Editorial Roundup: Texas

Austin American-Statesman. May 21, 2021.

Editorial: Want more Texans back at work? Help them get child care

Chuck Cohn sees both ends of the problem at his South Austin child care center. Parents need to line up child care so they can get back to work, but that care is getting harder to find. About 1 in 8 licensed child care centers in Austin closed temporarily or permanently because of the pandemic, along with nearly a quarter of home-based child care providers, according to data compiled by the Success By 6 initiative for the United Way for Greater Austin. Cohn’s waiting list at Angel’s Care and Learning Center is 10 kids and growing.

At the same time, Cohn has struggled to hire enough people to keep his facility fully staffed. Child care jobs in Austin typically pay $8 to $14 an hour, less than what many people can collect now on unemployment. Cohn’s job postings draw less than half the applicants he saw before the pandemic. “It’s so competitive to find people to hire,” he told us. “A lot of time by the time we call them, they’ve already been hired by someone else.”

The COVID-19 pandemic transformed the workforce landscape, knocking a sizable share of women — especially women with young children — out of work while upending some of the child care facilities that working families need. Many facilities in Austin held on thanks to city grants and federal aid. Others fared worse: In the first five months of the pandemic, 184 communities across Texas became child care deserts, left with little or no providers.

Against this backdrop, Gov. Greg Abbott wants to get more Texans back to work. But his announcement this week cutting off the extra $300 a week in federal unemployment benefits touches only one facet of a complex problem. The question facing many families is not whether work pays more than unemployment, but whether they can find and afford the child care they need in order to take a job. Even with providers working to keep costs down, child care is the second highest monthly expense for Austin families, behind housing.

Texas has a critical role to play here. It is long past time for the state to expand the funding and reach of the program that helps cover child care costs for lower-income families, enabling those parents to work. The massive influx of federal COVID aid Texas is receiving can help accomplish this in the short term. But Texas must make its own investment to meet working families’ needs in the long run.

As we noted in 2018, Texas is one of a handful of states that puts the minimum amount of federal funding toward child care subsidies, diverting other dollars to plug holes in the state budget. As a result, only 1 in 6 families who qualify for the aid actually receives it.

By early 2020, just before the pandemic unfolded, Texas had a jaw-dropping 34,396 children on the waiting list for federally subsidized child care, according to a report by the National Women’s Law Center. This is a problem of Texas’ own making, based on years of short-changing the program. In 38 other states, there was no waiting list at all.

These subsidies are more than a financial lifeline. They translate into safer care for babies and toddlers. Families who don’t get the subsidies may turn to unlicensed or minimally regulated caregivers who charge less, often for lower quality care. As the Statesman’s 2018 series Unwatched found, 80% of the children who died in Texas day cares over the past decade were in facilities that were unlicensed or offering the least-regulated level of care.

Among non-working low-income parents with young children, 70% cite their lack of access to affordable child care as the reason they’re not in the workforce. With Texas now pushing to get more people back to work, the state should use federal COVID relief dollars to make child care subsidies more widely available.

Officials should also look at increasing the amount of the subsidies paid per child — not only to provide more revenue for child care facilities to hire and keep quality staffers, but to make families’ contributions more reasonable. The National Women’s Law Center study found Texas requires some families receiving subsidies to put about 10% of their income toward their child care costs, even though experts recommend keeping those costs closer to 7.2%. The difference there can be significant for those who are scraping by.

The state should also consider incentives for some facilities to offer child care on evenings or weekends. Many of the jobs that need to be filled now are in restaurants and other parts of the hospitality industry that don’t keep bankers’ hours. If workers are needed on evenings and weekends, some will need child care at those times.

Lawmakers could also start the long-term planning by passing House Bill 619 by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston. The measure, which passed in the House last month and is pending in the Senate, would direct the Texas Workforce Commission, which administers the child care subsidies, to develop a strategic plan for addressing pay disparities, training needs and other issues.

