- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Dallas Morning News. Feb. 28, 2015.

Austin’s tax-cut fever

First pay the bills. Take care of obligations, minimize debt and get current with maintenance.

Every household should operate according to those conservative principles. And so should state government.

But top state leaders have things out of whack with grand promises on tax cuts before lawmakers fully debate the cost of the state’s needs.

Nowhere is tax-cut fever burning hotter than on the foreheads of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott. The governor pledged $4.5 billion in his State of the State address. Not to be outdone, Patrick and Senate leaders upped the ante last month to about $4.6 billion, in business and homeowner tax cuts.

And, Patrick added, “We’re not done yet.”

Problem is, lawmakers are still sorting through priorities and weighing trade-offs in the budget. Coming early in the 2015 lawmaking session, the tax-cut pledges put a lid on the possibilities. Prematurely, we think.

Patrick has been emphatic that bold tax cuts keep faith with voters who handed the GOP slate a mandate last year. Patrick pointed out that three pieces of tax-cut legislation filed in the Senate last month are bipartisan. He was confident that the state’s improved revenue, after years of austerity, will cover overdue needs and allow lawmakers to return money to taxpayers.

Message received, but pardon our skepticism.

Lawmakers are also pushing ambitious initiatives, like a bold - and, we think, overdue - multibillion-dollar plan to boost highway funding. There are promising proposals to either moderately or dramatically boost support for prekindergarten education. Abbott and Senate leaders are asking for unprecedented spending on debatable security measures for the border with Mexico. Lawmakers also face the cost of underfunded public employee pensions and other obligations to retirees.

But there is no serious discussion to fully restore the $5 billion cut from public education four years ago. Lurking just around the corner is a possible court order on overhauling the entire school finance system. Though Texas has perennial low rates of health insurance coverage, the safety net remains an afterthought in the Capitol.

Meanwhile, Austin has badly shortchanged higher education for more than a decade, forcing tuition through the roof. There is no consensus plan in place to reverse that trend. What’s conservative about expecting a generation of college graduates to enter the workforce with a pile of debt?

State boosters are fond of touting the “Texas miracle.” But if Texas wants to remain a magnet for business relocations and career people, leaders must get the basics in place for years to come. Our young people must be well-schooled and trained. Our roads must be modern and passable. We need clean air and adequate water supplies.

These are the state’s fundamentals. They should be Austin’s starting point.

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San Antonio Express-News. March 2, 2015.

Undermining local control in Texas

Gov. Greg Abbott got the ball rolling, which is funny coming from a guy who, as attorney general, routinely decried the tyranny of federal overreach and national government’s alleged meddling with Texas values.

The issue is so-called pre-emption, bills that limit local control. This is what Abbott was encouraging when he warned about Texas being “California-ized.”

“This is being done at the city level with bag bans, fracking bans, tree-cutting bans. We’re forming a patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations that is eroding the Texas model,” he told the Texas Public Policy Foundation recently.

Two bills in particular have emerged that attempt to “de-California-ize” Texas.

Sen. Don Huffines has introduced SB 343, which says, “Unless expressly authorized by state statute, a local government shall not implement an ordinance, rule, or regulation that conflicts with or is more stringent than a state statute or rule regardless of when the state statute or rule takes effect.”

Rep. Rick Miller has introduced HB 1556, which targets so-called non-discrimination ordinances specifically. It says, “A county, municipality or other political subdivision may not adopt or enforce a local law that creates a protected classification or prohibits discrimination on a basis not contained in the laws of this state.”

Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, says Huffines’ bill is far too broad, threatening to turn home rule cities, with charters and broad authority to enact laws not prohibited by the state or federal law, into general law cities, which are restricted to what the state specifically says they can do.

He’s right. The bill essentially renders the term local control into nothingness. Texas municipalities are the governments in direct contact with residents and they are already well aware of what is allowable under the law. Such micromanagement is not a Texas value - or so we’ve heard judging from all those lawsuits filed against the federal government to stop this or that regulation.

Miller’s bill is simply offensive. It seeks to undo rights and protections necessary for Texas’ gay community in particular.

We understand. A “patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations” is not ideal, but these exist because of legislative inaction in many cases.

These bills should never get to the floor for votes. They are un-Texan. Hmm. We wonder if Texas cities should be talking about secession?

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Feb. 27, 2015.

