Category: Law & Politics

Sweet New Law for Texas Honey Producers

September is National Honey Month and Texas bees are celebrating a new state law that will lighten the regulations placed on small scale beekeepers.

Round Rock Honey drives from hive to hive in style with their decorated van and personalized license plate. The family-owned and operated business not only produces the purest of wildflower honey but also educates future beekeepers and the general public.

Round Rock Honey drives from hive to hive in style with their decorated van and personalized license plate. The family-owned and operated business not only produces the purest of wildflower honey but also educates future beekeepers and the general public. Photo by: Erin MacInerney

By: Morgan Bridges, Erin Griffin, Erin MacInerney, Jamie Pross

To bee or not to bee, won’t be a question anymore for bee hobbyists producing under 200 gallons of honey annually. The new Texas statute means they will be exempt from costly state health licensing requirements other larger manufacturers face.

The queen bee of honey, Hayden Wolf, thinks this will increase honey production around the state. As the 2015 American Honey Princess, Wolf represents Texas all around the nation advocating the importance of bees in keeping our ecosystem humming perfectly.

“This new law helps my family and I because we have always wanted to sell our honey,” Wolf says. “It’s a great opportunity for beekeepers.”

The 19-year-old manages 12 hives with her parents in East Texas but does not produce enough honey or have the time to make a business out of it.

The new law would allow beekeepers like Wolf and her family to sell their honey directly to consumers at farmers markets or small venues as long as proper labeling distinguishes their product from those bottled in inspection facilities.

Bee enthusiasts say the warm Texas climate is a haven for raising honey bees.  Many keepers from Northern states bring their hives to Texas during the winter months.

“It’s a lot easier than getting a pet,” Wolf says. “You don’t even have to take them on a leash and walk them everyday!”

If you are concerned with getting the proper vitamin bee from your honey, don’t let that adorable bear-shaped bottle at the supermarket fool you.

Pollen studies conducted by Professor Vaughn M. Bryant of Texas A&M University found that over 75 percent of honey sold at large chain stores and restaurants had the pollen removed making it impossible to trace the legitimate source or ingredients.

Take a look at a jar of honey and you might find ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup and other artificial sweeteners. What you won’t see on the label are antibiotics, heavy metals and other harsh chemicals that could have contaminated the honey throughout the process.

These honey bunches of lies make it easier for manufacturers to cut costs and extend shelf life consequently removing the health benefits completely

The honey sold at co-ops, farmers markets and “natural stores” yielded the full, expected amounts of pollen.

The new law encourages sales of local honey which means a higher chance of consuming 100 percent, organic honey without the cheap additives.

“There are many benefits of honey and if you are not getting the pure product, you might not be getting those benefits,” Wolf says. “The best way to know you are actually getting the best honey is to know your beekeeper personally and ask them questions.”

Texas ranks sixth in the nation for honey production, but our bees still face major threats of disease, negative effects of pesticide use and global warming.

“It’s a fairly simply hobby but it has become harder to keep our bees alive in the past years. Now we have to check the hives every two to three weeks,” Wolf says. “It used to be easier in the old days.”

Mystery syndromes not fully understood such as Colony Collapse Disorder have created quite a buzz in the last decade. Annual bee colony losses averaged around 42 percent this past year according to a study conducted by the Apiary Inspectors of America.

“It is important we try to keep them alive, to keep ourselves alive,” says Melanie Brown, Founder of BEEVO, The University of Texas’ Beekeeping Society. “Bees pollinate a lot of our crops and without them, we would have a serious shortage of food.”

About 80 percent of the food on grocery store shelves are there thanks to bees according to the International Bee Research Association.

Brown says the BEEVO club has a substantial following since initiating this last spring.
The goal of the society is to engage students, faculty, and staff in urban beekeeping as part of an effort towards sustainable pollinator populations.

“I’m more passionate about the environmental impacts of beekeeping but there are a lot of people on campus who are just super into beekeeping,” Brown says. “I am happy they now have an outlet to share their knowledge.”


