Austin American-Statesman. September 16, 2023.
Editorial: Paxton is acquitted, and Texans and good government are the losers
Ken Paxton, who has made escaping or stalling accountability for alleged misconduct something of an art form, has been acquitted of all impeachment charges alleging bribery, corruption and misuse of public office.
This may please his defenders — and there were enough Republican senators in the Capitol on Saturday to acquit Paxton in a vote largely along party lines — but this is no time to celebrate the sorry state of politics in Texas. Paxton has beaten the rap, but his trial and acquittal laid bare the sordid details of his leadership in the attorney general’s office.
Paxton and a majority of Senate Republicans were winners Saturday. Texans and good government were the losers, for we expect an attorney general to be above reproach as the state’s top legal and law enforcement officer, someone whose integrity is unquestioned.
Instead, the evidence presented at Paxton’s impeachment trial demonstrated that one can misuse the office for personal benefit and to help a key political ally, and most of your fellow party members will tolerate it.
The Senate’s decision Saturday to clear Paxton of wrongdoing sends a hostile and crippling message to whistleblowers and anyone who is brave enough to call out concerning behavior by a top elected official.
The whistleblowers in Paxton’s office who courageously reported what they viewed as unlawful behavior suffered harsh consequences. Some lost their jobs. Several of Paxton’s former top staffers testified about their concerns that Paxton helped donor Nate Paul and hired an inexperienced outside attorney to benefit Paul.
The whistleblowers testified that they went to work in the attorney general’s office because they were true believers in conservative values, and they idolized Paxton as a beacon for conservative causes. Instead, what they said they observed was a man misusing his power.
Our Legislature is known for lawmakers who often cite the Bible and tout Texas values. With their votes to acquit, a majority of these lawmakers normalized the behavior the whistleblowers called out. “We’re OK with these values,” they seemed to say.
With Saturday’s acquittal, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick reinstated Paxton to the office from which he’d been suspended while impeachment charges were pending. If it wasn’t already, public confidence in the attorney general’s office surely is shattered. In a tenure long clouded by allegations of corruption, Paxton is under indictment, since 2015, for securities fraud and is the subject of a separate FBI investigation into his dealings with Paul. His credibility is in tatters, and he has brought embarrassment to Texas once more.
Party politics prevailed Saturday, doing great damage to the contract between we the people and the officials we elect to act in our best interests. With this contract, simplistic as it might seem in this age when the phrase “country over party” seems hopelessly naive, we expect government officials to be above reproach and to act on the voters’ behalf.
They work for us, not the other way around. The evidence presented during Paxton’s trial showed he acted at times with only his interests in mind.
Article 20 of the impeachment charges alleged Paxton abused the public trust and “subverted the lawful operation of Texas government by using, misusing or failing to use his official powers and obstructed the fair and impartial administration of justice, bringing the attorney general’s office ‘into scandal and disrepute,’ which harmed the public’s confidence in the state’s government.”
Paxton was acquitted of this final impeachment charge by a 16-14 vote.
When the trial was over, Patrick, who presided over the trial and leads the Senate, blasted the Republican-controlled House for what he called a flawed process, saying millions of dollars had been wasted on the impeachment. What a thing to say. As if Texans need more fuel to undermine their trust in state government.
While Patrick was blasting the House, he never mentioned that he and Paxton remain interconnected financially by a series of political donations and loans tied to Paxton’s political future.
That includes a $2 million loan Patrick’s campaign received from a pro-Paxton political action committee. The PAC separately gave Patrick’s campaign a $1 million donation, though Patrick is not up for reelection for three more years and already sits on a $22 million campaign war chest.
On Saturday, Patrick in effect shifted blame for the trial from Paxton to the House, which voted in overwhelming and bipartisan fashion in late May to bring impeachment charges. Yes, the trial undoubtedly cost millions in taxpayer dollars. But it was not a waste.
Texans deserved answers and accountability. The answers they got were a sad reflection on how state government, and particularly an attorney general’s office under Paxton, operate.
Dallas Morning News. September 14, 2023.
Editorial: Texas is perfect for testing driverless cars, but technology will outpace regulation
As autonomous cars become more common, state leaders must look far down the road.
You may not have seen one yet, but autonomous cars have already arrived on Dallas streets. As they grow in number, state leaders must keep both eyes on the road.
News about self-driving cars has been the talk of cities like Austin and San Francisco, but driverless rideshare vehicles, or “robotaxis,” are also being tested in Dallas, as our colleagues have reported. Autonomous car company Cruise is testing their Chevy Bolts, albeit with a human in the driver’s seat. By the end of the year, Cruise hopes to release cars into Dallas without human backup following a multistep testing period.
