Three GOP senators help save the day for nation’s healthcare

WASHINGTON, DC – JULY 28: Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) leaves the the Senate chamber at the U.S. Capitol after voting on the GOP ‘Skinny Repeal’ health care bill on July 28, 2017 in Washington, DC. Three Senate Republicans voted no to block a stripped-down, or ‘Skinny Repeal,’ version of Obamacare reform. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

 

Early Friday morning, in the well of the U.S. Senate, President Donald Trump and his band of playground bullies finally met their match: Two women and a real man.

The trio, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and John McCain of Arizona, all Republicans, joined a unified Democratic opposition to kill the so-called “skinny repeal” of Obamacare, 51-48.

For now and perhaps for good, in one of the most dramatic votes witnessed in recent years, the seven-year push by the GOP to repeal and replace or simply repeal the Affordable Care Act has collapsed.

The failed effort paves the way for something incredible to happen that Americans have been clamoring for in their government: A bipartisan approach to fixing the nation’s healthcare system. As we said in previous editorials, Obamacare needs to be shored up, stabilizing insurance markets that have in some places abandoned consumers or left them with few insurers to choose from. Premiums for middle- or upper-income earners also need to be curbed.

The GOP’s skinny repeal, orchestrated in secret by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, was anything but skinny: As it was laid out, it would have caused chaos in the health insurance markets and premiums to soar, mostly by eliminating the mandate for Americans to buy or get health insurance, but also by wiping out the medical device tax.

Without mandates and penalties to back them up, many people, and particularly younger and healthier Americans, likely would forego health insurance or buy scaled down insurance. Such a system defies the basic principles of insurance that spreads risk among all – young, old and healthy and sick – to keep premiums and costs manageable.

In all, 16 million additional people would be without health insurance by 2026, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. The CBO also estimated that premiums in the individual market would increase by 20 percent compared to current law in all years between 2018 and 2026.

Without a true fix, the GOP led by Trump had to resort to masquerade plans that were dressed up to look like something they weren’t. Desperate to keep promises made over seven years, including by Trump on the campaign trail, they threw anything out. But in the end, nothing stuck to the Senate wall.

All of the proposals Republicans forwarded would have resulted in tens of millions of Americans losing coverage with the working poor, disabled, and folks with preexisting conditions and middle-aged — who are too young for Medicare and too rich for Medicaid — bearing the loss. That should have been unacceptable to McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan.

But they rolled over for Trump and his minions who took to Twitter with intimidating tweets to Collins and Murkowski, challenges to duels (I wish I were making that up) and threats of holding up federal aid or economic initiatives to Alaska to punish Murkowski for her steadfast opposition to GOP plans.

The ladies demonstrated the kind of leadership the nation needs – and has longed for — to deal with complex issues, particularly in fixing the nation’s healthcare system. Their leadership was a huge contrast with Trump’s governance by intimidation, browbeating and humiliation.

Vice President Mike Pence, who evermore takes on the presence of a sycophant for Trump, showed up in the Senate on Friday to break the tie. But his vote was unnecessary. Collins and Murkowski cast their votes as voting began at 1:24 a.m. McCain in high drama kept his vote under wraps from the public until 1:29 a.m., when he walked on the Senate floor, approached the Senate clerk and gave a thumbs down.

Following his vote, McCain told reporters that he thought voting no “was the right thing to do.”

Explaining his vote, the ailing McCain, who will face a tough road ahead as he is treated for brain cancer, signaled that healthcare reform should be done through bipartisan efforts. He is correct.

“I’ve stated time and time again that one of the major failures of Obamacare was that it was rammed through Congress by Democrats on a strict party-line basis without a single Republican vote.”

“We should not make the mistakes of the past.”

No one knows for sure where things go from here. Unfortunately, the GOP healthcare replacements, bad as they are, seem to rise from the grave like Lazarus.

But for a moment, the nation witnessed a splendid act with two women and a real man standing for what is right against powerful playground bullies. The three put country over politics.

That is what courage and strength look like.

As Trump pulls back on a border wall, some aren’t pleased

A boy runs up toward the U.S. border fence from his backyard in San Benito in June. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald via AP)

Like the twisting Rio Grande, President Trump’s position on a border wall is changing course.

The president, who made the promise of a “big, beautiful border wall” one of the cornerstone promises of his campaign, significantly dialed back on the pledge Thursday, telling reporters that a 2,000-mile-long wall is no longer necessary “because you have a lot of natural barriers.”

“You have mountains. You have some rivers that are violent and vicious,” Trump said, according to excerpts released by the White House from the president’s conversation with journalists aboard Air Force One. “You have some areas that are so far away that you don’t really have people crossing. So, you don’t need that.”

Hmmm, that sounds a lot like Texas to us.

RELATED: “Why the border wall fences us in”

The president said he now believes only 700 to 900 miles of wall are needed. About 650 miles of the border with Mexico are already protected by fences or walls; many of those miles in Texas. Trump seemed to suggest that repairing fences already in place would count against the total miles he has in mind, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“You know, we’ve already started the wall because we’re fixing large portions of wall right now,” Trump said. “We’re taking wall that was good but it’s in very bad shape, and we’re making it new.”

