Monday, March 2, 2015

SENIORS AND CHILDREN–-TEXAS’ SHAME

Recently the AARP, probably the largest advocacy group for senior citizens, declared Texas as having the worst nursing homes in the United States.  There are several reasons, most of which are strictly political.  The stubborn refusal of our leadership to accept the several billions of dollars offered by the federal government to provide adequate health care for our citizens is probably the biggest reason.  

In all probability, the second biggest reason our elderly in Texas are mistreated is simply that politicians are not taking the time to go take a firsthand look at how the elderly in Texas exist.  I confess I, too, have probably turned a blind eye too long to the plight of seniors in Texas.  Having a mother who recently turned 100 and dealing with her everyday problems has made me acutely aware of the sorry state of life for elderly Texans.  

If you have not visited a nursing home recently, you should.  If you or your parents live long enough, in all probability, one of you will end up in such an institution.  Most Americans--and particularly Texans--seldom have the resources to pay for first-class care and must rely on Medicaid to provide themselves with food, shelter and care in their declining years.  While some nursing home operators manage to eke out a profit, in most cases the nursing homes which rely on public assistance remain on the edge of bankruptcy. 

I doubt seriously if a majority of members of the State Legislature realize, for example, that our state does not even recognize Alzheimer’s as a disease.  Alzheimer patients do not generate any greater assistance when housed in a nursing home than someone who has simply grown old.  Unfortunately, Alzheimer patients require almost constant care which, in turn, requires a greater level of funding than for ordinary elderly patients.

At the other end of the life continuum, Texas children born into poverty suffer fates similar to our elderly.  A child advocacy group called Children At Risk recently reported that 1/4 of the children in Houston live in poverty.  Other studies have shown many poor children in Texas (in the thousands) go to bed hungry every night.  Again, the steadfast refusal of our Governor, Lt. Governor and legislative leadership to accept the benefits available under the Affordable Care Act forces Texas to remain the state with the most uninsured population.  

So-called tort reform protecting doctors, hospitals, clinics and any other medical provider with immunity from suit--no matter how egregious their misconduct--has also not produced the results promised.  Medical expenses are higher than when tort reform was passed, and the supply of doctors per thousand citizens in Texas has not improved greatly.  While our ex-governor was running for president and boasted about economic victories in Texas, he ignored the fact that health care for children in Texas ranks no better than fifth from the bottom.


I would like to believe all Texans have a conscience.  It is a fact that poor health care for children will lead to greater public expenditures in the long run.  If for no other reason than humanitarian empathy for children who are less fortunate, the facts about poor health care for children should drive us into a continuous  dialogue with our Legislature to do what is necessary to see that our children and grandparents do not suffer. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

FRIVOLOUS HYPOCRISY

Critics of lawyers and proponents of tort reform have constantly decried frivolous lawsuits.  They cite as an example of a frivolous lawsuit the lady in California who had her legs and lower part of her body scalded by superheated coffee sold by McDonald’s.  Those who rant about this situation as a frivolous lawsuit fail always to disclose the fact the water was heated to about 3-4 times what is necessary to brew coffee because McDonald’s discovered that by super-heating they could save a few pennies on buying coffee grounds.

The hypocrisy in tort reform about frivolous lawsuits is that they ignore frivolous defenses.  The people of Texas were sold a bill of goods when they were told that by limiting recovery on medical malpractice claims they would lower their doctor bills.  It hasn’t happened. 

Neither have people been informed of the many impediments placed on securing a jury trial against a medical practitioner or provider.  Some have reached the point of being just plain silly.

The medical malpractice laws passed by the Legislature have included a provision that before you are able to sue a doctor, hospital or other provider of medical services, you must obtain an affidavit from a practitioner in the same field certifying that the medical misconduct complained of fails to meet the standard of care for medical services.  Some medical providers are now trying to use this dodge in what I consider an absolutely frivolous defense. 

A recent case filed in Jefferson County sued a hospital because a pastor’s wife who was visiting the hospital to call on sick parishioners slipped and fell on food dropped on the floor near a space rented from the hospital to provide food service.  The rented space and the business operating there had absolutely nothing to do with medical care.  Two witnesses who had observed the substance on the floor had called and urged housekeeping to clean it up before someone had an accident.  

Unfortunately, the lady who was visiting the hospital did slip and fall and had over $30,000 worth of medical bills.  She is now left with the bills and a bad back.  The hospital, in response to the lawsuit, claimed the lady’s case should be dismissed on the grounds she hadn’t provided an affidavit saying that maintaining a clean floor in the hospital space rented for profit did not meet the standard of care.  Unfortunately, no affidavit was filed on behalf of the lady because the lady couldn’t find a doctor who also had experience with janitorial services in a hospital. 


