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Recent editorials from Texas newspapers

July 30, 2019

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Texas newspapers:

The Dallas Morning News. July 29, 2019.

All eyes turn to the foster care system in the aftermath of a tragedy. Calls for reform are widespread once people hear about problems with the system, but the insistence on change often dims once the spotlight shifts.

Between 2015 and 2017, popular desire to reform Texas’ foster care system reached new heights. A landmark ruling by U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack illuminated many problems with the system and mandated changes, and the state Legislature followed suit with legislation addressing problems with the state’s system for protecting children.

While significant progress has been made, we need to maintain our insistence that the system be improved, as rollbacks to reform have already begun.

In her 2016 ruling, Jack required that the state update its computer-based case management system. This month, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals inexplicably rejected this requirement.

This rejection is significant. The state’s current system, IMPACT, has been roundly criticized for being outdated and difficult to use. Jack determined that the system was simply too decentralized to be used efficiently.

IMPACT doesn’t keep all of a child’s records in one place, so caseworkers need to go digging to find important information, or risk missing it entirely. For instance, information about a child’s history of abuse or neglect is kept in a completely separate database, so it’s possible for a caseworker to miss information about a child’s history of abuse and recommend the child be placed in a harmful situation.

In 2016, it was estimated that caseworkers spend 75% of their time doing administrative work, such as searching IMPACT for case records, and only 25% of their time interacting with children.

Caseworkers are already overworked. A lot of issues contribute to this — low funding and hiring, high turnover and heavy caseloads — and working within a poorly equipped system only exacerbates this. Jack ruled that an improved system was an essential step in lessening the burden on caseworkers and providing better outcomes for kids.

To be fair, the state has made moves to modernize the IMPACT system in recent years, claiming that a new system would be abortively expensive and that it’s better to improve the existing software. But modest improvements do little in the face of a complex problem.

You can repaint a car with 500,000 miles on it as many times as you want, but at some point it’s going to leave you stranded.

It’s imperative that the state prioritize the well-being of its children over the potential complexity of a difficult task. The problem will not go away if we kick the can down the road, and the software will only get more antiquated the longer we wait.

The 5th Circuit removed external pressure on the state of Texas to fix this problem, but the state can choose to reform without it.

In the aftermath of Jack’s ruling and other landmark improvements, as a society we felt the need to improve a system that is supposed to care for thousands of kids in Texas. The need hasn’t gone away, even if some of the immediate pressure for reform has dissipated. Our hope is that the state presses forward anyway. These children are precious and shouldn’t be left to the mercy of antiquated computer systems.

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Houston Chronicle. July 29, 2019.

Buses. Light rail. Uber. Lyft.

In a city with growing transit options, regulations that perpetuate traditional car use make little sense.

That’s why we’re glad to see that City Council made the right turn on parking policy recently. Council members eliminated minimum parking requirements in east downtown and part of Midtown, allowing developers — and not the city — to determine how many parking spaces residents and businesses need.

Outside downtown and the areas covered by the new rules, Houston regulates how many spaces a development must have. Want to build a hospital? You’re going to need 2.2 spaces for each bed. Starting a restaurant? It must have 8 spaces for every thousand feet of floor space. Even opening a bar, you’re going to need 10 spaces for every thousand feet — to accommodate all those designated drivers, we suppose.

The council’s actions are part of a growing trend nationally to change development regulations, William Fulton, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, told the editorial board.

“Minimum parking requirements prevent the efficient and profitable use of urban land,” he said. “When you have areas in high demand, where land is expensive, and where the goal is to try and use that land to house people and provide them ready access to amenities, those requirements get in the way.”

Along with increasing the cost of development and housing, these minimum parking requirements also subsidize cars and encourage their use, leading to more traffic and pollution.

“Each parking spot costs $15,000 on average. Parking requirements mean you are forced to invest in parking, and once you invest in car storage, you’re going to use it,” said Jay Crossley, executive director of Farm and City, a nonprofit that advocates for smarter urbanization. “There is no public benefit to these minimums.”

Crossley pointed to the work of Donald Shoup, a professor in the Department of Urban Planning at UCLA, who in his book, “The High Cost of Free Parking,” compares parking minimums to requirements that all hamburgers must come with fries. A great analogy that bears repeating.