Defining a secure border: Senate panel grapples with a definition that is far from clear

Texas legislators talk so often about securing the border it’s almost a cliché. So is it too much to expect they have a clear sense of what “border security” looks like?

Turns out, it is.

At a state Senate Budget Committee hearing last month, lawmakers inquired how exactly the $815 million allocated for border security efforts in the upper chamber’s biennial budget proposal would be spent.

Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said those details were “intentionally” omitted “to leave it up to the committee’s discretion how we want to do that.”

Fair enough.

But it became apparent as the discussion ensued that no one on the committee - Democrat or Republican - was prepared to supply a definition of what that funding was intended to achieve.

Apparently, they discovered, the Lone Star State doesn’t have a definition of border security.

And that makes it difficult for Texas leaders to measure whether or not it has been achieved and what future level of spending is justified.

Securing the state’s southern border has always been a high-priority issue. In the absence of comprehensive immigration reform from Washington, top Texas officials have felt compelled to take matters into their own hands.

Still, there is increasing frustration among legislators and citizens over rising costs - Texas has spent nearly $1 billion on the Texas-Mexico border since 2008 - and shifting metrics for success.

A Department of Public Safety report obtained by the Houston Chronicle claimed credit for reducing illegal border crossings, which spiked last summer and prompted then-Gov. Rick Perry to order a surge of DPS officers to the border.

The border surge not only cost more than $100 million, it compromised the department’s ability to combat crimes in the state’s interior.

Is that the security Texans are seeking?

Gov. Greg Abbott outlined a plan to hire and send 500 permanent DPS officers to the border over the next several years.

The proposal is one of five “emergency” items on which he’s requested expedited legislative action.

Before the Legislature acts, it should agree on a definition of border security and determine if the plans that have been put forward are the best ways to achieve it.

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Austin American-Statesman. March 2, 2015.

Giving 17-year-olds second chance requires support of Whitmire

When it comes to criminal justice, we certainly respect the wisdom and experience of Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who has spent much of his 30 years in the Texas Senate working on those issues. His leadership on criminal justice matters is recognized on both sides of the aisle. As chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, Whitmire is rare, being one of two Democrats tapped by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to chair a Senate committee.

So when Whitmire voices concern about criminal justice reforms, it must be taken seriously.

That is why we are urging the senator to reconsider his apparent opposition to raising the so-called default age for teenagers entering the adult criminal justice system from 17 to 18. Currently, all convicted 17-year-olds - regardless of their offense - are steered to adult prison. It’s a one-size-fits-all system that is blind to documented facts and current research. And it’s one that is becoming more costly as county jails in Texas comply with the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, which requires youths to be separated by “sight and sound” from inmates 18 and older.

For those and other reasons, this editorial board and several others, including in Houston and San Antonio, have supported legislative reforms. And those changes can’t come soon enough for 17-year-olds who commit misdemeanors.

The Houston Chronicle noted, “In Texas, you have to be 21 to apply for a concealed handgun, 18 to play the lottery and 18 to get a body piercing without a parent’s consent. Yet a nearly century-old Texas law treats a 17-year-old who shoplifts an iPhone as an adult criminal.”

Our January editorial pointed out that the vast majority of crimes committed by 17-year-olds are misdemeanors. We noted the dangers that face them in adult prison:

“Young offenders are five times more likely to be assaulted in adult rather than in juvenile facilities, often in the first 48 hours of incarceration, according to the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.”

Teens in the adult criminal justice system are also 36 percent more likely to commit suicide and 34 percent more likely to be rearrested for a felony than those who stayed in the juvenile justice system, according to Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer with the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.

Legislation proposed by Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, would raise the default age from 17 to 18 but still would give judges discretion to certify 17-year-olds as adults and steer them to adult prison. That might well be warranted for certain felonies and heinous crimes. In other words, the bill rightly would give judges the ability to distinguish between 17-year-olds who mess up and break minor laws and those 17-year-olds who commit serious crimes.

Whitmire’s committee would have to advance Hinojosa’s legislation, something he told the Associated Press is not likely to happen. And that could kill momentum for measures that have garnered bipartisan support in the Legislature and in the community. Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice and Right on Crime at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, supports such reforms, as does the nonpartisan Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

In explaining his opposition, Whitmire told the Associated Press, “I think at age 17, you should know right from wrong.”

We find no argument with that; even those younger than 17 should know right from wrong. Nor should 17-year-olds escape accountability. But the punishment should fit the crime, and a one-size-fits-all approach fails to do that.

