- Associated Press - Monday, April 12, 2021

Houston Chronicle. April 5, 2021.

Editorial: A tawdry attack on voting rights, Senate Bill 7 should be rejected by the House

Texas Republican senators disregarded the hours of expert testimony in committee and objections on the floor, they overlooked the full-page ads by advocates in newspapers and ignored bipartisan polls. Nothing - let alone the will of the people - was going to stop them from their mission: Making it harder to vote in a state that leads the nation in voter obstruction.

Never content with choosing their voters through gerrymandering, GOP lawmakers facing the existential crisis of irrelevance in our diversifying state are taking no chances on who gets to cast a ballot. They’ve done the math and they’re not willing to put in the work to become a more inclusive party or to try and win a war of ideas to retain power. Why bother when it’s easier to stop more people from voting?

That’s not how things work in a democracy, and that’s fine by them. Welcome to the Oligarchy of Texas.



In the dead of night and skirting public notice rules, legislators passed Senate Bill 7 last week. One of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s priorities, SB7 spells out voter suppression under the guise of election integrity and is mostly a compendium of bad policy. After moving quickly through the Senate, the legislation now heads to the House for consideration.

The bill’s fig leaf of legitimacy comes from requiring and funding voting machines that produce a paper trail - which experts point out should improve election security and which has been mostly ignored for more than a decade - and requiring that the Texas Secretary of State develop an electronic mail ballot tracking system.

Beyond those two measures, the legislation - approved 18-13 on a party line vote - does more harm than good, starting with giving partisan poll watchers almost unfettered access throughout a polling location and allowing them to record video or audio if they “reasonably believe” election laws are being broken.

The bill was amended so those recordings could only be shared with the secretary of state (sorry, Facebook), but it is still an invitation to intimidation, if not a twisted kind of voter vigilantism. While poll watchers are not allowed to see someone’s vote, there is nothing keeping them from hovering nearby, cell phone in hand, waiting to record and intimating fraud based on nothing more than a hunch.

SB7 also targets specific voting expansions implemented in Harris County and other large counties this past election that made it easier for more people to vote.

The proposal sets the number of polling places and voting machines that can be made available based on the number of eligible voters in each state House district. This would lead to fewer polling locations and longer lines, with state Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, noting that out of the 14 House districts that would lose polling places, a dozen are districts represented by House members who are Black, Latino or of Asian descent.

Harris County voters who enjoyed the accessibility of voting in their car or having the option of visiting a 24-hour polling location will have to do without, as SB7 bans both. It limits polling hours during early voting from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. and does away with drive-thru voting all together. Why? Not because such votes were shown to be unreliable. It appears instead they that those methods proved to be popular with the wrong voters.

As reported in the Chronicle, more than 50 percent of ballots cast through drive-thru and 24-hour locations were by Black and Latino voters. State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said he wrote the bill with no intention to disenfranchise minorities.

“There’s nothing in this bill that has to do with targeting specific groups,” he said. “The rules apply across the board.”

He’s right, the rules apply to everyone, but that perpetuates the preposterous fiction that there’s no such legal concept as disparate impact. Lots of laws are neutral on their face when it comes to race but their effects are anything but. The Voting Rights Act used to target such bills for special scrutiny in states such as Texas, but not any more. Doing away with a method of voting favored by Black and Latino voters is just the kind of law that made the Voting Rights Act so necessary.

Neither is it reasonable to impose unnecessary paperwork on volunteers who assist elderly or disabled voters at the polls or who drive them to a polling location to access curbside voting, which SB7 does. Mercifully, a provision that would have required disabled voters to prove their disability before they could vote by mail was struck from the bill.

We continue to ask why these measures have been deemed an “emergency,” why Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott believe this is urgent legislation that needs to be rushed through this session, why almost every elections bill that stands a chance of passing this session makes it harder to vote, not easier.

SB7 makes it clear there is indeed a problem with voter fraud in Texas, one that has nothing to do with the folks casting ballots and everything to do with those trying to stand in their way.

___

Weatherford Democrat. April 10, 2021.

