Watch: A conversation on police seizures in Texas and beyond

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Join us for a conversation about how law enforcement agencies, cities and counties use civil asset forfeiture and why many states are restricting the practice. Law enforcement calls asset forfeiture a vital tool for seizing ill-gotten gains from criminals, but reformers argue that it gives officials too much power to take citizens’ money and property without requiring proof of a crime.

This panel features state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg; Harris County Assistant District Attorney Angela Beavers; and Jacob Ryan, a journalist with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, and will be moderated by Texas Tribune criminal justice reporter Jolie McCullough. Both Ryan and McCullough contributed stories to “Taken,” a collaborative investigative reporting effort supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. McCullough was the lead writer for a Tribune investigation on asset forfeiture in Texas that published June 7.

Texas gained almost nine Hispanic residents for every additional white resident last year

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Hispanics are expected to become the largest population group in Texas as soon as 2022.
Hispanics are expected to become the largest population group in Texas as soon as 2022.
Eddie Seal for The Texas Tribune

The gap between Texas’ Hispanic and white populations continued to narrow last year when the state gained almost nine Hispanic residents for every additional white resident.

With Hispanics expected to become the largest population group in Texas as soon as 2022, new population estimates released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau showed the Hispanic population climbed to nearly 11.4 million — an annual gain of 214,736 through July 2018 and an increase of 1.9 million since 2010.

The white population, meanwhile, grew by just 24,075 last year. Texas still has a bigger white population — up to 11.9 million last year — but it has only grown by roughly 484,000 since 2010. The white population’s growth has been so sluggish this decade that it barely surpassed total growth among Asian Texans, who make up a tiny share of the total population, in the same time period.

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The estimates come as lawmakers begin to sharpen their focus on the 2021 redistricting cycle, when they’ll have to redraw the state’s congressional and legislative maps to account for population growth. And they highlight the extent to which the demographics of the state continue to shift against the Republican Party.

During the last go-around, which is still being litigated in federal court, Hispanics accounted for about 65% of the state’s growth. With about two years of growth left to go, their share of Texas’ population increase since 2010 reached 54% last July.

The Hispanic community is growing in numbers across the state. But 47% of Texas Hispanics now live in the state’s five biggest counties — Harris, Bexar, Dallas, Tarrant and Travis. Home to Houston, Harris County leads that list with more than 2 million Hispanic residents. But Hispanic growth since 2010 continues to be most significant in Tarrant County.

With a growth rate of 26%, the Hispanic population in Tarrant County reached 609,236 last year — up from 482,977 in 2010.

But while Hispanics’ numbers are growing the most, the state’s Asian community is growing the fastest.

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The number of black Texans continues to grow, but their share of the state’s population has remained mostly stagnant in recent years, at around 12%. Nationally, Harris County had the largest increase in black residents, gaining 14,017 people last year.

The estimates also showed that Texas continues to be a fairly young state. The country’s median age increased to 38.2 in 2018, compared with 37.2 in 2010. In Texas, the median age sits at 34.8, up from 33.6 in 2010.

Texas voters’ biggest concerns for the country? Immigration and political corruption, UT/TT Poll says

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Illustration by Emily Albracht/The Texas Tribune

Immigration and border security are the most important problems facing the state, but political corruption/leadership continues to edge into Texas voters’ top two concerns facing the country, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Immigration was listed as the most important problem facing the country by 16% of voters, followed by political corruption/leadership (15%), border security (12%), health care (8%) and three items — moral decline, gun control/gun violence and environment — each listed by 5% of voters.

The state list was similar, dominated by two familiar items: immigration (20%) and border security (17%). Health care (8%), education (7%), political corruption/leadership (6%) and gun control/gun violence (5%) rounded out the top items.

Half of the state’s registered voters said things are on the wrong track for the country, while 40% said the country is on the right track.

The outlook for the state is more positive, in what has become a regular pattern in UT/TT Polls: 49% of voters said the state is headed in the right direction, while 34% said the state is on the wrong track.

Voters are upbeat about economics, with a strong majority saying things are better financially than they were a year ago for the country, for the state and for their own families. The national economy is better, according to 47%, while 26% say the national economy is worse than a year ago and 23% say it’s about the same. As for the state economy, 43% say it’s better, 17% say it’s worse and 35% say Texas is about the same as it was a year ago.

Asked about how they and their families are faring, 40% say they’re better off, 19% say things were better a year ago and 37% say things are about the same.

More voters feel positively about several civic institutions, but the federal government and the courts/criminal justice need to work on their reputations. On balance, more voters have high opinions of the military (71% favorable to 11% unfavorable), the police (58% to 23%), state government (48% to 29%) and municipal/local government (46% to 26%).

But 24% have a favorable opinion of the federal government and 53% have an unfavorable view. The views of the courts/criminal justice aren’t as lopsided, but they’re still below the balance point: 35% say they have a favorable impression; 38% have a negative one.

The University of Texas/Texas Tribune internet survey of 1,200 registered voters was conducted from May 31-June 9 and has an overall margin of error of +/- 2.83 percentage points. Numbers in charts might not add up to 100% because of rounding.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Ken Paxton’s criminal trial has been pending for nearly four years. Here’s a timeline of his legal drama.

Texas Tribune News

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton narrowly won reelection in November.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton narrowly won reelection in November.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has been under a legal cloud for years, awaiting trial on felony securities fraud charges. But since his criminal indictment in July 2015, Paxton has seen delay after delay in his case, including a side dispute over prosecutor pay that has derailed the prosecution for well over a year. With the charges dogging him, he narrowly won reelection in 2018.

Check out our timeline below of the case’s twists and turns. We’ll update it with new stories from The Texas Tribune and other outlets as the legal battle proceeds.

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On Juneteenth, Sheila Jackson Lee spearheads congressional hearing on reparations, calling them “long overdue”

Texas Tribune News

“The role of the federal government in supporting the institution of slavery and subsequent discrimination directed against blacks is an injustice that must be formally acknowledged and addressed,” says U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee.
“The role of the federal government in supporting the institution of slavery and subsequent discrimination directed against blacks is an injustice that must be formally acknowledged and addressed,” says U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee.
REUTERS/Leah Mills

For the first time in a decade, members of Congress examined the topic of reparations for African Americans over slavery at a hearing on a proposed study on the issue from U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston.

In her opening remarks to a packed committee room Wednesday, Jackson Lee said her measure would be “long overdue,” adding that “slavery has never received an apology.”

“Let this day, June 19, 2019, be the marker for the commitment for each and every one of you,” she later said. “On my watch, we will watch this bill pass and be signed by the president of the United States of America.”

Her resolution calls for a commission to “study and develop reparation proposals for African-Americans” and consider a national apology by the government “for the perpetration of gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity on African slaves and their descendants.”

Although her measure received a warm reception from many civil rights advocates and black Americans, it will be a tougher sell in the U.S. Senate. Earlier this week, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, dismissed reparations for slavery as not “a good idea” and said that it would “be pretty hard to figure out who to compensate.”

“We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation,” McConnell said. “We’ve elected an African American president.”

Still, the hearing by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on House Resolution 40 — named for the unfulfilled federal promise to provide freed African Americans “40 acres and a mule” — marked the first opportunity in more than a decade that House members were able to tackle the issue, with witnesses including actor and activist Danny Glover; writer Ta-Nehisi Coates; U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat and presidential candidate who proposed a companion version of the bill to the Senate; and retired NFL player Burgess Owens.

During his testimony, Coates rebuked McConnell for his earlier comments on reparations, noting that “for a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror.” That campaign, Coates added, “extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell.”

Wednesday’s hearing fell on Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the emancipation of slaves in Texas on June 19, 1865, but also comes amid a national discussion on reparations among 2020 Democratic presidential contenders.

Booker told the House panel that the nation has “yet to truly acknowledge and grapple with the racism and white supremacy that tainted this country’s founding.” The two Texans in the race — Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro — have both said they backed Jackson Lee’s reparations proposal, as do most members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters that Democrats plan to vote on the bill, calling the proposal a “very serious issue,” according to Politico.

