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The Whole Star

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Photo Courtesy of Mayor Mike Rawlings
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings.

After years of Dallas officials playing hot potato with three permits that would allow fracking within city limits for the first time, the City Council finally rejected the permits today. A city commission is still working on a new gas-drilling ordinance, but at least for now, Dallas is closed to fracking.

Dallas residents and environmental groups have been fighting Trinity East Energy, the company that would drill the wells, at City Hall for years. The permits were especially controversial because they would have allowed drilling on city-owned parkland in the floodplain – two places where drilling is currently banned. Things really came to a head when it came to light that City Manager Mary Suhm had struck a secret side-deal with the company, promising Trinity East that it would be able to drill while telling City Council the opposite.

The audience, mostly fracking opponents, greeted today’s vote with prolonged applause. Nine councilmembers voted for granting the permits and six against, but the Council needed a supermajority (12 out of 15).

The City Council didn’t discuss the permits much, but Mayor Mike Rawlings did give a speech with an extended metaphor about poker. Echoing Councilman Jerry Allen’s claim that Trinity East would almost assuredly not actually drill on those sites because of falling natural gas prices, he said the City Council should “call [Trinity’s] bluff” and approve the permits. Rawlings said he’s personally against urban drilling, but argued Dallas residents will lose millions in court costs when Trinity East sues.

Much like they’ve done in the past, Trinity East representatives and other fracking supporters basically implied that all the people who testified against the permits were delusional, emotional children who didn’t have the capacity to comprehend science. One fracking proponent very sarcastically said, “God bless their souls—they’re trying to do the right thing and save the planet.”

Councilman Philip Kingston objected to the implication that drilling opponents were fact-free and emotional.

“I’ve done a year’s worth of research on this, I’ve visited drill sites,” Kingston said. “I’ll be opposing his motion [to approve the permits] out of rational thought,” he added to applause from the audience.

Up next: The City Plan Commission will likely release an updated drilling ordinance in the coming months.

800px-West_Explosion_Aerial
Shane Torgerson/WikiMedia
Aerial photo of the West explosion site taken days after blast.

In the third House committee hearing focusing on the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15, state agencies described resistance from some fertilizer companies in trying to inspect their facilities. The conflicting and overlapping roles of various governmental agencies with responsibility over fertilizer facilities was also underscored once again today.

Though investigations are ongoing, the State Fire Marshal’s Office is undertaking voluntary inspections of other facilities that handle ammonium nitrate – the chemical responsible for the explosion. The Fire Marshal’s Office has identified 153 facilities in the state that are believed to store ammonium nitrate. Since Texas doesn’t have a state fire code, the fire marshal lacks the authority to conduct inspections if the company resists. Fire Marshal Chris Connealy said most facilities have welcomed him and that his office has already inspected 62 sites. Five facilities refused to be inspected, though he couldn’t say why or which facilities they were.

Meanwhile, the Department of Insurance and Department of Public Safety are rolling out two interactive maps that identify facilities with hazardous chemicals across the state.  Julia Rathgeber of the Department of Insurance said the agency’s map, which will be searchable by zip code, will be available to the public by November 1. DPS is launching its own site, also searchable by zip code and geared toward first responders, which will offer some information about the hazardous materials, including the quantities that are present at facilities.

Much of the hearing was dominated by Republican lawmakers worried about burdening fertilizer businesses with new requirements. Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, said while he respected the victims of the West tragedy, the industry has been doing a “pretty good job of policing themselves” and voluntarily submitting reports. “If we’re not careful we could get like the federal government and try to put diapers on cows,” he said.

Connealy stressed that his agency’s inspections were strictly voluntary.

“Bottom line, we’re trying to prevent another West,” he said. “Most businesses welcome us with open arms.”

However, an industry representative testified that some fertilizer companies were unsure how to comply with existing rules. Donnie Dippel, president of Texas Agricultural Industries Association, who testified at the hearing said the association has experienced a spike in calls from operators. Many of them weren’t registered with federal Department of Homeland Security, and others hadn’t filed required reports in years, or ever. Some, he said, didn’t even own a computer.

