When Stella Powell learned that she had colon cancer, the laws of Texas were not on her side. Death came too quickly for the Austin resident and she passed before her will could be signed and notarized, according to her wife, Sonemaly Phrasavath. Even without a will, state probate laws allow spouses to inherit. Yet Texas explicitly denies this ability to same-sex couples. Last week, Travis County Probate Judge Guy Herman ruled that this ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional and recognized Powell's legal partnership.
Later, another Austin couple said their vows in front of the Travis County Clerk's Office after state District Judge David Wahlberg ordered Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir to grant them a marriage license. It must have been bittersweet for Sarah Goodfriend and Suzanne Bryant, a couple of more than 30 years. Goodfriend had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and Texas' laws refused to recognize the important role that her partner would play as death became more than a mere abstraction. Marriage provides an easy answer to difficult questions about inheritance and end-of-life decisions, but it is an answer that Texas previously would not accept for Goodfriend and Bryant.
Society may still be divided over marriage equality, but everyone shares in these deeply human fears about preparing our families for lives without us. Nevertheless, heartfelt arguments alone cannot justify a break from established precedent. U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia, based in San Antonio, held that Texas' ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional back in February. His well-written opinion was based on recent decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court, but he placed a stay on any same-sex weddings in Texas until the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals could rule on the controversial case. A few months of legal marriage followed by a reinstated ban would likely do more to promote chaos than end discrimination. The current situation has already turned into a mess, with the Texas Supreme Court issuing an emergency stay of any future same-sex marriages. State Attorney General Ken Paxton is even claiming that the current marriage license the couple received is void.
Equal treatment under the law is easiest to achieve when judges act predictably and follow precedent.
Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore was rightfully mocked when he attempted to prevent probate judges in his own state from recognizing marriage equality after a federal judge held that the ban was unconstitutional. Texas' state judges are committing a similar procedural sin, even if their intentions are in the right place.
Still, the arc of the moral universe is undeniably bending toward justice. Same-sex couples are allowed to marry in 37 states and Washington, D.C. While U.S. history points to the courts as the best defenders of equal rights, popular opinion on LGBT issues has undergone a radical shift over the past decade. In 2004, 60 percent of people in the U.S. opposed same-sex marriage, according to a poll by Pew Research. Last year, that number dropped to 40 percent, eclipsed by the 52 percent of people who favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally. Even in Texas, a majority of people support same-sex marriage or civil unions, according to a 2013 poll by the Texas Politics Project.
As courts, legislatures and voters recognize same-sex partners across the country, our culture has not descended into sin nor has morality been abandoned. People who once had to hide their true selves or live on the periphery now seek to join the long-held institutions of love and family that form the bedrock of our society. Welcoming these new couples only strengthens the tradition of marriage, opening it to those who have fought hardest for it.
The struggle will continue, and our legal process requires that Texans wait for an answer from higher courts before striking down our own bans on marriage equality.
Yet, a question remains: How do you ask someone to be the last to suffer under discriminatory laws?
Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Feb. 22, 2015.
Behind the silly talk is a smart border solution
This will sound as crazy as the incendiary rhetoric about immigration policy, but a sensible border security plan might emerge from the current session of the Texas Legislature. Even wilder-sounding but squarely in the realm of possibility: It might turn out bipartisan.
Gov. Greg Abbott opened the door in his State of the State speech last week, proposing 500 new state troopers, a bigger Texas Ranger presence and funding for local law enforcement in the border region.
That's a prescription much more to the liking of border-area local law enforcement and government officials, who were alarmed and insulted by then-Gov. Rick Perry's deployment last summer of 1,000 Texas National Guard troops. They pointed out the obvious problems: The guard lacks the policing authority necessary to do the job, but has weapons and wears uniforms that make the area look militarized. And militarized is not business- and tourism-friendly.
Abbott's proposals are a lot nearer what those officials said they'd have recommended had they been consulted.
