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Recent editorials from Texas newspapers

February 6, 2018

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Texas newspapers:

Longview News-Journal. Feb. 4, 2018.

In his State of the Union address, President Donald Trump called for $1.5 trillion in new spending on infrastructure projects. We know the topic is not as much a hot button as many others he discussed, but we commend the president for bringing attention to it.

The fact is infrastructure — roads, bridges and so forth — is an important but often-overlooked and underfunded item. That is unfortunate, because projects to maintain, build and expand such systems are at the core of what keeps our country moving and its economy booming. Imagine how difficult our lives would be if we did not have good roads or reliable electric and water service.

In the case of water supplies, we don’t even see the pipes and lines; most of us have just come to expect water will come forth when we open our taps. We take for granted that it will be there, and that it will be clean and safe to consume.

In recent weeks we have witnessed what can happen when we take too much for granted, when we fail to pay attention to what is happening at the other end of those pipes that bring us water. We have seen that if we do not have capable, well-intentioned people monitoring our water, we can wind up like the customers of Elderville Water Supply Corp., which recent developments suggest has been going off the rails for some time.

It has become clear there was a significant lack of oversight by the directors who hired Ernie Paul five years ago as general manger to head the water supply. That lack of oversight continued to the hiring of Utility Director Dean Carrell, which came despite his felony conviction six years ago for defrauding the city of Sonora when he was city manager there.

Paul and another employee were recently terminated by the water supply’s board, and others have been suspended amid what appears to be a criminal probe. At this point, however, it appears Carrell will continue as utility director.

Now that the situation is getting much-needed scrutiny from patrons and law enforcement, we hope the situation is cleaned up and the water supply can soon get its house in order to provide reliable service to its customers. As that happens, there also should be a review of the oversight process that allowed the situation to get to such a low point in the first place.

We see a couple of important lessons in this situation. One is the crucial importance of infrastructure. As the customers of Elderville Water Supply who have suffered with inadequate service and high costs can attest, life becomes quite difficult without such systems. Building and maintaining them is a proper use of tax dollars, and one we support.

Another is the same one we brought up in the past year regarding the case of East Mountain city government. In both situations, we believe, a lack of attention from a majority of voters and taxpayers both to their elected officials and their employees led to improper, costly and potentially dangerous shenanigans. To avoid such situations, residents must be engaged at the ballot box and in keeping an eye on officials and their activities. Only then will their decisions be prudent and properly keep our cities, state and nation moving forward.

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The Facts. Feb. 4, 2018.

The state has finally reached a settlement in a class action suit brought by inmates who were being forced to endure stifling hot conditions — regularly exceeding 100 degrees — in the housing area.

Now the state will install air conditioning at the notoriously sweltering prison: the Wallace Pack Unit, southeast of College Station. The success of the suit means other inmates living and guards working in other state prisons without A/C also could see some relief on the horizon.

The agreement still needs to be approved in federal court, but U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison said he is optimistic it will move forward.

Of course, there never should have been a need to file a suit to begin with, as no human being can be constitutionally subjected to such cruel, unusual and potentially deadly conditions.

In Texas, it should be a no-brainer that A/C is not a luxury. It’s a necessity, especially during the summer months when the dangers of heat stroke are all too real. How real? In the last 20 years, almost two dozen prisoners have died from heat stroke in Texas prisons.

“It’s a big day for the inmates who suffered through those summers at the Pack Unit,” said Jeff Edwards, attorney for the prisoners. “They’re not going to be in fear of dying from heat stroke anymore.”

Bringing A/C to the College Station prison we hope will just be the beginning. According to The Texas Tribune, the state has more than 100 prisons, and almost 75 percent of them don’t have air conditioning in the areas where inmates live. That is simply unacceptable, particularly in buildings that typically lack windows or ventilation, and where sweating humans are packed in close proximity to one another.

