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Recent editorials from Texas newspapers

Posted July 11

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Texas newspapers:

Waco Tribune-Herald. July 8, 2017.

For many years, we've watched our state lawmakers indulge locally elected officials by hearing out the latter's concerns and complaints at least once or twice a biennium. Topping the list of grievances: unfunded mandates by the Texas Legislature — laws requiring that cities, counties and school districts undertake some particular course of action without the Legislature's providing the money to fund it.

This means local taxpayers get stuck with the bills. And, to add insult to injury, the more poorly informed of taxpayers promptly blame the local governing entities for subsequent tax hikes while then re-electing the very state officials responsible for this bit of chicanery. Worse, there's little indication that state officials who loudly claim to be principled conservatives actually grasp the unprincipled demands they make of local entities.

Why should they? They can pretty well count on the public not figuring all this out.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is offering a prime example of this by including in his lengthy agenda for a special session of the Texas Legislature this month a proposal giving $1,000 pay raises to Texas teachers, possibly over three years. Only problem: He doesn't quite specify where the money to pay for all this will come from.

If the past session of the Legislature is any indication, little will come from state coffers. The expectation is local school boards will come up with all or at least much of the money — and at the same time that Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Republican lawmakers are making political hay by blaming local governing entities for recklessly raising property-tax rates. Even more outrageous, the state of Texas has been quietly reducing its own share of public-education funding, as Texas Tribune reporter Ross Ramsey has outlined in a series of excellent pieces.

Abbott's surprising proposal to add pay raises for teachers to his special-session agenda no doubt seeks to obscure the heavily punitive tone conjured up as he, Lt. Gov. Patrick and state senators press schemes to publicly finance vouchers for private schooling, further complicating ebbing state funding of public education.

Matters might be different had lawmakers — including the pair who listened to then-Waco Independent School District Superintendent Bonny Cain during a forum on local priorities in Waco last fall— fixed the state's wildly inequitable and inadequate school finance system before trying to commit public dollars to any private schooling ventures. However, the Texas Senate torpedoed a House plan to do just that in May. Nobody won.

Few people would argue most teachers don't deserve $1,000 pay raises. But no one should be fooled by Abbott's gesture. And his suggestion that school districts should be able to fund teacher pay raises through better fiscal management must insult any school trustees who already do this.

If Abbott and lawmakers are not willing to commit state dollars to his idea, then his gesture must be branded hollow. If any of the governor's agenda items rate serious consideration, it's his proposal that a special commission be assembled "to craft serious reforms for our obsolete school finance system." We only hope this, too, is not some political shell game to advance school vouchers before state financing of public schools is sufficiently overhauled.

___

Austin American-Statesman. July 8, 2017.

With recent news of President Donald Trump's retreat on the landmark Paris climate agreement and the U.S. Justice Department teaming up with the state of Texas to force Austin and Travis County to obey Senate Bill 4 — which local law enforcement says would make Austin less safe — there is good reason to fret.

That is especially true, given that Gov. Greg Abbott has called a special session July 18 that aims to further coerce Austin and other Texas cities to walk lockstep with a hard-core conservative ideology regarding LGBTQ matters and abandon local authority in setting tax rates for cities and counties. Those policy areas are best decided by local communities.

With so many dark clouds gathering over Texas, the state seems to be in the path of a hurricane.

There are silver linings, however, and there always will be when local communities take action — as Austin, Travis County and Central Texas are doing.

On the national front, the United States Conference of Mayors — which includes Austin Mayor Steve Adler — took action by announcing cities would fill a void left by Trump, who abandoned the Paris agreement in which a global coalition of nations pledged to curb emissions that cause climate change.

"Austin will not stop fighting climate change," Adler recently said. "Worldwide, cities will lead in achieving climate treaty goals because so much of what's required happens at the local level. Regardless of what happens around us, we're still Austin, Texas."

Well said, mayor.

Adler is one of 343 U.S. mayors representing 65 million Americans who pledged to uphold the goals in the Paris agreement brokered by President Barack Obama. Under the agreement, the U.S. would seek to reduce emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent of 2005 levels by 2025. All but a handful of nations joined the Paris accord. Trump, as he unwisely promised on the campaign trail, dumped the agreement.

