Local fracking bans.Laws outlawing plastic bags. Strict tree-cutting ordinances. Another day in California? Nope. Welcome to life in urban Texas, where Democratic-controlled city councils are enacting powerful consumer and environmental protections—much to the chagrin of the state's leading conservatives. "Texas is being California-ized, and you might not even be noticing it," Gov.-elect Greg Abbott complained last week at a meeting of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. "We're forming a patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations that is eroding the Texas model."
This, he added, is a nasty "form of collectivism" that could "turn the Texas miracle into the California nightmare."
Though California has long been a conservative bête noire, Abbott's comments highlight a rising fear among Texas Republicans. More than half of all Texans now live in 10 large urban counties that are growing much faster than the state as a whole. Their voters tend to be more liberal than other Texans, a trend that's accelerating as minorities, young people, and out-of-staters settle there, lured by cosmopolitan neighborhoods and good jobs. According to a 2012 analysis by the Houston Chronicle and San AntonioExpress-News, 70 percent of Democratic gains in Texas since 2000 have come from the four counties that encompass Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin. All of them voted for Barack Obama in 2012.
"My vision," said the Texas governor-elect, "is one where individual liberties are not bound by city limit signs."
In a state known for caring more about hot-button social issues than consumer or environmental protections, it should come as no surprise that urbanites would turn to their city councils to tackle quality-of-life issues the state prefers to ignore. The fracking ban enacted this November in Denton, a college town near Dallas in the gas-rich Barnett Shale formation, is a case in point: It might have never passed had residents felt the state was doing enough to protect them. "It says the industry can't come in and do whatever they want to do to people," Cathy McMullen, the head of the Denton Drilling Awareness Group, told the Washington Post. "They can't drill a well 300 feet from a park anymore. They can't flare 200 feet from a child's bedroom anymore."
Last week, the governor-elect went on to suggest that the Legislature should crush such liberal local regulations. "My vision," Abbot said, "is one where individual liberties are not bound by city limit signs."
But critics quickly accused him of hypocrisy. "It's disappointing to hear the governor-elect wants to overrule the will of city voters on a range of issues," Bennett Sandlin, the executive director of the Texas Municipal League, which represents city governments, said in a press release. "It amounts to the same kind of governmental overreach at the state level that he opposes when it comes from Washington."
That the new governor has so quickly backed himself into a rhetorical corner may reflect his party's increasingly cramped political circumstances. Demographic trends strongly suggest that Texas will turn blue. The state GOP, sandwiched in between the big federal government and a lot of pesky little local ones, almost seems to be defending the political equivalent of the Alamo.
Almost, but not quite: The Alamo is in San Antonio, now a stronghold of Democrats.
Nebraska is mad that Colorado pot is crossing its border
The attorneys general of Nebraska and Oklahoma petitioned the US Supreme Court on Thursday to overturn pot legalization in Colorado, arguing that its legal weed has been spilling across their borders and fueling crime.
"The state of Colorado has created a dangerous gap in the federal drug control system," the suit alleges. "Marijuana flows from this gap into neighboring states, undermining Plaintiff states' own marijuana bans, draining their treasuries, and placing stress on their criminal justice systems."
The Department of Justice pledged last year not to interfere with pot legalization in Colorado and Washington, but only if the states met a list of conditions, including preventing legally purchased marijuana from being diverted to states where it's illegal. Nebraska and Oklahoma are now arguing that the Supreme Court should compel the DOJ to act.
Evidence has been mounting that Colorado can't contain all of its weed. In June, USA Todayhighlighted the flow of its marijuana into small towns across Nebraska. Since 2011, the paper reported, felony drug arrests in Chappell, Nebraska, a town just seven miles north of the Colorado border, have jumped 400 percent.
But marijuana reformers argue that governments can't contain illegally purchased weed either, and that a few growing pains on the path to a more sensible drug policy are inevitable. "These guys are on the wrong side of history," Mason Tvert, communications director for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement. "They will be remembered similarly to how we think of state officials who fought to maintain alcohol prohibition years after other states ended it."
Nebraska attorney general Jon Brunning has actually become too eager to support the alcohol industry, Tvert adds. Between 2008 and 2012, beer, wine, and alcohol interests donated $86,000 to Brunning. In 2012, he advocated for a lower tax rate for sweetened malt beverages such as hard lemonade. "It appears he is fighting to protect their turf," Tvert says. "He should explain why he thinks Colorado adults should not be able to use marijuana instead."
Steven D'Angelo's Harborside Health Center in Oakland, California, was a target of the federal government.
Good news for medical pot smokers: The $1.1 trillion federal spending bill approved by the Senate on Saturday has effectively ended the longstanding federal war on medical marijuana. An amendment to the bill blocks the Department of Justice from spending money to prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries or patients that abide by state laws.
