- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Dallas Morning News. May 25, 2014.

Lessons learned from West disaster

A troubling theme keeps surfacing in the many lessons-learned studies from the April 17, 2013, explosion in West: It’s difficult to prevent disaster and minimize casualties when neither the government nor the local population knows where the danger lies.

Not only was that the case in West, where an ammonium nitrate fertilizer plant exploded and killed 15 people, but scores of other situations like it may exist around the country, according to a new Government Accountability Office report. Auditors say the federal government has lost track of how many facilities are storing ammonium nitrate and how much is out there.

In 2010, U.S. companies produced 7.5 million tons of ammonium nitrate, the report states. But, it said, “the total number and location of facilities in the United States in which ammonium nitrate is stored, however, is not known.”

That’s a nightmarish scenario from a security standpoint. Ammonium nitrate was the key ingredient in the 1995 terrorist attack in Oklahoma City and the 1993 explosion at the World Trade Center in New York. It’s because of the danger posed by unmonitored ammonium nitrate storage and distribution that federal law requires all facilities storing more than 2,000 pounds of fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate to report to the Department of Homeland Security.

The West Fertilizer Co. plant where the 2013 explosion originated had failed to comply with federal law. Other federal agencies could have - and should have - served as additional backstops to ensure that plants like West Fertilizer didn’t fall off the radar screen. The GAO report mentioned the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Transportation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as agencies that should improve the sharing of risk-management data.

Federal reporting requirements not only help the government monitor dangerous chemicals before they fall into the wrong hands, they also provide mechanisms for local officials to coordinate disaster preparedness.

As a recent state fire marshal’s report noted, members of the West Volunteer Fire Department were not uniformly aware of what was stored inside West Fertilizer and didn’t fully grasp the dangers posed by ammonium nitrate. They also lacked proper training in how to respond when fire broke out at the plant just before the explosion.

Tighter federal monitoring - along with overlapping authority by state and local agencies and best-practices pressure by trade associations - would have helped ensure such gaps didn’t develop in West. If scores of other potential Wests exist across America, there’s obviously still a lot of work ahead.

Four congressional committees looking into West’s experience requested that the GAO prepare this new report. Their commendable, ongoing focus helps ensure that the lessons truly are learned, corrections made and future disasters averted.

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Houston Chronicle. May 21, 2014.

Justice for all: Federal ruling confirms religious rights of Muslims in Texas prisons

On May 1, a federal judge ruled that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice had illegally violated the rights of Muslim prisoners by making it almost impossible for them to practice their religion while behind bars.

It would be a whole different matter if the TDCJ refused that opportunity to all its inmates, but U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt pointed out that that was not the case: “The TDCJ knowingly adopted a policy it knew would impose requirements on Muslim inmates’ religious services that could not be satisfied by volunteers or overcome by Muslim inmates,” he wrote.

Hoyt’s decision was just the latest chapter in a long history of legal wrangling over this issue, as reported by the Chronicle, starting in 1969. That’s when a lawsuit was filed to compel the state to comply with a variety of religious requirements - serving pork-free meals, permitting Islamic literature and other items - culminating in a legal settlement in 1977.

But in 2012, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott argued that the state should no longer have to abide by that settlement and immediately put new regulations into force.

Under these criteria, groups of four or more inmates could not meet without either staff or civilian supervision and could not engage in religious gatherings for more than one hour a week except with those same stipulations.

In his ruling, Hoyt pointed out that especially in rural areas, there are not enough Muslims in Texas prisons to meet those demands, adding that the TDCJ was illegally favoring Christian inmates because there are more than enough Christian civilians and chaplains to conduct prison services.

The ruling also noted that in Texas, some Jewish and Native American prisoners are purposely housed together so they can further share and practice their faith, but no such arrangements are made for Muslims.

Under Hoyt’s ruling, the state must abide by the 1977 agreement, which allows prisoners more than an hour of religious activities a week, without needing the presence of either prison clergy or a civilian supervisor.

Schiller reports that prison officials declined comment, but that an appeal is expected, which would allow it to continue the current restrictions unless and until the higher court rules otherwise.

We urge the state not to appeal Hoyt’s ruling. It’s a modest, inexpensive change that affects a small number of inmates. Only about 6,000 of the state’s approximately 151,000 prisoners are Muslims, and there are just five imams employed by the Texas prison system among its 111 units.

