The Dallas Morning News. April 19, 2013.
Lesson's form West disaster
The potential for the widespread devastation that occurred in West should have been foreseen, especially given the known destructive power of chemical fertilizers containing volatile ammonia-based compounds. Ammonium nitrate, which was stored at the West Fertilizer Co., is what set off the nation's worst industrial accident in 1947 in Texas City and brought down the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in a 1995 bombing.
In small rural communities, developers and business owners sometimes receive less-than-rigorous oversight from local officials and regulators when it comes to establishing safety buffers to protect housing and schools from industrial dangers. Decision-making regarding the top priority — safety — can be complicated by businesses' community ties, lifelong friendships and residents' job opportunities.
Grain elevators and fertilizer tanks may conjure up images of lush crop fields and peaceful agrarian settings, but the storage tanks holding chemical ingredients are literal powder kegs if mishandled. Not only can they explode, they can leak poisonous gases and pose serious health threats to nearby residents.
West is hardly alone; rural communities across the country have similar arrangements. Only two years ago, nearby Waxahachie was rattled by a Magnablend chemical-mixing plant explosion that forced 1,000 residents to evacuate. That town's residents say that environmental repercussions persist today. Magnablend maintains a chemical warehouse nestled in a residential Waxahachie neighborhood, surrounded by houses and a trailer park as close as 100 feet away.
Even in big cities like Dallas, a similar pattern exists. No one thought about the dangers of placing an acetylene-tank storage site on the outskirts of downtown until the site blew up in 2007.
West Fertilizer has been in business for 50 years. The community built up around it with high-density housing and schools. Several people in West made conscious decisions to allow that to happen, even though the schools superintendent complained about the potential dangers. The company pledges full cooperation with investigators "to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again in any community."
This disaster is a wake-up call. All responsible parties — local governments, state and federal regulators, and industry owners — have a duty to put safety first when making zoning decisions.
There are additional indications of lax oversight. Were regulators conducting the necessary inspections to ensure proper safety procedures were in place? Did the company fail to report its storage of highly explosive ammonium nitrate to authorities? Did West volunteer firefighters have adequate procedural instructions to avoid setting off an explosive chain reaction when confronting a chemical fire?
Even though the damage in West cannot be undone, answers to all these questions are necessary so that not only West but all communities can learn from the experience. State and federal agencies don't have the resources to stay on top of all areas with potential problems. Officials and businesses across Texas, especially in rural areas, must take heed of these mistakes and move immediately to ensure that their communities aren't sitting astride another ticking time bomb.
Houston Chronicle. April 18, 2013.
Judicial gridlock felt in Texas
It is probably fair to say that Sen. Ted Cruz is the political opposite of President Franklin Roosevelt. And so it makes sense that Cruz, along with Sen. John Cornyn and other Republican senators, has signed on to a plan that is the near opposite of FDR's failed court packing scheme. Instead of adding judicial seats to expand presidential appointment power, the so-called Court Efficiency Act will eliminate some of the vacant seats on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. But this meddling with the fundamentals of our judiciary is court packing by another name, and it does not pass the smell test.
It is time to lay off the political maneuvering and get back to basics — either approve President Obama's judicial nominees or vote them down. And it would be hard to argue that any of his nominees aren't qualified for their positions.
At the top of the list is Sri Srinivasan, who appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in a confirmation hearing for an open spot on the D.C. Circuit.
If confirmed, the current principal deputy solicitor general would be the first Indian-American to serve as a U.S. federal judge and the first South Asian judge on the D.C. Circuit. He would fill only one of the four empty seats on the circuit. While Srinivasan received a friendly hearing, and the White House is finally showing muscle in pushing for its nominee, some Republicans can't help but compare him to Miguel Estrada — a Hispanic candidate to the D.C. Circuit under President George W. Bush who was filibustered by Senate Democrats. Of course, some Democrats would say that was in response to Republicans rejecting President Bill Clinton's judicial nominees, which was in turn was for Democrats blocking Judge Robert H. Bork's appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Tit-for-tat. It will always be part of Washington, but it has to end when it comes to the Senate's advice and consent of judges. Voters should not be content with politicians who hold our judiciary hostage in a race to the bottom. About one in 10 seats in the federal judiciary is left empty, while a majority of President Obama's noncontroversial nominees have waited more than 200 days for a vote on the Senate floor, according to a 2012 Congressional Research Service report. Compare that to five percent of noncontroversial nominees under President Reagan.
Our confirmation system is breaking down, and we're starting to feel it here in Texas. There are six vacant seats on Texas' Federal District Courts, including seats that have been open for several years. There are also two vacant seats on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana. President Obama has yet to nominate replacements for those two spots, and we're not optimistic about getting new judges any time soon.
It is easy to talk about the Constitution in fire-breathing stump speeches, but without judges our Constitution is powerless. Texas is not lacking for top judicial scholars ready to make that next step, such as U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal and Justice Jane Bland of Texas' First Court of Appeals. We hope that Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn will take leadership roles in ending the Senate gridlock of judicial confirmations.
San Antonio Express-News. April 19, 2013.
Texas needs statewide texting ban
Distracted driving is a growing hazard on Texas roadways and has prompted 26 Texas cities, including San Antonio, to impose their own bans on texting while driving.
Last week, the Texas House approved a state texting ban on a 98-47 vote before sending it to the Senate for consideration. Unfortunately, the legislation may be dead on arrival when it reaches the governor's desk for signature.
Gov. Rick Perry, who has the services of a state-paid chauffeur at his disposal, does not support the legislation and vetoed a similar bill in 2011. He appears poised to do the same again despite the passage of dozens of local ordinances banning texting while driving which indicate widespread grass-roots support for such a measure.
