Recent editorials from Texas newspapers – Miami Herald

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Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Texas newspapers:

Houston Chronicle. April 14, 2017.

One little radio station in a small Texas town can make a big difference. And our lawmakers in Washington need to know that.

On a Saturday afternoon six years ago this month, an electrical spark flashed inside an abandoned rock shop alongside Highway 90 about a mile-and-a-half outside of Marfa. The flames that engulfed the small building might have stopped there if not for the high winds whipping through the dusty West Texas landscape. That small building blaze triggered the greatest grassland fire in our state’s history, a fast-moving inferno that rampaged across West Texas and burned more than 300,000 acres during the course of 28 hellish days.

As the sky turned orange and black that weekend, as propane tanks exploded and flames cut off routes of escape, the only radio station broadcasting in Marfa aired evacuation orders and advised people which way to flee as they literally ran for their lives.

Today, if you ask the good folks who live in Big Bend country about that disaster, somebody’s bound to tell you a story about listening to the dramatic coverage on Marfa Public Radio. Joe Nick Patoski, a KRTS volunteer host better known for his books about Texas music and sports, has no doubt some people in West Texas would be dead today if it weren’t for what he calls “the little station that could.”

“So it chaps me to no end when I hear people say that this isn’t necessary,” Patoski says.

About a third of the money that keeps that life-saving little radio station running on its shoestring budget comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, whose $445 million annual appropriation the Trump Administration wants to eliminate. That’s about one-hundredth of one percent of the $4 trillion federal budget, but this idea isn’t about money as much as it’s about politics. Public broadcasting has long been a political piñata for conservative lawmakers, who’ve bashed it as a bastion of liberal bias and an inappropriate use of taxpayer money. Most recently, a 2005 effort to cut funding for PBS, National Public Radio and hundreds of public broadcasting stations triggered such a loud outcry the GOP-controlled Congress dropped the idea. Now it seems Big Bird’s neck is back on the chopping block, but don’t get the wrong idea: What’s at stake here involves way more than the future of “Sesame Street.”

Here in Houston, CPB’s federal funds account for about 10 percent of the budget — $2.3-million last year — for KUHT-TV and KUHF-FM, the University of Houston stations affiliated with PBS and NPR. Losing that money would hurt badly, but a generous base of corporate and individual donors in the nation’s fourth largest city would almost certainly keep Houston Public Media on the air.

Unfortunately, a lot of smaller public stations serving remote stretches of America’s back roads would probably vanish from the airwaves. A study conducted for CPB five years ago concluded 54 public television stations and 76 public radio stations would probably shut down without federal funds. Most of those stations transmit in rural areas, and some of those radio outlets serve isolated communities with no other radio or TV stations — public or commercial — where people can tune-in for local emergency news and weather broadcasts.

Ultimately, even public stations in big cities like Houston would feel an impact that’s hard to predict. As broadcasters in smaller towns either go off the air or cut back on spending, fewer public stations would subscribe to network programs. Stations like KUHT and KUHF would have to pay more for those network shows, so there’s no telling how deeply the cutbacks would carve away at what Houstonians are accustomed to seeing and hearing.

We taxpayers give CPB a piddling amount of money, a little more than a dime a month from each of us. It’s well worth it, and we should all let our lawmakers know it. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting needs to stay in the federal budget, if only to make sure little stations like Marfa Public Radio stay on the air for emergencies in isolated towns across America.

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Austin American-Statesman. April 14, 2017.

Few investigations are more complex and volatile for a lead local prosecutor as those involving police shootings. How the criminal justice system handles a case can fracture a community, particularly when emotional wounds are raw and when the public demands a transparent investigation but is skeptical they can get one.

We know this well in Travis County, where dozens of cases involving lethal police shootings have been presented to grand juries over many years — though jurors have indicted only one officer in the past decade. Among some in our community, those results have fanned a climate of distrust feeding on the perception that the justice system is biased in favor of police officers.

For Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore, a recent conversation with a community leader about her office’s role in investigating police shootings emphasized the need for transparency. Moore outlined myriad steps, including how her office responds to shooting scenes, attends police department briefings and conducts its own investigations.

“No, they don’t do that,” the community leader replied. Moore instantly saw a problem.

“Communities should know what the DA does . and what law enforcement does during these investigations,” Moore recently told the American-Statesman’s editorial board as she laid out details of her steps to drastically change how Travis County prosecutors oversee their investigations into police shootings.

Among the changes effective immediately, Moore’s office will evaluate each case to determine if a crime may have been committed. Only when Moore thinks a shooting was unlawful or if facts about it are in dispute will she take the case to a grand jury.

In the past, Travis County grand juries heard evidence in all police shooting cases and decided whether to indict an officer or to issue a “no-bill” when they ruled a shooting was justified.

