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Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

La Vega seniors Aliyah Allison (right) and Kaylee Shilling have a strong chance to bring home medals from this weekend’s state meet.


Environment
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Flores calls for action on climate change while opposing Green New Deal
 Phillip Ericksen  / 
 03.14.19

U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, said investments in nuclear energy infrastructure and climate science are prudent steps in the fight against global warming, while some current proposals go too far.

Flores, a five-term congressman whose district includes Waco, said he recognizes climate change as an issue but opposes the Green New Deal championed by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York.

A member of the House Environment and Climate Change subcommittee, Flores is part of a growing number of Republicans who acknowledge the negative effects of greenhouse gas emissions and oppose the Green New Deal, which Flores calls a “new green nightmare.”

“I was pleased that all the panel and almost everybody up here on the dais has agreed that climate change is real,” Flores, a former oil and gas executive, said at a recent hearing. “The question is: how do we deal with it?”

In an interview with the Tribune-Herald, he said nuclear energy enjoys bipartisan support and cuts the carbon footprint of energy production.

“When we look three decades down the road, next-gen nuclear is competitive,” Flores said. “What we need to be looking at, in terms of a moonshot approach to abundant, clean, affordable energy, is to have the regulatory infrastructure in place, have the licensing infrastructure in place, have completed the basic research and helped facilitate the commercialization of next-gen nuclear and have it set up where that capacity can be coming online over the next three decades to capture the loss of generation as the coal plants drop offline. It’s a multi-decade moonshot.”

Flores’ views stand in contrast with President Donald Trump, who rejects mainstream climate science despite conclusive reports from the United Nations and his own administration outlining the urgency of the matter. Research shows famines, extreme weather events and wildlife disruption become more likely as average global temperatures rise.

“In terms of the macro atmospherics, sometimes some of the things he says aren’t helpful to the conversation,” Flores said. “But we in Congress can still move on a bipartisan basis in several areas.”

Flores said Congress should incentivize and encourage conservation by helping markets drive down the cost of efficient products, including LED lighting.

He opposes a carbon tax, noting more than 80 percent of energy comes from fossil fuels.

“It would have a terribly disruptive impact. … Why put a family through the pain and the economic disruption of jacking up all their costs of living with some kind of a vague promise that they’ll get some of it back somewhere in the future?” Flores said. “That dog just doesn’t hunt.”

He said public-private partnerships should play a role in the future of nuclear energy. He said renewable energy sources including solar and wind power are also a piece of the puzzle, along with improvements to natural gas pipeline infrastructure. Natural gas production and distribution systems have been blamed for leaking significant amounts of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than the much more abundantly emitted carbon dioxide.

Patrick Flavin, an associate professor of political science at Baylor University, said climate change has become “a proxy for partisan identity.”

“For example, me knowing your opinion on tax cuts or on abortion policies would give me not a perfect, but a pretty good prediction about where you stand on how big or small a problem you think climate change is or how much you really think government should do,” Flavin said. “Like most other issues, climate change has become polarized the same as just about every other political issue.”

Polling shows a stark partisan divide on the issue. According to a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll this month, 61 percent of Democrats said the federal government should be doing “a great deal” about climate change. Only 7 percent of Republicans said the same.

Thirty-six percent of Republicans said the federal government should do “nothing” about climate change, compared to 4 percent of Democrats.

Flores said Trump was correct to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, which required a 2.6 percent cut in carbon emissions each year for the next seven years.

“We were already going the right direction on emissions,” Flores said. “Our track record on emissions is the best in the world, in terms of leading industrial economies. So to somehow hamstring ourselves in with a bunch of other countries who aren’t where we are was unfair to American families. So he got it right.”

And on transportation, Flores said he supports a new fuels policy that would allow car makers to build more efficient engines and use a standard fuel in all 50 states that is cost-efficient on fuel and vehicles. He also supports the use of compressed natural gas and liquefied natural gas for trucks, trains and maritime vessels.


AP
Senate rejects Trump border emergency as Republicans defect
 
 03.14.19

WASHINGTON — The Republican-run Senate firmly rejected President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the southwest border on Thursday, setting up a veto fight and dealing him a conspicuous rebuke as he tested how boldly he could ignore Congress in pursuit of his highest-profile goal.

The Senate voted 59-41 to cancel Trump’s February proclamation of a border emergency, which he invoked to spend $3.6 billion more for border barriers than Congress had approved. Twelve Republicans joined Democrats in defying Trump in a showdown many GOP senators had hoped to avoid because he commands die-hard loyalty from millions of conservative voters who could punish defecting lawmakers in next year’s elections.

With the Democratic-controlled House’s approval of the same resolution last month, Senate passage sends it to Trump. He has shown no reluctance to casting his first veto to advance his campaign exhortation, “Build the Wall,” which has prompted roars at countless Trump rallies. Approval votes in both the Senate and House fell short of the two-thirds majorities that would be needed for an override to succeed.

