Author Archives: Matthew Choi

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick: Texas churches need to know they can have guns

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick speaks at a press conference after the state Senate adjourned sine die on Tuesday night, August 15, 2017.

Following the mass shooting at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs last month, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said arming congregants could prevent similar tragedies in the future. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick thinks so, too, and wants Paxton to let more churches know that is an option.

Patrick requested Friday that Paxton issue an opinion clarifying whether congregants can bring guns to church and whether churches  are exempt from state fees for creating volunteer security teams. Patrick said in the request that he hoped Paxton could inform more churches “what legal options they have to improve their security.”

Patrick made it clear in his letter to the attorney general that he feels state law allows congregants to bring guns to church unless a sign at the door says otherwise. He also wrote that a recently passed law exempts churches from fees other institutions must pay to form their own security forces.

The law, which went into effect in September, allows churches to have armed volunteer security teams without having to pay certain state fees to license the volunteers — fees that the law’s authors said would be too much of a burden for smaller churches like the one in Sutherland Springs. State Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, the measure’s author, said in early November that many churches may not know of the change in law.

“I know many are thankful for the Texan who stopped this attack through the exercise of his Second Amendment rights, but I believe our state laws provide more protection than many Texans realize,” Patrick said in a news release. “That’s why I asked the attorney general to clarify those laws for all Texans.”

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As Bayer and Monsanto push for merger, Texas farmers fear rising prices

Dumas-area farmer Dee Vaughan checks the ground after a short test run in one of his combines. Vaughan has been farming since 1978 and worries increasing corporate control of agriculture may price farmers out of their jobs.

Two of the world’s largest agricultural firms plan to merge, and some Texas farmers fear the move will diminish competition in an already shrinking market and cause prices for seeds and other essential products to spike.

German conglomerate Bayer, a global distributer of seeds best known for its pharmaceuticals like aspirin, hopes to buy Missouri-based agricultural firm Monsanto, which sells agricultural chemicals. But the merger must first gain approval from European antitrust regulators.

The market for seeds and other agricultural materials has been dominated by six firms, including Bayer and Monsanto. Recent mergers — one between Dow and DuPont, and another joining ChinaChem and Syngenta — dropped that number to four, and a Bayer-Monsanto merger would leave just three giant companies in the sector.

A Texas A&M University study released in September 2016 — before the most recent mergers — said the mergers would lead to higher crop prices due to lower competition. The study predicted the price of cottonseed would increase by about 20 percent if the mergers happened — a dramatic increase for farmers in a state that dominates national cotton production.

The European Commissioner for Competition is investigating the merger and doesn’t plan to rule on it until at least next year. Activists and members of Congress have called on the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct a similar investigation. Mark Abueg, a Justice Department spokesman, said in an email the department does not confirm or deny if a matter is under investigation.

Dee Vaughan, chairman of the Texas Corn Producers’ Issues Committee and a Dumas-area farmer, said he is concerned research and development will stagnate without “competition forcing them to stay innovative.” He added that less competition will increase seed prices and could prompt firms to start charging for services that are currently free, like delivery.

Ultimately, farmers may be priced out of the profession, he said.

“We have to buy seeds; they have us in a situation where we have to buy their product,” Vaughan said. “But they still have the ability to go even higher on their prices.”

Bayer spokesman Chris Loder said in a written statement that the market will remain competitive after the buyout and that the merger will increase research and development opportunities by consolidating the firms’ resources. The statement said Bayer has cooperated with regulators and is confident the merger will go forward.

“As we’ve said from the beginning, this opportunity is about combining highly complementary businesses and bringing new innovative solutions to our customers,” the statement said.

Monsanto spokeswoman Christi Dixon said the firms are “two very different but highly complementary companies.” She said there is little overlap between the two firms and Bayer will address the overlap through divestitures.

But Judith McGeary, executive director of farmers’ advocacy group Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, said the firms’ products rely on each other, with Bayer’s genetically engineered seeds needing Monsanto’s patented chemicals to thrive, effectively forcing farmers to rely on the firms for every step of production. Ultimately, higher prices for farmers means higher prices for consumers, she said.

“It’s important to realize how much agriculture contributes to Texas — we’re talking about $100 billion annually for Texas’ economy,” McGeary said. “So anything that takes out of the pockets of the farmers and puts it into large corporations that are headquartered elsewhere is a drain on our economy.”

Several states’ attorneys general previously joined a Justice Department investigation into the merger between DuPont and Dow, which was approved by the department and finalized this summer. Some activists hope Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton will do the same for the proposed Bayer-Monsanto merger.

McGeary said her organization asked Paxton’s office to join in the investigation in October, but they have not heard back from the office. Vaughan said he met with staff from Paxton’s office requesting the same thing, but they “basically took no action.”

