News

By Lora-Marie Bernard

TEXAS’ US senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz want voters to decide who becomes the next US supreme-court justice.
They came up with the idea late last week just as reports emeerged that president Barack Obama has narrowed his choices for nomination to three candidates.
After the death of conservative justice Antonin Scalia last month, the court has four liberal members and four conservatives, giving Obama a chance to swing its balance to the left of center and upset a decades-long right-wing philosophy.Cruz,Ted web ready
Cruz, left, a Republican Party presidential-nominee hopeful, said on Friday night that Obama should not pick a nominee because he is a lame-duck president.
“The stakes are too high to allow President Obama, in the waning months of his final term, to make a lifetime appointment that would reshape the supreme court for a generation,” he wrote in an e-mail to supporters.
Senate Democrats last week urged Obama to choose a nominee even as their Republican counterparts charged it would be uncouth to do so. The GOP had already said it would prefer to delay Scalia’s replacement until after November’s presidential election. The Republicans have threatened to stall any White House nominee.
Now, it appears they want the nominee to be placed on the November ballot, with Cruz also saying he would fight any effort to deny a voter-approved supreme-court justice.
In remarks in the senate judiciary committee on Thursday, Cornyn, below left, addressed Democratic Party opposition to “let America have a voice” in the selection of the next justice.  Cornyn, John
The state’s senior US senator said America is in an unseen state of unrest and that calls for uncommon measures.
“Our friends claim that our position, the humble proposition that the people should choose who makes that selection, is unprecedented,” he said.
“But it’s simply not the case. No president has filled a vacancy in an election year with divided government as we have today in well over a century.”
Cornyn, who is also the senate’s Republican Party whip, charged the Democrats with gamesmanship.
“I can’t help but think, while listening to our colleagues across the aisle, that if flip-flops were an Olympic sport, there might be some gold medals awarded,” he said.
One third of all US presidents have made supreme-court nominations during their last year in office. Six have done so since 1900, including Ronald Reagan, who appointed Anthony Kennedy in 1988.
In 1892, Benjamin Harrison, a Republican, nominated a Democrat justice as a nod to his successor, Grover Cleveland, the first Democrat elected to the presidency after the Civil War.
Among Obama’s potential nominees is an Indian-American who could follow that model. Judge Sri Srinivasan of the Washington DC circuit, who was born in India but grew up in Kansas, has served under Ronald Reagan and a series of moderate conservatives. Scalia, Antonin_Official_SCOTUS_Portrait cropped
When Obama nominated him for the DC circuit in 2013, a Republican-controlled senate approved him unanimously.
A Hindu, he would add religious diversity to the court if approved, while his appointment would also be poetic as it would see the replacement of Scalia, left, the court’s first Italian-American justice, by its first Indian-American justice.
But Srinivasan is not the only candidate in Obama’s sights. According to news agency Reuters, the president is also considering two other senior justices.
One is Merrick Garland, chief judge of the Washington appeals court, who was appointed by president Bill Clinton in 1997 after serving the federal justice department.
The third candidate being reported by Reuters is Paul Watford, a judge in the ninth US circuit court of appeals in San Francisco. If confirmed, he would be the nation’s third black supreme-court justice, following Clarence Thomas, who was appointed in 1991, and Thurgood Marshall, who retired that year.

