Austin American-Statesman. January 11, 2023.

Editorial: Lawmakers must defeat anti-LGBTQ agenda at Texas Capitol

Not this mean-spirited foolishness again.

The 88th Texas Legislature convened on Tuesday with Republicans making clear they plan to spend yet another session targeting the state’s LGBTQ community at the expense of work to improve the lives of as many Texans as possible. Republican members of the House and Senate have introduced at least three dozen bills hostile to LGBTQ Texans, including several that would criminalize a small number of parents who allow their children to receive gender-affirming care. Other GOP bills would crack down on places of business that host drag performances and prohibit teachers from discussing gender identity and sexual orientation with students before eighth grade, despite no substantive evidence that Texas teachers are doing so. The Texas GOP has long declared itself the party of less regulation and intrusion into the personal lives of Texans. But you wouldn’t know it by its fixation with targeting transgender children and their families.

LGBTQ issues don’t rank among Texans’ top concerns

These bills mark the fourth consecutive legislative session in which Republicans have pushed a divisive anti-LGBTQ agenda that squeezes oxygen from important issues while embarrassing Texas on the national stage. The GOP’s latest attempt to pull Texas backward on gay and transgender rights comes at a time when polls show the issues don’t rank among Texans’ top 10 concerns. State lawmakers from both parties should heed the people’s concerns and reject anti-LGBTQ initiatives, focusing instead during their limited time in the biennial legislature on objectives that matter most to Texans: Economic opportunities, reproductive rights, ensuring a reliable electrical grid, gun reforms, climate change and more.

The state Republican Party affirmed it its archaic and hostile view of LGTBQ Texans at its convention last summer, re-adopting platform language declaring homosexuality “an abnormal lifestyle choice,” despite overwhelming evidence that it is not a choice at all. We realize that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a culture warrior who routinely treats the LGTBQ community like a political piñata, is unlikely to back off of his anti-LGBTQ agenda in the Senate. But we hope Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, who in the past has lamented the legislature’s attempts to discriminate against LGBTQ Texans, will lead the lower chamber toward less divisive, more productive initiatives.

Why waste time pursuing ideas that don’t have widespread support? During the last session, Texas Republicans wasted precious days, weeks and months pursuing an anti-LGBTQ agenda that fizzled almost entirely. Of 76 bills filed in the 87th Legislature aimed at LGBTQ restrictions, just 20 received committee votes, and only one — a measure restricting transgender student athletes’ participation in school sports — was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott, according to Equality Texas, a pro-LGBTQ advocacy group.

GOP bills would intrude on parental decisions, child health care

Most frightening for a small group of Texas parents this session are GOP bills that would subject them to child abuse charges if they obtain gender-affirming care for their children. The bills follow Abbott’s and Attorney General Ken Paxton’s appalling decision last year to order state child welfare officials to investigate parents who opt for such care for their children. Gary Floyd, president of the Texas Medical Association, has urged Texas lawmakers to avoid legislation that interferes with decisions about medical care — including gender-affirming care — between doctors and patients and their families.

Floyd told our editorial board the issue gets an inordinate amount of attention considering fewer than 50 doctors in Texas have reported providing care for children struggling with gender dysphoria. Such care typically begins with professional counseling and simple anti-anxiety medications. In rare cases, a child’s doctor will prescribe hormone blockers to help delay unwanted physical changes that are at odds with a child’s preferred gender identity. Floyd said this hormonal interruption is reversible, and the American Medical Association has endorsed it as “medically-necessary, evidence-based care that improves the physical and mental health of transgender and gender-diverse people.” Gender reassignment surgeries, commonly referred to as sex change operations, are not legal in Texas.

The GOP’s continued effort to vilify LGBTQ Texans is divisive and dangerous. It has no place in the legislative arena. Texas faces serious challenges related to education, health care, gun violence, poverty and other important issues. State lawmakers should focus on what matters in the 88th Texas Legislature and leave the bigotry behind.


Dallas Morning News. January 14, 2023.

Editorial: Texas Senate’s press ban is bad for our state

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick prefers to operate without scrutiny.

Texas lawmakers are back to work in Austin. And they’ve got a lot of work to do. The state has a record-breaking surplus that needs attention, along with plenty of other long-term problems like lack of water and low teacher pay.

The Legislature’s decisions impact the daily lives of Texans. That’s why any concern that the Legislature won’t act with transparency must be addressed.

Last week, state Senate Secretary Patsy Spaw told our colleague that press will not be permitted on the Senate floor, continuing a policy that began during the pandemic.

Is this Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s way of saying he’s still worried about COVID-19? We doubt it. Instead, it looks like a play to kill a longstanding Senate tradition in the name of secrecy and insider dealing.

