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The Whole Star

From L to R: Forrest Wilder, state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin), Quorum Report's Harvey Kronberg, Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder, Chris Hooks and state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas).
Jen Reel
The Observer's Forrest Wilder moderates a conversation with political reporter Christopher Hooks, Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder, Quorum Report's Harvey Kronberg, state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas), and state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin).

 

In case you missed our post-election, pre-Lege session discussion in Austin last night, we’re posting the audio from the event. You’ll hear the voices of moderator Forrest Wilder, state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin), Harvey Kronberg of the Quorum Report, Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder, Observer writer Chris Hooks and state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas).

In part one, our panelists pick apart the factors that helped make 2014 such a big win for Republicans:

The Observer's Forrest Wilder moderates a conversation with political reporter Christopher Hooks, Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder, Quorum Report's Harvey Kronberg, state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas), and state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin).
Jen Reel
The Observer’s Forrest Wilder moderates a conversation with political reporter Christopher Hooks, Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder, Quorum Report’s Harvey Kronberg, state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas), and state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin).

In part two, the panelists look ahead to next session: How will Dan Patrick wield the gavel in the Senate? And how can Democrats influence policy when they’re so greatly outnumbered?

State Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) and Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder
Jen Reel
State Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) and Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder
State Rep. Donna Howard
Jen Reel
State Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) at the Texas Observer’s post-election panel discussion, 2014.
The Observer's Forrest Wilder moderates a conversation with state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin), Quorum Report's Harvey Kronberg, Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder, political reporter Christopher Hooks and state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas).
Jen Reel
The Observer’s Forrest Wilder moderates a conversation with state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin), Quorum Report’s Harvey Kronberg, Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder, political reporter Christopher Hooks and state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas).
Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, center, with his son Johnathan Weisfeld-Hinojosa and daughter, Kriselda Hinojosa.
Sen. Hinojosa
Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, center, with his son Johnathan Weisfeld-Hinojosa and daughter, Kriselda Hinojosa.

Kriselda Hinojosa recalls how she unintentionally came out to her father in sixth grade.

“He actually saw me kissing my girlfriend at the time,” Hinojosa said. “So he caught me, but he didn’t get upset. He never yelled at me or anything. He was always very open-minded. I’ve never heard him talk bad about the LGBT community.”

Over the years, the now-32-year-old Hinojosa said, her father’s acceptance has evolved into righteous indignation over the fact that his only daughter doesn’t have equal rights.  Two years ago, Hinojosa “eloped” to Las Vegas with her girlfriend for a same-sex commitment ceremony. When she returned to Texas, it hit home for her dad that their certificate means nothing in the eyes of the state.

In 2013, Hinojosa’s father, state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen), authored a bill to legalize civil unions in Texas. And on Father’s Day this year, he penned a heartfelt pro-equality letter to his daughter that was published in newspapers statewide.

On Monday, Sen. Hinojosa took his support a step further, introducing a bill to repeal Texas’ statutory ban on same-sex marriage on the first day of pre-filing for the 2015 legislative session. Hinojosa’s bill, SB 98, was one of several that were set to be filed that—if all were to pass—would have the combined effect of legalizing same-sex marriage in Texas pending a public vote.

“He says he’s proud of me, but I’m more proud of him,” Kriselda Hinojosa said. “He’s taking a risk, also, because he could actually lose supporters, but it doesn’t seem to phase him. He’s doing what he thinks is right.”

Hinojosa is also co-authoring a resolution with Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso), SJR 13, that would overturn Texas’ constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, which was approved by 76 percent of voters in 2005. To pass, the amendment resolution would need a two-thirds majority in both chambers, as well as a simple majority at the ballot box.

Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas), filed a companion to Hinojosa’s statutory repeal bill in the House, HB 130, while Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston), filed a companion to Rodriguez’s resolution, HJR 34. The statutory repeal bills filed by Anchia and Hinojosa would have no impact unless and until the constitutional amendment is repealed.

LGBT advocates acknowledge that the marriage-equality bills’ chances of success are slim to none in the GOP-dominated Legislature. But their introduction on the first day of pre-filing, coordinated by Equality Texas, could help alter the tone in advance of a session in which the LGBT community is expected to be on the defensive.

The bills also amount to a significant show of support as the issue of same-sex marriage continues to wind its way through the federal courts—an antidote, if you will, to a court brief signed by 63 Texas Republican lawmakers earlier this year that linked same-sex marriage to incest and pedophilia.

That brief was filed by the Texas Conservative Coalition in support of Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott’s appeal of a federal judge’s February decision striking down Texas’ marriage bans as unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge Orlando L. Garcia stayed his decision, and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court has scheduled oral arguments in January. However, it’s possible the U.S. Supreme Court will settle the issue before the 5th Circuit gets a chance to rule.

Last week, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld same-sex marriage bans in four states, splitting with other circuit courts that have struck down similar laws. Attorneys for same-sex couples in the 6th Circuit plan to seek a review of the decision from the Supreme Court, which could issue a nationwide ruling that brings marriage equality to Texas as early as mid-2015.

Rep. Coleman, who’s filed bills to repeal Texas’ marriage amendment in every session since 2007, said Friday he’s optimistic that the high court will settle the issue once and for all.

“I have been fighting to repeal this ban ever since it passed in 2005, and it remains one of my highest priorities,” Coleman wrote. “The persistent advocacy from the LGBT community and allies have turned the tide in public opinion, and in this way we have already won: most Americans now support marriage equality (a huge turnaround in just a short period of time), and for the first time ever a recent poll found that more Texans support marriage equality than those who do not. Even the majority of young Republicans support marriage equality. When the Supreme Court has its say on this issue, it will do so in an environment that already supports marriage equality.”

