Editorial Roundup: Texas

Dallas Morning News. February 23, 2024.

Editorial: Ivan Cantu is scheduled to be executed next week, and that’s wrong

Texas should not be putting people to death.

Death row inmate Ivan Cantu is scheduled to be executed by the state of Texas on Wednesday.

Yet, once again, there’s considerable doubt about whether the state has rightly condemned someone to death and is on the verge of killing an innocent person. This time, questions swirl around much of the key evidence used to convict Cantu, now 50, of the capital murder of his cousin.

In 2007, this newspaper took a stance against the death penalty, saying it couldn’t reconcile “the fact that it is both imperfect and irreversible.” We lost confidence that inherently flawed human beings and the criminal justice system they control could rightly mete out the ultimate punishment. A punishment that, if gotten wrong, is as heinous as the crime it was intended to address.

But with Cantu’s case we not only reiterate our previous position, but also go a step further. In 2024 the death penalty is both unnecessary and morally wrong. The state of Texas should not be in the business of taking human life. That’s especially true in light of a 2005 state law allowing convicted capital murderers to be sentenced to life in prison without parole instead of being executed.

That law didn’t exist in 2001 when a Collin County jury sentenced Cantu to death for the murder of James Mosqueda, 27, during a botched robbery in Far North Dallas. Cantu was also indicted in the killing of Mosqueda’s 22-year-old fiancée, Amy Kitchen, in the same incident.

Cantu has always maintained his innocence. But those claims have gained national attention in recent years as his attorney and independent investigators have unearthed new evidence.

A key witness who testified that Cantu told him he planned to murder Mosqueda admitted in 2022 that he made up his testimony. And damning statements from Cantu’s girlfriend were also discredited after Mosqueda’s Rolex watch, which she said Cantu stole and threw out a car window, was found by investigators in the victim’s home and returned to his family.

In light of this and other new evidence, a Collin County judge in April withdrew Cantu’s execution date. But the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals later declined to review the case.

Now Cantu’s lawyer Gena Bunn is scrambling to find other avenues to spare his life. She told us in an email she filed a clemency petition with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and appeals and requests for stays with the Court of Criminal Appeals, the Collin County trial court, and in federal court. We hope her efforts are successful. But hope and time are running out.

We don’t know for certain if Cantu is guilty; there’s clearly significant reason to doubt he is. Nonetheless, Texas would be wrong if it killed him next week.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram. February 23, 2024.

Editorial: Who should Texans blame for school cuts, lack of teacher pay raises? Everyone

It’s time for a pop quiz.

If Texas teachers are underpaid and schools have to lay off personnel while the state sits on a budget surplus, who’s to blame?

The answer: Everyone.

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov Dan Patrick draw most of the fire from teacher groups and school districts, as they should. But there’s a reality that educators can’t escape: By refusing to budge over a modest school voucher pilot program, their leaders left billions of dollars on the table, contributing to the cuts and frustration we’re seeing now.

It’s widespread. Fort Worth ISD laid off technology employees and instructional specialists, among other areas. Dallas ISD has been trying to avoid major job cuts by leaving open positions unfilled. Spring Branch ISD, a district of about 35,000 students in the Houston area, is eliminating school librarian positions.

The gridlock at the Capitol is only part of the reason, as school officials acknowledge. In some cases, extra federal money provided to help districts cope with the COVID pandemic is running out. And public schools in many places are seeing enrollment decline, requiring tough choices about school realignment.

In hindsight, perhaps schools should have been more careful about adding staff for what was clearly a temporary boost in federal funding. As children fell behind, it was important to provide more instructional time, but perhaps current staff could have been repurposed to avoid the difficult cuts we’re seeing now.

Fort Worth ISD’s budget shortfall is a result of all of the problems outlined above. The enrollment decline is now a nearly decade-long trend, a troubling one in an area where the population is booming. District officials know the time has come to close schools, which can be a fraught process for a community.

No one wants to see their neighborhood school close. But it would be irresponsible for a public entity to try to maintain capacity it clearly does not need. The key is to have ample opportunity for public input and try to minimize the effect of politics. It’s a chance for the district to focus resources where they’re needed most, and it shouldn’t be squandered.

