- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Texas newspapers:

Austin American-Statesman. Jan. 14, 2017.

If one were looking for a moral theme for the legislative session that convened this month, it would not be bathroom bills nor so-called sanctuary cities. It would be Texas children.

Specifically, the welfare of children in the state’s beleaguered foster care system and the more than 5 million children attending public schools. Those are the crisis points. And lawmakers would be wise not to delay action in fixing those systems, even as the Legislature faces one of its most challenging budgets in recent times.

State leaders shouldn’t be dissuaded from taking action on those problems despite the fact that state revenues are down by $2.8 billion. Instead, they should look to the Economic Stabilization Fund, also called the rainy day fund, to help with some services.

If ever there were an emergency that required tapping into the fund, the welfare of Texas children certainly qualifies.

It is true that legislators will have less general revenue to spend during the 85th session. Comptroller Glenn Hegar recently estimated that the state would have $104.9 billion to spend over the next biennial. That estimate determines how much money lawmakers can spend on schools, higher education, health, transportation, public safety and other services in the 2018-19 budget. That’s 2.6 percent below the current two-year budget’s revenue estimate of $107.7 billion.

In preparation for that, Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus in June instructed most state agencies to prepare for 4 percent budget cuts.

The drop in funding stems from several factors, including slumping fossil fuel prices that impact state sales tax revenue. But fiscal decisions made during the 2015 legislative session also shrunk the revenue pie. While we agreed with the state’s decision - as well as the voters’ - to pass Proposition 7, which will steer $4.7 billion to the State Highway Fund, we disagree with the 25-percent cut lawmakers made to the franchise tax on Texas businesses. The latter will result in a drop of 2.4 percent in franchise taxes coming to the state in 2018-19 - money sorely needed now.

The news isn’t all bad.

Hegar also reported that the rainy day fund is currently $10.2 billion deep and will grow to $11.9 billion by the end of the 2018-19 budget if left untouched. It’s also worth noting that its current balance still exceeds the $7.5 billion minimum balance set for 2018-19 - more than plenty to do a whole lot of good for Texas children in crisis and financially strapped public schools.

The most urgent, possibly life-threatening crisis facing children exists at Child Protective Services.

We were encouraged by the state’s move in December to hire 800 new CPS employees and award emergency pay raises to more than 6,000 front-line workers to address high turnover rates. Still, legislators will need to dig deeper if they intend to help Abbot deliver on his 2015 promise to overhaul the agency and decrease the number of child deaths to zero. To reach that goal, more work is needed.

Data obtained through an open records request by The Dallas Morning News shows that more Texas children died of abuse and neglect since Abbott took office. In fiscal year 2016, at least 202 Texas children died because of maltreatment, compared with 173 the year before. The 2016 totals did not include 123 fatalities still under state review.

Recommendations by court-appointed special masters should serve as tools to make the much-needed changes to protect Texas’ most vulnerable children. On a similar note, lawmakers should look to repeal cuts - $150 million in state money worth - made to therapy services for disabled children.

Another crisis that demands the attention of lawmakers is the school finance system. No, diverting public dollars to private schools is not a solution. School choice or voucher programs would serve only a few and worsen the system for the vast majority of children who remain in public schools.

The problem legislators must concentrate on is the system’s outdated, unfair dependence on local property taxes, which now make up 48 percent of total public education funding. Local taxpayers - particularly in districts such as Austin, Eanes, Lake Travis, Georgetown and Marble Falls - are taking a financial beating.

By contrast, the state’s share has shrunk to 41.4 percent for this school year, with the federal government providing the remaining 10.6 percent.

And if lawmakers did their jobs in addressing the public school funding system, it would render real tax relief for Texas taxpayers, who also are feeling a financial crunch from soaring school property taxes.

Legislators also should look into the special education crisis. A Houston Chronicle investigation showed that state efforts to limit the number of students receiving special education service has saved the Texas Education Agency billions of dollars by denying vital support to children who need those services. It is unacceptable that more funding has not been reserved to better identify students who need services.

Unfortunately, the public has seen key lawmakers give priority to bathroom bills and legislation aimed at curbing local control. We urge lawmakers to prioritize Texas children.

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San Antonio Express-News. Jan. 16, 2017.

Zero. That is the most important number for the pilot program to collect trash in Camelot II.

After more than a year of operation, no one in the 600-home pilot program area is in arrears on their trash bills, city of San Antonio officials have said.

That, coupled with the dramatically cleaner streets and alleys in Camelot II, makes the Bexar County-city of San Antonio trash service pilot program a dramatic and uplifting success.

