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Recent editorials from Texas newspapers

July 2, 2019

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Texas newspapers:

Austin American-Statesman. June 28, 2019.

Nearly 250 years after our country was founded, America still grapples with seemingly straight-forward questions: Who counts? And do our voices count equally?

The U.S Supreme Court, mirroring the deep divisions within the nation, delivered mixed answers last week.

It blocked, at least for now, the Trump administration’s cynical effort to add a citizenship question to the census. By all accounts, such a question would chill Hispanic participation in the census, not just among immigrants, but among citizens who fear the information they provide could be used against a family member who’s undocumented, even though the federal government says it doesn’t share census data with law enforcement or anyone else. One study suggested the citizenship question could lead to an undercount of 1.1 million Texans, which would mean the loss of a congressional seat and $378 million annually in Medicaid funds, as well as other vital funding.

Distressingly, though, the high court abdicated its responsibility to address political gerrymandering. Ruling it’s not the federal judiciary’s place to referee disputes over whether a congressional district was drawn to favor one party over another, the court all but invited state lawmakers to game the political maps all they want. Who’s going to stop them?

We hope, next year, voters will.

The state lawmakers that Texans pick in 2020 will be every bit as consequential, if not as high-profile, as the person voters send to the White House. After the 2020 census, state lawmakers will draw Texas’ legislative and congressional districts for the coming decade. They will decide whether Austin remains shamelessly split between a half-dozen congressional districts — we’re the largest U.S. city without a congressional district that’s largely based in the city — or whether Texas communities will be kept intact so they can elect representatives who reflect their interests.

Texas has a terrible track record on this, with several studies ranking it among the most gerrymandered states in the country. You can thank Texas Republicans for the current maps, which splinter the Democratic stronghold of Austin into five reliably Republican congressional districts and only one Democratic one. Still, when they controlled the levers of state politics decades ago, Democrats drew similarly lopsided maps. It’s the same story across the country: The cases sparking the Supreme Court’s ruling last week involved North Carolina districts that favored Republicans and a Maryland district drawn to help Democrats.

Both parties’ hands are dirty here.

The solution is to get lawmakers out of the business of drawing their own districts, as more than a dozen other states have done. Most of those states have redistricting commissions with an equal number of Republican and Democratic appointees, plus a couple of independent members unanimously selected by the partisan ones. Such a mix, often in combination with state laws requiring districts to be drawn fairly, is more likely to produce truly representative districts.

We’re not holding our breath for that to happen in Texas, though. The Legislature would have to decide to hand over its map-making powers, and GOP leaders have no intention of loosening their grip. To the contrary, as the Texas Tribune and The Dallas Morning News reported, lawmakers quietly passed a bill this session largely shielding their own documents and communications from public view. Come 2021, that law will make it even harder for the public to see the political calculations driving the new district lines.

Texans’ only recourse is the ballot box: Voters next year should consider how legislative candidates want to handle redistricting, and whether they support handing the task over to an independent commission.

That question is equally critical for candidates running for Congress. House Democrats this spring passed H.R. 1, a sweeping election reform bill that included prohibitions on gerrymandering and a requirement for every state to use independent redistricting commissions. But the bill was dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled Senate. Voters who support these badly needed reforms should back House, Senate and presidential candidates who do, too.

Gerrymandering isn’t simply a problem for voters whose party isn’t in power. The practice leads to more districts that lean heavily toward one party or another. Such districts tend to elect more sharply partisan representatives who are less likely to seek moderate solutions or compromise with members of the opposite party. The more lawmakers’ actions stray from the will of the people, the more the public loses faith in government.

We hoped last week the Supreme Court would put the brakes on this anti-democratic practice. But the divided court, recognizing a problem exists, nonetheless chose to sit this one out. The task falls to voters to demand better from their lawmakers — or demand better lawmakers.

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The Dallas Morning News. July 1, 2019.

Texas’ enormous economic success the past couple of decades is revealing troubling weaknesses in our state’s educational system and workforce.

Texas unemployment is at the lowest rate ever, but many companies must hire out-of-staters because we don’t have enough native Texans with the right education to fill the jobs. Our education system lags below that of other states, and though our GDP is gangbusters, too many families struggle with poverty.

These problems feel overwhelming, too big for one company or school to fix, too big for lawmakers to solve in one legislative session. What we need is a group of Texans with a long-term vision and the financial and political resources to make things happen. Tom Luce is gathering those people.

Luce, a Dallas lawyer and longtime advocate for education reform, started Texas 2036, a nonprofit that aims to use data and research to help Texas solve these long-term, structural problems. The idea is to put the state on firmer footing by 2036, the Texas bicentennial. The group, founded in 2016, launched a meaty data website last fall.

Last week, the organization reached another milestone by naming a chief executive, Margaret Spellings. Spellings was U.S. Secretary of Education under George W. Bush and most recently was president of the University of North Carolina System. She also served as the head of the George W. Bush Foundation.