The silliness goes even further.  

Recently, a doctor who also raised cattle was negligent in allowing his livestock to roam free and not be adequately restrained or penned up.  A motorist collided with the doctor’s cow and now the doctor wants to have the case dismissed because the doctor claims that while attending his medical duties he didn’t have time to keep his cow in the pen.  Texas rules of procedure provide that frivolous pleadings can be sanctioned, and the court can award attorney’s fees or impose other penalties for those offering frivolous matters to the court.  

You can bet the doctor who has imposed this silly defense will not be sanctioned.  In addition, I wouldn’t take bets on whether or not the current Supreme Court of Texas will allow such a stupid defense to stand.

Friday, February 6, 2015

AMERICAN GOVERNMENT FOR SALE

Since the United States Supreme Court has ruled corporations are people and money is speech, it appears more than ever American politics is up for grabs based on money.  Several months ago I wrote an article recommending that a great investment money-wise was to give a large contribution in the range of $100,000 to $200,000 to Rick Perry.  

In hindsight, with the current scandals of multi-million dollar, no-bid contracts and other giveaways by the Perry administration of millions to supporters, it seems my financial advice was right on point.  More and more evidence is being uncovered that there was a direct connection between awards from various slush funds of taxpayer money and contributions from the beneficiaries of those awards to Perry’s various campaigns.  

The Koch brothers now have revealed they intend to spend about $900 million on the coming presidential election.  They classify their commitment of nearly a billion dollars as an investment.  Last time I checked, business folks expect a profitable return from any investment they make.  The larger the investment, the larger return they expect.

Ordinary folks, whether Republican or Democrat, should pause thoughtfully to consider whether or not the trend of more and more money that is kept more and more secret is in the interest of democracy.  More specifically, middle class working folks should consider whether or not it is in their interest.  If money talks, do you really believe if you are an “average Joe” working for an hourly wage that you can be heard as well as a $900 million contribution?

More and more hypocrisy and money are drowning out basic American values--particularly many values which are trumpeted by conservatives.  A glaring example is the case of Denton, Texas, where a grassroots movement forced the city to adopt an anti-fracking ordinance.  Earth tremors, polluting water supplies–even to the extent of being able to light a fire on water from your water well–drove citizens to demand accountability of the oil companies.  

Because of massive lobbying, expenditures and oil company largess to our state leaders, it is very likely the Legislature will push through a measure disallowing cities to protect their citizens as did the city of Denton.  Most defenders of unlimited, secret spending and favoring national and state measures over local ones are supported by big-money efforts and lobbying.  To influence elections is bad enough, but even worse is the allowance of massive spending without revealing the sources.  

Even though the Koch brothers have announced their intention to spend $900 million, it will be spent in such a way--through 501c(3) corporations or volunteer groups with high-sounding names--the average citizen will never know from whence came the massive loads of money to influence the election of their leaders.  The will of the public in this regard is pretty much being ignored. 


The Federal Election Commission has recently called for comments on proposals to put limits on secrecy and the way huge money donors can spend their money.  Even though 75% of the comments favor restrictions, openness and disclosure, I will wager that few, if any, of these measures will be adopted-- continuing the Supreme Court mandate that we offer our political leadership for sale.

Friday, January 30, 2015

LISTEN TO HARRY TRUMAN

In his oral biography, Harry Truman stated that any political leader should be a student of history so as to not continue to commit past mistakes. 

This may come as a surprise to many of you, but there is one area in which I agree with many Tea Party members. Recently Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, made the mistake of not remembering past mistakes -- to the detriment of America and its citizens.

Only a few years ago America’s entire financial system was teetering on the brink of collapse, primarily because of greed by big banks, big lenders and lack of oversight by the government. Lack of oversight allowed lenders and investors to package home loans. This was done without regard to the quality of loans and without fully vetting the borrowers. In fact, many of the packages contained loans never examined by a real bank official or regulatory investigator.  Many were phony packages included along with a few that were legitimate. 

When revealed, the perpetrators of these misadventures began the cry that the banks were too big to be allowed to fail, and that failure of our institutions would drive America into a recession or depression much like the 1920's. In all probability, we, the people of America, had little or no choice but to pony-up the billions of dollars to bail these folks out. As a result of saving Wall Street--and leaving Main Street citizens to fend for themselves--many oversight laws and regulations were re-instituted to prevent the same calamity from occurring again.

But then, on the eve of a lame-duck session of Congress about to depart for Christmas vacation, Republicans and Democrats alike yielded to lobbyists, allowing lobbyists for big firms to even write the law allowing the continuation of many of the practices which led us to the brink of disaster a few years ago. Provisions which remove the difference between banks and derivative trading banks were slipped into a “must pass” spending bill which will preserve essential government services. Mortgage giants and mega-loan companies making home loans and auto loans were allowed by these provisions to ignore formal standards about credit worthiness of would-be homeowners or big car buyers.

