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Sheriff Gonzales withdraws from consideration for ICE

Not a big surprise at this point.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez has withdrawn from consideration to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, he confirmed Monday afternoon.

Gonzalez’s withdrawal comes 14 months after President Joe Biden first nominated him to lead ICE.

“It’s taken far too long,” Gonzalez said Monday. “It’s in best interest of myself, my family, the country and the residents of Harris County that elected me to serve as sheriff to remove myself from further consideration and remain in place as sheriff.”

Gonzalez’ nomination surprised some, in part because in 2017 he’d ended a controversial partnership with ICE that had allowed sheriff’s deputies to screen jailed suspects to find those in the country without legal permission — and later declined to cooperate with an ICE operation in 2019 to arrest large numbers of immigrant families living without legal permission in Houston and other large cities.

Biden first nominated Gonzalez in April 2021. He faced a tense reception from Senate Republicans later that year, ultimately promising not to abolish the partnership he’d scrapped in Harris County in which local law enforcement agencies screen jailed suspects to identify people unauthorized to be in the country.

[…]

The struggle to confirm Gonzalez reflects shifting norms in the Senate and the growing difficulty of confirming political appointees in recent years, said Max Stier, CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes effective government.

“Everything is becoming harder and slower, and you have even fewer people actually being confirmed for very important positions,” Stier said.

The exit of Gonzalez from the process this week marks the latest setback for the Biden administration, which has struggled to win Senate confirmation for high-profile appointments for other contentious posts — and for ICE itself, which has been without a Senate-confirmed leader for more than five years.

See here for the previous update. Not a whole lot to add, but if Dems can pull off maintaining the Senate, especially if they can pick up Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, then maybe the next ICE nominee will have an easier time. Maybe. In any event, please return any speculation you may have engaged in regarding who would be selected to replace Gonzales as Sheriff back to the shelf.

Biden signs modest gun control bill

It’s now the law. We’ll see for how long.

President Joe Biden on Saturday signed into law a bipartisan measure to address gun violence, less than 24 hours after the bill was approved by the U.S. House and a month and a day after the deadly shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde.

“Today, we say more than enough. We say more than enough,” Biden said at the White House. “At a time when it seems impossible to get anything done in Washington, we are doing something consequential.”

The measure was negotiated by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in the aftermath of the Uvalde shooting that left 19 students and two teachers dead. That shooting had come less than two weeks after a massacre in a Buffalo supermarket that left 10 people dead.

In a statement announcing the signing, the White House thanked Cornyn and a small bipartisan group of other senators involved in its drafting.

The law is widely viewed as a series of modest changes to current gun regulations, falling far short of proposals pushed by House Democrats and Biden to raise the age to purchase a gun, ban assault weapons and expand universal background checks. The most noteworthy provision of the law would close what is known as “the boyfriend loophole.”

Current federal statutes prohibit firearm purchases for those convicted of committing domestic violence against spouses or partners who live together or share a child. To close the loophole, the new law will leave to the courts the contours of expanding how to define and include dating partners who commit such abuse.

Conservatives previously raised concerns that an expansive definition of a partner could threaten constitutional rights. The law will also permit offenders to regain their gun rights if there are no further offenses over five years.

See here for the background. Please note that first sentence in the last paragraph above, because I’ve been speculating about legal challenges to this new law ever since it became apparent that it was about to become law. I was called out in the comments of that earlier post for my assertion that “SCOTUS essentially declared all state gun control measures to be illegal”. I will admit that was a bit of hyperbole, but it’s absolutely the case that state gun control measures of all kinds around the country are now going to be challenged in federal court. Where do you think this Supreme Court will draw a line and say okay, no, that’s a reasonable and constitutional restriction and may stand? It’s not at all clear to me that they believe there is one. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong – and even happier if we finally get around to reforming this completely radicalized and out of control SCOTUS – but I wouldn’t bet any of my own money on it. In the meantime, let’s see when – and yeah, I mean “when” and not “if” – the first suit is filed against this law.