Cruise has already rolled out its driverless cars for public use in Austin. The cars drive through parts of downtown but only during the night.
Cities may have concerns, but the future is in the state’s hands. And legislators have intentionally, and wisely in our view, taken a light touch thus far with regulation. A December study commissioned by the Legislature says that “companies are investing in Texas because of its supportive regulatory environment, more so than any other state.”
This environment is working well for now. The study says that driverless cars can reduce driver error and risky driving habits, enhancing road safety. It’s a good thing that Texas wants to be at the forefront of this technology, and making room for innovation has been a great boost to our economy. But as the cars become more common, frequent regulatory review will be necessary.
Automated driving technologies are far from perfect. They need testing to improve. That testing has to be done on public roads for it to yield useful, real-world data. As more driverless cars are tested in Texas communities, the technology is refined and residents have a chance to interact with and learn about how these cars are going to shape the transportation future.
But as long as driverless cars share public roads with human-filled cars, the companies that produce them and the state are responsible for ensuring they are properly regulated.
Driverless cars may eventually become standard. That still looks to be a long way off. In the meantime, some residents will likely find they are a nuisance. It’s also possible they could be involved in serious accidents. People probably will raise complaints with local officials.
Senate Bill 2205, passed in 2017, allows automated vehicles to operate in the state, but it also stipulates that “a political subdivision” of the state can’t regulate them. Texas has special safety and technical specifications for driverless cars, and they have to be registered, titled and insured just like any other car.
The Legislature has smartly ensured that autonomous car companies can develop their technology in the state. But it may need to move faster than its biannual meeting to regulate them given how quickly they are deploying.
Without serious foresight, the state will leave cities fending for themselves.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram. September 15, 2023.
Editorial: Get to work, Congress. DACA has to go, but young migrants should be allowed to stay
A federal judge has once again issued the legally correct ruling on the Obama-era program that lets young immigrants remain in the United States. Now, it should lead to the right policy result.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, was an effort to shape policy outside of congressional purview. It was executive overreach, and it has survived for years because of drawn-out court battles and the Trump administration’s fumbled effort to repeal it. Federal Judge Andrew Hanen, a Texas appointee of President George W. Bush, struck down the program in a ruling issued Wednesday. But he is letting it continue for current enrollees, a nod to the fact that the Supreme Court will probably have the ultimate say.
The idea behind DACA is solid: Those brought to the country illegally by their parents, at an age so young that they remember no other home, need a path to legal status and eventually citizenship. Congress’ ongoing failure has hurt them, and the vast majority who have gone to American schools, work American jobs and build American families deserve to officially wear their country’s name. We’re talking about more than 580,000 people, including nearly 96,000 in Texas.
So, why not just leave the order, which President Joe Biden backs, in place? Because it’s a standing monument to the constant creep of executive authority. Legislation is not written in the executive branch, but too many politicians are testing the bounds.
It’s a bipartisan effort. President Donald Trump issues sweeping orders on issues such as immigration and COVID policies. Biden has had several policy reaches knocked down by the courts, on topics from workplace vaccine mandates to student debt cancellation. Governors are getting in on the act; New Mexico’s Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, recently decided that gun-carrying rights were suspended in part of her state, a constitutional affront so brazen that even her party’s staunchest gun-control advocates said she was wrong.
If the executive recedes, Congress must step forward. Yes, the Senate and House are frequently dysfunctional. For decades, they’ve eagerly ceded tough decision-making — and thus political culpability — to the executive branch.
That lets political wounds fester, and that’s more true on immigration than on perhaps any other issue. For decades, a failure to secure borders, set out firm asylum policies and craft rules for ordinary and beneficial movement of workers has allowed for a constant escalation of anger on the issue.
Some bold lawmakers have tried to find sweeping solutions. Instead, a series of steps that build trust and compromise are in order. The “Dreamers,” as the young immigrants are known, should be a source of common ground. We hope Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who is no dove on this issue but understands change needs to come, will lead the way.
We’re not naive about the political environment, particularly as the 2024 presidential election nears. Don’t expect any movement soon. But if DACA does disappear, we hope that it can spur movement to a sensible path.
After all, voters are increasingly frustrated with chaos at the border. And the national debate has heated up now that blue-state mayors and governors are feeling the brunt of migrants arriving with bus tickets courtesy of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
Voters will demand action, and if they don’t get sensible policy that works, they may turn to darker alternatives. The Republican presidential campaign has featured noxious ideas about immigration — specifically, Donald Trump and his emulator, Vivek Ramaswamy, pledging to reverse the longstanding legal notion that anyone born on U.S. soil is born an American citizen.
