Recent editorials from Texas newspapers

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Corpus Christi Caller Times. Aug. 7, 2012.

Farenthold finds an Olympic-size subterfuge

Thanks to Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform for pointing out helpfully that a U.S. Olympic athlete could pay, worst-case scenario, $8,986 in income tax for winning a gold medal. That's based on $25,000 in prize money and an estimated $675 for the value of the medal (which fluctuates with metal prices) taxed in the 35-percent bracket.

Absent any deep thought, this would seem a clear-cut example of what supposedly is wrong with our tax system. It is calculated to induce outrage — or at least some demonstrative theatrical depictions of outrage. In this election year at this time in the history of this land of opportunity, two opportunistic politicians sprang into action like heavily muscled sprinters.

The winners of this heat were U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and our own U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi. Both proposed bills to exempt Olympic medalists' winnings from income tax. If a sole winner must be declared, the edge goes to Farenthold because his bill, Tax Exemptions for American Medalists, spells out the nifty acronym TEAM.

In fairness to both Republicans, President Barack Obama established himself as election-year panderer-in-chief Monday when he, of all Norquist targets, declared his support of the legislation.

Finding fault with this proposal may sound unpatriotic on face value. But we think it much more un-American to single out this already special, highly celebrated group of individuals for special tax treatment when single parents in fields such as nursing and oil field roughnecking work their overtime hours thanklessly, without special tax breaks. Many work hard and long enough to work themselves into that 35 percent bracket. So, while Farenthold and Rubio work feverishly to give Olympians the support of their country, working parents who get too far ahead earn themselves the honor of supporting their country all the more.

The problem with taxes is that they kill incentive — isn't that what Farenthold and his political brethren preach? Frankly, we don't disagree.

Yet there is no supporting evidence that the exemption proposed by Farenthold and Rubio will result in more Olympic medals for the United States. Nor are there examples of Olympic-caliber athletes deciding to forgo the Olympics because taxes on their winnings are so high. Instead, the athletes keep pushing themselves through their excruciating workouts, rehabbing their injuries, eating their unappetizing special diets, leading their monkish social lives and waiting four years for the next opportunity. Oppressive taxation doesn't seem to have scared them off.

Strangely, none of the outrage seems to be coming from the Olympians.

Also, why would Farenthold and Rubio further complicate the already complicated tax code? Why aren't they expending more effort to simplify it and delete loopholes?

"I could swear that I once heard Farenthold say he wanted to simplify the tax code," certified public accountant Jim Whitworth wrote in a Letter to the Editor published Saturday. "Just empty talk, I guess."

Meanwhile, the terms "do-nothing" and "Congress" go together like "Olympic" and "gold." Farenthold and Rubio are members of this do-nothing Congress and this is an example of how they add to the problem. The effort expended by these two on this highly specialized special-interest loophole is effort not being expended on bigger problems.

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Houston Chronicle. Aug. 9, 2012.

Free beer: Let's loosen up on craft brewers

Here in Texas we often take pride in having a limited, pro-business state government. But sometimes that self-definition gets called into question. For the most recent example, look to Texas' brewers.

Texas has undeniably had a booming craft brewing industry over the past several years. In fact, between 2007 and 2011, the number of craft breweries and brewpub restaurants in Texas more than doubled. What makes this more impressive is that it happened under strict, and seemingly unnecessary, state regulation.

The current state alcohol code prevents breweries that sell their product through wholesalers from selling their beer directly to consumers. And brewpub restaurants that make their own beer on site cannot package their product for sale at off-site locations. Either they can sell it where they make it, or sell it in restaurants and stores, but not both.

This regulation locks aspiring brewery entrepreneurs into a rigid structure from the very beginning, rather than let them just sell beer to consumers wherever they may be.

It makes sense to let brewers start as a brewpub, and then sell elsewhere as they scale up. But the current rules prevent that.

In fact, these regulations don't- seem to have any legitimate justification except that they are supported by major wholesaler groups and Anheuser-Busch, which have been lobbying representatives in Austin to keep the rules in place. But changes to the alcohol code would liberate craft brewers and, according to an industry study, add 52,000 jobs and build a $5.6 billion craft brewing industry by 2020. While this may be an overly optimistic estimation, it is hard to deny that politicians in Austin are holding back Texas industry and Texas jobs.

