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Harold Simmons, GOP Mega-Donor, Dead at 82

Harold Simmons, a Dallas businessman and billionaire, philanthropist and Republican mega-donor, died Saturday at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas. He was 82.

His death was first reported by The Dallas Morning News. Simmons’ wife, Annette, told the paper he had been “very sick for the last two weeks” and said the family had celebrated Christmas at the hospital.

Simmons was a major donor to Republican candidates and causes. He is the second important GOP financier to die this year; in April, Houston homebuilder Bob Perry passed away at age 80.

His support of conservative causes and candidates is decades deep, though he sprinkled in donations to Democrats from time to time. The Center for Public Integrity ranked him as the second-biggest overall political donor during the 2011-12 election cycle, giving $31 million by that organization’s count. That total included $23.5 million to American Crossroads, a PAC started by Republican consultant Karl Rove and others.

Since 2000, he contributed at least $5.9 million to state candidates, according to reports filed at the Texas Ethics Commission. That doesn’t include contributions for most of the second half of this year; candidates will report those next month. He bet big on Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is running for governor, giving $150,000 in July. And he contributed $50,000 to Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, who is running for lieutenant governor.

The Harold Simmons Foundation was a major donor to The Texas Tribune, contributing $50,000 over the last four years.

Simmons was born in May 1931 in the tiny northeast Texas town of Golden, a small town in northeast Texas. He worked as a bank examiner, then bought a pharmacy across the street from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, expanded that into 100 stores and sold it all to Eckerd Corp. That launched his career as a highly successful and often controversial investor. One of his companies, Waste Control Specialists, has been a frequent subject of legislative and state agency debates; it operates a low-level radioactive waste facility in Andrews, a West Texas town near the New Mexico border.

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UPDATED, as remarks and remembrances come in:

Attorney General Greg Abbott: “Harold Simmons lived the American Dream. His path began with the purchase of a small drug store, and through hard work and the free enterprise system, he was able to turn that investment into one of the greatest American success stories of all time. The Simmons family shared his success with the state he dearly loved, giving generously to make advancements in healthcare and to improve higher education. The legacy of Harold Simmons will live on to benefit millions of Texans who never had the opportunity to meet the legendary Texan. Cecilia and I send our thoughts and prayers to Harold’s family, and to all those mourning his loss.”

Gov. Rick Perry: “Harold Simmons was a true Texas giant, rising from humble beginnings and seizing the limitless opportunity for success we so deeply cherish in our great state. His legacy of hard work and giving, particularly to his beloved University of Texas, will live on for generations. Anita and I send our thoughts and prayers to the Simmons family.”

Former President George W. Bush: “Laura and I send our sincere condolences to Annette and the Simmons family. Dallas has lost a generous benefactor to many worthy causes. And we, like many others, have lost a friend in Harold.”

Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples: “Harold Simmons had an enormous impact on Texas and our country. From growing up in rural East Texas to becoming one of our nation’s most successful businessmen, Harold demonstrated that our free enterprise system creates unlimited opportunities for anyone willing to work hard and obtain a good education. My sympathy to the Simmons’ family.”

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst: “On Saturday Texas lost one of its sons who became a true giant. From humble roots and borrowing money to buy his first drugstore, Harold Simmons went on to become one of the leading businessmen in Texas and the country, as well as one of the most philanthropic people in America. Harold Simmons loved his wife Annette, his family, and his beloved America, and he fought to protect the values and principles that have made America great. Like many, I considered Harold Simmons a friend who wanted a level playing field where everyone had the chance to live their own American Dream.”

U.S. Rep. Joe Barton: “Harold Simmons was a self-made Texas giant, but you would never know it. He was one of the smartest, most influential businessmen in the world, yet one of the nicest, most down to Earth people I ever met. He was generous in his charitable giving and dedicated to making the world a better place. Harold was also a champion for free markets and personal freedom. He was passionate in his beliefs and was a major factor in the Republican resurgence in the State of Texas. I have always been grateful for his personal and professional support of my efforts. He will be missed, but his legacy will live on. I send my thoughts and prayers to the Simmons family.”

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.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2013/12/29/harold-simmons-gop-mega-donor-dead-82/.

Bush’s Run Adds to Debate on Hispanics and GOP

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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.”

