Texas National Guard to Offer Benefits to Same-Sex Couples

Directly from the San Antonio Express-News

The Texas National Guard said late Tuesday it will immediately let same-sex couples register for benefits, ending a highly publicized standoff with the Pentagon.

Five Texas Guard facilities that had been off-limits for same-sex couples seeking benefits will begin to enroll same-sex dependent spouses in available programs.

“We’re going to go back to business as usual,” said Lt. Col. Joanne MacGregor, a Texas Guard spokeswoman. “It will be full service.”

The decision means same-sex couples in the Guard now can obtain a variety of services ranging from access to base commissaries to medical care and housing allowances — all benefits granted to married heterosexual couples.

The deal with the Pentagon leaves just two states — Georgia and Louisiana — continuing to hold out against an order issued by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

He told the Anti-Defamation League in New York a month ago that Guard organizations around the country would be required to provide benefits to same-sex couples.

The flap pitted Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Georgia and a few other states against the Pentagon, which last summer said it would provide benefits to same-sex couples in the military.

Gay, lesbian and bisexual troops have been able to serve openly since Congress did away with the controversial Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law two years ago.

The Defense Department last summer said it would issue benefits to same-sex spouses of military members as well as civilian workers after the Supreme Court ruled part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional.

Gov. Rick Perry defied the Pentagon, saying Texas defines marriage as between a man and a woman. But Hagel made it clear in his Oct. 31 speech that the Defense Department expected all 54 Guard organizations to comply with his order.

Texas cited its state constitution and Family Code in refusing Hagel’s demands.

It told same-sex couples to file their paperwork at more than 20 active-duty installations around the state, and refused to let them to apply for benefits at Guard facilities in Abilene, Austin, Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and the Rio Grande Valley.

Those facilities will handle the paperwork, including marriages certificates, starting Wednesday, said MacGregor, the Guard spokeswoman.

There are different ways of evaluating this decision for the state of Texas. Obviously, if you take it at face value, it is a definite win for service members with same-sex spouses, because it improves the quality of their lives by allowing them the same benefits that their colleagues already enjoy. That’s of course the most important aspect of this decision.

But more broadly, this is a not insignificant blow to the Perry Administration, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, and the right-leaning legislature. It means that within the state of Texas, a major government entity is now recognizing same-sex couples by legal basis. Unlike municipalities such as Houston or San Antonio, The Texas National Guard is an agency that touches every community in the state. Are there a huge number of same-sex couples in the Texas National Guard? Probably not. But for the few that are, this is going to be a very visible change that will take place across the state, and one that is no longer limited to urban centers with a Democratic majority.

At the same time, Abbott and Perry face great difficulty in fighting this decision. Sure they can make vigorous statements saying that they will continue to fight and try to ignore any signs of progress in the state, but that’s about it. If they were to try and impede these soldiers further, it’s going to draw more attention to the state, and the inequalities that GLBT Texans have to endure. Nothing good could come of this for Greg Abbott’s (or any other anti-GLBT Republican’s) political future. It is however something Texas Democrats need to cease upon as fast as possible. They should applaud the decision, and say that these cases are about fairness.

Going forward, this will prove to be a major blow to the state’s version of DOMA. It proves that on issues of equality, the state will continue to lose each of these power struggles it has set up. If one branch of the military can offer benefits to same-sex couples, the others are not far behind. Next comes other government entities, and finally, the whole of Texas’ DOMA is doomed.

It’s a great day for the Texas National Guard!

Houston: City Employees Granted Full Benefits for Same-Sex Spouses

Today is a big day for Houston’s LGBT community… an emotional day as well. Directly from the Mayor’s Office, here’s the press release…

Mayor Annise Parker today announced that the city will begin offering benefits to all legally married spouses of city employees. This will apply to same-sex couples who have been married in a state where same-sex marriage is legal. The mayor’s decision is based on a city legal department interpretation of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions and other relevant case law from the around the country.

