Category Archives: State

Texas House approves “compromise” city annexation bill

State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, listens as Rep. Matt Schaefer offers an amendment to Senate Bill 6 on August 11, 2017.

Legislation that would allow Texans to vote on whether cities in large counties can annex areas outside of their limits — a contentious issue that prompted a filibuster in May — got one step closer to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk Friday. But significant obstacles remain.

The House gave initial approval to Senate Bill 6 by a 115-24 vote. But the version of the bill that passed the lower chamber includes a key change related to annexation around military bases that is a big point of contention. The House’s plan allows citizens who live within five miles of military bases to vote on proposed annexation — as long as the city still has the ability to regulate the area around those bases.

“We have three or four days to get this done,” Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston and the House sponsor of SB 6, said during the floor debate. “This is an important first step for the future of annexation.”

A similar provision was included in the House version of annexation reform that passed during the regular legislative session, but that provision was stripped out in a conference committee. Citing the lack of protection for military bases, Sen. José Menéndez filibustered the final version of annexation reform in the dying moments of regular session debate.

“How could I sit idly by and not try to do what I could to defend the military bases?” Menéndez, a Democrat from San Antonio — home to several military bases — said the night of the filibuster.

Supporters of the five-mile base buffer like Menéndez say land development around military bases can hinder base missions. That’s why it’s important, they argue, that cities don’t face barriers to regulating that land when necessary — in part to make sure the nearby base’s needs are considered as development expands.

In a letter to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick published Friday in the Quorum Report, an online political newsletter, Darryl L. Roberson, a lieutenant general in the United States Air Force stationed at Joint Base San Antonio, wrote, “I am concerned that [annexation reform] may affect compatible land use and encroachment prevention efforts.”

But detractors like the author of SB 6, Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, say the military base issue is a “false narrative” that has been unfairly folded into the debate over annexation.

Campbell has argued that cities already have multiple tools to address development that interferes with a military base’s mission.

The House Committee on Land and Resource Management heard testimony last week from dozens of citizens who oppose municipal annexation — many of whom were similarly skeptical of the military base argument.

“Let’s put the political rhetoric aside and end the tyranny of forced annexation and simply pass the will of the people,” Michael Stewart, whose home faces annexation by the city of San Antonio, testified.

City officials from San Antonio, Austin and Corpus Christi testified against the proposed reform, saying annexation is a valuable tool a city uses to expand its area and tax base.

But the bill that the House committee debated – House Bill 6, Huberty’s companion to SB 6 that included just a half-mile base buffer – was not the bill that was ultimately voted out of committee. After four hours of testimony, the committee left HB 6 pending.

SB 6 — the version with the five-mile buffer — reached the House floor after committee members unanimously supported the measure in a brief meeting last Friday.

SB 6 was originally scheduled for a vote Monday, but state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, used a parliamentary tactic called a point of order to delay it, arguing that the latest version of the legislation violated House rules and the Texas Constitution. Speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, sent the legislation back to committee to be redrafted.

The House also approved a change Friday that would create a petition and election process in the case that smaller counties want the protections offered by the law.

Debate over the legislation Friday was lengthy and contentious. More than two-dozen amendments were filed on the legislation, including one from Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, that would have expanded the provisions of the bill to each of Texas’s 254 counties. But only a few minor changes were adopted.

If the House finally approves SB 6, the bill will go back to the Senate. If the Senate fails to concur with the House’s amended version, SB 6 will head to a conference committee, which will work out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. With less than a week to go in the special session, the House and Senate are running out of time to get a bill to the governor’s desk.

And if annexation reform once again comes down to the final moments of the session, Menéndez has already all but threatened another filibuster.

“Maybe we’ll get down to the last few days, and we’ll get to have a little longer conversation,” Menéndez said when SB 6 initially passed the Senate in July.

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Texas bathroom bill appears to be all but dead in special session

Protesters rally in favor of transgender rights at the Texas Capitol, on July 21, 2017.

Despite it serving, in part, as the reason lawmakers are back in Austin for legislative overtime, the Texas Legislature could very well gavel out next week without passing a “bathroom bill.”

With just days left in the 30-day special legislative session, controversial proposals to regulate bathroom use for transgender Texans appear to have no clear path to the governor’s desk. As was the case during the regular legislative session that concluded in May, efforts to pass any sort of bathroom bill — a divisive issue pitting Republicans against business leaders, LGBT advocates, law enforcement and even fellow Republicans — have stalled in the Texas House.

And it’s unlikely that will change in the coming days.

“I’d say the chances are definitely getting smaller,” Republican state Rep. Ron Simmons of Carrollton, who filed two bathroom bills during the special session, said earlier this week.

The push to keep transgender Texans out of bathrooms that match their gender identity — a move opponents said was discriminatory and could endanger transgender individuals — largely dominated the regular legislative session between protests, lobbying days, two overnight hearings, legislative bickering among Republican leaders over proposed bathroom bills and, eventually, a forced special session.

Restricting bathroom use in public facilities was deemed a legislative priority by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. But House Speaker Joe Straus, with the increased backing of the business community, emerged as his most prominent foil on the issue.

Gov. Greg Abbott — who for months during the regular session was reticent to voice his support for a bathroom bill — eventually took the lieutenant governor’s side and added the issue to his 20-item agenda for a special session that Patrick forced him to call by holding hostage legislation needed to keep open the doors at a handful of state agencies.

But amid concerns for the safety of an already vulnerable population and statewide economic fallout, those efforts did little to sway the speaker.

When lawmakers returned to Austin in July, the Senate quickly passed its latest version of the bill to regulate bathroom use in public schools and local government buildings based on the gender listed on a birth certificate or Texas ID. It would also nix parts of local nondiscrimination ordinances meant to ensure transgender Texans can use public bathrooms that match their gender identity.

Just like during the regular session, Straus has refused to refer that bill to a House committee — the first step in the legislative process.

With the passage of a bathroom bill seeming improbable, Republican state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst — the author of the Senate legislation — on Friday suggested lawmakers could be left to address the issue in the future.

“Men do not belong in female locker rooms, showers and restrooms and no amount of monetary threats, corporate logos, New Yorker articles or Hollywood hypocrisy will ever change that,” Kolkhorst said in a prepared statement. “Many Texans are alarmed at the effort by some to erode all gender barriers in our schools and public spaces and at the end of the day, there will be future legislative sessions and elections to continue the conversation.”

Simmons’ proposals in the House, which are focused on prohibiting municipalities and school districts from enacting trans-inclusive bathroom policies, were referred to the House State Affairs Committee. But that committee’s chairman, state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, has indicated it’s not likely the committee will hold a hearing to consider the legislation.

And with the clock running out on the special session – both chambers must adjourn by Wednesday the demise of those proposals is looking more and more certain.

“I mean realistically, if the chairman says he’s not going to give a hearing then I can’t force him to,” Simmons said.

It’s unclear whether bathroom bill proponents will orchestrate an 11th-hour attempt to attach the restrictions to another piece of legislation. Similar efforts were unsuccessful during the regular session.

Simmons — who earlier this week hadn’t completely given up on his bills — speculated whether they could be rewritten to add to one of the pending education bills. But he was unsure whether he could craft an amendment in such a way that it would survive a likely parliamentary challenge by opponents who could argue that Simmons’ amendment was not germane to the bill under debate.

Asked whether she was considering ways to amend the language to other legislation, Kolkhorst’s office did not address the issue.

Even the head of the House Freedom Caucus — a group of the chamber’s most conservative members who previously tried to attach bathroom restrictions to other pieces of legislation — appeared resigned to not getting a vote on a bathroom bill.

“The speaker is very clearly involved in blocking this issue,” state Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, said on Thursday. “He’s made many public comments on it and the buck stops with Joe Straus on this.”

Despite the governor’s insistence that the Legislature should go “20 for 20” on his special session agenda, it’s clear that won’t be the case come next week. But it remains unclear where a loss on the bathroom bill will fall on Abbott’s list of grievances.

Since the start of the special session, Abbott in interviews and fundraising emails has emphasized other priorities on his agenda over the bathroom bill. Last week, he told the Austin American-Statesman that it was “way premature” to assume Simmons’ proposals wouldn’t get a vote in the House.

His office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

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After 2015 legalization, Texans may be able to buy medical cannabis oil by January

Gov. Greg Abbott displays SB339 as Rep. John Zerwas, Rep. Stephanie Klick and Sen. Kevin Eltife watch. The bill would allow limited use of medical marijuana oil that will control seizures in epileptic children.

In 2015, Gov. Greg Abbott signed the first bill allowing any growing or sale of marijuana in Texas. The Texas Compassionate Use Act legalized the selling of a specific kind of cannabis oil derived from marijuana plants for a very small group of customers: epilepsy patients whose symptoms have not responded to federally approved medication.

Two years later, Texans still can’t legally buy cannabis oil, but a handful of companies believe they are weeks away from receiving the official go-ahead to become the state’s first sellers.

But even if those approvals go through, it’ll still be some time before any Texans will be able to buy what they’re selling.

The three eligible dispensaries — Surterra Texas, Cansortium Texas and Compassionate Cultivation — are waiting on the final stamp of approval from the Texas Department of Public Safety to begin growing and distributing marijuana. The agency has until Sept. 1 to do so under the 2015 law.

That could put cannabis oil on the market by January, two and a half years after Abbott signed a law legalizing it, according to some potential sellers.

