- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Texas newspapers:

The Monitor. Feb. 12, 2017.

Anyone who has ever sat through Hidalgo County Commissioner’s Court has probably noted this about Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia: He asks a lot of questions. Usually he is calm and non-threatening. And most often, he already knows the answers.

But his signature probing is not only artful courtroom decorum that only a veteran politician can pull off, but to the public and those of us in the media, it has allowed an important element of transparency into Hidalgo County Commissioner’s Court. At times, it’s as if he’s leading us all, like witnesses, to know what issues are of importance, when we should hear an explanation to decipher for ourselves whether a program is warranted, and to witness for ourselves when items are clearly not well-vetted or worthy of taxpayer funds.

He’s done much of this for the past 10 years with a steady gaze, friendly smile and ever controlling hand.

And when Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia steps down at the end of 2018, it will be an end of an era for politics in South Texas as we know it. His style and demeanor will be missed.

Garcia, 68, has told The Monitor that he has decided not to run for a fourth term. He wants time off to mentor to his son, who also is a lawyer, and has recently joined his McAllen law firm.

“I have been given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of welcoming my son, Orlando, to the firm and I look forward to practicing law with him by my side,” Garcia said.

Not having him by our sides every second Tuesday of the month for commissioner’s meetings, will feel odd for courthouse watchers. His departure will undoubtedly upend the staffing of many county agency directors, budgetary priorities and afford an opportunity for a new crop of county leaders to step in and take over.

We commend Garcia for giving notice so early in his term - with 23 months to go - to allow the competitive bidding for his job, which pays a $114,660 annual salary. Names of several candidates already have been bantered about, including former County Judge Eloy Pulido, Hidalgo County Clerk Arturo Guajardo Jr., Precinct 4 County Commissioner Joseph Palacios and Pharr Mayor Dr. Ambrosio Hernandez.

With Garcia’s recent announcement, we expect to soon see the positioning for campaign funds and support by many for this coveted leadership spot.

When he steps down, Garcia will have been at the helm of this county for 12 years - the second-longest of any county judge since the early 1970s, and by far the longest in our modern era.

He has overseen thousands of employees who provide services to over 775,000 residents in Hidalgo County - the eighth-most populous county in Texas, which spans over 1,500 square miles.

And throughout his tenure, Judge Garcia has served as a steadfast diplomat and stalwart promoter for the Rio Grande Valley and South Texas.

He has brought dignitaries from throughout the United States and other countries here to see how our commerce and way of life on the border contributes to not only our region, but our state, and our nation, overall.

He has promoted open borders and commerce and the importance of the North American Free Trade Agreement, as well as helped to secure hundreds of thousands of dollars of federal and state funds for local law enforcement to help U.S. Border Patrol and U.S. Customs and Border Protection keep our border region safe.

He has helped to develop higher education institutions in the RGV, such as South Texas College, the formation of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, and the UTRGV School of Medicine, and Texas A&M; University, which will be opening a campus in North McAllen.

And if you give him the chance, he’ll likely tell you (with a chuckle and a smile) that he did this all without raising local taxes.

Keeping taxes down (yet not necessarily keeping local property appraisals low) has been a goal of Garcia - one he has openly touted, like he did when he announced his surprise retirement from office.

“In 2002, when I was elected to my first term in office, the county was in poor financial shape. Taxes had skyrocketed from 44 cents to 59 cents and our fund balance was at an all-time low of $702,648. Today, our fund balance is at about $29 million, taxes have not gone up in 15 years,” Garcia said.

It’s no surprise that another longtime goal of his has been the construction of a new county courthouse - with, or without, voter approval. Through creative financial maneuvering, Garcia’s staff has been able to pay down debt and, they tell us, are able to afford and absorb the costs of a $150 million facility without raising taxes or buying new bonds (which would require voter approval).

He often hears earfuls against his construction plans by members of the Objective Watchers of the Legal System (OWLS) who attend most every commissioner’s court wearing their signature red shirts and blazing full of questions and comments. They also openly ridiculed (and still do) his support for a Hidalgo County Healthcare District, which was overwhelmingly defeated by voters last November.

Yet, as OWLS Founder Virginia Townsend told us, despite their differences of opinion, Garcia rarely gets rattled.