Aside from Jackson Lee, three other Texans on the committee — Republican U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Tyler and Democratic U.S. Reps. Sylvia Garcia of Houston and Veronica Escobar of El Paso — were part of a bevy of lawmakers who peppered witnesses with questions about the potential benefits and shortfalls of the proposal.

Escobar and Garcia, who both arrived in Congress this year, asked panelists to respond to critics who argue the country has already addressed reparations through policies like affirmative action or dismiss the idea of reparations as little more than just writing out checks to black Americans.

Gohmert, meanwhile, noted that the Democratic Party, not the Republican Party, played a role in introducing Jim Crow laws and historically supported the institution of slavery.

“It is important that we know our history and we not punish people today for the sins of their predecessors in the Democratic Party,” he said.

“You lie,” a protestor in the audience shouted back.

“I just stated all facts, and again, we have people who are denying history,” Gohmert responded. “That’s not helpful to our discussion.”

TribCast: The Texas Monthly Best & Worst List

Texas Tribune News

From left: Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Gov. Greg Abbott and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen speak at a press conference regarding property taxes on May 1, 2019.
From left: Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Gov. Greg Abbott and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen speak at a press conference regarding property taxes on May 1, 2019.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

(Audio unavailable. Click here to listen on texastribune.org.)

On this week’s TribCast, Emily talks to Matthew, Emma, Julian and Texas Monthly‘s Chris Hooks about the Texas Monthly Best & Worst List, the latest on the border crisis and Gov. Greg Abbott’s vetoes.

Trump renews pledge to deport millions, but ICE reality is far more limited

Texas Tribune News

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is averaging approximately 7,000 deportations per month from the U.S. interior, according to the agency’s latest data.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is averaging approximately 7,000 deportations per month from the U.S. interior, according to the agency’s latest data.
REUTERS

President Donald Trump has begun his reelection bid by reviving a campaign promise to deport “millions of illegal aliens” from the United States, saying his administration will get to work on that goal “next week” with raids across the country.

But the president’s ambitious deportation goals have crashed, again and again, into the earthly reality of the U.S. immigration enforcement system.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is averaging approximately 7,000 deportations per month from the U.S. interior, according to the agency’s latest data. With unauthorized border crossings soaring under Trump to their highest levels in more than a decade, ICE has been facing a shortage of funds and detention beds, and experts say that a large-scale push to arrest and deport hundreds of thousands of migrants would be exorbitantly expensive and highly unlikely.

For ICE, making “at large” arrests in homes and neighborhoods — the key to chipping away at the “millions” Trump wants to expel — will require significant amounts of planning, coordination and secrecy. By telegraphing plans to begin a nationwide roundup, the president has risked undermining the effectiveness of ICE’s largest and most complex enforcement operation in years.

Trump and Mark Morgan, the acting director of ICE, talked several times in recent weeks about the operation, including as recently as this weekend. But senior White House and immigration officials did not know the president planned to announce it on Twitter, a senior White House official said Tuesday, and many felt it was detracting from the launch of the campaign. But Trump is eager to appear that he is making progress on immigration and remains fixated on the issue, advisers say.

The sensitive plan is aimed at sweeping up and deporting thousands of migrant family members in major U.S. cities who were ordered to leave the country after their cases were evaluated by immigration judges. Department of Homeland Security officials say the arrests are at the heart of their attempts to deter Central American families from making the journey north.

On Tuesday, current and former ICE officials acknowledged that Trump’s unexpected tweet had blown the cover off the plan, and they predicted that would-be deportees could scatter from known addresses in the coming days, diminishing the agency’s chances for success. Lawmakers and immigrant advocates expressed alarm and outrage at the possibility that ICE would go forward with the plan, which risks separating parents and children as agents fan out to knock on doors and make mass arrests.

ICE declined to say whether Trump’s tweets referred to a specific operation in the works, but U.S. officials acknowledged privately that they are preparing to move forward with their long-planned blitz to take thousands of families into custody.

Morgan said Tuesday on “PBS NewsHour” that he hoped immigrants facing deportation would “work with us” and “come and turn themselves in to ICE agents, and we will work with them to remove them to their countries.”

“We don’t want to have to go and track them down into the neighborhoods in the cities,” Morgan said. “We don’t want that, and I don’t want that for the families.”

Morgan said he did not think Trump’s tweet publicizing the planned arrests put immigration agents at risk because the president did not provide specifics. “I’m not concerned,” he said. “They’re professionals. They know exactly what they need to do.”

With hundreds of ICE agents deployed to the border in recent months, interior arrests have dipped. From October to December, the most recent period for which statistics are available, ICE deported 22,169 people from the U.S. interior, down 7% from the same period in 2017. About 10.5 million unauthorized immigrants are in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center.

To meet the president’s goal of millions of deportations, ICE would need significantly more agents and funding. ICE’s division of enforcement and removal operations has fewer than 6,000 officers nationwide who are potentially available to carry out the kind of arrests described by the president, which would entail higher risks because they would involve knocking on doors and arresting parents and children in homes and apartments.

There is division among Trump officials about whether the roundup will make for good politics and policy. But Morgan, senior Trump adviser Stephen Miller and the president support the actions, a senior White House official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the internal fissures.

Trump has repeatedly wondered why people cannot just be taken out of the country, the official said.

John Sandweg, acting ICE director in 2013 and 2014 during the Obama administration, questioned ICE’s capability to undertake such a massive operation, given the agency’s staffing and budget constraints. ICE is detaining the largest number of migrants in its history — more than 50,000 a day — and is under “incredible strain” because of an influx of Central American migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, Sandweg said.

At its peak, ICE deported more than 400,000 immigrants during the entire 2012 fiscal year, and more than half of those were border-crossers who could be quickly sent home.

“The idea that somehow by just presidential will the agency’s going to go [up] 250% to the biggest, largest number of removals in its history is just ridiculous,” Sandweg said.

Arrests in neighborhoods and residential areas are complex and typically take months to plan, he said. Usually at least four officers are assigned to each arrest target to ensure the safety of migrants, agents and bystanders.

Sandweg also noted that children require special care, and ICE has only about 3,000 beds available for family detention.

The Justice Department, which runs the immigration courts, said it is aware of at least 12,780 removal orders issued to “family units” from Sept. 24 through Friday. Of those, nearly 11,000 orders were issued in absentia, meaning the immigrant did not appear in court. The orders were mailed to their houses, said Justice Department spokesman Alexei Woltornist, with the largest numbers in Houston, Miami and Atlanta.

The plan for raids has led to upheaval at the DHS in recent months. Ronald Vitiello was removed as ICE chief in April when he raised concerns about the readiness of the plan for raids. White House frustration with the reluctance to perform the operation also contributed to the ouster of Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

In an interview Tuesday, Vitiello said the success of the operation should not be measured based upon how many of those on ICE’s target list are picked up. In most cases, ICE has little more than addresses for the individuals who were mailed deportation orders, and the chances that they remain at those locations are not high.

“They don’t have to get all their targets. They just have to improve compliance and increase the removal numbers of a population with a very low chance of being removed,” Vitiello said. “Without an operation like this, these families would be allowed to remain in the shadows for as long as they want to be.”

Trump told a cheering crowd in Phoenix three months before his election that he would deport millions of immigrants who had allegedly committed crimes.

“Day one, my first hour in office, those people are gone,” Trump said. “They’re going to be gone. It will be over. They’re going out. They’re going out fast.”

Tom Homan, the acting ICE director during the first 18 months of the Trump presidency, praised the president’s deportation agenda in an interview Tuesday, and he said that ICE operations targeting families during the Obama administration were a crucial migration deterrent.

Homan, who was unexpectedly named “border czar” by Trump last week but who has not yet accepted the job, said he has heard the ICE operation targeting families has been “held up” for months because senior DHS officials are anxious about the potential for public backlash.

“Part of the problem was they didn’t want the bad press,” Homan said. “But you know what? If bad media is going to stop you from doing your job, then you need to find another job.”

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, who serves on the DHS Homeland Security Advisory Council, suggested that the disruption also could undermine public safety. “Intentional societal disruption, creating mass fear, confusion, & panic is not good public policy or consistent with American Judeo-Christian values,” Acevedo tweeted Tuesday. “This rhetoric will push many further into the shadows, & places an already marginalized segment of society at risk.”

