- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Austin American-Statesman. Jan. 30, 2015.

Abbott, Patrick need to speak up to protect Muslim, divergent views

The atmosphere at the Texas Capitol these days is more akin to the Wild West than a state that markets itself as a model for the rest of the country.

Legislators have been in town for less than a month and already the state has had to appoint law enforcement protection for state Rep. Poncho Nevarez (D-Eagle Pass) and his family after a tense exchange with open-carry gun advocates. And just last week, freshman Rep. Molly White, R-Belton, made national headlines for leaving instructions with her staff for Muslim visitors to be required to say the Pledge of Allegiance or be ejected from her Capitol office.

The political issues are different, but the tactics are the same. Rather than civil discourse, this session has begun with a disturbing dose of political and religious bullying.

Both episodes are spillover from rallies held on the Capitol grounds - an open carry gun rally on the session’s opening day and counter-protests to Texas Muslim Capitol Day, a biennial event held by the Texas chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. While we support the public’s right to assemble and express their views on the Capitol steps, we do not condone the incivility that is quickly becoming a hallmark of this Legislative session and are concerned that both the lieutenant governor and governor seem reticent to clarify what is acceptable inside the Texas Capitol and who is welcome there.

Abbott only chose to weigh in while responding to reporters’ questions after a speech later at the Texas Veterans of Foreign Wars convention. “In Texas, we must have civil discourse as we debate issues, and Texas values are strong enough that we can have open debate where people have the freedom to discuss issues,” he said.

We concur with the sentiment about free expression. However, it is also the role of our elected leaders to ensure that all Texans, not just some, are confident that they have access to the Capitol and their elected representatives.

One of the buzzwords of the last campaign cycle was “leadership.” Well, leadership is about more than filing bills and holding news conferences. It is about recognizing that elected leadership makes you responsible and responsive for all Texans - not just those who voted for you or share the same faith.

That message needs to be that bullying and intimidation of minorities - political, ethnic or religious - will not be tolerated inside the Texas Capitol. Threats of violence or threats of exclusion and humiliation should not be accepted with silence by our elected public servants.

After the controversy surrounding White surfaced, the national office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations asked House Speaker Joe Straus to comment on whether White’s actions infringed on minority access to elected representatives.

The email from the group raises the important question: “Are House members prohibited from making constituents take oaths before meeting with their elected representatives or house staff?”

Straus responded with a pointed response:

“The Texas Capitol belongs to all the people of this state, and legislators have a responsibility to treat all visitors just as we expect to be treated - with dignity and respect. Anything else reflects poorly on the entire body and distracts from the very important work in front of us.”

Allegiance oaths are best left in the history books as relics of our past, reminders of what can happen when suspicions and bigotry overwhelm common sense and decency.

Over the course of American history, Catholics, Jews, German and Japanese Americans have all felt the oppression and discrimination that comes from not being considered “trusted” or part of the “true” America. In fact, despite the fact that the U.S. Constitution was signed by two Catholics, test oaths were required for office holders in many of the states to screen out Catholics and Jews well into the 1800s, with the last one removed off the North Carolina law books in 1868.

It still took until 1960 before this country managed to push aside political suspicion about papal allegiances to elect John F. Kennedy as president. And six years into President Obama’s presidency there is still an unseemly taint in the whispers that he “might” be a Muslim, as if being an American and Muslim are somehow mutually exclusive.

The truth is that since 9/11 the Muslim faith has in some ill-informed corners of our state and nation become inaccurately conflated with being a terrorist organization. That sentiment is reflected in White’s Facebook comments: “I do not apologize for my comments. . if you love America, obey our laws and condemn Islamic terrorism, then I embrace you as a fellow American. If not, then I do not.”

Equally disturbing are the threats of violence against those lawmakers who don’t support certain expansions of gun laws. The threats against Nevarez and his family included racial epithets. Nevarez even noted that he was concerned about the safety of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick after he answered honestly about not having the votes in the Senate to advance on open carry legislation.

This too has a worrisome echo of years past, notably during the civil rights movement, when lawmakers considered voting their conscience to undo the wrongs of Jim Crow. It takes leadership to silence those echoes - and that is what is needed now.

Texans need to be sure that their government - even if ideologically different - takes seriously the call to represent all of its constituents and the need to govern openly without fear of reprisals.

Let’s not turn back the clock.

___

Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Jan. 29, 2015.

The law’s the law; no ex-governor should be above it

Funny how the news reports that a judge declined to toss the charges against criminal defendant Rick Perry focused on how it would affect his presidential campaign. The unassailable logic of the judge’s decision last week received scant attention.

