Trump gets Barbara Jordan’s immigration views wrong

Former Rep. Barbara Jordan (AMERICAN-STATESMAN file)

President Trump invoked the words of the late Barbara Jordan, the trailblazing Texas Democrat, in a statement Wednesday on the 22nd anniversary of her death. But the statement seemed less about her than about Trump’s politics on immigration. Not surprisingly, it drew the ire of Texas Dems and scholars who said the president had misrepresented Jordan’s views for political gain.

Reaction was swift on Twitter:

Twitter user @Commonsenseb0t wrote:

While @Cellularlinks said:

And @JoelKlebanoff had this stinging take:

In his statement, Trump tied his “America First” immigration agenda to the “spirit” of Jordan’s vision. The president said Jordan “epitomized the American Dream she worked so tirelessly to protect.” He noted that in 1966 Jordan was the first African American woman elected to the Texas Senate and, in 1973, became the first woman to serve Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives, a seat she held until 1979.

Mostly, though, Trump — who has been criticized for comments he made about restricting immigration from some poor countries — focused on some of Jordan’s views on immigration.

Trump said Jordan challenged our nation’s leaders “to maximize opportunities for all Americans by adopting an immigration policy that puts American citizens first.” He’s right.

As chairman of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, Jordan said the commission believed that the nation needed a properly regulated system of legal immigration that set limits on the number of immigrants — 550,000 — on a yearly basis. It’s no secret that Trump would like to limit who gets into the U.S.

As committee chair, Jordan “was reflecting the views of the commission, a group of people, and she was taking a middle position,” Ruth Wasem, an LBJ School public policy practice professor who was a Congressional Research Service immigration specialist, told the American-Statesman.

“Jordan called for an end to chain migration, which has allowed millions upon millions of low-skilled foreign nationals to compete for opportunities and resources against our most vulnerable American citizens — many of whom come from African-American and Hispanic-American communities,” Trump said in the statement.

Several studies show that claim is misleading.

“The impact of immigrant labor on the wages of native-born workers is low… However, undocumented workers often work the unpleasant, back-breaking jobs that native-born workers are not willing to do,” Vanda Felbab-Brown wrote in her Brookings Institution Essay, “The Wall.”

Immigrants find jobs because Americans don’t want the jobs that are available.

Those more likely to “steal” American jobs are immigrant professionals — engineers and technology workers — of which Trump suggests we need more.

More importantly, Trump’s statement doesn’t appropriately reflect Jordan’s immigration views.

Wasem said that Jordan was worried about the impact of unskilled immigration on minorities but that she was not advocating a return to race-based immigration policies. “She wanted to fully incorporate immigrants into American society,” Wasem said.

As President Lyndon B. Johnson’s protegee, Jordan found inspiration in Johnson’s Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 which — besides concentrating on attracting skilled labor — abolished a quota system based on national origin and focused on reuniting families.

It would be inaccurate to paint Barbara Jordan as a supporter of racist policies that discriminate against immigrants from poor countries, said Jeremi Suri, a University of Texas history and global affairs professor.

“Jordan would find such positions offensive,” Suri said.

Missing from Trump’s cynical attempt to connect Jordan’s immigration views to his are her support of refugees and respect for all people. Respect for others was not unique to Jordan in her time. It was present in the nation’s overall political climate then.

Oh, how things have changed.

During her congressional tenure, both sides of the aisle favored civil rights-related rhetoric, Suri said. That rhetoric, he said, centered around inclusion, absence of prejudice and the belief that all parts of the world should be respected.

Back then it was rhetoric that Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democrat Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill could agree on, even if policy didn’t always back the rhetoric, Suri added.
Not anymore.

“Today we have the party of Reagan regularly, its leaders, use racist rhetoric when they talk about people of color and immigrants,” Suri said.

And, it seems, shamelessly use the legacy of beloved leaders of color like Jordan for political gain.