Bernard, Lora-Marie               Lora-Marie Bernard

PUBLIC DOMAIN with Lora-Marie Bernard

THE US SENATE is considering a John Cornyn bill that would prevent fraudulent Medicaid and CHIP providers receiving reimbursements by hopping from state to state.
Texas senator Cornyn introduced the bill in the senate on Thursday, when it was assigned to the finance committee.
The Ensuring Terminated Providers Are Removed From Medicaid And CHIP bill, which was introduced in the house of representatives in October, passed in the house this month.
It is a bipartisan bill that is described as a strong measure to enhance Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program procedures, according to a house report.
Chairman Fred Upton of the house committee that worked on the bill, said: “Republicans and Democrats will help deliver an important ‘one-two punch’ to strengthen Medicaid for the most vulnerable – cutting back on fraud and increasing access.
“It’s an important step forward as we work to strengthen Medicaid and promote meaningful 21st-century reforms.” According to a report from the office of the inspector general, $7.5m has been paid in the course of several years to 99 providers that claimed after being terminated in one state and moving to another.
The report also highlighted some of the issues that complicate a state’s ability to report terminated providers. The number of states that use managed care to deliver Medicaid services is 41, of which 25 do not require management-care providers to have direct enrollment in the state Medicaid agency, the report said.
That means that, if a state does not directly enroll a provider, it cannot terminate that provider. It also means that a state might not even know that the provider is in its Medicaid program.
Another complication found by the report was that some states misunderstand when they can and cannot terminate a provider with a license from another state.
If it becomes law, the bill would ensure that rogue providers are terminated from all Medicaid programs.  Under current law, a state is responsible for excluding from Medicaid participation providers who have been terminated under any state’s Medicaid program or Medicare.
As well as excluding providers who have been terminated under CHIP, the bill also seeks to revise the procedures a state must use to report the termination of a provider from a state plan.
If it becomes laws, the bill will require states to make each Medicaid or CHIP provider enroll with specified identifying information.
The process for a state to inform the federal department of health and human services that a provider has been terminated under a state plan would also be overhauled.
In another proposed measure, the bill aims to expand patient access beyond the emergency room. Beneficiaries under fee-for-service or primary-care case-management programs would be able to choose a medical-services provider from a directory of physicians participating in the program.

‘The right thing’ as Watkins repays $31,000

FORMER superintendent Terri Watkins has returned more than $31,000 to La Marque independent school district after an investigation into undocumented funds she received from former board members.
After an executive session in which the district’s new management board considered the matter during its monthly meeting on Thursday, new president Jack Christiana said the state-imposed managers had reached a settlement with Watkins in which they had agreed to limit their comments to a brief statement.
The statement said: “Although La Marque ISD and Mrs Watkins disagree as to whether the payment for leave days was proper, ultimately, Mrs Watkins decided to return the entire payment amount of $31,069.”
Watkins, who left the district just before its state takeover, received a total of $56,732 in two payments before her departure. One was for $46,732 and the other for $10,000.
The payments were for 59.37 state leave days and 15 non-work days but district policy does not allow an employee to receive payment for leave days when leaving the employment. Of the check totaling $46,732, Watkins received a net sum of $31,069, the amount repaid.
“Mrs. Watkins cooperated fully with La Marque ISD’s review,” Christiana said.
The payments have been part of the new board’s attempts to clean up the district’s finances before the state shutters the district in summer.
In January, interim superintendent Willis Mackey said the conservator was “concerned” about the lack of immediate documentation about them and called the investigation a “formality.”
On Thursday, Christiana said the ability to reach a settlement was the right one.
“As responsible stewards of LMISD’s financial resources, the board of managers believes this resolution is in the best interest of all stakeholders,” he said.

Residents call for explanations after leaks disrupt city

By Lora-Marie Bernard

THE RUPTURE of a Texas Avenue pipeline in December and a fire from another in January have heightened concern about the state of industrial pipes running under Texas City and prompted a community discussion.
Texas City Community Advisory Council, a public forum in which businesses keep residents informed of current developments, will hear the results of a survey about the safety of the city’s pipelines when it meets next week.TCLMCAC-Logo
City engineer Doug Kneupper will discuss the system in a presentation requested by the members of the grassroots group.
CAC organizer José Boix said: “It was all precipitated by a pipeline leak near the feed store between 21st Street and Texas Avenue with oil that began to bubble up from the ground.”
Boix said the topic was broached when he conducted a blue-sky exercise among attendees at CAC’s last meeting, in January.
Among 38 topics that they said they wanted to hear, the safety and status of the city’s pipelines topped the list, so he spoke to Kneupper about the possibility of a presentation on the subject.
“He said he had just finished a survey and it would be good to talk about,” Boix said, adding that emergency-management leadership and first responders could become part of the presentation.
The city’s industrial matrix includes used and abandoned pipes of varying ages. After the December incident, the surrounding area was closed for several weeks while crews and the state attempted to resolve the cause of the percolating “oil-like” substance.
In January, between 100 and 200 gallons of oil burst from a pipeline and erupted into a fire at FM 2004 and FM 1764. A tower of smoke billowed over a swath of vacant industrial land until the fire was contained.
Those episodes pale in comparison to the February 2011 pipeline rupture that caused 6,000 barrels, or 252,000 gallons, of gasoline to leak out. The episode resulted in the evacuation of 15 homes and the closure of most of the city’s main roadways.
The 18-inch pipeline belonged at the time to Magellan Mid-Stream Partners, which describes itself as owning the longest refined-petroleum-products pipelines system in the country.
Magellan and venture partner LBG are now building a 700,000-barrel storage tank in Seabrook that will include an 18-inch pipeline to transport oil from the tank to a third-party pipeline system for delivery to a Houston-area refinery. The tank should be completed in 2017.
The CAC meeting will also include a presentation titled Long Term Value Of Our Air Monitoring Network by attorney James Galbraith of law firm McLeod, Alexander, Powel & Apffel.
The meeting, which is open to the public, takes place from 5:00-7:00pm on Thursday, March 24, at the Nessler Center’s Captain’s Room. Although it is free, Boix asks potential attendees to contact him at 409-945-0492 or jaboix@aol.com beforehand to ensure enough food is available for the complimentary dinner to be served during the event.

