Mar 31st - 12:22 pm
A Travis County grand jury is calling on the University of Texas System to remove Regent Wallace Hall, Jr. A four-page report released Tuesday fell short of indicting the UT system regent, but said, “we are appalled at the Regent’s unaccountable and abusive behavior,” and added that it “is in the best interest of the state” to remove Hall from office.
The grand jury had been asked to look into allegations of abuse of office, misuse of information and official oppression against Hall after he conducted a personal investigation into UT Austin President Bill Powers. The grand jury said Hall’s “abusive excess” overwhelmed the system with 800,000 pages of open records requests, and added he tried to avoid paying for the report that cost about a million dollars to complete.
“Outrageously, after requiring university staff to double their effort to fulfill these parallel requests, he actually requested not to be charged (like other private citizens are) for the cost of his private open records requests.”
The report accuses Hall of avoiding transparency and accountability by communicating orders verbally to avoid a paper trail, and said his actions led to leaks of confidential student information. The report says Hall’s “over leveraging of his power resulted in lost talent, lowered morale, exposure of student information and unreasonable expenses.”
The grand jury also recommended changes in protocols for regents in the future, including making regents pay for open records requests and establishing consequences for distributing confidential data. It also suggests requiring regents to use university email accounts for all official business like other employees.
A House Committee censured Regent Hall last year due to his investigation, and several lawmakers called for his resignation. Hall’s supporters, including then-Governor Rick Perry who appointed him, said Hall’s investigation showed irregular admissions practices at UT-Austin. Hall got some vindication from an independent investigation released earlier this year that said it did find some applicants who had been accepted to UT despite objections from the admissions office due to the insistence of UT-Austin President Bill Powers. But Powers defended those actions, saying it was a common practice at colleges around the country and was in the long-term interest of the university. System Chancellor William McRaven did not discipline Powers after that report.
Rep. Dan Flynn (R – TX House District 2), who was a co-chair of the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations, released this joint statement after the grand jury report on behalf of himself and fellow co-chair Rep. Carol Alvarado (D – TX House District 145):
The grand jury report that came out this morning demonstrates why our committee needed to investigate Regent Hall and his behavior. Taxpayers expect their elected representatives to provide oversight of state agencies and executive appointees. Such oversight is especially important when appointees abuse their office. With this investigation now complete and with an outstanding new chancellor and strong new regents in place, we are optimistic that the UT System is ready to move forward and focus on the needs of its students and our state.
Regent Hall released the following statement after the grand jury’s decision not to indict him was made public:
The campaign by Speaker Straus, Representative Flynn and Senator Seliger to criminalize my service as a Regent constitutes abuse of office. Their use of the levers of political power to cover up wrongdoing by legislators should now be investigated, and those exposed for their abuses should be driven from office.
Feb 16th - 3:15 pm
UT System Chancellor William McRaven has announced a new committee to reform the controversial admissions process at the state’s flagship public university. The six-member panel will review the recommendations in last week’s Kroll report into admissions at UT-Austin as well as recommendations from the UT System Board of Regents released last year.
The panel includes some high-powered names from the Texas higher education system, including former UT Austin presidents Larry Faulkner, Peter Flawn and William Cunningham, as well as former UT System chancellors Mark Yudof and Dan Burck and former UT System Executive Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs Pedro Reyes. McRaven says the goal for the committee is to advise the Board of Regents on best practices in university admissions that also provide transparency and oversight.
It comes after last week’s report which said UT Austin President Bill Powers did exert influence on a small number of applicants, including some with ties to donors and legislators. The report found Powers did not break any rules, but did suggest setting in place regulations to clarify vagueness in how much weight to put on a reference from the university president. Powers has stood behind his actions, saying universities across the country take actions like this to maintain relationships with people who benefit the school’s long-term interests. Chancellor McRaven says he wants to see this new report compared with internal investigations to find the best route forward for university admissions.
“My goal is to ensure full and open transparency to the public with respect to how admissions decisions are made at UT Austin. I realize that admissions practices are complicated and nuanced processes, but we must clearly define a policy that determines the degree of appropriate discretion at the institution level, while ensuring a fair and transparent process for applicants.”
UT System Chancellor William McRaven
McRaven says the committee is expected to release its recommendations on how to strengthen UT’s admission process within the next 60 days.
Feb 9th - 2:40 pm
The Texas Senate is wasting no time pushing ahead with two controversial bills governing the carrying of firearms in public. The Senate Affairs Committee has scheduled public hearings for open carry and campus carry, setting up the next step in the legislative battle that has dominated the early headlines of the 84th Legislature.
