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Posted: Dec 17, 2013 11:01 AM

Updated: Dec 17, 2013 11:01 AM

Austin American-Statesman. Dec. 13, 2013.

Texas' health ranking nothing to brag about

Texas ranked 36th on an annual measure of the health of each state released last week.

The cynically inclined might respond with surprise that the state ranked that high, given that about 25 percent of Texans lack health insurance and also given how poorly the state often ranks on education, poverty and other health measures. But Texas has relatively few drug and cancer deaths compared with many other states. Texas also is kept at the top of the bottom third of the health rankings by Mississippi and other Southern states that annually occupy the rankings' bottom 10.

There's never any comfort in knowing that we're not Mississippi. And Texas' position this year on America's Health Rankings, an annual assessment by United Health Foundation, is a notch lower than last year's 35th. Texas might never join the ranks of the healthiest states as long as our political leaders remain reluctant to expand health insurance, fail to keep education funding on pace with population growth and choose to not promote efforts to improve the state's low rates of physical inactivity and lower its high rates of obesity and diabetes.

One takeaway from the rankings is there is a strong connection between health and education. The more education a person has, the more likely he or she is to have a job that offers health insurance and the less likely he or she is to smoke or be obese.

The healthiest ranked state was Hawaii. The political leanings of each state stand out when looking at the list of the top and bottom 10. The 10 least healthy states are generally conservative, while eight of the 10 healthiest states are more liberal. Most of the states in the top 10 chose to set up their own state insurance marketplaces under the Affordable Care Act, unlike Texas, and also used the health reform law to expand Medicaid.

The health rankings coincided with news last week from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that 14,038 Texans signed up for health insurance on the Affordable Care Act's federally run marketplace between Oct. 1 and Nov. 30. Nationally, 364,682 Americans have signed up for private insurance coverage under the health care law as of Nov. 30, according to the Obama administration.

The news is a sign that the HealthCare.gov website is moving beyond the troubles that plagued it upon its launch Oct. 1. Still, last week's numbers remain far below the 1.2 million that officials had projected would enroll nationwide by the end of November.

Unlikely to help matters is the fact that Gov. Rick Perry and state legislators not only refused to set up a state-run insurance marketplace but also refused to expand Medicaid coverage to low-income Texans. Expanding Medicaid would have brought a million or more Texans into the ranks of the insured.

The Affordable Care Act was written with the assumption that the states would expand Medicaid to the working poor. When the Supreme Court allowed states to opt out of the law's Medicaid provision, it created a gap that prevents members of the working poor who make too much to qualify for Medicaid without the expansion but too little to qualify for tax credits on the insurance marketplace from accessing health insurance.

State policymakers should also take note of a third health-related item last week that came from a study published in BMJ, the former British Medical Journal. Researchers found that exercise might be as effective as prescription drugs in treating heart disease, diabetes and other leading causes of death. As the New York Times' Gretchen Reynolds wrote, "The study raises important questions about whether our health care system focuses too much on medications and too little on activity to combat physical ailments."

Opponents point to the expense of efforts to expand and improve education and health care and to promote exercise and healthy diets, but these efforts can control costs and have long-term benefits for individuals and the state. Pursued, they also might one day give Texans something to brag about when it comes to their own health

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Houston Chronicle. Dec. 13, 2013.

Fight for the right: Cornyn need not pander to extremists because of an extreme challenger

U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman's last-minute decision to challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in next year's Republican primary might be considered a win-win in some circles. The Senate veteran doesn't get to waltz to re-election without a fight, and that's good for Texas, although Stockman will force the fight so far off the right screen that it likely will require some sort of newfangled periscope to follow it.

Clear winners, as we suggested recently, are residents of the 36th Congressional District. To paraphrase a former Republican president no doubt too progressive for Stockman's taste, they won't have a less-than-serious congressman to kick around anymore. We hope their choices in 2014, Republican and Democrat, will be more interested in representing the district than in taking absurdist shots at President Obama and hiding his own campaign finances.

Cornyn was crab-walking rightward even before Stockman's entry - "second-most conservative senator in America," he proclaims - and we understand why, but it's disheartening to see longtime elected officials feeling the need to pander to the most extreme elements of their party. Of course, he's not the only craven candidate this cycle; most Republicans are scuttling rightward as fast as they can. (Democrats don't have such a problem, since they remain an irrelevance in most statewide races.)

