- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Jan. 7, 2014.

Accountability on border security: Lawmakers must get beyond the political theater and support true, effective enforcement measures

With border security being one of the top issues of Texas political leaders, it is no surprise that Gov. Rick Perry has favored adding more drones to the arsenal already in use to help stop illegal crossings from Mexico.

Since the summer, Texas has had a surge of National Guard troops, Department of Public Safety personnel and even game wardens assigned to patrol the state’s southern border - all at an enormous price for taxpayers.

Considering the findings of the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general regarding the border drone program that has been in place for about 10 years, it is time to re-examine, if not totally reconsider, that project as well as some of the state initiatives.



The unmanned aircraft assigned to U.S. Customs and Border Protection are underused, largely ineffective and very expensive, costing $12,255 per flight hour, according to the federal audit released Tuesday.

In addition, the audit found that less than one-tenth of 1 percent of border-crossing apprehensions in Texas was attributed to surveillance by the pilotless drones, The Washington Post reported.

Although one high-ranking Customs and Border Protection official took issue with the report - particularly the part about plans to double the fleet in a $443-million expansion - it is obvious that the program deserves a closer look.

The same is true of expensive border security operations requested or unilaterally undertaken by the state. After an influx of unaccompanied children from Central America illegally crossed the border into Texas last spring and summer, the governor called for more law enforcement agents to be sent to border towns, which he felt were vulnerable to foreign drug criminals and terrorists.

By the end of November, at least $500 million had been spent on the operation, and that month the Legislative Budget Board approved allocating $86 million more to fund parts of the surge through August.

The problem is that it has been extremely difficult to measure the operation’s effectiveness. Some argue that the show of force alone is a deterrent to immigrants crossing the border illegally. But how do you quantify that claim?

There’s little doubt that some of the decisions about the border made last summer were politically motivated and were calculated attempts to ridicule the Obama administration’s immigration policy.

The federal government’s handling of immigration is ripe for criticism, but the state’s efforts also must not go unchallenged.

It will be important that lawmakers in the new legislative session carefully study the border security efforts, determining their effectiveness and whether they justify the cost.

When accountability is expected from every office of state government, it should be no less so when it comes to border security.

Popular opinion demands a more secure border, but it also demands the wisest possible spending of taxpayer money.

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Longview News-Journal. Jan. 1, 2015.

Legislature must first fix financing for our public schools

Gov.-elect Greg Abbott has set exactly the right tone by saying his focus as the leader of our state will be public education.

That’s just what the Legislature should be thinking about when it goes into session, because public education in Texas is in a near-crisis mostly due to what happened two sessions earlier.

Then, it seemed as if Gov. Rick Perry and the prevailing forces in the Legislature were out to get public education by slashing billions of dollars from the budget. This was at a time Texas was the fastest-growing state in the nation, with increasing numbers of students entering the public education system. Cutting the budget in the face of that reality was an irresponsible move, and Texas has reaped the damaging effects.

Not the least of those damages has been the court ruling that the school finance system set in place by that Legislature is unconstitutional. Despite attempts to correct that by restoring some funding in the next session, the system is still unconstitutional. The case will soon go before the Texas Supreme Court.

But that doesn’t have to happen. This Legislature could fix the system without court interference. All that’s needed is a bit of political will and courage among lawmakers to buck those on the far-right political fringe.

If the Legislature took control and passed a new, fair and adequate financing system, the court ruling would become moot, which is the outcome we’d like to see.

This should be the first priority of this Legislature. Fortunately, some lawmakers already have filed bills to move in that direction. Unfortunately, those bills have not been filed by those from the inner circles of power, which means they may well be passed over until the end of the session. Time will tell.

We often hear from politicians that children are society’s most important asset, then see them working to make education weaker. Now is the time for those people to step up and meet their obligations by fairly and adequately funding education in Texas.

The Legislature also must protect taxpayers and school districts from the idea of transferring money from public education to vouchers, which would give funds to those who send their children to schools outside the system.

We have no problem with private schools or home schooling but the state should not be involved in paying for either of those, and certainly not at the expense of the public school system.

Other education matters likely to arise include:

- Prekindergarten: The state funds half-day prekindergarten classes only for certain at-risk students. Abbott has expressed support for some expansion. We’d like to see more, but any expansion of these important programs is a move in the right direction.

