Tue May 26, 2015 8:53 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

Gallup adoptionsAlthough public support for adoptions by same-sex couples has increased at a faster pace than same-sex marriage, anxiety by social conservatives and faith-based adoption agencies also has risen as the U.S. Supreme Court comes closer to ruling on whether gay marriage is a constitutional right. And that anxiety will play out in the Texas House today as state Representative Scott Sanford plans offers an religious freedom amendment to a family services bill to allow adoption agencies to discriminate based on religious beliefs.

Sanford had introduced HB 3864 to allow faith-based organizations to opt-out of adopting or fostering children with same-sex couples. The bill never made it any farther than the calendars committee. A similar bill by Senator Donna Campbell, SB 1935, never even received a public hearing in the Health & Human Services Committee.

But Sanford just last week won House approval of a bill to protect clergy from lawsuits if they refuse to perform same-sex marriages. The vote was 142-0. That was different, though, because it dealt more with a fear than a reality. In this case, the reality is faith-based adoption agencies may shut down unless they are allowed to continue to discriminate against same-sex couples on religious grounds.

Sanford told me that as much as a quarter of the adoption agencies in Texas may shut down if the Supreme Court rules in favor of same-sex marriage because adopting children to those couples would “violate their religious beliefs.” He noted that faith-based adoption agencies have shut down in states that have legalized gay marriage. His proposed amendment to a Department of Family & Protective Services sunset bill would allow these agencies to refuse to place children up for adoption or foster care based on religious beliefs.

Catholic Charities in Illinois, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia have closed their adoption agencies to avoid having to place children in the homes of same-sex couples. In Illinois, Lutheran adoption services and the Evangelical Child and Family Agency also shut down. As with the legislations here, bills were introduced this year in Michigan and Alabama to allow faith-based adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples. There also is similar legislation pending in Congress.

A quick look at the Texas Comptroller’s state spending web site shows the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services paid Catholic Charities $6.4 million for services in Fiscal Year 2014. Through both faith-based and secular agencies, the department that year placed 31,000 children in foster homes and another 5,231 in adoptive homes. There is no readily available record on how many of those homes might involve same-sex couples. But current law does allow faith-based adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples.

When the House held a public hearing on Sanford’s bill, the witness list appeared to be less about adoption and more about the social conservative and liberal activists groups that constantly fight over gay marriage. For Sanford’s bill were representatives of the faith-based legal operation the Liberty Institute, Texas Right to Life, the Texas Home School Coalition and Concerned Women for America. Against it were the Texas Freedom Network, Texas Impact, NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, The Lilith Fund for Reproductive Equity, Equality Texas and the ACLU of Texas.

The closest the witness list came to being directly involved with the issue was a representative of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops supporting the bill and a representative of the National Association of Social Workers opposing it. John Wright of the Texas Observer wrote an interesting story on the hearing, if you want to read more. 

We are only weeks away from the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, and, whatever its outcome, public sentiment is changing. If gay marriage is part of the culture war, surveys indicate social conservatives are losing. A Gallup poll last year found public support for same-sex adoptions outstripping public support for same-sex marriages.  There are 37 states have legal same-sex marriage, including 26 by lawsuits and 11 by either legislation or popular vote. Ireland last weekend voted to allow same-sex marriage in an election that many saw as a repudiation of Vatican policy by young Catholics

Even if Sanford’s amendment were to pass, it seems unlikely to survive even its first challenge in federal court if the Supreme Court rules in favor of same-sex marriage.  

Sanford plans to offer his amendment to a Family & Protective Services sunset bill being carried by Representative Cindy Burkett of Dallas. Burkett told me that she has worked on the bill for a year and a half to improve child services in Texas. She said she is pledged to fight off all amendments to protect the sunset bill. ”If it gets killed, it will set us back two years,” Burkett said.