Consider Dan Branch, a respected GOP state representative from Dallas whose moderate positions and pragmatic approaches to governance frequently align with those of Speaker Joe Straus. Running for attorney general, Branch is portraying himself as the most conservative candidate in the race (a laughable claim), a raging anti-Obaman, a tea-party firebrand and an anti-abortion crusader. We haven't seen such an extreme re-branding effort since the late Phyllis Diller's plastic surgeries.

One elected official who could help Cornyn avoid such campaign absurdities in his race against Stockman is the man who inspired the mainstream GOP's right-fright, one Ted Cruz. Although the junior senator from Texas is the vice-chairman of the Republican Senatorial Committee, the body that's supposed to protect incumbent members of his party, he has announced that he won't be making endorsements in the race.

That's unfortunate. Cruz endorsing Cornyn would be good for Cruz. It would allow him to suggest that he's not the Senate's most assiduous self-aggrandizer, the reputation he's established during his brief Senate tenure. More important, Cruz standing up for Cornyn would signal to Texas voters that nominating a candidate as un-serious as Stockman would be bad for Texas, bad for the nation, bad for the Republican Party.

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San Antonio Express-News. Dec. 11, 2013.

Compromise on military sexual assault not enough

A compromise included in the defense authorization bill improves procedures for dealing with sexual assault in the military. And it still doesn't go far enough.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., says she has been assured of a vote this year on her proposal to remove commanders altogether from the decision on whether to prosecute these cases. The betting, however, is that, with only days remaining in the congressional session, this will likely not occur until next year.

Removing commanders from this process is a necessary step. Whether it's this year or next, this vote must occur. Reform of how the military handles sexual assault the deficiencies well documented in this newspaper's "Twice Betrayed" series this year will be incomplete without it.

That's not to say, however, that the compromise doesn't include noteworthy improvements in fact, they are the most sweeping changes in more than 50 years.

The bill would criminalize retaliation for reporting sexual assaults in the military. It would prohibit commanders from overturning sexual assault verdicts. It would expand a special victims counsel program. And it promises to make so-called Article 32 hearings more like preliminary hearings that seek probable cause. Some accusers have been subjected to improper questioning in these settings.

But what should still be on the table is removing commanders from the process of reviewing sexual assault cases altogether. Under Gillibrand's proposal, this kind of review would be undertaken by military prosecutors.

Simply, commanders are too unfamiliar with law to make such decisions, and as "Twice Betrayed" reporting revealed, commanders are too often part of the problem.

Far from undermining command authority and eroding unit cohesion, removing commanders will strengthen incentives to report these crimes now seriously underreported even more than in the civilian world and instill confidence in the legal process. This will strengthen unit cohesion.

Bravo for the changes contained in the compromise. But this final step is still desperately needed.

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The Dallas Morning News. Dec. 11, 2013.

The new reality on carbon emissions

Exxon Mobil used to spend millions of dollars to lobby against efforts to tax or limit carbon emissions, and even denied the existence of man-made climate change. Now, the energy giant and several other businesses are factoring the likelihood of a carbon tax into their long-range plans.

We applaud this awakening, which research group CDP North America chronicles in a recent white paper. It brings a dramatically new dynamic to efforts to restrict carbon emissions. By CDP's tally, at least 29 major companies familiar names such as Wal-Mart, Microsoft, Walt Disney, Wells Fargo, General Electric and at least nine major energy companies see a carbon tax in their future and are in the process now of building it into their business plans.

It's (past) time for Congress to do the same.

Several factors underlie the development of this new dynamic, not the least of which is business pragmatism. Opinion polls show strong public support for the need to act on climate change. Legal victories have given the Environmental Protection Agency a stronger hand in regulating emissions. And President Barack Obama has vowed to regulate carbon emissions from coal plants, a major step toward the U.S. meeting its promise to reduce carbon emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050.

Exxon Mobil's transformation, the first hint of which can be traced to a speech by chairman Rex Tillerson in 2009, is particularly significant. Exxon Mobil is among the nation's most conservative companies. Its new position puts it at odds with the more conservative wing of the GOP, which denies climate change and opposes policies that would put a price on carbon.

