Editorial Roundup: Texas

Austin American-Statesman. April 1, 2022.

Editorial: March tornadoes raise questions about building standards

Central Texans received another cruel reminder of the devastating power of tornadoes this week with news that last month’s twister in Round Rock caused $32 million worth of destruction while leveling 13 homes and damaging nearly 700 others.

And that was just in Round Rock. In all, several tornadoes in the same weather system damaged or destroyed about 1,000 homes in Williamson County and more than 100 homes in Bastrop County.

Extensive property damage, coupled with increasingly severe weather patterns in Texas, raises important questions about whether the state is holding builders to construction standards strong enough to endure extreme weather. We urge Central Texas municipal leaders to review their building standards and, if needed, lobby the state legislature to give them authority to strengthen them.

Texas sets minimum standards for construction based on international building codes that determine what types of materials can be used for safety and durability. Texas cities can choose to adopt these codes, but it’s not mandatory. Some builders exceed these standards, some don’t. In recent years, in Texas and nationally, the powerful construction and building industry has lobbied against enhanced safety requirements, citing high costs that would be passed on to buyers.

The New York Times reported in December that the industry has worked specifically to weaken tornado standards in the international building codes, which Texas and most other states have adopted as their own. Former FEMA administrator Craig Fugate described a perennial debate between safety advocates pushing better design to protect against disasters, and developers who want reduced red tape and costs.

“There’s a lot of building codes in this country that are based on hope: ‘We just hope it won’t be that bad,’” Fugate said. “And people die.”

Austin and Round Rock both adhere to the international guidelines, last updated in 2018. They require builders to construct single-family homes, duplexes and most townhomes to withstand wind speeds of 115 mph. The tornado that roared through Round Rock in March clocked 135 mph. Many of the homes damaged or destroyed were built in the 1980s and 1990s, when the city’s construction standard for wind gusts was just 90 mph.

Mark Remmert, Round Rock’s chief building official, told our board that codes in Texas are vastly improved since the days when builders were allowed to pack styrofoam inside the corners of houses to fortify against punishing winds. Under today’s standards, builders must use full sheets of plywood, metal straps or powerful synthetic materials for the same purpose.

Even if a Texas city wanted to adopt building standards with stronger wind protection requirements than the international code, it probably couldn’t, Round Rock building officials told our board. A bill championed by the Texas building industry and signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott in 2019 prohibits cities from banning or restricting certain building materials if approved for use in the international code. The industry argued that letting builders choose from a wider array of materials could lower costs for homebuyers, a concern in today’s skyrocketing Central Texas real estate market.

“When you take some of these tools out of the toolbox for builders, it really starts severely impacting affordability,” Bradley Pepper, the director of government affairs for the Greater Houston Builders Association, told Community Impact Newspapers when the bill became law.

As a result of that 2019 law, the city of Lubbock was forced to take its strict rules on household gas tubing -- aimed at preventing fires -- off the books.

“It really restricts a city’s ability to add additional standards,” Round Rock Planning Director Brad Wiseman told us, noting that homes with brick or stone exteriors fared better in last week’s tornado than those made of wood or other materials.

Prior to the 2019 law, Round Rock and some other Texas cities required a significant amount of masonry to be included in new home construction, but state law now prohibits those standards, Wiseman said.

While Central Texas is not historically at high risk for tornadoes, longtime residents are rightly wary of their destructive power. In May 1997, a tornado with winds exceeding 260 mph devastated the small Williamson County community of Jarrell, causing 27 deaths,12 injuries and $40 million in property damage. Between 1991 and 2010, Texas had an average of 155 tornadoes per year - the highest number in the nation. Kansas was second with 96.

State and local lawmakers should ask themselves if they are unnecessarily forsaking safety to appease developers who want to save money on construction costs. With a booming construction industry and strong economy, Texas should be able to produce affordable homes that don’t skimp on safety.