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, criticized Trump’s plans and called on the president to work with Congress “toward agreeable solutions.” House Democrats have agreed that a humanitarian crisis is unfolding on the U.S.-Mexico border, but they favor better holding conditions for migrants, particularly children, who accounted for 40% of apprehensions in May.

ICE in June was already surpassing its fiscal 2019 budget projections for beds, with the population of adult detainees exceeding the anticipated head count by about 5,000 people, an ICE official said.

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., chair of the House Appropriations homeland security subcommittee, which oversees budget issues, said Trump should “stop terrorizing immigrant families” and work with Democrats to address the issues facing the immigration system.

“Donald Trump’s new tweet continues to push cruel and hateful immigration policies that separate families and traumatize children, while doing nothing to fix our broken immigration system,” she said in a statement. “Of course, he’s not doing this to fix our immigration system: he’s doing it to throw anti-immigrant red meat to his base, and stoke their fear and fury against America’s immigrant population.”

Criminal case against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton remains threatened after court upholds prosecutor pay decision

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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton during a press conference on January 12, 2017.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton during a press conference on January 12, 2017.
Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

After mulling the question for nearly six months, the nine Republican judges on Texas’ highest criminal court will not reconsider their 2018 ruling that threatens to imperil the criminal case against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

In November, a fractured Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that a six-figure payment to the special prosecutors appointed to take Paxton to trial for felony securities fraud fell outside legal limits for what such attorneys may be paid. A month later, the attorneys asked the high court to reconsider that decision in a spirited legal filing that went unanswered until this week.

The court did not provide any reason for rejecting the motion, nor did any judges write dissenting opinions. Few expected that the high court would reconsider its own ruling.

Payments for special prosecutors are based on strict fee schedules, but judges are permitted to approve payments outside those strictures in unusual circumstances, as a North Texas GOP judge did for the prosecutors in the Paxton case. But after Jeff Blackard, a Paxton donor, sued in December 2015, claiming that the fees were exorbitant, the Dallas Court of Appeals voided the prosecutors’ invoice and the payment has been in question. Meanwhile, the trial itself has been derailed again and again.

Wednesday’s ruling threatens the long-delayed prosecution of Texas’ top lawyer, as the prosecutors —unpaid in years — have signaled they may withdraw from the case if they cannot be paid.

Paxton, who was indicted in July 2015, spent nearly all of his first term under a legal cloud and was narrowly re-elected in November with criminal charges dogging him. As the indictment nears its fourth birthday, his trial continues to be pushed off.

The makeup of the high court has changed since the last decision came down, but just a little, with the election of Judge Michelle Slaughter. Slaughter replaced Elsa Alcala, who passionately dissented from the decision against the prosecutors.

Paxton is accused of misleading investors into buying stock in a North Texas tech firm and failing to register with the state. The Texas State Securities Board fined him $1,000 in connection with one instance of soliciting clients without being registered; Paxton signed the order and did not dispute its findings. He has been cleared of related civil charges brought by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Paxton has denied the charges. A spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment.

Paxton’s trial was, once upon a time, set for May 2017, but has seen delay after delay — many of them entirely unmoored from his guilt or innocence. The longest-dragging has been the pay case, which the Court of Criminal Appeals agreed to hear in December 2017. More than 18 months later, it has yet to be resolved. The high court, often criticized for its slow pace, is not bound by external deadlines.

Brian Wice, one of the special prosecutors, did not immediately return a request for comment.

Texas just spent billions to boost school funding, lower property taxes. Voters approve, but not overwhelmingly, UT/TT Poll says.

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Illustration by Emily Albracht/The Texas Tribune

Texas lawmakers were happy and relieved last month after approving difficult-to-pass education and property tax legislation, but they’re going to have to work to convince Texas voters to uncork the Champagne, given the results of the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Gov. Greg Abbott called it “a monumental moment in public education history in the state of Texas” last week when he signed a bill implementing a massive overhaul of the state’s school finance system, one that includes about $6.5 billion in new public education spending and about $5.1 billion devoted to lowering Texans’ property tax bills. Lawmakers also approved a measure this year designed to slow the future growth of Texans’ property tax bills.

Despite those achievements, voter reaction to the legislative session after it ended last month was positive but not overwhelming. Only about half of the state’s registered voters (49%) said they followed the session “extremely” or “somewhat” closely, and only 30% said they approve of how state leaders and the Legislature are handling public education; 29% said they disapprove.

The majority of those leaders are Republicans, and their voters are a little happier than the average. But even among Republican voters, 38% approve of lawmakers’ moves on public education and 20% disapprove; that’s almost a 2-to-1 margin, but not a majority. Democrats were less pleased: 23% approve and 38% disapprove. Independent voters are with the Democrats on this question: 24% approving, 38% disapproving. In each of those cases — among all voters, Democrats, Republicans and independents — about 2 voters in 5 expressed neither a positive nor a negative opinion.

Voters’ grades for state officials’ work on property taxes were tougher: 26% approve and 37% do not. Among Republicans, more approve (38%) than disapprove (33%). Among Democrats, approvals were swamped by disapprovals, 17% to 41%, and among independent voters, 10% approve of the property tax work and 41% disapprove.

“My sense of this is that the spending on schools was a much clearer winner politically than was the action taken on property taxes,” said James Henson, who runs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin and co-directs the poll. “Nobody’s looking at what the Legislature did on property taxes and K-12 [education] and handing out awards.”

“The property tax thing is really interesting. To the extent that there were a lot of Republican leaders who were constantly trying to lower expectations about what the property tax legislation would do, they succeeded,” Henson said. “There’s a bipartisan expectation that property taxes are not going to go down. You achieved bipartisanship.”

Voters said they agree with some of what the Legislature did; 71% support requiring voter approval before local governments raise property tax revenues more than a set amount. New laws will require votes when city or county governments increase those tax revenues more than 3.5% and when local school districts cross the 2.5% line. And the support crosses party lines: Democrats (59%) support it, along with Republicans (83%) and independents (64%).

Those same voters, however, said the state spends too little on public education, that property taxes are too high and that they don’t really expect their property taxes to drop.

More than half (53%) said Texas spends too little on primary and secondary education, an opinion held by a majority of Democrats (72%) and pluralities of Republican (36%) and independent (49%) voters. Only 11% of voters say the state spends too much on education; 23% of all voters say education spending is about right.

For what is spent, Texas is getting “good” schools, according to 41% of voters (and 52% of Republicans), and “not very good” schools, according to 31% (including 38% of Democrats). Smaller numbers said the schools are “excellent” (7%) or “terrible” (10%).

Property taxes remain unpopular in Texas: 60% of voters say they are too high, a majority that holds up across party lines. Just 7% say those taxes are too low, and 18% say the amount Texans pay in property tax is about right.

And after a legislative session in which lawmakers tried to leash future increases and spent more than $5 billion on lowering school property taxes, few voters (9%) expect relief in the form of falling taxes. The rest expect property taxes to increase (36%) or stay the same (27%), or said they don’t know what will happen (28%).

The University of Texas/Texas Tribune internet survey of 1,200 registered voters was conducted from May 31-June 9 and has an overall margin of error of +/- 2.83 percentage points. Numbers in charts might not add up to 100 percent because of rounding.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

John Cornyn has never lost an election. He's trying to convince Texas Republicans that his streak is in jeopardy in 2020.

Texas Tribune News

"My wife told me if I decided to run for president, I needed to get a new wife," says U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
“My wife told me if I decided to run for president, I needed to get a new wife,” says U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Allison Shelley for The Texas Tribune

WASHINGTON – John Cornyn is an enigma.

It may not be his own doing. After all, it should be counterintuitive to describe the most powerful Texan to serve in the U.S. Senate since Lyndon Johnson as a shrinking violet.

But Cornyn is an outlier within a generation of larger-than-life Texas politicians who have become national fixtures for smiling in mugshots, blowing up their own party’s national conventions in a hail of jeers, livestreaming road trips, bragging about snuffing out a coyote while jogging, or filibustering while wearing pink sneakers or reading Dr. Seuss.

It seems like flamboyance and ambition for higher office are historical prerequisites for any Texan serving in an office as high profile as the U.S. Senate.