Updated to reflect Jordan’s time as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Proposed downtown soccer stadium will need parking options

A new 20,000seat stadium with no on-site parking in downtown Austin?

It’s a fairy tale, right?

Who is to say. What is certain is that this is what owners of Major League Soccer team Columbus Crew SC envision for their potential move to Austin’s Butler Shores.

From a soccer fan’s standpoint, I share in this wishful thinking. Transportation network companies like Ride Austin, Uber, Lyft and others will be key to getting people to a downtown soccer game; that’s a given.  But I’m also cognizant of Austin’s dominant car-centric culture and lack of expansive, efficient public transportation.

If Columbus Crew SC wants a real shot at a downtown location, it needs to present a plan that includes parking options for those unwilling to leave their cars behind.

Precourt Sports Ventures, which operates the team, announced in October that it was exploring a move to Austin for the 2019 season. In a meeting Tuesday with the American-Statesman editorial board, PSV president Dave Greeley said that finding the right stadium is critical to a potential move here, preferably in the center of the city.

In November, the city council passed a resolution directing city staff to study city-owned property including underutilized parkland suitable for both a 20,000-plus stadium and a large practice facility.  City staff will present their findings at the Dec. 14 City Council meeting.

But it’s clear that PSV would like one spot in particular: 200 South Lamar. The site of Butler Shores Metropolitan Park checks all the boxes on the team’s wish list for its potential new home, Richard Suttle, an Austin attorney and MLS lobbyist who is working for PSV told the editorial board.

Last week, PSV made public a preliminary rendering of a 20,000-seat stadium tightly tucked into the western half of well-worn Butler Shores, leaving some parkland to the east.

Noticeably missing from the rendering are on-site parking options. There are none.

Instead of providing on-site parking, the group told us, fans would take any transportation means necessary — buses, trains, taxis, ride-hailing services, mom’s minivan — to get to the downtown stadium. You know, like they do in Portland, Orlando and in Europe and Latin America. Getting there without cars is just part of the soccer fan culture, PSV folks tell us.

It’s not a far-fetched idea. There are plenty of soccer stadiums around the world — some here in the U.S. — with no parking. The transportation culture, however, is different here.

Austinites love their cars, and they rely on them to get everywhere.  A lack of robust public transportation options and pure habit fuel our need to drive ourselves everywhere, including downtown. That dependency on a car is emphasized for folks who don’t live near the city’s core. Unlike other cities, there aren’t enough bus or rail routes in the region that feed into downtown, especially not from Central Texas counties to the east, west or south.

Our single-line computer rail system — Capital Metro’s Red Line — stretches 32 miles and serves nine stations. In comparison, Portland’s MAX Light Rail system consists of five separate lines serving 97 stations.

Falling bus ridership is the reason Capital Metro will soon implement an overhaul of its routes.

We drive to work. That’s why Austin is the 13th-most congested city in the country, according to a recent report by transportation analytic firm INRIX. The same report found that Austin ranks 42nd-worst in the world in traffic congestion.

All reasons why a downtown stadium in Austin with no parking raises eyebrows.

Perhaps it’s possible. Thousands, after all, pour into downtown over two weekends for the ACL Music Festival, which takes place in the same vicinity as the proposed stadium. That smooth operation requires street closures, detailed parking options and organized shuttles to the park. And, it helps that ACL attendees don’t all arrive nor do they leave all at the same time.

PSV says it has identified 13,000 parking spaces within a 20-minute walk to the Butler Shores stadium site which fans can use. But it’s unrealistic to think that only soccer fans would have free run of those parking spaces. Instead, they would compete with everyone else who ventures downtown for entertainment and other events for those very same parking spots.

With a typical near 20-home game schedule — some of those dates overlapping with ACL and SXSW festivals — PSV needs to come up with innovative solutions that don’t add to already congested downtown streets. Their proposed shuttle services — including from its training facilities to the stadium — is a good start.

