Austin American-Statesman. Sept. 3, 2014.
State funds should be reinstated for much-needed watchdog division
Once a target, always a target. And the Texas Public Integrity Unit is one heck of a bull's eye.
For years, threats of eliminating the unit have abounded, but until recently, none had delivered a substantial blow. Since Gov. Rick Perry vetoed the watchdog's 2014 and 2015 state funding, the Public Integrity Unit has been holding its head above water, but just barely. The cut in state funds resulted in a reduction of staff - from 34 to 24 - and curtailed the unit's ability to take on additional cases. Unless the Legislature approves more funds for 2016, the unit will potentially downsize even further. The Legislature should not allow this to happen.
The Public Integrity Unit, housed within the Travis County district attorney's office, is a valuable and indispensable part of the checks and balances system of state government. Instead of crippling the unit any further, the Legislature needs to restore proper funding for the unit to better serve Texans.
As the American-Statesman reported recently, the unit has held a tense relationship with Texas lawmakers on both sides of the aisle since it was created in 1982 under the reign of outspoken former district attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat.
Nearly every legislative session, allegations that the unit operates under a partisan lens spurred debate at the Capitol. But Earle, who stepped down in 2008, has always been vocal about his mission for the office, saying it has never been driven by politics but by a desire to weed out corruption in state government. The unit's record speaks for itself.
From its inception through 2012, the Public Integrity Unit has brought charges against top legislative aides and corporations, in addition to handling insurance and tax fraud cases statewide. That nitty-gritty public service makes up the bulk of its work. The unit has also nabbed headlines for its 21 prosecutions of elected officials: 15 Democrats and six Republicans.
High-profile cases against Democratic leaders include former Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox in 1985 for accusations of commercial bribery and South Texas state Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores in 2010 for failing to disclose income from companies with state contracts. Mattox later won acquittal in a trial, and Flores was convicted of four felony charges and five related misdemeanor charges.
Yet the indictments (previous to Perry's) that have reeled in the greatest national prominence as well as reproach have been the prosecutions of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay in 2005 and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in 1993, both Republicans. DeLay was found guilty in 2010 of laundering money to conceal corporate campaign contributions in a greater scheme to win political seats across the state. The case against Hutchison, indicted for misusing her prior office of state treasurer for personal and political business, was eventually dismissed.
Overall, the case numbers don't scream partisan politics.
Now, future investigations and prosecutions are in danger of never seeing the light of day. Lawmakers are rattling sabers about moving the unit or cutting its funding as a consequence of the felony charges of coercion of a public servant and abuse of official capacity brought against Perry last month by a Travis County grand jury.
To review: The indictments focus on Perry's threat to veto funding for the unit in the wake of the drunken driving arrest of District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg. The crux of the threat: If Lehmberg refused to step down, Perry would veto the unit's funding, which he ultimately did.
A petition Perry filed last week argues the charges wrongly infringed on his veto power.
While those matters are being worked out in the courts, the Public Integrity Unit's future sits in limbo.
As we've said before, the Travis County district attorney's office is a powerful entity in the state because the Public Integrity Unit is charged with policing the ethics of legislators and other state officeholders. While Perry's veto did not take away the unit's authority to investigate official wrongdoing, it left it without state funding. Authority without funding is no authority at all.
But their work must go on, not just for Travis County, but the entire state.
Legislators have filed bills to kill the division or transfer it to the Texas attorney general's office, though under the Texas Constitution, the office under the executive branch cannot control a division of the judiciary.
Lehmberg will serve until her term expires in January 2017. She has said she will not seek re-election. This should help in rebuilding trust in the unit.
Meanwhile, instead of dismantling the Public Integrity Unit, the Legislature should take steps to secure its future and simultaneously nudge the healing process.
Galveston County Daily News. Sept. 3, 2014.
Where to start after Robin Hood is gone
The judge in Austin was right, of course. The state's system for financing public schools is inadequate. Just about everyone agrees. But there's no consensus about the best place to start toward a solution.
So, here's a suggestion: Start with the premise that the cost of educating a student who is economically disadvantaged is higher than the cost of educating a student who is not.
The cost is not higher in a vague, nebulous or metaphysical way. It's higher by 27.6 percent in Texas.
