- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 2, 2015

San Antonio Express-News. May 28, 2015.

Floods test Texas grit and resolve

A community can be properly judged by how it conducts itself in the midst of normalcy. But how it - and a state - reacts when tragedy strikes is a test as well.

From initial reports following the devastation wrought by deadly and damaging flooding, Wimberley and other communities similarly struck can be said to be exemplary.

Gov. Greg Abbott was quite correct in declaring disaster for Hays and 36 other counties following the flooding. President Barack Obama followed with a national declaration. The loss of life and the devastation to property is a stunning reminder of the power of Mother Nature. And how Wimberley and other county residents have pulled together to help those most affected is a testament to human nature at its best.

On Thursday of last week, people were still missing, among them members of three vacationing families from Corpus Christi. Their vacation home was swept away and slammed into a bridge.

The Blanco River, generally the scene of good summer and spring recreation, rose nearly 44 feet before data measurements stopped, far above its flood stage of 13 feet. The former record was 33 feet set in 1926.

People reportedly floated on mattresses as water rose in their bedrooms. Roughly 70 homes were washed away in Wimberley, about 1,400 battered in Hays County total, according to official estimates.

Emergency personnel - paid and volunteer - immediately gathered to offer help and counseling. Among them were Christy and Tad Degenhart, who gave out hot dogs, chips and water in the parking lot of their hardware store to less fortunate neighbors. And from other reports, the sense of community was pronounced in the two hardest-hit Texas communities, Wimberley and San Marcos.

As the Express-News headline proclaimed last Thursday, the agony is far from over. Following the grim search efforts, the hard-hit areas will face private and public rebuilding jobs that can’t be done overnight. Visiting Wimberley on Wednesday last week, Sen. Ted Cruz called the destruction “unimaginable.”

Unfortunately, the weather pattern that might spell an end to Texas’ drought might also mean the need for more vigilance. We echo Gov. Abbott’s call that people take care for their own safety. More than 20 inches of rain has fallen this month. And from reports, Houston was particularly hard hit, with flooding closing a portion of Interstate 10 and other parts of the city.

The initial signs are good - with authorities using reverse 911 calls to warn of the rising river. But there will be a time soon when it is proper to more accurately judge whether preparedness was keen enough and whether the local, state and federal response was robust enough.

It is this way after every disaster.

For the moment, however, we join others in offering our sympathies for the loss of life and injuries incurred to people and property.

And in the days ahead, the state and federal governments must do their utmost to prepare for what’s coming and in helping communities repair the damage so far to infrastructure and to their homes and livelihoods. Rebuilding will be essential and merits priority status from government officials at all levels. The tragedy must not be compounded by inadequate concentration on the rebuilding process.

And we’re confident that neighbors will continue to do their best to care for neighbors even after the headlines are old. That’s the Texas way.

___

Austin American-Statesman. June 1, 2015.

Relief at legislative session’s end

It wasn’t as bad as it could have been. And with that terse assessment, we sign off on the 84th session of the Texas Legislature.

The session began in January with a new governor and lieutenant governor for the first time in more than a decade, and with Republicans holding a tighter grip than ever on state government while Democrats scrounged for legislative relevance. It entered the history books Monday with conservatives proudly claiming major victories, and with Democrats (and some Republicans) relieved it wasn’t the tea party-led catastrophe they had feared it would be.

As the American-Statesman reported in Sunday’s editions, several analysts see this session as one in which the center-right held against tea party Republicans hoping to tug the Legislature farther to the right. For this reason, many tea party lawmakers - for whom anyone interested in trying to govern is never going to be conservative enough - consider the session a disappointment and already have begun talking about rounding up candidates to challenge Republican incumbents in next year’s party primaries.

Yet, make no mistake: This was a conservative session. To say that the center-right held is as much a statement about how far to the right the political spectrum has shifted in Texas as it is about political moderation asserting itself over reactionary ideologues.

The Legislature passed a $209.4 billion budget for the 2016-17 fiscal years that leaves an available $3 billion unspent. Lawmakers cut taxes by $3.8 billion. They expanded gun rights by allowing licensed handgun carriers to openly carry their holstered guns in public and by legalizing concealed handguns on college campuses, with some tepid limits granted universities.

They increased spending on border security by 70 percent, from $468 million to $800 million. By the time the next session rolls around in 2017, lawmakers will have spent around $1.6 billion over the past several years on boosting border security without knowing whether it’s delivering results. Yet, somehow, this questionable spending is considered a conservative priority.

And attacking local control became a conservative cause this session. Conservatives used to hold local control in high esteem. Now, they see people who come together to decide what is best for them and their communities as threats to liberty, and they sided with the oil and gas industry over voters who might want to limit fracking in their cities and towns.

A question of personalities loomed over the session when it began in January. Like other lawmakers elected on a tea party platform, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick brought to office a brand of conservatism that challenges the traditional definition of what it means to be conservative. Right away, he eliminated the Texas Senate’s two-thirds rule, taking away from Democrats a tool members of the chamber’s minority party have used for decades to temper legislation. Patrick governed without stoking open intraparty opposition to his rule, however, and the session’s tone was set in no small way by the Senate.