We are fully aware inmates were sentenced to prison terms in order to be punished, surely not to enjoy luxury resorts or vacation homes. No one is suggesting that be the case. But prisoners should be able to expect not to die from a heat stroke because their living quarters are nothing more than oversized crock pots. A prison sentence shouldn’t be akin to dropping a live lobster into a roiling pot of boiling water.

Yet, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice at first fought Ellison’s ruling, and appealed the decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Attorney General Ken Paxton even said air conditioning systems in Texas prisons are “unnecessary and not constitutionally mandated.”

Paxton should say those words to the grieving families of Texans who died from heat stroke in ovens masquerading as prison cells. On that topic, the settlement also includes resolutions of several wrongful death lawsuits filed by those very families of inmates who perished in the stifling conditions.

While the settlement just covers the unit in College Station, the implications fortunately are more far-reaching, the plaintiff’s attorney points out. “Obviously, if the inmates can prevail and get much needed protection from the heat in one prison, there’s significance to that for inmates everywhere,” Edwards said.

No one expects or wants prisons to include all the comforts of home. But a basic expectation of safety and protection from cruel and unusual conditions should be the standard. It’s good to see Texas might be moving in the right direction, even though it took some legal prodding.

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The Dallas Morning News. Feb. 5, 2018.

The Dallas Area Rapid Transit board needs to clean up its act. DART’s board of directors should take a fresh look at the agency’s code of ethics, its enforcement and its in-house policies in light of questionable hiring practices.

DART’s ethics code prohibits the agency’s hiring of a former board member for one year following the end of that person’s term. Yet, a former member and local pastor who left the board last summer after 10 years, in a Dallas City Council appointment shake-up, has been hired as a temporary, part-time worker to help with civil rights outreach and minority contracts.

The code contains a clause that allows the board by two-thirds vote to waive the one-year prohibition when presented a written statement. Yet, in the recent case, no waiver was sought; the board was only notified of the hiring in advance of Dallas Morning News columnist Robert Wilonsky’s recent article.

The column noted that three former board members now hold high-level positions (two vice presidents and general counsel) with the public agency. While there’s no policy outlawing this practice, there is an appearance of clubbiness.

According to DART spokesman Morgan Lyons, neither the one-year prohibition nor the waiver applies to the $35-an-hour job in question, because the hiree is an at-will, temporary, part-time employee who does not have a contract with DART. “Our hiring rules allow us to bring in such employees as needed,” he said.

These “hiring rules” need to be re-examined as they pertain to a former board member or that member’s immediate family. So does the ethics code, which was passed in 1991 and may deserve an update to shore up any loopholes.

At the very least, the one-year prohibition should extend to part-time, temporary employees. And any hiring rules should require that all jobs be posted to ensure an opportunity for competition. The recent job in question was not, and no one else was interviewed.

The ethics code states that board members should not “grant any special consideration, treatment or advantage to any entity which is beyond that made available to any other similarly situated entity.”

To carry out the intent of that statement, the board needs to be better informed by staff and be party to sensitive hires. It is also now incumbent on DART administrators to report to the board what work is being done in the name of civil rights and minority contracts by the new hire.

This is a public agency that answers to taxpayers, not a private business where friends can be hired on a handshake “we already know you” basis. Even if there is no impropriety, DART must guard against even the appearance of it.

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San Antonio Express-News. Feb. 5, 2018.

Texas lawmakers have sought to tie necessary disaster-relief aid for Hurricane Harvey with price controls for cotton.

It’s a particularly rich maneuver because in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which hit New Jersey and New York especially hard in 2012, so many Texas lawmakers inaccurately criticized relief for that storm as filled with unnecessary pork and other expenditures.

Yet, here we are, with the so-called “cotton fix” somehow tucked into an $81 billion disaster relief package that recently passed the U.S. House. Texas lawmakers apparently see no problem, disconnect or irony.

