Recent editorials from Texas newspapers

Corpus Christi Caller-Times. June 18, 2015.

Texas is paying for a fraudulent border surge

The federal government already provides a Border Patrol. But Texas will spend $800 million on its own to police the border. Asked why, Gov. Greg Abbott invited his questioner to “Google ‘cartel crime in Mexico.’ “

Not “cartel crime in Texas,” mind you, or “immigrant apprehensions in Texas” or “immigrant smugglers in Texas” — search topics that would have been relevant. Surely the governor knew, by the time he graduated from law school, that the Department of Public Safety doesn’t police Mexico.

Something else puzzles us about Abbott’s Google suggestion: He is the same governor who was sufficiently skeptical of his own country’s military that he decided to have the Texas Guard monitor the Jade Helm 15 military training exercise. If a Google search is all the accountability Texans need for an $800 million DPS expansion, why not just Google “Jade Helm”?

Oh, about that accountability thing: The border security bill to expand the DPS originally called for monthly reports and statistical updates. But the Legislature decided that just one report in 2017 would be plenty.

Besides, facts just would get in the way of the story Republican politicians keep telling about our dangerously lackadaisical border security under President Barack Obama. Previous Gov. Rick Perry made a big show last summer of dispatching the National Guard and DPS to the Rio Grande Valley during what became known as the border crisis — a surge of immigrant children and mothers fleeing violence in Central America. The kids and moms were spun to be a cartel thing. Maybe that’s why Abbott suggested the Google search of drug trafficking in another country.

Perry’s saber-rattling border op provided photo ops for himself and Abbott. But that accountability thing can be as stubborn as a burro sometimes. When the DPS tried to make a big show of passing along federal statistics on Valley-region arrests and drug seizures, state Rep. Cesar Blanco, D-El Paso, wanted to know which agencies did how much of the arresting and seizing. He thought it might be relevant. So do we. If it turned out that the feds already were doing most of the work, why expand the DPS when our federal tax dollars already are hard at work?

The DPS stonewalled Blanco, saying the arrests and seizures were (rah-rah?) a team effort. Giving credit where it was due might have spoiled team spirit.

Besides, DPS officials could see plainly that Blanco was outnumbered by lawmakers more interested in supporting their unsupported partisan political narrative that the federal government wasn’t doing its job.

The border surge has been exceedingly good for folks in the DPS business. They’re getting 250 new troopers, a $7.5 million high-altitude plane, a border crime data center and a 5,000-acre training facility out of the deal. And in return Texans won’t know what they’re getting until 2017, when the DPS reports back to a mostly incurious Legislature.

Oh, about that team effort — turns out it wasn’t one. The El Paso Times and Austin American-Statesman reported last week that, contrary to what the DPS claimed, the Border Patrol never considered itself a participant in the effort known as Operation Strong Safety. The Border Patrol just went about its job like Zorba the Greek mining the mountain. The DPS tagged along like Zorba’s clean-fingernailed patrician sidekick.

Taxpayers should feel defrauded and should hold their betrayers accountable the next time they vote. The DPS needs to come clean. But it is only the instrument of the politicians who ordered, supported and expanded the border surge — and later decided to limit transparency.

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Amarillo Globe-News. June 18, 2015.

Government can regulate its speech

The website for Texas Department of Motor Vehicles features numerous specialty license plates, some — shall we say — more interesting than others.

One that caught our eye after a brief glance at the many available designs was a specialty plate with the phrase “Come and Take It” — a reference we assume is related to the Second Amendment.

It appears the state has no problem with this specialty license plate, but the same cannot be said for a plate featuring the Confederate battle flag.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a 5-4 decision that Texas can reject a specialty license plate from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which includes the Confederate battle flag.

To put it as simply as possible, the Justices ruled that specialty license plates fall under government speech, and the government can monitor such speech.

Let’s be honest. States offer specialty license plates for the money (specialty license plates in Texas can run anywhere from $50 to $495 depending on a number of factors).

We tend to agree with former governor and current GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry, who isn’t that fond of the Confederate plates or the controversy, saying in the past: “We don’t need to be scraping old wounds.”

Surely we have better things to do, but the case still made it to the highest court in the land.

The Justices made a valid case in supporting the state, saying (in the opinion delivered by Justice Stephen Breyer): “When government speaks, it is not barred by the Free Speech Clause from determining the content of what it says.” The opinion went on to compare the government touting a recycling program with being forced to include information “on a local trash disposal enterprise.”

It remains to be seen how this decision will impact other states that offer specialty license plates featuring emblems honoring the Confederacy — Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

In this case, it would be preferable to leave the decision on such specialty license plates up to each individual state — if such plates are truly government speech, some state governments might want to speak differently, and should be allowed to do so.

In Texas, the state does not want to issue this particular specialty license plate, and we can live with the state’s decision.

Those who have a problem with the state in this regard are free to buy a bumper sticker.

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San Antonio Express-News. June 21, 2015.

Texas grand jury reform welcome

In a state as large as Texas — with 254 counties and hundreds of elected district attorneys and judges — there are no guarantees of uniform justice for defendants going through the criminal justice system.

While district attorneys and judges are all bound by the same criminal code, there is room for variance and individual methods of conducting business leading to varied sentences for individuals committing the same types of crimes in different jurisdictions.

