Recent editorials from Texas newspapers

Austin American-Statesman. Jan. 1, 2014.

Drone testing center is good news for Texas

The drones are coming. And Texas invited them.

This week’s announcement that Texas will host one of six programs authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to begin testing unmanned aircraft is a huge coup for the state and, more specifically, for the Texas A&M University System.

The selection of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi to lead the state’s drone testing program will put Texas on the leading edge of new applications for the technology, which has significant implications for scientific research, commerce, security, public services, energy and aviation.

Once strictly the purview of the military with awe-inspiring names such as Global Hawk, Raven and Predator, drones or “unmanned aviation systems” have captured the imagination of everyone from local police departments to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

A 2012 congressional mandate to integrate drones into U.S. commercial airspace by 2015 is one step closer to reality after this week’s announcement, which also included authorization of programs run by the University of Alaska, the state of Nevada, Griffiss International Airport in Rome, N.Y., the North Dakota Department of Commerce and a collaboration between Virginia Tech and Rutgers University.

For the Texas A&M System, the selection also represents great responsibility — both to raise the $50 million needed to make the program a reality and to conduct research in a way that respects federal and state privacy laws. Among the selling points of the Texas plan, which beat out California’s more established drone programs, were our climatic extremes and geographic diversity.

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi will conduct the research on 11 test ranges representing more than 6,600 square miles near Big Bend, Bryan-College Station, Beeville and Victoria and over the Gulf of Mexico. The FAA plans to use the research to help it determine how to add as many as 10,000 drones to U.S. airspace over the next decade.

Incorporating commercial drones will be no small task. According to the federal government, there already are about 7,000 aircraft in U.S. airspace at any given time. The widespread introduction of unmanned aircraft presents a whole raft of new considerations: possible undetected engine failure, certification of pilots who never leave the ground and — as researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have proved — the possibility of hacking or spoofing of the drones’ global positioning systems.

Even with the hurdles, the Texas proposal, which had the full support of Gov. Rick Perry, as well as a bipartisan congressional delegation, is worth pursuing. The genie is out of the bottle when it comes to unmanned technologies. Drones have proven their worth to the military, and driverless automobiles for the masses are not far behind.

According to American-Statesman transportation reporter Ben Wear, A&M scientists are considering looking at a variety of potential commercial uses for drones, including inspecting pipelines, mapping sea grass, detecting oil spills, monitoring hurricanes and counting herds for ranchers. The Corpus Christi campus already has made significant investments in drone research over the past two years, including flying its first drone mission over the Gulf in March, and is opening a new unmanned aerial vehicle command and control center in October.

Texas stands to gain if the FAA is successful in its efforts. One estimate from the Association of Unmanned Vehicles International puts the potential economic impact to the state at about $8 billion in the next decade, including the creation of 1,200 jobs.

Many of the details remain to be worked out, and A&M is still frenetically raising money for the program, since the federal approvals did not include any grant money. Collaborations with commercial companies also will help finance the project, but they will require careful planning and monitoring to make sure the corporate partners do not unduly influence the research outcomes.

Another important benefit is the proximity that the state’s policymakers will have to observe and understand the technology. The speed of change often means that laws and policies can lag behind technological advances — sometimes by decades or more. To protect Texans from invasions of privacy and to maintain public safety, it will be important that lawmakers stay apprised of the important work going on at the test sites so they can respond prudently.

It only takes a visit to the cineplex to see the possibilities of what can happen when human laws don’t keep pace with the advancement of machines. But, for now, bring on the drones.

_______

Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Jan. 1, 2014.

Texas’ continued rapid growth can bring opportunities and problems

The latest numbers from the Census Bureau bode well for Texas, giving leaders another set of figures to use in bragging about the state’s rosy economic picture, lower unemployment rate and being that desirable destination for people fleeing higher taxes and other ills in big cities of the north and northeast.

Texas, which added an estimated 387,397 residents in the year ending July 1, remains the nation’s second most-populous state, behind only California.

The total population is estimated at 26.5 million.

Those numbers, coupled with data released last summer about the rapid growth of many Texas cities last year, are reasons to be excited about the future of this state.

Five of the 10 fastest growing cities in the country for the year ending July 1, 2012, are in the Lone Star State, and Fort Worth is on that list.

Of the 20 largest cities in the U.S., six are in Texas.

While all of that is good material for chambers of commerce, convention and visitors bureaus and public figures charged with selling their area, such fast-paced growth should also give leaders pause. With it can come both opportunity and problems.

Texas as a whole, as well as its urban centers and bustling suburbs, must plan to meet the challenges that increased population brings.

Aside from having in place the basic infrastructure to serve the public’s needs, a whole network of services must be designed to ensure that the phenomenal influx of new residents won’t become a hindrance to progress.

In a state that is perhaps more dependent on the automobile than any other, transportation has to be a chief priority, and just building more highways will not be the answer. There must be transit alternatives.

Most of the people coming to the state are young, with school-age children or soon to have children who will need classroom space and a quality education, an area in which Texas lags in both funding and equitable disbursement of funds.

The Fort Worth school district, one of the larger ones that is continuing to grow, showed some vision when it presented a $490 million bond package to voters in November that was designed to bring equity to all campuses and provide additional curricula and tools to prepare students for the demands of the future.

Residents wisely supported that proposal.

Along with education, more people in Texas will require healthcare in a state that already has more uninsured people than any other in the country. It’s an issue that’s been postponed too long and has been a football tossed around by partisan leaders looking to score points with their political bases.

Growing cities can’t be great ones without increased public safety and quality of life amenities like parks, recreation, the arts and libraries. Detroit — a city that lost half its population since 1950; 25 percent of its residents from 2000 to 2010 — is the nightmare example of what can go wrong.

