- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Austin American-Statesman. Dec. 6, 2014.

How effective is border surge? No one knows

A group of Texas lawmakers decided last week to spend tens of millions of additional dollars on border security. Yet again, they diverted money from other state accounts without knowing how well the state’s effort to secure the border is working, and without knowing how to measure the effort’s success or failure.

As the state throws more money at the border - to date, Texas officials have spent more than $800 million on boosting border security - the questions we’ve been asking for years about how to define border security and how to determine when the border is secure become more pressing. And the need to hold lawmakers and state officials accountable for the money they’re spending becomes greater.

How to tell if or when the border is secure was the subject of a hearing last week of the House Select Committee on Fiscal Impact of Texas Border Operations. Measures of border success or failure - metrics, as policymakers like to call them - are desperately needed because experience thus far suggests that officials will consider just about any result on the border a sign of success.

When the number of people caught trying to sneak across the border goes up, for example, or, say, when drug seizures go up, officials will point to the increases as signs their agency’s presence on the border is working. When the number of apprehensions or seizures go down, officials will point to the decreases as signs of success as well - as signs that the presence of additional troopers and troops is serving as a deterrent. The reality of the situation is unclear when it’s not known how to measure it accurately.

The hearing came three days after the Legislative Budget Board, a 10-member panel consisting of five state senators and five state representatives and headed by House Speaker Joe Straus and the soon-to-be-former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, approved $86 million in additional funding for the state’s latest “border surge.” The surge was launched in June when the state increased the Texas Department of Public Safety’s presence on the border in response to a flood of Central American families and unaccompanied minors then streaming into Texas. It was expanded in July when Gov. Rick Perry dispatched up to 1,000 Texas National Guard troops to the border.

The additional money approved last week will allow DPS to hire hundreds more troopers and to maintain its amplified presence on the border through at least August, the end of the state’s fiscal year. It also will quadruple the number of surveillance cameras located on the state’s 1,254-mile border with Mexico to about 5,300. The Texas National Guard, meanwhile, will withdraw in March.

Or they might not. Perry said he would have preferred to keep the National Guard on the border beyond this winter, and Republican state Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston, who takes over next month as lieutenant governor, said he would address the issue of keeping the National Guard on the border longer “immediately upon taking office.”

Not only did Patrick hint at the spending of more money to come, but the border security plan Gov.-elect Greg Abbott pitched during this year’s campaign calls for spending $299 million over two years. Thus it appears more money will follow the $86 million approved last week. It also appears there’s a continued willingness to spend money without knowing whether it’s delivering desired results.

Never mentioned by state leaders, meanwhile, is the fact the federal government has spent billions of additional dollars on border security over the past decade. Ten years ago, according to an American-Statesman report from July, the U.S. Border Patrol spent $1.4 billion annually on securing the country’s borders. Today, the Border Patrol spends about $3.5 billion. In 2004, there were about 9,500 Border Patrol agents along the U.S.-Mexico border; as of last year, there were about 19,000 agents on the border.

Then again, the metric that seems to most concern Perry, Abbott and other Republican leaders is the scoring of political points against President Barack Obama and the federal government.

Attacking Obama topped Abbott’s agenda last week. To start his final month as Texas attorney general, Abbott rallied 16 other states to join him in suing Obama, claiming that the president violated the Constitution when he decided last month to temporarily protect from deportation 5 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

For those keeping score, last week’s lawsuit is the 31st Abbott has filed against either Obama or his administration. The lawsuits have come to define Abbott’s tenure as attorney general.

Last week’s lawsuit might prove to be another waste of time and taxpayer money, but even if it succeeds - which is not what usually happens when Abbott sues the federal government - immigration would remain a problem in search of leadership to address it. But Abbott will have dinged the president. And he can always argue that more needs to be done to secure the border.

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Houston Chronicle. Dec. 4, 2014.

Border splurge: It sounds like the threat posed by drug cartels along the border may be hype.

