By The Associated Press © 2009 The Associated Press
Austin American-Statesman on the Texas budget:
The old caution about looking gift horses in the mouth doesn't apply in politics. Gov. Rick Perry, for example, saddles up and rides away after looking in the horse's mouth and complaining loudly about what he sees there.
During the session, the all-GOP legislative leadership team would grudgingly admit that if it weren't for the federal government's stimulus money, Texas budget cuts would have been wide and deep.
But that didn't keep the governor and others from criticizing Washington for its wasteful ways. At one point, Perry mentioned secession in stoking up an anti-tax crowd.
It was tough talk but as is usually the case in politics, the gap between rhetoric and reality was as wide as the gap between the state's income and demands for services. Without the federal assistance, Texas would be in a tough financial fix.
According to a report released last week by the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislators, Texas led other states in using stimulus money to plug the holes in its 2010 budget. The stimulus that the governor reviled on stump helped Texas legislators avoid tax increases and kept them from reaching into the state's rainy day fund.
According to the report, federal money provided 96.7 percent of funds required to close Texas' budget gaps, the highest of any of the states. Nebraska came in second at 88 percent.
The percentage might have been even higher had not the governor quite ostentatiously turned down federal money to bolster the hard-hit Texas Unemployment Insurance Fund. Republicans in the legislature urged him to take the money in the face of rising unemployment claims that were fast draining the funds. Like Horatius, Perry stood firm on the bridge. Then.
Now, he's budging a little but still defiant. His commentary on this page speaks for itself. Texas employers will see an increase in taxes and state government will have to ask the feds for a loan to keep the unemployment insurance fund afloat, the governor writes. He nonetheless defends the decision to turn down the stimulus money.
The governor reminds us of people who complain about an obnoxious table companion whose volume is exceeded only by bad table manners. But what the heck, he picks up the tab.
Anyone who can read knows by now that Perry's derisive use of the word "Washington" is a double shot: one aimed at Democrats in general and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, in particular. Hutchison has announced that she will challenge Perry in the March 2010 Republican primary.
The party's hard-right base has been reliable for Perry, and the anti-Washington talk is what they want to hear. It would all be very amusing little political operatta if it weren't for the fact that real people with real lives are getting chewed up the machinations.
Don't expect expressions of gratitude or even an acknowledgement that if it hadn't been for the stimulus package, Texans would have mighty sore feet because there would be no gift horse to ride.
The Dallas Morning News on Exxon going green:
Exxon's often sharp-tongued skepticism about alternative fuel technologies would seem to make it an unlikely candidate to bankroll research designed to turn algae into fuel.
But in a hopeful sign that attitudes can change, Exxon just announced its first significant foray into biofuels research, a groundbreaking $600 million investment to turn algae into fuel. Its partnership with Synthetic Genomics, a California firm whose founder is best known for decoding human DNA, could shift biofuels' future away from products culled from food crops.
We're pleased that the Irving-based energy giant has put its considerable financial muscle and credibility behind biofuel technology because U.S. companies have trailed behind European firms in this work. The research needs Big Oil's deep pockets and commitments, and no domestic energy company has deeper pockets and more influence than Exxon.
While there is no guarantee of success and Exxon says the first large-scale commercial plants to produce algae-based fuels could be five to 10 years away the investment is well timed.
Right now, dozens of companies and universities are vying to find the most suitable strain of algae, the best way to grow it and how to mass-produce it economically. The federal government also is pressing for renewable energy and biofuel breakthroughs to lessen the nation's dependence on fossil fuels.
Corn-based ethanol, the most common biofuel in the United States, has lost some of its luster in recent months. Corn grown for fuel competes with what is produced for food and feedstock, resulting in shortages and rising grocery prices.
Algae-based fuel production would not interfere with the food cycle; nor would it require fresh or even clean water. It would use less land than corn-based ethanol and would consume carbon dioxide, a contributor to climate change. This opens the possibility for algae-to-fuel research having broader applications on initiatives designed to capture CO2 from cement and power plants.
