Thu February 19, 2015 12:43 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

 

Although apparently limited to Travis County, a court ruling today resulted in Texas’s first same-sex marriage since it was banned by the state Constitution after a statewide vote in 2005. The marriage of Sarah Goodfriend and Suzanne Bryant, who have been together for more than thirty years, initially side-stepped efforts by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to prevent it. But by mid-afternoon, the Texas Supreme Court had put both the lower court and the marriage on hold.

“The Court’s action upholds our state constitution and stays these rulings by activist judges in Travis County,” Paxton said in a statement following the Supreme Court’s orders. “The same-sex marriage license issued by the Travis County Clerk is void, just as any license issued in violation of state law would be. I will continue to defend the will of the people of Texas, who have defined marriage as between one man and one woman, against any judicial activism or overreach.”

The drama started to unfold Tuesday when probate Judge Guy Herman ruled the state’s ban on same-sex marriages is unconstitutional. Sonemaly Phrasaveth wanted to have her marriage to Stella Powell legally recognized. Powell had died of colon cancer last year. Paxton appealed the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court on Wednesday.  In a statement, he said:

“Texas law is clear on the definition of marriage, and I will fight to protect this sacred institution and uphold the will of Texans, who voted overwhelmingly in favor of a constitutional amendment defining the union as between one man and one woman. The probate judge’s misguided ruling does not change Texas law or allow the issuance of a marriage license to anyone other than one man and one woman.”

But then Thursday morning state District Judge David Wahlberg issued an order to Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir to issue a marriage license to Goodfriend and Bryant, who immediately were married by Rabbi Kerry Baker. For a full report on the marriage, please read the Austin American-Statesman story. 

The issue at present is limited to Travis County. A federal judge last year declared the state ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional but put his ruling on hold pending appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on such bans nationwide this year. There remain questions about whether the marriage will remain legal if the state Supreme Court overturns Herman’s ruling, but for the moment, the state’s only same-sex marriage was legal.  

Supporters of same-sex marriage celebrated the milestone on social media on Thursday. But opponents weren’t giving up. Rep. Cecil Bell, R-Magnolia, has introduced House Bill 623 to prohibit payments to county clerks who issue same-sex marriage licenses. Bell admits no state money goes to the clerks, but he said it would empower county commissioner courts to block payments for marriage licenses at the local level. Bell said if the U.S. Supreme Court upholds state bans on gay marriage, then today’s wedding in Austin will be meaningless because Texas still will not recognize same-sex marriages. “Then that piece of paper will be just that, a piece of paper. They will have a piece of paper and nothing more.”

UPDATE: Paxton has asked the Texas Supreme Court to block the court order and declare the marriage invalid.

“The Texas Constitution clearly defines marriage as between one man and one woman, as Texas voters approved by an overwhelming majority. The law of Texas has not changed, and will not change due to the whims of any individual judge or county clerk operating on their own capacity anywhere in Texas. Activist judges don’t change Texas law and we will continue to aggressively defend the laws of our state and will ensure that any licenses issued contrary to law are invalid.”

Without stating an opinion, the Texas Supreme Court issued two stays to halt any further action on the Travis County court cases, put the legal status of the marriage on hold until further court proceedings and to keep any other county clerks from issuing same-sex marriage licenses.

Earlier in the day, Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick issued statements supporting Paxton. Abbott’s statement said, “Article 1, Section 32 of the Texas Constitution defines marriage as consisting ‘only of the union of one man and one woman’ and was approved by more than three-quarters of Texas voters. I am committed to ensuring that the Texas Constitution is upheld and that the rule of law is maintained in the State of Texas.” Patrick said, “I fully support the Attorney General’s emergency appeals and efforts to fully enforce the laws of Texas. I hope the Texas Supreme Court will respond in a timely fashion in addressing General Paxton’s appeals.”

(AP Photo | Eric Gay)

Thu February 19, 2015 10:05 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

As I stood in the Capitol rotunda this week waiting to speak to one of the sheriffs in town for Sheriffs’ Day, a nicely dressed woman in her late thirties asked me for directions to registration. Registration? As a lobbyist? “Yes, she replied. I want to lobby for marijuana.” My confusion was then resolved: she was a citizen at the Capitol to petition her Legislature to make marijuana legal in Texas, a prospect not likely to happen, as noted in today’s The Dallas Morning News

Nearly 300 marijuana enthusiasts made their way to the Texas Capitol on Wednesday to persuade tough-on-crime Republicans to loosen their stance on the drug.

They were sober and dressed to impress. And though lawmakers may give their proposal some consideration, their hopes are likely to go up in smoke.

