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Recent editorials from Texas newspapers

Associated Press Updated: March 24, 2015 at 1:15 pm
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San Antonio Express-News. March 23, 2015.

Influence from the end of a gun?

The United States spends more on its military than the combined spending of the eight countries that follow. This is according to figures used by both the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and the International Institute for Strategic Studies. In fact, the latter organization says the U.S. spends more than the next nine countries, using 2013 dollars.

China and Russia are generally cited as this country's foremost state foes, and the U.S. spends, on the first list, $364 billion more than they do combined. Make that nearly $382 billion more in the second list.

So, it's difficult to understand precisely what Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, the nation's new leading light on all things involving foreign affairs and national defense, has in mind when he calls for the United States to achieve "global military dominance."

The United States is already there. It has virtually more of everything, including enough nuclear weapons to leave the Earth a smoldering, radioactive rubble — only Russia vying with that capability.

Because this was in the "maiden speech" of the freshly minted senator, the temptation is to dismiss this as the ravings of an exuberant defense hawk feeling his oats. But this is a guy who got 46 other senators — 46! — to sign an open letter to Iran in an attempt to scuttle negotiations to keep nuclear weapons out of Iran's hands. The apparently gullible John Cornyn and Ted Cruz were among those signing the letter.

Our fear is, first, that Cotton really is that persuasive or, second, that he speaks for a potent enough segment of his party to scare others into compliance because this segment has designated him its latest chosen one.

But maybe Cotton really has in mind the likes of ISIS, the caliphate wannabe, or other terrorist organizations. Implacable, dangerous foes to be sure — but, again, existing even though the U.S. is already militarily dominant. This dominance was in place, by the way, when terrorists struck on 9/11.

And a militarily dominant United States still found itself mired, first in Iraq and then Afghanistan — leaving enough of a mess in Iraq to give both ISIS and Iran openings and threatening to do much the same in Afghanistan because Afghans can't be thoroughly convinced to quit killing Afghans.

Cotton called for "such hegemonic strength that no sane adversary would ever imagine challenging the United States." The dictionary definition of hegemony is "leadership or dominance, especially by one country or social group over others."

Cotton seems to have a different definition of a key phrase there — leadership. This comes in leading by example and helping to solve problems before they explode into armed conflict. And this involves expertly directed foreign aid and diplomacy — of the kind, by the way, the United States and other countries are trying to exercise in nuclear negotiations with Iran.

The backdrop to Cotton's call to arms is the U.S. budget. Defense hawks, Cotton among them, want more spending than even the already generous deficit hawks — the Pentagon being a favorite agency — are going to give. Both segments savor how defense dollars trickle down to their communities.

But we would turn the traditional GOP argument on government spending around — on both segments. Shouldn't we eliminate waste and inefficieny first? For instance, the Pentagon, which should know, has said it has too many bases. Congress has refused to start another round of base closings — parochial concerns about "my base" or "my plant" clearly trumping all else.

Military City, USA benefits greatly from defense spending. We love our bases and would love to keep them but have confidence that they can stand on their merits. You see, even folks in a Military City, USA can recognize that, when it comes to defense spending, more is not necessarily the same as smart. We get the bigger picture.

Neither global dominance nor hegemony should be this nation's priority when it comes to defense spending. The world is far more complex than that. Influence and respect need not come from the end of a gun.

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The Dallas Morning News. March 23, 2015.

Legislature must fix Texas death penalty

Texans who support capital punishment might want to believe that the system has evolved into an excruciatingly fair, airtight application of society's utmost punishment.

If only that were the case, this newspaper might not stand with opponents of state-sponsored killing.

Each year brings a new set of execution dates that expose weaknesses in the system and offend the sense of justice. We trust that state lawmakers are alert to them and are willing to apply fixes.

Take Texas law on executing the intellectually disabled. Actually, there really isn't a law, despite the Supreme Court's 2002 landmark imperative against executing people with low IQs. The Texas response relies in part on a Court of Criminal Appeals ruling suggesting that someone like the fictional, dull-witted character Lennie in Steinbeck's novel Of Mice and Men is the type who ought to be spared the executioner's needle. Allusions to American literature have no place in deciding life-and-death matters in Texas.

