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Wildfire risk remains high in much of state

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Capitol HighlightsMuch of the state remains at considerable risk for wildfires through this week, largely because of higher-than-usual temperatures and drought conditions. More than 40 percent of the state is suffering extreme drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Nearly the entire state is in some form of drought, with much of the Panhandle, High Plains and West Central Texas most at risk. 

Nearly 123,000 acres in Texas have burned in March alone, according to Texas A&M Forest Service. Earlier this month, more than 54,000 acres burned in Eastland County, between Fort Worth and Abilene. A sheriff’s deputy died while trying to rescue others from that blaze. 

A fast-moving fire forced Medina County residents near Medina Lake to evacuate on Saturday, according to the San Antonio Express-News. That blaze reportedly started with a vehicle fire and quickly covered nearly 1,000 acres.

Climate change is playing a role in this hot and dry spring, John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist, told the Texas Tribune.

“There are enhanced chances of warmer-than-normal weather for literally the foreseeable future because of the combination of La Niña and climate change,” Nielsen-Gammon said.

La Niña is a weather pattern that occurs in the Pacific Ocean. It typically brings colder, wetter weather to the Northwest and drier, hotter conditions in Texas and the South.

Insurance tips after spring storms

It’s spring storm season. 

More than two dozen tornadoes swept through Central and East Texas early last week, damaging about 1,000 homes from Round Rock, north of Austin, to Gilmer in Northeast Texas. The Texas Department of Insurance is available to provide contact information for insurance companies to homeowners and businesses and can also help with questions about how to file a claim. Its Help Line — (800) 252-3439 — is staffed from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

TDI advises folks to report property damage as soon as possible to their insurance agent or company. Other tips:

•Take pictures and video of the damage. Don’t throw away anything until the insurance adjuster tells you.

•Make temporary repairs, such as covering broken windows and removing standing water.

•Don’t make permanent repairs before the adjuster sees the damage.

TPW awards $12.5 million in park grants

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission last week awarded more than $12.5 million in grants to enhance and expand outdoor recreational spaces at 26 community parks statewide. The money is provided on a 50/50 match and is used to create more nature trails, native gardens, playgrounds, dog parks and athletic fields. 

Money was awarded in three categories: cities with more than 500,000 population, cities with less than 500,000 population and towns of less than 20,000 population. A complete list of grant recipients can be found at tpwd.texas.gov/newsmedia/releases.

Arlington doctor gets prison time for fraud, drug crimes

A federal judge sentenced an Arlington doctor to 12 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to submitting fraudulent bills for physical therapy and office exams and illegally issuing prescriptions for controlled substances. Dr. Clinton Battle pleaded guilty last July to the charges after an investigation conducted by the Texas Division of Workers’ Compensation’s Fraud Unit and federal investigators.

“Health care fraud impacts everyone in the Texas workers’ compensation system, and thanks to the teamwork between the Texas Division of Workers’ Compensation (DWC) Fraud Unit and federal investigators, we were able to ensure justice was served in this case,” said Debra Knight with DWC.

Stuck in the middle with you

This tidbit comes from “Game Warden Field Notes,” compiled from TPWD law enforcement reports:

“Val Verde County Game Wardens received information about a fishing boat that ran aground on the Rio Grande River. The area recently accumulated excess silt from the Amistad Dam. Combined with decreasing water levels on the river, the exposed silt became sticky and acted as quicksand. The two boaters were unharmed but unable to vacate the boat without sinking into the mud.

One of the wardens moved to an overlook point and located the boat. The wardens confirmed there was no way to reach them through waterways or on land. A call was placed for a helicopter with hoist capability. A municipal helicopter reached the individuals, and the rescue was completed successfully. The boaters did not require medical attention.”

COVID-19 cases, deaths rise in past week

The number of new COVID-19 cases in Texas doubled in the past week compared to the previous week, according to the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University. A total of 37,030 cases and 533 new deaths were reported, both up considerably in what could be a timing issue. New cases, spurred by the omicron variant, have dropped considerably since January.

Reflecting that trend, despite this week’s increase, the number of lab-confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations as of Sunday dropped to 1,245, down 22 percent from the previous week.

Gary Borders is a veteran award-winning Texas journalist. He published a number of community newspapers in Texas during a 30-year span, including in Longview, Fort Stockton, Nacogdoches and Cedar Park. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. 

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Truth is the Object

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Jim Opionin by Jim Powers
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Nebraska Rep. State Sen. Bruce Bostelman, in a debate during a school funding bill, moved well past the current boogeyman of the right, CRT (which isn’t taught in public schools) to the core of the problem with education, furries. 

Furries, if you haven’t heard, are groups who dress up as animals and interact with others of their group socially as anthropomorphized versions of the animal. It’s very much like people who enjoy Cosplay, dress up as their favorite Anime characters, or who attend Comicon every year dressed as their favorite Star Wars character. (And if the paragraph you just read seems like gibberish, you may be a Boomer.)

