One topic dominated last week’s Texas Senate Finance Committee hearings: Lawmakers didn’t disguise concern over the complaints they hear budget cycle after budget cycle from angry constituents who fritter away their lives at Texas Department of Public Safety driver license offices, waiting for some clerk in a half-staffed office to help them to obtain or renew a driver’s license.

Republican Congressman Bill Flores’ decision to swear in Erica Bruce as the newest member of a sharply divided, scandal-plagued Hewitt City Council last week might have been an innocuous gesture in any other political era, but it perfectly reflected the tenor of our mean-spirited times. Flores became acquainted with Bruce, a toxicologist and Baylor University medical researcher, through his interest in her research and their joint support of the Advocacy Center for Crime Victims and Children. And, he said, he really wasn’t familiar with the rift in the town council and community.

I didn’t participate in newsroom ranking of the top local stories of 2018, and for reasons similar to why I don’t meddle too terribly much with letters to the editor except when hyperbole tests the very limits of credibility. As a reader once remarked to me, “You have the rest of the opinion page; that strip of space [for letters] is ours.” Fair enough. In the case of ranking local stories of 2018, I wanted to consider fully what Trib reporters thought in what is, frankly, a rare chance for them to even come close to opining on the news.

If one theme surfaced in Texas Tribune founder Evan Smith’s frantic but engaging interview with Republican state Reps. Charles “Doc” Anderson and Kyle Kacal at last week’s forum at Baylor University, it was how term after legislative term has passed — especially with Doc Anderson — without critical issues such as school finance and property-tax relief being smartly resolved. Meanwhile, legislators have fiddled with thoroughly nutty right-wing priorities such as public bathroom usage by transgendered people — clearly a solution in search of a problem.

Anyone who knows Dr. Michael Attas knows that, as a physician, a preacher and a philosopher, he never ceases to turn issues over and over in his head. He seeks new epiphanies and questions certain paradigms. So it’s no surprise his new book, “Medicine at the Crossroads: A Collection of Stories and Conversations to Forge a Vision for Health Care” — while drawn from his popular Trib columns several years ago — nonetheless offers a fresh, inquisitive look at the sprawling, confounding topic of health care.

Veterans Day 2018, marking the 100th anniversary of World War I’s conclusion, seemed a dismal occasion. The threat of wind, rain and chill was enough to cancel Monday’s Veterans Day Parade in downtown Waco out of concern for the health of not only the 4,000 or so parade participants — some of them advanced in age — but its many spectators. And an ocean away, President Trump canceled his Saturday plans to pay respects to U.S. war dead at Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in Belleau, France, because of the inclement weather.

Republican Congressman Roger Williams, a former professional baseball player among those lawmakers attacked by a crazed, armed Bernie Sanders supporter during a congressional baseball practice in summer 2017, wrote a column last month blaming Democratic leadership for inciting the violence that precipitated the attack. It’s the kind of piece many in far-right Republican circles relish — and the kind over which far-sighted, disciplined Republican strategists must have grimaced and shaken their weary heads.

Almost every election now, Americans face what you might call a good citizenship test: Some of us must decide whether, out of party loyalty, to vote for a candidate so utterly contrary to integrity, ethics and good governance that the candidate’s election risks damaging state and country. Texas voters will be guilty of just that — putting party politics over principles — if they re-elect Ken Paxton as state attorney general Nov. 6.

Last year, a friend asked if I would be attending an evening celebrating Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas at McLennan Community College. I had decided against it. Besides being busy with the many opinions on this daily page, I personally find Justice Thomas lacking as a member of the high court, paralyzed by rigid ideological fixations and infamous for declining to even question attorneys arguing constitutional cases. He once went 10 years without pressing attorneys with so much as a question. In doing so, he neither confirmed suspicions he might have had nor risked relevant epiphanies that might have enlightened the entire court and nation.

While 53-year-old Judge Brett Kavanaugh, his reputation in tatters amid mounting if sketchy allegations of sexual assault committed decades ago, was on Capitol Hill Thursday afternoon delivering a blistering defense of himself by lambasting Democrats and allies of the Clintons, 97-year-old Judge Thomas Reavley, an equal on the federal bench (at least at present), was at Baylor Law School in Waco giving an alternately upbeat and melancholic view of the country and Baylor law students’ potential role in it.

More than a decade has passed since U.S. Sen. John McCain visited Waco in his second futile bid to reach the White House. But the congressionally charged National Commission on Military, National and Public Service that McCain helped create and inspire stopped in Waco last month, just five weeks before his death, to solicit ideas and suggestions on how to invigorate public service, given it appears to be flagging nationwide.