As an old, experienced and wise traditional banker once told me, “When you make a loan to someone who cannot afford it, you do a disservice to the borrower and to the bank.” 

In this case, Congress appears to be doing a disservice not only to the borrowers who can’t afford it, but to the future of America, and to our children and grandchildren who will receive the bill for our Congress’ folly.

Friday, January 16, 2015

TORTURE

Torture is commonly defined by a standard dictionary as inflicting severe pain or punishment in order to force the person receiving the pain to either disclose something or do something required by the person inflicting the pain. A more modern definition as found in Wikipedia describes torture as severe pain, either physical or psychological. The Archaic definition is found in Black’s Law Dictionary as “Inflicting severe or violent pain in order to secure a confession or the names of accomplices.” 

I am appalled at two things: The apparent acceptance of the use of torture by a majority of American citizens, and the fact that the former Vice-President of the United States has no shame or regard for humanity, favoring the use of torture so long as it accomplishes the ends favored by him.

Since the formation of America, torture has been considered a criminal act. Torture for thousands of years has typically been used as a method of obtaining information, whether true or false. I recall as a young man discussing the treatment of prisoners with a then-deputy sheriff. This officer of the law bragged to me that, given a slap-jack and enough time, he could make a prisoner confess to murdering Lincoln. If nothing else, this alone demonstrates why torture should not be used. Given enough pain, an ordinary person would generally admit to almost anything rather than continue to endure the infliction of pain and discomfort.

The shocking thing about Vice-President Cheney is that he seems to adopt the same attitude as adopted by the leaders of the Nazi movement prior to WWII–-that is, "the ends justify the means." Cheney, in his defensive position, argues that the perpetrators of torture should not be punished because they were basically ordered to do so by their superiors. This same argument was made in an attempt to defend misconduct by the Nazi war criminals who were tried and hanged after WWII. To me, Mr. Cheney is an evil person with no regard for humanity or the image of America if it accomplishes his purposes at the moment.

Another common argument put forth in defense of the use of torture by American operatives is that things like water-boarding are, in fact, used as a part of training on our own people.  There is, however, a vast difference in water-boarding as a part of training and water-boarding to obtain information from a prisoner. In training the person receiving the water-boarding is keenly aware that there is not an attempt to take his life. The opposite is true of a prisoner being subjected to water torture in that the whole operation is designed to make him or her believe their life is about to end via drowning.

International protocols, even for war, dictate that torture not be used. America should not use torture if Americans truly believe such policy as the Geneva Convention constitute valid, international law.

There are other problems with torture. First, the respect for humanity itself should be honored. Second, torture seldom produces valuable, reliable information. However, the third and most important reason torture should not be used on our enemies or prisoners is what it will lead to. Once Americans buy into the attitude of 'what does it matter if these people were guilty anyway,' we are one step away from approving its use in the American criminal system.  

In other words, if a person committed murder, rape, robbery or kidnapping, what does it hurt if we inflict a little pain on that person to obtain a confession?  This wholly departs from our constitutional notion that persons are innocent until proven guilty.  

The recent report on torture indicates there were multiple people tortured to no avail and later proven innocent.  As a parent, can you imagine having your child hung by his or her arms for 48 hours in order to obtain a confession?  Or water-boarding a young person to solve a suspected crime?  I wholeheartedly believe that we, as Americans, are better than that–or should be.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Citizen Input in Law Enforcement

Recent events have brought to the forefront a great nationwide debate about conduct of police officers. There have been numerous suggestions how to hold police more accountable in their role to serve and protect. These suggestions range from changing the grand jury system to requiring special prosecutors when a police officer is accused of serious misconduct to simply requiring automatic indictment and trial of any police officer accused of abusing or taking the life of a citizen.

I don’t deny there are bad actors in every profession, mine included. It has been my experience that, short of murder, the first offense punishment for a peace officer having committed some minor crime is that he must resign his job and go to work for another police agency somewhere else. While I say it somewhat tongue in cheek, too often it has proven true. I have personal knowledge, for example, of two police officers who were caught red-handed hauling liquor from a bar at 2:00 AM. They were not fired but given the opportunity to resign. They soon became employed in a city not 20 miles away from where they had formerly worked.

While a great deal of attention becomes focused on peace officers--particularly when there is serious injury or death, and it is alleged the peace officer was guilty of wrongdoing--little, if anything, comes of lesser complaints by the public. About all a citizen can do about rudeness or downright bad conduct on the part of a policeman is to complain to that policeman’s superior.  In more cases than not, it results in a slap on the wrist and nothing more.

