Category Archives: State

Arrests along border dipped sharply under Trump, according to federal data

At sunset, a Customs and Border Patrol agent places floodlights along a levee that ties into a segment of border fence in Hidalgo, Texas.

Federal border and immigration officials said Tuesday that the number of people caught trying to enter the country illegally reached near-historic lows during the government’s 2017 fiscal year, which ended on Sept 30.

Yet the number of unaccompanied minors and families who were apprehended or turned themselves in continues to plague border agents – even amid President Donald Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration.

U.S. Border Patrol agents made 310,531 apprehensions while Customs and Border Protection officers recorded 216,370 inadmissible cases, according to year-end statistics. (The federal government defines an “inadmissible” person as a migrant who tries to enter the country legally at a port of entry but is rejected, or a person seeking humanitarian protection under current laws.)

That represents a 24 percent decline since the 2016 fiscal year. The federal government’s fiscal year runs from October to September, and the 2017 numbers include the last three full months of the Obama administration.

Of the 310,531 apprehensions nationwide, about 304,000 occurred on the nation’s southwestern border.

During a conference call with reporters, Acting U.S. Customs and Border Protection Deputy Commissioner Ronald Vitiello said that “loopholes” in current law continue to lure unaccompanied minors and family units to the United States. Since at least 2013, the majority of the those immigrants have come from Central America, a trend that continued in 2017. Data show that the Texas-Mexico border continues to be the most popular choice for illegal entry by that group of crossers.

Current law mandates that unaccompanied minors from countries not contiguous with the United States be processed by the federal government and placed in custody or with a temporary guardian, as opposed to being immediately deported. Some lawmakers have said that acts as a magnet for illegal migration because some cases won’t be adjudicated for years due to a backlog in immigration court.

Though the number of unaccompanied minors apprehended in the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector dipped to 23,700 in 2017 – a 35 percent drop from 2016 – the sector was the most active compared to other border sectors. That area saw a steady stream of undocumented immigrant families. There were about 49,900 people apprehended as part of family units in that sector, compared to 52,000 in 2016.

Meanwhile the El Paso sector, which includes New Mexico, saw a 52 percent increase in family unit apprehensions, from 5,664 people to 8,609 people. But the Laredo sector saw about a 50 percent drop, from 1,640 to 865.

Despite the overall dip in apprehensions, Department of Homeland Security officials said the constant stream of illegal crossers shows why a barrier is still needed on the southwestern border. In October, the Trump administration announced that Customs and Border Protection had completed construction of eight border wall prototypes.

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Deputy shoots teenage driver after driver attempts to run deputies over

A Bexar County Sheriff’s Deputy shot a 17-year-old driver several times early Sunday morning. Deputies said the driver attempted to run them over, led them on a chase and crashed into another car.

It started around 5:30 a.m. near Marbach and Loop 1604 when the deputies were flagged down by a driver who told them they were involved in a road rage incident. The victims told police the suspect was driving a black car.

Deputies found the black car they believe was involved in the road rage incident in a dead end road. That’s when deputies said the driver of the black car circled back around and began speeding toward the deputies.

Sheriff Javier Salazar said that the driver struck a patrol vehicle and a deputy, but that the deputy suffered minor injuries. The patrol car, however, was inoperable after the crash.

One of the deputies deployed his stun gun at some point during the confrontation, but Salazar said the stun gun didn’t hit the suspect. The deputy then drew his weapon and shot into the car, striking the driver several times.

Deputies said the driver managed to speed away despite his injuries.

The second deputy caught up to the driver a short distance away and began pursuing the car. Deputies said the driver hit another car head-on, but the crash only disabled the other person’s car and injured the driver, not the suspect’s car.

Salazar said the deputy continued to pursue the car and that the deputy’s car and the suspect’s car collided at Highway 90 and Kriewald., immobilizing both cars.

The driver was discovered to have a 17-year-old female passenger who suffered minor injuries.

Salazar said the suspect may have been armed, but that they have not completed a search of the vehicle.

“If (the driver) survives he’s facing several serious felony charges,” Salazar said. “At this point we don’t know if it’ll be handled as attempted capital murder or aggravated assault on a public servant, but certainly facing a litany of charges.”

Salazar said the female passenger is not expected to face any charges and that investigators will interview her to determine what led up to the pursuit.


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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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In Texas, you probably won’t get welfare benefits; even if you qualify

Betty Smith, who is currently taking care of 16 kids of which 12 were given to her by CPS but was still deemed ineligible, speaks at a Grand Parents Support group meeting in Houston on Oct. 19, 2017.

Editor’s note: The Texas Tribune and The Guardian, which provides international news for an online, global audience, partnered to examine income inequality and the impact welfare reform in the 1990s has had on state welfare services and benefits today.

HOUSTON — A $733 federal disability check doesn’t stretch far each month when you have more than a dozen children to feed and clothe.

But don’t tell Betty Smith — the mother of four adopted youngsters (ages 10, 14, 16 and 18) and legal guardian of 12 of her grandchildren (ages 10 months to 16 years old) — that life threw her a raw deal.

“I’ve been blessed,” the 60-year-old Houston resident says in a conversation punctuated by thank-yous to Jesus.

The cancer diagnosis nine years ago that knocked her out of work? Now in remission, Smith says. Her ex-husband? “He normally tries to help” with the bills. And those dozen grandchildren? “They’re good to see another day” and better off with Smith than they would be in the state’s reeling foster care system, she says.

That’s not to say Smith would refuse help from the state of Texas. It’s just that she can’t figure out how to get it and why she’s been rejected.

“I tried three times — went over there three times. Still couldn’t get it,” the weary-eyed grandmother recently explained to a room with a half-dozen other women in similar, if not less extreme circumstances. “They give you 12 of your grandkids but refuse to help you?”

With nods, headshakes and “mmm hmmms,” Smith’s fellow Grandparent Support Group members indicated they understood her frustration. They had felt it, too.

The grandparents gather every third Thursday in a southwest Houston community center to discuss the challenges of stepping in when their sons and daughters can’t raise their own children. Picking at plates heaped with salad, fruit and fried chicken, several grandparents shared stories of frustration when it came to getting government welfare assistance. Those interactions with bureaucracy left them feeling that state rules for distributing federal aid — including the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF) — are incredibly harsh, and sometimes applied arbitrarily or incorrectly.

Social workers and advocates for poor families suggest that perception is a reality.

“We have to fight,” said Deborah Dickerson, president and founder of the six-year-old Grandparent Support Group. The 62-year-old confronted that bureaucracy 12 years ago while raising four grandchildren of her own. The state rejected her TANF application, she said, because she made $7 per month more than the income limit.

“My pride wouldn’t let me come back,” Dickerson told the other grandparents in the white-walled room. “I was so humiliated, and just confused. I’m not going to beg.”

Over more than two decades, Texas’ rolls of cash assistance recipients under its TANF program have steadily shrunk. Fewer Texans are qualifying for cash assistance, freeing up millions in federal dollars that state lawmakers have shifted to core state programs, like Child Protective Services, or to help cover costs at facilities like mental health state hospitals, that also serve middle- and upper-income Texans. But Texas’ poverty rate has largely remained consistent in that time, and requirements have gotten stricter for the few Texans who do qualify for TANF cash assistance, which totals $188 each month for a single parent or caretaker with two children.

What’s more, experts say, the acronym-laden bureaucracy guarding the state’s safety net makes it difficult to access those benefits, even for Texans who fit the requirements. Sometimes officials at the Health and Human Services Commission, the high-turnover agency that administers the TANF program, do not inform qualified applicants about their options, social workers and advocates told The Texas Tribune. Other times, inexperienced state workers don’t seem to know their own rules, they added.