In talking to Whitmire, we were encouraged that he wants to continue examining the issue. So his position is not set in stone. But he made clear that addressing the default age is “not my highest priority,” and whatever he does must address the broader issues facing the state’s juvenile justice system.

“I’m just as concerned about the 13-, 14-, and 15-year-olds that will be housed with the 17-year-olds,” Whitmire told us Monday. “There are people abused in our prison system of all ages.”

To his credit, Whitmire is helping to lead sweeping juvenile justice reforms based on encouraging counties to keep more juveniles in county-run treatment programs and secure settings, where lower re-arrest rates have been demonstrated, as the American-Statesman reported last week. Those reforms also would place repeat offenders deemed too violent for county facilities into smaller, state-run centers, also helping to decrease re-arrest rates, among other things.

Ultimately, the plan is to eliminate the five remaining state-run correctional centers in favor of smaller regional facilities that would allow more offenders to be kept closer to home. Whitmire called the state-run correctional centers “very unsafe environments” for juveniles and prison employees, who he said are afraid to go to work because “they’re scared.”

To be sure, that is a priority. But it doesn’t go far enough to give most 17-year-olds who make mistakes the tools to turn around their lives - including sealing their criminal records - and it still puts them in a system that teaches them to be better criminals. The focus needs to shift to making them productive citizens.

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Houston Chronicle. Feb. 26, 2015.

Guns on campus: Sponsors of the so-called campus carry legislation don’t care what the colleges think.

Before his death in 1826, Thomas Jefferson left precise instructions regarding the monument to be erected over his grave, including the epitaph he wanted inscribed: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia.”

On that distant day in the future when two of today’s Texas lawmakers are lovingly laid to rest, they also will be remembered for their association with institutions of higher learning. As sponsors of so-called campus carry legislation, state Sens. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, and Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, will be recognized not for helping to arm young Texans with knowledge, wisdom and understanding but for arming them. With guns.

If their respective monuments on that distant day are large enough - let’s say, the size of the Jefferson Memorial - engravers will be able to record for posterity the armies of opposition that the two Texas lawgivers chose, with Moses-like surety, to ignore: All the parents who were not particularly eager to send their children off to a college campus resembling an armed camp; the state’s college and university administrators, including the newly appointed chancellor of the University of Texas System, Adm. William McRaven (a former Navy SEAL who orchestrated the killing of Osama bin Laden), men and women who well understood that guns on campus were a needless and potentially dangerous distraction; faculty members, who were more than willing to teach about wars and rumors of war without having to worry about real-life reenactments in their classrooms; campus police around the state who knew from experience that guns, alcohol and the volatility of youth can be a dangerous mix; and, of course, the students themselves, “young people who are still grappling with the responsibilities of becoming an adult,” to borrow the words of Texas Woman’s University Chancellor Carine Feyten.

Like stone sentries at Arlington, Creighton and Birdwell were unmoved.

For what does it profit a young man or woman to gain an education, they seemed to be asking in so many words, if he or she gets shot on the way to class and doesn’t have a chance to shoot back? And what about rampant campus rape, some of their campus-carry cohorts asked. Isn’t it better for would-be rapists at fraternity blow-outs to always wonder about that bulge in a coed’s purse? Is it a tube of lipstick? Or a 9 mm Luger?

The lawmakers stood firm, as well, when the state’s colleges and universities complained that campus carry would cost millions in security upgrades - nearly $46 million for the University of Texas and the University of Houston systems combined over six years to update security systems, build gun storage facilities and bolster campus police units, according to fiscal analyses drawn up for the state’s higher education systems. The two lawmakers may be proud conservatives, but they were positively profligate when it came to spending money for their righteous cause, money that likely would be passed on to students or siphoned away from education and research programs.

Retired Army officer Birdwell, usually a quiet type, was uncharacteristically outspoken. “It is patently absurd to suggest that additional security resources would be needed to accommodate faculty, staff or student CHL-holders on Texas campuses,” he said. The stalwart senator knows what he believes, even though documents paint a different picture.

History will record that Birdwell’s blessed assurance came in handy when it could have been so easy for him and his campus-carry compatriot to have been distracted. Both men represented growing, rapidly changing districts. Their constituents urgently needed legislative attention to the roads they drive on, the water they drink, the schools that educate their kids, not to mention health care, tax reform and the environment. Like the little boys they once were, little boys enamored of BB rifles and cap pistols, Birdwell and Creighton stuck to their guns.

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