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Texas Press Association State Capital Highlights
State moves toward seizure of religious sect’s property
Wednesday, December 5, 2012 • Posted December 6, 2012

AUSTIN — Legal proceedings to seize Yearning For Zion Ranch, a 1,700-acre property in Schleicher County, are under way, the Office of the Texas Attorney General announced Nov. 28.

That day, the state filed an affidavit for a search-and-seizure warrant in the 51st District Court of Schleicher County. The state claims the property is contraband and therefore subject to forfeiture “because it was acquired with proceeds of or was used or intended to be used in the commission of sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault, bigamy, engaging in organized criminal activity and/or money laundering.” Each of those acts is categorized as a felony under state law. As stated in the announcement, the filing of the warrant “begins the final chapter of the State’s nearly five-year effort to pursue widespread criminal misconduct at the YFZ Ranch.”

The affidavit says the ranch was purchased on the orders of Warren Jeffs, who sought a rural location where the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (not affiliated with the mainstream Mormon church) “could operate a polygamist compound where the systemic sexual assault of children would be tolerated without interference from law enforcement authorities.”

At least nine FLDS members including sect leader Warren Jeffs were successfully prosecuted by the state for sexually assaulting children at the YFZ Ranch, according to the AG’s office.

Grading rule is set aside

Texas Education Commissioner Michael L. Williams announced Nov. 30 that he has deferred implementation of a certain grading requirement for the 2012-2013 school year.

A student’s score on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness end-of-course examinations would have counted 15 percent of the student’s final grade in each test subject area if the rule were implemented.

Williams’ decision, he said, will allow the Texas Legislature to pass a law making the 15 percent rule optional. Proposed legislation to that effect has been filed. Gov. Rick Perry, who supports such legislation, said it would give local school districts “discretion to enact changes at a level and pace that is right for them.”

Furthermore, State Board of Education member Thomas Ratliff of Mount Pleasant penned a Nov. 29 opinion suggesting several needed education and testing reforms including the repeal of the “15 percent rule.” Ratliff wrote that high-stakes, standardized testing “is sucking the individuality and creativity out of classrooms all across the state.”

In other state education news, Texas tied for the third-highest high school graduation rate in the country for all students and placed first in graduation rates for Asian and white students, according to preliminary data released by the U.S. Department of Education on Nov. 30.

Steen steps into new role

Gov. Perry on Nov. 27 appointed San Antonio attorney John T. Steen Jr. Texas’ 108th secretary of state.

The job includes service as the state’s chief elections officer, the governor’s liaison on border and Mexican affairs, and Texas’ chief protocol officer for state and international matters.

The Office of the Secretary of State is the state agency that serves as the formal repository for official and business records, publishes government rules and regulations, keeps the state seal and attests to the governor’s signature on official documents. Steen, a former member of the Texas Public Safety Commission, succeeds Esperanza “Hope” Andrade of San Antonio as secretary of state.

Chair files tax relief bill

State Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, on Nov. 29 filed House Bill 213, legislation to make permanent a tax exemption for companies that earn less than $1 million a year. In 2009, the state Legislature temporarily raised the franchise tax revenue exemption for small businesses to $1 million, offering tax relief to nearly 40,000 additional small businesses across the state.

In 2011, Hilderbran, who serves as chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, spearheaded an effort to amend legislation that extended the $1 million exemption through the end of 2013.

Open gov’t panel meets

The digital world’s array of effects on how public business is conducted and how public records are created, maintained and made accessible to citizens were topics of invited testimony heard by the Senate Select Committee on Open Government during a Nov. 26 meeting. Chaired by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, the committee soon may take up and consider legislation that addresses issues such as text messaging by public officials during public meetings, public access to text messages and emails that were transmitted or received on public officials’ personal smart phones, public information cost guidelines, illegal access and manipulation of public and confidential information maintained by local governmental bodies and state agencies, information retention schedules, and much more.

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