“The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, and the right hand is taking advantage,” said Nicole Washington, a case manager at Methodist Children’s Home in Houston,which offers foster care and “family preservation” services.

Asked about the confusion, Christine Mann, a Health and Human Services Commission spokeswoman, pointed to improvements at the agency. She said it recently reminded staffers about policies for handling TANF applications from non-parent caretakers, and it’s making other changes to its system. That includes updating an eligibility handbook and staff training.

As grandparent caretakers, the women in Dickerson’s group have more than one avenue to apply for TANF benefits.

A Texas program gives certain grandparents a one-time $1,000 payment for taking care of grandchildren. But assets like cars, retirement savings and Social Security benefits make it harder for some older adults to qualify. The state rejects grandparents who made more than twice the federal poverty level or have more than $1,000 in resources.

Grandparents and other “kinship” caregivers might qualify for “child-only” benefits. In those cases, state payments apply only to the children and not to the adult, and the caretaker could  draw assistance for the kids even if their monthly incomes eclipse limits for those applying for family-wide benefits.

But the state frequently counts kinship caregivers’ income against them, policy experts and advocates say, leaving some who should qualify for benefits empty handed.

That doesn’t happen for kinship families applying for Medicaid, which operates under similar rules, said said Rachel Cooper, a senior policy analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning policy organization. But bureaucratic glitches leave the same family unable to draw TANF benefits.

“This has been going on for years,” Cooper said. “We’ve been talking to [the agency] for years.”

Mann said agency policy prohibits such denials for kinship caregivers.

Unclear is whether the confusion lies solely with state workers or in the design of benefits applications, which critics say could be clearer.

“People I’m dealing with at HHSC seem to care about this population, but it’s one of those bureaucracy things — changing a form is an epic event,” said Katherine Barillas, director of child welfare policy at One Voice Texas, a network of private and nonprofit organizations in Houston.

Mann, the spokeswoman, said her agency plans to give staffers more help in deciding eligibility by upgrading its processing system. The new system will automatically re-determine eligibility when a kinship caretaker eclipses income limits — a change from the current manual process.

As for Smith’s case, Mann said she would need more personal information about the grandmother to know whether the agency properly rejected her application.

In the meantime, Smith is trying to make do. “I just do what I got to do, and I pray,” she said.

Smith is proud of her grandkids. One grandson is now starting football. Her 11th-grader is a talented amateur hairstylist and could become a beautician.

Smith is thinking about pursuing full-fledged adoptions to ensure stability for her grandkids.

“I don’t want to let them down,” she said.

Alexa Ura contributed to this report.

Disclosure: The Center for Public Policy Priorities and One Voice Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Texas reform advocates want to close all state-run youth lockups

With a conviction and multiple arrests stemming from recent sexual misconduct cases at a Texas lockup for minors, juvenile justice reform advocates are calling for state leadership to close all state-run secure facilities for youths.

On Thursday, advocates from multiple reform groups sent a letter to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus, asking them to create a joint legislative committee that will evaluate the Texas Juvenile Justice Department and shut down the state’s five lockups. The call comes after a department memo obtained by the Dallas Morning News highlighted recent allegations of sexual misconduct at the Gainesville State School.

“Texas taxpayers are currently footing the bill for a costly, defective model that does not does not promote public safety and is inhumane,” the advocates wrote in the letter. “There is only one solution: the remaining state secure facilities must be closed.”

The letter was cosigned by directors of Texas Appleseed, Texans Care for Children, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union. Spokesmen for Patrick and Straus did not respond to emails Thursday evening.

TJJD declined to comment on the letter, but a Wednesday memo from the department’s executive director to state leadership addressed the issue.

The current scandal surrounds the conviction of one male guard, Samuel Wright, and the arrest of three women at the facility in Gainesville, a rural area about 75 miles north of Dallas. Wright was sentenced to 10 years in prison this July for improper sexual activity with a youth in custody, according to the memo. The women were arrested within the past three months on allegations of having sexual relationships with committed minors.

A fourth female guard was investigated on similar allegations, but a grand jury declined to indict her. The Wednesday memo also highlighted a 2016 case where a psychologist at the lockup was suspended after being found to have emailed pornography to his work computer so he could encourage a minor to masturbate in front of him.

“As much as we loathe that these events happened at all, I believe the facts of these cases show that oversight mechanisms put in place by legislative reforms of the past decade are working,” said TJJD Executive Director David Reilly in the memo. “The perpetrators were caught and prosecuted because dedicated staff helped flag this improper activity and document the events. In other cases, youth accessed the Incident Reporting Center (IRC) hotline, allowing our criminal investigators to build a case.”

The state’s juvenile justice system has repeatedly been embroiled in sexual and physical abuse scandals that span back to the 1970s, according to the advocates’ letter. In 2007, when the media reported system-wide abuse, multiple reforms were enacted by the legislature and county judges opted out of committing minors to state custody, causing populations at state-run correctional facilities for youth to plummet, according to a 2015 report on juvenile justice reforms.

The number of state youth lockups has dwindled from 12 to 5 since then, according to the Dallas Morning News, and now the reform advocates want to close the rest, saying the state lockups are an “outmoded and ineffective model of youth rehabilitation.”

In the department memo, Reilly points to new efforts to prevent sexual abuse, including a stronger “never alone” policy that, starting Dec. 1, will require that multiple people be present while transporting youths in custody or have guard wear body cameras if that’s not feasible. The department is also going to reinstate monthly overtime pay, which had been stopped last year amid budget cuts.

The department has correlated the issues of low pay and morale combined with high stress and turnover with the abuse in the department. Keeping employees has been a reported struggle — the Gainesville facility had a turnover rate last fiscal year of more than 50 percent, the memo said.

“Let me be clear: low pay, high turnover, job stress and staffing shortages do not cause employees to become more sexually deviant,” wrote Reilly, reaffirming the agency’s zero-tolerance policy on abuse. “However, low staffing levels create opportunities for misconduct that could otherwise be prevented.”

Texas Appleseed’s Deborah Fowler, an author of the advocacy letter, said in response to the department’s memo that attempting to fix the facilities is futile.

“We need to focus on continuing the reforms that started in 2007 and have since stalled by closing the remaining facilities and putting hard earned taxpayer dollars into treatment proven to work closer to home,” she said.

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

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Assault charge against Johnny Manziel dismissed

Prosecutors in Dallas have dismissed a 2016 misdemeanor domestic assault charge against Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel.

The Dallas County District Attorney’s Office on Thursday confirmed Manziel successfully completed requirements of a court agreement that included taking an anger management course and participating in the NFL’s substance abuse program.

PHOTOS: Manziel through the years

The 24-year-old Manziel also had to stay away from former girlfriend Colleen Crowley, who accused him of hitting and threatening her during a January 2016 night out. The case was dismissed Nov. 22.

Cleveland chose Manziel 22nd overall in the 2014 draft. The Browns cut him in March 2016 after two seasons of inconsistent play and off-the-field issues about the former Texas A&M star’s partying and drinking.

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How Texas curtailed traditional welfare without ending poverty

Central Texas Food Bank Social Services Coordinator Eddie Sanchez meets with a client at Central Health Southeast Health and Wellness Center in Austin on Nov. 29, 2017

Editor’s note: The Texas Tribune and The Guardian, which provides international news for an online, global audience, partnered to examine income inequality and the impact welfare reform in the 1990s has had on state welfare services and benefits today. 

Vakesa Townson didn’t plan to fall into poverty.

Married and the mother of two kids, she had lived a comfortable life in North Texas. But after her 17-year marriage ended and she became her family’s main provider, she struggled to make ends meet.

“I needed support,” Townson said. “I felt like I was starting over with nothing.”

