2012, From the Iowa Caucuses to the Mayan Apocalypse

Gov. Rick Perry at the state Capitol on Dec. 19, 2012.
Gov. Rick Perry at the state Capitol on Dec. 19, 2012.

As 2012 began, Gov. Rick Perry was coming to the end of an embarrassing presidential race. As it ends, he’s deftly entertaining steady inquiries about his plans for another run at the governor’s office, or for president, or for both.

It was that kind of year.

The federal courts moved the primaries from March to May and the runoffs from May to July, changing the political clock to the benefit of some challengers and to the consternation of some established candidates.

The leading examples of that are Ted Cruz, days away from being sworn in as the newest United States Senator from Texas; and David Dewhurst, who has returned to his post as the state’s lieutenant governor. Cruz was virtually unknown to Republican primary voters less than 12 months ago. Dewhurst won statewide elections in 1998, 2002, 2006, and 2010. Go figure.

Four statewide officeholders are openly expressing interest in higher offices in 2014 and the field is already growing. Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples — both of them former state senators — have their eye on the lieutenant governor’s job and have said so publicly. Comptroller Susan Combs has told supporters she’s interested in that job, too. And Attorney General Greg Abbott, who’s got more political money in the bank than anyone else in the state, would like to replace Perry in the governor’s office. Whether that’s a friendly or unfriendly succession — and it’s timing — is a matter of vigorous speculation in Austin as the year comes to an end. Numerous state legislators are looking for promotions, too, depending on what opens up and who looks weak. It’s only 2012, and the elections just cooled, but the 2014 game is well underway.

In the elections just ended, voters put a lot of new people in office. In the 150-member House, 44 members will be serving in their first legislative session next year. The Senate will start with five new members and will get a sixth after a special election replace the late Mario Gallegos, D-Houston.

The Organization for the Disruption of Every Other December remains strong and diligent — a way of saying some House members are trying to stir up a real challenge to Speaker Joe Straus while another group is doing what it can to quell the insurrection. David Simpson, R-Longview, wants the job and is calling around for support.

Perry ends the year with an anniversary of sorts. He became governor on December 21, 2000, meaning his 12th anniversary as governor fell on the date of the Mayan Apocalypse.

Ready for 2013?

Texas Officials Seek End to Federal Election Oversight

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at the Flawn Academic Center on the University of Texas at Austin campus on Nov. 6, 2012.
Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at the Flawn Academic Center on the University of Texas at Austin campus on Nov. 6, 2012.

It has been 48 years since the landmark legislation known as the Voting Rights Act was enacted and 38 years since Texas was added to the list of states covered under one of the act’s key provisions — Section 5. It requires federal clearance of any changes in the state's election laws. 

That could all change in February if the U.S. Supreme Court decides it’s time to amend or eliminate Section 5, which requires either a district court in Washington or the U.S. Department of Justice to approve laws that affect elections in states or territories with histories of racial discrimination. Texas is one of nine states entirely covered by Section 5. Other states, like California and Florida, are partially covered. Section 5 was renewed in 2006, under President George W. Bush, and is in place until 2031 unless the courts strike it down.

Lawmakers saw its effect in force this year, when Texas’ redrawn political maps and the state’s contentious voter ID laws were denied federal preclearance. Now, GOP champions of voter ID and redistricting are hopeful the nation's highest court will make the measure a part of history.

In the case, Shelby County, Alabama v. Eric Holder, et al., the plaintiffs argue that Section 5 “is seriously flawed and undermines the principle of equal sovereignty,” and that Congress overstepped its authority when it extended the act in 2006. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott filed an amicus brief with the court in August supporting Shelby County’s claim.

“As recently as two months ago, Justice [Anthony] Kennedy stated from the bench that Section 5 places Texas at a disadvantage compared to other states,” Abbott wrote then. “The Department of Justice is using Section 5 to deny Texas the right to enforce a law that is allowed under the U.S. Constitution. Section 5 cannot trump the Constitution."

David Richards, a veteran civil rights attorney, cautioned against predicting what the court might do, but said one vote could be the deciding factor. The issue, he added, is nothing new to the court, which considered the provision in 2009.

“We’re dealing with a court that’s divided four-four on the continuation of the statute with [Justice] Kennedy being in the position about which way it goes,” he said.

