqib Hassan watched on placidly. “Wherever Muslims get together, there is this,” he said. “But they have a right to be here. It doesn’t bother me.”

Hassan joined several hundred other Texans at the Capitol today for “Texas Muslim Day.”

Over the course of the 140-day legislative session there are hundreds of lobby days—for towns, industries, farmers, veterans, universities and all sorts of other interest groups. But few attract the vitriol that Texas Muslim Capitol Day did today.

Hundreds of Muslims from all over the state attended the event, which started in 2003. Many were schoolchildren who crowded in close to the podium as CAIR-Texas Communications Director Ruth Nasrullah began to speak. Before she could barely get a word out, a protester pushed her aside and grabbed the microphone.

“I proclaim the name of the Lord Jesus Christ over the Capitol of Texas. I stand against Islam and the false prophet of Mohammed,” Christine Weick yelled, before she was taken away by security.

On the “Taking a Stand Against CAIR” Facebook event page, 212 protesters said they planned on attending, but barely two dozen showed up today. Those who did were loud and relentless, shouting throughout the press conference, even when a group of teenage girls from Houston’s Quran Academy sang the national anthem.

Milly Wassum
Kelsey Jukam
Anti-Muslim protester Milly Wassum

Security was visibly high at the event, and police kept the protesters at bay.

Representatives from Texas Impact, an interfaith-advocacy organization based in Austin and co-sponsors of the event, had requested extra security because of a bomb threat posted on Facebook on Jan. 20.

Participants, for the most part, took the protesters in stride. Alia Salam, executive director of CAIR-Dallas Forth Worth, told the crowd: “When you see that out there, that’s America. That’s a good thing.”

“We may not like it, but one day you are going to protest against something you don’t like and it is important that you are able to do so,” she said. “Don’t let anything make you afraid to be involved.”

The purpose of the day wasn’t to push a particularly Islamic agenda on the Legislature, but to encourage members of the Muslim community to become more involved in the democratic process. Despite the angry protests, attendees were eager to make the rounds at the Capitol and talk about an agenda that was calibrated to have broad appeal. Event organizers encouraged the crowd to tell their lawmakers that they support the Texas DREAM Act, which offers in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who graduate high school in Texas, and legislation that would require law enforcement to wear body cameras.

“When you’re a part of society, you should support things that are good for everyone,” CAIR-Houston Executive Director Mustafaa Carroll told the Observer. “Muslims aren’t just here to see what benefits them, but what benefits everybody.”

Participants did single out one bill for protest: House Bill 670 by Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Canton), an anti-Sharia bill that pertains to the application of “foreign laws” in U.S. courts.

Several states have already passed similar bills, based on model legislation known as “American Laws for American Courts,” which was originally drafted by anti-Sharia activist David Yerushalmi.

In April 2014, Flynn claimed in an email to his constituents that the British Parliament would now be allowing religious Islamic law “a place in their legal system” and approving “Muslim religious precepts” that discriminate against women and children.

“There is no question the Judeo-Christian heritage we covet and aim to protect is under attack,” Flynn said in the email. “We the American people must wake up and recognize the Spiritual Warfare raging in America.”

Carroll says the the likelihood of Sharia law ever having any influence over American courts is “slim to none” and that the bill makes it looks as if Muslims “have some nefarious plot” to take over the judicial system.

Najmus Saqib Hassan
Kelsey Jukam
Najmus Saqib Hassan listens during a social activism session at the First United Methodist Church.

The day also featured an uproar over a Facebook post from state Rep. Molly White (R-Belton) that called on Muslims visiting her office to pledge allegiance to the U.S.

Ideas about plotting Muslims and other misconceptions of those who practice Islam are bred by ignorance, Hassan said. Prejudices could be reduced, he says, if people simply made the effort to talk to Muslims. He suggested that folks visit mosques and Islamic centers, and extended an invitation for anyone interested to visit the place where he worships: the Maryam Islamic Center in Sugar Land, a facility that can accommodate 1,300 people (there are over 50,000 Muslims in Houston).

“If you live in a tunnel, you will be seen in a tunnel,” he said.

Don Huffines.
Sen. Don Huffines

Sen. Don Huffines, a Republican from Dallas, has filed a bill that would prohibit cities from enforcing LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances.

