Editorial Roundup: Texas

Houston Chronicle. June 3, 2021.

Editorial: Failure to lead - the 2021 Texas Legislature in a nutshell

If there were any legislative session when Texas lawmakers eschewed politics for serious policy, when class clowns got serious about life-or-death issues, when personal agendas took a backseat to the needs of ordinary Texans, it should have been this one.

After all, it isn’t often that a worldwide health emergency, a historic racial reckoning and Mother Nature tee up a trifecta of urgent, looming crises crying out for strong leadership.

But if the past five months were some kind of credentialing exam for Texas lawmakers, a great many would have failed — most especially those who boasted goals of The Most Conservative Session Ever and couldn’t meet a minimal standard of competence.

Going in, most Texans, regardless of ideology, knew the biggest issues lawmakers and our agenda-setting governor had to tackle stemmed from the epic failure of state leaders to keep the lights and heat on during a historic freeze that crippled our vulnerable power grid and killed nearly 200 men, women and children — and by some estimates, many more. Texans expected reforms that fixed the problems and assured they’d never happen again. Other major priorities for most Texans involved improving access to health care amid a global pandemic and police reform in the wake of the tragic murder of George Floyd.

In the session that ended Monday, we got almost none of that.

Maybe because those important issues were never really the priority of Gov. Greg Abbott or the slew of lawmakers more concerned with pleasing a small base of Republican primary voters than the best interests of 30 million Texans.

Abbott’s stated list of priorities for emergency action read like a check list for how to shore up his Republican primary bona fides, rather than a blueprint for making Texas a better place to live, work, raise a family or go to school.

Although Abbott promised in his State of the State address to expand heath care access — easy to say — he refused to do the sensible thing: expand Medicaid as so many other states have. He called for “bail reform,” though by that he meant making it harder for some defendants — and not just the dangerous ones — to post bail rather than seeking to end the poverty jailing that has led to reforms in Harris and Dallas counties.

A year ago in Houston, Abbott seemed to embrace calls for a George Floyd Act in Texas, in an apparent nod to a summer full of street protests demanding that Black lives be respected and protected just as other lives are. Instead, he urged lawmakers to fast-track bills such as one cracking down on cities that reallocate funding for police departments, which passed.

Among his other priorities were bills to shield businesses from COVID-19 related lawsuits, which passed, and expanding even further Texans’ near limitless right to own and keep guns, which also passed.

In February, he added to his priorities, after Winter Storm Uri knocked out power for millions and left the state within minutes of a months-long collapse of its electric grid.

His promises weren’t worth much in the end. Abbott did fire or force out most of the people he’d appointed to oversee the grid, but the sweeping structural reforms needed to shore up the grid and remove a perverse incentive for producers to profit off disaster never materialized. Instead, the Legislature made do changing up the membership of ERCOT, the nonprofit that oversees the grid, and the PUC, the state board that oversees ERCOT, and with a plan that will require some power plants to winterize, on the public dime — although no funding was appropriated, large swaths of the natural gas industry were exempted and penalties for noncompliance are minimal.

Abbott’s leadership failures weren’t mitigated by the leaders of the House or Senate. The latter, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, championed the harshest version of the voter-suppression legislation Senate Bill 7, which the House did try later to ameliorate. He helped lead the push against transgender kids and their families, though those bills mercifully did not become law.

Even when Patrick stepped out of character and demanded positive change — that ERCOT reverse billions in erroneous energy pricing during the winter storm — he couldn’t be counted on to deliver.

In the House, Speaker Dade Phelan was a different case. He mostly avoided piling on the rhetoric to match Patrick’s and Abbott’s conservative saber-rattling. Phelan quietly oversaw a steady dilution of the bill to restrict voter rights, working with or through House Elections Committee chairman Rep. Briscoe Cain. By the time the House was ready to consider SB 7, it looked a lot less like the “Jim Crow 2.0” Patrick had sent over from the Senate and was a bill even some opponents, including this editorial board, could live with.

The bill ended up being hastily rewritten over in the Senate, with some of the worst provisions restored and even some outrageous new ones introduced, but we give Phelan credit for acknowledging House Democrats’ right to walk out in protest in a brazen move that killed the bill — for this session, at least.

Of course, one bill that Phelan, Abbott and Patrick all agreed on was one of the most extreme: the fetal heartbeat bill that many are calling the nation’s most restrictive. Its near complete ban on abortions after six weeks is almost certainly unconstitutional.

Passing bills that aren’t legal is one of the clearest signs of incompetence and partisan pandering.

Those aren’t the credentials of an effective Legislature. And they aren’t reassuring as lawmakers prepare to return for a special session on redistricting and a possible one to take up the failed voting bill. Perhaps it’s true that you get what you pay for: Texas lawmakers are among the lowest-paid in the nation.

But another truth is that Texans pay for lawmakers’ failures in ways that go far beyond the monetary. Some of us — as we’ve seen in the past year during the pandemic, the winter storm and the police assaults on Black bodies — have even paid with their lives.

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Austin American-Statesman. June 2, 2021.

Editorial: So now a governor who disagrees with lawmakers can defund them?

No doubt tempers were running high. Republicans were furious that Democrats killed a controversial voting restrictions bill by walking out of the Capitol in the final hours of the legislative session.

But Gov. Greg Abbott’s threat Monday afternoon to veto the Legislature’s funding — to defund a coequal branch of government, one that provides checks and balances on his own powers — marks a scandalous withholding of government funds to punish political foes, an authoritarian response trampling over the very idea of a government of the people.

The governor may disagree with the views and even the parliamentary tactics of some lawmakers. But he has no right to cut off the public dollars that allow them to represent and serve their constituents.