Correction: The original story did not accurately reflect the authorship of the various bills. The post has been corrected. We regret the error.

Connie Wilson
Courtesy of Connie Wilson
Aimee Wilson (center) and Connie Wilson (right) with their son Aidyn.

The state of Texas is now recognizing Connie Wilson’s same-sex marriage. In September, as the Observer first reported, the Texas Department of Public Safety refused to issue a driver’s license to Wilson, because her name was changed through a same-sex marriage in California. DPS says the policy is based on Texas’ constitutional amendment banning recognition of same-sex marriages.

After being denied a license, Wilson renewed her passport in her married name, based on the federal government’s recognition of same-sex marriages. Last Monday, Wilson returned to a different DPS office and used her passport to obtain her Texas driver’s license in her married name.

“Unbeknownst to them or not, they are recognizing that I have a name that was gained by same-sex marriage,” Wilson said. “Regardless of consequences, they’re still having to recognize that that is my name.”

On her first trip to DPS, Wilson presented her California marriage license to show why her name is different from the one on her birth certificate. After noticing that Wilson’s spouse’s name is “Amy,” a DPS employee refused to issue the license citing DPS policy.

However, DPS policy also states that the agency accepts passports to obtain driver’s license without any additional identification.

Wilson, who moved with her wife from California to the Houston area this summer, said her advice to same-sex couples relocating to Texas is simple: Get your passport and make sure it is renewed.

“Go the extra mile,” she said. “Just relieve yourself of any undue stress. It shouldn’t have to be that way, but it’s a fact of life.”

In retrospect, Wilson said she thinks her story, which drew national attention, helped raised awareness about discrimination faced by same-sex couples. She said she faults not only the DPS policy but also the discretion apparently granted to DPS employees. She said she’s heard from others who’ve obtained driver’s licenses using same-sex marriage licenses, so she believes DPS employees decide what documents to accept.

“It’s human nature, we’re going to put our own belief system into that discretion,” Wilson said.

The issue of DPS discrimination against same-sex couples resurfaced last month, when out lesbian Houston Mayor Annise Parker suggested on Twitter that her daughter had been refused a license because she has two moms. DPS responded by saying the decision to turn away Parker’s daughter was based on insufficient documentation of her residency, not same-sex marriage. But the agency refused to elaborate, citing privacy concerns.

The mayor, whose daughter was eventually able to obtain her license, has also declined to elaborate on what took place beyond her tweets. But based on Wilson’s own experience, she thinks she has a pretty good idea.

“Within my mind, there’s no doubt she was pulled aside because of the fact that she has two moms,” Wilson said.

Wilson, who has children ages 1 and 4, said she sometimes worries about discrimination they might face as they get older. But she noted that she and her wife chose to move here.

“It’s a great place,” she said. “It’s a great state. California wasn’t perfect, either.”

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John Specia
>a href="http://www.hhsc.state.tx.us/" target="_blank">www.hhsc.state.tx.us/
Family and Protective Services Commissioner John Specia.

Texas is pushing ahead with controversial reforms to the scandal-plagued foster care system despite a recent report that the overhaul is over budget.

A recent cost evaluation by state consultant reported that Texas hasn’t put enough funding toward the system and, as the Observer reported in May,  more funding will be necessary to keep the new system sustainable.

The Texas Legislature passed the foster care reform in 2011. It allowed the Department of Family and Protective Services, responsible for foster care regulation and administration, to shift some duties to private companies. These so-called lead companies would oversee privately contracted child-placing agencies responsible for recruiting and monitoring foster homes. Each lead company would oversee placing agencies in a certain part of the state. One main goal of the overhaul is to keep children closer to their homes.

But the Legislature had one caveat: the new system couldn’t cost any additional money, meaning lead companies must provide more services for the same amount of money that the state was spending on the old system. One company has already pulled out of its contract with the state, in part due to funding issues.

The Health and Human Services Commission, which oversees the department, contracted in July with the Boston-based Public Consulting Group to do a two-month study of “Foster Care Redesign,” as the overhaul is officially called. The report concluded that the system needs more money. “Additional resources are necessary to build an infrastructure to support and maintain a successful [lead company],” the recently-released report stated, adding that funds could come from alternative sources, like outside fundraising. The report recommended that Texas amend the 2011 reform legislation to require the new system to spend the same amount of money over the span of two years, instead of one year, to give the department more flexibility. The report also noted Texas is the only state attempting a foster care system overhaul without expecting to add funding.

The consulting group presented the study’s results at a Friday meeting of stakeholders who advise the state on how to implement, regulate and track the progress of the overhaul.

“We seem to have a very firm understanding that this isn’t a cost-neutral model. That to achieve what we want takes more money,” said Judge Scott McCown, director of the Children’s Rights Clinic at the University of Texas at Austin. “So I’m confused, when are we gonna tell people that this isn’t cost-neutral? When are we gonna fashion a plan for more money? … I just don’t know what we’re doing, it seems like a march of folly for me.”

Family and Protective Services Commissioner John Specia said later during the meeting that his staff is figuring out how best to ask the Legislature for more money during the upcoming 2015 session. At a recent legislative budget hearing, Specia included a one-time request for $1.6 million in funding for the overhaul. But that amount is just a placeholder, Specia said Friday. Nothing is final yet.

“I’m being pretty frank with the Legislature,” he said. “There are clearly issues related to funding. Cost neutrality, I think, is very difficult. Unfortunately we don’t have the hard numbers to say what does that mean,” Specia said. “I’ve got to be able to articulate what we get for the extra dollars they give us and we’re working on that.”

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