“He doesn’t get offended. I meet with him when I can. Sometimes we have lunch and I tell him the things I don’t like or I think that’s going on, and he always listens. But that doesn’t mean he always does something about it, but we work it out,” Townsend said.

Garcia has shown so much respect for Townsend that in public he has even responded to her from the dais during public comment periods - a time when citizens may sound off on an issue but commissioners do not engage back. He’s even asked her questions and solicited her advice.

That’s the true trademark of an elder statesman - one who is not afraid of probing all sides in public, and even showing humility and vulnerability and asking for help from those who openly oppose you.

Townsend, like many, told us she was “very surprised” that Garcia was stepping down and warns that whoever decides to run “better have plenty of money.”

We expect the 2018 primary election to have a crowded field with many outspoken voices and candidates who we hope will not follow the follies of this past presidential election and will refrain from engaging in nasty recourse and unseemly public dialogue about one another.

It will be the dawn of a new era in politics in Hidalgo County - one void of Judge Garcia’s gentle public manner and soft-spoken style.

___

Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Feb. 13, 2017.

State lawmakers with an eye toward re-election are apt to brag about how far they’d go to further Texas’ interests. But voters should consider with healthy skepticism whether subsidized trips to Turkey serve their interests.

Ten Texas lawmakers and 152 state lawmakers from 29 states toured Turkey between 2006 and 2015. Their sponsors were nonprofits associated with a Turkish opposition group accused by the Turkish government of being involved in an unsuccessful coup. The group’s leader, Fethullah Gulen, is a longtime U.S. resident cleric who practices what is described as a friendly brand of Islam that embraces modern science.

The group, known as the Gulen movement, is involved in charter schools nationwide, including the School of Science and Technology in Corpus Christi. The schools provide jobs for Turkish nationals who relocate to the United States. They are the kind of educated workforce that immigration authorities should be encouraged to grant work visas. And the Corpus Christi school met state accountability standards. Many area traditional public schools wish they could claim the same.

The Gulen movement describes its generous outreach efforts to state-level politicians as an effort to foster goodwill and a better understanding of Turkish culture, which it says is part of Gulen’s teachings.

Meanwhile, Gulen is the Turkish government’s most wanted man. Turkey wants him extradited. That is not the purview of state-level lawmakers. But policies and funding for charter schools are a state-level decision.

We don’t fault the Gulen movement for any of those connections. If anything, we’re impressed at how astutely the movement has gone about extending its influence (and we don’t mean “influence” in a bad way). Today’s state-level lawmakers often end up in Congress. The Gulen movement appears to have gone about its movement in the good, old-fashioned American way. It’s no different from a restaurateur offering to comp a police officer’s meal. The restaurateur is just being friendly and supportive of law enforcement.

But the public officials on the receiving end of hospitable offers must meet a different standard. The police officer can find a polite way to say no but thanks. And state senators and representatives should do likewise with offers of international travel. But the laws of various states don’t compel them. Texas, for example, allows fact-finding excursions. And, according to reports, plenty of interesting facts about Turkey, its culture and Islam are found on these trips.

Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, was among the Texas lawmakers who went to Turkey. And while the reasons to go are important to the Gulen movement, the bigger question is why was it important to him and his constituents. A trip to Monte Carlo, which by mere mention of the name sounds like a junket, might be easier to justify as a fact-finding excursion. The tip of the Texas coast, with Mexico so near, might be an attractive site for a casino.

We don’t mean to single out Lucio. Among his other colleagues who visited Turkey and still are in the Legislature are Reps. Alma Allen, D-Houston, and Donna Howard-D-Austin, and Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston. Huffman helped orchestrate the gutting of the Public Integrity Unit that oversaw ethics investigations of state officials. All should share with their constituents the valuable facts and insights they gathered in Turkey and how those facts and insights might change their public policy decisions in ways that matter to their constituents.

___

Victoria Advocate. Feb. 18, 2017.

Domestic violence touches so many facets of society. It knows no boundaries.

It can happen in young couples as well as those who have spent most of their lives together. It is in wealthy households as well as in the poor.

Many times it goes undetected by friends and family for a long time because there are no visible signs of abuse or the victim has gotten good at hiding the signs through clothing or avoiding social encounters.

And sadly, it can end in death.

The definition of domestic violence is simple enough - if a person is living with fear of harm or death, he or she is a victim of domestic abuse.