“I’m none of those things,” Cornyn laughed in a recent interview.

There is no ghostwritten Cornyn memoir. His ego does not seem to live and die on how many times he appears on Sunday morning talk shows. And he’s never launched a presidential bid, exploratory campaign or even a vice presidential lobbying effort.

“I haven’t run for president,” he said. “My wife told me if I decided to run for president, I needed to get a new wife. And I’ve been married 39 years, and I’m not going to go down that path.”

It is that understated quality — what some observers describe as “boring,” “vanilla” and “not Ted Cruz” — that lends so much uncertainty to his 2020 reelection campaign.

But Cornyn’s calmness may also prove to be his greatest asset amid potential Texas political tumult. He is the de facto leader of state Republicans this cycle, with his name set to appear on the 2020 ballot below only the presidential contest.

And from this perch, Cornyn, despite his usually steady manner, is cranking the alarm as loudly as he can to his fellow Texas Republicans.

“We are, I think, no longer the reliably red state we have been,” he said. “We are at risk of turning purple. And if we don’t do our job, then we could turn blue in the coming years. “

Some of the most respected minds in Texas politics agree.

“He’s unbeatable in a regular year, but this is not a regular year,” said Bill Miller, an Austin lobbyist who ran Cornyn’s first statewide race in 1990. “A presidential year like this one changes the outlook. Otherwise, he’s unbeatable in the state of Texas.”

Now, thanks to former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke‘s near-ouster of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in last year’s midterm elections, Texas Democrats smell blood. An endless stream of Democrats across the state spent the winter and spring floating their own names to run against Cornyn. At this point, Air Force veteran MJ Hegar is the most prominent Democrat to officially enter the fray.

Cornyn is the first to agree that the ground is moving.

“Everything’s changed [since 2014],” Cornyn said. “I think 2018 woke up everybody on the Republican side to the fact that we not only need to be competitive in the primaries, but we need to talk to broader general election voters, too.”

Out of sight, out of mind

As the state’s standard-bearer, Cornyn knows he must run a strong campaign to protect other GOP positions in the state. But he also is sending a message to his fellow Texas Republicans: He needs their coattails, too.

The Democratic squeeze is coming above and below him on the ballot.

For the first time in a generation, the presidential contest could have tangible effects in down-ballot races across the state. A recent poll showed former Vice President Joe Biden with a lead over President Donald Trump in the state, and a slew of other Democratic candidates were in striking distance of the president. This week’s Texas Tribune/University of Texas poll found the state is evenly split when asked about Trump’s reelection, a striking shift from 2016, when Trump won the state by nine points.

Underneath Cornyn’s seat on the ballot, national Democrats telegraph they intend to spend money on Texas races for the U.S. House and state House. Acknowledging this offense, Cornyn is warning every Republican officeholder in the state, even those in so-called safe seats, to run a viable campaign.

As for what happened last year — with Republicans losing two notable congressional races and just barely winning several others — there is a debate among leaders in both parties over how much that had to do with Democrats fielding a uniquely charismatic nominee in O’Rourke against Cruz, who is unmatched in his ability to alienate moderates and the left.

Cornyn is not as polarizing as Cruz, but Democrats bullish on their chances in 2020 view the state’s senior senator as facing the opposite problem. He may not provoke liberal passion, they argue, but at the same time, he may not evoke passion from his own base, either.

That argument is on Cornyn’s mind.

“I always tell people the good thing about being in the Senate is you run every six years, and the bad thing about the Senate is you run every six years,” he said. “Because, frankly, if you’re doing your job and you’re sort of out of sight and out of mind, you have to go back and remind people who you are and what you’ve been doing.”

Just how well Texans know him — or rather don’t — is a concern.

“That’s going to be something we’re going to have to work on,” Cornyn said. “We’ll be prepared to do that.”

Cornyn is outwardly worried that Republicans across the state are “frankly a little bit complacent.” It’s been so long since uncompetitive general election races became the norm in the state that he fears the state’s Republican incumbents have lost their grasp on recognizing danger signs and how to run general election campaigns.

“I think that’s absolutely the case,” he said. “The way congressional districts are drawn, most members don’t have competitive general elections.”

One of those members who normally avoided tough reelection battles was U.S. Rep. John Carter. The Round Rock Republican found himself facing an unusually tough challenge last year from Hegar, who drew national attention for a biographical video that turbocharged her fundraising. After losing to Carter by less than three points, she opted to vie for Cornyn’s seat in 2020.

Where supporters see Cornyn’s lack of drama as an asset, Hegar sees it as indicative of someone not fighting enough for everyday Texans.

“Texans aren’t interested in typical career politicians, like Sen. Cornyn, who sell them out to corporate donors and powerful special interests,” Hegar said. “During his 17 years in Washington, Cornyn’s true legacy is being Mitch McConnell’s ‘yes man,’ leading the efforts to shred protections for over 4.5 million Texans with preexisting conditions, and playing a critical role in pushing for a tax bill that added over $2 trillion to the national debt and threatens Medicare and Social Security all while enriching big corporations who have donated over $9 million dollars to him throughout his political career.”

“Sticks don’t work”

Cornyn is one of the few Texas Republicans who has hands-on experience with competitive, knife-fight general elections. After all, he has run dozens of them.

From 2009 until 2012, Cornyn served as the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. In each party, a senator assumes this role of chief fundraiser, recruiter and strategist with the aim of flipping as many Senate seats as possible while protecting incumbents. It’s a job that takes a political strategist with the kind of peripheral vision that Cornyn showed he possessed over a long career in Texas politics.

A lawyer by training, Cornyn won his first race in 1984, becoming a district judge in his home base of Bexar County. In the 30-plus years since, he has never lost an election. He rose through the ranks of Texas politics by way of a close alliance with George W. Bush and his political adviser, Karl Rove. Cornyn ran for state Supreme Court in 1990 and won reelection in 1996. In 1998, he jumped into the state attorney general race. That primary featured his only true setback of his political career: He placed second at the first round of the primary but then easily trounced his rival in the runoff.

By 2002, Cornyn’s close association with then-President Bush put him in the driver’s seat for the GOP nomination to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm. Cornyn won his next three Senate campaigns by at least 12 points, his last one in 2014 by 27 points when the Democrats put forth their weakest challenger yet, a millionaire dentist with little political experience.

Gov. George W. Bush (center) celebrated a 1998 election night victory with John Cornyn (right) and Rick Perry. Cornyn and Perry were elected that year as state attorney general and lieutenant governor, respectively.
Gov. George W. Bush (center) celebrated a 1998 election night victory with John Cornyn (right) and Rick Perry. Cornyn and Perry were elected that year as state attorney general and lieutenant governor, respectively.
Bob Daemmrich

Cornyn has leveraged his relationships with donors in the state to build his stature in the Senate. Over the years, he has regularly hosted out-of-state colleagues on fundraising junkets through the state. There was no point in his career at which those donor ties mattered more than during his tenure at the NRSC.

The campaign committee chairman is one of the highest risk/reward posts in politics, and Cornyn’s tenure came at a particularly stormy point for Republicans. He took over during the Great Recession, just months after the federal government had bailed out Wall Street banks and amid high unemployment rates.

An establishment backlash seized the Republican party. Before the 2010 cycle, viable primary opponents to incumbents were a rarity in national politics. But in several races during Cornyn’s two terms at the NRSC, unelectable conservatives managed to take down incumbents or establishment-blessed candidates — only to then lose potentially winnable seats to the Democrats in the general election.

But it’s hard to find any Republicans who blame Cornyn and his team for the hits. The widespread perception within his party is he made the best of a tough situation.

In his role as chairman, one of his top responsibilities was to hassle members to raise money to send to other Senate races elsewhere in the country. Chairman no more, he is now urging the opposite to his fellow Texans.

“Texas has been a donor state for a long time. Perhaps it’s time we are a donee state,” Cornyn said.

He noted that he has spoken with fellow Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation about how their relationships with the GOP campaign arms for their respective chambers need to change this cycle.

“There’s always a temptation by the leadership to extract as much money out of the state as they can. And then to use that wherever they need it, and I understand that,” Cornyn said. “But we need to make sure that our Texas races from the president and all the way down to the courthouse are adequately financed and resourced.”

