- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 14, 2014

San Antonio Express-News. Jan. 14, 2014.

Find root causes of vet suicides

There is genuine hope that once the complete numbers are tallied, the number of military suicides in 2013 will be lower than the high set in 2012 - 514 deaths.

If this occurs, it will likely be the result of proactive efforts in the military to get soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen to seek help when they need it.

There has been a genuine reluctance to seek that help because this is thought to carry with it a personal and professional stigma - a sense, perhaps, that asking for help is a sign of weakness.

No. Know that if you are an active-duty member, in Military City USA or anywhere, asking for the help to get better - for yourself, your family and your unit - is a sign of strength and resolve.

Kudos to the military branches for the efforts, though even 415 suicides - last year’s figure without final reporting from the Army and Marine Corps - is still much too high.

But also disconcerting are some figures reported for former members of the military. A nation’s duty to them does not go away just because they are no longer serving.

A recent Express-News article reported that one specific set of Veterans Affairs Department figures for 2011 had nearly doubled from 2009 - from 88 to 152. This was for suicides of male veterans 18 to 29 years old.

As the Express-News reported, this is a complex issue, in the military and out.

But we note what might be a disturbing corollary. This group of veterans who served post-9/11 also report a higher level of joblessness - 10 percent - than both civilians and other groups of veterans.

This, of course, could be a chicken-or-the-egg question. Is that relatively recent veteran jobless because of issues that might include thoughts of suicide, or is unemployment - making personal and family responsibilities hard or harder to meet - the cause of those thoughts?

Moreover, disability rates are higher for veterans, and this, too, could be a significant factor.

But a caring nation would make sure that joblessness as a factor would be removed as much as is possible, while pursuing remedies for all other factors.

Texas, at least, has stepped up. Now, the task is to vigorously get the word out.

One of the obstacles to civilian employment has been the failure to count relevant military experience.

During the last legislative session, San Antonio state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte authored, and the Legislature approved, a measure that requires state agencies to accept a license issued by another jurisdiction for veterans.

But another provision also directed agencies to credit valid military experience toward state licenses and certificates where appropriate - for instance, in truck driving, or using special forces training toward law enforcement certification.

But not every veteran will have the kind of military experience that easily translates into civilian jobs, though we’d argue that discipline, leadership and fidelity to duty can be read into the résumés of most honorably discharged veterans.

This veteran will most need further training and education. There is already the GI Bill and other programs.

And, in Texas, there was earlier College Credit for Heroes legislation, also by Van de Putte, that allows veterans to get credit from military experience toward a degree or certification.

No, jobs are not the total answer to what is a very complex issue. But jobs are key to the transition to civilian life.

Alleviating joblessness in this cohort of veterans will undoubtedly help.

So, employers: Hire a vet.

And Texas and the federal government should explore what more can be done, tackling all else that may be standing between a veteran and a productive life.

This will involve even more outreach by the branches and the VA, and even more convincing - for both active-duty members and veterans - that seeking help is not weakness.

The wars are winding down, but the nation’s responsibilities to its veterans are not - particularly to those veterans who are suffering.

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Houston Chronicle. Jan. 9, 2014.

Still dreaming about reform: We hope more reasonable heads prevail in immigration reform legislation

Could comprehensive immigration reform rise like a phoenix in the coming months?

Despite being mired in the soul-killing swamp of congressional stagnation, legislation to fix the convoluted process that determines who we allow into the country is showing vague signs of life. It’s one of the few pieces of legislation on which Republicans and Democrats could and should come together, given the fact that a broad national consensus has developed about why we need it.

Key to any hope for reform is House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who has added to his staff a longtime immigration adviser to U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and whose acid comments about tea party recalcitrance would suggest that he might be serious about reform.

Aides have said he is committed to what he calls a “step by step” approach to reform rather than the comprehensive approach the Democratic-controlled Senate adopted last year.

The aides didn’t specify what steps he might have in mind. Boehner also is reportedly about to release a statement of principles for overhauling the nation’s immigration laws. The statement would be a Republican counterpoint to the Senate bill.

The most likely window of opportunity would be in late spring, after most Republican lawmakers have gotten past their primary campaigns, with the goal of reaching a compromise that President Barack Obama could sign before the 2014 midterm election campaigns heat up next fall.

