One word for it is paranoia. Central Texas has been dealing with an outbreak, stemming from military training maneuvers planned in several counties for Special Ops troops. The exercises have a mysterious sounding code name — Operation Jade Helm 15 — the mention of which was sure to push some jittery civilians over the edge.
After a community meeting in Bastrop, called by the county judge, one man worried about the second coming of Nazi Germany.
Ah, Texas. What are you going to do?
Here's what not to do: give credence to wacky conspiracy theories.
Gov. Greg Abbott crossed the line and did just that with his order last month telling Texas State Guard officials to "monitor" the U.S. military exercises.
To which we say: Really, governor?
It wasn't an awful idea to address rampant fears, but Abbott has put the state in a bizarre trust-but-verify posture toward this country's own military.
There were better ways that Abbott might have handled this fuss without responding so overtly to Internet fear-mongers. What's called for is a voice of calm and reason. Measured words, not words that professional conspiracy nuts can twist to serve their own mercenary purposes.
Abbott might reap minor political dividends from his order; after all, his Republican Party has characters on the right fringe of the right wing who are prone to believe some strange stuff. The governor's order sends them a sly message about having their backs. Those few votes could come back and help him come election time.
But there's a far bigger downside: the message that Main Street USA gets about the Lone Star State's new governor. Texas just said goodbye to Rick Perry, who developed a reputation as a governor ready to secede from the Union. Now in only his fourth month, Abbott looks like he wants a chunk of that us-against-Washington action. His order last month asked for regular reports on federal soldiers so Texans can be sure their safety, rights and liberties "will not be infringed."
Those are cringe-worthy words to appear over the governor's signature.
Abbott could point to other parts of his order — the predictable ones about the long Texas tradition of respecting the military and honoring the brave men and women who sacrifice to keep us free.
Those don't overshadow his overall message that someone needs to keep an eye on those brave men and women as long as they're training in Texas.
Houston Chronicle. April 29, 2015.
Dueling tax cuts: Tax relief should benefit all Texans, so that means a reduction in the sales tax.
To hear Republican legislators tell it, their constituents are reeling under the weight of excessive taxes. Truth is, Texans are at the bottom of the barrel in our tax burden, paying less in state and local taxes than the citizens of 47 other states. Which explains why Texas is also at the bottom of the barrel in too many measures of civic success: Education spending, health-care spending and the percentage of its citizens who are high school graduates. The need for infrastructure improvements to repair crumbling roadways and bridges, worn-out parks, overburdened wastewater treatment plants and water systems is reaching crisis level.
What Texans are reeling from is a Legislature that continues, year after year, to rob the state's school children and commuters and municipalities to repay their base with tax cuts. The only unique twist in this year's narrative is Republicans in the House and Senate can't agree on which taxes to cut. They do agree on a basic framework for providing businesses with about $2.6 billion in tax relief, but they disagree on how to cut taxes for Texas families.
The Senate proposes to reduce property taxes by raising the homestead exemption for school districts from $15,000 to about $33,000 in 2016 (SB1). The proposal would save the approximately 60 percent of Texas households that have this exemption about $200 on average per year, but those who don't own homes get nothing. And it would cut about $2.2 billion from funds going to educate the state's public school children. True, the Senate budget includes an additional $2.15 billion for local districts to make up for the shortfall, but actually spending those funds for education will be at the discretion of future lawmakers. The state's schools still haven't recovered from the $5 billion in cuts made in the 2011 legislative session. It should also be noted that the population that will benefit from the business tax cuts overlaps with the population that is homeowners.
Much to the chagrin of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has made property tax relief his mission, the House rejected the Senate's plan, preferring to cut the state sales tax from its current 6.25 percent to 5.95 percent (HB31). Under its proposal, 100 percent of Texans would get some tax relief, as much as $172 per year for a family of four. The cut would cost the state $2.3 billion, which would principally affect the general revenue budget, spreading the impact on services across many departments. The House and Senate are heading into conference and have until the end of session on June 1 to resolve their differences.
The best course for the Legislature would be to adequately fund much needed services. But if the Republicans are hell-bent on cutting taxes, the policy choice — if not the conservative political choice — between the House and Senate proposals is obvious. Tax relief should benefit all Texans, not just the 60 percent who are property owners with homestead exemptions. The sales tax is a state tax, and the savings will actually flow into individual pocketbooks. Property taxes are controlled by local jurisdictions, and as happened with the last school property tax cut, the savings can be eaten up by offsetting local tax increases. The House wins.
Of course, neither $200 or $176 in tax savings will offer much solace the next time a taxpayer blows a tire on a pothole or spends hours stuck in traffic on a jammed freeway or enrolls a child in a school with too few teachers or witnesses the closure of a local hospital or misses a day at the beach because sewage has seeped into the runoff flowing into the Gulf after a big rain. Those problems will have to wait.