The state House allowed the press back as soon as vaccines were widely available in April of 2021, demonstrating the sort of openness that Texans deserve to expect from their government.

A spokesperson for Speaker of the House Dade Phelan told The Texas Tribune that “the chamber will continue to follow the long-standing practice of allowing credentialed media in designated areas on the House floor.”

Almost two years later, the Senate refuses to follow suit. Why?

Spaw says the press will be permitted in the Senate gallery along with everyone else, but has yet to give our newsroom colleague an answer as to why the policy is still in place.

This decision will limit public insight into the inner workings on the chamber floor. And this is not the first time. Back in 2017, the Senate limited journalists’ ability to speak to lawmakers along the side rails of the chamber, another long-standing tradition. That was presented as a rule to increase “decorum” on the chamber floor. We are trying not to laugh.

It was a sham then, and it is now. The public deserves independent insight into the Senate’s work, and Texas leaders for generations recognized that came from permitting the press access. The flow of information is especially important in a time when politicians use their social media accounts to instantly spin the facts. Many senators also rely on the access to the press to get the word out about important votes.

Donnis Baggett, executive vice president of the Texas Press Association, told us the rule “works to the detriment of timely and mutually beneficial conversations between senators and reporters.”

Given the track record of Patrick and other Republican leaders to avoid outside scrutiny like the plague, it’s no wonder a pandemic-era restriction will be extended.

But senators who still respect the body’s traditions as well as the need for transparency ought to push back.

With a $33 billion surplus on the line, Texans should think twice about trusting a room full of politicians left to their own devices.


Fort Worth Star-Telegram. January XX, 2023.

Editorial: Lawmakers, don’t blow Texas’ $32.7 billion surplus. Priorities start with tax cuts

For the Texas Legislature, having too much money to spend may turn out to be as big a challenge as not having enough.

Lawmakers returning to Austin on Tuesday were greeted with Comptroller Glenn Hegar’s assessment that they have a surplus of $32.7 billion. Under state law, some goes to the “rainy day fund” and some to highway projects. But about two-thirds is available for spending.

Of course, there are myriad demands, including calls to spend little at all, except on tax cuts. And there are procedural and political hurdles. Nonetheless, the surplus is a tremendous opportunity to set Texas’ course for the future by addressing some longstanding problems and boosting the infrastructure needed to maximize the potential of a booming state.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan have both talked about the rare opportunity the surplus affords lawmakers. They’ll differ on the details, but they and Gov. Greg Abbott must keep their eyes on the goal: improving opportunity and prosperity for all Texans.

TEXAS HOMEOWNERS NEED MAJOR PROPERTY TAX BREAK

Tax cuts are a must. A surplus is at some level a sign of over-taxation, and returning to the people some of their own money is the right thing to do.

At the state level, revenues are collected primarily through the sales tax and levies on oil and gas drilling. Some will argue for some kind of sales tax rebate, but by focusing on local property tax cuts, legislators can address two related problems. Housing affordability is one; it’s becoming a serious cost-of-living issue, as booming appraisals drive higher tax bills.

And by increasing its share of school funding, the state can require that school districts, which charge the largest portion of local property taxes, significantly reduce their rates. This represents a greater state commitment to public education, which is appropriate. It must be sustained in the future, when surpluses might not be available, so it’s important to be prudent and not overreach.

As he was re-elected House speaker, Phelan, a Beaumont-area Republican, also mentioned the need for a longer-term fix on property taxes. “Time and time again, we have seen the Legislature provide some form of property tax relief, but to make it lasting, we must do something about runaway appraisals,” he said. Here’s hoping he forces a serious examination of the issue.

SPEND MORE ON TEXAS SCHOOLS, TEACHERS

Significant tax cuts should still leave lawmakers with chances to make important investments in Texas’ future. Education is the highest priority. Texas schools are not performing well, and it’s time for a serious conversation on what it will take to fix it. Money isn’t the only answer. But good teachers are one of the most important factors, as is keeping them with pay raises, better benefits and more resources to do their jobs.

Republican leaders are making a big push for school choice, including letting parents use state money to enroll students in private schools. Competition is important for improvement, and a sizable experiment in school choice is overdue. But it can’t come at the expense of public schools. Lawmakers must craft a targeted program that gives families more and better options but preserves resources to improve the very schools and systems that are failing them.

In higher education, university leaders are agitating for a budget boost and promising tuition freezes in return. That’s a good trade-off, but as with public schools, it can’t come at the expense of reform that helps more students avoid high costs and debt in the first place.

One of the most exciting developments in higher education is the Texas A&M University System’s commitment to a major expansion in downtown Fort Worth. The city and county are stepping up with resources, and the state should, too.

