Possible Tighter Flounder and Trout Restrictions Questioned

Photo courtesy of Gary Hurst / Flickr

Photo courtesy of Gary Hurst / Flickr

Catching spotted sea trout and flounder along the Gulf Coast is more than just a point of pride for outdoorsmen in Texas. The pastime attracts sporting fishermen from around the world, part of a renowned saltwater recreational fishing industry that adds $2 billion to the Texas economy each year.

So the mere suggestion of new restrictions being placed on the saltwater fish has generated heated discussion along the coast — with some claiming that small-time fishermen will be pushed out to make way for richer anglers.

“It’s a big emotional deal,” said Andrew Sansom, who led the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department from 1990 to 2001 and is now executive director of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University.

Flounder and spotted trout have been the subject of strict regulation for 30 years, when their decimated populations prompted state officials to all but ban their commercial harvest. Only a few dozen commercial licenses to fish flounder exist today.

Last week, officials with the Parks and Wildlife Department discussed the possibility of imposing additional restrictions on the two fish, which are among the most sought after in Texas. In November, during flounders’ spawning season, fishermen can catch only two fish per day. The department is considering lengthening that period of such a low “bag limit,” or maximum allowable catch. In addition, the bag limit for spotted trout may be reduced to five from 10 year-round.

“It’s really about what we call helping the bag distribution, trying to get people to be able to harvest more fish,” said Jeremy Leitz, a statistician for the department.

He added that when it comes to trout, “not many people catch the current bag limit at 10.”

Not everyone agrees. “There’s nothing to show that changing these bag limits has increased the pleasure, has increased the numbers, increased anything,” said Johnny Valentino, whose family manages a fishing camp on Galveston Bay that is popular with saltwater trout anglers. “It’s all about ‘trophy trout’ fishing,” he added, referring to putting sport fishermen who want to catch the biggest fish ahead of anglers who just want to enjoy the sport and put some fresh food on the table.

That is understandable, given that the bay is one of the most successful spots for landing trout, said Everett Johnson, a retired fishing guide who is now the editor and publisher of the Texas Saltwater Fishing Magazine.

“They have substantially more freshwater inflow by virtue of their geography,” Johnson said of Galveston Bay. “Trout do better in fresher water,” so anglers there are the most likely to see no need for limiting an already stellar catch.

But Galveston Bay might also represent a culture of fishing that has been slowly disappearing — the angler who fishes for food, Sansom said. Putting limits on their catch “is a cultural assault.”

Sansom agrees that such anglers would be hurt by additional regulation. But the threat to saltwater fish in Texas from severe weather and increasingly advanced and better fishing techniques is real, he said, and regulators should not wait until it is too late to protect them.

“Remember that all of these animals have to live in an environment that sustains them,” Sansom said. “You can’t affect the climate, and the state hasn’t been very forthcoming in setting rigorous inflow standards” for freshwater, so lowering the bag limit is “what you’re left with.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/01/17/talk-tighter-flounder-trout-restrictions-questione/. Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.

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Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune

Neena Satija, The Texas TribuneNeena Satija covers the environment for the Tribune. A native of the Washington, D.C. area, she graduated from Yale University in 2011, and then worked for a number of area news outlets, including the New Haven Independent, the Connecticut Mirror, and WNPR/Connecticut Public Radio. She has also been a regular contributor to National Public Radio. She previously worked for the Toledo Blade, the Dallas Morning News, and the Boston Globe. In her spare time, she enjoys singing (especially in group settings), running, and playing the addictive board game Settlers of Catan. As an East Coast transplant she is particularly thrilled with Austin tacos and warm weather.

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Fight in Texas Over Payday Loans, From Capitol to Campaign Trail

Photo courtesy of Daniel Micka / iStock

Photo courtesy of Daniel Micka / iStock

The payday lending controversy that exploded in the governor’s race in recent weeks highlights the state’s lack of regulation and the challenge that lawmakers have faced with an issue that has been as contentious at the Capitol as it is on the campaign trail.

Last year, a major legislative effort to impose state regulations on lenders failed, and since then, Houston has joined Austin, Dallas, El Paso and San Antonio in passing a city ordinance to limit the loans. Now, the issue of so-called predatory lending is flaring in the gubernatorial race amid calls for the resignation of Gov. Rick Perry‘s appointed head of the governing board of the agency charged with regulating the credit industry and educating consumers, who is also an executive for one of the lenders. 

In Texas, where payday and auto-title lending is a $4-billion-a-year industry with some 3,500 businesses, there are no limits on fees or loan sizes. Supporters of the industry say lenders offer a needed service to consumers who have few options for short-term loans. Critics say the businesses prey on struggling Texans by charging high fees and trapping borrowers in a cycle of debt.

“You’ve got these people doing stuff in Texas that they wouldn’t dream of doing anywhere else in the country,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston. “It is truly the wild, wild west.”

Texans get larger loans and pay higher fees than consumers in the nation as a whole, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank that has pushed for state reforms. Texans spent $1.2 billion in payday and auto-title fees in 2012, and 35,000 cars in the state were repossessed.

Texas was one of 27 states that had payday lending regulations that the Pew Charitable Trusts characterized as permissive in 2013. Fifteen states had no payday loan storefronts, and nine others had stores but also had strict requirements.

Some argue, though, that less regulation in Texas is better. Bill Peacock, vice president of research at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, said Texas has “one of the most competitive payday industries in the country.”

“So-called consumer advocates often complain that consumers are getting a bad deal, but consumers are voluntarily entering into these arrangements because they need access to capital,” said Peacock, who opposes city ordinances and state legislation that increase regulation of the industry.

Payday lending became an issue in the governor’s race when the leading Democratic candidate, state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, called for the resignation of William White, chairman of the Finance Commission of Texas, following comments he made to the El Paso Times in December. White, a vice president of payday lender Cash America, told that newspaper that nobody forces anyone into loans and that “people are responsible for their decisions.” The campaign of Republican gubernatorial front-runner Greg Abbott has pointed out that Davis voted to confirm White in 2011.

