The Whole Star

Payday lending
Jen Reel

At the Texas Municipal League’s annual convention in Austin on Thursday, there was an unexpected bit of wargaming. City officials from across the state gathered to encourage each other to pass regulations on payday and auto-title lending, an unregulated sector many consider usurious, if not predatory, and to discuss ways to defend against the industry’s lawsuits.

In recent years, at least ten Texas municipalities — from Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and El Paso, to smaller cities like Denton, Balcones Heights, Somerset and Flower Mound — have passed restrictive ordinances on short-term lending businesses. Those have been effective at squeezing predatory lending operations within cities, but because lenders can simply hop over city lines and resume operation, the local efforts were also seen as a way to pressure the state to act.

Awash in industry money, the Legislature has failed to do much of anything for three sessions. This year, a big reform package, which traded local regulations for a looser statewide framework, dramatically imploded. Short-term lending reform advocates have now moved on to a new strategy: passing local ordinances wherever possible. But the industry has been sue-happy. And though cities have been winning the lawsuits, the threat of a financially-burdensome legal challenge is a challenge for small towns.

The conference panel on Thursday was an opportunity for city officials from around the state to share advice and encouragement. The panel included Austin City Councilman Bill Spelman and legal advisors from Austin, Denton and El Paso, three cities that have enacted tough payday lending rules and faced legal action from the industry.

Jerry Drake, a deputy city attorney from the city of Denton, reminded cities not to enact the ordinance without being able to clearly demonstrate a governmental need to restrict short-term lending.

“I just want to add a word for cities that are considering this: Be sure not to take the harm as a given. These payday lenders fully believe they’re doing the Lord’s work,” he said. “They say they’re filling a need. They have studies they’ll give you from economists with all kinds of very high-powered economic formulas in them, that you can’t even begin to parse, saying that the industry is such a good thing for the community and people of modest means.” Do your homework, he said, and come prepared.

But another message came from the panel, and advocates in the crowd — the more cities that enact payday ordinances, the better protected they’ll all be.

“From the payday lender’s point of view, suing Dallas is a no-brainer. It’s going to be easier for them to carry the cost of that lawsuit than the city of Dallas,” said Austin City Councilman Spelman. “But if 10 or 20 or 30 cities that are all passing the same ordinance, and they want to sue all of us, that’s a whole bunch of money. They’re going to throw in the towel and wait for one or two of those lawsuits to bear fruit.”

“If you’re the eleventh city to pass one of these things, the chance they’re going to fixate on you and spend as much time and trouble suing you as they are suing Dallas or suing us is pretty low,” he said. “Because it doesn’t make economic sense.”

Jerry Allen, a city councilman from Dallas, a city which has had success in defending payday lending regulations in court, agreed. “Just join together — we don’t need the state,” he said.

Afterwards, Allen doubled down. “Do not hesitate. Get out there and do it,” he said. “Every single city needs to join in and join in today.” In Dallas, he said, “there has not been one single payday lender or auto title lender that has applied for a new permit” since 2011, when the city enacted its ordinance. “We’ve stopped the flow.”

Spelman expressed optimism that the panel would encourage smaller cities to enact the ordinance. He told one story about the Austin ordinance he helped pioneer. A woman who had taken on short-term loans came to the city with concerns about her contract, and the lender responded by reassigning her contract to a storefront in Buda, outside of Austin’s city limits. After the panel, Spelman said, officials from Buda contacted him to talk about enacting an ordinance.

“Of course, if they do that, [the company] will move it to Pflugerville or Cedar Park instead,” Spelman said. “But, I think there are a lot of other cities that will adopt similar ordinances. At some point, I think, we’ll have sufficient coverage over the entire state that the Legislature is going to have to adopt the same level of statute.”

Immigrants marching for immigration reform in Austin.
Priscila Mosqueda
Immigrants marching for immigration reform in Austin.

In an attempt to move Republican leaders in the House to reignite the immigration reform debate, thousands of immigrants in more than 140 cities marched on Saturday, demanding reform and an end to deportations. The demonstrations set the stage for a larger protest planned for tomorrow in Washington, D.C.

In Texas, thousands marched. Houston saw the biggest turnout, with organizers estimating nearly 2,000 demonstrators. Close to 1,000 people took to the streets in Dallas, according to organizers, and rallies in Austin, San Antonio and Corpus Christi drew hundreds. Huge demonstrations in Phoenix, New York and Los Angeles sent the same message to Washington: Immigrants are no longer afraid, but they are tired of waiting.