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.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2013/12/29/side-effects-hispanic-surnames-texas-politics/.

PRUDEN: Duck Dynasty’s Robertson family teaches Hollywood a lesson

By Wesley Pruden

The uproar over “Duck Dynasty” should be studied forever in the business schools as a priceless teaching exercise in marketing quackery. Television executives are so highly paid because they’re supposed to be so smart. Rarely have so many smart guys been so out to lunch.

The noisy row over the A&E cable network suspending Phil Robertson, the head duck, was mostly not about free speech — the network had a right to suspend him, depending on what was in the contract — but about how low the network wanted to kowtow to the lavender lobby, disrespect for religious belief, and whether it wanted to put at risk its No. 1 show. This is where the A&E suits made their incredible miscalculation, based on gross ignorance of who and what they were dealing with. An office boy would have known better.

“A&E,” says Lisa de Moraes, the influential television critic for the Deadline/Hollywood website, “has been dazedly dog-paddling since the interview [in GQ magazine] and its hit show suddenly stopped quacking like all those other homespun reality series on TV and began Bible-thumping like the religious parable [the controversy] actually is.”

The network was asking for trouble because no one at the office knows anything about Christians, evangelical and otherwise, or the people they thought they were doing business with. The network was accustomed to dealing with people willing if not eager to slice a little off this point of view, cut a little off principle there, keep quiet about this belief and surrender a little bit of control there, take the money and run to the bank with it. The executives at A&E had never run across anyone like Phil Robertson or his family, the personification of the people Hank Williams Jr. sang about in his country classic “A Country Boy Can Survive.”

“You can’t stomp us out, and you can’t make us run/’Cause we’re them good ol’ boys raised on the gun/We say grace, and we say ma’am/And if you ain’t into that, we don’t give a damn.”

“Duck Dynasty” and the hunting constituency that made the Robertsons rich — $400 million and counting — were in fact a people apart, if the network had wanted to find out who they were. They’re largely Scots-Irish, that oft-overlooked segment of the American ethnic mix who arrived early and challenged the progeny of the English aristocrats, the proper Bostonians and the Virginia cavaliers, to cast the prevailing American character.

The Scots-Irish, more Scots than Irish and who took their name from their exile in Ireland, were exiled again to America and brought their populist instincts and fierce Calvinism with them. Jim Webb, the decorated Marine hero, novelist and former U.S. senator from Virginia, describes well his own ancestors and the prevailing culture in northern Louisiana and the South in his book “Born Fighting.”

“These are intensely religious people,” writes Mr. Webb. “Indeed they comprise the very heart of the Christian evangelical movement — and yet they are unapologetically and even devilishly hedonistic. They are probably the most anti-authoritarian culture in America, conditioned from birth to resist any pressure from above, and yet they are known as the most intensely patriotic segment of the country as well. They are naturally rebellious, often impossible to control, and yet their strong military tradition produces generation after generation of perhaps…Read more: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/dec/26/pruden-youve-got-to-know-the-territory/#ixzz2p74K2uWh
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Feds charge white man with hate crime in first ‘knockout’ prosecution

Photo by: James Nielsen

The Obama administration filed a federal hate-crimes charge Thursday against a man whom authorities accused of using the “knockout game” to target a black man, videotaping it, and then bragging about the assault to strangers.

The charge marks the first time the administration has taken action on a “knockout” case after the game became an Internet and media phenomenon. It chose a case in which the person accused is white, even though most other cases reported in the news have… Read more: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/dec/26/federal-authorities-charge-white-knockout-suspect-/#ixzz2p72aDhjj

Committee Investigating Hall Nears End of Inquiry

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With the conclusion of a legislative committee’s investigation of University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall on the horizon, if not imminent, the panel is likely to wrap up its sessions without hearing from the man at the center of the inquiry.

“It’s my desire that we conclude our investigation by the end of the year,” state Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van, the co-chairman of House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations, said Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the panel will begin its latest round of hearings on allegations that Hall had misused his office to conduct what some lawmakers have deemed a “witch hunt” to oust University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers. Hall’s requests for information from UT-Austin have yielded more than 800,000 documents, putting significant strain on the school’s staff, according to university officials.

Hall has said he was fulfilling his duties as a regent by digging into potential malfeasance and misconduct at the university, including alleged favoritism in the admissions process.

