There is one end-of-year list that's easier to put together than the rest. When it comes to identifying the most read news stories of the year, there's no hemming or hawing, no debate in the office or even any critical thinking necessary.
The decisions about what goes on this list were made by you, dear readers, throughout the year. You did a good job, too. The stories that made this list paint a fairly comprehensive portrait of the year in news in North Texas and the rest of the Lone Star State.
Here are, according to Google Analytics, the news stories Observer readers clicked the most in 2019.
1. Texas Kills Hated Driver Responsibility Program — The 2019 Texas legislative session was a mixed bag. The state finally passed long-needed reforms for school finance, but it also made the national news by taking big stands for Chick-fil-A and against the nonexistent scourge of babies born alive during abortion.
There was one thing that everyone agreed on during the session: Killing the state's long-despised Driver Responsibility Program was the right thing to do.
Here's a quick explainer on the program from June:
The program imposed surcharges on Texas drivers who did things like driving without a license or driving under the influence. The surcharges were imposed on top of standard fines and ranged from $250 per year for three years for driving with an invalid license to $2,000 per year for three years for a DWI in which the driver is caught with a blood alcohol level of 0.16 — twice the legal limit — or higher. Drivers who accumulated too many points on their licenses for moving violations or moving violations resulting in a crash were also subject to surcharges.
While the surcharges were nuisances to everyone who had to pay them, they amounted to financial quicksand for Texas' most vulnerable residents. People would get a ticket and then keep accumulating fines, keeping their license suspended and making them vulnerable to additional tickets and fines.
The Driver Responsibility Program has been a pain in Texas' rear end for decades, and now it's gone.
2. They Say They Won’t Be Replaced. But They Will. By Places Like Allen — After Patrick Crusius allegedly murdered 22 people in an El Paso Wal-Mart, Observer columnist Jim Schutze took a look at Allen, Crusius' hometown.
I don’t think the term, white supremacy, captures what this really is. Not here. Not now. That may be what they call it. But it’s the opposite. It’s white inferior-ocracy or something. In fact, we all should wonder if somehow through some huge trick of history, a magnificent and terrible inversion has taken place and the word itself, white, when shouted in the street, has become a kind of heat sink for inferiority.
The world I see in Allen and all of those suburbs is not my world. I don’t just not play golf. I am morally opposed to golf. But you know what? Allen is a wonderful world. It’s a world where dreams and ambition and courage and all the very best things in human nature — well, many of them — can come true. It’s the American dream, because it is the human dream.
3. Here’s What You Should Do If You’re in the Texas Driver Responsibility Program — After Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill dumping the Driver Responsibility Program, those hoping to have their fines forgiven and their licenses restored still had about two and a half months to wait until the law went into effect on Sept. 1.
Emily Gerrick, a senior staff attorney at the Texas Fair Defense Project, gave out some friendly advice:
1. If you're currently enrolled in the Driver Responsibility Program and your license isn't currently suspended, you might want to keep paying your surcharges for the next couple of months. — If you don't pay them or take other action, the state will still suspend your license, Gerrick says.
2. If you make three times or less the poverty level, you have a way out regardless. — "The best workaround, if someone really doesn't want to pay anything, there's something called the Incentive Program, where if you make under 300% of poverty guidelines you can apply for that. It takes one or two weeks to get it, but, if you're approved, they reduce your surcharges and they don't make you pay anything for six months," Gerrick says.
Six months gets drivers past Sept. 1, when all their fees will be wiped out anyway.
3. If you make too much for the Incentive Program, your decision comes down to your risk tolerance. — You can stop paying your surcharges if you make more than 300% of poverty, too, and they'll be wiped out on Sept. 1. In the interim, however, you'll be driving with a suspended license. Pick up a second one of those and the penalty could go up from a Class C misdemeanor to a Class B misdemeanor, which is punishable by as much as six months in jail.
4. Protesters, Police and MAGA Hat Sellers Agree: Trump Rally Was Better Than Expected — As President Donald Trump preached to the choir inside the American Airlines Center, Observer editorial fellow Lucas Manfield took in the color outside:
Bianca, a bartender at the sports bar Hero, was not as impressed by the behavior of the crowds. Thousands of attendees who didn’t make it inside the arena had watched the speech on a big screen outside. Once the rally wrapped up, they streamed past the bar to find their cars.
“I thought it would be better,” she said, gesturing to her empty bar.
Many local businesses closed for the event. Some that remained open did well, particularly those with bathrooms along the nearly half-mile line that had formed along Houston Street by early afternoon.
By 4 p.m., the Jimmy John's on Victory Park Lane had run out of bread. An entrepreneur selling MAGA gear on the arena’s steps said triumphantly that he’d nearly sold out of socks. Hats embroidered with "Keep America Great," the current and less catchy version of the slogan, were in less demand.
5. ‘Get Your Damn Act Together Yourself, OK?’ Jerry Jones Melts Down on Sports Radio — On Dec. 6, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones hopped on radio station 105.3 The Fan with the Cowboys in the midst of a three-game losing streak. Things got weird:
Almost as soon as he went on the air with 105.3 The Fan, Jones went after hosts Cory Mageors and Kevin Hageland.
"Hey, get your damn act together yourself, OK? Now we’re going to have a good visit this morning but settle down just a little bit," Jones said in response to being asked whether he was embarrassed by the Cowboys' performance.
Eventually, the station's phone system kicked Jones off the air — as it does with anyone bleeped twice during the same interview. The Cowboys owner went back on the air, and things got even stranger.
“What I do is I get mad and I scream in my pillow. That low, low eerie thing you’re hearing going across Dallas is me screaming in my pillow,” Jones said, describing his reaction to the Cowboys' recent performances. "The bottom line is, as you can imagine, I'd like to make this better."