Those who don’t eat the fries pay higher prices for their hamburgers but receive no benefit — besides the self-satisfaction of exercising will power. Those who eat the fries they wouldn’t have ordered eat unhealthy food they wouldn’t have otherwise. And those who would order the fries if they weren’t included are no better off, because the price of a hamburger would increase to cover the cost of the fries, Shoup wrote.

During the July 16 City Council meeting, the lone dissenting vote on the new ordinance was by District G Councilman Greg Travis, who brought up a common concern: that homeowners will see residential streets full of commercial parking.

There’s a remedy for that: to charge for street parking and protect the neighbors with residential permits. This may seem inconvenient, but the right of way belongs to the public, not only to the adjacent property owner. And frankly, the issue comes with the territory. Residents of the affected areas should have different expectations and understand there are trade-offs to living in a more walkable area.

Travis also worried that businesses would be hurt by not having enough parking, but eliminating minimum requirements isn’t about doing away with parking, it’s about using current parking options more efficiently.

Fulton pointed to a Kinder Institute study that found that while drivers complained there was no parking to be found at Rice Village, especially during the lunch rush, within a quarter of a mile of the high-demand area there were at least 1,000 empty spaces at any given time. Access to them varied, but property owners were free to work together to solve parking problems.

City policies encouraging this kind of cooperation would be a good next step. For example, a parking garage used during the day by an office building could be used at night by a restaurant, or an electric shuttle could ferry people back and forth from a parking lot to a business district. And as the city prepares to look at transit corridor regulations, it should seriously consider doing away with minimum parking requirements there, as well.

The council deserves recognition for moving toward reducing government interference in the free market, pushing for increased use of public transportation and improving walkability. Houston may be a car city, but its policies should emphasize that it’s a people city first.

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Amarillo Globe-News. July 30, 2019.

A number of Texas counties are looking to vote centers as a way to make a sometimes cumbersome process easier for everyone as election officials across the state ramp up for what is expected to be massive turnout for the 2020 presidential contest a little more than a year from now.

A story from the Texas Tribune explored the pros and cons of voting centers, pointing out that Lubbock County was an early adopter of the practice, rolling them out in 2006. In the ensuing years, more than 50 Texas counties also use voting centers, which are replacing the precinct-based approach with which voters are likely more familiar.

The challenge with the precinct system, at least in the most recent elections, is voters going to the wrong location and leaving without casting a placeholder ballot that would record a failed effort to vote, according to the Tribune story. The result was thousands of votes being thrown out. With voting centers, people can cast their ballot at any location regardless of where they live in a county.

The prospect of removing precinct boundaries should provide more people the opportunity to participate in the process. Voters no longer would have to worry about whether they were in the “right” place. It seems a step in the right direction, but election officials will need to be cautious in how they embrace voting centers because the next step often is to close or consolidate polling places in the name of fiscal responsibility.

In Texas, which has a less-than-stellar voting rights history, some fear the first polling places targeted could be in areas with predominantly Hispanic, black and lower-income residents, suppressing voter participation among segments of the population that historically vote in elections at lower rates than whites and more affluent Texans, according to the Tribune story.

Such fears have their basis in fact. According to a report from the Secretary of State, more than 150 voting site closures or consolidations can be directly linked to implementing vote centers. Under law, counties have the leeway to reduce polling locations to 65% in the first election where vote centers are used and 50% after.

“Our concern is to make sure that we increase the likelihood of people voting,” James Douglas, head of the NAACP branch in Houston, told Harris County commissioners earlier this year. “This ought not be about money.”

According to the Tribune, more than 50 counties had been approved to launch vote centers at the time of the 2018 general election. Texas is among more than a dozen states that allows the practice.

The priority across the state should be to make participation accessible to all voters, which should mean taking a long look at why specific polling places might be closed or consolidates. While turnout and cost will be part of the consideration, they should not drive decisions, nor should proximity be an overriding factor as numerous voters across Texas have mobility challenges.

“It really, truly will be the responsibility of the county officials making those decisions to make sure it’s not done in a way that’s discriminatory,” Beth Stevens, voting rights legal director for the Texas Civil Rights Project, said in the Tribune story.

No one wants to see their vote disqualified, and the state should do all it can to make the process as smooth as possible for everyone. This should be done in a thoughtful and prudent manner that gives weight to all factors.

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