To deal with such conduct, in the past there has been a hue and cry to create police commissions made up of lay people. Several communities and several states have such bodies. Some work and some don’t. Unfortunately, citizen oversight committees too often become highly political and divisive for the community.

I think I have a better idea. Texas has an entity known as the Texas Commission on Law
Enforcement. This agency is made up of 9 board members and a small staff. It is the agency in Texas that issues the certification allowing a person to be a peace officer. It has limited authority basically allowing only investigation of serious complaints, giving tests, determining qualifications to be certified as a peace officer, and--in rare occasions--removing the certification from a person currently serving as a peace officer. My idea would provide citizens an avenue of complaint other than simply complaining to the sheriff about his deputies, or the chief about his police officers.

My plan would allow a citizen who was offended, or who believed he or she was abused by a peace officer--even in a matter circumstance--to file a complaint with the supervising officer of that law enforcement person and give them an opportunity to resolve or remedy the situation. If a citizen were not satisfied with the result, the citizen could then file a complaint with the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement who could conduct an investigation and hearing and be armed by the Legislature with authority to administer a large range of remedies--from dismissal as a peace officer to a reprimand or temporary suspension.

The Legislature would be required to grant more funding to the agency--to allow an enlarged investigatory staff and provide hearing officers--and to give the authority of the wide range of remedies available to address misconduct or bad behavior by a police officer.

This procedure could alleviate frustration of citizens who feel they have no real voice in addressing the behavior of law enforcement people. It would also remove it from local politics and take it out of the hands of a county prosecutor or district attorney who is criticized for not being fair toward the people he or she works with every day.

Current citizen frustration in being unable to have their complaints heard about the conduct of law enforcement has led to numerous frivolous lawsuits, or lawsuits with merit, which in turn costs cities and counties millions of dollars. This plan would have the effect of creating an administrative remedy to avoid misunderstandings, to weed out folks who have no business being law enforcement officers, and to empower ordinary citizens who should be the objective of a peace officer’s mission to protect and defend.


While we hear of the major allegations of misconduct such as shooting an unarmed citizen, addressing minor areas of misconduct should lead to better policing and more faith in our policing agencies on the part of citizens.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

An Idea For Productivity

Having watched the appropriations process of the state for many years, I have an idea that I believe would improve productivity and save money.  The current system of appropriation provides little incentive for managers in various positions throughout the state to save money.  Zero-based budgeting sounds great, but it encourages department heads and various institutions to spend every penny they are appropriated.  

Zero-based budgeting simply means the committee responsible for appropriations requires each entity seeking an appropriation to justify their budget from the ground up—starting with zero.  If an agency ends up with a large balance left in their budget at the end of the fiscal year, their only reward is perhaps a slight pat on the back while the balance of their budget simply disappears back into the state treasury.  It is quite likely their savings will subsequently be appropriated to some agency or entity which was not as wise with their productivity or expenditures.

Because of the fact that in Texas one Legislature can’t bind a subsequent Legislature, the budget must be appropriated every two years.  There’s no authority for any agency or department to keep unspent monies from the year before. Although not binding, a statutory policy relating to unspent appropriations (agency by agency) could provide incentive to save and to enhance productivity.

The plan would work like this.  First of all, as an example, managers or department heads would be able to reduce the number of employees with the option of granting pay raises to their remaining employees when one employee retired or was laid off.  The manager could offer the incentive of higher pay if the remaining employees could increase their productivity.  In other words, “If you’re willing to work a little harder, I can pay you a little more with the money not spent for the employee who was leaving.”  This system has proven very efficient in private industry.  Crews which work by the piece are often given the option of shouldering a little more responsibility for a little more pay rather than simply adding another employee.

Our state colleges are another example.  College administrators are encouraged to spend every penny they are appropriated because to do otherwise would indicate they didn’t need what they got.  If we would somehow allow colleges to maintain savings which they institute through better efficiency, it would encourage thriftiness, as well as allow the colleges to build up a little reserve fund for special projects which are constantly arising in the world of higher education. 

In order for the system to work, however, it would require an audit of responsibility on the part of the state assuring the spending of budget surpluses were in fact enhancing the efficiency of the institution or department.  As for colleges, this could easily be overseen by the college coordinating board which regularly audits expenditures of colleges and sets formulas for the appropriations.  The Legislative Budget Board and staff of the Senate Finance Committee and House Appropriations Committee could easily determine whether or not standards were met by department heads.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Legislature is Upon Us

As provided for by our Texas Constitution, the Legislature will convene in regular session at high
noon on the second Tuesday of January in the coming odd-numbered year.  The Secretary of State will open the session.  The House will then proceed to select a Speaker, and we're off on another legislative adventure.