If you live in Texas, your chance of being a victim of a crime is 1 in 245, according to the website, NeighborhoodScout designed for real estate agents and new homeowners.

NeighborhoodScout gets its data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Its map reflects some safe and less safe counties along the Texas border as well as all over Texas.

The general agreement is the influx of undocumented immigrants across our border has abated. Yet legislative leaders approved a plan last week to spend $86.1 million to hire more than 600 additional Department of Public Safety troopers and to expand surveillance along the Texas borders.

To date, Texas taxpayers have spent more than $800 million on beefed up security even though it is supposed to be a federal role, as reported by the Chronicle.

Why are lawmakers spending so much money on law enforcement along the border? Why not in, say, East Texas? Or Houston could use some money to improve the Harris County Jail.

Legislative officials claim the expenditures are necessary because of criminal activity by Mexican drug cartels. It gave us no confidence to hear from Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, that the term “drug cartel” is outdated and is no longer used by experts in the security field. The crime that is going on in Mexico right now is much more disorganized than the term “drug cartel” implies, according to Payan. And how does this criminal activity affect our border? “There is no evidence that there is a spill-over of violent crime,” states Payan.

It sounds like the threat posed by drug cartels along the border may be hype. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst justified the use of funds, saying the primary responsibility of government is to protect the life and liberty of its people. We agree.

But 106,476 violent crimes were committed around the state of Texas in 2012, according to NeighborhoodScout. Our lawmakers have directed an extraordinary amount of resources to one area of the state without sufficient accountability. At a minimum, elected officials should inform residents of the marginal gain for every additional dollar spent for border security, based on hard data.

Gov. Rick Perry has championed the border security surge as an example of his decisive leadership. It certainly will keep him in the spotlight as he continues a possible presidential run. The number of “drug cartels” the border security surge rounds up is more doubtful.

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The Dallas Morning News. Dec. 4, 2014.

Under Goodell, NFL won’t progress on domestic violence

National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell had a lot to be thankful this past Thanksgiving weekend.

His whopping $35.1 million annual salary. Shamelessly unwavering support from NFL team owners.

And the advantageous timing of an independent arbitrator’s decision to throw out Goodell’s indefinite suspension of running back Ray Rice - on the day when many of us were still in a post-turkey-feast stupor.

Goodell doesn’t deserve to get off that easy … not in the mind of this newspaper, which devotes considerable energy and resources to exposing, examining and trying to end domestic violence.

The arbitrator’s Nov. 28 ruling exposed what we had long suspected. Goodell knew from the start what Rice did in that Atlantic City elevator last February - he cold-cocked fiancee Janay Palmer, sending her crashing, headfirst, into a steel handrail.

Our analysis of the arbitration? Goodell is not the right leader for the NFL if this gigantic, influential sports machine wants to make serious progress in how everyone associated with it treats women.

Goodell initially suspended Rice, then with the Baltimore Ravens, for only two games. After a second, more violent recording of the attack surfaced - and with Americans increasingly aghast and angry - Goodell attempted a do-over and indefinitely suspended Rice.

Former U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones ruled that Goodell’s second punishment was arbitrary and an “abuse of discretion.” After all, she said, Goodell knew the facts when he imposed the first suspension. The NFL commissioner must live with his original sorry decision.

After the release of the second video, the commissioner talked a lot about supposedly ambiguous statements Rice initially made about what happened in that Atlantic City elevator. It sounded like Goodell was blaming Rice for any misunderstanding.

Yet Jones’ ruling concluded that Rice didn’t lie to Goodell, nor try to mislead him.

Rice is now eligible to play again - assuming any team wants to sign him. If Goodell had taken this case seriously when it first came before him, Rice would still be looking for work off the gridiron.

Here’s another example that illustrates how wrongheaded the Goodell-led front office of the NFL proves itself to be when it comes to domestic violence. In arbitration, the NFL tried to argue that it believed Rice only slapped Palmer and that she “knocked herself out” on the railing.

