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Recent editorials from Texas newspapers

April 25, 2017

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Texas newspapers:

The Monitor. April 23, 2017.

With the Trump Administration’s intent to build a border wall on the Southwest border, come the potential for hundreds of landowners in the Rio Grande Valley to be affected. And while the government has the right to claim land for “national security” reasons, there are many rights that landowners also have, according to our U.S. Constitution, that can delay the process, ensure citizens are paid justly for their losses, and in some cases, successfully fight the takeover of private lands.

But most importantly, landowners must be aware of their rights and they must be prepared with how they plan to respond if, and when, the government comes calling.

Because an informed citizen will be an engaged citizen.

Informed citizens will understand that in order to take their land, the federal government must offer them “just compensation.” The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution does enable the taking of private lands “for public use,” through eminent domain, but only if the landowner is paid a fair price.

That’s an important distinction, Efrén Olivares, racial and economic justice director at the Texas Civil Rights Project, recently told us. It means that a landowner does not have to accept the first offer, especially if they believe it is not at fair market value.

“You can refuse the first offer and you have the right to bring in your own estimates,” Olivares said during a news conference at his Alamo office. And part of that estimate should include not only the price for the land they are taking, but the devaluation of the existing land that is left, he said. An example would be a farmer whose field is bisected and left unusable for its intended purpose in the future.

Olivares said letters have already gone out to many Valley residents, including some in San Benito. He said that earlier in April he went to speak to homeowners there, and one landowner told him he was unaware that he could refuse an initial offer, which he accepted but said it came in quite low.

Olivares said the offers always increase and homeowners do not have to settle for less. He said that when the government was acquiring private land, under the 2006 Secure Fences Act, to build a border fence/levee here, there was one case in which a woman had border land in her family for “several generations.” She did not want to sell and was also originally offered $100. “Ultimately she got $56,000,” he told us.

That case from 2008 was settled, but Olivares said there are almost 100 of the 300 cases filed at that time that still remain unresolved and are clogging the court system. Now, his nonprofit organization is offering free legal services to landowners and is trying to rally them to file cases that “could take years,” he said.

“We are prepared to fight the long haul for these landowners, either through the preventing of taking (the land) entirely or if that’s not possible, ensuring that the landowners receive full compensation for the value of their land,” he told us.

There’s no doubt that these pro bono services are being offered to politically tilt the issue: And that is to stop a border wall.

We are not advocating that. We recognize that President Donald Trump wants to build a wall and we recognize the legal footing his administration has in claiming this necessary for “national security” reasons. We do, however, urge residents and landowners to educate themselves on the process.

This includes knowing that the government must clearly communicate, in writing, exactly what pieces of land they seek; how much will be paid for each piece and what the intent is for the land — will it be used as an easement for agents to gain access to the border wall, for instance, or will concrete for a 30-foot wall be poured there.

The bottom line is that citizens must be treated with respect and the government must give them their due process.

Those who refuse offers, or cannot come to negotiable terms, have the right to request a jury trial in federal court.

Also be aware that if the federal government wants the land they can act quickly and swiftly to legally change the title into their name, once they have communicated the land, price offered and intended use and deposited the money to the landowners, they legally become title holders with the local court registry. But in order for the government to begin work on said property, they must first file a “motion for immediate possession” and if that is challenged, then that can delay the process, which can buy the landowner more time.

There are about 150 border landowners in Hidalgo County and another 150 in Cameron County; El Paso County has 300, Olivares said. His agency is offering services to all 600 and he said volunteer lawyers throughout Texas and other parts of the United States also have offered their pro bono services to help landowners fight the takeover of their property and to ensure their rights are upheld.

In 2008, all of the 300 filed cases opposing the border fence were sent to the court of U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen. Hanen is the well-known judge whose court heard the controversial DACA/DAPA case against the Obama Administration, which was sued by Texas and several other states which opposed the deferred adjudication program for immigrant parents of U.S. citizens and children of immigrants. It is uncertain whether Hanen’s court would be responsible for an onslaught of new cases, especially since nearly 100 eminent domain cases from 2008 are still pending there.

We expect that the government will provide additional courts to hear the cases, as well as patience and prudence in the treatment of landowners whose lives will be uprooted and forever changed by the taking of their lands in order to build a border wall here.


Corpus Christi Caller-Times. April 24, 2017.