A support group and the folks at Catholic Charities of Fort Worth encouraged her to apply for government assistance, including food stamps for groceries and Medicaid for her kids. But she didn’t check the box in her application that would’ve allowed her to apply for cash assistance. Working a part-time job that brought home $200 to $230 a month, she might not have qualified anyway.

Townson’s predicament is not unusual for Texans in need. Poor Texans will often find jobs and work to advance out of poverty but are then disqualified from receiving public benefits well before leaving poverty behind, said Heather Reynolds, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of Fort Worth.

“I don’t think that’s what anybody intends to do,” said Reynolds, whose clients are mostly classified as working poor. “It’s just the reality of what we face sometimes.”

Though Texas’ poverty rates have remained mostly consistent, the state has significantly curtailed the amount of traditional welfare it provides to poor Texans through cash assistance over the last two decades, instead putting more of its federal anti-poverty dollars toward funding core state services, plugging budget holes or funding other programs that provide services to residents with higher incomes than those who qualify for cash welfare.

Federal law allows such disbursements, and state officials say those spending choices are spurred in part by a drop in the number of Texans qualifying for cash assistance. But social workers and service providers who help poor Texas families say those decisions result in a porous safety net that complicates the struggles of residents like Townson, who are too poor to make ends meet but make too much to qualify for temporary cash aid from the government.

“There’s this myth that welfare exists,” said Rachel Cooper, a senior policy analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank. “In Texas, it doesn’t.”


To qualify for $290 a month, you can’t make more than $188

Texas’ reduction of its traditional welfare rolls dates to 1996, when Congress reformed welfare and created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which gives Texas hundreds of millions of dollars a year to combat poverty.

At the program’s inception, hundreds of thousands of poor single-parent families and children — a monthly average of 479,000 individuals in 1998 — received cash aid through TANF. But the number of poor residents who receive this help has plummeted. As of July 2017, the latest available count, fewer than 60,000 Texans — most of them children — remained on the welfare rolls, usually receiving a few hundred dollars a month at most.

Welfare reform was designed to reduce the number of people on welfare by emphasizing temporary assistance and getting people into work. But the drop in the state’s welfare enrollment isn’t necessarily the result of a concerted effort to pull Texans out of poverty. The state’s poverty rate has hovered between 16 and 18 percent for the last decade, and it wasn’t until recent years that Texas saw a larger drop in its poverty rate — currently at 15.6 percent — that was mostly due to rising incomes and not because of more welfare recipients moving out of poverty.

Instead, the number of low-income Texans who can get help has been reduced by caps on how long a family can obtain benefits, which are based on a person’s education or recent work experience, and strict income eligibility rules that make qualifying for cash aid a tall order for even the poorest families, advocates say.

To qualify for a maximum of $290 in monthly cash aid today, a family of three — with one parent and two children — cannot make more than $188 a month, barring a few exceptions. That income eligibility, which is several hundred dollars less than what a family of three can make and still be considered to be living in poverty, has hardly been adjusted since welfare reform.

“It’s been frozen, and 20 years of inflation has meant fewer and fewer people can qualify because it’s so low you really have to be destitute,” Cooper said.

By 2015, only four out every 100 poor families with children in Texas received cash assistance — down from 47 in 1996, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning research institute.

Texas has a long history of regarding welfare as a last resort for needy Texans. Even before federal welfare reform, state lawmakers were working to tighten limits for assistance in Texas. And modest increases to benefits enacted soon after welfare reform were passed because they were approved with little fanfare, appropriations officials said at the time.

Texas’ approach to welfare benefits has pushed it toward the bottom of state rankings for the percentage of households receiving public cash assistance, according to U.S. Census Bureau data dating back a decade. In 2016, Texas ranked last.

That’s despite Texas being home to almost one out of every 10 poor Americans.

“We spend our dollars on anything but poor families”

While the drop in cash assistance has left Texans in need with a less secure safety net, it has freed up hundreds of millions of federal dollars for legislative budget writers.

Welfare reform set Texas up to receive federal anti-poverty funds in the form of block grants, meant to give state governments more flexibility in how they spent those dollars. That spending had to fit within four broad categories: to assist needy families so children can be cared for in their homes or the homes of their relatives; to reduce dependency on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work and marriage; to prevent or reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancies; and to encourage two-parent families.

With declining welfare rolls, lawmakers have used federal TANF dollars to cover a range of expenses, including core state functions like Child Protective Services.

Of the more than $520 million in federal TANF funds that state legislators appropriated for each of the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years, more than $358 million was earmarked for the Department of Family and Protective Services, which includes CPS. TANF dollars will make up approximately 17.5 percent of the agency’s entire budget for the 2018-19 budget years.

The current state budget also uses TANF funding to prop up the budgets for early childhood intervention services and mental health state hospitals. Another $3 million a year will go toward the Alternatives to Abortion program. The Texas Education Agency will also receive almost $4 million a year in TANF dollars for “school improvement and support programs.”

“We spend our TANF dollars on anything but poor families,” said Will Francis, government relations director for the Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

Those spending decisions will likely perpetuate a negative trend in the share of total TANF dollars Texas spends on basic assistance to poor families, which dropped from 59 percent in 1997 to about 7 percent in 2014, according to spending data collected by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.


State budget writers push back against the notion that the Legislature chooses to spend less on cash assistance for poor Texans.

Texas’ spending on cash aid depends completely on the number of people who qualify and sign up for benefits, they argue. And that drop has freed up more money to spend on other state needs, said state Sen. Jane Nelson, a Flower Mound Republican and the Senate’s chief budget writer.

“The good thing about block grants is that we are able to provide benefits to everyone who qualifies and allocate the remaining funds to address important needs such as Child Protective Services,” Nelson said in a statement. “These are appropriate uses of TANF funds, and they are an essential part of our effort to better protect endangered children.”

Advocates for low-income Texans don’t argue that these aren’t worthy causes. But they say they’re just not the best use for dollars meant to combat poverty in the state.

“It’s this $500 million-a-year piggy bank,” said Celia Cole, CEO of Feeding Texas, a nonprofit that oversees a statewide network of food banks. “It’s totally taken away from meaningful services… It leaves very little to cash assistance or employment and training that could help people get out of poverty.”

Where should the money go?

Once TANF dollars are used to fund critical services like CPS, it’s tough to advocate for a change that will create a hole in the budget and put the delivery of other human services in a bind, Cole said.

In 2016, TANF ranked as the state’s ninth-biggest federal funding source.

Others have gone farther in their characterizations of the state’s TANF spending priorities. During a 2013 U.S. House Ways and Means subcommittee hearing, Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, referred to TANF as a “slush fund” that states use to fund services they were or should have been funding themselves and questioned whether states have been given “too much flexibility” under welfare reform.

Not all those who are helping low-income Texans make ends meet oppose the state’s TANF spending priorities. Some nonprofit providers underlined the importance of flexibility and allowing states to be nimble with federal resources in ways that can best serve local communities. Others pointed out that some of the services funded through TANF dollars back up a “holistic approach” to addressing the needs of poor Texans.

“I do think that there are some great strategies that are funded with TANF dollars that impact vulnerable populations,” said Eric Cooper, president and CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank, which helps low-income Texans sign up for public benefits.

But Cooper added he sees the “temptation” the state’s spending flexibility presents at a time when poor Texans “could use more dollars to gap-fill” their needs. He echoed other providers who expressed reservations about the state’s wide discretion with disbursements.

“What we need to make sure is that that money actually gets to nonprofit and government providers who will actually use it to improve outcomes for those living in poverty,” said Reynolds of Catholic Charities of Fort Worth. “And I do think there has been the temptation to use it to help with other budget crunches and we need to make sure to stay away from that.”

