Driving down the streets in disaster-stricken neighborhoods and seeing the mounds of debris piled outside flooded homes, all of us can now bear witness to the hard work that lies ahead. Homeowners must do their best to replace the wrecked furniture and the ruined appliances, contractors must haul away the soaked carpet and spoiled Sheetrock, and neighbors will help neighbors recover from Hurricane Harvey.
Beyond the flood-ravaged streets of southeast Texas, the time has also come for some hard work in the halls of power. At a point in history when we're asking for an extraordinary amount of aid from the nation's capital, it's important that our state government also does its part. After all, Texas has never been content to rely on Washington.
This is a moment for leadership from Austin. Gov. Greg Abbott must call a special session of the Texas Legislature to deal with the aftermath of this unprecedented disaster.
Wealthy homeowners along the Energy Corridor have seen lifetime investments washed away by floodwaters. Working class families in Greenspoint risk falling into an insurmountable chasm of poverty. However, our fear is that the destruction, albeit vast, will become invisible to those who live their lives on freeways and don't venture into neighborhoods near a bayou, reservoir or coastline.
Normalcy can become seductive. News cycles will quickly move on to the next crisis and, like after Hurricane Ike, national attention will fade away while recovery and resilience plans go ignored.
Never again will our fellow Texans share such a profound sense of political urgency over flood control issues. Waiting two years for the next regular session of the Legislature would squander a singular opportunity to achieve ambitious goals and fulfill an agenda that would protect our coastline for generations to come. We also have no idea when the next huge storm will strike; waiting until the 2019 legislative session may only put us in a position of procrastinating until another of what are becoming annual 500-year floods.
Our governor proved in his last call for a special session that he's comfortable setting ambitious goals for state lawmakers. No corner of our city was left untouched by Harvey. Rich and poor, black and white, Democratic and Republican — we all need the Texas Legislature to muster the same political energy that was harnessed for the governor's prior special session.
But this time there should be no patience for partisan gamesmanship. People are dead. Our elected officials must prove they can do the serious business of governance without launching into sideshows about transgender bathrooms or school vouchers. The future of Texas' largest city is at stake. If Austin fails to act, it is a message that Houston must go it alone and that state government is willing to kick important issues down the road.
Earlier this month on this page, we listed 12 priorities for the region. Below are the items that Abbott can positively affect by way of a special session. Even if some complex issues cannot be resolved in a 30-day session, putting them on the table will at least spur urgent and long overdue debate under the pink dome.
— Clear the path for a coastal storm surge barrier
Here are the stakes: Houston without oil is Cleveland. Boomtown becomes a second-tier city. The Legislature must step up to protect the Houston Ship Channel and its surrounding petrochemical complexes from a hurricane's storm surge. This is more than local self-interest. The entire national energy economy relies on our pipelines and refineries. We're responsible for more than half of the country's jet fuel and nearly one-third of U.S. oil-refining capacity.
Federal funding will be necessary for this critical public safety project, but our state government has to play a pivotal role. Land Commissioner George P. Bush took the lead when he asked the Trump administration for $15 billion to construct a coastal barrier system stretching from Orange to Brazoria County. But even though political support for this life-saving proposal is widespread, a piece of state legislation that could have moved it a step closer to reality died in this year's regular session. State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, and State Rep. Wayne Faircloth, R-Galveston, introduced a bill - House Bill 4308 - that would have put an agency in charge of operating and maintaining the proposed barrier. Their legislation also would have created a Coastal Spine Advisory Board that would disband after the barrier is built. state lawmakers let this bill die last spring, but they need to pass it in a special session. Appointing a government entity to operate and maintain the storm-surge barrier would demonstrate to Congress that Texas is dead serious about this expensive but essential project.
After Tropical Storm Allison, the Harris County Flood Control District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conceived a joint project to spend about $480 million on flood prevention in the Brays Bayou watershed. Project Brays was supposed to be completed in 2014.
Project Brays is just one of many shovel-ready construction projects along Brays Bayou, Clear Creek, Greens Bayou, Hunting Bayou and White Oak Bayou that have been stuck in slow motion due to lack of funding. The Texas Legislature must accelerate these bridge replacements, detention ponds and widening and deepening measures by tapping the $10 billion Economic Stabilization Fund, also known as the Rainy Day Fund, and create a stream of state dollars down to Harris County. The Harris County Flood Control District has about $26 billion worth of needed infrastructure upgrades. Texans don't pay their taxes so that billions can sit unused in a bank account while our cities suffer. Now is the time to act.
