- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Houston Chronicle. April 16, 2016.

Budget stress: Ryan misses the budget deadline while long-term unsustainability looms.

It may sound like a Republican stress dream, but yes, Paul Ryan missed his tax day deadline.

No, the Republican speaker of the House didn’t forget to mail in his 1040A or click “send” on TurboTax. Rather, he missed the statutory April 15 deadline for the House of Representatives to adopt an annual budget resolution.

Why? In true horror fashion, the threatening calls are coming from inside the House - fellow Republicans have slashed Ryan’s hopes for reform.

Specifically, the House Freedom Caucus refuses to agree to any Republican budget that would ever earn the president’s signature.

This forces Ryan down one of two scary paths: Shut down the government until Obama gives in or strike a deal to get Democratic help in passing a budget.

We know how this story plays out. Last year, rather than risk a fiscal crisis, former speaker John Boehner passed a two-year budget deal with Democratic support. That compromise cost Boehner his job.

While Ryan struggles to find some third way out, the nation’s overall budget is still set on an unsustainable path. Debt isn’t a problem today, but routine deficits won’t be sustainable if interest rates begin to climb. The biggest challenge is controlling entitlement spending as Baby Boomers begin to retire.

There are plenty of opportunities to improve the two biggest federal entitlement programs - Medicare and Social Security - that we believe deserve serious consideration.

Medicare: While growth of Medicare spending has slowed in recent years, the old-age health insurance program’s 14 percent slice of the federal budget is expected to spike soon. Ryan has previously proposed switching over to a voucher program, but sweeping, radical changes like that are hard to pull off and often have unpredictable results. Instead, two small tweaks could help put Medicare on a more stable path.

First, allow Medicare to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for more affordable prescription drugs. Unlike Medicaid and the Veterans Health Administration, Medicare cannot use its purchasing cloud to get discounts, leading the program to pay on average 73 percent more than Medicaid and 80 percent more than the VHA for name-brand drugs.

Second, change Medicare’s “any willing provider” provision, which prevents the program from imposing minimum standards for doctors, hospitals or pharmacies. This change would free Medicare to prioritize the most efficient providers and model the private sector when it comes to controlling costs.

Social Security: This program, which represents nearly 25 percent of the federal budget, will have its trust fund exhausted by 2037. At that point, incoming taxes will only be able to cover about 76 percent of benefits.

The president’s 2010 budget commission made many recommendations to address this problem, including raising the retirement age. However, lifting that bar unfairly burdens the poor, who die younger and rely on Social Security the most. Instead, we could narrow the gap by raising the payroll tax cap. Right now, people don’t pay Social Security taxes on earnings above $118,500. Treating the wealthy just like everyone else will help put this federal retirement program on a more sustainable path.

The federal budget may be daunting, but the thing about numbers is that they do what they’re told. Speaker Ryan, on the other hand, has to wrangle a political system that’s anything but obedient. We wish him luck.

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Longview News-Journal. April 16, 2016.

Voters knew Paxton, Miller were skunks before the primaries

On several occasions, we have groused about two state officeholders who have spent their terms being utter embarrassments to Texas.

They are not the first state officials of either party to embarrass our state and will not be the last. But there are issues with Attorney General Ken Paxton and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller that go well beyond the norm of incompetent officeholders.

One big difference: In other instances, candidates have successfully hidden their damaging attributes until they were elected, then unleashed their embarrassing incompetence on an unfortunate state.

Not so with these two. In these cases, the electorate bears outsized responsibility.

Texas voters knew full well they were electing two dysfunctional men to top statewide offices. All the evidence needed was on the table at the time of the Republican primaries.

More disappointing is the fact there were solid Republican candidates running against them, true conservatives with solid credentials, who were not likely to be indicted or facing investigations by the Texas Rangers.

That did not seem to matter. Republican voters - followed by the populace at large - went on to elect these two to office.

Just to review, Paxton now faces state and federal charges that he played fast and loose with regulations governing the sale of securities. He did not actually sell anything, but guided clients to an affiliated broker with his recommendations. That’s legal as long as you tell the buyer you will be paid if the sale goes through, but Paxton didn’t utter a peep.

All of this and more was known about him before the primary election. Paxton won anyway.