The court could also establish a middle ground, he said.

“Anyone that thinks they can predict what the world is going to look like in 25 years is full of beans,” he said. “But … a midpoint position could be that Congress may well have justification for extending the act — there’s been a history that justifies it — but the 25-year extension is excessive and [lawmakers] are going to write a drop dead date for the extension.”

Analysts have pointed to the November election and its high turnout rate among minorities and seniors as a sign that voter suppression doesn’t exist. Others argue that the high turnout was a result of the law's protections.

Attorney Michael Li, who runs the website Texas Redistricting, said one election is not enough to support either theory completely.

“Just because you have some bad laws doesn’t mean you can’t win some of the time,” he said. “And just because you win some of the time doesn’t mean you’re not still moving backward” and being discriminatory.

What is known, he added, is that Texas lawmakers were found by a panel of federal judges to have intentionally discriminated when lawmakers drew the current redistricting maps. Only the preclearance check in Section 5 stopped them.

School Finance Trial Will Make Mark On 83rd Legislature

A final decision in the school finance trial against the state, involving more than two-thirds of its districts and charter schools, likely won’t happen until after the lights go out in the 83rd Legislature. But that doesn’t mean what’s happening inside of the courtroom now won’t have an impact on policy under the pink dome during the next six months.

District Court Judge John Dietz plans to reach his verdict quickly after the trial concludes its last few weeks early this year. That will likely be appealed by one party or another no matter what, leaving the Texas Supreme Court to weigh in sometime over the summer — and lawmakers to reconvene to address its findings sometime after that.

The goals of one party in the suit, Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, an organization made up of school choice advocates, parents, and business interests, align particularly with the agenda of leaders in the state Senate like Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Sen. Dan Patrick, the Houston Republican who chairs the upper chamber’s education committee. They're pursuing aggressive changes that expand the choices available to public school students in the state, increasing the number of charter schools, finding sources of public money to open up private schools, and breaking down the traditional boundary lines upon which schools have typically based their enrollment. 

TREE attorneys are attempting to prove that the state’s public education system is fundamentally flawed because it is a monopoly, and their arguments seek many of the same solutions proposed by Dewhurst and Patrick.

The testimony of state witnesses could also provide cover for lawmakers who voted for funding cuts last session — and who want to avoid restoring that money this session. Just before the trial’s holiday break, the state called University of Missouri economist and expert on education spending Michael Podgursky to the stand; he testified that increased spending doesn’t translate to increases in student performance, especially when studies are adjusted for factors like student-teacher ratios.

“I don't agree with the belief that if you spend a certain amount of money, you can predict that there will be a certain level of improvement in student achievement,” he said. “There is no evidence of a positive relationship between student performance and spending by a school district."

Then there is the bombshell dropped by an official from the Texas Education Agency, which that had previously staunchly defended the rigor of the new state standardized tests, during the state’s first day of defense. She revealed that the agency is recommending lowering the performance threshold on the new exams that students must reach to be considered college-ready. Only half of high school graduates met the standard last year. And among the ninth grade students who took the English I end-of-course exams for the first time the spring, only 3 percent — and only 17 percent who took the Algebra I exams — met the current "advanced" standard to be college-ready, which determines whether they must take a placement exam evaluating whether they need remediation before entering college.

Shortly after, a coalition of business leaders reversed what had seemed an intractable position on the accountability measures originally passed by House Bill 3 in 2009. Presenting a plan that recommended letting local school districts determine how end-of-course exams factor into students' final grades, reducing the number of exams they must pass to graduate and providing different ways to earn a high school diploma, they said it was the result of a six-month-long "listening tour" across the state where they heard the concerns of educators, business leaders and elected officials.

Texas Weekly Newsreel: Money and Guns for Schools

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, unveiled their school choice legislation, without many financial details and hardly a word about vouchers. And last week's schoolhouse shootings in Connecticut prompted Texas legislators to propose changes in the state's gun laws. 

Inside Intelligence: Another Look at Gun Laws...

After the theater shootings in Colorado in July, we asked the insiders about revisiting gun laws. After the schoolhouse shootings in Connecticut, we repeated the exact same questions and found that the answers have changed signficantly over the last five months. 

