New Eyes on Texas
Gov. Rick Perry has long been eager to remake the Texas Department of Public Safety. And for almost $1 million-the cost of a study conducted for the Perry-appointed Public Safety Commission-the governor may now have the blueprints to make it happen. On Halloween, the consulting firm Deloitte & Touche released the results of a 10-week report that recommends a top-to-bottom shakeup of the agency, the first such overhaul since 1957.
“It’s more than a study,” says Scott Henson, a criminal justice expert who runs gritsforbreakfast.blogspot.com. “They’re going to use it as their template to reorganize the agency.”
While nearly everyone agrees that DPS is overdue for an overhaul, some aspects of the plan raise privacy and civil liberties concerns-including a special operations group that some fear might get into the business of spying on protest groups or political enemies.
One recommendation calls for the consolidation of all agency intelligence and homeland security functions into an intelligence and counterterrorism division, which would report directly to a newly created deputy director of law enforcement. The division would have a broad mandate to “lead the Department’s intelligence-led policing, counter-terrorism, and homeland security efforts against large-scale criminal conspiracies and other threats to the State of Texas,” the report says.
Within the intelligence division, Deloitte recommends the formation of a special operations group, tasked with being the “eyes and ears” of the intelligence and counterterrorism division. And whom exactly would the special ops see and hear? The report refers to “possible terrorists” and “violent criminal gangs” but also suggests the unit conduct “counter-surveillance” for the governor’s protection detail, the lieutenant governor, visiting dignitaries, the Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion. “The protection of these potential targets should be intelligence driven,” the report reads.
To critics, the plan contains echoes of Perry’s various attempts to add major homeland security functions to the state government. In 2007, the Observer discovered that Perry’s Homeland Security Office was developing an intelligence database, the Texas Data Exchange (TDEx), which held personal information on thousands of Texans but had little oversight from law enforcement. Although DPS eventually took control of TDEx, the agency higher-ups who fought to control the database have since left. The fear among critics is that Perry may fill the power vacuum with allies who share his views on TDEx and other questionable intelligence ventures. In particular, speculation abounds that Steve McCraw, the governor’s homeland security director and a major advocate of TDEx, may get the nod for the top spot at DPS.
Allan Polunsky, chairman of the Public Safety Commission, cautions that the Deloitte & Touche report is just a framework. “As far as specific recommendations, it’s premature to say whether they will be adopted or not,” he said.
But Henson worries about the potential for a new special operations group whose functions might include spying on political foes. “When you add in the protection function to the criminal investigation function and say that it should be intelligence driven,” Henson said, “that basically insists that they do political snooping.”
They came before the Texas State Board of Education on November 19 ostensibly to debate the science curriculum and how evolution should be taught in Texas schools. But after nearly 90 witnesses had testified over seven hours, it was clear the discussion was more suited for English class: The hearing was a textbook exhibition of word choice, rhetoric, false analogies, symbolism, metaphors, unreliable narrators and more than a few fascinating characters.
State education boards have provided a last redoubt for creationists hoping to slip a few words about God into the teaching of evolutionary theory. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that creationism couldn’t be taught in science class. Then, in the 2005 Dover decision, a federal judge scuttled the pseudo-creationist theory of intelligent design. Following these defeats, the anti-evolution forces have adopted a “teach the controversy” argument. So when the state board began revising Texas’ science curriculum this year, creationists hoped to require that textbooks include a discussion of the “strengths and limitations” of evolutionary theory.
Proponents of evolution see the “strengths and limitations” argument as a loophole big enough to house the Garden of Eden. And they said as much at a packed pre-meeting press conference outside the hearing room that featured someone in a purple Barney the Dinosaur outfit, with a sign asking board Chair Don McLeroy, an avowed creationist, “How old am I? 4,000 [years] or 64,000,000?” (Actually, it’s neither; Barney first appeared in 1992.)
