- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Houston Chronicle. March 22, 2014.

Border hyperbole: Bipartisan immigration reform doesn’t rile up the crowd. ‘Boots on the ground’ does

Until the political season comes to an end, there’s probably little hope we’ll hear anything about border issues beyond posturing, pontificating and bloviating. It’s particularly offensive in the lieutenant governor’s race, where state Sen. Dan Patrick, cruising to probable victory, rails about invading hordes of criminal-minded, disease-carrying illegals, while his beleaguered opponent, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, touts his so-called Operation Strong Safety. Dewhurst calls for a $60 million “permanent surge” of National Guard troops and Department of Public Safety officers, along with high-tech hardware and vehicles to supplement a billion-dollar border wall and several thousand Border Patrol agents.

Dewhurst has been quick to jump on the discovery of a “stash house” in Pearland, where more than a hundred people, presumably in the U.S. illegally, were being held against their will. Obviously, law enforcement at the border and beyond needs to use every resource to prevent such outrages, but ranting about “border security” is nothing more than political posturing.

Whoever comes across as toughest on border security is likely to win the hearts and minds of Republican runoff voters, but their posturing has little do with our border challenges. It actually does harm.

Consider the observations of Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson, chief law enforcement officer for the state’s largest county for the past 14 years. “I think they’re just throwing money at the border for nothing,” he told the Texas Observer recently. “I think people in the interior see all these shows about the border where there’s violence. . A lot of tourists will call up my office and say, ‘Is it safe out there?’ We’ll ask where they’re coming from. They’ll say, ‘Houston.’ We’ll say, hurry up and get out of there! It’s safer here than where you’re coming from.”

Dodson noted that all the border hyperbole not only makes people feel insecure but also drains resources from other state needs. And he questions whether it does any good at all.

“They were smuggling across the border when my grandmother was a girl, and they’re going to be smuggling when my granddaughter grows up,” he told the Observer. “I wish they’d stop talking about the border and focus on problems in the interior.”

They won’t stop talking between now and November, of course, although if they were to talk seriously about the border, they would focus on the need for the all-but-dead immigration reform legislation moldering in the House of Representatives. The comprehensive immigration reform proposal approved by the U.S. Senate last year not only beefs up border security, but also addresses the complexity of issues involving our relations with Mexico and other immigration concerns. But for Patrick and other bloviators, bipartisan immigration reform doesn’t rile up the crowd. “Boots on the ground” and invading hordes make for better sound bites.

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San Antonio Express-News. March 21, 2014.

Another case shows need for military justice change

The case of Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, the accused in one of the most high-profile military sexual assault cases in recent times, illustrated the need to remove commanders from the decision on whether to prosecute such cases.

He was allowed to plead to lesser charges. Conviction on the more severe charges, now dropped, could have earned him a life sentence. Among these charges were that he forced a captain to perform oral sex and threatened to kill her and her family if she disclosed the relationship. The two had an affair, which went horribly awry.

It’s tempting to see this as a case in which the punishment does not fit the crime - and there is a case to be made for that after his verdict last week for the remaining charges, a $20,000 fine and no jail time. He gets to keep his pension.

But the fact is that a commander - perhaps to make a political point about the Army’s commitment to battle the epidemic of sexual assault - decided to prosecute on the more severe charges despite early signs of problems in the case.

It’s unclear what really happened between the general and the captain, though what became public portrayed a soldier with little sense of honor or respect for women. But there was enough doubt about whether he was, essentially, a rapist. It is no more palatable to have an unjust conviction than it is to have justice miscarried by failure to prosecute a provable case.

Independent prosecutors should be making these decisions. Most military commanders simply do not have the necessary legal expertise.

The U.S. Senate recently rejected a measure that would have removed such decisions from the military chain of command.

Authored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, the bill failed to get the 60 votes necessary to get it to a floor vote, though she had already lined up at least 55 votes to ensure passage.

The senators who opposed this measure were simply being too deferential to the military, which has argued that removing commanders from these decisions would upset discipline.