Bee Story-8


What does Mopac’s expansion mean for local environment?

By Taylor Turner, Garrett Callahan, Jacob Kerr and Kylie Fitzpatrick

As Austin’s population continues to rise, so do the construction zones on the city’s roadways.

Between 2011 and 2016 Austin is expected to have a growth percentage of 6.1 percent, according to Forbes, making Austin one of the fastest growing cities in the country. And to combat the extra population, the Texas Department of Transportation and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority have already begun several construction projects they believe will increase mobility and traffic in the Austin area.

Cars heading southbound on Mopac become stuck in traffic due in part to the highway's expansion project.

Cars heading southbound on Mopac become stuck in traffic due in part to the highway’s expansion project.

But many local environmental groups believe there is a significant threat to the local ecology as construction projects develop.

One of the projects is the Mopac South expansion project, which would build two toll lanes in each direction from Cesar Chavez to Slaughter Lane in addition to a double-decker bridge crossing Lady Bird Lake. The plans also pass over a segment of the Edward’s Aquifer, which runs into Barton Springs.

Activists against the construction said the project would increase pollution in the spring’s waters with the rise in traffic. According to Keep Mopac Local, an initiative against Mopac’s construction plans, the project would add up to 60,000 travelers per day in addition to the 130,000 cars that already use the highway. The organization said the additional travel would increase urban runoff and pollution in the Barton Springs waters.

“The water that goes into this aquifer doesn’t have any sort of filtration so pollution that goes into this aquifer goes into Barton Springs,” said Aubrey Cravotta, an outreach coordinator with Save Our Springs Alliance, which is part of Keep Mopac Local.

A man dives into Barton Springs Pool, a man-made swimming facility fed by the springs.

A man dives into Barton Springs Pool, a man-made swimming facility fed by the springs.

Cravotta said one of the consequences of any increased pollution is the further endangerment of species living in Barton Springs, including the Barton Springs Salamander.

The Barton Springs Salamander, a small, completely aquatic salamander, became formally recognized in 1993. The salamander only lives in Barton Springs in Austin, but has become increasing less visible in the Zilker Park waters.

In late April 1997, the Barton Springs Salamander was listed among the U.S. Endangered Species after its population sharply declined entering the 1990s. According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the salamander had a large population in the early 1970s, but has since fallen due to pollution in the waters.

The waters the salamanders are found in are feed by a small segment of the Edwards Aquifer, which is influenced by rainwater and water flow. However, this also presents an opportunity for contaminates to run into the water that can endanger the species living there.

Most species of salamanders, once they reach adulthood become terrestrial, no longer keeping their external gills. However, the Barton Springs Salamander stays aquatic for its entire life, retaining its juvenile characteristics and external gills to breathe.

The Barton Springs salamander is one of the two endangered species that can only be found in Barton Springs.

The Barton Springs salamander is one of the two endangered species that can only be found in Barton Springs.

If pollution and other contaminates, which Cravotta said has the ability to increase with the construction project, inhibit the waters, the salamander’s ability to breathe will be prohibited, which has resulted in its population decline in past decades.

“That’s why the species was put on the endangered species list because of these true threats of and possibility of contaminants affecting the entire species at once,” said Dee Ann Chamberlain, an environmental scientist with the Austin Watershed Protection Department.

To help combat the declining population, the City of Austin has set up a Captive Breeding program within the Austin Watershed Protection Department, which helps maintain the Barton Springs Salamander’s population.

“The idea is to have a population of the species in captivity that you could introduce into the wild if something happened to the species,” Chamberlain said.

Chamberlain also said the Captive Breeding program helps the city better understand how the species lives. Since the Barton Springs Salamander lives mostly underground, the program allows for the species habitation to be seen first hand.

Untitled Infographic

“Parts of their life history is difficult to understand looking at them in the wild so we’ve had to study their life history working with them in captivity,” Chamberlain said. “It’s like thinking of it as putting together different pieces of a puzzle to put together all the different parts.”