But Moore said waiting sometimes months for the grand jury to decide inadvertently had been an obstacle to a timely airing of the facts. In many cases “the opportunity for misinformation to influence the communities’ reaction is very high,” Moore told us. The old way, she said, also left officers and families in limbo.

Moore said she also will issue a public statement about any shooting prosecutors believe was justified, thus closing the case and making documents from the investigation available to the public. Prosecutors typically don’t offer an opinion of a police shooting case, but Moore thinks it’s appropriate.

“We should be telling the community our assessment of a case straight up,” she told American-Statesman reporter Tony Plohetski.

Moore also said her office will hold regular community forums where the public can review documents, ask questions about a police shooting case and how prosecutors arrived at their decision.

We welcome Moore’s overarching goal to bring more transparency, just as we applaud any efforts to make government more open. We particularly support making documents from the investigation available in a timelier fashion when prosecutors choose not to present a case to the grand jury. And we applaud Moore’s decision to make specific recommendations to the grand jury when prosecutors believe an officer may have committed a crime. Previous policy in the district attorney’s office had been to send those cases to the grand jury without recommendation.

However, we would have preferred that Moore use an independent prosecutor — as we have called for in the past. Because they allay perceptions of blurred lines between prosecutors and police, independent prosecutors have proved to be a viable tool in police shooting cases nationally.

Moore and her staff appear to have vetted changes with law enforcement and their unions, elected officials, community leaders and civil rights groups.

“It has buy-in from everybody. We’ve never seen that before,” Nelson Linder, president of the Austin chapter of the NAACP, told the editorial board. Linder said the public wants a district attorney and a system it can trust — and the changes in oversight are a step in that direction.

Austin City Council Member Greg Casar said that while he appreciates Moore addressing local and national concerns about the “independence, integrity and effectiveness” of prosecution in police shooting cases, he noted that declining to present some cases to a grand jury could prove controversial. Casar urged Moore to also present cases that might be viewed as borderline.

“We have to keep on monitoring as a community how these new polices do or don’t improve the delivery of justice,” he told the editorial board.

Civil rights attorney Jim Harrington, however, wasn’t in a mood to wait, blasting Moore’s policy for giving grand juries less oversight.

“The civil rights of the people are too important to be left up to the ‘trust me’ discretion of a political official,” Harrington said in a statement. “What the people need is more transparency and more independence of the grand jury in police shootings.”

The district attorney is indeed asking Travis County residents to trust her decision-making after a deliberate review of the evidence. But trust is earned — and it will be interesting to see the public’s reaction in the first instance when some disagree with Moore’s decision not to present a case to a grand jury. Moore and her prosecutors will need to cleanly articulate the reasons for such decisions.

We agree with Casar that the community must monitor the results of the district attorney’s policy changes and hold her accountable. We trust that Moore will also carefully monitor the results and adapt as needed.

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Corpus Christi Caller-Times. April 15, 2017.

Thanks, U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, for stepping up to protect Americans’ rights at the border — the U.S. side of it, where individual civil rights shouldn’t stop.

Recently Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, signed on as a sponsor of the Protecting Data at the Border Act, a title that may sound nerdy and right up Farenthold’s alley because of his computer technology background. The first part is a wrong assumption. It’s not nerdy at all. The second part is correct. This bill fits Farenthold the tech geek (a label he wouldn’t find offensive) like Rick Perry’s suits fit.

But it’s Farenthold’s tea party principles that make him an ideal advocate for a bill that would prevent searches of cellphones and other digital devices without probable cause and a search warrant except in emergencies. This is when liberty seems less of a quirky tea party obsession and more like everybody’s best business. This is common ground for U.S. citizens of all political persuasions. The bill’s bipartisan sponsorship reflects as much. The other sponsors are Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colorado, and Sens. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, and Ron Wyden, D-Oregon.

The Supreme Court recognized in 2014 that digital devices are fundamentally different from other property a person happens to be carrying, and ruled that law enforcement needed a warrant to search the digital devices of an arrested person. Yet, the same protection doesn’t apply to citizens returning from a trip across the border who are not suspected criminals. Their situation falls under a longstanding precedent known as the “border search exception” to the Fourth Amendment.

A search of cellphones and other digital devices isn’t like inspecting a driver’s license or passport. Cellphones store vast private, personal information such as credit cards, Social Security numbers, passwords and PINs to bank accounts, photos, videos, emails and text messages. They also can be used to track where their owners have been.

Border security officials should have probable cause to invade a person’s privacy like that. But they can do it on a whim. And they do. Unprompted searches of digital devices at the border rose from 4,700 in 2015 to 24,000 in 2016 and this year are on a pace to top 60,000, according to The Associated Press.