The Tea Party and far right-wing members of the House have threatened to try to overturn speaker Straus.  It appears, however, that Straus' reelection as Speaker of the House is safe. Numerous conservative Republicans have denounced the effort to field a Tea Party candidate against him on the grounds there is not enough support to do so, and they do not want to alienate the Speaker the first thing in a session.  Speaker Straus will proceed then, after his election, to name committees and committee chairs.  The power of the Speaker, once elected, is statutory--and he is given the right to control the flow of legislation through his committees and committee chairs.

Straus has a reputation for an evenhanded method of presiding over the House and is expected to continue in that posture.  The unusual thing about this session, however, is that, normally, the Senate is the more pliable body, softening often radical views. This time it appears there will be a role reversal in this respect.

On the Senate side this session things will be somewhat delayed.  The incoming Lt. Governor-elect will not be sworn in until 10 days after the session begins.  Out-going Lt. Governor Dewhurst will preside opening day.  The Senate will probably adopt rules early, but committee assignments will wait on the new Lt. Governor.

The Lt. Governor traditionally presides over the Texas Senate.  Texas is somewhat different from most other states in that the office of Lt. Governor in most states is generally ceremonial.  There is no statutory provision that the Lt. Governor will preside, name committees, or control the flow of legislation.  In most states the presiding officer is the person who is leader of the majority.  Texas' Lt. Governor fills this position only as a result of the rules of the Senate which can be changed at any time by a majority vote. There is some talk that if Dan Patrick, incoming Lt. Governor-elect, gets too heavy handed, there are those who would propose relegating him to the ceremonial role of Lt. Governor and hand the power of a presiding officer to some senator representing the majority party in the Senate.

One big fight which for a while seemed to be brewing was a fight over whether or not to abolish the two-thirds rule which has been prevalent in the Senate for almost 100 years.  This rule simply provides that some nominal bill is placed at the head of the calendar and any other bill must survive a motion to take it up out of the regular order which requires a 2/3 vote.  In the past the Senate has departed from this tradition, but only one or two times.  Lately, the observers in Austin feel that the incoming Lt. Governor has backed off from his position about abolishing this rule.  Although I once believed the two-thirds rule to be somewhat un-democratic, after serving in the Senate for a few years, I deemed it a good and workable provision in that it requires rational and cooperative conduct among the members of that body.

Education is always one of the hot issues in the Legislature because of it being a big-money issue.  The Legislature will be particularly focused on it this session in lieu of the court decision finding the Texas system of funding public education unconstitutional.  While the Legislature will meet for the first time in recent years with a surplus, the surplus will not be near enough to cure the funding problems of public education.

Water and highways will be two other huge issues.  In order to keep the pledge of no new taxes, recent legislators have conned the people into voting for a constitutional amendment allowing the state to go in debt for highways.  We currently owe about $29 billion for bonds issued for highways in Texas.  Although a recent constitutional amendment, Proposition One, has passed which would provide about a $1.5 billion dollars be placed into the highway fund from the Rainy Day Fund, it is not nearly enough money to even keep up with maintenance of the Texas highway system, let alone provide money for new projects.

This will keep the Legislature in somewhat of a bind in view of a public dissatisfaction with construction of toll roads--not the least of which is the fact that Texas law currently gives the right of eminent domain (taking your property whether you want to sell it or not) to foreign corporations to build profitable toll roads throughout Texas.

Legislation about guns is always a headline grabber in the state Legislature.  The big battle this session will be whether or not there can be open carry of guns.  Most police forces oppose the measure.  The NRA and other gun groups are somewhat less than united behind the measure--but it would be surprising if the measure did not pass the gun-conscious Texas Legislature.

For those of us who are political junkies, the coming legislative session will offer interesting reading in the newspaper and sometimes even amusing scenarios.  There have been over 1,500 bills introduced and more to come. Some bills are serious and need consideration.  Others are frivolous, and many are introduced merely for publicity.  Representative Four Price from West Texas has introduced 31 measures, most of which do little or nothing for the state.  A good example of bad legislation is Price's resolution to create a commemorative Ronald Reagan Day in Texas.

There are numerous ways the average Texas citizen can keep informed of what is happening in the Legislature.  All of us should take full advantage of these resources.  Just remember.  While the Legislature is in session what you don't know can certainly hurt you.

Monday, November 17, 2014

WHAT'S A LITTLE CANCER COMPARED TO A NICE PROFIT?

Fortunately or unfortunately I’m cursed with a long memory.  I remember growing up as a child in Port Arthur, Texas, at a time when newcomers to our town were repelled by the awful smell emanating from the various plants around Port Arthur.  Most grownups would simply pass it off as saying it’s the smell of money.  Some odors were intolerable such as that drifting in from the pogie plant near Sabine Pass.  It was literally so bad it would make you throw up if you had to endure it for very long.  