But this is really about reluctance to give up turf, not about justice. As this newspaper’s “Twice Betrayed” series last year and much other reporting elsewhere has demonstrated, commanders have too often been part of the problem of failure to prosecute along with victims revictimized by the system.

Gillibrand’s bill will be reprised later this year. The Sinclair case demonstrates why it’s needed.

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Austin American-Statesman. March 22, 2014.

Adopt practical solutions to pay inequity

He avoided the answer for a couple of weeks, all the while enduring political hits from Wendy Davis, his Democratic opponent in this year’s gubernatorial race. Finally, Greg Abbott last week made the unsurprising admission that if he were governor he would have done as Gov. Rick Perry did and would not have signed legislation designed to help women bring pay discrimination lawsuits in state court.

Perry’s veto in June of a state version of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the federal measure signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009, killed legislation that would have given Texas women a legal option to pursue equal pay for equal work in less expensive and formidable state courts rather than in federal courts. It was a bill that should have been allowed to become law.

The legislation, co-sponsored by Davis, would have extended the statute of limitations for pay discrimination lawsuits by resetting the 180-day clock on filing a complaint from the date discrimination was discovered, not from the date of a worker’s first paycheck. This much-needed change to the limitations period acknowledged a simple reality: Discovering pay discrimination is not easily done when most companies do everything they can to keep pay information secret.

Abbott is right when he says state laws prohibiting wage discrimination already exist, but those laws have proved of limited use, and experience shows the fallacy in the argument that the state’s equal pay bill unnecessarily duplicated federal law. In 2012, the Texas Supreme Court rejected a pay discrimination suit brought by a professor against Prairie View A&M; University by declaring that the statute of limitations had expired and the federal fair pay law didn’t apply in Texas.

Democrats have put Republican candidates on the defensive by accusing their party of waging a “war on women,” and sensitivity to that accusation may have led Abbott to try to evade the equal pay issue even as most people could reasonably guess his position on it. Republicans deny claims of hostility against issues important to women, though after last week Abbott might be questioning how well efforts to counter the war on women charge are serving his cause.

Cari Christman, who leads a new, Texas-based political action committee called RedState Women, told WFAA-TV in Dallas-Fort Worth that the Lilly Ledbetter act was not a “real world” solution to the problem of unequal pay. When asked what such a solution would look like, Christman stumbled through a difficult-to-decipher answer that we think meant this: Women have “a lot to juggle” in their “extremely busy” lives and going to court is just not practical for them.

The day after Christman’s appearance on WFAA, Beth Cubriel, the executive director of the Texas Republican Party, told Time Warner News Austin that the pay gap would shrink if only women could demand higher pay as effectively as men do. “Men are better negotiators,” she said. “I would encourage women instead of pursuing the courts for action to become better negotiators.”

There is a pay gap. A new report by the American Association of University Women, citing 2012 federal figures, says men nationally earn an annual median income of $49,398 while women earn $37,791. Texas men earn $44,802 compared with $35,453 for Texas women.

Median income figures fail to consider the types of work being done, hours worked, experience, time with a company, time off to have children and other factors that explain differences in pay between men and women. Nonetheless, as the AAUW report notes, even when contributing factors are considered, pay differences exist. And they exist even in fields dominated by women, such as teaching and nursing.

They also exist at the Texas attorney general’s office. Last week, the San Antonio Express News took a look at the pay differences between men and women in Abbott’s office and found that average salaries were higher for men in six of seven job classifications. Notably, the 343 male assistant attorneys general in Abbott’s office make almost $6,000 more than the 379 female assistant attorneys general ($79,464 to $73,649). Abbott’s campaign said the disparity is due to differences in experience and time served at the agency.

Men and women who do the same or substantially similar work should be paid equally. Legislation that opens court doors is a real world, practical remedy when pay discrimination occurs.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram. March 21, 2014.

State’s new ‘fixed-tuition’ plans good for students and universities

Rising tuition costs at state universities and increasing indebtedness for college students are pricing many young people out of higher education. Or, if they somehow are able to attend college and graduate, they incur such a financial burden that they spend years trying to pay off loans.

