Editorial Roundup: Texas

The Dallas Morning News. Sept 27, 2020

Dallas budget fight did real political damage

City Council got little for the pain.

To look at the ugly 9-6 split vote and the very real, if short-lived, danger that the Dallas City Council would fail to approve its budget, you would be forgiven for thinking a lot was at stake Wednesday when our 15 leaders determined how to spend your tax dollars

But no. This was a vanilla city budget, not unlike so many other budgets before it.

The police were not defunded, despite a loud activist crowd that showed up to virtual City Hall demanding a ridiculous $200 million be stripped from the police department —enough to ensure that a quarter of the police force was out looking for jobs.

In the end, those activist voices weren’t nearly as loud as the legions of residents telling council members that public safety remains the single most important concern in our city — a message that every City Hall survey and town hall meeting has driven home year after year.

The only cut of any substance — $7 million from police overtime — was advertised by Mayor Eric Johnson as a “defund” effort. That was, at best, mistaken and, at worst, cynical, stirring residents’ fears over what actually might be a beneficial reform.

Most of that $7 million is going to hire civilian employees in the police department who should free officers from desk jobs. Will it work? Time will tell. But in a $500 million police budget, redirecting a few million hardly amounts to defunding, and the mayor should never have told residents it did.

Which brings us to the mayor’s unhelpful leadership this budget cycle. Johnson dug in early on a poorly conceived and poorly executed plan to “defund the bureaucracy” by slashing City Hall salaries. Using the term defund was a mistake. Targeting — across the board — the city’s lawyers, accountants, planners and other professionals (who have job options even in a pandemic) was more slogan than strategy. And failing to communicate with fellow council members and instead creating a public fight only compounded his folly. In our system, the mayor will never be successful leading this way.

What’s worse, the mayor’s approach wounded this council’s ability to function cohesively for the greater good. Not that the council did not return the favor. This vote never needed to be a 9-6 split. It was because a pettiness set in that saw small dollars stripped from things that matter to people around the horseshoe — like memberships in inter-governmental agencies such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

This was much ado about almost nothing. But the political damage matters because next year, when we expect the federal dollars to dry up (if such things ever happen anymore), the city will have a budget gap in the tens of millions of dollars if not more. That will mean real pain and real decisions over how to shrink the size of local government.

It won’t be time then for “defund” slogans. It will be time for painful decisions about people’s careers and about the services residents have come to depend upon.

At that time we will need a better functioning City Council. Let’s hope we get it.

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Austin American-Statesman. Sept. 27, 2020

We need reform. Abbott gave us a campaign stop.

What a squandered opportunity.

After months of Texans holding largely peaceful protests demanding changes in the way communities are policed, Gov. Greg Abbott took to the stage this week to discuss public safety. His big announcement? Rioters who assault police officers, hurt others or cause property damage — crimes already punishable by jail time — should face stiffer penalties.

Certain illegal acts should be even more illegal.

Of course, such behavior is dangerous and intolerable. Such acts have been the outliers, though, in the otherwise nonviolent protests in Texas over the past few months, since George Floyd’s death galvanized calls to end abusive police practices. Yet Abbott shamefully squandered this important moment, ginning up outrage about rioters and ignoring the deeper injustices that brought protesters to the streets to begin with.

Perhaps we should have expected as much: Abbott’s appearance was a campaign event, and his message played nicely into the Republicans’ law-and-order mantra this election season. But in this moment, Texans needed Abbott to discuss policing not as a politician, but as our governor.

We should be talking about no-knock warrants and SWAT raids. Abbott’s press conference came the day after a Louisville, Kentucky, grand jury cleared police officers for killing Breonna Taylor during a horribly botched SWAT raid of her apartment. Just sit with that for a moment: The law allows police to get warrants to bust into people’s homes while they sleep, and officers can use deadly force if a resident, like Taylor’s boyfriend, opens fire on the people he thinks are intruders.

Last year a Houston couple died in a similar type of violent and unnecessary raid. Authorities later indicted an ex-Houston cop for allegedly falsifying information to get the warrant.

The larger practice of no-knock raids still cries out for dramatic reform. This tactic should be reserved for only the most extraordinary cases and justified by rigorous vetting. No one else should die in their own home from a pointless raid.

We should be talking about banning chokeholds and requiring de-escalation. Both are provisions of the George Floyd Act proposed last month by the Texas Legislative Black Caucus. Neither should be controversial with anyone who watched the video of Floyd gasping to breathe in his final moments, a Minneapolis police officer’s knee pressed into his neck.

