Editorial Roundup: Texas

Austin American-Statesman. Aug. 1, 2021.

Editorial: Masks and migrants aren’t the enemy. COVID-19 is

You can’t win a war when you’re fighting the wrong enemy. But that is what Gov. Greg Abbott is doing as COVID-19 sends an alarming number of Texans into hospital beds and early graves. The governor is pointing his firepower at the wrong foes — local officials, mask mandates, vaccine passports, even the federal government and the migrants at our border — instead of attacking the virus that is attacking our state.

Abbott has broad powers under the Texas Disaster Act of 1975 to enact rules and marshal resources to confront any calamity. This week, however, as the state saw a five-fold increase in new COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the month, and as open ICU beds in Central Texas hit their lowest number since the dawn of the pandemic, Abbott used his disaster powers to prevent a government response to the COVID-19 disaster.

The governor’s latest executive order reiterates his ban on local mask orders, even in schools where students under 12 aren’t eligible for the vaccine. It strikes any limits on restaurant or business capacity in areas where the virus is surging. It bars government agencies and anyone who gets public funds from using screening procedures based on a person’s COVID-19 vaccination status.

Abbott is taking all of those tools off the table, enabling the virus to sweep across the state.

Of course the main goal is to advance Abbott’s 2022 reelection bid and possible White House aspirations. And in that political universe, the enemy isn’t the virus that has killed 53,000 Texas. It’s the shadow foe of big government getting in your business and telling you to wear a mask.

Abbott’s political gamesmanship inflicts real damage, though. His orders continue to tie the hands of local officials, taking away proven tools to reduce the spread of this virus. And his focus on blocking government action only reinforces the obstinate worldview of those who believe this virus is overblown and not worthy of any response. Perhaps nothing would convince them to wear a mask or get the vaccine. But Abbott’s orders give them no reason to think either is important.

While Abbott has defanged COVID-19 response in one area, he has weaponized it in another. In a separate executive order this week, Abbott decreed the threat of COVID-19 so great that state troopers should pull over any vehicle that appears to be transporting migrants, based on the fear they could be transporting the virus as well. Troopers have been ordered to send any migrants back to their origin point or a port of entry.

In Abbott’s Texas, the same government that can’t tell you to wear a mask — that would be intrusive! — can pull over cars, likely based on the racial makeup of the passengers, demand to see everybody’s paperwork and even threaten to impound the car, all in the name of fighting COVID-19. LULAC National President Domingo Garcia called it “racial profiling on steroids.” U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said the order “violates federal law in numerous respects,” and his office filed a lawsuit Friday.

Just as COVID-19 cases are spiking among Texans, they are spiking among the asylum seekers that Border Patrol has lawfully allowed into the country. These are public safety concerns that need to be addressed. But the virus knows no nationality. Abbott’s response shouldn’t, either.

Consider how the controversy arose: A migrant family, positive for COVID-19 and quarantined at a motel outside of McAllen, walked into a Whataburger without masks, coughing and sneezing near other customers. Other patrons were rightly worried about their safety.

Abbott could have responded with a statewide mask mandate, like the one he imposed earlier in the pandemic; or with an order allowing cities and counties to set the mask rules their communities need; or with additional quarantine assistance. Such measures would protect the public regardless of the sick person’s immigration status.

Instead, Abbott seized on the incident to burnish his border-crackdown credentials — and shamefully prop up the malicious trope that immigrants bring disease with them. Abbott on Friday accused the Biden Administration of “knowingly importing COVID-19 into Texas from across the border and knowingly exposing Texans and Americans to that disease.” Abbott’s outrage rings hollow against his refusal to implement any measures to prevent COVID-19 spread among Texans. The areas of the state with the highest percentages of COVID-19 hospitalizations — Beaumont, Killeen and College Station — are far from the border.

Growing evidence indicates the delta variant, now the dominant strain of the coronavirus, spreads faster and makes people sicker, signaling a dangerous new phase in this pandemic. Still our governor blocks responsible measures and scapegoats migrants. Abbott is fighting the wrong battles, and Texans are suffering the consequences.

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Abilene Reporter News. July 28, 2021.

Editorial: Though it has gotten hot, let’s not forget our winter woes

When it’s 100 degrees outside, it’s hard to talk about winter storms. Just like it was hard to imagine it being 100 degrees in mid-February, when record cold iced Texas.

The cold temperatures, which brought sub-freezing weather for 252 hours, plunged to minus-4 degrees. Before that happened, the city lost power at its water treatment plants, causing a total shutoff of water.