We have strongly advocated for a boost in state education funding, particularly to offset the effects of inflation and help keep the best teachers from leaving the profession. In an ideal world, lawmakers would have spent the money with no strings attached.

Legislative hardball is a part of life, though. As Abbott struggled to attract enough votes for his desired plan to create education savings accounts for nearly 58,000 students in Texas, he made increased funding of $5 billion for teacher pay and other school district needs contingent on it.

The public education industry is so dug in against the idea, it pushed lawmakers to hold the line. They declare, without evidence, that any form of “vouchers” would lead to the eventual unraveling of the public schools. That absolutist stance means they must avoid even the most modest of experimentation on the matter, even if it means losing funding and firing employees.

If the argument against vouchers was that they would hurt public schools, isn’t that what we’re seeing now? Was it worth it?

Both sides probably overinflate the meaning and impact of a new school-choice program. The vast majority of students would remain in Texas public schools, which would still need innovation, increased accountability and, yes, more funding.

So, Abbott and his fellow school-choice evangelists also deserve disdain for settling on this one path for improving education in Texas at a time when the situation is so dire in so many places. But they shouldn’t get all of the heat for job cuts and budget woes in district after district.

Intractable public education interests are to blame, too.

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Houston Chronicle. February 25, 2024.

Editorial: Lakewood Church shooting is yet another reason to pass red flag laws

Three days after a 7-year-old boy was shot in the head at Houston’s Lakewood Church, his grandmother reported that surgeons had removed parts of the frontal lobe of his brain and of his skull. The boy, Samuel, had “lost a major part of what makes us who we are,” Walli Carranza wrote in a Feb. 14 Facebook post. Carranza blamed the tragedy on “the very same legislators who claim to be ‘pro-life’ (and) believe that unbridled gun rights matter and the right to life does not! Insanity!”

Carranza’s son is Samuel’s father and the ex-husband of the boy’s mother, Genesse Ivonne Moreno, 36. Authorities say Moreno entered the megachurch with Samuel just before its weekly Spanish-language service was to begin on Feb. 11. Moreno began firing an AR-style rifle, officials said, and law enforcement officers working security at the church returned fire, killing Moreno. Authorities have not disclosed who fired the shots that wounded Samuel and a 57-year-old man who was shot in the leg and was treated and released from a hospital.

Samuel’s grievous wounds, the pain endured by his grandmother and other loved ones, and the trauma experienced by everyone present when bullets began flying at Lakewood might have been prevented. Genesse Moreno should not have had access to the weapon she fired that afternoon.

Gun safety advocates say the Lakewood shooting is vivid evidence of the need for a “red flag” law, authorizing courts to prevent people deemed a threat to public safety from possessing certain firearms. In the wake of the tragedy, local leaders renewed their calls for such a law. Twenty-one states have passed red flag laws, and research shows they can be an effective tool in preventing gun violence.

In Texas, though, bills that would authorize red flag laws routinely end up in the legislative slush pile. A bill introduced last year by Rep. Ann Johnson, D-Houston, didn’t even get a committee hearing; similar measures introduced by other legislators all died. This is hardly surprising in a state whose leaders seem determined to remove any barriers to gun ownership — even eliminating the need for a license and training to publicly carry a handgun.

Republican legislators beholden to primary voters, who are more likely to focus on single issues such as gun rights or abortion, believe that they “cannot give an inch on gun policy,” said Liz Hanks, the Texas chapter leader of Moms Demand Action, a gun safety advocacy group. “They make the ‘slippery slope’ argument every time.” She referred to the nonsensical assertion that any new firearm regulation will lead to government officials storming homes to clear out gun closets and snatching rifles from pickup truck gun racks.

Moreno had a lengthy history of mental health issues and, according to public records, was arrested at least six times between 2005 and 2022 on charges including unlawful carrying of a weapon, assault, theft and marijuana possession. Even so, current Texas laws probably permitted Moreno to purchase the two rifles she carried that day, experts told the Chronicle’s John Wayne Ferguson.

“I think this particular incident is a great example of how a red flag law could and should work, because the family was so involved and had reached out to different agencies,” including law enforcement and child safety officials, Hanks said. “There were people here seeing these warning signs and taking action on the warning signs, but there is no process, no tool in the state of Texas, that could help them ensure that she did not have access to weapons.”

