Posted: May 14, 2013 11:01 AM
Updated: May 14, 2013 11:02 AM
The Eagle of Bryan-College Station. May 11, 2013.
Sometimes having the government we want simply costs more
We humans are a funny bunch. We demand smaller government, but at the same time cry out for more and better services. We certainly think we pay too much to the government and don't want to pay anymore, but still we expect better schools, more roads, stronger prisons, and so on.
So do we pay more to get those things we desire and expect? Or, do we continue to pay what we do or even reduce that amount and live with inadequate schools, overcrowded prisons and roads and bridges that are falling apart.
Apparently, at least in Texas, it will be the latter. Gov. Rick Perry has threatened to veto any budget bill for the next two years that doesn't include at least $1.8 billion in tax cuts while at the same time spending a badly needed $2 billion to begin implementing the critically needed state water plan.
The Texas Senate has called for a November election to approve using $5.7 billion more than half of the states "Rainy Day" fund for a new water fund, highway projects and a little a very little for public education, which was slashed by $5.4 billion two years ago. The House, however, seems disinclined to go along with the Senate.
Into this war of conflicting needs and revenues stepped state Rep. Drew Darby, a San Angelo Republican. He introduced a bill to raise the vehicle registration fee in Texas for the first time in more than a quarter century, from $60.75 a year to $65.75 for most vehicles. The additional $15 would be used to pay for state road projects.
Darby's bill would raise an additional $350 million per year, all earmarked to build new roads and repair existing roads. That still wouldn't be enough, but it would be a good start. The Texas Department of Transportation says demand for badly needed new roads would cost the state about $4 billion a year, not counting how much is needed to repair existing roads and bridges. Unless a realistic new budget is approved soon, there will be no more money for road construction after 2015.
Darby's bill originally called for a $30 annual increase in registration fees, but an amendment by Republican state Rep. Larry Phillips of Sherman cut that amount in half. Talking to his fellow House members, Phillips said, "Where's the beef? This is beef! Are we going to lead are or we going to hide?"
Well, obviously, House members are going to hide. After they along with Perry made it clear there would be no increase in the registration fees, Darby withdrew his bill. Political courage doesn't go very far in the Legislature any more.
Oddly, Perry is big on economic development, traveling to California and Illinois to promote relocating businesses to Texas. Why would those businesses want to come here if our transportation infrastructure is inadequate and falling apart?
As we said, no one wants paying higher taxes or increased fees, but if we are going to advance as a state, sometimes we have to do so.
This is one of those times.
Longview News-Journal. May 12, 2013.
Unfinished: Lawmakers leaving too much undone as session winds down
We don't find much fault with most of what the Texas Legislature has done this year. In fact, there is some good to report.
Lawmakers have restored, in large measure, money taken from public education, reversing the major error of the previous session. Not only that, but the Legislature is on track to reduce the amount of testing public school students must endure through the school year. We hope that comes to fruition.
Beyond those successes and a little special interest window dressing here and there, though, it's an unfortunate fact this session is likely to be remembered for how little it has accomplished and for what it failed to accomplish.
The important opportunities it missed will cost Texas dearly. One of those was not even controversial.
In the months leading up to the session, it seemed nearly everyone agreed something had to be done to resolve the increasing water woes across great swaths of our state, which are endangering economic growth and even the existence of communities. The plan was to take $2 billion from the rainy day fund to use as seed money all of which would be paid back by local municipalities to find water solutions.
Shenanigans by tea party representatives, along with Democrats seeking rainy day funds for education, sunk that. Funding the state's water plan apparently is dead for the session.
Make no mistake: This was important legislation. If it has to wait another two years, Texans are going to suffer mightily, economically and otherwise.
Then there is Medicaid reform, which would expand the program in Texas to match it with the Affordable Care Act. This is a no-brainer. So, of course, Gov. Rick Perry opposes it.
The Legislature's apparent agreement with Perry will cause our state to lose billions in federal matching funds and, in effect, saddle Texas taxpayers with double taxation: We'll be paying into a federal program from which we receive no benefit while paying for care of our state's nation's-highest rate of uninsured people.