Exxon also deserves praise for the innovative approach it is taking to this research. Instead of growing a plant that can be used as a fuel, Synthetic Genomics will try to produce an algae strain that can be turned into a hydrocarbon-like liquid and pumped through Exxon's pipelines and refineries and delivered to service stations. This isn't traditional biofuel production, but rather seeks to genetically engineer fuel to be used by cars, truck and planes without significant engine modifications.
Like any smart company, Exxon is looking to make a profit and has astutely picked this particular time and technology to mark its alternative energy turf. The company may have been painfully late to the competition, but now that it's on the field, the Exxon work looks to be a game-changer
El Paso Times Staff on Texas' uncollected fees:
Texas is looking at nearly $1 billion in uncollected traffic-violation fees under the Driver Responsibility Program. Soon, Texas will be looking at the company responsible for collecting those fees, because Municipal Services Bureau, which has the collection contract, has brought in less than 40 percent of nearly $1.5 billion that's out there.
That's a lot of money that Texas could put to good use.
John Steen, commissioner with the Texas Public Safety Commission, said, "Can we do better? That's what we're looking into."
The TPSC will look into collections during its August meeting.
Admittedly, such collections aren't easy. El Paso struggles with collecting outstanding fines and other assessments. But not collecting fines presents an unfortunate message.
First, as mentioned, it deprives the state of money that's needed. It also effectively lets the violator off without having to pay the fee. That's not a good precedent, though driver's licenses can be suspended for unpaid bills. And, in fact, about 2.7 million Texas driver's licenses have been suspended for nonpayment.
The state program itself has come in for criticism because, foes say, the punitive fees are excessive and because the program victimizes the poor.
If there is legitimate concern, the program should be examined.
Meanwhile, those fines and surcharges are the law. The law should be enforced and the fees collected.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram on health care reform:
The health care debate is tailor-made for demagogues.
Radio and cable TV talk-show pontificators are proffering silly predictions of socialized medicine and rationed care and invoking the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Internal Revenue Service as models for what "government healthcare" will look like. Entertaining, but there is no basis in fact here.
ObamaCare is more of a slogan or rallying cry. The president has chosen to back certain long-term goals rather than a specific plan. This approach has strengths and weaknesses.
President Barack Obama has signaled that nearly everything is up for negotiation. His strategy certainly has a greater chance of success because he is attempting to shepherd a bottom-up process to create an organic legislative accord. Notably, President Bill Clinton’s top-down approach doomed healthcare reform in the early 1990s.
But Obama’s undue haste is counterproductive. By definition, collaboration takes more time. He knows historically the odds of reform shrink significantly in the second year of a presidential term because lawmakers become timid in a midterm election year. But induced urgency imperils his legislative goals and increases the chances for an ill-conceived plan. This is one-sixth of the U.S. economy we are talking about here.
Taxing healthcare benefits, creating a public insurance option, creating insurance mandates for individuals and business and striving for near-universal coverage are enormous separate issues. Attempting to resolve them collectively is daunting.
We are not backing a particular plan yet because the legislative process is too fluid. But here are 10 principles we will assert (today and tomorrow) about the debate and its outcome.
_ Don’t get too excited or concerned until a bipartisan coalition embraces a plan. We are far from that. There are constantly shifting alliances, with fiscally conservative Democrats swinging back and forth between the Republican and liberal Democratic camps.
_ The odds of transformational health reform remain slim. The United States has a long political tradition of incrementalism. We tweak; we don’t change. Too many political players have skin in this game. There will have to be winners and losers, and that's political dynamite. The perception of shared pain and meaningful gain is difficult to achieve. It is unprecedented that so many will be asked to sacrifice so much in a nonemergency situation. Lobbyists for doctors, hospitals, drug makers, insurance companies and medical device manufacturers are powerful and well-funded. So far, these stakeholders cautiously are saying the right things, but knives will be unsheathed as things get more serious.
_ Access and cost must be addressed simultaneously. Access for the uninsured without addressing cost is financially untenable. Addressing costs without access is morally wrong. The current fee-for-service medical model encourages waste and overuse of medical services. We need to pay for outcomes and quality rather than quantity. Obama espouses this frequently, but it is absent from the current legislation.