Most of the discussion Monday centered on how to prevent West-like accidents from occurring again in the absence of new legislation. (The Texas Legislature showed little interest in taking up new measures during the 2013 session and it doesn’t meet again until 2015.) Some of the options discussed were requiring facilities to post signs outside stating that they house hazardous materials; providing better training for first responders; and doing more to educate companies about what guidelines they have to follow.

Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner said the “line of duty” investigation into the first responder deaths won’t be released until 2014. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, and Kistner mentioned forensic testing by federal labs that will also extend into 2014. He said the Fire Marshal’s Office has recently received new leads relating to a possible criminal act behind the explosion, but couldn’t comment further.

Crowd at the CSCOPE debate at UT Tyler
Olivia Messer
The crowd at UT-Tyler's Ornelas Hall enjoys a Saturday night of brass-tacks policy debate over CSCOPE.

The year’s hottest education policy debate wasn’t about vouchers or school funding or teacher performance pay—it was about CSCOPE, the once-obscure curriculum program built for Texas schools that’s been targeted for destruction by tea party activists.

On a stage at the University of Texas-Tyler on Saturday night, Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) and State Board of Education vice chairman Thomas Ratliff (R-Mount Pleasant) debated the program as the crowd giggled, applauded and occasionally shouted reminders that “This is America!”

CSCOPE has been under fire for almost a year, for a supposed anti-American slant in its sample lessons. Patrick gave CSCOPE’s critics an early boost by grilling the program’s administrators in his first hearing as chair of the Senate Education Committee, drawing attention from Fox News and Glenn Beck. Ratliff is a longtime defender of the program, which he says is an important tool for rural school districts.

As a welcome to Saturday’s debate, CSCOPE critics had signs—and even a car parked outside—urging, “Impeach Ratliff.” But throughout the 90-minute event, Ratliff’s defense of CSCOPE—or at least school districts’ right to choose whether to use the program—drew much of the crowd’s applause.

Shortly into his introduction Patrick boomed, “This should not be a fight about issues between adults. The number one issue should be, regardless of which side you are on in this debate, what’s best for the students.”

A car with "Impeach Ratliff" written on the windows.
Olivia Messer
A car parked outside UT-Tyler’s Ornelas Hall, with a message calling for Thomas Ratliff’s impeachment.

He and Ratliff spent most of the debate clashing on CSCOPE’s financial transparency and its accessibility to parents asking to see lessons.

Ratliff credited Patrick with helping to force CSCOPE’s lesson plans—which were once proprietary documents only available to subscribers—out into the public domain. Now they’re available online.

But Patrick wasn’t satisfied. “You should be concerned that, for six years, CSCOPE was violating the law,” Patrick said. “We cannot turn a blind eye and say ‘It’s alright. We take public taxpayer money, form a private company, we don’t have an address, we don’t have anything.’ You couldn’t find someone who worked at CSCOPE. It didn’t exist,” he said. “It did not exist.”

Patrick stoked vague fears about what more CSCOPE could be hiding. “What don’t we know?” he repeated.

To many of Patrick’s accusations, though, Ratliff had an answer. When Patrick said that the Texas Tribune conducted a study finding that children in CSCOPE schools performed poorly, Ratliff countered that the “study” was actually conducted by a 9th-grade business class using the Tribune’s online data.

“He’s pointing to a 9th-grade spreadsheet. I’m pointing to an email from a superintendent right here in Tyler; the superintendent in Llano that just defended himself against a frivolous lawsuit; and two doctoral theses: one done by a private Christian university known as Baylor University, the other done at Texas Tech University,” Ratliff responded. “The facts are clear, and if you look at the facts, CSCOPE does not impair, but it enhances student performance.”

Thomas Ratliff and Dan Patrick debate CSCOPE
Olivia Messer
Thomas Ratliff and Dan Patrick debate CSCOPE onstage at UT-Tyler’s Ornelas Hall.

