Posted: Apr 2, 2013 11:01 AM
Updated: Apr 2, 2013 11:01 AM
The Dallas Morning News. March 26, 2013.
Regents, quit micromanaging UT and Bill Powers
The incessant firefight over the University of Texas at Austin's leadership is targeting school President Bill Powers. It's also about something larger: management philosophy.
Should regents set policy and then let a school's leaders run the institution? Or should they also try to manage the campus?
The answer is obvious if you look at the best practices of major institutions. The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges' guidelines, for instance, make it clear that regents should set a course but not steer the ship.
Unfortunately, not all UT System regents get that point. As a result, they are undermining the independence of Texas' first flagship university. From questioning research to investigating coaches' personal relationships to driving out staffers, some regents have gone beyond governing to meddling.
The latest example is the board's 4-3 vote last week to review yet again the practices of a privately financed foundation that supported UT's law school.
Reviewing the foundation's practices the first time made sense, but after UT's general counsel found Powers had done nothing wrong, some dissatisfied regents wanted a second opinion. They got it. Texas' attorney general's office reviewed the investigation and approved its work.
But some regents, including Dallas residents Wallace Hall and Brenda Pejovich, decided to reopen the matter again.
The regents pursuing the law foundation issue are mostly Powers' critics. They've aligned themselves with a movement that could undermine UT's research work, which Powers rightly has defended.
This is micromanagement deluxe, and it needs to stop.
Fortunately, some members of the board get this. Regent Steve Hicks told The Dallas Morning News that the management approach among the group differs sharply from what he had been exposed to on other boards. The businessman went so far as to call the whole situation ridiculous.
He's far from alone in that opinion. We urge him and other like-minded regents to stand firm.
We suspect Gov. Rick Perry is behind the disruption, partly because he dislikes what he perceives as academic elitism. If he wants Powers gone, he should make his case in a straightforward manner.
In particular, Perry is critical of professors who research and do little teaching. While certainly universities should ensure that professors understand that research is only part of their job, that work is central to a great university's mission. It benefits the economies of a community, state and nation.
Powers deserves to be reviewed similarly to the presidents at other top state universities. That doesn't mean he should be nitpicked to death or set up to fail which seems to be the goal of the current micromanagers.
Austin American-Statesman. April 1, 2013.
A necessary step toward meeting state's water needs
If rain accompanies this editorial supporting the Legislature's plan to create a revolving water fund there was a chance of rain in Tuesday's forecast as we went to press don't focus on the irony that it's raining as you read about drought and the need to increase the state's supply of water. The drought might not be as bad at this point as it was two years ago, but it's only because 2011 was the worst one-year drought in Texas history.
The drought will get worse, absent substantial spring rains. Last week the U.S. Drought Monitor reported that virtually all of Texas was abnormally dry, with 11 percent of the state in exceptional drought. There isn't a level more severe than "exceptional," and the percentage of the state falling into that category has been increasing each week.
The drought update arrived the day after the Texas House voted 146-2 to create the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas. There couldn't have been a better exclamation point on an expense the state can no longer avoid.
Under the approved legislation, known as House Bill 4, the State Water Development Board would administer $2 billion to be withdrawn from the rainy day fund to help finance water projects. The new water implementation fund would operate as a low-interest loan program, and as borrowers pay back loans the water board would lend money to other projects. In this way the state would help secure bond money for $27 billion in reservoirs, pipelines, desalination plants, and water reuse and conservation efforts over the next 50 years.
The state's water needs grow greater each year. According to the State Water Plan, released in January 2012, Texas' population will increase 82 percent by 2060, from 25.4 million to 46.3 million. Demand for water is projected to increase 22 percent during this time while the state's water supplies decrease 10 percent as aquifers become depleted and existing reservoirs lose capacity due to sedimentation. Failure to act could mean economic losses of $12 billion a year during times of drought.
