- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Aug. 1, 2016.

Regulations need review after balloon crash

No one expects a leisurely Saturday morning pastime to result in horrific tragedy, especially when that activity is subject to standards set by the Federal Aviation Administration - the agency that regulates all airborne craft.

But for 16 people and their families, the unthinkable occurred when one such aircraft, a hot air balloon, hit a power line early Saturday, caught fire and crashed in Caldwell County south of Austin, killing all on board, including 15 passengers and the operator.

Most of us assume that balloon rides carry limited risk, a feeling the statistics appear to support.

According to the Balloon Federation of America, as many as half a million people ride in hot air balloons each year in the U.S., and only a relative few number of launches result in accidents.

Between 1964 and 2016, the National Transportation Safety Board investigated about 800 incidents, 71 involving fatalities.

But last weekend’s crash - the most deadly involving a hot air balloon in U.S. history - has raised important questions about the level of safety requirements for hot air balloon operators.

According to Deborah Hersman, former NTSB chairwoman, a series of balloon crashes, several of them deadly, prompted the board to send the FAA a letter in 2014 that urged the agency to address “operational deficiencies” in the industry.

One proposed safety upgrade would have required that balloon operators be subject to the same requirements as commercial plane and helicopter operators, such as maintaining a letter of authorization, which would improve oversight by periodic surveillance checks to ensure flights are being conducted properly.

Hersman told CNN during an interview Saturday that the FAA did not adopt the suggested safety measures, and instead argued that the measures would not result in significantly greater operational safety.

Federal rules already require commercial operators to have their balloons inspected annually or after every 100 hours of operations, causing some in the industry to wonder what more they could do to improve the safety of their craft.

NTSB investigators are still trying to determine the cause of this weekend’s tragic crash; weather conditions or pilot error are often to blame and are the likely causes in this case.

It’s unclear if enhanced regulations, such as those proposed in Hersman’s letter, would have prevented Saturday’s deadly incident.

But in the wake of an aviation tragedy of this scale, a review of existing standards and further consideration of those suggested by the NTSB seems to be a worthy and much-needed exercise.

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Waco Tribune-Herald. Aug. 2, 2016.

Federal lawmakers headed for the exits, leaving Zika threat to us all unaddressed

While Trib Q&As; with candidates running for high office last winter revealed little inclination toward compromise on the always hot issue of abortion, Republicans touting pro-life agendas might attract more of a following if their actions mirrored their talk. Excellent case in point: Failure by Republican leadership in Congress to approve funding to fight the mosquito-borne Zika virus before taking the rest of the summer off.

Do these people realize when mosquitoes are most active? Do they care?

So much for bold vows by Republican lawmakers that they had the maturity and resolve to demonstrate leadership when they assumed control of both houses of Congress in January 2015. Examples abound where they’ve failed miserably, but this latest example should embarrass anyone who claims the Republican Party is a pro-life party.

Reports indicate a baby was born with microcephaly in Harris County last month and thus became the first Zika-infected infant in Texas. And while the mother was apparently bitten in South America, yet other reports in Florida indicate that more than a dozen people have now been bitten by homegrown mosquitoes also carrying the feared Zika virus.

Should any of us be concerned? Medical experts say different folks react different ways to the virus, with some showing few if any symptoms. The real danger is to pregnant women who, once bitten, can give birth to deformed, brain-damaged babies. For any pro-life lawmaker, this should be a call to arms in terms of commitment to public welfare above all else.

So how did the Republican-led Congress handle it? Somewhere in the sausage-making process of forging legislation to fund not only state efforts to battle the mosquitoes but also to fund a vaccine, Democrats and Republicans got into a battle over such things as whether to restrict display of the Confederate battle flag in federal cemeteries. This is an example of why more and more people distrust Congress: a bipartisan bill crafted in the spirit of compromise and clearly benefiting all Americans is undone by controversial riders that promptly render an entire bill unacceptable.

Yes, one can blame short-sighted Democrats for derailing this bill, given provisions such as the Stars and Bars rider and yet another wounding of Obamacare. But the Republicans hammering the bill into final form also decided to insert just enough “poison pills” into the process to compel Democrats to refuse it. Surely mature party leaders on both sides could have agreed to stand-alone bills regarding controversial matters unrelated to the Zika virus - especially given the high risk to the unborn.

The irony of this from a cynically political perspective: Those most likely to suffer from the Zika virus live throughout the South - the very heart of the Republican Party’s constituency.

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The Dallas Morning News. Aug. 2, 2016.

