Editorial Roundup: Texas

Dallas Morning News. September 8, 2022.

Editorial: Texas’ cautious approach to marijuana use has been the correct path

As support grows for cannabis, following scientific research make more sense.

A leading medical marijuana retailer just opened its fourth location in Dallas-Fort Worth, evidence of the growth this business is having in the region.

But even as support grows for legal cannabis, Texas officials have been wary of fully embracing legalization for non-medical uses, and they are right to feel that way.

Yes, Texas is taking baby steps compared to other states, but that is the right approach because it gives time for scientific and social research to establish clearer conclusions about the impact of expanded legalization for medical or recreational use.

Public sentiment may be ahead of political will. A Dallas Morning News/UT Tyler August poll revealed that 72% of Texans support marijuana use for medical purposes, and 55% are behind recreational use.

At least one statewide official, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, has voiced support for expanding medical use. “It’s about freedom. It’s about less government oversight, it’s about less regulation. It’s everything that being a conservative stands for,” he recently wrote.

Currently, medical cannabis can be prescribed in Texas to treat certain conditions, including epilepsy, cancer, PTSD and neurodegenerative disorders.

Marijuana advocates want to add chronic pain as a qualifying condition for the Compassionate Use Program (CUP).

Advocates, including Texas Original CEO Morris Denton, suggest that cannabis could be a less dangerous option than opioids for treating patients.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions, however, that marijuana isn’t without risk: “Although marijuana is used for medical and non-medical adult use, this does not mean it is safe,” according to current guidelines. “Scientists are still learning about the health effects and the potential health benefits of using marijuana.”

Treating chronic pain with cannabis would be more than a baby step for the state since 1 in 5 Americans suffer from this condition. A recent article in the National Library of Medicine mentions a study that showed fewer side effects and improved quality of life in chronic pain patients who used medical marijuana. The same study also mentions the need for further research to confirm such findings.

That said, the era of putting people in prison for possessing small amounts of pot rightly appears to be behind us. Decriminalization is now a path that both the right and left are ready to embrace in Texas.

Both Gov. Greg Abbott and his Democratic rival Beto O’Rourke support some level of decriminalization. O’Rourke’s position is far more permissive than Abbott’s, with a plan to fully decriminalize marijuana and expunge the criminal records of those arrested for possession. Abbott, meanwhile, would reduce the legal consequences for possessing small amounts of marijuana to a Class C misdemeanor.

The better path is somewhere in the middle, with no criminal penalty for possessing small amounts but not the wholesale legalization O’Rourke is calling for.

There are still too many unknowns to broadly expand legal marijuana use.

The risk of stroke, heart disease and other vascular diseases are real, according to the CDC. Cannabis has also been indirectly linked to social anxiety and depression.

Texas should continue to move cautiously with sound science as the guide.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram. September 8, 2022.

Editorial: Why is this Texas Republican suddenly backing a Democrat against Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick?

Anyone who was shocked when Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley stepped out in favor of Democrat Mike Collier in the race for lieutenant governor hasn’t been listening to the Hurst Republican.

Whitley has been teeing off for years about Austin’s encroachment on local control, the state’s culpability for property-tax increases, and the hard-right turn of his party. And he’s laid much of it at Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s feet.

Still, it made for significant news when a decades-long leader in Texas’ largest Republican county spoke out against a party poobah two months before Election Day.

On the substance, Whitley is mostly right: State Republican lawmakers and leaders have generally been chipping away at local control, particularly for Texas’ largest — and Democrat-controlled — cities and counties. And the cost of public schools, for which the state should bear the brunt, is the biggest driver of property taxes.

On the politics, Whitley’s comments reflect a reality in Texas politics: His brand of Republicanism, the one that built a durable GOP majority, is fading.

Whitley’s interview on WFAA-TV’s “Y’allitics” podcast drew attention for his comments on Patrick. But he also talked extensively about how his party has shifted in his decades in office — and specifically the divide in Tarrant County. He’s retiring after four terms as county judge, and he acknowledged that the new environment favors candidates with a harder edge.

“I don’t know if I would have been able to win the primary,” he told WFAA.

Whitley lamented what he called an “ugly” GOP primary race to replace him, one in which Southlake Republican activist Tim O’Hare trounced Whitley’s preferred candidate, former Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price. And he decried the polarization and partisanship that dominate politics.

Republican primary voters want candidates they perceive more as “fighters,” particularly on cultural issues. But if they want to elect candidates to battle the establishment in Texas, that means warring with — other Texas Republicans.

MORE GROWTH, HIGHER PROPERTY APPRAISALS, HIGHER TAXES

Property tax increases fuel voter anger on all parts of the political spectrum. Growth is the main culprit — demand for real estate makes for higher property appraisals, which make for higher tax bills. Plenty of local governments — including Tarrant County under Whitley — have long enjoyed spending the added revenue while bragging that they haven’t raised tax rates.