Republican state Rep. Allan Ritter of Nederland, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, is the primary author of HB 4 and he deserves credit for shepherding the bill toward its overwhelming victory. Only Republican state Reps. Van Taylor of Plano and David Simpson of Longview voted against the measure.
The House's work on this issue is not done. Representatives should pass a companion bill, House Bill 11, that authorizes the $2 billion withdrawal from the rainy day fund.
HB 4 requires the water implementation fund to use at least 20 percent of its money to finance water reuse and conservation projects. This is an important provision. Any discussion of increasing the state's water supplies should begin with conservation. Measures that save or reuse water are effective and relatively inexpensive.
We support building reservoirs, but the number desired should be weighed against their expense. Reservoirs can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build. Eminent domain issues and environmental concerns must be addressed. Further, reservoirs lose huge amounts of water to evaporation. And over time reservoirs hold less water as dirt washes into them and settles on the bottom. The State Water Plan estimates reservoirs will lose at least 66,000 acre-feet of storage capacity a year due to sedimentation. Dredging lakes to increase their capacity is an expensive and frequently impractical option.
Building reservoirs and encouraging conservation are not enough. At some point the Legislature and the voters of Texas will have to reconsider the state's water laws. It makes little sense to continue treating surface and ground water as though they're separate resources.
Concerns about cronyism temper our support for creating a water implementation fund. Fortunately, HB 4 includes provisions designed to avoid the same problems that have plagued the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas and Gov. Rick Perry's Texas Enterprise Fund and Emerging Technology Fund. We're pleased the bill requires an annual independent audit. It also requires the State Water Development Board to post the names of investors in water projects on its website.
The Senate version of the bill still is pending. So there is time to strengthen oversight further to avoid conflicts of interest and ensure projects are approved based on merit and not provincial desires.
In past sessions, legislators often have talked about the state's water needs but did little to meet them. Not this session. Given the severity of the 2011 drought and the prospect of even worse conditions ahead, lawmakers know it's foolish to sit around and wait for the rains to return.
Corpus Christi Caller-Times. March 27, 2013.
Finally! Wasteful attack of Open Meetings Act ends
The U.S. Supreme Court doesn't have time for speciousness and frivolity. We wish we could say the same for public officials from 15 Texas cities, including Rockport. They spent nearly nine years trying to undermine the Texas Open Meetings Act until the court put an abrupt stop to it Monday by declining to review their case.
The plaintiffs argued that this cherished bulwark of the principle of open government violated another cherished right theirs to free speech. How? Well, apparently the notion that two Alpine city councilwomen shouldn't have emailed each other and two other council members privately to discuss official city business, and that they could have faced criminal penalties for having done so, was a tyrannical threat to the First Amendment.
The two councilwomen were indicted but, as is typical of enforcement of the act, never were prosecuted. This law does a lot of good but public officials violate it too often and suffer no real consequence. The criminal penalties, in practice, amount to window dressing.
But those few blunt teeth in the act were the plaintiffs' primary objection. They saw their indictment ordeal as "suppression of speech," detrimental to the need for a "robust conversation" on government matters, according to their attorney, Craig Enoch, a former Texas Supreme Court justice.
The act doesn't prohibit speech. It prohibits public officials from whispering behind the public's back, out of earshot, when they're doing the public's business. It requires quorums of public bodies to meet in public, after having given proper notice to the public they have been entrusted to serve.
We know the First Amendment. The First Amendment is a friend of ours (we're exercising it now, robustly). Allowing the public to overhear public officials' speech in public is no violation of First Amendment rights.
That's pretty much how the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals saw it last year. The court ruled that Texas' law against sneaky governing doesn't limit speech; it just promotes the public's trust and discourages corruption, is all. The plaintiffs' argument to the contrary amounted to discouraging the public's trust and promoting corruption. They should be ashamed of themselves and voters should remember who they are.
We're also curious how much of the public's money was wasted on this case. The tally should include the state's time and effort defending the Open Meetings Act.