Also, in the early history of Port Arthur, we were the cancer capitol of Texas. And, there were more children's leukemia cases in Jefferson County than any other county in the state. 

I have a vivid recollection of two of my first cousins, who lived in the shadow of one of our major refineries, suffering asthma attacks.  As a young child, it was horrifying to me because at times it appeared that my cousins would die before my very eyes.  It is hard for me to believe that any parent who would witness such an attack in one of his or her children could favor deregulation of industry.  Eventually, my cousins moved away from Port Arthur to the country where one of them enjoyed such good health that he became an all-state basketball player.

When I listen to politicians complaining about governmental regulations, I wonder how many of them would rather have cancer than regulatory mechanisms which wouldhelp clean up our atmosphere.  I wonder how many of our hourly workers, who have voted Republican, would like to do away with the regulations which forced many of the industries to keep them safe on their jobs.  Perhaps had strict regulations been adhered to, the people who recently died of the gas exposure at the DuPont plant here in Texas would not have died.

I had a close relative die of leukemia from exposure to Benzine at one of the plants.  Another uncle died needlessly in an explosion which easily could have been prevented by a few regulations.  My father died of cancer after 40 years in one of the refineries.  I would like to ask these politicians who carp about regulations and wanting to deregulate various industries whether or not they would like to go back to the good old days.  

I’m sure being able to dispose industrial waste by simply dumping it into our rivers was quite profitable for the companies at that time--but it also made the fish in the Neches and Sabine inedible.  It killed the oyster beds which had been growing on the North end of Sabine Lake for many, many years.  Now, because of regulations, the Neches and Sabine are fairly poison free, and the oyster beds in Lake Sabine have returned.

I doubt seriously if the average Texan has ever been intimately acquainted with the air quality permitting process of an industry.  Many environmentalists in Texas refer to the process as licensing pollutants.  The air quality permits in fact determine the number of tons of harmful material which can be released into the atmosphere.  Most of the Republican squawking about over-regulation relates to environmental quality and workplace safety.

Opposition to government regulation in most cases is simply about money.  Unfortunately, too many money-hungry folks would pay no heed whatsoever to a clean environment--nor to what a dirty one does to us all--if it meant making a bigger profit.  So most of the squawking about over-regulation is not about bad government; it’s really about money. 


Were I completely in charge of the world, I would allow some companies to operate wholly without any environmental regulation whatsoever, but I would require their owners and managers to live within the perimeters of the company workplace.  I wonder why more big-wigs of national companies do not choose to live next door to their plants?  

In fact, if the truth be known, I would bet few, if any, of the local plant mangers live next door to the plants they manage. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Money Talks

If according to the United States Supreme Court, money is speech, it speaks very loudly.  In fact, it probably speaks at a greater volume than any human voice can muster.  Tip O'Neill, a former Speaker of the United States Congress, once said that money is the mother's milk of politics.  If anyone doubts that money is a large factor in elections, and growing, one only needs to view the most recent election, both nationally and statewide. 

When I ran for office in 1962, I ran a primary election, a run-off election in the primary and a general election and spent less than $5,000 in a county-wide race in Jefferson County.  Even at that time, I was outspent about three to one by my opponents.  Luckily for me, I could muster about 100 volunteers on short notice to go out and put up signs and campaign for me.  Apparently the role of volunteers is diminishing and the role of money is increasing.  If you examine the recent Governor's race in Texas, Democrats allegedly had about 3,400 volunteers on the ground working diligently, attempting to get out the vote.  Wendy Davis, Democratic nominee, although able to raise a considerable amount of money, was outspent more than two to one and was defeated by a rather large margin.

 Nationally, many pundits attribute the drubbing of the Democrats to the fact that billions of dollars was spent on behalf of Republican candidates who created an incessant television and radio message that all the ills of American Democracy should be laid at the foot of Barack Obama--along with the cry that the Democratic nominee for the Senate or House of Representatives was simply a clone for Obama.  Unlimited spending unleashed by the United States Supreme Court has made campaign spending obscene.  In some areas, so many TV spots were purchased that ordinary advertisers could not get their business advertising aired on local television stations.

Unlimited spending coupled with voter apathy in my opinion is a real danger to the democratic process.  In Texas, less than a third of the registered voters have decided who will make the laws which we will all be subject to in the next two to four years.  The vast majority of the winners in this election were supported with contributions in the millions.  What is worse, due to the Republican United States Supreme Court, we have no idea who donated most of this money. 

If you really believe that money does not make a difference, and if you have never given a contribution to a candidate for the US Senate, try picking up the phone and calling your United States senator and ask for a call back.  It will amaze me if you are able to speak to that official.  On the other hand, I would wager the fellow who gave a $100,000 contribution in the recent election to support that U.S. Senator, either Cruz or Cornyn, would get a call back before the sun goes down.  The point is--money makes a difference and unfortunately, of late, money seems to mean more than volunteer political operatives on the ground.