Austin American-Statesman. April 29, 2015
State should act to minimize fracking-related earthquakes
Three reports released last month strongly link activities related to oil and gas drilling — fracking included — to earthquakes. Pretending there isn't a problem in need of solutions or that there isn't enough proof to warrant action is no longer tenable.
In a paper published April 21 in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications, a team led by scientists from Southern Methodist University reported that the injection underground of wastewater and brine associated with natural gas production most likely caused a series of earthquakes that occurred near Azle, northwest of Fort Worth, from November 2013 through spring 2014. The study included scientists from the University of Texas and the U.S. Geological Survey.
The same day the SMU report was published, Oklahoma state scientists issued a statement in which they said it is "very likely" the injection or disposal underground of water produced during the extraction of oil and gas is responsible for the hundreds of earthquakes lately recorded in Oklahoma. Earthquake activity in Oklahoma in 2013 was 70 times greater than it was before 2008, the scientists reported, and is now about 600 times greater than what is considered normal seismic activity in the state.
Then on April 23 the U.S. Geological Survey released maps locating more than a dozen areas in the central and eastern United States where wastewater disposal and other drilling activity have been implicated in triggering earthquakes.
Hydraulic fracturing, which uses millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals to break apart rock deep underground and release trapped oil and gas, has been linked directly to a few earthquakes, but the primary culprit is the injection underground of salt water and other wastewater produced by oil and gas drilling, including fracking. It's been known for decades that injecting liquid into a fault line can cause the fault to slip and produce an earthquake. Last month's studies push the linkage in a conclusive direction.
But as the American-Statesman reported, the new reports did little to convince Texas policymakers there's a clear link between drilling activity and earthquakes. Republican state Rep. Myra Crownover of Denton, for example, told Price that the SMU-led study "is not the definitive study."
"Mother Earth has been moving since time began," said Crownover, who chairs the Texas House Energy Resources Subcommittee on Seismic Activity, which was formed last year in response to the earthquakes registered around Azle and elsewhere. "It moved when we had dinosaurs, it moved when we had volcanoes."
Crownover's geologically obvious statement aside, the more relevant geology in question is the fact that the regions in North Texas, Central Oklahoma and elsewhere that have experienced swarms of earthquakes the past five years or so are regions that were seismically stable until rampant fracking activity stirred ancient faults that had not moved in millions of years. Oklahoma currently records an average of about 2½ magnitude-3-plus earthquakes a day compared with the historical average of about 1½ magnitude 3-plus quakes a year, for example. As last month's Oklahoma state report says, this increase in seismic activity is "very unlikely the result of a natural process."
Though its website states no "significant correlation between faulting and injection practices" has been identified, the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, has moved toward recognizing that action is needed — timid, limited action perhaps, but action nonetheless. Last year, the commission hired a seismologist to study the issue of earthquakes. The commission also recently issued new rules for operators filing applications for disposal wells.
Milton Rister, the commission's executive director, announced last month he had invited the SMU researchers to brief agency staff. Commissioner Ryan Sitton, who said during his campaign last year that he would vote to suspend disposal operations in an area if the science merited doing so, has called for a public hearing on the issue. And on April 24, the commission announced plans to review and possibly rescind the licenses given to two disposal well operators.
Oklahoma has started a website, earthquakes.ok.gov, that it promotes as "a one-stop source for information" about what is known about earthquakes in the state and what the state is doing to try to prevent them. The website would serve as an excellent example for Texas to follow, as would some of the recent steps Oklahoma has taken to try to minimize the number of earthquakes, such as the introduction of a "traffic light" well-permitting system and the adoption of new monitoring rules.
As more studies of wastewater disposal and earthquakes are done and new insights are gained, it's important that the state's regulations evolve along with the science.
Corpus Christi Caller-Times. May 1, 2015.
An honest definition of school choice
Our state leaders are misusing a lot of words and phrases to push dubious education policies — "school choice" and "civil rights" chief among them.
Gov. Greg Abbott calls "school choice" a "civil rights issue" and a nonpartisan one at that. Actually, school choice by its true definition isn't an issue at all. To our knowledge, parents have the right to home-school or to send their children to private school, charter school or a traditional public school outside their neighborhood school's attendance zone. Or they can pack up and move into a high-performing school district. Those are all school choices that parents make regularly and with little to no interference from the state.
However, there are limits to choice. High-performing public schools in neighboring districts can say no to parents who want to transfer their children. So can private schools. They can refuse to admit a child who has special needs, a record for bad behavior, or low test scores. Saying no to those children while cherry-picking academically gifted students helps a school raise its ranking and enhance its reputation as a school of choice.
But Abbott isn't objecting to those impediments to school choice. He doesn't even bother to point out how downright crummy it is that religious-affiliated private schools, which should be sanctuaries for problem students, can and do exclude them.
