Austin American-Statesman. January 18, 2023.
Editorial: Legislators should use $33 billion surplus to meet state needs
Property tax cuts helpful to many, but state has other needs, too
As public policy dilemmas go, it’s not a bad one to have.
Over the next four months, the 88th Texas Legislature will wrestle with how to spend a record $33 billion state budget surplus, a windfall that Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar calls a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity for a state experiencing tremendous population growth as public resources strain to keep up. If spent wisely, the surplus billions could help set Texas on a more prosperous path for decades to come. If squandered, we will all pay the price and could regret it for just as long.
Tax relief should help the most Texans possible
In his inaugural speech Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott pledged to use the extra cash — made possible by higher energy prices, pandemic recovery and inflation — to deliver the largest property tax cut in state history. We agree that Texas homeowners need relief from property taxes that have ballooned alongside real estate values in recent years. But we are concerned that Abbott’s insistence on dedicating at least half of the surplus to property tax relief would come at the expense of the state’s many capital improvement and social service needs. Moreover, property tax relief wouldn’t help everyone feeling the tax bite; it would benefit only the homeowners and business owners who pay property taxes, not renters and the rest who pay sales taxes that make up more than half the state’s revenues. For that reason, state lawmakers should at least consider reducing sales taxes so that more Texans can reap the benefits.
It’s important to understand that not all the surplus is available for tax cuts or new discretionary spending. By law, about one-third must be diverted to a highway account and a rainy day fund voters approved in 1988 to help prop up state budgets in the event that oil and gas revenues crater.
Abbott hasn’t said exactly how the state should deliver the massive property tax relief he seeks. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who runs the Texas Senate, has proposed increasing the annual homestead exemption from $40,000 to $70,000, reducing the amount on which homeowners must pay property taxes. That would consume about $3 billion of the $15 billion that a Senate bill unveiled on Wednesday would dedicate to property tax relief.
A reduction in the homestead exemption makes homeownership more affordable, but lawmakers should strongly consider an across-the-board property tax rate reduction instead. It would be more equitable, allowing homeowners and business owners to benefit proportionately based on what they owe.
Lawmakers should also use some of the surplus to meet dire state needs, including its crumbling water and information technology infrastructure, underpaid state workforce, inadequate health and foster care systems and more.
Population growth in Texas straining public infrastructure
As Austin residents are well aware, people are moving to Texas in head-turning numbers; if current migration patterns continue, the state’s population will climb from 29 million to more than 44 million by 2060. As it stands, state and local governments struggle more and more each year to keep up with public services. We see it in the slow response times of state government agencies beleaguered by outdated computer systems and an underpaid state workforce that is forcing thousands of workers to seek employment in the private sector. We see it in an overwhelmed child foster care system, with children forced to sleep in state offices and case workers who lose track of some. And we see it in the boil water notices resulting from overwhelmed filtration and treatment systems plaguing Austin and other cities across the state. Nearly nine in 10 Texans worry the state won’t be able to provide communities with adequate water in a drought as decrepit pipes leak enough to meet the total annual municipal water needs of Austin, Fort Worth, El Paso, Laredo and Lubbock combined.
Meanwhile, nearly a million Texans live without infrastructure to support broadband internet service — mostly in rural areas — making it impossible for them to telework or access remote learning opportunities. All of these needs deserve lawmakers’ serious consideration. The budget surplus can’t fix everything overnight, but it can provide major down payments on improvements with lasting benefits for Texas.
As lawmakers grapple with the challenge of spending this historic infusion of cash, they’ll face pressure from Abbott and myriad special interest groups. Reaching a consensus on priorities won’t be easy, but the legislature would be wise to seriously consider what our entire state — not just homeowners — needs most.
Dallas Morning News. January 22, 2023.;
Editorial: Boil water notices are increasing in Texas, and we should be worried
Aging, neglected water pipes and boil water notices highlight statewide challenges
Droughts, parched farms, ranches and instructions to water lawns less frequently are part of life in Texas. Unfortunately, so too are aging, neglected water pipes and boil water notices.
Last year, Texas officials issued boil water notices roughly 3,000 times to alert residents that water in their distribution system could be unsafe to drink. That’s up from 1,500 boil water advisories in Texas in 2015, a more than twofold increase from 650 in 2008, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Some of the notices last year remained in place for a few hours, others for a few days, and in most instances, water main breaks, drops in water pressure, flooding, power outages and other accidents had raised concerns that contamination such as lead, E. coli or dangerous “forever chemicals” could threaten water systems.