We aren’t lawyers, but we could have pointed out for free what District Judge Bert Richardson pointed out, at the state wage he is paid, to Perry’s overpriced legal team: It’s not Richardson’s place as the trial judge to determine whether the law that Perry is accused of having violated deserves to be a law. That’s for higher courts to decide.

So, rather than focus on how the case will affect candidate Perry’s ability to raise funds, perhaps more attention should be paid to why expensive lawyers would assail the constitutionality of the law at the trial court level, where surely they knew that their argument was moot. As a delay tactic? To run up billable hours? In hopes that Richardson would buckle under pressure and let politics rather than law guide him?

They got two out of three, and that’s bad. They wasted the people’s court’s time and their client’s money. A swift trial, to which Perry was entitled, would have been done by now.

Voters might view acquittal as exoneration, but dismissal would be a different matter. Dismissal, which Perry’s team will continue to seek, would leave the question of guilt forever unanswered. Theoretically, a conviction should be the least of Perry’s worries, since he professes certainty and confidence that what he did was legal.

Oops, we prattled this far without explaining what he did:

Perry was governor for 14 years. Now his most official title is criminal defendant. He earned it by trying to coerce the Travis County district attorney into resigning by threatening to veto funding for the Public Integrity Unit in Travis County, which prosecutes corruption in state government. She refused to resign, so Perry followed through.

His cover story for demanding her resignation was that she had been convicted of drunken driving. He had every right to bully-pulpit her, but what he did instead was use his veto power to shrink the state’s primary apparatus for investigating state-level corruption. He was indicted on charges of abuse of official power and corruption of a public servant.

From Day 1 the news accounts have pointed out that Travis County, where Republican Perry was indicted, is Democratic and Judge Richardson is Republican. Perry also has claimed consistently that he was just using his state constitutional line-item veto power and exercising his U.S. constitutional right to free speech.

But those legal rights can be exercised illegally. Consider all the wrong things that can be shouted in a crowded theater - or traded for a veto or non-veto. The judge and grand jury showed nothing but apolitical respect for the law in determining that enough evidence of a crime existed to prosecute.

If only Perry’s successor, Gov. Greg Abbott, had shown the same respect. Abbott issued a statement that it is “outrageous and inappropriate” that a governor would face prosecution for exercising veto authority.

Abbott’s statement was another shout in the crowded theater. He’s a former Texas Supreme Court justice and district judge. He of all people should know better than to show public disrespect for a judge’s ruling in a pending criminal matter. His commentary prompted the liberal Lone Star Project to question whether he would pardon Perry if Perry were convicted. “It’s not a premature or academic question,” the group said, and we agree. The Lone Star Project also pointed out that the state parole board, which would review a Perry conviction if Abbott sought to pardon him, would consist entirely of Perry and Abbott appointees.

So, while those news reports should have paid more attention to the legal issues, we can understand why they didn’t. The judge was faithful to the law but the apparatus is in place to catapult Perry above it. That shouldn’t be allowed.

___

Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Jan. 31, 2015.

Abbott scuttles a state incentive fund

When it comes to red-meat conservative issues like taxes and border security, it’s fair to assume Gov. Greg Abbott will not differ greatly from his predecessor.

But while Abbott’s tenure may not prompt a sea change in public policy, the new governor is already illustrating his willingness to buck the status quo.

Last week, he announced his plan to scuttle the Emerging Technology Fund, a pricey incentive program started by Gov. Rick Perry.

If the Legislature agrees, half of the fund’s $136 million balance would be allotted to the Governor’s University Research Initiative to be used to recruit Nobel laureates and distinguished faculty; the other half would go into to the Texas Enterprise Fund.

The ETF - primarily designed to attract and retain start-ups and tech firms - can claim moderate success. It has awarded more than $400 million to support scores of start-ups since its creation in 2005.

But it also drew criticism for poor management, transparency and oversight. In 2011, the State Auditor found the fund had lost millions of taxpayer dollars on poor investments and called for sweeping changes.

An interim report issued in January by the House Select Committee formed to review incentive programs was less critical but still recommended that the program be restructured to improve its functionality.

Ending the program altogether is probably the best solution.

A secondary goal of the ETF was to help recruit talented researchers to Texas universities, and according to the Select Committee’s report, it brought more than 60 such academics to Texas.

It’s fitting that Abbott’s plan preserves this element of the program, particularly given his commitment to improving higher education.

Handing half of the remaining cash to the Enterprise Fund is more circumspect, particularly given that program’s equally lamentable record of troubling audits and mismanagement.

