- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Sept. 17, 2014.

Texans deserve to know endgame for border surge

It’s been three months since Texas Department of Public Safety officers “surged” on the southern border.

Absent federal action, the $1.3 million a week plan was an understandable response to the massive influx of Central American migrants into the U.S.

And it was just the beginning. The following month, Gov. Perry ordered 1,000 National Guard troops to support the DPS efforts, an open-ended mission that is costing the state $12 million a month.

But while the state’s border presence has swelled in recent weeks, the flood of migrants that first warranted the escalation appears to be receding.

During a legislative committee meeting two weeks ago, DPS director Col. Steve McCraw reported that his agency apprehended just under 2,000 illegal immigrants in the Rio Grande Valley operation zone during the previous week.

That’s about half of the average weekly apprehensions in July, when DPS officials were stopping about 4,000 individuals each week and the president was still calling the wave of unaccompanied children an “urgent humanitarian situation.” And it is well below the summer high of 6,600 detentions a week.

Still, authorities are detaining more than 8,000 unlawful border-crossers each month, and untold numbers escape detection.

But according to the Houston Chronicle, McCraw has back-peddled on his July claim to lawmakers that reducing unlawful crossings to fewer than 2,000 a week would satisfy the DPS mission’s “intended objective.”

He told the Chronicle that “it just so happens that was a goal we had, but we’re not satisfied until we get 100 percent” of unlawful crossing eliminated.

That’s fine rhetoric, but it’s also an impossible target. Given the hefty price tag of border surge operations - now the exclusive burden of Texas taxpayers - more realistic goals are needed. Or any goals for that matter.

The DPS surge is slated to continue through at least the end of the calendar year; the National Guard’s commitment is indefinite.

Whether the “surge” has contributed to the decline in unlawful border crossings or not, the continued need for such a robust presence on the border needs to be re-examined.

Texans deserve to know what the endgame is.


Waco Tribune-Herald. Sept. 18, 2014.

Abbott ethics complaint against gubernatorial rival Davis is frivolous at best

State Attorney General Greg Abbott is likely to become Texas’ next governor in the Nov. 4 election, but his decision to file an ethics complaint against his opponent for using campaign funds to promote her new autobiography strikes us as beneath the dignity of both his present and possibly future offices. It’s also as hollow as last month’s groundless indictment of Gov. Rick Perry for abuse of what we see as his completely legitimate executive powers.

The complaint claims that state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democrat running a stronger-than-expected campaign for governor (at least given her anemic primary run), violated state law when her campaign paid for her to travel to New York City to plug “Forgetting to Be Afraid” because she personally benefits from sales of the book. The complaint somewhat sheepishly acknowledges she also held a “single, solitary campaign fundraiser” in the Big Apple, describing it as “a small, minor activity on the trip.”

Let’s get real. Lots of politicians put out books, sometimes when they’re in office, sometimes when they’re running for office, sometimes when they’re running for office but haven’t filed the paperwork yet. A few weeks ago, residents welcomed Republican Congressman and possible presidential contender Paul Ryan to Waco to promote his new book, “The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea.” (We even helped promote it.) And Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton’s memoir is out, just ahead of a likely second run for president.

In short, many high-profile candidates these days issue quickly written books to promote their ideas, accomplishments and themselves - books that are just as quickly forgotten after the election, especially if the candidate loses. But either way, they’re more informative campaign material than a mailer, robocall or stump speech. In filing this frivolous ethics complaint, Greg Abbott only raises more questions about the legitimacy of some of the lawsuits he has filed in recent years.


San Antonio Express-News. Sept. 19, 2014.

Time to raise the gas tax

Texas politicians would rather hug porcupines than raise taxes. And that is, unfortunately, one big reason why we have a road-funding crisis.

Texas has not raised the gas tax since 1991 when Gov. Ann Richards was in office.

Since then, the gas tax has remained at 20 cents per gallon. When adjusted for inflation, that’s about 9.2 cents per gallon, state lawmakers have said. If the tax had been indexed to increase with inflation, it would be 43 cents per gallon.

Factor in more fuel-efficient vehicles, and it’s easy to see how the gas tax has not kept up.

Instead, the state has relied on billions and billions in debt to maintain roads. We spend more than a $1 billion a year just financing this debt.

It’s hard to see how that is preferable to raising the gas tax.

State lawmakers should consider raising the gas tax as one step toward improving and maintaining Texas’ roads. Other options include raising registration fees or transferring vehicle sales tax from the general fund to the State Highway Fund.

Even with the likely passage of Proposition 1 this fall, the state’s road situation will remain dire.

Proposition 1 would take part of the state’s oil and gas production tax revenue directed to the state’s rainy day fund and apply it toward transportation needs.

It’s estimated to produce $1.7 billion a year for the State Highway Fund, and it doesn’t raise taxes. Voting yes for Proposition 1 is a no-brainer.

Even still, Texas will need $4 billion to $5 billion more just to keep up. This brings us back to the gas tax. The need to raise it is evident. It makes no sense to avoid raising a tax only to rack up debt.


Austin American-Statesman. Sept. 15, 2014.

Stop failing veterans when they need help most

Earlier this year, a scandal enveloped the Department of Veterans Affairs over how long veterans were having to wait for medical care. Frustratingly and sadly, here we are a few short months later with another report of another failure by the VA to meet the needs of the veterans it’s meant to help.