Editorial: You can’t have it both ways, Abbott

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is mad at Major League Baseball and a whole lot of other people because they don’t like Georgia’s latest election integrity scheme. So, he took his baseball home and pouted.

“It is shameful that America’s pastime is not only being influenced by partisan political politics but also perpetuating false political narratives,” the governor said from the safety of a news release. “This decision does not diminish the deep respect I have for the Texas Rangers baseball organization, which is outstanding from top to bottom.”

He respects companies or organizations that live within the confines of his self-interpreted bubble, where 50,000 people can pack together in safety during a viral pandemic. Abbott is full-on anti-cancel culture unless he’s doing the canceling - then it’s OK. In an age of peak juvenile behavior, Abbott is determined to show that he can cancel those he doesn’t agree with, but never seem to grasp the consequences.

Is there an adult in the room?

If we’re to believe one narrative, the one where corporations can spend an unlimited amount of money on political races, we should just accept that they may have an opinion - after all, the Supreme Court essentially granted them personhood within the confines of the First Amendment. Abbott wants their money but certainly doesn’t want their opinions, but you can’t have it both ways.

The problem with Georgia is centered around hysterics. The Georgia Republican Party didn’t get the result they wanted in the last election and they’re changing the rules. No matter what they say they’re doing, Georgia voted in the dead of night to pass an election law that will make it harder for people of color to vote.

Texas is about to embark on a similar journey under the auspices of election security - even though most people seem to think that Texas’ election was really well run. The Republican Party kept control of just about everything. Although, the margins are getting smaller.

As a reminder, voter fraud is a very small matter - the fact that it’s a felony is helpful. The Heritage Foundation - a conservative think tank - has been tracking voter fraud for the last few years, and while they try to make the argument that it’s a widespread problem, the truth is in the data - it’s really not.

Since 2005, there have been 91 documented cases of voter fraud in Texas. Most of these are individuals. There were three cases where election results were overturned but all were in small races.

Despite the insistence that widespread voter fraud is a problem, there is no concrete evidence to suggest that it’s happening on a scale imagined by some. That brings us back to our governor.

In the last few weeks, Abbott has been quick to tout the economic success of the state by continuing to lure businesses here from around the country. Many of those companies want to do business in Texas because the state is booming and is central to distribution in the U.S. and Mexico, but that doesn’t mean those businesses automatically are going to not have an opinion because it might hurt Abbott’s feelings.

Already during 2021, Abbott has drawn attention to himself for his actions managing the coronavirus pandemic, February’s winter storms and now this latest dust-up over voting.

The truth is that there is nothing wrong with ensuring that elections are fair, secure and inclusive. If anything, we should continue to make it easy to vote but that means it’s also incumbent on the parties to do a better job of extending their messaging. The importance of voting is particularly important at the local level, where so many decisions are made that affect the daily lives of millions, and those elections desperately need an engaged citizenry that is both armed with facts and the ability to cast a vote without a hassle.

Maybe if Greg Abbott can work on that we’d feel better about where we are with election security, because it certainly feels like it’s a rush to judgment when the facts say there shouldn’t be a rush to do anything.

___

Beaumont Enterprise. April 6, 2021.

Editorial: TEA deserves an F for STAAR online glitches

In a school year when students and teachers have faced more educational hurdles than probably any other time in their lives, this is one more problem they didn’t need: The state’s online platform for the STAAR had multiple breakdowns Tuesday, causing many schools to give up in frustration and sometimes send their students home after they came to campus specifically for the test. The Texas Education Agency said the three STAAR tests affected were Grade 4 writing, Grade 7 writing and English I. The breakdown occurred on the first of five days that students were eligible to take one of these three tests online.

“What happened today is a complete failure on the part of TEA and ETS (Educational Testing Service),” said Buna ISD Superintendent Donny Lee. “We’ve been told to prepare our kids for online testing due to the mandates that are coming in a few years. We prepare our teachers and kids accordingly only to have TEA completely drop the ball.”

Lee is correct, and this delay is inexcusable for several reasons. It also adds more controversy to a standardized test that already has too much of it.

ETS had a $280 million contract from the state to administer the STAAR, the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness. For that much money, the online experience should have been glitch-free for students and administrators.