This attack on “birthright citizenship” is an affront to the ideals that have, for centuries, allowed the U.S. to grow both in numbers and in strength. These candidates feed the beast of executive overreach, saying they see a way to change this longstanding policy through presidential action alone.
Republicans should reject both the underlying proposal and the strongman technique. If there’s a problem with illegal immigration — and of course there is — fix it. Don’t take it out on children and commit them to a life in limbo in the only country they’ve known.
That’s how we got DACA. If Congress does its job, we can avoid a repeat and have more useful and humane immigration policies once and for all.
Houston Chronicle. September 11, 2023.
Editorial: Best time to conserve energy in Texas? You’d be surprised.
So. ERCOT begs you to conserve energy — and as a good Texan not wanting to contribute to the catastrophic collapse of the power grid during a triple-digit heat wave, you comply.
But if you’re among the folks conserving energy when it’s sunny and hot, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re waiting until you get home to run the dishwasher and dry a load of laundry, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re sweatin’ to the oldies all day and then cranking the AC as soon as the sun goes down, you’re doing it wrong.
It’s not your fault, though, because Texas officials do a really bad job of explaining that the time when the grid is most strained on super-hot days, and most in need of your conservation efforts, is at dusk when the sun is setting — not high noon.
That might seem counterintuitive, but not once you realize the massive amounts of solar power that Texas has added to the grid in recent years. (It’s not something that Gov. Greg Abbott and other leaders like to advertise in this oil and gas state, but they should.)
When it’s sunniest, we’ve had plenty of power — power that’s also cheap — with nearly 20 percent of the electricity on the Texas grid coming from solar. That’s a big win for consumers, and the environment. As the sun sets on the hottest and most stagnant days, the situation can get dire, as it has recently.
So, in practice that means it’s better to run your dryer at 3 p.m. — not at 6 p.m.
Paradoxically, when the brutal fireball in the sky starts melting into that majestic smoggy-marmalade-and-purple-haze Houston sunset we all love, that’s the time to fret.
ERCOT, the manager of the Texas electric grid, sent out conservation notices Wednesday and again Thursday begging us all to lower usage between 5-9 p.m. Wholesale electricity prices spiked. Utility companies braced for blackouts. Thankfully, they didn’t happen -- at least, not yet.
Abbott’s office has taken credit for signing laws after Winter Storm Uri that strengthened the grid, when in reality, much moreshould have been done. Are Abbott and lawmakers just getting lucky? By forcing aging power plants to remain online as reserves, his appointed managers have both kept the lights on and risked disaster. It’s like taking an old car on a road trip through the desert without replacing the worn-out tires.
In truth, we don’t yet know all the specifics behind these close calls. On any given day, extreme heat can cause natural gas and coal plants to malfunction, knocking off what are meant to be ready-to-go, or “dispatchable,” sources of energy that can be cranked up in times of need. Bloomberg reported that a transmission line failure on Wednesday kept wind energy from reaching Dallas during the critical dawn hours.
What we do know is that these September evening conditions were anticipated. Dan Cohan, an engineering expert at Rice University, warned this editorial board after Winter Storm Uri to keep our eyes on late summer afternoons. A consultant hired by the Public Utility Commission projected 30 hours of energy shortfalls per year, on average, primarily during these cruel summer dusks. In March, when U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm swung through Houston for the CERAWeek conference, she told us making sure the U.S. has enough dispatchable power keeps her up at night.
To their credit, state leaders haven’t had their heads in the sand and have proposed ways to add energy generation that could be flipped on when the sun sets and winds aren’t blowing. But their plans would have cost consumers dearly. Peter Lake, the former head of the PUC who resigned in June, proposed a complex scheme that would cost up to $460 million annually to reward generators that deliver during such crunches. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick made his own $8 billion proposal to subsidize the construction of new, back-up natural gas plants over the next decade. Fortunately, neither plan passed.
Why should we as taxpayers and consumers have to pay out the nose to solve a 30-hour problem when there are smarter and cheaper solutions? Innovations in geothermal could bring costs down. Utility-scale battery storage and demand response systems could be expanded quickly.
And that brings us back to your air conditioner, dryer and dishwasher. You may have heeded ERCOT’s pleading but many don’t. As we recently wrote, their jargon-laden begging just isn’t enough. Instead, make conservation automatic and make it pay. Some companies already give customers incentives, rebates or lower rates if they install smart thermostats that get adjusted up during peak demand.
