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The Whole Star

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
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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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Speakers at a conservative green energy panel held at the Paramount Theater in Austin.
Carl Lindemann
Speakers at a conservative green energy panel held at the Paramount Theater in Austin.


Tucker Eskew is no stranger to thankless tasks. Eskew was the Republican operative who, in 2008, had the honor of tutoring Sarah Palin on being a vice-presidential candidate. Now, he’s ready to take the heat from fellow Republicans for tackling climate change and championing green energy. Eskew and a crew of fellow conservative green activists brought their mission to Austin yesterday for a lightly attended event. Billed as “a fresh conservative take on energy policy,” the summit attracted about 60 people to the Paramount Theater downtown.

“Remember the saying ‘I was country before country was cool’?” Eskew said. “Some Republicans picked that up and said ‘I was conservative before conservative was cool.’ Maybe one day, we’ll look back on this event and realize we were clean energy conservatives before it was cool.”

The hopeful message is certainly a far cry from today’s “drill, baby, drill!” conservatism. But if the movement—if you can call it that yet—is simply out to swap oil and coal for gas and nuclear, it could be seen as another variation of business as usual. But the speakers seemed eager to break some conservative taboos.

Among the panelists: former Texas Republican state Sen. Kip Averitt, now head of the Texas Clean Energy Coalition; Debbie Dooley, founder of the Green Tea Coalition and national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots; former six-term Congressman Bob Inglis (R-South Carolina); and Eli Lehrer of conservative think tank R Street Institute.

“What we’re looking for are energy optimists and climate realists,” Inglis said. Though there’s no certainty in climate science, Inglis said, the risks of doing nothing are real. “And what are you going to do in the face of that risk? Proceed pell-mell, or…buy an insurance policy?”

Implacable climate skeptics need to face the political realities, he said. “If conservatives don’t step forward and say, ‘Have we got an idea for you! End all the subsidies [for oil, gas and nuclear], attach all the costs to all the fuels, and watch the free enterprise system sort this all out,’” then Democrats will go forward with their own solutions.

But Republicans face their own political risks for acting on climate change.

“We have a whole boatload of [Texas Republicans] that want to do the right thing, but they have to tip-toe around it. They get timid. They get scared because, quite frankly, they’re afraid of the tea party,” said Averitt, who served as the chair of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources for nearly a decade.

Meanwhile, the fossil fuel lobby maintains its grip in Texas. As a counterpoint to the clean energy confab, the right-wing Texas Public Policy Foundation is hosting its own energy and climate policy summit in Houston this week featuring appearances by GOP ticket-toppers Rick Perry and Dan Patrick. The foundation, which is funded by fossil fuel interests, has been an extraordinarily harsh critic of renewable energy.

“Renewable energy is unreliable and parasitic,” wrote Kathleen Hartnett White, a former chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the head of the foundation’s energy-policy wing, in a 36-page paper she recently released making a “moral case” for fossil fuels. No one in the conservative climate realist camp appears to be on the agenda for the conference this week.

But Dooley says the mood is changing. Some tea partiers, she said, are ready to take a stand, even against Koch-funded front groups like Americans for Prosperity.

“Americans for Prosperity is not tea party,” Dooley said. To combat the Koch party line, conservatives need to change the way they talk about energy.

“Talk about free markets, national security,” she said. “There’s nothing more vulnerable to terrorist attack than our centralized [power] grid. Well, it’s harder to attack rooftop solar.”

Eskew argued that the current frenzy surrounding Uber—the ride-share service that’s operating illegally in a number of cities, including Austin—offers a compelling comparison for how free markets could reshape the energy sector. Eskew compared ride-share services to rooftop solar power. Both pose fundamental challenges to highly regulated, staid industries (taxis and utilities, respectively) but provide direct benefits to the consumer.

“Let’s look at [Uber] from the perspective of the driver, not the consumer. The driver makes a capital expense purchasing the car, then is able to sell back excess capacity into the transportation grid. Isn’t that like solar power?”

For the United States to effectively combat climate change, conservatives will have to make an extremely difficult about-face. Still, the event yesterday hinted at the possibility of such a radical transformation. Katherine Lorenz, president and treasurer of the Mitchell Foundation, a co-sponsor of the event, was on hand. That’s Mitchell as in George Mitchell, known as the “father of fracking.” According to Lorenz, who is Mitchell’s granddaughter, the current shale boom has temporarily eclipsed his true legacy.

“Despite being in the oil and gas industry and having so many of his peers and colleagues think he was nuts… he was also deeply committed to environmental issues,” she said. “That’s really emblematic of what’s going on with clean energy and the environment today. We need more people to stand up for what they believe, who understand that what the rest of their party, peers and colleagues are saying might not be the right way for the Earth.”

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