We applaud judicial smackdowns of Jim Crow-era hurdles for voters

A trio of court rulings Friday rang out a strong message across the nation: Enough with the cruel tricks that attempt to restrict Americans’ constitutional right to vote.

The decisions came just nine days after an appeals court cut out the heart of Texas’ voter ID law, ruling July 20 that it violates federal statutes prohibiting electoral discrimination and must be amended before the November election.

The groundswell of judicial opposition to the GOP-led trend of restrictive voting laws is illustrated by these three most recent decisions:

- A federal judge in Wisconsin ruled that parts of several voting-related laws were unconstitutional. He went on to order that the state make photo IDs more accessible and broaden the types of acceptable student IDs. Thrown out were rules that had extended residency requirements, restricted polling place hours and prohibited the distribution of absentee ballots.

“The evidence in this case casts doubt on the notion that voter ID laws foster integrity and confidence. The Wisconsin experience demonstrates that a preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud leads to real incidents of disenfranchisement, which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections, particularly in minority communities.

- U.S. District Judge James Peterson

- A state court in Kansas ruled that the state must count the votes cast by individuals who registered without providing citizenship documents. The decision came almost on the eve of the state’s primary election today.

- In the most significant of the three rulings, a federal appeals court in North Carolina scrapped requirements that voting-rights advocates have characterized as reeking of the Jim Crow era. The judicial panel agreed, describing the restrictions as enacted with “discriminatory intent” and targeting African-Americans “with almost surgical precision.” The ruling overturned the need for photo IDs at polls, restored early voting and reinstated the ability to register on Election Day.

“In many ways, the challenged provisions in (the North Carolina law) constitute solutions in search of a problem. The only clear factor linking these various ‘reforms’ is their impact on African-American voters.”

- Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, writing on behalf of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit

As was the case in Texas, Republican legislators were behind the wheel in securing the original voting restrictions in Wisconsin, Kansas and North Carolina.

In all four states, the evidence shows that the problem the laws were designed to fix — identity fraud in the voting booth — was virtually nonexistent.

Yet in each statehouse, lawmakers wrongheadedly continue to claim they are on the right side of a fight to root out fraud and tamper-proof the system. What they actually are on the side of is disenfranchising the poor and minorities at the ballot box — as well as suppressing the votes of college students and the elderly.

In the words of U.S. District Judge James Peterson, “To put it bluntly, Wisconsin’s strict version of voter ID law is a cure worse than the disease.”

Depending on whom you talk to, these judicial rulings are: A. ironclad or B. likely to be overturned on appeal.

We have no crystal ball. But we do have hope that, with the presidential election less than 100 days away, the courts will continue to tip in favor of protecting the voting rights of Americans, not unfairly limiting them.

___

Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Aug. 1, 2016.

Campus carry is here and still a loaded question

It’s difficult to imagine any of the college-educated among our Founding Fathers dragging their dueling pistols or muskets to class - or that they intended their militia service-inspired Second Amendment to encompass institutions of higher learning.

It’s also difficult to imagine them being so tactless as to schedule Day One of a law allowing campus carry on Aug. 1, 2106, the 50th anniversary of the University of Texas tower shooting, in which Charles Whitman killed 17 people before being killed by police. The Legislature’s timing appears to have been happenstance. But any day on the calendar is the anniversary of someone’s death by gun violence.

True believers in campus carry would consider Monday’s tower anniversary fitting. By their way of thinking, the new campus carry law could deter or end a campus shooting incident abruptly and heroically. In the Whitman incident, which predated Texas’ concealed-carry law, concealable handguns would have been useless to those on the ground. A few civilians returned fire with hunting rifles they had fetched, and it served the purpose of pinning Whitman and limiting his shooting. But it also endangered the three men who crept into the tower and stopped him.

Truth be told, the Whitman incident offers little in the way of argument for or against the new law. If it was designed to stop that sequence of events, its drafters did a poor job. Campus carry allows individuals age 21 and older to carry concealed handguns on the specific parts of a state university campus where the university decides they’re allowed, under the specific circumstances allowed, if the carriers are licensed.

The age limit alone disqualifies many freshmen, sophomores and juniors. This should be a relief to those who worry whether students are mature enough to handle the responsibility.

But it’s of little solace to those who believe, as do we and many administrators and faculty, that college is no place for guns unless the people bearing arms are with law enforcement. The Legislature knew better than to try to force campus carry onto private universities, and it’s noteworthy that all but one opted to remain gun-free zones. That includes a lot of small-town schools run by gun-friendly religious conservatives.