6. The Tape, That Tape, Is Out and It’s a Doozy for Texas Republicans — For much of the summer and early fall, Texas politics was consumed by rumors and innuendos surrounding a surreptitious recording made by conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan during a meeting with Texas Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen.
In October, Sullivan released the tape. A week later, Bonnen announced, after just one term as speaker, that he would not seek reelection.
After some small talk about Sullivan's recent visit to the D-Day landing site in France and Indian food in London, Bonnen quickly gets down to business. He explains, as he will multiple times on the recording, that he'd prefer Sullivan limit his spending against Republicans in the primary to members Bonnen would have no problem losing.
"(L)et's not spend millions of dollars fighting in primaries, when we need to spend millions of dollars trying to win in November," Bonnen tells Sullivan. "I just wanted to see if we can try and figure that out, and I mean this in a polite way. If you need some primaries to fight in, I will leave and Dustin will tell you some that we would love it if you fought in them — not that you need our permission — but what I would love to be able to do, candidly, is kind of have — I don't want to say an agreement — but kind of an understanding, look, you want to go pop some guys, if you're asking us — which you don't have to — let me put it this way: Am I going to always make you happy? No. Am I perfect? No way."
Later on the recording, Bonnen says that [Rep. Dustin] Burrows "has some folks" for Sullivan to go "pop" in the primaries if Sullivan wants to. Bonnen specifically mentions Phil Stephenson, from southeast Texas, and Travis Clardy from Nacogdoches, as members he would have no problem with Sullivan targeting.
Bonnen makes it clear on the tape that Sullivan will benefit if he sticks to the script.
"(L)et me tell you what I'll do for you — real quick, you need to hear what I want to do for you," Bonnen says.
After Sullivan protests that he doesn't need anything, Bonnen makes his offer.
"If we can make this work, I'll put your guys on the floor next session," Bonnen says.
7. Amber Guyger’s Love Life Takes Center Stage on First Day of Murder Trial — On Sept. 23, Amber Guyger, the former Dallas Police Department officer who shot and killed Botham Jean in Jean's apartment, believing it was her own, went on trial at the Dallas County Courthouse.
In opening statements, prosecutors said that Guyger, who would eventually be convicted of murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison, killed Jean, in part, because she was distracted by a just-completed conversation with a married fellow cop with whom she was engaged in a relationship.
A single phone call made all the difference the night former Dallas Police Department officer Amber Guyger shot and killed Botham Jean, Assistant Dallas County District Attorney Jason Hermus said Monday during opening statements in Guyger's murder trial. Before it, Hermus said, Guyger was having a normal commute home from work. After it, she could no longer function.
"Prior to that conversation, Amber Guyger was able to effectively do her job," the prosecutor said. "She was operating like a normal person. After the conversation ends, there is a marked difference."
Guyger was on the phone, prosecutors and Guyger's defense attorneys agree, with her partner at the department and sometimes lover, Martin Rivera. Prosecutors say the pair were making plans throughout the afternoon to meet later that night. Guyger's defense attorney, Robert Rogers, said the romantic part of their relationship, save for some fraternal flirting, had fizzled in 2017, months before the shooting.
8. Dallas Chief Renee Hall May Be on the Verge of Getting Canned — As new Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson took over the reins of the city from Mike Rawlings, Jim Schutze speculated on what Johnson being in charge might mean for Dallas Police Chief U. Renee Hall:
In very broad terms, an impression exists within the department that Chief Hall has assigned a lower priority to focused attacks on career criminals. We’re talking about special squads assigned to work felony warrants and/or crime hot spots.
There is a strong belief among career cops that most crime is carried out by a hardcore 10 percent. Concentrating on them, these officers believe, gets them off the street but also tends to yield a high return in drugs and guns.
Getting large numbers of guns off the street is a high priority among police officers who have to go out there and face those guns every day and night, and they think focusing on the worst of the bad guys is a good way to do it. They think Hall isn’t getting it done.
For now, at least, Hall remains in her job.
9. Texas Raises Legal Smoking Age to 21 — Less than a week before a new state law into effect, editorial fellow Meredith Lawrence filled us all in on Texas' new legal smoking age:
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Come Sunday, it will no longer be legal to buy cigarettes, electronic cigarettes or tobacco products in Texas if you are under the age of 21.
Advocates say the new law will decrease significantly the number of people who start smoking. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nine out of 10 smokers tried it for the first time by the age of 18. Furthermore, 21-year-olds are less likely than 18-year-olds to pick up a cigarette in the first place.
“That's really what it's about, is building in that social distance between 18 and 21,” said Shelby Massey, the American Heart Association's government relations director for Texas. “It's very rare for a 30-year-old to take up smoking.”
10. Car Wash Case a ‘Taking.’ If It Stands, No One Is Safe, Not Me, Not You. — In July, Schutze returned to one of his favorite subjects — the seemingly never-ending battle between the city and Jim’s Car Wash on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard:
The conspiracy here is not in who but how. Why would the city lie and say it’s forcing (the car wash) out of business because his place is a crime hot spot when the city obviously knows from its own research that that is untrue?
The answer is that the city doesn’t want to get the property through straight-up eminent domain. It wants to take it. Somewhere in eminent domain — the public purpose, the price, the disclosures — some trap lies waiting, something the city cannot or just will not do.
This is called a “taking,” not eminent domain, because it lacks law. It lacks truth. It lacks honesty. This is a taking because it is theft.
It’s public theft, and if it is allowed to stand, not a piece of property in this city will be protected by property right. If they can steal his, they can steal yours. They can do anything.