In July, most of the insiders said lawmakers didn't need to revisit state and federal gun laws. That has flipped, with 55 percent now saying lawmakers ought to address that subject. 

Most of the insiders — 64 percent — now say lawmakers should do something outside of gun law changes to help prevent such assaults. In July, only 37 percent felt that way, while 46 percent said there wasn't anything lawmakers should do.

Finally, we asked then and now whether current gun laws are too restrictive or not restrictive enough. A slight majority felt the laws were not restrictive enough back in July — that number has now risen to 58 percent. And the number who said the laws are too restrictive is smaller now, but still accounts for one in five respondents. 

We asked for comments, and the insiders were talkative. A complete set of the responses is attached and we've included a sampling below. 


Should lawmakers revisit federal and state gun laws?

• "Assault weapon ban must be reinstated. But I don't like the odds of that happening as long as NRA remains unwilling to look at one single solitary firearm and say 'you know, THAT one probably shouldn't be in the hands of the public.”

• "They need to broaden to allow school teachers, administrators, and board members to carry concealed handguns."

• "Doing more will do nothing but limit guns to the sane. According to Nora Ephron 'Insane people are always sure that they are fine. It is only the sane people who are willing to admit that they are crazy.”

• "The gun show loophole should be closed, there should be better coordination between all levels of government on background checks, and more resources should be spent on mental health treatment."

• "Those metal detectors went up pretty fast after a gun was discharged at the state capitol. Is the legislature willing to pay for that level of security at every school and university?"

• "If I thought for a second that lawmakers could tell the difference between just making it more burdensome for anybody to get or carry a firearm, or differentiating between law-abiding folks and the potentially criminally insane, I would have answered HELL YES. But since I have no faith that they will, they probably shouldn't even try."

• "They might consider REQUIRING teachers to have CHLs and weapons to defend innocent children."

• "The shame of the matter is, every time one of these events takes place, the public and national media go bonkers about how people shouldn't have guns. I agree people like this crazy nut should not, but if only one person in the crowd were armed and properly trained, this could have been avoided, at least to the extent that it occurred."

• "Heresy in Texas, but the assault gun ban should be reinstated and high capacity magazines should be banned from use by civilians. Enhanced penalties for possession, sale, or theft of combat styled guns. Close the gun show loophole. Federal law please -- too important to leave to our state."

• "Any changes would be in the wrong direction."


Are current gun laws too restrictive or not restrictive enough?

• "Goldilocks: JUST RIGHT"

• "They are about where they should be."

• "I personally have never had a problem buying a gun nor did I have a problem getting my CHL so I'm not sure if the current state's gun laws are too restrictive. BUT, in my old neighborhood it was pretty easy to get a gun, even one with the serial numbers sanded-off. No background checks or curious questions about buying it; it was simply a business transaction between a buyer and a seller that could have been for protection or for nefarious reasons."

• “It is crazy, we are limited to two packages at a time of Sudafed, but you can buy 6,000 rounds of ammunition, a semi-automatic rifle and no red flags are raised. As a hunter, I never needed a semi-automatic ride, hundreds of boxes of ammunition or a need to purchase a gun immediately.”

• "Lives may have been saved at Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook if more adults had been allowed to carry handguns on those campuses."

• "We need to allow the feds access to the medical records of anyone wanting to purchase a gun. As much as I dislike proposing this notion, the issue that we should be trying to address is mental illness."

• "The real problem is (the lack of) 'bullet laws.' why can someone in American buy enough bullets to stockpile an amount sufficient to kill over 700 people. That’s absurd."

• "Curious that you didn't offer the option 'Current laws adequate'. I think we are probably at a pretty good place on our current gun laws. We have certain laws in place, but they do not unnecessarily restrict the rights of law-abiding citizens. I find no compelling reason to create new onerous restrictions infringing on the rights of law abiding citizens to try (and fail) to stop the behavior of one lone lunatic."

• "I do not think that cracking down on types of guns has proven effective."

• "There needs to be a conversation about mandatory background checks, waiting periods and mental health history needs to be included in the application process."


Is there something lawmakers could or should do — not involving gun laws — to help prevent assaults like this?

• "Have more people armed who can provide a safety net. If a principal or teacher would have been armed, they could have ended the incident earlier."

• "Allow teachers to be armed at the school and school functions."

• "Fund greater access to affordable mental health care."