A spokesperson from Paxton’s office said in an email to the Tribune that she could “neither confirm nor deny” there was an investigation.

Disclosure: Texas A&M University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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Cities race to annex land before new Texas law goes into effect Dec. 1

A road sign outside of Mesquite city limits in Dallas County. Mesquite has rushed to annex land outside its city limits before Dec. 1, 2017, when a new law would require some cities to get the consent of residents before annexing their property.

DALLAS COUNTY — On a recent afternoon, Michelle Singleton played with her dogs behind her house. The pets’ barks and the chirps of crickets were the only sounds on the 15-acre property, which Singleton and her husband, Stan, bought more than 30 years ago. There, outside the North Texas city of Mesquite, they have hosted bonfires, hunted doves and watched their three children grow up.

But now, Mesquite plans to annex their land, and the Singletons are afraid it will ruin their way of life.

Mesquite is among several cities across Texas, including McKinney and Pearland, that have tried to annex land before a new law goes into effect Dec. 1, requiring certain cities to get the consent of a majority of property owners before annexing their land. City governments have said they are responding to the needs of urban growth and normal development. But residents say they just want to be left alone.

“We’ve survived this long without them,” Michelle Singleton said of city officials. “And we don’t need them to survive now.”

Against the clock

City officials in Mesquite and Pearland acknowledge the law has rushed their annexation plans but say annexation had been on their radar long before Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill into law in August. Mesquite Mayor Stan Pickett said developers who own land outside the city asked early this year to be annexed in order to provide city services to future subdivisions.

Mesquite City Council members added that the annexation was aimed at controlling inevitable development in the area, not taking over current residents’ homes. The city has dramatically reduced the amount of land under consideration for annexation in response to the negative outcry from private landowners. During an Oct. 26 public meeting, Mesquite City Council member Bruce Archer said if he could annex land without any independent homes, he would.

“Our desire has never been to take in a bunch of homes out here,” Archer said at the meeting. “But I think all of our desire is to do something very nice out here and to make sure things we don’t want don’t come out here.”

Pickett said Mesquite has reached out to residents, offering city staff to help them navigate the annexation.

But state Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Terrell, a House sponsor of the new law, Senate Bill 6, said he and his constituents in Kaufman County would not negotiate with city hall because “they don’t have anything we want.” Gooden said the point of the measure — which applies to cities in nine of the state’s most populous counties, plus Henderson County — was to protect Texans who do not want to be annexed by neighboring cities.

“This is the first issue in my three terms of office that I have ever seen 100 percent of people on the same side,” Gooden said. “There’s not one person in this area in Kaufman County that wants to be annexed.”

City codes on country homes

In the Houston area, Caye and Gerard Hauser are in a situation similar to the Singletons’. The couple first moved to a plot of land outside of Pearland almost 40 years ago to escape the city and start afresh. They, like most of their neighbors, started with a small mobile home on a few acres and eventually constructed a house.

Like the Singletons, the Hausers have raised their children on their land and hope to pass it on to future generations. Caye Hauser said they also have livestock and fear annexation could force urban codes on a rural setting.

“These are not just places that we just popped out two or three years ago and lived and hoped that somebody would annex us,” Hauser said. “We’ve been out here. And we’ve been surviving on our own all this time.”

Mesquite Mayor Stan Pickett speaks during a public meeting on annexation on Oct. 26, 2017.
Mesquite Mayor Stan Pickett speaks during a public meeting on annexation on Oct. 26, 2017. Laura Buckman for The Texas Tribune

Residents around Mesquite have similar concerns over potential city regulations. At the city council meeting about annexation last month, property owner Mack Beam said that after his land was annexed into Mesquite 11 years ago, officials cited him for violating codes based on “city living.”

“Within 72 hours after we were annexed, we got our first heaping helping of city services, which were code enforcement people coming in up and down the road out there because our hay meadows weren’t cut to suit the city,” Beam said.

Pickett said that was before his mayoral tenure and that he has no desire to change people’s ways of life. Pickett added that it’s “just not practical” to enforce the same codes used in the Mesquite city center out in rural areas.

In Pearland, however, council member Keith Ordeneaux had a different take. In an email to Hauser’s family obtained by the Tribune, Ordeneaux disputed Hauser’s characterization of their land as “country.” While he said people in annexed areas will have to abide by city codes, prohibiting bonfires and fireworks, he disagrees there will be a serious effects on residents, as the land has already developed into a suburban area. Ordeneaux said in an email to the Tribune that the land had always been subject to possible annexation and the new law simply sped up the process.

Several residents have said annexation will increase their taxes for services they will not use. Property taxes for both Mesquite and Pearland are about 69 cents for every $100 of property value, so about $690 per year for the average Mesquite household, in addition to county and school district taxes.

Ordeneaux added that areas planned for annexation already receive some city functions, such as fire and emergency medical services, without paying city taxes.