It may surprise Texas homeowners that the insurance industry is in crisis. Silly them, they probably thought they were the ones in crisis from increasing premiums for increasingly less coverage and higher deductibles.

But, no, the problem is the homeowners and their greedy lawyers, according to the industry. The industry is trying to remedy the situation by doing something it’s good at — asking the Legislature for protection.

The protection sought by the industry is contained in Senate Bill 10, recently approved by a Senate committee. SB 10 would lower the penalty against insurers for deliberately slow payment of claims, require more extensive notice from customers that they plan to sue, and funnel much of the litigation to federal courts. So, in review, that means:

— Insurers would have less incentive to give their customers what’s rightfully theirs in a time of need.

— The process for seeking a remedy would become more onerous for those customers.

— And, finally, justice would be denied by virtue of being delayed interminably by the much slower federal court system.

State courts, while not exactly Mustang GTs when it comes to speed, at least don’t have a crisis of unfilled openings. That may be the one advantage of electing judges. Appointment of judges takes forever because of Washington, D.C., politics. In Corpus Christi, federal Judge Janis Graham Jack has been retired on paper since 2010, when she went to so-called senior status. She continues to work and to issue rulings that make state and national headlines such as when she declared the state’s child protective system broken. The other federal district judge, Nelva Gonzales Ramos, also makes attention-getting rulings on high-profile cases, such as voter ID. SB 10 would add the tort claims against insurers by the residents of Lindale, Schanen Estates, etc., to the loads carried by these two judges. Imagine it happening to every federal district court in Texas.

A recent guest column by insurance industry advocate Beaman Floyd in support of SB 10 cites a Texas Department of Insurance study that says insurers have paid more in claims than they collected in premiums for the past 20 years. We had no idea insurers were charitable organizations providing insurance out of the goodness of their hearts. And at a loss! But, no, wait, another guest column by Texas Watch executive director Ware W. Wendell says the industry took in $4.5 billion in profit in Texas since 2012. To review, that’s $4.5 billion in profit, not just premiums. No wonder the insurance industry hasn’t abandoned Texas completely.

Notable backers of SB 10 include Dallas businessman Brint Ryan, who the Texas Tribune described as a Republican “megadonor;” billionaires Red McCombs, Ross Perot and Robert McNair; and of course Texans for Lawsuit Reform — a name that deserves an asterisk pointing out that it all depends on how you define “reform.” This list doesn’t sound like people in crisis.

There’s a reason SB 10 and its House companion, House Bill 1774, are called the blue tarp bills — because instead of being repaired promptly, property damage would remain covered under blue tarps while insurers exercise their lobbied right to foot-drag at their customers’ growing expense.

Some lawyers make millions defending the rights of homeowners. Insurers make billions while squawking that the sky will fall if the Legislature doesn’t protect them from those greedy millionaire lawyers and their thousand-aire clients. Lawyers make good villains until who’s calling the kettle black is considered.

The so-called remedies of SB 10 are their own indictment. Giving insurers more incentive to delay payments, burying their clients in extra paperwork if they dare seek justice, and dumping extra caseload on overworked federal judges who frankly have bigger priorities, just to gum up the works, doesn’t sound much like justice.

Shame on state lawmakers if they don’t stop this attempt to turn the American dream into a Texas nightmare.


Fort Worth Star-Telegram. April 24, 2017.

After months of hearings, discussion and committee meetings, the State Board of Education decided on a compromise on ninth-grade biology curriculum language.

In February, a science committee argued to remove language that could open the door for creationism and intelligent design to be taught in ninth-grade biology.

The committee, made up of educators and district officials, wanted the language changed so teachers didn’t have to “evaluate” scientific explanations for origin of life and intelligent design.

A compromise was reached to strike the word “evaluate” and replace it with more restrictive language, like “examine,” for the curriculum in these instances.

The board on April 21 gave final approval to the revisions.

Ninth-grade science teachers already have to cover a lot of curriculum, and “evaluating” evolution versus creationism isn’t explicitly mentioned in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS, test.

Though Texas is predominantly Christian and creationism and intelligent design are an unavoidable conversation, science teachers shouldn’t have to devote precious time to teaching the complex subject.

The State Board of Education made the right call.


Houston Chronicle. April 24, 2017.