When the hearing began, many on the 15-member board feigned surprise that anyone would think the “strengths and weaknesses” language had anything to do with religion. “We’re talking about scientific weaknesses and scientific strengths,” said Terri Leo, a board member from Spring. “We’re not talking about religious issues. … All this hysteria has no basis in fact.” Leo said that “strengths and weaknesses” has been part of the state’s science standards since 1988 and applies to all theories, not just evolution. The board simply wanted to change “weaknesses” to “limitations.” And what, Leo wondered, could possibly be wrong with that?
“People who are militant Darwinists”-at this, members of the crowd chortled, and Leo shot back with a defensive, unapologetic “sorry” and continued-“they want to pull out that language and treat evolution separately than we treat all other theories.”
What Leo didn’t mention was that a panel of science experts who wrote the first draft of the new standards earlier this year removed “strengths and weaknesses” because they found it misleading. As many witnesses later pointed out, scientific theories, technically speaking, don’t have weaknesses.
Dissatisfied with that first draft, the board appointed another panel to review the standards, and this time the lineup was stacked: Three of the six reviewers were well-known creationists, including two who work for the Discovery Institute, the Seattle think tank that promotes intelligent design. And wouldn’t you know it, they reinserted similar language, this time with the word “limitations.”
For Ken Mercer, a board member from San Antonio, it was an issue of academic freedom. “There’s no religious connotation there,” he said. “I took weaknesses to mean academic freedom-question this, question that.”
When another witness, paleontologist Steven Schafersman, pointed out that high school students lack the expertise to critique scientific theory, Mercer was incredulous. “You think students have no business critiquing scientific theories?” he said. “What about academic freedom? What about classroom freedom?” Schafersman, delicately parsing Mercer’s rhetoric, explained there’s a difference between students asking questions in class and students trying to critique evolutionary theory.
The board has scheduled a final vote for next March on the science standards that textbook publishers must use for Texas schools. Because the state is the second-largest buyer of textbooks in the nation, publishers use the Texas version in many other states. That means whatever curriculum the board decides to impose will likely be taught all over the country.
In 2003, the newly elected Republican majority in the Texas Legislature decided to exercise its newfound power by attacking one of state government’s most popular initiatives, the Children’s Health Program (CHIP). Lawmakers blamed the move on that year’s budget deficit, though the reductions didn’t save much money. Still, the GOP leadership instituted cuts that dropped more than 200,000 kids-40 percent-from the CHIP rolls. This wasn’t exactly farsighted legislating in Texas, where about 20 percent of children lack health insurance, by far the highest percentage in the nation.
Now, more than five years later, the program is almost whole again. In October, CHIP enrollment swelled to 465,094, according to figures from the state Health and Human Service Commission. That’s getting close to the 500,000 kids enrolled in September 2003, when the first round of cuts took effect and enrollment began a three-year decline. (CHIP uses state and federal tax dollars to provide low-cost health insurance to children of working families that earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid but too little to afford private coverage.)
CHIP enrollment has spiked sharply in the past 14 months, growing by 165,000 since September 2007, when the program insured just 300,000 children. State officials say the growth is largely due to a bill passed in 2007 by state Rep. Sylvester Turner, a Houston Democrat, that reversed the harshest cuts from 2003. Democrats had been fighting to restore CHIP for years, but the GOP majority had stymied those efforts. In 2007, Turner and a handful of renegade Democrats abandoned their party to support Midland Republican Tom Craddick. The votes of the 15 so-called Craddick Ds handed the Republican a third term as speaker. Craddick then pledged to pass Turner’s CHIP bill.
The legislation removed a handful of bureaucratic barriers that the GOP had erected to siphon kids off CHIP. The most influential of these required families to re-enroll in the program every six months. Turner’s bill returned CHIP to yearly renewals. That change has kept many more kids insured. The increase in CHIP enrollment has leveled off in the past three months, though state health officials believe the program will continue to grow steadily-barring any further cuts.
Texas still has long way to go: More than 1.7 million children in the state lack health insurance, and more than half of those are eligible for either Medicaid or CHIP, according to state officials, if their parents would simply sign them up.
Democrats would like to expand CHIP even more. With a new legislative session starting in January, they will soon get their chance.