Editorial Roundup: Texas

Dallas Morning News. Oct. 20, 2021.

Editorial: Do you have special session fatigue? We do

Now that the third special session of the Texas Legislature is over, we can’t help but to ask this nagging question:

When did Texas tilt toward a full-time Legislature?

The Texas Constitution requires the Legislature to meet in regular sessions beginning on the second Tuesday in January of odd-numbered years and lasting a maximum of 140 days. After that, the governor commands sole authority to call a special session to deal with specific issues of the governor’s choosing and lawmakers have just 30 days to address the list.

Lawmakers also can file bills but only if the subject is on the governor’s list. And there is no limit to the number of special sessions a governor could call.

This legislative year in Austin was somewhat of an outlier — or so we thought. House Democrats broke quorum and fled to Washington to protest a GOP-supported voting integrity bill. Lawmakers also knew that they had to tackle the once-in-a-decade task of redistricting in a special session.

Nonetheless, Gov. Greg Abbott called three overtime sessions, filled them with hot-button items and even put items back on the table that he had signed, vetoed or that lawmakers had failed to pass in an earlier session.

Out of curiosity, we checked with the Legislative Reference Library of Texas for precedents and found a bunch.

For example, Gov. Rick Perry called four special sessions after the 78th Legislature’s regular session in 2003 for lawmakers to deal with 63 topics and followed up in the 79th Legislature with three special sessions and 55 items.

Perry, who served 14 consecutive years as governor, called 12 special sessions. In contrast, his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, called none, and Bush’s predecessor, Ann Richards, called four during her four-year term. (As a footnote, all of that is small potatoes compared to a century ago. Gov. William Hobby put 253 topics on his special call in 1919 and more than 700 items to be considered in special sessions during his time in office.)

Numbers alone don’t tell a complete story because some issues are complex, controversial or both. But special session fatigue aside, we think the legislative process works better when lawmakers can hash out policy during the regular session, find consensus or delay further consideration for the next session two years later. That is especially true when issues agreed to in a previous session and even signed into law by the governor are reintroduced just weeks later.

Among other things, multiple special sessions chip away at the idea that Texas has a part-Legislature. And while an additional 90 days in three special sessions isn’t the same as a year-round, full-time Legislature, we aren’t sure that the state emerges in a better place from these overtime sessions. Calling lawmakers repeatedly into overtime sessions minimizes the hard work and decision-making that occurs during the regular session and gives the governor in an otherwise weak executive system a remarkable amount of power at the Legislature’s expense. All of that could, over time, change how policy is made in this state. Is that what Texans really want?

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Houston Chronicle. Oct. 24, 2021.

Editorial: Bail bondsmen should share the blame for Houston’s crime problem

Eight months ago, state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, convened a local press conference to decry the shift toward more lenient bail decisions in Harris County that he said was contributing to the city’s uptick in violent crime, and he came with a bill he believed would help.

“The pendulum has gone too far in this area,” he said.

Standing on the dais with Bettencourt in support of the legislation — which would have limited the use of personal recognizance bonds and set minimum cash bail limits on defendants charged with multiple felonies — was Michael Kubosh, an at-large Houston city councilman and former bondsman.

Kubosh’s support made sense. Reforms in Harris and Dallas counties that had vastly reduced the number of misdemeanor defendants needing to post bail cut into profits for the $2 billion bail bonds industry, and Bettencourt’s bill boosting bail amounts could restore some lost revenue.

But for the industry, the more important aspect of the bill was what it didn’t do. While it targeted judges’ perceived role in speeding defendants’ return to the streets, it failed to even mention the deals that Harris County bondsmen have for years been cutting on an increasing number of violent felonies, also helping defendants to secure their freedom more easily while they await trial.

A recent Houston Chronicle investigation found that bail bondsmen are charging lower fees and requiring much smaller cash payments to secure bonds — sometimes as small as 1 or 2 percent. Some defendants are even allowed to pay off their balance on a payment plan.

This trend of lenience, which apparently became even more popular this year, is essentially the bondsmen’s own version of bail reform, except unlike Harris County’s efforts, designed to free low-level, misdemeanor suspects, bondsmen are floating bail for violent offenders.

The Chronicle’s review of data from the first six months of 2021 found 141 cases — including 31 violent felonies — where defendants were allowed to pay less than 10 percent of their bond amounts.

There may be good reason to offer flexible terms for a defendant looking to post bond. But what we find so curious is that even as the Legislature moved this past year to impose new limits and transparency requirements on nonprofit groups who help arrange cash bail for poor defendants, they left out any reform of the bail bond industry. New requirements to track the success of each bond, and hold accountable groups whose clients skip out, easily could have been applied to both the charitable groups and the bail bondsmen.

