Editorial Roundup: Texas

Austin American-Statesman. June 29, 2022.

Editorial: Lawmakers should force TCEQ to get tougher on polluters

A state advisory panel this month described the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality as “a reluctant regulator” that should do more to protect Texans from the growing scourge of industrial pollution and its threat to public health.

The report, part a review of Texas government agencies conducted once every dozen years by staff on the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission, also cited “a concerning level of distrust” of TCEQ by the public, environmental watchdogs and even industry itself.

“Some community stakeholders and environmental advocates see TCEQ as a mere extension of industry, rubber stamping new and expanded facilities, seeming to ignore potential health impacts or public concerns,” the staff report says.

The findings won’t surprise anyone familiar with TCEQ, which has a longstanding reputation for lax enforcement of environmental regulations in Texas. But it’s important that the Sunset staff noted the public’s distrust with the agency, and we hope state lawmakers won’t forget it when they craft a bill in the 2023 legislative session, as is customary under Sunset review procedure, to improve TCEQ’s job performance.

The agency is responsible for monitoring environmental problems statewide, from the rock quarries whose massive aggregate pollution is causing respiratory and other health problems among residents in the Hill Country to cancer-causing benzene emissions at Houston petrochemical plants. It’s a big job and TCEQ’s investigative resources are stretched thin, but too often polluters get off with a slap on the wrist, if they are fined at all. Between 2011 and 2016, for example, Texas imposed penalties on less than 3 percent of illegal air pollution releases during industrial malfunctions and maintenance, according to an analysis by the Environmental Integrity Project and Environment Texas.

Review panel suggests changes at TCEQ

Trying to help, the Sunset commission staff made several recommendations to better protect communities from environmental hazards. They include more aggressive TCEQ monitoring of habitual polluters, improving the agency’s public notifications and website, and providing more opportunity for meaningful public input on industrial permit applications before they are set for approval.

The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, a panel consisting of 10 state lawmakers and two members of the public, should adopt these recommendations and ask the legislature to put them into law. A thriving economy and a healthy environment need not be mutually exclusive in Texas, but TCEQ must become a more zealous watchdog. That means listening when the public says there’s a problem in their community and punishing polluters with substantial fines.

Unfortunately, some of those in the best position to compel meaningful change at TCEQ seemed reluctant to do so. At a hearing in Austin last week. TCEQ Chairman Jon Niermann said some of the advisory commission’s recommendations would cost too much to implement and be “heavy-handed.” Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, criticized the panel for overstepping its bounds.

Resistance to stricter environmental enforcement is short-sighted. As Texas grows, so do its environmental challenges. TCEQ wields immense power to help improve the environment and public health in Texas, and there is no doubt it could, if only state lawmakers would demand it.

Texans voice frustration at hearing

At the Texas Capitol hearing last week, more than 100 people packed an overflow room to tell the Sunset Commission how pollution has damaged their communities and their lives. Many of the speakers were Black and brown Houstonians living in low-income communities that bear the brunt of the petrochemical industry’s worst environmental abuses. Afterward, some said their concerns fell on deaf ears. It’s easy to understand why.

When Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, told the Sunset Advisory Commission that TCEQ’s granting of industrial permits without regard for surrounding communities amounted to environmental racism, Niermann acknowledged “a history of discrimination” but otherwise professed befuddlement.

“Environmental racism — I’m not sure what to do with that term, senator,” said Niermann, an environmental lawyer who has held a seat on the commission since 2015.

It’s vitally important that Texans continue to tell TCEQ officials and state lawmakers they want stronger environmental enforcement in Texas. Thanks to similar public advocacy in the past, TCEQ Sunset reviews have resulted in significant new enviromental protections. In 2011, advocates and members of the public convinced the Sunset Advisory Commission, and ultimately the Texas Legislature, to increase maximum fines against polluters from $10,000 to $25,000 per day, per violation when caught breaking environmental rules.

We urge the TCEQ Sunset Advisory Commission and Texas lawmakers to adopt the advisory panel’s newest recommendations for improving public transparency and beefing up environmental enforcement. If we don’t want polluters to mess with Texas, we must demand TCEQ become a more aggressive watchdog.

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Dallas Morning News. July 2, 2022.

Editorial: STAAR shocker: How Texas students beat learning loss and overperformed

Texas students are catching up.

Texans got good news about schools Friday. In many cases, students have already recovered learning lost during the pandemic. The lesson behind the lessons is that resources matter; political will matters; and that the state Legislature acted properly and promptly to address a crucial problem.

The Texas Education Agency announced scores on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) for the 2021-22 school year. They are surprisingly good.