We should welcome the chance to give these individuals, often isolated, far from family and friends, the opportunity to practice and take solace from their faith, as other prisoners can.

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Austin American-Statesman. May 24, 2014.

Should Texas reconsider stakes for pot?

The Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-marijuana lobbying group based in Washington, D.C., has come to Texas hoping to persuade legislators to decriminalize marijuana and allow marijuana’s medical use. Legalization is the ultimate goal.

We don’t see high times arriving in Texas anytime soon, nor are we calling for them here. But Texas doesn’t have to join Colorado and Washington in legalizing pot to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana or to allow the limited use of medical marijuana. Both are national trends Texas should consider joining.

A majority of Americans favor legalization, according to a Gallup poll released in October and a Pew Research Center survey conducted in February. In 1969, when Gallup first asked Americans about legalizing marijuana, the percentage who thought it a good idea barely reached into the double digits. It now stands at 58 percent.

It isn’t necessary to legalize marijuana to regain some sanity reacting to its use. Sixteen states have decriminalized pot, turning possession of a small amount of marijuana into a civil rather than a criminal offense - essentially putting some marijuana violations in the same category as traffic violations. It is unconscionable to imprison someone for using a small amount of marijuana and burden them with a lifelong criminal record.

Then there’s the issue of medical marijuana. Minnesota soon will become the 22nd state to allow the use of marijuana by some cancer patients and others with certain serious and chronic illnesses, and two more states - New York and Florida - could join the list by the end of the year. Texas lawmakers should consider putting the issue before voters as a proposed amendment to the Texas Constitution.

Perhaps the loosening of attitudes regarding marijuana derives from the fact that about half of Americans say they have tried marijuana. That’s a lot of people taking a toke, yet America has not turned into a nation of Cheeches and Chongs, nor have most people who have tried marijuana been led toward trying harder drugs such as heroin.

The Pew report also said two-thirds of people think government should focus more on treating people who use illegal drugs than on punishing them. This response is perhaps a sign of general weariness with the nation’s long war on drugs that has damaged countless lives at great national expense and exploded the federal prison population by almost 800 percent since 1980.

Numerous states, following reforms in Texas, have balked at the cost of building more prisons. They instead have created less expensive alternatives for people convicted of non-trafficking drug offenses and other low-level, nonviolent crimes. Counties nationwide have operated drug diversion courts for years - Travis County created its drug court in 1993 - to move qualifying individuals into treatment and social services rather than prison.

These alternatives to incarceration thus far have proved successful state-based experiments in reshaping criminal justice. And the success or failure of state-based experiments with legalization in Colorado and Washington could determine the future of marijuana legalization.

The federal government has shown signs the past few years of following the states’ lead and realigning its front against marijuana. In 2009, the Obama administration said it would leave users and sellers of medical marijuana alone as long as they followed their state’s laws, and last year the administration announced it would stand aside so Colorado and Washington could enact voter-approved measures allowing retail marijuana sales.

Further, bipartisan legislation pending in Congress would restore some of the sentencing flexibility federal judges lost in the 1980s. And the farm bill signed into law this year by President Barack Obama allows states to set up pilot programs for growing hemp, a sober relative of marijuana that fell victim to one of the drug war’s peak hysterias.

To be clear, marijuana is not harmless. Supporters of legalization like to say marijuana is no worse than alcohol, and most Americans seem to agree with that view. In the Pew survey, most Americans said alcohol would be more harmful to an individual’s health and to society than marijuana if marijuana were legal.

But like alcohol, marijuana can be abused and can damage a user’s future and health. While its legal sale would earn tax revenue, it’s possible the amount collected in sales taxes wouldn’t cover the costs associated with its use. The economic cost of alcohol abuse in terms of health care and lost productivity is tremendous. Marijuana legalization could prove equally expensive.

Yet we bear the costs associated with alcohol, so asking what the difference is with marijuana is a fair question, especially when we know how damaging the alternative - criminalization - has been. It’s easy to treat marijuana as a big joke, but it’s a serious issue. We would welcome the arrival of its debate in Texas.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram. May 26, 2014.

Obama’s pick of Castro could be very good for HUD and the nation, if …

President Barack Obama, following in the footsteps of President Bill Clinton 20 years ago, picked a young Hispanic mayor of San Antonio to become the next secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Like Henry Cisneros, who was selected by Clinton in 1993 as HUD secretary, three-term San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro is a rising star in the Democratic Party who, if confirmed by the Senate, will be one of the highest-ranking Hispanics in the federal government.