Jim Malewitz contributed to this report.

Disclosure: The Center for Public Policy Priorities and Feeding Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Texas parents wait in limbo as policymakers struggle to save Children’s Health Insurance Program

Patients wait to be seen at the People's Community Clinic in Austin, on Nov. 8, 2010.

It’s been two months since inaction in Congress put health insurance for more than Texas 400,000 children in jeopardy, and for people like Raquel Cruz, the uncertainty is taking a toll.

“To remove insurance from hardworking people that need it and that use it is just —,” Cruz said, pausing as she sobbed. “It’s just not fair.”

Cruz, a single mother of three who lives in the Rio Grande Valley, has relied on the now-threatened Children’s Health Insurance Program to cover her children’s health care for more than 10 years. With two children currently benefiting from CHIP including a daughter about to go to college, Cruz fears what losing the program would mean for her family.

If the state shuts down CHIP, children will be redirected to the federal government’s health care marketplace. Cruz said premiums on the marketplace are too expensive for her budget, but she may have no choice.

“I’m going to be forced to look into the market and then possibly even get a second job, which will take me away from that time with my children,” Cruz said. “As a single mother, the whole load is on me.”

CHIP expired Sept. 30 after Congress failed to renew funding for the program that provides health insurance to millions of children in the country. Since then, low- and middle-income parents like Cruz have been anxiously wondering if Congress will renew the program before their children lose their benefits. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission predicts state coffers can keep the program afloat until January.

In the absence of congressional renewal, the state has acted to assuage parents’ worries. The Health and Human Services Commission submitted a request Nov. 16 with the federal government for an extra $90 million to support CHIP in Texas until February.

Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the commission, said in a statement to the Tribune that it is confident that Texas will receive the federal funds. Extra funds have already been granted to maintain CHIP in several states and Washington, D.C.

The commission needs confirmation for the extra $90 million by Dec. 9, or else it will have to start shutting down the program. State law requires the commission to notify parents about a month before they lose coverage, meaning it would have to send out letters on Dec. 22 — three days before Christmas.

The extra $90 million could keep the program alive in Texas long enough for Congress to renew federal CHIP funding, said Adriana Kohler, senior health policy associate at the nonpartisan Texans Care for Children.

The U.S. House passed a bill with a provision to fund CHIP with only Republican support earlier this month, tossing the issue to the Senate. Democrats voted against the bill because it would have taken funding from Medicaid.

“It’s the first time it’s been a partisan issue on the House side,” said U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston. “I’m hoping the Senate will come up with something we can be all together for.”

Green, who serves on the House Energy and Commerce committee and is a key player for health care issues, said he and his colleagues in both parties recognize the dire consequences of not renewing CHIP, adding that the program has garnered so much bipartisan support in the past that he thinks “the Senate will go back and do the reauthorization.”

Around Capitol Hill, advocates are pushing for the issue to be attached to the end-of-year spending bill required to prevent a government shutdown. A spokesperson for the House committee said there are “ongoing” bipartisan and bicameral negotiations. While Green said there are always deadlines, he was unclear about when the last straw is.

That’s a lot of conditionals, Kohler said, for Texas parents who need to know if they can arrange appointments and treatments for their children for next year.

“Many families might fall through the cracks. There might be a lot of missed appointments, missed medication,” Kohler said. “At the end of the day, this is harming kids that rely on this program.”

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How Breitbart, Trump and Texas Politicians Spun a Tale out of a Border Patrol Agent’s Death

On the night of November 18, two Border Patrol agents lay badly wounded at the bottom of a 14-foot deep culvert near Van Horn, Texas. Thirty-six-year-old El Pasoan Rogelio Martinez died hours later from his injuries. Perhaps, as right-wing news outlets have trumpeted, the pair was attacked by rock-wielding foreign drug smugglers, or maybe, as at least two government officials have suggested, they fell by accident into the drainage tunnel. Federal investigators insist they don’t yet know what occurred that night, but neither lack of facts nor prudence could dissuade the president and top Texas Republicans from seizing on this tragedy for political advantage.

“Border Patrol Officer killed at Southern Border, another badly hurt. We will seek out and bring to justice those responsible. We will, and must, build the Wall!,” tweeted President Donald Trump on the evening of November 19. Trump also stated later that the surviving agent had been “badly beaten.”

That morning, the virulently anti-immigrant site Breitbart had claimed to break the story with a story headlined, “Border Patrol Agent Killed, Another in Serious Condition in Texas.” The story quoted Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC), the union for Border Patrol agents — which is not a part of the government agency. A few sentences below the unambiguous headline, the Breitbart authors acknowledged that “details on the matter are scarce.”

A few hours later, Texas Senator Ted Cruz seemed to echo the Breitbart story, announcing that the agent had been “killed” and labeling the incident “a stark reminder of the ongoing threat that an unsecure border poses to the safety of our communities and those charged with defending them.” (When asked by reporters about gun control in the wake of the Sutherland Springs shooting, Cruz replied, “We don’t need politics right now.”)

Despite the murkiness of the situation, neither Trump nor Cruz apparently saw a need to defer to federal investigators or wait to see whether a wall would have made any difference.

In one version of events, the agents were savagely beaten with stones, likely by undocumented drug smugglers. “What we know is that Border Patrol Agent Rogilio [sic] Martinez appears to have been ambushed by a group of illegal aliens whom he was tracking,” said Judd, the Border Patrol union official, in a second Breitbart story titled “Illegal Aliens Killed Border Agent by Crushing in His Skull with Rocks, Says NBPC.” Judd continued: “Our agents’ reports from the ground say that he was struck in the head multiple times with a rock or rocks.” That story immediately took off as virtual fact in the right-wing media sphere.

Border Patrol agent Rogelio Martinez  FBI

But that tale hasn’t been backed by federal or county officials, and full autopsy results are still pending. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Border Patrol’s parent agency, said in a November 19 statement that the agents were “responding to activity” and were “injured.” The FBI, which heads the investigation, has only said it’s investigating a “potential assault.”  

Moreover, Culberson County Sheriff Oscar Carrillo, who was on the scene that night and is working with the FBI task force, told the Dallas Morning News on November 20 that the evidence he saw was “very consistent with a fall.” He later added it was “very premature” to call the incident an attack or ambush. An anonymous federal official also told the Associated Press that Martinez may have fallen.

Top Texas Republicans, however, weren’t going to let ambiguity get in the way of a good story. The state’s senior U.S. senator, John Cornyn, was marginally more measured than Cruz, telling a radio interviewer that “at least preliminarily” the incident was an “ambush by drug traffickers,” though he added that the details were unconfirmed. Governor Greg Abbott, meanwhile, went even further, introducing the idea that “murder” had occurred. In a press release, he announced a $20,000 reward for information leading to the capture and conviction of those responsible for Martinez’s “murder,” which Breitbart quickly turned into a story: “Texas Governor Offers $20,000 for Info on ‘Murder’ of Border Patrol Agent.”

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton joined in as well, both sharing inflammatory articles published shortly after the incident. Patrick selected a Fox News article headlined: “Border agent killed, partner injured by illegal immigrants using rocks, report says.” The supposed “report,” the reader finds, is just a quote from a Border Patrol union official given to another media outlet. Paxton chose Breitbart as his own source.

It’s entirely possible that the Breitbart version of events will turn out to be true, but more than a week after the incident became public, the FBI has yet to release any additional information. Jeanette Harper, a spokesperson for the agency’s El Paso field office, told the Observer on Tuesday that the agency is currently looking into tips. She said it would likely be a while before they could say anything further.

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Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halts state’s last execution of 2017

Juan Castillo

Texas’ last scheduled execution of the year has been canceled.

