Sis boom brouhaha: Texas cheerleaders’ Bible-banner case, revived and revisited

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On Oct. 17, 2012, then-Gov. Rick Perry and then-Attorney General Greg Abbott held a news conference to support the use of Christian-themed football banners by Kountze High School cheerleaders. (American-Statesman file photo)

In 2012, cheerleaders in Kountze, a small town about 95 miles northeast of Houston, brought some real religion to the religion that is Texas high school football by painting Bible verses on the large paper banners players run through as they take the field. In forsaking the traditional “Sink the Pirates!” or “Snap the Dragons!” the cheerleaders begot a national stir.

An atheist group immediately objected. Kountze’s superintendent, on the reasonable advice of the school district’s attorney, banned the banners. The cheerleaders sued the school district, or rather some parents sued on the cheerleaders’ behalf. A state district judge ruled for the cheerleaders. But the ruling was confusing so Kountze appealed, seeking clarity.

The 9th Texas Court of Appeals in Beaumont declared the cheerleaders’ lawsuit moot in 2014 because in the meantime the Kountze Independent School District had relented and decided to allow the Christian-themed banners. But in doing so, the school district reserved its right to exercise editorial control over the banners as needed. This displeased the cheerleaders’ lawyers, who asked the Texas Supreme Court to resurrect their lawsuit.

Which the court unanimously agreed to do last week. The justices then punted the case back to the 9th appeals court to decide whether the banners violate the First Amendment. The state’s Republican leaders, ever eager to reach for attention from the case, and with plans to make religious liberty a top issue during next year’s legislative session, rejoiced.

The cheerleaders argue that because they used private donations to pay for the banners and decided for themselves which biblical phrase to use on each one, the banners represent private speech and thus are protected by the First Amendment. They further argue that under the First Amendment, the school district, as a government entity, cannot stop them from exercising their religion.

Several school- and government property-related First Amendment rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court “cut against the cheerleaders in this case,” Vikram David Amar, dean of the University of Illinois College of Law, and Alan Brownstein, a law professor at the University of California at Davis School of Law, explained in a 2012 legal analysis. A football game is a school-sponsored event that takes place on school-owned property. If the cheerleaders are acting as individuals and not as representatives of the school, as the cheerleaders’ lawyers assert, then the school district is unconstitutionally favoring their religious views and expressions over the views and expressions of other students when it allows only the cheerleaders to place banners on the field. Either the cheerleaders are school-endorsed participants in a school activity (which is how everyone sees them) and thus subject to school district rules and constitutional prohibitions against the government endorsement of one religion over another, or they are individuals whose speech and religious views are no more privileged than the views of anyone else. The cheerleaders want it both ways.

The Christian verses the cheerleaders painted on their banners are vaguely athletically applicable quotes from the New Testament — passages that should be familiar to anyone who remembers anything about their high school’s chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” from Philippians 4:13, is one example. “But thanks be to God who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” from 1 Corinthians 15:57, is another.

The Kountze Lions have now played four seasons since the controversy began. The Texas Supreme Court’s decision last week prompted me to look up Kountze’s record for the first time since I wrote a tongue-in-cheek column in early November 2012 urging the cheerleaders to put aside the feel-good New Testament passages they had been using and turn instead to the fear and wrath of the Old Testament. The Lions were on a losing streak in 2012 and needed a spark to salvage a possible winning season and playoff berth — which would have been Kountze’s first after 40 years of wandering in the playoff wilderness. The cheerleaders needed to bring it on, I wrote. It was time for the Lions to take the field like bears sent to maul the children who mocked Elisha’s bald head. They needed to win a game.

But no. The Lions lost both their final games and finished the 2012 season with a 2-5 district record. It’s unclear how often the school’s cheerleaders — the group who first created the banners would have graduated two or three years ago — still use the Scripture-based banners but I can report that the Lions enjoyed a 4-3 district record in 2013 and 2014 and finally made the playoffs each year — alas, only to be blown out in the first round both times. (My guess is advancing beyond the regular season had more to do with the UIL’s doubling of the number of teams allowed to make the playoffs — Everybody’s a winner! — than with Providence, but I’m willing to be wrong.) The Lions reverted to their losing ways this past season, winning only two games.