“The government shutdown isn’t going to shut down the issue,” says Connie Paredes, who helped organize the Dallas march with Texas Organizing Project. “The issue is still there and we’re going to continue fighting for immigration reform and for a pathway to citizenship.”

Immigrants marching for immigration reform in Austin. The U.S. Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill drafted by the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” in June, but Speaker of the House John Boehner refused to bring that bill to the floor of the lower chamber. Another “Gang of Eight” bipartisan group formed in the House, but after three of the four Republicans dropped out, hopes of a comprehensive immigration reform bill passing the House withered.

Two of the three Republicans who abandoned the bipartisan effort in the House are from Texas—Sam Johnson (R-Richardson) and John Carter (R-Round Rock). The reps blamed President Obama, saying they didn’t trust him to enforce the border security provisions that conservatives see as the centerpiece of any successful immigration reform legislation. Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat in the House Gang of Eight, said the Republicans left negotiations because they weren’t getting the backing they wanted from Republican leaders.

“It is clear the bipartisan group’s work was not being embraced by Republican leaders, so this allows us to put the focus squarely on Speaker Boehner and his lieutenants to decide if they are serious about reform and if so, to do something more than talk,” Gutierrez said in a written statement.

Instead, House Republicans have indicated they want to focus on a piecemeal approach to immigration reform. Despite this, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, backed by other House Democrats, unveiled a “new” immigration reform bill last week that is a combination of the Senate’s bill and a border security amendment that passed the House Judiciary Committee. She said each part of the bill has had bipartisan support in one chamber or another, but no House Republicans joined her during the announcement.

“We graciously deferred to the Speaker as to the timing, as to the method,” Pelosi said. “We’re prepared to do whatever it takes to go to conference with a good bill that stops the deportations and is a path to citizenship.”

Boehner is not likely to let the bill get to the floor, but like the protests, the legislation was likely designed to keep immigration reform in the national eye and to pressure Republican leaders to act even as the government shutdown claims the spotlight and threatens to kick immigration off this year’s legislative calendar.

But Paredes, who has been advocating for immigration reform for 20 years, says she’s never seen so much support for reform. Organizers are focusing on educating Americans as to immigrants’ contributions to the economy and society, she says, and seeing results.

“Immigrants have a lot of family members, friends, employers who are U.S. citizens who are now involved in this fight and will cast their vote according to who is advocating to immigrants’ rights,” she says. “Legislators fail to see that – they’re against a pathway to citizenship because they fear the future vote, but what they need to fear is the vote now.”

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Jen Reel
A nearly-dry O.C. Fisher Reservoir near San San Angelo

Central Texas’ vulnerability to extreme weather events—and the pressing need for the region to adapt to climate change—dominated the discussion Friday at a conference hosted by UT’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. Organized by a group of public affairs students, the “Climate Resilience and Adaptation Strategies” symposium featured scientists, academics, architects, activists and leaders in city government discussing how to adapt to climate change in a state where many politicians deny its existence.

Rather than focusing on climate change mitigation, which typically involves actions meant to reduce global climate change (e.g. cutting greenhouse gas emissions), the conference explored how communities can adapt to the already evident effects of climate change.

The bad news: Central Texas, which is prone to drought, extreme heat, flooding and wildfires, will need to prepare for more extreme weather events. Climate change means longer and more frequent droughts; more numerous and severe wildfires due to higher temperatures; and rainfall that could come less frequently but with more intensity, worsening Central Texas’ status as the flash flood capital of the nation and producing more fatalities and property damage.

While some Texas cities have taken up climate mitigation, by reducing carbon emissions and investing in renewable energy, few have developed formal plans to adapt to the effects of climate change. Preparing cities for floods, drought and extreme heat is essential to preventing destruction and more damage in the future, panelists argued. For example, flood-prone cities could build higher bridges and highways, or direct homes in flood-prone areas to build on stilts. To reduce heat exposure to residents and conserve water and energy, rooftops could be painted white or seeded with drought-tolerant plants.

A crucial link in climate adaptation is simply assessing vulnerabilities and risks. In Central Texas, rising summer temperatures means more people are at risk of exposure. Stefan Wray, who organized the conference, presented his research that found those most at risk from the extreme heat of 2011, the hottest summer on record, were older, poorer folks concentrated in East Austin.

Another study, by LEED-accredited architect Adele Houghton, found that the areas most vulnerable to flooding and heat were also concentrated on the East Side. In contrast, LEED buildings—“green” buildings that often have features that can reduce exposure to heat, flooding and other extreme weather conditions—were clustered west of I-35.