PS – I know I make a lot of podcast recommendations as supplemental material for my posts, so here’s another for you: This week’s Amicus podcast talks for about 30 minutes about the Bruen decision, with the actual legal expert doing the talking sounding a lot more sanguine about certain types of state gun laws surviving future review; he also specifically thinks this federal law will survive. I’m the opposite of an expert, but I am deeply cynical and have zero faith in the consistency or fidelity of this court. You make the call which of us will be more accurate about the future.

Cornyn-Murphy gun bill gets final passage

What great timing, huh?

Exactly one month after a gunman shot and killed 19 children and two teachers in a Uvalde elementary school, the most significant new gun laws in decades were headed to President Joe Biden’s desk on Friday after the U.S. House cleared a bipartisan package of reforms requiring greater scrutiny of young buyers, closing the so-called boyfriend loophole and more.

The gun laws, authored by a group of senators including John Cornyn of Texas, easily passed the Democratic-controlled House on a 234-193 vote, just hours after 15 Senate Republicans joined every Democrat in approving the bill in the Senate late Thursday night. Biden is expected to sign the bill into law.

“When I met with families from Uvalde, they asked me how it was possible for the man who murdered their loved ones to get a dangerous weapon so easily,” U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro said in a statement. “Today, Congress has voted to pass historic gun safety reforms that will save lives and keep deadly weapons out of the hands of people who present a clear danger to their communities. We need to make more progress on gun safety, but today’s vote is an important step forward.”

It is the first tightening of federal gun laws since 1994. It bolsters background checks on buyers under 21 years old and restricts access to firearms for dating partners convicted of domestic abuse. The bill creates stiffer penalties for gun trafficking and “straw” purchasing, in which someone buys a firearm for someone prohibited from owning one.

The legislation also provides funding for mental health programs, school security and for states to enact red flag laws or other intervention methods meant to stop shootings before they happen.

Just 14 Republicans voted for the bill in the House, where GOP leaders had urged members to oppose the legislation. Only one Texan was among them: U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales of San Antonio, whose district includes Uvalde. The rest opposed the legislation.

See here for the background. It would be nice to feel good about this, even as watered down as this bill is, but with SCOTUS on a rampage, it’s hard to feel good about anything. The fact that this got initial passage in the Senate on the same day that SCOTUS essentially declared all state gun control measures to be illegal was the kind of irony none of us needed. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before a federal lawsuit is filed to invalidate even this modest effort, and who would take a bet on those plaintiffs losing? But here we are anyway. If we can ever find our way to fixing the courts, we can improve on this and do a lot more besides. One step at a time. The Trib has more.

Cornyn’s gun control bill passes the Senate

Happy to have had my cynicism proven wrong.

Exactly four weeks after a teenage gunman armed with a semiautomatic rifle massacred 19 elementary schoolers and two teachers in Uvalde, the U.S. Senate voted 64-34 Tuesday night to advance a bipartisan compromise that, if enacted, would become the first major legislation on gun safety since 1994.

The legislation does not restrict any rights of existing gun owners — a nonstarter for Senate Republicans. Instead, it would enhance background checks for gun purchasers younger than 21; make it easier to remove guns from people threatening to kill themselves or others, as well as people who have committed domestic violence; clarify who needs to register as a federal firearms dealer; and crack down on illegal gun trafficking, including so-called straw purchases, which occur when the actual buyer of a firearm uses another person to execute the paperwork to buy on their behalf.

The legislation includes $11 billion for mental health services and $2 billion for community-based antiviolence programs. It also includes money to help young people access mental health services via telemedicine, money for more school-based mental health centers and support for suicide hotlines.