From the facetious to the sincere, another suggestion, repeated: Cheerleaders, the lawsuit filed in your name will play out however it will play out. Forget it. Teach the adults who are using you to advance their own political agendas a soft lesson. Start the 2016 season with a banner quoting Matthew 6:6: “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.” Then dedicate yourself to putting the fun back in your banners. Embrace the lower-case spirit that should animate football games. God is best kept with you, not by turning His word into football inanity.

Latino voters are watching

(RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
(RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

If the results of the Iowa caucuses are any indication, candidates may want to start changing their tunes a little and focusing more of their attention on Latinos.

The League of United Latin American Citizens, one of several groups nationwide trying to increase Latino voter participation, said Monday they hit their goal of getting at least 10,000 Latino Iowans to pledge to participate, reported NBC Latino.

And just as analysts and media experts use the Iowa caucuses as a guide to predict how the rest of the nation will vote, so do candidates use the caucuses to woo more voters. Candidates who have waged anti-Hispanic rhetoric or who have chosen to err on the side of caution by avoiding specific topics important to Latinos may want to reconsider their strategies. From the looks of it, Latinos will be coming out to vote, and in droves.

Ten thousand Latinos showed up to have their voices heard in Iowa, up from 1,000 in 2012. And if efforts continue, the number will be even higher on election day in November as the League of United Latin American Citizens has identified 50,000 Latino registered voters in that state. Mind you, Hispanics make up only 5.6 percent, or 174,000 individuals, of the Iowa state population. Those may seem like small numbers next to Texas, where one of every four eligible voters is Hispanic (and where the Hispanic population tops 10 million). So Iowa’s results should not go unnoticed.

How did Latinos in Iowa vote? Exit polls showed that Latinos were 4 percent — 6,840 of 171,000 — of Democratic caucus participants and 2 percent — 3,700 of 185,000 — of Republican participants. The total: 10,540.

Which Democratic or Republican candidates Latino Iowans voted for is still unclear. What is known is that the one candidate who could have connected solidly with Latinos, as my American-Statesman colleague James Barragan pointed out, is no longer in the running: Democrat Martin O’Malley.

A former governor of Maryland, O’Malley called for criminal justice reforms in areas that disproportionately affect people of color and proposed investing more in job-training programs and restoring voting rights to people with felony records who had served their penalties. And, unlike other candidates — Democrats and Republicans — O’Malley offered the most immigrant friendly agenda, including proposing expanding due process protections in the immigration system. Yet, he was able to win only 0.6 percent of the Democratic caucus.

In tight primary races and caucuses, every vote will matter. The Latino vote could make a difference. Various Hispanic voter registration and “get-out-and-vote” drives have been ongoing throughout the country, including in Texas. Those efforts should help improve the number of Latinos who make it to the polls.

To win those votes, however, candidates will have to make a more concerted effort to reach Hispanic voters.

In 2013, 25 percent of Texas Hispanic voters said they were contacted by campaigns or organizations encouraging them to vote, according to a 2014 report from the polling company Latino Decisions. The national average was 31 percent that same year.

Then there is the issue of language. Candidates who refuse to connect with voters in Spanish are making a big mistake. The Pew Research Center reported that 25 percent of Hispanics speak “only English,” and 30 percent of Latinos speak both English and Spanish, while 38 percent speak primarily in Spanish.

With plenty of time to garner Latino support, Marco Rubio, whose parents immigrated from Cuba, and Jeb Bush, whose wife was born in Mexico, have an edge over other candidates with their Spanish fluency. Though he is Latino, Ted Cruz — whose father also immigrated from Cuba — may have a harder time, not for his lack of Spanish fluency (he speaks none at all), but for what some consider anti-Latino policies. The opposite effect may occur if Hillary Clinton were to win the Democratic candidacy and, as rumors suggest, select Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro as her running mate. Castro does not speak Spanish but can effectively connect voters through his personal Mexican American experience.

Hispanic millennials will account for nearly half or 44 percent of the record 27.3 million Hispanic eligible voters projected for 2016, according to the Pew Research Center’s analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. For that set of voters, that number is greater than any other comparable group of voters of any racial or ethnic group, according to the report. Parental influence undoubtedly will play a role in how some of these young adults, many of whom come from Spanish-speaking households, will vote. After all, the majority of young Americans share their parents’ social and political ideology, or so says a Gallup study.

Make no mistake, Latinos are taking notice of who is listening to them.

Is Ted Cruz’s Iowa win the exception or the rule?