Huffines’ Senate Bill 343, introduced Friday, is a sweeping proposal that would bar local governments from implementing ordinances that are more stringent than state law on the same subject, unless otherwise authorized by statute.

Since Texas law doesn’t prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, cities couldn’t do so, either.

SB 343 would amend the Local Government Code as follows:

Screen shot 2015-01-26 at 8.46.33 PM

 

Huffines didn’t immediately respond to a message left with his office.

Although in line with some of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent statements, Huffines’ proposal seems extraordinarily broad and would block cities from implementing an array of local laws.

Four House Republicans from Plano reportedly plan a more narrow bill targeting local nondiscrimination ordinances, but it hasn’t been introduced yet. In addition, proposed constitutional amendments creating broad religious exemptions to nondiscrimination ordinances have been introduced in both chambers.

Huffines, a tea partier, defeated state Sen. John Carona in last year’s Republican primary. Carona was among the first Republican Texas legislators in history to publicly express support for gay rights.

Shortly after being elected, Huffines slammed the Boy Scouts’ decision to lift its ban on gay youth.

“I think it was a big mistake what the BSA did,” Huffines said. “They can’t be trusted not to open the door for more infiltration from the gay agenda. Eventually we’ll have gay Scouts and gay Scoutmasters and gay troops. They’ll keep coming until their mission is fulfilled.”

If passed, Huffines’ bill would undo local LGBT protections covering 7.5 million Texans. Cities with LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances include Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston, Plano and San Antonio.

Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas, said since 1909, Texas has granted cities with over 5,000 people broad discretion to make local decisions under the home-rule provision in the state Constitution.

“This bill would be a significant change to over a century of Texas tradition,” Williams said. “In addition to nondiscrimination ordinances, any other local ordinance that deals with a subject covered by state law could be affected, including: plastic bag use, tree ordinances, fracking bans, land-use restrictions, sight line and building height restrictions. The 31 percent of Texans who live in cities with some level of protections based, not only on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, but on as race, sex, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, disability, religion, pregnancy, genetic information and student status deserve the ability to keep their locally adopted ordinances.”

Update: Huffines spokesman Matt Langston denied the bill is designed to undo city ordinances prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination.

“The bill aims to curtail local laws that hinder free enterprise and businesses or hamper liberty, counter to the free market, limited government policies enacted by the state,” Langston wrote in an email late Tuesday.

Asked if he could be more specific about the impetus for the bill, Langston wrote: “The focus of the bill is on free enterprise. Senator Huffines wants to put an end to ordinances, rules, and regulations that hinder the free market and directly undermine state policies designed to encourage the free market. Political subdivisions must not be allowed to undermine the free market, limited-government policies enacted by the duly elected officials of the state.”

Asked whether Huffines would consider adding language to the bill exempting LGBT nondiscrimination ordinances, Langston wrote: “We are still meeting with stakeholders to make sure this bill accomplishes its free market goals.”

Meanwhile, Equality Texas issued an action alert urging people to contact their lawmakers and ask them to oppose Huffines’ bill.

“Local elected officials are in the best position to know the best solutions to local problems: from water to flooding, from air quality to traffic control,” the group wrote.

Dallas Morning News editorial columnist Rudy Bush also panned Huffines’ proposal.

“So city councils that have voted to protect gay citizens from employment discrimination would see their laws trumped by a so-called small government Republican with a religious bent against the way they live their lives,” Bush wrote. “This is exactly where the focus of our legislators doesn’t need to be. We have real problems in this state. Turning back the clock on equal rights isn’t how anyone should be spending their time.”

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

Dozens of gun rights activists gathered in front of the Capitol Monday morning to voice their support for a bill that would end Texas’ 144-year ban on the open carry of handguns.

If passed, House Bill 195 by state Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) would allow gun-owners to carry their handguns in plain sight, and would also eliminate the requirement that a person obtain a concealed handgun license.

Stickland told demonstrators at the event organized by Open Carry Texas that he was “sick and tired of begging for permission” to exercise his Second Amendment rights.

“Could you imagine some of the outrage by the liberals and other people in this state, if we applied the same principles to the First Amendment that they say are reasonable for the Second Amendment?” Stickland said. “Could you imagine what a liberal would say to you if you told them you have to take a test, pass a test, take a class and pay a fee to exercise your First Amendment rights? It’s absolutely ludicrous.”