A 2001 voter-approved City Charter amendment has previously been relied upon as the basis for prohibiting the granting of same-sex benefits. However, the amendment specifically permits benefits to be provided to “legal spouses” of employees. After a careful review of recent case law, the city legal department believes continued application of the charter amendment so as to deny same-sex spousal benefits would be unlawful because it treats employees differently on the basis of sexual orientation.

“Based on the right to equal protection under the law, it is unconstitutional for the city to continue to deny benefits to the same-sex spouses of our employees who are legally married,” said Mayor Parker. “This change is not only the legal thing to do, it is the right, just and fair thing to do.”

The city of Houston is following actions already taken by several federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, which announced in August that all legally married same-sex couples will be recognized as married for federal tax purposes, even if those couples reside in states that do not recognize same-sex marriage.”

As a result of this policy change, same-sex spouses of city employees will now be eligible for the same health care and life insurance benefits previously offered only to heterosexual married couples. It is unclear at this time as to how many employees will take advantage of the change because there is no way to know how many have legally recognized same-sex marriages. The new policy will not extend to domestic partners; it applies only to legally married couples.

The move notes some significant progress for Texas’ largest city, and provides a great example of something other municipalities in Conservative states can do to aid legally married same-sex couples. Under the current charter amendment passed in 2001, Houston is still unable to offer domestic partner benefits to unmarried same-sex couples. Houston

This is a proud moment for the Parker administration… something expected, but maybe not so soon after her reelection. I take it as a signal that she is serious on the advancement of equality for Houston. The issue’s bottom line is all about fairness. At yesterday’s Press Conference, Mike Morris of the Houston Chronicle asked an important question regarding the state-level Defense of Marrige Act…

Morris: “What would you say to a critic who might view this as your administration choosing not to enforce provisions [of state law]?”

Parker: “I’ll read you the exact language in the City Charter.

‘Except as required by state or federal law, The City of Houston shall not provide employment benefits, including health care, to persons other than employees, their legal spouses, or dependent children…’ It’s very clear… employees, legal spouses and their dependent children. The plain language [of who can and cannot be covered] is in the charter.

Morris: “Except as required by state law.”

Parker: “State or federal law, and federal law trumps state law.”

As our state’s Conservative leaders continue to hope pray that LGBT equality will go away, Houston continues to make progress towards a more equal society for it’s citizens.

In the wake of this important step, another fact deserves to be discussed. He may not have expected yesterday’s announcement, but I can guarantee you that fellow blogger Charles Kuffner of Off the Kuff had something to do with it. Through interviews with 35 Houston municipal candidates, including 10 currently elected officials, Kuffner was consistent in putting the candidates on record for their stance about domestic partner benefits. Thanks to his tireless work, this and other equality issues were kept at the forefront of the 2013 elections.

For more coverage on this topic, check out Off the Kuff, Texpatriate, and Brains and Eggs.

Texoblogosphere: week of November 11th

The Texas Progressive Alliance honors the service of America’s veterans as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Off the Kuff analyzed the favorable poll and the unfavorable poll that came out last week.

Texpatriate, while happy that Mayor Annise Parker was re-elected, laments nonetheless that Ben Hall ran one of the worst campaigns in history against her.

Eye On Williamson is still blogging at our temporary home. What kind of message to Democrats need to run on in Texas? Good question here are some Thoughts on a Democratic message in Texas.

Two polls released last week had good and bad news for Wendy Davis, but it was when President Obama came to Dallas that things got both better and worse for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate. PDiddie at Brains and Eggs broke it down.

People are getting poorer and poorer, just as Republicans and their backers wanted. No one knows poverty more than Brownsville and McAllen. CouldBeTrue of South Texas Chisme says “Lets vow to elect Democrats in 2014”.

With such anemic turnout, the 2013 elections were mostly a success. But some issues did still arise, and Texas Leftist was able to share a thorough account of one. If mass confusion is a goal of the Texas Voter ID law, then I’d say it’s working very well.

With Veterans’ Day here. Neil at All People Have Value offered a brief account of views regarding war held by the late Korean War veteran Tony Aquino. All People Have Value is part of NeilAquino.com.

And here are some posts of interest from other Texas blogs.