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Dallas Morning News. April 1, 2022.

Editorial: Full solar: Farmers Branch to become first Texas city to power operations on sunlight

This is an idea other cities should explore

Farmers Branch is set to become the first city in Texas whose operations are powered entirely by solar energy produced within its borders. That is something to be proud of, and a land use other cities should explore.

In February, the city entered an agreement with BQ Energy Development to design, build, and operate a 23-acre solar farm on a piece of land owned by the city. It will be the only such solar farm in Texas, owned by a city within its borders. Construction is scheduled to finish in the Fall of 2024.

This is a clever move not just because it promotes renewable energy, but because it puts land to good use. The site is a former landfill, which limits its available uses. Typically, closed landfills get turned into parks, golf courses, or wildlife refuges. Farmers Branch Sustainability Manager Alex Pharmakis explained that most development projects on closed landfills require lots of remediation measures, which come with permitting and fees from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. This project will not.

More importantly for residents, this could actually bring taxpayer savings. Pharmakis said the agreement with BQ Energy locks in the city’s cost for 20 years at a rate comparable to recent averages. If energy prices continue to rise, Farmers Branch stands to save.

The farm is expected to generate 13.6 million kWh per year, which is much more than needed to power all city-owned facilities, city spokesperson Jeff Brady told us. It will connect to the Texas power grid and be distributed by a power retailer to be named later.

The site is in an industrial area near the intersection of the President George Bush Turnpike and Valley View Lane.

“Our (city) council is committed to fully and quickly enacting the policy changes necessary to produce a more sustainable future for Farmers Branch,” Mayor Robert C. Dye said. “This solar farm represents a major step in that direction.”

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram. April 4, 2022.

Editorial: Mayor Mattie Parker is talking tough about the Texas GOP. Here’s why, and what’s next

Tarrant County could soon be a major front in the battle for control of the Republican Party.

Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker’s recent comments about the local party’s direction didn’t mention Tim O’Hare, the likely next county judge, by name. But there was no mistaking what she meant.

“We just eat our own,” Parker told the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith, lamenting that politics has “gotten so partisan.” Her follow-up before the Rotary Club of Fort Worth got less attention, but the mayor indicated she’s not letting this go.

“I may be on a crusade now about it,” she said.

The driving force here is former Mayor Betsy Price’s walloping by O’Hare, the Southlake activist and former Farmers Branch mayor. Staunch Price supporters think she was unfairly painted as insufficiently conservative, including through some deception. Parker is among them, having worked for Price before succeeding her as mayor.

More than once, Parker has mentioned a campaign mailer featuring a photo of Price greeting former President Barack Obama in Dallas on the day of a memorial service for law enforcement officers slain in a 2016 attack. Price met the president’s plane at the behest of her Dallas counterpart, Mike Rawlings, who was attending officers’ funerals.

Campaigns are rough, and Price’s team didn’t effectively fight back. Part of the problem is that establishment Republicans seem to have missed or underestimated the shift among the party’s core voters.

Cultural issues unrelated to county government shouldn’t have been so prominent in the O’Hare-Price contest. But candidates have to meet voters where they are, then try to bring them to focus on other issues as well. O’Hare read the moment among the small number of Republicans most likely to vote in primaries, and Price simply didn’t.

Listing her frustrations with the Texas GOP, Parker has mentioned Medicaid expansion as an urgent need for Texas. State Republican leaders have resisted taking more federal money to insure more working-class Texans, even though the need is clear.

This could be the kind of issue to chart a new course for Republicans. The smaller-government argument against the program may be fading. As more working-class people move into the GOP partly over cultural issues, they may prompt more openness to programs such as Medicaid.

And the fact that Medicaid expansion would help ease the burden on county taxpayers who foot the bill when patients without insurance show up at John Peter Smith Hospital needing urgent care should seal the deal.