The Legislature has neglected its duty to put greater specificity in the law, despite a steady flow of condemned inmates whose mental abilities have been in question.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, has legislation (SB 226) to remedy this. It would have the courts treat questions of intelligence like sanity questions, impaneling a jury to decide the matter before trial. Today, the same jurors who decide guilt-innocence also decide whether a person they just convicted is bright enough to be killed. The Ellis bill would separate the matters and take emotion out of the mix. This bill should pass and fill an embarrassing void in Texas law.

It was also embarrassing for the state when lawyers for mentally ill killer Scott Panetti discovered in the Houston Chronicle on Oct. 30 that his execution date had been set two weeks prior and was just weeks away. That's right: There was no direct, official notification to counsel that the state obtained a death warrant — and the clock was ticking toward an appeals deadline.

The remedy for this shamefulness would be companion bills by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, (HB 2110) and Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, (SB 1071). Texans should not tolerate stealth death warrants.

Nor should Texans tolerate the idea of an execution before all relevant evidence has been tested for DNA evidence that might bear on the case. Yet that's not a guarantee today, because of a screwy court decision requiring a defendant to prove "a reasonable likelihood" of biological material that could be tested. How might a defendant produce that proof if not through testing? Hence, a remedy by Ellis (SB 487) to eliminate this Catch-22 in state law.

This list of fixes could go on, but we'll mention just one more: the right of Texans to know everything about the execution process. That means everything — right down to the drugs used, their supplier and expiration dates. A bipartisan bill (HB 1587) by Reps. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, and Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, would secure the public's right to know.

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The Facts of Clute-Freeport-Lake Jackson. March 21, 2015.

Border money would be better spent elsewhere

In the last eight years, Texas spent more than $1 billion on measures intended to better secure the state's border with Mexico. Whether that money has been well-spent is arguable at best.

As the Legislature continues to push through border security bills, the potential effectiveness of the proposals is something too often missing from the discussion. It should be at its center.

We have made the point before that state leaders stepping up to enhance a security presence they deem inadequate is perfectly reasonable. The money spent on extra state troopers, an added checkpoint and other provisions is still significantly less than that spent on education and health programs for the children of illegal residents.

That said, the state's measures are mostly an enforcement action that doesn't address the root causes of why many new illegal immigrants try to make it here — violence back home, largely from cartels seeking to meet the demand for illegal drugs in the United States.

We support the reasonable steps addressed in the House bill authored by Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, and hope it is the base toward which the Senate moves. That said, none of the $500 million to $800 million the state will budget goes toward what would do the most good, namely providing resources for Central American nations to fight the cartels and changes in our own country to address drug demand.

Until those things are addressed at the federal level, no amount of money Texas spends will make much of a dent in the illegal immigrant problem.

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Houston Chronicle. March 18, 2015.

Saving tomorrow: Lawmakers should heed sound advice and prop up the Texas Tomorrow college fund.

Even as Texas parents prepare for a new child, many worry about how they will pay for the rising cost of college tuition. In response to this need, the Texas Legislature in 1997 opened the Texas Tomorrow Fund in order to let parents begin pre-paying college tuition. The state planned to use the interest earned from its pre-payment plan to cover the future cost of tuition.

The fund seemed to be a good idea at the time. It helped Texas parents plan ahead. It helped keep Texas talent in our state. It helped our state develop a better educated workforce. Since the fund was set up as a constitutionally protected trust and was backed by the state's full faith and credit, parents could sleep at night without worrying about whether the state would default on its commitment to them. In essence, parents had paid for an insurance policy against rising tuition costs.

About 158,000 families took advantage of the fund before the Legislature halted the program in 2003 when it decided to allow state universities to set their own annual tuitions. It failed, however, to make the necessary appropriations to keep the pre-existing fund in actuarial balance.

Despite this lack of oversight, parents who used the fund to prepay college tuition should still sleep soundly; the fund is guaranteed by a constitutional commitment. Comptroller Glenn Hegar, however, isn't as calm. He has sounded an alarm to taxpayers. The original fund is on track to run out of money by 2019, according to Hegar, even though the new fund, called the Texas Tuition Promise Fund, is structured to be actuarially sound.

Hegar has asked lawmakers to pump $600 million into the original fund this calendar year, ("State's tuition fund may run out," Page A1, March 10). That would bring the fund into actuarial balance. If lawmakers don't heed Hegar's advice, plugging the anticipated future deficit will be far more costly. By 2019, unfunded liability is estimated to balloon to more than $742 million.

