Editorial Roundup: Texas

Austin American-Statesman. May 11, 2022.

Editorial: Gov. Abbott should be transparent, release border documents

What is he trying to hide?

That was our first thought late last week when we learned that Gov. Greg Abbott had refused a media request to disclose correspondence critical of his decision to order extra inspections on commercial trucks entering the U.S. from Mexico.

Widely lambasted, the April truck inspections led to backups at the border stretching for miles, destroying$240 million worth of produce and delaying delivery of car parts, electronics and other goods. Abbott’s inspections put more strain on an already crippled U.S. supply chain and experts said the debacle cost the Texas economy $4 billion in lost gross domestic product.

Amid the fiasco, state business leaders and lawmakers and the governors of two Mexican states wrote Abbott letters that he now refuses to release, though some of that correspondence has already been made public.

Texas taxpayers have every right to know what drove Abbott’s decision, how it harmed the flow of commerce and how his administration responded when it became clear the secondary inspections created a self-inflicted disaster. Abbott ended the inspections days later.

Abbott ordered the inspections on April 8, though the federal government already conducts similar inspections on trucks entering Texas from Mexico. The strategy was part of the multibillion-dollar Operation Lone Star border policing initiative the governor launched after complaining that President Biden wasn’t doing enough to secure the border.

The governor’s legal department told USA Today Network reporter John Moritz that many of the documents he requested fall outside the purview of state open government laws for reasons ranging from attorney-client privilege to putting the state at risk of terrorism to interfering with law enforcement.

It’s also possible that these documents might cast Abbott’s decision in an even worse light. If that’s the case, the governor still has an obligation to come clean about the fallout from his short-lived policy, which many Texans, including this editorial board, have criticized as an ineffective political stunt. Inspecting commercial trucks a second time, when the federal government already does that, cost the economy billions but did not produce a single arrest of unauthorized immigrants or seizure of illegal drugs or weapons.

Abbott has asked the Texas Attorney General to issue an opinion on the matter. We urge him to be transparent instead of hiding behind exceptions in the Texas Public Information Act.

“Clearly, more of the requested documents should have been released from the start,” Kelly Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, told our board. “Public information must be provided promptly and without delay.”

As he campaigns for reelection -- and a possible presidential run in 2024 -- Abbott has increasingly sought to show he’s tough on border issues. In that pursuit, he’s shown a willingness to burn through billions in tax dollars for border policing without producing clear data demonstrating his initiatives are working.

Abbott recently shifted an additional $495 million from other state agencies, including the Health and Human Services Commission and the Texas Department of Public Safety, to pay for Operation Lone Star, which includes the deployment of thousands of Texas National Guard troops to the border. The state has already allocated about $3.9 billion for the initiative.

Enforcing immigration law and protecting the U.S.-Mexico border are federal responsibilities already costing the U.S. government billions. When Greg Abbott spends billions more in Texas taxpayers’ money for political posturing and border policing they didn’t ask for, Texans deserve a full accounting permissible under state freedom of information laws.

We urge Gov. Abbott to help restore faith in government by releasing documents related to his secondary truck inspections, and to be fully transparent about Operation Lone Star.

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Dallas Morning News. May 12, 2022.

Editorial: Texas is trying to claw back some unemployment benefits. It needs to slow down.

TWC should account for its mistakes.

The Texas Workforce Commission was overwhelmed when the pandemic forced millions of Texans out of work in 2020. That’s understandable. Now it’s asking its former beneficiaries to fix its mistakes. That’s not.

Last week, six Texans filed suit against the TWC. Those plaintiffs say the agency provided unemployment benefits and is now asking for the money back. One of the plaintiffs, Kim Hartman of Austin, told a Dallas Morning News reporter she received two statements from the TWC saying she had been overpaid by different amounts, each thousands of dollars. More than a year after appealing her case, it still isn’t settled and TWC has not provided a detailed accounting of the mistake. TWC declined to talk to our reporter, citing the pending litigation. We reached out last week to give the agency another chance. We were especially curious to know how many more cases like this are out there. How many other Texans might get a surprise letter demanding that they return unemployment benefits, which they have already spent? We got the same response: “We cannot comment on pending litigation.”

People like Hartman are spending time and money they don’t have fighting the state over the demand that they return money they have already spent.

We understand the commission was understaffed and facing a mountain of claims these past two years. Mistakes are excusable. But the right response to mistakes is to own up to them, explain how they happened, and then work with interested parties to resolve conflict. In this case, even if the resolution meant beneficiaries must return some funds, the TWC should have walked those beneficiaries through the accounting that supports that solution. Instead, they now find themselves fighting a lawsuit.