A new Capital Metro president to be named next year, will tackle the traffic-grid issues that plague our ever-congested region. But solutions, especially those that get people out of their cars, will be slow in coming. The city’s car-centric culture, I fear, will be one hard habit to break. As such, the club needs to have detailed downtown Austin stadium parking and travel plans ready.

Relying on a hope that people will magically make their way to a stadium without creating more traffic congestion in a city already known for its gridlock could set us all up for disappointment.

Texas can, should do better for state living center residents

Liz Belile visits her sister Shanna in the Austin State Supported Living Center in West Austin Monday October 30, 2017. Belile’s sister suffers from a seizure disorder and needs permanent care, but having her in Austin has provided her with the opportunity to look in on her regularly and tend to her other needs. (RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

A glint of hope. That’s how Austin American-Statesman reporter Andrea Ball described the slow, gradual progress Texas has achieved in eight years to improve the state’s 13 supported living centers for people with developmental disabilities.

It’s an adequate description. As Ball’s recent investigation showed, all 13 centers report improvements in medical care, fewer resident injuries, and fewer cases of abuse and neglect. However, substandard medical care and safety remain a problem in some centers.

Texas’ 3,000 supported living center residents are among the most severely disabled and hardest to place because they require a level of care and security that can only be provided in an institutional setting.

As such, officials need to continue to push for improvements until each institution delivers the care and protection owed to this vulnerable population.

Sadly, Texas had for decades failed to comply with demands for better medical, dental and psychiatric care for state living center residents. On more than one occasion, Texas promised to do better. Each time, state leaders failed to deliver.

Until now, I hope.

The wheel of change began to move after a 2008 Justice Department investigation found a long list of medical care failings at state living centers, including the deaths in a single year of at least 114 residents, 53 of those from preventable conditions. The Justice Department required the state to overhaul the services the centers provide, the way they perform them and the way they measure success.

Since 2009, the state has spent $233 million to hire, train and monitor new employees. Texas has spent another $24 million for Justice Department-required, independent monitoring teams to evaluate all centers on a regular basis, and $12 million for consultants.

As expected, change has come slowly.

According to Ball’s reporting:

  • From 2010 to 2016, a 35 percent decrease in confirmed cases of abuse, from 429 to 277.
  • Between 2014 and 2017, a 25 percent decrease in reported injuries to residents, from 42,673 to 32,166.
  • Of injuries reported, 298 were considered serious, down from 516 in 2014.
  • Since 2014, a 32 percent decrease in reported injuries to center employees by aggressive residents, from 1,624 to 1,111.

Any progress made so far helps, but when Medicaid officials threatened to halt the flow of federal money to nine centers a total of 25 times in the last year over concerns of resident safety and substandard medical care, it’s a loud signal that there’s still plenty of work to be done.

State officials are on the right track. A change in how the Justice Department and state measure progress, by focusing more on individual outcomes instead of processes, should put centers on a faster track to meeting the federal expectations, according to officials. Officials must seize this opportunity to move the needle for meaningful change further and faster.

For most residents, their profound disabilities make them dependent on these institutions. It’s important that officials get it right for them. In doing so, maybe, officials help redeem the word of Texas.

It’s time for FAA to pass stricter hot air balloon pilot regulations

Law enforcement and investigative teams examine the scene of a hot air balloon crash that killed 16 people near Lockhart, Texas, on Saturday, July 30, 2016. (RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded during a hearing on last week that lack of oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of commercial balloon pilots contributed to the deadly balloon crash two years ago in Lockhart, which killed 15 paying passengers and the balloon pilot.

The loss of so many lives might have been avoided on July 30, 2016 had stricter FAA safety regulations been in place — as suggested in 2013 by its own agency safety investigator and by the NTSB in 2014. Since the tragic incident, family members of the victims and state lawmakers also have called for improved safety regulations.