Flynn said that after the committee concludes its investigation, members would determine the ultimate course of action, including a determination of whether Hall’s actions are impeachable. Because no regent has ever been impeached in Texas history, and state statutes don’t directly address the issue, the standard is entirely up to the regents.

After holding a series of hearings on the matter over the recent months, the group is scheduled to meet on Wednesday and Thursday, and no additional hearings have been announced. And in light of Hall’s decision to decline an invitation from the committee’s co-chairs to testify without a subpoena, it is possible the panel will only meet for one day this week.

“Unless Wallace Hall has a change of heart and wants to show up, we won’t be there on Thursday,” Rusty Hardin, the Houston attorney who is serving as the committee’s special counsel, said Tuesday.

The witnesses expected to testify Wednesday include former UT System Board Chairman Scott Caven, former UT System Regent John Barnhill, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and Powers.

The testimony of Cigarroa and Powers, both of whom were subpoenaed by the committee, will receive particular scrutiny in light of a recent board meeting at which Powers’ job was up for discussion and was nearly put to a vote.

Cigarroa read a recommendation to the board that Powers remain president of UT-Austin, but he added that their relationship and Powers’ relationship with board members and system administrators had been “significantly strained.”

“The main reason for the strain,” Cigarroa said, “is that Bill and I would agree upon certain principles, and I would act on those principles, but then Bill Powers would often convey a message of misalignment, leading to conflict between UT System administration and the University of Texas at Austin.”

While noting that Powers has significant support from students, faculty and alumni, Cigarroa also said that maintaining Powers’ presidential appointment “would require good citizenship, respect for one another, a commitment to rebuilding trust among us, cooperation with the University of Texas System, as well as in system-wide initiatives and important inquiries, and the continued advancement of excellence.”

There is a sense among those who have watched the situation closely that the recent “nondecision decision” — the UT board never voted on Cigarroa’s recommendation to keep Powers around — could be a significant step toward quelling the controversy that has surrounded the system and its flagship institution for nearly three years.

But it is possible that the impeachment hearings could stir things up again.

Jenifer Sarver, a spokeswoman for the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a group of higher ed observers — including Caven and Barnhill — that formed in 2011 and has been supportive of Powers, said she did not believe the president, by testifying, was at risk of running afoul of Cigarroa’s guidelines.

“I think the only thing he’s at risk of is telling the truth,” Sarver said, “and if that in any way doesn’t align with what the system has to say, then that’s not through any fault of his own. And I would imagine the committee is not interested in fueling further fire between the chancellor and the president.”

Sarver said the hearings were still important because the question of the proper role and behavior of regents had yet to be settled.

“Bill Powers has become a bit of a figurehead for this overall debate,” she said, “but it’s always been much more than just about his job.”

Hardin agreed. “The committee’s focus was never to protect Powers’ job,” he said. “There was obviously considerable legislative support for Powers, but that’s not what this is about. This is about what Hall did and whether or not it met the acceptable standard for conduct by a regent.”

If the committee opts not — or does not manage — to wrap up its business by the end of 2013, it will have to extend Hardin’s contract, which expires at the end of the month.

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.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2013/12/18/committee-nears-conclusion-impeachment-probe/.

Memo: Perry Pushed New Adviser Position at A&M Board

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*Editor’s note: This story has been updated throughout.

On the afternoon before the Texas A&M System Board met to select an interim president — a selection that found Gov. Rick Perry backing one candidate and Chancellor John Sharp backing another — Perry contacted regents with a proposal for a new position “on par with [the] chancellor.”

For its title, the governor suggested “Executive President (Director) of the Board of Regents or President of the Office of the Executive Board of Regents (or something similar).”

The context in which the memo — which was obtained by the Tribune — was sent is telling. Perry had been pushing the board to name Guy Diedrich, the system’s former top lobbyist, to the interim position. Sharp wanted Mark Hussey, the university’s agriculture and life sciences dean, for the job. Following a push from faculty for an interim president with an academic background, the regents went with Hussey.

In the subject line of his email, Perry described the position as “an option for Guy.”

The idea certainly grabbed the attention board’s chairman, Phil Adams of Bryan and College Station. He forwarded the governor’s memo to Cliff Thomas, a fellow regent from Victoria, with a note saying, “WOW!”