Legislators should heed Hegar's warning.

The state has made a clear and unbreakable commitment to these families. The fund's promises must be kept. The state also has an obligation to be good stewards of taxpayers' dollars.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, the budget chairs in each chamber, said they understood the wisdom of Hegar's advice but neither could predict when or how lawmakers would act. The website for the Texas Tomorrow Funds boldly proclaims "time is on your side now." Without prompt legislative action, time will be working against Texas taxpayers.

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Austin American-Statesman. March 19, 2015.

Lawmakers need to listen to all Texans on gun rights bills

Last week at the Texas Capitol saw a steady march of gun rights bills from the Senate to the House catering to small-but-vocal portions of the electorate, with a complete disregard for the voices of those that these new laws might affect.

Open carry. Campus carry. Both measures were passed out of the Senate over the objections of law enforcement, still considered part of a core Republican political base. In the case of campus carry, students, faculty groups and even chancellors asked lawmakers to put the brakes on the bill, or at minimum, give public higher education institutions the ability to decide for themselves whether to allow guns on campus grounds, just like their private counterparts.

Sen. Sylvia R. Garcia summed it up best: "The people of Texas don't want this bill. The administrators don't want this bill. Faculty doesn't want this bill. Workers and employees don't want this bill. Students don't want this bill," said the Houston Democrat about SB 11, the bill that expands concealed handgun license privileges to college campuses. "Why are we doing this?"

As worrisome as the prospect of expanding access to guns on campus may be, the disregard for those who have to live with the Legislature's decisions is even more distressing, especially when there are more pressing issues to address.

The strongest signal of support for the state's higher education system has come from Texas A & M Chancellor John Sharp, who wrote to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, "Having licensed gun owners in possession of legal weapons on our campuses does not raise safety concerns for me personally. The real question is this: 'Do I trust my students, faculty and staff to work and live responsibly under the same laws at the university as they do at home?' Of course I do! However, properly funding the higher education of these students is the only issue that counts!"

Sharp's statement is not quite the same thing as "We need campus carry now for our own protection." In fact, his statement sounds more like, "Let's get this over with, so we can move on to more important state business like paying for new campus facilities and restoring higher education funding."

The University of Texas System Chancellor William McRaven, a former Navy Seal, was clear in his opposition to the measure, saying that it would make his campuses "less safe."

In the case of open carry legislation, the resistance from affected parties — especially law enforcement — is even louder, with official opposition from the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT) and a vast majority of Texas police chiefs, including Austin Chief Art Acevedo and Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland.

The resounding concern is that open carry will make the job of keeping Texans safe harder, not easier, for law enforcement. And in an era where law enforcement is facing increasing criticism for its use of force, we are inclined to agree with them. Officers are under incredible pressure to make split-second decisions about who is a real threat to themselves and others; increasing the visibility and number of firearms in the public square does not seem likely to improve the situation.

Sentiment around expanded gun laws may be passionate, but it is hardly universal — even in Texas. Despite the lengthy roster of speakers who testified in favor of the expansion of the state's gun laws, polling suggest that initiatives are not top of mind for most Texans. According to a joint poll by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune, only 32 percent of Texans would allow open carry — some with a license, some without. The rest would prefer the state stick to its existing gun laws (45 percent) or ban handguns all together (23 percent).

The fact that the gun-related bills have gotten such a warm reception in the Senate is hardly a surprise, given the political proclivities of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who promised to put the issue at the top of his agenda. It remains to be seen how the House responds.

We urge them to proceed carefully and listen to their constituents, not just vocal gun rights advocates. Many of these groups have no intention of stopping with expansions of concealed handgun rights; they continue to lobby hard for license-free open carry, elimination of fingerprinting licensees and loosening criminal background check requirements for gun purchases in lockstep with the National Rifle Association's agenda.

It is true that the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008 found outright bans to handgun possession unconstitutional and ruled that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to gun ownership, but as recently as last June the court continues to hold that some laws to regulate ownership of fire arms are within the government's statutory discretion.

The pursuit of an agenda that is 100 percent ideology-based bodes ill for Texas' future. True representation means doing what's in the best interest of the state and listening to the will of all the people.

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