_ The Congressional Budget Office cost estimate is the elephant in the room. Its price tag on health reform is more than $1 trillion over 10 years. Reform advocates must present achievable cost savings and politically tenable tax increases to offset spending. Good luck with that.
_ Paying physicians less for services rendered is not the answer. Fewer physicians are taking Medicare and Medicaid patients, because government reimbursement is inadequate. Cutting reimbursements to save money while expanding government insurance eligibility makes no sense. New physicians, weighed down by mortgage-sized student loans, continue to hang their shingles in insurance-rich affluent areas or pursue more highly paid specialties the opposite of what needs to happen.
_ Beware of fake savings. Obama claimed that a greater emphasis on prevention would produce $80 billion in savings. Prevention is the right thing to do; it improves outcomes. But mass screening and immunization are expensive. The people who need it most are the least likely to get it. He claimed similar savings with widespread adoption of electronic medical records while conveniently ignoring the upfront costs. Prevention and EMR will improve the nation's health, but any savings are too distant and unproven to be counted now.
_ What about the children? Obama talked during his presidential campaign about insuring all children, but we haven't heard much since. Covering children is a relatively cheap, sound investment. Research shows that chronically ill children with inadequate care fall behind in school and have lifelong health and economic disadvantages. Oddly, Americans consider childhood education a public good, but child health an individual or family responsibility. The two should not be separated.
_ Healthcare economic principles do not operate like the rest of the economy, yet we act as if they do. Healthcare is supplier-driven: You generally do what your doctor recommends. Patients do not shop for the lowest-cost doctor, especially when they are sick and there is no easy way to find out what things cost. Consumer-driven healthcare advocates minimize these factors. For those with too little or no insurance, demand is driven by what's in their wallets. One final point: Unlike many consumer goods, more expensive health is not better healthcare; it only costs more.
_ Healthcare policy and medical care are overrated determinants of health. This is frequently lost in the debate. An estimated 10-15 percent of one's health is based on medical care. Life expectancy increased about 30 years during the 20th century. We can thank public health measures for most of that: sanitary food and water; cleaner air; immunizations; better housing. An overwhelming amount of research indicates two factors linked to health and life expectancy: education and income. The bottom 40 percent holds less than 1 percent of the nation's wealth, which is the problem. Arguably, funding for education, the environment and social services impact health as much or more than "health policy."
_ The only way truly to cut healthcare costs is to decrease demand. Individual diet, exercise and behavior are factors. But the truth comes in the doctor's examining room: How disciplined will you and your doctor be about not overusing the healthcare system because someone else is footing the bill? Nearly a third of healthcare spending is wasted this way. Ultimately, cutting healthcare costs is up to us. The health reform debate is only about the rules of the game.
San Antonio Express-News on gun smuggling:
The recent congressional testimony of Bill McMahon, deputy assistant director of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, provided some enlightening information about the deadly drug war in Mexico.
A large proportion of the guns being used in that war originate in the United States. Mexican authorities have submitted 20,000 of the 100,000 firearms they've seized from the cartels to ATF for tracing. The bureau found 90 percent of those weapons were manufactured, imported or sold in the United States.
Is this a representative sample?
But to argue that American guns aren't making a major contribution to the drug cartel violence in Mexico is to ignore reality.
The biggest problem isn't with gun dealers. Only 44 percent of the U.S. weapons could be traced backed to purchases at federally licensed dealers.
The rest came from informal transactions, including those at gun shows.
Curbing the flow of guns isn't only in Mexico's interest. The cartels and their drug distribution networks in the United States pose a security threat on this side of the border as well.
McMahon's testimony points out the need for increased emphasis on southbound inspections at the U.S.-Mexico border. And it remains, of course, important for U.S. authorities to work to prevent narcotics from entering the United States.
But it is equally important to prevent guns and cash from entering Mexico and empowering the cartels.
The ATF analysis also demonstrates why it's necessary for all gun sales in the United States to be subject to the same background checks and documentation requirements.
Anyone with criminal intent, including those looking for a fast buck by illegally transporting weapons across the border, can buy guns off the street.
That's no excuse to make it easier for them to break the law and harder for law enforcement to track them down.