The creation of the proposed executive director position was not on the meeting’s agenda at their Saturday meeting and was not discussed. There have also been no indications when, if ever, it will come up for a vote.

But Perry wrote, “From a regents perspective, this should make abundant good sense as the flow of information seems to be a major source of discontent.”

The new adviser, as he envisioned the job, would help implement the board’s strategic vision. The person would advise the regents on key policies and facilitate communications between the board and the campus community. He or she would report only to the board, would have a separate budget and would be “on par with [the] Chancellor.”

A spokesman for the system said that Diedrich has told the “system leadership” he does not want the proposed job.

“I am not aware of any position that has been created,” Diedrich wrote in an email to the Tribune. “I am the Vice Chancellor for Strategic Initiatives and will continue to work with the Board of Regents, Chancellor, our Presidents and outstanding faculty to develop projects that support the research and teaching missions at our universities and agencies.”

Charles Schwartz, an A&M regent from Houston, said he was supportive of general aspects of Perry’s proposal, but did not know if or how it would be implemented, since it had not been deliberated by the board.

“Facilitating open communications is a desirable thing,” he said. “If there’s a person or persons who can help us facilitate that, I’m all for it.”

But some observers are wary. Jenifer Sarver, a spokeswoman for the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, which formed in 2011 in opposition to proposals Perry was pushing boards of regents to implement, said via email, “Additional bureaucracy at the System isn’t an efficient or effective use of taxpayer dollars, and this seems suspiciously familiar to the failed experiment that was Rick O’Donnell’s hiring at the [University of Texas] System in 2011.”

O’Donnell, who had ties to the architects of Perry’s controversial higher ed reform effort, was unilaterally hired as a special adviser to the UT board by then-chairman Gene Powell in 2011. It set off significant turmoil, which has yet to settle, though O’Donnell himself was fired after less than three months.

“This has the appearance of being an end-run around Chancellor Sharp,” Sarver said, echoing concerns about what O’Donnell’s hiring meant for UT Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa in 2011. If that were the motivation, she said, “it would be tantamount to petty political payback over the recent disagreement he had with the governor about who would be Texas A&M’s interim president.”

Schwartz said he was only vaguely aware of the O’Donnell situation, but did not believe the governor’s recent recommendation was analogous to it. “When I read the memo,” he said, “that is not something that ever crossed my mind.”

Sharp declined to comment, though he previously ran afoul of a board adviser with strong Perry ties. When he was named chancellor, Jay Kimbrough had served in such a position, which also didn’t report to the chancellor. He became deputy chancellor, but Sharp decided his position wasn’t necessary and eliminated it, firing Kimbrough — a close associate of Perry’s — in the process.

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.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2013/12/20/perry-pushing-new-advisor-position-m-board/.

Perry, Straus Reach Out to Appointees Amid Hall Inquiry

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In the last month, both Gov. Rick Perry and House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, have reached out to gubernatorial appointees to share their thoughts on government oversight, which has become a touchy subject in light of an investigation of a University of Texas System regent.

In June, Straus expanded the authority of the House Select Committee on State Agency Operations, which immediately launched an inquiry that focused on UT Regent Wallace Hall, who was appointed by Perry. If Hall were impeached as a result of the investigation, he would be the first gubernatorial appointee in the state’s history to face such an action.

The speaker’s instructions to the committee were not solely focused on a single appointee of a single university system. In his proclamation, Straus said that the committee “shall monitor the conduct of individuals appointed to offices of the executive branch of state government, including university regents, to ensure that such officers are acting in the best interest of the agencies and institutions they govern.”

A spokeswoman for Perry said in June that Straus’ proclamation sent a “chilling message.” And the governor issued a letter in late November to his appointees citing that particular phrase from the proclamation, claiming that, because of it, some appointees had “expressed concerns that you should limit your oversight roles.”

“Unfortunately,” Perry wrote in his letter, which was obtained by the Tribune, “the message from some in the Legislature to the citizens who oversee state agencies seems to be: exercise your legal and fiduciary duty responsibility at your own risk.”

Hall found himself at the center of the committee’s investigation after questions were raised about the intensive investigations he was conducting into the operations of the University of Texas at Austin. He has said he uncovered questionable practices and significant pushback from the university, necessitating that he dig deeper (University officials told the committee they have turned over more than 800,000 documents to the regent). But some lawmakers have described Hall’s behavior as a “witch hunt” designed to oust UT-Austin President Bill Powers.