To ensure Texas is economically resilient amid its robust growth, the Legislature must ensure the lights stay on. Leaders differ on whether enough has been done to fix the power grid since the 2021 winter freeze, but one fact remains: Texas needs more power capacity as people and companies move here. Ideally, the market will adjust through private investment, but this is a task that cannot be left to chance. Patrick has said the state needs more natural gas-powered electric plants.

MENTAL HEALTH TREATMENT AND CPS REFORM

The surplus also provides an opportunity to address two lingering areas of shame for Texas: mental-health services and child protection. These are also areas where money isn’t the sole answer.

The state’s inadequate capacity for mental-health treatment is well-documented, but here’s one example. A shortage of hospital beds means local jails sometimes have to keep prisoners who should be taken to state facilities. Local taxpayers are funding their care in just about the least efficient manner possible. Child Protective Services and foster care seem to be in a perpetual cycle of crisis and reform. But good investigators and caseworkers are crucial to preventing child abuse and providing better homes for children, and that means more of them, making better salaries.

There are other priorities. And there will be distractions, such as the political fight over lawmakers busting the state constitution’s cap on how much spending can increase. Voting to do so can be politically fraught, especially in Republican primaries, but it may be the only way to provide meaningful tax relief and address needs.

Legislative leaders recognize the opportunities before them to build a better Texas. Now, they need to demonstrate the resolve and courage to take advantage.


Houston Chronicle. January 12, 2023.

Editorial: Take the money and plug. Orphan wells mess with Texas.

Texas thumbing its nose at federal aid for orphan wells is tribal politics at its worst.

You wouldn’t expect to find a 60-acre saltwater lake in the middle of a parched stretch of land in West Texas.

Then again, referring to this particular body of water – known as Lake Boehmer – as merely a “lake” is deceptive. You wouldn’t want to fish or swim in this lake, and taking a sip from it would almost certainly send you to the hospital. That’s because Lake Boehmer is basically an active industrial accident, the result of a toxic fountain gushing 200 gallons per minute of briny, salty, contaminated water out of a long-abandoned well head.

Experts estimate plugging Lake Boehmer alone would cost between $50 million-$100 million. That’s not exactly chump change for the Texas Railroad Commission, the agency responsible for regulating oil wells. In 2021 alone, the commission spent roughly $49 million to plug 1,279 oil wells.

With nearly 150,000 inactive wells across the state, commissioners have their work cut out for them. These wells are, cumulatively, the 10th largest source of annual methane emissions in the nation and “ticking time bombs” threatening our groundwater supply. Even if we assume the commission is doing everything in its power to plug these wells – spoiler alert: it isn’t – hundreds of new wells are orphaned every year. Since 2006, the commission has removed nearly 28,000 orphan wells from its inventory, yet oil and gas companies have orphaned an additional 22,592.

But if you’d assume the Railroad Commission would welcome any and all help to to get a handle on this Sisyphean task, you’d be wrong.

Congress last year approved $4.6 billion to plug old wells, with Texas set to receive up to $344 million, enough to plug almost 7,400 wells. Good news for many states, but not for Texas, where federal help can be seen as trampling on our independence.

Just ask Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick.

During a speech at the annual meeting of the Texas Pipeline Association in Houston last week, Craddick told more than 100 attendees that the federal regulatory climate was “hostile to energy,” and that the commission would not accept the federal funding to plug abandoned oil wells until it knows if there’s a catch.

“We’re going to wait and see what their rules are before we decide if we have the opportunity to accept those dollars,” Craddick said.

It’s possible Craddick was simply reading the room and leaning on a familiar refrain among Texas Republicans: that the federal government should keep its nose out of the state’s business and let the free market run wild. That message certainly plays well among an audience of energy executives. Heck, it might just prompt them to shower her with even more money from oil and gas donors.

Yet thumbing her nose at free money to clean up a problem partly of the commission’s making is beyond foolish. Presumably, Craddick was elected to do something more than fatten her campaign coffers and look after her political prospects. She’s supposed to be acting as a steward of our natural resources.

Had the commission not provided tax exemptions and incentives for operators to drill wells they are likely to orphan; had it not voted in 2020 to waive a rule requiring companies to plug a well if it’s been abandoned with no production for a year; had it not allowed operators to sell abandoned wells and escape decommissioning liability, we might not be relying on our tax dollars to take care of this problem for the private sector.