Johnson agreed: “You had neighbors talking about threats and fear of her,” she said. “Any of those people could have filed that petition with a court, gone through a hearing, and presented clear and convincing evidence” that Moreno’s access to firearms should be restricted. Johnson said her bill was drawn narrowly; restrictions would apply only to people with “extreme” mental health problems and would have to be renewed after a year. Her bill included a provision making a false accusation in such a hearing a misdemeanor.

“All of this ‘the sky is falling, people are coming to take your guns,’ talk, the fear-mongering about a nonexistent problem, is keeping us from addressing a real and existing crisis, the epidemic of gun violence,” Johnson said.

Still, she sees some hopeful signs. Johnson noted that two Republicans, Sam Harless of Spring and Justin Holland of Rockwall, joined Democrats in a 2023 House committee vote to advance a bill that would have raised the age from 18 to 21 to purchase certain firearms. The session ended before the bill reached the floor, she said.

“That is progress,” Johnson said. “People have to be committed to small steps on progress. Now, you would hope that as you go into (the next session) in January of ’25, the fact that you have had some bipartisan support should allow for broader discussion.”

Local leaders, forbidden by the state from passing their own gun regulations, are doing what they can. In 2022, Harris County officials started a pilot project, the Violence Interruption Program, that provides counseling and other services to gun violence survivors. A key goal of the program is to prevent survivors from retaliating — breaking the bloody cycle of retribution after retribution.

It’s a laudable effort, but it’s not enough. Johnson, Hanks and other supporters of reasonable gun regulations believe the tide will turn when a critical mass of Texans — led by parents of children murdered in school shootings, members of churches where congregants have been mowed down by gunfire and thousands of others affected by gun violence — bring the same single-minded focus to their voting choices as do those who reflexively oppose such measures.

Their refusal to submit to a sense of despair is commendable, even inspiring. More sensible Texans should join their efforts to stop another preventable tragedy such as Lakewood.

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AIM Media Texas. February 20, 2024.

Editorial: Despite ERCOT problems, connecting state to national power grid not a good idea

The deadly February 2021 statewide freeze exposed great inadequacies and mismanagement in Texas’ energy network. Since then little progress is evident in addressing the primary problems. Now a bill in Congress would force Texas, which has the only single-state energy program on the U.S. mainland, to connect to the nationwide power grid.

U.S. Rep. Greg Casar, D-Austin, has filed a bill that would mandate Texas join the national energy network. Reports indicate that most Texas Democrats in the U.S. House support the bill while all Republicans oppose it. Casar filed the bill on Feb. 14 — the three-year anniversary of when the freeze began.

Is it a good idea? Would joining the national grid benefit Texans and prevent future mass outages?

We doubt it.

While the most direct problems that led to the mass power outages in 2021 were related to frozen equipment and fuel lines in the state’s three primary power systems — gas, wind and solar — much of the blame was directed at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the statewide grid that connects more than 90% of the state’s energy utilities. That blame certainly was deserved. Consequent reviews found ERCOT had not maintained adequate supervision of the industry and allowed the conditions that left the power grid unable to handle the deep freeze that left much of the state, including the Rio Grande Valley, without power for periods that in some cases lasted more than a week. Nearly 250 Texans died as a result of the deep freeze.

Nor has the council adequately handled its own responsibility of improving the network of transmission lines that make the grid work.

Immediate reactions to the 2021 grid collapse included resignations and dismissals from the ERCOT board, and promises from Gov. Greg Abbott and other state officials that such a calamity would never happen again.

Since then, however, the most noticeable actions in the past three years has been political bickering promoting one form of energy over another, with little evidence of new transmission lines being laid across the state.

The bill’s supporters say connection to the national grid will help prevent future calamities such as 2021, since we could tap into the national energy network.

However, that connection works both ways. Other parts of the country could draw from state energy supplies when necessary. In 2021, for example, much of the country dealt with harsh conditions just as Texas did. With both networks needing more power, which grid would take from the other?

It’s worth asking; even in normal years Texas businesses and schools are asked to close on cold days so that power to homes can be maintained, and on hot days residents are asked to conserve energy to prevent blackouts and brownouts. A national grid could be another drain on an already maxed-out system.

Moreover, ERCOT’s biggest problem is transmission. Reviews of Texas’ power infrastructure have found that power companies can produce much more energy than the state can move through the network.