 

Mon May 25, 2015 4:21 pm By Erica Grieder

Last week, after the budget conference committee started laying out its compromise agreement, the general impression around the Lege seemed to be that on the single most important bill of the session, the House had been steamrolled by the Senate. The conferees, in keeping with the stated priorities of Dan Patrick and the Senate, had agreed to include about $1.3bn for property tax relief and about $800m for border security over the forthcoming fiscal biennium. They also stuck with the Senate figure for public education—an additional $1.5bn compared to the 2014-15 biennium, as opposed to the $2.2bn the House had authorized in its version of the budget. The conferees also abandoned a House provision on Medicaid: the lower chamber had proposed an additional $460m for Medicaid reimbursement payments (in an effort to encourage more doctors to accept Medicaid payments), the Senate had not, and the conference committee abandoned the idea.

Some representatives were disappointed, understandably enough. The House passed its version of the budget on a 141-5 vote, and its sales tax relief proposal–the rival to the Senate’s plan for property tax relief–unanimously. (The Senate passed its budget later with a similarly huge 30-1 margin, but it’s easier for leadership to twist people’s arms in a chamber with only 31 members—especially this year, clearly.) And some representatives, additionally, were surprised. In addition to the fact that the House has been unusually cohesive this year, they had the more internally consistent approach to the process, the more experienced conferees, and on public education, at least, probably the more popular position.

From my perspective, both chambers won some and lost some, and the impression that the House lost overall is due to the fact that the House lost on a handful of visible issues, as a result of circumstances beyond their control; and if the House was going to lose, that was the best way to do it. How I see it, below the jump.

Read More
Mon May 25, 2015 8:09 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

As we pause today to pay respect to those who gave the “last full measure of their devotion” to their country, it is worth noting that the Texas House last night voted against cutting college benefits to military veterans.

Lawmakers are trying to maintain the so-called Hazlewood Act, which provides free college to military veterans. In 2009, it was expanded to include the children of veterans, who now dominate the program. According to an Associated Press report in the Austin American-Statesman the cost rose from $24.7 million in 2010 to $169 million last year. A bill passed by the Senate would have drastically reduced eligibility for the program.

 “How hypocritical that on the eve of Memorial Day, the day after our memorial day service, that this Legislature is trying to break its promise to veterans and their families,” said El Paso Democratic Rep. Cesar Blanco. He was referring to the House and Senate gathering in a special session Saturday to honor Texans killed in military service.

 

A watered-down version of the bill passed, allowing the children of veterans to obtain college benefits only if they have lived in the state for eight years. 

The Right Wing Stumbles On Abortion

After several legislative sessions of getting legislation passed restricting abortion, advocates found themselves stumbling over roadblocks on Sunday.

 

Read More
Sun May 24, 2015 10:41 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

Roscoe Dean Jr.A Georgia state senator named Roscoe Emory Dean Jr. and a small town city manager named Thomas Bigley taught me the real dangers to democracy of dark money and of leaving prosecutions of corrupt officials up to their local district attorneys. Roscoe and Tom tried to raise $10 million from Colombian drug lords to finance Dean’s campaign for governor.

My experiences from covering Dean’s corruption has made me disappointed in the various “ethics reforms” bouncing around the Texas Legislature this year. The reforms often are petty and political, while others are designed to turn legislators and state officials into a special class of people not subject to the same laws as everyone else in the state. And as much as I dislike so-called dark money, don’t expect an ethics bill that includes its disclosure to get past Governor Greg Abbott. As a Texas Supreme Court justice in 1998, Abbott wrote the opinion protecting donors to political groups from being subject to disclosure.

 

Read More
Thu May 21, 2015 12:19 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

A new report in the Houston Chronicle discloses that higher-education critic Jeff Sandefer gave $200,000 to the American Phoenix Foundation, but he wants his money back because he does not like the group’s hidden camera investigation of legislators and says the money was not used for educational puposes as he expected. 

Reached for comment Thursday, Sandefer said he was not aware of the group’s plan to secretly film lawmakers and was unhappy with his investment after he received no feedback on how the group was using his money.

“I was unaware that they were planning to film politicians. Our intent was that they were going to train journalists,” Sandefer said. “We were unhappy with a lack of progress in training journalists and asked for the money back. And we did not receive any money back.”