It is so much more prevalent than most people believe. On average four to six domestic violence cases are reported in Victoria a night, according to information from the Mid-Coast Family Services.

If you do the math, that is a staggering 1,460 to 2,190 cases a year that are reported to police in Victoria alone.

That number is hard to grasp. It is hard to even try to understand why a person would harm someone they love and share a life with.

But in the ugly reality of life, domestic abuse happens. Last year Mid-Coast Family Services worked with 800 people, mostly from the Crossroads, who were trying to escape an abusive home life - half of those sought shelter in the agency’s shelter.

The Crossroads is fortunate to have the services of Mid-Coast Family Services to work with people who have been battered physically and emotionally.

The agency’s contact with the victims starts with a phone call to its 24-hour hotline. The call is a huge step for the battered person to take to admit they are battered and want help getting away from the abuser.

But once that call is made, trained staff members go to work to help that person. The help can include counseling for the battered and their children, lining up free legal assistance, helping them line up housing, among other services.

But before Mid-Coast can do any of this, they have to have the money to keep their shelter open and have staff to help.

Mid-Coast is concerned it may not get enough funding from the state this legislative session to keep the entire shelter open.

At the beginning of the 2017 legislative session, agencies like Mid-Coast were told to expect a 10 percent cut in state funding because the budgetary coffers are tighter than last session.

Mid-Coast is asking for $220,000, even though their need is higher than that and continues to grow.

The agency gets funding from three sources - the state, fundraising and United Way of Victoria County.

The United Way allocated $85,100 to Mid-Coast last year - the highest amount given to any one agency.

If the state funding is cut, chances are great that Mid-Coast would have to cut staffing and close one wing of the shelter. The home, which runs at 100 to 125 percent capacity on a regular basis, would not be able to serve as many people as they do now.

That option is not acceptable.

People who are trying to escape abusive relationships and make a better life for themselves, and in many cases their children, need a safe place to call home while they figure out what they need to do and transition into a new life.

To take that first step to escape an abusive relationship and seek help takes tremendous courage and strength.

Crossroads residents can support those brave people, who are most of the time women with children, by contacting their state representative and state senator and simply say cutting funding to such vital programs is not acceptable.

We are confident that as the legislators are buried with letters, emails and phone calls supporting Mid-Coast and similar programs across the state, they will see that fully funding these agencies is the humane thing to do.

By the community stepping up to give its support, the funding received may save the life of a friend, neighbor or family member who is able to escape an abusive relationship and start anew.

___

The Eagle. Feb. 19, 2017.

Immigrants, particularly those without the proper documentation, have become easy targets in recent years and the election of Donald Trump as president has increased unrest toward those who weren’t born here.

Let’s be up front: We would prefer that people come to this country legally and with all the proper documentation. At the same time, we understand that many of the immigrants from other countries do not have the required paperwork, but still they come.

They come because America is - and always has been - a shining beacon of hope. From the earliest European settlers in America, people have come here to build a better life for themselves and their families. That our ancestors did - and we and the country are better for it. For generations, immigrants have helped build our buildings, construct our railroads, fight our wars, grow our food, educate our children, shape our future.

At the battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia in December 1862, Union troops who immigrated from Ireland brutally fought Confederate troops who immigrated from Ireland. In World War II, descendants of immigrants from Japan fought bravely for America throughout Europe and North Africa. Right here in the Brazos Valley, immigrants from Germany and Italy and Czechoslovakia and other countries built the foundation that makes us strong.

Yet, in recent years, many politicians and politically motivated groups have demonized immigrants, particularly illegal immigrants. They are freeloaders we are told, placing huge demands on our schools, our health care system, our social structure. In short, they take, take, take, stealing jobs from American workers, committing crimes, voting illegally, and not paying taxes. That sounds dire, and if it were true, it would be.

In fact, illegal immigrants do pay taxes - lots of them. Many pay Social Security taxes, although they likely never will see any of that money in “retirement.” Like the rest of us, they pay sales taxes when they purchase food and goods. Wherever they live, illegal immigrants pay property taxes, either directly or through rent on the places they live.

The Social Security Administration estimates that undocumented workers have contributed some 10 percent of the Social Security Trust Fund. In 2007, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said, “Over the past two decades, most efforts to estimate the fiscal impact of immigration in the United States have concluded that, in aggregate and over the long term, tax revenues of all types generated by immigrants - both legal and unauthorized - exceed the cost of the services they use.”