While most green-building advocates tend to stress the benefits of sustainable construction to the community or planet as a whole—because of a smaller carbon footprint, comparatively smaller amounts of water consumption, etc.—Wray and Houghton both focused on how green buildings can shield individuals and families from weather events and conditions exacerbated by climate change. Cities could use these findings to plan ahead and protect more residents in the future, they said.

During another panel discussion, Steve Adams of the Institute for Sustainable Communities participated via Skype and gave examples of other cities and regions in the nation that are coming together to plan for and adapt to climate change. Four counties in Florida formed the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, a vehicle for regional cooperation to reduce greenhouse gasses and also come up with concrete adaptation plans. The compact, for example, pooled the counties’ resources and came up with regionally consistent projections for sea-level rise by 2060, which in turn was used to create vulnerability maps.

No such effort is underway in Texas. Austin adopted a climate mitigation plan in 2007 but has only looked at adaptation in a piecemeal way. The city, along with the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), recently received a grant to study its regional transportation system’s vulnerability to extreme weather and will use those results to start planning for climate resilience.

A River No More

Texas Drought
Erik A. Ellison/ Wikimedia Commons
A branch of Lake Travis in 2011.

Flowing rivers are the arteries of the vast Texas landscape. They connect the treeless sands of West Texas with the dark alluvial soils of the Gulf Coast. But the lack of rain has weakened the waterways that bind our state. The aridity that now chokes these rivers, from the Brazos to the San Saba, has set off a battle between rural Texas and the super-cities that now have the power. The cities are thirsty giants that never sleep, dominating our politics, our policy and now our water. They will not be denied. And even though there are very few actual river miles within these cities, the water winding through the long banks surely belongs to them.

In op-ed after op-ed, political leaders, business interests, policymakers and developers all point to the abundance of water held by agriculture. And so these farms and the rural lands of Texas will be sacrificed as the rains cease and the cities grow. It’s an easy answer to avoid the impending change and discomfort that should come with a dwindling water supply.

If you have watched the ongoing battle over the flows of the Colorado, you can see this dynamic in real time. The Brazos is the same, now under mandatory restrictions against upstream withdrawals for the benefit of a single industrial facility. The Colorado was historically a river. It begins on the Llano Estacado and runs more than 862 miles. The origins are not marked and appear to be no different than any other of the millions of acres in Texas. The beginnings of the Colorado are where few could ever see it. You couldn’t pinpoint it on a map, that place where the sparse rains begin to collect and channel what becomes the river.

The Colorado’s still on the map as a river but the long flow has been carved into a set of possessory fiefdoms of water storage, marinas, resorts and second homes. Horseshoe Bay to the Lost Pines Hyatt. The water of the Colorado has been stacked until it’s a set of chained reservoirs. Time and money have converted the riverbank to cities, malls, developments and some of the most scenic areas in Texas. But it’s a façade and always has been. The illusion is performed with dams and development. Underneath, this was a river; we just lost sight of it.

The many of us who are unwitting participants in this hydrologic demise can view a time lapse image from the rocky banks of Lake Travis. As the daily withdrawals of municipal intakes and the hot sun take hold, the flat surface of the water falls evenly. We know to the foot how much is lost every day. And as the water disappears, the islands emerge as though new lands have been created. But these islands are the old riverbanks that stood before the dams came. Even Lake Travis, the single biggest impoundment on the Colorado, has reassumed its serpentine shape. It’s a natural reminder that dam or no dam, this is a river.

We made a bet long ago that the rains would always come. So we failed to plan. Now the rains have ceased, and the demands are incalculable. The bet turned into a margin call.

The coastal farms and communities of the lower Colorado were the first to lose. Ironically the fathers of these farmers constituted the monolithic political power that enabled the original dams to be built. Over decades that power has waned to the point that it’s no longer viable. Once the dams that John Graves warned us about were built, the flow of the water would be controlled thereafter.

Now in a moment of desperation, the rich bays of coastal Texas are the next to pay. Shrimp, oysters, birds and redfish depend on the flow of fresh water to mix with the salt of the Gulf. That was the purpose and the effect of the long path of collected rains running from a silent spot on the Texas plains. Matagorda Bay thrived because the waters flowed. Without it, these creatures will be evanescent. And even though the farms and now the bays have been pushed out of the river’s path by the needs of a city, still the most Disney-like element of the Colorado remains untouched. Lake Austin remains full, gin clear and welcoming from the docks and front yards of the powerful—too many of whom are rarely there to see it.