On Tuesday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed the Dec. 14 execution of Juan Castillo and sent his case back to the trial court to look into claims of false testimony.

Castillo, 36, was sentenced to death in the 2003 robbery and murder of Tommy Garcia Jr. in San Antonio, according to court records. Prosecutors said Castillo and three others planned to rob Garcia after luring him to a secluded area with the promise of sex with one of the women involved in the plan. But when Garcia tried to run, Castillo shot him, according to the accomplices.

One of the witnesses at his trial, Gerardo Gutierrez, bunked near Castillo at the Bexar County Jail and testified that Castillo had confessed to the crime in jail. But in 2013, Gutierrez signed an affidavit saying that he lied in his testimony “to try to help myself.”

Even though Castillo had already gone through appeals and lost, the Court of Criminal Appeals ruled on Tuesday that his case was now applicable for further review because of a nearly decade-old ruling. The court had previously held that it was a constitutional violation when the prosecution knowingly uses false testimony to obtain a conviction. And in a 2009 case, it went further to say that even if prosecutors are unaware testimony is false, it still violates a defendant’s due process rights.

“Although the present case involves unknowing, rather than knowing, use of testimony, we see no reason for subjecting the two types of errors to different standards of harm,” the court ruled.

Since the 2013 admission from Gutierrez came after this new precedent, Castillo’s execution was stopped. The prosecution argued against the stay, stating that Gutierrez’s testimony was corroborated by multiple other witnesses.

Castillo has had multiple execution dates set and stopped. In August, his September execution was rescheduled by the Bexar County district attorney because some of Castillo’s defense team was based in Houston, which was suffering from Hurricane Harvey flooding.

His execution was the only one remaining on the 2017 calendar in Texas. The state has executed seven people this year, the most in the country. Seven people were also put to death in Texas last year, and five executions are already scheduled in the first three months of 2018.

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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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Without recovery funds, more than 50 Texas day cares close after Harvey

Jacqueline James looks over at infants playing in the only building in her child care center that did not suffer severe damage from Hurricane Harvey. 

ORANGE — With her husband incarcerated on a murder charge, Jacquene Fontenot single-handedly wakes and dresses five kids under the age of 5 every morning, drops them off at a local child care center and drives two hours to her job as a custodian in central Louisiana.

Fontenot, who lost her furniture when her apartment in Orange flooded during August’s hurricane, could not imagine what she would do if she lost her child care. “I really don’t have a second option,” she said.

During Hurricane Harvey, the James Hope Center, her children’s for-profit day care, took on water and a layer of mold began carpeting its walls, leaving owner Jacqueline James floundering for a solution that wouldn’t leave more than 100 families, many of them low-income, stranded.

Across Harvey-affected counties, 52 child care centers have permanently closed and an additional 65 are voluntarily suspended and expected to reopen with three months, as of Nov. 10, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. Those facilities had the capacity to serve almost 5,000 children.

With so many day cares closed and more in danger of closing, parents face difficulty moving back to their homes and getting back to normal, with no one to take care of their kids when they’re at work. Private child care centers, often run by individuals, churches or nonprofits, are struggling to recover from the hurricane’s destruction, especially in rural communities where they are among few options.

“For communities to be able to recover economically, you have to get your child care and early education programs up so people can get back to work,” said Jeanne-Aimee De Marrais, senior director for U.S. emergencies at Save the Children, a nonprofit international aid group working to help child care centers recover from Harvey. “The communities are not going to get fully back up until the child care is back.”

Many child care centers are small, for-profit businesses that don’t qualify for federal disaster funding despite the crucial services they provide to families, De Marrais said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency only provides public assistance to nonprofit centers, including those run by churches, according to a FEMA spokesperson. Directors of for-profit centers can apply for federal disaster loans through the U.S. Small Business Administration, but they often do not qualify, De Marrais said.

In the Houston region, many of the damaged centers accept children from families who received subsidies through the Texas Workforce Commission, according to Christina Triantaphyllis, chief officer of public policy for the early education nonprofit Collaborative for Children. Almost 40 percent of 977 centers the nonprofit surveyed had no flood insurance.

“The uncertainty is probably the number one challenge for both families and child care programs,” Triantaphyllis said. “Are [child care centers] going to replace materials and move on and then hope that there’s reimbursement later, or do they operate at the level they can with the materials they have left?”

Anna Lingo sorts through salvaged items from the James Hope Center after it was flooded during Hurricane Harvey.
Anna Lingo sorts through salvaged items from the James Hope Center after the Orange facility was flooded during Hurricane Harvey. Pu Ying Huang for The Texas Tribune

In Orange, James plowed forward with the resources she had. She got the state to let her shut down her family’s restaurant and use the open eating space as a temporary center for about 60 older children. She and her husband own an additional building already in use to care for about 25 infants. And she found a former bakery up for lease in West Orange and put her family members to work replacing ceiling tiles and ripping out walls to create a permanent center.

Last week she started offering day care and after-school activities in the new building for kids 18 months to 12 years old.

“Children have to know safety, and they have to know you’re consistent,” she said. “We are still right now feeding kids who are going home with nothing to eat. We’re still clothing kids who still don’t have any.”

The new normal for James is a building with a smaller capacity. Many families were forced to leave Orange after three low-income apartment buildings flooded and shut down, and not all are back, she said. Just seven of 15 staff members are back in Orange; the others remain displaced after Harvey.

Lack of child care is one of many factors keeping families from returning to their homes, De Marrais said.

Farther south along the coast, LaVeta Rodriguez, director of Little Lights Learning Center in Rockport, drained the day care’s savings — more than $10,000 — for renovations after major water damage in the roof and ceiling. Most of the community around the day care has not yet returned.

Dependent on the tourism industry, many Rockport residents can’t count on employment now that restaurants and hotels are out of service, said Timothy Baylor, the day care’s founder and pastor of New Beginnings Ministries, which houses Little Lights.

The day care lost eight of 10 staff members and a larger percentage of its students. With not enough staff or students to operate, Rodriguez and Baylor surrendered Little Lights’ child care license, hoping to reapply and reopen once Rockport is rebuilt. They are using money they’ve raised to host a full-day program of activities and meals twice a week, taking children off their parents’ hands while they look for work.

The families who are back, rebuilding their homes, are asking for child care.

“In the relief tent, they’re asking, ‘When are you going to open? I can’t work because there’s no child care,'” said Jose Alvarado, a volunteer for the church and a parent at the daycare. He’s the founder of a small local business repairing and detailing yachts.

Few in Rockport are thinking about their yachts, with walls of debris turning rural roads into labyrinths and homes stripped down to skeletons in battered lots. Even if Alvarado wanted to work full-time, he’d have a hard time. He and his wife, who works full-time at a medical office, are fostering an 11-year-old girl who had attended an after-school program at Little Lights Learning Center. Now, Alvarado picks her up from school every afternoon.

There aren’t many other day care choices in the area. State records show just four other licensed child care centers in Aransas County, including one that is temporarily closed.

LaVeta Rodriguez, director of the Little Lights Learning Center, stands among the unused cribs, toys and equipment in the baby room at the center.
LaVeta Rodriguez, director of the Little Lights Learning Center, stands among the unused cribs, toys and equipment in the baby room at the Rockport center. Eddie Seal for The Texas Tribune

In rural areas, “there might not be another child care center within 20 or 30 miles of them,” said Anna Hardway, director of programs for Save the Children. She recalled speaking to a school principal who begged her to help get the local child care center up and running so teachers and parents could get back to work.

Children at least 3 years old who meet the federal definition of homelessness, which includes many of those displaced by the hurricane, are eligible for free public pre-K in local school districts, according to the Texas Education Agency. But parents, educators and experts interviewed by The Texas Tribune said they didn’t know that option was available.

