The gift that keeps on giving …

U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert keeps bringing on the hits.

The East Texas Republican – who’s made a name for himself by questioning President Obama’s place of birth and by suggesting that citizens armed with semi-automatic weapons are the best defense against mass murderers – has now gotten into a spat with a U.S. National Park Service patrol officer over a parking violation.

What’s more, he reportedly pulled congressional rank by telling the officer he sits on the House committee that controls the Park Service’s purse strings.

In an odd way, I love having this guy in Congress. He’s good for a laugh. The problem is that when he makes us laugh, he’s also embarrassing many of his fellow Texans, such as yours truly.

Gohmert questioned whether should have gotten the ticket in the first place. The park officer who cited him, though, said he acted like a bully and “ranted” during the conversation with the officer over issuance of the parking citation.

Good grief. The guy pulls down a six-figure annual salary. He should just pay the fine and keep his trap shut. And spare me the notion that it’s “the principle of the thing.”

Tops in tests, not in achievement

Carolyn Heinrich has it spot on. Texans often fancy themselves as being from the best state with the best of everything, but in terms of educational achievement, we’re falling short while leading the way in the taking of tests.

Henrich’s essay in the Texas Tribune lays out some findings about the plethora of tests our public educators demand of our students. Her findings are rather grim. Texas still doesn’t rank very well in achievement. But we sure know how to administer tests.

Is this the kind of thing ol’ H. Ross Perot had in mind when he led the commission that carried his name toward some new educational reforms back in the 1980s? I rather doubt it.

You might remember the Dallas gazillionaire’s demand that the state should concentrate on educating students better in the classroom and worry less about whether we’re producing blue-chip football players. He popped off around 1983 about the lack of achievement. Then-Gov. Mark White called him out and said, in effect, “OK, Ross, I will appoint you chairman of a blue-ribbon commission to come up with educational reforms. Are you game?” Perot accepted the challenge.

The Perot Commission produced a comprehensive reform package, which Perot himself then pitched to civic groups, media representatives and educators all across the state. I saw him deliver one such sales job in Beaumont. He was impressive.

The Legislature then convened a special session in 1984 and approved House Bill 72, which laid out all kinds of new restrictions and procedures. They included a whole range of tests.

How have they worked? Not too well, according to Henrich.

“We have over-invested in testing (as if it was some kind of ‘magic bullet’) and under-invested in other tools for educational improvement,” she writes. Indeed, teachers hate all the tests. Parents don’t like them either. Students? Well, they do what they’re told.

I don’t disagree with the need to have standards that all kids must meet, but we’ve become addicted to the tests, assuming that the good test-takers are going to excel academically. The results say something else.

Maybe we need yet another blue-ribbon commission to fix the remedy.

‘We are finished …’

Ann Coulter told fellow conservative Sean Hannity that the nation needs to elect a true-blue conservative for president next time or the nation is “finished.”

Here’s the exchange she had with Hannity.

We’re all entitled to our opinions, correct Ms. Coulter? It’s written somewhere that we are, even though she believes her opinions are worth far more than, say, mine. For that matter, I value my own world view more than I value hers … but I digress.

Actually, I’m uncomfortable using the term “finished.” We’ve gone through many serious crises and come out all right: the Civil War, World Wars I and II, presidential assassination, the threat of nuclear confrontation over missiles in Cuba, immense civil unrest over the Vietnam War, Watergate. Have you heard about those historical events?

I believe the nation would worse off if it elected a conservative cave-dweller who does not comprehend that the nation no longer resembles what it once did. We aren’t just a nation of old, Anglo, middle- and upper middle-class, heterosexual, “nuclear families.” We are changing every single year. The new majority population no longer is white. We are increasingly diverse, no matter how badly some folks want to limit its diversity.

Ann Coulter is an engaging and articulate advocate for her political point of view. She’s just misguided.

Boies and Olson … on same side?

That chill under my feet must have been hell freezing over.

How else does one explain the sight of David Boies and Ted Olson – on the same side of a potentially landmark U.S. Supreme Court hearing.

Both men argued before the High Court against Proposition 8, the California law that bans gay marriage in that state. The justices heard their arguments, asked probing questions of both men and now will deliver their decision that same-sex marriage advocates hope determines that “marriage equality” is guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.

What needs our attention today, though, is how the law can bring two opponents together, fighting for the same outcome.

Boies and Olson once opposed each other. Bush v. Gore. Remember that one? Texas Gov. George W. Bush was elected president of the United States in 2000 after a Supreme Court ruling that ended a recount of ballots in Florida. When the counting stopped, Bush had 500-plus more votes than Vice President Al Gore, winning the state’s electoral votes and capturing the presidency by a narrow Electoral College majority.

Boies represented Gore; Olson represented Bush. Thus, the men – two top-flight lawyers – had been described as bitter legal rivals.

