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May 27th, 2021:

Anti-trans sports bill dies

Good news, with the usual caveats.

A controversial Texas bill that would restrict the participation of transgender student athletes in school sports ran out of time for consideration in the House as the lower chamber hit a crucial deadline Tuesday night for passing all Senate bills.

Senate Bill 29 would have mandated that transgender student athletes play on sports teams based on their sex assigned at birth instead of their gender identity. The bill’s proponents said it was necessary to protect girls’ sports, arguing that allowing transgender girls to play on school sports teams gave them an unfair advantage because they have higher levels of testosterone.

LGBTQ advocates said the legislation was harmful and discriminatory against transgender Texans. It is among a slate of Texas bills aimed at transgender people this legislative session and the latest to miss a House deadline that needed to be met so they could advance and eventually become law. No legislative measure can be considered dead, though, until the session ends Monday.

No matter the success of the legislation, LGBTQ advocates say the mere specter that such measures could become law has already damaged the mental health of transgender people.

Debate on SB 29 was delayed until 11:30 p.m. Tuesday night, leaving only half an hour for the chamber to pass the bill. Then several other delayed bills ahead of it ran down the clock until there was no time left for the imperiled bill.

House Democrats spent much of Tuesday’s marathon session using delay tactics to keep several GOP-backed bills, including SB 29, from coming up in time to be debated. With less than 10 minutes until the deadline Tuesday, Democrats offered an amendment to an unrelated bill and then asked each other clarifying questions about it as a way to run out the clock.

As the deadline crept closer, representatives circulated transgender pride flags on the floor in an obvious nod to their tactic and target. Austin Democrat Gina Hinojosa smiled and waved the flag alongside members of the House LGBTQ Caucus as the clock hit midnight.

“Democrats had a long, aggressive floor strategy to keep a number of bills, most notably SB 29, from affecting the people of Texas,” said state Rep. Julie Johnson, D-Farmers Branch, treasurer of the caucus, told The Texas Tribune. “I’m really happy we were able to end the session by preserving the dignity and rights of the children of Texas to be free of discrimination.”

See here for the background and here for one of the celebratory photos. The tactic involved is called chubbing, and it has been used to some extent or another in most recent sessions. I’ll return to that in a minute, but first we should note that as is always the case, other bills met their demise as well on deadline day.

In the final 14 hours before the final midnight deadline for advancing Senate bills in the Texas House, Democrats pulled out all the stops Tuesday to keep the body from considering GOP-backed legislation they opposed, spelling death for some of the Senate’s priority bills.

The House had on its calendar several of the Senate’s priorities, including a bill banning social media companies from blocking users because of their viewpoint or their location within Texas, another that would ban local governments from using public funds to pay for lobbyists, and another that would force transgender student athletes to play on sports teams based on their sex assigned at birth instead of their gender identity.

Republicans control all branches of Texas government, and Democrats have been trying to fight back these bills since the beginning of the legislative session in January. The midnight deadline to pass the bills was the minority party’s last hope. And though they ended the night with hoarse voices, House Democrats landed a rare victory this session, killing all three of those bills, and only ceding one other Senate priority bill that banned cities and counties from requiring companies to pay workers more than the federal minimum wage or provide them with benefits like paid sick leave.

Dan Patrick took these defeats about as well we you might imagine.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Wednesday is asking Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session of the Texas Legislature in June to advance three pieces of GOP-backed legislation that died in the Texas House at midnight on Tuesday.

The bills sought to ban transgender students from playing on sports teams based on their gender identity, prohibit local governments from using taxpayer funds to pay for lobbyists and punish social media companies for “censoring” Texans based on their political viewpoints.

In a statement Abbott said the call was premature and instead urged lawmakers to “work together to get important conservative legislation to my desk.”

“Some are trying to end the game before the time clock has run out,” Abbott wrote. “Members in both chambers need to be spending every minute of every day to accomplish that mission.”

In his call to bring back the Legislature, Patrick said the bills in question have widespread support.

“The TxHouse killed these conservative bills that majority of Texans in both parties support,” Patrick tweeted, without evidence. A Patrick spokesperson did not immediately respond to a question about evidence of such support.

If Dan Patrick says that everybody supports these things, who are we to argue? We know there will be a special session in the fall for redistricting and appropriating federal COVID relief funds, but that’s a lot already for thirty days. Would Greg Abbott accommodate Patrick’s request for an immediate special session for these undone bills? On the one hand, they were on the “emergency items” list, so for sure Abbott supports them. On the other hand, the fact that these bills, which had more time to get passed than any others, couldn’t make it to the floor until the very end, when they were susceptible to this well-known tactic, should tell you something. It is more than a little likely that some number of Republican legislators would have preferred to not have to vote on them. The first job of the Speaker is to protect the members, after all.