State schools appear to have come up with regulations as commonsense as the law would allow. Texas A&M; University-Corpus Christi was in the enviable position of leaving the decision to allow guns in dorms to the private operators of A&M-CC;’s on- and off-campus student housing. The result is gun-free on- and off-campus housing. A&M-CC; also bans guns from fitness centers, sporting events and disciplinary hearings. A&M-Kingsville; came up with similar rules except for allowing guns in dorms.

During the campus carry debate, opponents warned that the presence of guns in a classroom could restrict the free flow of ideas in the learning environment. We suspect that professors and students will speak their minds and that those who carry will do what they’re trained to do - 1) conceal well enough that no one knows they’re packing, and 2) keep it that way except in the unlikely event of imminent threat of physical harm. Gyms, dorms and sporting events are much more likely venues for lovers’ quarrels and other emotional confrontations that the presence of firearms could make worse.

Considering that student and faculty groups overwhelmingly opposed campus carry, and that guns are an unlikely expense for cash-strapped students to indulge, probably only a near-negligible minority will carry guns. So, all practicalities considered, the law’s worst-case scenario of an angry or unstable student drawing and using a legally carried gun is a near-negligible risk. No matter how negligible, it’s still a lot more likely than the unicorn-like best-case scenario of an armed on-campus citizen saving the day.

But enough about highly unlikely occurrences. Let’s talk about a much more likely threat - the mere presence of more loaded guns. They increase the odds of a lethal outcome. Whether one believes that guns kill people, or people do, ceases to matter to victims of fatal gunshots. The threat of that outcome increased as of Monday. By how much remains to be seen.

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San Antonio Express-News. July 27, 2016.

Trump’s statement on hacking - simply dangerous

In inviting a foreign power to hack and release emails from Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump has crossed a line that even his nativist, isolationist, sexist and racist statements to date had not come close to approaching.

He essentially stated outright approval for cyberattack by a rival foreign power, Russia.

Starting the controversy were emails shared between top Democratic National Committee officials, released by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, that present a damning portrait of DNC leadership, notably U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

In response, she resigned as head of the DNC.

The documents have already roiled domestic politics. But Trump’s statement injects another element.

The content of the now infamous DNC emails in this political season has overshadowed the real, more dangerous issue - that Russia was the source of the leaks on the eve of the party’s convention. If true, this would represent an intolerable intrusion into American elections by a foreign power.

And that seems perfectly OK with Trump.

“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said Wednesday. “I think you will be rewarded mightily by our press.”

He is referring to emails that Clinton said were personal and that she did not produce for an FBI investigation into her use of a private server while she was secretary of state.

Trump is seeking to channel GOP frustration with the failure of the Justice Department to criminally prosecute Clinton for her use of the private server.

The FBI director recommended against prosecution, noting there was no criminal intent while making clear that her actions were careless and shouldn’t have happened.

We agree on all those points and still find Trump’s invitation for a rival foreign power to intrude on U.S. elections as far more careless.

His statement indicates a temperament, lack of judgment and mindset that will be dangerous to U.S. interests if he were ever to become president.

In the emails released so far, DNC officials clearly show favoritism to Clinton. In the documents, party officials openly dismiss Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who pushed Clinton in a bruising and long campaign.

The emails also show officials conspiring about how to use Sanders’ religious views against him in Southern states, a particularly disgusting tactic.

The DNC is supposed to be neutral in a primary fight, but with Wasserman Schultz that appears to be a facade.

It should go without saying, but voters and candidates deserve an impartial primary process, and while many of these emails were sent after the Democratic primary was, for all intents and purposes, settled, it has understandably strengthened the belief among Sanders supporters that they were hindered by the party.

These emails were highly troubling revelations as a matter of domestic politics. They are not, in and of themselves, however, a matter of national security. Who did the hacking is.

Consensus grows that Russia hacked DNC - and, possibly, Clinton - emails.

Trump has dismissed notions that Russia was behind the hacking. He essentially labeled it conspiracy theory - this coming from a conspiracy theorist on the president’s birthplace and on Clinton’s role in the death of a presidential aide, and his linking of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s father to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

The Republican National Convention told Americans to be very afraid. Trump elaborated on a dystopian view of the country - which has been present throughout his campaign - as a dark and dangerous place.

He said he alone can save the nation.

This view is at odds with the facts, but now he has interjected another fact. There is plenty of cause to be very afraid should he get elected.

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