- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 1, 2014

San Antonio Express-News. March 31, 2014.

Education better but Texas still in cellar

Judge John Dietz is expected to decide in May whether Texas’ funding of public schools is inadequate and, therefore, unconstitutional. In a preliminary ruling last year, the state district judge ruled against the state but wanted to hear arguments about whether increased two-year funding in 2013 changed that.

New figures released recently by the National Education Association will do nothing to dissuade the view that Texas still falls woefully short.

Texas no longer ranks 49th nationally in per-pupil funding among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. It is 46th, but its funding is still $464 less than it was in the 2010-11 school year. Moreover, what it spends on average per student - $8,998 - is well below the national average of $11,674.

Texas spent more only than Arizona, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Utah. Even our usual cellar mate on other indicators, Mississippi, spends more, $9,048 per pupil.

Texas upped teacher salaries, improving its ranking from 38th to 35th. But its $49,270 average - up $450 - is still well below the national average of $56,689.

The judge considering Texas funding will also have to consider how fast the second most populous state is growing. A lot and it is also No. 2 in the nation in the percentage of its population of school age - 27.1 percent.

Texas’ official response to the funding dilemma is to point to higher graduation rates and testing gains, particularly among minority students.

But other measures point to only middling performance among the states in graduation. And attrition - a comparison of ninth graders and how they fared four years later - shows considerable room for improvement.

Texas had an attrition rate of 25 percent statewide, according to the San Antonio-based Intercultural Development Research Association. Black and Latino students were two times more likely to leave school without graduating than white students.

The state response has been a gantlet of testing - de-emphasized in the last legislative session - and denial that funding plays as big a role as critics contend.

Judge Dietz will decide.

But it never should have come to this - school districts at ground zero having to resort to a lawsuit, again, to tell the state what’s so very obvious.

Yes, spending has to be smart. But there is nothing smart about insisting that a half-full - if that - glass is brimming over.


The Dallas Morning News. March 30, 2014.

Religious freedom is a personal freedom, not an employer choice

It is hard to imagine anyone, from conservative to liberal, who would want their employer’s religious beliefs imposed on their workforce or insurance coverage. Religious freedom is a personal freedom, not an employer choice.

For that reason, the U.S. Supreme Court should reject Hobby Lobby’s claim that providing employees with certain contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act violates the company’s religious liberty. It doesn’t. A firm run by executives with deep religious convictions is not the same as a church or religious nonprofit organization.

The owners of Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby and Pennsylvania-based Conestoga Wood Specialties are challenging the health care act’s requirement that their firms offer insurance covering drugs and devices that they contend end human life after conception. While the firms’ owners don’t oppose all contraceptives, they say covering such drugs and devices forces them to violate their religious beliefs against taking a human life.

The deep-seated personal convictions of Hobby Lobby’s executives and Conestoga’s Mennonite owners are not in question. What is at issue is whether a private, profit-making business can dictate religious beliefs on employees, a point Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg zeroed in on during oral arguments in the case last month. Sotomayor bluntly asked, “How does a corporation exercise religion?” Kagan then said corporations might claim religious objections to laws banning sexual discrimination, child labor, minimum wage and family leave.

They’re right. Extending the religious rights of individuals to corporations that don’t have an explicit religious mission would have unintended, far-reaching consequences on both secular and religious freedoms. For example, what makes a craft chain like Hobby Lobby different from a tech company or a bank, whose bosses have deep religious convictions but otherwise operate as a secular firm? Based on an owner’s leanings, some companies might deny coverage for vaccinations and blood transfusions on religious grounds, holding employees hostage to management’s personal beliefs and depriving employees of choice. With all due respect, these decisions are best left up to each employee and their own conscience.

Two years ago, another dispute arose over Affordable Care Act mandates requiring the Catholic Church and other religious institutions to include birth control in health coverage plans. This newspaper urged the federal government to find a way to acknowledge the unique religious missions of those institutions while making sure their employees have access to insurance coverage, even if by a third party. Our guiding principle was fairness and balance, the same principle we think the court should apply in the Hobby Lobby case.

Individuals have long cited religious reasons for opposing all sorts of laws, and the courts have worked through cases very carefully to preserve balance. Extending conscientious objector status to secular corporations would be a mistake. Religious freedom is an individual right, and the justices should affirm this principle.


Austin American-Statesman. April 1, 2014.

Execution drug transparency needed

The writing of another chapter in Texas’ troubled history with the death penalty is underway, and is being shaped by questions about the state’s supply of lethal injection drugs and the right of the public to know what is being used in its name.

Last week, State District Court Judge Suzanne Covington in Austin delivered a limited victory for transparency and the rights of defendants when she ordered the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to tell the attorneys of two death row inmates the source of the new supply of pentobarbital it plans to use in upcoming lethal injections. The state had argued secrecy was needed to protect the safety of the maker of the pentobarbital; Covington did not order the state to publicly disclose the supplier’s name.

The next morning a three-judge panel of the 3rd Texas Court of Appeals rightly upheld Covington’s ruling. That afternoon, however, the Texas Supreme Court stopped Covington’s order from taking effect until justices could study the issue further.