Electric vehicle owners should play this game, too. For starters, manually unplug your EV when the grid is tight. Or, set it up like a smart thermostat. Some retail energy providers will automatically turn car chargers on and off depending on when cheap, renewable energy is surging. But that’s only step one. EVs can be pooled together to feed energy back into the grid. They can store up electrons and release them when demand nearly outstrips supply. Pool enough cars together and it’s a virtual power plant.
Don’t think this is feasible? Last year, Elon Musk tested this with 64 Texas homeowners who have Tesla powerwalls, which are wall-mounted battery packs connected to solar panels. The company did it without asking for the state’s permission. On Aug. 24, though, ERCOT gave Tesla official approval for two pilot programs.
We can hear the defenders of the fossil fuel status quo chuckling: You can’t have affordable, reliable and clean energy at the same time; you have to make a choice and no one’s really willing to give up on reliability; and, finally, all these close calls just show Joe Biden’s energy transition is foolish, expensive and destined to fail. The naysayers are wrong, but so is anyone who says it’ll be easy.
The irony of it all is that Texas is blazing ahead and has surpassed California in total renewable energy generation. For all the pro-oil-and-gas bluster of our current statewide leaders, the testing grounds for a global energy transition include our own kitchens, laundry rooms and garages.
It’s a high-stakes battle, not just to protect the Texas electric grid but also our planet and her fragile ecosystems buckling under the forces of climate change. Every Texan has a role. Just remember: high noon in this duel between conservation and collapse isn’t typically at noon. It’s dusk.
San Antonio Express-News. September 12, 2023.
Editorial: Despite name change, Fort Cavazos continues to struggle with suicides
Fort Hood’s rebranding to Fort Cavazos hasn’t fixed the massive Army post’s deadly culture.
More than 35,000 soldiers work at Fort Cavazos, the nation’s largest active-duty armor post, and these deaths are among the newest entries on the list of 101 soldiers who have died on- or off-post since 2000. At least 44 of those deaths were suicides.
Making this even more disturbing is Fort Cavazos leadership’s opacity about its losses. Post officials only recently acknowledged the August deaths, and they didn’t identify the dead until Wednesday — days or weeks after their demise. Even then, the information was incomplete and missing basic information such as hometowns.
Fort Cavazos is at the forefront of society’s battle against military suicides, but its ongoing lack of transparency against the backdrop of its troubled past is a red flag, suggesting much work remains in being open and transparent about a clear crisis.
Post officials revealed that Sgt. Jama F. Dolan, 26, died Aug. 11, Alfredo A. Martinez. 30, died Aug. 26, and both Spcs. Xavier W. Johnson, 24, and Rowdy W. Liverman, 20, died Aug. 15.
The long delays in acknowledging the deaths fly against the norms of releasing information on military casualties.
For years, the military’s policy has been not to release information until 24 hours after next-of-kin notification. This was meant to protect families from finding out from anyone other than a military representative that their loved one had died.
During the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the military’s casualty notification process, sadly, became an efficient system. Public release of the information usually came within days of deaths that occurred thousands of miles away.
Americans frequently hear of overseas deaths before those that occur on a nearby base.
And since the chaotic U.S. departure from Kabul, military leaders have become quieter about deaths not related to combat or training.
On March 13, two Fort Cavazos soldiers were found dead. The Army acknowledged the on-post death of 20-year-old Army Spc. Ana Basaldua Ruiz, of Long Beach, Calif., but it did not disclose the death of 28-year-old Spc. Katerina Weikel, which occurred outside the installation.
Both deaths were thought to be suicides. The Army officially acknowledged Ruiz’s death as a suicide in a report recently released to the Express-News.
In August, Tinker AFB in Oklahoma City, Okla., was in the headlines for the deaths of 17 workers since January. The base said 11 of those deaths were from illness or accidents, but six remain under investigation and some of those are suspected suicides.
Here, Joint Base San Antonio installations remain tight-lipped about deaths of its military and civilian employees.
Some military officials say installations aren’t required to disclose off-base deaths. Additionally, the Defense Department has strict rules about disclosing information about suicides.
We recognize the risks of being too candid about self-harm, but such discretion must be balanced against the timely public release of information about service members. It is in the public’s interest to understand the depth of the suicide crisis at these installations.
By not acknowledging these deaths, the Pentagon risks perpetuating the problems that resulted in the deaths of 492 people across the armed forces last year. In 2021, the Defense Department reported 519 self-inflicted deaths, down from the record high of 580 in 2020.
This trend would suggest progress, but one life lost is one too many, and the military’s opacity is troubling. DOD still has much work to do in the fight against suicide in the armed forces, and taxpayers deserve to know when military members die, regardless of the cause or circumstances.