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Texas Sen. Ted Cruz speaks to supporters in Des Moines, Iowa, Monday night after winning the state’s Republican caucus. Standing next to Cruz is his wife, Heidi. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images)

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz won the Republican Iowa caucus Monday, which given Iowans’ lousy record picking presidential nominees may be no win at all.

Cruz beat a field of 11 Republican candidates, taking 27.6 percent of Monday’s caucus vote. Donald Trump, the front-runner according to pre-caucus polls, received 24.3 percent of the vote and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio won 23.1 percent — a strong third-place finish.

As I wrote Monday, history says Trump won’t be the Republican nominee, much less president — a historical judgment Iowa may have confirmed. (It’s way too early to say for sure and, yes, it is only Iowa.) And in the world of presidential caucuses and primaries, where media expectations and narratives about overperformances and underperformances can mean as much as actually winning or losing, Rubio may be Monday’s real winner, perhaps emerging as the leading choice of the so-called Republican establishment.

Meanwhile, more than 17,000 Iowans think Ben Carson should be president. Enough said.

Again, results in Iowa usually don’t mean much in the end. “Picking presidential losers since 1972” could be the state’s motto. Only three times has the winner of a contested Republican Iowa caucus gone on to win the party’s nomination (Gerald Ford in 1976, Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000), and only Bush moved into the White House. The record on the Democratic side of the Iowa caucuses isn’t any better — the exception Cruz hopes to follow is that of Barack Obama’s in 2008. The winners of the past two Republican Iowa caucuses were Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012 and, unless I missed it last night, neither President Huckabee nor President Santorum called Cruz to congratulate him on his victory.

Cruz received a smaller percentage of the vote than Huckabee did in 2008 — the former Arkansas governor got 34.4 percent of the vote in a field of eight candidates — but a greater percentage than Santorum in 2012, who barely squeezed by eventual nominee Mitt Romney four years ago.

Unlike Huckabee and Santorum, Cruz’s campaign is well-organized and well-financed. His campaign has $19 million on hand, more than any other Republican candidate. New Hampshire — that other demographically unrepresentative small state given an outsize role in presidential contests — holds its primary next Tuesday. It isn’t considered prime Cruz territory. But then comes South Carolina on Feb. 20, followed by Texas and 11 other mostly Southern states on March 1. Afterward, we’ll have a better idea whether Iowa again, by putting Cruz on top, has pointed us nowhere.

 

 

Ann Kitchen recall petition bodes ill for Austin

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Welcome to “Groundhog Day,” Austin.

If the petition being circulated to oust Council Member Ann Kitchen has the required 4,811 signatures, Austin politics will likely become its own version of the cult classic movie. You know, where the character by Bill Murray lives the same day over and over again trying to get a different outcome.

Although exhausting, all turns out well for Murray. He, eventually, gets the girl and comes out on the other side a better person. For Austin, policy by petition and political harassment has ominous implications.

Of course, the power to recall elected representatives is an important tool as part of the checks and balances on local government. It prevents elected officials from being allowed to run amok until their term expires. However, it is a power best reserved for correcting incompetence, neglect of duties, corruption, misconduct — allowing the work of the city to continue rather than being derailed by poor or improper governance.

There are costs of course — financial and political — which is why it should only be pursued in extreme cases. The city moved its municipal election day to November in part to reduce expense and encourage greater voter participation. If the petition is submitted and certified before Feb. 19, an election will likely be called for May,

However valuable a recall election might be, it is the wrong tool for settling disagreements on policies. Although its unclear what group is behind the recall effort, it stands to reason that the petition is connected to Kitchen’s position on transportion networking companies such as Uber and Lyft.

From Statesman transportation columnist Ben Wear:

The petition, at the top, offers these grounds for sacking Kitchen, who, if not recalled, would face reelection in November 2018: “The reason for her recall is because she has purposefully hurt businesses that employ citizens of Austin.”

Pretty general. I’m guessing every council that has ever come along, in Austin or any other American city of any size, has passed ordinances that “hurt” businesses by imposing some sort of limitations on them for environmental, safety, road access, zoning or other reasons. Building codes harm businesses in this manner, as do parking requirements. Heck, any city fee on a business hurts it, and they are always done purposefully. Or should that be “purposely?” Maybe both.

