Editorial Roundup: Texas

Dallas Morning News. Sept. 16, 2021.

Editorial: Gov. Abbott, please recognize International Underground Railroad Month

September is International Underground Railroad Month. Gov. Greg Abbott should recognize it with an official proclamation.

In 2019, Maryland adopted such a proclamation, choosing September because that’s the month in which two of America’s most well-known freedom-seekers escaped slavery — Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Last year, several other states joined Maryland in recognizing the designation. Those include New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas.

We learned about all of that from Diane Miller, program manager for a National Park Service initiative called National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. That program seeks to document historic sites related to freedom-seekers in American history and tell their stories. Miller and her team have been spreading the word to recruit more states to adopt Underground Railroad Month.

According to Renae Eze, a spokesperson for the office of the governor, Abbott could make Texas one of those states with just his signature. Ceremonial observations like this don’t require legislative approval. They are usually issued in response to constituent requests and can take as little as a few days to process. We encourage Abbott to take that action before the end of this month.

Texas’ history in this area is just now coming to light as historians from the University of North Texas to the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley have started giving more attention to our state’s unique place in the journey of hundreds of those escaping slavery. Many of those freedom-seekers escaped to Mexico or Caribbean nations, which is part of the reason the September recognition includes the word “international.” Miller said enslaved people escaped to many nations, not just Canada, which seems to be what people assume when they think of the Underground Railroad. Her agency is working with the International Council on Monuments and Sites to expand the network.

Miller said there is not a federal designation for the month and, in fact, the involvement of the park service could be a hindrance to that.

“We can’t really initiate such a thing out of the agency. It’s viewed too much like lobbying,” she said. “That kind of thing is better coming from the outside.” That, too, sounds like a worthy endeavor to us.

An official designation from the federal or Texas government could help raise awareness and uncover more corners of this important part of American history.

As Americans, and especially as Texans, we put a high value on freedom. It makes sense for us to celebrate those in our history who risked their lives to pursue it, and those who helped them.

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San Antonio Express-News. Sept. 15, 2021.

Editorial: Allow laying of hands in death cases

That John Henry Ramirez will be executed by the state of Texas for the 2004 murder of Pablo Castro isn’t being contested. Ramirez admits to stabbing the Corpus Christi convenience store clerk 29 times in a $1.25 robbery.

Ramirez will pay for his brutal crime with his life. Whether his pastor’s hands will be on his body when he is executed is the only question remaining, but it’s one that raises constitutional questions about the free exercise of religion at the time of execution.

Ramirez has said the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, or TDCJ, is violating his First Amendment rights by refusing to allow his pastor to touch him and say prayers at the time of lethal injection. Last week, the U.S Supreme Court granted Ramirez a reprieve to answer this question. His case will be argued in October or December.

We have many questions about the use of the death penalty given instances of wrongful convictions, ineffectiveness as a crime deterrent, cost to taxpayers and racial disparities on death row. These are questions we plan to explore in a future editorial this year.

Specific to this narrow case, TDCJ should grant Ramirez his request.

For years, clergy employed by the state could accompany prisoners into the death chamber. Those clerics, however, were only Christian and Muslim. After the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the execution of another Texas inmate, in 2019, because he wasn’t allowed to have his Buddhist spiritual adviser with him, TDJC put a ban on allowing any spiritual advisers into the death chamber.

That ban was reversed in April with a new policy allowing any inmate’s approved spiritual adviser to be in the chamber, but they can have no contact and spoken prayers aren’t allowed. Security risks and the disruption of the execution process were cited as reasons, but by the time all parties involved have entered the chamber, wouldn’t all security risks have been eliminated?

A spoken prayer and the laying of hands on a person about to be put to death doesn’t mitigate that person’s crimes or stop the execution.

In this, and all such tragic cases, no one deserves more consideration and compassion than the victims and their families.

Castro was the father of nine children, and Ramirez’s murder of him cast a permanent shadow over their lives. No one comforted Castro as he died, and for this, Ramirez will pay the ultimate price for his crime.

Whether he receives spiritual sustenance in the laying of hands at his time of death won’t change this. It will, however, reflect how our Constitution is interpreted and our capacity for compassion as a society.