Last Tuesday hundreds of Axtell area residents, most adorned in red shirts and many clearly seeing red over an abruptly announced city of Waco plan to purchase a potential landfill site in their wide open spaces of eastern McLennan County and Limestone County, made their outrage known to the Waco City Council. The morning after, someone asked me just how many folks live in Axtell.

If the Waco City Council’s reaction last month is any indication, a grass-roots effort to block transfer of a heralded inpatient post-traumatic stress disorder program from Waco-based Doris Miller Veterans Affairs Medical Center to Temple’s Olin E. Teague Veterans Medical Center may prove a steeper hill to climb than once thought. Christopher Sandles, director of the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System, certainly appeared to reassure council members the move was not part of any broad agenda to shut down the local VA hospital.

Shortly after a shooting rampage erupted at an Annapolis, Maryland, newspaper office that left four journalists and a sales assistant dead, a friend with whom I have occasionally crossed swords in matters of politics phoned me. She said she wanted to hear my voice. She reassured me that, at a time when the president of the United States regularly declares war on the press, she and many others in this community are squarely behind what the Waco Tribune-Herald does daily.

Never has the Trump White House managed to divide, infuriate and confuse so many people as last week. The president’s short-lived policy of separating immigrant children from parents illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border played great with his immigrant-bashing, mostly white base of “patriots,” even as Republicans in Congress scrambled to contain a huge public relations disaster clouding election-year prospects. Even evangelical leaders who typically overlook the president’s provocative utterances and stances condemned his immigration policy as inhumane. By week’s end, the president’s followers were left propping up a policy he had abandoned under pressure.

The Texas Association of Business rolled into Waco a few weeks ago with its bright idea of invigorating voter turnout in a state with chronically dismal turnout numbers: Not only tap businesses to convince employees to go out and vote but even suggest they vote in ways that might help those particular businesses.

President Donald Trump’s name wasn’t invoked in Waco’s 19th State District Court last week, but his long shadow fell on proceedings involving a white police officer’s use of unnecessary force on an unruly black motorist pulled over in East Waco. Not only did the president of the United States last week claim to be above the law to the extent he can pardon himself of crimes, not only do his lawyers assert that, as head of the Department of Justice, he cannot possibly obstruct justice, he also reinvigorated racial tensions over football, the national anthem and the police violence too many Americans don’t want to face but would rather dismiss by claiming patriotic outrage.

Scene: recent hearings in two different state district courtrooms to schedule long-delayed trials of dozens of bikers from motorcycle groups swept up in the wildly indiscriminate 2015 Twin Peaks dragnet. Mood: something between Christmas and the Second Coming. Yes, this was deadly serious business, given nine motorcyclists were left dead after a brawl outside a “breastaurant” in a Waco shopping center. But there was now a nervous glee, even optimism among the defense attorneys assembled.

In a community of miracles, First Baptist Church of West senior pastor John Crowder added one more to the mix during a service marking the fifth anniversary of the West Fertilizer Company explosion that riveted the nation. He and fellow civic leaders singled out for praise (and within 90 minutes) almost everyone somehow pivotal in the saga, from ill-fated firefighters racing to the scene, all the way to foot soldiers in the remarkable recovery period that Mayor Tommy Muska Tuesday night proclaimed concluded.

For all the solemnity that should attend the violent deaths of 14 children in the Parkland, Florida, school shootings and any effort to thoughtfully address gun violence, silly season has clearly descended upon the national debate. Example: Last weekend former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum’s inane comment on CNN that students advocating for gun control should instead learn CPR. As one Parkland student noted, CPR won’t help much when you’ve been shot in the head.

However they might feel about state or national politics, the focus of many local Election Day voters was squarely on the McLennan County district attorney’s race, at least judging from interviews at voting centers. And given the convoluted Twin Peaks saga — case dismissals here and there, recusal hearings to and fro, all amid incendiary, back-and-forth campaign volleys — some voters were understandably overwhelmed by it all.

A few weeks ago, West resident Don Garretson took stock of McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna’s failure to convict Dallas Bandidos chieftain Jake Carrizal last fall; the likelihood of similar failures in prosecuting 154 motorcyclists indicted in the deadly 2015 Twin Peaks biker shootout; and, finally, more than a hundred potentially costly lawsuits alleging Reyna led in the slaughter of these bikers’ civil rights, upending lives, careers and family savings.

The safe betting is on Republican Congressman Bill Flores winning re-election in the conservative 17th Congressional District, notwithstanding analysts’ predictions that Democrats have a decent shot of retaking the House of Representatives after more than a year of Donald Trump as president and a fair number of Republican lawmakers retiring from competitive seats. The two Democrats now vying for the chance to take on Flores come fall are aided by campaign themes that suggest the Democratic Party might be more than the party of LGBT rights, pro-choice and Dreamers.