Then a funny thing happened. California voters approved Proposition 8 in 2008 and more than four years later, Olson – who went on to serve as solicitor general in the Bush administration – ended up arguing alongside Boies that marriage equality is a fundamental right of every American citizen.

Some alliances simply defy description. This is one of them.

Show us the money, Rep. Bachmann

I truly do not wish bad things to happen to Michelle Bachmann, the loony Minnesota congresswoman who at one point during the 2012 Republican presidential primary campaign actually was thought to have a chance of being nominated for the highest office in America.

The Office of Congressional Ethics is investigating her campaign for allegedly transferring campaign money illegally.

Her people say she’s done nothing wrong. I’ll give her the presumption of innocence until the OCE proves otherwise.

What is kind of a shame, although I do support the First Amendment guarantees of free speech and expression, is that she can’t be investigated for some of the absurdly stupid assertions she made during her brief time under the presidential spotlight.

Such as the time she asserted that a presidential trip to India was costing taxpayers $200 million a day; or when she accused more than 80 percent of congressional Democrats of being communists; or when she – along with Sarah Palin – said the Affordable Care Act would produce “death panels” to determine who lives or dies.

Bachmann’s rhetorical idiocy hasn’t stopped since the election. She recently went before the Conservative Political Action Conference and accused the White House of paying a WH staffer to “walk the president’s dog.” She omitted some key information, of course, which was the staffer happens to be the White House groundskeeper, the guy who keeps the “people’s house” in tip-top shape.

Bachmann has been a lot of fun to watch in recent years. Prior to the 2010 off-year elections, few Americans outside of her Minnesota congressional district even knew who she was. But she’s made a big splash, especially with her stump-speech goofiness.

Sometimes, though, these so-called serious public officials need to be called to account for their outrageousness. I guess we’ll have to settle on determine whether her presidential campaign misused campaign cash.

I suppose I’m hoping she comes out clean on this OCE investiation, if only to keep her available for political comic relief.

Electronic device ruling may be relaxed

The Federal Aviation Administration is considering whether to relax rules that ban the use of in-flight electronic devices. For the techno-geeks out there, that’s good news.

But I have even better news: The FAA is not – repeat, not – considering a change in rules banning in-flight cellphone conversations.

I do not consider myself to be a technoid. I was a bit behind the curve in obtaining a cellphone … but that was on purpose. I declared victory in my publicly stated desire to be the last man on the planet to get a cellphone. And the phone I now possess is not a “smart phone,” but rather it’s a dumb device that performs essentially two tasks: It allows me to make phone calls and to receive them.

So, I don’t care much about whether the FAA allows I-Pads and I-Pods and Play Station devices to be used while jetliners are in flight. Have at it, folks. As the article linked here notes, the FAA does allow pilots to use these devices to chart their flight plans. Thus, some folks say, it’s only fair to let passengers have a little fun with these gizmos while they’re sitting in cramped seats back in the passenger compartment, right?

I am happy to report that sanity continues to rule at the FAA, as it regards the use of cellphones.

I can think of few more unpleasant circumstances than to be caught sitting next to someone – in a pressurized aircraft cruising at 35,000 feet above the Earth’s surface – who is chatting nonsensically with God-knows-who on a cellphone. Enduring water torture is worse, I suppose.

I barely can contain myself when I see motorists blabbing on these devices, even though Amarillo has said this activity is now illegal.

Our streets are crawling with lawbreakers, City Hall!

The day the FAA allows that kind of activity on board commercial jetliners is the day I stop flying anywhere. I am guessing I won’t be the only one who’ll stay on the ground.

Sharp finds his way in Aggieland

John Sharp wanted to be Texas lieutenant governor so badly he ran twice for the office, but lost – in order – to Rick Perry and David Dewhurst.

But as the Texas Tribune reports, these two men – one of whom is a college classmate of Sharp – have become his major political allies. And it’s bringing good things to the institution that Sharp now leads.

Sharp has had his share of electoral success in politics. He served as state senator from Victoria, as a Texas railroad commissioner, as state comptroller (and was the last Democrat to win a statewide office when he won re-election in 1994). He ran for lieutenant governor in 1998, losing to Perry by a narrow margin and again in 2002, losing to Dewhurst also narrowly.

Then the Texas A&M University System needed a chancellor. Who were Sharp’s biggest fans? Lt. Gov. Dewhurst, who argued that  Sharp’s legislative skill would serve him well as the Aggies’ chancellor, and finally, Gov. Perry, who appointed his former rival-turned-pal to the post in 2011.

It’s paying dividends for the system, which has taken off on smooth waters while stormy seas have made life difficult for the folks over at the “other” university, the University of Texas – or as Aggies are fond of calling it, “tu,” which is shorthand for “texas university.”

UT regents are being accused of micromanaging the school’s flagship campus in Austin. UT-Austin President Bill Powers has been in a snit with his bosses over some regents’ alleged interference in administrative matters. Meanwhile, Sharp has been steering the A&M System through some legislative funding successes.