Standing tall on white slippers, ballerina Sara Webb brought the Sugar Plum Fairy to life at the Nutcracker ballet last year. Her performance was so dazzling, she may have inspired a new generation, according to a review of opening night by Chronicle reporter Molly Glentzer.

The tiny jumps and flickering footwork that captivated more than 80,000 audience members weren’t just made possible by ticket-holders and generous donors. The artistry of all the dancers was on display in part due to state grant money — which state lawmakers have now put on the chopping block. In an effort to balance the budget, the Texas Legislature wants to slash cultural arts districts funding from $5 million to zero for the next biennium.

Again, another shortsighted legislative budget proposal that ultimately will harm our state. Buttressed by government grants, the arts not only add vibrancy to our state, they’re also a $5.5 billion industry in Texas, according to the 2017 State of the Arts Report released by the Texas Cultural Trust.

The state’s cultural district arts funding “was not intended to be a one-time designation,” said Jennifer Ransom Rice, executive director of the Trust.

Private philanthropy and ticket sales don’t cover the cost of many performances and cultural arts presentations. While only a sliver of the state’s budget, arts funding in past years didn’t just help the Houston Ballet revitalize the Nutcracker. The support also played a key role in paying for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s major retrospective of the career of Edgar Degas.

The MFAH — the only U.S. venue for the show — not only hosted more visitors to the exhibit than could fit in NRG Stadium at the Super Bowl, but also gave its visitors the priceless experience of seeing the arc of Degas’ life work.

A loss of state arts funding couldn’t come at a worse time. Texas currently has one of the lowest levels of per capita arts funding in the country, and President Donald J. Trump’s budget suggests that federal funding for the arts could disappear or be severely scaled back.

Combined cuts at the federal and state levels could limit the opportunities for those families with modest budgets and school districts who rely on established cultural institutions for artistic enrichment.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, who heads the Senate Finance Committee, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “I support the arts and understand how important it is to promote cultural tourism.”

So we know not all lawmakers are in agreement about the budget proposal. Who will be the Legislature’s arts champion?

Wild swings in funding aren’t good policy. Voters should let Nelson and other lawmakers know that the arts matter to Texas.


The Dallas Morning News. April 24, 2017.

The accounting trick the Texas Senate is using to wiggle out of budget cuts may be technically legal, but it’s still wrong.

This take-responsibility-defying contortion act involves delaying a $2.5 billion payment of sales tax revenue to the state highway fund — but allowing the credit to nonetheless appear on the Department of Transportation’s financial ledger.

All that to avoid doing the responsible thing and, as the House budget proposes, using money from the Texas rainy day fund to make ends meet.

Supporting a withdrawal from the state savings account, which is made up of tax money from oil and gas production, is not something we come to gladly. But we’ve backed dipping into the fund before, when basic needs demanded dollars not available elsewhere.

That’s what Austin faces this legislative session — starting with the gaping holes in Child Protective Services and the foster care system. This time around, a little help from the nearly $12 billion rainy day fund is needed.

The House and Senate have recently begun to reconcile dueling budget plans that address many child-focused needs and offer reasonable starting places for negotiation.

It’s only fair to note that the House is working its own accounting maneuver. In order to fund $1.5 billion as a first step toward school finance reforms in HB 21, it pushes back another school payment by a month, effectively into the next budget.

But while the House’s schools plan is a true funding delay, the Senate’s transportation funding gimmick tries to have it both ways.

In 2015′s constitutional amendment vote, Texans said they wanted $2.5 billion dedicated to highway projects. But Finance Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and other key senators decided to delay that transfer of sales tax money from August 2019 to September 2019, the next budget cycle, so they could use it for other needs.

Yet, inexplicably, the same $2.5 billion still shows up in the transportation department’s funding.

With House leaders rightfully howling about this budget dodge, Attorney General Ken Paxton on April 21 provided a nonbinding opinion on the Senate plan. While he acknowledged that the Texas Constitution requires the state comptroller to put the sales tax into the highway fund, he said a judge probably would be OK with a one-month delay.

We’re not the legal arbiter on this maneuver — nor is Paxton. But we suspect we speak for many Texans when we say it’s irresponsible to play funding games to balance the budget while leaving $12 billion in savings on ice.

If the Senate is banking on the possibility that its accounting stunt is too complicated for voters to understand, that is not sound policy.

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