Chupacabra Ca-Ching


Once relegated to South Texas, the mythical chupacabra, or “goat sucker,” is migrating north. This spring, Runaway Bay, a town northwest of Fort Worth, made the chupacabra its official town mascot. That was after a groundskeeper at the municipal golf course found what mayor Robert Ryan describes as a “very strange-looking dead animal that was hairless with a long beak near the 14th hole.”

“Apparently there was an understanding that it must be a chupacabra,” Ryan said. “At least that’s what went out in our press release.”

El chupacabra didn’t always roam our state. The first reported sighting was in Puerto Rico in 1995, where the beast earned its nom de guerre for sucking the blood from livestock animals, its favorite flavor being goat. The sightings spread from there to Mexico and the rest of Latin America. Over the years it has been described as everything from a bug-eyed alien on two claw-like feet to a hairless blue-skinned mutated dog-like creature.

No one loves a chupacabra. Or do they? The creature has the undeniable ability to make money for small towns across Texas. Call it the chupacabra stimulus. In Runaway Bay, the town’s Chamber of Commerce knew it was onto something good. The chamber commissioned golf shirts and T-shirts for sale. The shirt features the chupacabra holding a golf club, surrounded by a corona of fireworks. A local restaurant created the “legendary chupacabra burger.” The merchandise alone has already generated $4,000 for city coffers.

A necropsy proved that Runaway Bay’s chupacabra was actually a hairless raccoon. “Much to our chagrin it was indeed, not a chupacabra,” said Greg Leveling, the city administrator. But no matter—they still adopted the creature as their town mascot. “We decided to honor the critter anyway,” Leveling said with a laugh. “After all, it is an endangered species and this is a designated safe haven. A place where it can come and live in peace.”

—Melissa del Bosque


dept. of education

Risky Business

At its July meeting, the State Board of Education agreed to an unprecedented investment plan for the Permanent School Fund, which provides state funding to public schools. This meeting, unlike the May debates on the state social studies standards, didn’t feature crowds of T-shirt-clad activists or national news cameramen. Nuts-and-bolts financial issues evidently don’t bring the crowds like a culture-war skirmish. But for Texas’ 120,000 charter school students, the board’s discussion had huge implications.

On a 7-6 vote, the board approved investing $100 million of the $22 billion Permanent School Fund into charter school facilities. Charter schools have been receiving some state money, but about $1,000 per student below what traditional schools get—and charters haven’t previously received any state money for buying or renting facilities. The new plan, proposed by socially conservative Republican David Bradley, would use school-fund dollars to buy buildings and rent them to charters.

It could be a great deal for the schools, allowing them access to subsidized facilities and freeing up money to spend on teachers and materials. But the move might be beyond the board’s purview. The Texas Constitution makes the board responsible for the health of the Permanent School Fund, which means it is supposed to grow the fund’s investments, not help the charter-school movement. The board’s investments must have a reasonable rate of return, and charter schools are seen as risky investments at best—hence their trouble getting loans in the first place. Those opposing the plan—a coalition of Democrats, moderate Republicans and the socially conservative Republican chair Gail Lowe—say that the investments might hurt the fund and inspire litigation from districts or parents.

The attorney general’s office will provide a legal opinion about the plan before it goes into effect, which could take six months. Since the board has yet to make the request, it’s unlikely anything will happen before the 2011 legislative session ends. Most members hope the Legislature will create new programs to help charter schools through guaranteed bonds or allotments, rendering the investments unnecessary. Whatever ultimately happens, the board has proved again that it is eager to extend its power into areas well beyond its mandate.

—Abby Rapoport



budget watch


Leon Evans is used to doing more with less. But with the state facing an estimated $18 billion budget shortfall, even Evans is dreading the spending cuts to come. Evans runs the Center for Health Care Services, the local mental health authority in San Antonio. The people who operate public mental health clinics in Texas have to be efficient, and Evans has become creative at finding ways to treat as many people as possible.

The state provides the Center for Health Care Services enough money to treat about 4,200 patients each month. The center stretches those funds to serve more than 6,000 clients. Still, it’s not even close to meeting demand. Thousands with severe mental illnesses go without treatment.