Recent history confirms beyond doubt two truths about social media and “alternative facts”: The former has not only unleashed something closely resembling “road rage” onto the digital highway on which too many of us spend way too much time but also has encouraged and hastened the spread of outrageously fabricated or conveniently exaggerated “news.” So poisoned are many of us in our political passions that we lustfully embrace and post what by all logic should arouse skepticism.

Today the Trib again offers one of its most popular seasonal services to readers, one unique for daily newspapers our size: Q&As with political candidates, in this case those running competitive primary election races. Dominating today’s opinion section are interviews with Republicans vying to be their party’s nominee for McLennan County Precinct 2 commissioner. Look for Q&As with other competing candidates, including the two Democrats seeking the Precinct 2 post, in coming weeks.

About this time a year ago, I sat down with five middle-aged and older white guys who voted to make Donald Trump president of the United States. I wanted to better understand what motivated them to cast their lot with this wildly unconventional candidate. Two things impressed me about this group, drawn from those who wrote articulate letters to the editor for Trump: None took a cheap shot at Hillary Clinton during a ricocheting 90-minute interview and most offered surprisingly nuanced views on illegal immigrants.

Readers gauging the Trib’s top stories of 2017 will notice some are continuations of news events that broke a year or two earlier. They’ll also notice at least two of the top stories, while set in Waco, exploded on the national scene in gripping fashion, even as subsequent, exceedingly relevant developments over the past year ensued with declining acknowledgement and interest from the outside world.

While Congress finishes tweaking its federal tax-cut bill, it’s useful to remember that a significant 44 percent of Americans pay no federal income tax in the first place. And here in Texas the real sore point continues to be property taxes. Cities and counties this year only narrowly avoided seeing tighter percentage caps placed on how much property-tax revenue they can garner from one year to the next.

If black presidential candidate Barack Obama in April 2008 earned the undying enmity of many white, working-class folks with his comment about economic bitterness causing many to “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them,” Baylor University sociology professors F. Carson Mencken and Paul Froese have just accented the profile of some of these same folks.

For months, District Attorney Abel Reyna and his staff made clear they were champing at the bit to try strapping, 35-year-old Dallas Bandidos chieftain and locomotive engineer Jake Carrizal before any of the other bikers rounded up after the deadly 2015 shootout at Waco’s Twin Peaks restaurant and watering hole. Consequently, many of us in the peanut gallery leaned closer to better understand, perchance appreciate, Reyna’s strategy of legally pursuing 154 bikers on identical organized crime charges, as opposed to the more discriminating capital murder charges Waco police originally contemplated.

Ask a regular Joe what frustrates him about public education and stand back. It’s the complexity of school finance (including property taxes), state testing results for Joe’s kids and, finally, the state-ordained protocol for closing down failing schools. The situation is compounded by the fact state protocols and accountability standards seem to change from one legislative session to the next.

All through last weekend’s Texas Tribune Festival at the University of Texas in Austin, I kept running into folks who regaled me with colorful details of its many highlights, the really sexy stuff. For instance, Craig Thornton, husband of local civic leader Ashley Bean Thornton, told me about Minnesota Sen. Al Franken’s riotous festival appearance.

Baylor University’s survey profiling the religious wave that catapulted real-estate magnate and reality TV star Donald Trump into the presidency in 2016 isn’t so much a revelation as a stunning confirmation of what must be clear to anyone who digests news daily. Findings: Religious folks behind Trump tend to belong to white evangelical Protestant churches; view the United States as a Christian nation (separation of church and state be damned); believe in an authoritative god actively involved in world happenings (such as hurricanes); deem Muslims from the Middle East a threat; and oppose gay and transgender rights.

Last Memorial Day, longtime Trib photographer Rod Aydelotte and I visited historic Oakwood Cemetery for a Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans tribute to veterans of the most horrendous of all American wars. A couple dozen folks showed up, including an ensemble of re-enactors who fired a salute near some Confederate figures’ graves and then, with genial apologies to this mostly aging crowd (including me), dutifully trudged onward to another part of the cemetery to do so again.

While President Trump played it safe in how he condemned Saturday’s violence at a Charlottesville rally of white supremacists protesting removal of a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of rebel forces in the Civil War, Sen. Ted Cruz didn’t spare the rod. The Texas Republican blasted certain elements of the melee for what they are: a clear affront to American values.

One drawback to reading John F. Kennedy’s classic “Profiles in Courage” at a young age is that it left me forever skeptical of politicians. In more than 40 years as a newspaper reporter, columnist and editor, I’ve encountered precious few who took unpopular stands for the greater public good and persevered through threats, vilification and almost certain electoral calamity.

When the Media Research Center a few weeks ago announced that Fox News commentator Sean Hannity would receive the William F. Buckley Jr. Award for Media Excellence, some of us who cut our teeth on Buckley’s principled, intellectually vibrant conservatism were sure of two things. First, Buckley’s son, Christopher, keeper of the flame, would object to the outrageousness and stunning incongruity of this gesture.