“It’s also going to mean we remind Texans that we need to take care of Texas,” he added.

After stepping down as head of the NRSC, Cornyn ascended even higher, becoming Republican whip in 2013. As the lead vote-counter, he promised to rule with a carrot-only approach.

“Sticks don’t work too well in the Senate in my experience,” he said.

He relinquished the whip role late last year, in accordance with party term limit rules. But he remains widely perceived as a member of McConnell’s inner circle and a potential future Senate Republican leader when that vacancy occurs.

Republican staffers and senators alike crow about Cornyn’s graciousness.

“I think John has a keen ear really to listen to member concerns,” said U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, who has served in the Senate since 2015. “And that’s important in any leader. … He’s a doer rather than a viewer, and he just has a wonderful mannerism about him,” she added.

Democratic strategist Jim Manley watched Cornyn serve as whip from Manley’s perch at the time as spokesman to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Manley viewed the Texan as a hard-charging proponent for the Republican case but fair-minded in approach.

Yet for all the praise Cornyn draws from colleagues for his courteous nature, he also has shown a more irritable and combative side.

As a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he was one of the most forceful advocates for the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. Cornyn compared the charged hearings to the tactics of Joseph McCarthy.

Most political observers point to those days last fall as some of the ugliest in recent political history. Upon Kavanaugh’s successful confirmation, Cornyn took a victory lap with an Instagram post featuring a glass of champagne and a hashtag, “#Bubbles4brett.”

He also frequently mixes it up on Twitter with journalists, colleagues and activists he perceives as unfair. He said it “disturbs me when I just see one side of the story dominating everything when in fact there is a pretty obvious clear and opposing view.”

Earlier this year, he crossed words with a liberal favorite, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, over a tweet he posted on Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. He later explained he was comparing Mussolini’s fascism to socialism and warning against federal government overreach.

“A Republican senator full-on quoted National Fascist Party leader and Hitler ally Benito Mussolini like it’s a Hallmark card,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.

Cornyn quipped in response the following morning that Ocasio-Cortez has “maybe one of the most uninformed opinions I have seen in … hours.”

“One thing I have to sort of keep in mind is you can’t take them back once you unleash them,” he said, referring to his tweets.

“I try to be restrained. … This is maybe the Venn diagram where Sen. Cornyn and President Trump overlap,” he said. “Nobody’s going to mistake me for the president, but I do think it’s a great way to communicate.”

Is Texas in play?

For Democrats focused on flipping control of the U.S. Senate next year, the Texas race is not at the top of their list, but it’s not far off.

Manley, the Democratic former spokesman, said several seats rank far ahead in priority over Texas — offensive pushes in Arizona, Maine, Georgia and Colorado, along with protecting their seat in Alabama.

But Manley stressed Texas is still key.

“It’s not the top-tier race, but if we are to reclaim the Senate, we’ve got to work with all the seats that are up. Especially given what happened in Texas two years ago, it’s definitely worth a play,” he said.

Leah Askarinam, a political analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Inside Elections, concurred — while putting the onus on the eventual Democratic nominee to turn this race into a top target.

“Texas is pretty far on the back-burner right now,” she said. “Investing in Texas would be wildly expensive for Democrats. But if a Democratic candidate can do the heavy lifting in fundraising — without outside groups, like O’Rourke did — there’s a chance this race becomes competitive.”

For now, Cornyn is mostly begging off taking shots at the Democratic field. In this interview, he did subtly work in one of his campaign’s latest knocks on Hegar — “Hollywood Hegar,” a reference to the celebrities in the campaign launch video she released in April.

But Cornyn still left space for other contenders to enter the fray, including either O’Rourke or former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro if either candidate’s presidential run peters out.

At the same time, Cornyn is telegraphing that he intends to avoid a personality-driven campaign. He described himself as “a policy junkie” and is expected to focus his campaign on legislation he has moved through Congress in recent years, including Hurricane Harvey relief and funding for future hurricane mitigation. It’s likely he will also highlight his advocacy for victims of crime and his efforts leading to major changes to the criminal justice system that Trump signed into law last year.

Cornyn is also likely to highlight his response to a singular event that seems to have rattled him more than any other in his Senate career — the 2017 church shooting in Sutherland Springs, in which a veteran with a history of domestic violence killed 26 people. In early 2018, Cornyn successfully pushed for language in a spending bill that improved federal background checks for gun purchases. Although gun control advocates dismissed the move as not enough to address a mass shooting epidemic, it’s one of the only efforts on gun policy Congress has successfully passed in over a decade.

Whatever happens with Cornyn’s future, the consequences will last far longer than the six-year term ahead.

Should he win, there is a likelihood that a Texan will one day lead a chamber of Congress — a feat not accomplished since Democrat Jim Wright served as U.S. House speaker in the late 1980s.

But should he lose, it will likely mean a collapse of Republican numbers in the Senate and a Democratic takeover. And beyond the political shock back home in Texas, it will be the loss of a steady, if quiet, Republican hand.

Despite those stakes, Cornyn is keeping his tack simple.

“The way you advance in the Senate is to develop a reputation as someone who you can trust and who will be a straight shooter,” he said. “And I’ve tried to do that.”

Disclosure: Bill Miller and Karen and Karl Rove have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Watch: Houston and the 86th Legislature

Texas Tribune News

The Texas Tribune is touring the state with a series of post-session events recapping the major policy debates of the 86th Texas Legislature and what they mean for Texas’ largest cities and surrounding communities.

Join us for a conversation about public education, taxes, immigration, health care, spending and other consequential matters with four Houston-area legislators: state Sen. Carol Alvarado and state Reps. Sarah Davis, Dan Huberty and Armando Walle. The conversation will be moderated by Evan Smith, co-founder and CEO of The Texas Tribune.

Alvarado, D-Houston, has represented Senate District 6 since a special election early this year. She sits on the Senate Intergovernmental Relations, Nominations, Transportation, and Water and Rural Affairs committees. Previously, Alvarado served more than 10 years representing House District 145. She also served on the Houston City Council.

Davis, R-West University Place, has represented House District 134 since 2011. She serves on the House Appropriations and Insurance committees. She also serves as vice chair of the Legislature’s Harris County Delegation and secretary of the Women’s Health Caucus, and she is House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s appointee to the Texas Access to Justice Commission. Davis is also a partner with Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP and specializes in personal injury lawsuits.

Huberty, R-Houston, has represented House District 127 since 2011. He serves as chair of the House Public Education Committee and sits on the County Affairs Committee. Previously, he served as board president and trustee for the Humble ISD school board. Huberty is also president of MVP REIT, a real estate investment trust.

Walle, D-Houston, has represented House District 140 since 2009. He serves on the Appropriations, Higher Education, Local and Consent Calendars, and Redistricting committees. He is also a member of the House Democratic Caucus, Women’s Health Caucus and LGBTQ Caucus. Previously, Walle served on the staff of multiple elected officials, including U.S. Reps. Gene Green and Sheila Jackson Lee, and he is now a practicing attorney.

After Gov. Greg Abbott vetoes cyberbullying prevention bill, some worry forms of online harassment will continue unchecked

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Photo illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr. / The Texas Tribune

Two years ago, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a bill criminalizing cyberbullying, with an increased punishment if it’s proven a bully intended for a victim to harm or kill themselves. Widely supported by advocates, “David’s Law” came to Abbott’s desk after 16-year-old San Antonio high school student David Molak took his own life after being harassed online.

But it didn’t protect children who are indirectly bullied, such as when people post or send hostile messages about them to others. The Texas House and Senate passed a bill that would criminalize such indirect harassment, but Abbott on Saturday vetoed the measure.

During the hearings on the bill, a Texas woman testified that her daughter was one of those students left unprotected due to what advocates say is a loophole in current law.

When a Texas middle school student posted video montages of six female classmates including her 13-year-old daughter online attached with obscene and sexually explicit comments, she said it wasn’t directly addressed to any of the students. But that didn’t lessen the effects of the bullying, she said. Even after the videos were taken down, she testified that her daughter continued to deal with harassment and social challenges, and another one of the middle schoolers was driven to attempt suicide.