“Let’s say that we get our final license on Sept. 1. Only after that point will we be able to start growing marijuana,” said Morris Denton, a spokesman for Compassionate Cultivation, which is planning a dispensary in the Austin area. “Once we start growing, it’s going to take about four months before we’re ready to dispense medicine because of the extraction and testing process the plant has to go through after it’s been harvested.”

Dispensaries like Compassionate Cultivation will only be able to sell to a small percentage of Texans under the narrow 2015 law, which allows for the sale of oils with low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive element in marijuana, and high levels of cannabidiol (CBD), a non-euphoric component known to treat epilepsy and other chronic medical conditions.

Supporters have praised the Texas law as a historic shift in the state’s policy related to marijuana. But some critics have argued that the THC and CBD levels Texas has legalized are still too low to help many epilepsy patients and provides no help for others who could be helped by medical marijuana in other forms.

“Texas took a very narrow, specific approach focused on epilepsy patients only — which is indicative of the state,” said Adam Sharon, the communications director for Cansortium Texas, which is planning a dispensary in Fayette County between Houston and Austin. (The third dispensary, Surterra Texas, did not respond to a request for comment.)

Twenty-nine states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico now allow for comprehensive public medical marijuana and cannabis programs, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. Texas is one of 17 states to pass a law allowing for the use of “low THC, high CBD” products for medical reasons in limited situations.

“We were very disappointed in how unreasonably restrictive the Compassionate Use Act was written,” said Heather Fazio, a spokesperson for Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy. “We’re grateful it was intended for some people to have access to some type of cannabis, but science shows [medical marijuana] can help countless Texans suffering from PTSD, multiple sclerosis and severe pain.”

Texas began accepting applications for dispensing organizations in March 2017. Two months later, DPS announced it had selected three applicants out of the 43 that applied to receive preliminary licenses as dispensing organizations.

Denton said his business is waiting to complete a “fairly substantial inspection report” from the DPS before his dispensary will get the approval needed to begin growing and cultivating marijuana. The report is an 18-page document requiring each dispensary to verify the facility’s lease and permits from local fire marshals, among other things, he said.

“The inspections will confirm the applicant’s’ compliance with the safety, security, cultivation and processing requirements,” a spokesperson for the DPS wrote in an emailed statement to the Tribune.

The House sponsor of the Compassionate Use Act, state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, said in an interview in the Capitol Wednesday that she expected the first dispensaries would be “up and running” by Sept. 1 and that she’s visited with “a few of the vendors.” When asked why the dispensaries have not received final approval from the state, Klick said she hadn’t heard about that.

Advocates, however, said they believe the state’s slow pace for the past two years reflects a larger issue.

“These folks [at DPS] haven’t known anything other than putting people in jail for cannabis, and now, all of sudden, they have to learn about this plant, establish best practices and execute the rollout,” Fazio said. “That’s a lot to do in a little more than two years.”

Emmanuel Garza moved his family last year from Sullivan City, Texas near the border to Colorado, where recreational marijuana is legal, in order to be able to purchase CBD oil and other medical products derived from marijuana to treat his daughter’s seizures. He said he pays nearly $200 for a 100-milliliter bottle of CBD oil, which he said lasts almost a year since she takes such a small dosage.

Denton said there remain too many variables to know how much his Texas dispensary will charge eligible patients for cannabis oil.

“You may have one doctor that prescribes a certain dosing and then another that prescribes a different dosing,” Denton said. “[The price] will pivot off of what a price per gram of the CBD oil will be and then how that gets delivered through different products.”

Shannon Najmabadi contributed reporting to this story.

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Law Enforcement Increasingly Opposed to Abbott’s Agenda

First responders and local officials gathered at the Capitol Wednesday.  Ignacio Martinez

On Wednesday, the resistance to the governor’s special session agenda wore cowboy hats and badges. Dozens of law enforcement and emergency personnel filled the Capitol’s outdoor rotunda to oppose measures they say would underfund essential public services.

The legislation, which would limit cites and counties’ ability to raise property taxes without elections, joins a growing list of measures that have driven a wedge between Republican leadership and a typically loyal constituency: law enforcement. Sheriffs and chiefs from across the state have turned out to oppose an anti-union bill, the so-called bathroom bill and the “sanctuary cities” ban this year at the Capitol.

“Every year we see officers killed in the line of duty, and without the ability for cities to properly fund us, we’re always going to be behind the curve,” said Gary Johnson, vice president of the Texas Police Chiefs Association. Johnson, the police chief of Roanoke, was joined in opposition by representatives from several law enforcement, firefighter and EMS groups.

Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 4 would both require cities and counties to hold elections if they wish to raise property taxes by more than 6 percent. Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick call the legislation “property tax relief,” but critics say it’s a “revenue cap” that would make it more difficult for local government to provide basic services. SB 1 already passed the Senate, and the House could take it up on Saturday.

Sheriff, property taxes, cop, capitol
Jackson County Sheriff Andy Louderback.  Gus Bova

Jackson County Sheriff Andy Louderback, legislative director of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, said the bills would worsen understaffing in urban areas and exacerbate a shortage of mental health facilities. “Let’s protect our citizens; let’s find good government in this process and work together for the good of all Texans,” he urged.

Critics also note the bills wouldn’t affect school districts, which levy the vast majority of property taxes in response to years of state funding cuts. “Why are we focused on cities and counties when the solution is to fix the school finance system?” Senator Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, told the Austin American-Statesman.

In late July, the Senate passed legislation that would ban public employees from voluntarily having union dues withheld from their paychecks. “It disgusts me,” said Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday.

A few days earlier, the Senate also passed the so-called bathroom bill despite a critical press conference held by law enforcement leaders. “It may be great political theater, but it is bad on public safety,” Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo told reporters.

Both bills are stalled in the House, and the special session ends August 16.

During the regular session, Texas’ “sanctuary cities” ban became law despite repeated rebukes from big-city police chiefs and sheriffs, who said the measure would undermine trust with immigrant communities. Acevedo announced in April that sexual assault reporting among Hispanics in Houston had decreased by more than 40 percent compared to the same time last year.

A White House spokesman has characterized the story as “fake news” and stated that President Trump believes it is nothing more than a “witch hunt”.

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Meet the Expert Who Helps Texas Cops Justify Extreme Behavior

Cellphone video footage moments before the shooting  U.S. District Court filing/screenshot

Gilbert Flores was already taunting the cops when his mother called 911 the morning of August 28, 2015.

My son, he’s gone crazy, I think he’s on drugs, I’m not sure but he’s crazy,” she told the dispatcher. She’d heard a woman screaming inside the house that morning, ran to Flores’ room and saw he’d bloodied his wife’s face in a rage. After he began cursing God and ripping up a Bible, she told her son the devil was living inside him. According to court records, the dispatcher could hear Flores shouting over his mother: “I’m going to suicide by cop, so bring a SWAT team, or whoever is going to be ready to pull the trigger because I’m going to die today.” Then he grabbed a knife.

Following a chaotic 12-minute struggle, two Bexar County sheriff’s deputies granted his wish. In sworn statements to investigators after the shooting, they said Flores “started advancing” toward them when they shot. Neither of their statements mentioned that Flores had his hands above his head. Bystander video that aired on local TV later that night, which showed his hands raised in apparent surrender, quickly went viral.

Flores’ surviving family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the county and deputies two weeks after his death. In their defense, the deputies are now arguing that they were justified in shooting Flores because he was still an imminent threat. To make the case, they’re relying on Albert Rodriguez, the former director of the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) training academy, who this summer penned a report explaining why cops can rightfully shoot and kill someone, even if their hands are clearly raised.

In his report, Rodriguez writes that it’s “extremely naïve” to think Flores, even with his hands raised and standing at least 20 feet away, wasn’t an imminent threat at the moment officers shot and killed him.

Rodriguez is a familiar figure in police shooting cases. By his own estimate, he trained tens of thousands of the state’s licensed peace officers during his 16-year stint as DPS training academy director. According to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, where he’s worked since retiring from DPS in 2009, he’s “investigated and/or served as an expert in over 250 police officer involved shootings.”

As I’ve written before, police frequently turn to Rodriguez to justify extreme police behavior.

For example, he was involved in defending two Harris County sheriff’s deputies who, in 2002, chased down a man videotaping a raid in his apartment complex, busted down his door, and roughed up and arrested some people inside before deleting the video. Rodriguez insisted the officers’ actions were justified because they thought the men would somehow “retaliate” against them with the footage.

The Houston federal judge on the case, Kenneth Hoyt, delivered a stinging rebuke of Rodriguez’s work, saying his notion of what constitutes justifiable police behavior “contravenes well-settled legal theories” and promotes “lawlessness.” He also excoriated Rodriguez after concluding that he’d coached the deputies to make sure their under-oath testimony would support his expert opinions in the case.

Albert Rodriguez  LinkedIn

Here’s how Hoyt judged Rodriguez’s trustworthiness in that case: “It is like the cuttlefish squirting out ink in an effort to escape. Rodriguez’s testimony is just another stream of endless, irrepressible repetition of half-truths.”

Still, Rodriguez continues to testify in cases where people have accused officers of excessive force, such as Bellaire police sergeant Jeffrey Cotton, who on New Year’s Eve 2008 shot Robbie Tolan, an unarmed black man, in his parents’ front yard.

Cotton claimed he fired three bullets because Tolan rose to his feet, reached for his waistband and started to charge the officer. Tolan says he simply lifted his torso off the ground to shout “Get your fucking hands off my mother” when he saw Cotton shoving his mom. Experts hired by Tolan’s family said the downward trajectory of the bullet through his body shows Tolan was still on the ground when Cotton shot him. But Rodriguez would later write that his body position didn’t matter. Lifting up from the ground and yelling at a cop was, in the heat of the moment, indistinguishable from someone jumping to their feet and charging at an officer with a hand at their waistband. Or, as Rodriguez put it, “it equates to the same.”