Texas is one of six states that doesn’t allow open carry of handguns, although it does permit the open carry of long-guns and antique handguns made before 1899. Thirty-one states currently allow open carry without a permit and 13 require a permit.

Open Carry members Colt and Kathryn Szczygiel moved to Texas from Connecticut last year, to flee the increasingly restrictive gun laws that state has passed since the Sandy Hook massacre. Colt Szczygiel said he was “extremely surprised” to learn that open carry of handguns was illegal in Texas, while it’s still legal in Connecticut. He says a common argument against open carry is that it will turn Texas into “the Wild West.”

“Look at us,” Kathryn Szczygiel said, pointing to her pregnant belly, “we’re not the Wild West.”

Jonathan Stickland
Kelsey Jukam
Rep. Jonathan Stickland authored a bill that would permit the open carry of handguns without a license.

Activists and speakers also argued that open carry is simply more comfortable and practical than concealed carry. After a bit of joking about nudists—”They need Open Carry more than anyone!”—Kathie Glass, a Libertarian candidate in Texas’ 2014 gubernatorial race, got down to business and talked to the audience about her handbag. Glass, who carried a can of hairspray in an empty gun holster, wondered how she was supposed to find her handgun if she had to keep it in her “U-Haul purse.”

“What if it’s not with me when I need it?” she asked.

Sterling Lands, a bishop with Family Life International Fellowship in Austin and the lone black face in the crowd of demonstrators, had a reason for supporting open carry that wasn’t articulated by the speakers. He believes that restrictive gun laws in Texas were created as a response to the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, and that current gun laws are discriminatory.

“The idea was to make certain that blacks were never able to rise up in any type of an armed revolt,” Lands said.

He supports HB 195, because he worries that current regulations discriminate against those who cannot afford the $140 concealed handgun license, and those who aren’t able to complete the written test required to obtain the license.

Stickland and Open Carry members support “constitutional carry,” asserting that most regulations on gun ownership are unconstitutional.

“The Second Amendment doesn’t come from a government institution, a bureaucracy or a politician,” Stickland said. “It comes from God almighty.”

According to CJ Grisham, the founder of Open Carry Texas, this hasn’t been an effective argument. He advised activists who planned to speak to their representatives after the rally not to “bring up the constitutional right thing” when speaking with representatives.

“If you say ‘constitution’ it will be like the wicked witch when you pour water on her: ‘I’m melting, melting,’” Grisham said. “You have to talk to them in terms that they understand.”

Grisham encouraged activists to stress that open carry can deter crime. “An armed society is a polite society,” he said, echoing a common NRA refrain.

Open carry activists were asked to wear empty gun holsters to the event.
Kelsey Jukam
Open carry activists were asked to wear empty gun holsters to the event.

Open carry supporters haven’t always followed their own advice. On Jan. 13, Open Carry Tarrant County stormed the office of Rep. Poncho Nevárez (D-Eagle Pass), calling Nevarez a “tyrant to the constitution.” The confrontation prompted lawmakers to pass a rule allowing the installation of panic buttons in Capitol offices.

Grisham was keen to prevent such an embarrassing display from occurring again. Attendees were asked on the “Carry to the Capitol” event page to look “as professional as possible,” and Grisham encouraged demonstrators to be respectful and polite, but “still firm.”

“Show them that we’re a very professional organization and we’re serious and committed to trying to get this legislation passed,” Grisham said.

Stickland is also committed to getting constitutional carry legislation passed, promising that he will offer an amendment on any gun-related bill, “no matter what my colleagues say.”

“We will force the vote,” Stickland said. “And if they have the gall to vote against this bill then we will replace them in the next primary.”

Plano Citizens United graphic
Via Plano Citizens United on Facebook
Despite an exemption for restrooms and similar facilities, opponents of Plano's equal rights ordinance have disseminated graphics like this one suggesting it would allow men to prey on children in women's restrooms.

The nation’s largest LGBT political advocacy group indicated this week it is unlikely to help defend a nondiscrimination ordinance in Plano due to exemptions affecting the transgender community.

The announcement from the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign could amount to a costly setback for supporters of the ordinance, as the organization recently poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a similar fight in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Opponents of the ordinance say they turned in petitions Tuesday with over 7,000 signatures—almost double the number needed to force the City Council to overturn the measure or place it on the ballot in May. Plano officials expect to complete the process of verifying the signatures by the end of this month.