Texas Democrats have been looking for someone to break the Republicans’ elective-office stranglehold in this state. Sharp has come close twice in his most recent bids for statewide office.

Something tells me John Sharp isn’t about to surrender the good gig he’s enjoying in College Station. After all, how much better can it get when the Aggies bolt to the powerhouse Southeastern Conference, more than hold their own on the football field and then have one of their own win the Heisman Trophy?

I’m guessing Chancellor Sharp is a happy man these days.

Drought to continue; time to get serious

I don’t want to sound like Chicken Little, so forgive me if I am pushing an alarm button.

Weather forecasters are telling us the drought that’s gripped the middle of the country is going to continue through this spring and summer. I believe we ought to prepare for some mandatory water-use restrictions.

Amarillo utility officials keep telling us we have plenty of water. Yes, the city has been buying water rights left and right in recent years. Canadian River Municipal Water Authority officials recently purchased a lot of groundwater from T. Boone Pickens, so that water is in the bank … so to speak.

However, Mother Nature isn’t playing nice with us, which is something about which we mere mortal human beings are powerless to control. Yes, we had that massive near-record snowfall in February, but the moisture content did next to nothing to stem the drought. The snow melted and we returned almost immediately to what we’ve been seeing throughout the region: lots of sunshine from a cloudless sky.

Should cities such as Amarillo impose drastic measures? No, not yet. But mandatory odd-even lawn watering measures are reasonable restrictions to place on homeowners. The past two summers have seen the promote its “Every Drop Counts” water conservation initiative. The media reports on the amounts of water used daily to call attention to what residents and business owners are consuming; the city set a 60-million-gallon daily limit, only to watch as the city went well beyond that limit on most days.

I’m thinking the time has come for authorities to start getting serious about it and for them to begin imposing reasonable restrictions.

I know that irrigated agriculture is the main consumer of water in the Panhandle. I also know that residential water use comprises a tiny fraction of the groundwater sucked out of the aquifer.

But this drought will be with us until the Almighty himself decides to end it. No one – not even the smartest utility officials on the planet – can know when that will occur. What are we going to do about our water use until then?

Animal ban is a human-rights matter

Texas legislators are considering a law that would ban the possession of big cats – tigers, lions, cougars, cheetahs, leopards, jaguars etc. – and “non-human primates.”
Animal-rights activists are declaring this to be a good thing, because they don’t want to see wild animals kept in captivity by people who don’t know what they’re doing with them. I agree with the legislation, but I also see it as a human-rights concern, given the danger these creatures pose to human beings.
Remember the poor woman who had her face torn off by the chimpanzee? Or how about the young woman recently mauled to death by a lion? Both of the animals involved were killed. The disfigured woman has been fitted with a new face.
But the issue here isn’t just about the safety of the animals, although as an animal lover I consider it important. The more critical consideration is for human beings who are put in harm’s way in the presence of these animals.
State Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, has proposed House Bill 1015, which would ban possession of these exotic creatures by those who aren’t associated with an accredited zoo. “The ownership of wild animals are a serious problem and a threat to human safety,” Guillen told the Texas Tribune. They spread disease and, of course, can turn on their human captors.
I’ve been exposed only a couple of times in my life to big cats. Once in Oregon, some folks from a wildlife sanctuary in the southern part of the state brought a fully grown cheetah into our office in suburban Portland on a promotional tour. I will admit up front that the sight of that animal scared the daylights out of me – until he began sucking on my fingers while purring like a 150-pound kitten. The next time came many years later in Amarillo, when the financial institution with which I do business had a jaguar in its office; that cat is the official mascot of the company. He, too, was a big baby.
I’ve lucked out in my exposure to these animals. Too many others haven’t been so fortunate.
Rep. Guillen’s bill makes sense because it protects animals … and humans.

What a way to celebrate Sunshine Week

The New Mexico Senate celebrated Sunshine Week by – what? – cloaking lawmakers’ emails in secrecy.

Nice going, folks. You’ve just made a mockery of the transparency many of you say you favor.

Sunshine Week, which concludes today, is meant to call attention to the need for government openness. The government conducts the public’s business and thus, the public has a right to know what’s being done in its name. New Mexico legislators, though, flouted that need by agreeing to keep emails from public view.

The New Mexico Senate bill stipulates that communications are public only when the body meets. Legislators’ private emails and other communications can be kept from the public, even when they’re delivered on public time, using public equipment. The state’s attorney general disagrees with the Legislature’s decision to conceal public records. Gov. Susana Martinez must sign the legislation for it to allow a special exemption under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act. It’s unlikely she’ll go along.

Still, for a body of state legislators to approve such an abomination on the very week intended to avoid this kind of chicanery is an insult to the people who pay the Legislature’s freight.

That would be the public, for whom lawmakers’ work – not the other way around.