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Houston Chronicle. Sept. 19, 2021.

Editorial: $29 billion won’t stop the Big One. Here’s why the Ike Dike is still worth it

Doomsday, we’re told, will go something like this: A 20-foot storm surge propelled by 150 mph winds from a cyclonic beast spawned in the balmy Gulf of Mexico is on a collision course with the Houston Ship Channel. The wave tosses debris, vehicles, shipping containers into refineries and chemical plants, unleashing pyrotechnic clouds of toxicity unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

Mass evacuations ensue. Hundreds, if not thousands are left dead or severely injured. Galveston Bay, an ecological jewel vital to the local economy, becomes so polluted it’s rendered unusable for a generation. The Port of Houston, one of the busiest in the nation, is crippled, stalling the global supply chain.

If you’ve lived in the Houston-Galveston region through even one hurricane season you’re likely familiar with this scenario.

After Hurricane Ike hit in 2008, pushing a 17-foot storm surge over Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, causing $30 billion of damage and killing 43 people, there was a collective epiphany. We could no longer rely on our prayers, weather forecasters and emergency go-bags to get us through the most volatile months of hurricane season. We needed protection from deadly storm surges as fast as possible.

Thirteen years later — the Army Corps of Engineers won’t win any awards for speed — the agency has finally unveiled full-fledged plans for the so-called Ike Dike. Named by Texas A&M oceanographer Bill Merrell who proposed the concept shortly after Ike hit, the proposal is the product of an exhaustive, seven-year study that the Corps’ chief of engineers is expected sign off on by Oct. 12 and send to Congress.

The $29 billion plan is more expansive than Merrell’s original idea. It includes projects up and down the Texas Gulf Coast, but the bulk of the work will be south of Houston. A series of gates designed to protect against a surge of up to 22 feet would stretch from the east end of Galveston Island across the mouth of Galveston Bay to Bolivar Peninsula. Other coastal protections include 43 miles of 14- and 12-foot dunes on Galveston’s west end and on the peninsula. Gates are also planned on the western bank of Galveston Bay for Clear Lake and Dickinson Bayou.

While the dunes were a significant concession the Corps made after the public comment period — the original 2018 alignment proposed much more intrusive concrete levees spanning Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula — it has nonetheless been consistently opposed by a significant number of the coastal residents and business owners it is designed to protect. Concerns ranged from provincial — “How dare they obstruct my beachfront view!” — to environmental — “How would this project affect endangered sea turtles and crucial marine life?” For these skeptics, an elemental question underpins this project: Would this expensive, taxpayer-funded plan that would take 20 years to design and build even protect us from the Big One in that doomsday scenario that keeps us up at night whenever a tropical depression churns in the Gulf?

The answer appears to be no. The Corps uses a cost-benefit analysis, among other factors, to decide what to design. The agency argues that building the project to a height that can withstand a Category 3 storm surge is the best use of money, even as sea levels rise, returning $2 for every $1 spent and paying for itself after one storm. Kelly Burks-Copes, the Corps’ project manager, admitted to the Chronicle’s Emily Foxhall that stronger storms could over-top the sea gates and dunes.

When it comes to flood protection of this scale, though, trade-offs can be a slippery slope. What exactly are we prepared to sacrifice to erect a barrier that, for instance, wouldn’t have even blunted the impacts of Hurricane Ida, a Category 4 storm which narrowly missed us weeks ago?

Taxpayers will be footing the 20-year cost of the project’s construction — 65 percent from the federal government, 35 percent from the state — as well as its maintenance, estimated up to $100 million per year. The Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District, an entity recently created by the Legislature, has the power to levy taxes and issue bonds to pay for that. Translation: don’t get too comfortable with your current property tax rate.

Most of the project’s largest components — the sea gates and dunes — have not yet been thoroughly assessed for environmental impacts. The Corps’ study process is structured in a way that the public will not have the ability to review environmental impacts before federal funds are appropriated. The Corps estimates that the sea gates will reduce the flow of water into Galveston Bay by nearly one-tenth, creating half-inch lower high tides and half-inch higher low tides. For a bay system that contributes one-third of Texas’ commercial fishing income, a full accounting of these impacts is essential.

