- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Texas newspapers:

Houston Chronicle. Jan. 2, 2017.

Anybody who’s watched “Cool Hand Luke,” the classic Paul Newman movie set in a southern prison supervised by a cruel warden who lectures prisoners about the consequences of the “failure to communicate,” will remember how wayward inmates were punished. Guards stuck them in “the box,” an outhouse-sized wooden shed with poor ventilation where prisoners sat on the floor suffering in sweltering heat.

If you think that’s the stuff of a screenwriter’s imagination, think again. Here in Texas, prison activists say, convicts sometimes soak their sheets in toilet water to cool their cots before bedding down on hot summer nights. The heat index in some prison units reportedly hits 120 degrees.

Trying to survive in that kind of heat isn’t a minor discomfort, it’s proven downright deadly. A federal civil rights lawsuit contends at least 13 inmates have died heat-related deaths in Texas prisons during the last decade, but the exact numbers are unknown. The judge overseeing the case recently ordered prison officials to reveal how many inmates have died since 1990 because of the hot temperatures in our state’s prisons.

Out of the 109 prison facilities in Texas, only 30 have air conditioning in all of their housing areas. In the other 79, some places such as offices and libraries are cooled by air conditioning. But in other areas, inmates - and the state employees overseeing them - must cope with whatever heat nature throws their way. As a consequence, an attorney representing more than 1,400 mostly elderly and disabled inmates argues the prison terms meted out to those found guilty of fraud or drunk driving have turned out to be death sentences.

Texas prison officials say retrofitting all of their facilities with air conditioning would be extremely expensive, pointing to a study that recently concluded installing AC in just four prisons would cost about $350-million. And of course, the burden would be borne by Texas taxpayers, some of whom can’t afford air conditioning in their own homes.

But the simple truth is that someday soon Texas may have no choice. The judge hearing that case seemed irritated with lawyers for the prison system, and anybody who knows the history of Texas prisons knows that federal judges won’t hesitate to order reforms no matter the cost.

Spending money on improving conditions for convicted criminals may not be politically popular, but our state lawmakers need to recognize Texas has a responsibility to provide a reasonably safe environment for people locked up by the government. If the absence of air conditioning really is killing inmates, we have little choice. Unlike the warden in “Cool Hand Luke,” we can’t just throw inmates in a hot box and let them die.

___

Abilene Reporter-News. Jan. 10, 2017.

The 85th Texas Legislature opened Jan. 10, and probably not a lot of work got done because of the fanfare.

It was a day to take it all in for our new folks in Austin - state Sen. Dawn Buckingham and state Reps. Stan Lambert and Mike Lang.

But soon enough, it’s right to work. There is much work to be done.

The challenges to a productive session are many. Can we better fund our public schools, and can we come up with an accountability system that is fair to districts yet honest in assessments to the public? Can we fix our roads? Can we fix Child Protective Services? Can we keep Texas open for business?

Will we have the money to at least do some good? According to Comptroller Glenn Hegar’s announcement on Jan. 9, lawmakers will have 2.7 percent less funds than in 2015. That was expected, largely due to the decline in tax revenue coming from the oil and gas sector.

Yet, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, in one of his final pre-session announcements, put Senate Bill 6 front and center. “SB 6” means little to most folks but the issue is well known. Call it the Texas Privacy Act, or the “bathroom bill,” Patrick is addressing who goes into which bathroom in Texas; specifically, if you have to go, you must go to the restroom in accordance to your biological sex.

There are an estimated 1.4 million transgender Americans, more than first believed. That is 0.6 percent of the U.S. population, but a significant number. Suddenly, the transgendered are an impact group.

Where have all these folks gone to the restroom before? Perhaps in the stall beside you, and you never knew.

Scare tactics are the driving force today. From Russian hackers and terrorists to global warming and prying guns from our hands … the list is long and unnerving. Legitimate concerns, to be sure. But would there be a sudden surge in restroom crime unless we enact this legislation? It seems unlikely.

Should we have a third restroom option? Family restrooms, where available, satisfy the need of an adult being able to attend a child; could those also be used by the transgendered? Would they want to share facilities? This option likely puts a spotlight on the transgendered. To enforce any restroom law, someone will have to be potty patrol. Who would that be?

It does sound a bit like regressing to the days of white/colored facilities.

Businesses fear this decision because, if the bill is expanded to businesses, they’d likely foot the cost. And if passed, would some businesses choose not to locate in Texas for fear their goals of diversity would be thwarted? North Carolina has proved to be a battleground state on this issue.

Bottom line: Is this a necessary war? And it’s just one coming from Team Patrick.