Months later, a suburban Houston cop gunned down an unarmed teenager named Aaron Hobart inside his home, in front of parents who’d only called the police for help transporting their agitated, mentally ill son to the hospital. When the family sued, the police department summoned Rodriguez to explain why the officer’s actions were “consistent with established law-enforcement training.” He did the same for the off-duty Conroe officer who in July 2013 chased an unarmed teenager into the woods and put a bullet in the back of his head. The teenager’s crime: stealing $50 worth of iPad cases from a nearby Walmart.

In depositions recently filed in court, the Bexar County deputies who shot Gilbert Flores two summers ago said they were following supervisors’ orders to “by all means stop him.” During the intense, 12-minute struggle that preceded the shooting, Flores tried to stab one deputy, who blocked the attack with a riot shield, according to court records. Deputies had already tried to use a Taser on Flores, but he’d blocked the prongs with a metal chair he wielded as a shield. At one point, one of the deputies actually shot at Flores to keep him from re-entering the house but missed.

In depositions filed in court, both deputies testified they’d talked moments before shooting Flores and agreed on “ending this.” Video appears to show one deputy turning to face the other before they fire, almost simultaneously. That’s why lawyers for the Flores family argue that the officers’ own statements reveal there wasn’t an immediate threat when they shot. While the deputies guessed they were 6 to 8 feet away from Flores, court records show at least 20 feet separated the men.

At the moment deadly force was used, there was no imminent threat to justify it,” the plaintiffs wrote in a court filing last month.

But Rodriguez says that you have to think like a cop to understand why, even with his hands up and far away, the deputies were justified in shooting Flores. In his report, he makes much of the fact that Flores “transferr[ed] the knife from his right hand to his left” in those final moments before he raised his hands above his head. He calls it a clear “pre-attack indicator” and gives a long treatise explaining why “Experienced law enforcement officers are experts at reading ‘Body Language,’ but not necessarily experts at articulating what they see and/or what they see means to them.”

In the end, he compares the deputies to bullfighters and Flores to a bull that was dangerous, even if it wasn’t charging. Ultimately, like so many things in policing, it boils down to a matter of perception. As Rodriguez writes: “[A] spectator may have that perception, however, there is no question that the bullfighter perceives the bull differently than the spectator.”

A White House spokesman has characterized the story as “fake news” and stated that President Trump believes it is nothing more than a “witch hunt”.

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Special Session a ‘Battle Royal’ for Dominionists Who Seek Christian Rule

Sen. Dan Patrick
Senator Dan Patrick, now lieutenant governor, speaks on the Senate floor.  Patrick Michels

Nicknames for this summer’s special session have proliferated faster than hashtags and lapel pins. It’s been called “30 days of horror,” the “special discrimination session,” the “Session of Oppression” and a “war on local control.”

But as I’ve watched as a student of religion and politics, another label comes to mind: the Dominionism Special.

Among the special session’s “grab-bag” of conservative red-meat issues are three key items — “school choice,” anti-abortion and bathroom bills — that are longstanding priorities of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, arguably the state’s most powerful dominionist. All three further the agenda of those seeking conservative Christian “dominion” over government. And that should give all Texans reason to be concerned.

As scholar Frederick Clarkson puts it, dominionism is “the theocratic idea that  … God has called conservative Christians to exercise dominion over society by taking control of political and cultural institutions.” Dominionists aren’t satisfied with mere Christian participation in the public square; they want to make America a conservative Christian nation in which biblical principles determine law and policy. That sets them apart from others on the religious right who work for conservative social change yet also believe in a pluralistic society.

Beginning as a fringe evangelical sect in the 1970s, dominionism has grown to become a key feature of right-wing politics at the highest levels of Texas government. In large part, that’s due to the influence of Patrick and his longtime backer, Houston doctor and GOP financier Steve Hotze, who calls transgender “a made-up term for those who wish to prevent God’s natural law.”

Though Patrick claimed in a 2014 campaign appearance that he doesn’t want a theocracy, he called America a “Christian nation,” declared that politics is about “building the kingdom” for God and proclaimed that government policy should be “biblically based” — all dominionist tenets. Last year, he was given the “Warrior for Biblical Values” award by Hotze’s powerful and deep-pocketed political action group, Conservative Republicans of Texas (CRT). From 2010 to 2016, CRT donated almost $2 million to Patrick and dozens of far-right legislative candidates.

Steve Hotze  Christopher Hooks

Hotze recently called for “men of God” to “restore our nation to its Godly, Christian, Biblical heritage,” which includes vigorously opposing abortion and LGBT equality. As Quorum Report’s Scott Braddock notes, Hotze “holds significant sway with a large portion of Republican primary voters in Harris County, home to roughly one-fifth of the state’s electorate.” If Patrick is the Lone Star State’s most powerful dominionist, Hotze is one of the most influential.

The dominionist dimension of the special session is most evident in the debate over the so-called bathroom bill. On this issue, Braddock observes, the lieutenant governor has thrown in his lot with Hotze against the more pragmatic business community, which largely opposes the bill.

Senate Bill 3, which the upper chamber passed days into the special session in July, would block transgender Texans from using restrooms and other facilities that match their gender identity in most government and school district buildings.

Patrick and SB 3 author Senator Lois Kolkhorst, a Brenham Republican who also touts a Hotze endorsement, defend it on privacy and safety rather than religious grounds. But is it merely coincidence that it also furthers dominionist opposition to LGBT equality? After all, Patrick and Kolkhorst themselves injected conservative Christian beliefs into the debate.

Earlier this year, they announced a “One Million Voices” campaign, co-led by anti-LGBT pastor Rick Scarborough, to drum up evangelical support for a bathroom bill. Furthermore, the rhetoric about “boys in girls’ restrooms” that Patrick and Kolkhorst repeatedly use echoes the belief that gender is divinely assigned and immutable.

Hotze recently linked Senate passage of SB 3 with President Trump’s transgender military ban — lauding both events as “victories for those of us who are fighting to restore our nation to its Godly heritage.”

Neither Patrick, Hotze nor Kolkhorst responded to requests for comment for this article.

While the education and reproductive choice bills currently are supported by a wider swath of conservatives, they also advance the dominionist cause.

Supporters of the fringe theology attack public education because they believe it fosters a secular worldview. Though some dominionists advocate replacing public education with private religious schools, most work to chip away at it through “school choice” schemes such as vouchers. For years, Patrick has championed “school choice” as a solution to what he claims are “failing public schools,” but his previous efforts to institute vouchers came to naught.

In the special session, he’s working to get the camel’s nose under the tent. Senate Bill 2, which also passed Patrick’s Senate in the opening days of the special session, would give 6,000 special-needs students state-sponsored scholarships to pay tuition for private or religious schools. SB 2 would make it easier for future Legislatures to expand vouchers.

As for abortion, dominionist opposition dates back to Francis Schaeffer’s influential 1981 book, A Christian Manifesto. He urged Christians “to restore biblical principles and erase divisions between religion and civic life,” starting with “a crusade against abortion.”

Patrick has conducted his own intensely religious anti-abortion crusade for years, and under his leadership, the Senate in the special session has continued the anti-abortion work it started in the regular. Bills aimed at abortion providers and abortion access have already passed the body.

Of course, opposition to abortion is widespread among members of the religious right, including those who don’t share dominionism’s theocratic mindset. But dominionists can celebrate the Senate’s continued attacks on reproductive choice as limited victories in the long-term effort to conform law and public policy to what the movement sees as biblical principles.

No wonder Hotze calls the session “the battle royal over the future political direction of Texas.”

A White House spokesman has characterized the story as “fake news” and stated that President Trump believes it is nothing more than a “witch hunt”.

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New requirement for Texas driver’s license begins soon

The Texas Department of Public Safety has announced a new requirement to obtain a Texas driver’s license — a one-hour driving course to educate drivers on the dangers of distracted driving. The Impact Texas Young Drivers course will be required for certain drivers beginning Sept. 1.

“Driving is one of the most dangerous things we do on a daily basis, and it should command our undivided attention,” said DPS director Steven McCraw. “This new component of the department’s distracted driving initiative uses research and compelling true stories to highlight the many risks facing drivers. This important program is designed to provide Texas drivers with critical information to help keep their focus on driving — and to ultimately save lives on Texas roadways.”

Starting Sept. 1, all skills examination applicants 18 and older must complete the free ITYD course and obtain proof of course completion prior to taking the driving skills examination. In addition, drivers 18 to 24 must complete the six-hour adult driver education course prior to the skills examination.

ITYD is the second course offered through the Impact Texas Driver program, which was developed by DPS in 2015 to help save lives through awareness and education related to distracted driving. The first course launched under the ITD program was Impact Texas Teen Drivers, which drivers ages 16 and 17 are required to complete.

A White House spokesman has characterized the story as “fake news” and stated that President Trump believes it is nothing more than a “witch hunt”.

 

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With 8 days left in special session, Texas House and Senate remain far apart

House Speaker Joe Straus (left) and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Eight days away from the deadline to approve bills, the prognosis for Gov. Greg Abbott’s 20-item special session agenda is murky at best.

Not a single measure has made it to the governor’s desk despite a steady drumbeat from his office urging lawmakers to go “20 for 20” since weeks before the special session began.