Austin has always functioned best when stakeholders work together to reach consensus. This take no prisoners approach to government is much more akin to the state of affairs in Washington, D.C., where it seems to make perfect sense to vote more than 50 times to undo legislation to no effect. The method proposed by Austin4All, the nebulous group behind the Kitchen petition, is even worse, preferring to remove leaders they don’t like until they wear down the elected representative or get someone they like.

Austin has no shortage of contentious issues: environmental protection, affordable housing, development code rewrites, public safety, transportation. Resorting to a petition is a terrible way to write policy and an even worse way to choose leadership.

If it comes to a vote, hopefully Kitchen’s constituents in District 5 will take a stand and not allow her to be run out on a rail. I may not always agree with Kitchen, but I see no reason why she shouldn’t be allowed to serve her term. There are plenty of ways to build consensus for change; a recall petition is not one of them.

Will Trump make history in Iowa, or will Iowa make Trump history?

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks Sunday during a campaign event in Sioux City, Iowa. (Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

Trust in history.

That’s been my mantra-like response to anyone who has fretted about the prospect of Donald Trump winning the White House. Trust in history, I’ve been saying. History says Trump will not be president. In fact, forget Trump winning in November; history says he will not even win the Republican nomination.

But here on the day Iowans caucus, with “the best pollster in Iowa,” as Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com describes the Des Moines Register’s Ann Selzer, showing Trump leading Texas Sen. Ted Cruz 28 percent to 23 percent, perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that history is mutable. The unexpected sometimes happens.

The next several weeks will tell if Trump is the historical exception to the past several decades of Republican presidential politics. His lead in the polls certainly has proved to be more enduring than the various campaign surges we saw four years ago, when Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum all briefly topped the Republican field (Michele Bachmann rose to second place at one point in the 2012 polls but never led any of them). A general willingness to accept that Trump might be the nominee has replaced the widespread certainty of a month or so ago that he would not win the nomination — that Republicans would behave rationally when it came time to actually vote and would reject Trump.

I still think it’s possible, maybe even likely, that the Republican nominee will be one of the so-called establishment candidates, and not Trump — or Cruz, for that matter. I search for guidance in history, which interests me more than polls and political predictions — “I don’t make predictions” is another of my mantras — so while it will be unusual if Trump wins the nomination, it will not be unprecedented. He will be following, more or less, in Wendell Willkie’s footsteps.

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Wendell Willkie

That’s right, Trump could turn out to be 2016’s Wendell Willkie, the New York utility executive and political neophyte who made a name for himself criticizing President Franklin Roosevelt in the late 1930s and used his political celebrity to win the Republican nomination in 1940. (Three recent articles on Willkie as forerunner to Trump can be read here, here and here.) As with Trump, who apparently has never voted in a Republican primary election, Republicans were skeptical of Willkie’s party loyalty — he had been a registered Democrat until 1939. And like Trump, outsider Willkie held several views contrary to those held by his chief insider rivals, Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio, Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan and Thomas Dewey, the young, ambitious district attorney from New York (yes, that Thomas Dewey, the one who would famously lose to President Harry Truman in 1948). In the end, what Willkie won by winning the Republican nomination was the privilege of losing to FDR, who secured an unprecedented third term with 54.7 percent of the vote to Willkie’s 44.8 percent. By losing, Willkie also won almost instant obscurity.

Before there can be historical parallels, there must be real political victories. Someone will win Iowa tonight, though Iowa isn’t necessarily about winning. It’s about meeting and beating national media expectations. It’s about Trump showing he has a legitimate ground game and is running a real campaign, Cruz establishing momentum and showing he didn’t peak too soon in the polls, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio positioning himself as the alternative to Trump and Cruz. And it’s about everyone else doing well enough to avoid the inevitable winnowing that follows Iowa and New Hampshire, which holds its primary next week.

Tonight also should be about Iowa proving that it merits the outsize attention its caucus gets. It doesn’t have a great track record picking presidential winners. Winners of the Iowa Republican caucus include George H.W. Bush in 1980 (yes, Iowa caucus-goers chose Bush over Ronald Reagan), Bob Dole in 1988 (when Bush, Reagan’s vice president at the time and the eventual president, finished third behind Dole and Pat Robertson), Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Santorum in 2012. Only three times since 1976 has the winner of a contested Iowa caucus won the Republican nomination (Gerald Ford in 1976, Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000), and only twice since 1972 has the winner of a contested Iowa caucus, either Democratic or Republican, won the White House (George W. Bush in 2000, Barack Obama in 2008).