Davis has also drawn attention to a 2006 letter written by Abbott, the state’s attorney general, that she said created a loophole for payday lenders when it said there is no limit to fees that may be charged by lenders operating as credit service organizations. Abbott’s campaign has said Davis’ loophole claim is false.

In the Senate, Davis has called for more state regulation of payday lending. Abbott campaign spokesman Matt Hirsch said Abbott would be “open to any and all reforms that will make Texas better.”

During the 2013 legislative session, lenders joined consumer advocates in working with lawmakers to craft legislation to create uniform regulations for payday lenders across the state. But there were sharp disagreements over the details of those regulations, and on the Senate floor, Davis and others added amendments to the bill that its author, Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, said left it with little hope of passage. Since its failure, Houston, the state’s largest city, became the latest to adopt its own rules for payday lenders.

Houston’s ordinance, which is similar to those passed in other Texas cities, limits payday loans to 20 percent of the borrower’s gross monthly income. It limits loans to no more than four installments or three renewals and requires that the proceeds from each installment or renewal reduce the loan principal by 25 percent.

Ellis said passing the ordinance was a “big coup” over industry opposition. State Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, said it would protect families and foreshadowed future state-level action.

“For too long, the working families of Houston have been preyed upon by payday lenders as they tried to survive from month to month,” Garcia said in a statement when the ordinance passed in December with the support of a coalition including religious leaders and AARP.

But the ordinances in Houston and other cities might be unenforceable or invalidated by courts, said Carona, chairman of the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce.

Carona said the legislation he proposed last year would have saved Texas consumers millions of dollars in fees, protecting them “from the cycle of debt while preserving their access to credit and the basic fundamentals that support our free-market economy.” The proposal would have pegged the maximum permissible loan a lender could offer to a borrower’s monthly income, limited the number of financial products lenders could offer and capped the number of times an indebted borrower could refinance a loan.

After the failure of the state legislation, which would have pre-empted local ordinances, Houston Mayor Annise Parker moved forward with her proposal.

Rob Norcross, a spokesman for the Consumer Service Alliance of Texas, said the trade association or its members “reluctantly” expect to sue Houston and El Paso over the cities’ ordinances, as they have done in Austin, Dallas, San Antonio and Denton.

The Dallas ordinance isn’t working, Norcross said. More than 75 payday lending stores have closed in the past two years, resulting in the loss of 200 jobs, he said. The ordinance is forcing consumers to drive to a neighboring city for loans or to bounce checks because they can’t get the type of loan they need in Dallas, he said.

“Unfortunately, we’re playing political games with people’s pocketbooks,” Norcross said. “If what we’ve seen in Dallas in the last two years is statewide, that would be a significant problem for the viability of the industry but, more importantly, a significant problem to access credit for Texas borrowers who, in a lot of instances, don’t have any place else.”

Norcross said much of the criticism of the industry results from people not understanding the numbers, such as how annual percentage rates work for small, short-term loans. An interest rate of 400 percent may sound high to people until they learn that could mean that someone borrowed $100 and had to pay back $117, he said.

While the alliance has concerns about city ordinances, it has always been in favor of a statewide regulatory framework over city ordinances, Norcross said.

“No, they don’t want statewide regulation,” Ellis said of the industry. “What they want is a statewide card to keep abusing Texas families.”

While legislation failed to pass in 2013, lawmakers did pass measures in 2011 requiring payday and auto-title lenders to be licensed by the state and to post a schedule of fees in a visible place. Consumer advocates said those laws didn’t go far enough.

Don Baylor Jr., a senior policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said he is pessimistic about chances that the Legislature will pass statewide reforms in 2015, in part because cities with ordinances don’t want to lose local control.

Carona said in an email that he would continue to work toward reform but that it was an uphill battle.

“Given the political environment at the Capitol, I am deeply concerned that we will have an even tougher time passing significant reforms during the next legislative session,” Carona wrote.

Additional reporting by Jay Root.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/01/15/payday-lending/. Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.

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Corrie MacLaggan, The Texas Tribune

Corrie MacLaggan, The Texas TribuneCorrie MacLaggan is the demographics reporter at the Texas Tribune. Previously, the Austin native worked as a national correspondent for Reuters, writing and editing stories about Texas and nearby states and overseeing a network of freelance writers. Before joining Reuters, she covered Texas government and politics for the Austin American-Statesman, writing about everything from gubernatorial races to food stamp application backlogs. She spent her first year at the Statesman writing for the newspaper's weekly Spanish-language publication.

She has also worked in Mexico City, where she wrote for publications including the Miami Herald's Mexico edition, Latin Trade magazine and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Her first reporting job was at the El Paso Times. Corrie is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she studied journalism and Spanish.

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Enrollments Grow in Texas, Where Uninsured Rates Are High

Photo illustration courtesy of Todd Wiseman, The Texas tribune

Photo illustration courtesy of Todd Wiseman, The Texas Tribune

Texas enrollments in the online insurance marketplace created under the Affordable Care Act rose nearly eightfold in December, according to 2013 figures that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released Monday.

Texas ranks third in the number of 2013 enrollments following the troubled launch of healthcare.gov on Oct. 1. As of Dec. 28, nearly 120,000 Texans had purchased coverage in the federal marketplace, up from 14,000 one month before.

The number represents a tiny fraction of the uninsured in Texas, which has a higher percentage of people without health coverage than any other state. In 2012, more than 6 million Texans, about 24 percent of the population, lacked health insurance, according to U.S. census data.

Florida led the nation in the number of 2013 enrollments, with 158,000. In a media call from Tampa, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius praised Florida’s high enrollment numbers. Like Texas, Florida has a largely unfavorable political climate toward the Affordable Care Act, and a high rate of the uninsured, at 21 percent. HHS officials offered no explanation for why more people enrolled in some states compared with others.

“The numbers show that there is a very strong national demand for affordable health care made possible by the Affordable Care Act,” Sebelius said in the call announcing the enrollment data, adding that nationwide enrollment had reached nearly 2.2 million.

The data offers a first glimpse at demographic trends surrounding enrollment in the federal insurance marketplace. Texans between the ages of 18 and 34 accounted for 26 percent of those who signed up for coverage. Texans between 55 and 64 made up the largest demographic group of enrollees, at 29 percent.