The government estimates that 53 percent of farm workers are undocumented; other sources including growers put that number at 70 percent. Our agriculture producers could employ only American citizens and documented immigrants, but they would have to pay a lot higher wages and that would drive the cost of the food we eat to skyrocket.

In 2006, a group of some 500 business leaders wrote President George W. Bush, saying, “While a small percentage of native-born Americans may be harmed by immigration, vastly more Americans benefit from the contributions that immigrants make to our economy, including lower consumer prices.”

And as for voting, it is possible a few - a very few - undocumented immigrants have cast ballots, but it is unlikely it is any appreciable number. The last thing an illegal immigrant wants to do is interact with the government at the ballot box or any place. State voting officials, Republican and Democrat, unanimously agree that such voter fraud just doesn’t happen.

President Barack Obama’s administration actively sought to deport undocumented aliens, sending a record-setting 2.5 million people back to their homes. Now, President Trump apparently is seeking to outdo his predecessor. Recent raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have deported numerous individuals and arrested many more in preparation for deporting them. Among those rounded up are mothers of young children - mothers who have lived in America for decades - and people who came here as preteens and have gotten an education and worked hard to make America greater.

We aren’t saying America should ignore those who come here without documentation. But especially here in Texas, we know the importance of these immigrants to our state’s economy. As the nation goes about trying to determine how to deal with illegal immigration, it is important to remember that immigrants should be treated with dignity and respect. Basic humanity requires it.

If a few of those who come to America commit crimes beyond their undocumented status, treat them as we would any other criminal.

For the rest, let’s have a national discussion on how to deal with the millions who are here and are contributing members of American society.

___

The Dallas Morning News. Feb. 20, 2017.

Even if you’re sure you’ll never buy property from the City of Dallas Land Bank, here’s why you should care that it operates as efficiently and effectively as possible:

Your tax dollars are paying for the city to mow and maintain thousands of land-bank-eligible vacant and abandoned properties. And as long as those lots sit idle, they aren’t contributing a penny toward reducing your own tax bill.

It’s as if these derelict lots - the vast majority of them in the southern half of the city - are double-billing Dallas and its taxpayers.

That’s why City Manager T.C. Broadnax and his team must not stop at simply strengthening land bank rules to prevent potential abuses. In a city where revenue is needed and needed badly, the new boss at 1500 Marilla would be smart to look at how the operation can do far more quality deals.

Lots of questions have buzzed around the land bank since a Dallas Morning News investigation last December revealed that a West Dallas businessman with a construction-related felony conviction purchased land bank lots and then played loose with its guidelines.

Since 2012, Jose Santos Coria has bought three dozen vacant lots for $5,000 each in exchange for his promise to build affordable homes. In four years, he sold just 11 houses. Four went to two of his sons, a daughter and a grandson.

In response to the troublesome details uncovered about Coria’s dealings, various City Council members have endorsed several modest moves to prevent future land-bank abuses.

We agree with all those ideas, which we’ve listed at the end of this editorial.

Additionally, while criminal or financial history should not immediately bar a builder from the land bank program, we believe such information must be disclosed. The city staff needs to produce a uniform policy for how both housing and economic development handles this vetting.

Broadnax has pledged that he’ll return to the City Council within three months with a revamped land-bank operation. We’re betting he’ll strengthen program parameters as well as shore up the sometimes-sloppy administration of this housing department program.

Used correctly, the land bank is a powerful, and rare, tool that can force accountability on Dallas’ epidemic of vacant and abandoned property. We’re not talking just about empty lots but about vacant properties where structures - often dilapidated crime magnets - teeter.

The land bank can turn a costly liability to the city - mowing bills alone run into the millions annually - into a revenue-producing property. And because 90 percent of these lots exist in disenfranchised neighborhoods, new development lifts up communities that are most in need.

So while Broadnax scrubs the rules, we hope he also will see ways to pick up the pace of land bank transfers and aggressively bring more properties back to life.

Among the changes that Council members asked City Manager T.C. Broadnax to evaluate, we support the following:

- Verify income requirements for homebuyers to make sure they qualify.

- Disclose home sales to relatives.

- Prohibit sales to homebuyers who already own property.

- Require that homebuyer live in the home for at least five years.

- Stipulate time frame to get a house built, ranging from 18 months to three years.

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