We should be talking about reining in pretextual traffic stops. Because Sandra Bland, pulled over in 2015 for failing to use her turn signal when changing lanes, didn’t have to die in a Waller County jail cell. Because Javier Ambler II, pulled over last year after failing to dim his headlights and then fleeing from Williamson County deputies, didn’t have to die after repeated jolts from a Taser.

We should be talking about ending arrests for fine-only offenses. As we’ve noted before, these arrests drive up jail costs for taxpayers, contribute to overcrowding and burden defendants with a jail stay when a simple summons to appear in court would do. Ending such arrests is also a component of the George Floyd Act, and if we’re serious about addressing racial inequities, this is one of the places to start. Among those facing these low-level charges, the data show minorities are more likely to go to jail and whites are more likely to get a ticket.

We should be talking about police tactics against protesters. We recognize officers need tools to defend themselves or to disrupt a gathering that has turned dangerous. But we’ve also seen the horrific head injuries Austin police inflicted — in some cases on bystanders — by using so-called “less lethal” ammunition on protesters in May. APD has since stopped using lead pellet-filled “beanbag” rounds for crowd control. Lawmakers should make that prohibition statewide.

We could go on. Qualified immunity. Police training. Transparency when someone dies in police custody. Abbott had his pick of important public safety issues to discuss this week. He chose instead to rail about rioters.

What a waste. Texans hunger for real public safety reforms. Abbott was content to play politics as usual.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Sept. 24, 2020.

Sickness, poverty in 76104 diminish all of Fort Worth. Here are some solutions

When a 2019 report identified Fort Worth’s 76104 as the ZIP code with the lowest life expectancy in Texas, it drew attention and lamentation, but it didn’t spark much action.

That needs to change. In this era of focus on discrimination and disparities, it’s time to get to work on behalf of neighborhoods with a rich history that are now being left behind.

An investigation by Star-Telegram reporter Nichole Manna details the human consequences of the health and economic neglect of 76104. The stories show how deliberate policy choices and sweeping generational change have led to wide gaps that shorten lives, typically by 12 years off the national average.

Several factors drive the disparity in the mostly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods in the area, but the most glaring and frustrating is in healthcare. The area includes the city’s hospital district, so residents with the most acute needs in the city are in the shadows of the city’s premier institutions. But they often can’t access the care, thanks to cost and transportation issues. In the Historic Southside, Hillside and Morningside neighborhoods, where many residents do not have cars, there are zero medical clinics or pharmacies.

The proximity to hospitals has prevented them from opening clinics in the neighborhood. While that makes sense at one level, leaders of the county’s JPS Health Network should step in and put one there. That step alone would save lives lost to chronic conditions.

Many of the area’s residents would qualify for JPS’ low-cost services, but residents told Manna they are often unaware of the options. A better marketing campaign is in order; one idea would be to partner with neighborhood churches to spread the word.

The area needs pharmacies and primary-care doctors, too. The city and state must step up with economic incentives to encourage such business development. Federal student-loan assistance aims to draw doctors into rural areas; why couldn’t a similar program urge doctors to practice in these impoverished neighborhoods?

Longer term, the area also needs a sustained focus on nutrition. The nearest grocery stores are a long trek via public transportation, and it’s difficult for residents to sustain healthy eating habits amid block after block of convenience stores, fast-food restaurants and dollar stores.

The city is working on ideas to bring a grocery store to the area. And while government incentives will be crucial, this is a chance for corporations to step up and help. Indeed, while targeted government spending is crucial, the best long-term solutions for the area are those that come with sustainable private-sector economic wins, too.

White the priority is healthcare, the issue that connects so many of the area’s problems is transportation. The city’s level of commitment to public transit overall is disappointing, but in this case, perhaps there are pilot programs that could test ways to connect residents to healthcare facilities, at least, could lead to real improvements. JPS could take charge, too, doing more to provide shuttle services and working with Trinity Metro to improve bus routes so that going to the doctor isn’t a daylong commitment.

Both the statistics and the in-depth reporting show a simple fact: Poverty kills. The decline of neighborhoods such as these unfolded over decades, and they’ll take some time to fix.

Until the coronavirus epidemic slammed the entire economy, Fort Worth enjoyed a long stretch of growth and prosperity. It will eventually return, and when it does, the city and county must do more to make sure that everyone benefits. The 76104 ZIP code would be a good place to start.

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