Senate Bill 11 would allowed concealed handgun license holders to carry their guns on college campuses. Senate Bill 346 would remove the state’s 125-year-old ban on the open carry of handguns, but would require those gun owners to pass a background check and receive a license to do so.
Gun rights advocates criticized Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick last month for not following through on campaign promises when he said open carry bills weren’t a top priority and didn’t have the votes to pass. He then walked back on those comments and fast-tracked these two bills. Governor Greg Abbott disagreed with Patrick last week, saying he did believe the support was there for open carry. Then, UT Chancellor William McRaven voiced his opposition to campus carry, saying it would make college campuses more dangerous.
Many gun rights supporters are pushing for a different bill, constitutional carry, that wouldn’t require a license or background check to be eligible to openly carry handguns in public. But their efforts were hurt last week due to perceived threats from a member of Open Carry Tarrant County, who likened opposing constitutional carry to treason, which is punishable by death. Earlier this session, the Legislature installed panic buttons in lawmakers’ offices due to confrontations with gun rights advocates. So far, no action has been taken on constitutional carry.
Right now, it is legal to openly carry rifles, shotguns and other long arms without a license. But gun owners have to pass a background check and pay to get a concealed carry license hold a handgun in public.
Feb 3rd - 12:40 pm
State Representative Molly White (R – Texas House District 55) responded Tuesday to mounting criticism to her comments and actions on Texas Muslim Day last week. In a written statement on her website, White did not back down from her actions, saying her statement about a “serious problem facing Texas” has been been wrongly construed by “political correctness” into something bigoted and anti-American.
The freshman state representative made headlines last week when she posted this on her Facebook page about the planned Texas Muslim Day rally at the State Capitol:
Today is Texas Muslim Capital Day in Austin. The House is in recess until Monday. Most Members including myself are back in District. I did leave an Israeli flag on the reception desk in my office with instructions to staff to ask representatives from the Muslim community to renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws. We will see how long they stay in my office.
Rep. Molly White (R – Texas House District 55)
That post drew more than 11,000 comments and was featured on national media outlets like CNN. White says she didn’t expect her post to get that kind of attention, but insisted she was doing her job by informing the public about threats to First Amendment freedoms. White says the Council of American-Islamic Relations, which sponsored the rally, believes Muslim law is above the law of the United States. That argument has been disputed by leaders with CAIR. In an interview with The Texas Tribune Monday, Mustafa Carroll said “following the law of the land is part of Sharia law.”
Representative White says her post was directed at CAIR, not all Muslims, and adds the group is designated a terrorist organization by the United Arab Emirates. While this is true, the group is not considered a terrorist group by the American government.
Finally, Rep. White says she stands for the First Amendment and freedom of speech. Representative White says Muslims have sided with suppression of free speech, citing a recent poll in the UK where 78 percent of British Muslims believe publishers of the cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad should be prosecuted.
Lastly, every one of my constituents, regardless of their faith, is always welcome in my office. When hearing other’s views, I also share where I stand on issues as it is only fair for all those involved in a conversation to know what each other believes on a topic. As it relates to upholding the 1st Amendment, terrorism and CAIR’s position on the rule of law, I will continue to stand for the protection and freedom of Texans, and as a result, all Americans.
Rep. Molly White (R – Texas House District 55)
Jan 30th - 11:44 am
Governor Rick Perry’s legal team is taking another shot at having his criminal indictments thrown out. His lawyers filed a third motion Friday asking a judge to void both abuse of power charges against him.
A judge ruled earlier this week to uphold the indictments, but also asked Special Prosecutor Michael McCrum to correct vagueness in the description of both counts. Perry’s motion said the abuse of official capacity charge is too vague and fails to allege an offense. They say the second charge, coercion of a public official, fails to mention the manner and means of the alleged threat; whether it was spoken, written or delivered through a third party.
Friday’s motion read:
“Both counts against Perry should be voided for violating the U.S. and state constitutions’ requirement that defendants be given adequate notice of the ‘nature and cause’ of the allegations so they can prepare a defense.”
Perry faces charges of abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant over accusations he threatened to veto funding for the Travis County Public Integrity Unit after District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg’s drunk driving arrest and conviction. He then followed through on that threat with a line-item veto of Public Integrity Unit funding.
In addition fo Friday’s filing, Perry’s lawyers have also appealed Tuesday’s decision to the all-Republican third court of appeals in Austin.
Jan 23rd - 11:17 am
The state’s highest court will rule on whether the way Texas pays for public schools is unconstitutional. The Texas Supreme Court announced Friday it will hear the state’s sweeping school finance case.