Buried under the bureaucratic red tape here, TWC seems to have lost a basic principle. This is an agency that exists to help people when they’re down. It seems to be doing the opposite.

Plaintiffs in this case deserve an explanation, as do any others who might come forward with similar claims. And they deserve time to adjust. The TWC can make this right. They should do so right away.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram. May 13, 2022.

Editorial: Think abortion views are set in stone? They aren’t. Not for either side. Just look at Europe.

Despite its odd title, the Texas Railroad Commission is all about regulating the oil and gas industry. Given 2021’s Snowmageddon’s power grid failure and a possible energy crisis due to a scorching summer, the commission could use a disruptor to the old ways of doing business.

Oil and gas attorney Sarah Stogner, 37, of Ward County in West Texas is the kind of candidate who could bring needed change — with a few caveats.

First, she might be able to win over enough voters to beat the incumbent, businessman Wayne Christian, 70, in the Republican runoff. The winter fiasco taught us a lot about how the commission, like the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, handled the power grid failures. Neither were proactive enough.

Christian is too much status quo at an agency that needs a shake-up. As with most commissioners, Christian’s campaigns are heavily funded by the industry he regulates. He faced criticism for voting to approve a permit for an oil field waste dump facility and days later accepting a $100,000 campaign donation from the company.

It’s time for a fresh perspective.

Stogner is an unconventional candidate — she made national news when she posed mostly naked atop an oil pump jack on TikTok. It was an embarrassing stunt by an inexperienced candidate trying to get attention. It doesn’t disqualify her for office, but we hope the next time we see her near an oil pump, she’s clothed.

Stogner can help the state if she leans on her experience as an oil and gas attorney and works to win over colleagues.

Employing more than 800 people with a budget of $144 million, the Railroad Commission is the state’s oldest regulatory agency. It’s governed by three board members, all Republicans, who serve staggered four-year terms.

Energy is Texas’ most vital resource: With the war in Ukraine and gas prices skyrocketing, the commission needs to help Texas companies harness more oil and gas while still protecting the environment.

During the March primary, Christian secured 47% of the votes and Stogner received 15%. Whoever wins May 24 will face off against Democrat Luke Warford in November. Early voting runs May 16-20.

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Houston Chronicle. May 14, 2022.

Editorial: We recommend Mike Collier in Democratic runoff for Texas lieutenant governor

Mike Collier can’t wait to talk to Republicans about property taxes.

First, though, he needs to win the runoff to represent Democrats in the general election for Texas lieutenant governor. In the March 1 primary, state Rep. Michelle Beckley of Carrollton, 52, finished 12 points behind Collier but still called on him to drop out of the race claiming he did not inspire the base. Collier, however, quickly consolidated support from Democratic leaders including U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and 17 of Beckley’s colleagues in the Texas House, as well as from Planned Parenthood Texas Votes and Texas AFL-CIO.

If Collier defeats Beckley, he will be back in familiar territory trying to break Democrats’ 27-year losing streak in statewide Texas races. In 2014, Republican Glenn Hegar beat Collier for comptroller by 20.7 percentage points. Four years later, Collier lost to Dan Patrick in the lieutenant governor race by a margin of only 4.8 points. Normally we look askance at perennial candidates but Collier, 61, seems to be getting stronger with each run. This time, he says he’ll close the gap in a rematch with his stronger fundraising and talented staff.

“There’s a level of anxiety that I didn’t see four years ago,” Collier told the editorial board on Friday. “Dan Patrick’s campaign strategy has been to fight culture wars that stir up anxiety, but that doesn’t work universally.”

A Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation poll released April 5 showed support for Patrick at 49% and Collier at 43%.

Collier admits to being a “mere mortal” who doesn’t attract the crowds that gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke does. As early voting in the runoff begins, he is heading to the Rio Grande Valley where he expects groups of 20 to 30 people at his meet-ups.

When Collier speaks, he conjures a vision of a less divided time, talking about his roots growing up in Williamson County and his campaign visits with folks in rural Texas. He says we are not as hyper-partisan as the news suggests. But underneath his we-can-all-get-along tone is an urgent focus on fairness. And that’s where property taxes come in.

Collier argues that by closing a tax loophole for large property owners, Texas can provide real tax relief to everyday Texans while providing increased funding for education.