The for-profit bonding industry is under pressure, it’s true. Companies operate in markets buttressed by inherently unfair cash bail systems, which are losing their luster as jurisdictions such as Harris County have implemented bail reform. Bail licenses in Harris County have dropped by nearly two dozen since 2017, the year bail reform was adopted. Bail bond earnings in Harris County plummeted from $3.5 million in 2015 to just over $500,000 in 2019, according to an estimate from federal court monitors tracking misdemeanor bail reform.

Threatened by dwindling revenue streams, bail bondsmen have also tried to drum up business by flexing their political muscles. The industry donated tens of thousands of dollars to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, according to a report by Reform Austin, for instance, before he made the bail reform bill that eventually passed a top priority. That law, which takes effect in December, limits the ability of some defendants to be released on low bonds, but doesn’t limit a bondsman’s latitude to make even sky-high bonds easy for a defendant to post if that’s what it takes to get business.

“We’re business people,” Kubosh told the Chronicle. “You collect what you can.”

That’s fair. They provide a service and as long as there is a cash bail system in Harris County, bondsmen have the right to try and profit from it.

But it’s not fair for Republican politicians, prosecutors and victims’ advocates to exempt the bail industry from the same scrutiny that’s being heaped on judges and charitable organizations.

No one should equate the for-profit bail bond industry with public safety. For that matter, no one should romanticize the traditional money bail system as a panacea when it clearly has holes you could drive a getaway car through.

Everyone truly committed to fighting rising violent crime in Harris County and getting dangerous repeat offenders off the streets needs to acknowledge all the culprits behind this crisis. Chief among them are the pandemic and a massive court case backlog dating back to Hurricane Harvey that’s delaying trials and creating more opportunities for offenders to commit more crimes.

Bondsmen should also be on that list. Why are we outraged by a judge setting a low bond but not a bondsman offering bargain basement discounts on those bonds? The result is the same.

Lawmakers should target the industry for reforms, which could include minimum bail fee percentages — four states employ such requirements — that would preclude negotiating deals for violent offenders. Each bond company is associated with an underwriter. The Legislature should require surety companies to audit each bail bond company and share those results with relevant officials, similar to a law that Minnesota passed in 2016. If bondsmen are giving unusually generous terms to suspects in violent cases who go on to reoffend, shouldn’t we know about that?

Yet even good-faith transparency won’t solve the root of the problem: Texas’ very use of money bail to determine release needs reform. This editorial board has called for a system that keeps people charged with especially violent crimes, or who pose substantial, imminent risks to public safety, in jail, whether rich or poor — even if that takes, as it likely will, changing the Texas Constitution. Bail bondsmen who profit off of the cash bail system by cutting deals with violent offenders and allowing them to walk free is further evidence that the status quo simply isn’t working.

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Texarkana Gazette. Oct. 19, 2021.

Editorial: Tailgaters Galore: Apartment dwellers unhappy with manager’s request to accommodate Hog fans

Fans of the University of Arkansas Razorbacks love their team. And they love having a good time when in Fayetteville on game days.

For many, that means tailgating. A time-honored tradition of food, fellowship -- and beer.

Lots of beer.

One apartment complex in the university’s home city has made some extra cash for the past several years renting out its front lawn to tailgaters whenever the Razorbacks play at home.

But as television station KNWA/FOX24 reported this week, not all tenants are happy about it. Especially after the apartment manager asked them to open their doors so tailgaters could use their bathrooms.

Tenants said they were told it would be just a few women who needed access to the facilities. But, well, you know what happens when spirits are high and spirits flow.

One tenant said 289 fans went in and out of her bathroom during the game against the University of Texas.

Needless to say, this caused a conflict between some renters and the property’s management. But not for much longer.

FOX24 reported the property has been closed for renovations and all current tenants -- all of whom rent month-to-month without a lease -- must vacate by the end of the month.

Let’s hope they find new digs -- and a bit more privacy. No word on what the tailgaters will do for the rest of the season. But should the property’s lawn still be available, there will be plenty of vacant flats -- and bathrooms.

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Amarillo Globe-News. Oct. 24, 2021.

Editorial: Seliger’s decision leaves big shoes to fill in District 31

The recent announcement by state Sen. Kel Seliger that he will not seek reelection is disheartening news for the Panhandle and those who call it home. For the past 17 years, Seliger has vigorously and unabashedly represented the people of District 31 – even if those interests were in conflict with Republican party leadership.