Patrick argued that a parent was charged $700 to access CSCOPE lesson plans, but Ratliff explained the charges weren’t for access, but for the paper copies the parent wanted to make. “I personally don’t want a school district giving somebody 10,000 copies for free. I want to educate kids, not be a copy machine for somebody who wants to look at this stuff.”

Ratliff referred often to an online repository of documents about CSCOPE, and encouraged people to fact-check him. (At Dropbox.com, log in as “[email protected]” with the password “CSCOPE”.) Patrick suggested this was just a distraction. “You can have the biggest Dropbox and all the documents you want. You’re just wrong,” he said.

JoAnn Fleming of Grassroots America, a CSCOPE critic and a panelist on Saturday’s debate, expressed concern that “with the NSA issue in the news,” CSCOPE might be making student information available to third party vendors.

“The only people that have usernames and passwords in CSCOPE are teachers. CSCOPE contains zero. Zero student data. … It’s just not true,” Ratliff said. “Any accusations of data mining are false, and it’s fear mongering designed to scare parents,” he continued.

Patrick was not dissuaded. “First of all, I didn’t think the government was eavesdropping on the telephone. I didn’t know the IRS was going after conservative Tea Party groups and citizens. I didn’t know that the government could read my email,” he said. “And so while, Thomas, I agree at this point in time there’s no evidence of that, I’m very concerned about the future.”

CSCOPE critic Alice Linahan
Olivia Messer
CSCOPE critic Alice Linahan, with the conservative group Women On the Wall, outside the debate hall Saturday night.

When Fleming pressed further, Ratliff explained that teachers print out assignments and pass them out to students. “So, unless there’s a Xerox machine in the sky that takes those and mines that data, I can’t tell you.”

The debate marked a high point in the personal rivalry between Patrick and Ratliff, elected officials serving on separate bodies of state government who had, until now, only ribbed at one another over social media.

Patrick chided Ratliff Saturday night for never having reviewed more than a few of CSCOPE’s lesson plans. But when Ratliff asked Patrick how many he’d read, Patrick said he hadn’t read any. It was a surprising moment, highlighting just how far the politics of CSCOPE are removed from its use in the classroom.

After the debate, Patrick said that Ratliff “made some valid points,” but could not remember any of them specifically. “Overall, he could not answer any of the questions that I put forward,” Patrick said. “I was surprised that the educators were cheering on something that they don’t know a lot about, and that they’re not concerned.”

Ratliff said he was confused by Patrick’s persistence in going after the curriculum. “If the issue was transparency, mission accomplished. But he’s not stopping. And the non-CSCOPE schools are next, because as soon as the Tea Party finds something in their curriculum they don’t like, they’re going after them,” Ratliff said.

He said he was disappointed by the political antics Patrick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst have used to prolong the CSCOPE controversy. “What this has become is a tug-of-war between two guys who want to be Lieutenant Governor,” Ratliff said. “And they’re using public schools as the rope.”

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams
Patrick Michels
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams

Kids who speak little or no English represent a fast-growing share of Texas’ public school students, and the schools they attend are increasingly segregated.

According to a study publicized last week by the University of Texas at Austin, the makeup of Texas’ schools tends to compound the challenges those students face, finding “high levels of segregation in schools by race, poverty, and language status.”

UT education professors Julian Vasquez Heilig and Jennifer Holme analyzed Texas Education Agency data and found this “triple segregation” is a significant indicator of how schools performed in the state accountability ratings. Their research revealed that schools segregated by race, language and degree of poverty were overwhelmingly rated as low-performing.

“There’s this big question among school performance which is, does demography determine destiny?” Heilig told the Observer. “We wanted to ask, ‘Has accountability worked, has it delivered those promises?’ What we found was the situation is still the same as it was 20 years ago.” (Heilig wrote more about the study on his blog.)

The population of students known as English language learners, or ELLs, has nearly doubled over the past 25 years, according to their report, and the trend is expected to continue. The researchers found that the majority of ELL students in Texas are in high poverty, high minority schools rated by the state as low-performing.