- Higher education: Unlike public school finance, the state is under no constitutional obligation to equally fund institutions of higher learning and it doesn’t. Junior colleges have faced continuing tightened budgets for years while the big systems like the University of Texas and Texas A&M get the lion’s share. A more equitable formula should be found to support these institutions so important to our state’s future.

- Tuition control: Several bills have been filed to stop increases in tuition at state colleges, which has been growing out of control for years. However, tuition control has to be directly tied to state funding. One cannot exist without the other. Lawmakers can’t squeeze higher education funding and remove higher education’s ability to raise revenue through tuition.

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Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Jan. 6, 2015.

Texas must find ways to eat more from hand it bites

There once was an economist, Alfred E. Kahn, who angered a president, Jimmy Carter, by saying “depression” instead of “recession.” So he tried calling it a banana, which angered the banana industry. So he switched to kumquat.

The late Professor Kahn’s story is germane to Texas political leaders’ aversion to the Medicaid expansion prescribed by “Obamacare.” Really, they’re just haters of Medicaid expansion-in-name-only. Call it something else and they’re there.

That may sound like a bold statement about the state that led the successful red-state campaign for the right to refuse Medicaid expansion. But it’s a bold statement in name only. Recent state history proves that Texas leaders have a huge appetite for federal funding. They gobble it up with the same mouths they use to criticize it, like a child who says “I hate you, Dad,” to the provider of his or her college tuition and rent.

It’s a historic fact. Gov. Rick Perry, Texas’ departing top banana, criticized the federal stimulus at the same time he and the Texas Legislature’s federal stimulus-hating leaders accepted $12.1 billion in federal stimulus money to balance the 2010-11 state budget. Among the things the money covered was Texas’ share of Medicaid expenses. Go figure.

Now, some of Texas’ more pragmatic leaders are looking for a banana-like cover story for getting their mitts on more Medicaid money. Gov.-elect Greg Abbott, the same Greg Abbott who as attorney general won the Supreme Court case allowing states to refuse Medicaid expansion, and other Texas conservatives have expressed an interest in working with federal officials to let Texas do Medicaid Texas-style - with federal money.

They envision a federal block grant that pretty much would offset the $10 billion a year Texas would receive under Medicaid expansion. But they’ve been vague about how it would work.

That’s OK. The federal officials in charge of Medicaid and Medicare are all for flexibility. They just want the result - coverage for the uninsured. They’re like the dad who wants only a report card with passing grades in exchange for his tuition money.

And nowhere in the nation is the health insurance report card worse than in Texas, with nearly a fourth of its population uninsured.

The Associated Press laid out the Texas Medicaid expansion conundrum nicely in a story last week. Among the things AP noted was a recommendation last month by the state Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee to seek a federal waiver giving Texas more flexibility in administering Medicaid - while still not expanding Medicaid. “Waiver” in this usage is just another way of saying funding - which brings us back to our earlier point about refusal of Medicaid expansion being in name only. Texas has a five-year, $30 billion waiver agreement that will expire in September 2016. Federal officials told AP they promise not to use the pending expiration to arm-twist the Texas into doing something it is loath to do.

So, it’s entirely possible for Texas to expand Medicaid without calling it Medicaid expansion. But what, assuming that “banana” is off limits, should it be called?

We considered “cigar,” in recognition of all the cigars from Cuba that embargo-backing U.S. leaders have smoked since 1960. But smoking is unhealthy. And this Medicaid whatchamacallit would improve health and save lives.

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Houston Chronicle. Dec. 31, 2014.

The wrong sight: Lawmakers’ attention should be on schools and jobs, not on bid for open-carry guns

A year that ends with the “assassination” of two New York City police officers by a deranged felon using a pawn shop-purchased pistol and an approaching new year that may bring the triumph of Texas gun zealots in the next legislative session leaves us with a couple of questions:

One, if cardinal tenets of conservatism include respect for hard-earned lessons from the past and a willingness to apply those lessons to the present, why do most Texas conservatives ignore those tenets when it comes to firearms?

Two, among all the good causes available to us - feeding hungry children, protecting the environment, adopting rescue animals, the list could go on and on - why are some Texans so obsessed with devices designed to inflict maximum pain and death?