Unfortunately, many don’t expect the FAA to act on families’ requests or the NTSB recommendation. One sign that the agency might be reluctant to act, experts say, is the aviation agency’s recently appointed deputy administrator, Dan Elwell. Elwell previously served on the Trump administration’s “deregulation team,” tasked with reducing the number of federal government regulations.

It’s shameful that the FAA didn’t budge after its own safety experts recommended change four years ago.  It will be incomprehensible if it doesn’t act now.

A cocktail of prescription drugs — including oxycodone, Valium and enough Benadryl to approximate the effects of drunken driving — contributed to pilot Alfred “Skip” Nichols’ pattern of poor decision-making that caused the crash in Lockhart, an NTSB investigation found. Safety board officials also found Nichols had a lengthy criminal history involving drunken driving and drug convictions that he never disclosed to the FAA.

During last Tuesday’s hearing, the NTSB recommended that the FAA require medical checks for commercial balloon pilots — as it does for helicopter and airplane pilots. Currently, the FAA only requires that balloon pilots be certified and their balloons be regularly inspected by authorities.

Medical checks detect the use of prohibited medications, potentially impairing medical conditions and any history of driving while intoxicated.

The FAA shouldn’t just “carefully consider” the NTSB recommendation, as it stated after the hearing. It should rush to implement it.

Until now, the FAA has not articulated why their rules exempt hot air balloon pilots from medical certificate requirements.  Countries such as England, Canada and Australia require the certificates for their balloon pilots, the American-Statesman’s Jeremy Schwartz reported.

Instead, most safety measures enacted in the ballooning industry have come from a Balloon Federation of America (BFA) volunteer program designed for its member pilots. Pilots who participate in the program are assigned one of three levels of safety accreditation defined by the safety requirements the pilot has met. Consumers can use the program to select a hot air balloon ride company or pilot based on those safety accreditations.

It’s a great effort by the BFA. However, the program, though comprehensive, doesn’t apply to every balloon pilot. Some balloon pilots — like Nichols in the Lockhart case — aren’t BFA members.

Balloon customers need to know that their pilot’s track record and experience is trustworthy, regardless of association membership.

Why isn’t the FAA implementing the NTSB’s recommendation?

In 2013, an FAA safety inspector raised balloon pilot concerns and made suggestions similar to those later made by the NTSB. FAA Chief Michael Huerta overruled the FAA safety inspector’s recommendations. Why? High cost and low risk, the The Wall Street Journal reported.

It’s true. The risk of hot air balloon accidents is low and fatal hot air-balloon incidents are rare.

Between 1964 and 2014 — before the Lockhart crash — balloon crashes killed a total of 114 people in 67 incidents in the U.S., according to a National Transportation Safety Board database.

The deadliest air balloon accident prior to Lockhart occurred in February 2013 when a hot air balloon caught fire over Luxor, Egypt killing 19 of the 21 people on board.

Human error is bound to lead to accidents without stricter pilot regulations in place. Requiring medical certificates, as the NTSB recommends, is one way to lower that human error probability.

Meaningful action taken now by FAA would further minimize the risk of fatal balloon incidents.

But as I mentioned, not many believe the FAA will act on potentially life-saving recommendations.

State Rep. John Cyrier, a Republican representing Lockhart, said last week that there’s no question in his mind that it will require an act of Congress to enact the safety board’s recommendations. “It’s going to take citizens and everyone involved to ask their congressmen to make this happen,” he said.

The FAA shouldn’t let it come to that.

 

When will more state agency workers at HHSC get their raise?

Mary Ramirez, a Health and Human Services employee from Houston, marches on Congress Avenue during the Texas State Employees Union rally at the Capitol on Wednesday April 12, 2017. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The number of Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) administrators making more than $200,000 a year or more has reached a new high, according to a recent report by the Dallas Morning News. Meanwhile, the agency’s low-level workers, who have gone without pay raises for years, continue to be overlooked when it comes to getting more compensation.