Parker has the potential to help lead such a transition, having earned national attention as the youngest mayor of a large American city at age 38. It won’t be easy. She’s sure to face hard-right opposition if she runs for re-election in 2023. And she lacks Price’s clout, at least so far.

Parker indicated she wouldn’t want to run in a Republican primary right now because of the intensely partisan nature of politics. The mayor is elected on a nonpartisan basis, but city politics has increasingly seen the ideological divides present at other levels. Parker may not want to participate in such donnybrooks, but if she wants her views to prevail, she may not have a choice.

If she intends to go on a crusade for less partisan, more policy-focused campaigns and governance, we hope she’ll see it through. Fort Worth is a diverse city that leans Democratic in a county that’s increasingly up for grabs. We need leaders who can compromise and embrace smart policy to address long-standing needs such as better schools, higher-paying jobs and more affordable housing.

Fighting for values in politics is noble. But it isn’t everything. Fort Worth and Tarrant County have the potential to demonstrate conservative urban policy that gets results, in contrast to intractable problems in other cities.

Parker voiced concerns that many Republican leaders have had on their minds. The time for silence is over.

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Houston Chronicle. March 31, 2022.

Editorial: What would happen if Texas was known for kindness instead of hate?

The messages Texas leaders have been sending about trans people in the past couple of years haven’t exactly brimmed over with empathy, support or even just plain old kindness. On this year’s Transgender Day of Awareness, celebrated on March 31, let’s ask ourselves what it would take for the state to be known for kindness instead of hate?

Verniss McFarland has been asking that question all week as we approach the annual moment for reflection, a day that comes as families of trans children are weighing whether to relocate after Gov. Greg Abbott instructed child welfare officials to investigate gender-affirming medical care as possibly criminal “child abuse.”

McFarland founded The Mahogany Project in 2017 in Houston, after a transgender performer well known for her frequent shows in Montrose, was shot to death in New Orleans, part of a years-long string of violence against transgender women of color in the South, including Dallas and Houston, that continues. Over the years, McFarland told us, the focus of the organization has broadened to increasing the visibility of and providing support for Black trans people. The goal is to grow bonds of community to combat stigma and isolation.

That will help trans people stand up to the animus politicians keep generating.

“This year especially, Trans Day of Visibility is a call to action to show politicians and leaders that your hate will not stop us and we will not go into hiding,” McFarland said. “We will continue to thrive in spite of everything, and community will continue to be here and grow here despite the hate some choose to incite.”

From the battles over bathrooms a few sessions ago to the Texas push back to the Obama-era protections for trans students to last year’s bill in the Texas Legislature barring transgender athletes from competing on teams aligned with their gender identity, the “hate” has seemed to never stop. Last month, Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an advisory legal opinion claiming hormone treatments, puberty blockers and surgery should all be considered child abuse. Abbott’s order to investigate parents and doctors soon followed.

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Though a court has put halted the investigations for now, that order has understandably left many transgender people and their families feeling as if they are wearing a target. Fortunately, several groups are doing what they can to provide a shield.

The Mahogany Project is hosting a “living history” event celebrating trans leaders in Houston this evening. “We should give people their flowers while they’re alive,” Darrien Dyrell, one of the event’s organizers, told the editorial board.

On Friday night, representatives from several trans and trans-affirming groups will speak at a rally at the Montrose Center, where the public will be able to hear testimonies and calls to action.

Yesterday, drag performer Adriana LaRue hosted “You’re Beautiful!” — a night of coming-out stories and advice — at ReBar Houston, the same night as the Houston Rockets’ second-annual LGBTQ Pride Night.

Other steps to counter the messages of hate transgender people too often hear in Texas are being taken year round. The Organización Latina de Trans en Tejas holds monthly food drives. Equality Texas and other advocacy organizations are distributing resources for parents of trans youth, affirming that hormone and other therapies for youth are not abusive.

Texans should want trans children and adults to thrive, free to lead lives of meaning and love. Some will choose to be visible, while for others anonymity is essential.