Republican John Cornyn, the senior senator from Texas, who was formally rebuked by the Republican Party of Texas on Saturday evening for taking part in the bipartisan negotiations, said he felt confident that senators would see the deal as a reasonable compromise. If it holds up, that would itself be an extraordinary achievement after years in which mass shootings have devastated American communities with numbing reality.

“This is an issue that divides much of the country, depending on where you live, and maybe divides people living in the same household. But I think we have found some areas where there’s space for compromise and we’ve also found that there are some red lines and no middle ground,” Cornyn said on the floor of the Senate. “We’ve talked, we’ve debated, we’ve disagreed and finally we’ve reached an agreement among the four of us but obviously this is not something that is going to become law or fail to become law because of a small group of senators. The truth is we had a larger group of 20 senators, 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats, come together and sign on to an agreed set of principles, and I believe that as the senators see the text that supports those principles, they will see we’ve tried our best to be true to what those agreed principles should be.”

See here for the previous update, and here for a copy of the bill. It still has to pass the House, but I expect that will happen. This bill started out as modest and got watered down further – I mean seriously, we couldn’t just raise the minimum age for buying gun to the same as it is for buying a beer? – and yet it’s the first real advance in a long time. It remains the definition of “better than nothing”, but we’re so used to nothing it feels like more.

To be sure, there are issues.

There’s still a fundamental problem on the Democrats’ part in getting here: They ceded to Republican arguments that the problem is mental health and school safety and not simply the fact that the country is awash in deadly weapons. The extra funding in the bill for mental health support is a good thing, but a good thing that could have been achieved through Medicaid expansion to the hold-out states without pushing the myth that mental illness is intrinsically tied to violence and further stigmatizing it. It accepts school massacres as inevitable by beefing up school security—which does not make Black and brown students safer, since they’re often targets of abuse from cops at school—and creating programs for trauma support in schools for after the attacks occur.

There are some improvements, though none is without a downside. It enhances background checks for 18 to 21 year olds seeking to buy assault weapons. That imposes a waiting period on them from three to 10 days,  which could prevent some impulse massacres. But that provision sunsets in 10 years, ending in 2032.

The bill includes $750 million that could help states that don’t have red flag or crisis intervention laws implement them. These laws allow for courts to order weapons removed from people determined to be a danger to themselves or others. The grant money, however, is in the form of Byrne JAG grants and can be used for a variety of law enforcement and judicial programs, including mental heath courts, drug courts, and veteran courts. This is a win for Republicans whose states don’t have and won’t pass red flag laws. They want their states to still be able to access the money, so other “crisis intervention” programs will receive it and guns don’t necessarily have to be removed from people in crisis.

The loophole that allows dating partners convicted of domestic violence to keep their guns is partially closed. Current law only bars individuals who have committed violence against a spouse, live-in partner, or someone with whom they share children from owning guns. The ban has been expanded to anyone convicted of domestic violence against someone they have a “continuing serious relationship of a romantic or intimate nature” with, including “recent former” dating partners. It does not stipulate what “recent” means. It is not retroactive, so survivors from past attacks can’t petition to have their abuser’s weapons taken away. It also allows people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence to get their guns back in five years if they don’t commit other crimes.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline calls it “partially closing” the loophole, and a “significant step,” but advocates warn that there’s still a loophole in the “recent” language. “He doesn’t need to be ‘recent’ to cause harm,” Susan B. Sorenson, a University of Pennsylvania professor who studies family violence, told The Washington Post. “Feelings, not all of them positive, live on long after a relationship has ended.”

One of the more significant parts of this bill just flat won’t mean anything in a lot of states.

But even if it passes, federal funding for the bill’s most-discussed provision is unlikely to persuade many of the 30 states that don’t have red flag laws—most of them Republican-led—to adopt them. Some of these states have repeatedly voted down red flag legislation; at least one has formally outlawed their implementation. This means the federal gun control bill, aimed at reining in the epidemic of mass shootings, could have limited impact in a large swath of the country.