One of those insulted officials, state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, also has proposed a plan calling for a bigger state trooper and ranger presence and local funding. The differing details appear compatible. Hinojosa wants a permanent Rio Grande Valley ranger task force, a Department of Public Safety training facility in the Valley, more game wardens, funding for local law officers and prosecutors, and wider use of Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission agents.
What both the Republican governor and this prominent border-region Democratic state senator want is kindred in spirit. The details don't need to bedevil the outcome. They both seem intent on securing the border and adding jobs to Hinojosa's district.
Abbott and Hinojosa disagree on one key issue — the continuing National Guard presence. Hinojosa wants the Guard gone yesterday and Abbott wants it to stay put until the state and local presence displaces it. Hinojosa needs to let Abbott have that one. Abbott needs his comfort zone to function as a Republican leader on this polarizing issue. The concept of removing the Guard eventually rather than never is a breakthrough. Abbott is striking a balance that, as an added bonus, muzzles loudmouth Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who made it known that he intended for the state to keep throwing buckets of money at leaving the guard in place.
Hinojosa pointed out that the state's surge in border security enforcement has cost $102 million and counting. In a logical world, that would be a deterrent. But racking up huge border security expenses is an actual Republican strategy with national political implications. When Perry dispatched the guard, he declared his intent to send the bill to the federal government. Then-Attorney General Abbott backed him up. The guard troops in uniform also made the kind of impression Perry wanted in furtherance of his presidential ambitions. A surge of state troopers and sheriff's deputies, while much better suited to the actual task, would not have attracted national attention.
The eventual meeting of minds will require a lot of patience and tolerance of Abbott's requisite saber-rattling. It should be no surprise that he included border security among his proclaimed legislative emergencies, or that he did it with this opening statement: "The federal government's failure to secure the border has provided opportunities for violent criminals, drug cartels, and persons from countries with ties to terrorism to enter Texas."
Really? Because it would be amusing to compare today's federal border security presence in Texas to what it was when Dolph Briscoe was governor — or, for that matter, when George W. Bush was president. Also, the cause of the so-called border crisis was a surge of refugee children, not drug smugglers and terrorists.
But saying foolish things isn't foolish of Abbott. To the contrary, in the current strange political landscape, his foolish rhetoric is a politically expedient means to what looks like a sensible end.
Longview News-Journal. Feb. 24, 2015.
Great speech, governor, but how about Medicaid expansion?
Most Texans who heard Gov. Greg Abbott's first State of the State speech agree our state's new leader is getting off to a great start.
We concur. Our only wish is that the speech had been just a bit longer.
No, not to hear another anecdote (have you noticed how those have become a crutch for just about every speech-making politician these days?) but to hear Abbott address an important topic he neglected to mention.
That would be expansion of Medicaid in Texas, an issue former Gov. Rick Perry refused even to consider. In this, Abbott has another opportunity to show he is different than his predecessor, that he cares more about Texans than politics. He should tell the Legislature he would consider an expansion plan.
Of course that would be tough for Abbott, just as it was tough for other Republican governors who have expanded the programs for the good of their states. Just as they did, Abbott faces many loud voices from the extreme end of his party who want to keep shouting down common sense on this matter.
Those other governors weathered the storm because they knew Medicaid expansion was the right thing to do.
It's right not just for the individuals who would be served by it — though that certainly is enough reason by itself. After all, Texas continues to have the nation's highest rate of uninsured. It's what needs to be done for the health care of all those and the system itself. Numerous health care providers, particularly rural hospitals, have been crippled in the past several years in large part because of our state's failure to act.
This baldly political decision has had a direct impact here in East Texas, and it is well past time to put an end to it.
Doing so would not require full acquiescence to the Affordable Care Act. A purely Texas system could be devised to accomplish the goal and bring home the billions of dollars Texas is due. Several proposals — including by GOP lawmakers in the last session — have been put forth to begin doing just that. We know it can be done. It already has been in Arizona, Florida and Wisconsin, none of which have governors with great love for Obamacare.