Cathryn Oakley, HRC’s legislative counsel for state and municipal advocacy, told the Observer on Thursday that the organization hasn’t made a final decision about its role if the ordinance appears on the ballot. However, Oakley also made clear that HRC would be reluctant to join the fight due to exemptions including one that appears to bar people from using public restrooms according to their gender identity—a provision which she called “transphobic.”

“The language in Plano is very problematic and in terms of investing a lot of resources in an ordinance that has a lot of problems, it’s difficult to see why that’s necessarily the best use of resources,” Oakley said. “If we had been consulted in the drafting of this bill, we would have withdrawn our support, and given that, it’s hard to justify defending it as valid.”

After being approved in a 5-3 council vote on Dec. 8, the Plano ordinance immediately became the target of a repeal effort led by Texas Values, the Texas Pastor Council, the Liberty Institute and Prestonwood Baptist Church. Republican state lawmakers from Plano also say they’re drafting legislation to prohibit Texas cities from adopting LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances and nullify those already in place.

Trans Pride Initiative Nell Gaither has accused Equality Texas of selling out the transgender community.
Via Nell Gaither on Facebook
Trans Pride Initiative President Nell Gaither has posted graphics like this one accusing LGBT groups of selling out the transgender community.

But the Plano ordinance also quickly came under intense fire from transgender activists. Nell Gaither, president of Dallas-based Trans Pride Initiative, has posted blistering attacks on social media saying exemptions in the ordinance amount to bigotry and accusing other LGBT groups of signing off on them.

“This is not a Plano issue. This is a Texas issue, and more,” Gaither wrote recently. “If they get away with the lie that this is an LGBT equality policy it will set a dangerous precedent that will be very difficult to overcome for many, many years.”

This week, Trans Pride Initiative released an eight-page position paper criticizing exemptions in the ordinance related to not only restrooms, but also nonprofits and schools. The position paper says the exemptions run counter to federal laws and may ultimately promote violence and harassment against transgender people, suggesting it would be better to simply allow the ordinance to be repealed and start from scratch.

Representatives from Equality Texas and a Plano-based LGBT group, GALA North Texas, denied any role in drafting the ordinance. Plano spokesman Steve Stoler maintained this week that the ordinance was written exclusively by the city attorney’s office.

“We felt it was important to balance privacy interests and what best fit our city,” City Attorney Paige Mims said in a statement provided by Stoler. “We wanted to pave our own way, so we wrote our own ordinance. In balancing privacy interests with business interests, we felt the exemption was right for the City of Plano.”

Although adamant they didn’t sign off on the exemptions, both Equality Texas and GALA North Texas indicated they plan to defend the ordinance if it appears on the ballot.

“While the ordinance is not perfect, it is a fact that it includes protections from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations for LGBT residents and veterans in Plano that did not previously exist,” Equality Texas Executive Director Chuck Smith said in a statement to the Observer. “While criticisms expressed by leaders in the transgender community are valid, it is imperative that we work together to ensure that this ordinance is not repealed in the short term and is improved in the long term.”

Jeanne Rubin, a spokeswoman for GALA North Texas, called HRC’s likely decision to sit out the ballot fight disappointing.

“In politics, as much of a bummer as it is, everything is incremental, and I know that’s sort of a dirty word for our community,” said Rubin, who’s also an Equality Texas board member. “If this ordinance goes down, not only will Plano not touch this issue with a 10-foot pole, but no other suburban city out here will, and that doesn’t do L, G, B or T any good.”

Rubin and others said they believe the exemptions were included because officials hoped to head off attacks seen in other cities over transgender protections in public accommodations.

But if that’s the case, the strategy hasn’t worked. Despite the exemptions, opponents have repeatedly and publicly asserted that the ordinance would allow men to enter women’s restrooms and prey on children.

It’s a baseless, fear-mongering tactic, according to LGBT advocates, but it’s arguably still effective among conservative voters. And not only has the exemption failed to prevent such attacks, it has backfired, dividing the LGBT community along all-too-familiar lines over transgender inclusion and now threatening to undermine defense of the ordinance.

“I think the story coming out of Plano is about a city that really wanted to do the right thing, and I wish that this had unfolded differently, because I think that there were good intentions, but things fell apart,” HRC’s Oakley said. “I think incremental process is important, I think municipal work is incredibly important, but incremental doesn’t mean leaving part of the community behind. That’s not an acceptable version of incremental.”