Speaking of the state's time and effort, defense of the act falls under Attorney General Greg Abbott's job description. So we think it's only fair that he should have the last word. Here's the statement he issued the day of the decision, with which we agree robustly:
"Open, transparent government is fundamental to our democratic system of government. Today's decision ensures that the Texas Open Meetings Act will continue holding elected officials accountable to conduct the taxpayers' business in the light of day and in a manner that informs the public about government decision-making. Texans have a right to know about their government, their elected representatives and the policies that are being adopted on the public's behalf and, thanks to today's ruling, that openness will continue."
San Antonio Express-News. March 28, 2013.
State needs to allow cities a say on plastic-bag ban
As if lawmakers up in Austin did not have enough state business to contend with, they now want to override cities' authority to ban plastic bags.
Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, has filed the "Shopping Bag Freedom Act," a bill that would prohibit municipalities from preventing retailers and other businesses from dispensing plastic bags to their customers.
Several Texas cities, including Brownsville and, most recently, Austin, have imposed plastic bag bans, which mean customers have to bring their own reusable bags or buy reusable bags for their purchases.
Springer's argument against the bag bans is that local governments have crossed the line on local control, and he is fearful they will continue to further overstep personal freedoms if they are not limited in their authority.
He also worries that reusable bags may become contaminated and cause health problems that could impact the amount of state dollars spent on health care. There is also concern about the impact the price of reusable bags will have on the poor.
The Legislature should stay out of this one.
There are many environmental reasons for imposing disposable bag bans. It is reported that up to 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide annually. While they have a useful purpose, improperly discarded plastic bags pose major threats to wildlife and waterways and take years to decompose.
Paper bags have equally significant environmental drawbacks.
Municipal policies on plastic bags are a matter of great debate, and the Legislature should not have the final say.
Locally elected city councils are best equipped to decide what is best for their communities on this issue.
Houston Chronicle. March 29, 2013.
Doomed Astrodome? We've gone through the stages of grief, so where's the leadership on the Dome?
After years of watching the Astrodome fall deeper into disrepair, we can't help but feel like we're going through the stages of grief. There was the denial that Harris County could ever tear down the Dome. Then, there was anger at the traitors who would dare suggest such a thing. Next was bargaining with pseudo-shysters and Arab sheiks who pitched plans for movie studios or indoor ski slopes. And, finally, depression at our collective failure to come up with any solution.
We're now starting to accept that tearing down the Astrodome may be the right choice. But if our Dome truly is doomed, Houston should seize the moment to build something more worthwhile than RodeoHouston's plan for more parking spots. Rhetoric from folks like Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack that the Dome is not a pressing problem ignores the monumental role that stadium played in Houston history, and the opportunity we have before us - opportunity that seems wasted due to a lack of political leadership. Whatever we do with the former Astrodome location should bolster Reliant Stadium's capability to host events and make the overall complex a more attractive location during bidding processes.
For inspiration, county officials should look north along the light rail line to downtown's Discovery Green. During the NBA All-Star Game, that urban park hosted media events and fan spectacles that helped make the weekend such a success. And George R. Brown conventioneers are a common sight at Discovery Green's grassy fields. If Reliant hosts a convention, or the Summer X Games, or a Super Bowl, fans and media folk could use a go-to gathering place that is more than a temporary installation on a concrete field that seems to stretch to the horizon.
A post-Dome park could even implement parts of the once-great stadium in its design - bleachers as park benches, a few spots of classic AstroTurf, some remaining interlaced concrete facade as a sunshade. A University of Houston graduate student in architecture has even proposed a plan to strip the Dome down to its skeleton and let the metal husk stand over a park like a Houston-style Eiffel Tower.
It always seems ironic that cemeteries are some of the most beautiful places in cities. If we must bury the Astrodome, then we could at least grant a grave site that's something more than a parking lot. If we can't save the Dome, we can at least help preserve the memory, and help Reliant become an even better location.
When once great monuments become eyesores in death, their greatness is often interred with their rubble. Let it not be so with the Astrodome.