Additionally, the Addicks and Barker reservoirs are insufficient as flood control barriers. If they fail, all agree the result would be catastrophic. There is unity among academics, engineers and elected officials of all stripes to construct a third water retention structure. The Legislature must take the first steps toward the long-term work necessary to build infrastructure of this magnitude.
—— Establish a regional flood control authority
Mother Nature pays no attention to the arbitrary lines we draw between cities and counties. Flood control decisions made in one county can have a profound impact on people living in other communities downstream. Yet we've tackled this problem with piecemeal efforts divided between a host of government jurisdictions. As the Chronicle's Mike Snyder recently documented, Fort Bend County alone has 14 different levee improvement districts that aren't connected with each other; two of them cover a single real estate development. After the catastrophe wrought by Harvey, mayors and county judges who customarily resist relinquishing any of their authority must recognize the need for and work with a regional institution dedicated to drainage issues. This body should have the ability to assess and collect taxes that will be spent on much-needed flood control infrastructure.
It's hard for Harris County officials to get serious about flood control with their hands tied behind their backs. Unlike city governments, Texas counties have no power to pass ordinances. Our county judges and commissioners have needed state permission simply to adopt their own rules regulating game rooms and massage parlors, and they can't do much to regulate land use in ways that would mitigate flood problems. That needs to change. Harris County's unincorporated areas are home to more than 2 million people, a population as big as the state of New Mexico. Just as it would be absurd for New Mexico to have no power to adopt its own laws, the model for governing the state's largest county needs to evolve for the 21st century. This means allowing the county government to write its own rules, or compelling the unincorporated areas to join existing cities or form their own municipalities.
—— Preserve undeveloped prairie
Houstonians could once rely on extensive coastal prairie land to help absorb the worst deluges before the runoff reached our neighborhoods. That was before developers spent decades paving over massive tracts of wetlands and grasslands, directing the rain into our flood-prone streams, bayous and reservoirs. Legislators must help preserve the remaining undeveloped prairie around Houston.
During the 2017 session, legislators passed House Bill 2943, which would have allowed the State Water Pollution Control Revolving Fund to finance conservation easements. Abbott vetoed the bill. The governor now has the chance to set things right and sign a new version.
The Texas Farm and Ranch Lands Conservation Program could also use more funding and a more robust mission to prevent farms and ranches in key watersheds from being turned into suburban asphalt.
—— Strengthen renter rights in disaster zones
Homeowners struck by floodwaters have it bad enough, but Harvey has dramatically highlighted the problems natural disasters pose for renters. The storm struck just before the first of the month, causing unexpected problems for people renting flood damaged homes and apartments. Even if they survived without any flood damage, tenants who missed work and missed paychecks also missed lease payments because of the storm. Although many landlords have been working with their tenants during the crisis, far too many property managers have played hardball by threatening evictions and gouging storm victims with larcenous late fees. Meanwhile, a vaguely worded state law allows landlords and tenants to void leases on homes that are "totally unusable" without defining what that term means. And state law allows landlords to discriminate against people granted housing vouchers after losing their homes.
Our Legislature needs to address the myriad problems renters faced in the wake this storm.
—— Help our schools
All over the Gulf Coast, traumatized students are starting the year at schools damaged by Harvey or are being relocated to unfamiliar schools unscathed by the flooding. Teachers in more than 200 affected districts must return to their jobs while their own homes remain in disrepair. Bus drivers who have no place to live, nurses who have another family living with them, cafeteria workers who have been evicted from their apartments are all trying to do their duty for our kids.
This extraordinary situation requires an extraordinary response from the Legislature. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath has announced plans to create extra funding for Harvey without legislative approval. That won't be enough. The Legislature must go above and beyond to ensure our schools have the money needed to repair their flooded buildings and cover the costs of delivering mental health services to traumatized students. Also, academic accountability ratings must be suspended for schools in counties declared disaster areas. Our teachers deserve the flexibility to focus on the immediate needs of students, rather than burdening them with drill-and-kill exercises for mandatory standardized tests.
The Dallas Morning News. Sept. 18, 2018.
Eighteen-year-old Maxwell Gruver was taken Sept. 14 from the Phi Delta Theta frat house to a hospital where the Georgia teen was pronounced dead. The preliminary autopsy shows he was suffering from a "highly elevated blood alcohol level." THC, the chemical found in marijuana, was also in his system.
Regardless of how sure a parent is of having raised a child to stand up against the pressures that lead to this sort of tragedy, Gruver's story — and similar ones that unfold on campuses each year due to abusive drinking — should knock the wind out of that conviction.
Too many of the current crop of freshmen grew up with "lawnmower parents," those who don't just hover but step out in front of their kids and clear a path. Experts say such parenting impedes children from building a strong sense of self or understanding that actions have consequences, some of them deadly.