“I’m not making any promises I can’t keep, but until we have an honest accounting we’ll never see our property taxes go down,” Collier told the board before delving into the 1997 passage of a tax law that he and other critics argue has allowed large companies to underpay on property taxes. He began his career as a certified public accountant and auditor at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, and it shows. The shifting of the tax burden on homeowners’ backs, he said, can be found in a footnote of Article 3 of Texas’ state budget.

Collier is betting that he can go head-to-head with Republicans on their own turf — tax cuts — saying they’ve lost credibility. Beckley, his primary opponent, argues that she can prime the Democratic base and notes she flipped her Denton County state House district in 2018. Beckley warns that Collier has never won an election, but we believe he’s got a better chance at wooing the moderate voters a Democrat will need to win statewide.

Collier is eager to engage more than the Democratic base, and has even voted for Republicans in the past. We believe that’s the right type of candidate Democrats should support. Whoever wins the race for lieutenant governor will be working with a Republican majority in the senate.

Before the primary, Collier told us that Republicans he talks with yearn for a state government that partners with them on honest solutions to real problems. We do, too. Collier offers a chance at bringing the Texas Legislature back from the fringes.

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San Antonio Express-News. May 13, 2022.

Editorial: In Operation Lone Star, Abbott has created a quagmire

Operation Lone Star is a tragic and costly example of what happens when political considerations motivate public policy.

We strain to even call Operation Lone Star policy. Steeped in theatrics and mired in incompetence, the mission is a disaster. Instead of acknowledging this failure, Gov. Greg Abbott has doubled down, at tremendous cost to Texans.

Abbott recently transferred $495 million from various state agencies to fund the rising cost of deploying thousands of National Guard troops to the Texas-Mexico border. Additionally, the state quietly shifted $1 billion in COVID relief aid to keep Operation Lone Star running. The two-year cost for border security from the state has ballooned to about $4 billion, with no apparent end in sight.

This cost alone is enormous and should trouble taxpayers, who also should wonder just what has been accomplished.

We also see a resource shift away from other priorities. COVID relief aid could have been used to support small businesses and out-of-work Texans, and to distribute therapeutics and vaccines. Just imagine how billions of dollars might have supported public education, property tax relief or infrastructure.

Officials claim the most recent transfer will not impact the agencies tapped for the funds: the Health and Human Services Commission, Texas Department of Criminal Justice and Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. As Abbott and other state leaders wrote in a letter to the heads of these agencies, about half of the funds were budgeted last fiscal year and “would otherwise lapse and be unavailable.” The other half comes from this year’s budget and has “been fully funded with other sources.”

But the letter doesn’t provide details about these transfers — and, anyway, the logic fails. The money came from somewhere and could have been used elsewhere.

Abbott has created a quagmire.

Launched last spring, Operation Lone Star overwhelmed county criminal justice systems, with hundreds of immigrants released after sitting in jail for weeks without formal charges or appointed attorneys, both apparent violations of state law.

Texas officials have also thrown together a mishmash system of courts and jails to address the problem, a response that has cost millions of dollars.

Then came Abbott’s inspections of commercial trucks in April that backlogged the border and likely cost the state’s economy more than $4 billion. The inspections turned up… nothing.

The most tragic consequence of this abysmal policy is the death of National Guard soldier Bishop Evans, who lost his life last month trying to save two immigrants from drowning in the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass.

Evans’ death has raised big questions about how prepared guardsmen are to help migrants during river crossings and what type of equipment they have available to them in these dangerous situations.

There are other examples of the failures plaguing this operation since it started last year, but all point to the need for the governor and his supporters to end the chaos — and end it now.

Through all the chaos, officials have misled the public about the operation, including failing to provide evidence to support the claim that troops have cited hundreds of gang members, according to an investigation by ProPublica, the Texas Tribune and the Marshall Project.

Policies based solely on enforcement are ineffective because the issue does not begin at the border; it begins in the countries from which immigrants flee out of fear and desperation. They are escaping poverty, violence and oppression. Militarizing the border will not resolve those concerns, especially since many migrants are seeking asylum.

A more humane approach is required, one that addresses the humanitarian issues driving the exodus. This means comprehensive immigration reform that forms partnerships with our southern neighbors. The crisis demands a latter-day Marshall Plan, the U.S.-sponsored program that helped nations recovering from World War II.

The federal government’s failure to achieve this has created an opening for politicians like Abbott to exploit the border for potential political gain — at immense public cost. One might wonder, just how and when does Operation Lone Star end?

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