The most high-profile item on Abbott’s list – a measure barring some transgender people from using bathrooms that match their gender identity – is on life support. House State Affairs Chairman Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, said Tuesday he will not give the “bathroom bill” a hearing in his committee — and the measure’s author, state Rep. Ron Simmons, said it would be difficult to amend the bill as written to any other legislation moving through the chamber.

And while the Republican-dominated chambers have tackled several other issues, with limited time left in the session, they remain at odds on details.

“It seems sort of like college,” said state Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston. “We put everything off until the end and then have a big cram session.”

The Abbott agenda has a decent track record in the individual chambers — the House has passed bills related to about half of the governor’s agenda items, and the Senate has passed bills related to all except two. Both chambers have voted out their own versions of bills on topics like abortion restrictions, public education and maternal mortality, though it’s unclear which chamber’s bills will progress.

But the Senate’s brisk pace has tilted the balance of power to the House in the remaining days of the session, where Speaker Joe Straus has never voiced support for Abbott’s full list.

A Straus spokesman said in a statement Tuesday that the San Antonio Republican “remains optimistic that the House, Senate, and Governor Abbott will find agreement on a number of issues, and there is ample time for that to happen.”

The House’s slower approach has led to frustration for some Republicans who are supportive of Abbott’s special session agenda.

“If we don’t get through what we need to get through, I would absolutely support another special session,” said state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, an Irving Republican who is one of 12 members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.

Among the education issues on Abbott’s agenda are $1,000 raises for teachers and addressing problems with the school finance system. House and Senate leaders have made their distaste for the other chamber’s major education proposals known in colorful terms.

On Tuesday, Senate education chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, held a press conference to announce he was rejecting the House’s proposal to put $1.8 billion into public schools, likening it to trying to drive a broken-down car “knowing you will be facing expensive repairs and ultimately be driving it into the ground.”

Hope remains for property tax reform, which both Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick declared their top concern for the session, but, again, the two chambers have yet to reconcile their widely different approaches.

And a mix of bills aimed at curbing local government spending and ability to regulate land use are also stalled. Two of the bills have yet to even make it out of the Senate.

The prospects of another one that Abbott has personally championed – curtailing cities’ ability to regulate tree cutting on private land – are shaky. Though a Senate committee advanced a House version of the bill Tuesday, lawmakers there amended it in a way that will likely be unpalatable to House members, whose own bill replicated one Abbott vetoed during the regular session.

Right now, the only pieces of legislation that appear to be on a clear path to approval in both chambers are the must-pass measures that forced Abbott to call the 30-day special session in the first place: bills to avoid shutdowns of the Texas Medical Board and a few other state agencies that became hostages in the war between House and Senate leaders during the regular session that ended in May. The House is scheduled to vote on legislation already approved by the Senate addressing that issue this Thursday.

“I’m certainly not going to pre-negotiate”

Though almost all of his key priorities remain in limbo, Abbott’s team remains confident. Throughout the special session, the governor has maintained a steady pace of TV interviews aimed at every media market in the state, and that shows no signs of slowing. Conducting them from the new satellite studio at his campaign headquarters down the street from the Capitol, he also used the space to continue to crank out short videos with lawmakers who have taken the lead on his agenda items for social media.

Abbott’s office has been particularly encouraged by the progress on his top priority of property tax reform, noting there’s been more headway on it in the past 21 days than there was during the entire regular session.

When it comes to property tax reform, Senate leaders have put most of their muscle behind state Sen. Paul Bettencourt’s Senate Bill 1, which cleared the chamber in the special session’s early days. It would require city and county governments to hold elections if they planned to raise property tax revenue by 4 percent or more, and it would also overhaul the property appraisal process. Patrick claims the measure would offer Texans “dramatic reductions” in their property taxes. The bill wouldn’t immediately cut property tax bills, but it could slow increases.

The House Ways & Means Committee has passed its own, dramatically reworked version of SB 1. That legislation, which has yet to hit the House floor, would set the trigger for property tax elections at 6 percent. And those carrying that legislation have offered a different message than their Senate counterparts.

“What’s frustrating is that SB 1 doesn’t provide relief, it provides protection, and the last thing I want is property tax payers to believe that we are doing something to reduce or lower their tax burden. We’re not,” Rep. Dennis Bonnen, the Angleton Republican who chairs the Ways & Means Committee, said last week. “We don’t have the ability to do that, but what we do have is the ability to give it protections and transparency.”

In an interview Tuesday, Bettencourt said he could “state with absolute mathematical certainty” that his bill — and forcing elections on revenue increases — would slow the growth of property tax bills throughout the state. He called for the House to pass some version of it that would kick off deliberation between the chambers in earnest.

“We think it’s a comprehensive bill, and I wish they would get it to the floor over there,” Bettencourt said. “You’ve got to pass a bill so you’ve got something to negotiate on … I’m certainly not going to pre-negotiate.”

The full House has already approved separate legislation, House Bill 32, that would overhaul appraisals. It has also advanced a range of narrower proposals, including some aiming to yield savings for certain groups of Texans such as disabled first responders. This piecemeal approach could force the Senate to consider a wide range of property tax proposals with little time to do so.

While Abbott has not said what outcome might prompt him to call lawmakers back for a second special session, several lawmakers pointed to the failure of property tax reform as a likely suspect.

“I think we need to do what’s right for Texans,” Simmons said. “And if property taxes is really important, which I think it is, then we need to get to an answer on that.”

Kirby Wilson, Andy Duehren Brandon Formby and Alexa Ura contributed reporting to this story.

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Texas backs Wisconsin in battle to protect partisan gerrymandering

Ken Paxton speaks at the Texas State Rifle Association General Meeting in Round Rock on Feb. 25, 2017.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is backing Wisconsin in a high-profile case asking the U.S. Supreme Court whether lawmakers can go too far when drawing political maps to advantage one party.

Paxton, a Republican, filed an amicus brief seeking to protect the status quo in political gerrymandering — redistricting maneuvers that allow controlling parties to bolster their majorities in state Legislatures and Congress even when statewide demographics shift against them. Fifteen other states signed onto the brief.

“Never has the U.S. Supreme Court disallowed a legislative map because of partisan gerrymandering, and it surely can’t find fault with Wisconsin’s, which is lawful, constitutional and follows traditional redistricting principles,” Paxton said in a statement Tuesday.

The filing comes as Paxton is defending Texas against a separate redistricting challenge. That one asks whether Republican lawmakers intentionally discriminated against Latino and black voters in enacting the state’s current House and congressional maps. A panel of three federal judges in San Antonio is expected to rule in the coming weeks.

The outcome of the Wisconsin case, which the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear Oct. 3, could shake up politics across the country.

Last year, a federal appeals court ruled that the way Wisconsin Republicans drew district lines was so nakedly partisan that it violated the U.S. Constitution. Paxton’s brief argues that letting that decision stand “invites openly partisan policy battles in the courtroom.”

“This will expose every state to litigation under a legal standard so indeterminate that any party that loses in the legislature has a plausible chance of overriding that policy decision in the courts,” the brief says.

It’s unclear how the Wisconsin case could directly affect the pending case in Texas, because of the different timelines and arguments being made. And the Supreme Court must also decide whether it has the jurisdiction to rule in the Wisconsin case, a question it left open in accepting the challenge.

But if the high court ultimately establishes a new limit on the role politics can play in redistricting, it would almost certainly affect map-drawing in Texas going forward and give opponents of Texas’ current maps a new avenue to challenge them.

Aside from Wisconsin, Texas is among seven states with particularly high partisan bias in their congressional maps, according to Michael Li, redistricting and voting counsel at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.

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Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick calls city governments the source of “all our problems in America”

After two days of contentious debate and several bills passed, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick congratulates the Senate on what he says was a job well done on July 26, 2017.   The Senate tackled bills on 18 issues, sending them over to the House for consideration in the first-called special session. 

City governments, particularly those led by Democrats, are the source of problems nationwide, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said during a nationally televised interview Friday.

“People are happy with their governments at their state level, they’re not with the city,” said Patrick, a Republican, in an interview with Fox Business Network. He was responding to a question about gubernatorial races.

“Our cities are still controlled by Democrats,” he added. “And where do we have all our problems in America? Not at the state level run by Republicans, but in our cities that are mostly controlled by Democrat mayors and Democrat city council men and women. That’s where you see liberal policies. That’s where you see high taxes. That’s where you see street crime.”

The comments drew a quick response from mayors in Texas. In a message posted to Twitter, Austin Mayor Steve Adler responded, “If it’s wrong to have lower jobless and crime rates than Texas as a whole, I don’t want to be right. Certainly not that far right.”

Patrick’s remarks came halfway through a special legislative session in which lawmakers have repeatedly taken aim at local governments. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has proposed to lawmakers a long list of ideas related to how cities and counties set budgets, regulate land use and approve construction projects.

Some of the most controversial bills now making their way through the Legislature would require a local election to approve property tax rate increases over a certain percentage and legislation that would regulate which bathrooms transgender people can use. Current versions of the bathroom proposal would preempt parts of local nondiscrimination ordinances that include protections for transgender people.

Many city officials have criticized the Legislature’s efforts, saying city governments need freedom and flexibility to govern.

“We are closer to our residents than the state is or the federal government, so we know what is best for our community because we are responsible for our community,” said El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, a Republican. “Not only is El Paso the largest U.S. city on the Mexican border, we’re also ranked as the safest city in the nation.”

Mayors from two of the state’s six biggest cities are Republican: Margo, plus Betsy Price of Fort Worth.

But “the fact that city elections are nonpartisan is one of the greatest things about city government,” said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League. “We like to say that potholes aren’t Democratic or Republican… it costs the same amount regardless of ideology.” 

Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chairman, and Dee Margo have been financial supporters of the Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Texas man snags “bucket list” 12-foot tiger shark off Padre Island

Kevin Karwedsky knows how to make his mom anxious at the beach.

The avid fisherman reeled in a massive, 12-foot tiger shark in front of her on Sunday on Padre Island.

“She was screaming my name a couple of times,” Karwedsky said. “I was like, ‘Mom, calm down. I got this.’ She was in shock.”

PHOTOS: Man catches 12-foot shark on Padre Island

The short photo shoot of the 35-year-old fisherman atop his “bucket list” catch was the result of a four-hour battle between man and fish.

After hooking the shark around 5 a.m., five men eventually carried the massive fish ashore for a few photos and measurements.

Those measurements were 12 feet and 7 and a half inches, and around 1,000 pounds.

“She’s definitely a big girl. Just a gorgeous fish,” Karwedsky said. “I spent 10 years waiting on that shark. It’s always been on the top of the list. A big tiger. That was my first tiger — and for her to be that big … definitely amazing.”

Karwedsky said he tried to make a quick work of his catch on shore to avoid hurting the animal.

“I missed a couple of measurements,” he said. “We don’t want to cause her no harm. Push her back in the water. Tag and release — we didn’t have any tags. It’s a crying shame we didn’t have any this time. They use it for research at Texas A&M.”

Karwedsky said he spent about 20 minutes swimming with the shark to make sure she was OK before she swam off.

“I’m a shark lover. I don’t want hurt these animals. This is a sport we love. … There are cases where you do everything where the shark dies,” Karwedsky explained. “We donate the meat or use it ourselves. But for us, it’s all about the conservation of our sport.”

Karwedsky, who lives in Campbellton, Texas, has fished all his life on the island, but in the past decade, he has come a long way from his first fishing photos, back when he was in diapers and wielding a Snoopy fishing pole.

Karwedsky is now part of a team of fishermen – Turn’em at the Knot — who live for the thrill of the next big shark catch off the Texas coast.

Sunday’s catch was particularly powerful for Karwedsky because his family was there, including his brother, Russell Karwedsky,

“It was a big moment for both of us,” Karwedsky said. “(But) I’m going to move on. Any shark that bites the hook is welcome. But the next is the hammerhead.”

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When school’s out, rural Texas towns struggle to feed their hungry kids

Clara Crawford drives a van without air conditioning to pick up and drop off children at a summer meals program sponsored by the East Texas Food Bank. The food bank provides meals for kids at similar programs at more than 70 different sites.

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series about the declining participation in Texas’ summer meals programs for students. You can read the first story here.

REKLAW — Clara Crawford tapped the horn three times. Seconds later, two young boys ran down the steps of their house, their mother waving goodbye from the porch.

Each summer, most days of the week, the 86-year-old Crawford drives a 1995 Ford cargo van 35 miles to gather up about 20 hungry children in Fairview, an unincorporated community in Rusk County, and the neighboring city of Reklaw. She takes them to a program she runs at a local community center where they can play basketball in the hot sun and get a full lunch plus a snack.

In this sparsely populated part of East Texas, where some houses don’t have regular access to potable water, for seven years Crawford and her blue van have been providing a summer lifeline to kids who otherwise might be home alone and without a healthy meal.

The Texas Department of Agriculture administers a summer meals program providing federal reimbursement for school districts and nonprofits to give out meals to hungry children — but in recent years, the program has failed to draw students in, with July participation rates crashing by 20 percent in 2016.

Experts and even the state have had trouble pinpointing exactly why, but they cite lack of transportation as the main reason rural Texas kids can’t reach free summer meals available at hundreds of locations across the state. The federal government does not compensate school districts or nonprofits for getting students to and from the free meal sites.

Which is why folks like Crawford who are willing to drive kids to those meals are so important. Despite the tight pickup schedule, Crawford sometimes finds herself waiting several minutes longer than planned outside a particular house, hoping a kid will hear the honks and rush out. Most of their parents are working, or are stuck at home with illnesses or disabilities, she said.

“I hate to not get them if they want to come,” she said, peering over the steering wheel anxiously. Every summer, she considers giving up on this volunteer chauffeur gig. She’s old and doesn’t need the extra stress. But then she wonders: Who else would do it?

The need for volunteers like Crawford goes beyond this corner of East Texas. In the tiny Panhandle town of Quitaque, residents also struggle to find summer volunteers to help provide food to hungry children after the local school had to end its program. Rural communities across the state face similar challenges.

In Texas, more than 4 million people don’t always know where their next meal will come from, often resorting to skipping meals, buying less food or choosing between buying food and paying other bills. Though it’s decreased over the years, the percentage of people at risk of hunger in Texas is significantly higher than the national average.

Even in towns that have a summer meal program, “if a site’s half a mile from a kid’s home, they’re unlikely to walk up there, let alone five or 10 miles,” said Tim Butler, coordinator of child hunger programs at the East Texas Food Bank, which gets federal money to provide meals for program sponsors like Crawford who want to feed kids locally.

The food bank also pays for Crawford’s gas and vehicle upkeep through a privately-funded “rural transportation grant.” Without that extra financial boost, kids in Fairview might not make it to the community center.

The federal government used to offer similar transportation grants to rural organizations that sponsored free summer meal programs, but it ended them after 2008 when the funding ran out, calling them “cost inefficient” for supporting rural areas.

‘It used to be a big community’

A lifelong Fairview resident, Crawford is related to many of the kids in the area, or knows them well enough that they’re basically family. As she drove — never faster than a steady 45 miles per hour — she spun out the stories imprinted in the lush landscape crowded with pine trees. She pointed out the place where, at eight years old, she got paid $3 daily to plant tomatoes. The place where her dad drove a tractor on another man’s farm. And all the empty places left by folks who moved to the cities.

“There used to be a lot of people here. Now they let their trailers rot here. It used to be a big community,” Crawford said ruefully.

Clara Crawford puts a milk carton on 6 -year-old Jaylynn Uniqe's plate as Ethan Smallwood reaches for ketchup at the Fairview Community Center in Reklaw.
Clara Crawford puts a milk carton on 6-year-old Jaylynn Uniqe’s plate as Ethan Smallwood reaches for ketchup at the Fairview Community Center in Reklaw. Laura Skelding for The Texas Tribune

Larger school districts in East Texas don’t typically need someone like Crawford because they can usually offer their own programs, and sponsor others nearby. The East Texas Food Bank seeks to fill the smaller, more rural gaps across 26 counties and 20,000 square miles, in a region where one of every five adults and one in every four children is at risk of going hungry.

“There are tons of communities out there with little resources and low population,” Butler said.

Partnering with people like Crawford ensures the meal sites draw more kids, Butler said. “They know the people in the community. They know how to get something started. They know where the kids are.”

Besides the 20 kids Crawford drives to the community center, two or three wander over on their own, chattering and playing while the adults start to hand out food. At 14, Erica McCuin is one of the oldest in the room. She ends up watching over the younger ones, sitting and joking with them as they bite into cheeseburgers with whole grain buns and pick seeds out of orange slices.

She’s visiting her aunt for the summer two towns over and said without the program, she’d end up hanging around her aunt’s house. “I’d sit down and watch TV or play on my phone,” she said.

McCuin’s aunt, Savannah Williams, is one of three women who found out about the program through the local church and volunteer to run it. They said they’re determined to keep it going after Crawford someday turns in her car keys.

Panhandle volunteers try to restart summer meals

While volunteers in East Texas fight to keep kids fed, volunteers more than 400 miles away in a small Panhandle town are trying to bring back summer meals after the local school shut its program down.

In Quitaque — recently proclaimed the bison capital of Texas for its proximity to a herd of the shaggy beasts in neighboring Caprock Canyons State Park — a third of the 478 residents lives below the poverty line, nearly double the state average, according to recent Census estimates.

Kay Calvert talks about the food pantry she founded, Tri-County Meals, which helps relieve food insecurity in small rural towns around Quitaque, Texas.
Kay Calvert talks about the food pantry she founded, Tri-County Meals, which helps relieve food insecurity in rural towns around Quitaque, Texas. Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune

Kay Calvert wears a few hats for Quitaque, as a founder and president of the local emergency food pantry and assistant vice president at First National Bank. She’s working with a local teacher to apply for federal funding to start a summer meals site in Quitaque for local kids, to take some financial pressure off their parents.

Having lived in Quitaque most of her life, Calvert was ignorant of the depth of need in the community until she helped start the food pantry 13 years ago.

She fought back tears when she told the story of seeing a pair of young siblings cooking beans on the stove in a house otherwise empty of food. At another house, a volunteer for the pantry checked in on an elderly woman and found cat food in her fridge — and no cat in the house.

“I thought I knew our neighbors. I thought I knew everybody was OK,” she said. “Guess what? We don’t take care of our neighbors.”

Turkey-Quitaque ISD Superintendent Jackie Jenkins said the district stopped offering summer meals two years ago, around the same time it stopped hosting summer school for lack of funding. Before that, Jenkins drove a van taking kids home from summer school and bringing sandwiches and fruit to hungry kids who were not able to attend the summer classes. She knew parents were likely working in the fields and unable to drive kids even 10 miles to get lunch.

“We knew it would be hard for them to come out here, so we delivered them,” Jenkins said. But the federal program that paid for the district’s meal program didn’t cover those transportation costs. Now the closest program is in Memphis, a town almost 50 miles to the northeast.