“A lot of vile and nasty, vulgar things were said about her to other people,” said the bill’s author state Rep. Sheryl Cole, D-Austin. “It got way out of hand, but most of it didn’t go directly to her — and that’s not covered under [David’s Law].”

In his veto statement, Abbott said House Bill 3490 was “overbroad” and “would sweep in conduct that legislators did not intend to criminalize,” including repeated criticisms of elected officials online.

Under the bill, for example, some frequent commenters on Abbott’s social media accounts could have been charged for posting multiple messages and tweets likely to annoy or harass.

“It was hard for us to not make it overbroad and still fit in the boundaries of the general statutes — you don’t want two different standards,” Cole said. “More likely than not, given his statement, we’re going to take steps to just rewrite the whole section of the penal code that’s applicable.”

Cole expressed disappointment at the veto, though she said she wasn’t “entirely shocked” because of the potential legal issues surrounding the legislation.

“When there is a gap in the law that doesn’t protect victims that are driven to self-harm or suicide, it is clear that we must take action to fix the law,” Cole said in a Monday afternoon statement posted on Twitter. “Unfortunately, this veto means that it will be another two years before we can try to provide these victims protection and help them seek justice.”

In the past few years, multiple Texas teens — including 18-year-old Brandy Vela who was allegedly cyberbullied by an ex-boyfriend about her weight — have died by suicide after experiencing online harassment.

Piper Nelson, chief marketing and communications officer for human services nonprofit The SAFE Alliance, said the priority ahead of the 2021 session should be bringing prevention efforts to a school level and educating children around healthy relationships.

“This bill might not have been perfect,” Nelson said, “but we look forward to next session making sure that further legislation is passed.”

Arrests along U.S.-Mexico border are falling, preliminary figures show

Texas Tribune News

A migrant group is detained by CBP near the Paso del Norte International Bridge, Sunday, March 31, 2019, in El Paso.
A migrant group is detained by CBP near the Paso del Norte International Bridge, Sunday, March 31, 2019, in El Paso.
Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

The number of migrant families crossing the border illegally has been falling in recent weeks, according to preliminary figures from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, though U.S. officials say it is too soon to get a full picture of the impact on migration trends from President Trump’s deal with Mexico.

U.S. authorities detained more than 85,000 “family unit” members at the border in May, an average of nearly 2,800 per day. That number has declined about 13 percent since the beginning of June, a period during which Trump threatened to impose tariffs on Mexico and the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador agreed to an immigration crackdown to avoid the penalty.

Overall, U.S. officials say they are expecting a 15 to 20 percent decline in border arrests from May, when authorities detained more than 144,000 and migration levels reached their highest point since 2006. The portion of migrants arriving as part of a family group has reached unprecedented levels in recent months, overwhelming U.S. border authorities who say they are ill-equipped to care for so many parents with children.

Since the June 7 immigration deal with Trump, Mexico has begun to deploy thousands of national-guard forces to set up highway checkpoints and catch more Central American migrants as they head northward toward the U.S. border. The United States also has begun to send more asylum seekers back across the border into Mexico to await their U.S. immigration court hearings, an expansion of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program that prevents the migrants from staying in the United States while they go through the asylum process.

The Mexican immigration enforcement crackdown has been concentrated in southern Mexico, so U.S. officials say it could take several weeks for the full effect of the effort to show up as a reduction in crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border. As the United States turns more people away to Mexico during their asylum process, authorities hope it will act as a deterrent.

“We are seeing initial actions and we are seeing some signs they’re having an impact,” said one U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss preliminary figures that are not yet public. “But I think it’s still too early to tell.”

Border arrests typically surge in the spring, when demand for U.S. farm labor grows, then subside during peak summer months. Border arrests declined 17 percent from May 2018 to June 2018, an indication that the expected decline this month could follow that same trend.

But Department of Homeland Security officials say current migration patterns are less linked to seasonal labor demand than in the past, instead driven by the widespread view in Central America that those who migrate with children have an opportunity now to gain entry to the United States by taking advantage of legal gaps in the U.S. immigration system.

If the June arrest numbers continue to decline, it would be the first month this year that Customs and Border Protection has recorded a decrease in enforcement actions.

During the negotiations to avert tariffs, White House officials told Mexico that Trump wanted to see border crossings back at the historic lows tallied during 2017.

The Mexican government did not commit to a specific, numerical enforcement goal during the negotiations, a senior Mexican official said Monday. But Mexico has assured the United States that its enforcement efforts will deliver the major reductions in migration levels Trump is demanding.

The United States, via the MPP program, has been sending about 250 asylum seekers back to Mexico per day, but U.S. officials plan to increase that to at least 1,000 per day in coming weeks.

The procedure is facing legal challenges, and critics say it exposes vulnerable families to grave danger by stranding them in mafia-dominated Mexican border cities with few services and little protection. Local Mexican officials say they are ill-prepared for a massive return of migrants.

A senior Mexican official told reporters Monday that the Mexican government’s efforts had cut daily arrests at the U.S. border from 4,500 to 2,600, but U.S. officials said those figures were not an accurate reflection of daily averages since the two countries reached their accord.

Mexican officials said Monday that their enforcement efforts would not only target the highways and rail lines of southern Mexico, noting that some of the country’s national-guard units would deploy to the U.S. border to increase enforcement.

Texas Tech receives $17 million to build the state's second vet school

Texas Tribune News

Texas Tech had an “absolutely historic legislative session,” Chancellor Tedd Mitchell said. The school hopes to enroll its first vet class in 2021.
Texas Tech had an “absolutely historic legislative session,” Chancellor Tedd Mitchell said. The school hopes to enroll its first vet class in 2021.
Texas Tech University

After years of advocacy from the Texas Tech University System, the Legislature has earmarked more than $17 million for the West Texas institution to establish a veterinary medicine school, the second of its kind in the state.

The system also received $20 million to open a dental school in El Paso.

“This has been — for us — a long, long road. But it’s been very much worth the effort,” Texas Tech University System Chancellor Tedd Mitchell said at a press conference Tuesday.

He expressed gratitude to state leaders and lawmakers for Tech’s “absolutely historic legislative session,” and suggested both schools would meet critical regional needs.

“We think that the state’s made a tremendous investment into not only our region and not only in higher education, but a huge investment in the future of Texas overall,” said Mitchell, who is also president of the Tech System’s health sciences center.

Funding for the Amarillo vet school, which was part of the budget signed into law Saturday by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, has long been a source of strife between Tech and the Texas A&M University System.

Currently, A&M has a monopoly on training future veterinarians in the state, and advocates of its program have said funding Tech’s will unnecessarily drain limited state resources. Backers of Tech’s initiative have contended that A&M’s program, which has received national recognition, does not train enough large-animal vets to meet the demand in rural areas.

Tech still needs approval from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and from a third-party accreditor for its academic program. The institution hopes to enroll its first class in 2021.

“The school will address the hundreds of students who are leaving the state of Texas for a more costly education, then coming back to practice in their home state with upwards of $250,000 in debt due to out-of-state tuition,” a group of 10 area lawmakers, including Republican state Sens. Charles Perry and Kel Seliger and state Rep. John Frullo, said in a statement last month.

Former Tech chancellors Robert Duncan and Kent Hance advocated for vet school funding throughout the 2019 legislative session. Duncan, a former state lawmaker, unexpectedly retired from Tech last August, and sources familiar with the events have partly attributed his departure to conflicts over the vet program. At the time, the disagreement was rooted in diverging opinions about budgets and the prioritization of other system initiatives, like the proposed dental school in El Paso.

In 2016, Tech regents tapped the brakes on the vet program plans. But lawmakers, urged by the West Texas delegation, set aside $4.2 million in 2017 for Tech to study how feasible it would be to build the school. Institution officials have estimated it will cost $90 million for facilities and have raised private donations to cover those costs.

Language in the state budget says the $17 million will let Tech “initiate curriculum design and development,” begin recruiting faculty and kickstart the accreditation process.

Disclosure: The Texas Tech University System, the Texas A&M University System and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

T-Squared: Trib wins five national Edward R. Murrow Awards

Texas Tribune News

We’re overjoyed to tell you that The Texas Tribune has won five national honors from the Edward R. Murrow Awards, a record for our nearly 10-year-old organization.