“When state employees and agencies resist, stonewall or seek to prevent questions from being asked or answered, Texans should be deeply troubled.” Perry wrote in his letter to appointees. “Our elected representatives should be outraged when a state agency resists answering tough questions.”

After Perry’s letter was written, Hall declined the transparency committee’s invitation to testify before the panel. The committee declined to issue him a subpoena, which they had been willing to do for most other witnesses, and he refused to appear without one. The committee is awaiting a final report of its investigation to be drafted. The members will determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment against Hall after the report is reviewed in the coming month.

In his letter, Perry cited four examples, which he noted are outside “the norm,” that he said highlighted the need for effective oversight of state agencies by gubernatorial appointees: financial mismanagement at Texas Southern University in 2006, accusations of rape against some Texas Youth Commission guards in 2007, charges of “fight club” brawls being organized at the Texas State School in Corpus Christi in 2009, and — from out of state — the Penn State sex abuse scandal of 2011.

He asked his appointees to “continue to do your job in a responsible manner, acting within the law, protecting tax dollars and asking hard questions of our state agencies, even when that makes some uncomfortable.”

On Friday, Straus issued his own letter to the state’s many gubernatorial appointees, which was also obtained by the Tribune. He wrote that he had recently become aware of Perry’s letter and was writing to “agree with and expand” on the governor’s comments.

He wrote that oversight of state agencies was “never meant to be comfortable or easy,” and added that “both board members and the Legislature need to ask difficult questions.”

The transparency committee was created, after discussions with the governor, Straus wrote, “so that we do not have to choose between preserving the efficient operation of state government and drawing a veil of secrecy around agency operations.”

He cited examples of legislative oversight leading to important changes on state boards, including the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, the Texas Youth Commission, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, the Texas Lottery Commission and the University of Texas Investment Management Company.

As for the concerns raised in the governor’s letter, Straus responded, “The House does not seek to limit oversight.”

“Rather,” he wrote, “the House wants effective and appropriate oversight that allows agencies to operate properly and efficiently. On the rare occasion that executive appointees appear to be using their authority to harm the agencies they oversee, the Legislature will continue to exercise its own oversight responsibilities.”

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.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2013/12/21/perry-straus-reach-out-appointees-light-probe/.

VA hospital refuses to accept ‘Merry Christmas’ cards

Boys and girls at Grace Academy in Prosper, Tex., spent most of last Friday making homemade Christmas cards for bedridden veterans at the VA hospital in Dallas.

 

Fourth-grader Gracie Brown was especially proud of her card, hoping it would “make their day because their family might live far away, and they might not have somebody to celebrate Christmas with.”

“I’d like them to know they’ve not been forgotten and somebody wanted to say thank you,” Gracie told MyFoxDFW.com.

Gracie’s card read, “Merry Christmas. Thank you for your service.” It also included an American flag.

But the bedridden veterans at the VA hospital will never get to see Gracie’s card. Nor will they see the cards made by 51 other students. That’s because the Christmas cards violated VA policy.

“It really didn’t occur to me there would be a problem with distributing Christmas cards,” said Susan Chapman, a math teacher at the academy. She’s married to a veteran and volunteers with the American Legion and other veterans’ organizations.

On Monday morning the boys and girls were planning on hand delivering the cards to the wounded veterans. Chapman called the hospital to make final arrangements and that’s when she learned there was a problem.

“I told him my students made cards, we’d like to bring them down for the veterans,” Chapman told the television station. “And he said, ‘That’s great. We’re thrilled to have them, except the only thing is, we can’t accept anything that says ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘God bless you’ or any scriptural references because of all the red tape.’”

A VA official quoted the policy which is in the Veterans Health Administration handbook:

“In order to be respectful of our veterans’ religious beliefs, all donated holiday cards are reviewed by a multi-disciplinary team of staff led by chaplaincy services and determined if they are appropriate (non-religious) to freely distribute to patients. We regret this process was not fully explained to this group and apologize for any misunderstanding.”

Hiram Sasser, director of litigation for Liberty Institute, said it was a new low “even for the Scrooges and Grinches at the VA.”

