Perry was indicted by a Travis County grand jury for abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant. Both charges stem from his veto of funding for the Travis County district attorney's Public Integrity Unit. This came after that Democratic DA — Rosemary Lehmberg — refused to resign after a DWI conviction.
After the indictment, Perry said, "We don't settle political differences with indictments." He also said, "This farce of a prosecution will be revealed for what it is, and ... those responsible will be held accountable." Supporters have essentially alleged a Democratic plot to damage a popular GOP governor who is pursuing a presidential bid.
There's a big problem with this claim. It's highly unlikely to be true.
The special prosecutor, Michael McCrum, is a former cop who was nominated by President Barack Obama to be U.S. attorney in San Antonio, backed by the state's two Republican senators at the time. He withdrew because of the congressional morass over nominations. Those who know him say he is not swayed by partisanship.
Bert Richardson, the judge who named him, was appointed by a Republican president. And the special prosecutor is independent of the Travis County DA's office, in any case.
Texans for Public Justice, a watchdog group that has been critical of the governor, forced the issue with its complaint. But a special prosecutor independent of the DA still had to convince a grand jury based on law, not politics.
Absent more evidence, we believe both McCrum and the grand jury to be in error on whether Perry crossed a legal line. But we don't believe politics was the motivation for McCrum, Richardson or the grand jury.
To paraphrase Perry, we don't settle differences over matters of law by politicizing indictments. Or we shouldn't, anyway.
A popular GOP governor running for president — and his supporters — can get mileage if the candidate is cast as political martyr. It might even be a matter of political necessity as indictments tend to end presidential ambitions unless they can be spun into something else.
But the issue here is a difference of legal interpretation. A trial court will sort these out better than the court of public opinion.
Houston Chronicle. Sept. 6, 2014.
Grandstanders on the border: Texas National Guardsmen have been placed center-stage in a costly political theater
Texas National Guard troops, outfitted in body armor and toting pistols, took up positions in portable watch towers along the border last week and immediately got into a fight. Against boredom.
A soldier listening to old-school R&B tunes told a Washington Post reporter that the music kept him awake during taxing 12-hour shifts watching the quiet riverbank. "We're keeping our eyes on the brush," he said.
The soldiers are on towers, but they might as well be on grandstands, since that's what they're doing: Through no fault of their own, they're grandstanding for Gov. Rick Perry as he ponders a re-run for the presidency in 2016. With National Guard "boots on the ground" and with his border-hawk blasts directed at President Obama's record on border security, he's seeking to realign himself with those core Republican voters he offended during his first ill-fated White House run. In 2012, he was too soft; he won't make the same mistake in 2016.
Like John Wayne calling in the cavalry, Perry called in the Guard in July, declaring that he was compelled to act because the federal government has been unable or unwilling to deal with drug smugglers and a wave of unaccompanied Central American minors showing up at the border in recent months.
As of last week, 400 Guardsmen were on hand. A total of 1,000 are expected to be deployed in the coming weeks, concentrated on the stretch of border from Brownsville to McAllen.
Meanwhile, the deployment of Perry's National Guard grandstanders — citizen soldiers merely doing their duty, we hasten to add — is costing Texas taxpayers $12 million a month. It's costing the Guardsmen their livelihood. Pulled away from their jobs back home, a number reportedly have had to receive assistance from Valley-area food banks, because they haven't been paid in weeks.
We're pleased that House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, is said to be keeping a close eye on the monthly border expenditure. He has said that he would rely on the authority of the Legislative Budget Board to determine whether the outlay is necessary and appropriate. Perry has said he intends to bill Washington.
If the governor were sincerely interested in border security, he would be using his influence to persuade his fellow Republicans in Washington to pass comprehensive immigration reform. The Senate passed comprehensive legislation last year that included beefed-up border security to combat the drug trade and human trafficking, along with fixes to the legal immigration regimen, a workable guest-worker program and other sensible reforms that would go a long way toward repairing our broken immigration system, both at the border and in the bureaucracy.
A small core of House Republicans, most of them with tea party bona fides, have held the bill hostage for months, even though it likely would pass if House Speaker John Boehner were brave enough to bring it up for a vote. The immigration obstructionists object to any kind of path to citizenship, regardless of how onerous, for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in this country.