Greg Wythe gives the unvarnished view of how the new voter ID law actually works in practice.

Grits for Breakfast calls for the implementation of the “Barney Fife Rule” in the McLennan County DA’s office.

John Coby has some advice for future candidates. Better Texas tells the rest of the story on those health insurance cancellations.

Juanita is seeking help getting some non-binding referenda on the Democratic primary ballot.

And finally, this isn’t a blog post, but a petition calling on Ted Cruz to give up his own federally subsidized health care plan or work to support affordable healthcare coverage for all Americans definitely deserves a place here.

Supporting Veterans Throughout the Year

Veterans Day, is the national holiday for us to thank our country’s bravest citizens… those who risked their lives to protect all that is the United States of America. Filled with parades, meals and a plethora of other celebrations, the day serves as an important reminder that Veterans are a part of our communities as well.

But as great as the festivities of Veterans Day may be, it’s just one day. We should instead find ways to support our heroes year-round. One way we can do this is by supporting Veteran- owned businesses. The National Veteran- Owned Business Association, or NaVOBA, provides an easy to use directory of all of association members. They are also the group that labels products and services with the “Buy Veteran” moniker. This is a great way to support our vets, because as these businesses grow and expand, it creates more opportunities for others. Check out the site and see what VOBs are in your area.

Houston is not only a great city, but it’s particularly proven to be a supportive environment for Veterans. Other resources for Houston- area vets include…

— The City of Houston Office of Veterans Affairs (COHOVA)… one of the largest municipal VA offices in the United States. COHOVA was created in 2007 as part of the City and County’s joint Returning Veteran Initiative.

— The Harris County Veterans Services Office… as the third largest county in the state of Texas, Harris County operates a comprehensive Veterans Services department.

— The TexVet network… a great resource to connect Veterans across the state.

So after all the celebrations, let’s find other ways to remember the brave sacrifices that our heroes have made, and continue to make for our freedoms. Sure… thank a Veteran on Veteran’s Day. But it doesn’t have to end there.

Election Results

“As we build our city, let us think that we are building forever… ” …for a couple of years, enjoying and abusing for a few decades, leaving to rot without a smidge of maintenance and upkeep for a decade, then bulldozing to the ground to make way for ANOTHER hot, crusty gargantuan parking lot (as if there aren’t enough here already).