It was not quite so clear with Miller before the primary. All voters had was a pattern of behavior. One of those questionable moves was that rocker Ted Nugent was Miller’s campaign treasurer and was fully backing him. Nugent’s presence is not just a red flag, it should be considered a fireworks display of warning.

It did not take long for Miller to prove out this fact.

After campaigning on the usual non-specific baloney of cutting waste and reducing taxes, once elected he declared his office was under-funded and demanded another $50 million from taxpayers. Later, he looked to fatten its coffers by raising fees for a range of services it provides - despite arguing for years and during the campaign that they were too high. He increased salaries and hired cronies.

But wait, there’s more. Miller has twice tried to get the state to pay for purely personal trips he has taken. He has since paid the money back - but only after being caught with his hand in the till. Miller’s actions are so fishy even Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has said an investigation is warranted. The Texas Rangers are obliging.

We can blame Paxton and Miller all we want, but we knew they were skunks and still cuddled them in our laps.

They were elected because they said particular words some wanted to hear, words that - amazingly - led many to believe they were purebred conservatives.

The voters are to blame for not looking beyond the paper-thin veneer to see the obvious truth.

We will pay for this lack of attention with bad government from these two important agencies. We hope it teaches Texas voters to take more care before casting a ballot but fear it will not. In fact, it appears clear warning signs are being ignored in the current race for the State Board of Education seat that represents Northeast Texas.

Mary Lou Bruner won the most votes in the District 9 primary and heads into next month’s runoff as the apparent front-runner despite a history of making statements that, at best, illustrate a failing grasp on reality.

It has been said that in a democracy the people get the government they deserve. That seems a harsh judgment in these cases, but it is all too true.

___

Waco Tribune-Herald. April 14, 2016.

Texas Ag Commissioner Sid Miller further evidence of voter irresponsibility

Any historian taking stock of state officials now in the spotlight for obvious ethical failings might be tempted to place them under the category of “Politicians Behaving Badly.” We file them under the category of “Voters Behaving Badly.”

While we’ve already focused on legal and ethical problems dogging state Attorney General Ken Paxton, favored by Republican voters over two far more upstanding Republican candidates in the 2014 Republican primary election despite a state securities violation, questions also are mounting around state Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, another Republican whose behavior ought to raise howls of outrage from the tea-party vanguard and state Republican leadership. Instead … silence.

The diligent Houston Chronicle furnished evidence indicating Miller, arguably the most colorful of our elected state officials, purchased flights to and from Mississippi with an agriculture department credit card so that he could compete in a rodeo. He explained that while he intended to vie in rodeo competition, he also sought to set up meetings with agricultural officials while there. The meetings never happened, but he reportedly won $880 roping calves.

Another Chronicle investigation indicates Miller charged taxpayers more than $1,120 so he could fly to Oklahoma and meet with agricultural officials - except again no meeting occurred. The evidence suggests Miller was there to receive a “Jesus shot” from a convicted felon for pain relief incurred by rodeo injuries.

In case it’s not apparent, the Miller MO seems to involve traveling to events for personal gain and setting up “official” meetings so he can claim he was on business and soak state taxpayers. This is the same guy who after campaigning as a “fiscal hawk” in 2014 gave out $413,700 in bonuses to his staff in 2015. Ironically, he was handing out bonuses while trying to increase state fees for farmers. Nice guy.

This is yet another example of Republican voters not doing their homework. During the 2014 primary, the Trib met at least two far more qualified Republican candidates - J Allen Carnes, an actual farmer (imagine that!) and Eric Opiela, whose vast knowledge of water issues could have been useful given that, whatever the cause, our climate is getting hotter by the year.

Yet here in McLennan County, home of the Texas Farm Bureau, voters overwhelmingly cast ballots for Miller, whose agricultural experience alongside Opiela and Carnes is meager. In a five-way race, Miller, a former state lawmaker who campaigned as a “world champion cowboy,” garnered 40 percent of the vote locally, 35 percent statewide and then won a runoff election. The Texas Rangers are now investigating Miller’s travels, but ultimately, many of us have only ourselves to blame for this latest state fiasco.

___

The Dallas Morning News. April 18, 2016.

Another Baylor football player’s sex-crime arrest raises tough questions

The arrest of one more recent Baylor University football player makes it tougher to look past the key commonalities.