"Patients will have access to the care legal in their state without fear of federal prosecution," Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), a supporter of the rider known as the Hinchey-Rohrbacher amendment, said in a statement. "And our federal dollars will be spent more wisely on fighting actual crimes and not wasted going after patients."
The DOJ's earlier pledge not to interfere with state pot laws left it plenty of wiggle room.
The Department of Justice last year pledged not to interfere with the implementation of state pot laws, but the agency's truce left it with plenty of room to change its mind. Earlier this year, for instance, the DOJ accused the Kettle Falls Five, a family in Washington State, of growing 68 marijuana plants on their farm in Eastern Washington, where pot is legal. Members of the family face up to 10 years in jail—or at least, they did; the amendment may now stop their prosecution.
More broadly, the change provides some added peace of mind for pot patients in California, where the DOJ's pledge appeared not to apply. The Golden State's 1996 medical pot law, the first in the nation, has long been criticized by the DOJ as too permissive and decentralized.
Medical marijuana activists hailed the amendment's passage as a landmark moment for patients' rights. "By approving this measure, Congress is siding with the vast majority of Americans who are calling for change in how we enforce our federal marijuana laws," said Mike Liszewski, Government Affairs Director for Americans for Safe Access.
The CRomnibus spending bill wasn't a universal victory of marijuana advocates, however. Another rider aims to prevent the District of Columbia from legalizing marijuana; it prohibits federal funds being "used to enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance." But Reason's Jacob Sullum notes that the rider may be moot because DC's pot law has already been "enacted" by voters—it passed at the polls in November by a 2-to-1 margin.
Whatever the outcome in DC, the appropriations bill is an undisputed win for pot smokers. As Slate's Josh Voorhes points out, "the District is home to roughly 640,000 people; California, one of 23 states were medical pot is legal, is home to more than 38 million." In short, Congress has done a bit of temporary weed whacking in its backyard, but it's acknowledging that stopping the repeal of pot prohibitions by the states is all but impossible.
Robert Aguirre and his wife live at the Jungle, a San Jose homeless encampment.
In October I visited what's believed to be the nation's largest homeless encampment, a tent city along a stretch of creek smack in the middle of Silicon Valley. A local preacher there introduced me to Robert Aguirre, a 60-year-old electrical engineer who had an incredible story to tell about going from being the owner of a successful tech firm to being homeless. Although I couldn't independently verify everything he told me, I determined that many details were definitely true. Here's his story in his own words, edited for length and clarity:
For many years, I had my own engineering consultancy in Silicon Valley. I helped get a lot of products approved under FCC and UL standards for companies such as 3Com, Dell, Microsoft, and Cisco—until all the manufacturers decided to move out of the country. I was offered a position in China. I've been there, and quite frankly I don't want to live there. That's why a lot of people are out of jobs. The jobs that do remain are very technical and usually they hire people right out of school or while they're still in school. Old farts like me don't have a chance of competing. I lost my business and the house I owned. When the economy took a dump it took me with it.
My wife is a medical clerk who makes about $3,000 a month. She's handicapped and couldn't take it going up and down the stairs in the apartment we were renting in San Jose, so we ended up finding another place. We gave our notice, and then as the day approached for us to move into our new place, that landlord told us he'd decided to rent out to relatives and we couldn't move in. So then we went back to the first landlord and she said, "Sorry, I already rented it out." So we had to put everything into storage and we started living in the car, trying to find apartments.
We'd been paying $1,750 a month, which is about as cheap as rent comes here unless you want to live in a roach motel. We were looking for places in that same price range, but all the rents had gone up and the cheapest ones we could find were around $1,900. The other problem was when you go and apply at a lot of different places it creates a hit on your credit, and eventually you don't qualify because your credit score gets so low. They told us it would take about a year to recover from that. We're really not making enough money to afford conventional housing, yet we make too much money for subsidized homes. So we're kind of floating between the oil and water somewhere in there.
"I'd easily say 75 percent of people in the Jungle wouldn't be there if they could afford housing."
After sleeping in the car for about two months, my wife's legs and feet were swelling up. The doctor said she had edema as a result of not being able to have her feet elevated. That's a very common malady for people who sleep in their car, who don't get a chance to really stretch out. So her doctor recommended we get a tent. All the campgrounds were too far out of the city, so we decided to move into the Jungle.
The Jungle is a forested stretch of Coyote Creek where about 300 people live in tents and shanties. They use the creek as a latrine or to bathe in; they just don't drink from it. I've heard that the Jungle is the largest encampment of homeless individuals in the United States. The city doesn't refer to it as the Jungle, which kind of connotes wild animals or wild behavior. It's actually really close to lots of tech campuses. Every day, a Yahoo bus goes by.