The best approach would be for the House to take up the Senate’s comprehensive plan, although that’s unlikely. According to news reports, Boehner has told his leadership team that he does not plan to enter into conference negotiations using the Senate bill as a framework.

For House Republicans, the primary sticking point is a path to eventual citizenship for some 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country. The Senate bill requires a 13-year-long process and a fine, but even that is too much for hardliners who see the undocumented as lawbreakers who don’t deserve any citizenship consideration.

Our hope is that more reasonable heads prevail. Resolving the uncertain status of the undocumented among us (and particularly their children), instituting a workable guest-worker program, addressing border security and revising a convoluted system for would-be documented immigrants is the fair thing to do. It’s also an investment in this nation’s economic future, as Thomas J. Donohue, president and chief executive officer of the United States Chamber of Commerce, noted in The New York Times.

“Why?” Donohue asked rhetorically. “Because throughout history immigrants have brought innovation, ideas and investments to American enterprise, and in terms of demographics, we need immigration.”

We do, indeed. More immediately, we need immigration reform.

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The Dallas Morning News. Jan. 8, 2014.

A welcome clash between conservatives

The first political clash of the primary season has already materialized - not between Democrats and Republicans, but rather between Republicans and Republicans. Which, considering the crimson political complexion of the Lone Star State, may result in one of the most interesting tiffs of this year’s campaign season.

The Texas Future Business Alliance - an amalgamation of 10 major business groups, including those from the chemical industry, bankers, builders and contractors - is quietly taking on the tea party. It has begun providing support for GOP candidates being targeted on their right, after backing infrastructure development and education spending.

The limited-government groups have capitalized on their ideological passion, organization and ability to get supporters to the polls in order to wield an outsized influence on the Republican electorate. Organizations such as Empower Texans, the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the tea party are helping push Republican officeholders further and further to the right. Even Sen. John Cornyn, long considered a stalwart of conservative Republicanism, has been painted as a liberal in campaign literature from primary opponent Rep. Steve Stockman.

Although this newspaper applauds these limited-government groups’ engagement in the political process, we recognize that they represent only one segment - and one ideology - within the GOP. That was illustrated in November by the overwhelming passage of Prop 6, which took $2 billion from the state’s rainy-day fund to help finance water infrastructure projects. Prop 6 was opposed by many limited-government groups, yet almost three-quarters of voters approved it. That disagreement set the stage for the pro-business vs. limited-government tussle we’re now seeing in the Republican primaries.

It’s heartening to see increased involvement from business groups, and we hope it will lead to some reflection within Republican ranks about what constitutes being conservative.

There’s certainly nothing conservative about sticking your head in the sand and wishing away the state’s huge and costly infrastructure challenges. A true conservative understands need and what it takes to invest wisely and prudently in the future. A true conservative develops principled ways to meet those needs.

That approach has been a trademark of effective Republican legislators such as House Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio, Sen. John Carona of Dallas and Rep. Byron Cook of Corsicana. And yet, this year all three face primary challenges from the limited-government right. Support from the Texas Future Business Alliance will give such conservative leaders a welcome assist.

Texas faces appreciable infrastructure challenges, such as development of our water supply, highway construction and education funding. We need more conservatives in Austin who will responsibly meet those challenges head-on, rather than pretend they don’t exist.

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Austin American-Statesman. Jan. 10, 2014.

Railroad Commission needs to protect in-house seismologist from politics

Science may not hold all the answers to modern-day problems, but it’s a solid starting point, especially for regulatory agencies.

We applaud the state Railroad Commission’s decision this week to conduct a national search to hire a seismologist to evaluate whether oil and gas activity is causing a recent spike in earthquakes in North Texas. We hope that the position will be filled quickly and the in-house scientist will be given the latitude to report the facts, even if they fly in the face of powerful oil and gas interests and political preferences.

The decision, championed by Commissioner David Porter, comes on the heels of a frustrating Jan. 2 public meeting in Azle that drew 800 people in a town of only about 11,000. Porter and commission staff heard an earful from residents who wanted answers about the unusual seismic activity in the area. Despite its name, the Railroad Commission of Texas is the regulatory agency for the oil and gas industry and is responsible for issuing permits for new drilling sites and the accompanying injection disposal wells.

