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Hughes: Legislature accomplished major goals, couldn't please all conservatives

State Sen. Bryan Hughes acknowledges disappointment that the recently ended legislative session didn’t tackle red-meat conservative issues, but he was delighted overall that lawmakers accomplished the trio of bipartisan goals they set for themselves when the 140-day session started.

“It all got done,” the Mineola Republican, who represents the Longview area in the Texas Senate, told the News-Journal editorial board this past week.

A balanced, two-year budget — the only thing legislators are required by law to do — school finance reform and relief from rising property taxes were indeed achieved by the 86th Legislature in Austin.

But there were no laws limiting abortion access or expanding where and how Texans may arm themselves.

Texas conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan lamented the session at its finale, saying conservatives had expected bold colors from the GOP-dominate Legislature but got “pale pastels.”

Hughes, a tea party favorite who aligns himself with Sullivan and his Empower Texans agenda, noted the loss of two Senate Republicans and nine GOP House seats in the November election preceding the session eliminated the GOP super-majority of recent sessions.

“I would have to say that, on balance, I’m disappointed too,” Hughes said. “I’m not the king. ... But I have to say, the stuff we all want and were aiming for — property tax relief and reform, teacher pay and school finance — that stuff got done, and that stuff got done well.”

Having finished his second legislative session as a senator, after serving seven sessions in the House, Hughes said he will focus between now and the 2021 session on two major goals. Those are getting ready to redraw political boundaries after the 2020 Census is reported and reviving election security elements he championed unsuccessfully this past session.

“Nothing, nothing,” was his reply when asked if any of the election reforms recommended by a bipartisan interim panel he chaired had survived. “The report was signed by everyone on the committee. Once the political process kicked in ... it became something the Democrats couldn’t support.”

Opposition to his Senate Bill 9 came chiefly against a provision enhancing the penalty for mail ballot tampering from a misdemeanor to a felony, with detractors arguing it would discourage people from helping elderly or disabled voters cast ballots.

But Hughes still has no solid explanation, beyond the politicized atmosphere, why opposition sprung up against a requirement that every county use electronic voting machines that leave an auditable paper trail.

“Sadly, it became a lightning rod,” he said. “Some of the stuff on social media on SB 9 was so bad. The New York Times came to my defense. ... This is not a partisan issue at all.”

Hughes also reported he’s heard nothing from the attorney general’s office about its probe of suspected mail ballot fraud in Gregg County’s 2018 Pct. 4 Democratic primary for county commissioner.

“They’re not able to give us any details,” he said. “But that (investigation) is moving. A lot of interviews have been completed; they are going through a lot of documents.”

He added that he does not know whether or not to expect charges to arise from the probe.

Property tax reform actually was achieved in two bills — caps on how much local tax rates can grow without voter approval, and a $5 billion infusion into the state budget to offset school property taxes. School boards get that money only if they lower their tax rates, Hughes added.

House Bill 3, the school finance plan, started out with a $5,000 across-the-board raise for teachers and school nurses. But it ended with a requirement that districts devote an unspecified amount of the new state money to those pay hikes.

“We’ll have two years to see how this goes, to see if the money is going to the right places,” Hughes said.

The senator doubts there will be a special session to save the state agency that certifies plumbers, after legislation to continue the Board of Plumbing Examiners another decade got mired during the session’s waning days. He’s also curious about Gov. Greg Abbott’s statement last week that he can extend the agency to the 2021 session by executive order.

“Assuming there’s not a statewide solution, I think different cities are going to take different approaches (to plumbing oversight),” Hughes said.

As vice chairman of the Senate State Affairs Committee, Hughes anticipates joining public hearings around the state in preparation for redistricting the 87th Legislature will take up.

And he insisted that drawing political lines is the responsibility of lawmakers, not bipartisan but unelected panels that handle the once-a-decade re-draw in some states.