Currently, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority and the Texas Department of Transportation are in the last year of an environmental study that looks at the environment impacts that the expansion project could cause. At the end of the year, if the study finds to have any impact on the Barton Springs Salamander or any other endangered species, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority said it would take steps to fix them.

“At the end of the year, there is going to be a final report were all those issues will be identified,” said Rick L’Amie, the communications director with the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. “It’s too early to say what [the issues] are right now because we are still studying it.”

Tejano Hero Honored at Texas State Cemetery



by Lazaro Hernandez, Claire Hogan, and Scarlett Klein

Navarro Cenotaph

AUSTIN- He is a man you will not find in many Texas history books.

On Feb. 27, Jose Antonio Navarro, a little-known hero of the Texas Revolution, was honored with a cenotaph dedication ceremony at the Texas State Cemetery. The ceremony coincided with his 220th birthday.

A self-educated lawyer and statesman, Navarro was one of the three Tejano signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence. Born in San Antonio, where he lived from 1795 to 1871, he was one of the earliest supporters of Texas independence. Navarro was a central player in the events surrounding the revolution and a close friend of Stephen F. Austin.

The audience was filled with descendants of Navarro, many of them able to trace their ancestry back to the 17th and 18th centuries.

navarro gif guns shooting

Texas Legacy Reenactors shoot rifles at the end of the dedication ceremony to honor Jose Antonio Navarro’s legacy.

Speakers included multiple historians, Texas First Lady Cecilia Abbott, Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus, and Sylvia Navarro-Tillotson, a direct descendant of Navarro who was instrumental in bringing about the event.

For her son, James Tillotson, the event was a monumental occasion.

“It seems that history is often recorded by the dominating political force wherever you are. Not just old white men, but whatever the dominating political force is. In Mexico, they don’t write much about the Indians who were there. I think that it’s really interesting that people are still very interested in some of what these other contributors did.”

Tillotson said he is impressed by Navarro’s refusal to denounce Texas.

“He was imprisoned in Mexico by Santa Anna for two years and tried as a traitor to Mexico… he was told that all he had to do was foreswear his allegiance and he said no. Can you imagine being in a prison for two years? They promised him money and a title and all he would have had to do was denounce Texas.”

navarro gif guns raising

Texas Legacy Reenactors exclaim a traditional “hip-hip-hooray!” for Jose Antonio Navarro.

Numerous Texas historical societies were represented at the dedication ceremony, including The Tejano Genealogy Society of Texas and the United Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

Lorenzo Lopez, a member of The Tejano Genealogy Society of Texas, hopes that more people will become aware of Navarro’s legacy and impact on the state.

“There’s a lot that happened that we aren’t taught in schools,” he said.

Many descendants at the ceremony said that they were not aware of Navarro’s accomplishments and legacy until they reached adulthood, having not been taught about him in public schools.

Mary Ann Wiles, a 7th generation descendant, would tell her teachers about him as a child. For her, the dedication ceremony was a long time coming.

“The event encapsulates so much. In San Antonio, they don’t even know about him. His bust should be in the state capitol,” she said.

Visitors can view Navarro’s memorial in the Texas State Cemetery which is free and open seven days a week.

Gallery: Navarro Dedication Ceremony


For more information on Jose Antonio Navarro:


Take a Look Back at Pivotal Moments in Tejano History:

APD uses new approach to tackle drug market in East Austin

By: Jacob Kerr, Judy Hong, Becca Gamache & Carola Guerrero De León

Mission Possible Austin is home to the Drug Market Intervention Program on 12th and Chicon St. Photo by Becca Gamache

Mission Possible Austin is home to the Drug Market Intervention Program on 12th and Chicon St.
Photo by Becca Gamache

(Austin, Texas) – The corner of 12th and Chicon streets has turned a corner.