This calls for a moment of thought. There is no leadership urging constraint. No call for slowed development or water-oriented growth planning. The wheel just spins faster. Every new development, every new apartment laid on top of bare Hill Country limestone drains a farm, a ranch, a bay and a life somewhere else. These places will slowly end before us because no longer does the water flow in what once was a river.

Access to Planned Parenthood

Updated at 11:50 a.m with comments from reproductive rights groups and at 2:25 p.m. with comments from Texas Right to Life.

Today in federal court, a coalition of reproductive rights organizations filed a legal challenge to two provisions of House Bill 2, the controversial anti-abortion bill passed by the Texas Legislature this summer.

Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Planned Parenthood affiliates in Texas, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Texas, Whole Woman’s Health and the Center for Reproductive Rights announced the long-anticipated challenge this morning.

“We’re in court today to stop a terrible situation for women in Texas from getting even worse,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “If this law goes into effect, there is no doubt it will end access to safe and legal abortion for many women, leaving some to resort to desperate and dangerous measures. We won’t let that happen.”

House Bill 2 bans abortion at 20 weeks post-fertilization, requires abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, restricts the use of abortion-inducing drugs and requires abortion clinics to make costly facility upgrades in line with surgical care centers. The main provisions of the bill are due to take effect on October 29, with the exception of the ambulatory surgical care center provision, which goes into effect on September 2, 2014.

Critics of the bill describe it as one of the harshest anti-abortion laws in the U.S.

The lawsuit, Planned Parenthood v. Abbott, aims to block two provisions of HB 2: the admitting privileges requirement and the restrictions on the use of medication abortion. A press release issued this morning by the plaintiffs stated that the admitting privileges requirement “could cause at least one-third of the state’s licensed health centers providing safe and legal abortion today to stop providing that service next month. It would completely eliminate access to safe and legal abortion in vast stretches of Texas including the cities Lubbock, Fort Worth, Waco, McAllen, Harlingen and Killeen.”

Jim George, of George Brothers Kincaid & Horton LLP and who’s representing the plaintiffs, said the admitting privileges requirement has created a “crisis of access” and that there would be no abortion providers with a right to perform an abortion west of I-35 and east of El Paso.

The difficulties of obtaining hospital admitting privileges are already being felt. Ken Lambrecht, CEO of Planned Parenthood Greater Texas, said that there are only three hospitals within a 30-mile radius of the Planned Parenthood abortion clinic in Waco. After Planned Parenthood’s physician requested admitting privileges at each, one hospital advised him not to apply because they are a Catholic institution, the other hospital, a Baptist-run facility, returned his application, and the third hospital is yet to return his calls.

Physicians at a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic in Lubbock have been similarly unsuccessful. Of the two hospitals within the 30-mile radius required by the new law, one only grants admitting privileges to teaching physicians, and the other requires doctors to reside locally, which the Planned Parenthood physicians do not.

Amy Hagstrom-Miller, CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, said that her clinic physicians have also been told that they shouldn’t bother applying for admitting privileges because the local community is Catholic. She added that   only gave doctors 90 days to apply for privileges, whereas the privilege request process normally takes six to eight months.

Yet the law now requires abortion clinics to have admitting privileges by October 29, or they will lose their legal ability to provide abortions.

The second challenge outlined in today’s filing aims to block the restrictions on the use of medication abortions. The new law requires women seeking medical abortions to come to the clinic for more in-person appointments. It also requires physicians to adhere to a prescribing protocol that the plaintiffs describe as “inferior, outdated and less effective.”

Jim George said that the plaintiffs hope to win a preliminary injunction that will prevent the admitting privileges provision and the medical abortion restrictions from going into effect on October 29. He said that he expects the state to appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals if the judge finds in the plaintiffs’ favor. He confirmed that the plaintiffs would also appeal were the district court judge to find in the state’s favor.

Texas Right to Life, the anti-abortion organization that strongly supported House Bill 2, said in a press statement today: “While these abortion advocates seem to be aggressive in fighting this law, they in fact have already accepted a significant defeat: they decided not to challenge the biggest portion of HB 2, the Preborn Pain Section, which prohibits elective abortion after 20 weeks based on scientific evidence that these children feel excruciating pain during abortion. …  They opted instead to challenge sections that will have a higher financial impact on the abortion industry. This demonstrates that the abortion industry only cares about the profits it makes from abortion, not the women whom it falsely claims to care for and help.”