In an interview this week with Fox News, Abbott said Texas is “focused on free enterprise and getting people back to work.” But that doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Texas needs to play a greater role in supporting the child care programs that help working families and day cares better serve their communities.

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Dallas Morning News. May 21, 2021.

Editorial: Bitcoin wildcatters in West Texas are turning wasted fuel into profit. This innovation could revolutionize energy production

A 21st century version of Texas wildcatting is happening in the Permian Basin, and a Frisco company is leading the way. Silver Energy has devised a way to use natural gas byproduct from oil wells to power computers that mine for Bitcoin. If that sentence is confusing to you (How in the world does anyone “mine” a digital resource?) just know this: The company is taking a natural resource that would otherwise be burned off as waste and turning it into cheap energy. That’s enough for us to applaud the company’s innovative approach and encourage others to join it.

“Mining” Bitcoin is a complex computational process that requires enormous amounts of electricity. This isn’t like plugging in a few laptops to a surge protector. Miners need terawatts. The Harvard Business Review estimates that Bitcoin mining consumes as much energy globally every year as Sweden.

In search of that energy, miners have created mobile rigs to draw power from off-the-grid sources.

In some parts of China, the rainy season leaves huge quantities of hydroelectric power stranded, attracting enterprising miners. Sichuan and Yunnan provinces account for 50% of global Bitcoin mining during the wet season, according to HBR.

In West Texas, wasted or stranded energy is to be found at oil wells that produce natural gas as a byproduct. Often, this gas is simply burned up, a practice called flaring which we have puzzled over before. Even worse than flaring, some producers simply release the gas into the atmosphere, which is called venting.

What Silver has done is to create a way to capture that gas and convert it to electricity to power a movable data center. Silver CEO Joel Gordon told us these are basically shipping containers packed with computing equipment. Silver runs them on a natural gas-powered generator. Gordon admits that it’s still burning natural gas, so there is still some environmental concern. But at least that burned resource is powering something, which is the trade-off we all make each time we crank up our gasoline-powered cars.

What gets Gordon especially excited is the possibility of more applications beyond cryptocurrency.

“The big story is the regionalization of electricity production,” Gordon said. “This is not a Bitcoin story, it’s a regionalization-of-power-generation story. Bitcoin is just the opportunistic front end of that.”

In fact, Gordon said, the price of Bitcoin mining is rising so quickly that he expects returns to start diminishing soon. But even if Bitcoin recedes, those companies that can use stranded energy to power nearby towns or mobile data centers will be ahead of the game.

Silver has few competitors in this space right now. Gordon said it’s a fairly open niche between traditional oil and gas companies that don’t want to invest in infrastructure to capture stranded gas and renewable energy companies that are reluctant to use fossil fuels.

There are, of course, problems with cryptocurrency. It seems faddish and it is too often connected to darker digital enterprises. But if more companies push forward new ways to use stranded energy, that could be positive for the environment as well as the economy. For now, we’re happy to praise a Frisco company for embracing the Texas spirit. Modern-day wildcatters may be taking a risk on digital gold instead of black gold, but from where we sit, the pioneering ethos looks the same.

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Texarkana Gazette. May 16, 2021.

Editorial: Governor Matthew? Actor said to be serious about running in Texas

It sounded like a joke when the rumors first started going around.

Texas-born actor Matthew McConaughey running for governor of the Lone Star State?

The Oscar-winning actor is reportedly making calls to wealthy moderate Republicans around the state to gauge his chances — and round up potential donors — should he go up against incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott.

McConaughey would be a long shot. Abbott has pretty good approval numbers and a lot of campaign cash in the bank. And the actor’s image is, well, more counterculture than mainstream.

It’s not unheard of for entertainers to turn to politics. Singer Jimmie Davis was governor of Louisiana. Wrestler Jesse Ventura did the same in Minnesota. Bodybuilder and action star Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California. And then there was a fellow named Ronald Reagan. He went pretty far.

