Anti-abortion strategy gaining little traction in Texas this year

May 7 in the Houston Chronicle

An anti-abortion tactic that has garnered some success in other state legislatures has so far fizzled in Texas, as bills aimed at forcing a significant decline in the controversial procedure have stalled in both the House and Senate.

Many of the proposals before Texas lawmakers reflect a growing national trend to reduce abortions with supply-side economics rather than trying to lower the demand among women.

Case in point is a bill by Sen. Bob Deuell to require abortion providers to meet the standards for ambulatory surgical centers, including costly equipment and building upgrades that opponents say are not medically based.

Unless the Greenville Republican can convince a Democratic colleague to change his or her mind, Senate Bill 537 is all but dead. “I’ve got 20 votes, and I need 21,” Deuell said.

Though he insists the measure is rooted in health and safety, abortion-rights advocates argue the measure, and others before lawmakers, have no scientific basis and are simply veiled attempts to close facilities that provide abortions.

Opponents say Deuell’s bill is another in a series of efforts nationwide to narrow access to abortion rather than trying to decrease demand.

“If your goal is to reduce the number of abortions, it seems like an effective strategy within state boundaries,” said Theodore Joyce, a researcher on the economics of health care policy at the City University of New York. His study of the 2003 Texas Woman’s Right to Know Act found that regulating providers cut the number of abortions more steeply than provisions seeking to change women’s minds.

Read the full story at

Focus as NRA meeting wraps up: Child safety

May 5 in the Houston Chronicle

Bryn Bryant, 8, proudly lifted her National Rifle Association name tag to show off the red ribbon hanging from its back.

Her family’s first stop during the final day of the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting was the air gun range.

“I got eight shots in a row, and I got a ribbon,” she said, sitting at a table with her father Heath, mother Rebecca and brothers Fisher, 6, and Tate, 5.

Bryn opened her jacket to reveal a Duck Commander shirt as she said her biggest hope for the day was to meet stars from the television show “Duck Dynasty.”

Her parents, lifetime NRA members and outdoor enthusiasts from northwest Houston, said Youth Day was the perfect chance to introduce the kids to the organization while having fun as a family.

“The main cause has to be safety – to understand that guns are something we use to hunt and as a sport, making sure they know the proper way to be around them and not to be afraid,” Rebecca Bryant said.

Much of the recent national debate about gun control centers on keeping children safe from gun violence, particularly after the Newtown shootings and a 5-year-old Kentucky boy’s accidental killing of his little sister last week with a .22-caliber rifle gifted to him.

The tragedies inspired some parents to bring their children to the convention. Some sought to reinforce lessons on gun safety, clearly delineating responsible owners from those who misuse weapons. Some sought to balance out the negative imagery of recent tragedies with positive family memories. Some adults had little experience with guns and came to learn with a child who had picked up sports shooting through Boy Scouts or another youth group. Others wanted their children to see and learn about a way of life before it possibly vanishes.

Read the full story at

Tribe to U.S.: Forget the payment, let us open casino

March 31 in the Houston Chronicle

For decades the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe fought hard to make the federal government acknowledge that it illegally developed more than 5 million acres of the tribe’s aboriginal land.

The East Texas tribe eventually won when a court said Congress owed the tribe $270 million in compensation.

But now in an extraordinary move, the tribe’s leaders say they will forgo the gigantic sum of money and forget the past if allowed to open a casino to secure their future.

U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Friendswood, and Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, introduced legislation this month to amend the tribe’s federal recognition to include the gaming rights allowed hundreds of other Native American governments, but under one important condition: Alabama-Coushatta drops claim to the $270 million in damages a federal court recommended U.S. Congress pay in 2002 and another land-based lawsuit filed last year.

“Nobody pounded us and said, ‘This is what you’re going to do,’ ” said Andy Taylor, an attorney for the tribe. “The tribe is saying, ‘We’re this serious.’ We are willing to forget 200 years of mistreatment. All we want is economic independence.”

At times pausing to fight back tears, members of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribal Council said securing an economic mechanism to move the tribe away from dependency on quick-to-change and slow-to-grow federal appropriations cinched the difficult decision to draft what they see as a generous compromise, catch-all bill.

“With the sequestration and the situation of the federal government, we understand they don’t have $270.6 million to give to an individual tribe,” said Kyle Williams, tribal council chairman. “If we have to go after each individual issue, it would never happen and we would still be pursuing these issues 20 years from now.”