However, Nancy Northrup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a press conference earlier that they were working with their clients to assess the impact of the 20-week ban. She declined to go into further detail, saying that it was not appropriate to discuss their litigation strategy.

Reproductive healthcare is one of the most litigated areas of healthcare in the U.S. In the last three years alone, reproductive rights groups have litigated more than 35 separate lawsuits. The suits have challenged mandatory ultrasound laws, biased abortion counseling regulations, hospital admitting privileges requirements, restrictions on the use of medical abortions and abortion bans at 6, 12 or 20 weeks gestation.

The judiciary has also been involved in wrangles over basic health care provisions. Lawsuits have challenged laws blocking women’s access to preventive health services, as well as restrictions on Planned Parenthood providers from accessing federal and state funding sources, and from participating in STD prevention programs and nutritional programs for low-income women and children.

Much depends on the tenor of the courts in which the case is filed, as well as the political leanings of the federal appellate court where the suits are inevitably referred. Progress in other state courts is no indication of how a case might proceed in Texas.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, for example, found in favor of women’s health providers in Arizona, who argued that Planned Parenthood’s eviction from the state Medicaid program violated enrollees’ right to choose their health provider. However, a similar case in Texas was heard in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, where the judge found that Planned Parenthood’s eviction from a federal Medicaid program was not unconstitutional.

Indeed, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, where today’s lawsuit could go, is notoriously conservative. Caitlin Borgmann, law professor at CUNY School of Law, who is not involved with today’s filing, said: “The climate is bad for abortion challenges in the Fifth Circuit.” In January 2012, for example, Fifth Circuit Judge Edith Jones upheld a mandatory ultrasound law that had been overturned by a lower court.

Just yesterday, Gov. Perry appointed Jeff Brown to the Supreme Court of Texas. He is an opponent of abortion rights and has been hailed by Texas Right to Life for his ‘pro-life’ views.

 

Screen capture of ourtown4teens.org.
ourtown4teens.org
Screen capture of ourtown4teens.org.

In September the Texas Department of State Health Services launched a new website, www.ourtown4teens.org, that will cost $1.2 million over the next year. The agency blitzed the radio and TV with ads for the site, claiming that it will help local communities reduce teen pregnancies. Although the site offers reminders why adolescent pregnancy is to be avoided—girls don’t finish school, babies have worse health outcomes, taxpayers foot the bill—it seems primarily to be a home for buzzwords like “community mobilization,” “strategic action” and “conceptual framework.”

Sadly, if you’re all fired up about combating adolescent pregnancy in your area but you don’t speak jargon, then this website probably isn’t for you.

There’s something else lacking too. The site doesn’t contain a word about contraception, even though Christine Mann, a state health department spokesperson, described the project as a “hub of coordinated information” to help communities reduce teen pregnancy. This omission is especially stark given that Texas’ family planning clinics have been defunded and access to birth control, especially for teens, is a real challenge. Texas also has the third highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation, yet the website sheds no light on one very practical way to avoid an unwanted pregnancy.

That’s because it can’t. Ourtown4teens.org is paid for with federal money from a program called the Title V State Abstinence Education Grant Program. Its sole purpose is to promote abstinence from sexual activity. Title V recipients must use the money to support abstinence from sex before marriage, and teach that sex without marriage could have harmful psychological and physical effects. Birth control doesn’t fit into that world.

Indeed, when asked why ourtown4teens.org doesn’t mention contraception, Mann replied by email: “The campaign focuses on the delay of sexual activity as a way to decrease the teen birth rate and the rate of sexually transmitted diseases. State laws guide the agency, and as a general strategy Texas is an abstinence-first state. Abstinence is our first choice for teens.” She didn’t answer the question about contraception.

The federal Title V abstinence program is a big favorite in Texas. Even though the Obama administration cut abstinence-only funding when evidence showed that programs promoting contraception as well as abstinence—commonly-called “abstinence-plus”—were more effective in reducing teen pregnancy, Texas still prefers to get its money from the abstinence-only spigot. For 2014, the Texas Department of State Health Services received $5.1 million in federal money (some of which paid for this website) from the Title V program, and matched it with another $559,000 from general state revenue.

Local entities in Texas do receive some federal funding for comprehensive pregnancy prevention programs ($7.6 million in 2011 according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States), but there could have been much more. In 2011, the Texas Freedom Network revealed that the governor’s office and the Texas attorney general prevented the health department from applying for millions of dollars from a federal funding pot known as Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP). PREP programs promote contraception as well as abstinence.