• "Increase funding and support for mental health programs."

• "Revise the juvenile justice laws so that parents are far more accountable for how they raise their children."

• "Instead of Perry's approach of arming teachers with guns, buck up and give our schools additional money for trained security personnel, screening devices and facilities modifications. Teachers don't really need an added responsibility. Lawmakers have a model right before them--- the Texas State Capitol Building."

• "Limit the number of bullets you can buy and require law enforcement at schools."

• "Identify, treat, and monitor high-risk individuals."

• "A serious commitment to more research (and funding) into mental illness, with a connect between the results of that, and the ability of those at risk to get firearms and carry them, would be nice. But, of course, the clinically insane NRA would never allow it."

• "They can do whatever they want, but they do not have the resources to put an officer on every campus or on every classroom."

• "Allow conceal carry in more locations so that no place is safe for murderers."

• "Mental healthcare is clearly underfunded."

• "Gun laws aren't the problem. The problem is mental health. Time to get serious about helping those who need help."

• "There is no answer other than parents."

What would be the best policy or legal response to incidents like this one?

• "Require gun owners to secure their weapons in a gun safe."

• "Carry laws for teacher make sense as the most restrictive guns laws possible still won't stop the crazies."

• "Ban clips and multi-round weapons"

• "The media needs to quit sensationalizing and enshrining mass murderers. Don't tell us their reasons and let them die or rot in jail anonymously."

• “1. Mourn the dead, grieve for the families. 2. Gather the facts. The amount of misinformation immediately after CT is staggering... 3. Have an adult conversation. Find the common ground and move forward with that. Baby steps. What's not needed is emotional, knee-jerk reaction to tragedies. Bad way to make policy.”

• "Increase access to mental health resources and keep guns away from people who should not have access to them. Let us not forget that the weapons used belonged to the mother and were purchased LEGALLY! The buyer did not perpetrate this horrific crime!"

• "Ban assault weapons, high powered ammunition, increase background, including mental health checks, checks, and limit the number of guns allowed to be purchased in a calendar year."

• "Promote concealed carry."

• "No more high-capacity clips. Require liability insurance and biometric trigger locks for assault rifles."

Our thanks to this week's participants: Cathie Adams, Brandon Aghamalian, Jenny Aghamalian, Jennifer Ahrens, Victor Alcorta, Clyde Alexander, George Allen, Jay Arnold, Charles Bailey, Walt Baum, Andrew Biar, Allen Blakemore, Tom Blanton, Chris Britton, David Cabrales, Lydia Camarillo, Thure Cannon, Snapper Carr, Janis Carter, Corbin Casteel, Elna Christopher, Rick Cofer, John Colyandro, Harold Cook, Beth Cubriel, Randy Cubriel, Denise Davis, Hector De Leon, June Deadrick, Tom Duffy, David Dunn, Richard Dyer, Jeff Eller, Wil Galloway, Neftali Garcia, Norman Garza, Bruce Gibson, Stephanie Gibson, Eric Glenn, Kinnan Golemon, John Greytok, Clint Hackney, Wayne Hamilton, Bill Hammond, John Heasley, Ken Hodges, Steve Holzheauser, Kathy Hutto, Deborah Ingersoll, Cal Jillson, Jason Johnson, Bill Jones, Mark Jones, Robert Jones, Lisa Kaufman, Robert Kepple, Tom Kleinworth, Sandy Kress, Pete Laney, Dick Lavine, James LeBas, Luke Legate, Leslie Lemon, Ruben Longoria, Vilma Luna, Matt Mackowiak, David Marwitz, Dan McClung, Mike McKinney, Robert Miller, Bee Moorhead, Mike Moses, Steve Murdock, Craig Murphy, Keats Norfleet, Pat Nugent, Nef Partida, Gardner Pate, Bill Pewitt, Tom Phillips, Wayne Pierce, Allen Place, Royce Poinsett, Gary Polland, Jay Propes, Ted Melina Raab, Bill Ratliff, Tim Reeves, Patrick Reinhart, Kim Ross, Jeff Rotkoff, Jason Sabo, Andy Sansom, Jim Sartwelle, Stan Schlueter, Bruce Scott, Robert Scott, Bradford Shields, Jason Skaggs, Brian Sledge, Ed Small, Martha Smiley, Larry Soward, Dennis Speight, Jason Stanford, Bob Strauser, Colin Strother, Michael Quinn Sullivan, Sherry Sylvester, Jay Thompson, Russ Tidwell, Gerard Torres, Trey Trainor, Ware Wendell, Ken Whalen, Darren Whitehurst, Woody Widrow, Christopher Williston, Seth Winick, Peck Young, Angelo Zottarelli.