A recent American-Statesman investigation detailed why an expensive brain-scanning machine sits idle at a Central Texas VA center, and why a research program meant to deepen the understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries has produced nothing after six years.

A familiar script is taking shape in response to Schwartz’s reporting. Congressional anger has produced talk of hearings. There are promises of a fix. There is hope of a turnaround. And there is an uneasy sense that this bit of VA incompetence is another in a cycle that endlessly repeats itself.

Roadside bombs were the signature weapon of the Iraq War, and the traumatic brain injuries they caused were the signature wound to American service members. Post-traumatic stress disorder is the signature psychological wound suffered by American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Pentagon calculates 500,000 service members have been diagnosed with PTSD and/or a traumatic brain injury during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To learn more about PTSD and brain injuries, the military has spent $700 million on brain trauma research since 2007, and the Department of Veterans Affairs has spent $160 million on brain injury research since 2008.

In a Statesman report published Sept. 7, Schwartz revealed that a $3.6 million state-of-the-art mobile brain scanner, acquired to scan the brains of Fort Hood soldiers before and after they deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, has sat unused in Temple for the past three years. VA officials predicted the machine would help lead to the development of new treatments for traumatic brain injury and PTSD when it arrived at the Waco Center of Excellence for Research on Returning War Veterans in 2008.

Instead, mismanagement, bureaucratic in-fighting, the inability to recruit brain-imaging experts and persistent mechanical failures plagued the machine and its program, Schwartz reported. Officials at the Waco center were forced to stop the scanner’s first brain study in 2011. There have been no other studies.

A valuable opportunity to learn how combat changes soldiers’ brains may have been lost forever. Potentially lost, too, is the promise of improved understanding of brain injuries and PTSD, and of improved treatments.

Schwartz’s reporting generated a harsh congressional reaction. Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Flores of Bryan, a member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs whose district includes Waco, said he would consider moving the program from the VA to another agency - the National Institutes of Health, perhaps.

“I just don’t trust the VA on something like this,” Flores told Schwartz. “They have proven themselves not to be worthy of taxpayer funds.”

The VA has hired a new director, Michael Russell, to lead the Waco center, and Russell told Schwartz he has doubled the center’s staff and has hired a neuroimaging expert to oversee the scanning program. Meanwhile, the departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services and Education have come together to develop plans to determine “the neural basis of PTSD and the functional deficits associated” with traumatic brain injury.

We hope the Waco center’s new leadership and a coordinated federal effort to understand and better treat brain injury produce results, but whether they do so remains to be seen. This much is clear, as suggested by the Statesman’s investigation: The $2 billion a year that Veterans Affairs spends on medical research - from brain injuries and PTSD to the development of prosthetics and a range of health projects in between - merits congressional examination.

The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee rightly is pressing the VA to give it information about the Waco center’s performance. Hearings are needed to clarify whether the problems plaguing the Waco center have been resolved and what new research remains possible.

The past decade has seen numerous scandals involving the treatment of veterans: the VA’s use of painkillers, huge backlogs of VA disability claims, shocking conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Even the problems at the Waco center had their origins five years ago, as Schwartz reported, when the VA shut down a brain study program at the University of Texas that failed to scan a single veteran.

We and the agencies we set up to help veterans must stop failing them when it counts most, and when they need us most - when they return home.


Houston Chronicle. Sept. 18, 2014.

Our land: As Texas’ agricultural land becomes scarce, there is a value to preserving farmland

Say in 10 years, you’re driving northwest from Houston. If you look out your window, will you see a sprawl of shopping malls, storage facilities and convenience stores? Or will your eye occasionally rest on green farmland?

Our state is in the process of answering this question right now. In Robertson County, about 120 miles north of Houston, Union Pacific Railroad has already purchased farmland along the Brazos River bottom and is expected to use its eminent domain authority to condemn more for a 1,000-plus-acre proposed facility. A completed rail terminal would bring jobs, but it would also disrupt an area said to be so fertile, that you “could plant a buggy whip in it and grow a tree.”

Eminent domain is the power to take private property for a public use. Union Pacific, a for-profit company, was granted this power because of the public interest in a viable rail system. We all have a stake in improving commerce. After all, on that drive in the country, no one wants to be squeezed in by tractor-trailers. On the other hand, our laws concerning eminent domain were largely developed when farmland was more abundant.

Now, Texas is leading the nation in the loss of agricultural land, according to Mary B. Conner, attorney, and Kathleen Hubbard, chairwoman of the Brazos River Bottom Alliance, the group that is spearheading the effort to stop the rail project. The river alliance claims that the expected condemnations will swallow farms or bisect them, impeding their operations and reducing their economic viability.

Stewardship of the land is a Texas tradition, as is respect for private property rights. Under the federal Clean Water Act, when a developer destroys wetlands, it may have to create new wetlands or mitigate its actions in another way. Now is the time to begin considering how to conserve green space that is preserved through farming.

As agricultural land becomes scarce, there is a public as well as private value to preserving farmland. The Texas Legislature should act to either recalibrate our state’s eminent domain laws or to require reasonable mitigation. Our farm lands are irreplaceable.

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