Courts and defense attorneys must be able to assess whether the execution drug the state uses meets state and federal standards and doesn’t violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban of cruel and unusual punishment. Further, the Texas attorney general’s office previously has ruled that prison officials must publicly disclose information about the lethal injection drugs they use, as required by Texas’ open record laws. The arguments in the case should favor disclosure.

This latest death penalty debate began a couple of years ago when major drug manufacturers based in countries that oppose the death penalty stopped selling the drugs Texas used in a three-drug “cocktail” to execute condemned inmates. Texas prison officials were forced to seek an alternative drug protocol and settled on a single dose of pentobarbital bought from a compounding pharmacy, which can make drugs on a small scale to order.

Last month, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice announced it had bought pentobarbital from a new supplier that would allow it to carry out death sentences past April 1, when the state’s existing supply expired. State officials refused to say where they had bought the drugs, however, claiming threats against previous drug providers required the information be kept secret.

Attorneys for Ramiro Hernandez-Llanas and Tommy Lynn Sells argue they need the information to properly defend their clients. Hernandez-Llanas is scheduled to die this week for beating a Kerrville-area ranch owner to death in 1997. Sells cut the throats of two girls in 1999 near Del Rio, killing one of the girls. His execution is set for next week.

Other states that still carry out the death penalty also found their supplies of lethal injection drugs running short when drug companies began refusing to sell them and, like Texas, developed new execution protocols and turned to compounding pharmacies to provide the lethal injection drugs they need. The purity of drugs from compounding pharmacies is a concern, and Ohio and Oklahoma are two states that have experienced complications with executions using alternative drugs.

Other states also passed laws allowing information about the lethal injection drugs they use to be kept secret. An Oklahoma judge ruled March 26 that the state’s secrecy law violated the Oklahoma constitution by making it almost impossible for courts to determine whether an execution protocol is lawful. The judge’s decision is limited to Oklahoma, but its constitutional argument could be broadened to apply nationally.

Questions about the constitutionality of the new lethal injection protocols have grown to the point where officials in several states - but in not Texas, officials here say - are talking about possibly bringing back the electric chair or even the gas chamber. Lethal injection became the preferred method of execution in most states after the U.S. Supreme Court lifted its moratorium on the death penalty in 1976 because it was considered more humane than other execution methods.

Also at issue is the regulation of compounding pharmacies. Conflicting laws and court decisions have created confusion about the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s authority over such pharmacies, which became front-page news in 2012 when infections linked to tainted medication bought from a Massachusetts pharmacy killed 53 people. Last year, more than a dozen patients in Corpus Christi were sickened by contaminated medication obtained from a compounding pharmacy.

Given the need to honor constitutional protections and transparency, we see no compelling reason why the state shouldn’t reveal information about its supply of pentobarbital.


Beaumont Enterprise. March 29, 2014.

Texas hotels need easy 911 access

It seems like a given: You’re in a hotel room and suddenly have a serious medical emergency, so you pick up the room phone and dial 911. It ought to be that way, of course, but in many hotels it isn’t.

The killing of Kari Hunt Dunn in a Marshall hotel last year brought this tragic issue to light.

Her estranged husband stabbed her to death in her motel bathroom during a visit with her and their three children.

Their 9-year-old daughter tried to call 911 on the room phone four times but couldn’t get through. The girl then ran into a hallway and found someone who could call 911.

The problem here is that some hotels require guests to dial 9 before getting an outside number or require them to call the front desk first.

That’s too much delay for some emergencies. State law should require all hotels to address this very preventable problem.


Houston Chronicle. April 1, 2014.

High-speed rail hopes: Cautious optimism for Texas rail

An obsolete locomotive sits at the center of Houston’s city seal. It is a reminder that our city once sat at the crossroads of dozens of different rail lines, bringing commerce and trade at a time when a heavy rain would turn roads into mud pits. Traffic has replaced thunderstorms as the greatest threat to passable roads, while high-speed rail now stands in for locomotives in the statewide transit dreams of Texas’ leaders and politicians.

It all feels a bit back to the future.

The rise of the automobile and modern highways liberated folks from the fixed routes of a rail system. There is something undeniably American about the open road, but ideals of freedom and individuality lose their luster in bumper-to-bumper traffic. It is hard to feel like a great American gadabout when you’re just one of 50,000 folks making the same weekly commute between Houston and Dallas. If you think that four-hour drive along Interstate 45 is bad now, the Texas Department of Transportation expects growing traffic to drag driving time to six and a half hours by 2035.

The proposed Texas Central High-Speed Railway promises to make that trip in under two hours - all funded with private dollars. So the mayors of Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth have thrown their weight behind this alternative to the usual commuter routes.

Still, isn’t there something outdated about rail? Of course, some environmentalist would say the same about Texas’ oil and gas industry. Ours is a state that builds on the past, using technology to bring new life to long-standing industry. Like fracking techniques resurrecting once-abandoned oil fields, high-speed bullet trains can make Texas rail a reality. Any plans will certainly face questions of land acquisition, safety concerns and government regulation - though the private funding should help avoid the usual political fights. But at a time when traffic threatens our state’s commerce and quality of life, perhaps that obsolete locomotive isn’t so much a relic as a nod to the future.

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