The Week in the Rearview Mirror

Lawmakers condemned grant policies at the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas that left room for potential conflicts of interest, and criticized a lack of transparency at the CPRIT Foundation, a non-profit that supplements the salaries of some of the institute’s leaders. And top leaders have called on the CPRIT oversight board to place a moratorium on new CPRIT grants until things are sorted out.

In response to last week's Connecticut school shooting, state Rep.-elect Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, says he will file legislation to allow public school teachers to carry concealed weapons while on campus. He wasn't alone. Attorney General Greg Abbott said 78 Texas school districts do not meet state-mandated safety standards to protect students. Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, have both said publicly that the events in Connecticut could have been avoided if school officials had been armed. And Gov. Rick Perry suggested that local control should rule — and school districts should decide for themselves whether to allow their employees to carry firearms.

Texas comes in dead last in funding for mental health, according to the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health. The study cited was conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and showed that per capita spending on mental health was lower than any of the other 49 states and also the District of Columbia. 

Students who were discouraged from enrolling in the El Paso Independent School District might be visited by district officials working on the testing scandal that led to sanctions by the Texas Education Agency. A group called the Alpha Initiative is reaching out to students, and hopes to offer them a chance to return to school and earn their diplomas.

Having students wear name badges with embedded radio chips is a violation of their religious freedom according to federal court testimony in a lawsuit that arose in Northside ISD. Andrea Hernandez and her father Steven both testified that they object to the radio frequency identification tags because they are a sign of submission to the Antichrist detailed in the Bible. 

Texans pay the highest homeowner premiums in the nation, rising more than 3 percent in one year, according to a report from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. The 2010 figures show an average policy in Texas cost $1,560, against a national average of $909. Insurance officials blame the high cost of insuring Texas homes, which are subject to hailstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes and increasingly, damages from extreme drought.

The Port of Houston is anxiously watching negotiations between longshoremen and the organization representing ports, the United States Maritime Alliance. They haven’t been able to reach an agreement and when the longshoremen’s contract expires on December 29. A strike or a lockout could be costly for the port; a lockout on the West Coast in 2002 was estimated to have a $1-billion-a-day impact on the economy.

Political People and their Moves

Ray Martinez and Jason Smith are joining the Cross Oaks Group, a lobby shop founded by Jim Dow and former Rep. Mark Homer. Martinez was most recently chief of staff to Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo. Smith is a lobbyist and political consultant who worked in the House and also on Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential campaign. 

Former Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg, is joining Austin-based Crosswind Media and Public Relations. He was first elected to the House in 2002 and didn’t seek reelection this year. 

Spencer Yendell will be the new communications director at the Republican Party of Texas, replacing Chris Elam, who is leaving to work on Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson’s 2014 bid for lieutenant governor. Yendell was most recently a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Francisco Canseco, R-San Antonio.

The federal complex in Midland has a new name, honoring the last two presidents from Texas as well as a former congressman. It’s a mouthful: the “George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush United States Courthouse and George Mahon Federal Building.”

Quotes of the Week

One of the things that I hope we don’t see from our federal government is this knee-jerk reaction from Washington, D.C., when there is an event that occurs, that they come in and they think they know the answer.

Gov. Rick Perry, to a Tarrant County group after the Connecticut shootings, quoted in the Dallas Morning News

I've heard of people being killed playing ping-pong — ping-pongs are more dangerous than guns. Flat-screen TVs are injuring more kids today than anything.

Rep.-elect Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, in the Bryan Eagle

The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.

A spokesperson for the National Rifle Association in a statement addressing the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut

The moment I step back in to my country I will be assassinated — not by a cartel member, but by my own government.

Mexican asylum seeker Juan Fraire Escobedo, during a protest outside the office of the Mexican consulate in Austin

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Feliz Ramadan — whatever you all celebrate.

Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, visiting the Texas Tribune offices