Loss of power across Texas — Abilene was one of 23 larger cities with storm-related issues — caused so many problems that vows were made at the state level that the situation never would happen again.

Locally, residents wanted to know how the city would react.

Installation of generators at the facilities was one idea, though a costly one.

Was this a 100-year event — actually, it was more as we broke records dating back to 1895 — that we wouldn’t soon re-experience? Or, considering recent hailstorms, the May 2019 tornado and record summer heat 10 years ago, would a similar winter storm sock it to us more sooner than later?

Since 2011, the city has been able to provide utilities for more than 99% of the time. It’s that fraction when services fail that we’re worried about.

The Abilene City Council this week took up the issue, then decided to take more time before a decision is made.

The biggest challenge is cost.

To install diesel generators at 14 key locations here would cost $25 million; six would cost $12.7 million. A third option came in at $10.4 million - four generators and a “microgrid” that would provide fuel, such as natural gas.

Who would pay for this? You know who.

Recently, a street maintenance fund was added to our monthly bills for the city to provide funding for annual work to prevent a total breakdown of our streets that we have been experiencing.

And water rates are going up.

So adding more to that likely would tap out local residents’ ability to pay their bills.

There may be outside funding available, our city manager said. “Hard money,” Robert Hanna calls it.

So, let’s not hurry into a decision was the viewpoint of council members.

Rodney Taylor, the city’s director of water utilities, was honest. There have been times Abilene has dodged a bullet, and that includes super high water usage in the summer, beyond the average use of 23 millions gallons a day.

The city’s northeast water treatment plan alone could handle that.

Improving what is being called “resiliency” for all seasons would be good for all of us.

We need this issue addressed. Even if freezing weather would be a relief after the first three days of 100-degree temperatures this summer.

The city did its best to react to what really was an emergency. Many residents were without power, and everyone was without water. We reacted on the fly, and now have the chance to be better prepared. This includes how to rescue residents who cannot remain in cold homes or are without food.

Yes, it would be great if we could find ways to pay for improvements in addition to local tax dollars.

As we move closer to the FY 2022 budget, our leaders face many challenges. We are not forgetting our streets or ignoring the need to maintain city facilities built in the 1960s.

In the past year, in addition to enduring a pandemic, we survived a temperature range of 112 degrees. Maybe record temperatures in the Northwest this year were an anomaly.

But count on it being both extremely hot and extremely cold again in Abilene.

Are we ready for that?

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Dallas Morning News. July 30, 2021.

Editorial: Our conference realignment wish list. Changes should protect old rivalries, not leave Texas schools behind

If you take a step back, the impending NCAA conference realignment makes sense. Texas and Oklahoma are tired of hearing about the Southeastern Conference being the best in the nation. Enough time has passed that people have forgotten how Texas reacted when Texas A&M left the Big 12 conference for the SEC. The SEC is more than happy to welcome a couple of cash cows into the herd (no offense, Bevo). And neither the NCAA nor the other Big 12 schools have the power to stop the move.

We get it. A team’s going to do what’s best for it, even if it means decommitting, a word coaches hate. We also realize there are a lot of forces at play here, including a whole heap of money. (It didn’t escape our notice that the fine these two schools could face for breaking their Big 12 commitment is equal to the contract the Aggies signed to hire Jimbo Fisher.) And we realize more changes are likely imminent.

Rather than sorting through the broadcast rights and conference contracts, we’d like to offer a few suggestions on what the goals should be. We hold out hope for an outcome that is good for the state of Texas, for North Texas and for fans. When all this shakes out, we’d like to see a solution that preserves (or restores) historic rivalries, and doesn’t leave significant Texas schools behind.

We would like to see a system that guarantees that Texas A&M plays Texas, Texas plays Oklahoma, SMU plays TCU, and Texas Tech plays Baylor. Up north, the bedlam game between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State should continue. And for good measure, please don’t mess with the Grambling State-Prairie View A&M rivalry, either.

There are state and regional factors to consider, too. What’s good for North Texas football is good for the state. Dallas-Fort Worth is the fifth-largest media market in the nation, according to Nielsen ratings. It won’t do to replace Texas and Oklahoma with Group of Five schools, though we would support SMU moving to a revamped Big 12.

And it won’t do for North Texas and West Texas to produce high school football powerhouses while shortchanging college football programs. Dallas-Fort Worth by itself, has more five-star high school recruits than most states in the nation. It would be a shame for all that talent to go elsewhere.