According to TEA data, 46 percent of urban schools are designated as “intensely segregated,” meaning 90 percent or more of the students are African American or Latino combined. Of schools where the “vast majority” of the students are economically disadvantaged, two-thirds are majority ELL. In triple-segregated schools, 48 percent were less likely to be rated “exemplary” on the state accountability system.

Some policies meant to improve students’ language skills have actually led to increased isolation for English language learners. Schools that pull limited-English students out of regular classes for special programs, end up reducing those students’ exposure to native speakers.

Heilig said the causes of triple segregation need further examination. He said he hopes the study will encourage other researchers to launch their own studies, and inspire policies that consider more than test scores and accountability ratings.

“If we wonder why Texas has barely moved the needle over the last decade in terms of our educational success, it’s because we’re focusing on all the wrong things,” he said.

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams has said he’s focused on closing the “achievement gap” between white students and Hispanic and African-American students. This year, Texas launched a new school accountability system that rewards schools for improved test scores over previous years.

But Heilig says Texas schools face challenges that can’t be fixed with a new accountability system based on test scores.

“To ensure the vibrancy of our democracy, we have to ensure that all kids are educated, and we cannot continue to ignore certain kids and pretend like we’re paying attention to them by giving them test after test every year,” he said. “Tests do not create equity and accountability.”

Fox News - The Great Food Stamp Binge
Fox News
Screen grab from "Fox News Reporting: The Great Food Stamp Binge."

Given the Republican rumblings in Congress, Celia Cole, the CEO of the Texas Food Bank Network, figured it was only a matter of time before Fox News launched an attack on SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program better known as food stamps.

This summer, House Republicans held up a bipartisan Senate Farm Bill with demands for $40 billion in cuts to the food stamps program, as well as work and drug testing requirements for beneficiaries. (A previous bill with only $20 billion in cuts failed in June because they were deemed not deep enough.) The ethos espoused by House bill backers is that the best way to help the poor and hungry is to let them help themselves. Legislators also cited misuse and fraud as pressing concerns.

Then, on Friday, Fox News aired a special report titled “The Great Food Stamp Binge.” The network inferred that the dramatic rise in food stamp recipients, from 28 million to 47 million since 2008, was a result of the Obama administration’s welfare society and an affront to American self-reliance and mettle. The surge in people on food stamps, the special argued, has nothing to do with our crappy economy and the working poor who need help buying food for their families. Instead Fox posited that it could be a conspiracy to grow the size of government.

Fox interviewed an unemployed beach bum and aspiring rock star in La Jolla, California who bought a lobster with a SNAP card. The special also pointed to a social worker acting on behalf of the USDA who’s allegedly tearing down “mountain pride” in Appalachia—the mindset that families should tighten their belt straps (literally) before relying on government help—by getting residents in Ashe County, North Carolina to use SNAP funds on seeds for their gardens, a sort of gateway drug to wider food stamp usage. The Fox special was catnip for conservative bloggers and live bait for other media outlets.

“Normally we don’t justify these kinds of reports with a response,” Cole told the Observer. But in this case, Cole said, the Texas Food Bank Network felt compelled to address the misinformation. “Too many people judge the poor without ever walking in their shoes,” she said. The Fox special, she added, failed to interview anyone suffering from poverty and lack of access to nutritious food.

“The truth is that one in seven Americans do receive SNAP because one in seven Americans live at or below the poverty level,” Cole stated in a press release on Monday. “SNAP is also one of the most efficient and effective government programs with program error and fraud at historic lows. Less than four percent of benefits are issued in error.”

Moreover, the food stamps program doesn’t serve as a long-term form of dependency for most recipients, Cole said in a follow-up interview. The average participant receives benefits for 19 months, and new applicants typically receive benefits for just nine months. Cole said the program is correlative to people’s income—when it drops, they go on food stamps, and when it rises again, they go off the program.