As if slapping a woman - and with such force that she ends up unconscious - is somehow less egregious than hitting her. Or that she’s to blame for the head injury.

What kind of organization would think such a misguided argument makes any sense?

One that seems more worried about slick PR campaigns than fundamental internal change. And one that continues to let the wrong leader call the shots.

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San Antonio Express-News. Dec. 7, 2014.

5th Circuit right about Panetti case

There would have been no justice in killing Scott Panetti. There would have been no deterrence of other, future crimes. No insights into his mind and no last-minute penance.

With so many complex questions surrounding his mental illness and his detachment from reality, an execution would have been nothing more than mindless vengeance, setting a dangerous precedent for the mentally ill accused of serious crimes.

The United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans was right, then, to stay Panetti’s execution, “to allow us to fully consider the late arriving and complex legal questions at issue in this matter,” the court wrote in its order, all of two sentences long.

Panetti, 56, was diagnosed with schizophrenia long before the 1992 murders of his wife’s parents in Fredericksburg with a deer rifle. He was hospitalized 13 times between 1978 and 1991. As early as 1986, he began experiencing paranoid delusions about Satan, once even burying furniture in his backyard. In the early 1990s, failing to take anti-psychotic medications, his condition deteriorated. He would shift into alter egos, including the violent and angry “Sarge Ranahan.”

He inexplicably was allowed to represent himself at his trial, attempting to call 200 subpoenas, including the pope, John F. Kennedy and Jesus Christ. He wore a cowboy costume and a purple bandana. When he recounted the details of the slayings, he assumed his alter ego, “Sarge,” telling the brutal details in third-person.

For years, his case has worked its way through the courts. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed his then-planned execution, saying his competency had not been adequately determined. He was examined the next year by five experts, with three finding he was not competent. But a judge sided with the other two experts.

Clearly, competency needs to be determined. If, in fact, Panetti’s mental illness keeps him from understanding his crimes, and why he is being punished for them, then he should not be executed.

Under the Eighth Amendment, it would be cruel and unusual punishment.

Staying the execution until Panetti’s competency can be determined is the right, humane and just action. Killing him, with so many outstanding legal and moral questions, would have been an indictment of our justice system and a disregard for our greater humanity.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Dec. 4, 2014.

New Railroad Commission rules a good step

The Texas Railroad Commission has given North Texans plenty of reason to be frustrated this year.

In January, a rash of earthquakes shook homes in Parker County, where there are many injection wells used to dispose of waste water from the fracking process. But the commission - the oil and gas industry’s state regulator - was slow to respond to the concerns of residents and reluctant to concede any connection between seismic activity and the wells.

Several months later, a report by the regulator returned inconclusive findings regarding levels of methane - the primary component in natural gas - present in water wells in the county’s Silverado subdivision. But the commission declined any further study.

Then news broke of an agency policy to restrict access to subject-matter experts by members of the media, further exacerbating concerns about transparency in a commission that was rapidly losing public confidence.

In spite of its sometimes disappointing record, the commission has also made some progress this year. It made good on a promise to hire an in-house seismologist in March and tightened rules governing drilling permits in October.

Last week, the commission took another step forward by unanimously approving new rules to modify what pipeline operators must do to become common carriers, a coveted status that gives contractors the power of eminent domain if they are unable to negotiate the right to build on private land.

In the past, operators have been able to declare their pipelines common carriers by checking a box on their one-page application.

The new guidelines require companies to provide additional information about their projects, as well as sworn statements that the information is accurate.

The commission’s staff has 45 days to review the permit and retains the ability to revoke it if it’s found that the pipeline is not being operated within the confines of state laws and regulations.

Applicants must acknowledge the eminent domain provisions in the Texas Landowner’s Bill of Rights, as well.

Some critics are concerned that the rules don’t do enough to protect landowner rights.

Maybe not. But the changes are another step in the right direction.


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