That figure comes from a report by three professors at Texas A&M University - Timothy J. Gronberg, Dennis W. Jansen and Lori L. Taylor - published in 2009. Their paper was aimed at defending cost functions in educational analysis.
The number might change with time. But the point is that the cost of educating children who are economically disadvantaged can be measured in a reasonably precise way.
If you accept that, the place to start in the debate about funding for public education ought to be obvious.
It makes no sense to take money from school districts that have large numbers of economically disadvantaged students, such as Galveston's and Texas City's. It makes even less sense when those funds go to school districts that don't have a lot of economically disadvantaged kids.
But that's exactly what's going on today. Both Galveston's and Texas City's school districts have healthy tax bases. So, the state, using the Robin Hood approach, pinches off millions from those school districts and sends the money elsewhere.
The state's system today recognizes that the school district has a better-than-average tax base - and takes the money. It doesn't recognize that it has higher than average costs. Costs don't go away just because politicians don't recognize them.
Texas should come around to the reality that it does cost more to educate an economically disadvantaged student. In the search for an adequate system for funding public schools, that's the place to start.
Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. Sept. 3, 2014.
Water monitoring and limitations are needed to protect agriculture
The unanimous vote from the High Plains Underground Water District board that will require farmers to start tracking and limiting their underground water use in 2015 has obvious wisdom behind it.
More than 90 percent of the water pumped from the declining supply in the Ogallala Aquifer is used to irrigate crops. If the Ogallala eventually runs dry, so will irrigation.
We're in favor of the rule changes, but we don't expect universal approval for them from agricultural producers.
First, the new rules will change the growers' lives, and that usually causes reluctance.
Second, many landowners subscribe to the rule of capture and consider themselves to be the owners of the water under their land.
Such producers won't like being told what to do about water they consider to be theirs.
Nonetheless, agricultural producers are the people who have the most to lose from the declining supply of groundwater from the Ogallala.
The more water they use, the faster it runs out.
They may have the deed to the property they are farming, but it is not their aquifer. The water belongs not just to them but to the future owners of the property.
If the current owners suck the groundwater dry, no one wins.
And water is being pulled from the ground at a rapid pace. Among the 16 counties of the High Plains Underground Water District, the water has dropped about a foot per year for at least the last four decades.
That translates to about 325 billion gallons a year.
The Ogallala Aquifer recharges, but the water that trickles back into the aquifer is much less than the amount removed every year.
According to The Washington Post, the Ogallala provides water for one-fifth of the cotton, wheat, corn and cattle production in the U.S. The aquifer is spread out over parts of eight states, which includes almost all the state of Nebraska.
The new water rules will require water monitoring to begin next year in our area but will not necessarily require water meters.
Farmers will be required to limit water consumption to 18 inches per acre annually, and if they voluntary limit their production to a single crop, they will not be required to track their use.
It's going to require new strategies of farming and conservation.
The goal for Lubbock and the region is to have 50 percent of the Ogallala left in 50 years. It's a reasonable goal that will be vital to agriculture production in the future.
We understand initial reluctance of farmers to the new rules of monitoring water use and limiting water consumption.
But the High Plains Underground Water District is realistic about the limited resource of groundwater, and it's protecting agriculture of the future.
What's worse: The implementation of the new requirements or running out of water? There really is no choice.
Houston Chronicle. Aug. 26, 2014.
Playing to the base: Gov. Rick Perry prefers talking tough to being practical when it comes to the border.
Listening to Gov. Rick Perry muse about the possibility that Islamic terrorists could be slinking into the United States from Mexico is to listen to a man who's not serious about border issues. Of course, any Republican candidate negotiating the mine fields otherwise known as GOP primaries has trouble being serious about anything beyond stoking the party base. Still, we expect more from a long-serving Texas governor, someone who presumably knows more about complex border issues than most other elected officials. How refreshing it would be to hear a candidate speak thoughtfully, candidly and with an open mind about the border and immigration issues instead of resorting to tired, old obstructionism and demagoguery. Unfortunately, the latter was the governor's choice at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., last week.