Abbott’s sweeping threat, issued on Twitter, appears to target more than the salaries of Democratic lawmakers, or even all lawmakers. Abbott pledged to “veto Article 10 of the budget,” a $200 million-a-year section that pays for legislative staffers as well as a litany of nonpartisan workers, including budget experts, employees who provide computer support and printing services, members of the State Auditor’s Office and staffers who review the performance of state agencies for the Sunset Advisory Commission. Abbott has until June 20 to veto any funding for the budget year starting Sept. 1.

It is unconscionable for Abbott to threaten the pay of those workers as part of his brinkmanship with Democratic lawmakers. It is also foolish, as Abbott is calling lawmakers back for at least one special session later this year. As Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, noted Tuesday, “Even if duly elected but unpaid legislators showed up, how do we have a special session when all support staff necessary to operate (the) session no longer have jobs?”

No Texan should find satisfaction in a lawmaking process that is so broken that legislators flee the Capitol rather than cast a vote. But the voting restrictions bill has been shrouded in bad-faith dysfunction from the start, with Republican lawmakers cutting off discussion in committee hearings; with Democrats effectively excluded from the negotiations to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill; with lawmakers receiving a revised bill with 20 pages of new provisions just hours before the final vote, without any opportunity to examine important new language addressing when election results could be overturned.

Texas cannot promote public confidence in elections by ramming through a voting restrictions bill crafted behind closed doors, supported by only one party and divorced from any evidence of substantial voter fraud. Those who drafted and refined Senate Bill 7 showed no interest in Democratic voices throughout the process, wanting Democratic bodies in the room only for quorum purposes.

Abbott is the leader of his party, but Texans need him to act now as the leader of our state. It’s his job to build consensus, not exact revenge. It’s his job to listen to the representatives of the people, not inflict collateral damage on hard-working government staffers. It’s his job to lead, not to govern by intimidation and reckless strongman tactics.

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(Harlingen) Valley Morning Star. June 4, 2021.

Editorial: Bad move: Abbott should not endanger children by refusing shelter

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday issued a state of emergency along the border relative to the “ongoing surge of individuals unlawfully crossing the Texas-Mexico border …” and suspended several state laws. One of them suspends parts of the State Human Resources Code, “and all other relevant laws,” in order to “direct the Texas Health and Human Services Commission … to take all necessary steps to discontinue state licensing of any child-care facility in this state that shelters or detains unlawful immigrants or other individuals not lawfully present in the United States under a contract with the federal government.”

The order, one of several in the disaster declaration, could deprive thousands of children, some of them mere infants, of shelter and services and thus put their health and lives at risk.

Abbott, who is up for re-election next year and secured former President Trump’s endorsement on Tuesday, defended his declaration Wednesday on some television news programs. He said the declaration was a response to increased activity and crime by drug cartels in border areas — activity that the government’s own data don’t reflect. Even if it did exist, it’s hard to imagine how such crimes would be committed by infants and toddlers being held in child-care centers.

To its credit, the state Department of Health and Human Services quickly announced that it would review the governor’s order, but initially did not intend to close any facilities.

If the target specifically is the recent wave of unaccompanied children coming from Central America, those children are the only ones harmed by the order. Those immigrants, however, likely aren’t the only people affected by the order; it is vague enough to apply to other child-care facilities, the majority of which are small, private establishments that aren’t equipped to check the residency status of their clients. Closing them would punish all families such a center would serve, and could force some parents to leave their jobs because they had no one else to care for their children, or decide to leave those children at home unattended.

Moreover, some shelters were set up to serve abused women and children. Depriving them of such safe havens when their need for protection already exists is unconscionable.

Certainly, a crisis exists on our border. It’s a humanitarian crisis caused by the arrival of immigrants in numbers too great for our homeland security agencies to handle. We also face an economic crisis from continued restrictions on legal border crossings. Such economic constraints reduce the resources that local officials have to combat any crime that does exist, and the reduced economic opportunity could drive some people to seek income by committing the very crimes we’re ostensibly trying to prevent.

If more immigrants are crossing the border, strengthen the border. If crime is increasing — even though such an increase isn’t apparent — go after the criminals. Persecuting defenseless children, who aren’t the cause of our border problems, not only aims at the wrong targets but unnecessarily adds new dangers to those they already face.

Gov. Abbott should rethink his disaster order.

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Texarkana Gazette. June 3, 2021.

Editorial: Official Handgun? Texas adopts historic revolver as its own

Some pundits are calling it the “Most Texan thing imaginable.”

The Lone Star State takes pride in its heritage. And a lot of that is wrapped up in the cowboy culture of the Old West.

And, of course, residents are well-known for their love of firearms and strong support of Second Amendment rights.

That’s why it was, perhaps, a most Texas thing this week when Gov. Greg Abbott signed a resolution naming an “Official Handgun of Texas.”

The governor didn’t honor some shiny new pistol. Nothing foreign-made either.

No, the state’s official handgun is steeped in the Old West mystique itself. It’s the 1847 Colt Walker revolver, America’s first six-shooter.

The gun has Texas roots, designed by Texas Rangers Capt. Samuel Hamilton Walker and firearms magnate Samuel Colt. It was based on the five-shot Colt-Paterson revolver but with an extra round and more stopping power.

The same year the Colt Walker came out, 1847, Capt. Walker was killed in the Battle of Huamantla during the Mexican-American War.

Today the gun is a rare collector’s item. An original, complete with case, sold in 2019 for $1.84 million. It’s the highest auction price ever realized for a firearm.

One can debate the merits of having an “official handgun” all day long. But in the end it’s not much more than a romantic symbol of an idealized past. And for that, the governor couldn’t have picked a better example.

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