But while Texas is keeping tight rein on our craft brewers, other states have distinctly more friendly regulations, and it shows. While Texas craft brewers make just 0.7 percent of all beer consumed in Texas, craft brewers in California and Oregon, which don't have regulations like Texas, produce 13 percent and 16 percent of all beer consumed in their respective states. And New York recently passed legislation to support local breweries with tax breaks and special licenses to help small brewers.

When California, Oregon and New York are more business-friendly than Texas, something is wrong.

It is time for politicians in Austin to stop messing with Texas beer.

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San Antonio Express-News. Aug. 7, 2012.

Closing Gaps stats showing improvement

Texas colleges and universities continue to make progress toward meeting the goals laid out in the state's higher education plan adopted in 2000 despite continuous roadblocks cast in their path by state lawmakers.

More than half a million more students are enrolled in Texas colleges and universities today than there were 12 years ago. While much room remains for improvement on completion rates, students are graduating in larger numbers. Some 186,961 certificates, bachelor's and associate degrees were awarded in 2011, an increase of more than 60 percent since 2000.

When the Closing the Gaps education master plan was crafted by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the goal was to close the education gaps between Texas and other leading states by the year 2015. There was a lot of buy-in for the program back then. Who wouldn't support having the state leading the country in terms of college enrollment, success, excellence and research?

But lofty goals are not easily met. They require time and financial investment, and the path is not always smooth. Along the way, lawmakers' interest in Closing the Gaps faded — not because higher education was no longer a priority but because other issues became more important.

The new focus was balancing the budget, which resulted in higher education funding cuts and allowing the deregulation of tuition. As the state's financial obligations were decreased, the state allotment for need-based financial aid for students also decreased.

It is encouraging to see the state-supported colleges' and universities' successes despite the reduced financial support from the state.

This summer's annual progress report on Closing the Gaps indicates enrollment in Texas colleges and universities is well above the level needed to reach the 2015 goals of 1.65 million students. Currently, 533,000 more students are enrolled in higher education than there were in 2000.

The state recorded an increase of 47,000 higher education students in fall 2011, and while that is admirable, it's considerably less than the increases of 122,000 students in 2009 and 84,000 students in 2010.

State lawmakers need to consider the Closing the Gaps numbers as they head into their next session. Higher education cannot absorb additional budget reductions if the goals are to be met.

At its summer meeting, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board voted to ask lawmakers to allocate $580.8 million for Texas Grants, the state's main financial aid program.

The request is $21.2 million more than the current funding level, but it's far less than will meet the need in Texas. Under the current funding level, only about half of eligible incoming freshmen receive a grant.

The lack of financial aid has dire consequences. Students who cannot afford to finance a college education often end up working longer hours, borrowing money or taking fewer classes. Delayed graduation is a no-win situation for the universities and the students.

The success of the Texas economy is contingent on an educated and trained workforce. Reaching our potential will take a continued commitment toward closing the education achievement gaps.

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Austin American-Statesman. Aug. 10, 2012.

Remove abortion advice 'gag order'

Talk about coming between patients and their doctors.

At least that's the view of the Texas Medical Association and other physician groups that expressed concern about a proposed rule for the state's Women's Health Program that prohibits abortion counseling. The rule amounts to a "gag order" on doctors, the groups say.

Texas doctors are right to be concerned about this proposed intrusion into the doctor-patient relationship. The language is too broad, too open to careless interpretation and should be rewritten.

The Texas Women's Health Program provides low-income women 18 to 45 with screening for breast and cervical cancers, sexually transmitted diseases, diabetes and high blood pressure. The program also provides birth control and family planning counseling. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission has estimated that the program's contraceptive services save taxpayers $57 million a year by reducing the number of pregnancies that would be covered by Medicaid.

About $30 million of the program's $33 million budget is funded by the federal government. Starting Nov. 1, however, the state will be paying for the program by itself.

The 2011 Legislature barred Planned Parenthood, which serves more than 50,000 of the 130,000 women in the indispensable and successful program, from participating in the program because some Planned Parenthood clinics perform abortions. It didn't matter to Gov. Rick Perry and Republican legislators that the Planned Parenthood clinics that participate in the Women's Health Program are separate from the clinics that perform abortions, or that federal law prohibits taxpayer money from being used to pay for abortions.

Planned Parenthood sued the state over its exclusion. A hearing on the lawsuit is set for Oct. 19.