Given the limitations of the current plan, and the questions still lingering, it’s time for our political leaders championing this project to acknowledge that the Ike Dike alone is not enough. It is surely not the panacea that many, including this editorial board, hoped it would be.

But is it worth it? We still believe so.

Now that the preliminary hurdles have been cleared, our congressional delegation must hold the Corps’ accountable for beating the 20-year construction timeline. Simply green-lighting the Ike Dike means in a best case scenario, we’re two decades away from having a major line of defense against flooding. Our congressional leaders should vote to fund the project with the understanding that we will likely need even more than the $29 billion Ike Dike to build out other defenses. And we cannot simply rely on the good faith of the petrochemical industry to protect themselves.

For state and local lawmakers, waiting for the Ike Dike provides an opportunity to take a full inventory of our flood protection needs. Thousands of storage tanks along the Houston Ship Channel have been identified as being at risk for flooding and contamination. We agree with the Galveston Bay Foundation and Bayou City Waterkeeper’s recommendation that Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo appoint a task force to study which tanks are most dangerous and whether a storm surge threat can be mitigated with industry-funded defenses.

The city and county should also move forward with funding a full engineering and environmental study of the Galveston Bay Park Plan. The $4 billion to $6 billion proposal from Rice University’s SSPEED Center would create barrier islands in Galveston Bay using dredge material to help block storm surge, providing robust protection for the Ship Channel and coastal residents on the bay that would not be adequately protected by the Ike Dike alone.

Nature-based solutions, from restoring paved-over wetlands to rebuilding oyster reefs, are all a part of the Corps’ Ike Dike plan, but wouldn’t be funded until well after the gates and dunes are built. These are small-scale, affordable measures that coastal governments could partner with nonprofit environmental organizations to accomplish much sooner. Coastal communities should continue to elevate homes, flood-proof buildings and critical infrastructure, and improve drainage systems. And buyouts of homes in floodplains must continue to be a part of this conversation.

Building the Ike Dike cannot become an excuse for complacency, nor can it be a one-time alignment of stars where all the levels of government unite behind a common goal. At a time when Texas is making headlines for all the wrong reasons, this is a chance for us to show the country that we can build stronger for the future, that we are united in at least one way to fight rising seas and vicious storms — but also that we’re clear-eyed enough to know that preventing doomsday will take even more work.

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Abilene Reporter News. Sept. 18, 2021.

Editorial: Times change, and here’s why rural fire service should be on front burner

Census figures show that Taylor County grew in population by 9% since 2010.

That’s good news.

With the construction of homes south of the city limits toward the border with Runnels County, many folks have chosen to live outside of Abilene. It’s a fast drive from Tuscola, about 20 miles to the south, to the county seat.

Taylor County extends south from Tuscola, about halfway to Winters.

Anyone driving in that area, and farther east from Abilene to Potosi, has seen the construction. What once was an open rural setting is a rural setting increasingly filled by people.

Gary Earnest, of the Taylor County Central Appraisal District, said new construction falls between $130 and $150 per square foot. A 2,000-square-foot home at $140, then, would be $280,000. There are plenty more homes pricier than that, so folks are making a major investment.

Wylie school district campuses now have jumped Kirby Lake to the east. The district continues to grow in size, many new residents hardly realizing that all classrooms, a World War II-era gym and a football stadium once were found on a single campus at the corner of FM 89 and Antilley Road.

Back in the day, the land was worked south of Abilene and residents were self-reliant in many ways. They were out in the country. That had its advantages and its disadvantages.

You had quiet, but it was quite a way from the conveniences offered in Abilene.

That has changed.

It’s not so quiet anymore, as traffic rushes on U.S. Highways 83-84, and back and forth on FM 1750, which connects Abilene and Potosi. U.S. Highway 277 also is busier, and we know State Highway 36 is heavily trafficked and can be dangerous.

And the folks who want to be “out in the country” are used to dependable services. They would expect fire and law enforcement protection, just as they would water, trash pickup and electricity.