In the Fox special, libertarian political scientist Charles Murray (of Bell Curve fame) argues that the stigma surrounding food stamps is a good thing—or at least a necessarily evil. People should feel self-conscious about going on the dole. But, said Cole, “Having access to nutritious food should be no more stigmatized than Medicaid or Social Security. SNAP participants are taxpayers, too. They’ve paid into the program.”

While states can waive the requirement that participants are either employed or seeking employment, Texas does no such thing. All able-bodied Texas food stamp recipients between 18 and 59 must either work, be looking for work, or be engaged in job training for thirty hours each week. And adults without dependents are barred from the program if they work less than twenty hours a week for longer than three months in any three-year period.

Cole said that the more pressing issue is that the application process is complicated and daunting. One-third of those who qualify don’t seek help from the food stamps program. The Texas Food Bank Network’s partners don’t put money toward marketing food stamps—they’re not allowed to, by law—but, said Cole, “Our partners do try to reach the people who most need assistance, but don’t know how to get it.”

Labor advocates at Austin City Hall
Marissa Barnett
Labor advocates gathered at Austin City Hall to hear the vote on Austin's hotel incentive program.

Early Friday morning, Austin City Council upheld a decision to revoke a $3.8 million incentive deal with Indiana-based developer White Lodging in what Council Member Mike Martinez called a two-year “mess.”

The move pleased labor groups, who contend that White Lodging had violated a prevailing wage agreement and underpaid its employees.

“It was a very important victory, it showed that the city is serious about the protections it puts in place for taxpayers and workers,” said Gregorio Casar, the business liaison for the Workers Defense Project, an organization that represents workers in wage theft cases and has led the fight to hold White Lodging accountable.

Texas is famous for its generous corporate incentives. The idea is that these agreements bring jobs, spur growth and provide good wages. But critics say the White Lodging case shows how the bargain of good-wages-for-incentives can fall apart if programs aren’t carefully designed and enforced.

In June 2011, Austin agreed to give the company a $3.8 million fee waiver for construction of a 34-story Marriott hotel in downtown Austin. In exchange, White Lodging agreed to pay its workers prevailing wages.

When construction began in 2012, the Electrical Workers Union tipped off the city that White Lodging was underpaying some of its workers. Urged by labor rights activists, the city performed an initial audit of the project in January and found that White Lodging had paid at least 13 people below the prevailing wage standard, as the Observer reported in February. For example, Workers Defense released an affidavit signed by a carpenter who said he was paid $12 per hour instead of the prevailing wage for his position of $13.25.

Just over an hour before the scheduled hearing on Thursday night, more than 100 workers and labor advocates rallied outside Austin City Hall and called on the Council to hold White Lodging accountable by revoking their incentives.

“We’re not against development and we’re not against giving incentives, we just want to make sure in the end the community benefits,” Patricia Zavala of Workers Defense Project said.

“We can’t let our city council cater to corporate interests. They need to be responsible and respect the community and the people that actually build this city which are workers, taxpayers, ordinary people, not corporations.”

The city was not entirely blameless. Part of the confusion over just what constituted a “prevailing wage” stems from a 2011 email exchange between the company and a city official. In August of that year, White Lodging CEO Deno Yiankes wrote to then-Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza asking if White Lodging could average wages to meet the city’s prevailing wage rates. Garza okayed the formula. Averaging, Workers Defense Project’s Gregorio Casar argued to Council, dodged the original terms of the incentive and allowed the company to lowball some wages.

The email exchange between Yiankes and Garza didn’t come to the attention of other city staff until September 2012, according to a memo released by Deputy City Manager Anthony Snipes.

In his testimony, Yiankes claimed that the ordeal was a “miscommunication” over a “very confusing” city policy on prevailing wages. He said that at the time of the deal he asked Council to clarify the prevailing wage rate and was directed by Council Member Martinez to the city’s website and later to Garza. Because Garza had okayed his interpretation of prevailing wages, he said, the city needed to uphold the agreement to average the rates.

