Corpus Christi Caller-Times. July 16, 2016.
As Texas grows, so must its government
The news about Texas' growth and prosperity just doesn't make sense. It was the third-fastest-growing economy among the states last year. And Secretary of State Carlos Cascos has reported gleefully that business startups for the first half of this year are up by 10 percent. The state also had the fifth-fastest population growth last year.
And last year was a down year. Oil prices continued to fall — good news only at the gas pumps in oil industry-dependent Texas. Yet, still there are a lot more people and businesses.
More people and businesses means more for state government to do. Texans look askance at government growth. But for it to shrink when the state is growing makes no sense — no logical sense, but perfect orthodox political sense.
Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus have directed state agencies to cut their budgets 4 percent — in other words, do more with less. The cliché fits because government agencies won't have the option of maintaining a status quo baseline of service. Population growth means growth in demand for the agencies' services.
Abbott, Patrick and Straus didn't address that challenge. They stuck with platitudes: "Limited government, pro-growth economic policies and sound financial planning are the key budget principles responsible for Texas' economic success," they wrote.
We agree with that. But shrinking government while everything else is growing is not sound financial planning. It's pound-foolishness.
Limited government sounds great as a phrase. Putting people out of work while providing less service to more people does not. It ruins the cachet of "limited government." But to ignore it is to be untruthful by omission.
The Legislature is projected to have $10 billion less to spend because of the oil downturn. The Texas Constitution requires a balanced budget. That would be an OK cover story for the 4 percent cuts if state leaders weren't considering another foray into cutting taxes like they did in the 2015 session.
The directive includes some key exemptions — public school funding, border security, Child Protective Services and mental health resources. All but border security already are scandalously underfunded. Other exemptions include Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program, public employee pensions and bond debt service.
In the last session the Legislature made what amounted to an $800 million political statement against the Obama administration by expanding the Department of Public Safety to address border security. Anti-Obama state leaders never could show convincingly that the federal government wasn't doing enough or that the DPS infusion would make a difference. But it's a generous hiring program and those jobs are safe from budget cuts thanks to Abbott, Patrick and Straus.
With all these new businesses and residents, if the Legislature expands state government enough to accommodate the growth, Texas still would have limited government. If the three top officials want Texas to remain pro-growth like they said in their joint statement, they'll need to let state government grow enough to accommodate the growth. Their 4 percent directive is 180 degrees in the wrong direction.
Waco Tribune-Herald. July 13, 2016.
Questioning police protocols doesn't mean one is anti-law enforcement
No one was exactly surprised that President Obama, in oratory solemn yet uplifting, neatly negotiated his way through a narrow and perilous labyrinth of grief, misunderstanding and hatred during his remarks at a memorial service honoring five slain Dallas police officers. At ceremony's end, though, one was left to wonder if we as Americans can just as determinedly thread the same needle — not in words but in deed, outlook and faith.
That's what it'll take to make America great again — not through border walls, virtual or otherwise; not by sweepingly stereotyping others by their faith, race or ethnicity; not through unrestrained gun control; and certainly not by seeking to aggravate racial animosity for political gain, as some of the president's enemies clearly have sought to do. Some suggested that, in questioning the deaths of black men at the hands of police officers nationwide in recent years, Obama is anti-police, which is absurd.
As Waco Police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton put it in an expression of solidarity with Dallas police: "The Waco Police Department is not perfect. We make mistakes and sometimes just flat-out screw up. We learn in those times, we move forward, and we grow. However, know this: The majority of men and women who make up your police department, sworn and civilian personnel alike, are some of the most dedicated, caring and steadfast individuals you will ever meet."
Only recently, Waco police launched internal and criminal investigations concerning three of its officers, all placed on administrative leave amid allegations of violence involving a man they arrested in East Waco. That's how the system is supposed to work, with police supervisors taking such allegations seriously. And the author of a national study released this summer suggests intense police scrutiny of allegations of low-level violence by individual officers may well prevent such future incidents, plus those involving the use of deadly force.