Whatever tonight’s Iowa results bring, we at least have this certainty: We’re just a night and a day or two of post-caucus analyses away from being able to forget about Iowa again for another few years.

Two hours of the ‘staid’ Republican campaign we once expected

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Texas Sen. Ted Cruz answers a question during Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate in Des Moines, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

We saw in Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate the campaign we were meant to have before Donald Trump rode an escalator into the race and began sucking all the media oxygen and attention from everyone else. Without Trump’s tiresome Il Duce act taking center stage — call it entertaining if you must — I found the alternate campaign we glimpsed for two hours Thursday refreshing, even if it was “a staid, policy-heavy contest,” as The Associated Press described it in its coverage — a contest in which the other Republican candidates “strained to take advantage” of Trump’s absence.

Fox News hosted Thursday’s debate, and moderators Chris Wallace, Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier did an excellent job. The two debates hosted by Fox News and as well as the two hosted by Fox Business News have been the best of the campaign. All four have been tightly controlled and have featured tough, fair, concise questions. Of course, one of those questions — about Trump’s many misogynist comments he has made over the years, asked in August by Kelly — is the reason Trump refused to participate in Thursday debate and instead held his own “special event” a few miles away. A snide statement released Wednesday by Fox only hardened Trump’s determination to skip Thursday’s debate.

Trump’s absence had to be acknowledged, of course, and Kelly opened the debate by asking Texas Sen. Ted Cruz about “the elephant not in the room tonight.” Cruz had a well-rehearsed zinger ready to go. “I’m a maniac,” he said, taking a stiff beat. “And everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly.” And with that, “the Donald Trump portion” of the debate, as Cruz put it, was done, rarely to resurface.

OK, it turns out Cruz could have used Trump on Thursday. This was a point the American-Statesman’s Jonathan Tilove emphasized in an analysis previewing the debate. Without Trump to attack, Cruz lost a chance to recover some of the momentum in the polls he has lost the past couple of weeks. An average of polls conducted between Jan. 18 and Jan. 27 shows Cruz trailing Trump by 7 points, and fading. Then again, Cruz is still thought to have the best organization in Iowa and there remains doubt that Trump’s followers in Iowa are dedicated enough to leave their warm homes and caucus with strangers on Monday.

Trump’s absence allowed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Sen. John Kasich and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul to move beyond their expected roles as sidemen to a Trump vs. Cruz match-up. (Yes, I did not mention Ben Carson. Why? Because a random, reasonably informed person could do as well as the good surgeon did, so out of his depth is he.) Placed on equal footing with Cruz on Thursday, each candidate did his best to show that he is the real alternative to Trump, not Cruz, who spent most of Thursday night underscoring why so many colleagues find him so generally unpleasant.

I would like to think that Trump’s petulant refusal to join a debate just because a tough question upset him will be seen in Iowa and elsewhere as cowardice and weakness, but it’s unlikely given that nothing Trump does seems to hurt him. The more bullying he is, the stronger he seems to get. And, of course, the national media remains infatuated with him. So it’s probably foolish to wonder whether Thursday’s debate, however “staid” it was, marks the point where the long-anticipated rally of the so-called Republican establishment finally begins.

If so, it’ll only be seen in retrospect, once actual votes are cast. And the casting of actual votes finally — mercifully — starts Monday in Iowa.

SXSW should do as Sundance did: Ask if the fest has become too big

In this Jan. 21, 2016 file photo, Robert Redford, founder and president of the Sundance Institute speaks at the premiere of "Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You" during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP, File)
In this Jan. 21, 2016 file photo, Robert Redford, founder and president of the Sundance Institute speaks at the premiere of “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP, File)

When it comes to public events, is bigger always better? It’s a question that Robert Redford has pondered over with the growth of the Sundance Film Festival.

His recent reply to a question about the future of Sundance, an event he founded more than 40 years ago, made me wonder if SXSW organizers think about the mammoth size of their festival. If they don’t, perhaps they should.

When Sundance began in 1978, Redford wasn’t sure the idea would even work, much less balloon into one of the largest film festivals in the United States. But it did, weathering growing pains along the way. Now, organizers for that festival are at a crossroad.

“As (Sundance) grew, so did the crowds, so did the development in Park City. Well, at some point, if both those things continue to grow, they’re going to begin to choke each other,” Redford told the Associated Press.