“Schoolchildren dress up as animals – cats and dogs – during the school day; they meow, and they bark,” Bostelman said. “And now schools are wanting to put litter boxes in the schools for these children to use. How is this sanitary?”

In a normal world I would not have to publish the following declaimer: As Mr. Bostelman admitted shortly after making the statement, this accusation is not true. It’s an Internet hoax. Your local school district is not spending your tax dollars on litter boxes for children who identify as cats and dogs. (As seems obvious, it’s just a veiled attack on trans kids and bathrooms).

Why would Bostelman make a statement as “fact” without picking up a phone, calling school districts, and asking superintendents in his state if they were buying litter boxes for their classrooms? If I were going to make such a bizarre accusation, I would want to be very sure it was true. 

One possible explanation would be that he didn’t care if it was true, he only cared about its value as a talking point. Another reason may be that he has internalized the currently popular belief that the truth resides in the subject, rather than the object. That there is no objective truth that exists outside our beliefs.

One early morning in 1980, as my wife and I were finishing breakfast, we heard the distinctive stepped tone of a fire alarm from our police scanner. The dispatcher said there was a fire reported at the old Woodville elementary school where my wife was a teacher (what is now a concrete pad at the intersection of West Live Oak and South Pecan streets). I immediately grabbed my camera bag and we headed over to the school.

We got there about 10 minutes before the fire department, and I immediately started taking photos of the school. By the time they arrived, the fire had spread to most of the building.  

Eventually the District Attorney showed up, and because we were the first on the scene, he asked us to tell him exactly what we had seen. We both gave the same story. There were large flames from the center of the back of the school. The DA asked me to provide him by the next day with 8x10 photos from every frame I shot that day. Which in 1980 meant a long night printing photos in a darkroom.

Before I put the first frame of the first roll of film in the enlarger and saw it on the printing frame, I would have sat in a trial witness box, swore to tell the truth, and testified that when I got to the scene there was a single flame coming from the back, center of the building. But the image on the printing frame showed three flames, the one I remembered seeing, and separate flames from the far left and right ends of the building. Clear evidence of arson.

It is well known that humans make terrible witnesses. We see selectively, drawn to the most striking part of a scene. Our memories are not stored as photographs, forever burned in our brains, but as impressions and feelings. And every time we pull up those memories, they are altered by our ensuing life experiences, to be stored again forever changed.

 Truth lives in the object, not the subject.  Objective truth is truth that exists independently of our beliefs. I believe, for example, that Tyler County Courthouse exists. Should I choose to deny its existence, it will still exist. When I die, when I no longer exist, the courthouse will still be there.

Social media has altered our brains. A decade ago, a state representative who heard a story from a constituent that public school students were coming to school dressed as cats and dogs and demanding that the school provide litter boxes for their use, would have laughed it off. Or he would have at least picked up a phone and called a few school administrators.  Today, he used it without verification as talking points in a debate.

We are doomed as a country if we continue to accept as truth any information that supports our own bias, regardless of the source. I’ve been involved in journalism in one way or another for decades. I have been lied to by politicians from Ann Richards to Gregg Abbott, across the spectrum of left to right. I have sat across the desk from politicians who lied to me when they knew I knew they were lying to me. 

We are not going to survive as a country if we don’t abandon our own bias, demand the objective truth from our representatives in government, and stop spreading political lies ourselves on social media.

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Volunteers all around us

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Kelli Columm HeadThe newspaper is full of stories and photos about local people who are spending part of their workdays and even some nights and weekends, volunteering for worthy organizations. These organizations are faithful to communicate with their community newspaper about positive happenings and part of our job is to share them publicly. 

Because of worthy nonprofits and churches, our less fortunate are fed, clothed, have electric bills paid when needed, are provided healthcare, eyeglasses, even beds to sleep. Our churches provide much-needed mental and spiritual help, keeping all of us who take advantage of the teaching in good churches focused on the most important things in life and reminding us to count our blessings every day. 

Other organizations maintain special events for all to enjoy. These include rodeos, livestock shows, festivals, student events and holiday celebrations. Then, some help preserve our history, restoring old structures and keeping the memory of our past alive. 

But let me tell you about a few other volunteers we may forget are also working to help our communities. I have met or heard about so many over the years. You may not see them at Lions Club and Rotary or leading a banquet or an event for our children, but they are working all the same. 

One gentleman baked pies every week and delivered them to shut-ins amongst the community. This went on for years. One lady leaves her home each Friday morning and spends the weekend with her brother who has cerebral palsy … every weekend. Another man who covered sports in East Texas for four decades secretly bought athletic shoes for every student athlete who could not afford a pair. Only the coaches involved, and a few close friends knew about this generosity. Finally, a lady who recently passed spent years mowing her church’s property (and for others less fortunate) faithfully and without pay. 