Texas’ power grid remains fragile. Tacking on the national network could further that strain rather than relieve it.

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Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel. February 20, 2024.

Editorial: Greg Abbott’s lies, half-truths are assault on rural Texans

We were wrong.

A decade ago, we endorsed Greg Abbott, saying the then-Texas Attorney General was a man of good character who had “the respect necessary to govern our state.”

Our opinion of what makes a good governor hasn’t changed, but Abbott has. He’s become the Disrespecter-in-Chief of Texas.

After listening to Abbott stoop to fear mongering, spewing lies and half-truths and twisting logic in contradictory and baffling ways, we believe he no longer respects the rural voters who have sent him to Austin for three terms.

This election cycle, he wants to buy the votes of rural Texans with a campaign of lies financed by billionaires from out of state, and he’s confident we’re dumb enough to believe him.

We heard a litany of complaints from rural Republicans when Democrat Beto O’Rourke raised millions from outside the Lone Star State in 2022, but Abbott expects us to not bat an eye when his pockets are lined with $6 million from Pennsylvania billionaire Jeff Yass.

“Some people get elected and they go to Austin, Texas, and they represent Austin values not Nacogdoches values,” Abbott said Monday.

He might have been speaking of himself.

The direct targets of Abbott’s campaign of disrespect are clear. In Nacogdoches County, he’s put a target on the back of State Rep. Travis Clardy, but Abbott’s scheming isn’t limited to House District 11.

He and his billionaire buddies are pouring money into what could be best described as propaganda campaigns across Texas aimed at mostly rural Republicans who voted to strip school vouchers from a bill supported by the governor.

Were Abbott a sitting member of the Texas House, waging such a campaign could get him kicked out of the Republican Party, per caucus rules.

We expected the standard-bearer of the Texas Republican Party to follow the same rules as the House members he wishes so desperately to control.

So why does he get away with it? The newspaper would like to know, but he doesn’t respect us either. His office and campaign won’t answer our questions — or hardly any other journalist’s for that matter. He hasn’t taken questions during public appearances here, and when he spoke via videoconference to the Nacogdoches County Chamber of Commerce in 2023, he wouldn’t allow media on the call. We listened in anyway.

Some of the disrespect isn’t so apparent. While pushing for vouchers, Abbott’s constantly speaking ill of the state’s public education system, which he essentially has been in control of since 2015.

In doing so, he’s disrespecting our educators. In so many words he’s said, “You’re doing a terrible job, so I want to use tax money to pay for private schools.”

But instead of pleading to fully fund education, Abbott’s spending millions to try to tear down the public education system with vouchers.

Abbott didn’t speak much on the school vouchers this week after being pummeled by this newspaper for his blatant lies on the subject, but when he did it was to essentially imply that public schools are filled with crossdressers and teachers with “woke leftist agendas.”

Abbott’s examples are typically half-truths about real-life incidents in Dallas area schools, especially Dallas ISD. We suggest that if he’s so concerned about education in Dallas, he resign as governor and run for the DISD school board, where he could potentially make a tangible difference in school policy.

Vouchers are at the heart of the race. We don’t like them, and we’ve been clear about that fact.

Abbott won’t admit the race is about vouchers. He’s gone out of his way to associate the disobedience with other issues.

“You deserve to have a state representative that’s working with your governor, not working against your governor,” Abbott said when speaking about the crisis at the border.

The truth is, the state representatives Abbott is working so hard against have largely supported his agenda on every other issue facing Texas.

In Nacogdoches County, Abbott has shown his wrath and greed in support of Joanne Shofner, but we don’t blame her. She’s been disrespected too, although Abbott’s wrongdoing there is the least apparent on the surface.

More than a dozen times on Monday, Abbott repeated that Shofner “will work with me” while knowing that he is actively backstabbing several state representatives who disagreed with him on a single issue. That sends a strong message that loyalty to the governor is more important than representing the will of the people.

He has also caused voters who might have otherwise considered supporting Shofner to associate her name with his campaign of negativity although she is not directly behind any of it.

Abbott and his billionaire buddies have waged their war of disrespect for too long.

We’re sure they hoped to shape Texas politics forever, and in a way they have. We will never trust or support him again.

END