Look, Abbott’s gonna do what Abbott’s gonna do, and we should know soon enough what he intends. In the meantime, celebrate the wins that we got. Lord knows, there were plenty of losses. The Chron has more.

The Trib adds on to the updated date rape drug story

I was a little surprised when there wasn’t a Texas Tribune story about the revelation that the date rape drug allegation levied against a lobbyist turned out to have been fabricated. They’re usually pretty quick on stuff like that, even when it wasn’t their scoop. With the publication of this story, I can see why. It focuses on the lobbyist in question, and it’s a deep dive.

Although it had not been officially released, the investigative report began ricocheting around computers and cellphones at the Texas Capitol early Tuesday evening, and it made one thing unambiguously clear: Rick Dennis, a lobbyist with one of Austin’s most prominent firms, was not guilty of using a date rape drug on two female legislative staffers during a night out in Austin.

Rumors that Dennis had been accused of doing so rocked the Capitol in late April, prompting outraged reactions from legislative leaders and state lawmakers. But a Texas Department of Public Safety investigation found the allegation baseless. Authorities soon after said they would not seek charges.

The DPS report, a copy of which was obtained by The Texas Tribune, concluded that the false allegation was fueled by two female legislative staffers, one of whom was trying to cover up behavior of her own that had nothing to do with Dennis.

Still, the incident laid bare larger questions about a Capitol culture that many female staffers say often leads to allegations of misconduct and harassment being brushed under the rug by those with the power to act.

Dennis has faced multiple accusations of inappropriate behavior with women as both a legislative staffer and lobbyist — and in at least two instances has been banned from visiting certain Capitol offices because of them, according to current and former staffers and documentation reviewed by the Tribune.

Those past allegations include offering graphic descriptions of sex acts inside a House member’s office, openly speculating about the sex lives of female and male employees, and creating “an office contest” in which Dennis demanded that he, as winner, would be able to “shoot white yogurt” onto the face of the loser, a female subordinate.

Those complaints, though, appeared to have little effect on his stature at the Capitol.

Dennis, through his attorneys, largely denied previous allegations to the Tribune. He did express regret about his time in state Rep. Tan Parker’s office during the 2015 legislative session, which he characterized as a stretch that “had too much of a locker room environment.”

Dennis’ history does not include accusations involving physical behavior or sexual violence, according to current and former staffers interviewed for this story. But his reputation for inappropriate comments, in part, explains why the date rape drug allegation took hold fiercely when it surfaced.

While lawmakers appropriately expressed outrage over fears that a staffer had been drugged, Capitol workers say, they’re bothered that years of documented complaints about sexual harassment didn’t meet the same threshold for those in power.

The latest incident has sent a message about what isn’t acceptable in the culture of state government. And what apparently is.

[…]

Dennis has been a presence at the Capitol for years. He worked for Parker — a Republican House member whose office declined to respond to a list of emailed questions for this story — from 2007-15, according to Dennis’ LinkedIn profile. Dennis also held a role as a strategist for the House Republican Caucus, his LinkedIn shows.

As the 2015 legislative session wrapped up, Julie Young, who at the time was working in Parker’s office, said she endured or witnessed multiple instances of harassment from Dennis, the lawmaker’s chief of staff. Young wrote a letter to Parker detailing incidents involving Dennis in the office and shared it with other staff members. Young said she brought a hard copy of the letter to discuss with Parker at a June 2015 meeting the two had scheduled.

The letter, a copy of which was shared with the Tribune, said the instances listed “made [the office] all extremely uncomfortable” and made Parker’s “office an unbearably hostile work environment.”

“We are under direction to discuss these issues with you first,” the letter said, “and then if the situation is not handled internally, we are told to go straight to House Personnel who will take the issue to [then-House Administration Chair] Charlie Geren.”

The letter described Dennis speculating about the sex lives of female and male employees in front of other members of the office. The letter said he repeatedly told two staffers they would “sleep together before session is over.” Dennis also “repeatedly said to multiple people” that Young has “Fuck me eyes,” the letter said.

The letter also described “an office contest” Dennis held “in which he demanded that the winner be able to ‘shoot white yogurt onto the loser’s face.’” A female staffer lost “and had white yogurt thrown in her face by Rick, in the office,” the letter said.