During his address, Obama stressed that criticism of errant or rogue cops should not be interpreted as an indictment of the vast number of police personnel who acquit themselves honorably day in and day out, often without thanks. He cited a 38-year-old Garland-based African- American, one of two civilians shot by Micah Johnson as he unleashed his hatred for whites on all downtown Dallas on July 7: "The police helped Shetamia Taylor as she was shot trying to shield her four sons. She said she wanted her boys to join her to protest the incidents of black men being killed. She also said to the Dallas PD, 'Thank you for being heroes.' And today her 12-year-old son wants to be a cop when he grows up. That's the America I know."
While much of the address focused on what Obama described as the African-American community "that feels unfairly targeted by police and police departments that feel unfairly maligned for doing their jobs," the tragedy of Dallas was correctly placed in the context of a polarized nation where few of us can talk openly about racial strife beyond the comfort of our own circles, including people who look just like us.
"Argument turns too easily into animosity," former President George W. Bush said during his turn at the lectern. "Disagreement escalates too quickly into de-humanization. Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions. And this has strained our bonds of understanding and common purpose. But Americans, I think, have a great advantage. To renew our unity, we only need to remember our values."
Except to the willfully ignorant and eternally divisive among us, the points are eloquently made. Question: Are there enough of us to stave off those whose ideas of American values extend no further than themselves?
The Dallas Morning News. July 19, 2016.
Just because open carry is legal doesn't mean it's always smart
With tensions flaring across the country and everyone from your next-door neighbor to uniformed police officers worried for their safety, we need more than the long arm of the law for protection.
We need common sense and civility; we need individuals to take responsibility for their behavior.
Open carry laws allow protesters to tote guns, large and small. But just because something is legal doesn't necessarily make it smart. Openly carrying long guns to public protests and large rallies, where the air is often charged and tensions are high, is unnecessarily provocative. It invites trouble.
Open carry — just to be clear — isn't to blame for the violence that's spreading across America. But flaunting weapons at protests and conventions can intensify confrontations and complicate the work of police.
That's why the head of Cleveland's largest police union pressed Ohio Gov. John Kasich to suspend the state's open carry laws during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this week. Kasich, saying he had no such authority, declined to do so.
And it's why many police chiefs across the nation oppose open carry. They believe it compromises the security of the people they're sworn to serve and protect — not to mention their own sense of safety. When violence erupts, it's hard for cops to tell the good guys from the bad guys.
The sober reality of that message hit home here in Dallas on July 7, when a heavily armed man ambushed police, killing five officers and injuring nine others.
Chaos ensued as gunfire rang out. Protesters, some toting rifles, scrambled for cover while police frantically searched for the source of the shots. In the midst of the confusion, one gun-bearing demonstrator, Mark Hughes, was branded a suspect.
Once identified, Hughes did the smart thing: He flagged down an officer and turned himself in, voluntarily relinquishing the AR-15 rifle that he'd slung over his shoulder while marching.
His experience serves as an important reminder: Protesters have the right to bear arms, but they also must live (or die) with the consequences of doing so.
"I don't know what to say," Hughes told KTVT-TV the next day. "In hindsight, 20/20, I could have easily been shot."
It has long been legal in Texas and other states to openly carry rifles. But for decades, that tradition was confined to rural areas, where it made more sense.
On Jan. 1, however, it also became legal in Texas for those with a permit to openly carry a handgun in a hip or shoulder holster.
We need not second-guess the Second Amendment to recognize the reality that comes with it. Carrying big, intimidating guns to protests is neither wise nor rational.
The (Brazoria County) Facts. July 19, 2016.
We should be sickened by Gingrich's suggestion
It's easy to let emotions get the better of us in the moments after a tragedy and blurt out a thought that sounds a lot more cogent in our heads than it does hitting the open air. We'd like to believe that's what happened with Newt Gingrich in the aftermath of another terror attack last week in France.
Even if we choose to give him the benefit of the doubt, though, what he put out as a reasonable measure is sickening on all levels, and the blowback he has received for uttering it is more than justified.