That has to change.

Until our state leaders address the issues associated with overworked employees on HHSC’s front lines, the agency that began a massive overhaul last year for recurring inefficiencies can expect such troubles to continue.

Yes, the state has made changes at HHSC after state reports uncovered the inefficiencies. The reports found they were due in part to overworked and underpaid staff.

As a result of the findings from state reports, the state approved $150 million in emergency funding for CPS to hire 829 employees – including 550 caseworkers and investigators – as well as to fund a $12,000 pay raise for 6,000 special investigators and caseworkers.

Though CPS is not an HHSC agency anymore — a move approved by the Legislature earlier this year — it’s important to note that the majority of low-level CPS employees were left feeling the sting of not getting pay raises. Veteran CPS employees who play crucial roles shielding kids from abuse felt betrayed, the Dallas Morning News reported.

I’m guessing that’s how most employees at HHSC are feeling right about now. After all, over the past 13 months, under the direction of the commission’s newest executive commissioner, Charles Smith, 10 top commission officials have received five-digit pay raises ranging between $10,000 and $72,000 each, according to a Morning News review of open records.

HHSC now has 11 administrators making well over $200,000 a year. Yet, since his arrival last year, Smith has not advocated for pay raises for his agency’s more than 33,000 rank-and-file workers.

Thousands of the commission’s lower-level employees “haven’t had a real pay raise” in years, Texas State Employees Union president Judy Lugo told the Morning News. That has meant some staff turn to CHIP for their children’s health insurance, and many are on food stamps, Lugo said.

More than 7 million vulnerable Texans depend on HHSC programs for the poor, elderly and disabled. The employees who help them should receive raises, Lugo said.

I agree.

The recent overhaul at HHSC did not happen without a reason. During its once-a-decade review of HHSC, the state Sunset Advisory Commission found that five agencies — HHSC, the Department of Aging and Disability Services, Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services, Department of State Health Services and Department of Family and Protective Services — were wrought with inefficiencies brought on by various factors, including miscommunication and redundancy.

If state leaders were serious about improving those agencies — all now part of HHSC — they should consider increasing the salaries of more low-level employees.

 

Small communities affected by Harvey need our attention

Cecilia Gutierrez looked for clothes she could salvage from her mobile home which was damaged by flooding from Hurricane Harvey. (RESHMA KIRPALANI / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

The nation – perhaps the world – is aware of the devastation Hurricane Harvey caused in Texas. Many know of Houston’s ongoing struggle to recover. Forgotten are the smaller towns along the coast and beyond that are also hurting from the destruction caused by Harvey.

The saga of how small towns have been overlooked has been the focus of an American-Statesman two-part series that concludes Sunday. Reporters Sean Collins Walsh and Jeremy Schwartz found that recovery efforts are nearly non-existent in areas receiving little to no attention from state and federal officials.

Experts in disaster recovery say it’s common for small communities to struggle to compete for state and federal relief funds.

For that reason, small communities should lobby their state representatives to urge Gov. Greg Abbott to tap into the state’s $10 billion savings account, the Economic Stabilization Fund (the official name of the Rainy Day Fund), for their recovery efforts.

Places like La Grange, with its population of 4,690, are in dire need of help. There, a wall of water made its way down the Colorado River, cresting at 54.2 feet and displacing more than 100 residents. In Columbus, population 3,625, an entire neighborhood experienced severe flooding, displacing most residents. In these and other smaller communities, natural disasters often affect a greater percentage of the population than they do in big cities, making it more difficult to get back to normal, Walsh reported.

Governments in small cities often lack the manpower or expertise to handle what promises to be years of seeking grants and recovery funds from the federal government. Unincorporated areas — where residents do not pay city taxes that provide services like street repairs, sewer maintenance and other social services — are at a higher risk of being overlooked when resources are distributed because they have no officials, like a mayor, advocating for them.

