The Dallas Morning News. March 10, 2013.
Fighting for transparency in Texas government
There's good news and threatening news out of the bill hopper in Austin for yesterday's kickoff of Sunshine Week, the national observance of the public's right to know what goes on within government.
On the upside, state lawmakers are finding new ways to provide a view into the inner workings of government. But then there are some insidious ideas that would do the reverse. A sampling:
The beauty of accessible online databases has been discovered by multiple lawmakers. One, Sen. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, wants the state comptroller's website to keep a searchable database detailing the taxes collected and debt incurred by every taxing district. Paxton's bill (SB 843) would create a taxpayer-friendly portal. And more: A bill by Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, (HB 1487) would require the comptroller's website to include a searchable function on the purposes of grants awarded by the state.
Many government agencies now voluntarily keep online checkbooks showing the purpose and recipient of each check. A bill by Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, (HB 284) would make them mandatory for school districts. A similar bill by Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Frisco, (HB 1529) would impose the requirement on districts of 50,000-plus population.
Fallon also filed a bill (HB 889) requiring school districts and cities of at least 50,000 to webcast their meetings and archive the recordings. This newspaper likes that as much as a bill by Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, (HB 31) to put the same requirement on university system boards. It makes government accessible.
A snappy moniker makes a good bill better, and Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, has both with his Freedom to Film Act (SB 897). Noting the disturbing trend of police officers who harass citizens who record them on public property with camera phones, Estes said his bill would offer protection for a perfectly legal activity.
Some of the stinkers would shield the identity and activities of law enforcement officers when it might not be in the public's interest.
A bill by Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, (SB 988) would blow a big hole in the Public Information Act. It would allow a police agency to withhold, barring a court order, "records of telephone calls, text messages, emails or other electronic communications to which a peace officer is a party."
The very point of the act is to make sure the public has a clear view of how public officials carry out their duties, and this overbroad bill mocks that intent.
A bill by Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Tomball, (HB 1632) would make an officer's date of birth confidential information, which could prevent proper identification of someone involved in a highly public event.
One fundamental in defending transparency is that you don't leave it to government to tell government's story. The pitfalls are as obvious as the fox's mayhem in the henhouse.
And so it's obvious why defenders of transparency are digging in against repeat efforts in the Legislature to sweep aside provisions in law requiring local governments to put certain public notices in newspapers, from bid solicitations to meetings on tax rates.
Make no mistake: The effort is the handiwork of government lobbyists. This session, one offending bill is being carried by freshman Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford. His HB 335 would let a government agency satisfy the notice requirement by posting information on its own website. That ostensibly would reap savings in the cost of notices paid by taxpayers. The reality is that local governments spend a tiny fraction of their budgets on legal notices. And that money is a smart investment in an independent, archived, permanent source of government information.
To bury that several clicks beneath a city hall's or school district's home page would be putting it in a convenient place for insiders alone.
If a school district or city wants to advertise for bids, the custodian of that notice needs to be an independent third party between government and potential vendor. Notice of a land-use hearing or the sale of property should not be controlled by the agency deciding the outcome. That invites corruption.
Of course, newspapers have a financial interest in the status quo, but that jibes with this industry's watchdog role. Every corner of a newspaper — from front-page exposés to the small print of public notices — might reflect the taxpayer's business on a given day.
That business should be displayed where the maximum number of citizens can see it.
Houston Chronicle. March 10, 2013.
Legislation will restrain the president
There was a sense of a Senate returning to form as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., munched on a Kit Kat bar in the middle of his 13-hour filibuster — a break from his reading articles about military drones. This grandstanding didn't stop the confirmation of John Brennan as CIA director, unlike the silent holds that have blocked qualified candidates from filling the holes in our judiciary.
Now it is time to turn that rhetorical passion into legislative action. If Paul and his acolytes are serious about restraining executive authority, then they should set their targets on the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists. Passed after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the AUMF granted the president authority to use all necessary force against those who planned, authorized committed or aided in the 9/11 attacks or those who harbored them. Since then, it has been used to justify military force not just in Afghanistan, but Pakistan and Yemen. And against U.S. citizens. Without any explicit restrictions, folks outside the White House are left wondering whether Congress authorized the president to use military force anywhere that could possibly house al-Qaida sympathizers. Legislative history implies that Congress specifically did not include authority within our national borders, but we shouldn't have to guess at whether the president can kill citizens on domestic soil.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has joined Paul in introducing a bill to prohibit drone killings of citizens on U.S. soil if they don't represent an imminent threat. But why not look at the AUMF itself? When contemplating presidential authority, we hope that Democrats always imagine a President Dick Cheney. And for Republicans, well, President Barack Obama seems to foster enough healthy skepticism. But for too long both parties have cared more about partisan politics than the ramifications of unchecked presidential power. We hope Paul's filibuster will help bring an end to that era.
San Antonio Express-News. March 8, 2013.
Flexibility, but with a purpose
Flexibility seems to be the watchword these days in Austin when it comes to Medicaid expansion.
It should not just be code for "no."
Fortunately, it seems that many legislators, including House Speaker Joe Straus, are pushing back against no for no's sake, which appears to be the governor's position. They are mindful that Texas leads the nation in the number of uninsured — 6.1 million people or 24 percent of all Texans.
They are seeking to put a Texas stamp on a solution, however; looking for flexibility to perhaps get low-income Texans without insurance into private insurance. This is worth talking about.
But here's one thing that is likely a non-starter: insisting that Medicaid funds come from the federal government in a block grant, a move the feds reject. Holding on to this idea is tantamount to making sure expansion doesn't occur.
