Recent editorials from Texas newspapers

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Galveston County Daily News. Feb. 6, 2014.

There’s confusion about the First Amendment

News that authorities are looking at comments that a La Marque Fire Department captain made on his personal social media account has led to some confusion about the First Amendment.

Capt. Alfred Decker is on paid leave while authorities investigate posts on his Facebook page.

One post is an illustration showing President Barack Obama with a noose around his neck. It’s titled “The making of a National Holiday.”

Another post uses using derogatory language directed at women, including Houston Mayor Annise Parker.

There were no privacy restrictions on the posts. They were published for the world to see. Decker identified himself as a longtime employee of the fire department.

The review will determine whether all that activity violated city policy.

Decker is entitled to due process. But the decision to put him on paid leave angered his supporters. That’s led to a confused discussion about the First Amendment and what’s meant by constitutionally protected speech.

The First Amendment protects citizens from prior restraint, meaning that the government cannot prevent citizens from saying what they want to say.

However, the amendment does not protect a citizen from the consequences of his action.

If a citizen yells “fire” in a crowded theater and people are hurt as a consequence, he is responsible for the consequences.

Similarly, if a person gets up in front of a civic club and accuses his boss of stealing money from the company, the First Amendment doesn’t protect the speaker from getting fired.

The city of La Marque cannot prevent an employee from speaking.

But it can and should hold employees - especially those in higher level positions of trust - accountable for what they say in public.

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Houston Chronicle. Feb. 6, 2014.

Piling on the poor: Gov. Perry doubles down on access of Texas poor to health care insurance.

The political gamesmanship doesn’t stop. After opting out of the federal Affordable Care Act’s crucial major elements, now Gov. Rick Perry and his administration are trying to thwart the work of health care “navigators,” individuals trained to help Texans find appropriate insurance plans.

Under federal requirements, navigators must complete 20 to 30 hours of training, must comply with strict privacy and security standards, safeguard personal information and be subject to criminal penalties if they violate privacy or fraud statutes. The scrutiny isn’t without good reason, as navigators’ work puts them in close proximity to an applicant’s personal information. But the Texas Department of Insurance’s additional requirements seem to be overkill, layering an additional 20 hours of training, another round of background checks and proof of identity.

It could have been worse: Perry originally asked the insurance department for 40 extra hours, which ignited a “firestorm of opposition,” the Chronicle reported. And time is fast running out to comply: Navigators must be registered with the insurance department by March 1, and must complete the additional training requirements by May 1.

That’s a tough call in a state where one in four residents - that’s more than 6 million people - is without health insurance. It’s the highest percentage of uninsured in the nation. Even so, when the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that states could opt out of the ACA Medicaid expansion, Perry promptly did so.

That refusal left about a million Texans in a “coverage gap” - not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid but too poor for a subsidy to buy coverage under ACA. One of those Texans is Irma Aguilar, a single mother of four in San Antonio. She earns $9 an hour at a pizza restaurant, has damaged discs in her neck and suffers from high blood pressure. Her children are covered by Medicaid, but Aguilar’s salary, about $19,200 a year, is too high for her to qualify for the program.

In Texas, whose Medicaid requirements are savagely strict, she would have to earn less than $4,200 a year as head of her family of five to qualify. And to qualify for a tax credit to help her pay for coverage, she would have to earn more than $38,300.

Some agencies, like Houston’s Department of Health and Human Services, are mobilizing and joining forces with others across the state to provide access to navigators and other resources, and the federal government is coordinating with Houston health officials on an advertising campaign to spread the word on enrolling. But those Texans currently without insurance are left with few options for care. All too often, that means resorting to that most expensive of care providers, a hospital emergency room, for which local county hospital district taxpayers end up footing the bill.

It needn’t be that way: If Texas had not refused the expansion, the federal government would have funded 100 percent of coverage costs through 2016, then gradually leveled off to 90 percent. At least eight other Republican governors, despite their reservations about “Obamacare,” have accepted this federal windfall. But Perry stands intransigent. Meanwhile, a recent study by The Commonwealth Fund, which supports health and social issues research, shows that the state’s decision to reject the Medicaid expansion will cost Texas about $9.2 billion in forfeited federal funding by 2022.

That’s a high price to pay to make a political point.

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The Dallas Morning News. Feb. 4, 2014.

Straus is halfway there on West re-examination

Good news out of Austin last month: House Speaker Joe Straus directed a key committee to dive back into questions about the fertilizer plant explosion in West and how the state could prevent another such deadly disaster.

The attention is critical to plugging regulatory gaps that leave Texans vulnerable to potential industrial time bombs in their communities.

The House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee held hearings last year that exposed and clarified shortcomings that led to the 15 deaths in West and destruction of hundreds of homes and buildings. Give committee chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, credit for that effort and sense of urgency. Now comes the hard part of mapping out legislation that balances the expertise of safety and regulation experts against the influence of the well-funded chemical lobby.

Finding a workable equation on inspections and enforcement - one that protects unsuspecting Texans and survives the lawmaking gantlet - is tricky politically. Straus’ charge to Pickett’s committee means important prep work will be done in the House before the next Legislature convenes in January.

The speaker’s charge to Pickett’s committee follows directives that Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst issued for the Senate last year, with one big difference: Dewhurst asked lawmakers on his side of the Capitol to delve into insurance requirements for companies handling ammonium nitrate, the chemical that detonated in West. Insurance is a critical issue, and one that Straus did not specifically address last month.