Women of all ages constituted a majority of Texas enrollments: 55 percent. That was consistent with the nationwide trend. HHS officials said the trend was expected. Maternity care, newborn care and contraception are among the 10 categories of benefits that all health insurance plans must cover under President Obama’s health care law.

Enrollment breakdowns by race are not currently available, federal health officials said.

Three-quarters of Texans who purchased health plans in the exchange in 2013 received financial assistance, according to the HHS data. That percentage, which is less than the median rate of 80 percent for the 36 states operating under the federal exchange, might have been larger had Texas expanded Medicaid to cover poor adults. Texans living below the poverty line do not qualify for subsidies.

The Affordable Care Act requires most Texans to carry health insurance by March 31. The federal health law had a rocky start in October when the healthcare.gov website launched with major glitches. In past months, Sebelius has frequently apologized for the performance of the marketplace, but Monday’s announcement was a departure from the conciliatory tone.

“Americans are finding quality affordable coverage in the marketplace, and best of all, because coverage began on New Year’s Day, the promise and hope of the Affordable Care Act is now a reality,” she said.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/01/13/health-enrollments-surge-rate-uninsured-remains-hi/. Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.

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Edgar Walters, The Texas Tribune

Edgar Walters, The Texas TribuneEdgar Walters is a reported for the Texas Tribune.

 

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Percentage of Foreign-Born Texas Is Growing

Photo of Houston traffic and skyline courtesy of Joel Willis

Photo of Houston traffic and skyline courtesy of Joel Willis

A growing percentage of Texans are originally from foreign countries, including one in four in the state’s most populous county, Harris, according to new census data.

Over a five-year period ending in 2012, Texas had the nation’s seventh-highest share of foreign-born residents: 16 percent, an increase from 14 percent in 2000 and 9 percent in 1990, according to U.S. Census American Community Survey data released last month.

In the state’s most populous counties, 23 percent of Dallas County residents were foreign born, as were 16 percent in Fort Worth’s Tarrant County, 18 percent in Austin’s Travis County and 13 percent in San Antonio’s Bexar County.

And Houston’s Harris County saw its percentage of foreign-born residents increase to 25 percent, up from 22 percent in 2000 and 14 percent in 1990.

“Houston has become one of the great magnets for the new immigration,” said Stephen Klineberg, a Rice University sociology professor.

Across the country, in 1960, foreign-born residents were typically from Europe; now, they’re more likely to be from Latin America and Asia. There are now more foreign-born Americans than ever before, though they make up a smaller percentage of the nation’s population than they did a century ago.

In Harris County, immigrants have come from Mexico and El Salvador, Vietnam and India, some with vast amounts of education and others with virtually none, to work as everything from doctors and engineers to construction workers and cooks. Houston — the nation’s fourth-largest city — is also a major destination for the resettlement of refugees from all over the world. And foreign-born residents of other U.S. states have also come to the Houston area.

Among Harris County’s more than 1 million foreign-born residents are state Rep. Hubert Vo, the first Vietnamese-American elected to the Texas Legislature, and Nandita Berry, who was tapped by Gov. Rick Perry in December as Texas’ first Indian-American secretary of state.

Klineberg expects the share of immigrants in the county to decline in future censuses because immigration has slowed and the children of many immigrants are coming of age and having U.S.-born children. Houston will still be a very diverse area, he said, but with growth fueled by U.S.-born Asian-Americans and Hispanics.

“No force in the world is going to stop Houston or Texas or America from becoming more Latino, more African-American, more Asian and less Anglo as the 21st century unfolds,” Klineberg said.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/01/02/increasing-share-foreign-born-residents-texas/. Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.

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Corrie MacLaggan, The Texas Tribune

Corrie MacLaggan, The Texas TribuneCorrie MacLaggan is the demographics reporter at the Texas Tribune. Previously, the Austin native worked as a national correspondent for Reuters, writing and editing stories about Texas and nearby states and overseeing a network of freelance writers. Before joining Reuters, she covered Texas government and politics for the Austin American-Statesman, writing about everything from gubernatorial races to food stamp application backlogs. She spent her first year at the Statesman writing for the newspaper's weekly Spanish-language publication.

She has also worked in Mexico City, where she wrote for publications including the Miami Herald's Mexico edition, Latin Trade magazine and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Her first reporting job was at the El Paso Times. Corrie is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she studied journalism and Spanish.

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As Year Begins, Texas Governor’s Race Will Heat Up

Photos courtesy of The Texas Tribune and Alan Kotok

Photos courtesy of The Texas Tribune and Alan Kotok

State Sen. Wendy Davis, who got off to a slow and often rocky start in her race for Texas governor, will ring in the New Year with a much bigger bank account and an aggressive new strategy designed to keep front-running candidate Greg Abbott on the defensive.

For Abbott, a three-term attorney general, it’s steady as she goes: He’ll keep unveiling carefully crafted policy initiatives and tying Davis to President Obama while remaining hyper-cautious in his own dealings with the news media — lest he become the first Republican in nearly a quarter-century to blow a governor’s race.

Welcome to the marquee political contest this year in Texas, where the gubernatorial primaries are all but decided and both candidates are looking toward a November showdown with knives drawn.

“I’m looking for both of the campaigns to get very aggressive as soon as they find it strategically sound,” said Jim Henson, a Texas Tribune pollster and the director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “I would expect that ethics and character are going to be big parts of both of those efforts.”

For the Abbott campaign, that means making the most of Davis’ private dealings as a lawyer, particularly her partnership with Gov. Rick Perry’s former chief of staff, Brian Newby, and their long list of public-sector clients who have interests before the Texas Legislature.

The Davis campaign, meanwhile, is hammering Abbott over his role — or lack thereof — overseeing the troubled Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, whose former chief commercialization officer was indicted over allegedly lax vetting procedures related to a cancer research grant.

Polls show it’s still Abbott’s race to lose. But the Republicans are facing something Texas hasn’t seen in years: a Democrat who is about as recognizable to Texans as their own standard-bearer. Davis, a Harvard-trained lawyer, became an instant celebrity after waging an 11-hour filibuster of a restrictive abortion bill over the summer.