Here, one of the most-respected organizers in the film-fest game, admitted he has stepped back and started to analyze the situation facing one of the most popular festivals in the world. It shouldn’t be far-fetched to expect other established festivals to do the same.

Yes, I get that comparing the size of Sundance and the size of SXSW is moot. They are two completely different animals, after all. An apples-to-apples comparison shouldn’t be attempted. Size, above all, is what separates the two.

Most significant is the difference between the sizes of the location and attendance of these festivals: Park City, Utah’s population is a little more than 8,000; Austin’s population is closer to 1 million. Attendance at each you ask? In 2015, Sundance had over 45,000 attendees. SXSW Music, Film and Interactive 2015 attendance was at 84,385; of those, 20,252 attended the Film Festival portion.

Like in most growth scenarios, troubles and challenges come regardless of the size of a city or town.

“I’m starting to hear some negative comments about how crowded it is and how difficult it is to get from venue to venue when there’s traffic and people in the streets and so forth,” Redford told the Associated Press. “We’re going to have to look at that.”

It’s no secret that similar negative observations have been pointed out about SXSW. Austin residents and festival attendees have been complaining for a few years now about public safety, traffic and the effect they have on the quality of a SXSW experience. Then, critics had more to make their case against SXSW growth after a tragic crash killed four people during SXSW in 2014. While enhancements to public safety measures have been made since the accident — measures applauded by the American-Statesman editorial board — it will be necessary for festival organizers to be more proactive in their planning to prevent more tragedies.

What started in 1987 as a stage to showcase independent musicians — adding film and interactive branches in 1994 — has exploded into a one Texas’ biggest Spring Break gatherings full of big names, big parties and bigger headaches for those who live and work in downtown where most of the official and unofficial SXSW gigs take place.

Despite Sundance and SXSW being two very distinct beasts, it’s not unreasonable to suggest SXSW organizers ask themselves how much more, if at all, the festival should be allowed to grow.

In Redford’s case, that has meant facing the growth issue head on and searching for solutions on how the Festival can evolve.

“You have a couple of choices. You can go hard and say we’re going to stop it. Say ‘that’s the end.’ Let it go. Let someone else do it,” he said. “Or, you say well, if you want to keep it going, we can’t keep it going the way things are.”

One of Redford’s idea is to break up the festival into sections and multiple dates throughout the year, instead of packing the entire lineup just 10 days. For example, the festival could screen narrative features in January, and documentaries a month later.

Change, understandably, is inevitable. Festivals should aspire to grow. But at some point, arguably, an event the size of a Sundance or a SXSW festival can become too big.  Hopefully, the thought does not elude our friends at SXSW.

 

 

$1,000 to fix a broken bone? Try $25,000

10557787_10153743513238617_3292451984978331063_oThe world of medical bills can be bewildering, even for those of us with good health insurance. The Affordable Care Act, aka ObamaCare, has meant more people are covered in Texas than ever before, but it is not a stretch to say the billing is just as confusing, and depending on the size of your deductible and your paycheck, an unexpected medical expense can still be a substantial hit to the family’s pocketbook.

A story in today’s Business section cites a national study by Bankrate.com that 66 percent of Americans can cover a $500 crisis a car breakdown or a trip to the emergency room would wipe out nearly tw0-thirds of Americans’ savings. The statistic was not as startling as the estimated cost of treating a broken bone, which Bankrate put at about $1,000.

I know a little something about broken bones and hospital bills, because my two daughters, ages 6 and 8, have managed to have three between them in the last two years (jumping on the bed, bike accident, and falling off a chair.) The last of which happened on Christmas Day and ended in emergency orthopedic surgery. The bills are still coming in on that one, but the total if I were uninsured would be in excess of $25,000. By virtue of the fact that I have pretty reasonable insurance through the Statesman and the fact that my daughter had already maxed out her medical deductible earlier in the year, we will be on the hook for about $1,000 of that cost. We can afford to pay it, but others are not so fortunate.