I've been in San Jose for about 40 years. The majority of people in the Jungle are from San Jose. They were born here, they were raised here, they saw what this land was like before it became this. And they talk about it. They say, "Oh man, you should have seen what it was like."
People are down in the Jungle for all sorts of different reasons—domestic violence, mental health problems, drug problems, or just being broke. I'd easily say 75 percent of people in the Jungle wouldn't be there if they could afford housing. The community here is organized into three or four different supergroups who have compounds that operate kind of like medieval castles. It's the same idea as gangs in any other neighborhood; as long as you don't choose sides or try to get yourself involved you're pretty safe. But a few weeks ago, there was a woman here who was badmouthing people. She'd also just received a very large sum of money from her mother. Some people decided they needed it more than she did and ended up slitting her throat and severing her jugular. When she continued fighting, someone else came up behind her and hit her in the head with an axe. The police didn't want to go down there without backup, so one of the residents carried her out. I heard that she died in the hospital.
"Tech companies have an obligation to help out. They're the ones who've outsourced middle-class jobs and driven rents far beyond many people's reach."
Our tent, which we pitched up top near the road, is much larger than those of other people around here. We have iPhones and a wireless hotspot. I even had solar panels at one point before they got stolen. We're in a different category from most of the other people here, though we're far from the only ones who are gainfully employed and trying to do things for themselves but just can't afford a place.
Over time I've acquired five trash cans, and every night and morning I go out and pick up trash. I go to all the city hall meetings, the housing meetings, the county supervisors meetings to advocate for homeless people. We are trying to get this place cleaned up and to get people taken out of here as safely and quickly as possible and trying not to abandon anyone.
In September, the authorities announced plans to shut down the Jungle by December while giving everyone a place to live. My wife and I received housing voucher about four months ago, but so far it hasn't been a vehicle for us getting housing any quicker. The problem is that a lot of landlords don't want to deal with vouchers. They'd rather not divulge how much money they're making on their apartments. The other thing is that there's a certain stigma associated with homeless people. If they ask for your previous address you have nothing to tell them. "Oh, well, I live in the Jungle." That's unacceptable.
I'm among the lucky ones, though. There's only 200 housing vouchers; as quickly as they house people, others come in to fill the void. So we're trying to look at something that can house the 4,000 or 5,000 people who are homeless in Santa Clara County. I think the tech companies have an obligation to help out; they're the ones who've outsourced middle-class jobs and driven rents and property values far beyond many people's reach. Society is judged by how we treat those that are unable to care for themselves—the elderly, the young, and the mentally disabled. That's the real measure of who we are.
CORRECTION: Based on numerous eyewitness reports, this video reported that the homeless individual Lydia Hernandez was attacked and killed in the Jungle in October. Residents now say that Hernandez survived the attack.
In the heart of Silicon Valley, a stone's throw from Apple's headquarters, is a 68-acre homeless camp that's widely believed to be the largest in the country. The Jungle, as it's known, is more accurately described as a shantytown: a collection of shacks, adobe dugouts, and treehouses inhabited by some 300 people, many of whom have lived here for years. In a land of million-dollar bungalows, it's a last place of refuge for many locals who've missed out on the booming tech economy.
All of that is about to change, however. Citing safety and sanitation concerns, the city of San Jose says the Jungle's inhabitants must move out by Wednesday; whatever they can't take with them will be demolished and hauled off before Christmas.
"It's hard for us to find spaces for folks, especially when they are competing with young techies."
"These people have houses, and even though they are not traditional homes, they have been living here for years," says Robert Aguirre 60, an unemployed electrical engineer who has camped in the Jungle for six months. "And now they are going to kick them out and they are going to be completely homeless."
San Jose is spending $4 million to give 200 Jungle residents vouchers for subsidized housing. But it's far from enough, residents say. Overwhelming demand for vacant apartments allows landlords to rent to people with perfect credit histories and known addresses. "Saying, 'Oh, well, I live in the Jungle'—that's unacceptable," says Agurirre, who has been using his voucher to look for a place to live since July.
"It's hard for us to find spaces for folks, especially when they are competing with young techies," admits Ray Bramson, the city's homelessness response manager.
Despite Silicon Valley's immense wealth—or, perhaps, because of it—San Jose and surrounding Santa Clara County have the nation's highest rate of homeless living on the streets. And despite popular perception, most of these folks didn't move here looking for a free ride. Three-quarters of its 7,500 homeless residents were born in the county, and most live in one of the county's 247 tent cities, not in homeless shelters. Many of them have jobs, yet don't make enough to afford housing.
Aguirre, for instance, did tech consulting for Dell, Apple, and Cisco in the 1990s before losing his business when Valley companies outsourced manufacturing to China. His wife's salary as a full-time medical clerk wasn't enough to pay the bills. For more on how the couple gets by, read his first-person account of life in the Jungle.