“I … do not understand the argument of country living ending once you are annexed into a city,” Ordeneaux wrote in the email to the Hausers. “Besides having to pay city taxes, what concerns do you have about your way of life?”

The state intervenes

The office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has intervened in some annexation efforts. The office sent a letter on Nov. 6 to officials of the North Texas city of McKinney, arguing they did not properly follow state annexation procedure. McKinney has since canceled its annexation plans.

Pickett received a similar letter on Nov. 9 from Paxton’s office, arguing Mesquite may have failed to properly notify residents and hold public meetings with sufficient notice. Some property owners said they never received notifications and learned of the annexation efforts through friends and neighbors. Pickett said the city mailed notifications to property owners in early September and posted announcements on its website, as required by state law.

Shortly after Paxton’s office sent the letter to Pickett, a state district court ordered Mesquite to delay its annexation efforts in Kaufman County. But the order does not apply to Dallas County, including the Singletons’ property.

This week, a Texas appeals court denied a request from Mesquite to cancel the order. A delay could cause the city to miss the Dec. 1 deadline — precisely what residents and Gooden hope will happen.

“They say you can’t fight city hall,” Gooden said. “But we are, and we’re winning and we plan to win.”

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Judge blocks Texas secretary of state from giving voter information to Trump commission

People wait in line at the George Washington Carver Library in Austin, Texas, to cast their vote on Election Day 2016.

A Texas district judge has issued a temporary restraining order preventing Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos from handing voter information to President Donald Trump‘s voter fraud investigation commission.

The order, which came out Tuesday, adds Texas to a growing list of states not complying with the president’s investigation into the 2016 elections, which Trump says suffered from large-scale voter fraud.

Judge Tim Sulak of the Austin-based 353rd Texas Civil District Court issued the order in response to a lawsuit filed July 20 by the League of Women Voters of Texas, its former president Ruthann Geer and the Texas NAACP against Pablos and Keith Ingram, the Texas Elections Division director in the the secretary of state’s office. The lawsuit seeks to stop the state from handing over voter data from the state’s computerized voter registration files to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. The suit argues that doing so would reveal voters’ personal information, “which may be used to solicit, harass, or otherwise infringe upon the privacy of Texas voters.”

The secretary of state’s office didn’t immediately return a request for comment for this article.

The League’s current president, Elaine Wiant, said the organization is especially concerned that releasing the data could make millions of voters’ personal information public, making it vulnerable to commercial use. Texas law forbids public voter information from being used commercially, but with the presidential commission, Wiant said “there is no guarantee how it will get used.” Wiant also said the League is concerned that releasing the data would make voters’ birthdates public.

“In today’s world, that is just way too much information to be made available to the public,” Wiant said. “There are serious security concerns.”

The order, which expires Oct. 17 or with further order from the court, says that handing over voter information could cause “irreparable” injury. Without “appropriate safeguards,” the order argues, the data is likely to become public, potentially violating voters’ privacy rights, their interests in “avoiding commercial solicitation, chilling of their First Amendment rights, and the diminution of their efforts to encourage voting.”

Trump launched the commission by executive order in May following his unsubstantiated claim that “millions” of votes were cast illegally. The White House previously told The Texas Tribune that Trump “wants to ensure that the integrity of all elections, which are the cornerstone of our democracy, is preserved.”

The commission sent requests on June 28 to all states’ secretaries of state for a wide array of voter information. Several states, led by both parties, immediately refused to hand over data, with Mississippi’s Republican Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann famously saying the presidential commission could “jump in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Pablos, however, said at the time: “The Secretary of State’s office will provide the Election Integrity Commission with public information and will protect the private information of Texas citizens while working to maintain the security and integrity of our state’s elections system. As always, my office will continue to exercise the utmost care whenever sensitive voter information is required to be released by state or federal law.”

The hearing for the suit is set for Oct. 16. Wiant said she was “cautiously optimistic” about the case.

“It’s just hard to know,” she said.

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Texas business mogul Mark Cuban offers details for hypothetical 2020 presidential run

Mark Cuban is a tech billionaire and owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team.

Texas business mogul Mark Cuban offered new details about how he would hypothetically run for president in 2020 in a podcast posted Tuesday.

In an episode of “ViewPoint” hosted by CNN contributor Bakari Sellers, Cuban, who describes himself as “independent all the way through” and “not traditional in terms of politics at all,” said he was “considering” a run for the White House and drew strong contrasts between himself and President Donald Trump.

“I don’t think anybody who knows me, anybody who listens to me, anybody who talks to me is going to think I’m anything like Donald Trump,” Cuban said on the podcast.

Cuban said were he to run, he would have “no problem” with publicly declaring his business holdings and releasing his tax returns — which Trump famously refused to do. But he said he would not divest from personal business interests if he were elected, saying Trump has only faced problems with his business possessions because he “isn’t transparent about them.”