That sensible approach is probably too much to expect during this heightened election season. Now that the wave of Central American children has receded and the governor himself is headed out of office shortly, what we're left with here in Texas is the modest hope that the guardsmen are allowed to climb down from their towers in a few weeks, convoy home and get back to work. The would-be president busy making forays into New Hampshire, Iowa and other campaign hot spots can spend his own money on grandstanding.
Waco Tribune-Herald. Sept. 4, 2014.
Time for state lawmakers to show some initiative on school finance overhaul
State District Judge John Dietz didn't mince words in last week's tightly written update of his 2013 ruling that our state's school finance system completely fails to pass muster with the Texas Constitution. And why should he? Defending the current system only raises questions about the intelligence and seriousness of those who would attempt it.
Texas might have a reputation as a place where science is denied in every regard from evolution to the climate. But mathematics offers a cold, unerring logic that cannot be denied — and even if you believe that public education receives enough money as is, the inequity in how the state doles out per-pupil funding to districts ought to enrage parents, educators and our state lawmakers. The fact that it doesn't probably explains why so many students fail to make grade in school these days. Much of the public is indifferent, distracted and uninformed.
Judge Dietz's ruling was originally handed down last year but shelved to see how the Legislature handled the situation after the 2011 session in which it cut $5.4 billion from public education. Lawmakers restored $3.4 billion for the current biennium but, given that this still fell short of what was cut in 2011 and that it also failed to address even greater student numbers in Texas, Dietz agreed last week lawmakers had simply not done enough.
Dietz made short work of two of three major complaints lodged by some 600 school districts, including the state's practice of paying some districts thousands of dollars more per student than in other districts, violating the Texas Constitution's mandate that funding of schools by the Legislature be financially efficient. And wildly varying per-pupil funding rates in Texas are hardly efficient.
The judge finds Texas' school finance system "arbitrarily funds districts at different levels" and that, in doing so, it violates the established tenet that "children who live in poor districts and children who live in rich districts ... be afforded a substantially equal opportunity to have access to educational funds." Among the examples presumably available for the court to consider: the fact Waco Independent School District was funded at something like $900 less per pupil than in nearby Midway Independent School District.
Dietz also notes the Legislature — again in violation of the Texas Constitution — has essentially set up a statewide property tax system effectively hamstringing local school districts by capping their tax rates and hindering their ability to enhance local programs. And yet the state also makes it difficult for local districts to drop tax rates because of increasing standards and requirements imposed by the Legislature and Texas Education Agency.
Yes, property taxes in one sense remain local — but can they truly be called local when the state pulls the strings?
Nor does Dietz back down on the third complaint by school districts that current funding levels remain inadequate, especially given that the state continues to demand more and more in terms of standardized testing, performance gaps as well as graduation and dropout rates. The situation was cited as particularly dire for English as a Second Language learners and poor students whose education is often more costly.
If all this sounds familiar, it's because the courts have had to face this question several times over the past three decades. Legislators who know full well they're violating the constitution have resisted fixing school finance, insisting lamely they choose to wait till the case plays out in the courts. The fact several legislators have admitted to us they can't make sense of how school finance works in the first place is reason enough for them to get cracking on this issue rather than waiting for the Texas Supreme Court to review Judge Dietz's decision on appeal. They ought to show some of the initiative we expect of students and teachers.
Austin American-Statesman. Sept. 8, 2014.
Lawmakers need to revisit driving permits proposals for immigrants
Federal talks on immigration reform are currently on hiatus. Last week, President Barack Obama announced that he had decided to delay executive action on the topic. And yet, there are some significant steps state government can take to deal with the existing immigrant population, especially those who drive.
Eleven states and the District of Columbia have started issuing driver's licenses to people who are living in the U.S. illegally. Texas needs to follow the lead of these states and help create safer roads and more accountability for those behind the wheel. This is not a novel idea for Texas but one that the Legislature needs to revisit in the upcoming session.
In 2011 a measure passed that requires people to prove their citizenship to renew a driver's license. Since then, immigrants who drove legally in Texas for decades have been unable to renew their licenses or buy insurance.
Yet presumably these same drivers continue to drive to work to provide for their families. They continue to drive to the grocery store, to their children's schools, to their medical appointments and to other destinations as part of their day-to-day routines. Without driver's licenses or insurance, they pose potential concerns for other drivers. For example, some Texans take on the added burden of carrying uninsured motorist coverage in the event of a collision with someone without auto insurance. There is also concern that a driver, who cannot prove legal residency, will flee the scene of an accident in fear of being ticketed for lack of insurance.