The big unknown entering the session was how Gov. Greg Abbott would react, since he was untested legislatively. Except for his broadside against local ordinances, it appears Abbott mostly worked quietly behind the scenes, nudging legislation this way and that. Abbott is more ideologically aligned with Patrick, but he seems to have aligned himself legislatively with House Speaker Joe Straus to keep the session on as even a keel as possible.

This was Straus’ session if it was anyone’s. He led a bipartisan coalition of House Republicans who are less reactionary than many of their conservative colleagues and Democrats who have no other place to go but to stick with Straus and hope for the best. As a result, for example, the 2001 state law that allows some undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities survived Senate attempts to kill it. And the House managed to turn back the Senate’s plan for private school vouchers, which would have left public schools in tatters.

Supporters of public schools can find relief in an additional $1.5 billion set aside for public education above what lawmakers budgeted to cover enrollment growth, though funding levels for about one-third of school districts will remain below where they were in 2011. And the Legislature, prodded by Abbott, increased spending on prekindergarten education by $130 million - though, again, the boost is less than what Texas cut from pre-K in 2011.

Finally, it was a relief when the session-long attempt to prohibit officials from issuing same-sex marriage licenses, no matter how the U.S. Supreme Court rules this month on the issue, ended with a meaningless resolution praising “traditional” marriage. Don’t be surprised if the Legislature’s revanchists continue to attack same-sex marriage no matter the legal landscape two years from now.

But until then, a break, and a chance to absorb further what has been wrought.

___

Longview News-Journal. June 2, 2015.

Lawmakers leaving Austin with little progress to show

If you believe the most vital issues in Texas involve the ability to carry a handgun on your hip or take one with you to a college classroom, then the 84th session of the Texas Legislature was a sure-fire success.

The session wasn’t bad if you hope that someday the state will provide more money for road repair, or if you wanted to double spending on border security, or if you’re happy to see any sort of medical marijuana bill pass.

But if you care about health care, public school financing or ethics reform - two of those three were marked as emergency matters by Gov. Greg Abbott - you’re probably glad the Legislature meets only once every two years. We cannot decide whether inaction is ineptitude or a willful course of action aimed at pandering to the tea party base. Either way, it was painful to watch.

To be fair, individual members of the Legislature, which includes Sen. Kevin Eltife of Tyler and Rep. Chris Paddie of Marshall, did their best to move some of these important issues forward, but they may as well have been trying to rearrange the phases of the moon.

This means the Legislature almost certainly will have to come back to Austin if (when is more likely) the current system for public school finance in Texas is deemed unconstitutional. When it comes to school financing, our Legislature has not been able to move from politics to do the right thing in decades. We will just have to wait and see that one play out. On the brighter side, Abbott succeeded in taking a baby step toward increasing pre-K programs.

On ethics, policies for state government actually got worse, not better. The Legislature passed a bill that says officeholders do not have to report what their spouses are worth. Not only that, but those committing white collar crimes in the Legislature (we know you would be shocked - shocked - to hear of such) will get special treatment like no one else in that their cases will be referred back to prosecutors in their home counties rather than a state ethics unit.

And, of course, lobbyist wining and dining of legislators will continue to happen outside the knowledge of the Texas voters.

Other than a brief flurry of activity early in the session, it doesn’t seem as if the Legislature thought much at all about Texas health care, which definitely was the elephant lurking in the Capitol building. This despite the fact patients and health care providers across the state - including right here in East Texas - are struggling to keep their heads above water.

We don’t begrudge the new gun laws - though campus carry may create more problems than it might solve - it’s just that so many more issues of true importance were left on the table.

Then again, Texans deserve the Legislature they elect and that, we fear, is just what has happened.

___

Fort Worth Star-Telegram. June 1, 2015.

Looking back, lege session was sorta OK

The 2015 regular session of the Texas Legislature is behind us.

Gov. Greg Abbott still has until June 21 to sign or veto bills sent to him. Any that he’s not inclined to sign or veto, he can allow to become law without his signature.

Veto possibilities can be expected to draw a lot of attention until then.

Come Nov. 3, Texans will have the chance to exercise their own approval or veto of six legislative actions in the form of constitutional amendments.

The amendments range from increasing homestead exemptions for school property taxes, the session’s key individual tax breaks, to charitable raffles at sporting events. There’s even one to guarantee Texans’ right to hunt and fish.

And the Legislature could be back in a special session late this year or early next year after the state Supreme Court rules on a package of lawsuits in which an Austin judge declared the public school finance system unconstitutional.

The point is, the 84th Legislature’s main work is over, but it’s not all done quite yet.

If the regular session were to be assigned a symbol, it would have to be a handgun - after high-profile approval of “open carry” and concealed “campus carry” legislation.

For those who aren’t gun enthusiasts, the good news there is that police can still ask someone who’s wearing a gun to show a state-issued permit, and private universities can opt out of allowing guns inside campus buildings.