What they shouldn’t have to do is live in fear. These efforts by groups like The Mahogany Project make a difference because they send messages countering the political vitriol aimed at them. That in turn can create a space where it’s possible for transgender Texans to look in the mirror and see their true selves — and for us to see them as they truly are, too.

Some Republican leaders have tempered their own views on trans issues with just the kind of approach we’d like to see in Texas. In Utah earlier this month, Republican Gov. Spencer Cox vetoed a ban on transgender students playing in girls’ sports, one day after Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb did the same. “I struggle to understand so much of it and the science is conflicting. When in doubt however, I always try to err on the side of kindness, mercy and compassion,” Cox told Utah legislators. “I don’t understand what they are going through or why they feel the way they do. But I want them to live.”

Though lawmakers overrode his veto, Cox sent a powerful message that we wish Texas leaders would hear. When faced with something that challenges existing understandings, policymakers can choose to listen and proceed with both care and kindness.

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San Antonio Express-News. March 31, 2022.

Editorial: Take care of our veterans, pass burn pit legislation

When tragedy strikes, politicians are quick to offer “thoughts and prayers.”

The sentiment — even if heartfelt and genuine — is more expedient and less risky than championing a big policy change.

When it comes to taking care of veterans who’ve been exposed to toxins while serving the nation, congressional Republicans are talking big, but not acting.

War is expensive, and as we learn with each conflict, the costs — physical, mental, moral and economic — echo for generations. As the full costs of our country’s wars manifest themselves decades later, some congressmen — including veterans from Texas — aren’t willing to pay the bill.

On March 3, the House of Representatives passed the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2021, or Honoring our PACT act, an expansive bill that would ensure health care to more than 3.5 million veterans exposed to airborne toxins and burn pits.

The bill would also extend combat veterans’ eligibility for health care from five to 10 years, streamline the Veterans Administration review process, and establish a presumption of service connection for 23 illnesses and cancers related to toxic exposure. It would expand coverage for veterans who served in areas that currently don’t qualify, such as Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, where service members were exposed to Agent Orange.

The vote was 256-174, with the nays coming from Republicans, including at least 40 veterans, 16 of whom served in the global war on terrorism.

While they point to the fiscal cost as a reason to vote no, such rationale is obscured behind a haze of partisanship. President Joe Biden addressed toxic exposure in his State of the Union address and supports the legislation.

District 23 U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales’ office said he and “most of his colleagues” voted against the PACT act because of the cost, as well as the potential for an increased VA claims backlog and disruption of services to veterans already in the system. Gonzales is a Navy veteran.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the legislation’s price tag to be at least $207.5 billion over 10 years with an additional $114.2 billion in discretionary spending subject to appropriation.

Yes, that’s a lot of money, but it’s dwarfed by the Department of Defense’s 2023 one-year budget request of $773 billion and the VA’s $301 billion request, let alone the $8 trillion spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Most Republicans, including Gonzales, favor the scaled-down Health Care for Burn Pit Veterans Act, which passed the Senate in February.

We see the PACT Act as a cost of war. It’s a bill our nation has already incurred. The interest compounds each day as more veterans are diagnosed with toxic exposure illnesses.

For the families who’ve lost loved ones and the veterans battling lung problems, rare cancers and other ailments, the bureaucratic debates and political games fall flat.

These people don’t have time to wait.

On Tuesday, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs spoke with VA Secretary Denis McDonough and a group of veterans about the PACT Act as it makes its way to a Senate vote.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the committee chair, began the session by recognizing Will Thompson, an Army veteran who died from toxic exposure injuries in December. Thompson testified to the committee in March 2021.

It was a powerful gesture. More than a few witnesses in the chamber knew Thompson.

But the best way the committee and Congress can honor Thompson and his fellow veterans is to pass the PACT Act. It should be unanimous. Thoughts and prayers are not enough.

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