Beyond that, hospitals and other health care providers in Texas are going to be put in a tight spot. Ignoring the situation doesn't help and all manner of experts both health and economic have testified the state needs to expand Medicaid.
They may as well have been talking to themselves for all the good it did.
Instead of dealing with these real issues, which sometimes cost votes, our legislators took up umpteen gun measures, most of them quite silly. We don't have a reason to be against any of them, but not one of them addressed a real and present need. The fact is they were all political ploys, intended to pander to a voting base.
Now, Perry says he will call a special session if the Legislature doesn't give him a budget with at least $1.8 billion in tax relief, and that may not happen. If Perry calls a special session, we hope he opens it up to deal with the water issue (likely) and with Medicaid (very unlikely).
It has happened before that what the Legislature cannot or will not do in 140 days, it can get done in less than 30.
Corpus Christi Caller-Times. May 9, 2013.
Secure the border by reforming immigration law
Sen. John Cornyn's fact-finding visit last week with South Texas ranchers and law enforcement authorities underscored that border security isn't a trumped-up issue to use against immigration reform legislation. The dangers are real and growing.
Gone are the days when rural landowners could leave stashes of water and beans as hospitality to weary travelers on their evasive journey to find honest work. Today's travelers can't be assumed harmless because their situations are more desperate. The paid guides herding them along the trail are likely to be armed, dangerous and genuinely bad people who routinely exploit and rape their customers.
That's the situation described to Cornyn by resident landowners and law enforcement who encounter it with increasing regularity. The landowners don't feel safe on their own property. And why should they? They're alone on vast acreage being traversed by violent smugglers. Law enforcement doesn't have the resources to combat the situation.
Cornyn has maintained the position that immigration reform shouldn't move forward without adequate security measures that will address this problem. Proponents of immigration reform see the security issue raised by Cornyn and others as an excuse to kill the current immigration reform proposal.
Actually, the facts found by Cornyn make a powerful argument for urgency in reforming immigration law. It's certainly a strong argument against the status quo. How does the old saying go? If we keep doing what we've been doing and the situation not only doesn't improve but worsens, we're wacko.
The easier our immigration laws make it for workers to enter the country legally, the less of a market there is for smuggling them here just like repeal of Prohibition removed the motive to bootleg. The looser the restrictions on the people coming here for the legitimate purpose of working to earn a living, the more secure the border will be from illegal crossings led by dangerous smugglers.
If these human traffickers are as smart and well organized as they're alleged to be, they probably are employing lobbyists in Washington to push this concept that immigration reform should not move forward until the border is sufficiently secure. As long as current policy persists, true border security will remain unattainable or prohibitively expensive and the smugglers' customer base won't dry up.
Cornyn and his like-minded colleagues should do what they can to help motivated workers come to the United States to work. People willing to risk their lives walking through miles of thorny South Texas brush aren't lazy and are not coming here to freeload.
Which brings us to a related topic: the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation's new study putting forth the notion that the Senate bipartisan immigration reform bill would cost $6.3 trillion (with a "t'') in government benefits during the next 50 years. We're glad that conservatives who support the Senate bill were among those attacking the study as flawed. The government-provided lifestyles of the poor and unmotivated are no one's idea of an American dream, least of all the people risking rape and rattlesnake bite to get here.
We agree with Republican former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour that the Heritage Foundation study is "a political document" and "not a very serious analysis."
Houston Chronicle. May 10, 2013.
West explosion was entirely preventable
A crater 100 feet wide and 10 feet deep near the heart of West, Texas, is an apt metaphor for our lack of knowledge regarding hazardous-site regulation, oversight and responsibility, not only in West, where at least 14 people lost their lives, more than 200 were injured and dozens of homes were destroyed, but also in hundreds of other locations around the state, including 700 fertilizer depots.
Despite the unanswered questions about what happened in West, there's one thing we know for sure: The explosion that shattered a small Texas town on April 17 was entirely preventable. It happened because of lax oversight, inadequate regulations and minimal enforcement.