Even if you are certain you are the antithesis of the lawnmower or helicopter parent, are you sure you have raised a smart, independent teen capable of making the best decisions? While much of the framework for a young person's decision-making begins at an early age, parental guidance hardly ends when their student leaves for school.
Chances are you want to check in with your college kid right about now. But before you do, consider these tips on how to be the most effective:
— Manage your own emotions: How do you open up space around this highly charged topic in a way that your college student can hear it? If you launch into fear-driven advice, you will be no more than white noise. "Don't go to parties" is not an effective starting place. Think about your own college-aged self: What were you able to hear? What resonated with you?
— Create conversations that are curious and invite reflection: Don't allow your alarm to shift you into a parenting mode that worked when your child was 8. This is not the time to peddle advice but rather to create an opportunity for your student to recognize consequences without having to experience them.
— Put your student into the role of consultant: This is a Ninja mind trick of sorts. Tell your young person that you've seen the headlines, and both you and other parents in your circle are worried. "I think your decision-making is pretty good. What advice can you share with me that I can share with my friends?"
This isn't about deceiving your child, but rather getting him or her thinking critically. This technique may start a conversation that the student might not want not want to have about personal choices and behavior but that covers the same ground.
The experts we spoke with, including Michelle Kinder, family therapist and executive director of the Dallas-based Momentous Institute, are quick to point out that teens don't think what parents have to say applies to them. They are in that developmental stage where they believe they are bullet-proof.
But even if the front door to the conversation is closed tight, that doesn't mean you can't find a way in through a side entrance.
Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Sept. 18, 2017.
There are times when raising taxes, even when it hurts, is the courageous, right thing to do. For Nueces County, after a hurricane was not one of those times.
Chesney's was the lone vote against a property tax increase done in a weaselly way. The Commissioners Court raised taxes 2.5 percent by not changing the previous year's tax rate to reflect increased property value. That's usually a tried-and-untrue attempt to confuse the taxpaying, voting public that a tax hike isn't really a tax hike, or that it's the fault of the appraisal district.
The historic fact that property appreciates is not the appraisal district's fault. The appraisal district only affixes what it thinks is the fair-market value. The decision to raise or lower taxes or leave them the same is up to local government officials such as the members of the Commissioners Court. The countywide appraisal is just a number they use in the equation — a number they know in advance.
The rate itself, .307791 per $100 valuation, is its own damning clue that the commissioners either raised taxes without much real forethought, or sought deliberately to fool taxpayers, or both. If they had gone up to .307792, or down to .307790, they could claim that they calculated the county's needs to the penny. (Note to selves: Be wary if next year they try to change the rate by one-millionth of a cent.)
The commissioners also neglected to make the case that, try as they might, there just was no wiggle room or that none of the big-ticket expense growth in the $70 million budget could be done without. Those included a 2.5 percent pay raise for county employees, a 3.4 percent pay raise for law enforcement whose salaries are negotiated by collective bargaining, and $1 million for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. To be fair, the deputy pay isn't renegotiable and ADA compliance is both a necessity and a matter of conscience.
But that's us being fair, at a time when the Commissioners Court should have been more fair with taxpayers. There are residents of Port Aransas whose homes were destroyed, but who will be taxed at their property's pre-hurricane value.
Chesney's vote against the tax increase was a fulfillment of a campaign promise to oppose property tax increases no matter what. At the time, we criticized that promise as a pander to voters and an abdication of his responsibility to think critically and make the hard decision when changed circumstances called for a hike.
But this time it was Chesney who thought critically and the other four who took the easy way out.
One of Chesney's proposed alternatives, cutting the commissioners' individual precinct funds that they can use unilaterally for non-budgeted expenditures, was the obvious way for commissioners to show that they were serious about protecting taxpayers.
He also suggested two less attractive alternatives — doing away with $400,000 in maintenance costs and cutting all department budgets by 1.27 percent. Forgoing maintenance would not be wise. But 1.27 percent sounds reasonable unless a department head can prove otherwise.
Chesney deserves credit for making proposals that, on the whole, would have offset the tax hike.
Commissioner Joe A. Gonzalez also recommended cuts but they would have fallen short and some weren't realistic. For example, Gonzalez also recommended doing away with maintenance. He also suggested reducing a line item for sheriff's department overtime pay from $350,000 to $150,000,which would be a savings on paper only. His more realistic ideas were a 30-day hiring freeze, higher constable fees, and no increase in the per-diem for travel.