Still, they did what needed to be done for the good of their states.
We never expected Perry to take that action — he is too much of a political animal. But Abbott has shown he is a different sort.
Perhaps he did not include it in his speech simply because he didn't want the expansion to be his idea. Maybe he would be willing to sign such a bill if it could be passed through the Legislature. Unfortunately, that isn't likely to happen unless Abbott signals he wants it.
That doesn't mean this shouldn't be given the best shot possible. As we've said many times in the past, it's long past time to stop playing politics with the health care of Texans.
Waco Tribune-Herald. Feb. 18, 2015.
Gov. Abbott has most priorities right but can he really keep legislators on track and pull off his bold agenda?
If Texas Gov. Greg Abbott can follow through on his five "emergency items" of pressing early childhood education; prioritizing higher education research initiatives; ensuring sustainable funding for transportation; securing the border in a more intelligent manner than Texas is now doing; and at long last pushing ethics reform statewide, he might just prove to be a great governor.
The devil is naturally in the details — and Abbott left out key details in his State of the State address at the State Capitol last week. For instance, his encouragement of school choice is worthy, but is he talking of spending public money on private and religious schools? That's troubling when we haven't even fixed school finance for public schools yet. On the other hand, his border security plan recognizes the limitations of using the Texas National Guard on the border.
Abbott acknowledged the embarrassment of never-ending battles over public school funding. At one point, he introduced state Rep. Will Metcalf, born in 1984: "For your entire life, the state of Texas has been mired in litigation about school finance."
But he also talked of more funding for schools that adopt high-quality pre-kindergarten and more teachers of science, technology, engineering and math — vital if Texas is to compete with states for high-paying jobs. And he held up a thick book of education law in Texas and vowed to help local schools "opt out of parts of the education code so they can design an education plan that best fits their community needs." That might help public schools succeed, though considering mandates now placed on them, we'll believe all this when we see it.
He vowed to bolster transportation funding through such measures as ending diversion of state gasoline tax revenue to other expenditures, thus putting forth a road system that more efficiently moves people and goods. He even engaged in self-deprecating humor in that regard: "It's a sad day in Texas when a guy in a wheelchair can move faster than traffic on our congested roads."
We're especially excited about his vow to downsize and reform state government, which may be his biggest test; Texas, he says, has more full-time state employees per capita than California. Abbott talked of cutting state agencies, beginning with his office. Further reform to us means pressing for more disclosure of campaign finance information, ensuring state officials don't profit from bills they vote on and reining in luxurious state pensions and double-dipping abuses — and putting teeth in ethics penalties.
It's a bold agenda. We have doubts about cutting taxes while spending more on education and border security and addressing $44 billion in mounting state debt. And we were surprised water wasn't mentioned. Let's just hope Abbott's force of personality is enough to keep state legislators on track and away from marginal, self-serving legislation designed to draw them headlines. If they can actually pull off this agenda, that will be marvel enough.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Feb. 24, 2015.
Not so open to 'open carry'
State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, would have you believe the overwhelming majority of Texans support the unlicensed open carry of handguns, what some call "constitutional carry."
Stickland introduced a measure earlier this year that would remove licensing restrictions on Texans wishing to carry handguns, concealed or openly.
"Texas is behind on gun rights and people are demanding action," said Stickland in January.
But a new University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll says those people are relatively few — only 10 percent of Texans support unlicensed open carry.
In fact, a plurality of Texans, the study of 1,200 randomly surveyed Texas voters found, prefer the status quo, licensed concealed carry of handguns.
Another 22 percent favor open carry, but only for those with licenses. About 23 percent believe Texans should never be allowed to carry a gun in public.
Party affiliation is a significant factor in one's views on open carry. Even so, half of Republicans prefer concealed licensed carry. Jim Henson, one of the poll directors, told the Tribune, "Unlicensed open carry is a starkly minority position,"
Someone should tell Stickland.