Shannon Van Zandt, a Texas A&M professor who has studied disaster responses, said such “nonentitlement jurisdictions,” must instead look to funds distributed by the county or local council of governments and “compete for what recovery money is left over from the entitlement jurisdictions and hope that it funnels some money their way.”

The choice to request relief funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is a difficult decision for some small communities, like Seadrift City, which has a population of just over 1,500. FEMA requires a 10- to 25-percent match paid upfront from the requesting city, an amount not readily accessible to the town, Schwartz reports.

This brings us back to the Rainy Day Fund.

Experts, state officials and local leaders in affected areas have requested that Texas dip into the fund to help recovery efforts. Abbott rejected such a request made on Monday by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Now was not the time, Abbott said of Turner’s request. The state, Abbott said, will eventually tap into the Rainy Day Fund to help cover hurricane-related costs. But that won’t happen anytime soon — not until the next legislative session, which starts in January 2019.

That may not seem very promising. But small communities shouldn’t be discouraged by Abbott’s response, said Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp.

“One of the things that Abbott really seriously wanted was for us to pay special attention to the smaller areas and least populated areas, and make sure none of those were overlooked,” said Sharp, who was tapped by Abbott to lead the hurricane recovery effort in Texas. “I’m from probably the second-smallest town in the whole impacted area, so I’m really sensitive to that kind of thing.”

If true, that could be mean good news for folks in La Grange, Columbus, Bayside and other hard-hit small communities. It will be up to the people in those small communities to keep up the pressure and ensure they aren’t overlooked. It’s up to Texans to ensure these small communities know they aren’t forgotten.

Lack of offensive content can’t be the only measure for newly proposed Mexican-American textbook

In 2016, Texas State Board of Education member Ruben Cortez, Jr. speaks out against the error-prone Mexican-American Heritage textbook voted down.
RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

After rejecting a proposed Mexican American studies textbook that critics blasted as a racist portrayal of Latinos, members of the Texas State Board of Education have two months to review another book. If adopted in November, the new book will be added to a list of recommended textbooks available for use by Texas students next school year.

On Wednesday, the board was presented with the latest proposal, “The Mexican American Studies Toolkit,” written by Tony Diaz, a Mexican-American studies professor at Lone Star College and a Houston-area activist.

Diaz’s book, which was written in less than a year, is the second Mexican American studies textbook the board has considered since last September. Board members should proceed carefully with their review given how quickly the project was produced. Most academic textbooks take more than a year to write — sometimes longer — experts say. Last November, board members rejected another textbook that critics said was an error-riddled racist portrayal of Mexican Americans.

Last year, about 100 people filled the Texas State Board of Education meeting room to protest “Mexican American Heritage,” which referred to Mexicans as “lazy” and contained about 140 factual errors, according to Mexican American history experts.

“The Mexican American Studies Toolkit,” focuses on identity, race, culture and political issues facing Mexican Americans today.

In its preface, Diaz writes:

“Most media outlets can provide short answers to deep questions but there are not enough places where we can engage in deep discussion about identity, race, culture and other issues that not only influence one group of Americans but all of us. … This book is part of the answer.”

Diaz also writes that the book is intended to “dispel the illusion that Mexican American history and culture is foreign.”

Board Chairwoman Donna Bahorich, R-Houston, and Vice Chairman Marty Rowley, R-Amarillo, said they are optimistic they can adopt Diaz’s book in November, but the board still needs to ensure that the contents are error free and meet state requirements, the American-Statesman reported.

That’s encouraging. But the board should also ensure that the book shines a light on how the inspiring achievements of Mexican Americans are woven into the fabric of American history. That’s what experts and the Mexican American community expect. Board members should give serious consideration to feedback from those who have reviewed the book. When Diaz presented the book last week, he was the only person to comment on the book before the Texas School Board of Education.