PUBLIC DOMAIN with Lora-Marie Bernard

YOU CAN pick as many bluebonnets as you want as long as you’re not in a state park – that’s the message from the Texas public safety department as it tries to dispel a longstanding myth that picking the state flower is illegal.
Not so, the department said in an online blog last week as bluebonnets began their springtime blossom. Rules govern only where the flower can be picked and, for most law-abiding persons, the department said the laws are common sense.
Writing on its TakeCareOfTexas.org website, the department said bluebonnets are protected only in state parks, along with all wildflowers that grow on those grounds. You cannot pick, cut, or destroy any wildflowers or plant life of any description on state-park grounds.
According to the website, bluebonnets are free for the picking if you just follow basic private-property laws. It is important to take note of where the flower is growing before you consider picking it. Criminal-trespass laws are enforced on private property, so ensure that you are not on such land when you stop to pick bluebonnets, or even to take pictures with them.
Follow all laws against damaging or destroying rights of way and government property. While picking a few wildflowers might be OK, you should not dig up large clumps of blooms.
Also, the state’s transportation department says you should never drive into a field of wildflowers. Remember, other Texans want to enjoy them too!
Many gorgeous wildflowers can be found along Texas roadways. For your safety, and the safety of others, the department of public safety says follow these tips and enjoy the bluebonnets:
• Always signal before leaving or entering the roadway;
• Park off the roadway and parallel to the road in the direction of traffic;
• Park on the side of the roadway on which the flowers are growing;
• Don’t cross lanes of traffic on foot to reach the wildflowers; and
• Obey all signs that prohibit parking on the roadway.

World remembers Nancy Reagan

CONDOLENCES FOR former first lady Nancy Reagan, who died at the weekend, have poured in from throughout the nation and the world beyond.
The actress-turned-presidential-wife who inspired the fashion color “Nancy Reagan Red” during the 1980s was 94 years old when she died of heart failure.
Among the first tributes to arrive from abroad was one from former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev, now 85 years old, who issued a statement about Reagan’s involvement in Russia-US relations during her husband’s administration and said he was grieving over her passing.
“I offer deep condolences to the relatives and loved ones of Nancy Reagan, wife and friend of Ronald Reagan,” he said. “She sincerely wanted her husband to go down in history as a peacemaker, but not a hawk of war, and sought to help him in this.”
Gorbachev said he remembered the Reagans fondly as a couple he had worked with to change the world.
“We together embarked on a path of putting an end to the Cold War and partnership between our countries,” he said. “I am sure that this will not be forgotten.”
At home, political differences were put aside when president Barack Obama lauded Reagan’s work to make her Republican-party husband’s struggle a touchstone for a national issue.
“Later, in her long goodbye with President Reagan, she became a voice on behalf of millions of families going through the depleting, aching reality of Alzheimer’s, and took on a new role, as advocate, on behalf of treatments that hold the potential and the promise to improve and save lives,” the Democrat said.
And he told how Reagan had given him some good advice that he and his family later took to heart. “Nancy Reagan once wrote that nothing could prepare you for living in the White House,” he said.
“She was right, of course. But we had a head start because we were fortunate to benefit from her proud example and her warm and generous advice.”
Obama said Reagan was a modern first lady who had set a standard for those after her to follow, saying she “redefined the role”.
Other folks noted that she was an active participant in world affairs behind the scenes. President Reagan’s speechwriter, Ken Khachigian, said he always kept her in the loop.
“I learned very early to pay attention to her opinions because ,each time she expressed them, it turned out they were usually the president’s,” he wrote in an essay he released about her.
She was far more influential in affairs of the state than he had expected her to be.
“President Reagan often could not bring himself to be critical of his staff or question the collective opinion of ‘the fellas’,” he wrote. “So, he would frequently express his doubts or concerns to Mrs Reagan. It soon became clear to me that ‘Mommy’, as he called her, was the president’s interpreter and message carrier. There was many a speech that had her imprint by way of channeling the president’s thinking.”
The Alzheimer’s Association, which Reagan supported after her husband, president Ronald Reagan, was diagnosed with the disease, was among the first national organizations to issue statements.
Harry Johns, its president and CEO, remembered when the president made his illness public, saying: “Mrs Reagan and President Reagan bravely shared his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease with the world in 1994.
“This was at a time when Alzheimer’s disease was truly in the shadows and together they began to change the conversation about Alzheimer’s disease for millions.”
At the time, the dementia-related illness was not well understood and the former first lady spent years working to raise interest and awareness about it.
“The public disclosure of their Alzheimer’s experience created an enormous and much needed upsurge of interest in the disease from the general public and government officials,” Johns said. “It was our honor to work with Mrs Reagan over the years.”