Rodney Reed
AP Photo/Texas Department of Criminal Justice

While a joyful crowd celebrated the inauguration of Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, about 20 people gathered Tuesday near the Capitol in hopes of persuading the new governor to grant clemency to Rodney Reed, a black man sent to death row for the 1996 rape and murder of a white woman, Stacey Stites, near Bastrop.

Reed has maintained his innocence, and supporters have criticized the state for not taking a closer look at Stites’ fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, a Georgetown police officer who was later convicted of raping a woman while on duty.

At the protest yesterday, supporters chanted and held signs that read “Governor Abbott don’t kill an innocent man” and “Drop the Date! Test the DNA,” while cars driving by blew their horns in support.

Reed was convicted of killing Stites and sentenced to death in 1998. He is scheduled for execution on March 5. His family and supporters, including members of Stites’ family, are requesting that evidence in the case be tested for DNA. They’re also calling on Abbott to grant him clemency if the courts fail to order additional DNA testing.

“If they are so sure he is guilty, why not let them prove it and let us test the DNA?” said Cindy Beringer, an Austin volunteer with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. “Just to deny this extra testing and new technology to me seems illogical, but the town of Bastrop has really tried to cover up a lot.”

On Nov. 25, 2014, visiting Judge Doug Shaver denied Reed’s request to have various pieces of evidence related to the crime tested, including a leather belt used to strangle Stites. Supporters believe that Fennell’s DNA could be found, clearing Reed of wrongdoing. The sole physical evidence linking Reed to the murder was semen found inside Stites’ body. However, Reed has acknowledged having an affair with Stites. Shaver denied the request, stating that even if the evidence had been tested during Reed’s trial, the jury’s decision wouldn’t have changed.

The decision is on appeal at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, according to The Intercept.

Lily Hughes, the national director of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, said Reed has been frustrated in his search for justice in the courts.

“Over the years we have been trying to get a hearing from everybody from the district attorney in Bastrop County to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to the federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Louisiana, all the way to the Supreme Court,” Hughes said.

Abbott has remained silent on the issue, and former Gov. Rick Perry has apparently never acknowledged the case.

Organizers say they will continue to fight for Reed even though his execution date is just six weeks away.

“We are trying to think of everything we can to save his life,” Beringer said.

Rick Perry
Patrick Michels

Rick Perry has been an elected official of the state of Texas for fully half of this magazine’s 60-year history, and governor for nearly a quarter of it. He is among the 20 longest-serving governors in American history. By virtue of lucky draws (a booming resource economy; uninspiring challengers) and skill (a genuine talent for retail politics), he has occupied the most bully of Texas pulpits longer than any of his 46 predecessors in the job. It’s an opportunity few men have been given, and fewer women. It’s fair to ask what he’s done with it.

He tried, and failed, to implement the Trans-Texas Corridor—a $150 billion boondoggle so unpopular that his own party’s platform opposed the project.

He tried, and failed, to mandate a vaccine for teenage girls—an intrusion so unpopular the state Legislature overrode his executive order.

He projected regressive attitudes regarding gay rights, creationism and capital punishment, on which latter count he has overseen the execution of 278 Texas inmates since taking office on December 21, 2000.

Perry’s most lasting legacy is probably his denial of Medicaid expansion, by which he chose to exchange the health and even the lives of Texans for cheap partisan posturing.

What has Rick Perry done for Texas? He has postured. He has played to his base, shooting coyotes and laughing off dual indictments for abuse of power, but he has not led it.

And even on the way out the door, with his so-called Texas miracle teetering on the edge of crashing oil prices, he dismisses factuality, telling The Washington Post in December that “We don’t grapple with” income inequality in Texas. Actually, Texas ranks among the top five states in terms of income inequality. But note that Perry didn’t say Texas doesn’t have an inequality problem. Just that he has no interest in doing anything about it.   

If it weren’t for all that still-remarkable hair, the temptation would be strong to dismiss Perry’s long tenure as a large, empty hat.

As Greg Abbott assumes office today, Perry’s three-decade run as an employee of the state government will come to an end and he will, to judge by appearances, turn his full attention to his quest to become an employee of the federal government.

What an opportunity for Texas. —The Editors

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