Read more

A Fraction of the Whole

By Megan Breckenridge, Samantha Rivera, Jeff Barker, Taylor TurnerProject 2 thumbnail

A Fraction of the Whole

Kathryn Vasquez, known to her friends and coworkers as “Kat,” is but one of the many students on campus suffering a major blow from the school’s recent Affordable Care Act adoption.

Vasquez is an advertising student at the University of Texas In August, she, along with three fellow coworkers, were promoted to program assistants at the Recreational Sports Center—one of four rec centers located at the University of Texas.

As a program assistant, Vasquez takes on multiple tasks on a weekly basis. The four-person team creates semester-long schedules for three facilities they oversee.

Additionally, program assistants must complete payroll twice a month to ensure that all employees under their supervision are paid accordingly. Furthermore, Vasquez is scheduled to work three shifts a week. Needless to say, she has got a lot on her plate.

Just when you think this hectic schedule couldn’t get any worse, we learn that Vasquez must accomplish all these weekly tasks as well as attend her weekly shifts without surpassing 19 hours a week?

Affordable Care Act in Longhorn Country

Vasquez is but one of many students who have experienced major changes within the year and a half.

In December 2013, students working on campus were privy to speculation of the University scaling back on student-employee hours. The rumor had students like Vasquez deeply worried, and quite frankly in a panic.

Olivia Ruiz, a former student-employee at the University of Texas shared the hardships she was expecting to face once the school mandated the campus-wide audit that would limit employers to scheduling student-employees to 19 hours of work a week. The 19-hour limit would run from Monday to Sunday.

“I pay for my car, my rent, my groceries,” said Ruiz, “I used to work just under 40 hours a week when I attended UT, and even then I was able to just get by.”

 Like Ruiz, Vasquez is paying her way through school. Her job on campus is the main source of income.

Vasquez is aware of the recent changes in light of the push for Obamacare.

“I just wish we had the ability to opt out if we’re already insured,” said Vasquez.

 Other End of the Spectrum

Meredith Duncan, also a student at the University of Texas is pursuing a degree in Business Management. She works in the business office located at Gregory Gym, the largest indoor satellites facility for the Recreational Sports Program on campus.

Since becoming an employed student on campus, Duncan has been restricted to working no more than 19 hours a week. To her knowledge, students do not typically work more than the allotted amount, with the exception of special circumstances. These special circumstances may include part-time students or seniors registered for few classes.

Duncan noted though, that recently she has been asked to clock in a few extra hours, surpassing her weekly average of 16 hours a week. She expressed discomfort about having to take on extra hours at work due to the fact that she’s a full-time student at the competitive business school at her university.

When Duncan talked about the hour limit implemented at the University of Texas, she discussed the University’s intentions to push students to prioritize school over work.

“UT has a policy, you cannot work over 19 hours a week to make sure you are working on your school work,” says Duncan.

When asked if she believed the reduction in weekly hours was harmful, she fully supported the thought behind the hour restriction. Duncan explained that when she initially began working on campus, her supervisor emphasized the need to restrict student-employee hours in order to allow them to adequately focus on school.

 Is the Affordable Care Act Working?

In 2009, Presidobamacare-sign-ups-commonwealth 2ent Obama shed light on the alarmingly high rate of uninsured Americans at the time. What struck a chord with many was the way Obama depicted a situation that could happen to anyone at any time. According to a speech given in early September of that same year, Obama claimed one in three Americans went uninsured at one point in their lives. He also talked about how easily health insurance could be lost.

Proof in Numbers

Since its implementation, the Affordable Care Act has stunned many disbelievers. Although the numbers haven’t yet been made official, the total percentage of uninsured Americans has decreased significantly. According to the New York Times, there’s been a 25 percent reduction of uninsured residents. That roughly represents around 8 to eleven million Americans.

Of that 25 percent, half have applied and been approved for Medicaid insurance. As a result of the act, several states broadened the eligibility for insurance to those earning a relatively low income. Additionally 3 to 4 million young adults have become newly insured.