Abbott has indicated his desire to reform all state incentive funds. One down, several to go.

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Houston Chronicle. Jan. 30, 2015.

Keystone vote: A Republican Senate moves forward with a healthy debate on the Keystone XL pipeline

Something amazing happened in the U.S. Senate last week: a vote to approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The pipeline itself isn’t the awe-inspiring part. At this point, the pipeline’s value as a political wedge has eclipsed its role as a piece of oil and gas infrastructure. It was simply impressive, after years of gridlock, that the Senate was able to hold a full-throated debate, amendment process and vote. The new, Republican-controlled Senate has already held more votes on amendments than the Democratic-controlled Senate considered in all of 2014. The so-called “Party of No” has changed its tune, bringing back the sort of political horse-trading that makes a diverse representative government work.

Bipartisan amendments to encourage energy-efficient construction and jobs passed successfully, showing that senators were willing to take reducing demand alongside increasing production as a key to domestic energy security.

Other amendments attempted to thread the needle of a divided Senate. While senators overwhelmingly approved a “sense of the Senate” amendment stating that all oil companies should be required to pay a tax dedicated to oil-spill cleanup, they failed to pass an amendment that actually would have changed the tax code to do just that. Even when politicians agree in theory, it is still difficult to change policy in fact.

This attitude of open debate would be a healthy change for our nation’s capital. Plenty of politicians are already pushing on bipartisan issues that don’t fall along party lines. For example, criminal justice reform has become a personal project for U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who has worked to build a libertarian-liberal coalition to change bad laws that do more to harm communities than to keep society safe.

Despite the good feelings, the bipartisan votes in the House and Senate to permit the TransCanada Corp. pipeline won’t be enough to override a veto from President Obama. Four more Democratic votes in the Senate and dozens more in the House would be necessary to reach a veto-proof majority.

We hope it won’t come to that. Our nation is crisscrossed with thousands of miles of pipelines, which remain the safest way to move oil and gas. Last week’s surge in oil prices served as a reminder that the recent plunge in crude is more of a political creation than a natural development, and soon the world markets will again be thirsty for the Canadian crude that the Keystone will ship to Houston-area refineries. And in the long run, the United States should be working to build a North American energy alliance with Canada and Mexico, rather than erecting barriers against our neighbors.

Blocking Keystone may be an easy way for Obama to appease an environmental base, but our nation’s energy policy should be dictated by more than political optics.

___

The Dallas Morning News. Feb. 1, 2015.

Measles outbreak could have been prevented

Your child has a cough, runny nose, sore throat and a high fever. The symptoms point to a cold. Then white spots appear in the mouth and red spots on the face, and your family pediatrician says its measles. Distressed, you say, “I thought measles were a thing of the past.”

Measles were a thing of the past in the United States, just like polio, which destroyed many lives until Jonas Salk in the early 1950s discovered a vaccine. Measles also were fought vigorously back then because the consequences were so deadly.

Before measles vaccines became commonplace in the early 1960s, an estimated 3 million to 4 million Americans a year contracted measles, and 400 to 500 died. Survivors often suffered blindness, deafness and neurological disabilities. Measles were not taken lightly; people wanted a vaccine because too many families suffered too much.

That’s why the resurgence of measles and other preventable illnesses is so distressing. Parents who miss scheduled inoculations or believe the myth that vaccines cause autism are erasing decades of medical progress and putting us all at risk. How misguided, dangerous and selfish is that when history shows us a safe vaccine is available? The measles outbreak at Disneyland last month should sound an alarm that vaccinations aren’t optional.

The latest measles outbreak has spread toward the 100 mark across several states in just a matter of weeks. Children are in isolation wards, and experts expect more cases as those infected with the highly contagious illness, spread through the air, come into contact with others who have skipped vaccinations. Arizona is monitoring nearly 1,000 people for possible measles exposure, and hospitals in the state are asking those who may have been exposed not to go doctors’ offices, emergency rooms or urgent care clinics to minimize further exposures.

The irony is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared measles eradicated in the United States in 2000. In 2001, there were about 100 measles cases nationally; last year there were 644 in 27 states, including Texas. Infections are certain to surpass last year’s total and cost millions of dollars in health care. Vaccinations could have prevented this hard-to-control spread.

Opposition to vaccines is turning back the clock to a time we should never want to see again, and it’s not just measles staging a comeback. In 2012, whooping cough cases in the United States were the worst since 1955. There were nearly 50,000 reported cases and 20 deaths, most of them babies younger than 3 months old. Do we really want to return to those dark, desperate days?

Getting vaccinated is a responsibility, not a choice. Get your children vaccinated.

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