Fully legalized recreational marijuana as in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington is not likely to happen. But there is a slim change bills will move forward for medical marijuana, not the kind that is smoked but in an extract where the key ingredient, Tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, is available for a variety of conditions, from controlling epileptic seizers to easing the suffering of chemotherapy. The poster child for the medical marijuana movement is Alexis Bortell, who has epilepsy, as reported on by The Fort Worth Star-Telegram and WFAA television.

Alexis Bortell’s story has attracted attention across Texas.

“Medical cannabis will help me,” the 9-year-old told WFAA.com. “It’s illegal in Texas, and we’re trying to change that.”

Two Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Stephanie Klick of Fort Worth, recently introduced legislation to legalize medical marijuana — not the kind you smoke, but rather cannabis oil. But it won’t be legal anytime soon.

In the meantime, Alexis’ family has decided to move to Colorado, where it is legal.

 

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Tue February 17, 2015 3:49 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

In a pointed moment of Greg Abbott’s State of the State speech, the governor called out freshman House member Will Metcalf. Abbott said the Republican from Conroe is the youngest member of the Legislature, having been born in 1984. “For his entire life, the State of Texas has been mired in litigation about school funding,” Abbott said. “I think we can all agree it’s time to put school finance litigation behind us. It’s time to stop fighting about school finance and start fixing our schools.”

Abbott was mostly correct. The only governor who has not had a school finance lawsuit hanging over his or her head since 1984’s Edgewood v. Kirby lawsuit was George W. Bush, also once known as Señor Suerte, Mr. Lucky. As Bush took office, the Texas Supreme Court ruled the so-called Robin Hood school finance plan adopted under Ann Richards was constitutional. Bush was free of the school finance headache. However, because of changing finances and demographics, no school finance funding formula remains intact for more than about ten years. So the school districts went back to court in 2003, and the state has been in litigation ever since, with a district judge ruling the system unconstitutional last year.

A decade of arguing has resolved little, and Abbott’s call to solve public school finance in Will Metcalf’s lifetime sounded like bold leadership. But like much of the rest of Abbott’s State of the State speech, he offered policies that polished the edges of Texas’ challenges without solving the bigger problems. For instance, the biggest problem of school finance is how to distribute money fairly and who has to pay for it. That is the detail that has bedeviled many of a state politician, and Abbott appears to be one more.

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Mon February 16, 2015 9:27 am By R.G. Ratcliffe

During Rick Perry’s tenure as governor, finding the nexus between campaign donations and government contracts or public policy was about as difficult as finding a rock in a quarry. Along with a few others, I practically made a career out of seeing the dots and putting them together. The library of material was so extensive that when Sarah Palin started talking about “crony capitalism” during the 2011-12 presidential campaign there was little doubt that her remarks were aimed at Perry. Now that Greg Abbott has replaced Perry, we should start wondering what all the money that put Abbott in the governor’s office will or won’t buy. Although we can easily say Abbott will be conservative as governor, it is still too early to tell whether he will feel a necessity to reward those political donors beyond a few appointments as university regents or to the Parks & Wildlife Commission. At the same time, when the inaugural committee for Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick released a list of donors to the $4.7 million party, I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was a report of the investment bank for would-be supplicants or a check list of special thank-you notes that Abbott and Patrick will have to sign.

Most of the first-glance news reports on the subject looked at the most obvious donors: Walmart, which wants a state liquor license or Charles and David Koch, who want government downsizing. There were questions raised about a state lottery vendor, Gtech, giving $50,000, and about how other donations came from gambling interests. The devil, however, often is not among the usual suspects who will turn up at the top of the list in almost every major Republican campaign in Texas. (Note, the Democrats have their list of regular donors as well, but I don’t care about them at the moment.) The story of how government operates often is in that second tier of donors, the unusual or the ignored. So I borrowed the list from the Texas Tribune and went through it to find some of the donations that aren’t regularly the scrutiny of media watchdogs. Here’s just a few:

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Thu February 12, 2015 8:58 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe
Blame it on unease caused by the 2008 recession. Blame it on the election of Barack Obama, a Democrat, as president. Blame it on fears of terrorists slipping across the border. On Thursday, when the Senate State Affairs Committee took up SB 17—a measure which would legalize the open carry of handguns—its author, Craig Estes, said that the bill sought to right “an ancient wrong.” Maybe; as Estes noted, Texas has banned open carry of handguns since the 19th century. 
 
Politically speaking, though, open carry is a recent issue. And support for open carry has grown alongside an explosion in the number of Texans seeking the license required to legally carrying a concealed handgun. Texas legalized concealed carry in 1996, with the provision that to get a CHL, individuals would have to undergo training, proficiency testing, and background checks for criminal convictions and mental health problems. Over the next dozen years, there was a slow and steady increase in the number of licenses issued by the Department of Public Safety. Even after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there was no rush of Texans to obtain CHLs.
 
But since 2008 the number of licenses issued by DPS has exploded.
 
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