Her stardom didn’t change the conservative leanings of the Texas electorate, of course. But it gave her a head start because one of the most important tasks for any campaign is boosting name ID, and for Davis that was accomplished literally overnight.

Her status as a feminist icon and Democratic hero also turned her into a fundraising powerhouse. The day after her announcement on Oct. 3, the campaign exceeded a 24-hour goal of $500,000, Davis said, and she has spent much of her time crisscrossing the country raising money in California, Washington, D.C., and the East Coast, according to press reports and Abbott supporters who are more than happy to emphasize her out-of-state dough.

The public will get a better sense of the resources the candidates have at their disposal in mid-January, when the next campaign finance reports are due. In the summer, Abbott reported more than $20 million in the bank, compared with about $1 million for Davis. With so much money piled up so far and plenty of GOP donors anxious about a Democratic resurgence, the attorney general is expected to maintain a financial advantage in the race, and probably a significant one.

But one Democratic ally familiar with Davis’ fundraising operation says her campaign is “satisfied” with the haul.

“It’s going to be a big number,” the ally said.

It hasn’t been all roses for the titan in pink tennis shoes, though. Her launch was rocky literally from the beginning, when aides told the media not to leak word of the location of her Oct. 3 announcement but then proceeded to profusely leak it to supporters and donors.

Then within days of the announcement, a round of thank-you emails to donors listed the wrong website for her campaign, directing people instead to an anti-Davis site that’s running a flattering video about Abbott. Her campaign also listed the wrong address to an event at around the same time in San Antonio, causing some reporters to show up late.

As winter set in, Davis began racking up some unflattering headlines in the news media.

“Wendy Davis is not ready for prime time,” blared a highly critical column in the McAllen Monitor, which faulted the campaign for a logistically glitchy South Texas event and the candidate’s seemingly hands-off approach to the issue that made her famous — the “A-word: abortion,” as the columnist put it.

Others, including Texas Monthly‘s Paul Burka, wondered out loud — in blog posts titled “Where’s Wendy?” and “Where’s Wendy (Part II)?” — why Davis wasn’t hitting Abbott harder on the issues, from energy pricing to education.

“The perception came together that they were sort of not being aggressive enough,” said Republican political strategist Matt Mackowiak. “I think that probably started to hurt them.”

Henson, the UT political scientist, said Davis was saddled on the one hand with sky-high expectations — ultimately impossible to meet — and an atrophied Democratic Party infrastructure on the other. As a result, Abbott mostly got a “free ride” and valuable time to boost his profile while she was trying to build a campaign from scratch, get people in the field and put money in the bank, he said.

More recently, though, the Davis campaign has been striking a decidedly tougher tone, a development some insiders are attributing to newly installed campaign manager Karin Johanson, a veteran of difficult, high-stakes political contests.

When Abbott began touring Texas to tout ideas for education reforms, for example, Team Davis pounced with attacks on the attorney general’s role as the lawyer who’s defending $5.4 billion in education cuts made by the Legislature in 2011.

Abbott says he was just doing his job, but Davis aides and surrogates have repeatedly pressed him to either embrace or repudiate the cuts. Abbott says he can’t talk about the cuts and then defend them in court in the ongoing school finance trial. The Davis camp has also hit Abbott for refusing to take a position on major issues, from school vouchers to immigration and threatened or endangered species protection.

Like Davis, the Abbott campaign also had some early boo-boos. In September, Abbott distanced himself from a Tweet of a top adviser, who re-broadcast the suggestion that Davis was “too stupid to be governor.”

Earlier, he had faced criticism for thanking a supporter who, in a Twitter message praising the attorney general, had called Davis a “Retard Barbie.” Abbott said the tweet was accidental and called the language his supporter used “reprehensible” and “completely unacceptable,” according to the Houston Chronicle.

None of the mistakes, on either side, have changed the fundamentals of the race. Texas was and is a Republican state, and for those who like to handicap political races, this one leans rather heavily in favor of Perry’s heir apparent. Like Perry, Abbott can draw on the GOP’s well-oiled turnout machine, a long list of supportive officeholders and the deep pockets of dozens of pro-business donors.

But as Democratic consultant Glenn Smith likes to point out, weird and unexpected things can happen in elections — as they did in 1978, when Democrats ruled Texas similar to the way the GOP does now.

“Wendy is an underdog,” said Smith, a former aide to Gov. Ann Richards. “So were the Republicans when Bill Clements got in. And he won.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/01/01/texas-governors-race-getting-more-heated/. Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.

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Jay Root, The Texas Tribune

Jay Root, The Texas TribuneJay Root is a native of Liberty, Texas. He never knew any reporters growing up, and he has never taken a journalism class in his life. But somehow he got hooked on the news business.

It all started when Root walked into the offices of The Daily Texan, his college newspaper, during his last year at the University of Texas in 1987. He couldn't the resist the draw: it was the biggest collection of misfits ever assembled. After graduating, he took a job at a Houston chemical company and soon realized it wasn't for him. Root applied for an unpaid internship at the Houston Post in 1990, and it turned into a full-time job that same year. He has been a reporter ever since.

Root has covered natural disasters, live music and Texas politics — not necessarily in that order. He was Austin bureau chief of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for a dozen years, most of them good. He also covered politics and the Legislature for The Associated Press before joining the staff of the Texas Tribune.

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The Year in Review: Texas Politics

davis-perry-cruzRick Perry announced that he will leave office, just in time for the children born his first year in office to enter high school.

Wendy Davis and Ted Cruz rode their soap boxes into the political stratosphere, with her attempting to jump from the state Senate to the Governor’s Mansion and him kicking the tires on a presidential run, with visits to states that wouldn’t normally be intriguing to a U.S. senator from Texas.

It’s the year the Democrats unveiled new plans to get back into a competitive position in Texas state politics, and the year that the obstacles fell from the Republican political ladder and freed a swarm of candidates to run for statewide office.

2013 was supposed to be a political interim, a year when the focus of Texans interested in civics turned from mostly politics to mostly policy. With a couple of exceptions — including the constitutional amendment on water and the race for mayor in Houston — the ballots were quiet.