Read the full story at

GOP’s shift on immigration could lead to Texas-style reform

March 22 in the Houston Chronicle

Support among rank-and-file Republicans for creating a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants has grown since the November election, but analysts wonder if results from a sweeping national survey released Thursday will translate to the party leadership.

The poll, one of the largest ever conducted on the issue, showed that two-thirds of Republicans supported a path to citizenship or at least permanent resident status for illegal immigrants. It’s a stark shift from surveys as recent as November that showed the party opposed or deeply divided.

Although a majority of Americans support immigration reform – and members of both parties seem to be finally drafting a compromise solution – what that reform will actually look like is far from decided.

Some experts suggest a congressional compromise could mirror the moderate strategy taken by Texas. U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, said he’s glad to see the nation catch up to the state’s pragmatic, compassionate approach born out of historical economic and family ties.

Read the full story at

Young Mormons rejoice at drop in mission age

March 4 in the Houston Chronicle

Two luggage bags sat for days by the front door of the Huntsmans’ home in The Woodlands, filled a bit at a time with clothes and supplies 18-year-old Michael would need for a two-year mission in Chile.

Last week, he arrived in Utah for training, making him one of the first teens from the Houston area to take advantage of a historic change in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to allow those seeking to serve a mission to apply at younger ages.

Families watching a live broadcast in October heard church leader President Thomas Monson set a minimum age for missionaries worldwide, which previously varied from country to country. Now, American men can apply for a mission when 18 years old, rather than 19, and women at 19, rather than 21.

Some Mormons and church scholars greeted the change and the almost six-fold increase in applications that followed with more questions.

Was this a step toward gender equity? How much will this increase the number of missionaries and converts worldwide?

One question echoed in Huntsman’s mind with more urgency than ever before: Do I want to go?

Sitting on a bed with her mother and young niece in Humble, Karin Ruiz, 20, knew exactly what she would do: apply.

Ruiz texted Domingo Morales, president of Houston’s north Spanish branch and the local church leader who would work through the application process with her.

“President Monson hadn’t even finished making the announcement,” Morales recalled. “She said, ‘Did you hear what he just said? I’m ready to go right now! ‘ ”

She soon will.

Read the full story at

Whose bones made it home from the Vietnam War?

Feb. 26 in the Houston Chronicle

The headstone was first to go.

It was in the way of men digging up a mass grave this month dedicated to the crew of an EC-47Q reconnaissance plane at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in Missouri.

The electronic surveillance plane left Pleiku Airbase in the Republic of Vietnam Feb. 5, 1969. About 20 miles northwest of Chavanne, Laos, the crew made its last radio contact at 8:10 a.m. It missed a scheduled stop at noon, and a search began that’s continued by family today.

The crash site in the Laotian jungle was first found that fall and analyses of the bones concluded they came from just five to seven men. Convinced the whole crew died in the crash, the military engraved 10 names in the granite headstone at Jefferson Barracks.

The U.S. military still cannot account for 1,654 Americans lost in the Vietnam conflict, and the remains of thousands more never have been recovered.

One Houston family is among those hoping the disinterred grave and DNA exemplars they provided to the military finally will let them know whose bones made it home.

“I would hope that I would find out definitely that my husband was indeed dead,” said Cindy Burke, widow of Capt. Walter Burke. “I’m sure that after all this time he is, but I would like a final closure.”

Military records show an officer closed the case in 1969 although a report submitted to him said the whole crew was not accounted for in the recovered remains.

In 1995, a recovery team searching for a different crash site found Walter’s dog tag, promising Cindy in a 1996 letter that they would return it once a full dig was completed at the site. It’s not clear why, but that never happened.

When the son of Sgt. Louis Clever, Paul, received a copy of the dog tag letter from Cindy’s daughter, he contacted the Air Force Mortuary Affairs office. The chief of the Past Conflicts Branch found the dog tag in Hawaii, helped return it to the Burke family in November, and now is organizing the disinterment and DNA testing.

“A lot of years ago my mom felt dismissed, that they didn’t value the situation and just wanted to be done with it,” said Lauren Branch, Burke’s daughter. “I think just telling her that he’s not forgotten about, I think that meant a lot to her.”

Read the full story at

Friends, city mourn Bellaire officer killed on duty

Dec. 30 in the Houston Chronicle

More than 1,000 people stood Saturday afternoon as the family of slain Bellaire police officer Sgt. Jimmie Norman walked into Houston’s First Baptist Church to take their seats.