“They are supposed to take politics out,” he said. “I think we’ve seen, in other states they don’t. They just take the transparency out. As bad as the current system is, it’s better than anything else.”

Hughes lamented the failure of appointee David Whitley to win Senate confirmation as secretary of state, which among other things has oversight of elections.

Whitley fell from grace over a list of nearly 100,000 voters he wrongly claimed were not U.S. citizens. The list was drawn from comparing the citizenship status on driver’s license applications with 10 years of poll data, but it did not take into account how many people had become citizens since applying for a driver’s license.

“We’re going to find there are several thousands of people on the voter list that are not citizens,” he said. “I believe there are Democratic members of the Texas Senate who would have voted to confirm him had it not become such a hyper-partisan issue. I would have voted to confirm.”

Hughes said he likes his chances to win a second, four-year Senate term in 2020.

“It’s pretty easy to outsmart me,” he said. “But it’s hard to outwork me.”

Hundreds of Mooney aircraft fly in to ET Regional Airport for MooneyMax conference

More than 100 Mooney aircraft were on display Saturday at East Texas Regional Airport as part of the MooneyMax fly-in.

The Mooney planes are built in Kerrville and serviced at Don Maxwell Aviation Services at the airport.

This past week’s fly-in also included activities and speakers at the Hilton Garden Inn in Longview.

Attendees could take part in a “Right Seat Ready” clinic that covered navigation, instrumentation, a lesson on how to interact with air traffic controllers and, in the chance the pilot becomes incapacitated, how to safely land with instructions from the tower.

Area programs aim to improve access to women's prenatal care

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of stories on maternal morbidity and infant mortality in East Texas.

When Dr. Paul McGaha read the 2015 Healthy Texas Babies Databook reporting Smith County as having one of the highest infant mortality rates in the state — and high numbers of women not receiving first trimester maternal health care — he asked himself a question.

That question was: “How do we teach our moms to take care of themselves so they can teach their children to take care of themselves and change the trajectory of families for generations to come?”

McGaha is an associate professor and chairman of the Department of Community Health at the School of Community and Rural Health at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler.

He knows that social determinants of health, the conditions of daily life such as where someone lives, what kind of job they have, their education, their economic status, social norms and political policies play a role in maternal and infant health problems in East Texas.

“Is your ZIP code a better predictor of your health than your genetic code?” he asks, “Yes, in most circumstances, it is. We’re trying to mine down deeper into how we can improve those social determinants of health. Education is probably the biggest factor related to one’s health status. The higher the level of education, the healthier that person is.”

McGaha sees a future of separate health care systems, nonprofit organizations and individuals working together to achieve a common goal of improving birth outcomes and women’s health in East Texas.

“We knew we needed to do something about those high infant mortality rates here,” McGaha said. “I think state decision-makers knew we needed to do something too, especially among African-American mothers who have a higher infant mortality rate. It’s twice as high as the general population rate in most areas, not just Tyler.”

Out of these talks it was decided to bring two national programs to Tyler under The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler. Those are Parents as Teachers, a home visiting program that teaches moms and dads parenting skills, and Nurse-Family Partnership, an income-based program for first-time expectant moms who are matched with a registered nurse for support through the child’s second birthday. The center also partners with Tyler’s three colleges for a peer preconception program.

In addition, leaders at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler were approached by colleagues in Austin through Health and Family Services to start a program specific to those high infant mortality rates especially among black residents called the Healthy Families Program.

Smith and Hildalgo counties were invested in to develop programs specifically to look at systems of care and how they can be improved to allow women to feel more welcomed into those systems of care. The programs encourage pregnant women to seek prenatal care earlier and to make the system more friendly and inviting to women. Out of these discussions came the idea to bring the national Centering Pregnancy program to Tyler.

McGaha is seeing first-hand what a partnership like this across health care systems looks like with the Centering Pregnancy program that started in December. It’s a partnership between UT Health East Texas and Tyler Family Circle of Care that is funded by the Health and Human Services Commission in Austin. Centering Pregnancy is a different approach to prenatal care that focuses on group learning in a group setting.

