Houston Chronicle. Jan. 21, 2014.
Far-right strategy: Day is coming when GOP candidates ignore zealots and talk to plain Texans
House Speaker John Boehner defying tea party naysayers to get a budget deal passed. The Lone Star State's tea party tornado, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, at 5 percent and sinking in Republican presidential polls. Harris County Republican heavyweights defying their party chairman, a six-term incumbent, and throwing their weight - and their money - behind a challenger who seems less inclined to focus on divisive social issues.
These are signs that Republicans in Texas and elsewhere are beginning to reassess their absolute fealty to the absolutists among them, but if those signs are portents, the word has not gotten out to GOP candidates, particularly in Texas. They continue to run campaigns that cater to the zealots.
Granted, that's probably a sage strategy, given who votes in party primaries, but it's not good for Texas. A narrow-cast strategy tends to ignore issues that are much more significant to the vast majority of Texans and much more pertinent to the future of the state.
Professional wrestling comes to mind. GOP candidates don guises. Playing to the predilections of the relatively small and vocal crowd in the arena, they each strike poses as the biggest, baddest, meanest candidate since Judge Roy Bean ruled West of the Pecos. They hone positions on issues sure to evoke a Pavlovian response, despite the fact that the office for which they're running probably has little, if anything, to do with outlawing abortion, arming every Texan over age 21 or walling off Mexico and deporting every last undocumented immigrant on this side of the Rio Grande. The crowd roars.
Never mind that the combatants run the risk of falling out of the ring (onto the right apron, of course); what's important is that they've proved their hard-right bona fides. What they haven't proved is that they are capable of representing the disparate needs of disparate constituents.
We're well aware that Democrats are just as capable of ignoring the bigger picture and catering to the fringe as Republicans are. In Texas, though, it's been many years since Democrats have had that luxury.
Our hope is that the GOP candidates who emerge from the March primary, particularly the statewide candidates, execute that proverbial pivot most general-election candidates attempt when they have a credible opponent. If they're in a competitive race - and Texas desperately needs more competition among candidates - we hope they're forced to talk about issues that matter to Texans in their everyday lives. Ideas and policy positions need to be discussed, challenged, debated.
Every Texan has a vested interest in how well we educate our young people, regardless of whether we have children in schools. Almost every Texan drives on our increasingly crowded roadways and benefits when transportation works. Every Texan has health and insurance concerns, regardless of whether they consider themselves pro-life or pro-choice. We all breathe the same air and drink the same water (if it's available in the years to come). Most Texans are well aware that a good business climate in Texas requires wise investment to meet future needs, whether schools and colleges or highways.
Those are the types of issues government is designed to address. Meanwhile, we look forward to the day when GOP candidates feel strong enough to doff the wrestler's pose, exit the ring and reintroduce themselves to the folks outside the arena.
The Dallas Morning News. Jan. 28, 2014.
Making sure we never have another case like Marlise Munoz's
Marlise Munoz is resting in peace. She was taken off life support and declared dead Sunday after officials at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth decided not to appeal a district court ruling ordering the hospital to take such action.
Munoz had collapsed from a possible pulmonary embolism on Nov. 26 and was taken to JPS. She was 14 weeks' pregnant. Two days later, the hospital determined that Munoz "met the clinical criteria for brain death." That's when Munoz's tragic story should have ended. After all, Marlise had told family she did not want to be artificially kept alive. Accordingly, her husband, Erick, requested that she be taken off life support.
But the hospital refused the request, citing the Texas Advance Directives Act, because Munoz was pregnant.
The Texas Advance Directives Act is a 59-page law that offers guidance on matters related to what should happen if you become so ill you can no longer make decisions about your care. Modeled after a 1977 California law and combining three Texas laws - the Natural Death Act, the Out-of-Hospital Do-Not-Resuscitate law and the Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care law - the 1999 statute contains remedies for all types of scenarios. There are pages of definitions and options for transferring to another provider if a doctor or health care facility feels unable or unwilling to comply with a directive.
In those 59 pages, there is just one sentence - Section 166.049 - that addresses pregnancy: "A person may not withdraw or withhold life-sustaining treatment under this subchapter from a pregnant patient."
Although their "patient" was no longer alive, JPS administration decided there was enough ambiguity in that sentence to refuse the family's request. They said clarification from the courts was needed. Friday, District Judge R.H. Wallace gave it, ordering the hospital to declare Munoz dead and to remove her from life support. To its credit, the hospital accepted Wallace's ruling and chose not to appeal.
An appeal would have pushed the fetus perilously close to the threshold for viability, which could have complicated matters even further and sent the case into a legal rabbit hole from which the distraught Munoz family might not have emerged for months.
By accepting Wallace's ruling, the hospital not only provided much-needed closure to the family, but just as important, allowed the ruling to become case law that will set precedent for other such cases, however rare they may be.
This newspaper applauds the hospital's decision. We also urge the Legislature to revisit and clean up the wording of Section 166.049 in 2015 so that there's never again a question of whether a corpse is a mother-to-be.
San Antonio Express-News. Jan. 25, 2014.
A needed fix to the Voting Rights Act
The anti-democratic tactics that motivated the Voting Rights Act in 1965 have morphed into methods cleverly camouflaged but with the same discriminatory effects. The act is still all too necessary.
The U.S. Supreme Court in June gutted a key provision of the act.
Texas is the poster boy for why that was to civil rights what a jack hammer is to a block of concrete. Freed of the need to get changes in voting law precleared - because of its history of thwarting minorities at the polls - Texas quickly put its voter ID law into effect. This, despite a federal court ruling that the law intentionally discriminated. It then rushed the Legislature to approve allegedly new-and-improved redistricting maps, which were substantively based on plans another court said also discriminated.