What is my point? It is twofold. Just because we do not report on all volunteers, we know you are out there. You are appreciated and our community is better because of the work done behind the scenes and without recognition. 

I encourage all of you to find something you can do to help. It doesn’t have to be working with one of the typical organizations … not everyone is comfortable there, or their job keeps them from committing to that type of volunteerism. Instead, do something you love, that fits into your lifestyle. Both you and the recipient of your kindness and generosity will receive a benefit — even if no one is watching.

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Sheriff’s deputy dies in wildfires

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Capitol HighlightsAn Eastland County sheriff’s deputy died Thursday as wildfires swept through several small Texas communities west of Dallas, destroying at least 50 homes and charring more than 54,000 acres as of Sunday.

Deputy Sgt. Barbara Fenley died while going door to door warning people to flee, according to the Austin American-Statesman. 

Sgt. Fenley ran off a smoke-covered road and was engulfed in the fire, the sheriff said.

Several wildfires merged to form what is now known as the Eastland Complex fire. The blaze started last Thursday afternoon and in less than three hours destroyed 86 houses in Carbon, a town of just 272 residents in Eastland County, about 120 miles west of Dallas.

Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for 11 counties in response to the wildfires. 

“I commend the hard work and selfless acts of thousands of first responders and firefighters who are risking their own lives to protect our communities,” Abbott said.  “I also ask Texans to join me in praying for those who have been affected by these wildfires, including Eastland County Deputy Barbara Fenley, who was tragically killed while trying to save lives.”

Two dozen teachers
added to task force

The Texas Education Agency has added two dozen teachers to its recently formed Teacher Vacancy Task Force. TEA faced criticism when the original 28-member panel only contained two teachers, with high-level administrators making up the rest. 

The task force was formed at the behest of Abbott in response to a growing shortage of teachers across the state. Its goal is to “better understand the significant staffing challenges facing Texas public schools and to make comprehensive recommendations to address these issues,” according to TEA.

Josue Torres of Forney, an elementary school math teacher from Dallas ISD, will serve as chair of the task force. 

“The reason I got into education is because I believe that a student’s zip code shouldn’t determine his or her fate,” Torres said. “This task force has the ability to recommend the needed changes and innovative solutions necessary to ensure all Texas students have access to the high-quality educators they deserve.”

2021 second-deadliest year on Texas roads

Traffic fatalities in the state were up 15 percent last year, making 2021 the second-deadliest year on Texas roads with 4,480 people killed — the highest total since 1981, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.

Commissioner Laura Ryan pointed out that roadway safety is a shared responsibility between the public, engineers and law enforcement. 

In 2021, 1,522 people died because of speed-related causes, and 1,219 were killed because they were not wearing seat belts, Ryan said. 

“Driver behavior is one of the causes but also one of the most important solutions,” she said. 

With increased focus on engineering, enforcement and on the critical role drivers play in road safety, Ryan and TxDOT leaders believe the state can end the streak of daily deaths on Texas roadways. #EndTheStreakTX is a broad social media and word-of-mouth effort that encourages drivers to make safer choices while behind the wheel, such as wearing a seat belt, driving the speed limit, never texting and driving, and never driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. 

The last deathless day on Texas roadways was more than 21 years ago — Nov. 7, 2000.

Nominations sought for Heroes for Children award

Thousands of Texas volunteer at the state’s public schools, and the State Board of Education would like to recognize some of them with a Heroes for Children Award. Any Texas resident who contributes time, service or support to public schools and student can be nominated. School employees or elected officials are not eligible. 

One recipient will be chosen for each of the 15 SBOE districts in the state. Award recipients will be recognized at the board’s September meeting. The deadline for nominations is July 15. Additional information and access to the nomination form can be found at https://tea.texas.gov/Heroes_for_Children.aspx .

COVID-19 cases still dropping

The number of new COVID-19 cases dropped once again to 18,744 in the past week, according to the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University, with 418 deaths recorded. Two months ago, largely as a result of the omicron variant, 440,341 cases were reported along with 2,311 deaths.

The number of lab-confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations also dropped to 1,605, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services, down 20 percent from the previous week.

DSHS reports 17.373 million Texans are fully vaccinated, which is 59.6 percent of the total population. In addition, 6.429 million of the state’s residents have received a booster dose.

Gary Borders is a veteran award-winning Texas journalist. He published a number of community newspapers in Texas during a 30-year span, including in Longview, Fort Stockton, Nacogdoches and Cedar Park. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. 

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Barefoot and Pregnant

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Jim Opionin by Jim Powers
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There is a sexist expression popular in the 1950s that says that “A women’s place is barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.” Are you offended by that? Good. Because it seems that everything old is becoming new again.