City, county, state and federal officers uniformed in shades of blue, black and brown watched silently for six minutes as Norman’s family members walked past. The silence was broken only by the whisper of an overhead projector as it cycled through images of Norman’s life as a 28-year police veteran, husband of 31 years, father to two adult children and charitable friend to many more.

The photos showed a man who often wore Ray Ban aviator sunglasses, whether in uniform, posing with family at the Missouri state line, or cheering at an Astros game.

Norman, 53, was fatally shot Christmas Eve after a traffic stop became a deadly confrontation that also ended with the death of a bystander who came to his aid, Terry Taylor. The suspect, Harlem Harold Lewis, was left in critical condition and has been charged with capital murder.

Friends and family who attended the funeral remained silent throughout the service, only softly chuckling a couple times and often raising hands to wipe tears.

“I have no words,” said Bellaire Police Chief Byron Holloway. “I have pain. But I have no words.”

Read the full story at

Seminary students learn by casting Net

Dec. 4 in the Houston Chronicle

Lizbeth Tulloch just could not leave her long career as an oil industry lawyer to spend years at a seminary.

She couldn’t ignore her call to ministry either.

Tulloch finally found a way to explore her faith without risking her legal career: She enrolled in night and online courses at the University of St. Thomas’ St. Mary’s Seminary.

“It took me a long time to listen,” Tulloch, 55, said. “I first felt the call in 1983.”

While online education is no longer a novelty in higher education, seminaries have been slower than other colleges to adopt the format. Most Houston-area seminaries offer night classes and distance learning, but none offers a degree that can be completed solely online.

Some in the field feel that studies must include regular face-to-face time for students to not only learn the facts of their faith, but also live out a spiritual transformation. Others argue the quality of any class, online or not, depends on the professor’s skill at teaching. If seminaries don’t embrace the format, they could isolate potential students with already busy lives who increasingly expect flexible options in the digital age.

Read the full story at

State carts off derelict vessels, produces smooth sailing

Nov. 19 in the Houston Chronicle

Craig Cook pointed down Dickinson Bayou and slowed his boat, stamped with the seal of the state’s General Land Office.

“There used to be a graveyard back there,” he said, looking toward the next bend in the water.

Aerial photographs show 25 derelict boats had crowded “The Boneyard,” a shallow shoreline where, for decades, owners had abandoned their vessels to rot, rust and sink.

Other boats, which might have once been productive fishing ships or prized speedboats, were hidden underwater or had broken into difficult-to-count segments of decks and keels.

Abandonment was the simple – and once legal – answer for owners who couldn’t afford the upkeep or disposal costs of aging watercraft.

Before a 2005 law banned the practice and established a new state program authorized to clear public waterways, Texas had no plan for how to deal with boats abandoned by their owners even though the impact was clear.

Derelict vessels can create navigation hazards, leak petrochemicals and other pollutants, become dump sites for hazardous chemicals, change the pattern of soil settlement and damage delicate wildlife nurseries.

No state or federal agency had tackled the problem because no one saw it as its responsibility. Clearly boat owners, not governments, should be responsible for properly disposing of vessels nearing the end of life.

But not every owner does that.

Read the full story at

Vietnam War pilot’s family get his dog tag 43 years after he died

Nov. 18 in the Houston Chronicle

Cynthia Burke rubs the silver cross on her necklace between two fingers as she tries to identify feelings even she can’t quite grasp.

“According to the government, this case was closed in ’69, so I’m …” Burke pauses and throws her arms in the air. “Nervous? Anxious? I don’t really know.”

The 71-year-old turns to her daughter and asks, “Lauren, what is it I feel?”

“I think it’s overwhelming,” Lauren Branch, 49, answers, holding a length of toilet paper in her lap in case the tears come back.

More than four decades after Air Force Capt. Walter Burke’s spy plane was shot down over Laos and he was declared missing in action, his family has some answers and more questions. Eighteen years after one of his dog tags was recovered from a jungle crash site, it will finally be returned to his wife and children.

Waiting for the small afternoon ceremony, Burke sits in her living room Saturday morning with her daughter from Oklahoma City, who was only 4 when her father died.

“Part of being down here,” Branch pauses for a breath. “I didn’t think it would be this emotional.”

She wipes her eyes and continues, “Part of it is you never get closure.”

Burke looks at her daughter and says quietly, “Even the dog tags won’t bring closure.”

In the past two months, the family has learned more about the crash, and the subsequent bureaucratic missteps, than ever before.

Read the full story at