— 52% of students in grades 3 through 8 are reading on grade level, an improvement of 9 percentage points over last year which brings the 2022 scores higher than the pre-pandemic level of 47%.

— Among economically disadvantaged students, 41% are reading on grade level, an increase of 10% over last year and above the 2019 rate of 36%.

— Reading scores among emergent bilingual students (those who don’t speak English at home) rose markedly: 31% were proficient this year, up from 20% last year and 22% in 2019.

— Math scores improved too, though not to pre-pandemic levels. The share of students who met proficiency standards in math was 50% in 2019, 35% in 2021, and 40% in 2022. In short, scores rose across all ethnicities and all socioeconomic categories in all subjects.

“It would appear we have fully recovered in reading proficiency compared to prior-to-pandemic status,” TEA Commissioner Mike Morath told us in a preview of these numbers yesterday, saying he is “pleasantly surprised.”

So are we. Let’s not forget the context here. It wasn’t that long ago that we were hearing educators talk about a “lost generation” of students and the very real possibility that it would take five or 10 years to erase the “COVID slide.” That wasn’t hyperbole. Taking students out of classrooms for extended periods of time — more than a year in some districts — was bound to have negative effects. Scores reflected that. After canceling the STAAR in 2020, Texas public schools showed declines from 2019 in just about every category. Some of them, like the drop 15-percentage-point drop in math, were cause for alarm.

Best we can tell, the reason today’s news is so positive is that educators, bureaucrats and politicians all leaned in and provided the tools, coordination and funding to meet the problem head-on. Morath pointed to two pieces of legislation — HB 4545 and HB 1525 — which provided tutoring, curricula, teacher support, reading academies and other programs to help students catch up. The results are clear. The share of students who failed STAAR in 2018 but caught up in 2019 was 32%. The share that caught up between 2021 and 2022 was 45%.

Dallas ISD tracks with those trends. According to a report from Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa last month, the percentage of DISD eighth graders who “mastered” reading rose 13 points over 2021, and was significantly higher than in 2019. Reading in grades three through seven also improved. Black students made the most impressive gains. The percentage of Black fourth graders who mastered on-level reading was up a whopping 17 points.

Of course, none of this means educators can coast. It’s still a critical moment for schools. Districts across the state must keep accelerating learning.

“This will still be a multiyear recovery effort,” Morath said. “We have a lot of work that remains.”

And scores needed help even before the pandemic. Only half of students reading on grade level, though an improvement, is still far too few.

One helpful resource is a full STAAR report for each student available via unique access code at texasassessment.gov. There, parents can see their student’s scores, which questions he or she missed, and even an explanation about how to arrive at the right answer. That kind of parent empowerment can go a long way.

Parents, teachers and administrators deserve to celebrate this news. They have faced formidable challenges the past two years.

State leaders deserve some credit, too. According to the Legislative Budget Board, the combined cost of HB 4545 and HB 1525 will be $703 million this biennium, although Morath said tutoring costs are turning out to be lower than projected. Still, that’s a big price tag for a state government that is focused on limiting government spending.

Today’s good news isn’t an accident. It’s what can happen when powerful stakeholders pull together to care for kids. That’s a headline we’d like to write more often.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram. June 30, 2022.

Editorial: Meddling DAs, targeting travel: Texas lawmakers already full of awful abortion ideas

Now that Texas and the nation have had a week to absorb the reality of the Supreme Court overturning Roe vs. Wade, lawmakers, activists and legal analysts are trying to figure out how far states can — and will — go to eradicate abortion.

Barring an electoral shock in November, Texas is bound to be a leader, if not a pioneer, with schemes to target abortion medication and deter women from going out of state to terminate a pregnancy. And that doesn’t just mean the Legislature. Ordinary Texans and activist groups could try to police the matter under Texas’ pernicious “heartbeat” bill.

It hasn’t gotten enough attention, but the fact that Texas can now make providing an abortion a crime doesn’t overturn the novel law, enacted last year. Recall that it allows civil suits, brought by just about anyone, against people who perform or aid and abet abortions after about six weeks’ gestation.

It’s new enough that it hasn’t been tested much in court, particularly in light of the Supreme Court ruling and what will follow. But it seems primed as a tool against, say, helping a woman book or pay for a flight to a state that permits abortion, or setting up a website to help find mail-order abortion medication.

Is this the abortion enforcement Texans want: snooping into others’ lives, dragging someone to court for trying to help a friend in need? We think not. And it doesn’t do much to drive home the messages that anti-abortion activists have succeeded with: Life is sacred and those who face a crisis pregnancy need help and compassion, not punishment.