For example, SB 20 (Pro-Life Insurance Act), a proposed bill by a Friendswood senator, would make sure that someone is “never forced” to pay “for someone else’s decision to end an innocent life,” according to Patrick.

Patrick previously applauded Buckingham’s pre-filing of a bill that would allow Texas electors to be fined or declared ineligible if an elector “violates the public’s trust” by not standing “by the will of the people.” Was this stamped “URGENT?”

The proposed privacy bill by a Brenham senator, with Patrick’s blessing, could be taken as “get back” legislation. As doors nationally swung open to same-sex unions, and the abortion debate rages into another decade, some groups want to get back “at them” - those who support these issues - with proposed legislation based on fear. Fanning the fear of losing religious liberty has become a great tool.

There is good reason to watch Republicans this session because Patrick’s game plan may not be the same as that of other Republican leaders. He came to office with an agenda, and he’s bringing it to the table.

Thankfully, Patrick late on Jan. 9 addressed an important issue - biennial funding. Some money was saved from the 84th session, providing a bit of a cushion for the shortfall, he said. Otherwise, we’re going to have to be frugal.

We see many of Patrick’s issues as divisive and campaign fodder. Important, real-time issues demand our time and resources, not what-if scenarios.

CPS is broken. That is real. Our roads are deteriorating. That is real. Our public education system is under assault with few means of fighting back, especially if those who support school options won’t help. That is real.

Patrick has also announced his re-election intentions. He won’t be running for governor or senator, though fanning a non-existent flame sounds like he already is running for higher office.

Mr. Patrick, your intention should be to focus on the challenges that benefit all Texans, not the issues you are putting there. Stop worrying about the person in the stall next to you.

___

Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Jan. 11, 2017

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath released a trial run of public school ratings under an A-F grading system on Jan. 6, then backed away as fast as he could.

The ratings, criticized by many of the people who run the state’s 1,000-plus school districts and charter schools, were only “for informational purposes to meet a legislative requirement,” he said.

They come from “work-in-progress models that are likely to change before A-F ratings become effective in August 2018.”

Texans should draw “no inferences” about current or future district or campus performance from the ratings.

So, why bother?

There’s nothing wrong with the Legislature’s 2015 decision to change the current “met standard” and “improvement required” rating model to the A-F model, more like the grades students get in school.

But there was no overall grade in the Jan. 6 report, just separate grades for student achievement, student progress, closing performance gaps and postsecondary readiness. Another measure, community and student engagement, is still being designed.

Unofficial as it was, the report was still confusing. Some educators say it was meant to make them look bad as the Legislature debates voucher proposals that would take money away from public schools.

No wonder Morath kept his distance.

___

The Dallas Morning News. Jan. 13, 2017.

It happens all over the country, and it certainly has happened - is still happening - here in Dallas.

It goes like this: A long-neglected neighborhood, usually but not always home to people of color, suddenly gets hot.

Why does it get hot? Maybe because entrepreneurs, restaurateurs and others looking for low rents open businesses that appeal to wealthier people from outside the neighborhood. As the businesses become more successful, and as more people visit, the land values go up.

We can call this the Bishop Arts example.

Other times, it’s government spending that triggers the flow of people and capital into the neighborhood.

We can call this the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, or West Dallas, example.

All of this should be a good thing. It’s how markets work, after all. The more people who want to live or do business in an area, the more valuable the land where they want to be becomes.

But far too often, the impact of those changes is good for everyone except the folks who were there before the neighborhood got sexy. Property taxes go up. Longtime businesses and homeowners who can’t afford them leave.

Landlords, faced with higher taxes and bigger incentives to sell, raise rents - or sell to new buyers who will raise them.

The low-income renters? As rent go up, they leave, too. The neighborhood’s new bustle? For too many, it’s more like a hustle.

We can call that the displacement problem.

Dallas, it’s time to solve this problem. We want new investment and energy to flow into struggling or neglected neighborhoods, from Fair Park to West Dallas and elsewhere. But we have to stop pushing out the folks who call those areas home now.

Fortunately, good ideas about how to do this are percolating around city hall and in Austin. One particular bright spot is a bill Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, expects to introduce soon in the Texas Legislature, as first reported by the Dallas Observer.

It’s still under development, and he said in an interview that he’s still consulting with council member Scott Griggs, chairman of the council’s housing committee. But it’s a great start.

Johnson wants some of the tax dollars produced within the specially created tax district around American Airlines Center and the new Trinity Groves development to be spent in the West Dallas neighborhoods adjacent to the apartment and restaurant boom near the new bridge.

Even better, he wants homeowners who don’t want to move to be able to defer the higher property taxes so they don’t have to sell. Landlords, too, could be given a break, provided they keep their rents below market rate. Maybe it’s just a transition period before the higher valuations kick in. Maybe taxes aren’t due until they sell some day. There may be better ideas.