The average college-related debt for 2013 graduates was $35,200, with the bulk of that ($26,000 on average) in government loans, according to CNN.

In Texas, college tuition rose 55 percent between 2003 - when universities were allowed to set their own rates - and 2012, which is one reason the Legislature last year passed House Bill 29, requiring state universities to develop “fixed-tuition” plans that go into effect this fall.

Several schools, such as Texas A&M;, the University of Houston and The University of Texas at Dallas, have adopted plans to meet the legislative mandate that tuition charged to an undergraduate would not exceed the price during the student’s first academic term. That charge would be constant for four years.

Last week, the University of North Texas approved its plan for incoming full-time students, but added a twist. At UNT, students will be able to choose from two fixed-rate options: one plan that raises rates 3.9 percent a year for four years, and a second (dubbed Eagle Express) that rewards students up to $4,000 if they graduate in four years.

Entering students in the fall, under the Eagle Express plan, will see a 10 percent tuition increase at UNT, but it will be locked in for four years. If they earn their degree in that time, they get a $3,000 tuition discount for completing course work on time and some will be eligible for a $1,000 rebate from the state.

Either way, parents and students will have a better idea of what the cost of college education will be, avoiding the shock of unexpected yearly tuition hikes.

The university already is designing a marketing plan to potential students that it will roll out all over the state. Using the slogan, “Above the rest for thousands less,” UNT officials believe “fixed-tuition,” in addition to encouraging earlier graduations, also will force the university to improve academic advising and counseling.

That, too, is a good thing.

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Waco Tribune-Herald. March 16, 2014.

Worthy fertilizer industry initiative could narrow focus to questionable actors in the business

While state and federal officials aren’t setting any speed records in determining the need for more safeguards in the wake of the West fertilizer plant explosion nearly a year ago, The Fertilizer Institute and Agricultural Retailers Association rate praise for seeking to fill the void. If successful, their effort could highlight “best practices” worth codifying into law and make federal inspections far more efficient.

At a March 6 hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Billy Pirkle of The Fertilizer Institute told lawmakers it “has taken a number of concrete steps to work with federal regulators and investigators and to keep the community of fertilizer retailers informed of the most up-to-date technical and compliance information.”

These include formation of a voluntary program called ResponsibleAg that will train private auditors in federal storage regulations and implement comprehensive inspections to supplement governmental inspections - not a bad idea given the seeming inconsistency of inspections of the West Fertilizer Company over the years before it blew up on April 17, killing 15 people, maybe more.

Among other things, the TFI and ARA have produced “Safety and Security Guidelines for the Storage and Transportation of Ammonium Nitrate Fertilizers” to disseminate to retailers as well as first responders, considering that “it is clear today that emergency responders (in West) had insufficient information regarding safe procedures for responding to a fire involving ammonium nitrate.”

“We are not waiting for government to act,” he told committee members.

Yes, a voluntary effort might still fail to gain access to a business such as West Fertilizer Company, which was not a member of The Fertilizer Institute or any trade organization and certainly didn’t embrace best practices. There was no sprinkler system and the volatile ammonium nitrate was kept in wooden bins, which could burn easily - and apparently did, triggering the explosion. But if ResponsibleAg can survey and assess plants that do cooperate, it could help regulators prioritize what is left that really needs inspecting.

Because of other Senate business, it was hard to deduce consensus during the March 6 hearing. But committee chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., was as excited about the private industry initiative as she was put out with the Environmental Protection Agency, which has yet to add ammonium nitrate and other chemicals to the EPA’s risk management program. “I don’t know why it’s taking you so long to figure this out,” she said tersely at one point. “We’re seeing the results of not doing it.”

Good point, though the situation highlights society’s mixed feelings about such matters. We all like to complain about the EPA’s intrusiveness, yet when it and other regulatory agencies fail to do their jobs, we get episodes like the deadly explosion in West or the pollution of the Elk River in West Virginia, impacting the drinking water of 300,000 people. Go figure.

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