The year started with Cruz taking office after his surprise defeat of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in 2012, and with the Legislature coming to work with a huge Republican contingent that was just short of the supermajority needed to completely ignore the Democrats.

Cruz immediately made it clear that he wasn’t going to follow the longstanding advice to freshman members of any legislative body — that they should take their seats and close their mouths until they have a few years of experience. With a talent for getting in front of cameras and a ready message for Republicans coming out of a disappointing national election in 2012, he ends his first year in office better known to friends and foes than many senators in their second and third terms.

That legislative situation was new, too. A supermajority doesn’t have to listen to a minority, and Republicans in the Texas House who were almost impervious to Democratic influence in 2011 started 2013 ready to talk. What followed got the regular biennial meeting of the Legislature branded “The Kumbaya Session,” with members pulling together on prickly issues from water to the state budget. They restored 2011’s public education cuts. They left that session, the legislative equivalent of a G-rated Pixar movie, and started a series of special sessions that could have been scripted by Quentin Tarantino, focused on messy political issues like redistricting and abortion and women’s health.

Lawmakers forfeited some of the goodwill that marked the first five months of the year. And they made a star of Davis, the Democratic state senator from Fort Worth whose filibuster on abortion and women’s health services marked the end of the first special session. The legislation itself passed in another special session and got Perry’s signature. It’s now being litigated. But the livestreamed event got international attention, and the politician at the focal point — Davis — is now running for governor. She might have run for statewide office without that boost. But with it, she instantly built a fundraising base around the country and kindled hope among Texas Democrats who have been shut out of statewide office for almost two decades.

A couple of weeks later, the other side of the governor’s race opened up, when Perry announced he wouldn’t be seeking another term in 2014. That freed Attorney General Greg Abbott to get into that race without challenging the incumbent and set up a potential general election next year — assuming both win their primaries — between a couple of candidates with interesting personal stories and easy-to-distinguish political profiles.

Perry’s decision to get out of state politics triggered a game of musical chairs on the Republican side of the ballot. Democrats were free to file for any office; since no Democrats hold statewide posts, the candidates don’t have to defer to any officeholders. On the Republican side, Perry’s move opened Abbott’s job. Dewhurst is the only Republican in statewide executive office trying to hold his current position, but he’s weakened by his loss to Cruz in last year’s U.S. Senate race. Three officeholders who supported him then are opposing him now. Among other things, that means the offices — land commissioner, agriculture commissioner and a state Senate seat — are open.

Since 1994, the last time the Democrats won a statewide race in Texas, all a Republican has had to do is get out of the GOP primary alive. That’s harder this year, with all of the candidates. And the Democrats hope to change the math in November.

A year ago, out-of-state liberals announced a program they call Battleground Texas, designed to organize Texas voters and make the state competitive in November elections. The national math behind that is compelling for both parties: Without Texas’ electoral votes, it would be virtually impossible for a Republican to win the presidency without flipping a number of other states. The Battleground Texas organizers said at the start that they didn’t expect fast results, and that they might not chalk up big wins for four years, or six.

Some Democrats are hoping candidates like Davis — and like state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, a San Antonio Democrat running for lieutenant governor — can speed that up and turn the state purple.

Political maps make that proposition more difficult in races for Congress and the state Legislature. Most districts were drawn to favor one party or the other, and only a few could go either way, given the current behavior of voters. Higher turnout could change things in a few districts, but in most, the numbers are set. With some shifts possible here and there, the next versions of the Texas House and Senate, and of the state’s congressional delegation, will probably look a lot like they look right now, with respect to parties.

One more thing about Texas politics in 2013: national politics in 2016. Perry didn’t say he was done with politics — just that he won’t seek another term in the state’s top position. He has not said he wants to run for president again after his ill-fated run for the nomination last time, but he is doing the sorts of things one might do if one wanted to investigate the possibility of another run for national office. Cruz’s explorations, already noted, could put another Texan into the mix.

And this wasn’t even supposed to be a political year.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2013/12/31/2013-year-politics/. Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.

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Ross Ramsey, The Texas Tribune

Ross Ramsey, The Texas TribuneRoss Ramsey is managing editor of the Texas Tribune, and continues as editor of Texas Weekly, the premier newsletter on government and politics in the Lone Star State, a role he's had since September 1998. TW was a print-only journal when he took the reins in 1998; he switched it to a subscription-based, Internet-only journal by the end of 2004 without a significant loss in subscribers. As Texas Weekly's primary writer for 11 years, he turned out roughly two million words in more than 500 editions, added an online library of resources and documents and items of interest to insiders, and a daily news clipping service that links to stories from papers across Texas.

Before joining Texas Weekly in September 1998, Ramsey was Associate Deputy Comptroller for Policy with the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, also working as the agency's Director of Communications.

Prior to that 28-month stint in government, Ramsey spent 17 years in journalism, reporting for the Houston Chronicle from its Austin bureau and for the Dallas Times Herald, first on the business desk in Dallas and later as the paper's Austin Bureau Chief.

Prior to that, as a Dallas-based freelance business writer, he wrote for regional and national magazines and newspapers. Ramsey got his start in journalism in broadcasting, working for almost seven years covering news for radio stations in Denton and Dallas

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George P. Bush’s Run Adds to Debate on Hispanics and GOP

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore

Fighting the perception that Hispanic candidates struggle to win statewide Republican primaries, many party officials have pointed to the 2014 land commissioner’s race, which features George P. Bush, the odds-on favorite, whose mother was born in Mexico.

But many political observers in Texas say that Bush, the grandson of former President George H.W. Bush and son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, should not be seen as the start of a trend. After all, Bush has a  famous — and non-Hispanic — name. Candidates with Hispanic surnames are still expected to face challenges in Republican primaries in Texas.

Bush, the founder of a Fort Worth-based investment firm and a co-founder of the Hispanic Republicans of Texas political action committee, is running against David Watts, an East Texas businessman, in the 2014 Republican primary. The winner will face John Cook, a Democrat and a former mayor of El Paso, and Steven Childs, a Libertarian.

Bush declined to be interviewed for this article, but a spokesman, Kasey Pipes, said Bush was proud of his Hispanic heritage and believed “his conservative values are a natural fit for Hispanic voters in Texas.”