Seliger was born in Amarillo and raised in Borger. He is a former four-term Amarillo mayor. He has been a member of the state senate since winning election in 2004. He has a keen understanding of this region, its values and what makes it special. The same should be said of his affinity for the institution and traditions of the Texas Senate.

Those insights served him well throughout his tenure in Austin. To his credit, Seliger would be best described as independent-minded, a vanishing trait in politics these days as entrenched party aims too often are placed before the will of the people. That steadfast adherence to serving his constituency – especially those in rural communities that dot the West Texas landscape – may have cost him in a political era of especially sharp elbows and unquestioned loyalty to party.

“It has been a great honor to represent the people, schools and businesses of Senate District 31 for the past 17 years in the Texas Legislature,” Seliger said in our recent story. “The opportunity to serve as Chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee and Senate Select Committee on Redistricting, as well as a longtime member of the Finance and Education Committees, allowed me to be impactful in areas of great importance to me and the entire state.”

As was true of the entire West Texas legislative delegation, Seliger played an important role in the Texas Tech veterinary school becoming a reality in Amarillo. The school welcomed its first class of students in August and will have a transformative impact across the state in the years to come. During his tenure, Seliger has been advocate, friend and supporter to both higher education and public education.

Of course, his influence stretches well beyond that. During his tenure in Austin, he has authored hundreds of pieces of legislation, including Senate Bill 463 that created individual graduation committees and Senate Bill 150 that provided capital construction projects at every higher ed institution in the state, according to a news release from his office.

Likewise, he was instrumental in seeing public school testing regimens revamped as well as authoring the first bill in the nation requiring ethical disclosure of so-called dark money in political campaigns. Throughout his time in Austin, he has consistently voiced his support for local control, public education, higher education, sexual assault awareness and prevention and battling human trafficking, according to the news release.

His commitment to such ideas sometimes put him at odds with party leaders. A recent example occurred Monday with his opposition to legislation that would have banned employers from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations. Seliger believed the idea, a priority of Gov. Greg Abbott, went beyond the typically understood role of government.

Sprawling District 31 covers 37 counties from the Panhandle to the Permian Basin and includes cities such as Amarillo, Midland, Odessa and Big Spring. That will not be the case for the next District 31 senator. During the redistricting work that dominated the recently ended third special session, Seliger’s district was redrawn with four Panhandle counties removed and a dozen added from the area near Midland, according to a Texas Tribune story.

Seliger’s decision not to run means the loss of another well-respected veteran lawmaker (following U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry) with deep Panhandle ties and vast institutional knowledge. The redrawn district could mean the next District 31 senator comes from the Midland-Odessa area.

For now, the senator has said he will continue to serve the people of his district through the end of his term in January 2023. “From my first campaign in 1989 to today, I have felt overwhelmingly proud to serve the Panhandle, South Plains and the Permian Basin,” he said in our story.

Seliger leaves an enviable results-filled record of achievement as well as sizable shoes to fill in District 31. We express our thanks to Kel Seliger for his exemplary service to the people of West Texas, a group with whom he never lost touch.

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Weatherford Democrat. Oct. 14, 2021.

Editorial: Standing up to bullying

Most of us at the Weatherford Democrat grew up and finished most, if not all, of school without Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like. Bullying was a problem back then, but you could generally get away from it when school let out. It’s hard to imagine being subject to it both in person and online.

A recent incident involving some local students caused community discord — and rightfully so — in a case of bullying that went viral on social media.

In some ways, there is an upside to having technology ... for instance the prevalence of audio, video or written evidence. But on the flip side, that very technological allure can be an evil. You’re taught not to believe everything you read or see on the internet — sage advice — but it’s easier said than done, particularly when emotions get involved.

In many situations, a post, comment or photograph gets distorted, and the further it spreads, the more dangerous it becomes. Rumors take hold, falsehoods become truths and the web is spun and spun.

In the case mentioned above, emotions were evoked and soon many of those seeking justice to an injustice became the bullies themselves, spreading rumors and naming people that were allegedly involved.

The parent of one such teen, who received threatening messages for her association with a classmate, begged adults to be cognizant of what their actions were doing to minors, and to minors, an encouragement to fact check.

The incident is still under investigation, and there are rules and procedures that must be followed, but we get it — the wheels of justice turn slowly, though they do grind exceedingly fine.

It’s not our role to be judge, jury and executioner — for in condemning others without the facts, we too become the bullies.

We applaud those who participated in a recent community support rally, and those who have displayed signs for the cause, denouncing bullying in the last couple of weeks.

Bullying cannot and should not be tolerated — for students as well as adults. But in speaking out or taking action, make sure the action you are taking has an end result that betters the situation — not makes it worse.

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