The heartbeat bill needs to go, either through courts deterring civil enforcement of what’s now a criminal act or because the Legislature comes to its senses. (We won’t hold our breath on that one.)

Prosecution of cases will be a huge battleground. Already, district attorneys — mostly in large, Democratic counties — are pledging not to prosecute new abortion laws or do so minimally. Lawmakers will no doubt look for ways around them, including allowing other counties to bring cases or giving the attorney general more authority. The state’s “trigger” law, which will outlaw abortion 30 days after the Supreme Court formally finalizes its ruling, empowers the AG to seek civil fines against those who perform abortions.

The AG’s office has enough on its plate. If lawmakers want it to contribute more to child welfare, how about beefing up collection of child support, which is one of the office’s largest functions?

Republican leaders have increasingly been willing to override local control on topics such as education and police funding, so it won’t be a surprise when they try to empower DAs to meddle in one another’s counties. But how can voters hold another county’s district attorney liable?

Roughly half of all abortions occur through pharmaceuticals, not in surgical suites. Some companies may be reluctant to ship to Texas if harsh penalties are threatened, but many will no doubt persist. Once again, the heartbeat law opens the door to snooping through and punishing private transactions. And lawmakers will no doubt look for schemes to overcome the availability of abortion-causing medication.

Republicans need to hold to their federalist roots, too. Other states will allow abortions, and trying to deter travel or seek extradition of out-of-state doctors betrays such principles.

Legislators would be better off focusing on how to help pregnant women, new mothers and their children. House Speaker Dade Phelan has said he wants to expand postpartum care under Medicaid to a year, among other steps. That’s a bare minimum toward helping poor families.

As with most of our political debates, the war over abortion won’t end despite one side’s huge victory. Legislators need to reckon with the post-Roe world and what Texas women and families need more than they focus on desperate mechanisms to eradicate abortion.

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Houston Chronicle. July 2, 2022.

Editorial: Thumbs: Ted Cruz goes after Sesame Street again, but this time Elmo claps back

We hear a lot about the American spirit, especially around the Fourth of July holiday, and no end of tales of the tough characters throughout our history who refused to quit. This year, though, we’re heartened to be reminded that sometimes, the courage required to step aside when all the world is calling on you to step up can be enormous. Simone Biles, who grew up in Spring to become one of the greatest gymnasts ever, showed us all that last year at the pandemic-delayed 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. She took heat for withdrawing from several events, citing mental health concerns. She praised her teammates — “they stepped up when I couldn’t” — then went on win a bronze medal in one final event, adding to the four gold medals she won in 2016. Since then, she’s become a vocal advocate for mental health and for survivors of sexual abuse, testifying before the Senate about the FBI’s wretched handling of convicted sex abuser and former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. Now, President Joe Biden is honoring Biles with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor for civilians. She’ll join 16 others, including American icons ranging from the late Steve Jobs to Sen. John McCain. Sometimes stepping back is just a chance to step out in a new direction. We’re proud of her.

We’re proud of Elmo, too. He was such a good sport the other day, getting a COVID shot that’s now approved for kids, and apparently Muppets, under age 5. “It was a little pinch,” he told his dad, “But it was OK.” With a great attitude like that, he probably won’t let another little prick get under his skin, either. Ted Cruz has to try, though. Texas’ junior senator apparently doesn’t have enough to do in Washington so he’s made his own sport of harassing Sesame Street characters who set good examples for America’s children by protecting themselves against a deadly pandemic. Last year, it was Big Bird. This time, Elmo, whose dad, Louie, told viewers he had a lot of questions about Elmo getting the vaccine: “Was it safe? Was it the right decision? I talked to our pediatrician so I could make the right choice.” Cruz was outraged. What kind of peer review is that? He accused Elmo of “aggressively” advocating for kids to get the vaccine, “but you cite ZERO scientific evidence for this.” There are plenty of other reasons to be skeptical of Elmo: he’s been saying he’s 3 years old since the 1980s and refuses to stop referring to himself in the third person. But everybody knows the little red monster has a heart of a prince and in Elmo’s world, kids feel seen and heard. If only Cruz’s Texas constituents could say the same. In a way, a parody Elmo was speaking for Texans when he took to the piano in a segment on the “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” to “clap back” at Cruz. His song, set to the tune of “Elmo’s Song,” which every toddler’s parent knows by heart, began thusly: “Feckless buf-FOON. Flees to Can-CUN. TED-Cruz soooong. …”

If only real animals could sing out loud, sing out strong. Oh, how a certain zebra and camel would surely drop a beat, and issue some throbbing laments about their involuntary performance scheduled at a new upscale Houston nightclub and dance venue Babylon planned in the cages just outside for Friday’s opening night. Reps for the new club have assured reporters that trained handlers were to be on site. The club is requiring its two-legged guests to wear evening wear and promises an “experience you’ll never forget.” Thumbs will be to the presses before any serious revelry happens, but if we’d had the time, what we’d really like to hear is an eye-witness account from one of the critters in the cages. We don’t suppose being displayed for the amusement of hip-shaking hipsters hopped up on exotic cocktails will be something either the camel or the zebra will soon forget.