A recent Texas Tribune analysis of data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality found that using boiled, bottled or disinfected water for drinking, making ice, washing dishes, brushing teeth, and preparing food is all too common for many Texans. Seven of the 10 water entities that issued the most boil water notices last year were in rural parts of East Texas and the remaining in rural parts of North Central Texas, the Texas Tribune concluded.
This is more than an urban-rural divide. Large cities also have old pipes, brittle water infrastructure and ongoing battles with Mother Nature. Last summer, broken water lines caused a 13-day boil water notice in Laredo and a major water outage in Odessa, and Zapata almost ran out of water after reservoirs reached dangerously low levels. A few months later, Houston residents were warned to boil water after a power outage at a water treatment plant, adding the nation’s fourth-largest city to the growing list of cities from Flint, Mich., to Jackson, Miss., to grapple with a water crisis.
The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates one water main breaks every two minutes in the United States, resulting in the loss of roughly 6 billion gallons of treated water a day, enough to fill over 9,000 swimming pools. The group also says Texas’ conservation, planning, state funding and management efforts are working but that Texas must continue to make improvements to keep pace with the state’s population and commercial growth.
As this newspaper has noted for years, water is critical to the state’s long-term prosperity. The state must continue to reduce water loss, repair broken or antiquated water systems and encourage conservation. Texas has roughly $2 billion of federal money to spend on water infrastructure in the next few years. This is a down-payment on water safety and security, and Texas will have to aggressively finance infrastructure and water supply improvements, too. This is especially important because Texans rely heavily on surface water sources that can be significantly depleted during prolonged droughts.
The state has a hefty surplus this session, and it is important that lawmakers use a portion of it to ensure safe and ample water supply throughout Texas.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram. January 20, 2023.
Editorial: Confederate day honors traitors who fought for slavery. Texas Legislature must dump it
Odds are, Thursday’s state holiday came and went without most Texans noticing it.
It’s a measure of progress that few Texans celebrate Confederate Heroes Day. But there it is, a stain on the calendar that pops up every Jan. 19. It’s too late for 2022, but the Legislature has a chance to make this the last time Texas suffers this embarrassment by eliminating the holiday.
There’s not much to the day, in terms of ceremony or recognition. Few would miss it; the fact that it remains is a testament to a handful of noisy holdouts who would make a fuss, something every politician instinctively tries to avoid. The state doesn’t even suspend business for this tainted day.
The fact that few even realize the holiday exists, though, doesn’t justify leaving it on the books. It is not harmless. The state is honoring those who rebelled against the United States, those who supported the cause of enslaving fellow humans. Black Texans in particular are insulted by this, but all Texans who also love being Americans and recognize the true, ugly history of the Confederacy’s rebellion suffer when the state recognizes traitors.
Perhaps that label strikes some as too strong. But the actual history of the Confederacy, not the gauzy portrayals used to justify civil-rights abuses for a century after the war, must be faced directly. The Civil War was necessary to preserve the American union and ensure it could go forward without the shame of slavery. Any talk about states’ rights or maintaining a way of life is an effort to obscure reality.
Self-styled “patriots” who revere the American founding and the Constitution should take as much offense at honoring the Confederacy as anyone. It’s anti-American to revere the rebellion.
Some will argue that the day is merely to recognize the bravery and loyalty of Texans who joined the state’s chosen cause. Not every Confederate soldier or officer must be painted with the same brush, but there was no nobility in fighting for this cause. Even Robert E. Lee — whose birthday hosts the holiday — thought it mistaken to build monuments to the losers, knowing it would merely extend the wounds of war.
And it’s not like Confederate Heroes Day is a vestige of the war’s immediate aftermath, an effort to instantly remember fallen soldiers. Its roots trace to 1905, when Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ birthday was made a holiday. The current name was applied in 1973 to combine Davis’ and Lee’s birthday holidays — long past the point when anyone should have felt comfortable honoring a rebellion.
For the third straight legislative session, Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston, is offering a bill to eliminate the state holiday. House and Senate Republicans will probably be reluctant to go along, not out of racial animus but, most likely, not wanting to appear to be caving to a politically correct impulse.
In truth, few voters would care much one way or the other. The noise would quickly die down, and on Jan. 19, 2024, the vote on the bill will have been long forgotten. Texas Republicans will have ample opportunity in this session to stand against “wokeness.” That’s not what this is.
It’s also true, as some will note, that canceling Confederate Heroes Day won’t mean much substantive change for Black Texans or fix racial disparities in education or economics. But the existence of large, difficult problems need not obscure efforts to tackle smaller ones.
And doing so will send a clear message: 21st-century Texas need not pause even a second to honor the rebellion of the South. We’re moving on.