The Obama administration said Texas' exclusion of Planned Parenthood violated federal law and announced it would stop funding the Women's Health Program. Perry said Texas would continue the program on its own, with its own money and under its own rules. Questions remain about how the state plans to pay for the program, but the state health department has been drafting new rules.

One proposed rule deeply concerns Texas physicians. In a nine-page letter sent to the Department of State Health Services, the Texas Medical Association, along with four other groups representing Texas gynecologists, obstetricians, pediatricians and family doctors, calls a rule prohibiting abortion counseling a "gag order" that applies not only to doctors in the program but also to those who are not.

The Women's Health Program, as the state plans to run it, will depend on doctors in private practice to take the place of Planned Parenthood. Any rule that threatens to decrease the number of doctors willing to participate in the program threatens the program with failure.

"Countless Texas physicians will be unwilling to participate in the program because it will force them to choose between practicing medicine in accordance with the standard of care and medical ethics, or in accordance with a rule created to serve a political ideology," the letter says.

The state wants to bar doctors affiliated with abortion providers from participating in the program and doesn't want doctors referring patients to an abortion clinic, counseling a woman about an abortion or handing out information about abortions. The physician groups say the proposed rule — hinging on the word "promote" — extends its prohibitions beyond women in the program to include all patients.

One doctor's participation in the Women's Health Program could place all doctors in a practice under the program's rules, the groups say. Or the rule could potentially banish a doctor from the program if another doctor in a practice performs elective abortions.

Doctors must be free to be direct with their patients, and conversations between doctors and patients must be protected. As the letter says, these discussions "are the foundation of the patient-physician relationship" and their content "must remain outside the bounds of government interference."

Any rule that causes a doctor to be less than frank with a patient violates a doctor's ethical obligations, jeopardizes a patient's trust in her doctor, infringes on a doctor's First Amendment rights and could invite a malpractice lawsuit.

In their letter, the physician groups suggest sensible changes and edits that give the proposed rule greater specificity and clarity. The state health department says it is reviewing the physicians' suggestions. We trust the agency will listen carefully to what the doctors have to say and will rewrite the rules to satisfy their objections.

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The Dallas Morning News. Aug. 11, 2012.

Boys lag in graduation rates

The overall trends in Texas high school graduation rates are encouraging, as noted in an editorial last week. But deficiencies exist, especially in the gap between male and female students.

According to new Texas Education Agency data, a greater percentage of females graduated on time than did their male peers in the 2010-2011 school year.

The gap is neither new, as the accompanying information shows, nor is the divide unique to Texas. So what should policymakers, educators and families do to remedy this problem?

Part of the challenge is cultural, and something that policymakers may not be able to address easily — or at all. One principal we interviewed recently lamented that he sees more boys living without a father. The absence of a dad, he said, is a bigger burden for boys, who would benefit from an adult role model supervising them.

Whatever their situation, all fathers owe it to their kids to remain a part of their lives. Any possible mentoring that might prolong a boy's successful school years is more than worth the effort. For one thing, young men with only a high school degree suffer more economically. As one indicator, they have higher unemployment rates than men with an associate's or bachelor's degree. Just imagine how much worse it is for those who don't even complete high school.

Another cultural aspect is the number of young males with attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Even if not all these diagnoses are valid, schools and families are contending with numerous boys with attention issues.

One way that schools and families can help attention-challenged boys is to get them to read for pleasure. Dr. Leonard Sax reports in Boys Adrift that girls read for pleasure more than boys. That's not because girls are reading more, he says, but because boys are reading less.

Teachers and parents can't suddenly change that reading pattern. But patiently helping young boys find any material or genre they like to read, and encouraging them to do so daily, can stave off later reading deficiencies that lead to frustration in school and an early exit.

One policy response gaining traction is creating boys-only schools for the middle to upper grades, just as some districts have started such schools for girls. The data doesn't show this approach always will work. But we're excited to see the Dallas school district experiment with this approach in its highly ranked Irma Rangel Young Women's Leadership School and its new Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy. These schools create a chance to tailor a curriculum and learning environment for their students.

The TEA data for 2011 shows that most male dropouts left in ninth grade. So part of Austin's response must include providing enough money for districts to hire interventionists and specialists to work with ninth-grade boys.

This gap was long in the making, so its resolution will require patient tenacity. Policymakers, educators and parents must all reckon with it. Let's celebrate the progress of girls but not leave boys behind.

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