What’s good for North Texas football is also good for the athletes who play it. Fully 89% of student athletes at SMU graduate, which puts them ahead of all but three Big 12 schools. At TCU, the rate is a respectable 87%.

Whatever happens next, we’re sure of three things: Boomer Sooner will still be the most annoying song in sports, Permian High School will still field a better team than any university in Houston, and Aggie Twitter will still keep us entertained.

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Houston Chronicle. Aug. 1, 2021.

Editorial: We froze and Abbott got paid - $1 million from the billionaire profiteer of Texas’ deadly storm

Unless your stocking caps and heavy coats are stored somewhere you can see them regularly, you may find it hard to recall that less than six months ago, in the midst of a debilitating pandemic, many of us were contemplating the possibility of freezing to death. These days, with the summer sun withering grass and backyard gardens, with temperatures camped in the mid-90s, February’s winter storm seems like a bad dream, although continuing higher-than-usual utility bills for many Texans is a jolting monthly reminder that, yes, we lived through a two-week winter nightmare.

Some, of course, require no reminder at all. Their loved ones did not survive the storm that claimed at least 200 lives.

Winter Storm Uri cost us an estimated $293 billion in damages and some estimates put the actual death toll closer to 700. Nearly 5 million Texans lost power; many more went days without water. Remember?

One Texan who hasn’t forgotten is Dallas resident Kelcy Warren, although not because he worried that he and his family were in any danger. Warren, co-founder and now executive chairman of Energy Transfer Partners, lives in a 27,000-square-foot ivy-covered stone castle on nine acres in North Dallas. He bought his humble abode in 2009 for a reported $29 million. We can imagine that the heat stayed on in the Warren manse (or perhaps the family repaired to its private island off the coast of Honduras.)

What the pipeline tycoon remembers, we suspect, is not the nearly $300 billion that the storm cost Texas. It’s the figure $2.4 billion. As Justin Miller reports in the current issue of the Texas Observer, that’s the profit Warren’s company collected during the blackouts, a sizable portion of the $11 billion profit the natural gas industry as a whole collected by, in Miller’s words, “selling fuel at unprecedented prices to desperate power generators and utilities during the state’s energy crisis.”

Warren, a hefty donor over the years to former Gov. Rick Perry, former President Donald Trump and other Republicans, made sure that Gov. Greg Abbott didn’t forget either.

On June 23, Warren wrote out a check to Abbott’s reelection campaign in the amount of $1 million. That’s the biggest check Warren has ever given a Texas politician, according to campaign finance reports. And it’s four times the usual $250,000 gift that Abbott has gotten from his reliable Dallas benefactor nearly every year since he was elected governor in 2014.

It doubtless made an impression on Abbott, even though energy interests are his biggest political contributors, pouring more than $26 million into his political rise, the Associated Press has reported, citing an analysis by the National Institute on Money in Politics.

Warren, a small-town East Texas native who plays guitar and writes songs in the spirit of Jackson Browne, knows how the game is played. So does Abbott, of course. It’s only fair to ask what the billionaire investor got in return for his million smackolas.

The most obvious return on his investment probably wouldn’t have cost Warren a cent. That’s the continued, gingerly treatment that the powerful natural gas industry traditionally enjoys from state government, including from the current governor.

Following the regular session of the Legislature, Abbott signed into law a package of legislation that allegedly strengthened regulation of the state’s woefully compromised power grid. “Everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas,” the governor proclaimed at a bill-signing ceremony in early June.

It was hard not to laugh in the face of the governor’s faux-earnest remarks, particularly when the grid nearly collapsed again shortly afterward under the weight of early-summer heat. Everything was not done to fix the grid. Cosseting the utility industry, including oil and gas, was a higher priority.

Lawmakers approved more than $9 billion in bailouts for the electric utility industry, to be paid by ordinary utility users over the next two or three decades. By spreading the cost of the winter storm to all Texans over a long time, they’re betting the monthly add-on will be so small that folks won’t complain.

As former Chronicle business columnist Loren Steffy points out, Warren and the natural gas industry basically got a pass. They could have been winter-storm heroes.

In Steffy’s words, “They could have prepared better and worked with the Railroad Commission to ensure the gas kept flowing. Instead, it appears they chose to exploit it.” (Steffy does credit Energy Transfer Partners, Warren’s company, for taking the steps necessary to protect the system and keep gas flowing when many other companies didn’t.)