In response to a question following his remarks, the governor asserted that "there is a very real possibility" that terrorists could be infiltrating this country from Mexico by taking advantage of what he called an "unsecured" border, although he added that there is "no clear evidence" that they are. Predictably, he called for more border law enforcement. "I've seen no indication that (terrorists) are coming across the border with Mexico," said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon's press secretary. Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Jose Antonio Meade said the governor's remarks were based on "beliefs, speculation and absolutely unfounded and absurd analysis."
Perry, who every day looks more like a genuine 2016 presidential candidate, is working to make sure he doesn't make the same mistake he made during his 2012 run. We're not talking about the "oops" error. Presidential primary voters haven't forgotten another damning heresy, the time during a 2011 debate when he used the word "heartless" to describe Republicans who oppose in-state tuition for so-called Dreamers. He has to show, this time, that he's just as tough on Dreamers and other undocumented immigrants as all the other presidential possibilities in his party.
What he could have talked about was the need to pass legislation designed to fix our broken immigration system. Passed by the Senate last year, the bipartisan bill combines a hefty border security buildup with a crackdown on illegal hiring, along with structural reforms of the legal immigration system and a mechanism that would allow the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country to emerge from legal limbo, register with the federal government and eventually earn citizenship if they meet certain strict criteria.
Perry doesn't want to talk about that comprehensive border fix, because members of his party have kept it locked up in the House for months, even though a majority probably supports it. House Speaker John Boehner won't even bring it up for a vote.
Perry also prefers talking tough to being practical when it comes to cooperation with Mexico, a key component of any effort to make immigration reform work in this country. Cooperation is key, whether it's working closely with our neighbor on law-enforcement and security issues (including drug cartels and human trafficking), on strengthening trade and economic ties, on addressing the wave of young refugees from Central America, to name just a few issues of mutual concern.
President Enrique Pena Nieto of Mexico called it "cohesion, not division" in remarks he made in California on Monday.
California Gov. Jerry Brown invited Pena Nieto to California after a July visit to Mexico, where he signed nonbinding agreements on trade, education and environmental cooperation. That's the approach we'd like to see from any candidate or elected official who's serious about immigration reform and border integrity.
Although Brown's Texas counterpart has said he enjoys visiting California - and maybe even living there some day - South Texas, we suspect, would have to freeze over in August before he would use the Californian as a model for anything. Nevertheless, Brown's positive approach to a seemingly intractable problem has merit.
Then again, the California governor, a Democrat who's up for re-election this fall, can afford to be practical and positive. He doesn't have to worry about Republican primary voters the way the Texan does.
San Antonio Express-News. Sept. 3, 2014.
Abusing due process for migrants
Central American women and children as national security risks.
It's ludicrous. It's a fraud.
Yet, this is what Immigration and Customs Enforcement prosecutors are trotting out to buttress their opposition to bond requests for immigrants in detention in Karnes City. There's some evidence this is occurring elsewhere as well.
It is ludicrous because the migrants are to terrorists what jaywalkers are to hardened felons.
It is fraud because the federal government knows this. The point is to keep them in detention because there is a desire for speedy deportation, all to send a message to Central Americans who want to join the roughly 60,000 who have come here since October.
And the problem with this is that it stands due process on its head.
The way it's supposed to work is that interviews and hearings occur to determine if there are valid claims to stay, as asylum seekers or through other avenues.
On the surface, that is occurring, but, according to immigrant advocates, in such an expedited and ham-handed fashion as to dissuade the pursuit of legitimate claims.
Mothers are being interviewed to determine if they have credible fear of harm if they are returned to their countries - in front of their children.
How would you like to talk about the possibility of being raped or injured at the hands of gangs in front of your children? So, women may not reveal sexual abuse in their past or other instances of persecution.
A recent Express-News article detailed some of the practices occurring at the detention center at Karnes City.
Among them, routinely denying bonds to women and their children though they pose no danger to the community and offer little to no flight risk, the standards for release on bond. It's difficult to concentrate on an asylum claim while being held in prisonlike conditions with your children.
An earlier article by Contreras told how, contrary to popular belief, immigrant children in particular are appearing for their hearings after being released. Having an attorney is one key indicator that people will appear.
Also, when these families have attorneys - many do not - these lawyers aren't being allowed to interview the adults and children separately. There have been cases of children being trafficked by people posing as their parents.
Due process is for everyone. Yes, even undocumented immigrants. This coercion must stop.
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