This is likely because cotton is a big deal in the Lone Star State, generating about $2.2 billion in crop value in 2016, according to Kevin Diaz, a reporter with Hearst Newspapers’ Washington bureau. Much of that cotton production is in West Texas, far from the ravages of Hurricane Harvey.

The cotton fix would put the crop back into the Price Loss Coverage program, ensuring a minimum price. Cotton had been removed from the program in the 2014 farm bill after the U.S. lost a challenge with the World Trade Organization. Since then, cotton growers have relied on a special crop insurance subsidy to backup crop prices

Cotton and disaster relief are two separate issues, and should be treated as such. Or as Daren Bakst of the Heritage Foundation told Diaz, “This is a major policy change that shouldn’t be buried in some disaster relief bill.”

The appropriate venue would be upcoming debate over the farm bill.

The industry says inclusion in the program is needed. But reinstating the price support program could invite another WTO challenge and provoke a trade war with other cotton-producing countries. A down market could cost taxpayers.

Whatever the case, it has nothing to do with disaster relief for those hit so hard by hurricanes and wildfires.

Maneuvers such as these — leveraging disasters and hardship to invoke a major policy change for an unrelated issue — is a chief reason why distrust of Congress is so strong. The right thing to do is expeditiously pass an appropriate amount of disaster relief for Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and California. And then debate the merits of the cotton fix with other agriculture issues.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Feb. 5, 2018.

In the past few years public officials who dare include new toll lanes in highway projects have become targets for extermination, not only by voters but by some high-flying elected leaders.

That’s not how it was in 2009, however, when the Texas Legislature passed an agreement that approved managed toll lanes for the final leg of the North Tarrant Expressway. Now, however, completion of the 6-mile section of the highway expansion is indefinitely delayed, and that could jeopardize financing.

We agree with transportation planners who are urging local stakeholders to pry loose approval from top leaders. This stretch is in one of the fastest-growing areas in the country and the I-35 corridor already is considered one of the most congested corridors in the state. The need for the I-35W expansion won’t go away.

It appears this final segment is being indefinitely delayed by a Texas Transportation Commission bowing to anti-toll road pressure from Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

At a cost of $762 million, the project calls for existing lanes to be rebuilt and toll express lanes to be added. About $521 million would come from federally backed loans and private activity bonds taken out by the private developers, NTE Mobility Partners. NTE would provide another $223 million. Texas would kick in $18 million, money that could come from gasoline taxes, motor vehicle registration fees or proceeds from state issued-bonds or the state’s rainy day fund.

The Texas Department of Transportation was going to use this formula — which has already provided more than $4 billion into the entire NTE project — to pay for this last section of highway. Then Abbott and Patrick objected.

Patrick said adding the toll lanes runs counter to lawmakers efforts to reduce the state’s reliance on toll roads. He said voters approved Proposition 7 in 2015 to pump billions into new infrastructure, but not into paid lanes. To continue along this path opposes their will, Patrick said.

Abbott, who appoints all five of the commissioners overseeing TxDOT, also spoke out against using tax dollars for more toll lanes. A spokeswoman for Abbott told the Texas Tribune that he has expressed “their desire to not include new toll roads” in the long-term roadway plan.

Local transportation leaders, including the Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition, are countering with a letter-writing campaign asking Abbott, Patrick and others to resolve their differences and allow I-35W to go forward as previously approved.

The numbers show this is a good investment. The state will only be putting up a fraction of the cost — $18 million of $762 million. If the project isn’t paid for this way, TxDOT’s and taxpayers will be asked to foot more of the bill.

Our region took this approach to paying for roads in 2009 because the need outstripped available dollars. Those conditions aren’t likely to change.

Motorists may grumble about paying tolls on managed lanes, but they ultimately support this approach by putting the pedal to the metal and whizzing through the toll gates across our region. The non-tolled lanes are still there for those who prefer to wait longer in traffic.

It takes decades to plan, finance and build major roadways. What lawmakers decided in 2009 after public discussion should be honored. A good deal then is still a good deal today.

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