Sam Ukwuachu and now Shawn Oakman were players booted from other top-level college programs but welcomed as transfer scholarship athletes at Baylor. Like other conferences, the Big 12 has taken steps to tighten the rules around giving such second chances, yet it’s not clear whether even the new regulations would have kept either athlete off the Waco campus.

What undeniably connects the Baylor cases is the potential weakness in any rule, no matter how tough: Can a university’s administration and students trust their athletic department to properly vet the young people it hands scholarships?

At Baylor, the world’s largest Baptist university, that’s very much in doubt, unless there’s another way to measure three sexual assault arrests in three years.

The Ukwuachu case is especially troubling. Taken at his word, football coach Art Briles did not know the specific infraction that led Boise State to cut ties with Ukwuachu, a Pearland native. Briles has said he learned only of a “rocky relationship” with a girlfriend, not that Ukwuachu allegedly struck her.

Baylor officials poorly handled the accusation against Ukwuachu, who was held to account and convicted only after McLennan County prosecutors stepped in.

Before Ukwuachu there was Tevin Elliott. He was convicted and sent to prison, but only after the university also failed to respond appropriately to his accusers. Combined with the Ukwuachu case, it led Baylor to enhance its Title IX compliance efforts.

Oakman appeared headed to the NFL draft before his arrest last week on a sexual assault charge, accused by a woman he met in a bar near campus. He has denied the allegation and said any sex was consensual. Before Baylor, he was booted from the Penn State program for shoplifting a sandwich and grabbing a clerk who tried to stop him.

The most damning threads run toward a Baylor coaching staff charged with attracting top-flight football talent and bringing out their best. Oh, and with providing at least enough guidance to keep the program out of Waco’s daily crime report.

Briles and his staff have performed exceptionally well at the first part. Long a doormat, Baylor’s fortunes turned due north in 2010, Briles’ third season. His teams have finished the last six seasons in bowls, won 32 of 39 games the last three seasons, and rank with legitimate national championship contenders.

Other programs face the same pressures to recruit and win, and manage to do so without driving so much business to the local criminal defense bar. Baylor alumni and fans have to ask whether their cost-benefit ratio has gone awry. Zero tolerance isn’t the answer, but what if that accuser were your daughter?

Amid all the revenue and adulation, even the winningest programs must be reminded that they are subsets of their universities, not the other way around.

___

The Brownsville Herald. April 17, 2016.

Play safe

The well-known quip that high school football is a religion in Texas isn’t too far off base; major movies and television series have been based on the passions and pressures surrounding Texas teams.

Many story lines show how injuries to key players can affect teammates, families and entire communities. Such issues are popular because they’re real, and their effects can be devastating - and lasting. And recent research is opening windows that show the cumulative effects of repetitive injuries.

Concussions and the brain damage they can cause have drawn great attention in recent years. The American Academy of Neurology this week is releasing a report that reveals more than 40 percent of retired professional football players show signs of brain injury caused by repetitive blows to the head.

Parents and coaches should pay attention to such reports, and especially any recommendations that are made regarding changes to equipment and playing techniques.

But such concerns shouldn’t be limited to football, especially in the Rio Grande Valley, where soccer arguably is just as popular, as evidenced by the advancement of three Valley teams - Lopez, Porter and Progreso - to the state championship tournament.

Studies on soccer players show that “heading” the ball can cause concussions but can injure the brain even if no single strike provokes symptoms of concussion. MRI scans show changes in the brain from such repetitive blows, and those changes can manifest themselves in impaired memory, planning ability and visual perception. They also can lead to anxiety and depression.

In response, sports and health care organizations are working to raise awareness about the risks involved in these sports, and calling for changes in practicing and playing.

The U.S. Soccer Federation last year announced rules changes that include an outright ban of headers by players ages 10 and under, and reduction of headers in practice for those ages 11 to 13, as brains still are developing at those ages. The Concussion Legacy Foundation is lobbying to raise the age further.

No one is suggesting that children should stop playing any of these sports. However, parents and especially coaches should strive to monitor news on the risks associated with these or any sports, and strive to provide all players with adequate protection and teach them the safest techniques.

Such steps can help maximize the enjoyment of the sport, while minimizing the risks.

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