[…]

In a deadlocked Congress that has struggled to pass bills to keep kids fed and local governments running, the Uvalde shooting spurred momentum for this package to come together, though it falls short of many Democrats’ goals. The House, with its stronger Democratic majority, was able to pass a slate of gun control measures immediately after the Texas shooting that would have blocked semiautomatic rifle sales to people under the age of 21, created stricter gun storage regulations, and outlawed the sale of magazines holding more than 15 rounds of ammunition. That package stood no chance in the evenly divided Senate, where most bills have to garner the support of at least 60 senators because of the filibuster. An idea to create a national red flag law emerged in the hours immediately following the Uvalde shooting, but Democratic lawmakers saw both logistical challenges to that proposal and political ones.

Thus, optional funding for states to create their own red flag laws seemed like the safest bet to get anything across the finish line with Republicans wary of taking any action on guns, lest they lose their re-elections. Tellingly, several of the GOP senators in the bipartisan Uvalde-response contingent are retiring.

But while the incentive money could be used to help states that already have red flag laws, half a dozen state lawmakers and experts tell Mother Jones it is unlikely federal funding will persuade states that don’t already have red flag laws to create them.

This includes the state where tragedy prompted the bipartisan legislative framework in the first place: Texas. “I don’t believe any federal requirements or incentive would get Texas to move on this,” says Texas state Rep. Diego Bernal, a Democrat in favor of stricter gun control.

He draws a comparison to Texas, joined by 11 other historically red states, opting not to take federal funds in order to expand Medicaid healthcare access to more poor residents: “If we’re not willing to take tremendous amounts of federal money, at no expense to us, in order to insure our uninsured residents, then I don’t see any daylight for financial incentives to get us to adopt a red flag law.”

I haven’t seen any discussion of what kind of legal challenges might get filed against this bill, assuming it does pass as now I believe it will. You know the NRA, which opposes the Cornyn/Murphy bill, will not sit quietly, and there are plenty of wingnut Attorneys General and Trump judges out there. That’s an issue for another day, I suppose. For now, be glad we got what we got, and let’s keep working to make it possible to get more in the future. The Chron has more.

COVID vaccines for kids under 5 are now available

It’s been a long wait.

On Saturday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky signed off on Covid vaccines for the youngest Americans. Her endorsement means shots can begin immediately, finally ending the two-and-a-half year wait on the part of parents of children under 5.

Walenksy accepted the recommendation within hours after the CDC advisory committee voted unanimously in favor of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines for children as young as 6 months. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory committee on Saturday endorsed Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccines for the youngest children, the last step before CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky could issue her final sign-off.

The unanimous recommendations from the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices followed the Food and Drug Administration’s authorization of the shots on Friday.

President Biden responded to the announcement Saturday hailing it as a “monumental step forward.”

“For parents all over the country, this is a day of relief and celebration,” Biden said. “As the first country to protect our youngest children with COVID-19 vaccines, my Administration has been planning and preparing for this moment for months, effectively securing doses and offering safe and highly effective mRNA vaccines for all children as young as six months old.”

Shortly before Saturday’s votes — one for Moderna and a separate one for Pfizer — many panel members celebrated the milestone, noting that parents will soon have two effective tools to protect their youngest children from Covid after more than two years of living with the virus.

“We want to say today that if you’re not going to immunize your children, we think that’s a misplaced concern and that you should immunize your children to save their lives,” said committee member Dr. Sarah Long, a pediatrician at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia.

While young children are generally less likely than adults to experience the most serious outcomes of the virus, some do. Among children 6 months old through age 4, there have been more than 2 million confirmed cases of Covid, more than 20,000 hospitalizations and more than 200 deaths, according to CDC data. Covid is the fifth most common cause of death in children younger than 5.

“This is an opportunity, which one doesn’t get very often, to participate in preventing the death of young children,” said committee member Dr. Beth Bell, a clinical professor in the department of global health at the University of Washington. “A death of a young child is an incredible tragedy, and we know that this disease is killing children.”