According to news reports, there have been about 30 quakes near Azle (about 20 miles northwest of Fort Worth) since Nov. 1. While none has resulted in major damage or injuries, residents report damaged foundations, broken pipes, disrupted sleep and frazzled nerves. Most residents, including Azle Mayor Alan Brundrett, are convinced that the culprit is natural gas production in the Barnett Shale using hydraulic fracturing, which involves injecting large amounts of water at high pressure into the ground and then disposing of the wastewater underground.

Despite a number of studies that suggest there is, in fact, a link between disposal wells and earthquakes, the commission has largely refrained from comment on the subject.

According to the commission’s website: “Seismic waves are continuously traversing the earth’s crust due to both natural causes and human activity. Texas has a long history of safe injection, and staff has not identified a significant correlation between faulting and injection practices.”

The Railroad Commission may not have data, but plenty of scientists do.

In fact, earthquake researchers have known since the 1940s and the construction of the Hoover Dam that human activities can cause earthquakes. More recently, the University of Texas at Austin and Southern Methodist University have studied seismic activity in North Texas, including the identification of a well near Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport that was believed to be a “plausible cause” of a rash of quakes in 2008 and 2009. According to news reports, the quakes ended after the injection well stopped operating in August 2009. (Despite common misperception, the correlation is with the disposal wells, not the actual drilling or fracking, according to UT’s Cliff Frohlich, associate director of the Institute for Geophysics.)

The Jan. 2 meeting was originally met with some optimism by residents that the wall of silence on the subject by the Railroad Commission was finally about to break. But a last-minute format change turned the forum into a “listening” session, with very limited exchange between the community and the commission.

The subsequent hiring of a seismologist suggests that Porter and others gave serious weight to the community’s concerns. For an agency that has declined to even discuss publicly the possibility of a connection between gas activities and earthquakes, the hiring of an in-house scientist to look at the evidence is a huge step forward.

Scientific discovery at its best is an objective pursuit. Even Porter’s statement on the hiring of the seismologist states: “It is imperative that the Commission remain engaged and involved in gathering more evidence and data into any possible causation between oil and gas activities and seismic events. Commission rules and regulations must be based on sound science and proven facts.”

However, the reality in Texas is that there are occasions when politics creep into the scientific process and place undue influence on well-meaning scientists or color the interpretation of findings that would normally be clear cut.

One example was at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 2011. A Rice University professor drew headlines by accusing the commission of systematically deleting all references to climate change and sea-level rise in a report he wrote for the agency.

The Railroad Commission should take care that no such accusations can be leveled against its in-house seismologist, and it should craft the position so that he or she will be shielded from both politics and corporate influence.

That’s the sort of transparency the residents of Azle and other drilling communities will need to know that state regulators are truly looking out for their welfare. And it is the obligation of the commission to protect the public’s interests.

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Longview News-Journal. Jan. 9, 2014.

Texas’ system of electric reliability a success story

It was disconcerting during this week’s bitter cold to receive news the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, was warning that conservation measures were required to prevent rolling blackouts.

Certainly it was cold, but our first thought was to wonder how one deep freeze could lead to such a warning. The next day we learned Texas had set a record for winter power usage, so perhaps the measures were understandable.

As it turned out, the conservation measures were enough to maintain the integrity of the system with no blackouts. That was good news for all of us who were piling on blankets to stay warm.

Even temporary power outages during the coldest times could present danger for some East Texans.

It reminded us that Texas is the only state with its own power grid, completely separate from the rest of the states. And ERCOT is the organization responsible for managing electrical delivery.

While the council is made up of representatives from power providers, it is governed by the Public Utilities Commission and the Texas Legislature, making it a quasi-governmental agency.

The good news is that ERCOT works - very well.

It is fashionable these days to criticize all kinds of government agencies, but the fact is that on certain issues, nothing but the government is positioned to perform as well. In this case it is government working with industry - and perhaps that is why it is so successful - but we don’t think it would work as well without government oversight.

During the searing summer of a few years back, Texas experienced rolling blackouts for the first time. Those outages were not felt in our region, but did hit larger cities and were uncomfortable for those affected. The blackouts did not last long, though, and prevented a wholesale loss of power across the state.

None of us wants to hear bad news from ERCOT, but we’re convinced Texas’ system to ensure electric reliability is working well and will continue to do so.