Health Care Industry

Many question whether or not the A.C.A. has improved or hurt the health industry. After serious scrutiny, Wall Street analysts and several experts in the health industry have drawn the same conclusion—the health industry is thriving as a whole.

With many citizens becoming newly insured, business is being brought to several spectrums of the healthy industry. New clients are filing in to insurers. More and more patients with the means to pay are being seen in hospitals across the country. There have also been more Americans seeking prescribed medication as a result of affordable consultations.

“The irony is if you look sector by sector, the A.C.A. has resulted in pretty substantial earnings across the board,” said Paul H. Keckley, a managing director at the Navigant Center for Healthcare Research and Policy Analysis.

Questions about sexual assault survey remain

Experts say survey lacks transparency

By Bobby Blanchard and Scarlett Klein

The University of Texas will spend $87,500 to participate in a sexual assault survey that some experts say lacks transparency.

Dozens of other schools are opting out of the survey, which is being conducted by the Association of American Universities. Twenty-seven of the 60 Association of American Universities member institutions in the United States are participating in the survey, which would gather information on the location and frequency of assaults. The association announced in November it would conduct the “campus climate” survey by contracting the research firm Westat.

In a statement, Association of American Universities President Hunter Rawlings said in addition to combating sexual assault, one of the reasons to conduct the survey was to preemptively push back against a mandated government-developed survey from the United States Congress, which Rawlings said would be an unproductive “one-size-fits-all survey.”

“Our primary purpose in conducting this survey is to help our institutions gain a better understanding of this complex problem on their own campuses as well as nationally,” Rawlings said in his statement.

But critics of the survey said it would not be helpful for studying sexual assaults on college campuses. Their biggest concerns, critics said, was transparency, citing concerns that only aggregated data will be released from the association as a result of the survey. Data for individual campuses will not be released to the general public for policy experts and researchers to compare, but the AAU will give individual universities their campus-specific data.

Select the image below to view an interactive map of universities reporting sexual assault. Red dots are schools participating in the AAU’s sexual assault survey and green dots are non-participating schools. Click the dots to view the number of sexual assaults reported at each university.

 Data Source: U.S. Department of Education/AAU

In addition to activists for sexual assault condemning the survey, experts in academia have expressed concerns over it as well. Sixteen professors across a variety of institutions wrote a letter addressed to the presidents of the Association of American Universities. In their letter, the policy experts said the survey lacked transparency because its questions and methods are secret, and would not be available to the greater scientific community before the survey is conducted.

“Accuracy of data regarding sexual violence has been known for years to be very sensitive to the way it is measured,” the letter said. “Sound collaborative scientific efforts involve advisory boards of highly qualified scientists. In the case of the AAU survey, only two members of the advisory committee appear to have any experience in survey assessment on sexual assault, although the committee does have several lawyers and administrators.”

According to data from the U.S. Department go Education, there were just eight sexual assaults reported at UT-Austin in 2013. Some other institutions in the Association of American Universities reported similar numbers, while Harvard University reported as many as 35.

sexual offenses chart

In addition to participating with the Association of American Universities, UT-Austin will conduct its won survey, said UT spokesman Gary Susswein. Meanwhile researchers at the School of Social Work have been working on their own study – set to be published in August.

“We’re asking them…why didn’t they report? We want to know what is the reason that prevents them to report,” researcher Deidi Olaya-Rodriguez said. “We want to get as many answers as we can.”

About this project

This project was completed by UT-Austin journalism students Bobby Blanchard and Scarlett Klein. Both students did the reporting and worked on the HTML and CSS presentation. Blanchard wrote the story and created the interactive and static graphics. Klein shot and edited the video. Graphics included a Google Fusion table and a datawrapper bar chart. The HTML and CSS design is helped in part by JQuery. The written story is 600 words long.

Smoking Not Extinguished by Campus Ban


Tony Taferes, a junior film student at the University of Texas, smokes a cigarette on the Walter Cronkite Plaza.


Although the University of Texas at Austin has implemented a tobacco ban since 2012, not everyone plays by the rules.