While not everyone who drives without insurance is living in the U.S. illegally, allowing undocumented immigrants the option to drive legally would make Texas roads that much safer.
A bipartisan bill recognized that in 2013. HD 3206 would have allowed undocumented immigrants to drive legally in Texas and addressed concerns about voting, security and other rights reserved for legal residents.
Under that measure, undocumented immigrants living in Texas would have been issued a special "Texas resident driver's permit" that looked different from a regular driver's license. The permits wouldn't have been used for any federal purposes, such as going through airport security. It would have allowed undocumented drivers, who are already on Texas roads, to drive legally and get quality auto insurance, a huge problem when you consider that currently more than 2.5 million, or 14.3 percent, of vehicles in Texas lack coverage. In Travis County, 120,125 vehicles (more than 13 percent) are not insured.
And you can't put enough value on how much safer a driver can be when he or she knows state traffic rules. Typically, knowledgeable drivers make safer drivers.
A bipartisan push got the measure out of the House State Affairs Committee. Despite that, it never made it to the House floor. Three attempts to attach the measure to other bills were unsuccessful. Major business groups across the state, including the Texas Association of Business and the Greater Houston Partnership, saw and continue to see the value of driving permits. Those are influential groups that should continue pressing the Legislature to pass a bill for driver's permits.
Groups like Immigration Reform Coalition of Texas oppose measures similar to HD 3206, calling them a "travesty of justice" on the basis that such proposals provide benefits for people who are not in the country legally. That sentiment is echoed even in states where such measures have passed.
Members of NumbersUSA, a group that opposes illegal immigration, said in an NPR interview that driver's permits for undocumented drivers encourage people to make the dangerous journey to the U.S.
But in Texas and other states, safer roads and accountability for those behind the wheel provide everyone — citizens and noncitizens — protection.
Nationally, proposed immigration reform also could provide greater safety, security and social benefits that are desperately needed to address the myriad challenges the nation faces regarding immigration. But the country will have to wait a little longer for reform, given Obama's decision to delay matters.
Though President Obama had initially pledged to take executive action on the matter by summer's end, he announced recently he would wait until after the Nov. 4 election so as not to hurt Democratic chances of maintaining control of the Senate.
Texas, however, can begin addressing changes now to get ready for the legislative session that starts in January. That should begin with a bipartisan effort to support driver's licenses for undocumented drivers. Whether a federal response to the immigration issues comes by way of the president in November or much later, change in immigration laws will eventually come about, and a driver's permit for immigrants will keep Texas ahead of the game.
Galveston County Daily News. Sept. 8, 2014.
Remember the 1900 Storm
Six years after Hurricane Ike, there's a palpable sense of fatigue.
People are tired of talking about recovery. You can get a sense of that by listening to the members of the Galveston City Council as they talk about wrapping up recovery projects funded by the federal government. They're tired of dealing with Ike. They want to move on.
That's a natural sentiment. Everyone who lived through that storm can understand it.
But today — the anniversary of the 1900 Storm — is a reminder that those who came before us endured much worse.
Here's a remarkable fact about the survivors of that storm: It took four years before they could begin work on the seawall.
Recovery took that long because the storm was that bad.
In Galveston County, 23 people died in Hurricane Ike. Another 11 were listed as missing. In the 1900 Storm, there are only guesses about the dead. The guesses start at 6,000.
For every person who died in Ike, 200, perhaps 300, died in the 1900 Storm. Hurricane Ike was not on the same scale.
After the tragedy in 1900, the people of Galveston pulled themselves together. They built the seawall. They jacked up just about every building left standing. They cut canals into the island. Dredges pumped sand under the jacked-up buildings. Survivors of the 1900 Storm really did raise the elevation of the island.
Six years after the 1900 Storm, the survivors still had years of work to do.
The 1900 Storm still speaks to people today because it's a story of hope and of courage. It takes time — and some courage or just plain old toughness — to recover from a tragedy. There's a natural tendency to get tired and discouraged.
On this day, it's good to remember those who came before us. They had to have been tired and discouraged at times, but they didn't give up. They were up to the challenge of their day.