Locally, Austin's commitment to clean air also is seen in its self-determined climate goals that Adler and the City Council are overseeing, such as carbon neutrality for the city's operations by 2020 and net-zero communitywide greenhouse gases by 2050. Those are local values Austin residents have embraced.

It is unfortunate that Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick want to take an ax to local authority across the state.

Abbott calls that "freedom." It's very curious, as that approach requires cities and counties to abandon their independence — as well as the self-governing principles that have helped build the economic and cultural structures that make Texas the envy of many other states. In truth, that approach sounds more like servitude than freedom.

Patrick again is pushing for approval of Senate Bill 2, which would require cities and counties to get voter approval for tax increases of 5 percent or more. Currently, a tax ratification election only takes place if local governments raise taxes 8 percent or more — and if taxpayers petition to force the election. Though that version of the measure failed to pass muster of the Republican-controlled House, it is back on the agenda.

The measure understandably has run into bipartisan opposition because it would hinder local governments' ability to fund public services while doing little to cut property taxes. Consider that SB 2 does not apply to property taxes levied by school districts — the largest most burdensome tax on homeowners' backs.

SB 2 would not work well in Williamson County, according to county Tax Assessor-Collector Larry Gaddes. He said the measure could result in his county receiving $75 million less in taxes over the next five years while saving the average county homeowner just $9 in property taxes.

Also on the special session hit list is local tree ordinances. Roughly 50 Texas cities have tree-protection ordinances, including Round Rock, Pflugerville, Lakeway, West Lake Hills and other Central Texas cities. Like Austin's tree ordinance, many define protected trees and require permits or another process before removing them.

Area officials are confused about why the state would mess with local tree ordinances aimed at beautifying cities and keeping parks and other public places cooler in Texas' triple digit summers. Round Rock's forestry manager Emsud Horozovic said that city's tree ordinance has never been controversial.

"(The city) should be able to make a decision on how our town looks. We don't want everything to be just concrete and sidewalks," Horozovic said.

He is right.

Abbott's special session also will attempt to crack down on transgender-friendly bathroom policies with a measure mandating that people use public bathrooms based on the gender listed on their birth certificates. Bathrooms should not be the state's business.

Unfortunately, the Legislature through its new law targeting so-called sanctuary cities is trying to use local officers to do the job of federal immigration agents. Along with some other Texas cities, Austin is suing the state, saying the law is unconstitutional.

The current system that empowers local communities to decide such issues has worked remarkably well. It makes no sense to craft a remedy for something that isn't broken. Instead, Abbott's and Patrick's one-size-fits-all measures are likely to erode the state's tourism and convention business.

With so much on the line, it's more important than ever to let elected lawmakers know they work for us — and not the other way around.

___

Houston Chronicle. July 10, 2017.

After a return from Iraq, infantryman Dustin Greco relied on pot and beer to try to calm his thoughts, according to San Antonio Express-News reporter Martin Kuz.

At age 20, Greco failed a drug test, and the military booted Greco out of the Army with a less-than-honorable discharge, or in military parlance "bad paper," in 2010. The same year, a therapist with the Department of Veterans Affairs diagnosed him with a depressive disorder related to his time in the military. "It didn't mean anything that I'd served in Iraq or was trying to get help. They just wanted me out," Greco told Kuz.

Greco's story is all too common. Military veterans deserve treatment for mental conditions related to their service; they don't deserve the boot.

Under Department of Defense regulations, the military services are required to assess the impact of post-traumatic stress syndrome and traumatic brain injury before discharging certain service members for misconduct. But policies aren't always followed, according to a May Government Accountability Office report.

The military discharged almost 92,000 service members for misconduct from 2011 through 2015. More than 62 percent had been diagnosed with a mental health condition in the two years prior to their separation, and of those, 23 percent received other-than-honorable discharges, according to the GAO report.

The military must recommit itself to ensuring its screening, training and counseling policies fairly assess conditions contracted on the job and that these are fully taken into account before service members are discharged.

Veteran discharges are critical to this group's future. Although the VA has begun providing mental health care for 90 days to those with other-than-honorable discharges, most service members in this category are stripped of some or all of their medical, housing, education and additional benefits that could help them readjust to civilian life.

"Bad paper" can make it impossible for ex-service members to obtain jobs that use their military skills, such as those in the public safety sector. Without adequate health care and carrying the burden of "bad paper," these veterans can be more likely to become homeless, substance abusers or incarcerated - or to commit suicide. In other words, one mistake can led to a stigmatizing military status that can undermine an entire life.