The breakdown also causes more concern about plans to shift STAAR online completely. About 13% of Texas public school students took STAAR online in 2018-19, and problems like this are not going to build up confidence in plans to shift completely online in the 2022-23 school year.

This school year has been challenging enough with the pandemic shutting down in-person classes for many students. The shift to online learning never really succeeded, with many students and parents experiencing multiple problems ranging from spotty internet connections to lack of supervision. Many students discovered that they need the personal focus of a teacher in a classroom to learn as well as they can. Because of these problems, many districts wondered if the STAAR was even worth doing this year. At best it was viewed by many districts as a guideline to see how much learning was disrupted this year.

The TEA and ETS need to get their act together. The STAAR is supposed to function as a snapshot of each student’s academic progress - or lack of it. It’s not supposed to take the place of regular curriculum or unduly interfere with routine instruction, but too often it does.

The TEA and public school districts need to get through the last two months of this regular school year as well as possible and get ready for the 2021-22 school year in August, which presumably will return to pre-virus conditions if enough Texans get vaccinated. (If you needed any more motivation to take this life-saving step, that should be it.) Many districts are planning enhanced summer schools to try to make up ground that was lost this year and get students ready for a traditional schedule in the fall.

So many of the problems in this school year were beyond anyone’s control, but glitches like this are preventable. Students who overcame these setbacks are getting a lesson in perseverance, but this needs to be the last time this happens.

___

Dallas Morning News. April 11, 2021.

Editorial: How a good idea to end poverty ended up in the trash bin

It is disappointing when a good idea isn’t implemented. And when that idea has the potential to lift people out of poverty, it is more than disappointing, it’s devastating.

Two years ago, state Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, managed to navigate HB 1433 into law, a bipartisan measure to establish a pilot program that would gradually reduce government assistance to a test pool of families as their income and financial situation improved.

The legislation, also called the Making Work Pay measure, proposed to track success by each individual’s progress toward earning a living wage, having savings in the bank, demonstrating savings behavior, not having excessive or inappropriate debt, and showing reduced dependence on government subsidies. The pilot with intensive, individualized case management was expected to involve 500 recipients of the federally funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps.

The idea was to create a pathway for people to break the cycle of poverty without being punished for working, a penalty that is called the benefits cliff. Federal benefits generally allow a person to earn a certain amount of money and the next dollar above that threshold generally results in the recipient losing all benefits. This is catastrophic for many low-income people who abruptly could find themselves worse off - unable to buy groceries, pay the rent, or even fill up their car with gas to get to work.

Unfortunately, about the same time the bill passed in Austin, the Trump administration reduced the cap on income assistance eligibility to 130% of the poverty line, effectively stripping the authority of states to increase the amount of assets or revenue an individual or family can have (up to 200% of the federal poverty level) and still qualify for benefits. The irony is that Texas had expanded its income eligibility requirement to people earning up to 165% of the poverty line to provide the flexibility to serve more needy people, including elderly and disabled recipients.

The federal change made the benefits cliff even more devastating by categorizing people who were barely hanging on as ineligible for benefits. Anything these people earned - cash income from all sources, earned income (before payroll taxes are deducted), unearned income, such as cash assistance, Social Security, unemployment insurance and child support - all counted against the income threshold. Plus, many people were no longer eligible for certain federal health programs, such as Medicaid, leading to more under- and uninsured individuals and families.

However, the real death blow to the pilot program came when Catholic Charities Fort Worth and others sought a waiver from federal rules. After more than a year of haggling, federal officials decided that they couldn’t issue a waiver and that program changes would require congressional approval.

HB 1433 would have provided both a bridge and a safety net for those who demonstrate a serious commitment to escaping poverty. Now it is unclear what options exist beyond the uphill challenge of getting Congress to agree that a pilot program is worthy of consideration.

This program should not be allowed to wither on the vine. Addressing poverty is never easy, so it should be clear that innovative ideas are needed. This pilot program is an idea worth trying, as it very well could offer a model for how to help some people permanently escape the clutches of poverty. We urge the Biden administration to encourage new legislation that would allow the waiver so this program can go forward.

END

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