I believe it to be a pending tragedy for our Republic that 60% of registered voters in the State of Texas fail to vote.  Even fewer of our concerned citizens took the time to get out and campaign for a candidate of their choice.  There are two things we, as citizens, should do.  First we should shame our fellow citizens who didn't vote, and who are apparently contemptuous of the precious right to vote and select our leaders.  Second, we should demand our elected officials to provide at least transparency in political contributions.  If, because of the Citizens United decision of our US Supreme Court, we cannot limit the amount of money that the ultra-rich contribute to buy the election, at least we could have a provision which provides the names of the purchasers.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

No New Taxes Is Not Working For Texas

The top priorities of state government, at least in Texas, are education, medical care for children, medical care for the elderly and poor, highways and law enforcement.

The no new tax strategy in place in Texas since the early 90's is not serving us well. Education in Texas has suffered, along with taxpayers, as a result of our state leadership’s aversion to even discussing taxes. One of the biggest pieces of evidence of how Texans have been hurt was the recent reduction in funding of education by $5.4 billion dollars. This cut, to avoid even discussing taxes, cost us the loss of thousands of teachers, creation of crowded classrooms for our children, and the second worst scores on college entrance exams by Texans in a decade. Tuition, paid by students and their parents in Texas, has more than tripled in the last few years preventing many talented Texans from reaching their potential.

Obstinacy in the health care field is costing Texas taxpayers in many ways. A prime example of how ignoring health care in Texas costs taxpayers can be demonstrated by the effects of diabetes. An aggressive program of examination, recognition and care could have many years ago saved Texas untold millions. Ignoring the effects of diabetes alone has caused taxpayers to pay for blindness, amputations, and kidney dialysis to the point that the cost for these items has more than quadrupled in the past two decades. To make matters worse, our governor has caused us to leave billions for health care on the table, probably only to burnish his credentials as a leading conservative on which to run for governor. The use of emergency rooms by uninsured poor continues to drive up our hospital costs.

Before Republicans took the helm of our ship of state under its control, Texas had highways among the best in the nation and no debt. Now, about two decades later, under the no new tax mantra, Texas has highway infrastructure which can’t be maintained, bridges that are in danger of falling, Texans wasting millions if not billions sitting in traffic jams throughout the state and about $30 billion in debt. Adding insult to injury, Texas now has hundreds of miles of highways for which Texans must pay to travel while foreign corporations reap financial rewards for the Texas toll roads brought about by no new taxes. The proposed proposition on the ballot will help, but it is about like putting a band aid on a bleeding artery.

Even law enforcement has taken the hickey because of our legislature’s desperate attempts to avoid the subject of taxes and yet make provision for essential services of state government. At one time, retired state troopers had an adequately funded retirement by the use of the funds earned by placing a new kind of sticker on your windshield. Those funds now have been swallowed up by the general fund, leaving inadequate retirement benefits for many of our state law enforcement.

We should remember lessons of history. I remember a time when tuberculosis was epidemic in the United States. At that time the subject of tuberculosis could not be discussed in polite company. The word was taboo just as any discussion of taxes is now taboo for Texas politicians. Tuberculosis was only conquered once it was brought from the shadows for a reasonable and rational discussion. The same problem persists in Texas. No new taxes has become such a mantra for some segments of our population that we can’t even talk about taxes during election time. It seems that so long as you stick taxpayers without calling it a tax, it’s okay. There have been increases in almost every fee that exists in our state from hunting licenses to court costs.

By ignoring the state’s responsibility to form an efficient system of public education, our legislature has pushed off on homeowners and business owners higher and higher property taxes. Our property tax has gone from near the bottom in the 1960's to second from the top today. We are faced with a court decision that our system of funding public education is unconstitutional, and we lead the nation in citizens without adequate medical insurance.


Essential services cannot be delivered without tax support. It is about time in Texas we had a frank public discussion about what type of tax would serve Texas best. As I have said before, while no new taxes may be a great political slogan, it says nothing about the bad old taxes that don't work anymore.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Education

There is ample evidence the claims of our current Governor, Attorney General and Chairman of the Senate Education Committee about education are absolutely not true.  Governor Rick Perry, Attorney General Greg Abbott and Senate Education Committee Chair Dan Patrick claim slashing funds for public education by 5 billion dollars did not harm education in Texas.  In fact they claim Texas actually had an increase in funding in the past two legislative sessions.

Between the miserliness of our state-wide elected leaders and misplaced concern by our State Board of Education, children’s education in Texas is being shortchanged.  There is ample evidence of Texas children falling behind the nation and the world in educational excellence.