He will replace HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, whom Obama will name to head the White House Office of Management and Budget.

There’s little doubt that Castro, whose twin brother Joaquin is a member of Congress, was chosen for the position because of his overall star-power and his particular appeal to a major part of the Democratic base. His being tapped to give the keynote speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention was a major part of his carefully orchestrated advancement.

Castro’s back story of being raised by a single mother and then going on to graduate with honors from Stanford and earn a law degree from Harvard doesn’t hurt the political narrative that surely will be used in some of the mid-term elections this year, including helping to get out the Latino vote for Democrats in Texas.

The politics no doubt will help his party, but what can/will Castro do for the gigantic HUD agency and the people it was designed to serve?

The San Antonio mayor, who when elected was the youngest of any mayor among the nation’s 50 largest cities, has put together an impressive résumé besides his education, demonstrating determination, vision and compassion, all attributes that would be beneficial in serving a complex department like HUD.

He has fought to revitalize San Antonio’s urban core by attracting inner-city investment and creating more affordable housing units there.

Two years ago, in a bold and unprecedented move, he called on San Antonio voters to approve expanding high-quality universal pre-K programs to thousands of 4-year-olds. The measure passed.

HUD, created in 1965 as part of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” program, was designed to provide sustainable affordable housing for millions of Americans who were living in substandard conditions.

The agency has gone through several incarnations over the years, from trying to maintain over-crowded, underfunded and mismanaged giant urban “projects” to community redevelopment that included demolishing “ghettos” to relocating public housing residents in private developments with Section 8 funding.

Cisneros, before leaving office because of personal indiscretions, was crucial in helping to transform HUD during the 1990s, and Castro can certainly learn from some of his initiatives.

Obama’s choice for HUD secretary is a young, smart, capable leader who could bring some much-needed new energy and new ideas to the oversized, cumbersome agency.

That is something Castro can do, if he concentrates more on the needs of HUD than he does his own political career and the increasing demands of the Democratic Party.

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San Angelo Standard-Times. May 18, 2014.

Let’s put brakes on naming buildings after politicians

We mean no disrespect to our 33rd president, Harry S. Truman, who is belatedly but gratifyingly getting the respect he deserves as one of our most effective and decisive presidents.

Two influential Missouri lawmakers, Sens. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, and Roy Blount, a Republican, propose renaming Washington, D.C.’s 117-year-old Union Station after Truman, an honor which Truman himself, who believed modesty was a signature virtue, probably would have declined.

The classical, statue-bedecked station was called “Union” because it united the Pennsylvania and Baltimore and Ohio railroads under one roof, enabling the removal of their former stations and tracks that, along with the removal of slaughterhouses and a red light district, enabled the creation of one of the capital’s true glories, the National Mall.

During World War II, the station handled as many as 200,000 people a day, many of them members of the military coming home on leave but, more often, headed to training camps or duty in the European or Pacific theaters.

With the decline of rail traffic, the station became an object lesson in bad ideas and cost overruns when it was decided to convert it into a visitors’ center for the vast crowds expected to materialize for the 1976 Bicentennial, but which, because of scare stories about the anticipated vast crowds, never materialized.

The building began to deteriorate badly and was close to derelict when the Reagan administration had the brilliant idea of converting it back to a railroad station. Today, it is a hub for Amtrak, local commuter trains, the capital subway, intercity buses and a thriving collection of shops and restaurants. It is universally known, as it has been for more than a century, as Union Station.

Only a truly savvy cabdriver would know that the State Department is technically in the Truman Building and, despite publicity efforts, the White House annex known as the Eisenhower Building is still known as the Old Executive Office Building, the “EOB” as locals call it.

The name Reagan National Airport has stuck as a fading reminder of the time he fired all the air traffic controllers, and there is a Reagan federal building, although many people felt that the third largest federal building - and at the time the most expensive - was an odd way to honor a small-government conservative.

Meanwhile, George Mason, Founding Father and driving force behind the Bill of Rights, has, as a relatively recent afterthought, an obscure and largely unremarked memorial.

If public buildings in Washington must be named after politicians, even the good ones, it might be wise to have an interval of, say, 50 years pass to allow for a decent historical assessment.

To paraphrase the blunt-spoken Truman, the buck on naming the capital’s popular public buildings and institutions after presidents should stop here.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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