It’s a function of where we are now in this pandemic that this isn’t bigger and more exciting news than it is. The vaccination rate for kids in the 5 to 11 year old range remains disappointingly low, and the estimates I’ve seen suggest that maybe 20% of the under-five crowd will get their shots. We could of course mandate COVID vaccines for enrollment in schools, but, well, I think you know what would happen then. The best way forward, as even a modest number of kids getting their shots will help save lives, is for those of us who have kids in that age range to get them vaccinated, and for the rest of us to help persuade our family and friends who do to do the same. Your Local Epidemiologist, who has two young kids of her own, has some ideas on that front. COVID is still out there killing people, y’all. We should try to remember that.

So how’s that bipartisan agreement on a framework for a gun control deal going?

Let’s check in.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn arrived at the Texas GOP convention in Houston Friday to address his role as chief negotiator for a bipartisan gun package head on — and was promptly booed for it.

“No gun control!” the crowd jeered, even as Cornyn reiterated popular Republican talking points — that Republicans would vote out President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. Audience members shouted back, “You too!”

Cornyn was speaking to the state’s most dedicated Republicans, many of whom are more conservative than the general electorate. And none were shy in voicing their opposition to the gun deal, which emerged just weeks after a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at a Uvalde elementary school.

The senator defended his role in the negotiations, saying the compromise would not impact law-abiding Texans. The package, which is still in its early stages, would expand background checks, introduce greater scrutiny of young buyers and encourage states to pass “red flag” laws that temporarily remove firearms from people deemed a danger to themselves or others.

It also includes billions of dollars for mental health resources and school safety plans.

“Let’s see if we can find a better way of enforcing existing law and keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill,” Cornyn said. “But I will not, under any circumstance, support new restrictions for law-abiding gun owners. That will always be my red line. And despite what some of you may have heard, the framework that we are working on is consistent with that red line.”

The audience members were not impressed, chanting “no red flags!”

That’s always the problem with bipartisan deals, isn’t it? They involve Republicans.

Look, whether this is a matter of Cornyn’s legacy or it’s an old familiar game of perpetually moving goalposts, one fact remains: Nothing is ever assured in the US Senate. I mean, we don’t even have a bill here. Maybe we’ll get there, and maybe what eventually passes, if indeed something passes – the default in the Senate is always for nothing to happen – we can talk about what it means and what it might do. Until then, it’s vaporware. It’s more advanced vaporware than we’ve seen before, and it’s easy to feel optimistic about that. But until we have a bill and a cloture vote, that’s all it is. Reform Austin, the Chron, and Stace, who was properly in touch with his inner cynic from the beginning, have more.

Biden signs executive order to protect trans kids

Good.

President Joe Biden signed an executive order Wednesday to enhance protections for transgender children and take steps to ban conversion therapy as efforts continue in Texas and other states to restrict gender-affirming medical care.

The executive order calls on the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services to increase access to gender-affirming care and develop ways to counter state efforts aimed at limiting such treatments for transgender minors.

Biden signed the order Wednesday afternoon, joined by six LGBTQ teens who were reportedly from Texas and Florida.

“My message to all the young people: Just be you,” Biden said to a crowd of members of Congress, administration officials and LGBTQ advocates. “You are loved. You are heard. You are understood. You do belong.”

The federal health department will release sample policies for states to expand health care options for LGBTQ patients. The federal education department will release a sample school policy to achieve full inclusion of LGBTQ students.

[…]

Biden’s order also asks the health department to lead an initiative aimed at reducing youth exposure to conversion therapy and expand awareness and support for survivors of the practice. Biden is also asking the Federal Trade Commission to see if conversion therapy “constitutes an unfair or deceptive act or practice, and whether to issue consumer warnings or notices,” per the White House. He is also directing department heads to promote an end to conversion therapy worldwide.