Cuban, who created a massive personal fortune after investing in startups and other business interests, is famous for being a “shark investor” on the ABC reality show “Shark Tank” and his high-profile ownership of a majority stake in the Dallas Mavericks basketball team.

During the 2016 presidential election, he endorsed Hillary Clinton and was a vocal critic of Trump, though he had previously expressed interest in joining both Clinton’s and Trump’s tickets as vice president.

When Sellers asked Cuban if he would be willing to campaign against Republicans during the 2018 midterm elections, Cuban said, “Probably not.”

Cuban said key issues facing the country include income inequality, health care and technological competitiveness. Calling health care a “right,” he said the Affordable Care Act, former President Barack Obama’s signature health law, was a “step in the right direction” — but adding that “any system built on insurance will fail.”

Ultimately, Cuban said he still hasn’t decided whether to run for office.

“If I can come up with solutions I think people can get behind and truly solve problems, then it makes perfect sense for me to run,” he said. “If it comes down to, do I think I can win because I can convince more people to vote for me, then no, I won’t run.”

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Houston mayor calls off property tax hike after Abbott delivers $50 million

Gov. Greg Abbott presents Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner with a $50 million check for Hurricane Harvey relief during a news conference in Houston on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017.

HOUSTON — Gov. Greg Abbott presented Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner a $50 million check for Hurricane Harvey relief Friday, prompting Turner to rescind a proposed property tax hike for his city.

The money, which comes from the $100 million disaster relief fund appropriated to Abbott’s office during the last legislative session, will go toward immediate relief needs such as reconstruction, Abbott and Turner said at a joint news conference in Houston. Abbott said long-term recovery and preventive measures would be funded by the federal government and the state’s $10 billion savings account, known as the Rainy Day Fund, but not until exact costs for recovery are known.

“The time to use the thrust of the Rainy Day Fund is when the expenses are known,” Abbott said. “So the members of the Legislature know how best to use the Rainy Day Fund.”

Turner had planned to raise property taxes for one year in order to raise $50 million for hurricane recovery, which would have cost the average Houston homeowner $48. Though the plan drew criticism, Turner said at the time that he would not have proposed the tax increase had Abbott called a special legislative session to use the Rainy Day Fund immediately.

The news conference appeared to resolve a weeklong spat between Abbott and Turner. In early September, Abbott said a special session of the Legislature wasn’t necessary to deal with the response to Hurricane Harvey, but in a Monday interview with The Texas Tribune, Turner said the lack of immediate state funding for relief efforts was forcing him to push for the tax hike. Abbott responded in a Tuesday news conference, saying Houston already had enough funds for hurricane relief and that if the state were to use Rainy Day money, it would come during the next regular legislative session in 2019.

During the Friday news conference, Abbott said there “is a possibility for a special session” to allocate funds for recovery and prevention once those costs are better known.

“Now that the hurricane winds are calm … it’s time that we begin the process of rebuilding Texas, and that’s a tall task,” Abbott said. “This is what the state of Texas is for … We’re proud to be here wearing the same jersey working for the same team.”

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Abbott: Houston has enough funding for Harvey recovery

John Sharp, Texas A&M University chancellor and head of the new Governor's Commission to Rebuild Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott and Nim Kidd, Chief of Texas Emergency Management, get briefed on recovery efforts after Hurricane Harvey at the FEMA Joint Field Office in Austin on Sept. 14, 2017.    

If the state taps into the Rainy Day Fund to help with recovery following Hurricane Harvey, it won’t be until the next legislative session, Gov. Greg Abbott said during a news conference Tuesday.

Abbott’s announcement comes after Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner wrote to the governor asking the state to use the $10 billion fund. Turner said without significant state help, Houston will be forced to raise property taxes for one year to bring in $50 million for recovery efforts.

Turner said he would not have proposed the tax hike had the governor called a special session to tap into the fund.

Abbott, who has said the state has enough resources to address Harvey-related needs between now and the next legislative session, added Tuesday that the state has already granted Houston almost $100 million for debris removal and established an “accelerated reimbursement program” for recovery efforts.

Abbott said he would pay any invoice the city submits to the state within 10 days.

Turner “has all the money that he needs,” Abbott said. “He just needs to tap into it.”

“In times like these, it’s important to have fiscal responsibility as opposed to financial panic,” Abbott said. He later added that “the mayor seems to be using [Harvey recovery] as hostage to raise taxes.”

Abbott also reaffirmed his support for Senate Bill 4, legislation aimed at outlawing “sanctuary cities,” during the news conference.

“During the initial phase, the focus was on saving lives,” Abbott said. “As we get back into the normal course of daily activities, it’s gonna be important for all people who live in this country to follow the law.”

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