In the two weeks after receiving the letter, Parker met individually with staff members and confirmed with each of them the incidents detailed in that letter, Young told the Tribune. Soon after that, she said, Parker held a meeting with staff in his office and apologized, saying they wouldn’t have to come in contact with Dennis moving forward.

Parker, though, continued to pay Dennis and did not sign paperwork terminating his employment until five months later, in November 2015, according to House personnel and payroll records reviewed by the Tribune.

Dennis, in response to an emailed list of questions for this story, largely denied the allegations and said he felt the letter was “unfair.” But he did say that, “during that period of time,” Parker’s office “had too much of a locker room environment.”

“I admit that and regret it on behalf of all of us,” Dennis said. “However, it is absolutely false that I engaged in any of this activity that wasn’t being engaged in by all of us, male and female. The very same kind of banter was pointed at me as well.”

In response to the yogurt-throwing allegation, Dennis said it “was not a contest, but rather an agreement” with a friend and office colleague who had a birthday close to his.

“Instead of exchanging birthday gifts, we agreed that on her birthday she could throw a spoon of yogurt at me and I could do the same to her on my birthday,” he said. “Neither the instance where one spoonful of yogurt was tossed at me or at my colleague was done in a demeaning manner.”

Dennis said the idea came from the TV show “Modern Family” “and the fact that my colleague loved eating yogurt in the afternoons.” Staff members from other offices were present, as was his wife, he said.

“It was a joke in which we all engaged in willingly,” Dennis said.

See here for the background. That’s a long excerpt, but there’s a lot more where that came from, and you should read it. Richard Dennis was absolutely damaged by the false allegations made against him, and he has suffered for that. Based on this story, in which not one but two legislators called HillCo to tell them to keep him out of their offices, he didn’t have a great reputation among legislative staffers. You can make of that what you will.

HISD may have a reprieve

For one year, if this bill passes as is and if the Supreme Court doesn’t intervene.

The Texas House advanced a meaty education bill Tuesday that dramatically reduces the stakes of state standardized tests in 2021-22 and gives Houston ISD another year to raise scores at Wheatley High School before definitively triggering the district school board’s ouster.

House members backed SB 1365 by a voice vote after hammering out a compromise that earned the support of several top Texas education organizations. The proposed legislation, which passed the Senate in early May, still needs to pass a second vote in the House later this week.

The House version approved Tuesday differs significantly from the Senate version of the bill, making the legislation’s path to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk unclear. The Senate version does not include an accountability reprieve for schools in 2021-22 and mandates the immediate replacement of HISD’s school board.

Under the House version, Texas public schools and districts would still be subject to state A-through-F accountability ratings in 2021-22, but the vast majority would not be penalized for poor performance. Schools and districts scoring A, B or C grades under the system would receive their scores, while those with D or F grades would be labeled “not rated.” Accountability ratings are largely based on state standardized test scores, as well as measures of seniors’ college and career readiness.

“Without the passage of Senate Bill 1365, schools will be expected to show two years of learning in nine months, during 2021-22, and will be penalized by the accountability system accordingly,” said state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Kingwood.

However, districts still will face severe state sanctions, including the replacement of their school board or the closure of campuses, if any of their campuses have scored five “improvement required” or F grades since 2014 and fail to earn an A, B or C rating in 2021-22.

[…]

In essence, HISD and its new superintendent, who is expected to finalize a contract and begin work in the district next year, would have one year to turn the tide at Wheatley and notch a C-or-better grade under the House version.

The campus appeared on an upward trajectory before the coronavirus pandemic caused the suspension of accountability ratings in 2020 and 2021, but students likely will need intensive support in the upcoming school year after missing valuable in-person class time over the past 14 months.

Here’s SB1365. In its original form, it was identical to HB3270, the Harold Dutton bill that was intended to fix the law that the courts have said the TEA did not follow correctly in ruling to halt the takeover. The bill now goes to a conference committee, which could strip out the provision that gives HISD a one year reprieve, but we’ll see.

Regardless, the TEA is still pursuing its litigation against HISD, and the Supreme Court could still intervene. I think it may be more likely that they would choose to sit it out if the Huberty version of SB1365 passes, since in a year’s time either Wheatley has made the grade and HISD can continue on as is, or it hasn’t and HISD has no grounds to stop a takeover. Why stick your nose in when the calendar will resolve this for you? That’s just a guess, and I could easily be wrong. Or maybe SB1365 doesn’t pass in this form. HISD is in slightly better shape today than it was on Monday, but it ain’t over yet.

Texas blog roundup for the week of May 24

The Texas Progressive Alliance adds the General Land Office to its shit list as it brings you this week’s roundup.

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