Those two questions intersected in a recent article in the Chronicle reporting that some Texas lawmakers are eager to get to Austin next month to shoot down restrictions on carrying holstered weapons in plain sight. She pointed out that the state’s restrictions on carrying guns in public are rooted in racism; white Texans in the years immediately following the Civil War were worried about black Texans owning guns - and using them against “guys in the white hoods,” as historian Clayton Cramer put it.

That’s not the whole story, however. During roughly the same period that Texas was enacting gun control measures for nefarious reasons, other locales throughout the West and Southwest were recognizing that sensible gun control was vital for public safety. Dodge City, Kansas, the epitome of the Wild West, was one of them.

During the 1870s and ‘80s, Dodge City was the largest cattle market in the world. The town’s businessmen understood the potential for violence when drunken cowboys - up from Texas, no less - blew into town with three months’ wages to blow. As UCLA law professor Adam Winkler points out, the very first law Dodge City’s municipal government passed was a measure prohibiting anyone from carrying guns in public. Many frontier towns, including Tombstone, Arizona - site of the famous “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” - enacted similar laws.

“We’ve always had a right to bear arms, but we’ve also always had gun control,” Winkler has written. “Even in the Wild West, Americans balanced these two and enacted laws restricting guns in order to promote public safety.”

The Second Amendment purists among us choose to ignore that fact, just as they choose to ignore the fact that every constitutional right we enjoy is hedged with restrictions and qualifications.

Rep. James White, R-Woodville, is one of the lawmakers who pre-filed bills to eliminate the Texas ban on open carry. He also has filed a resolution to remove the Legislature’s power to regulate the wearing of firearms, a provision in the state Constitution since 1869.

“We need to restore these constitutional rights to law-abiding Texans,” White told the Chronicle.

Our question is: Why? What earthly good does it do to have pistol-packing Texans strutting around in public places, their guns at the ready on the off chance they’ll be able to prevent a crime? No one’s talking about taking their guns away. At the same time, no one needs the potential for provocation and lethal mistakes that carrying deadly weapons in the open represents.

White, one of three African-American Republicans in the House, represents one of the poorest legislative districts in the state. Surely the people of his district need their elected representative to be focused on jobs and schools and health care, not the perpetuation of a senseless gun culture.

The frontier has passed from American life - in Dodge City, Kansas, in James White’s Piney Woods region of Texas. Common sense and a decent respect for the sanctity of human life should be paramount, not the proliferation and veneration of machines meant to kill.

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San Antonio Express-News. Dec. 29, 2014.

Build a prison and it’ll be filled

Objections to a 2,400-bed detention center for immigrant families in Dilley deserve attention.

Catholic Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio and others have raised noteworthy concerns. No matter how comfortable the setting is made to be - and we won’t know that full story until after its opening - it will still be a prison.

The facility is designed to hold Central American families who, according to U.S. laws, should be treated more as refugees - and potential winners of what is tantamount to asylum. This should happen if they make “credible-fear” claims - that they will be harmed if they return. They should be given more leeway for bond, release on recognizance or other conditions. That isn’t happening.

If this country’s history with prisons - whether housing immigrants or felons - proves anything, it’s that, if it’s built, it will be filled.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary, Jeh Johnson, in a recent visit to the area, made it quite clear that credible-fear claims won’t matter much for recent arrivals.

“Those who came here illegally in the past, have been here for years, have committed no serious crimes and have become integrated members of American life are not priorities for removal,” Johnson said. “But all those who came here illegally after Jan. 1, 2014 . are now priorities for removal to their home countries.”

So, let’s examine those home countries, conditions there and why these people left. Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala post some of the highest murder rates in the world and are beset both by gangs and conditions approaching dysfunctional law enforcement and government.

Mothers are bringing their children because these gangs, when they are not brutalizing everyone within reach, are forcibly recruiting their sons.

The United States is normalizing relations with Cuba, a country whose residents get preferential treatment on immigration. This essentially amounts to: Get here and you’re in. The argument is that Cubans deserve this because of the level of political repression and lack of certain freedoms. Meanwhile, Central Americans fleeing much more violent environments are seen as just potential deportees.

We understand the United States cannot take in everyone. It can, however, follow its own laws and actively consider legitimate claims to stay. What the opening of the 2,400-bed Dilley detention center indicates is that this doesn’t appear to be happening.

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