If you don’t get the reference, this is the centerpiece sculpture of Main Street Square in Downtown Houston. Despite many pre-election polls to the contrary, Harris County residents displayed their true colors last night, and voted against the proposal to save the Astrodome through raising taxes. The bond measure failed by a decisive 53 percent of the vote. As disappointed as preservationists may be about this decision, I think it’s important to realize that voters had very valid concerns with the proposal. 217 million dollars is a lot of money to pay for a plan that was not thoroughly marketed or well understood. Perhaps a rejection will now serve as motivation for the private sector to step up and save the iconic landmark, as Houston Mayor Annise Parker suggested at a recent press conference. But voters did narrowly pass the measure to build a city-county joint processing center, which is a good thing. All Texas state constitutional amendments passed. 
And now for the interesting municipal election news… 
 == Houston Mayor Annise D. Parker was reelected to a third term. It was a decisive victory, with Parker obtaining 57 percent of the vote against 8 challengers. Lead contender Ben Hall, for all of his money and exposure, only garnered 27 percent. This was truly a great night for the Parker campaign, and should be an example worth study for other aspiring Texas politicos. 
 == City Controller Ronald Green was reelected in a close race to challenger Bill Frazer. 
 == Some really interesting lessons to learn from the City Council races… 
 -Of course Council Members Ellen Cohen (C), Dave Martin (E), Ed Gonzalez (H), Mike Laster (J), and Larry Green (K) were all reelected as unopposed candidates. It’s tough to imagine how good a feeling it is to not have to stress out about the rigors of campaigning. Must be nice. District A ultimately turned out as expected, with Council Member Helena Brown being forced into a run-off with former Council Member Brenda Stardig. As promising as challengers like Amy Peck and Ron Hale seemed, they were unable to garner much traction with the voters. Prepare for a bitter runoff fight here. Council Member Jerry Davis won a decisive victory in District B. For the District D race, Dwight Boykins’ well-financed and well-organized campaign earned him the top finisher in the race, far out-pacing the other candidates. But it wasn’t enough to avoid a runoff, where he will face challenger Georgia Provost. Richard Nguyen defeated incumbent Council Member Al Hoang in the District F race. Most political analysts were not expecting that. Some have to wonder if voters were more approving of Nguyen, or if they were just expressing dissatisfaction with Hoang. In District G, Council Member Oliver Pennington was reelected as expected. But District I, on the other hand, was a total fight to the finish. Graci Garces finished slightly ahead of the pack, and a mere 20 votes nudged Robert Gallegos into the runoff over 3rd place Ben Mendez. That’s a razor-thin margin if I’ve ever heard of one.  
In At Large races, Council Members Stephen Costello (1), C.O. Bradford (4) and Jack Christie (5) each handily won reelection, garnering enough votes to comfortably avoid a runoff. But in At Large 2, Council Member Andrew Burks was not so lucky, finishing three percentage points below challenger David W. Robinson. Expect a fierce battle here for the runoff. Perhaps most implicative was the At Large 3 race, where strong Jenifer Pool and Rogene Calvert split the Progressive vote down the middle. This gave just enough room for the race’s top two finishers to be Conservatives Michael Kubosh and Roy Morales. Losing Council Member Melissa Noriega’s seat to a Conservative will be a true blow to Houston Progressives, though thankfully with Parker at the healm, it shouldn’t do too much substantive damage. 
I sincerely hope that At Large 3 teaches an important lesson to Houstonians, and Texans as a whole. If Democrats hope to ever gain a foothold in this state, we cannot afford to “Tea Party” our ticket like what was witnessed here. The second that we do, the Republicans will come up and swallow us whole. Even in an assumed “Blue dot” like Houston, we must never forget the red surrounds us on all sides, especially in a light turnout election. Races like this one should serve as even more motivation to the Left that voter registration and turnout has to be job number one. Otherwise, we better just enjoy being a Red State forever. 
More analysis will follow soon. 

TexWatch 2014: Voting Issues Already??

If you pay attention to the mainstream news, you may think that Texas’ first “test run” of the new Voter ID law is going quite well in the 2013 elections. Early voting procedures have been “largely successful” … at least that’s the line that many in the GOP are trying to spin. Of course many reasonable Texans probably don’t define success has having to sign an affidavit or use a provisional ballot that might be thrown out. But here’s something to keep in mind… even with the extra prohibitions, most voters showing up in 2013 are the ones most committed and most able to vote. They are by and large the people that will have their photo ID, and will go through the trouble of signing an affidavit. They are the people that will even ask for a Provisional Ballot if they don’t have photo ID. In short, 2013 is such a light election turnout that you’re not going to see the same issues that will occur in 2014’s national election. The huge number of voters that have been annoyed… nearly 1 in 4 Texans that early voted had to sign an affidavit… were so determined to cast their ballot that they did whatever it takes. In a state where so few people vote to begin, this just won’t be the case in a higher turnout election. Many people are going to give up entirely.

Just today, I spoke to Dr. Martha Serpas, Professor of English at the University of Houston. She is a resident of the Eastwood neighborhood, and went to go vote at Ripley House. When she went to the polling location, she told the election workers that she did not have a photo ID, and asked to vote by Provisional Ballot. According to the new law, this is the procedure… no photo ID means that you are to be allowed to vote by Provisional Ballot. But in Professor Serpas’ case, they denied her request for the Provisional Ballot, and told her she could not vote without a proper photo ID. She was clearly frustrated by the experience, and told me about it directly.

Granted, this is one isolated case, but it begs a question. Now that it is Election Day, how many people are going to vote at Ripley House, and being turned away because their election workers aren’t following the parameters of the law? Keep in mind that just 12 months ago, Texans were not required to have a photo ID… they could come and cast their vote by showing any legal document with their name and address. That includes things like a utility bill, student ID, marriage certificate or other documents. Even with all of the recent press surrounding the new law, most people still have no clue about the changes. In an inner city neighborhood, many residents do not drive, and don’t even own a car. No driving means they have little if any use for a Driver’s license. If these people show up to vote today, they are being caught off guard. And if they show up to vote at places like Ripley House, they are being turned away, and not even offered a Provisional Ballot.