The city of Fort Worth will present a $292 million bond package, with emphasis on streets, to voters this spring. This is a city that added 243,298 residents since the 2000 Census. Strained budgets must be carefully administered to keep up with needs.

Local and state leaders have to do more than brace for more people. They must design plans that will help ensure quality growth, with systems in place to accommodate the influx of new residents.

Otherwise, the people of Texas may end up living in a place that will be a lot less desirable than it was when they got here.

______

San Antonio Express-News. Dec. 27, 2013.

What doesn’t the AG want us to know?

There exists an immunity for state legislators from liability and from testifying. This is present in federal common law. On this much, the parties in the state’s ongoing redistricting litigation appear to agree.

The question is, how broad is the immunity?

In arguing for the federal court in San Antonio to modify its previous order on this issue, the Texas attorney general’s office would have us believe that the law makes this immunity broad beyond reason.

Essentially, it would have Texans believe that public servants need not make public what went into the creation of public policy — even in a court case.

In that previous court order on immunity, legislators could be deposed and could invoke legislative immunity but have to answer the questions anyway — with the depositions then placed under seal for court review.

Now, since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling returned challenges to the state’s redistricting maps to the lower court here, Texas argues that matters have changed and the order should be modified.

It asks that legislators who hadn’t previously waived privilege and new legislative witnesses be able to keep their mouths shut.

The court’s first order was bending over backward. What the state attorney general is now seeking is for the court to go into contortions to shield legislators from revealing what they know.

The state argues that the previous order occurred because of the necessity for speed and that enough time now exists for the court to settle disputes should they arise.

And what we sense is a stall and an attempt to wear down the court, time consumed on what can be heard and read as testimony as opposed to getting to the nut of the case: namely, whether Texas’ redistricting maps discriminate. A previous court said the congressional and state House maps did — transparently so.

And this sort of finding is what the state attorney general fears will happen again.

But it’s puzzling how the court arrives at a conclusion on discrimination if it can’t access the innermost workings — and intent — of the Legislature.

It’s relatively easy to understand why legislators shouldn’t be personally liable for damages when their decisions are challenged in court. This could have a chilling effect on deliberations and meaningful policy. Making absolutely no sense is this same kind of immunity for legislators from providing evidence in court cases.

Privilege must be weighed against the interest in getting to the truth. This is essentially what the plaintiffs are arguing. And they argue that the basic circumstances of this case haven’t changed.

They are right.

They are still claiming discrimination in these maps — that the maps dilute the voting power of the minorities who accounted for nearly 90 percent of the state’s growth between 2000 and 2010. They are simply using a different section of the Voting Rights Act in their claims.

This population growth gained the state four new congressional seats. The Legislature’s 2011 maps did not reflect this growth and the 2013 maps — approved in special session simply so that the attorney general could say matters have changed and the plaintiff’s claims, therefore, are moot — are simply cheap knock-offs.

In the last go-around, it turns out that no legislator claimed privilege. If any lawmaker had, the public would have had a right to ask why.

So, in this latest round, what is it that the attorney general’s office doesn’t want us to know about how and why legislators crafted these maps?

Could it be that the maps were created and approved with full knowledge of whom these maps would keep in power and at which groups’ expense?

Embarrassing stuff said and written during the process, pointing to purposeful discrimination? So, quit doing that. Problem solved.

Given the state’s history on voter discrimination, the reluctance to be this forthcoming merely points to insidious maneuvering. The court — and the public — have a right to know.

________

The Dallas Morning News. Dec. 31, 2013.

Harold Simmons’ legacy in medical research

The business world will remember Dallas billionaire investor Harold Simmons as a corporate raider of the 1980s. What is probably less known, even in his hometown, is that he was among North Texas’ most active philanthropists.

Stroll the UT Southwestern Medical Center and you’ll see his imprint at the Simmons Biomedical Research Building, a cutting-edge high-rise research facility. Or step across to Parkland Memorial Hospital, and you’ll see the Simmons Ambulatory Surgery Center.

Simmons died Saturday night at age 82. Over the years, he and his family contributed millions to cultural arts, homeless shelters, SMU’s school of education and juvenile intervention programs, but medical research was his No. 1 cause.

As the story goes, the giving started as the result of Simmons’ battles with arthritis. Impressed by UT Southwestern’s work, he donated nearly $200 million to the school, including millions for advanced cancer and arthritis research. His long-range goal was to make the school one of a handful of premier cancer research facilities in the nation.

As a child, Simmons lived a hard-scrabble life in East Texas. He went on to amass a corporate empire of dozens of companies — mostly through shrewd timing. “I am a very simple person,” Simmons once told a Dallas Morning News reporter. “I can read the numbers, the financial statements and can add and subtract.”

He wasn’t a stranger to battles, personal or professional. His high-profile probate court fight with his daughters in the late 1990s for control of the trusts that held together his financial empire drew national attention. And he won a lengthy, contentious battle over the complaints of environmentalists to establish a radioactive waste dumping ground in West Texas.

In recent years, his politics rose to public view as he emerged as a GOP mega-donor best known as part of the Swift Boat campaign against Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004 and as a staunch opponent of President Barack Obama.

Simmons could be stunningly disarming. The businessman, who had a mansion in Santa Barbara not far from Lockheed headquarters, began his unsolicited takeover bid of the aerospace company with a letter seeking to “come by and visit sometime” about the company’s future.

When asked by a reporter about his takeover tactics, he launched into a long explanation of why he wasn’t a typical corporate raider, only to end the answer with a wry smile, a shrug and the words: “The facts justify my great reputation.”

Simmons leaves behind a massive and complicated legacy. His funding of cutting-edge medical research, alone, is an enduring contribution to North Texas and beyond.

______

blog comments powered by Disqus