It’s become a bizarre rite of passage for our state’s leaders to reject the federal government’s help to solve intractable problems, only to take the money when it’s politically convenient. Gov. Greg Abbott has steadfastly refused to expand Medicaid, turning his back on roughly $100 billion in federal money over the past decade that would give health insurance to as many as 1.2 million Texans. Yet he will happily repurpose $1 billion in federal COVID-19 aid for a program to arrest migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

What makes Craddick’s statement even more disingenuous is that she likely knows as well as anyone that there are few strings attached to the federal oil well cleanup funds. The commission has already received $25 million in initial grant money out of more than $82 million in the first tranche of funding. The well plugging and remediation standards are largely left to individual states. In fact, Wayne Christian, the Railroad Commission chairman, is also the vice chair of the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, a multi-state government organization which reportedly played an outsized role in providing “technical assistance and consulting” in drafting the Congressional infrastructure bill that includes the well plugging funds.

In a perfect world, Texas wouldn’t be overly reliant on federal money to clean up our mess. The commission should require operators to cover the full cost of decommissioning wells it no longer uses. Currently, the bond amounts the commission requires oil producers to put up to cover the cost of plugging wells only pay for about 16 percent of the cost, with state taxpayers picking up the rest of the tab.

But as long as the federal government is willing to help us solve this problem, let’s not let tribal politics get in the way. Take the money and start fixing the problem before another abandoned well becomes an environmental catastrophe.


San Antonio Express-News. January 9, 2023.

Editorial: Bills on Uvalde right response to the tragedy

In January 2021, as Texas’ 87th Legislature gaveled into session, 19 third-graders and two teachers were returning to school from Christmas break. When the Legislature adjourned in May, those third-graders promoted to the fourth grade.

Less than a year later, those children and teachers would be murdered in their fourth-grade classrooms at Robb Elementary School by an 18-year-old armed with an AR-15 assault-style rifle, which he legally bought.

What happened in Robb on May 24 has unleashed tears, burning outrage and immeasurable grief. What it has failed to produce is any inclination or effort from Gov. Greg Abbott or Republican state lawmakers to embrace commonsense reforms that could help reduce overall gun violence and provide some comfort to the families in Uvalde.

This isn’t the first opportunity for Abbott and Republican lawmakers to respond to a mass shooting with reforms that polls show are supported by most Texans — but, importantly, perhaps not most primary GOP voters. Recall the shootings at Sutherland Springs, Santa Fe, El Paso and Midland-Odessa.

Abbott called three special sessions in 2021, but he refused to call a special session after Uvalde.

Now, the 88th Texas Legislature commences with several dozen gun safety bills filed in response to Uvalde.

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a San Antonio Democrat who represents Uvalde, has filed three pieces of legislation. No state lawmaker has been more outspoken for the Uvalde families and the need for reforms.

His bills would restrict the ability of dangerous individuals to purchase firearms and would compensate the Uvalde families.

Senate Bill 144 empowers law enforcement with the ability to remove firearms from individuals who are a danger to themselves and/or others.

Senate Bill 145 would increase the age limit to purchase all firearms from 18 to 21.

Under Texas’ gun laws, an 18-year-old, such as the Uvalde shooter isn’t allowed — on paper, at least — to buy a handgun but can purchase an assault rifle capable of killing more people at a faster clip. But last year, a federal judge found this law to be unconstitutional. Initially, Texas was set to fight that ruling, but the state recently withdrew an appeal.

This tells you everything you need to know about where the state is going with the purchase age for firearms. Still, that recent ruling aside, raising the purchase age for all firearms just makes sense. It may have prevented the Uvalde shooting.

It’s also a policy Florida embraced after tragedy there. In 2018, after a 19-year-old murdered 17 people in a mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the state raised the purchase age for firearms to 21.

The most significant gun legislation the 87th Legislature passed in 2021 was HB 1927, which allows the carrying of a handgun in a public place without a license and without training. But at least that person must be 21 or older.

Senate Bill 146 would establish the Uvalde Victims’ Compensation Fund.

The $300 million fund includes $7.7 million, which would be paid to immediate surviving families of the deceased victims; $2.1 million for each seriously physically injured victim; and $250,000 per mental or emotional disability stemming from the shooting.

The murders of children and teachers should be unfathomable, and no amount of compensation would ever be adequate. But compensation from the state would reflect culpability in the failed law enforcement response on May 24, while also recognizing lost wages over the course of each victim’s lifetime and the toll on loved ones.

In terms of details, such a fund would likely need to be modeled after the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, but in broad strokes, we support compensation.

The bill would also waive sovereign immunity for the state of Texas, and qualified immunity for state and local law enforcement individuals and entities present at Robb Elementary during the attack.

This part of the bill has given us pause. We recognize the emotional force behind it but have concerns about unintended consequences given the chaos of the day.

Specific to the tragedy at Robb, much of what Gutierrez has proposed is grounded in common sense and reflects moral urgency: empowering law enforcement to remove firearms to prevent a potential tragedy; raising the purchase age for firearms; and compensating those directly affected in Uvalde.

That such ideas are unlikely to gain traction with the Legislature is yet another layer of tragedy.

END

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