Texas lawmakers and public officials traditionally err on the side of industry, despite the fact that the Lone Star State leads the nation in total fatal industrial accidents more than 400 in 2011. (California, with a population almost twice as large, was second, with 260 deaths.) Nevertheless, Texas lawmakers have cut funding to agencies responsible for ensuring effective public health and workplace safety protections.
Gov. Rick Perry is a proud heir to the state's regulation-free inclination. It was the governor, after all, who characterized the devastating BP oil spill in 2010 as "an act of God," making the Creator sound like a vandalizing juvenile. It was the governor at a West press conference asserting that regulation and oversight at the fertilizer plant was adequate.
Never mind that the West Chemical and Fertilizer Company located in a residential neighborhood near a school had at least 540,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate, a violently combustible compound, in storage last year, according to state records. That amount was more than a hundred times the weight of the ammonium nitrate and fuel oil mixture used in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
Never mind, also, that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspected the West plant once in 1985. As UT-Austin law professor Thomas O. McGarity reminded Chronicle readers recently, Texas has no state OSHA charged with protecting the safety and health of its workers.
McGarity recommends creating a state agency to protect the health and safety of this state's working people. We agree, although we see no chance for that happening in the current political climate.
Although multiple investigations continue, the roots of the problem are glaring obvious. As Hearst Washington Bureau reporters Stewart Powell and Chuck Lewis reported recently, behind-the-scenes, lobbyist-influenced maneuvering over the years has created an ineffective, often contradictory patchwork of regulations of chemical plants by at least five different agencies. Often, the agencies fail to share plant-by-plant information.
"The patchwork of regulation that we have in place has evolved by default, not by design," U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, told the Hearst reporters. West is in Flores' district.
Yet another problem: The Department of Homeland Security, charged in 2006 with tracking chemicals useful to terrorists, "was not even aware of this plant," said U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin. McCaul is chairman of the 32-member House Committee on Homeland Security. (One of the first responders has been arrested and charged with possession of a pipe bomb.)
Local, state and federal officials will continue to debate in the coming months how to focus and clarify responsibility for overseeing and regulating fertilizer plants. As it is, it's way too easy for everyone to claim, "It's not my fault" or "That's how we do things in Texas."
Meanwhile, here are two easy fixes: Require a fire code for every county and a no-build zone around plants manufacturing volatile compounds. It's absurd, in hindsight, to think that in West homes, apartment buildings, a nursing home and schools grew up around a potentially deadly site.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram. May 6, 2013.
Texas governor's fundraising during session is too close to the line
Gov. Rick Perry's fundraising capabilities are undeniable. Being the longest-serving governor in state history and having $6 million in his campaign account when it's at least a year before his next campaign is enough evidence of that.
So why would Perry do something that's perilously close if not over the line for fundraising deemed improper under state law?
There's room to raise an eyebrow or two. State law says legislators and the governor shouldn't raise money during the period starting 30 days before a legislative session and continuing until 20 days after the session, the last day the governor can veto bills. Better not to create the impression that legislation is being bought or sold.
Two weeks ago, longtime Perry fundraiser Katie Herries contacted major Republican donors to set up times for Perry to call them May 6, according to a report from The Dallas Morning News.
The governor's office said Herries works for TexasOne, a nonprofit set up by the governor and run by a board of directors that he names. TexasOne finances economic development efforts, including Perry's recent highly publicized business recruiting trips to California and Illinois.
The Legislature will be in session through May 27, and the veto period lasts through June 16. Where is the line between what Perry can and can't do on fundraising in the meantime?
The state election code says he "may not knowingly accept a political contribution" during the fundraising blackout dates. It defines "political contribution" as a donation to his campaign or an "officeholder" account.
An officeholder account defrays expenses "incurred by the officeholder in performing a duty or engaging in an activity in connection with the office."
TexasOne's website says Perry launched the program in 2003 under an existing office of the governor's Economic Development & Tourism division.
Let's say it's just a happy coincidence for Perry that his TexasOne trips help build his national profile in case he wants to run for president in 2016, like he did so poorly last year.
The question is: How much separation is there between the governor's office itself and TexasOne, an organization he created and controls by his ability to name its board? The answer is, not much.
Perry should hold off on fundraising until after June 16.