History will note that, for a time anyway, local home renovation experts Chip and Joanna Gaines gave Waco something it has long sought: status as a destination point. Through the charisma, ability and resourcefulness showcased on their popular, Emmy-nominated HGTV show “Fixer Upper,” the Gaineses have drawn to Waco waves of tourists eager to track down the homes they’ve overhauled and to shop at the mecca that is Magnolia Market at the Silos. The couple is even credited with revitalizing home sales in the Waco area. The home-marketing site Realtor.com reports all 10 of the top home-search locations in the nation last year were in Texas — with the 76712 ZIP code in Woodway topping the list. And the 76710, 76711 and 76707 ZIP codes in Waco came in at two, three and four.

By now, many eloquent tributes have been composed regarding late Waco City Councilman Wilbert Austin, the modest civil-rights icon who in 1974 served as one of nine plaintiffs in a lawsuit successfully pressing for single-member Waco City Council districts, allowing minorities access to local leadership roles. The 1976 court ruling served as a wake-up call for other governmental entities to do likewise.

Going by the numbers, the Texas Legislature this session sent a clear message to scandal-plagued Baylor University and all other Texas colleges and universities that might mishandle sexual assaults involving their young charges. No less than six such bills were sent to the governor, including three crafted by tireless state Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat and a Baylor alumnus.

In my 40 years of gauging lawsuits, the May 8 suit filed on behalf of four Twin Peaks bikers who maintain they had nothing to do with the deadly May 17, 2015, melee ranks as a howler. It targets the usual suspects in Twin Peaks lawsuits, including Waco police spokesman Patrick Swanton and District Attorney Abel Reyna. But this one goes on and on, indicting Waco society, Baylor University and local history, warts and all — mostly warts.

Considering ongoing upheaval by the Texas Legislature, I wasn’t surprised when the mayor of Waco, the county judge and the superintendent of Waco Independent School District all showed up at the Trib to tout an Election Day measure creating a travel-tax surcharge to fund a sweeping, impressively strategic expansion of Extraco Events Center and city and school facilities contiguous to it. Bill by bill, state lawmakers are making it harder and harder for local governing entities to pursue the priorities of their constituents.

Texas Secretary of State David Whitley’s press release last month contending that 95,000 non-U.S. citizens with driver’s licenses or ID cards also had voter registration records in Texas — and that some 58,000 had voted in at least one election — has by now proven one of the most botched debuts of any state official in recent memory. To compound matters, in last week’s Senate confirmation hearing, the interim secretary displayed stunning ignorance about matters he should have definitively nailed down, given the certainty of state senators’ questions.

Before I was elected Texas’ lieutenant governor in 2014, I served on the Senate Education Committee for eight years, including as chair during the 2013 legislative session. Making our public schools better has long been a top priority for me. Working first as a senator and then as lieutenant governor, we have reduced standardized testing, reformed graduation requirements and created new career tech partnerships between public schools and businesses to help ensure we provide training that will lead to jobs in the 21st century economy.

Flashback

What were we talking about one year ago? Take a look back.

The safe betting is on Republican Congressman Bill Flores winning re-election in the conservative 17th Congressional District, notwithstanding analysts’ predictions that Democrats have a decent shot of retaking the House of Representatives after more than a year of Donald Trump as president and a fair number of Republican lawmakers retiring from competitive seats. The two Democrats now vying for the chance to take on Flores come fall are aided by campaign themes that suggest the Democratic Party might be more than the party of LGBT rights, pro-choice and Dreamers.

Recent history confirms beyond doubt two truths about social media and “alternative facts”: The former has not only unleashed something closely resembling “road rage” onto the digital highway on which too many of us spend way too much time but also has encouraged and hastened the spread of outrageously fabricated or conveniently exaggerated “news.” So poisoned are many of us in our political passions that we lustfully embrace and post what by all logic should arouse skepticism.

Today the Trib again offers one of its most popular seasonal services to readers, one unique for daily newspapers our size: Q&As with political candidates, in this case those running competitive primary election races. Dominating today’s opinion section are interviews with Republicans vying to be their party’s nominee for McLennan County Precinct 2 commissioner. Look for Q&As with other competing candidates, including the two Democrats seeking the Precinct 2 post, in coming weeks.

About this time a year ago, I sat down with five middle-aged and older white guys who voted to make Donald Trump president of the United States. I wanted to better understand what motivated them to cast their lot with this wildly unconventional candidate. Two things impressed me about this group, drawn from those who wrote articulate letters to the editor for Trump: None took a cheap shot at Hillary Clinton during a ricocheting 90-minute interview and most offered surprisingly nuanced views on illegal immigrants.