A determined reader of ourtown4teens.org could find reference to pregnancy prevention programs that do mention contraception. The site also links to national organizations and Texas projects that are really making a difference. But you have to cut through a buzzword thicket and then go to different websites to access any of this information.

Moreover, when asked how the health department would measure the success of the Ourtown4teens.org campaign, Mann wrote: “The evaluation criteria for this project have not yet been finalized.”

Rep. John Carter
Christopher Hooks
Rep. John Carter at a town hall meeting in Salado.

A month after U.S. Rep. John Carter (R-Round Rock) tried to defend his willingness to consider an immigration reform bill to unhappy constituents, his office released a joint statement on Friday with Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Plano) announcing their departure from a bipartisan immigration reform working group, all but signaling the end of a once-promising avenue for reform. Carter and Johnson were the only white Republican members of the ‘Gang of Seven,’ tasked by House leadership with generating a GOP-friendly approach to the issue.

Their departure from the group, coming several months after Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador’s, leaves only one GOP congressman still with the group. But their exit could signify a bigger problem for immigration reform’s chances in the next few months — some Republicans in Congress who represent majority-white and heavily conservative constituencies find themselves unable to compromise on this core issue. At the August town hall meeting, Carter tried to fend off angry constituents, who had earlier screened the documentary They Come to America II: The Cost of Amnesty, by presenting his own immigration reform plan. The crowd was having none of it.

Lynn Woolley, the local radio host who loudly denounced Carter at the Salado town hall, took partial credit for Carter’s reversal, posting congratulatory messages from his fans on his Facebook page.

“CONGRATULATIONS to you and the Central Texas Tea Party!,” Woolley wrote. “I truly believe all of you had a huge influence on John Carter and Sam Johnson.”

Roy Beck, the executive director of NumbersUSA, one of the leading anti-immigration reform pressure groups, likewise touted the gang’s collapse as a victory.

“I think it’s pretty clear that House Speaker Boehner was the one who talked Johnson and Carter into joining this group, in the hope that it would give some conservative cover to passing amnesty,” he said. “We’ve been getting indications for several months that the pressure on these two at home, among their constituents had been approaching a breaking point. They had been looking for an opportunity to get out.”

But a statement released by America’s Voice, a liberal immigration reform-advocacy organization, put the blame for the Gang of Seven’s collapse squarely on the shoulders of the House Republican leadership — and held out the hope that the departure of Carter and Johnson “opens new possibilities” for the pro-reform movement.

Frank Sharry, the group’s executive director, said he was “glad that a moribund process has been put to rest,” and that “our leading champions for reform are freed up,” while others with the organization pointed to the fact that Carter and Johnson’s statement blamed the administration and not House Democrats — a sign, they say, that the congressmen could come back to the table if the leadership starts to put serious backing behind reform.

Duke Energy's 14-megawatt Blue Wing Solar Project in San Antonio
Duke Energy's 14-megawatt Blue Wing Solar Project in San Antonio.

Major Texas cities are challenging Texas’ rank as one of the least-green states in the union, a new report shows. The report, released by Environment Texas in San Antonio today, ranks Texas’ 10 most populous cities by environmental and energy efforts, and emphasizes the need for improvement statewide.

The cities are rated on a scale of zero to three in five categories that focus on renewable energy and efficiency. Some of the scales compare Texas cities to others in the nation. For example, a city could only score a three in utility-supported solar power if its solar production rivaled that of U.S. cities leading in solar.

rankings

Perhaps not surprisingly, Austin is the greenest city, with San Antonio and Houston (!) tied for the no. 2 spot. Corpus Christi (“The Sparkling City by the Sea”) brought up the rear, with a score of 1 out of a possible 15.

But the scales used to rank cities were limited and narrow—while some important categories like municipal use of renewable energy were included, Environment Texas didn’t consider water use, air quality and public transit.

San Antonio and Austin took the lead in solar power, each earning a 2.5 out of 3. Both cities own their utilities and together comprise 85 percent of Texas’ solar capacity. But the two cities still only produce about a third of what national leaders San Jose and San Diego produce per capita (those cities would have earned a three). Houston earned high marks in all categories, but scored a zero in solar. Despite boasting more solar potential than any other state, Texas still ranks 20th for solar energy production per capita. State leaders have done very little to boost the industry, leaving a handful of big cities and a few utilities to lead the way.