For the first time since 2006, lawmakers approved funding for new university facilities. And they dedicated money to help recruit top-tier faculty members.

They passed a balanced, controlled-growth budget but left some money unspent that many legislators said should have gone to infrastructure and education needs.

They dedicated more than $800 million to spending on border security.

They bowed low to the oil and gas industry, curtailing cities’ ability to control drilling.

In the rear-view mirror, the session is also notable for things it didn’t do.

A plan to channel business tax revenue to private schools did not pass.

Unfortunately, neither did state regulation of payday lenders nor a ban on texting while driving.

There was a failed attempt to deny in-state tuition to illegal immigrants who graduate from Texas high schools.

The main ethics reform bill, a favorite topic from Gov. Greg Abbott, died in the session’s last days.

In the end, there’s an acceptable balance between what passed and what didn’t.

___

The (McAllen) Monitor. May 31, 2015.

Unalienable rights for U.S. citizens

Filing a lawsuit can be done by anyone through our U.S. court system.

So we take very seriously the notion of someone, or some organization, suing a branch of our state’s government and whether to publicize such a suit - which could be viewed as giving it undue credence.

But in the case of a lawsuit filed last week against the Texas Department of State Health Services by four Valley women who are in this country illegally and who claim their legally born U.S. citizen children are being denied the issuance of birth certificates, we feel compelled to speak up.

Because if there is merit to this case, then the state’s actions are inexcusably unconstitutional.

In a political environment in which protection of the U.S. Constitution is routinely screamed by elected officials as being paramount, the violation of a fundamental right of a U.S. citizen - getting access to documents proving one’s citizenship - would go beyond the pale.

The case involving the Valley women, filed in Austin last week, alleges that during the past six months, all of these women were refused birth certificates for six of their Texas-born children from Texas Vital Statistics, including the McAllen office.

Without a state-issued birth certificate, the women cannot travel, enroll the children in school, or apply for medical assistance or other benefits. “A birth certificate is the primary official confirmation of the parent-child relationship as well as the citizenship of the child born in the U.S.,” the lawsuit contends.

Whether one agrees with how these women arrived in our country and how they have been able to stay here illegally should not be the issue. What is at issue is the notion that regulations set by the state of Texas could be preventing these women - and we’re told possibly hundreds of other families throughout our state - from obtaining documents on behalf of their children who are U.S. citizens - and have a constitutional right to these documents.

Lawyers from the Texas Civil Rights Project and Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid are representing the four women, two of whom are from Hidalgo County and two from Cameron County. The lawsuit states that three of the women presented hospital birth records and all presented forms of identification for their children, such as a foreign photo ID card, called a matricula, which is issued by a foreign consulate. But they were told these are not valid documents accepted by the state for receiving a birth certificate.

The Texas Department of State Health Services’ Vital Records Unit handbook for local registrars says the agency does not accept the matricula.

Acceptable forms of ID include a current voter registration card and unexpired passport.

But most of these women have been in the United States for several years and their passports and voter registration cards are expired. They also all have older Texas-born children who were issued birth certificates by submitting a matricula, the lawsuit says.

Jennifer Harbury, a lawyer with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, says her organization began hearing stories about women and families suddenly denied the issuance of birth certificates late last year. At first, she said they thought it was a few rogue clerks, but she said she has since spoken with state officials and they said this regulation, previously not enforced, is now being enforced.

Why it wasn’t enforced prior to November 2014, as the plaintiff’s lawyers contend, is up for question. It coincides with the timing of President Barack Obama’s controversial immigration executive orders.

But we believe speculation regarding why the change exists is beside the point.

“Clearly the intent here is to deny birth certificates to U.S. citizens to mothers who do not have valid immigration status,” Harbury said during a news conference on Wednesday morning at her Weslaco office.

“You can’t discriminate against children here in the United States based on their parent’s status. You can’t punish a child for what the parent did.”

“The federal government and the 14th Amendment protects the rights of all U.S. citizens,” said Efren Olivares, a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project, based in Alamo.

During a news conference last week, the litigants in this case speculated that their clients may be the victims of politics in light of the ongoing debate over immigration between Republicans and Democrats.

Barring any clear evidence that politics is the motive, we believe it dangerous to speculate on the motive of any statewide policy change.

Instead, we would urge that state officials keep the rights of its citizens in mind.

If the state does not believe in the legitimacy of the matricula, then we believe it incumbent upon the state to figure out what is sufficient proof for them to hand out birth certificates that acknowledges the existence of these undocumented immigrants who have children who are U.S. citizens.

State officials know that illegal immigrants reside within their jurisdiction.

They also know that these immigrants, whatever their status, have children born on this soil, which entitles them to citizenship and all the protections of the U.S. Constitution.

To ignore that these situations exist and to simply deny requests for birth certificates places the state in a position of creating a lesser class of citizen who are not entitled to the full benefits of their birthright.

That is a position that we cannot condone.

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