Local food pantry is a lifeline

It’s not just students who need help getting fed. In Quitaque, where the tiny town center is surrounded by thousands of acres of red-dirt cotton fields, many residents are day laborers, cleaning homes and mowing yards in town or working on farms seasonally during the cotton harvest.

“There’s not enough work here in these small communities. But yet they want to raise their kids here because it’s the cheapest place they can live,” Calvert said. “They don’t want to go to the cities because they can’t survive in the cities.”

The local food pantry, Tri-County Meals, collaborates with the regional High Plains Food Bank to bring boxes of food each month to elderly people and families who are regularly deciding whether to pay for heat during the winter or buy groceries at the single store in town. The food bank trucks the food to an old fire station in Quitaque, and volunteers from three nearby towns haul it away for local distribution.

By noon, the floors and tables in the old station are piled high with boxes of all types of foods: organic baby spinach, bananas, croissants and other assorted breads, packages of Hamburger Helper (popular with the kids), giant frosted chocolate cakes.

Sage Cabellero loads a family box onto a trailer for delivery to Silverton, Texas, a neighboring community in the Tri-County Meals network.
Sage Cabellero loads a box onto a trailer for delivery to Silverton, Texas, a neighboring community in the Tri-County Meals network. Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune

The box of food Judy Myers and her brother Danny Barrett receive every month from the mobile food bank gets their family almost through the full 30 days. Myers, 55, a former prison employee, and Barrett, 57, a former mail carrier, both had to stop working because of chronic health problems. Myers has back and kidney issues; her brother suffers complications from diabetes.

They live together in a house that sits on 200 acres that’s been in the family for nearly a century. Myers has about $1,700 in pension payments coming in each month, and they both are applying for disability benefits.

Last Christmas was “really black in our house,” Myers said, sitting on her back porch with two kittens napping at her feet. “We had nothing at the time to cook with.”

They got an emergency food delivery through Tri-County Meals. In January, when her daughter Breanna turned 12, Myers asked the food pantry for cupcakes so Breanna could hand them out to her classmates.

But during the summer, Breanna is home from school, and Myers babysits her 2-year-old grandson — two extra mouths to feed during the day. Myers said she wishes the school district was still giving out free food in the summer, to take some of the pressure off her wallet.

Local kindergarten and first-grade math teacher Shadi Buchanan is working with Calvert to re-start a summer meals program in Quitaque, applying for reimbursement from the federal government.

But first they need committed volunteers. Parents and teachers already serve several roles for the school district, transporting kids to sports practices or teaching four or five different grades of a subject, because the district can’t afford to hire additional employees.

“It takes us all to run this village, and I think sometimes it’s overwhelming to say, ‘Here’s one more thing to do,’” she said.

Buchanan wants to run the program at two separate sites, one providing meals in Quitaque and the other in Turkey, so students don’t have to make the trek more than 10 miles to school for a free meal without a bus. Jenkins has her fingers crossed that enrollment will increase once school starts in late August since more students means more state money to spend on school programs.

In the meantime, Calvert and the rest of the team at the pantry will continue to serve as many families as possible, for as long as they have the money.

“They’re out there if we open our eyes and look. The need is out there,” Calvert said. “We can only do so much.”

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In Texas House, property tax proposals range from minor tweaks to abolishment

State Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, speaks with his House colleagues Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston and Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, at a Texas Tribune events at the Austin Club on July 19, 2017. 

Last week, amid a flurry of votes on more than a dozen other issues, the Texas Senate passed its main measure addressing Gov. Greg Abbott‘s call to reform the laws related to property taxes.

On Wednesday, members of the House took a far more expansive approach, considering proposals ranging from the narrow (carving out a new exemption for Purple Heart recipients) to the explosive (abolishing school property taxes altogether).

And with only two weeks left in the special session, challenges remain in getting many of these proposals to Abbott’s desk.

Take House Bill 72. There was pushback Wednesday on the legislation, which would let voters decide whether Purple Heart recipients should get property tax exemptions. State Rep. Scott Sanford successfully amended the bill to only allow spouses married to Purple Heart recipients at the time of the soldier’s injury to receive the tax benefits.

“Because we have so many gold diggers looking for Purple Heart recipients?” state Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, cracked.

“We don’t want people to go shopping for tax exemptions,” answered Sanford, R-McKinney.

State Rep. Matt Schaefer had broader concerns with the bill, which he argued “gets into making value judgments about people’s service. And that’s an impossible task for this body.” The Tyler Republican also questioned what the cost would be to the cities who would lose property tax revenues from Purple Heart recipients’ properties. He then tried to amend the bill to extend the exemptions to the children of Purple Heart recipients.

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, chair of the House Ways & Means Committee which deals with property tax proposals, ultimately withdrew the bill and a related resolution. He said he would bring them back to the floor on Friday.

“We don’t want to make a mockery of this bill,” the Angleton Republican said.

Bonnen fared better with his House Bill 32, which would overhaul several aspects of the property appraisal and notice processes in an attempt to help Texans better understand how property values and tax rates each contribute to their tax bills.

One of the key provisions would require local governments to announce a “no-new-revenue” tax rate each year and compare it to the rate they’re actually proposing. Taxpayers would get that information ahead of time so that they could intervene with local governments before the rates were finally set. The lower chamber gave initial approval to that bill Wednesday.

“This will be the most clear and simple process we’ve ever had in the area of property taxes,” Bonnen said.

That legislation is among dozens of property tax and appraisal bills the lower chamber is still working on as the special session heads into its second half.  On Tuesday, Bonnen’s Ways and Means Committee dramatically reworked Senate Bill 1, the Senate’s leading property tax bill, which could set up another battle between the chambers akin to the one that helped prompt this summer’s special session in the first place.

In the House version, SB 1 would require cities and counties to hold an election if they plan to increase their property tax revenues 6 percent, regardless of whether they are increasing the actual tax rate or just taking advantage of rising property values. The Senate had set that trigger at 4 percent. Patrick portrayed that version of the bill as something that would provide Texans with “dramatic reductions” in their property taxes.

“It will be the strongest tax reform and tax relief bill ever passed out,” Patrick said in an online video this week.

But the legislation is only poised to slow future tax increases by focusing on the amount of revenues local governments bring in from all existing land and buildings in their jurisdictions. Revenues – and individual tax bills – can rise with property values even if actual tax rates stay flat or are lowered.

During the regular session, Patrick said similar legislation would save the average Texas homeowner $20,000, a claim that fell apart under scrutiny.

Bonnen expressed concern that voters will mistakenly expect to see lower property tax bills if any version of SB 1 that becomes law.

“What’s frustrating is that SB1 doesn’t provide relief, it provides protection, and the last thing I want is property tax payers to believe that we are doing something to reduce or lower their tax burden. We’re not,” Bonnen said. “We don’t have the ability to do that, but what we do have is the ability to give it protections and transparency.”

But Bonnen’s Ways and Means Committee could face an impossible battle addressing education funding, which makes up the bulk of property tax bills in Texas. House education leaders have argued the Legislature cannot provide tax relief without addressing school funding. As the state pays a progressively smaller percentage of operating costs for public schools, school districts have had to raise their local property taxes to make up the funding.

The committee Wednesday afternoon considered legislation proposing ways to ultimately get rid of the local property tax altogether, in most cases replacing it with revenue from a higher sales tax. State Rep. Andrew Murr‘s House Bill 285 would increase state and local sales taxes enough to garner about $22 billion, enough to completely replace property tax revenue school districts collect to operate.

“It won’t happen in the special session,” the Junction Republican acknowledged.

State Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, went further: he proposed legislation recommending the complete elimination of the property taxes by school districts as a way, to pressure legislators into coming up with an alternative system.

“I don’t have the answers, but I know this Legislature relies too heavily on local property taxes to fund our schools, and we need more direction to go forward,” he said.

What would replace that funding in the meantime?

“This bill does not give us a plan,” Darby said.

By the end of the day, that committee was slated to have held hearings on 25 property tax bills in addition to the 18 it has already sent on to the House. More than 50 other bills have been referred to the committee.

SB 1 is the only property tax legislation passed from a Senate committee. Two others are pending in the upper chamber’s Select Committee on Government Reform. But Bonnen isn’t worried that the House is going to leave the Senate little time to consider what could become a bevy of bills headed its way as the special session nears its 30-day end. He pointed to how the Senate quickly passed measures addressing nearly all of of Abbott’s 20-item agenda in the first part of the session.

“The Senate has proven that it can move anything at lightning speed,” Bonnen said. “So they have more than enough time to do that.”

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What it means for Texas colleges if Trump targets affirmative action

The Tower at the University of Texas at Austin on June 27, 2017.

For about a year starting in June 2016, the practice of affirmative action in Texas university admissions seemed secure.

The University of Texas at Austin won a U.S. Supreme Court case on the issue — for the second time. And UT-Austin officials said they were determined to continue to consider the race of applicants as a small factor in admissions decisions for the foreseeable future.

But this summer, doubt has crept back in. On Tuesday, The New York Times broke the news that the U.S. Department of Justice under President Donald Trump plans to investigate and possibly sue universities that use affirmative action if its lawyers believe those policies unfairly discriminate against white or Asian students. And in June, the man behind the case that took UT-Austin to the Supreme Court filed another lawsuit alleging discrimination against white people at UT-Austin. This time, the case is in state court.