In a state with a booming construction industry—Texas accounted for 16.3 percent of all building permits issued in the U.S. last year—cities’ commitment to energy efficiency and other green measures in new buildings is paramount. Of the 10 cities, only Austin has adopted the latest International Energy Conservation Code‘s efficiency standards for new homes. Only 20 smaller Texas cities have adopted the newest standards, while most still adhere to the 2009 version.

Texas mandates adherence to the 2009 code, but the report says the 2012 code would achieve “approximately 15 percent greater efficiency” than the old one. Houston kept the 2009 code but amended it to require 15 percent more efficiency by 2014, and also requires that all new homes be built solar-ready.

Texas cities did well in other categories: Austin uses 100 percent renewable energy to power municipal activities, while Houston uses 48 percent, making it the largest municipal purchaser of renewable energy in the U.S. Houston also leads in green construction, ranking 5th in the country for the number of LEED-certified buildings. And while six of the ranked cities require all public buildings to earn a LEED-Silver designation, Dallas requires LEED-Gold.

The report found that all major Texas cities have at least one recharge station for electric cars per 100,000 residents. Austin has 19 charging stations per 100,000 residents, while San Antonio has 10 and Houston nine per 100,000.

Don McLeroy
Patrick Michels
Former State Board of Education chairman Don McLeroy delivers a rousing commentary Tuesday afternoon, saying textbooks proposed for Texas schools will be a huge victory for creationism.

It’s not like this is the first time we’ve witnessed right-wing social conservatives actively challenging that questionable “theory” of what so-called “scientists” like to call “evolution.” And I’m sure it won’t be the last, seeing as some, if not all, of the opponents are clearly still, um, evolving. But every time the Texas State Board of Education considers new public school textbooks, instructional materials and related curriculum, we’re forced to listen to the tirades from direct descendants of Adam and Eve about how public schools are failing to adequately reflect Judeo-Christian values. (Not that you can’t learn a lot about the origins of life and the perils of natural selection from the Old Testament. Like, why are there no more unicorns?)

On Tuesday the board of education held the first dramatic public hearing regarding new high school biology books. (First of all, why are we even teaching our children biology? Some textbooks that I’ve seen discuss plant reproduction in full detail. We might as well just pass out condoms.) Science textbooks are inherently controversial due to their reliance on liberal, possibly communist, junk science like evolution, dubious fossil records and climate change. Once approved the books could be used over the next 10 years by states across the country. Not to worry. In 10 years the only people left on this post-apocalyptic planet will be scientists, atheists and Marshall, Will and Holly.

The anti-education board of education appointed so-called volunteer citizen committees to review the textbooks (and, perhaps, burn them in the town square) before the approval process even began. They’re volunteering for this? There must be better ways for them to spend their spare time, like quilting. According to the Texas Freedom Network, at least six reviewers are vocal creationists. One reviewer is a retired Baylor professor, which sounds somewhat promising until you find out that he’s also the co-author of a book on intelligent design. Are you kidding me? Not even God believes in intelligent design. (He considers himself strictly a young-earth creationist.)

Luckily in 2011 the Legislature passed a law that allows school districts to choose their own educational materials without board approval. Basically districts can teach whatever they want on the taxpayer dime. Question: What’s the difference between public school in Texas and homeschooling? Answer: Your mom.

Testifying at Tuesday’s hearing former SBOE chairman Don McLeroy proclaimed that if the board were to adopt new anti-science textbooks, they will effectively “strike the final blow to the teaching of evolution.” I would say this latest crusade is a new low for SBOE except for the fact that a few years ago they proposed that all references to “slave trade” in history texts be replaced by “Atlantic triangular trade.”

Sure, it might make sense to downplay Abraham Lincoln in favor of touting the significant contributions of Newt Gingrich to American history but evolution? How can people argue with science? The very origins of the universe? Humanity itself? This changes everything. It especially gives credence to my personal theory that the world didn’t exist before I was born. How can I be sure? Am I supposed to just blindly accept the fact that the earth was actually here before me?

Prove it.

Deer Park Prairie
Matt Buckingham for Bayou Land Conservancy
Deer Park Prairie.

Update, Sept. 11, 9:50 a.m.:

The Deer Park Prairie is spared from development. Just hours before Tuesday’s deadline, Bayou Land Conservancy raised enough money to buy the land.

In early August, Dean Lawther, a longtime housing developer in the area, agreed to sell the property to conservationists for $4 million. The initial proposal kicked off a campaign to quickly raise the money. On Monday night, a new agreement was reached. Lawther would come down on the price, to $3.8 million, and the prairie would have a longer name: Lawther Deer Park Prairie.