Houston Chronicle. January 20, 2023.
Editorial: Why would Texas lawmakers give indicted AG Paxton more power?
On this January day in the year 2023, we can confidently report that the city council of Inverness, Scotland, is not launching a flotilla of sonar-equipped boats on nearby Loch Ness, despite a timeless rumor that a mysterious long-necked “monster” has made its home for eons in the lake’s 800-foot depths.
Closer to home, we also can report that the Hardin County Commissioners Court is not launching an investigation into whether the occasional sighting of massive footprints, hair fibers and scat in the deep, dark woods between Sour Lake and Beaumont is proof that “Big Foot” – aka “the raggedy man of Sour Lake” – is actually an indigenous East Texan. Both county commissioners and Inverness city council members have better things to do.
It’s a different story in Austin, where one of the most prominent elected officials in Texas is wasting his office’s time and resources and taxpayers’ money chasing after a mythical beast, injuring innocent bystanders in the process. Ken Paxton, who must surely be America’s most corrupt attorney general, continues his foolish quest for widespread voter fraud, despite fewer incidents of the phenomenon than credible Sasquatch sightings over the years. Elected to a third term last fall, Paxton has been on the hunt for fraudulent voters since he first took office in 2015, despite the fact that countless investigations have turned up nothing but a handful of picayune infractions.
To call his quest quixotic is an insult to Don Quixote. Unlike Cervantes’ misguided hero, Paxton surely knows the truth. He keeps up the pretense, though, in pathetic imitation of another Don, a former president whose incessant blathering about stolen elections keep the MAGA faithful in high dudgeon more than two years after their hero was soundly defeated in a fair election. In Texas and in other fervid red states, the groundless election-fraud claim, as Jonathan Lemire puts it in his recent book “The Big Lie,” has “metastasized” from a campaign cris de coeur into the “cold, methodical process of legislation.”
In Paxton’s case, the foolish quest also diverts attention from another type of fraud. Almost since the day he took office eight years ago, our state’s top law enforcement officer has been under indictment for felony securities fraud, so far without having to face a judge and jury. He’s also under FBI investigation for alleged shenanigans in his office and is being sued by the State Bar of Texas for professional misconduct for filing a ridiculous lawsuit in the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the 2020 presidential election. This is the man who would presume to monitor how his fellow Texans carry out the basic work of democracy?
As the Texas Legislature gets down to work this session, a couple of North Texas Sancho Panzas (again, apologies to Sancho Panza) are sponsoring bills that would endow Paxton with more power to prosecute election crimes. House Bill 678, sponsored by state Rep. Keith Bell, R-Forney, would allow the AG to appoint a county or district attorney from an adjacent county to come in and serve as a special prosecutor in an alleged election-crime case. House Bill 125, sponsored by state Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, would allow the AG to seek a court-ordered injunction to prevent a local prosecutor from “limiting election law enforcement.”
Let’s say a Harris County DA, likely a Democrat, doesn’t share Paxton’s election-fraud suspicions; maybe a Montgomery County DA, likely a Republican, would be happy to accommodate Paxton’s theatrics.
The two bills are the outgrowth of an impressively independent ruling last fall by the all-Republican Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. In Texas v. Zena Stephens, the court found that Paxton does not have unilateral authority to prosecute election crimes. According to the Texas Constitution, that authority is delegated to local prosecutors. In a tweet, Paxton wrote, “the CCA’s shameful decision means local DAs with radical liberal views have the sole power to prosecute the election fraud in TX – which they will never do.”
Paxton urged the Legislature to “right this wrong” by basically obliterating local control in any case where Paxton wants to cry “fraud.” Bell and Slaton scurried to oblige.
A few weeks after the Court of Criminal Appeals ruling, a district judge in Montgomery County cited the decision when he dismissed voter fraud charges Paxton had filed against Hervis Rogers. The Harris County resident, who in 2020 waited in line for nearly seven hours at his Texas Southern University polling place, was on parole at the time for a decades-old burglary conviction but under Texas law, wasn’t quite eligible to vote again. In 2021, he was charged with two counts of illegal voting, with Paxton strategically choosing to prosecute the case in neighboring Montgomery County. Rogers, a Black man of modest means, is the type of target Paxton prefers.
Never mind that Rogers said he believed he was eligible to vote, and was simply trying to do his civic duty; Paxton was happy to send him back to prison if a jury convicted him. Fortunately, the judge called the AG on his cruelty.