At campaign rallies, where supporters’ chants of “build that wall” became a staple, Trump often talked about a wall 30 feet high running the length of the U.S.-Mexico border. But on Thursday the president described a new vision of a wall more closely resembling the fencing already up in places like South Texas, where, at least in some cases, fences hug residents’ back yards.

“You need transparency,” Trump said. “In other words, if you can’t see through that wall — so it could be a steel wall with openings, but you have to have openings because you have to see what’s on the other side of the wall.”

Trump won the support of conservative groups who liked his tough campaign talk on immigration. Some clearly aren’t happy with his changing course on a border wall.

“We don’t have the rule of law when it comes to immigration,” Stephen Steinlight, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington told the Times. “It doesn’t exist. There’s immigration anarchy.”

His new position, however, is likely to go over better with some of the president’s prominent supporters in Texas, who think more border walls aren’t the answer on border security. They include Dennis Nixon, a well-known Laredo banking executive who had this to say to me recently about a border wall: “No serious person thinks you can build a wall from El Paso to Brownsville with any kind of reasonable expectation it will be successful.”

Nixon was the Texas finance chair for the Donald J. Trump for President campaign. Among other solutions, he advocates cleaning up dense vegetation along the Rio Grande so that border enforcement agents gain better access and visibility.

A final footnote on why Trump said a border wall needs openings, and we’ll leave it there.

“As horrible as it sounds,” Trump said, “when they throw the large sacks of drugs over, and if you have people on the other side of the wall, you don’t see them — they hit you on the head with 60 pounds of stuff? It’s over. As crazy as that sounds, you need transparency through that wall.”

 

 

 

Payroll deduction ban would silence teachers, not save taxpayers money

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott describes the items he wants addressed by a special legislative session during a press conference at the State Capitol on June 6, 2017. (TAMIR KALIFA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott officially invited Texas legislators to head back to the pink dome July 18 for a 30-day special session to pass legislation that will keep five state agencies – including the Texas Department of Transportation and Texas Medical Board – open.

Once those agencies are taken care of, Abbott wants lawmakers to turn their attention to several items that failed during the 140-day regular legislative session and others that weren’t a part of it.

While limits on local control – including a bill banning transgender-friendly bathroom policies – are among the most talked about issues on Abbott’s 19-point conservative agenda for the special session, Abbott also proposes lawmakers push for some troublesome public education measures.

Members of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, including executive director Gary Godsey, shared their concerns Monday with the American-Statesman’s editorial board about the upcoming special session.

For instance, while the ATPE supports Abbott’s call for improving the state’s school finance system, the organization – like many other public education advocates – hoped for real solutions during the regular session. Abbott wants lawmakers to establish a commission to study school finance reform.

“Our public schools deserve more than another interim study and local taxpayers deserve a reprieve from shouldering so much of the state’s obligation to fund public education,” ATPE said in a statement.

Two other items that worry the folks at ATPE and other pro-public education organizations are Abbott’s unfunded teacher raise mandate – an item that was not a part of the regular session – and a proposed ban on union due payroll deductions.

Yes, ATPE advocates for increased teacher salaries. As they see it, pay raises make sense. Not only do they help recruit and retain good teachers, but in some school districts, a pay raise could also help a teacher offset the high cost of healthcare, Kate Kuhlmann, an ATPE lobbyist told us.

If the state is going to mandate $1,000 raises for all Texas public schoolteachers, then the Legislature needs to help pay for the raises, Godsey said. Most school districts have strapped budgets. Demanding that struggling school districts comply with a state mandate could mean cuts to areas that can’t afford them – like teacher retirement plans or educational programs.

Godsey is right. We should all support teacher pay raises, but not like this.

Another point of concern for many public education advocates is a legislative push to ban union fees deductions from payrolls, a measure that some – including ATPE – say aims to silence teacher voices.

During the regular session, Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) and Rep. Sarah Davis (R-West University Place) introduced “anti-union” bills designated as priority items by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to get Texas out of the business of collecting union dues. Similar bills by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) and Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs) are expected to be filed for the special session. Huffman’s bill proposed to deny some public employees – with teachers comprising the largest group – the ability to deduct membership fees to organizations from their paychecks. However, the bills exempted unions representing law enforcement, firefighters and first responders.

Why are police, firefighters and EMS union dues excluded from such bills, you ask? Some argue that it is because the exempted are public servants, Godsey told us. Under that rationale, educators belong as part of the exempted group. Teachers are the front line of public service.

The bill’s authors along with Abbott and Patrick have said such deductions costs taxpayer money. Groups who oppose such measures say taxpayers don’t pay to administer deductions because state statutes require organizations to pay that expense. (The deduction process is no different than when a state employee requests a payroll deduction for donations to nonprofit organizations like United Way).