To escape the pressures of school, work and life in general, Tony Tafares, UT junior film student, enjoys an occasional cigarette on campus.

Due to the full-fledged tobacco ban in place at the University of Texas at Austin, it will be difficult for Tafares to continue his pastime. The ban, enacted April 2012, prohibits the use of tobacco and tobacco-free electronic cigarettes on university property.



“It feels pretty unfair that you have to walk quite a distance away from the library just to have a break,” Tafares said. “I’ve had many times where people come up to me and ask me for a cigarette at the library and I think that’s pretty typical, people studying, you know they want a break.”

According to Adrienne Howarth-Moore, director of Human Resource Services at UT, the impetus behind the ban was not to punish people who smoke, but to help fund cancer research.

“The Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) gives a significant amount of dollars to our university for cancer research,” Howarth-Moore said. “As the awarding agency for those grant funds, they made it a requirement on their policy end that they would not award dollars for cancer research if the recipients of those awards were not tobacco free.”

To help people adjust to the new policy, UT designated temporary smoking areas throughout the campus. Those areas were phased out in 2013. The university offers a free four-session tobacco cessation class called “Quitters,” to help students quit.

Matthew Olson is the program coordinator of  “Quitters,” and says that he has seen many positive results over the years.

“Overall the feedback is pretty unanimous that it has been beneficial for them,” Olson said. “They learned something, they attempted to quit, even if they weren’t 100% successful at it.”

Though some of the program participants are frustrated by the new campus policy, others have tried to use it as a motivation to help them quit using tobacco.

There is no penalty in-tact for those caught using tobacco on campus. UT expects tobacco users to self-enforce the ban. If students or faculty see someone smoking on campus, the university encourages them to tell the non-complier about the ban.

Howarth-Moore says that she is aware that some students don’t play by the rules.

“Outside of a library, during finals week, in the events are the three most common situations when people will violate the no tobacco policy.”

When students are trying to study and need a cigarette to relax, the ban just stresses them out more, Tafares says.

“I feel calmer when I have a cigarette,” Tafares said. “I started smoking my freshman year of college. My brother smoked and I was in theatre and doing film and it was pretty typical to see people around me smoking. I mean, I enjoy it.”

Tafares doesn’t think the ban will help people quit smoking.

“It’s this idea like, ‘Oh if we ban it less people will smoke,’ and I don’t think that’s really going to happen,” Tafares said. “It’s going to make people more annoyed and frustrated and stress them out even more. So now they have a new stresser that they have to deal with like being afraid to smoke.”

Sexual Assault Cases High But Remain Underreported

By: Julianne Staine, Hymi Ashenafi, Jessica Barrera and Stacie Richard

photo by Stacie Richard

photo by Stacie Richard

Every 21 hours, someone is raped at an American college campus.

Various organizations provided by the University of Texas at Austin seek to support victims, educate the public and provide a safer campus by raising awareness.

According to the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, over 80 percent of victims in Texas did not report the incident to law enforcement.

Officer William R. Pieper of the UTPD Crime Prevention Unit said several theories come
into play as to why sexual assault cases are underreported.

“One theory that I put a great deal of weight in is that many victims fear they will be re-victimized by the process,” Pieper said. “This re-victimization rests in the knowledge that they not only will need to re-live the event through the investigative process and the criminal trial, but they also fear blaming questions will be asked of them.”

According to Pieper, blaming questions can consist of asking the victim what she was
wearing or how much alcohol she consumed.

“As a society, we all need to recognize that assaultive behavior is not tolerable under any circumstance, and the victim in not at fault or culpable for the assault,” Pieper said.

Rape Aggression Defense, a free course offered to female students, faculty and staff by UTPD, is designed to teach self-defense techniques against attackers.

“The UTPD Crime Prevention Unit also works diligently to review construction programs to help design a safer campus,” Pieper said. “During these reviews, we look at lighting, landscaping, callbox placements and for areas that may serve as a funnel or trap. We then offer recommendations to help create a safer environment.”