The haste was opportunistic, dismissive of court judgment and motivated by a desire to entrench partisan political power. But, when a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling struck down the section of the act that spelled out the formula for which states were subject to preclearance, it allowed as how Congress could remedy this.
Three members committed to voting rights have now introduced legislation that creates a new formula in the act. The authors are Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and John Conyers, D-Mich., and Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont.
Five or more voting rights violations during the previous 15 calendar years would trigger preclearance. It's instructive that even under this relaxed standard, Texas would require preclearance, along with Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Smaller political subdivisions within states trigger preclearance if they have at least three voting rights violations in the previous 15 calendar years or one violation and "persistent, extremely low minority turnout" in those 15 years.
It is an imperfect formula. Violations based on voter ID laws will not count - to make the bill more tolerable for Republicans. This is tantamount to saying all crimes count against a felon except one of his most egregious. Courts are a proper setting for determining when a measure violates rights.
But even as is, this proposed formula improves on the wreckage left by the Supreme Court. It also improves the act's Section 3; preclearance can occur whether or not the violation is intentional.
The Voting Rights Act should be able to block discrimination before it is inflicted.
Congress should approve this new formula.
Waco Tribune-Herald. Jan. 21, 2014.
Legislation to revamp and update Voting Rights Act worthy of support
In a statement issued by U.S. Rep. Bill Flores about the appropriations bill signed into law late Friday, he acknowledged that he had reservations about some aspects of the bill but believed the good outweighed the bad. That's how we view legislation announced late last week to revamp key parts of the Voting Rights Act, fixing what the U.S. Supreme Court says needed fixing.
And if that puts Texas back on the short list of states needing federal pre-clearance- well, blame our state leaders and the way they bungled what should have been far better laws in terms of voter photo ID and redistricting.
Last June, the Supreme Court scrapped Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, making the justifiable case that the act has lately used data as old as four decades in deciding which states must gain pre-clearance from the federal government on election law changes or redistricting. The majority of justices said the law was fine, but that the formula to decide which states were meeting the law's intent badly needed updating. Fair enough.
Bipartisan legislation proposed last Thursday on Capitol Hill would restore this law's critical anti-discrimination protections while, too broadly in our opinion, allowing for voter ID laws - often more regulatory than they need to be. It also would require states with five voting violations in the past 15 years - at present, the states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia - to again jump through pre-clearance hurdles for the U.S. Department of Justice.
However, it also would allow such states to be freed of such restrictions after 10 years of good behavior - which we see as real incentive for states such as Texas to clean up their act.
One big plus in this bill: Currently states can only be added to the list required to gain DOJ pre-clearance if there is proof of intentional violation. Well, it's pretty hard to prove what's in one's heart. The proposed legislation would warrant inclusion on the list whether the discrimination was intentional or accidental - which we believe might go a long way in making legislators more responsible in how they craft laws, particularly in our state.
While this newspaper has heartily embraced the idea of voters being required to show photo ID at the polls, we have had problems with the Texas law because it made it unnecessarily onerous or expensive for the poor - more likely to be Hispanic or black - to obtain voter IDs if they lack driver's licenses and/or reside in counties that have no Department of Public Safety offices, which issue IDs.
For some of us lucky in life, this might seem trivial. But consider the case of an African-American in Wisconsin who spent more than $2,000 trying to get birth certificates for her mother and herself, complicated by the fact her mother was born at home in Mississippi during times when blacks had little access to such documentation.
That's not right. It's un-American. We should be making it easier for citizens to vote, not encouraging apathy or excluding some from their rightful say at the polls.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Jan. 28, 2014.
School finance suit will take time
Texas has a poor record of defending its public school finance system against lawsuits brought by the school districts and students it is supposed to serve.
By that record, you'd have to say that, eventually, the suit brought by more than 600 districts and other parties and undergoing a new round of hearings before an Austin judge will go to the state Supreme Court and, eventually, bring the same dismal result: another mandate for the Legislature to fix what's wrong.
It's the eventually part that's likely to make Texans weary before this suit ends.
Modern-day legal battles over Texas school finance started in 1968 when parents in San Antonio's Edgewood school district filed a federal suit saying poor districts weren't given as much funding as wealthy districts.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the suit in 1973, saying school finance is a state issue.
In 1984, the Edgewood district led other poor districts in a state lawsuit, again claiming unequal funding. In 1995, several suits and several proposed remedies later, the state Supreme Court finally upheld a new finance plan.
The next round of suits started in 2001, led by the West Orange-Cove district near Beaumont. In 2005, the Supreme Court again declared the finance system unconstitutional. The Legislature completed repairs in 2006.
The first suit in the latest battle was filed in October 2011, after a legislative session in which lawmakers cut $5.4 billion from school funding.
A year ago, state District Judge John Dietz declared school funding in Texas to be inequitably distributed among school districts and inadequate to meet education requirements set by the state.
Dietz held off issuing a written ruling while the Legislature met. Lawmakers restored $3.4 billion to school budgets, and this month Dietz reopened the case.
Experts have said the new funding does not make up the gap between wealthy and poor school districts that Dietz cited a year ago.
It will be difficult for the plaintiff districts to show that funding remains inadequate, mainly because the $3.4 billion just started flowing back into the system and it will be months before data on its effect will be available.
When will the case make it to the Supreme Court? Maybe next year.
Get used to waiting.