For those Texans who fall in the Medicaid gap — those whose incomes are below the poverty level but are ineligible for Medicaid and do not qualify for the federal health insurance subsidies — $25,000 might as well be $250,000. That fact alone would explain why unpaid medical bills are considered the No. 1 cause of bankruptcy. Nationally, nearly 3 million people are in the coverage gap; a quarter of those live in Texas, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

In my time on the editorial board, I’ve heard various groups attempt to explain that rising medical costs are due to a failure of families to research the costs or an inability to prioritize their spending. But when your child falls and her bone is unmistakably broken, there is no time to go online and compare costs for orthopedic surgery, there is no form to sign to require hospitals to use only “in-network” specialists, and I dare anyone to suggest that perhaps you cut back on the pain medication to cut costs. Saying “Nevermind, let’s not fix this arm today” is not an option.

With the deadline for signing up for health insurance on the federal exchange on Sunday, those who qualify for ACA should absolutely take advantage of it — regardless of how young or healthy you may be. A single, freak accident or unexpected medical diagnosis can be a financial catastrophe.

Republicans in Congress have spent years trying to repeal a law that is needed for American families, although currently imperfect. A family should not have to take on the equivalent of a car loan to fix an 8-year-old’s broken arm.

New AISD board leadership has plenty of challenges ahead

Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees members: (from left) Ann Teich, District 3; Edmund T. Gordon, District 1; Julie Cowan, District 4; Amber Elenz, VICE-PRESIDENT, District 5; Gina Hinojosa, PRESIDENT, At Large 8; Jayme Mathias, SECRETARY, District 2; Kendall Pace, At Large 9; Paul Saldaña, District 6; Yasmin Wagner, District 7.
Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees members: (from left) Ann Teich, District 3; Edmund T. Gordon, District 1; Julie Cowan, SECRETARY, District 4; Amber Elenz, District 5; Gina Hinojosa, At Large 8; Jayme Mathias, District 2; Kendall Pace, PRESIDENT, At Large 9; Paul Saldaña, VICE PRESIDENT, District 6; Yasmin Wagner, District 7.

The Austin ISD Board of trustees has new leadership. On Wednesday evening, Kendall Pace was elected as board president, Paul Saldaña was named vice president and Julie Cowan as board secretary.

The election was prompted by the resignation of board president Gina Hinojosa who has filed as a candidate for the Texas House of Representatives District 49 seat. Hinojosa will continue to represent the At-Large Position 8 seat on the AISD board of trustees.

If their experiences are any indication, this could prove to be a very effective team. Collectively, the three new board officers have worked with local business, city, county and state leaders – equipping the board with skill sets that could prove to be crucial for the district.

Pace is a management and financial consultant and has served on the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce’s education and talent development council and the district advisory council. Saldaña is a public relations consultant and longtime activist widely known for his work as chief of staff for former Austin Mayor Gus Garcia. Saldaña has more than 20 years in local municipal government and public policy. And Cowan has for nearly 20 years volunteered on various school district advisory committees – including budget and bond committees as well as serving as vice president on the Austin Council of PTAs. I should point out that the American-Statesman’s editorial board endorsed Pace, Saldaña and Cowan in their respective races last November.

“We have a lot of challenges ahead,” Saldana told me. But to borrow from a colleague, he said, “this is a shared leadership. We need to come together to get the work done.”

And, boy, is the workload heavy.

Facing the district are curbing declining enrollments and dealing with affordability challenges that are driving families and teachers out of the district. The district must also address academic performance of lower- and higher-achievers and finding a source of financing for annual pay raises for the district’s nearly 6,000 teachers. It will be a difficult task as long as the legislature continues to force the Austin school district to annually surrender tens of millions of dollars of its local revenue to the state, which distributes the money to poorer school districts.

What the new trustee leadership brings to the table will be vital to how much the needle moves in favor of Austin students.

In just under a year as one of the newest board members, Pace already has helped refocus the district’s public education foundation, which raises money from the private sector, just as she vowed to do during her campaign for her At-Large Position 9 seat. The Austin Ed Fund has raised more than $200,000 this year and already awarded nearly $50,000 for innovative classroom projects that enrich instruction in science, technology, reading and ecology, as well as skills in leadership and resolving conflicts or problems constructively.

Aside from the strong advocacy work she’ll need to keep, Pace now has the additional burden of keeping the entire board focused and forward-moving. She will be wise to learn from Hinojosa for finessed coalitions building and artful, deliberate compromise. Pace will have to learn to lead eight other personalities with varied communication and work ethic styles – all which may change by this time next year. The board, after all, could end up with five new trustees as terms expire in November for Jayme Mathias, District 2; Ann Teich, District 3; Amber Elenz, District 5; Yasmin Wagner, District 7 and Gina Hinojosa, At-Large Position 8.