The Council obviously didn’t buy that line, moving unanimously to nix the incentives.

But Martinez said the city’s commitment to using incentives to wrangle good wages for workers hadn’t changed.

“Whenever the private sector is coming to the government to ask for assistance, the government gets to impart some things on them,” he said. “The government gets to say, ‘Fine, you can ask for it and we will consider it but you also have to provide some things in return.’”

Go, Go, Go Gohmert!

Louie Gohmert
Louie Gohmert

There’s been some talk—mostly in tea sipping lawn chair circles—of a certain someone challenging incumbent Sen. John Cornyn in the March primary. I’ll give you a few hints. He’s an anti-immigration anti-everything Republican congressman from Tyler and renowned birther who believes that terrorist breeders are conspiring to raise little terrorist babies right here on American soil. Oh, and that Islamic terrorists are pretending to be Hispanic to gain entry into the country. Pretending to be Mexican to enter the country? Well that’s not going to work!

The man is Louie Gohmert. You may also know him by his other name, “that crazy guy.” According to the National Review, Texas tea party activists are pushing Gohmert to run against Cornyn, who’s apparently not near conservative enough. Meaning not as conservative as Ted Cruz, who has been crowned the 2016 Republican nominee by the national media. (Remember Rick Perry? Yeah. No one else does either.) Very few people are as conservative as Ted Cruz but Gohmert just might qualify. And if he chooses to run? Well, no one thought Cruz had a chance either.

(Incidentally the NRO piece relied exclusively on the words of two East Texas tea party women, who somehow managed to find time to grant interviews in between sewing bedazzled flags and afternoon target practice.)

Despite the rumors the congressman has already told the Washington Examiner that he’s not feeling it. “Before I dive in I need to feel it in my heart. I don’t feel it in my heart right now.” The man is nothing if not sentimental. But notice the subtle disclaimer of “right now.” Could he feel it in his heart tomorrow? Next week? Next month? Pre-Rapture? Post-Rapture?

To compile a list of all of Gohmert’s Greatest Hits dating back to his time as a judge (where he once duct taped a defendant’s mouth) would be extremely time intensive, mentally exhausting and, quite frankly, above my pay grade. Although it would be remiss of me not to mention his latest tirade regarding Islamic terrorists taking Spanish lessons. I can’t decide who Gohmert’s most afraid of—terrorists or Hispanics. So I can only assume that his worst nightmare would be illegal pregnant Mexican Islamic terrorists.

The admittedly remote possibility of a Gohmert candidacy is yet another reminder of how far right the Republican party has become. (As if you needed another reminder.) As folks like Ted Cruz and Louie Gohmert continue to usurp the Republican Party, folks like former NRSC chair and über-conservative John Cornyn are suddenly, inexplicably too moderate. Think about it. If the crazies can make David Dewhurst look like some sort of bleeding heart liberal, would it really be that difficult to make Cornyn look like your typical Texas Observer subscriber?

Still, a tea party gal can dream about a world with Louie Gohmert as Texas’ junior senator. A world in which Spanish lessons were no longer offered to Islamic terrorist breeders, a world in which madrassa-educated Kenyans would be barred from the presidency, a world without healthcare or equal rights for destitute prairie chickens, a world in which elected officials rocking the poor man’s Power Donut haircut would not only be accepted but embraced, a world in which true Americans like Louie Gohmert would reign supreme. What a wonderful world it would be.

resizeNo doubt things are tumultuous in Texas politics right now. The dramatic fight over abortion legislation has rallied many progressives, and the mounting struggle among Texas politicians to replace outgoing Gov. Rick Perry is heating up. The heated atmosphere finds key players, including HB 2 filibusterer Sen. Wendy Davis, taking to social media more intensely than ever.

Last Thursday, Davis hosted a Twitter town hall through the Lone Star Project, a progressive political action committee, fielding questions for around half an hour. The move came just eight days after Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is running for governor, did the same. Davis is keen to keep herself in the public eye, and countering Abbott’s Twitter appearance is one way she’s doing so.