With limited assistance coming from the state and federal government, some day care owners have found creative solutions.

When Harvey swept through the coastal town of Portland, Methodist Day School’s flat roof turned into a “swimming pool,” and water leaked into the building, said the day care’s director, Jamie Hartley. “Our building isn’t really old and it’s in good condition, so we weren’t expecting for the building to be damaged at all,” she said.

As they wait for their roof to be rebuilt, the day care’s directors are indefinitely leasing space from the Gregory-Portland school district for $3,259 per month.

Paul Clore, superintendent of Gregory-Portland ISD, said the day care is welcome to lease the space for as long as they need. “It’s important to us to support them,” he said. “Those youngsters will eventually be students of ours.”

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Man Mistaken for Burglar, Shot by Police then Shackled to Hospital Bed and Barred from Seeing Family

Lyndo Jones in the hospital. Jones was handcuffed to a hospital bed for nearly a week and barred from seeing his family after police shot and charged him with evading arrest.  Attorney Justin Moore

After mistaking him for a burglar and shooting him twice, police charged Lyndo Jones with evading arrest, shackled him to his Dallas hospital bed and blocked family members from visiting him for six days.

At first, Mesquite police erroneously called Jones, 31, a “burglary suspect” because of a 911 caller who’d spotted him in a parking lot on November 8 while he was struggling to turn off the alarm in his truck. Police say officer Derick Wiley arrived around 7 p.m. to investigate the possible burglary and shot Jones in a “confrontation” that ensued. A press release the Mesquite Police Department issued afterward offered no details on the confrontation but seemed to endow Jones with almost superhuman strength — claiming it took three officers to subdue the unarmed, 130-pound man with two fresh gunshot wounds. After police learned the vehicle indeed belonged to Jones, they still called him a suspect and charged him with evading arrest.

Authorities barred Jones’ family from visiting him at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, where doctors treated him this month, because of his misdemeanor charge. At one point, deputies escorted Jones’ attorney, Justin Moore, out of the hospital after he tried to stop Mesquite police investigators from questioning Jones alone. According to Moore, Jones’ family didn’t even get to see him until six days after the shooting, when police dropped the misdemeanor charge against Jones just as he was being discharged from the hospital.

Jones’ family contacted an attorney after they said they were threatened with arrest for trying to visit Jones in the hospital.  Attorney Justin Moore

“They shot this guy because of a mistake and then chained him to a hospital bed away from people who care about him, people who are wondering whether he’s going to survive,” Moore told the Observer. “Victims of police brutality and their families should not be treated this way.”

Mesquite police won’t say much about the “confrontation” that led to Jones’ shooting, but in a press conference with reporters last week, Lieutenant Brian Parrish blamed Jones for not giving the officer who shot him “ample opportunity to start an investigation.”

Moore, however, says that in Jones’ version of events, Officer Wiley approached him with his gun drawn, ordered him out of his truck and then fired when he got out of the vehicle. Moore says Jones blacked out from the pain sometime after that and doesn’t even remember the second gunshot, let alone any subsequent struggle with other officers. Moore told the Observer that police were wearing body cameras, and that Jones and his attorneys were scheduled this week to review footage from the shooting, which hasn’t been publicly released. The Observer requested the video under open record laws.

Mesquite police say that two days after the shooting they transferred Jones into the custody of the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department, which guards the county’s hospitalized inmates. Moore says he was eventually contacted by members of Jones’ family, who claimed they’d been threatened with arrest for trying to visit him in the hospital. Melinda Urbina, a sheriff’s department spokesperson, told the Observer that it’s “protocol” to deny family visits for hospitalized inmates in county custody.

Moore says he visited Jones in the hospital for the first time the night of November 11, three days after the shooting, but couldn’t exactly speak with him because “he was heavily sedated at that time, with tubes going out of his nose.” Moore says he visited Jones again a couple days later, just as doctors were starting to reintroduce solid food, but that he wasn’t yet well enough to discuss the shooting.

Lyndo Jones recovers in the hospital after being shot twice by police. His attorneys, Lee Merritt (left) and Justin Moore.  Attorney Justin Moore

Moore says that on a conference call the morning of November 14 with Mesquite police and Dallas County District Attorney’s Office representatives, all parties agreed that investigators wouldn’t question Jones at the hospital without an attorney present. But when he arrived at the hospital a few hours later, Moore says two Mesquite detectives were questioning Jones in his room. Moore says he started shouting when it became clear deputies guarding the room weren’t going to allow him to stop the interview.

“I guess you could say I caused a scene,” Moore told the Observer. “I started yelling, ‘You’re violating his constitutional rights,’ just anything that he (Jones) might be able to hear and encourage him to try and stop that interrogation.” The deputies threatened to arrest him if he returned, he says. Urbina with the sheriff’s department says that deputies escorted Moore outside the hospital “as a result of his behavior.”

Jones was treated at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas. His family didn’t get to see him until six days after the shooting.  Attorney Justin Moore

Later that day, the Mesquite Police Department changed course and announced it would drop the charge against Jones just in time for his release from the hospital. Sgt. Joseph Thompson told the Observer in a statement this week that the department would now rather “prioritize” the investigation into the officer who shot Jones over the misdemeanor evading arrest charge.

“It is more important to us to investigate and determine whether a more serious crime was committed,” Thompson said in an emailed statement. “If after the investigation is complete and the officer’s actions were found to be justified, then filing the evading charge will be reevaluated at a later time.”

Moore says subpoenas have already gone out for a grand jury investigation into the shooting. A spokesperson for the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office said she wouldn’t comment on any pending investigation and wouldn’t answer our questions about the case. If the investigation leads to any charge against the officer, the case would be the third police shooting captured on body camera this year that Dallas County prosecutors shepherded to criminal indictment.

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Coyote attacks increasing: What you should know

Scared, stapled and badly shaken, 10 year-old Penny is lucky to be alive after being viciously attacked by a coyote.

“She quit barking. hen I heard her yelping, like she was hurt,” the dog’s owner said.

The owner asked to not be identified.

The attack happened Monday night, at dusk, in a Fulshear community off Buffalo Hills Lane while Penny’s owner briefly let her out in the backyard.

She didn’t expect a coyote to get over a nearly 8-foot-tall fence.

“I opened the back door and a huge coyote was standing over her and has her pinned to the ground,” said her owner.

The homeowner said she scared the coyote away and then helped Penny, who was severely injured and bleeding, before rushing her to the vet.

“She has two lacerations about an inch and a half on one side of her neck and four puncture wounds on the other side,” Penny’s owner said.

As it turns out, this wasn’t the first time coyotes had been spotted in the neighborhood or in the wooded area just behind them.

“I felt like he could’ve killed me last night. He was a huge, huge coyote,” the dog’s owner said.

Now, the homeowner is warning other neighbors.

She’s asking them to be on the lookout, because she said she’s now living in fear every day when the sun goes down.

“Something needs to be done about the coyotes out here because I don’t feel safe in my own backyard anymore,” said the homeowner.

Here are some things to know about coyotes:

What are precautions to take to manage coyotes?

Do not feed coyotes
Keep pet food and water inside.
Keep garbage securely stored, especially if it has to be put on the curb for collection; use tight-locking trash cans or wrap the cans with bungee cords t make sure they cannot be easily opened.
Keep compost piles securely covered; correct composting never includes animal matter such as bones or fat, which can draw coyotes even more quickly than decomposing vegetable matter.
Keep pets inside, confined securely in a kennel or covered exercise yard, or within the close presence of an adult.

What should you do when you encounter a coyote?