While Bush is seen as the favorite in his race, Mike Baselice, a longtime pollster for Republicans in Texas, said that Bush would probably poll 5 to 10 points lower than his opponent if he had a Hispanic surname and one that was not as politically prominent. Baselice said his research showed that candidates with non-Hispanic surnames generally received more votes in Republican primaries.

That is especially the case, Baselice added, in races farther down the ballot, with candidates who are relatively unknown.

“If they’re not well known, it’s the propensity for voters in the Republican Party primary, by a few points, to select the other guy or the non-Hispanic name,” Baselice said. “Once you become known, it’s a whole different game than when you’re starting out.”

Steve Munisteri, the chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, dismissed the idea that Hispanic candidates were handicapped in the primaries by their surnames, citing Ted Cruz’s  victory in the 2012 race for the U.S. Senate and recent legislative wins by other Hispanic Republicans.

In fact, Munisteri said, Hispanic candidates could “have a slight advantage, given the party’s awareness of the need to attract Hispanics.”

Baselice, who was Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s pollster in his unsuccessful race against Cruz, said that Cruz’s low name identification among primary voters during the campaign was a reason he finished second in the primary. Once the race went to a runoff, Baselice said, Cruz was able to win because he could raise more money and get his message out.

Munisteri, who has worked to increase the party’s outreach to Hispanics, said a victory by Bush would fit within the party’s “Hispanic-inclusive framework.”

“I think it adds to the message that the state GOP has been saying for three years,” Munisteri said, referring to a welcome of more Hispanic voters and an invitation to them to assume leadership positions.

With a win, Bush would become the fourth Hispanic Republican in statewide elected office, joining Cruz, Judge Elsa Alcala of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and Justice Eva Guzman of the Texas Supreme Court. Alcala ran unopposed in the 2012 Republican primary in 2012; Guzman defeated another Hispanic Republican in 2010.

Still, Hispanic candidates have fared poorly at times in Republican races, particulary in statewide races that are farther down the ballot.

A former railroad commissioner, Victor Carrillo, lost a 2010 Republican primary against a lesser-known opponent, David Porter, despite outspending him and running as an incumbent. (Carrillo was appointed to the position in 2003 to fulfill an unfinished term and won an election the year after.)

In a letter to supporters after his defeat, Carrillo said his ethnicity and Hispanic surname were factors in his loss.

“Given the choice between ‘Porter’ and ‘Carrillo’ — unfortunately, the Hispanic surname was a serious setback from which I could never recover, although I did all in my power to overcome this built-in bias,” he wrote.

Justices Xavier Rodriguez and David Medina of the Texas Supreme Court, who were also first appointed to their positions, lost to challengers with non-Hispanic last names as well.

With few Hispanic Republicans running for statewide office, James Henson, a Texas Tribune pollster and director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said there were too few cases to label those losses as “systematic.” But he added that context was crucial.

Some conservative primary voters, Henson said, could justify voting for an unknown candidate with a non-Hispanic surname over a Hispanic candidate by pointing to discussions of loaded partisan issues — like border security or immigration — surrounding an election and connecting negative perceptions on these issues to candidates based on ethnicity.

“There’s enough of a cultural norm that people should feel that they should not make discriminatory judgments based on ethnicity,” Henson said, adding that voters could look for a rationale to justify voting against candidates with Hispanic surnames.

“There’s probably a lot more to how people react to Hispanic candidates than just the surname,” he said.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said Hispanic Republicans in Texas were not “necessarily doomed” in an election, but he agreed that the success of Hispanic Republicans in Texas was dependent on the mood of the electorate and specific election circumstances of each election.

Vargas said the rise of prominent Hispanic Republicans like Cruz and Bush was encouraging for other Hispanics looking to run for office.

“It shows that Latinos can be viable in either party and that no party has a lock on Latinos as either voters or candidates,” Vargas said. “It’s one of the strengths of the Latino community. It participates in both political parties and should not be ignored by either.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2013/12/29/side-effects-hispanic-surnames-texas-politics/. Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.

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Alexa Ura, The Texas Tribune

Alexa Ura, The Texas TribuneAlexa Ura covers politics and Latino voters for The Texas Tribune, where she started as an intern. While earning her journalism degree at the University of Texas at Austin, she was a reporter and editor for The Daily Texan. A Laredo native, Alexa is fluent Spanish-speaker and is constantly seeking genuine Mexican food in Austin.

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Considering the Toll of War in a Death Penalty Debate

Dennis and Patty Thuesen look through photos of their son John from his childhood and his service in the military. John, an Iraq war veteran, is appealing his death sentence for the murders of his girlfriend and her brother, Rachel and Travis Joiner, claiming that lawyers at his original trial did not adequately inform jurors about his PTSD. Photo courtesy of Callie Richmond.

Dennis and Patty Thuesen look through photos of their son John from his childhood and his service in the military. John, an Iraq war veteran, is appealing his death sentence for the murders of his girlfriend and her brother, Rachel and Travis Joiner, claiming that lawyers at his original trial did not adequately inform jurors about his PTSD. Photo courtesy of Callie Richmond.

The car would not stop. Flares did not stop it. Shots fired into the engine didn’t stop it. Exaggerated hand gestures and hollering surely didn’t. As far as the four Marines stationed at a roadside checkpoint in Iraq knew, the sedan hurtling toward them was a bomb on wheels.

Tim Rojas flashed a thumbs-up at his fellow lance corporal, John Thuesen, 21, the quiet Texan manning the machine gun on the Humvee’s turret. Bullets ripped through the car. The driver slumped over the steering wheel as the sedan crawled to a stop.

There was no explosion. The Marines were alive, and in that moment, Rojas recalled, the four men felt like heroes.

Then, the car’s rear door opened, and a boy, covered in his family’s blood, terror all over his face, ran screaming toward them.

“It was a terrible feeling,” Rojas said, his eyes glassy with tears, recalling the day that he said forever changed their lives.

That was nearly a decade ago. Now, Rojas is again standing with his buddy.