Texas is one of 22 states that has not banned conversion therapy, a debunked practice that seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The health department will explore guidance clarifying that federally funded programs cannot conduct conversion therapy.

Biden’s order calls on the health department to expand youth access to mental health services and issue new guidance for providing mental health care for LGBTQ youth. The order also charges the health department with strengthening LGBTQ nondiscrimination practices in the foster care system. Biden is also calling on the department to increase access to voluntary family counseling.

“We’re in a battle for the very soul of this nation,” Biden said. “It’s a battle I know we will win.”

I feel like there had been some earlier promise from President Biden to take this action, but if so I don’t see that I blogged about it. I assume there will be a lawsuit filed by our shitbird Attorney General to stop all this, which will exist alongside the earlier lawsuit that had been filed to stop the feds from turning off some funding sources in response to our anti-trans bullying ways. In the meantime, we’ll wait and see what the new policies this order directs look like. Whatever the ultimate outcome, this was the right thing to do.

March For Our Lives

I sure would like to think that all this activist energy means that things are different this time.

Hundreds of Houstonians gathered near City Hall in downtown Saturday for the student-led March for Our Lives, one of dozens of events planned across the nation today to rally for stronger regulations on guns.

The protest comes almost three weeks after 21 were killed in a mass shooting at a Uvalde elementary school. In Houston, demonstrators marched just over a half mile from City Hall to outside the office of Sen. Ted Cruz.

Some explicit chants broke out as demonstrators called for voters to oust Cruz in the next election.

The event followed a demonstration of about 150 people in The Woodlands, where advocates also worked to register voters.

Katherine Chen, high school senior and executive director of MFOL Houston, said her experience as a student has included three instances of gun violence.

“The first time I had a brush with gun violence was the community college across the street from my middle school had an active shooter,” she said, remembering the sounds of helicopters and the commotion of the scene directly facing her classroom.

“That’s not something that should happen to kids at school. Especially not when you’re 12 years old.”

[…]

MFOL started in 2018 following the shooting at Majory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and rallies in support of new gun safety laws.

Among MFOL’s sought reforms: banning assault-style weapons or raising the age to purchase one from 18 to 21; outlawing high-capacity magazines that can hold many rounds of ammunition; implementing “red flag” laws to temporarily remove firearms from individuals deemed a danger to themselves or others; expanding background checks to include all gun sales; and establishing a “cool-off” period for someone seeking a firearm.

There were other rallies like this one around the state and around the country. The next step is to turn this into action at the ballot box, for all the reasons we have discussed a million times before.

I hesitate to be optimistic, because we have certainly seen this kind of outrage and emotion in other public rallies, and we know how they all ended up. But maybe this time it is a little different. It feels a little different, though I admit that may just be extremely wishful thinking on my part. But then, this part is actually different.

A bipartisan group of senators on Sunday announced a deal on framework of legislation aimed at reducing gun violence that includes funding for mental health and school security. Thus far, 10 Republican senators stated their support of the deal.

The agreement is currently in principle as legislative text has yet to be drafted. The deal comes in the wake of a series of mass shootings nationwide, including the tragic elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas late last month.

The deal includes enhanced background checks for buyers under the age of 21, funding for the expansion of mental health services and school security, and state grants to implement so-called “red flag” laws championed by Republicans that permit law enforcement to seek temporary removal of firearms from those who pose threats to themselves or others.

The deal closes the so-called “boyfriend loophole” in order to prevent a domestic abuse from purchasing a gun if they are convicted of abusing their partner.

Additionally, it seeks to crack down on illegal straw purchasers and firearms dealers without a license.

It’s still not enough – the House bill that passed included banning the purchase of these weapons by anyone under the age of 21, which really should be the starting point – but we’ve not gotten this far on anything like it in the filibuster-everything era. It still needs to actually pass, and it may face resistance from the more progressive wing of House Democrats, who have some leverage here, but it would be something. That’s almost shocking, which says a lot of other things about where we are. But it’s something. The Trib has more.