The center has also worked with hospitals and law enforcement to create some of the most innovative jail-diversion programs in the country. Those programs combined keep about 1,000 people a month out of the Bexar County jail, placing them in treatment programs instead.

Those innovative programs, which save taxpayer money, are now at risk. “Taxpayers end up paying anyway,” Evans said. “If you can’t deliver services one way, then [people] end up going to emergency rooms and to jails and eventually to prison if they don’t get mental health and substance abuse treatment.”

It’s too soon to know how looming budget cuts will affect Evans’ operation. In 2003, the last time there was a large budget gap, the center lost $6 million. Evans’ state funding still hasn’t rebounded to its pre-2003 levels, though he raised money from local government to increase staff.

He expects this budget downturn to be even worse. “When there are cuts across the board, the demand for services goes up. I hate to say it, but we’re going to have to prioritize more who we serve. That’s a shame. There aren’t going to be any good choices.”

—Dave Mann



dept. of immigration

Locked Up

Barack Obama promised hope and change during his campaign—and, more specifically, “comprehensive immigration reform”—but his administration has maintained the status quo of punishing and jailing people for minor immigration offenses instead of simply deporting them.

Prosecutions are at historic highs. In April alone, there were 10,119 immigration-related prosecutions, mostly for the petty offense of crossing the border without authorization. That’s a 142 percent increase from just five years ago.

Federal courts along the border are “bogged down with those sorts of cases,” said Lee Teran, who teaches at the immigration law clinic at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio. “Federal judges have complained that that’s all they do.”

The goal is to deter deported immigrants from immediately trying to re-enter the country, but it may be hurting other law-enforcement efforts; for instance, the number of drug, firearms and trafficking cases is declining. A report by the progressive nonprofit Grassroots Leadership quotes federal public defenders in Laredo saying that they spend 95 percent of their time defending minor illegal entry and re-entry cases. And once convicted, these prisoners must be housed instead of deported. That’s fueling a boom in private detention centers and federal prisons.

Immigrant-rights advocates were hoping for something different. “I expected there to be some change—priority for some more serious offenses instead of just layering one penalty after another on these people,” Teran said. “It’s an enormous amount of money they’re spending, and it’s not stopping people from migrating.”

—Forrest Wilder




dept. of campaign finance

Governors Associations Do the Wash

Bill White likes to remind voters he’s been a successful businessman, but Rick Perry’s team prefers to highlight White’s legal career as what the governor calls a “trial lawyer”. White tries hard to distance himself from that label, pointing out that he wasn’t a personal injury attorney, and he may have found a way to distance himself from trial lawyers’ money as well.

Texas trial lawyers are big donors to Democratic candidates, and White has certainly profited. His campaign has received more than $20,000 from employees of the Baron and Budd law firm; $75,000 from Williams, Kherkher, Hart and Bounds; and $50,000 from prominent trial lawyers Walter Umphries and Steve Mostyn.

But the campaign may have gotten even more from trial lawyers, thanks to the Democratic Governors Association. The DGA operates nationally, accepting money from folks all over the country and then distributing it to specific campaigns. White got more than $1 million from the DGA—but a closer look from the Houston Chronicle showed that many of the same Houston trial lawyers gave much larger amounts to the association.

Mostyn gave a $400,000 donation to the DGA. Williams, Kherkher, Hart and Bounds shelled out $125,000. Umphries gave the group $75,000. Of course, no one can be sure that these donations were directed to the White campaign, since all of it goes into one pot and then gets distributed to candidates in large chunks. But it certainly is an alignment of interests.

Even so, Perry will have a hard time using the DGA money against White. Perry just paid a $426,000 settlement in a lawsuit over violations of state campaign-finance laws because of donations he received from the Republican Governors Association during his 2006 race. The governor’s campaign accepted $1 million from the RGA only 10 days before the election, and Democratic opponent Chris Bell argued that the association should have reported the original source of the money. You can view Rick Perry’s most recent campaign filing here.

As the Observer reported in March, many corporations that have benefited from Perry’s Enterprise Fund, such as Hewlett-Packard and Tyson Foods, happened to have given large sums to the association shortly before the RGA checks arrived. Under state law, corporate money is strictly forbidden for campaign purposes. So if Perry starts criticizing White’s campaign finances, it could come back to haunt him. 

—Abby Rapoport