Wed July 2, 2014 12:36 pm By Paul Burka

Wendy Davis clearly won her exchange with Greg Abbott over whether the public had the right to know where dangerous chemicals may be stored. Abbott had previously ruled that “government can withhold state records of dangerous chemicals locations [from the public].” Abbott’s advice to families concerned about the issue bordered on the preposterous: “You know where they are if you drive around,” he said. “You can ask every facility whether they have chemicals or not. If they do, they can tell which ones they have. Homeowners who think they might live near stores of dangerous chemicals would simply ask the companies what substances are kept on site."

Read More
Fri June 27, 2014 2:06 pm By Paul Burka

The issue of the state's inadequate highway infrastructure has reared its head again. Most of the issues should be well known by this time:

(1) First and foremost, to keep up with demand for roadbuilding, TxDoT needs around $4 to $5 billion a year, every year.

(2) The main source of money for roadbuilding is the state's gasoline tax, which has not been increased since 1991. The chance that state leaders will support an increase in the tax is slim to none.

(3) The increased efficiency of new automobile engines means that drivers can go farther on less gasoline, with the result that the gasoline tax can't provide the money that is needed to build and maintain the state's road system.

(4) The frequently-heard argument that money from gasoline taxes should not be diverted to other uses is a phony one. Recent budgets have called for using gasoline tax dollars to fund the Department of Public Safety. If the Legislature doesn't dip into gasoline tax receipts to fund DPS, it will use them to fund other transportation projects (such as highway maintenance).  

(5) The Legislature has proposed a constitutional amendment, to be voted on by the public in November, to provide $1.3 billion for highway projects. Even so, the dollars provided by the amendment will be a drop in the bucket for roadbuilding. It costs $250,000 to build an interchange.

(6) Those opposed to the amendment argue that state leaders should not dip into the Rainy Day Fund, the state's savings account, to build roads. But oil and gas tax revenue has been so lucrative that the Rainy Day Fund quickly replenishes itself. As long as oil and gas keep flowing, there is little reason for concern that the Rainy Day Fund could run out of money. (One argument for protecting the Rainy Day Fund is that a major hurricane or similar disaster could seriously deplete the fund.)

(7) Transportation is an economic issue. Clogged highways result in time lost sitting in traffic, making it difficult for businesses to get their goods to market.

(AP Image / LM Otero)

Read More
Thu June 26, 2014 4:40 pm By Happy Carlock

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis drew a large crowd, decked in orange, to the Palmer Events Center in Austin yesterday evening, on the anniversary of her eleven-hour filibuster against a bill that sought to tighten restrictions on abortions in Texas. From a policy perspective, the filibuster had mixed results: Davis and the Senate Democrats succeeded in delaying a vote until after the midnight deadline, so the bill died--but it was quickly revived, and passed, after Governor Rick Perry called a second special session. In political terms, though, the filibuster was a coup for Davis. It hugely boosted her name identification among Texans and her fundraising capacity around the country. In October, when Davis announced that she would run for governor, Democrats had high hopes.

A year later, polls show Republican nominee Greg Abbott leading the race by a wide margin. And so Davis used the anniversary to rally the Democratic base—but also, perhaps, to reassure her supporters that whatever the outcome in November, their efforts have not been for nothing. For much of her campaign, Davis has avoided focusing on abortion while struggling to gain ground among moderate voters. Last night, although she left her pink sneakers at home, she spoke just as fervently on the subject as she did one year ago.

“We speak up and we fight back to take our state away from politicians like Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick who think that they know better than a woman, her family, her doctor, and her God,” she said.

Davis criticized Abbott for opposing abortion even in the cases of rape and incest, and she blamed Republicans in general for denying Texas women access to birth control and cancer screenings in their quest to limit abortions. Since the bill passed during the second special session, she noted, more than a dozen clinics that provided abortions have been shut down.

But those facilities, she argued, aren’t the only thing at stake. She referred to Texas Republican leaders as an “old insider network” and accused them of  for exploiting veterans, laying off teachers, and overcrowding Texas classrooms. “As much as we filibustered to fight for reproductive rights and healthcare for women, we filibustered to fight against an abusive power by political insiders who look out for themselves and their allies instead of hard working Texans,” she said.

Davis’ colleague Leticia Van de Putte, now the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, also spoke at the event, as did state senator Kirk Watson, state representative Senfronia Thompson, and Cecile Richards, the president ofthe Planned Parenthood Federation of America (and daughter of former Texas governor Ann Richards). The crowd greeted each speaker with name-chanting and cheering, and the speakers offered nostalgic accounts from the day of the filibuster, as well as fighting words for the future.“We’re all in,” Richards said, and vowed to do “any damn thing it takes” to restore reproductive rights in Texas.

None of them talked about the polls, or mentioned any of the turbulence in Davis’s campaign, which saw some staff turnover earlier this month. But the candidate herself, encouraging her supporters, seemed to acknowledge the long odds. “You inspired me to believe in something that I had almost forgotten,” Davis said. “That even in tough times, that even if you eventually lose the battle, there is freedom in the fight.”

Read More
Thu June 26, 2014 2:10 pm By Erica Grieder

[Editor's note: The July issue of Texas Monthly features a long interview with outgoing governor Rick Perry, as well as a "Report Card" in which we graded the governor's record in eight areas of public policy. One of those was public education. The governor earned a D. Earlier today we received the following letter from Michael Williams, the Texas Commissioner of Education, arguing that Perry deserves more credit. We thought it would be good to give you his take, too, and we encourage commenters to weigh in too. As for me, I'll just say that from my perspective, the appropriate question isn't whether Texas's schools are better than California's, etc. The appropriate question is this: are our public schools good enough for the great state of Texas? --EG]

Over the past decade, Texas has raised academic standards to unprecedented levels, had more minority students taking the steps they need to prepare for college, and seen our graduation rate bloom to one of the highest in the nation.

As Commissioner of Education, I’ve seen firsthand the hard work of students and educators across our state – efforts that are now bearing considerable fruit and boding well for the future of Texas. Far from the dire landscape portrayed by Texas Monthly in its July 2014 issue, public education is flourishing under Governor Perry’s leadership, and the steps we’ve taken will enable a generation of young Texans to acquire the skills they will need in our evolving economy.

Read More

Tue June 24, 2014 1:23 pm By Paul Burka

Yesterday brought a small setback for Greg Abbott, who is, as attorney general, tasked with defending Texas’s current system for funding public schools: a visiting judge has decided that John Dietz, the district judge who has been presiding over the school finance lawsuits that have been inching their way through the courts for two and a half years, can remain on the case.

 Abbott had sought to have Dietz removed from the case on grounds of favoritism toward the plaintiffs, but I don’t think he ever had a prayer of succeeding. The attorney general had pointed to emails Dietz exchanged with lawyers working on the case in recent months. Those emails did make it clear that the judge agreed with the school districts on many matters. But that was also clear from his verbal ruling, in February, that the system is unconstitutional, from the fact that he has explained his reasoning to lawyers on both sides since then, and from the fact that the state’s case, after the $5 billion budget cut enacted in 2011, is clearly tenuous. In any event, this clears the way for the case to proceed, inch by inch. 

Read More