Four of the awards — for breaking news, continuing coverage, hard news and excellence in social media in the “small news organization” category — were for our coverage of President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy and the resulting family separation crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. You can read our extraordinary “Families Divided” series here.

The fifth honor is the coveted Overall Excellence award for the best all-around news organization in our size category.

The only news organization to win more national Murrow awards this year was CBS News, with seven honors.

Our previous Murrow Award record was four national honors, which we received in 2017. We won three last year. Since the Tribune’s inception, we’ve won a total of 48 regional and national Murrow Awards.

This isn’t the only good news we’ve received lately. In the last week, we also won a prestigious Dateline Award — an honor from the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists — for “Blowout,” a project on the West Texas oil and gas boom we produced with the Center for Public Integrity, the AP and Newsy.

We’re exceedingly grateful to be honored by the Murrows, especially for work that was so critical for our state in the last year. If you’d like to support this and other award-winning work, we’d love it if you joined our member community!

Texas voters’ election qualms run high, but their reasons vary, UT/TT Poll says

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Illustration by Emily Albracht/The Texas Tribune

Texas voters find a lot wrong with who does and doesn’t get to vote in the state’s elections, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Generally speaking, Democrats see voter suppression and Republicans see voter fraud.

“Partisans on both sides can find things to fault,” said Joshua Blank, manager of polling and research for the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “Texans as a whole look upon the election system pretty poorly.”

Half of the voters said noncitizens vote “sometimes” (24%) or “frequently” (26%) in the state’s elections — a view held by 75% of Republican respondents and 54% of independent voters. Among Democrats, 27% said noncitizens “never” vote in Texas elections and another 37% said it “rarely” happens. White voters (56%) think noncitizens vote sometimes or frequently; 33% of black voters and 40% of Hispanic voters agreed with them.

But those Democrats don’t think everything is rosy: 68% said eligible voters in Texas are sometimes (37%) or frequently (31%) prevented from voting. That view is shared by 44% of voters overall, by 24% of Republicans and by 37% of independent voters. Among all voters, 43% think eligible voters are never or rarely blocked from casting ballots. A majority of black voters (53%) said voters are frequently or sometimes prevented from voting; 49% of Hispanic and 40% of white voters agreed with them.

“The skepticism, cynicism, even, on both sides, is striking,” said Daron Shaw, professor of government at UT-Austin and co-director of the poll. “I find it distressing that this is undermining confidence in the electoral system.”

Almost half of the state’s voters (49%) said people knowingly break Texas election laws sometimes or frequently. That opinion is shared by 26% of Democrats, 69% of Republicans and 49% of independents. Democrats (58%) were more likely to say that occurs never or rarely, a view shared by 18% of Republicans and 29% of independents.

“Going back to Will Rogers and Mark Twain, there is a long tradition of thinking that politicians are rigging elections and cheating,” Shaw said. “On the other hand, now the conversation feeds into this hyperpartisanship. It feeds a cynicism that I think is unappealing.”

Asked whether the state’s election system discriminates against racial and ethnic minorities, 50% said no and 35% said yes. The party lines were evident on that question, too: 66% of Democrats said there is discrimination, while 80% of Republicans and 53% of independents said the election system doesn’t discriminate. Hispanic voters split 41% to 39% on that question; 54% of black voters said the election system discriminates on ethnic and racial lines, while 60% of white voters said it does not.

“People could and should be troubled about this,” said James Henson, who runs the Texas Politics Project at UT-Austin and co-directs the poll. “We have something of a legitimacy question about our elections.”

The University of Texas/Texas Tribune internet survey of 1,200 registered voters was conducted from May 31-June 9 and has an overall margin of error of +/- 2.83 percentage points. Numbers in charts might not add up to 100 percent because of rounding.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

On growth, diversity, immigration and trade, UT/TT Poll finds two states of Texas

Texas Tribune News

Illustration by Emily Albracht/The Texas Tribune

For all of the boasting from business and political leaders about how fast the state is growing, many Texas voters have their concerns about whether getting bigger or more diverse is a good thing, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll. And on that and other questions, their differences often match their party preferences.

While 39% of voters think the state’s population growth is good for the state, 34% think it’s bad for Texas and 27% don’t have an opinion on that question. And on balance, Republicans have more misgivings than Democrats, the poll found. Among Democratic voters, 47% said the state’s growth has been good for Texas, and 23% percent said it has been bad. Among Republicans, the numbers flip, with 34% praising the growth and 43% saying growth has been bad for the state.

But party wasn’t the only difference. Among women, 35% were pro-growth, and 34% think it’s bad for the state. Men were more likely to say growth was good (45%) than bad (34%). Republican women were notably skeptical, with 28% saying growth has been good for the state and 46% saying it’s been bad.

“Women are more likely to say they’re unsure,” said Joshua Blank, manager of polling and research for the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. Nearly a third (31%) of women said they don’t have an opinion, compared to 23% of men.

The state’s increasing racial and ethnic diversity is a cause for optimism, according to 44% of the voters — and a cause for pessimism, according to 33%. Again, it depends on who is talking, and the partisan differences are strong: 67% of Democrats said rising diversity is a cause for optimism; among Republicans, 28% agreed with that, while 44% said the state’s increasing ethnic and racial diversity is cause for concern. Independent voters were split on the question: 33% optimistic, 36% pessimistic.

Trump, trade and tariffs

Overall, more Texas voters than not approve of President Donald Trump’s handling of economic, trade and foreign affairs, but only on his handling of the economy does that support come from more than half of the voters. Approval and disapproval of his policies appear relatively close, though more voters approve of the president’s work than disapprove. But the overall numbers cloak big partisan differences. His numbers on handling of the economy are driven by strong support among Republicans, 90% of whom gave the president good marks. Among Democrats, only 11% approve of Trump’s economic record, while 76% do not.

That Republican support runs through approving responses to the president’s handling of trade negotiations (81%), immigration and border security (85%), foreign relations (83%) and taxes (84%). Democrats couldn’t disagree more, disapproving — with equivalent intensity — of Trump’s handling of trade negotiations (86%), immigration and border security (86%), foreign relations (85%) and taxes (82%).

Trump’s proposal to put a tariff on goods imported from Mexico won approval from Republicans (74%) and disapproval from Democrats (76%). Overall, Texas voters were split 43% to 42% on that question. That tariff proposal — which was settled after pushback from Republican leaders and others inside and outside of Congress — would have been bad for the Texas economy, according to 49% of Texas voters. And Republican voters split evenly, with 27% saying it would hurt the economy and the same number saying it would be good for Texas. Only 8% of Democrats and 17% of independent voters said tariffs would help the economy, while 76% of Democrats and 46% of independents said it would hurt.

The Republican sentiment revealed in the poll illustrates a dilemma that faced GOP policymakers, who were caught between their voters’ current support for tariffs and those voters’ concerns about the economic effects, said James Henson, who runs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin and co-directs the poll.

“In this particular circumstance, the linkage of immigration and trade and the Mexico thing reveals how people don’t have well-developed, deeply rooted attitudes about trade,” Henson said. “This is why the Republican elites were panicked about the trade thing. They couldn’t fight it on the front end, and they were going to have to pay for it on the back end.”

But even with those misgivings from voters, many Texans believe tariffs would be effective “at making the Mexican government do more to prevent migrants from coming to the United States.” In spite of their other reservations, 70% of Republicans said they support that sentiment. Among Democrats, 13% said tariffs would be effective, and 28% of independent voters agreed with that assessment.

The University of Texas/Texas Tribune internet survey of 1,200 registered voters was conducted from May 31-June 9 and has an overall margin of error of +/- 2.83 percentage points. Numbers in charts might not add up to 100 percent because of rounding.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Texas prison guards to get a small raise, but some doubt it will help with chronic understaffing

Texas Tribune News

A correctional officer training class.
A correctional officer training class.
Jennifer Whitney for The Texas Tribune

State leaders have recently cheered on record-low unemployment rates in Texas. But the economic success has made it that much harder for the state to run a crucial agency — it can’t keep its prisons staffed.