“I think moving forward for community issues, you’re going to see more thinking outside of the box type stuff,” he said.

Centering pregnancy

When Bianca Billops, 25, of Tyler went to deliver her fifth child — a daughter named Peyton — Billops felt empowered, educated and confident about her birth plan because she was enrolled in Centering Pregnancy at Tyler Family Circle of Care.

Billops, who has anemia, was prepared for the possibility that she would need a blood transfusion because she had been tracking her health and knew she had low iron. She was able to communicate with her doctor and have paperwork filled out in case she needed it, and she did. She received two blood transfusions after delivery.

“I learned that my health during the pregnancy is important for my baby,” she said.

Peyton is 3 weeks old, and Billops has completed the Centering Pregnancy program.

“You get a lot more information out of the Centering Pregnancy group sessions than you do at an office visit,” she said.

Each cohort of women attend 10 two-hour sessions together. They have two facilitators, one doctor or nurse-practitioner and a medical assistant who works with them. At Centering Pregnancy, mothers are screened for depression and anxiety at every appointment. There’s a counselor and a social worker on staff who can get moms plugged into counseling or to other resources such as the Andrew’s Center or a psychiatrist.

At the start of each session, the women sign in, check their own blood pressure, record their own weight and see the doctor for a belly check and urine test if needed.

They place beads in cups to vote whether they are feeling positive or negative about topics such as relationships, stress, transportation, exercise and sleep.

The topics and activities for each session are written out on the wall.

While the doctors facilitate the sessions, the group members lead the conversations. Each cohort of women can relate to each other because they are grouped by similar gestational age.

“We are able to rely on other people within the discussion, so it empowers the women and it amplifies their voices,” said Dr. Josephine Huffman, OB-GYN at Tyler Family Circle of Care. “I am loving it because I get to know people so much more than with a traditional prenatal appointment.”

Family Circle of Care is a federally qualified health center. It takes all patients, including those on Medicaid and patients who have no insurance.

“Our goal is for there to not be barriers to care,” Huffman said.

Nurse-Family Partnership

Nurse Amy Bozeman and new mother Markya Batee, 20, exchange infants at Batee’s Tyler apartment. Batee is handed a large baby doll with a clear skull with a model brain that jiggles inside when baby is bounced, thrown or swung. Bozeman gently holds Batee’s daughter, 3-week-old Zhaiva Phillips.

As a client of Nurse-Family Partnership, Batee is learning about shaken baby syndrome at the home visit.

Nurse-Family Partnership, a service of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler, is a national program that is designed to educate expectant women and families. Through this program, women who are first-time mothers are paired with a nurse who makes home visits.

When the nurses visit expectant moms, they make assessments on the mom’s health, teach her to check her own blood pressure and educate her on the danger signs of pregnancy.

“We try to help moms to learn how to read their body,” Young said. “Because of the issues of preeclampsia and hypertension, each mom that we work with we give them a blood pressure cuff and teach them how to use it and track their blood pressure and take those readings into their doctors. We educate them on what’s normal and what’s not normal.”

The program also hosts special events throughout the year to bring their clients together. For Mother’s Day, a lunch event was held with speakers and vendors providing information on services such as pregnancy support groups and child nutrition.

Through a grant, they were also able to host an infant CPR and choking class for their clients.

Barriers to access

At WIC in Smith County, the focus has been on evolving into the most mother-friendly program as possible by changing how services are delivered.

To lessen barriers to transportation and appointments, WIC has added a mobile van unit dubbed “WIC on the go” that travels to apartment complexes, housing developments and to clients’ homes.

The one-on-one home visit service is used to enroll women, infants and children to WIC services. The van allows nutrition education and breastfeeding education to be offered on site. WIC staff members also discuss insurance options and refer clients to programs such as the Children’s Defense Fund, which assists in helping moms and children have access to insurance coverage. WIC is a member of the Healthy Me Healthy Babies Coalition, organizations that work together to promote positive maternal and infant health.