Supreme court keeps abortion case rivals on tenterhooks

By Lora-Marie Bernard

THE NATION’S top justices could decide as early as tomorrow, Monday, the fate of the Texas-based lawsuit dubbed “the abortion case for this generation”.
With state legislators and women’s rights groups awaiting the outcome with baited breath, the eight remaining members of the US supreme court met on Friday two days after hearing the landmark case Whole Woman’s Health v Hellerstedt on Wednesday.
In one of the first cases to be considered by the court since the death of right-wing member Antonin Scalia last month, it was possible the justices could cast preliminary votes as they convened in the morning for a private conference.plannedparenthood-logo
However, the prime purpose of the conference was to consider petitions in 10 other cases, including one in which the states of Nebraska and Oklahoma are calling for the prevention of Colorado’s implementation of its law decriminalizing the use of marijuana.
According to the court’s online blog, the abortion case could swing two ways. The justices could send it back to the lower courts for more information or they could announce an outcome as early as tomorrow.
The court is due to issue orders from its conference at 9:30am tomorrow and issue opinions about cases already argued at 10:00am. There was no indication on Friday whether the abortion case would be one of those.
It has taken three years for the case to reach the supreme court in response to house bill 2, a sweeping law enacted by Texas legislators in 2013 and which imposes numerous restrictions on access to abortion in the state.
Among its most notable requirements, it states that doctors who provide abortion services must obtain admitting privileges at hospitals no farther than 30 miles away from their abortion clinic. And it demands that every healthcare facility offering abortion care in the state must meet building specifications equal to those for a surgical center for ambulatory patients.
When it was introduced, the law had a chilling effect on the state’s abortion clinics. Before HB2, more than 40 facilities across the state provided abortions. By October last year, only 19 were still operating. If the law stands, up to nine more clinics could be shuttered in a state that has 5.4 million women of reproductive age.
Opponents such as Center For Reproductive Rights argue that the HB2 requirements unfairly single out women’s healthcare providers and do not apply to other, comparable medical procedures or practices.
Proponents such as the Texas legislature say the law’s requirements are standard health and safety regulations. If it is struck, they claim, abortion clinics are given a legal immunity that other medical facilities don’t have.
The legal issue of Whole Woman’s Health v Hellerstedt is found in the “undue burden” standard that stems from 1992 case Planned Parenthood v Casey. In that case, according to the legal information institute at Cornell University, the justices found an “undue burden” arose if the purpose or effect of a state restriction on abortion placed a “substantial obstacle” on a woman seeking an abortion of a non-viable fetus.
The Hellerstedt case also addresses a fifth-circuit court-of-appeals ruling as it considers whether the New-Orleans-based appeals judge erred in concluding that HB2 had not created an undue burden.