Elected officials not in thrall to money made off the misery of others would have addressed the energy needs of the people of Texas, not the millionaires and billionaires who help keep them in office. For example, they could have required generating reserves, so that sufficient power will be available, whatever the weather emergency. They could have ordered the Energy Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) to connect to the rest of the country, just in case. They could have restructured the market, so that both consumers and businesses have direct incentives to use energy more efficiently.

And they could have refused to make exceptions for natural gas companies on weatherization and set real deadlines. Instead, the Legislature required only gas facilities that are deemed “critical” to make changes, knowing that many gas companies failed to fill out simple paperwork in the past to be deemed “critical,” leading their own power to be cut during the winter storm just when they were needed most.

Edward Hirs, a UH Energy Fellow at the University of Houston, would give lawmakers an even bigger task. Hirs, who teaches energy economics at UH, has urged lawmakers to restructure ERCOT and the state’s Public Utility Commission (which oversees ERCOT), to make sure that board members and commission members have zero conflicts of interest. Lawmakers haven’t. Since the job is done, as the governor proclaims, they won’t.

Given the looming danger of climate change, neither the governor nor the Legislature can assure us that we won’t have to cope with another Uri, or that we’ll be ready for it. They can’t assure businesses considering Texas as home base that we can keep the energy flowing. Why not build that billion-dollar factory or ultra-modern corporate campus in Oklahoma or some other Sun Belt state that can guarantee a reliable energy supply?

Granted, taking on a thorough reform of the state’s energy system requires hard work, attention to detail, refereeing among a variety of conflicting interests. It’s much easier to punish and scapegoat renewable energy sources, bloviate about a border wall and concoct schemes to keep the wrong people from voting. It’s also much easier for elected officials to keep their sugar daddies happy.

Mother Jones magazine reported some years back that one of Kelcy Warren’s songwriting endeavors included the following lyrics: “Do you ever talk with angels? Put in a good word for me.”

We can’t confirm that. We can confirm that a politically ambitious governor we know talks to angel donors frequently, putting in a good word and more. Those angels keep him happy. The rest of us, meanwhile, probably should keep those winter coats and stocking caps hanging on convenient hooks.

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Waco Tribune. July 24, 2021.

Editorial: Wacoans have front-row seat in latest chapter in spaceflight

Even before Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier engineered a manned hot-air balloon liftoff from Paris for a 20-minute flight in 1783, earthlings have found inspiration in any and all efforts to reach for the stars. Some of us are old enough to recall the excitement of Alan Shepard’s 1961 flight into space, the first by an American, or John Glenn’s historic three orbits of our sphere in 1962. Many of us were thrilled again by recent promotional flights by billionaires Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin and Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic, collectively promising spaceflight to mere mortals.

Yet after Branson’s joyous ascent into the suborbital realm Shepard broached decades ago, we were struck by astrophysicist, planetary scientist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson’s sobering thoughts about real gains in spaceflight — and why all that rocket-testing out in McGregor that rattles our windows arguably marks true progress: “Did you actually go somewhere? Did you go to the moon or Mars or beyond? SpaceX’s concept is: We want to send people places as an effort to push this boundary, push this space exploration frontier.

“Now, all that being said,” Tyson added, “I’m delighted this could be a new tourist attraction in the world.”

Which is why, in the grand sweep of science and mankind, Central Texans should be just as excited about news that SpaceX will build a second rocket-related facility in McGregor’s 9,600-acre industrial park, a rocket-producing plant complementing its rocket-testing site. The plant will produce 800 to 1,000 rocket engines per year. As veteran Trib staffer Mike Copeland reports, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has leased land there since 2003, testing rocket engines that have powered manned spaceflight and supply runs to the International Space Station. It has dispatched satellites into orbit for a wide range of customers.

Yes, some locals complain this trio of developments involving billionaires is class-related and worthy of derision. Such malcontents should be exiled to the soundless vacuum of space: If one is genuine in his or her ideology of limited government and private enterprise filling roles long claimed by government, one should realize it’s likely to be first led by those with the capital to pursue such visions. That goes for Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk. Yes, thus far 50-year-old Musk hasn’t traveled into space himself, but we believe he’s dead serious about one day traveling to Mars. And soon.

Some also whine about the roar of SpaceX engines in the west and allege without proof about rocket-spurred foundational cracks that some of us recall in stretches of our county even before SpaceX moved in. When a community that claims free-market principles finally gets good-paying jobs and the economic thrust so much a part of the “Texas miracle” that state leaders promoted (and with voter buy-in), we gain a front-row understanding of and intimacy with everything from Amazon’s path to customer satisfaction to SpaceX’s ambitions in the final frontier. Let us enjoy the ride.

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