Organizations, such as Voices Against Violence (VAV), offer individual meetings with
victims to provide information about their rights and options. Topics of these meetings may include medical concerns or reporting options to law enforcement.

The Power House located in the Student Services Building at The University of Texas at Austin is a resource that provides counseling to the Suicide Prevention and Voices Against Violence Outreach groups. photo by Stacie Richard

The Power House located in the Student Services Building at The University of Texas at Austin is a resource that provides counseling to the Suicide Prevention and Voices Against Violence Outreach groups.
photo by Stacie Richard

VAV also provides victims with financial resources through the organization’s emergency fund, which was started in 2001 with the goal of increasing victims’ safety and coping.

Other initiatives in Austin, such as the Victim Services Division of the Austin Police
Department, aim to respond to victims’ psychological and emotional needs through counseling, criminal justice support and education.

According to the 2013 Austin Police Department crime and traffic report, there were 217 reported victims of rape in Austin. In the majority of the incidents, the victim new the suspect as a family member, a partner or ex-partner, a person from a brief encounter or as a non-stranger.

UTPD’s Officer Pieper said that in order for students to stay safe on campus, they should pay attention to the people around them.

“Walk with purpose, having your head up and your eyes open,” Pieper said. “Make eye
contact with other people, and nod so they know you’ve seen them. And know that most
assaults happen between people who know each other and in areas where you may have
felt safe.”

Immigration activism heats up over the DREAM Act

by Katie Arcos, Paige Atkinson, Sami Badgen, Selina Bonilla, and Olivia Leitch

Citizens stood on the steps of the Texas capital protesting, "Texas can do better," in matters of immigration reform.

Citizens stood on the steps of the Texas Capitol Building Wednesday protesting, “Texas can do better,” in matters of immigration reform.

The debate over immigration reform is heating up, especially after the recently elected Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick proposed repealing the DREAM Act, something recently inaugurated Gov. Greg Abbott said he wouldn’t oppose.

Such a bill has already been introduced into the Texas legislature, and is currently being debated on the floor of the House of Representatives, something that many, like Rep. Celia Israel, find worrying.

“I’m concerned that people will use it as an opportunity to suggest they’re being anti-illegal immigration, and they won’t understand that what they’re really doing is hurting students living in the only state they’ve ever known,” she said in a phone interview. “There’s also this misconception that it’s a grant, and… it’s just an opportunity to get someone who’s earned their way into college in-state tuition.”

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Voter Turnout – It’s Not Bigger in Texas

By Maria Roque, Sara Cabral, Anna Daugherty and Olivia Starich.

Texas is a state steeped in tradition.

From maintaining its cowboy heritage through rodeos to football tailgating, Texas prides itself on upholding a history of consistency.

Among Texas’ less admirable traditions is the state’s low voter turnout, which consistently ranks among the lowest in the country. The state’s figures for the National Election, which took place last Tuesday, are no exception.

Recent efforts to synchronize the mayoral and city council election schedule with the national elections and the rapid growth of Texas cities outpacing others in the nation could have helped boost turnout for last week’s national election. Despite these changes, voter turnout in the Lone Star state was down 271,000 votes from the 2010 elections, with approximately 33.6 percent of the 14 million registered voters showing up to the polls.

This midterm election was a historic election for both Texas and Austin. It was the first election during which the voter ID law was implemented and the election with the most open seats since 1906. The gubernatorial race also gained national attention early in 2014 when candidate Wendy Davis, known for her 2013 filibuster on women’s reproductive rights, was officially pitted against now governor-elect Greg Abbott.

The Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, housed in the University of Texas’ School of Journalism, aims to improve civic engagement in Texas through nonpartisan research and education.

According to the 2013 Texas Civic Health Index report by the Annette Strauss Institute, Texas ranked 51st in the nation for voter turnout in 2010. Texans ranked 42nd for voter registration with 62 percent of voting-eligible citizens reported being registered to vote.