More than 600 school districts sued the state back in 2011 after the legislature cut more than $5 billion in education funding. They argued budget cuts left them without the resources to meet academic standards, and said the gap between property-rich and property-poor school districts was too great. An Austin-based district judge ruled the cuts unconstitutional, but that ruling was appealed to the Supreme Court last year by then-Attorney General Greg Abbott.
Friday’s court advisory also set up the timeline for the next step in the case. In all, there will be about six months for both sides to file briefs and replies before a date for an oral argument is set. That means the decision won’t come until after the end of the legislative session. If the Texas Supreme Court upholds the unconstitutional ruling, the Legislature will have to come up with a new funding formula. That would require Governor Greg Abbott to call a special session.
Dec 12th - 2:04 pm
Despite ruling that the ban is unconstitutional earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia of San Antonio declined a request to lift the stay on his ruling, effectively continuing enforcement of the ban.
When Judge Garcia ruled in February that Texas’ same-sex marriage ban was unconstitutional, he also issued a stay on that ruling pending the state’s appeal. The plaintiffs in the case asked Garcia to lift that stay last month, but Garcia officially declined that request on Friday.
Garcia wrote in his ruling, “Such action would only be temporary, with confusion and doubt to follow. The day for finality and legal certainty in the long and difficult journey for equality is closer than ever before.”
The case will go before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals next month, along with other same-sex marriage cases from Mississippi and Louisiana.
Dec 12th - 1:11 pm
The Texas Democratic Party has announced Executive Director Will Hailer is stepping down at the end of the year.
Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa made the announcement in a press release Friday, marking the end of Hailer’s nearly two-year tenure in the position. Hailer is joining the public affairs firm BerlinRosen in Arlington, Virginia as its new vice president of the Campaign and Creative Services Division. BerlinRosen specializes in “strategic communications, public affairs, campaign consulting and creative services to leading companies, non-profit organizations, philanthropies, progressive political candidates and labor unions.” Party officials say Hailer will assist in the transition as they conduct a nationwide search for a new Executive Director. Hailer released the following statement:
“It has been a pleasure for me to work with some of the most devoted and hardworking Democrats Texas has to offer. This year we built an outstanding organization on the idea that Democratic values are Texas values. We accomplished more than anyone thought was possible thanks to the Texas Democratic Party staffers who worked across the state with candidates, partner organizations, party leaders, elected officials, donors and volunteers.”
Nov 20th - 11:41 am
After months of speculation, Democratic State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte says she’s running for San Antonio mayor.
The announcement comes just a couple weeks after Van de Putte suffered a huge loss to Republican Dan Patrick in the Lt. Governor’s race. But although she lost big to Patrick two weeks ago, Van de Putte won more than 50 percent of the Bexar County vote. The city election is May 9th.
Meantime, Van de Putte’s decision to run sets up a political “domino effect” among state lawmakers from San Antonio. State Rep. Mike Villarreal (D, District 123) is also running for mayor — and has resigned from the House.
And two other Texas House members from San Antonio have expressed interested in running for Van de Putte’s Senate seat. Today, State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D, District 116) officially declared he is a candidate. And State Rep. Jose Menendez (D, District 124) has already publicly indicated he would be interested.
Van de Putte plans let Gov. Rick Perry know today her intention to resign from the Senate, so he can call for a special election.
Nov 18th - 3:43 pm
Governor Rick Perry, Lt. Governor David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus have signed an agreement to extend the border surge through the end of August 2015.
Perry and other state officials said in a statement Tuesday that the’ll now await the approval of the Legislative Budget Board, which meets next month.
If members give the $86 million plan the go ahead, the move allows enhanced patrols by the Department of Public Safety, the Texas National Guard and other personnel to continue their response to a surge in immigrants entering illegally into the U.S. through the Rio Grande Valley.
Officials want to divert nearly $48 million in general revenue bonds and other monies to help cover the cost.
“Texas has proven beyond any doubt that this border can be secured, even if the federal government refuses to take the steps necessary to do so as required by the Constitution,” Perry said in a press release. “This agreement will ensure the hardworking men and women from DPS, the Texas National Guard and Texas Parks and Wildlife, who have been working with local and federal partners, have the resources they need to maintain a robust law enforcement presence along the border until the Legislature can act.”
According to the Governor’s Office, funds for DPS would include the addition of new shallow-water boats and other technological capabilities, “which would be used to extend tactical capabilities as well as the surge footprint beyond the Rio Grande Valley Sector.”