It also means Bexar County’s legislative delegation must unite in a bipartisan effort to address the broader issue of trash collection in unincorporated Bexar County. The problem is bigger than Camelot II. We’ll return to this point soon, but first some important background and context about trash in Camelot II.

For years, garbage has plagued the Northeast Side neighborhood. The Camelot II town-home area, roughly 600 homes and dominated by landlords, has been particularly foul. Its streets and alleys have been lined with mounds of waste, in which children play. It was grotesque and heartbreaking.

These Third World conditions perpetuated largely from political and bureaucratic indifference but also the complications of boundaries.

Camelot II is just beyond the city of San Antonio’s border in unincorporated Bexar County. It feels like the city, dense and urban, but it is not. However, because Camelot II is in the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, essentially a 5-mile buffer to help control growth, the county had said it could not mandate trash service. And so, trash plagued the neighborhood for years. Eventually, following exhaustive reporting by the Express-News, the county contracted with the city to provide mandatory trash service.

One of the prevailing concerns was Camelot II residents would not pay their trash bills, which are included in CPS Energy electrical bills. That concern has proved unfounded. San Antonio Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni has said no one living in the pilot program is in arrears.

All told, the pilot program has only cost Bexar County about $32,000. That was for extra cleanup work when the pilot program launched in November 2015. For perspective, between fiscal 2010 and 2014, Bexar spent $233,000 on big trash cleanups in the Camelot area. County taxpayers are saving money, and Camelot II residents have a cleaner neighborhood with lasting service.

This brings us to the Texas Legislature and its role in helping prevent future Camelot II situations. There are many neighborhoods around Bexar County with similar, albeit less severe, trash problems. One way to prevent such trash from festering and becoming a public health crisis is by requiring landlords to provide trash service.

The county desperately needs some kind of enforcement power - and the Legislature can grant it. By bracketing a bill to either population or density, state lawmakers could provide Bexar County with that enforcement mechanism without trampling rural counties. This is, after all, an urban problem. The only people affected by such legislation would be landlords who refuse to have trash service at their properties.

The pilot program was a first step. The city of Converse’s recent decision to annex Camelot II and other Northeast Side neighborhoods, thereby providing crucial city services, was the second step. But the third and final policy solution lies with state lawmakers.

The Bexar County delegation should be united and vocal on this issue. None of our neighborhoods should be blanketed in trash.

___

Houston Chronicle. Jan. 17, 2017.

When it comes to public education, walking the talk is something state lawmakers almost never do. As established by their actions over decades, they leave their top priority - properly funding the state’s public education system - to the courts or private philanthropy. With its ruling last year that found the public education funding system constitutional, the Texas Supreme Court joined the do-nothing crowd. Thank goodness into the chaos stepped H-E-B Chairman and CEO Charles Butt. The longtime supporter of public education is Texas’ own private-citizen champion.

Butt this month announced a pledge of more than $100 million to create a leadership institute for public school leaders designed to improve over time the quality of education delivered to students in our state.. Holdsworth Center - named for his mother, Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth Butt, an educator and lifelong philanthropist - will work with districts during a five-year period to provide leadership training to superintendents, principals and key administrators.

The need in Texas for leadership training for public school educators is critical. Texas school districts serve 10 percent of the nation’s pupils, yet Education Week Research Center, a division of Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit organization that publishes Education Week, recently ranked Texas 43rd in the nation for student achievement in its annual report.

The Holdsworth Center, to be based in Austin, will be governed by a 17-member board chaired by Ruth Simmons, a Houstonian and former president of Brown University. Although teacher quality is the single biggest factor affecting school achievement, strong principals are key to teacher development and retention. Strong superintendents play the same role with respect to principals.

Yet superintendents and principals typically don’t receive adequate training for their multifaceted jobs. The center aims to improve the odds that our education leaders can succeed, stay on the job and reach their full potential. Through exposure to the best leadership experts in the country and the world, and facilitated lectures and group discussion, educators selected to participate will focus on critical topics such as change management and board relations. The center also will assist districts in establishing a sustainable vision for identifying and supporting future leaders.

In addition to fostering a culture of high expectations for educators, this center carries on a tradition that Butt started in 2002. Ask most people what the most important profession is and they’ll say educators. But in our modern economy, respect can be measured in dollars, and educators are not well paid.

Annually, H-E-B gives the Excellence in Education awards to honor outstanding public school professionals across the state. The awards event is a glittering affair that conveys to educators the importance of their work.

Similarly, the center will host trainings, envisioned by Butt as restorative experiences, at a campus to be designed by the award-winning architectural firm, Lake Flato. Butt will donate the funds to complete the campus in addition to the $100 million grant.