“VETO!” Trump tweeted minutes after the vote.

Trump has long been comfortable vetoing the measure because he thinks it will endear him to his political base, said a White House official, commenting anonymously because the official wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Though Trump seems sure to prevail in that battle, it remains noteworthy that lawmakers of both parties resisted him in a fight directly tied to his cherished campaign theme of erecting a border wall. The roll call came just a day after the Senate took a step toward a veto fight with Trump on another issue, voting to end U.S. support for the Saudi Arabian-led coalition’s war in Yemen.

In a measure of how remarkable the confrontation was, Thursday was the first time Congress has voted to block a presidential emergency since the National Emergency Act became law in 1976.

Even before Thursday’s vote, there were warnings that GOP senators resisting Trump could face political consequences. A White House official said Trump won’t forget when senators who oppose him want him to attend fundraisers or provide other help. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on internal deliberations.

At the White House, Trump did not answer when reporters asked if there would be consequences for Republicans who voted against him.

“I’m sure he will not be happy with my vote,” said moderate Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a GOP defector who faces re-election next year in a state that reveres independent streaks in its politicians. “But I’m a United State senator and feel my job to stand up for the Constitution. So let the chips fall where they may.”

Underscoring the political pressures in play, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., one of the first Republicans to say he’d oppose Trump’s border emergency, voted Thursday to support it.

Tillis, who faces a potentially difficult re-election race next year, cited talks with the White House that suggest Trump could be open to restricting presidential emergency powers in the future. Tillis wrote in a Washington Post opinion column last month that there’d be “no intellectual honesty” in backing Trump after his repeated objections about executive overreach by President Barack Obama.

Still, the breadth of opposition among Republicans suggested how concern about his declaration had spread to all corners of the GOP. Republican senators voting for the resolution blocking Trump included Mitt Romney of Utah, the party’s 2012 presidential candidate; Mike Lee of Utah, a solid conservative; Trump 2016 presidential rivals Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a respected centrist.

Republicans control the Senate 53-47. Democrats solidly opposed Trump’s declaration.

Presidents have declared 58 national emergencies since the 1976 law, but this was the first aimed at accessing money that Congress had explicitly denied, according to Elizabeth Goitein, co-director for national security at New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice.

Trump and Republicans backing him said there is a legitimate security and humanitarian crisis at the border with Mexico. They also said Trump was merely exercising his powers under the law, which largely leaves it to presidents to decide what a national emergency is.

“The president is operating within existing law, and the crisis on our border is all too real,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Opponents said Trump’s assertion of an emergency was overblown. They said he issued his declaration only because Congress agreed to provide less than $1.4 billion for barriers and he was desperate to fulfill his campaign promise on the wall. They said the Constitution gives Congress, not presidents, control over spending and said Trump’s stretching of emergency powers would invite future presidents to do the same for their own concerns.

“He’s obsessed with showing strength, and he couldn’t just abandon his pursuit of the border wall, so he had to trample on the Constitution to continue his fight,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

Republicans had hoped that Trump would endorse a separate bill by Utah’s Sen. Lee constraining emergency declarations in the future and that would win over enough GOP senators to reject Thursday’s resolution.

But Trump told Lee on Wednesday that he opposed Lee’s legislation, prompting Lee himself to say he would back the resolution.

The strongest chance of blocking Trump remains several lawsuits filed by Democratic state attorneys general, environmental groups and others. Those cases could effectively block Trump from diverting extra money to barrier construction for months or longer.

On Twitter, Trump called on Republicans to oppose the resolution, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., helped drive through the House last month.

“Today’s issue is BORDER SECURITY and Crime!!! Don’t vote with Pelosi!” he tweeted, invoking the name of a Democrat who boatloads of GOP ads have villainized in recent campaign cycles.

Other Republicans voting against Trump’s border emergency were Roy Blunt of Missouri, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rob Portman of Ohio, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Roger Wicker of Mississippi.

The National Emergency Act gives presidents wide leeway in declaring an emergency. Congress can vote to block a declaration, but the two-thirds majorities required to overcome presidential vetoes make it hard for lawmakers to prevail.

Lee had proposed letting a presidential emergency declaration last 30 days unless Congress voted to extend it. That would have applied to future emergencies but not Trump’s current order unless he sought to renew it next year.


Time running short to negotiate renewal of federal safety net funds for health care for uninsured Texans
 
 03.14.19

To understand how the Texas health care safety net for uninsured residents works in 2019, consider the Western Hills mental health clinic in an impoverished neighborhood in West Fort Worth.

The outpatient clinic, occupying a modest space in a red-brick strip mall, serves about 1,000 people a month, mostly patients with low incomes and without health insurance. Psychiatrists and nurse practitioners prescribe medication and ask questions — do you have a job? stable housing? — to see if they can help the patient sign up for other services. For complicated cases, the clinic dispatches specialists who work in patients’ homes.