Thuesen, 30, is on death row for shooting his girlfriend and her brother in their College Station home in 2009. Thuesen and his lawyers have filed an appeal, arguing that the jury would have imposed a life sentence had it been fully informed about the damage that post-traumatic stress disorder can cause. Rojas is now talking about their ordeal, hoping it will help with his friend’s appeal and bring more awareness about post-traumatic stress disorder from the battlefield.

“The engine that is your mind is going to overheat,” Rojas said, “and it’s going to break down.”

Prosecutors, however, argued that the jury had heard sufficient testimony about Thuesen’s military service and his post-traumatic stress. Jurors also heard about his history of acting out in jealousy — even before his deployment. And they agreed with prosecutors that Thuesen was a cold, calculating killer who knew right from wrong when he shot the siblings and that he would continue to be a threat, even in prison.

The evidence showed that Thuesen “acts out and hurts others when he is mad or angry,” prosecutors wrote in a brief responding to his appeal.

On the afternoon of March 6, 2009, Rachel Joiner, 21, returned to the home she shared with her older brother, Travis Joiner, to find Thuesen armed and waiting in her room. He had broken into their house and had been there for hours, brooding about time she had been spending with another man.

Thuesen told police that he shot Rachel Joiner, a track star and student at Texas A&M University, because he was angry. He then turned his gun on Travis Joiner, 23, an aerospace engineering student at the university, who had run to his sister’s aid.

At the trial in 2010, prosecutors brought in former girlfriends who testified that they had also experienced Thuesen’s jealousy. One said Thuesen stalked her; another said she had been assaulted.

In closing arguments, the prosecutor told jurors that Thuesen used the skills he honed in the military against those he claimed to love.

“We don’t track people down in their homes and shoot them in the back. That is not, and it will never be, and it can never be acceptable or excusable,” the Brazos County assistant district attorney, Brian Baker, said.

But Thuesen’s friends and family in Bellville, where he grew up not far from College Station, saw something different. They told jurors that the man they knew before the war did not come back from Iraq. He was withdrawn, he drank heavily and there were nights, his mother, Patty Thuesen, recalled recently, when he would come into his parents’ room sobbing.

“He just wasn’t my John that I knew,” his father, Dennis Thuesen, said.

In August 2008, Thuesen, a former football player and champion turkey farmer, checked into a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, telling doctors he was suicidal and hearing voices. Doctors monitored him for four days before releasing him with a prescription for medication and therapy.

“We wanted him to stay,” Thuesen said. “The doctor looked at me and told me, ‘He’ll be fine.’”

“I think they bear some responsibility,” Thuesen said.

Drew Brookie, a Veteran Affairs spokesman, said that meeting the mental health needs of veterans was a priority but that because of privacy concerns, he could not comment about Thuesen’s case.

A 2008 study by the RAND Corporation estimated that about 300,000 of the 1.64 million military members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan had post-traumatic stress disorder. The corporation also surveyed veterans and found that among those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression, only 53 percent had received treatment in the previous 12 months. In January 2008, The New York Times reported 121 cases in which veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had been charged with killings.

Some legal and psychiatric experts have called for the courts to exclude veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder from execution eligibility.

“The tragedy of the wounded combat veteran who faces execution by the nation he has served seems to be an avoidable one, and we, as a society, should take action to ensure that it does not happen,” Dr. Hal Wortzel, professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado-Denver School of Medicine, and Dr. David B. Arciniegas, professor of psychiatry, neurology, and physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Baylor College of Medicine, wrote in a 2010 article in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

Thuesen’s new lawyers argue that had his trial lawyers done a more thorough job of explaining the prevalence and long-term damage of post-traumatic stress disorder, the jury would have given him a life sentence.

Prosecutors contend that jurors had all the information they needed about Thuesen’s military service, his history of troubling behavior and the way he gunned down two young students.

As the courts mull Thuesen’s appeals, Rojas writes occasional letters to the death row inmate who was like a brother to him in the desert battlefield. They write about the mundane things — weather, sports, family — but never about that day at the checkpoint. Still, sometimes, he said, the agony of those moments returns.

“It’s so slow, but it’s so thick you can’t stop it,” he said, his voice breaking with emotion. “I wish every day that car had stopped.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2013/12/27/considering-toll-war-death-penalty-debate/. Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.

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Brandi Grissom, The Texas Tribune

Brandi Grissom, The Texas TribuneBrandi Grissom is The Texas Tribune's managing editor and joined the staff when the online publication launched in 2009. In addition to editing duties, Grissom leads the Tribune's coverage of criminal justice issues.

During her tenure at the Tribune, she was chosen as a 2012 City University of New York Center on Media, Crime and Justice/H.F. Guggenheim Journalism Fellow and was a fellow at the 2012 Journalist Law School at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. Grissom, along with Tribune multimedia producer Justin Dehn, received a 2012 regional Edward R. Murrow Award for investigative reporting for work on the case of Megan Winfrey, who was acquitted of murder in February 2013 after the Trib’s coverage brought statewide attention the case.

Grissom joined the Tribune after four years at the El Paso Times, where she acted as a one-woman Capitol bureau. Grissom won the Associated Press Managing Editors First-Place Award in 2007 for using the Freedom of Information Act to report stories on a variety of government programs and entities, and the ACLU of Texas named her legislative reporter of the year in 2007 for her immigration reporting.

She previously served as managing editor at The Daily Texan and has worked for the Alliance Times-Herald, the Taylor Daily Press, the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung and The Associated Press. A native of Alliance, Neb., she has a degree in history from the University of Texas.

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As Food Programs Are Cut, Deer Hunters Share the Bounty

Photo courtesy of Donald J Schulte

Photo courtesy of Donald J Schulte

For hunters like Rick Prekup, deer season is the jolliest time of the year.

“I go hunting every chance I get,” Prekup said in a telephone interview from his home in Horseshoe Bay. Several times each week from November to early January, he rises at 5 a.m., grabs his lucky sweater and a semiautomatic Remington rifle and drives about an hour to his hunting lease in Mason County.