Straus should follow up with a charge to the House Insurance Committee, or Pickett should declare his panel’s intent to zero in on the issue of minimum liability insurance for industries that handle any volatile chemical.

Considering West Fertilizer’s paltry $1 million insurance policy - and the estimated $100 million in property damage caused by that plant’s explosion April 17 - it’s clear that hazardous industries can now duck responsibility for mayhem they cause. That won’t pass the smell test for everyday Texans, who must buy reasonable liability minimums for their cars and trucks. Mandatory insurance is not a foreign concept.

Interim hearings in both the House and Senate should build consensus to nail down other key reforms, such as uniform fire codes for all counties that host dangerous industrial activity. Lawmakers should also ensure that information collected on hazardous industries is shared across agencies including the Department of Public Safety, Office of the Texas State Chemist, Department of Health Services and Commission on Environmental Quality. Stove piped information gathering does not serve the public’s interest.

After the West tragedy last year, antiregulatory rhetoric blew through Austin for a spell. Defenders of the status quo argued that this is a dangerous world and stuff happens.

Yes, industrial accidents do happen, even despite the best efforts of business and government working together. It’s good to see Straus and Dewhurst both take up the posture that government’s best effort is yet to come.

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San Antonio Express-News. Feb. 7, 2014.

A discussion worth having on marijuana

Gov. Rick Perry’s recent comments on marijuana decriminalization didn’t go far enough for the legalization crowd and too far for the folks who favor no relaxation of pot laws.

The governor deserves praise if his comments lead to a broader discussion and common ground in Texas. We urge him to keep the debate going by offering a next logical step. Do the state’s laws on marijuana need further reform?

Sitting on a panel recently on drug legalization at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Perry said he’s for decriminalization, but not legalization. He cited Texas’ own softening, including use of so-called drug courts.

But if decriminalization has any meaning, people shouldn’t still be getting arrested and criminally charged for minor marijuana possession - absent compelling circumstances. In Texas, someone with less than 2 ounces of marijuana still faces up to 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,000.

Many Texans - like the governor - lean toward an expansive view of states’ rights. So, it might stand to reason that they will be content to let Colorado and Washington state, with laws that amount to legalization and sale for personal use, do the experimentation before similar steps occur here.

But that doesn’t mean other states - Texas included - can’t also evolve more. There was a time in Texas when draconian punishment occurred for marijuana possession. Those days are gone. But, state law still is stiff.

Is that still too much punishment for this “crime?” And if it is, why is it still on the books, even if some Texas municipalities - Austin comes to mind - ticket rather than arrest?

The key is that phrase “up to,” local police, prosecutor and court discretion implied. And, still, according to FBI figures, there were 70,524 marijuana-related arrests in Texas in 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Of these, 98 percent were for possession, though the statistics don’t differentiate between amounts possessed.

If even a fraction of the 68,937 possession arrests in 2011 were for amounts for personal use, this would indicate still far too much of predilection for enforcement in Texas.

Connecticut, when it was debating a softening of its marijuana laws, found that 75 percent of its 9,290 marijuana arrests of individuals 18 and older in 2009 were for possession of less than half an ounce. These arrests consumed roughly $50.2 million in state and local law enforcement, the state estimated.

Consider then how much law enforcement and court resources were consumed by Texas’ 70,524 in marijuana-related arrests in 2011.

No one should construe Perry’s views - nor for that matter, the president’s recent comments on marijuana - as advocating marijuana use. Better altogether that people refrain from smoking pot.

Better also if Texas put more emphasis generally on drug treatment than enforcement. A 2012 report from the Office of National Drug Control Policy said research demonstrated that every dollar spent on substance abuse treatment saves $4 in health care costs and $7 in law enforcement and other criminal justice costs.

Texas actually knows this. In state prisons, Texas spends more for treatment and rehabilitation, saving money for use in other parts of the corrections budget.

The federal report said early intervention, involving educating youth to the dangers of abusing all manner of substances, from alcohol and pot to heroin, also had proven efficacy in preventing or delaying substance use.

Marijuana is inarguably one of those substances, and law enforcement and the courts still give it attention. The question is, given the country’s attitude about alcohol, which could also arguably be labeled a “gateway” drug, has Texas’ evolution on this topic gone far enough?

Let’s have the discussion. Does the punishment for marijuana use fit the perceived offense in Texas?

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Beaumont Enterprise. Feb. 8, 2014.

Technology Fund still shaky despite recent gains

It was nice to see that the state’s Emerging Technology Fund gained $30 million in valuation despite bankruptcies or closings by 16 of its companies. But the uptick doesn’t erase underlying problems with Gov. Rick Perry’s pet project - or doubts about whether the state should even be playing venture capitalist to begin with.

Despite the recent gains, as recently as 2012 the fund was valued at just $2.4 million more than taxpayers had invested in it. Most of the companies remaining have reported modest overall job growth.

Throughout its history, the fund has also been dogged by complaints that Perry was using it to reward political donors and keeping Texans in the dark about much of its business. It still needs an independent audit, for that matter.

With Perry’s departure looming, even many Republicans are questioning the wisdom of this venture. Their concern is valid, and the Legislature should take a long, hard look at it in 2015.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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