“Constitutionally unsound rulings like Griswold v. Connecticut, Kelo v. City of New London, and NFIB v. Sebelius confuse Tennesseans and leave Congress wondering who gave the court permission to bypass our system of checks and balances.” U.S. Senator (Tenn.) Marsha Blackburn

“Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said Tuesday that he would be open to the Supreme Court overturning its 1967 ruling (Loving v. Virginia) that legalized interracial marriage nationwide to allow states to independently decide the issue.”From a Washington Post column.

Our country is in a political culture war. I say political because most of the country, in poll after poll, support progressive policies that move the country forward, socially, politically, and economically. Many politicians in the Republican party, in contrast, as reflected in the quotes above, seek to undo Supreme Court decisions that are decades old and move the country back to the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Before I talk about what has been settled law, and most of you consider as just common sense now that they have been in place so long, I want to share some personal history.

I was born in Woodville, TX in 1950. My dad was 17 years old, my mom 21. They were married in April of 1950; I was born in September. All you need is one hand and kindergarten level math skills to figure out that I was not conceived in April. It seems clear that when she reached the time when she could no longer hide her pregnancy, they married.

This kind of thing in a small East Texas town in 1950 was a scandal. Unmarried couples didn’t live together. Most did not have sex until marriage. So, this was a big deal.

My conception was, however, not an accident. My mother still lived at home at age 21 and had a very controlling stepfather. So much so that he determined my mom was better off if she lived under his control permanently. My dad was a 17-year-old teenager, with the usual overabundance of hormones. Because a woman usually needed either a father or husband to do all kinds of legal things, she decided a husband was the way out. Her father, though, wouldn’t have allowed her to marry.

So, they decided that her getting pregnant would force the situation and achieve both of their goals. And the plan worked. Kind of. The fact that a 17-year-old would probably not be the easiest husband to live with never occurred to my mom. It was a rocky relationship for a while.

The story has a happy ending, though. When they died a month apart in 2002, they had been married 52 years.

My point in telling the story is to drive home the fact that the U.S. was a very different place in the 1950’s and 1960’s. A lot of the personal freedoms we live with now didn’t exist. And as a result, people often ended up making bad decisions out of necessity. Things were pretty good for white men, not so good for women. It took women decades to achieve any sort of equality with men.

Now back to those quotes I used to start this column.

Marsha Blackburn referenced Griswold v. Connecticut, a Supreme Court ruling she deemed “Constitutionally unsound.” She believes it should be reversed.

Before 1965 when the Supreme Court ruled in this case, it was illegal in many states for even married couples to possess any kind of birth control. That includes condoms, pills, diaphragms, etc. You could be arrested and fined or imprisoned for having them in your home. Connecticut was one of them. And the Griswold’s were being prosecuted under that law. 

Contraceptives were made illegal under obscenity statutes. Possessing Contraceptives was considered obscene. When the case reached the Supreme Court, the Griswolds won. But it was still five years before every state had revised their laws to make the sale of contraceptives legal for married people. And 1972 before a Supreme Court ruling cleared the way for unmarried people to get access to contraceptives.

Marsha Blackburn says that the Supreme Court ruled wrongly and wants the current court to reach back 50 years and again make birth control illegal. 

Republican Senator Mike Braun last week took a swing at another 50-year-old Supreme Court ruling, Loving v. Virginia, that struck down state laws banning interracial marriage. Interracial marriage has been legal now since 1967. And he wants to undo that ruling. He’s not alone.

These are just two examples of U.S. Senators wanting to return the U.S. to the 1950s. But there are many more who share these views. Which seems a little odd, as one of the Supreme Court Justices, Justice Thomas, is in an interracial marriage, as is our Vice-President.

Now throw in the likely successful push to strike down Roe v. Wade, which had the effect of legalizing abortion, and the push back to the mid 20th century appears to be a triple-play for Republicans.

My mother at 21 was a beautiful, intelligent young women without many good choices. She became a stay-at-home mom and never held a job outside the home. Effective, legal contraception empowered women by allowing them to decide when to have children, and to take control of their lives.

Majorities of Americans support birth control, interracial marriages, and a host of other laws that empower people. But a growing number of politicians are saying out loud now what they could never say before. They want to mandate when and with whom you can have children, and who you can love and marry.

Watching old 8mm movies from the 1950s is a lot of fun. Perfect mom, dad and three kids family living in neat mid-century modern homes. But behind that façade things were not so great. 

Don’t allow politicians to undo the progress we’ve made over the last 50 years. The 1950s is a fun place to revisit, but you do not want to live there.

 

Declaimer – I referenced quotes from Republican politicians in this column. In the interest of full disclosure, I am politically Left-Libertarian (fiscal conservative/social liberal).

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