Perry's primary opposition to the legislation has been concern about government infringing on personal liberties and micromanaging people's lives. He believes the best way to address the issue is through information and education. Other opponents of the bill are concerned about civil liberties and are afraid the legislation could be used for racial profiling and give law enforcement officers too much probable cause to pull over motorists.
The legislation proposed by state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, would allow the use of hands-free and voice activated devices. It would also allow drivers to use the phone to select or enter a telephone number when driving.
Texas is in dire need of a statewide ban on texting similar to those in 39 other states to reduce the number of distracted drivers on the road and save lives.
Texans deserve a commitment from Perry not to veto the legislation when it lands on his desk.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram. April 20, 2013.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has a good idea on transportation
It's nice, if somewhat unusual, to find a tax proposal on which to be in happy agreement with Gov. Rick Perry. This one's for investment in transportation infrastructure, which the state desperately needs.
It's actually a package of proposals launched by the governor in an April 12 speech to the Texas Lyceum Association's Public Conference in Austin.
Perry hasn't suddenly gone tax-crazy. He's still the anti-tax governor.
"This is not a new tax, and it is not a new fee," he carefully pointed out in his speech. And almost as if to reaffirm his tax-averse nature, he came back last week with a proposal to cut franchise taxes on Texas businesses.
Not so happy agreement on that one. But more on that later.
In his Texas Lyceum speech, Perry proposed dedicating future growth in motor vehicle sales taxes to be used on transportation infrastructure, to "dedicate it to a more productive, efficient experience for the people who are buying those cars in the first place."
The 6.25 percent state sales tax collected on motor vehicle sales is similar to the sales tax on other goods, but local jurisdictions do not tack on up to two extra percentage points like they do for other goods.
Motor vehicle sales and rental tax revenues are growing fast for Texas. They're expected to generate $7.2 billion for the state's current two-year budget and to increase 9.3 percent to $7.9 billion in the 2014-15 budget, according to the comptroller's Biennial Revenue Estimate delivered to the Legislature in January.
It's that growth that Perry wants to capture and dedicate to transportation infrastructure. Even if that doesn't happen, he said, "The sales tax rates would remain the same, and the money would still be collected, either way."
This and the rest of the package laid out by the governor could deliver more than $41 billion in transportation projects over the next 20 years, he said. That would take a big slice out of the state's backlog of highway, bridge and other transportation needs.
The package also would use part of the state's $12 billion Rainy Day Fund for one-time infrastructure investments. And Perry wants to issue long-term bonds at current low interest rates to set up a revolving transportation infrastructure loan fund.
It's late in the current legislative session — only five weeks left. But these ideas from the governor are good ones, and lawmakers should consider them.
But his idea about cutting the franchise tax? Not so much.
As he stated it in a news conference last week, it would provide nearly $1.6 billion in tax relief for Texas businesses subject to the tax. Perry would cut the franchise tax by 5 percent, provide a $1 million deduction for businesses with revenue up to $20 million, lower the rate even more for businesses that use the state's "EZ Form" to file their franchise tax returns and let companies that move to Texas from outside the state deduct moving expenses from their first-year franchise tax payment.
That's the Perry we know well: cut taxes, stimulate business, grow jobs.
The problem is, there's still a need to pay the state's bills, including financing its public schools.
Until Texas knows the outcome of the pending lawsuit over its school funding system, a system an Austin judge has declared unconstitutional, big tax breaks like this aren't a good idea.
Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. April 17, 2013.
Gambling casinos in Texas? Let the voters make the decision
The proposal to bring gambling to Texas brings to mind many pros and cons about having casinos accessible to residents of the Lone Star State.
We believe most Texans have their own lists of pros and cons — and solid reasons about why or why not they think Texas should introduce gambling. This qualifies Texas residents to make the decision about whether they want gambling.
We aren't weighing in at this time about whether casinos should be built in Texas, but believe Texans should have the ability to cast their votes and decide. Senate Joint Resolution 64, from Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, would put a constitutional amendment on the ballot for citizens to do just that.
Texans apparently are spending a lot of their disposable income already in gambling casinos in other states. Carona said Oklahoma, New Mexico and Louisiana rake in nearly $3 billion from Texas each year.
That is money going to help pay for roads, schools and hospitals in other states, he said.
The senator said the adoption of casino gambling would create tens of thousands of jobs — one estimate is 75,000 jobs — in addition to the money it would bring to the Texas treasury. The legislation proposes 20 percent of the gaming revenue go to the state.
That all sounds nice, but we reserve the right to skepticism. What is the standard being used to estimate the number of jobs that will be created, and how many of those jobs will be ones with substantial incomes and not minimum wage employment?
As far as the money we are told will be flowing into state coffers, we need some more specifics.
Where would the money be going, and how will it be spent? Will it go into the state's general fund? The Rainy Day Fund? How will the accounting of the money be conducted?
We recall when a state lottery was pitched to Texas voters, the implication was made the money would benefit education in Texas. More specifics were needed then, too.
On the negative side of gambling in Texas is the concern about casino customers who simply can't afford to be gambling or those with gambling problems or addictions.
Some of those people already are going out-of-state for their games of chance, but others who aren't currently gambling could be inclined to spend money they can ill afford to lose if the casinos were more convenient.
The thought of people spending money for their kids' Christmas presents or new school clothes to gamble is pretty unpleasant.
In the past, from issues ranging from alcohol sales inside the city limits to Imagine Lubbock Together's proposal for temporary sales tax increases to fund local improvements, we favored voters making the decisions.
The voters of Texas are capable of deciding for themselves the positive and negative points of casino gambling in the state, and they should be allowed to make the decision.