It will be interesting to see how Pace and the rest of the board work together. For now, congratulations to the new leaders and good luck to the entire board.

 

 

 

Immigration and the Supreme Court: A politically charged caseload, amplified

immigration rally
Supporters of President Barack Obama’s immigration policies march around the Governor’s Mansion during a November 2015 immigration reform rally. (JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Sometime in June, arriving a few weeks before Republicans and Democrats hold their nominating conventions in mid- and late July, the U.S. Supreme Court will issue a series of rulings sure to fire up or anger — or fire up and anger — each parties’ candidates and hardcore supporters. Pending before the court’s justices are cases involving affirmative action and abortion, the meaning of “one person, one vote,” and, as of this week, the authority of the president to enforce or not enforce immigration law. And all of these cases came to the court courtesy of Texas or Texans.

Yee oyez haw.

In November 2014, President Barack Obama protected from deportation the parents of American citizens or permanent residents to allow them, as Obama said, to “come out of the shadows and get right with the law.” Obama also expanded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that he initiated in June 2012 to help immigrants younger than 30 who were brought to the United States as children remain in the only country many of them have ever really known. The president’s actions were set to allow perhaps as many as 5 million unauthorized immigrants to remain and work in the United States. Gov. Greg Abbott, then in his waning days as Texas attorney general, sued to keep Obama’s policy from taking effect; 25 states joined Texas in opposing the president.

A U.S. district judge and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the policy’s implementation. So the Obama administration asked the Supreme Court to weigh in, and on Tuesday the justices agreed to do so. The court is expected to hear oral arguments in April, with a decision, as noted, probably coming in June. Because immigration is a top and contentious presidential issue, coverage of the court’s decision this week has been framed as an “election-year clash,” to cite The Associated Press as one example. Even if the Supreme Court justices rule in Obama’s favor — precedent suggests they should — his administration will have less than seven months to implement its policy before the next president assumes office. So Obama’s policy lives or dies not only with the court, but also with the next president.

The Supreme Court will consider four questions in the United States v. Texas, as the immigration case is formally known. (Detailed, clear explanations both lawyerly and in “plain English” of the legal issues involved can be found on SCOTUSblog, here and here.) A summary:

The first question is whether Texas and the other 25 states have “standing” to sue the federal government. Clearly the states disagree with Obama’s policy, but simply disliking a federal program does not give states the right to challenge it in court. Direct harm must be suffered to seek legal relief.

Last February, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen of Brownsville ruled that costs associated with granting temporary legal status to a group of undocumented immigrants — Hanen highlighted the issuance of driver’s licenses — would directly harm Texas. A three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit affirmed Hanen’s ruling, 2-1, in November.

The Supreme Court could deny Texas standing and end the case without considering any other question. But I don’t think anyone expects that to happen.

Another question involves whether the Obama administration failed to follow the Administrative Procedures Act by not giving the public sufficient notice of its immigration change along with the opportunity to comment on it. Hanen based his decision blocking Obama’s action on this technical, procedural issue, a detail most news stories skipped past this week.

The final two questions are related if not redundant. They certainly are politically charged. Does the Obama administration have the authority to issue a new immigration policy? And did the president’s actions violate the Constitution’s requirement that he “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

Only Congress, of course, can make law, but the president has “prosecutorial discretion” when it comes to enforcing the laws. Limited resources dictate the administration set priorities. So Obama decided to defer action against one group of undocumented immigrants to focus on other groups, like immigrants who pose a public safety threat, for example. Texas accepts that the administration has discretion to enforce the law, but only case by case, not by issuing a sweeping policy.

Neither Hanen nor the 5th Circuit addressed the constitutionality of Obama’s policy. The Supreme Court added this question to its review at the states’ request. The court rarely considers issues not taken up by a lower court.

As The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin wrote this week, the United States v. Texas is one of those cases that threatens to scramble the usual ideological positions. The issue of standing is one example: Conservatives view it narrowly, liberals more broadly. But this case could reverse those traditional positions. “If the Court splits along its customary ideological lines — the conservatives against Obama, the liberals for him — the case may serve as another illustration that politics, rather than precedent, is the real currency of the Supreme Court.”

Meanwhile, whether the courts rule with the president or against him, the country’s immigration system will still need reform. And on immigration, Congress continues to show it can’t even work with itself, much less the president.