The clinic is primarily paid for with a pot of federal and local funding with a roughly $5 billion annual value that makes up a significant chunk of the state’s health care budget. The clinic is run by a government entity, MHMR of Tarrant County, which uses local tax dollars and some state funding to leverage about $20 million each year from the federal government, according to its chief executive, Susan Garnett. The federal funding makes up more than 10 percent of the mental health authority’s roughly $160 million annual budget. It’s one of hundreds of projects in Texas that receives the federal funding.

“I believe these dollars have both saved and improved the lives of people who have serious mental illnesses and struggle with poverty and uncertain housing,” Garnett said.

But advocates for the state’s nearly 5 million uninsured residents worry that some of that funding could be in jeopardy. The 1115 waiver, as it’s known, is a $25 billion, five-year agreement between Texas and the federal government. Although much of the waiver funding doesn’t expire until 2021, a broad coalition of doctors, hospitals and patient advocates is sounding the alarm about its future. If state lawmakers want the federal government to continue footing much of the tab for the state’s health care safety net, they say, the Texas Legislature needs to do something this legislative session to send a clear signal to the Trump administration that the funding should continue.

Because the Texas Legislature only convenes every two years, proponents of the funding say lawmakers must act with urgency. They want lawmakers, who have said little in public about the issue, to order the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to begin negotiating a new waiver.

“If they would direct HHSC to go with a full-court press to get as much money as we can, as creatively as we can, HHSC might do that,” said Elena Marks, president of the Houston-based Episcopal Health Foundation. “But HHSC is not going to do that without them being told.”

For Garnett, if the federal funding went away, “I don’t know how we could possibly consider continuing to operate a clinic there. We literally couldn’t afford to.”.

A spokeswoman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission downplayed the urgency of a new round of waiver negotiations and said the agency could negotiate an extension on its own, without explicit direction from Gov. Greg Abbott or the Legislature. The agency “is working to ensure the smooth operation of the current iteration” and “will have an opportunity in September 2021 to ask for another extension,” spokeswoman Christine Mann said in an emailed statement.

Health care advocates are pushing for a budget rider this year that would require the health agency to do so, but lawmakers have not included any such language in the spending plan.

A spokeswoman for the Senate’s chief budget writer, state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, did not respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman for state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, said Wednesday he was unavailable for comment.

The 1115 waiver funds serve two main purposes: reimbursing hospitals for the “uncompensated care” they provide to poor patients without health insurance and funding innovative health care projects, many of them in the mental health field, that serve low-income Texans.

The Obama administration first approved Texas’ waiver in 2011, after the passage of the Affordable Care Act. At the time, the sweeping federal health law was going to require states to extend publicly funded insurance coverage to poor adults in a process known as Medicaid expansion. The Obama administration viewed the 1115 waivers it granted to states, in part, as a way of gearing up the states’ capacity to serve an influx of newly insured people — and in Texas, which has the nation’s highest rate of uninsured residents, there were potentially millions of them.

But a few months after the signing of the Texas waiver, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling gutted the Medicaid expansion portion of the health law. States were no longer required to offer Medicaid coverage to their poor populations, and Texas’ Republican leadership stood fast against expanding Medicaid, which they derided as a bloated entitlement program.

Still, Republicans from Abbott down have worked behind the scenes to maintain the waiver funding. That led to conflict with the Obama administration, which told Texas it would be more cost-effective to provide health coverage via Medicaid expansion rather than reimburse the hospitalization costs of the uninsured. Abbott did not budge on Medicaid expansion, and in 2017, an ascendant Trump administration nonetheless approved Texas’ request for an extension. The governor touted it as evidence he had delivered on his promise of “preserving access to care without expanding a broken Medicaid system under Obamacare.”

Two years later, advocates say the future of the waiver beyond 2021 is less certain. The Trump administration proposed a spending plan this week that would cut government payments to hospitals and further limit eligibility for Medicaid coverage.

“I think we all have this anxiety about getting to the cliff and then trying to do something,” said Doug Curran, president of the Texas Medical Association and a proponent of the waiver renewal. “These federal dollars are our federal dollars, and we ought to be using them.”

It’s not just large, public hospitals in big cities that depend on the waiver, said John Henderson, president of the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals. If the waiver funding weren’t renewed, he predicts a wave of hospital closures would result.

“From a rural hospital’s perspective, [the waiver funding] makes a big red number on their financial statements a smaller red number, which ultimately helps them delay or defer what has become a closure crisis in Texas,” he said.

Garnett, of MHMR of Tarrant County, said she remained optimistic that the state and federal government would reach a deal to preserve the safety net. In addition to paying for the Western Hills clinic, which opened in 2013, waiver funding has helped the mental health authority hire specialists and expand services to new patients.

“Because it is such a significant proportion of the services that are provided … I really believe we’re going to get this figured out,” she said. “I’m not sitting around planning for the doomsday scenario.”