A Mexican-American studies professor, Diaz has credentials to create a worthy book for Texas students.

“I haven’t seen anything or heard from anybody that leads me to think there is an area of concern. That’s good news,” board secretary Ruben Cortez, D-Brownsville, said Wednesday. Cortez was among many who were critical of the first proposed textbook.

That Diaz’s book has not produced any serious reasons for objection may be a good sign.

Texas students deserve an honest and complete representation of the role Mexican Americans have had in shaping our state and nation. Here’s hoping Diaz has delivered on what his book promises.

Big or small, efforts to help Harvey victims need accountability

The University of Houston Department of Intercollegiate Athletics, led by the football team and head coach Major Applewhite, held a Hurricane Harvey collection day.
(RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

It didn’t take long after the first images appeared of the destruction Hurricane Harvey caused for Texans to help those in need.

Good-hearted Americans quickly dug into their pockets and donated as much as they could. The options for donors have been plenty: from long-standing non-profits known for their relief work like the American Red Cross to new fund-raisers that popped up instantly and organically, like Houston Texans star J.J. Watt’s online efforts to raise money for the victims. The message to all donors is the same: No matter how small or large your donation, demand accountability from the organizations entrusted with your money to help those in need.

Accountability leads to trust. And trust encourages Americans’ willingness to give, especially after horrific disasters like the devastation experienced in Houston.

Hurricane Harvey killed 82 people and is estimated to have caused up to $160 billion in damage, impacting more than 100,000 homes and making it one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history. President Trump has approved $15 billion in disaster aid for victims.

The will to help was so overwhelming that non-profit organizations working closely with Houston disaster relief efforts stopped accepting non-monetary donations for a host of reasons, including that they lacked space to store donated items and they couldn’t distribute food with short shelf lives fast enough.

Texans and anyone else wanting to help were asked to donate money to their favorite organizations with troops on the ground along the Texas Gulf Coast.

The response was impressive.

More than 50 local and national charities have raised over $350 million in the nearly three weeks since Hurricane Harvey struck, the Associated Press reported.

Non-profit organizations consider monetary donations practical. To start, money under the watchful eye of trustworthy organizations can be easily tracked, lending a degree of transparency. Non-profits are required to keep a record of how each dollar is spent.

Through monetary donations, organizations also can better determine how much they can spend to meet the immediate needs of victims and how much to put in reserve to help later with needs that emerge as victims begin to put their lives back together, Monica Maldonado Williams, the founder and editor of GivingCity Austin, told me recently. Long-standing organizations like the Red Cross, Maldonado Williams said, have the resources — though limited — and the experience to get the job done.

In recent years, however, news reports have led to a distrust of some large charities like the American Red Cross. The reports have cited the Red Cross’ slow and lacking response in its relief efforts, including 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy and the Haiti earthquake. As a result, wanting to make sure that their money is well spent, many donors choose to give to smaller, local organizations.

Consider Watt’s online fundraiser: More than 200,000 people answered Watt’s social media call to raise money for Harvey victims. Watt initially set a goal of raising $200,000, but increased that amount incrementally as more and more people gave to the crowdfunding account he created on YouCaring.com.

Just hours before the site’s 5 p.m. deadline on Friday, donors had given nearly $35 million. Major corporations, athletes and celebrities made sizable donations. They included H-E-B ($5 million), the Houston Texans ($1 million), Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon ($1 million) and Rapper/songwriter Drake ($200,000), to name a few.

But it was the smaller donations — most under $100 — by thousands of people that drove the fundraiser’s success, Watt said.

Still, most of the money raised for Harvey relief has gone to the Red Cross, which has collected at least $211 million, according to the Associated Press. A Texas Department of Public Safety report showed that the Red Cross has already disbursed $46.4 million to 116,000 people, the Washington Post reported.