Humans, on the other hand, forget all the time. That’s why we have textbooks. So they can remind us of the history that otherwise, we’re doomed to repeat. The plan breaks down, of course, when the textbooks themselves want us to forget. A working group of educators proposing changes to the state’s second-grade social studies curriculum pitched a lesson to the State Board of Education in June about the various ways Americans arrived here from other continents. The group, which included a professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, suggested teaching that there were immigrants like the Irish, and then there were those from Africa, part of an “involuntary relocation.” Did they forget we already had a word for that: slavery? Or were they cowering under the threat of SB 3, which took effect in December. It has educators in a straight-jacket of sorts when it comes to teaching about aspects of our history that might make white students (or their parents) uncomfortable. The horror! Thankfully, the Board of Education voted unanimously to send the group back to do more homework. Board member Aicha Davis, a Dallas Democrat, told the Texas Tribune: “I don’t know what their intention was, but this is not going to be acceptable.” We hope not. Then again, this is Texas.

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San Antonio Express-News. June 28, 2022.

Editorial: Without reforms to immigration, horror will go on

The death toll of migrants who have succumbed to the heat after being trapped in a tractor-trailer has risen to more than 50.

Discovered Monday night on a remote stretch on San Antonio’s Southwest Side, these migrants deserved a humane and fair immigration system — one that honors the rights of asylum workers, recognizes our workforce needs and reflects the inherent dignity in all people.

But what migrants navigate in the United States — whether in the back of a tractor-trailer, trekking across the desert or crossing the Rio Grande — is a broken and politicized immigration system that denies our shared humanity and forces many people to put their lives at risk.

We should all ask ourselves: Just what would it take to climb into the back of a tractor-trailer and risk such a perilous journey for a better life? Just what circumstances would lead a person to flee their home country? And just what hopes and dreams would that person be seeking?

We know many of the migrants who were found dead Monday came from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. Migrants from these countries, which have been rocked by cartels and gang violence, are likely to be expelled from the United States under Title 42, the deeply flawed public health policy masquerading as immigration policy to deny asylum claims and due process.

Border hawks like to hype Title 42 as a deterrent, but this isn’t the case. As we editorialized in May after a federal judge maintained Title 42, the public health law has fueled border crossings.

Why? Because it is a public health law, not an immigration law. Title 42 carries no legal consequences, and as such, it encourages people to risk crossing the U.S.-Mexico border again and again.

“The most likely outcome of an expulsion under Title 42 is simply going to be a bus ride back to Mexico, if you are caught. And that incentivized a lot of people to start crossing the border repeatedly, rolling the die every time,” Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, senior policy counsel with the American Immigration Council, told us in May.

In other words, Title 42 is often what leads people to attempt crossing the Rio Grande or climb into the back of a tractor-trailer despite suffocating heat.

Since its implementation in March 2020, Title 42 has led to some 2 million expulsions.

This tragedy, like those that have come before it, deserves an urgent humanitarian response. But it has instead received a predictable political one.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott wasted no time in placing the blame on the White House, tweeting, “These deaths are on Biden. They are a result of his deadly open border policies.”

U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, a San Antonio Republican, took to Twitter to call for Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas to resign.

The Biden administration has been utterly incoherent on immigration and border security, but so have other recent administrations.

While this is the deadliest human-smuggling tragedy in San Antonio’s history, it is not the only one. In 2017, 39 immigrants were found in the back of a tractor-trailer on the South Side, and 10 of them died.

In 2018, more than 50 immigrants were discovered in the back of an air-conditioned tractor-trailer.

The United States desperately needs comprehensive immigration reform. One that would allow asylum-seekers to present themselves at ports of entry and honor their due process. One that offers legal pathways for workers. And one that addresses root causes of immigration.

As San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said, “The plight of migrants seeking refuge is always a humanitarian crisis.”

Until we achieve comprehensive reforms, the humanitarian crisis will endure and horrors like this will persist. Immigration is not a political issue. It is a human one. And it demands our moral urgency.

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