Make noise and do other things to scare the coyote.
Portable air horns, motor vehicle horns, propane cannons, starter pistols, low-powered pellet guns, slingshots and thrown rocks can be effective.
Check with local authorities regarding noise and firearms ordinances.

How do coyotes become an issue in communities?

Urban and suburban coyotes, like urban deer, are symptoms of a broader problem.
People continue to expand housing subdivisions and other human development into what used to be open range wildlife habitat, especially on the expanding fringes of large metropolitan areas.
This is increasing the potential for encounters and conflicts between people and wildlife.

Who can help out with the problem of coyotes?

Texas Wildlife Services, in partnership with local governments, provides nuisance coyote control services in some urban areas.
In some cities, such as Austin, the Texas Cooperative Extension assists by coordinating nuisance coyote control and public education.
Call the main Texas Wildlife Services office in San Antonio at 210-472-5451 to get the number of the local office nearest you.

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Medical marijuana in Texas: What you need to know

Texans can now access medical marijuana legally because of a law signed by Governor Abbott.

In compliance with the Compassionate Use Program, the first dispensary will soon open in Schulenburg, Texas.

Knox Medical officials said the Department of Public Safety makes weekly inspections as they prepare to open.

Founder and CEO of Knox Medical, Jose Hidalgo, said they chose Schulenburg because it is almost right in the middle of San Antonio, Austin and Houston. They are on schedule to begin deliveries next month.

“We’ll go to the major treatment centers and talk to the physicians and find out, ‘Do any of your patients qualify for medical cannabis?'” Hidalgo explained.

What will they be licensed to make?

According to DPS, they are authorized for Low-THC Cannabis as the plant Cannabis sativa L., and any part of that plant or any compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, preparation, resin, or oil of that plant that contains:

A. Not more than 0.5 percent by weight of tetrahydrocannabinols; and
B. Not less than 10 percent by weight of cannabidiol.

Who will get access to cannabis?

The Compassionate Use Program is limited to patients in Texas with intractable epilepsy of any age.

However, Texas Children’s Hospital is planning a different approach.

“A pharmaceutical-grade medication in a clinical trial, with the proper regulations and safety considerations, is something that we would propose as a better pathway than just making an oil and giving it to children,” Dr. Clark said.

Clark said he thinks it’s only a matter of time before a drug showing promise in clinical trials (Epidiolex) will be approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Clark said he will wait and prescribe something like that instead of ordering something from a licensed dispensary.

“There is an abundance of studies done out there. None of them are going to fit what an FDA clinical type trial are,” Hidalgo countered. “The reason why the Texas legislature passed CBD cannabis like other states is because the parents of these very, very sick children are demanding it.”

Who determines if you’re eligible for cannabis?

A patient may be prescribed low-THC cannabis if:
The patient is a permanent resident of Texas;
The patient is diagnosed with intractable epilepsy;
The qualified physician determines the risk of the medical use of low-THC cannabis by a patient is reasonable in light of the potential benefit for the patient; and
A second qualified physician has concurred with the determination.

Dr. Clark warns that just like all medications, CBD oil has limits. It’s not a miracle cure and does not work for everyone.

Clark said researchers are not sure why it shows benefits in some patients and not in others.

The FDA still classifies medical marijuana as unsafe.

Is smoking the plant legal in Texas?

No. Smoking is specifically excluded as a medical use, according to DPS.

What do Houston parents think?

Max and Kelly Beatty’s daughter is currently taking Epidiolex in a clinical trial.

“Given the choice, I would take the FDA drug and give that to Scarlett every time but that’s not an option for everyone right now,” Max Beatty said about his daughter with a severe form of epilepsy. “I just want the other families in Texas who are dealing with what we’re dealing with and worse, I want them to have a shot at what we get. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t.”

The Beattys said Epidiolex is helping their daughter, Scarlett, to maintain smaller doses of her medication.

She has fewer seizures and she’s more alert.

“She gets to do so much more now than she ever did before so she’s happy now, I think,” Kelly said.

For more frequently asked questions, click here.

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Abbott calls White House’s latest disaster aid request “completely inadequate”

President Donald J. Trump and Gov. Greg Abbott.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday panned the White House’s latest disaster aid request, calling it “completely inadequate” for Texas’ needs in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

Unveiled earlier Friday, the request seeks $44 billion from Congress to assist with the Harvey aftermath, as well as the recoveries from other recent hurricanes in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. While not final, the number is far less than the $61 billion proposal that Abbott had submitted for Texas alone to Congress last month.

“What was offered up by Mick Mulvaney and [his Office of Management and Budget] is completely inadequate for the needs of the state of Texas and I believe does not live up to what the president wants to achieve,” Abbott said at a Capitol news conference called to unveil a $5 billion grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“The president has told me privately what he’s said publicly, and that is that he wants to be the builder president,” Abbott added. “The president has said that he wants this to be the best recovery from a disaster ever.”

Abbott said the $44 billion request is less than what was offered in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy — which hit the East Coast in 2012 and was “half the storm of what Hurricane Harvey was.” If Trump wants to see through the “biggest and best recovery ever,” Abbott added, the effort is “going to necessitate both more funding but also better strategies.”

Abbott was joined at the news conference by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who also made clear he was less than pleased with the White House’s latest disaster aid request. Asked whether he was ready to free up a top OMB nominee whose confirmation he has been blocking as leverage to secure more Harvey aid, he replied: “I’m not satisfied. We have to have further conversation.”

At the press conference, Pam Patenaude, Deputy Secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, announced that the department will award Texas $5 billion for Harvey recovery. The money will be used to rebuild hard-hit areas throughout the state and be overseen by Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush. Apart from the new grant, Bush’s General Land Office is currently managing six other community development block grants that total about $4 billion.

Bush said the preliminary plan of action for the $5 billion HUD grant is complete. As of now, the money is planned to go toward temporary housing and fixing damaged homes.

“We are now tasked with the largest housing recovery in American history,” Bush said.

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Abbott, Patrick push back on TxDOT’s plans for financing new toll projects

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick before hitting the gavel to begin a Senate session Aug. 15, 2017, the day before the end of a first called special session of the 85th Legislature. 

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told state transportation leaders Thursday they should abandon plans for using an accounting maneuver to get around a constitutional prohibition on some toll projects. Patrick said the idea has left lawmakers “very unhappy” with Texas Transportation Commission members, who appear “to be going in a direction that opposes the will” of legislators and Texas drivers.

Comments from Abbott and Patrick came hours after The Texas Tribune reported that the commission, which oversees the Texas Department of Transportation, is considering funding highway rebuilds and expansions in corridors that would also feature managed toll lanes.

Some of those projects could be partially funded with billions of tax dollars that Texas voters overwhelmingly agreed to spend on highway projects. Ballot language that steered those funds to TxDOT also said the money would not be used on toll roads or toll lanes.

TxDOT, though, is considering accounting maneuvers that would still allow toll lanes to be built. Their idea: Voter-approved funds would be spent on the non-tolled main lanes, while the new toll lanes next to them would be funded through gas tax revenue or federal loans that don’t come with restrictions on using them for toll projects.

“It is surprising and disappointing to learn that TxDOT created a plan to add managed toll lanes to virtually every major roadway under consideration,” Patrick told transportation officials in a letter Thursday.

Bruce Bugg, who chairs the transportation commission, told the Tribune Wednesday that Abbott’s office is aware of the idea to use accounting maneuvers to help fund rebuilds that would be next to toll lanes. He also said that he believes the practice would not violate the state constitution.

Abbott appoints the five commissioners that oversee TxDOT and promised Texans that highway capacity would be added throughout the state without new toll lanes financing construction.