Bayou Land Conservancy will hold the conservation easement, preventing the prairie from ever being developed, but will transfer ownership to the Native Prairies Association of Texas to manage and operate. The remaining donations will be used to maintain the park.

Bayou Land Director Jennifer Lorenz calls the project the “fastest conservation campaign ever completed in Texas.” The group raised nearly $4 million, mostly from individual donors, in a matter of weeks. “Individuals made this happen, this truly is the people’s prairie,” she says.

Original story: In the last three weeks, a Houston-based conservation group has raised nearly $3.4 million to stymie development on what conservationists call one of the last remaining tracts of ancient Cajun prairie in an urban area.

The Bayou Land Conservancy is just short of their $4 million goal and the clock is ticking. The group has until just Tuesday to raise the remaining funds.

The 50-acre prairie in industrial Deer Park, 18 miles east of Houston, has never been plowed, which conservationists say make it the last vestige of land in the area with the same ecological diversity as pre-developed East Texas.

“This land still has some of the same species that were in the area thousands and thousands of years ago,” said Phillip Quast, program director of the Native Prairies Association of Texas. “It’s one of the last postage stamp pieces of ancient prairie left.”

Bayou Land Conservancy Director Jennifer Lorenz says a private landowner bought the land six years ago with plans to eventually sell the tract to a housing developer. For the last year and a half, conservation groups including Katy Prairie Conservancy, Native Prairies Association of Texas and Bayou Land Conservancy have worked to obtain the land, dubbed the Deer Park Prairie, from turning into a 250-home subdivision.

In August, the landowner agreed to sell the prairie to Bayou Land Conservancy for the market price of $4 million, about $200,000 shy of the price offered by developers.

Lorenz says that while the landowner has been patient in working with the groups, the project represents a harsh reality for conservation efforts today: competing in the open market.

“If you’re going to get new green space for Texans, then you’re going to fight in the open market with developers,” Lorenz says. “I have a catch-phrase: Conservation without funding is conversation.”

With little capital and even less time, Bayou Land kicked off a fundraising effort in early August. The initial deadline to raise the $4 million was August 20. The group’s four staff members and an army of volunteers pulled together more than $3 million in a matter of weeks, but still fell short. The landowner, however, agreed to give them more time, extending the deadline to Sept. 10.

Lorenz and other conservationists say the response has been nothing short of amazing. Individuals have been behind most of the donations to date. Aside from a handful of large donations from individuals and families and $200,000 from the Hamman Foundation, many of the donations have come from people on tight budgets, Lorenz said.

“We have letters that say, ‘I’m just a little old lady in tennis shoes and I can do $25. That’s all I can do. I’m on a fixed income and can barely afford it, but I want to save this prairie’,” Lorenz said. “It’s just phenomenal.”

Lorenz thinks the response is a reaction to increased urbanization in Texas. Conservation resonates with people from cities like Houston, Dallas and Austin, she said, where people have watched development stretch farther and farther into the countryside. That’s especially true in Deer Park, home to the sixth largest refinery in the country.

“To find a patch like this in such a heavily industrialized area is shock to the system for people in a positive way,” Lorenz says. “When people say Deer Park, green spaces don’t come to mind.”

In fact, the prairie is located just 3.6 miles from the Shell refinery.

Lorenz says she has been disappointed by the corporate response to this project. Shell and the Baker Hughes Foundation are the only two major corporate entities to donate to the project so far. Shell donated $75,000 and Baker Hughes donated $10,000, according to Lorenz.

“So many individuals in Houston have come forward and the corporate community just hasn’t come forward,” she says. “It’s kind of telling.”

If they raise the $4 million by Sept. 10, the Bayou Land Conservancy will hold the easement but turn the land over to the Native Prairie Association of Texas to manage and operate for public use.

Phillip Quast of Native Prairies Association of Texas says the group would turn the land into an “outdoor classroom,” a place for people to enjoy nature first-hand. With over 300 native plant species, Quast calls the land a “positive teaching tool” and a “gem” in an urban area.

Biologists and conservationists also stress the importance of green space for the environment. Prairies, like forests, remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In Deer Park, where flooding is not unheard of, grasslands also act as a “giant sponge.”

“Where water can’t get into the dirt, it builds up and the next thing you know you have street flooding,” Quast says. “Grasslands are permeable, they soak in that water.”

Prairies are also part of the historical Texas landscape.

“What we have special in Houston are the beautiful forested wetlands and these small slices of prairie, and this piece is one of the most special ones left,” Lorenz says.