But Exxon Mobil recognizes that fossil fuels, its lifeblood for decades, are falling out of favor around the world and that burning them probably contributes to global warming. Economists concur that establishing a price on carbon pollution would be an effective market-based incentive to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, like oil and coal, and encourage use of lower-carbon natural gas, nuclear energy and renewable energy alternatives, such as solar, wind and battery power.

Yet, as is often the case, Congress lags prevailing sentiment of business and the public at large that recognizes the urgency of taking action to reduce the threats from climate change. In 2009, about the time of Tillerson's speech, an energy and climate bill passed the House but was ignored in the Senate. A revamped bill briefly got new life in the Senate, but that, too, eventually bit the dust. Since then, Congress has continued to treat climate and energy policy as legislative lepers. Sad to say, this cowardice is bipartisan.

In the short term, this nation will be dependent on fossil fuels until it can transition to cleaner alternatives. Meaningful improvement globally must involve China changing its carbon-intensive ways.

But Nixon went to China, Clinton worked with Gingrich, Reagan met Gorbachev, and Exxon changed its stripes. It's time for Congress to face the realities of climate change and get with the carbon-restriction program already embraced by many of the energy companies that would be most affected.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Sept. 14, 2013.

Texas will have an extra $2.6 million

Texas Gov. Rick Perry wasted no time patting himself on the back last week when it was announced that the state expects to bring in $2.6 billion more than it will spend in the current two-year budget cycle.

That's in addition to at least $8 billion in the rainy-day fund savings account, another $2 billion set aside to help finance water projects and almost $1.4 billion already reserved for highways once voters approve a 2014 constitutional amendment for road funding.

Keep in mind that this is happening as more than two-thirds of the state's school districts are preparing to go back to court next month for another round of hearings in their lawsuits saying Texas under-funds public schools.

And advocates for more money to ease highway congestion had to work through this year's five-month legislative session and into the third 30-day special session before they got approval to send the constitutional amendment to voters next year.

"Texas government budgets like Texas families, limiting spending and saving hard-earned dollars," Perry said in a news release. He also bragged about passing $1.4 billion in tax cuts.

And, he added, "It's a shame Washington still hasn't learned, you can't tax and spend your way to prosperity."

Others say Texas lawmakers and political leaders are too tight with the purse strings, unwilling to spend available dollars on schools and roads and other things that deserve support.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who's running for re-election against strong conservative opposition, also was quick to claim partial credit for the funding surplus, saying it's "a strong reflection on our Legislature's conservative leadership."

In his own news release, Dewhurst returned to the same theme just three sentences later, touting "our state's fiscal health and the impact of conservative leadership across the board."

OK. We get it. Texas is led by fiscal conservatives.

Still, that $2.6 billion surplus is a sign that a few other discrete expenditures are possible.

The revised financial forecast came last week from Comptroller Susan Combs. In what's called the "Certification Revenue Estimate," she's required to study the appropriations made by the Legislature in the previous session and certify that there will be enough revenue to pay the bills during the next two years.

Combs is known for keeping her revenue estimates on the low side. Some lawmakers still haven't forgiven her for low-balling the revenue estimate in 2011, when they cut $5 billion from public schools but it turned out the cuts didn't have to be so severe.

The report Combs delivered last week was good news. Texas is flush with cash, and that's a good thing.

"Texas has recovered 100 percent of the jobs lost during the recession and added 597,000 beyond the previous peak in 2008." Combs reported.

She predicted slow, steady expansion: "Adjusted for inflation, Texas' gross state product is expected to grow by an average of 3.6 percent annually in fiscal 2014 and 2015, slightly exceeding the nation's expected growth rate of 2.8 percent annually."

State sales tax revenue is expected to grow by 8.9 percent.

In 2013, Combs said, taxes from retail sales grew 3.7 percent. But the best news that year was 14.3 percent growth in sales tax revenue from the manufacturing sector and 12.5 percent from construction businesses.

The current drilling boom is expected to push oil production and regulation taxes to $6.5 billion for 2014-2015, up 27.6 percent from 2012-2013.

Natural gas production tax collections, hurt by low gas prices, are expected to be down 1.2 percent to $3 billion.

Unless Perry calls a special legislative session to consider more spending (right after pigs fly, or if the state Supreme Court orders more school funding), lawmakers won't convene again until January 2015.

There will be plenty of ideas some of them good ones for taking advantage of the surplus.

Topics: Texas Editorial Roundup

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