Rapid-fire tweet barrages aside, the Twitter town hall format is selective by nature. No one expects a politician to answer every single tweet aimed at them, so the ones they choose to respond to can be illustrative. Davis’ selection of questions, and her answers, show an effort to prove that she’s about more than women’s health issues, and that her focus is on all of Texas. For instance:

Even before her town hall, Davis had been using Twitter to champion state-wide Democratic causes and assert her Texas identity.

It’s not all been a two-step for Davis, though. Plenty of pro-lifers weighed in on her town hall, flooding the #askwendy hashtag with questions, insults and graphic pictures of aborted fetuses. That prompted conservative bloggers and Twitter users to declare they had “hijacked” Davis’ town hall. Regardless, the Davis team deemed it a success.

Though Davis’ increased Twitter presence may just be a run-up to a tough 2014 contest for her Senate seat representing Fort Worth, they could also be taken as a step toward positioning herself for a higher office, especially given their timing in the immediate aftermath of Abbott’s own town hall.

The ink was barely dry on Perry’s press release announcing that he won’t seek another term when Abbott announced his campaign for the job. Abbott held his Twitter town hall on July 17.

Such town halls aren’t exactly a new move—Obama employed the strategy back in 2011, and the practice has gained in popularity since. Abbott’s virtual Q&A is an example of a recent eagerness among Texas politicians to reach out to potential voters via Twitter. It was also a dicey move, coming as it did not long after the contentious partisan fight over Texas’ abortion legislation, which played out as much on Twitter as it did in the halls of the Capitol. And depending on whose blog you read, Abbott’s move was either an embarrassment or a rousing success. Abbott managed to field 26 questions in about an hour. While his answers were mostly the canned, party-line responses you’d expect from the format, Abbott didn’t hesitate to take on some tough questions.

These answers didn’t play well with progressive Texan Twitter users, and the #askabbott hashtag was soon filled with their tweets, ranging from angry questions, obvious trolling and pure absurdity. Many invoked the still-fresh memory of the HB 2 protests.

All this led to Abbott turning curt at times.

When the dust settled, both Abbott and his tormentors declared victory. Whether Abbott’s foray onto the social-media battleground was a success or not, it’s clear he’s far from winning the war.

Meanwhile, Wendy Davis is making similar moves to keep the momentum from this summer’s showdown at the Capitol going in her direction, perhaps as a bid to position herself for something beyond the state senate. Both are realizing that social media outlets like Twitter can be a powerful tool for grabbing attention. They’re also learning the kind of attention you get can be unpredictable.

Access to Planned Parenthood

Last week, Planned Parenthood of the Gulf Coast announced the closure of three clinics in Bryan, Huntsville and Lufkin citing “years of budget cuts to women’s health care services.” But today, the plot got a little thicker.

This morning Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced that Planned Parenthood of the Gulf Coast will pay $1.4 million in a settlement for Medicaid fraud.

According to the AG’s press release, the investigations revealed that: “Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast improperly billed the Texas Medicaid program for products and services that were never actually rendered, not medically necessary, and were not covered by the Medicaid program.” Moreover, the attorney general charged that Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast had “falsified material information in patients’ medical records in order to support fraudulent reimbursement claims to the Medicaid program.”

But Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast said in a statement today that the allegations were baseless. The organization said it had chosen to settle for practical reasons.

According to the Planned Parenthood press release: “Continuing this litigation in the hostile environment for women’s health would have ensured a lengthy and costly process that would have distracted our energies and required us to share the private medical information of thousands of women.”

Here’s where the story gets bizarre. The allegations against Planned Parenthood had been made in a whistleblower lawsuit. According to the Texas Medicaid Fraud Prevention Act, the whistleblower is entitled to some of the settlement money.

But who might that whistleblower be? It’s Karen Reynolds, a former Planned Parenthood health care assistant who worked at the Lufkin clinic from from 1999 to 2009. Reynolds said that she witnessed clinic staff falsifying claims and billing documents as well as violating federal rules for Title X family planning funds, among other claims.