It’s an ongoing problem for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which has struggled for years to hire and keep guards in about 100 state-run prisons, leading to safety and health concerns for both prisoners and staff. In April, the agency was short nearly 4,000 correctional officers and saw almost one in three leave the job last year. State officials and the agency have blamed the understaffing on low pay for a tough job that’s often located in rural parts of the state, and more opportunities in the oil and fracking industries.

“We’re in the strongest economy we’ve seen in a long, long time, so the competition is tough,” Bryan Collier, the department’s executive director, told The Texas Tribune.

Prison guards currently start at about $36,000 and receive a maximum of about $43,000 after 7.5 years. As the agency struggles with a 15% vacancy rate of its guard jobs, officers for more than a year have been required to work mandatory overtime at some prisons and often rotate from one prison into more drastically-understaffed units for short stints.

To stem the flow of guards leaving their ranks and attract more recruits, TDCJ officials this year asked the Texas Legislature for $168 million for pay raises to correctional officers and other prison staff, whose positions haven’t had a salary increase since 2015. In the two-year budget signed by Gov. Greg Abbott on Saturday, the agency got half of the requested funds.

Collier applauded lawmakers for doling out the money and allowing the department to reform its salary schedule to give larger but less frequent raises as officers rise through the ranks — providing a bigger bump earlier to new guards, who are much more likely to quit, while handing down more modest raises to long-time employees.

But even for the officers who will get the biggest increase starting this fall, the raises are still relatively small, and some doubt the salary shifts will make a significant dent in the chronic understaffing problem that is also affecting prisons across the country. The department already increased the starting annual salary by about $2,000 last year by cutting out the first two rungs of the pay scale and offers $5,000 hiring bonuses at nearly 20 of its most understaffed prisons. Still, several maximum-security prisons only had two-thirds of guard positions filled in April, according to an agency report.

“Some of the same pressures that are causing understaffing will continue to exist,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who leads his chamber’s criminal justice committee and sits on the finance committee as well. “They’ll make more driving a water truck in the fracking areas than you can working in the heat and the dangers of a maximum security prison.”

Collier, however, said he believes the new pay scale will keep new officers on the job longer, since their salaries will increase to more than $39,000 after one year, instead of after 2.5.

The current and new salary schedules for Texas Department of Criminal Justice correctional officers, based on the $84 million influx from the legislature.
The current and new salary schedules for Texas Department of Criminal Justice correctional officers, based on the $84 million influx from the legislature.
TDCJ

The $84 million provided in the budget was originally meant to cover a flat, one-time 5% raise for all correctional officers. But agency officials requested and were given more flexibility to restructure the career ladder. Under the new structure, the starting salary of about $36,000 won’t increase. And officers who have been at the agency more than 7.5 years will only get a one-time 3.7% raise, or about $1,600 a year.

Similar pay scale changes will apply to food and laundry employees in the prisons, and leadership security positions, from sergeants to wardens will get a 3.7% bump like veteran officers. Parole officers will receive a flat 5% raise at all ranks. Collier himself will get an extra $18,002 added to his pay over the next two years.

Collier said the agency restructured the career ladder to focus on their biggest retention problem — new officers. Last year, nearly 40% of new officers quit within the first year, he said. That’s higher than the overall turnover rate, which is just shy of 30%.

“Our veteran officers turnover rate is much much lower than what we see on the front end,” he said. “Our focus with the career path was based on our analysis of who’s leaving.”

But long-time officers and union officials have repeatedly asked for help for the staff who have stuck around, saying the current maximum salary is much lower than other, similar jobs.

“It would have been a smarter, wiser idea to add an extra career step above the current top out,” said Lance Lowry, a long-time Huntsville correctional officer and former union president. “You would have given these people that are quitting prior to retirement an incentive to stay a little bit longer.”

Collier countered that there are ample opportunities for officers to be promoted to higher-paying supervisory jobs. He noted his own career advancement — he also was a correctional officer in his decades at TDCJ.

Now, he makes a six-figure salary, which will get even larger in the fall, irking some rank-and-file officers. Collier’s salary will increase by $9,001 a year for the biennium, bringing his annual salary to $275,501.

Collier said neither he nor the agency asked for his raise, which was first added in the House’s version of the budget.

“I’m thankful that the Legislature provided a raise in my salary, but at the same time the bigger picture is the money we got for our officers and staff. That was our focus,” he said.

Still, Lowry said the news of Collier’s raise didn’t sit well with many officers, whose raises he said will not cover the cost of living increases over the next two years while more and more officers leave the agency.

“The state legislature is definitely out of touch,” he said. “We don’t have a problem keeping executive directors, we have a problem keeping the line staff.”

Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed a proposed Texas law banning guns in secure airport areas. Supporters say it's still needed.

Texas Tribune News

American Airlines planes on the tarmac at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
American Airlines planes on the tarmac at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
Getty Images

A state representative says action is still needed after Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed his bill that would have allowed local authorities to bring charges against people who carry a gun in a secure area of a Texas airport.

Federal law already makes it illegal for a person or airport employee to possess a weapon on secure parts of the airport tarmac. State Rep. Rafael Anchía, a Democrat from Dallas, wanted to give state officials the same jurisdiction as federal agents in such a case, partially so that smaller commercial airports wouldn’t have to wait for a federal agent to arrive on-site in order to take action in the face of an emergency.

“When you’re talking about a security threat on a tarmac, with a passenger aircraft and fuel and everything like that, every second counts,” Anchía said.

But Abbott vetoed the bill on Saturday, writing in a statement that it would “impose an unacceptable restraint on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding travelers.”

“The Legislature may have intended simply to keep firearms off the tarmac, but the bill as drafted would newly prohibit carrying in any part of the airport terminal building, even ahead of the TSA inspection checkpoint,” Abbott wrote.

Still, Abbott left the door open to a future bill that might accomplish similar goals.

“By vetoing this bill, I am ensuring that Texans can travel without leaving their firearms at home,” he wrote. “I look forward to working with the next Legislature on the good idea behind this bill.”

Anchía said Monday that the bill already takes Abbott’s concerns into account — by excluding private parts of the tarmac that could be used, for example, by a gun owner using a private plane to go on a hunting trip.

“The fact that the governor is suggesting somehow the language picked up the non-secure area of the terminal is really not credible,” Anchía said.

Anchía said over the weekend that the police at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport “asked for this bill.” Representatives from the city of Dallas, the Houston Police Department and the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas registered their support. But it was opposed at hearings by members of the gun rights groups Open Carry Texas and Gun Owners of America.

It passed with a 140-8 vote in the House and 25-6 in the Senate, Anchía noted.

Earlier this year, data from the Transportation Security Administration reported a surge in the number of guns found at airport security checkpoints, where guns are still banned.

Out of the top 10 airports where TSA found the most guns, four are in Texas.

“The threats not going to go away so we need to deal with it in the legislation,” Anchía said. “I just worry that the threat still exists.”

Julián Castro unveils affordable housing platform aimed at increasing homeownership, decreasing discrimination

Texas Tribune News

Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro speaks to supporters at a fundraiser at Native Hostel in Austin on May 8, 2019.
Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro speaks to supporters at a fundraiser at Native Hostel in Austin on May 8, 2019.
Juan Figueroa/The Texas Tribune

WASHINGTON — Calling housing “a human right,” Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro unveiled a series of new proposals Monday to address housing affordability issues that are mounting across the country.

Castro promised in a written statement that he will “end veteran, child and youth homelessness by the end of my first term, and will end chronic homelessness by the end of 2028.”

Castro has a particular expertise in this field — he served as Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary during the Obama administration. This is the latest in a series of proposals he has released over the course of his presidential campaign since January. Castro has also released plans to address immigration, education and police reform.

There three main tenets he underscored Monday for his housing proposal include focusing on federally funded vouchers to help disadvantaged Americans pay their rent, creating a refundable tax credit for Americans whose rent exceeds 30% of their income and expanding the supply of affordable housing units.

On Tuesday, Castro will shift focus to stop housing discrimination and address how gentrification and climate change affect housing affordability and availability. And on Wednesday, Castro will discuss how to move more Americans into homeownership while also regulating Wall Street’s role in this sector of the economy.

While Castro has trailed behind most of his rivals for the Democratic nomination, he qualified for next week’s NBC debate.