We don’t know if Luce and Spellings can solve Texas’ education and workforce issues. We do know that nobody else has gathered so much data with the intention of finding solutions. Texans don’t even have a common understanding about what success looks like, or which data sets are useful and which are noise.

There are lots of encouraging educational and career pilot projects happening across the state, including within our own Dallas ISD. DISD is a great example of an institution that is earnestly trying to solve problems, and has discovered a number of things that work. But like so many other groups, Dallas ISD hasn’t scaled its success to reach every student. We hope the work of Texas 2036 can help DISD and the rest of the state bridge that gap.

This type of long-term strategic thinking is not common in our corporations and government institutions; election cycles and career trajectories keep even the most good-hearted Texans focused on short-range improvements. We can’t yet know if Texas 2036 will succeed. What we do know is that this is the kind of work that is crucial for finding the right solutions to be successful. In less than two decades, Texas will celebrate its 200th birthday. Exactly how much it will have to celebrate will depend on this kind of work.

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Houston Chronicle. July 1, 2019.

The bruising body blow Medicare for All received during last week’s Democratic presidential debates actually may have helped it. That’s after critics pointed out how to improve Bernie Sanders’ idea: Use the Affordable Care Act to build a health care system with both a Medicare-like public option and private insurance.

Sanders’ strong showing in pre-debate polls, where he typically trailed only former Vice President Joe Biden, suggested that Sanders’ signature proposal to replace all private insurance with a federal program similar to Medicare had been embraced by many of his debate competitors.

So, the response was surprising when moderator Lester Holt asked the 20 candidates chosen for the two-night debate, “who would abolish private health insurance in favor of a government-run program?” Only four raised their hands: Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Sen. Kamala Harris, who insisted a day later that she had misheard the question and should have kept her hand down.

With almost all the Democratic candidates saying they don’t want to kill the insurance companies, that is unlikely to be part of any version of Medicare for All that survives the campaign. Any revised plan will more likely propose the peaceful co-existence of both government and private insurers.

That’s not the revolution Sanders wants, but it makes sense. Remember the harsh criticism President Barack Obama received after retreating from his promise that under the ACA, “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it.” Millions of Americans do like their health plans and don’t want to give them up. Especially not for something that seems so nebulous.

Each Medicare for All proponent puts a different spin on it. No one knows what it will cost. Sanders did admit Thursday night that middle-class families would pay more taxes for a much bigger Medicare system, but he said the health care they receive will cost less: “People who have health care under Medicare for All will have no premiums, no deductibles, no co-payments, no out-of-pocket expenses.”

The Vermont senator didn’t mention that many small hospitals in rural areas may close if forced to rely only on Medicare reimbursements, which often fall far short of what insurance companies pay them. For example, insurance companies pay hospitals about $7,400 for gall bladder surgery, compared with a Medicare reimbursement of $4,200.

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper stressed Thursday night that it would be a political mistake for Democrats to take private health insurance away from 180 million Americans.

Biden said if universal health care is the goal, “the quickest, fastest way to do it is build on Obamacare, to build on what we did.”

Sen. Michael Bennett of Colorado said universal health care should be the goal, but “I believe the way to do that is by finishing the work we started with Obamacare and creating a public option.”

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said Medicare for All should be a “flavor” available on the Obamacare exchanges when consumers purchase a medical insurance plan.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand defended Sanders’ Medicare for All bill, saying she wrote the section that calls for a four-year transition to a single-payer system that replaces insurance companies.

But a four-year transition won’t keep people from getting angry over losing their private insurance. Speaking of angry people, how about the half-million people who work in health insurance offices who will have to find another line of work under Sanders’ plan?

He’s right in saying America’s current health care system stinks. He’s right to point out that health insurance companies that call themselves nonprofits are paying CEOs millions of dollars a year while their customers are trying to scrape up the money to pay excessive premiums, copays and deductibles.

The insurance companies’ avarice isn’t so much the federal government’s fault as it is thefault of individual states, whose insurance commissions have failed to provide the rigorous regulation that industry needs. It’s the states’ job to do something about that, but the next president and Congress can help by giving the insurance companies the real competition that Obamacare couldn’t provide.

Obamacare’s supporters bought off the insurance companies with promises of lucrative subsidies and an influx of new customers. Any thoughts of strengthening the ACA after it became law were dashed when the Republicans took control of Congress and crippled Obamacare in their vain effort to kill it. Fortunately, Obamacare lives.

If a public option is added to the law and if funding is restored to renew outreach efforts dismantled by the Trump administration, the ACA could provide the alternative for consumers that stops insurance companies from being so greedy. If the insurance companies don’t change their ways, many Americans, given the option, will choose Medicare for All — or at least, Medicare for the Many.

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