Instead, he and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick want to come to the rescue of charter schools — public schools that operate independently, either for profit or as nonprofits whose operators might decide to pay themselves lavishly.
Abbott, Patrick and others extol charter schools for their flexibility. Charter schools make their own rules so long as they meet state academic benchmarks. Many don't. Yet their political backers persist in their support, because they are invested in vilifying traditional public school.
Supporting expansion of charter schools means giving them more money. The state pays charter schools based on attendance, as it does traditional public schools. One bill under consideration would raise the reimbursement. We're puzzled as to why that would be necessary. The current reimbursement already is big enough that there are 629 charter schools pirating students from neighborhood schools in Texas. (That's not a fair description of all charter schools, least of all Seashore Learning Center on Padre Island, which was started because Flour Bluff ISD wouldn't build a school on the island.)
The more our state leaders give to charter schools, the less they'll figure they have to give to traditional public schools. Operating with less money usually hurts performance, which makes parents want to exercise the choice to send their children elsewhere. Funny how that works. The architects of this outcome will reap nothing but gratitude from the aforesaid parents.
How's this for school choice: The governor, lieutenant governor and Legislature commit themselves and the state's ample resources to providing top-quality neighborhood public schools, no matter the neighborhood. Parents who aren't satisfied with their neighborhood school can exercise their choice to home-school or pay to send their children elsewhere. If parents in Corpus Christi want to send their children to Plano ISD, the state isn't stopping them. Just don't expect the state to provide a bus, helicopter or jet for the long commute. If private school tuition is out of reach, parents can exercise their civil right to take second or third jobs, or find better-paying primary jobs, or have the foresight to choose richer parents and grandparents from whom to inherit wealth.
High-performing charter schools can fund expansions and pay raises via attendance growth. Low-performing ones should be weeded out.
That recipe for school choice would be, like Abbott said in support of charter schools, neither Republican nor Democrat. Nor would it infringe on anyone's civil rights. In contrast, aiding charter and private schools sounds suspiciously like a forced redistribution of wealth.
Longview News-Journal. May 3, 2015.
Texas can't keep ignoring facts about health care
Stories in the News-Journal about the challenges facing hospitals in Texas and across this nation will come as no surprise to those who have been paying attention to the facts.
Health care in rural America is in serious jeopardy. And the trouble is hitting hard in Northeast Texas.
Just in the past year, our region has seen the closing of four hospitals. Clinics also have closed, merged and changed hands.
And the changes are far from over.
At a strategic planning session Friday for Good Shepherd Health System, attendees were told that virtually every health care provider in the nation will have to change its business model over the next few years to survive.
And our state is at the fulcrum of the activity.
If you're among those paying attention, this is a statistic you've heard before: Texas has the nation's highest percentage of adults without health insurance. That's not exactly the kind of "achievement" that would lead us to chant "We're No. 1!"
It's a grim fact that's been true for years, and, according to a new study, remains true today despite the fact the needle has finally been nudged upward.
According to findings issued last week by the Episcopal Health Foundation and Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, has had a dramatic and positive impact on our state.
From September 2013 to March 2015, the study found, the percentage of uninsured Texans dropped to 17 percent from 25 percent, a reduction of nearly a third.
That represents a huge benefit not only for those who finally have insurance coverage but for health care providers who will more often be paid for performing services.
Unfortunately, even with the gains, Texas still leads the nation in the percentage of uninsured adults. And for the first time, the raw number of those without insurance is higher in Texas than any other state.
As also might be expected, the gains were not across all socio-economic levels, with the poorest Texans seeing the least improvement. The study found that among those who make $16,000 or more per year, rates of insurance increased by 45 percent. Those who made less than that had an increase of just 20 percent.
None of this is a huge surprise, given that our state's leaders have done as much as they can to fight the Affordable Care Act.
Any increases are positive, however, and we're pleased to see them. But think how much better the Texas health care scene might be if our state's political leadership voted to expand Medicaid to allow more Texans to be covered under the act. We aren't counting on that happening, though.
Our state's failure to do the right thing is having a much greater impact right here than you might realize.
According to figures calculated by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and compiled by the Center for Public Policy Priorities, Gregg County health care providers are losing $43.3 million each year because of the state's refusal to expand federal programs.
If you're worried about our recent economic slowdown, you should be aware that amount of money could keep a great deal more people working. In fact, the report says it would fund more than 2,600 jobs in Gregg County alone. Not all of those would be new jobs, of course. A great many would be those eliminated by problems caused by our nation's long failure to address health care.
None of this is to argue the Affordable Care Act is the cure for all that ails American health care. But there is proof it's already part of the solution and that refusing it is exacerbating the problems.
These facts should be ample reason for our state legislators to drop the politics and do the right thing for Texans, their doctors and hospitals, and begin putting in place a Texas plan to expand Medicaid.