Regina Lawrence, director of the institute, said Texans likely do not vote because they are convinced that an individual vote will not make a difference. While this may be true for larger national elections, Lawrence suggests that offices at and below the state level are more easily impacted by individual voters.

“You may or may not know that some of our local legislators, our local representatives were chosen in their last election by literally a handful of votes, 10, 15, 20, 50 votes” Lawrence said. “So in that context, your individual vote actually matters quite a bit.”

At the local level, the election marked two important firsts for Austin. The November election was the first time for the mayoral and city council election to coincide with the federal election schedule. Austin constituents also voted for the first group of City Council members under the 10-ONE system. Under this system, council seats changed from six city-wide representatives to a council of 10 representatives, one for each geographic district in Austin. Many races went into run-offs, so results are not conclusive.

On a statewide scale, results proved disconcerting for members of the Democratic party as Republicans swept most statewide offices, including the highly-contested Governor and Lieutenant Governor positions.

Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, suggested that a voter identification law enacted in 2011 may have dissuaded voters from going to the polls. Hinojosa maintains that many of those would-be voters might have been Democrats, which could have resulted in a different outcome.

The voter ID law, introduced and passed as SB 14, is undergoing review in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after being ruled unconstitutional last month, and remains a contentious issue following the Texas elections.

According to the appeal, approximately 600,000 voters may have been disenfranchised; however, there is currently no concrete calculation of disenfranchised votes. The impact of SB 14 on voter turnout or the outcome of major races cannot be determined.

Regardless of the effect SB 14 might have had on voter turnout, Texas’ civic participation remained habitually low, with early estimates suggesting that Texas out-voted only Indiana by a small margin. Other factors are deterring would-be voters from casting their ballots.

Election Day 2014 on the UT Campus from Maria T. Roque on Vimeo.

A 2012 U.S Census Bureau election report shows that the two most common reasons for not voting among constituents ages 18-44 years old were, “too busy” and “not interested.” Texas is also poorly-ranked on other civic health measures. Texas residents ranked 49th for contacting elected officials, and 44th for discussing politics a few times a week or more.

“The phrase you’ll hear is that Texas isn’t a red state, it’s a non-voting state, and it’s very true,” said Max Patterson, president of University Democrats. “A lot of people don’t understand the impact of their vote because they have that mentality that this is a red state, it doesn’t matter, especially on the local levels.”

A single vote carries less weight at the national level, which is why Lawrence suggests that collective action, driven by grassroots political discussions and information sharing via social media, is imperative to make large-scale change.

Lawrence and Patterson agree that the power to increase participation and produce change lies in increasing voting numbers and in improving civic engagement. Analysis of voter demographics shows that one of the nation’s largest demographic groups is still missing from the polls: millennials.

Despite constituting 52 percent of the world’s population and numbering 86 million in the United States, millennials have the lowest voter turnout nationwide. Their absence in the polls is troubling since political issues such as unemployment and debt management directly affect them. Millennials lay claim to a 40 percent unemployment rate and 70 percent of the group has an average personal debt of $30,000.

In its efforts to get millennial voters involved and thinking about politics, the Annette Strauss Institute holds civic fairs, similar to science fairs, for middle and high school students, where students develop a project around an issue of interest.

“[Research shows that] when you ask students to get actively involved with something and they get to decide what the problem is and what the solution is, that that’s really empowering and that those young people do tend to go on and vote more consistently once they’re old enough to vote,” Lawrence said.

The institute also hosts post-election debriefings for the Austin and UT communities in addition to other programming designed to get would-be voters talking about issues in their communities.

The key to boosting Texas’ voter turnout likely lies in driving millennials to the polls. Lawrence’s work with the Annette Strauss Institute and outreach efforts by student-led organizations such as UT’s University Democrats continue to entice students towards a higher level of civic engagement. However, until obstacles such as personal time constraints and lack of interest can be negotiated by young would-be voters, the quest to boost voter turnout in Texas could continue to be an uphill battle.