The Department of Justice news stunned the world of higher education. Questions abound. Here’s what we know now about what this means for Texas:

Not many schools in Texas use affirmative action

It’s impossible to know at this point whether the Department of Justice will set its sights on any Texas schools. The New York Times reported that the department is still staffing up for the mission, and it doesn’t appear to have specific plans or strategies set. But Texas doesn’t seem like an easy target. Only two public universities in Texas — UT-Austin and Midwestern State University — consider the race of their applicants in freshman admissions. And except for Rice University and Southern Methodist University, most of the prominent private universities don’t use it, either.

UT-Austin policy has been a target in the past. But it seems relatively safe in this case. 

UT-Austin’s use of affirmative action has been thoroughly vetted by the federal courts. Abigail Fisher, a white student from Sugar Land, sued UT-Austin in 2008, saying she was denied admission even though she felt there were minority candidates who were less qualified than her. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court twice. Each time, the court upheld the practice of affirmative action.

In 2016, the court’s majority opinion specifically found UT-Austin’s policy constitutional. In order to mount a successful case against UT-Austin, the Justice Department would probably have to persuade the Supreme Court to reverse its recent ruling.

“Right now, I think UT is very well insulated,” said Mishell Kneeland, a former assistant attorney general in Texas who helped represent UT-Austin in the Fisher case.

Some Texas schools don’t use affirmative action because of the Top 10 Percent Rule.

Why don’t more Texas schools use affirmative action? Because the state has a unique method of increasing diversity at its schools. The origins of that method, known as the Top 10 Percent Rule, date back to another court decision from 1996.

That year, a U.S. appeals court ruled that UT-Austin’s use of affirmative action in law school admissions was unconstitutional. That ruling was eventually overturned, but it was at first interpreted to mean that no public school in Texas could consider the race of its applicants. In the years before the ruling was overturned, black and Hispanic enrollment in top schools began to plummet. The Texas Legislature came up with the Top 10 Percent Rule as a fix.

Under the rule, each public school is required to accept any student who graduated in the top 10 percent of his or her Texas high school’s graduating class. The idea is that schools in Texas are fairly segregated by race. Thus, accepting the top students from suburban schools, inner city schools and schools in South Texas creates more diverse universities.

Lawmakers and educators still fiercely debate how much the rule works and whether it’s fair to students from more competitive high schools. But there is no question that many universities became more racially diverse after the law went into effect. And once affirmative action became allowable again, Texas A&M University decided it didn’t need it.

UT-Austin uses the Top 10 Percent Rule, but says it still needs affirmative action

The Top 10 Percent Rule still applies to UT-Austin, but in a slightly different way. UT-Austin is such a popular school for top students that it runs the risk having more top 10 percent students than it has room for. As a result, the Texas Legislature allows UT-Austin to cap its automatic enrollees at 75 percent of incoming Texans. The other 25 percent are admitted through a more holistic process. Race is one small factor that the university considers in that process.

Despite that, UT-Austin admits a significantly higher share of black and Hispanic students through the Top 10 Percent Rule than it does from the holistic review process.

UT-Austin’s affirmative action policy could still be safe.

Affirmative action opponents might have lost at the federal level, but they’re not giving up. In June, Edward Blum, the man who recruited Abigail Fisher to sue UT-Austin last decade, took his fight to state court. He created an organization, Students for Fair Admissions, that filed a new lawsuit targeting the policy. This one claims that affirmative action at UT-Austin violates state law.

UT-Austin declined to comment for this article. But it is clearly frustrated by the case. In a legal filing on Monday, the university said Blum is trying to “re-package the same allegations and arguments that were unsuccessful in the prior suit.”

“Having lost the legal arguments they asserted from 2008 through 2016, Blum and the Fishers now claim that this honorable Court should give them a new and different result,” the filing said. “They apparently believe that their new second-choice, third-choice, and fourth-choice theories should be equally compelling to the unsuccessful arguments they pushed for eight years.”

UT-Austin is making that argument to a district judge. But Blum seems to clearly have his sights set higher: The Texas Supreme Court. That body is considerably more conservative than the U.S. Supreme Court and could be more receptive to Blum’s argument.

“I do think there is more vulnerability there,” said Kneeland, who nonetheless called UT-Austin’s affirmative action policy “terrific.”

The plaintiffs in the suit argue that UT-Austin’s policy violates the Texas Constitution and the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, which says that a state employee cannot “refuse to permit [a] person to participate” in a state program because of that person’s race.

That statute, Kneeland said, “hasn’t been interpreted in this context and so it is a little bit of an open question.”

Shannon Najmabadi contributed to this report. 

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin, Rice University, Southern Methodist University and Texas A&M University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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State Rep. Dawnna Dukes declines deal from Travis County District Attorney

State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, chats on the House floor on August 1, 2017.  Dukes faces a deadline to resign from office or face corruption charges from the Travis County District Attorney's Office. 

State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, declined a deal from the Travis County District Attorney’s office Tuesday that would have allowed the 12-term representative to have all corruption charges dropped against her if she had agreed to resign immediately.

In a statement sent to The Texas Tribune after 5 p.m. Tuesday, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said she’d had no contact from the attorneys for Dukes.

“The offer to resolve this matter has expired and is no longer available,” Moore said in a statement. “We will be ready for trial.”

As a part of the deal, Dukes would’ve had to also pay $3,500 in fines and restitution and agree to a drug and alcohol assessment. Dukes has previously denied charges that she had her legislative staff run personal errands and that she was compensated for days she did not work at the Texas Capitol.

“It is truly not dignifying this new low that such character assassination has hit in this web woven to influence a court of public opinion,” Dukes wrote in a Facebook post Monday night. “As such, it would be indecorous of me to respond to impertinent allegations.”

When the Tribune asked Dukes about the DA office’s deal Tuesday morning, Dukes said, “I’m not talking about that right now.”

Dukes declining the deal means the district attorney’s office will move forward with the trial, which was set by Judge Brad Urrutia for Oct. 16.

“It’s time to move on. Some form of this deal has been discussed [with Dukes] since September,” Moore told the Tribune on Monday. “We’ve got to go to work, and we’re going to be preparing for trial.”

In January, a Travis County grand jury indicted Dukes on 13 counts of tampering with a governmental record, a felony punishable by up to two years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000. These charges are based on allegations that Dukes made false entries on travel vouchers to obtain money for expenses she was not entitled to.

In addition, she was indicted on two charges of abuse of official capacity by a public servant, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $4,000. Those charges allege that Dukes used her legislative staff to work on the African American Community Heritage Festival and, in one instance, be a live-in nanny for her daughter.

In June, the 12-term lawmaker pleaded not guilty to tampering with a governmental record and abuse of official capacity by a public servant.

Dukes has faced criticism for missing votes and being absent from the House floor during the 85th Legislature’s regular session earlier this year. She was not in attendance when the House voted on the final budget. Despite this, Dukes said in late June that it was a “strong possibility” she’d run for re-election in 2018.

On July 25, two of Dukes’ Houston-based lawyers filed a motion to withdraw as counsel, citing an inability to “effectively communicate with the defendant on matters essential to the representation.”

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Report: Texas could lose billions if new immigration enforcement law stands

A woman demonstrating against Senate Bill 4, the so-called sanctuary cities law, waves a flag during a march near the San Antonio Riverwalk on June 26, 2017. U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia is hearing arguments from Texas cities and counties challenging the bill, signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott.

Representatives from Texas’ business, local government and higher education sectors argued Tuesday that the state’s new immigration-enforcement law, which is slated to take effect Sept. 1, could do billions of dollars in damage to the Texas economy.

Using data from the 2015 American Community Survey and the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Reform Immigration for Texas Alliance — a group made up of 40 state-based immigrant and civil rights groups — estimated during a Tuesday press conference that the state stands to lose roughly $223 million in state and local taxes and more than $5 billion in Gross Domestic Product under Senate Bill 4.

The law, which was signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in May and seeks to outlaw “sanctuary” jurisdictions that don’t cooperate with federal immigration officials, would also allow local police officers to ask about a person’s immigration status when they are detained — not just when they are charged with a crime.

“We estimate those costs as they relate to jobs, earnings, taxes and GDP if 10 percent of undocumented immigrants were to leave Texas,” the group said, calling that 10 percent figure a conservative estimate. The group analyzed the top 10 industries that benefit from undocumented labor and used Harvard University economist George Borjas‘ undocumented population analysis in its research, according to the methodology outlined in the study.

Supporters of the legislation argue it’s needed to prevent local law enforcement officials from providing a safety net to deportable and violent undocumented immigrants who have already been charged with crimes. But opponents — who are keeping their fingers crossed that a judge will halt the measure before it takes effect — say it’s a racial-profiling bill that’s similar to Arizona’s “show-me-your-papers” law.

The economic argument isn’t a new one for opponents of the law; several Democratic state lawmakers tried and failed to convince their colleagues of its merit during this spring’s regular legislative session. State Democrats also called for an update to a study released in 2006 by former Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn. That analysis showed that undocumented immigrants who lived in Texas in 2005 added $17.7 billion to the state’s economy.

In a statement Tuesday, representatives from local chambers of commerce at the news conference went after the lawmakers who championed the legislation, calling them dishonorable. 

“Each of you standing with us have a big job to do,” said Ramiro Cavazos, the CEO of San Antonio’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “And that it is to protect this economy for our children and our grandchildren.”

The Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the U.S. Bilateral African American Chamber, the United Chamber of Commerce Corpus Christi and the Rio Grande Valley Chamber of Commerce were among those represented at the news conference.

They also tied SB 4 to the state Legislature’s current debate over whether transgender Texans should be able to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. The legislation back backed by ultra conservative lawmakers would restrict bathroom use in schools and local government buildings to what’s on a person’s birth certificate.