Godsey shared with us that he’s asked lawmakers who support the measure: If payroll deductions are so bad, then why not cut them across the board and ban all state employees, not just some. The question merits an answer.

In short: There’s no need for such a measure other than politics.

“Educators have long fought to protect class sizes, strengthen school services, and reduce the emphasis on standardized testing,” Godsey wrote in an online-commentary in March. “By making membership in educator associations as burdensome as possible, these bills are designed to hurt teachers and students.”

Oh, and public schoolteachers also have fought against school vouchers.

Commentary: Why East Austin article inflamed, hurt Latinos and African Americans

For more than 50 years, East Austin was a neighborhood, home to the overwhelming majority of Austin’s African American and Latino families. Schools, community newspaper offices, barbecue and taco joints, beauty and barber shops, clubs, Mexican restaurants and storefronts that sold everything from hair supplies to groceries, filled out neighborhoods with brick and wood-frame homes, libraries, public housing and shot-gun shacks. And goodness knows, there were churches on nearly every other corner.

East Austin had its problems with crack houses, drug markets and other crime as the city and police department looked the other way and steered resources west to prevent crime and vice from crossing Interstate 35. Nonetheless East Austin was home to vibrant neighborhoods with people who looked out for one another, held block parties and crowded into churches and parks on weekends.

I know because I moved there in the late 1980s as a single parent with my children. Though I have moved north, I still attend church in East Austin.

But you wouldn’t know that East Austin, given the description in a advertorial neighborhood profile appearing in the Homes supplemental advertising sections in Saturday’s print Austin American-Statesman:

“A decade ago Austinites would rarely dare to venture to the east side of the I H 35 corridor. Though the city has never been home to truly seedy or sinister areas, going east of the highway prior to the mass gentrification of downtown was not advised. However, now that the neighborhood has been purchased by California investors and trendy millennial homeowners, East Downtown is one of the city’s most desirable locales.”

With that, another knife was plunged into an open wound. It’s no wonder social media blew up with criticism:

“Dear Austin American-Statesman: You need to do A LOT better than this. I know you’ve had staff reductions but surely someone there knows that following the City of Austin’s 1928 Master Plan, by law Blacks and Mexican-Americans were forced east across what is now the I-35 corridor. There have been families and businesses there long before it was “East Downtown.”

That was posted by A.J. Bingham, founder and principal at The Bingham Group, an Austin-based government and public affairs consultancy.

Such advertorial or “content marketing” articles are commonly published by newspapers in advertising supplements such as the Statesman’s Homes section. In some cases, the articles are paid by a specific advertiser, such as by a subdivision looking to sell homes. In this case, it was one of a series of neighborhood profiles in the Homes section and not tied to a specific advertiser. To keep the editorial and advertising efforts independent, advertising supplements are run by the advertising department, while news and editorial coverage is handled by the editors and reporters in the newsroom.

Regardless of how it came to be, the newspaper apologized for the article via social media on Saturday night and in print on Monday.

I can’t speak to the creation of this particular advertorial, but I can speak to why such words cut so deep.

It starts with understanding the city’s history and its part in displacing people of color with policies, such as the city’s infamous 1928 zoning initiative referenced by Bingham that moved African Americans out of neighborhoods, such as Bouldin Creek, Wheatsville and Clarksville, as well as the Sixth Street business district by essentially forcing them to move east of I-35, mostly north of Lady Bird Lake.

That was enforced by denying black people city services, such as utilities, unless they lived in East Austin, and imposing restrictive covenants to ban them from other neighborhoods.

Redlining and other similar discriminatory policies also led to barrios for Hispanic families.

In the past two decades as Austin’s growth exploded, East Austin suddenly became valuable real estate because of its proximity to downtown, walking distance to the Capitol, downtown hotels, bars, shops and businesses.

So the city and its powerbrokers, helped by local and out-of-state developers, turned their sights on East Austin, moving swiftly to buy out landowners and build new houses, businesses and condos, forcing out out many longtime residents who could no longer afford skyrocketing property taxes.

Many properties that owed back taxes were sold on the courthouse steps for far less than their market value. Other homeowners,  unknowing of the city’s and developers’ plan to create “East Downtown,” sold out — tired of living in an area neglected by the city, Austin school district and business leaders. In selling out, they aimed to give their families a better life in neighborhoods with better schools, parks and city services.

Ironically, the old Johnston High School campus, now Eastside Memorial High School, a predominantly Hispanic and low-income school, is slated to house the mostly white and affluent Liberal Arts and Science Academy if the school district’s $1.04 billion bond election is approved by voters in November.

Gentrification — or the second mass displacement of Austin’s people of color — has been in full swing for about two decades with much success. Many community leaders now are trying to save what little they can of East Austin as mass media continue to erase and rewrite the history of Austin’s black and Hispanic residents.

The Statesman’s advertorial inflamed those conflicts and deepened the hurt of people facing a white-out of their culture and history in this city.

And for the record, it’s not “East Downtown” or “The East End.” It’s East Austin.

 

Note: This blog was updated  to correct the date the advertorial ran in print.