But Prekup, who is allowed to shoot up to five deer a year under Texas Parks and Wildlife regulations, generally ends up with more venison than he needs. So he donates a deer or two to the Texas Hunters for the Hungry program, which this year was adopted and expanded by the Texas Food Bank Network to provide hunger relief to needy Texans. He calls the program a way to share the “bounty of Texas.”

“I like doing it,” Prekup said. “It’s important for someone to give back if they’re blessed with the ability to go out and hunt.”

The start of this year’s deer season on Nov. 2 coincided with a cut to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the food stamp program. Celia Cole, chief executive of the Texas Food Bank Network, said that those cuts had left millions of Texans scrounging for new sources of nutrition and that food banks had struggled to keep up.

“We see a spike for demand during the holidays,” Cole said. “The cut to SNAP came at a particularly bad time.”

The Hunters for the Hungry program will help offset some of the losses, Cole said, by providing needy families with a source of protein, often the most expensive part of their diet.

“One of the things that’s least often donated and is hardest to acquire is that source of low-fat protein,” she said.

Charlie Ward, chief operating officer of the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas, agreed, saying that local pantries demanded protein-rich foods more than any other types and that venison was particularly popular.

“When we put it in inventory here, it doesn’t last but a day,” he said.

In some communities, participation in the program is widespread. Horseshoe Bay has a deer overpopulation problem, said Stan Farmer, the city manager. To deal with it, the city hires a trapper each year to catch roughly 300 deer, which are processed and donated to Hunters for the Hungry.

In addition to contributing to a good cause, Farmer said, the program manages the community’s deer population. “Otherwise we’ll have maybe 500 deer per year get hit by cars, which is dangerous for drivers and dangerous for deer,” he said.

But overall venison donations are inconsistent from year to year, Ward said. In 2011, his food bank, which serves 21 counties in Central Texas, received more than 8,000 pounds of meat donated by hunters; in 2012, that number fell to just under 2,000 pounds. Ward said the processing fee — hunters pay an average of $40 per deer — could be a hurdle to donations.

Cole emphasized that charitable initiatives, while important, could not make up for the federal cuts anyway. November cuts to SNAP eliminated $36 of assistance a month for an average family, which Cole said amounted to a reduction in roughly 180 million meals in Texas a year. By comparison, Cole said, the entire Texas Food Bank Network provides about 250 million meals each year.

“We can’t expect programs like Hunters for the Hungry to solve the problem,” she said.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2013/12/27/food-programs-are-cut-deer-hunters-share-bounty/. Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.

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Edgar Walters, The Texas Tribune

Edgar Walters, The Texas TribuneEdgar Walters is a reported for the Texas Tribune.

 

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2013 in Review: Public Education in Texas

teacher

Photo courtesy of iStock

Photo courtesy of iStock

Let’s say this outright: 2013 ranks as one of the most significant years for public education policy in Texas in the last two decades.

The last 12 months saw the rollout of a new school accountability system as the state dramatically changed course on high school curriculum and testing requirements, a direction it had followed since George W. Bush was governor. Along with the movement to scale back standardized exams, initiated by the activism of parents and educators, came an unprecedented backlash against the influence of for-profit companies in public education policy. It also brought a focus to the courses needed to earn a high school diploma, leading the Legislature to move away from requiring advanced math and science courses for all students — a decision that continues to generate concern about how it might affect academic achievement and college preparation in the state.

The 2013 Legislature also approved the first expansion of charter schools in the state since they were established in 1995. Along the way, lawmakers lessened the State Board of Education’s involvement in the charter approval process and made it easier for high-performing charter operators to come to the state. The law’s proponents say opening the door to more seats in charter school classrooms will increase the educational opportunities for all students. But some education experts have questioned whether certain charter operators have a sufficient record of reaching out to the low-income communities whose students make up an increasing majority of the state’s public school population.

The legislation was among the few successes in a slate of education reforms pushed by new two new interest groups that emerged this year with the goal of influencing policymaking. Other attempts to shake up the public education system also failed, including a proposal backed by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, to allow parents to receive tax credits to help pay for private school tuition.

But all of the activity didn’t stop lawmakers, just before they gaveled out for the first time in May, from laying the groundwork for a little-known state-developed curriculum system known as CSCOPE to turn into a big-time controversy — and headache — for the State Board of Education and school districts. The dust appears to have settled for now, but the issue continues to arise in Republican primaries.

After the legislative session, and long delay, the state finally received a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law in October. Texas public schools are now freed from the policy that had its origins in this state, including a burdensome mandate that they provide private tutoring to students at underperforming campuses that resulted in few positive outcomes and widespread abuse. Amid doubts about its ability to investigate allegations of cheating violations following the El Paso Independent School District scandal, the Texas Education Agency also moved to step up its scrutiny of accountability violations.

As 2013 closes, it’s possible next year will begin much as this one did: with school districts winning a round in sweeping school finance litigation against the state. Because of the legislative changes since then, Travis County District Court Judge John Dietz has decided to revisit the trial again in January. After Dietz’s second ruling, the case will likely still hang in the balance as it makes it way to the Texas Supreme Court. Its resolution, and the upheaval it is expected to bring, may land just in time for the start of the 2015 Legislature.

Faking the Grade Series: Millions in Federal Funds for Tutoring, With Few Results

Top Academics but Little Diversity at Two New Charters

Despite Effort to Curb Cheating on Tests, Doubts Remain

In Texas, Nixing Algebra II Not Out of the Equation

In Bid to Pare Exams, Lawmakers Target Testing Firm

In Education Reform Debate, One Group Stands Out

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2013/12/26/public-education-2013-review/. Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.

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Morgan Smith, The Texas Tribune

Morgan Smith, The Texas TribuneMorgan Smith reports on politics and education for the Tribune, which she joined in November 2009. She writes about the effects of the state budget, school finance reform, accountability and testing in Texas public schools. Her political coverage has included congressional and legislative races, as well as Gov. Rick Perry's presidential campaign, which she followed to Iowa and New Hampshire.

In 2013, she received a National Education Writers Association award for "Death of a District," a series on school closures.

After earning a bachelor's degree in English from Wellesley College, she moved to Austin in 2008 to enter law school at the University of Texas. A San Antonio native, her work has also appeared in Slate, where she spent a year as an editorial intern in Washington D.C.

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