The National Football League has expressed concerns that passing such a bill could affect the league’s decision to host next year’s draft in Dallas, the chamber groups said. “Similarly, professional sports players’ associations may oppose SB 4, given the diversity of their memberships, and may withhold events from Texas.”

The constitutionality of SB 4 is still being weighed in two federal courts in Texas.

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How often do shark attacks happen in Texas waters?

The chances of having a dangerous encounter with a shark in Texas waters are not as common, according to the safety and security website Safewise.

There have only been 11 reported shark attacks in Texas between 2007 and 2016. All of the attacks are listed as unprovoked.

Here’s a list of the attack locations and years:

[VIEW A MAP HERE]

2010: Eight Mile Beach, surfing

2010: Galveston, fishing

2011: South Padre Island, surf fishing

2011: Mustang Island, wade fishing

2011: Grass Island, wade fishing

2011: Sunday Beach, swimming

2011: Folletts Island, standing or boogie boarding

2013: Surfside Beach, swimming

2014: West Beach, kneeling in the water

2016: Off Surfside, spear fishing

2016: Pirates Beach, floating in tube

The state with the most shark attacks is Florida with 244.

Beach-goers shouldn’t worry about encountering a shark if they plan on hitting the waters. Safewise says people are more likely to die from the flu, be in a car accident, or be struck by lightning than be attacked by a shark.

To make sure your chances of meeting a shark are even lower, Safewise suggests swimming with a group, staying close to shore and not going in water with an open wound.

A White House spokesman has called the reports “fake news” and stated that President Trump believes it is a “witch hunt” orchestrated by Hilary Clinton supporters.

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Texas executes man who claimed his lawyers committed fraud

TaiChin Preyor was sentenced to death in the 2004 slaying of Jami Tackett in Bexar County.

After more than 12 years on death row, a San Antonio man convicted in a fatal stabbing was executed Thursday night. It was Texas’ fifth execution of the year.

TaiChin Preyor, 46, had filed a flurry of appeals in the weeks leading up to his execution date, claiming his trial lawyer never looked into evidence of an abusive childhood and his previous appellate counsel — a disbarred attorney paired with a real estate and probate lawyer who relied on Wikipedia in her legal research — committed fraud on the court.

But he lost all of the appeals, with the U.S. Supreme Court issuing a final ruling in the case more than two hours after his execution was originally set to begin. At 9:03 p.m., he was injected with a lethal dose of pentobarbital in Texas’ death chamber and pronounced dead 19 minutes later, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

In his final words, he mentioned his love for his wife and kids and cited a Coretta Scott King quote, saying, “Justice has never advanced by taking a life,” according to TDCJ.

Preyor was accused of breaking into 20-year-old Jami Tackett’s apartment in February 2004 and stabbing her to death. He was found at the scene by police covered in her blood. Preyor claimed the killing was done in self-defense after a drug deal gone bad, but the jury was unconvinced. He was convicted and sentenced to death in March 2005.

No witnesses for Preyor or Tackett attended the execution, according to TDCJ spokesman Robert Hurst.

During his latest appeals, Preyor’s attorneys argued that his trial lawyer, Michael Gross, was inadequate because he didn’t present evidence of a physically and sexually abusive childhood that could have swayed a jury to hand down the alternate sentence of life in prison.

“[The jury] did not learn that Preyor jumped from a fourth floor balcony as a teenager, breaking both his ankles in the fall, to escape his mother as she chased him with a knife,” attorneys Hilary Sheard and Cate Stetson wrote in a filing to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. “… Any competent counsel would have recognized the importance of uncovering these harrowing details and presenting them to the jury responsible for recommending a life sentence or a death sentence.”

Gross countered in an affidavit to the court that he interviewed many family members, friends and even Preyor himself and was never told of any abuse.

Preyor’s latest appeals also slammed his previous appellate lawyers, saying they committed fraud on the court by hiding the involvement of a disbarred attorney and asking for payment from the court when the family had already paid them. Preyor accused the disbarred (and now deceased) Philip Jefferson of misrepresenting himself as “retired” when Preyor’s mother approached him to take the case. They said Jefferson orchestrated the defense and recommended Brandy Estelle, a real estate and probate attorney, to file documents to the court. Estelle didn’t respond to requests for comment in the case.

“In an extraordinary fraudulent scheme, one lawyer who had been disbarred more than 20 years earlier and another lawyer who had never handled a death penalty case and relied on Wikipedia charged Mr. Preyor’s mother and the courts duplicative payments, while providing astonishingly incompetent ‘representation,’” Sheard and Stetson wrote in a statement Thursday afternoon.

Texas and Bexar County denied the fraud allegations and said the delays in Preyor’s case have been made “at the expense” of Tackett’s family. The courts agreed.

“The only fraud on the court alleged is that neither Preyor nor the court was aware that Jefferson was disbarred. To the point, the alleged fraud on the court is not that someone other than Estelle was orchestrating the case; it is not even that the case was poorly orchestrated. Instead, the alleged fraud on the court is the specific concealment of Jefferson’s disbarment from the court. It is difficult to see how this form of concealment affected the judgment of the district court,” said the denial from the 5th U.S. Circuit of Appeals issued Thursday.

The appellate court also criticized Preyor for filing his latest appeals in federal court 10 days before his scheduled execution even though his current attorney has been on the case since 2015. The court wrote that the “claim could have been brought at such a time as to allow consideration of the merits without requiring entry of a stay.”

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Man who fled to Mexico after murder charge 21 years ago arrested trying to re-enter US

A man who police say fled to Mexico more than two decades ago after he was wanted for a murder was arrested trying to re-enter the United States.

Ariel Arreola Ramirez, 43, was charged with murder in the death of Carmelo Salvador, then 60, on Aug. 31, 1996.

Salvador was shot at his apartment in the 7700 block of Mesa, and pronounced dead at the scene.

Houston police said Ramirez was identified as the suspect and charged with murder nearly two months later. Police believed Ramirez fled to Mexico and was never found.

Then in March of this year, investigators said Ramirez attempted to re-enter the U.S. in Laredo. He was arrested by U.S. marshals and transported to the Harris County Jail.

A White House spokesman has called the reports “fake news” and stated that President Trump believes it is a “witch hunt” orchestrated by Hilary Clinton supporters.

 

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Texas Senate passes bill to allow people to vote on whether a city can annex them

Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, answers questions about Senate Bill 6 on July 26, 2017.

No filibuster was going to kill annexation reform in the Texas Senate this time around.

The Senate on Wednesday tentatively passed Senate Bill 6, which would allow residents of areas up for possible annexation by cities to hold a referendum on whether the annexation can go through. The bill passed on a vote of 19-12. If it gets final approval from the Senate, it will head to the House.

“Today’s vote is a victory for the property rights of all citizens and I applaud my colleagues in the Senate for giving Texans a voice in the annexation process,” SB 6 author Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, said in a Wednesday release.

Under current law, a city can annex a territory within its extraterritorial jurisdiction without the support of the people who would be annexed. Backers of annexation reform say allowing people to vote on where they live is a fundamental American right. Detractors say allowing citizens to vote on annexation hurts a city’s ability to plan for expansion in a rapidly growing Texas.

The special session legislation is similar to a regular-session bill that died on the Senate floor in an 11th-hour filibuster by Democratic Sen. José Menéndez over concerns that the bill had no protections for land use around military bases.

As the Senate debated SB 6 Wednesday, it was clear neither Menéndez nor Campbell had forgotten the filibuster.

“The last time I yielded to you it did not go quite as I expected,” Campbell said before she gave the floor to Menéndez to ask questions about the legislation.

Just before the vote, Menéndez all but threatened another filibuster.

“We still have plenty of time in the special session,” he said. “Maybe we’ll get down to the last few days, and we’ll get to have a little longer conversation.”

Menéndez’s home city of San Antonio, which in June officially branded itself Military City USA, is home to numerous military bases, and local officials say that without annexation or some similar tool, developers can build within a city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction in a way that might compromise a base’s mission. It’s hard to effectively train sharpshooters with residential apartments next door, they argue.

“Annexation is the only tool that we have to protect those bases,” Menéndez said Wednesday.

But in a fiery floor speech, Campbell said she doesn’t buy the military base argument. She argued that cities have other regulatory tools that allow them to manage development around military bases.

SB 6 made it through the floor vote with just one major change: an amendment by Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, which lowered the population requirement for a county to have its cities be subject to a citizen vote on annexation from 500,000 or more to 125,000 or more.

On Tuesday, the House Urban Affairs Committee heard testimony from city officials on a broad swath of local control issues, including annexation. The mayors of San Antonio, San Marcos, and Plano each denounced proposals similar to SB 6.

John Thomaides, the mayor of San Marcos, said the city was able to successfully lure Amazon to open a facility in the city after it annexed the lot and built infrastructure there.

“This project created more than 3,000 permanent full-time jobs for our residents,” he said. “Without the power to annex we would not have the ability to compete for Amazon.com.”

At the State Affairs Committee hearing Sunday on SB 6, dozens of annexation reform backers lined up to weigh in on why they support the bill. One man compared municipal annexation to the Nazi invasion of France; another compared it to Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. One woman was visibly emotional as she spoke of how new city taxes might stretch her family’s budget too thin.

A few detractors weighed in as well — including city officials from Corpus Christi, Fort Worth, Sugar Land, San Antonio and Austin — who said annexation can be beneficial to cities and citizens alike when done properly.

“We are not the evil empire,” said Joe Zimmerman, the mayor of Sugar Land.

Emma Platoff and Andy Duehren contributed to this story.

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