There aren’t easy fixes. We want growth, but it necessitates more spending on roads, schools and services. Property taxes pay for every level of local government. As Whitley has lamented, only cities can levy sales tax. Texas has no income taxes, and that won’t change.

The Legislature, flush with surpluses fueled by the state sales tax, is promising relief by paying for a larger share of public education. But the more the state takes on, the harder the choices the next time there’s a recession. Some peddle fantasies about eliminating property taxes entirely, but they never quite explain how Texans would survive the sticker shock of a sales-tax rate that would have to double or more to compensate.

Lawmakers should spend less time telling cities and counties what to do, too. Local control is not an inviolable principle; the state is right to protect property rights and prevent patchwork economic policies that limit growth. But in recent years, Austin has dictated both highly specific instructions, such as how and when local officials can levy taxes, and vague strictures that create uncertainty and strife, such as what materials communities can have in their schools.

LIMITED IMPACT OF COLLIER ENDORSEMENT

Whitley’s backing of Collier, a Democrat making his third run for statewide office, made headlines but will have little practical effect. Collier gave Patrick a stronger-than-expected challenge in 2018, and he’s turned up the heat on the lieutenant governor, especially on the issue of Texas’ power grid. His fate is largely tied to broader events, though, including the overall political environment and how well the candidate above him on the ballot, Beto O’Rourke, does at driving new voters to the polls.

The whole episode is a marker. Whitley entered county office as a commissioner in 1997, as Republicans were locking in control of Texas politics. He’s the kind of Republican candidate who, by the thousands, turned Texas red and kept it that way.

Now, he’s an outlier in his own party.

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Houston Chronicle. September 8, 2022.

Editorial: Texas is the Oath Keeper capital of America. Now what?

The best illustration of the threat posed by far-right extremist groups such as the Oath Keepers can be found in the 48-page indictment of Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes.

Rhodes and 10 others were charged with seditious conspiracy for their alleged role in the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. Their indictment details how the Oath Keepers, a group that actively recruits military and law enforcement officers, trained and organized its members that day as if they were preparing for battle. This included basic training to get recruits “fighting fit for inauguration;” a reconnaissance team deployed to Washington to outline the planned insurrection; and marching towards the Capitol in “stack” formations designed to breach a building.

If the precision and actions of the rioters attempting to subvert democracy that day don’t shake you to your core, perhaps this sobering fact will: more than 3,000 Texans, including elected officials and law enforcement officers, have been card-carrying Oath Keepers.

The Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism published a report Tuesday, based on leaked Oath Keepers membership rolls, finding that Texas has had the most members of any other state who were either elected officials, law enforcement officers, military members or first responders. Texas is a big state, certainly, but more troubling than sheer numbers are the positions held by Texans who have been members of the radical group: six law enforcement officers across the state who lead their departments and four current elected officials, two of whom are county commissioners, including Joe Giusti, a Republican in Galveston County.

At minimum, these officials showed extremely poor judgment in not thoroughly researching the origins and actions of the Oath Keepers before joining. At worst, those who remained even after the group was exposed as key architects of the Jan. 6 attacks for their violent role in advancing President Trump’s Big Lie that the election was stolen, could be viewed as an implicit endorsement of violent radicalism.

Being a member of the group alone doesn’t necessarily indicate a desire to overthrow the government. It’s certainly possible that some of the Texas officials questioned about their membership, such as Steven Glenn, an alderman in the North Texas town of Quitman, are being truthful that they knew little about the group when they enrolled as members.

“I saw exactly what the founder was all about. I cut ties with them immediately,” Glenn wrote in a statement to the Texas Tribune.

Yet that benefit of the doubt requires at least some suspension of disbelief. As ADL notes in its report, the Oath Keepers “have espoused extremism since their founding, and this fact was not enough to deter these individuals from signing up.”

The Oath Keepers are not merely a fringe political organization. They were founded by Rhodes with the aim of combating the conspiratorial threat of the U.S. becoming “a totalitarian police state,” promoting the idea that under certain conditions, removing the government by force is justified. A quick Google search by any of these Texas officials would have revealed the extent of the Oath Keepers’ anti-government activities, which include armed standoffs with federal agents, vigilante voter intimidation, and threats of violence against the governor of Oregon.

The ADL report makes it clear that some of the Texans who enrolled in the Oath Keepers were not simply doing so out of passive curiosity but rather with the intent of using their positions of power to advance the group’s goals. One member of the Idalou Police Department — serving a town outside of Lubbock — said he would use his position to introduce other law enforcement officers to the Oath Keepers’ ideology.

Others, such as Collin County Constable Joe Wright, went as far to say that he “felt pressured” to join the organization for political support.

“The Oath Keepers, if you didn’t support them, you were going to get bad reviews,” Wright told USA Today.