Between two offices in Tyler and a Lindale office, WIC sees more than 7,200 women, infants and children each year.

A problem that WIC personnel discovered was that moms were not aware they could make a doctor’s appointment for prenatal care and have it reimbursed after applying for Medicaid. Moms were applying for Medicaid then waiting weeks or months before going to see a doctor unaware that Medicaid would cover three months of previous check-ups and prenatal appointments.

WIC refers clients to the Children’s Defense Fund, an outreach operation funded through a grant from the Episcopal Health Foundation in Smith, Cherokee, Rusk and San Augustine counties to connect pregnant moms to CHIP Perinatal coverage along with assisting families in applying for children’s health insurance Medicaid/CHIP. The organization works to identify children who do not have health insurance.

While WIC benefits such as food stamps are based on income, WIC has several educational programs that are open to everyone, although WIC is reassessing how it offers services to reduce the stigma of receiving benefits such as food assistance.

“Knowledge is powerful,” Smith said. “I hate for them not to come because of the stigma.”

One misconception is that WIC benefits are only for single moms, but grandparents and foster parents can also qualify for WIC benefits.

Families are screened for food insecurities and provided with information about local food pantries. Even if someone doesn’t qualify for benefits, she can still attend nutrition classes.

“We’re looking for all women to come and be a part in our nutrition programs,” said Tecora Smith, WIC program director. “Having healthy foods and knowing how to prepare those foods is important.”

WIC offers breastfeeding support, a class for dads to learn baby care techniques and a prenatal class for moms to create a birth plan.

Breastfeeding is encouraged, and WIC issues each mom a breast pump to keep.

“We’re trying to make sure mom has these systems in place where we have mother-friendly sites,” Smith said. “Mom returns to work wanting to breastfeed so we are working with businesses to help them write breastfeeding policies.”

Other changes include adding nontraditional hours, such as later appointments after 5 p.m, and getting feedback from clients about their services.

“Our families really don’t know about the services,” Smith said. “Smith County has so much to offer families, so why is our infant mortality rate so high and why are our moms dying? I know it’s a question we have to figure out. We are, but it’s taking time.”

Trump's Mexico deal: a political win, even if it falls short

MEXICO CITY — As Washington and Mexico City both took victory laps Saturday over a deal that headed off threatened tariffs on Mexican imports, it remained to be seen how effective it may be, and migration experts raised concerns over what it could mean for people fleeing poverty and violence in Central America.

Other than a vague reiteration of a joint commitment to promote development, security and growth in Central America, the agreement focuses almost exclusively on enforcement and says little about the root causes driving the surge in migrants seen in recent months.

“My sense is overall the Mexican government got out of this better than they thought. The agreement though leaves a lot of big question marks,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute. “It’s good that the two sides reached an agreement which allows both of them to save face, but it’s not clear how easy it is to implement.”

The deployment of 6,000 National Guard troops appears to be the key commitment in what was described as “unprecedented steps” by Mexico to ramp up enforcement, though Interior Secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero said that had already been planned and was not a result of external pressure.

“I have said before, migration into Mexico also has to be regulated ... orderly, legal and safe,” Sánchez Cordero told The Associated Press. “So the National Guard that we were going to deploy anyway, we’re going to deploy. It’s not because they tell us to, but rather because we’re going to do it anyway.”

Mexico was already increasing enforcement such as detentions, deportations and checkpoints. In recent weeks it broke up the latest migrant caravan, snuffing out most appetite for traveling in large, visible groups.

If Mexico does more as promised, it’s likely to be seen in intensifications of those same efforts, experts said — raids on hotels where migrants stay or on bus companies transporting them north to the U.S. border. The two countries also agreed to collaborate to share information on and disrupt people-smuggling networks, a new focus seen earlier this week when Mexico arrested two migration activists and froze accounts of over two dozen people alleged to have organized caravans.