War wounds can be invisible. But veterans' service should be indelibly etched on our national conscience. Labeling a veteran with a-less-than-honorable status without the most thorough consideration is a less-than-honorable course of action for our country.

___

The Dallas Morning News. July 10, 2017.

Texas is poised to set a dangerous national precedent in its ongoing campaign to kill Planned Parenthood's health care and family planning for women who most desperately need its help.

Health care — not abortion — is the real issue here, life-preserving services of pap smears, breast exams, affordable birth control, and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections.

Federal law prohibits public funding for abortion. And while many opponents, especially those who have never needed low-cost health services, can't see beyond the abortion debate, Planned Parenthood clients trust and depend on the organization for reasons that have nothing to do with terminating a pregnancy.

That's a reality sadly lost on leaders in Texas, despite governing a state that already faces a maternal mortality crisis. The state has identified the problem: lack of access to health care. Planned Parenthood should be part of the solution.

But that's common sense seemingly lost on Gov. Greg Abbott, who continues bludgeoning the organization to score political points with abortion opponents.

This time around, women far beyond Texas likely will pay the price if the state succeeds in winning back Medicaid funding while continuing to box out some providers from its health program.

Back in 2012, Austin first excluded Planned Parenthood and other organizations that offer abortions from participating in what became Healthy Texas Women, aimed at thousands of low-income residents.

The federal government responded by cutting off about $35 million in annual funding. Not unreasonable, given that the state violated a longstanding rule that allows women to choose any qualified health care provider within Medicaid.

While state officials say Healthy Texas Women is gaining popularity, numbers are still well below the old federal-state partnership that included, among others, Planned Parenthood.

Now, with a new president who wants to cut the family-planning provider out of the federal government, Texas officials are bullish on the Trump administration restoring its federal funds.

As if Planned Parenthood doesn't have enough trouble in statehouses, Senate Republicans in Washington are creating another mess in their still-stuck health care bill. The legislation includes a provision that would block Medicaid patients from accessing family planning and preventative health care at Planned Parenthood clinics for one year.

So much for listening to constituents: A Quinnipiac University poll in January found 62 percent of voters opposed defunding the organization. And a PerryUndem poll from March found that 74 percent oppose taking away Planned Parenthood funds that are used for birth control, checkups and cancer screenings.

Trump's support for the Planned Parenthood ban in the Senate bill is a troubling foreshadow that his administration might approve the Texas Medicaid waiver. If that's the case, other states will be lining up for similarly exclusionary handouts.

It's a hostile precedent with the power to undercut the health of needy women everywhere.

___

Beaumont Enterprise. July 11, 2017.

Keeping contraband from prison inmates is probably one of those impossible goals. No matter how hard prison officials try, some guards or employees will be tempted by bribes to deliver cellphones or drugs.

But there's one component to this problem that can be addressed, and the increasing use of K2 in Texas prisons calls for it. That would be letting inmates have physical contact with friends and relatives who visit them.

Prison officials report that more and more family members are slipping contraband to inmates during visits, and often it's the dangerous drug K2, or synthetic marijuana. One official called K2 "the new drug of choice, inside and outside of prison."

Unlike real marijuana, K2 causes many users to become violent and "crazy strong," like PCP in years past. This produces obvious dangers for other inmates - and guards.

Prison officials report inmates have flipped out" and started yelling and swinging wildly at anyone within reach. No deaths have been reported yet from K2 "zombies," but this is clearly a problem that calls for strong measures now.

One solution is obvious: Physical barriers between inmates and visitors, such as a glass wall.

The two parties can still talk over telephones as much as they want, but no K2 will get slipped from one hand to the other. Prison official report that grandmothers have even been caught with K2 on prison visits, and some mothers have hidden it in their babies' diapers.

This is not a step to take lightly. The simple act of holding hands or giving hugs can help an inmate hang on and motivate him to stay straight when he's released. But the dangers of K2 inside prison walls are also nothing to take lightly. As with so many of these issues, prison officials must err on the side of safety.

The presence of contraband makes it harder for many inmates to make their current prison sentence their last one. They need to focus on obeying rules and staying off drugs. A difficult but necessary step like this will help more of them make that transition.

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