Wright’s comments are alarming, though sadly not surprising. There is a well-documented history of law enforcement officers supporting extremist ideology and white supremacist groups infiltrating police departments. A 2006 FBI intelligence assessment warned that skinhead groups were actively encouraging members to “avoid overt displays of their beliefs to blend into society and covertly advance white supremacist causes.” A 2019 investigation from the Center for Investigative Reporting found that hundreds of active-duty and retired law enforcement officers are members of Confederate-sympathizing, anti-Islam or anti-government militia groups on Facebook.

Unfortunately, even minimal efforts to expose extremism in law enforcement have become a partisan issue on the national level. Every House Republican voted against a recent amendment to a national defense bill to compel government officials to prepare a report on combating white supremacists and neo-Nazi activity in the police and military.

Meanwhile, several states have proposed new laws to give law enforcement agencies more power to exclude officers with ties to extremism. A bill enacted in Washington state last year allows the state to revoke officers’ certification if they are affiliated with those organizations. With so many law enforcement members listed as current or former Oath Keepers members, we urge Texas lawmakers to craft similar legislation to stamp out extremism from local law enforcement ranks.

There is a simpler solution to hold the Texas elected officials exposed as Oath Keepers members accountable: vote them out.

Texans should have the confidence that those we vote into office and those who take an oath to protect us aren’t secretly members of a group that organized an attempted coup against our nation. If our leaders can’t meet that minimal standard, if they don’t believe in the basic tenets of democracy, they don’t belong in public service. They don’t even belong on the ballot.

And for regular folks out there inclined to look the other way at such reports because you supported Trump’s policies overall and believe those acting radically on Jan. 6 are an insignificant subset of Republican voters, we urge you to ponder the words of the Collin County constable who said he was pressured into joining the Oath Keepers for political support.

“I’m not into radical,” he said. “I’m into doing my job.”

It appears, in the eyes of many other public officials all across this land, the two things have perversely become one.

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San Antonio Express-News. September 8, 2022.

Editorial: Clean water shouldn’t be a luxury

Millions of people in this world struggle to access adequate food, shelter and potable water. These are necessities that many of us living in the developed world are fortunate enough to take for granted — until systems fail and they are suddenly unavailable, as millions of Texans experienced in 2021 during Winter Storm Uri when the power went out and the pipes broke.

We’ve also witnessed, with horror, how Flint, Mich., in 2014 became synonymous with a contaminated water system caused by neglect and mismanagement, not only because of the turbid water flowing from faucets but also — especially — because of the elevated levels of lead in the blood of Flint children. The crisis there continues.

Now Jackson, Miss., is the most recent American city whose residents had to line up at distribution centers for cases of clean water or drive to another town to shower, wash, drink and flush with clean, treated water.

On Aug. 29, months and years of water problems left the 150,000 residents of Jackson, the state capital, without drinking water. This is just the latest crisis for a city whose water has been unreliable for years.

In 2016, lead was found in the water system. In 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency issued an emergency order saying Jackson’s water system violated the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and could endanger consumers because of the presence of E. coli.

Jackson had been under a boil-water notice since late July, and then came flooding last month that overwhelmed the city’s largest water treatment plant. Water towers then lacked the pressure needed to fill the pipes of the city’s residences, schools and businesses.

There are two issues at work here. One is disinvestment in water infrastructure in American cities and towns. The other is climate change, fueling extreme weather. Water systems across the nation have been under duress due to drought and flooding.

Jackson isn’t the only reminder and precursor of the dangers of disinvestment and ignoring the impact of climate change. Severe flooding in eastern Kentucky in July left thousands of people without water for weeks.

In June, about 165,000 people in Odessa were without water for nearly two days because of a break in the main line of the city’s deteriorating water system. The interruption of the water supply seen in Odessa this summer and throughout the state during the winter storm in February 2021 can be expected to happen more frequently.

In a report last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers, or ASCE, said that many of Texas’ wastewater systems couldn’t survive extreme events. They gave the quality of Texas’ drinking water infrastructure a grade of C-.

That’s the same grade they gave the nation’s entire infrastructure, which includes systems for drinking water and wastewater, roadways, electricity, mass transit and broadband access.

The passage in November of President Joe Biden’s $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is a major step toward improving that grade. But because of decades of neglect, the ASCE says, “We’re still just paying about half of our infrastructure bill — and the total investment gap has gone from $2.1 trillion over 10 years to nearly $2.59 trillion over 10 years.”

To close that gap, “we must increase investment from all levels of government and the private sector from 2.5% to 3.5% of U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2025.”

The past failures of governments to invest in infrastructure are responsible for what’s happening in Flint, Jackson and eastern Kentucky, and what will, inevitably, happen with greater frequency in Texas and across the United States. The failure to meaningfully address climate change only magnifies this.

A glass of clean drinking water will be a luxury.

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