Port Aransas is in Chesney's precinct, but that alone doesn't explain away his or the other four commissioners' decisions. The hurricane was felt countywide. And it wasn't the lone reason to forgo this tax hike.
Our final thought is that this was not exactly a fiscally restrained Republican outcome for a court with a 3-2 Republican majority.
Beaumont Enterprise. Sept. 18, 2017.
The so-called Ike Dike might never have been built along the upper Texas Gulf Coast, even though it understandably intrigued many Southeast Texans. The financial costs and environmental barriers were significant, maybe insurmountable. But after Tropical Storm Harvey ravaged Houston and Southeast Texas, the dike's questionable future should take a back seat to the many other infrastructure needs that have become apparent.
The dike would cost $15 billion or more, and it was always doubtful that Congress would find that money in its deficit-riddled finances. The federal aid for Harvey will likely exceed that sum for Texas - as it should. Unless the House and Senate want to simply to let even more red ink gush from Washington, some priorities should be established.
Houston can figure out its own needs, but it would seem that the city's inadequate drainage should be a major goal after Harvey. Any city would have flooded in Harvey's deluge, but floods in Harris County happen every year or two.
In Southeast Texas, as in Houston, the threat this time came from the skies above, not the Gulf to our south from a storm surge. But seeing the floodwaters all over Jefferson County should remind all of us that the Drainage District 7 floodwall must be stabilized as soon as possible. Major cracks and crumbling sections were discovered recently, and temporary repairs are being carried out. But the concrete is 40 years old and could need more repairs than we realize.
Another clear need are the upstream Neches River intake plants for the city of Beaumont, which were flooded out by Harvey and even now are operating under temporary fixes. Without those creative solutions, Beaumont could have been virtually paralyzed by a lack of potable water for weeks or months. That scary possibility must be addressed and remedied.
This is only a partial list for any federal aid headed our way. The clear goal must be focusing on real-world needs instead of theoretical concepts like the Ike Dike. State and federal officials should reassure taxpayers that they get this.
The Monitor. Sept. 19, 2017.
As the Trump administration continues to push for a border wall, which would bisect the Rio Grande Valley, several environmental concerns have been raised about how such a structure could, and would, affect wildlife and our local terrain.
Whether the wall would uproot animals, like the endangered species ocelot, from its natural habitat, or prevent animals from locating a water source (like the Rio Grande), or even hinder drainage issues in our very flat region, which is prone to flooding, are all valid concerns that should thoroughly be vetted.
Of course without any permanent plans to review, all of this worry is speculative. But it is necessary. Because if a border wall is built here, it will forever change our landscape. And while President Donald Trump has repeatedly said the intent of a border wall is to keep out those who do not have legal papers to be in the United States, there will be many more souls also prevented from entering if such a structure is erected — namely those with fur, multiple legs, tails and even feathers.
Therefore we praise several environmental groups that have begun challenging in court whether the Department of Homeland Security has the sweeping power to waive environmental laws in order to build a border wall.
A lawsuit has been filed in California by the Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club and the Animal Legal Defense Fund questioning whether the Endangered Species Act and Clean Air Act can be waived for border security. Another similar lawsuit was filed this month by the Center for Biological Diversity. And while no environmental waiver has been recently granted to put up a wall in the Rio Grande Valley, it is a very real possibility.
The Department of Homeland Security earlier this year announced it was waiving environmental laws in Otay Mesa, California, to build border wall prototypes commissioned by the federal government and to build 15 miles of replacement fencing in the area. Federal officials this month announced they were invoking environmental waivers to build three miles of replacement fencing in Calexico, California.
environmental groups contend the REAL ID Act of 2005, which granted the Secretary of Homeland Security the power to waive federal laws for border security, was supposed to be a temporary tool used at that time to build a border fence — it was never supposed to be permanent.
"Over a decade ago, Congress granted waiver authority under the REAL ID Act to expedite the construction of border fence, which has already been completed. Congress did not grant DHS perpetual unchecked authority to cast aside dozens of laws," Paulo Lopes, public lands policy specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity," told Monitor Reporter Lorenzo Zazueta-Castro.
With Republicans having legally challenged executive overreach by the Obama Administration — specifically with regards to programs that would delay deportation of parents of legal citizens, known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, and most recently by threatening legal action against DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) — it seems the right time to ask our judiciary whether environmental waivers overstep the intent of this 2005 law.
As our nation and our political leaders seem so bitterly divided on immigration issues, we are heartened that our nation's court system can take on this challenge. We look to our esteemed judges for guidance and to help us resolve our issues until Congress steps in for a more permanent solution. And we hope the judiciary will deliver concise and quick rulings that we can all live by.
Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
© 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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