In an interview on Fox News Channel after a Muslim extremist drove an 18-wheeler into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, France, last Thursday, killing 84 people, Gingrich offered a suggestion that is the antithesis of American values.
"Let me be as blunt and direct as I can be: Western civilization is in a war," he told host Sean Hannity. "We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in Sharia, they should be deported.
"Sharia is incompatible with Western civilization. Modern Muslims who have given up Sharia, glad to have them as citizens. Perfectly happy to have them next door," he concluded.
As flawed as his arguments are in factual terms — for instance, all the ISIS-inspired attacks on U.S. soil have been carried out by American citizens, making it unclear to where they would be deported — the very idea of treating someone as lesser citizens because of their religion is repulsive. Have we learned nothing about institutional racism?
Americans have a right to be protected, but to discriminate against the rights of one group in the name of security for another goes against our core values. Not immediately assuming all Muslims are terrorists is not a reflection of political correctness gone amok, it's about moral correctness.
We are experiencing a troubling rise in America in which people are being painted as one mass group, with the indiscretions of a small slice of that group being applied wholly to others who share a skin color or cultural background. All Hispanics are here illegally. All African-American protesters support executing police officers. All law enforcement is out to kill black suspects.
To lump in another group based on their faith is unfair, un-American and abhorrent. America needs to improve its approach to terrorism, and installing Inquisition panels is not the right answer.
While Gingrich, a former House Speaker, presidential candidate and potential Donald Trump running mate, has a fundamental right in our country to share his thoughts, sometimes it's best to open the mind and shut the mouth.
Gingrich should have in this case.
San Antonio Express-News. July 19, 2016.
CPS reform must start with boosting pay
Recently, Henry "Hank" Whitman, the new head of Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, outlined a 10-point plan to improve Child Protective Services.
The plan was explained in a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott, and it has many merits, particularly its focus on supporting front-line workers and holding agency leadership accountable. A retired chief of the Texas Rangers, Whitman's law enforcement background is an intriguing match with an agency that primarily provides social work. But to truly improve CPS, Whitman and Abbott need to advocate for significantly better pay for agency workers. It starts there, and without a dramatic improvement in pay, other reforms will have little or no impact.
Why focus on pay first? Because CPS has an extremely high turnover rate, and that high turnover rate leads to extremely high caseloads for existing workers. High caseloads endanger kids. If the state of Texas wants to reduce turnover at CPS, and in turn, reduce caseloads, it will need to dramatically raise salaries for investigators and caseworkers.
In public comments, Whitman has been supportive of improving pay for CPS workers down in the trenches, but he has yet to offer specifics. In an interview with the Texas Tribune, he acknowledged the stress and dangers CPS workers face on a daily basis, and how their pay pales in comparison to those of police officers and teachers.
"Would you take a job on that's as important as this, wake up in the morning, visit how many homes?" he said to the Tribune. "You have a family you have to take care of, you've got to make sure you do the right thing and make the right decisions out there — for a pay that's less than a schoolteacher's pay, less than a police officer's pay."
This is a point F. Scott McCown, a law professor and director of the Children's Rights Clinic at the University of Texas at Austin, made in recent testimony to Texas lawmakers, noting the free market is telling lawmakers to boost pay.
He's right. Beyond having a passion to ensure vulnerable kids are safe, why would anyone take a job at CPS? That person could make more money, with less stress and danger, as a teacher working nine months out of the year. That likely means raising the starting salary for a caseworker to the ballpark area of $50,000.
Doing this right will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But not doing it right has costs, too. If lawmakers go cheap on agency pay raises, they will be throwing good money away because there won't be enough incentive for workers to stay. It's worth noting that it costs taxpayers $54,000 each time a caseworker leaves the agency, according to recent a review of the agency.
The problems facing CPS are daunting. We have a foster care system so broken it often damages the kids it's supposed to serve and protect. Funding for preventing abuse is negligible, and notably, prevention was the last point in Whitman's 10-point plan. That seems like it should be at or near the top of the list.
No one expects Child Protective Services to be fixed right away. Fighting for better pay as a way to reduce turnover and caseloads would create a foundation for future success.