If you’re in Texas, have you heard of any similar stories at your polling place? If so, please share them in the comments. As we approach the 2014 elections, these occurrences need to be documented in every way possible.

CRITICAL UPDATE on this story…

After speaking with Dr. Serpas, I learned some additional information that must be included. She went to vote at the above location on Election Day, but she told me that she normally votes early. This is an important point, because on Election Day, you are only allowed to vote at your designated precinct. When she showed up on Election Day at Ripley House, it was the wrong location for her to be able to cast her vote. So the poll workers would’ve been correct in denying her a Provisional Ballot at that location, and should have instead directed her to the proper polling site.

However, Dr. Serpas says, that they never even checked what her proper polling location should’ve been. She simply says that they asked her for photo ID. When she said she didn’t have one with her and asked for a Provisional Ballot, they turned her away without verifying her information. It would be one thing to deny ballot because it’s the wrong location, but if you’re not going to check, then the error still lies with the Election Officials.

TexWatch 2014: Poll Shows Davis Inching Closer to Abbott

As the Houston municipal elections draw to a close, it’s time to focus once again on statewide election developments. Save for serious breaking news, I’ve decided to do a new blog series to keep up with regular election news called TexWatch 2014.

For the first such update, we start with the big news in the Governor’s race. In a poll released by the Texas Tribune today, the race for Governor shows Democrat Wendy Davis inching closer to the Republican frontrunner Greg Abbott. The poll shows Abbott in the lead with 40 percent of to Davis’ 34 percent in a head-to-head matchup, with 25 percent undecided. When Libertarian candidate Kathie Glass was thrown in the mix, Abbott held at 40 percent, Davis inches up to 35 percent, and 20 percent remain in the undecided camp. Clearly this shows that Democrat Davis is still behind, but not nearly as much as she could be. It’s a big sign of encouragement for Texas Democrats as well, because it shows that when presented with a viable candidate, Democratic support is out there in the state. Keep in mind that in 2010, what some could call one the most right-leaning years of the century, under-funded Democrat Bill White still managed 42 percent of the vote in a light turnout election. This was in a blood-red year, and before the existence of groups like Battleground Texas.

Another important difference?? Wendy Davis has more time. Even with the passing of her father delaying an original announcement date, Davis is already solidly in the race a full two months before Bill White, whom announced his candidacy for Governor in December of 2009. Davis of course started out with better name ID than White, thanks to massive national exposure from her Filibuster of HB2. She’s also entered the game with a much improved Democratic funding apparatus. Given the 2 month advantage, Davis has the ability to far outpace Bill White in the fundraising arena. And again, with light turnout, White was able to garner 42 percent of the vote to Perry’s 55 percent.

Geography matters a whole lot in this too. Unlike White, who was from an already blue Harris County, Davis is from the last “urban Republican stronghold” Tarrant County. It currently holds the distinction of being the largest red county in the state of Texas. Only Tarrant and Nueces County remain as urban areas where Republicans won. Being Davis’ home and the epicenter of her campaign, she’s got a fantastic shot at winning Tarrant County, and would be expected to at least hold all of the urban counties that White claimed in 2010, and will probably win by greater percentages in each area. The urban counties are how Davis can go from the 42 percent baseline up to a 46 or 47 percent, putting her within striking distance of a win. But the only way for it to happen is through near historic turnout. Where Harris County netted a 16,000 gain for White in 2010, the net of Democratic voters has got to push near 100,000 for Davis. The good news though is this can get done by simply registering enough voters in low turnout areas. In 2008, over 700,000 registered voters in Harris County did not vote. If Democrats can focus on these and other urban centers, Davis really has a shot at being Texas’ next Governor.

Fellow Bloggers Texpatriate and Brains and Eggs have more.