A news release from Farenthold’s office announcing the Protecting Data at the Border Act included a link to an NBC News story that examined 25 incidents of border crossings that led to this type of search. Twenty-three of the 25 people who were searched were Muslim. Surprise, surprise. It speaks well of Farenthold that he is standing up for the rights of U.S. citizens who fall under suspicion and are subjected to unreasonable searches because of the religion they practice.

At times we have criticized Farenthold for wasting time on tangential partisan issues. This issue is nonpartisan, bipartisan-supported and not at all tangential. His district is less than 150 miles from the Mexican border. But Paul and Polis represent landlocked states far from the Canadian and Mexican borders and this legislation is as important to them and their constituents as to Farenthold and his. The right not to be subjected to unreasonable searches and seizures is not tangential. It’s fundamental.

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Beaumont Enterprise. April 16, 2017.

Taxpayers should look beyond the lofty title “District of Innovation” being sought by several area school districts. Innovation can be part of the equation, but this trend also could be driven by the desire to cut costs, which could reduce the quality of education.

Districts that pursue this change can opt out of various state requirements, such as obligations to seek waivers for larger class sizes or teacher certifications — and inform parents about those changes.

The shift is often portrayed as freeing districts from “burdensome” regulations, even though other public school districts manage to comply with the rules. The change does allow them to save money by hiring an uncertified teacher for a lower salary or using fewer teachers with bigger class sizes.

Let’s be frank about this: If a science class is taught by a teacher without proper science certification, the students probably won’t learn as much as they would otherwise. If a class size exceeds the 22-1 student-teacher ratio, the students probably won’t learn as much as they would otherwise.

Taxpayers also should realize that when school districts apply for waivers from those requirements, they are usually granted anyway. It isn’t necessary to become a “District of Innovation” to escape these “burdensome” regulations.

Granted, the Legislature is not providing any more money to public schools because of a $5 billion budget shortfall. (It could be worse; public universities are facing steep budget cuts.) Taxpayers are understandably reluctant to approve bond issues or see their tax rates go up. Yet those taxpayers also want their children educated properly. That fundamental mission must not be undermined.

The bottom line here is accountability. Districts that make this change must show taxpayers that graduation rates and scores on standardized tests do not suffer. The same goes for other benchmarks, like the number of seniors getting academic college scholarships. If districts achieve that, more power to them.

But more and more districts are taking advantage of this option, and there is no state approval process or method of reviewing their plans.

That should change, before the exception becomes the rule. Public education should not decline under the promise of innovation.

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The Dallas Morning News. April 17, 2017.

Another day, another troubling headline for Texas Child Protective Services.

The number of the state’s most endangered children sleeping in CPS offices or in other temporary living arrangements more than doubled last month. Equally alarming: Officials don’t know why.

This situation is beyond the crisis point. These kids can’t wait for the state to suss out ramp-up plans to increase the number of available foster care beds. They need help now.

Did CPS learn nothing earlier this month when two foster teens being housed in a Harris County office building ran away from state workers? A 15-year-old girl was fatally struck by a minivan; a 17-year-old suffered an injury to her arm.

No child, already in dire straits that prompted state custody in the first place, should be living in offices — or motels or shelters, for that matter. They’re not equipped for the care and counseling of troubled teens.

Still, 65 kids spent two or more nights in one of these ad hoc places in March, a big spike from 29 in February.

And records kept by The Dallas Morning News show that for the first seven months of the fiscal year, 314 children were kept in this temporary housing, up from 305 in the entire last fiscal year.

That’s unacceptable.

We understand that CPS has struggled for a decade to find enough foster-care providers willing to take certain kids. Bills working their way through this legislative session smartly aim at systemic changes to improve capacity.

But these alarming numbers call for quicker fixes.

Patrick Crimmins, spokesman for CPS’ parent agency Family and Protective Services, points to stopgap measures underway such as recruiting drives with faith-based agency to bring on more foster care families. And Cecilia Abbott, Gov. Greg Abbott’s wife, is appealing for volunteers to become temporary helpers for existing foster parents.

And it’s time lawmakers get over whatever reservations they have for immediately expanding a promising pilot being used in Tarrant and six nearby counties that names a lead contractor for an area to recruit more foster homes and better coordinate placement and services closer to home.

CPS has shown some recent positive signs of improvement. For example, it was encouraging news this month that workers were making more timely visits to needy kids and that fewer workers are quitting.

Lawmakers rightly declared it outrageous that some kids weren’t even being checked on and pumped in $142.4 million in emergency money to hire more workers and give others raises.

Fixing this shortage of foster care beds is just as urgent.

No one wants another tragedy on their hands, like another kid sneaking out from an inappropriate setting. One girl losing her life is more than enough.