Recently, both The Dallas Morning News and Austin American Statesman reported the findings of the National College Board concerning SAT scores to be alarming. Texas students’ scores on the SAT, a recognized college entrance exam, dropped to the second lowest point in two decades.  The national average of an adequate score was 42.6%.  The state score recently was 33.9%.  For a long time responsible educators have widely viewed the SAT scores as one of the most valuable measures of whether or not students are receiving quality education prior to college entrance.

The massive slashing of public education funds by the state Legislature resulted in the loss of 11,000 teachers, many of whom left the profession.  Balancing the budget on the backs of Texas’ school children not only was callous, but showed a woeful lack of vision for the future.  Five billion dollars was slashed from public education while we had nine billion in a bank account for Texas emergencies.  If continuing to furnish a decent education to our children is not an emergency, I would like to hear what is.

One of the favorite standard sayings of right-wing conservatives is that you can’t fix education by throwing money at it.  My immediate response is how do you know?  We have never tried. 

While I agree money in order to deliver a decent education is not the only factor, quality education cannot be delivered without it.  For about fifteen years Republican conservatives in the state Legislature have maintained that gimmicks and quirks could fix education and deliver quality schooling which would benefit future economic growth and prosperity for Texans.  It obviously has not proven true.  

Unfortunately, our State Board continues to be more preoccupied with politics, religion, and their own private agendas–even in choosing textbooks–than in delivering a quality product for future generations of Texans.  The Republican-dominated Board has failed miserably to be a force for advocating quality education and has never advocated adequate funding.  A judge in Austin has recently ruled the level of funding for public education has reached the point of making the entire system unconstitutional.  This is not a federal mandate, but a requirement of Texas’ own constitution put in place by our forefathers who had the vision to revere education.


If you think money for teachers is not that important, consider a study done in the mid-nineties by the Senate Education Committee staff.  A broad range of school districts–small, large, rural, urban– were surveyed, personally contacting the top ten graduates from a high school in each type of district.  They were questioned as to whether or not they would consider a career in teaching.  Fewer than 1 in 10 said they would even consider it, primarily because their options for better pay lay elsewhere.  

And consider the findings of the Perot Committee.  After a nationwide study it became very evident that class size had a dramatic impact on the learning of students being taught.  Even though it was determined a 15:1 teacher/pupil ratio was ideal, money required a compromise of 22:1 as a teacher/pupil ratio to be mandated by Texas.  Even the compromise number has been further compromised by politicians who care more about bragging about "no new taxes" than ensuring a bright future for the Texas economy and our children.  

If we Texans continue to elect those who are guilty of robbing our future generations of decent educational opportunities, we will reap what we sow.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Are You a Sucker?

If you work with your hands by the hour and consider yourself a member of the working middle class, and you vote Republican, you are a sucker. The Republican Party in Texas has done much harm to working class Texans.

Unfortunately, too many of my working friends have bought into the hypocritical, Republican rhetoric.  Their party line is: We are more responsible financially, keep you taxes low, keep illegal aliens from being paid for not working and stealing your jobs, and hold the line on any new taxes.

When Democrats last controlled the State Legislature, Texas had no indebtedness.  In fact our Constitution prevented borrowing money for which taxpayers would be responsible in coming years.  We now owe over 20 billion dollars just for roads mainly because Republican legislators refused to assume the responsibility of paying as we build new roads.

If you work for a living, consider the following things:

1. Texas leads the nation in workplace deaths, yet it has no safety program.

2. Although workers in Texas have the greatest exposure to injury or death, legislators have steadfastly refused to make workers’ compensation mandatory for Texas employers.

3. Caving in to big money lobbyists, the State Legislature has created a system of workers’ compensation whereby insurance companies and employers are almost always represented by lawyers; and yet it is difficult, if not impossible, for an injured worker to find legal representation. The system designed by big money interest in Texas prevents, in most cases, an attorney representing an injured worker from receiving a fee.

4. CEOs in Texas are among the highest paid corporate managers in the United States.  Several CEOs of companies in Texas receive over $50 million per year as their salary; while workers in Texas receive an average of $11,000 a year.  Texas leads the nation in lowest paid workforce.

5. The tax policy in Texas is among the most regressive in the United States.  While we boast of having no state income tax, our sales tax is near the top; our property tax on our homes is in the top five. Almost every form of license or permit is taxed; the ability to file for a divorce in Texas bears one of the heaviest taxes around.  There is even a tax on traffic fines.  The great tax policy fostered by Republican legislators gives oil companies a rebate, gives big corporations a tax break, and taxes country clubs at a lesser rate than your home is taxed.

If you think this is a policy which helps you as a working man or woman, think again.  Don’t be a sucker.