The Affordable Care Act simply offers states a deal too good to refuse in insuring many low-income adults who cannot afford insurance.
During the first three years, the federal government would pay for the entire cost of the expansion. Then, the state's cost would be capped at 10 percent. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission estimates the 10-year cost to Texas would be $15.6 billion, with $100 billion paid by the federal government.
Some 1.8 million could benefit from such an expansion.
The U.S. Supreme Court decision last summer gave the states an out from expanding Medicaid to cover adults at 133 percent of the federal poverty level. It upheld the law but also removed the federal government's ability to punish states that fail to expand Medicaid.
Gov. Rick Perry quickly proclaimed that Texas wouldn't expand Medicaid. Legislators are trying to move the governor off that position.
Straus appears to be one of them. In an interview with the Express-News, he said, it's time to "get our heads out of the sand" to find alternatives that would bring the same federal dollars to Texas as would Medicaid expansion
Clearly, some in the Texas GOP are not letting their obvious distaste for Obamacare get in the way of Texas interests. This is called leadership.
The overarching goal in any flexibility bargained with the federal government should be to get insurance coverage to as many Texans as possible.
And using this "flexibility" to shepherd low-income Texans to private insurance might be workable. But the goals here should be quality of coverage no less than what would be offered in expanded Medicaid. And out-of-pocket expenses must not be more.
Longview News-Journal. March 12, 2013.
Silly snits: They really know how to act better — we think
In important legislative news this past week from our nation's capital, we learn U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert filed a budget resolution that would keep President Barack Obama from playing golf until the president restores tours of the White House.
And that exclamation of frustration is aimed at Gohmert and Obama.
Sometimes, it seems the people we elect to serve us go out of their way to be silly. This would be one of those instances.
Obama first, because his action prompted Gohmert's. The president stopped White House tours for the duration of the sequester saying he wanted to avoid overtime that might be caused for the Secret Service.
Oh, brother. Wait, we said that already.
This is obviously a slam at Congress, and particularly the House of Representatives, because that is where most visitors get their "tickets" to take the White House tour. This little bit of a snit from Obama is silly, and it makes people realize just how petty politicians can be sometimes.
But wait! If we needed more proof, along comes Gohmert, who wants to take away the president's golf balls. Gohmert's resolution is that the president cannot use government resources to fly to play golf. We suppose our representative's reasoning is that if tours cause overtime, those golfing trips will, too. That's hard to debate.
Gohmert's resolution wouldn't bother us so much if it was not intended to be just as whiny and nitpicking as the president's tours cancellation. Both decisions sound as if they could have been made on a playground rather than the hallowed halls of democracy.
Neither step does a single thing to push the country toward a resolution of the sequestration problem. If anything, this snit might harden a few hearts. Not in Washington, of course, because we're pretty sure the brains in Washington are as hardened as they can be.
The president should resume the tours and Gohmert should resist the urge, difficult as it will be for him, to be such a snit.
Really, gentlemen, we think both of you know better than to act like this. Please prove to us that you do.
Corpus Christi Caller-Times. March 10, 2013.
No more excuses for delaying Keystone pipeline
The Obama administration has run itself out of excuses for delaying the Keystone XL pipeline any further. Its own State Department has found that piping the dirty Canadian tar sands oil would cause no significant environmental damage.
That was after Nebraska's governor approved a new route through his state that solved concerns about cutting through an especially environmentally sensitive area.
So, all that's left for President Obama now is to approve the pipeline and get out of the way of economic progress and U.S. energy independence, or further confirm the widespread suspicion that he wants to promote alternative energy by sabotaging the oil industry. The clock is ticking ...
Unfortunately for Obama and alternative energy evangelism, sabotage is about what it would take. The discoveries of huge deposits in South Texas and elsewhere on the continent have pretty well disproved the concept of peak oil — i.e., that the world has only so much of it, that we've found most of it and we're on the path to running out of it. On Thursday, at the second Eagle Ford Consortium conference in San Antonio, Marathon Oil CEO Clarence Cazalot forecast American oil independence in a decade — if government regulation continues not to go berserk.
Tar sands oil is a dirtier commodity that causes more greenhouse emissions. But stopping the proposed 2,000-mile pipeline won't stop its production. To the contrary, all it'll do is prevent the environmentally safest, cleanest ways of transporting and refining tar sands oil.
The State Department found that not building the pipeline would cut Canadian tar sands production a whopping 0.4 percent by 2030. That's because there are other ways to bring it to market and the Canadians will use them.
Those ways are less environmental than a pipeline. And so are the destinations, not just because they're farther away. The more tar sands oil that's refined here to U.S. environmental standards, the better. Put another way, the less of it that goes to China and other places where environmental concerns take a much more distant back seat to industrial expansion, the fewer greenhouse gases produced worldwide.
South Texas refineries proved themselves adept at handling heavy, sour crude from Venezuela and lately have been retooling for the super-light, super-sweet stuff from the Eagle Ford Shale. Either way, they've done it to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standard. If someday it makes sense for them to refine tar sands oil, count on them to do it to an industry-leading, government-approved standard.
Needless to say, building the pipeline involves thousands of jobs and not building it means saying no to those jobs and to a friendly neighboring country with similar, compatible economic and geopolitical interests. Give the Canadians credit for patience. The pipeline project was first proposed in 2005.
If Obama wants to do something good for the environment as well as the economy, he needs to approve this pipeline. He should keep in mind that energy independence is good for the environment because it prevents environmentally hazardous activities such as war.