“Targeting the benevolent work of little children for censorship is disgusting,” Sasser told me. “Do the Grinches in the administration of the VA really believe our bravest warriors need protection from the heartfelt well wishes of small children saying Merry Christmas?”

Andrea Brown, Gracie’s mom, was dumbfounded by the news.

“This wasn’t the country I grew up in, when you couldn’t say ‘Merry Christmas,’ you couldn’t say ‘God bless you’ or reference any scripture,” she told… Continued here: http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2013/12/25/va-hospital-refuses-to-accept-merry-christmas-cards/

2014 promises political change in Texas

Photo courtesy: Patrick Michels
By CHRIS TOMLINSON

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Elections and court rulings could bring tremendous changes to Texas in 2014, reshaping the political landscape for the first time in more than a decade.

Texans will choose a new governor, attorney general, comptroller, land commissioner, agriculture commissioner and railroad commissioner. The only question for voters is whether to hand out promotions to serving politicians or elect some new faces to run the state.

Judges next year also could upend the status quo, declaring the public school finance system insufficient, deciding the constitutionality of gay marriage and redrawing political maps that could dent Republicans’ grip on power. Judges also will rule on the legality of some of the toughest abortions laws in the country, setting the stage for a major U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2015.

Gov. Rick Perry tripped the political escalator when he announced his retirement, clearing the way for his heir apparent, Attorney General Greg Abbott. State Comptroller Susan Combs also announced retirement plans this year and Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman jumped in the race to replace Abbott.

Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples are trying to oust Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, weakened by his failed U.S. Senate bid in 2012. Of the top seven state offices, Dewhurst is the only incumbent running in 2014, and he’s got three challengers in the Republican primary.

The state hasn’t seen that much change at the top since George W. Bush moved from the governor’s mansion to the White House in 2000.

A key question for voters is whether to oust career politicians.

Tea party members are hoping to capitalize on voter unhappiness by promising more conservative policies if elected. That’s placed some veteran politicians, like U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, on the defensive. He’s proclaiming his conservatism at every opportunity and mirroring the junior senator from Texas, Ted Cruz.

Democrats hope the tack to the right will help them claim the political… Continued here: http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/texas/article/2014-promises-political-change-in-Texas-5099769.php

2013 Texans of the Year: THOSE WHO ANSWERED THE CALL AT WEST

Photo by Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News

An extra minute or a spare few inches can mean everything when disaster threatens. Folks in West think about that a lot these days — those tiny increments of space and time that stand between life and death. Around sunset on April 17, fire was consuming a West Fertilizer Co. warehouse just beyond the city’s northeast border. In the precious minutes after the fire broke out at 7:29 p.m., emergency personnel had to react without pausing to consider the danger ahead. Flames towered over the town, out of control, unlike anything West had ever seen. Firefighters knew the warehouse housed tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, a potentially explosive chemical. Outside, tanks of toxic anhydrous ammonia gas were in danger of rupturing from the intense heat.

 

Downwind, within 200 yards, the West Terrace apartments and West Rest Haven nursing home were enveloped in heavy smoke. Hundreds needed to be moved to safety. Someone needed to buy them those tiny increments of space and time.

 

Firefighters and paramedics, backed by civilian volunteers, put themselves directly in harm’s way on that evening as the dangers grew. Call them heroes, but they’ll deny it. They were just doing what had to be done.

 

It was 7:51 p.m. when quiet, tiny West became a world news epicenter. A blast powerful enough to kill hundreds left a death toll of 15. Ten were emergency responders whose heroism and self-sacrifice, we believe, delayed disaster and saved lives. Two civilians there to help paid the ultimate price as well.

 

All those who answered the call in West make us proud to be Texans. They are the 2013 Dallas Morning News Texans of the Year.

 

Reporters and investigators have prodded them for details to the point of exasperation. Yet the survivors paused to retell their stories to this newspaper — not for self-aggrandizement, but to thank their maker, underscore their friends’ heroism and maybe make sense of an unfathomable tragedy.

 

“We knew it could explode, but we didn’t know it could do that damage that it did,” said Robby Payne, one of the volunteer firefighters at the plant that evening.

Payne, 52, knows death better than anyone else in West. As president of the only funeral home…Continued here: http://res.dallasnews.com/interactives/2013_December/texan-of-the-year/west/