We would hope that Texas lawmakers this session would be just as fair-minded as the Montgomery County judge, but we also understand the odds. A review conducted by the Center for Investigative Reporting has found that, in addition to the two Paxton-inspired bills, Republican lawmakers have filed at least seven more bills that would make it easier for law enforcement to interfere in the election process. Some would increase the penalty for illegal voting, while another would make it a crime for a voter to cast a ballot in a party’s primary election if the voter is not a member of that party.
Paxton is no outlier. He’s following a pernicious playbook designed to discourage voters in a number of red states around the country who might be expected to cast their ballots for Democrats. Paxton and his political ilk end up interfering with local election administrators and discouraging would-be polling place volunteers. Who would want to volunteer if an innocent mistake puts you at risk of going to jail?
What we would like to see is a cadre of elected officials who understand that their duty, their sacred duty in a democracy, is to help their citizens vote fairly and securely, not to use phony warnings about fraud to erect obstacles.
At the very least, we just hope sensible lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats — will find a way to thwart any bill that gives Ken Paxton more power.
San Antonio Express-News. January 18, 2023.
Editorial: A new term, but all-too familiar talking points
The best inaugurations are celebrations of hope that offer a vision for the future while reflecting on the past. They unite, inspire and honor diverse perspectives. Less successful inaugurations, however, are more aligned with political rallies that devalue differing views. Tuesday’s inauguration for Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick fell somewhere in between. It wasn’t as uniting as one might hope.
Abbott lauded our state’s economy and outlined priorities bolstering business, infrastructure, school funding, border security and public safety — all worthwhile priorities, depending on the policies pursued.
About those policies: More school funding with a dollop of school vouchers is no win for public education. Likewise, a focus on school safety with no consideration for the weapons that make schools unsafe is a hollow gesture and an invitation to future tragedy.
Using lyrics from “Texas, Our Texas” as a guide, Abbott, who won decisively over Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke in November, spoke of Texas exceptionalism and laid out his vision for the state in comments that lasted nearly 25 minutes.
Beginning with business, he called Texas “America’s undisputed economic leader” and the nation’s “headquarters of headquarters” when it comes to Fortune 500 companies.
After praising the state’s job growth, small businesses, economic development, opportunity and innovation, Abbott said he’ll return much of a record $33 billion budget surplus to property owners, pledging “the largest property tax cut in the history of the state.”
“But make no mistake, that money does not belong to the government,” Abbott said. “It belongs to the taxpayers. We will use that budget surplus to provide the largest property tax cut in the history of the state of Texas.”
We agree that some of the surplus should be dedicated to property tax relief. But let’s also remember that property taxes have skyrocketed under this administration. In this regard, Abbott, Paxton and others have failed to provide permanent education funding or bring transparency to commercial property values. Beyond this, some of the surplus should be dedicated to fund education, rural broadband, roads and other pressing state needs.
Abbott said children are “one of our greatest blessings” and deserve “a quality education,” and he noted “per-student funding is at an all-time high.”
All to the good, but not good enough, governor.
Texas isn’t known for funding its schools. In 2021, it ranked 42nd nationally in school funding, according to Raise Your Hand Texas.
Before turning to school safety and security, Abbott said, “schools are for education, not indoctrination” and called for reforming curricula to avoid “pushing a social agenda.”
Let’s be clear — any embrace of vouchers, veiled as parental choice, to subsidize private school tuition will undercut public education.
Abbott also prioritized school safety, but he didn’t elaborate beyond voicing support for law enforcement. Predictably missing from Abbott’s and Patrick’s speeches Tuesday were direct references to the Uvalde school shooting last May in which 19 children and two teachers were murdered. Clearly, this speaks to the outlook for gun safety reforms.
Abbott also called for ending bail reform and mandatory jail sentences for “criminals caught with guns,” and those caught smuggling migrants.
Regarding the border, he criticized the Biden administration, thanked the Texas Guard and Texas Department of Public Safety troopers involved in Operation Lone Star, and noted that the state is building its own border wall. He warned of the flow of fentanyl across the border and mentioned that families who lost loved ones to the drug were in the audience.
Patrick’s words were grounded in faith, nostalgia and political posturing.
America “looks at Texas as the America that all America used to be,” he said. “We still love God in this state — I see Jesus is king over there.”
It’s interesting. We look at Texas, rapidly growing and blossoming with diversity, and see America’s future, not its past.
Patrick noted that the forthcoming state budget will increase homestead exemptions to $70,000, up from $40,000, and he called for more business tax cuts. He applauded the state’s busing of migrants to other states and blasted the teaching of critical race theory in state universities.
Abbott and Patrick won re-election by wide margins. This is the mandate Texas voters have given them.