HB2 ‘a sham’

Women call state’s abortion legislation a backward step

By Lora-Marie Bernard

TEXAS HAS been a battleground for women’s reproductive rights for more than 40 years since the genesis for a challenge to the 1973 case Roe v Wade was sparked during a backyard garage sale.
Back then, Barbara Hines was a 21-year-old college student working with a women’s liberation group out of an Austin YMCA. She was counseling women on birth control and reproductive rights.
At the time, reproductive healthcare was restricted in ways younger women can’t imagine today. A woman who wanted birth control had to produce documentation that she was going to be married within 90 days. To counsel anyone about an abortion was a felony.
Now a University Of Texas lawyer who runs the school’s immigration clinic, Hines remembered those days during a press conference held on Wednesday while the US supreme court was debating the case Whole Woman’s Health v Hellerstedt, which hinges on whether Texas’ 2013 regulations for abortion clinics create an “undue burden” for women’s healthcare.
She said that, soon after the Roe v Wade supreme-court decision, the organization for which she was volunteering was having a garage sale to raise funds for its counseling clinic. Members were lamenting their legal liabilities as they knew their counseling could land them in prison.
“We wondered, ‘Wow what would happen to us and wouldn’t it be interesting and really important if we could challenge Roe v Wade’,” she said.
“I feel so honored to have been part of that movement.”
She told journalists: “As I stand here, I never thought we’d be here today. In some ways, Texas was the trendsetting state [in 1973] and here we are in 2016 in a situation I never thought we would be. Sadly, we’ve come full circle.”
Trisha Trigilio, a staff attorney for the Texas chapter of American Civil Liberties Union, said everyone knows the latest Texas abortion law is intended to close clinics throughout the state.
“Every medical organization that has reviewed the law has rejected it,” she said.
Trigilio and Hines were two of several speakers at an ACLU press conference in Austin to raise awareness of the Hellerstedt case, which challenges the law introduced as house bill 2 during the 2013 state legislature.
Triglio said the law would cause a drastic drop in the number of abortion clinics, to as few as 10, for the 5.4 million Texas women of reproductive age. Furthermore, she said, no abortion clinic would be available between El Paso and Fort Worth.
At the heart of the new supreme-court case is whether the additional health and safety regulations required by HB2 create an “undue burden” for women accessing healthcare, a claim the state denies.
“This is the sham we are arguing at the supreme court,” Trigilio said, adding that the case had advanced to the supreme court because an appeals-court judge had not been allowed to decide what science supports.
“One doctor can testify that these laws will help women get health and the trial judge has his hands tied,” she said.
If the 2013 law stands, Trigilio said the ruling would have a chilling effect and probably lead to closing more abortion clinics in other states.
Another speaker, Susan Wheat, a representative for Planned Parenthood’s Greater Texas branch, said the organization has been audited, inspected and intimidated by top officials.
Planned Parenthood has seen significant funding decreases at both state and federal levels in recent months. Its statewide Texas healthcare system operates 20 centers, of which three provide abortions.
Wheat said the 2013 law, which mandates the size of hallways, air filters and types of door knob for an abortion clinic, is onerous and is part of a larger effort to dismantle abortion access for women.
“This is a systematic strategic effort to undermine women’s healthcare and reduce access to all forms of women’s healthcare,” she said.
She noted that funding for breast cancer, cervical cancer and HIV has already been eliminated. Federal Medicaid partnership funding that once helped low-income women access birth control and receive cancer screenings has also been dismantled, she said.
Among Wheat’s other claims was that Centers For Disease Control And Prevention funding for uninsured women seeking breast and cervical cancer screening has been lost as well as HIV screening for hard-to-reach populations in the Houston area.
She said the funding limitations and the HB2 requirements for ambulatory surgical centers at abortion clinics have not helped women’s healthcare, as the measure’s proponents claim, adding: “Instead it’s done the opposite.”
She said the state’s “four visit rule” for an abortion has resulted in some women heading to Mexico for a solution. One story she recounted described a woman who had found it easier to go once to Mexico for abortion pills than to make four trips into north Texas for counseling before she could obtain an abortion from Planned Parenthood.
That story was one to which Hines can relate and, for her, it reverberated to a time when abortions were felony crimes. Going to Mexico was the only option back then.
“I don’t want to send someone to Mexico again,” she said.
“We shouldn’t have to do that again.”