These days, amenities include good internet service.

And not having to drive “to town” for gas, snacks ... even entertainment.

Potosi-area residents have several show venues to choose from, and places to wet their whistles nearby. Coffee included.

All this comes with a price.

In Sunday’s Reporter-News we focus on rural fire service. Taylor County is dotted with volunteer departments that have a history of excellence. These are folks who, for years, have been taking care of their neighbors.

But how many neighbors can they care for?

The volunteers perhaps once worked in fields beside each other. Today, most likely have jobs in Abilene, miles away. They can be more scattered when a fire call comes in and maybe can’t drop what they are doing.

There are agreements in place for the city of Abilene to assist, and we know rural VFDs help each other. But remember, protecting the city comes first for Abilene crews.

With an earlier wet year turning very dry in recent weeks, the fire danger has increased. Last week, county commissioners approved a 90-day burn ban. Winds generally pick up in the fall, so we are warned.

The county tries each year to rein in its budget, with requests traditionally exceeding funds. Dipping into savings on a regular basis is not good. There soon would be no savings.

So how do we fund volunteer departments that rely on grants and fundraisers? They do get some county funds, but those are limited and spread about.

It may be time for residents to step up.

The issue of ambulance service recently was brought up, and residents have not yet had the chance to vote their willingness to financially support expansioin.

It has been said newer county residents want to be free of the taxes that pile up on city residents. But someone has to pay.

Taylor County is changing, and there is great appeal to having a small spread within view of the downtown Abilene skyline.

But with freedom comes responsibility. As rural Taylor County begins to resemble suburban Abilene, it could be time to pony up for services that make country living appealing while also safe.

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Beaumont Enterprise. Sept. 17, 2021.

Editorial: Texas must eliminate rape test kit backlog

It was bad enough that Gov. Greg Abbott bizarrely thinks he can “eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas” instead of taking a realistic approach to this age-old crime — and how it impacts women who are now prohibited from seeking an abortion after six weeks of conception, a brief time period that is usually before most women know they are pregnant. In effect, the new law, which blatantly contradicts the precedent of legal abortion, will force some women — and girls — to bear the child of their rapist whether they want to or not.

Even worse, however, is the news that all this is playing out in a state with nearly 5,300 untested rape kits. That number is appalling enough, but it doesn’t even include the number of untested kits from the 231 law enforcement agencies that did not respond to a state audit for these totals, even though that is required by law.

This backlog is scandalous. Abbott and every elected official in the state should vow to “eliminate” that once and for all. Then once that has been done, every law enforcement agency and prosecutor’s office in Texas should make sure to process all new rape kits quickly so that the perpetrators of these heinous crimes might be brought to justice.

The state has made considerable progress on this front after Abbott signed a law in 2019 designed to — here’s that word again — eliminate the backlog in untested rape kits. At one point, there were 19,000 untested kits, an inexcusable total that showed just how little focus was devoted to this serious crime. Getting that number down to 5,300 is progress of sorts, but it’s hardly something that anyone can be satisfied with. The state has allocated $50 million to help test the kits, but the main problem is a shortage of forensic investigators to process them.

The women who have been victimized by this crime should at least know that law enforcement and public officials are doing every possible to find their abusers. With modern technology, it is often possible to find a match between the DNA in the test kit and the other samples of DNA (many from criminals) that have been cataloged. Some rapists attack multiple victims, so finding one of these serial offenders can save many other girls or women from that traumatic experience.

“Each box is not just a box sitting on a shelf,” said state Rep. Victoria Neave (D-Dallas), who has been working on this issue for years. “It represents a survivor’s story. It represents an individual, a family who has been impacted by this. It represents women who are waiting for justice.”

Since the U.S. Supreme Court declined to immediately strike down the new Texas abortion law, analysts say it could be months before the court reviews the issue again. With the three conservative justices appointed by President Donald Trump, there’s also no guarantee that legal abortion will be preserved in all states.

While that legal drama plays out, the focus in Texas should be on processing all untested rape kits. If Abbott sees that this backlog is eliminated, he will have truly accomplished something on an issue that deserves the greatest compassion and urgency.

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