In a nearly identical suit, Abby Johnson, the ex-director of a Bryan clinic run by Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, also filed a claim against the affiliate. But as a previous Observer report found, Johnson doesn’t have the best track record for accuracy. Johnson became an anti-abortion rights celebrity when she wrote a book about her experiences of converting to the “pro-life” cause. She now holds several positions at high profile anti-abortion rights organizations. The conservative Washington Times reported earlier last year that Johnson had filed her suit against Planned Parenthood and that she could receive as much as 30 percent of the final settlement in this lawsuit. In March, the federal judge in the Johnson case moved to dismiss Johnson’s lawsuit because it “alleges the same ‘essential facts’ and ‘material elements’ of fraud” as Reynolds’ suit.

As the whistleblower in this politically-charged case, Reynolds could be in for a tidy sum of money.

A march for immigration reform at the Texas Capitol.
Priscila Mosqueda
Protesters gather outside the Texas Capitol to demand immigration reform.

After years of polarizing debate and disagreement, the U.S. Senate passed the first “comprehensive” immigration reform bill in decades. The bill received bipartisan support, with 14 Republicans joining Senate Democrats and Independents in a 68-32 vote. But the bill’s provision for ramping up border security – and the reason it got conservative support – angered many residents along the border who are tired of militarization in their communities.

“This amendment makes border communities a sacrificial lamb, in exchange for the road to citizenship,” Christian Ramirez, director of San Diego’s Southern Border Communities Coalition told The New York Times.

The immigration reform bill’s fate is unclear in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. It certainly will not be as easy as it was in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Conservative representatives have already said they won’t consider voting on the Senate’s bill, and will instead either continue to draft their own version or adopt a piecemeal approach rather than a comprehensive bill.

The bill the Senate passed Thursday includes temporary legal status for some of the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, who would have to wait 10 years before applying for permanent residency and another three before being eligible for citizenship. They’d also have to pay back taxes and maintain a clean record before they could apply for a green card. Senate Republicans were tepid toward the bill, but Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.) added an amendment that would double Border Patrol agents (already the law enforcement agency with the most officers in the country) and add 700 miles of fencing along the border with a $30 billion price tag.

The bill also mandates a system whereby employers must verify they are only hiring employees who can legally work within the U.S., and an entry-exit tracking program to find out if foreigners are overstaying their visas. Many conservative lawmakers, including, unsurprisingly, Texas’ Republican Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, voted against the bill and are calling it “amnesty.” One of their main complaints is that it doesn’t make citizenship contingent on tougher measures to secure the border.

Cornyn had proposed a different amendment, which senators from both parties called a “poison pill,” that would have called for a 100 percent securing of the U.S.-Mexico border and a 90 percent apprehension rate along the border before even considering a pathway to citizenship. Cruz, the son of a Cuban immigrant, told Fox News that the bill “has immediate legalization … and the border security is sometime in the future, and just like in 1986, it’s designed never to come into being,” a statement Politifact rated “Mostly False.”

House Republicans echo those concerns. To pass in the House, any bill would first have to go through the House Judiciary Committee, headed by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) who favors a piecemeal approach.

His committee recently passed several measures addressing immigration, including the infamous SAFE Act that originally proposed criminalizing illegal immigration:

“Last week, the committee passed bills that would revamp the visa system for agricultural workers and encourage state and local law enforcement agencies to help enforce federal immigration laws,” reports USA Today. “This week, it worked on bills that would provide more work visas to foreigners trained in high-tech fields and nationalize a program requiring business owners to check the immigration status of new hires.

“No bills have been filed to address the central questions of border security and a pathway to citizenship. And none of the bills heard in the Judiciary Committee has received any Democratic support because of how they approach each issue.”

Representatives will meet to discuss immigration after the July 4th recess, and will likely produce a bill with much stricter border security measures. Border residents can only wait and dread what a conservative-backed bill might do to their communities.

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