People want to feel that what they give will help those they see hurting, Maldonado Williams said. Even if the efforts are being led by a charismatic, well-respected celebrity, Texans need to ask the same questions they’d ask of larger charities, she said.

It is important for Texans and beyond to do their homework before they blindly donate. After all, disasters don’t just bring out the best in us, they also bring out the worst in those who exploit the misfortunes of others. For that reason, we should demand accountability from all organizations claiming to help victims.

How will the money be distributed? Does the organization have the infrastructure needed to get as many volunteers out to as many victims who need help? When will the money be distributed? How will the money be tracked?

These are some of the questions Maldonado Williams said should be asked of any charity organization.

She’s right.

As of Friday, Watt had yet to disclose a long-term plan for the nearly $35 million he helped raise.

Houston Texans communications director Amy Palcic told the Houston Press that a thorough plan with information on how people can apply for funds and how the money will be used, will be released soon. No date was specified.

What Watt has accomplished is truly remarkable. The sheer number of people who responded to his call to action is testament of the love people have for him.

How the work of the Red Cross, Watt and other organizations will ultimately help Harvey’s victims is a story still in progress. Americans will be watching and demanding accountability.

Travis county DA’s new family violence policy shows promise

The Honorable Margaret Moore at the Heman Marion-Sweatt Courthouse Tuesday morning January 3, 2017. (RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

There are myriad complex reasons why domestic violence victims stay with their abusers. In many cases, it is fear that the abuser will deliver on threats to hurt – or kill – the victim or people close to the victim, including children, friends and family members. Many of those reasons are also why – once police and courts are involved – many victims choose to reconcile rather than press charges against their aggressors.

Reconciliation not only keeps victims in dangerous relationships, it also makes it more difficult to bring charges that result in criminal convictions.

Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore may have found a way to reduce the opportunity of reconciliation with a new policy she instituted to contact victims within 48 hours of an arrest. The policy could be a game-changer in addressing one of the county’s most common felonies: family violence.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 20 people are physically abused by intimate partners every minute in the U.S. In Texas, one in three individuals will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes, according to the Texas Council on Family Violence.

Through June of this year, Travis County authorities filed 824 family violence cases, with more than half — 455 — involving intimate partners.

A victim knows well the extent an abuser will go to maintain control of the victim. Victims know that leaving is as dangerous a risk as staying.

A study of domestic violence-related homicides by the American Journal of Public Heath looked at 4,470 individuals killed in domestic violence–related incidents. Eighty percent were victims killed by their abusers.  The remaining 20 percent included family members, new intimate partners, friends, acquaintances, police officers and strangers.

Moore’s 48-hour contact policy replaces a grinding outreach through mailing letters — many of which went to old addresses, the American-Statesman’s Ryan Autullo reported.

The new policy also turns two part-time positions into a full-time intake attorney — yet another way to speed up prosecutions, the district attorney said.

To relieve an overflowing docket, Moore appointed a family violence prosecutor to each of the eight district judges’ courts. The move, Moore told me in an email, has resulted in fewer cases for family violence attorneys and more for trial division attorneys. Since January, family violence attorneys have drawn about 100-125 cases each, down from about 400 last year before the new policy was implemented. Trial Division attorneys have drawn about 180-259 cases each since January, up from about 146 last year.

All attorneys will continue to work at a fast pace under the new policy, though domestic violence cases are among the most time-intensive cases the office handles, Moore said.

That’s something to keep an eye on, especially if an increased number of cases adds stress to already overburdened Trial Division attorneys.

If so, Moore should revisit the policy, so that other areas serving Travis County aren’t negatively affected.

Right now, the new policy shows promise. Figures from the first half of 2017 show grand juries are hearing family violence cases, on average, 47 days after an arrest. That’s down from 77 days in 2016.

That’s good news. The longer it takes to investigate a case, the more likely a victim will reconcile with the abuser – and that makes it more difficult to bring an abuser to justice, allowing abusers to continue to hurt others.

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.