- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Texas newspapers:

Houston Chronicle. March 4, 2019.

It’s a ritual as regular as rain along the soggy Gulf Coast: Whenever prospective politicians are asked how they’ll pay for their new ideas, they answer: “We’ll get rid of all the waste, fraud and abuse.”

Usually, it’s a cop-out, a way to avoid tough questions about raising taxes or cutting services. But sometimes - and our current debate over how to address Texas’ worsening school funding crisis is one - that tiresome answer is right on point.

Lawmakers in session in Austin are wrestling with how to find billions in desperately needed new money for public schools while also hoping to slow down soaring property taxes in big-city school districts where assessed home values keep going up.



But they haven’t so far said a peep about the terribly managed Permanent School Fund that’s providing billions less than it should to Texas schools.

The sorry details of the fund, one of the largest public endowments in America, have begun spilling out thanks to an investigative series by reporter Susan Carroll and former colleague David Hunn in the Houston Chronicle. Turns out, despite its massive total value - higher even than Harvard’s endowment - the fund has actually grown far more slowly than its peers, and its investment returns have lagged even the mediocre Ivy League funds.

For a state where funding levels have failed so badly to keep up with the needs of students, that’s a travesty. Assessing the fund’s performance by per-student payments to schools, it’s a tragedy: The fund has paid out on average over the past 10 years about $207 per student, compared with an average of $322 for the two previous decades, adjusted for inflation.

Looking for waste? What else should we call enormous amounts of money left on the table due to poor leadership and sky-high fees? Maybe abuse. Maybe fraud as well.

“What the (expletive) is wrong?” asked former Texas Land Commissioner Garry Mauro in the first installment of our series. We couldn’t have put it any better.

The reporters also found a history of a near-impenetrable lack of transparency, where even annual rates of return advertised each fiscal year were hard to verify. Land Commissioner George P. Bush, for instance, boasts that the portion of the fund overseen by the School Land Board, which he leads, tops state funds perennially - at 11 percent in 2015, according to the Legislative Budget Board. But internal records show it performing far worse, in part because the 11 percent figure doesn’t account for pricey fees and other costs.

What should be fixed, and who is to blame, will come into focus as the series continues. This much is clear: Lawmakers have a road map to hundreds of millions of additional funding. They should start looking.

___

The Dallas Morning News. March 5, 2019.

Texas’ highest criminal court has added another dangerous layer to the cloak of secrecy around how some government officials want to conduct our business.

We say “our” because we elect these officials to be good stewards of our tax dollars and to represent us on issues that affect our communities. For the sake of accountability, the public has a right to know what our representatives are doing.

We’re concerned that a ruling last week from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will keep us in the dark. The court dealt a major blow to transparency when it struck down a portion of the open meetings law that makes it a crime for officials to circumvent quorum rules to hold “secret deliberations.”

The court’s wrong-headed ruling called the provision “unconstitutionally vague.” We see it as another excuse for government bodies to usurp the spirit of this important law.

Turns out, in Texas, there’s plenty of reasons for worry.

This was once a state that led the nation in transparency. But now, Texas continues to suffer the fallout from a June 2015 Texas Supreme Court ruling that allowed key details of government contracts to be withheld as guarded secrets.

Dozens of government bodies have since cited this ruling to keep secret what were once routine items of public disclosure. Want to know the dollar amounts for a municipal power plant being built in Denton? Too bad. Likewise, the public was blocked from viewing brain concussion research efforts at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

And it took a lawsuit to keep Austin from withholding names of city manager finalists.

Most open government experts believe the ruling is being used in ways the courts never intended. We see the same kind of potential for a slippery slope with this week’s quorum ruling.

That’s why we’re so encouraged to see bills filed by several lawmakers to reverse the troubling trends.

Among them are renewed efforts by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, to give back Texans the ability to track government spending on contracts and nonprofits doing expensive government work.

We can’t afford a repeat of last session when their efforts died in committee.

Gov. Greg Abbott deserves credit for releasing a statement supporting the importance of transparency.

“Regardless of (the) ruling, my standard and expectation is for all agencies and boards to continue to follow the spirit of the law. You should not waver in your commitment to providing transparency in the work you perform for Texans at your respective governmental entities,” Abbott wrote.

We hope agencies heed his counsel.

Still, we can’t count on just goodwill. This ruling should be vigorously challenged - and reversed.

___

Amarillo Globe-News. March 5, 2019.

The Supreme Court heard arguments last week that may lead to a more distinct line in the separation between church and state - or it may only narrow a certain aspect of that line. The indication, from an Associated Press story last week, is the court is averse to issuing a sweeping ruling.

Which may be a good thing, considering the justices are weighing whether a 40-foot cross on public land in Maryland that commemorates soldiers killed in World War I is unconstitutional. The decision could have broad implications regarding religious symbols in public life. However, Associate Justice Elena Kagan said the cross is historically linked with those who lost their lives fighting in the first World War, a factor that could lead to a more limited ruling.

“When you go into a World War I battlefield, there are Stars of David there, but because those battlefields were just rows and rows and rows of crosses, the cross became, in people’s minds, the pre-eminent symbol of how to memorialize World War I dead,” she told The AP. “So why in a case like this can we not say essentially the religious content has been stripped of this monument.”

The local American Legion chapter raised funds for and had the so-called Peace Cross built to honor World War I veterans from Maryland who fought and died in battle. The monument, which is now nearly 100 years old, is maintained by the state of Maryland.

The case pits the American Legion against the American Humanist Association, a District of Columbia-based group that argues the location of the cross on public land violates the First Amendment’s establishment clause that prohibits the government from favoring one religion over others, according to the AP report. They said the cross should be moved to private land or redesigned into a non-religious monument.

The American Legion argues the cross has a secular purpose and therefore doesn’t violate the establishment clause. The concern among those defending the cross is the ruling could impact hundreds of memorials across the country because crosses are often used to commemorate soldiers who have died. The Humanist Association addressed the concerns of one justice by saying only between 10 and 20 crosses fall into the same category as the Maryland cross, meaning large ones on public lands where it isn’t part of a memorial or similar setting such as a cemetery, the AP reported.

The high court has visited this territory before. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that it was constitutional for the Ten Commandments to be displayed on the Texas state capitol, according to an AP story. The court was divided on the issue, but landed on the side of saying the Ten Commandments were indeed religious but also historically important.

There is no doubt the cross has religious significance, especially for practitioners of the Christian faith. However, it has also been used throughout the years to memorialize the dead in connection to military service, regardless of their religious affiliation (or lack thereof). Because of this historical significance through the years, the court must see this particular case as not crossing the boundary of the establishment clause and rule to keep the Peace Cross and other crosses like it in their places, looking over and memorializing those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

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