It’s not unheard of in Texas, either. We recall back in he 2006 election when singer-songwriter Kinky Friedman made a stab at the governor’s mansion. He even came to Texarkana, entertaining a crowd at the old Cinema 218 downtown with his quick wit. He probably gained a few supporters while he was here.

But fame and wit only get you so far. Friedman didn’t win the race. Texas voters opted for business as usual and re-elected Gov. Rick Perry.

Maybe McConaughey stands a chance. Maybe not. But in any case, celebrities always liven up an election.

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Abilene Reporter News. May 19, 2021.

Editorial: Unmasking Texas, for better or worse

Masks are coming off at a faster rate.

On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that cities, counties and schools no longer can require face masks to be worn, starting June 4.

Locally, that is well past the end of the regular school year, so there is not much impact.

Masks currently are being worn in the Abilene ISD, and will be through the end of the school year, but not in the Wylie ISD.

“That doesn’t impact us a bit,” WISD Superintendent Joey Light said.

That prompted Light’s further comment on the need for more local control “in everything.” Local control has become a mantra throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in more rural Texas. It’s an issue that has been simmering for years.

In 2020, it boiled over, at times.

In a pandemic, though, it added to the divisiveness already gripping our country.

The size of Texas, many have argued, suggests one decision doesn’t adequately fit all. That certainly is a valid point of view.

Wearing face masks provided a great example, one that stirred debate since the pandemic started. The line separating shutting down or staying open shifted, and the debate became passionate.

Recommendations have changed rapidly. Remember early word from the medical side, advising not to wear a mask? That was due both to creating a shortage that would affect medical personnel needing them and there was question if that would stop the spread.

“They are not effective in preventing the general public from catching #coronavirus,” Surgeon General Jerome Adams tweeted.

Then that shifted dramatically. Doctors championed wearing a face covering, and “Mask Required” signs were posted everywhere, though enforcement never was possible and some ignored the request altogether.

The CDC last week said people who are fully vaccinated don’t have to wear masks indoors or outdoors. But, some argue, how do we know who is vaccinated and who isn’t?

The Texas State Teachers Association, in response, called Abbott’s announcement premature. The organization preferred a decision regarding face masks be made for the 2021-22 school year, not now.

But in West Texas, few face masks have been seen for a while on many district campuses. This changes nothing.

The Paramount Theatre, which perhaps has had the most stringent and longest lasting safety protocols in the city since reopening, no longer requires face coverings. It no longer will alternate seating by rows. However, an area of the auditorium will offer alternating rows for those who still want to socially distance.

That sounds fair enough and considerate to all.

According to Abbott, face masks still must be worn at the state’s living centers, such as Abilene State Supported Living Center, government-owned or -operated hospitals, jails and state-run correctional facilities.

Meals on Wheels has continued to ask volunteer drivers to mask up to protect clients.

Perhaps more telling in Abbott’s announcement was that fewer than 50% of Texans have been vaccinated, according to the Texas Tribune. In Taylor County, the fully vaccinated number is about 33%, but much higher for older residents (66.6% fully vaccinated for those 65 and older).

Interest in getting vaccinated is tapering here, according to local health district. Officials are disappointed.

Time will tell if the decisions made during a time of great unknown were the right ones. That will be true at national and state levels, as well as the local level.

A local doctor, sizing up the situation, this week offered two pieces of advice:

1. Do not abandon the increased health safety measures that were emphasized during the pandemic. Keep washing or sanitizing your hands, for example. Remember that older residents and those with health issues are more susceptible to illness that can be spread by contact.

2. As for masks, don’t throw those in the trash or, as we also have seen, on the street like cigarette butts. Save them. COVID-19 likely won’t be the last pandemic. And even during a severe flu season, mask wearing could mitigate illness spread at the office or in the classroom.

Even with differing viewpoints and politics entering into decisions — Abbott is up for re-election in 2020 and has endured statewide health and energy crises this past year — we are in this together.

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