“The governor and his staff have been in constant communication with members of the Texas Transportation Commission and TxDOT staff to express their desire to not include new toll roads” in long-term state transportation plans, Abbott spokeswoman Ciara Matthews said Thursday.

TxDOT officials could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday.

Meanwhile, State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, has asked the state attorney general’s office to weigh in on whether the accounting idea is legal.

Lawmakers in recent years have fiercely opposed toll roads and managed toll lanes as their constituents have complained about the increasing number of such projects, especially in North Texas. Collin County lawmakers successfully got regional planners there to drop plans for turning carpool lanes on Central Expressway into managed toll lanes. And the Texas House earlier this year killed a major transportation funding bill, largely because projects within it would have included toll lanes.

TxDOT officials’ idea comes as they prepare to update the state’s long-term transportation plan next year. Many of the projects being proposed for the plan include managed toll lanes, which run alongside non-tolled main lanes and generally charge drivers rates that vary based on usage. The tolls increase as more people use the managed lanes. Those increases are meant to prevent the lanes from becoming more congested.

Transportation officials say funding the managed lanes with federal loans backed by toll revenues, while adding non-tolled main lanes with tax dollars, would help the agency build more capacity with limited funds. In meetings, TxDOT documents and interviews, state officials have also indicated that regional planners from the state’s major urban areas are pushing the idea of using managed toll lanes.

Once toll revenues pay off construction costs, the excess funds that drivers would still pay could then be used to maintain existing roads or pay for expanding or building roads in the same areas.

“These local communities are trying to identify solutions to manage and mitigate their traffic congestion throughout their respective areas,” TxDOT project planning and development director Lauren Garduño told transportation commissioners last month.

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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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A “glitch” on U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s website asked for visitors’ Social Security numbers

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn joins fellow Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Tribune CEO Evan Smith for the closing day of The Texas Tribune Festival on Sept. 24, 2017.

An error on U.S. Sen. John Cornyn‘s website last night required constituents to submit their Social Security number when filling out the comments box on the website.

Normally, Cornyn’s website only requires people to submit their Social Security numbers when they are requesting help with a federal agency. The error last night required it, along with their name, address and contact information, even when leaving the Texas Republican a comment.

A spokesperson for Cornyn said the required field was a “glitch.”

“It was an inadvertent glitch and our website vendor has fixed it,” Drew Brandewie wrote in an email.

As of Tuesday morning, the field has been removed from Cornyn’s website on the “Discuss an issue” page but remains if constituents are seeking help with an agency.

Most other members of the Texas delegation in Congress have similar forms to submit comments on their webpages but do not require a Social Security number for those solely trying to contact the member’s office. However, many use a specialized privacy form that requires a Social Security number for those requesting help with a federal agency.

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Greg Abbott Declares War on Moderate Republicans

Representative Sarah Davis, Governor Greg Abbott  via Sarah Davis, Patrick Michels

In the latest episode of Texas Politics, God’s dumbest reality show, Governor Greg Abbott celebrated the beginning of Republican primary season by going to war — against a popular incumbent lawmaker in his own party, in a district that Hillary Clinton won by 15 points. On Monday morning, Abbott issued a fatwa of sorts, calling for the replacement of state Representative Sarah Davis, a moderate pro-choice Republican, with primary challenger Susanna Dokupil, a right-wing lawyer and board member of the Seasteading Institute, which exists to build libertarian cruise ships and permanently station them in international waters, free from the laws of man.

If that information is hard to make sense of, so are most recent events on Texas Politics. Conservative activists hate Davis, the least conservative Republican in the House. Davis is a generally reliable vote for abortion rights, gay rights, public schools, vaccines, etc. But Abbott’s decision to weigh in against a party incumbent breaks an unwritten rule, and the political logic behind it is hard to parse. House District 134 covers much of Houston’s upscale west side, including Bellaire and West University Place, went for Clinton by 15 percentage points in 2016, and was held by Democrat Ellen Cohen before Davis won it in 2010. Davis is probably the GOP’s best chance to retain the seat, so Abbott’s decision to join the fight seems to put his own desire to unseat Davis ahead of the party’s interest.

Furthermore, Dokupil does not appear to be a particularly strong candidate. In many ways she’s a fairly run-of-the-mill party hack, a lawyer with ties to the Federalist Society, the American Enterprise Institute, the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Harris County Republican Party. She co-chaired the national finance committee for Ted Cruz’s 2012 Senate campaign. Then there’s the Seasteading Institute, a political project of Silicon Valley’s chief cryptofascist, Peter Thiel. Seasteaders seek to construct “floating communities in the ocean based on the principles of contract and radical consent” — Burning Man meets Waterworld.

Susanna Dokupil  Courtesy

Dokupil is an enthusiastic supporter of the project. In December 2015, she interviewed the Seasteading Institute’s chief guru, Joe Quirk, who calls himself a “seavangelist” and an “aquapreneur,” for an episode of the institute’s podcast, “Seasteading Today.” Over the course of a surreal half-hour, Dokupil exhorts listeners to join in on the creation of Quirk’s new “seavilizations,” utopian leviathans with “start-up mentalities,” ranging the “floating frontier,” free from the harsh yoke of “land-based government.”

We’ll see, in time, how that flies in west Houston. So, again, why is Abbott getting behind this? It may simply be that he knows Dokupil personally — she was an assistant solicitor general when he was Texas attorney general. Or it may be that he’s keeping his promise from the session that any legislator who crossed him would be put on a “list.”

But it’s worth considering the broader conservative political project here. If Abbott’s goal is an ideologically uniform House caucus, then it’s genuinely preferable to lose Davis’ seat than to allow her to continue to win. Beating Davis in the primary — even if it cedes the seat to a Democrat — removes the only openly pro-choice Republican voice from the caucus, and it pushes other lawmakers who show an independent streak back in the herd.

Because the Republicans are in no real danger of losing their overall House majority anytime soon, it’s better for Abbott and friends to have a smaller, purer GOP caucus. And in Davis’ case, a gentle nudge might be enough to do it — for years, Democrats have talked idly about convincing her to switch parties, a prospect that may now be more enticing. (Harris County Republicans had been set to debate a motion to censure Davis for her too-liberal voting record on Monday night; it was apparently withdrawn after Abbott’s endorsement.)

House Speaker Joe Straus’ retirement gives Abbott and others the opportunity to try to force conformity on the House. That’s going to lead to a lot of strange dynamics in the next four months, as the Republican primary heats up. For one thing, Straus has promised to use his ample campaign funds to push hard for his candidates this cycle, which means Davis’ district provides an opportunity for Straus and Abbott to butt heads.

Speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio on May 6.  Sam DeGrave

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of the speaker’s election in 2019 on Texans’ lives, and the outcome of that depends entirely on what happens in the next six months of the Republican primary and next year’s general election.

What makes the outcome of the next speaker’s race so difficult to game out — apart from the fact that our world broke at some point in the last couple years — is that there are three strong competing phenomena in the House right now. The first is simply that Democrats may be approaching a wave election. The Democrats have a meaningful chance of winning more seats in the House next year than they’ve won since 2008. That could be helpful in the effort to select a Straus-type speaker.

The second is that Republican primary fights between moderates and conservatives will be especially vicious this year, particularly if Abbott puts the weight of his political machine behind it. That could be good for Democrats, but it also diminishes the chances of selecting a moderate speaker, because the casualties of the primary will include at least a few more experienced moderates, replaced in the ranks by pliable freshmen, as they always do.

The third is that the Republican circle is tightening. The GOP and affiliated organizations, such as Texans for Lawsuit Reform, are pushing hard for Republican candidates to pledge to select the next speaker without Democrats. This leads to a paradox: It’s plausible that House Democrats emerge from next year’s election stronger than they’ve been in years, yet more powerless than ever before.

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