The way criminal suspects have been indicted has also lacked uniformity, but a new state law could be changing the way grand juries are picked in some sectors and that could level the playing field for those caught up in the criminal justice system.

In some counties, such as Bexar County, judges pick grand jurors from a regular jury panel. However, in some jurisdictions, the “key man” or “pick-a-pal” system is used, allowing a judge to name a grand jury commissioner who then selects the rest of the panel.

In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court warned that use of the key-man system, although constitutional, was “highly subjective” and “susceptible of abuse as applied.” Over the years, the federal government stopped employing the key-man system, as have most states with the exception of Texas and California.

Justice is supposed to be blind, and moving to a random selection system when empaneling a grand jury brings greater diversity into the grand jury proceedings. It also eliminates allegations of unfairness and discrimination based on the appointees to the panel.

Grand juries do not decide guilt or innocence; the sole role of a grand jury is to determine if there is enough evidence to merit a formal charge to take the case to court. Their work is done behind closed doors in secrecy, and there are good reasons for that, but that means their activities are not subject to public inspection and scrutiny.

That fact makes transparency in the grand jury selection process important to ensure equal justice for all.

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Houston Chronicle. June 16, 2015.

Surprise vetoes: Two bills vetoed by Gov. Abbott will directly affect Texans with mental illness

Two bills filed in the 84th Legislature pertaining to mental health were considered uncontroversial until their recent veto by Gov. Greg Abbott.

If a governor is communicating his legislative priorities effectively, a veto should not come as a surprise. Yet some supporters of the proposed legislation claimed to have been blindsided by the opposition.

One bill would have extended the state’s good Samaritan law to cover people who seek emergency care for someone suffering from an overdose. It also would have expanded access to a drug that can save the life of a person who has overdosed if it is administered quickly.

The second bill would have allowed a four-hour emergency department hold for a mentally ill patient the physician believes is a danger to self or others.

The Texas Medical Association supported both bills. An industry group’s support of an issue can be colored by self-interest. But in this case, the TMA’s position on these mental health bills is a laudable attempt to provide needed expertise on a public health issue.

Texas has had to endure many bad vetoes over the years, but those that leave the state without a solution and where the governor’s office did not work constructively with stakeholders to address a problem, are particularly harmful. Now that the veto action is done, the problems addressed by both bills still need critical attention, and whatever disagreement Abbott has with the legislation needs to be out in the open and dealt with.

Fatal drug overdose has increased more than six-fold in the past three decades and now claims the lives of more than 43,000 Americans every year, as set forth in a new report by the Network for Public Health Law. Together, heroin and prescription pain medications take the lives of almost 25,000 Americans per year — nearly 70 people per day. Drug-related deaths in Texas have increased by 78 percent since 1999, though that number may be higher because these deaths may be underreported, according to a joint investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the Austin American-Statesman.

Abbott and the rest of Texas residents have witnessed gubernatorial vetoes exercised for political and partisan showmanship for so many years that we all may have forgotten how vetoes can be best used for the purpose of legitimate governance. Vetoes should be used to avoid abusive spending practices, to quash legislation catering to a narrow economic interest or to stop an attempt by an ideological majority to impose its will on a minority.

A more controversial but perhaps valid use of a veto is as a tool for the governor to obtain an improved solution for the same problem that the vetoed legislation addresses. Abbott said in a statement that his office had offered several amendments to the overdose bill that were not adopted. But the sponsor of the bill, state Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, disputed Abbott’s version of events and told the Texas Tribune that the veto came as a surprise.

There is no going back, unfortunately. But Abbott should now act to sign Senate Bill 1462, which would also expand access to the drug that counters overdoses.

The Legislature meets for only a few months every two years. As with this recent action, the public suffers when carefully crafted bills are vetoed after lawmakers have left Austin. And this time, it is some of Texas’ most vulnerable residents who will suffer most.

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Galveston County Daily News. June 18, 2015.

Lessons from Tropical Depression Bill

Last week as Tropical Depression Bill, known locally as Tropical Storm Bill, was swirling around the Dallas-Fort Worth area and threatening a deluge in Oklahoma, some of us began thinking about whether there were any lessons or reminders in the system’s pass through our county.

One was this: We tend to look way out in the Atlantic for the start of bad tropical weather.

The storms that keep us up at night tend to form near the Cape Verde islands, just off the west coast of Africa. Both The Great Storm and Hurricane Ike were Cape Verde hurricanes. In modern times, the upside of storms forming way out in the Atlantic is that you get plenty of time to get ready for them.

Bill is a reminder that serious tropical weather can form much closer to home and be here in a matter of hours.

Tropical Storm Allison, for example, formed June 4, 2001, just off shore of Galveston and by June 5 was in the process of dumping almost 40 inches of rain on Houston.

Galveston saw tides about 8 feet over normal. A dozen people in Texas died in ways related to the storm, which caused about $7 billion in property damage.

A more sobering example is Hurricane Alicia, which formed Aug. 15, 1983, in the Gulf of Mexico about 350 miles south of Louisiana. Alicia made landfall on Aug. 18, by which time evacuation routes already were impassable.

In total, 21 people died in Alicia. The storm caused about $6 billion in property damage.

You can’t count on having a week or so to get ready for a dangerous storm. Sometimes, you just won’t get that much time.

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