While the actions of our state political leadership signal a lack of commitment to educational excellence, Butt’s vision is to help educators become extraordinary in their jobs. His consistent, thoughtful action is a model for our state’s business leaders, sure, but especially so for lawmakers. Butt is saying and doing the right things for kids - and for Texas. It’s past time state lawmakers do the same.

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The Dallas Morning News. Jan. 18, 2017.

Covering the people’s business requires access.

If given the chance, most legislative bodies would prefer not to have to deal with reporters and will turn gymnastics to limit access even to the point of rolling back accommodations that allow journalists to do their jobs.

Such is the case of the Texas Senate, which is enforcing rules to limit the movements of reporters and restrict their ability to speak casually to elected representatives while the Senate is in session. This is unacceptable and an affront to the free flow of information from a public meeting.

For years, the Senate had allowed reporters to briefly converse with lawmakers along the side rails in the chamber, a practice that allowed journalists and lawmakers to interact and served the interests of the public. This session, reporters, and Senate staffers are barred from that area and, for the most part, journalists restricted to the press table while the Senate is in session.

Reporters also used to be able to interview lawmakers at the back of the chamber or just outside it in another area that was convenient for lawmakers and reporters to chat and still keep an eye on proceedings on the floor. This session, such conversations have to be taken well outside the chamber.

So how did we get to this point? Secretary of the Senate Patsy Spaw says lawmakers met on the opening day of this session, agreed that the Senate needed greater decorum and decided to enforce rules to discourage what they called loitering around the chamber. Reporters may be a lot of things but loiterers they aren’t. The change now means that reporters must contact lawmakers by note or texted message and set up a place to meet outside the chamber.

We respect that the Senate wants decorum on the floor and throughout the chamber, but this approach offers mostly pitfalls and unintended consequences.

These changes might not seem significant to a non-journalist, but they erect a hurdle between reporters, elected officials and ultimately the public. As the eyes and ears of the public, journalists must be able to communicate in a timely manner in order to meet deadlines and gain the additional insight on legislation that can only be gleaned from a conversation with lawmakers. These exchanges allow reporters to write more comprehensive stories and convey information about the motivations and impact of legislative actions to the public.

The Senate’s tighter decorum rules are unnecessary. Reporters are professionals and know how to have a discreet conversation with a lawmaker without interfering with the workings of the Senate.

We urge the Senate to reconsider its decision.

___

The Facts. Jan. 22, 2017.

Before the dais had even cleared of dignitaries following Donald Trump’s swearing-in as the nation’s 45th president and his inaugural address, conservative icon Rush Limbaugh already was on full assault. In his view, Trump’s speech was a message to Democrats of their failures and their acts of divisiveness.

That hardly is a surprising take from someone who knows a thing or two about dividing people into political camps of right and left - or in his view, right and wrong. But his assessment of Trump’s speech is far different than that of many other Americans.

The new president’s speech was a full-on attack on Washington, including many of those seated behind him as he spoke in a chilly drizzle. It was a message that business as usual in the nation’s capital is over.

We shall see if that proves true. It certainly is something that has needed to occur for quite some time.

Among those who will be responsible for changing the culture of our federal government are those who created it. Republicans are in full control, led by career politician Mitch McConnell, who has been in Washington almost nonstop since 1964, when he interned for Republican Sen. John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky. His first Senate term started 36 years ago. House Speaker Paul Ryan is significantly younger but still has spent all but two years of his adult life in Washington, including the last 18 years in Congress.

On the other side of the aisle, 76-year-old House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has spent her life in politics, first in roles with the Democratic Party and since 1988 in Congress. On the Senate side, Chuck Schumer never used his Harvard law degree, going into politics instead. After three terms in the New York State Assembly, he was elected to Congress in 1981, moving over to the U.S. Senate in 1999.

Overall, about 80 members of Congress have been in office two decades or more. These governmental bodies are not exactly embracers of change.

Trump expects to change that, and in what many analysts found to be a very dark, aggressive speech against the status quo, laid down the gauntlet to servants of both parties.

“We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action constantly complaining but never doing anything about it,” Trump said. “The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action.”

Trump has laid out 18 points for immediate action to redirect the country from what he believes are failed policies. It has some average Americans excited.

Many, including presidents and the one Trump is replacing, have promised to shake up Washington and left office as the one shaken from their principles. While we are not comfortable with all of Trump’s rhetoric, we can hold on to the promise that he can challenge the gridlock and partisanship that prevents our government from functioning effectively.

We will find out. However we perceive Trump’s inaugural words, actions are what will determine whether he can mold a new government that puts Americans first, or whether the special interests and self-interests of politics as usual continue to win.

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