A concern is that even more aggressive enforcement could put migrants with legitimate asylum claims at risk of being deported from Mexico to the dangers they fled in the first place. Also, Mexican security forces are known for often being corrupt and shaking migrants down for bribes. A renewed crackdown is seen as making migration through Mexico more difficult and more dangerous, but doing little to discourage Central Americans desperate to escape poverty, hunger and violence.

“People are fleeing their homes regardless of what the journey might mean and regardless of what chance they may have for seeking protections in Mexico or in the United States,” said Maureen Meyer, an immigration expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, “simply because they need to leave.”

“It seems like in all these discussions (over tariffs and immigration) the human reality of these people and why they’re leaving Central America was lost,” she continued. “It was ‘what can we do to stop them,’ and not ‘what can we really do to create the conditions in their home countries so that people don’t have to leave.’”

Another key element of the deal is that the United States will expand a program known as the Migrant Protection Protocol, or MPP. According to Mexican immigration authorities, since January there have been 10,393 returns by migrants to Mexico while their cases wend their way through U.S. courts.

MPP has been plagued by glitches and so far has been introduced only in California and El Paso, and Selee said there are logistical hurdles to further expansion. Right now the MPP figure of 10,000 or so represents “a drop in the bucket” compared to overall migration, he added.

Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard, who led the negotiations, said the agreement does not include any quotas.

If MPP does roll out on a mass scale along the United States’ entire southern border, it could overwhelm Mexican border cities. Mexico promised to offer jobs, health care and education for returnees, but has little infrastructure to do so. Currently most shelters and support programs are run by the likes of NGOs and the Roman Catholic Church.

And if the program were to include places like Tamaulipas, the Gulf coast state where cartels and gangs control large swaths of territory, migrants could be at even greater risk.

“You know this is an area that the U.S. government considers that it’s not safe for any American citizen,” Meyer said, referring to the State Department’s highest-level warning against all travel to Tamaulipas due to crime and kidnappings. “And yet it’s OK for us to send people back there?”

Still, the deal was hailed by many in Mexican industry and politics.

Arturo Rocha, a Foreign Relations Department spokesman, tweeted late Friday that it was “an unquestionable triumph for Mexico.” Avoiding tariffs sends a calming message to ratings agencies worried about a possible trade war, he said, adding that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s government had won U.S. recommitment to Central American development and resisted “safe third country” designation, a concession sought by Washington that would have required asylum seekers to apply first in Mexico.

However Abdel Camargo, an anthropologist at the Frontera Sur College in southern Mexico, said that by accepting MPP returnees, “Mexico does not become a safe third country but de facto is going to act as one.”

Some such as ex-President Felipe Calderón of the conservative opposition National Action Party questioned whether Mexico was truly master of its own migratory policy. But José Antonio Meade, a five-time Cabinet minister who lost last year’s election to López Obrador, praised Ebrard for avoiding damaging tariffs “in the face of very complex conditions.”

In San Jose del Cabo for a summit of North American mayors, Juan Manuel Gastelum of Tijuana, across from San Diego, said he’s fine with more migrants being returned to his city as long as the federal government invests in caring for them. He added that the threat of tariffs may have been necessary to force his country’s hand.

“How else was Mexico going to understand that it is not right to leave migration uncontrolled?” said Gastelum, who is also a member of National Action.

Meanwhile, a rally later Saturday in Tijuana that López Obrador called to defend Mexican pride and dignity was expected to take on more of a festive atmosphere.

“It was (originally supposed to be) a meeting to show support for the incoming governor ... that turned into a demand for peace and respect on the tariffs issue,” local restaurateur and businessman Francisco Villegas said. “But since the tariffs issue was sorted out by having Marcelo Ebrard and his team up there, it is now turning into a celebration.”