But this is one conversation that deserves all the attention it can get. Dallas needs tools to solve its displacement problem without slowing the influx of new people and capital in neighborhoods who need both.

___

The Monitor. Jan. 15, 2017.

Ever since U.S. relations with Cuba appear to have normalized in the past year - air travel has opened, trade restrictions were lifted, and President Barack Obama visited the island nation - The Monitor’s editorial board has called for the lifting of a unique refugee policy that has been in place for Cubans, but not offered to other immigrants who are seeking asylum.

Commonly referred to as “the wet-foot, dry-foot” policy, Cubans who cross onto U.S. land have for the past 22 years been immediately put on a path to citizenship and eligible for U.S. assistance programs. They are granted asylum, living benefits and preferential treatment over that of immigrants from other nations, including those from Mexico and Central and South America.

Cubans who are apprehended at sea, however, have been and can be turned back. Because of this policy we have seen a tremendous uptick in Cuban immigrants crossing through South Texas from our land border with Mexico - over 68,000 of them since 2014.

So we applaud President Obama’s announcement this month that such policies will be ending immediately.

As we have written, granting asylum to Cubans who were fleeing persecution and other atrocities was the right thing to do at one time and it served its purpose, but we believe those Cold War days are over. Our relations with Cuba are on the mend and seem ever brighter.

It’s time, rather, to consider what policies can be done for today’s other refugees - mainly those from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, who are fleeing gangs, drug cartels and dangerous conditions at an unprecedented rate. Most cross into South Texas, making our border the epicenter of immigration since 2014, and proof of our country’s need for complete and current immigration reform policies.

As U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, the leading congressional advocate for changing the special law for Cubans, said after the Jan. 12 announcement: “Ending this outdated policy is something I’ve been calling on the administration to do and have been working on with my colleagues in Congress. The Obama administration and Cuban government have come to an agreement allowing for repatriation and expedited removal of Cuban nationals who arrive at our ports of entry. This is an important step forward in modernizing our outdated immigration policies towards Cuba. The wet-foot, dry-foot policy provided Cubans an unprecedented special immigration status that no other group of people possessed.”

Indeed there will be some who challenge the need to end such a policy, which has been in place since 1995 under President Bill Clinton at the behest of the Cuban government, which amended the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 to stop admitting Cubans intercepted in U.S. waters.

So we say let them each come forward before a U.S. immigration judge with their individual cases and reasons for fleeing their country and seeking a new, permanent life in America, just as immigrants from all Central and South American countries and Mexico must do. And if there is cause for them to stay, then let that be so decided by our judicial system.

But to give a blanket pass to an entire immigrant society from just one country while others are turned back, detained for up to months at a time, or forced to pay high court and lawyer fees to stay in this country, is not fair.

In addition, Obama’s administration has rescinded the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, in place since 2006, which allowed Cuban medical personnel conscripted to study or work in a third country under the direction of the Cuban government to enter the United States.

As President Obama said: These are “important steps forward to normalize relations with Cuba and to bring greater consistency to our immigration policy. … (Cubans) will now be eligible to apply for asylum at U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, consistent with the procedures for all foreign nationals.”

Equality and a chance at the American dream must be consistent for all. We must allow the system to be applied evenly. And we must continue to enforce our laws and our priorities, such as the removal of all and any who threaten our society and those with criminal backgrounds.

Expedited removal procedures must be allowed on all who threaten our safety. Unfortunately, however, this has not been the case for Cuban nationals.

We applaud the Obama administration for taking the necessary steps to level the immigration field. And we note that one important policy, the Cuban Family Reunification Parole program was not rescinded or changed.

Under this program, Cuban beneficiaries of certain approved family-sponsored immigrant visa petitions are allowed to travel to the United States to be unified with their family members before their immigrant visas become available, rather than remaining in Cuba while they await a visa.

We suggest that perhaps such policies could also be considered for those Central and South American and Mexican families who are separated by thousands of miles as they too await reunification. And we suggest that Congress look into implementing similar steps to help reunite other families.

We also note that Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said these changes were a result of agreements reached between the United States and Cuban governments.

“The government of Cuba has agreed to begin to accept the return of Cuban nationals who have been ordered removed. Cuba and the United States will work to further discourage unlawful migration to the United States and promote bilateral cooperation to prevent and prosecute alien smuggling and other crimes related to illegal migration,” Johnson said.

This should encourage other nations to work with the United States and to do their part to discourage human trafficking and illegal immigration knowing that it could help to increase trade and other relations between our nations and ultimately help to bring U.S. resources and funds to help stimulate their homelands, rather than encourage their citizens from leaving.

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