House passes Ike Dike bill

Getting closer, but there’s still a big obstacle to overcome.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday night voted 384-37 to approve the plan for the $31-billion “Ike Dike,” a massive project designed to protect the vulnerable region from storm surge.

The plan centers on gates that would be built across the mouth of Galveston Bay and lowered ahead of hurricanes to block waves of water from pushing up the ship channel, and flooding industrial facilities and homes.

A House committee in mid-May approved the bill, known as the Water Resources Development Act of 2022. A Senate committee has also cleared similar legislation approving the project. That bill awaits a vote on the Senate floor.

If the measure is approved by the Senate, the bills will then be merged for a bicameral vote. Federal funding for the project still needs to be approved. The state legislature created a government district that can levy taxes in the Houston region to pay the local share.

The Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Feasibility Study, as the federal plan is formally known, is the largest engineering recommendation of its kind that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has ever proposed.

See here and here for the background. The big bipartisan vote gives some hope for it passing the Senate, but the calendar may be a tougher issue than the filibuster. Hoping for the best, prepared as always to be disappointed. The Trib has more.

(PS – I changed the embedded image I’ve been using for Ike Dike posts after Ed Emmett left a comment on the previous post noting that I had been using a picture of the SSPEED proposal instead. Hope this one meets with your approval.)

We’ve seen this movie before

I appreciate the sentiment, but I know how this ends.

Major Republican donors, including some that have contributed to Gov. Greg Abbott’s campaigns, joined other conservative Texans in signing an open letter supporting congressional action to increase gun restrictions in response to the mass shooting in Uvalde that left 19 children and two teachers dead last week.

The letter, which [was] expected to run as a full-page ad in the Dallas Morning News on Sunday, endorses the creation of red flag laws, expanding background checks and raising the age to purchase a gun to 21. More than 250 self-declared gun enthusiasts signed it.

“Most law enforcement experts believe these measures would make a difference,” the letter reads. “And recent polls of fellow conservatives suggest that there is strong support for such gun-safety measures.”

The letter voices support for Texas’ senior senator, John Cornyn, who has been tapped to lead bipartisan negotiations in Congress over possible gun reform measures.

“We are grateful that our Senator John Cornyn is leading efforts to address the recent tragedies in Uvalde and elsewhere across our great Country,” the letter says. “He’s the right man to lead this bipartisan effort, as he has demonstrated throughout his career.”

[…]

The letter was paid for by Todd Maclin, a former senior executive at J.P. Morgan Chase who now runs the Dallas-based finance firm Maclin Management. Maclin said he is a conservative gun owner who has been stirred to action by the shooting in Uvalde.

“These events have really motivated me and really gotten under my skin and encouraged me to support the effort that’s underway,” Maclin told The Texas Tribune. “I just felt like I needed to do something, and I also believe that there are reasonable things that can be done.”

He said he is still hearing from more conservative gun owners who are feeling a “great sense of urgency and a great need to support [Cornyn] as he does his best to address these issues.”

Maclin said the group is focusing on federal legislation, which he believes is the best avenue to passing gun safety laws and ensuring they are applied uniformly across the country. He declined to comment on the state response to the shooting or gun legislation, except to say that he hopes any federal plan led by Cornyn and passed with conservative support would be embraced by state governments.

Among the signatories are deep-pocketed Abbott supporters, including billionaires Robert Rowling, whose holding company owns Omni Hotels, and Ray L. Hunt, executive chairman of Hunt Consolidated Inc.

A decade ago it was big-money donors to the Republicans warning against making deep cuts to education and racist anti-immigration bills. We know how that has turned out. While it’s nice to see some Republican voices calling for actual legislation to curb gun violence, there are many recent examples we can point to where the likes of John Cornyn were “tapped” to lead “negotiations” on similar measures that everyone knew were doomed because Mitch McConnell would never let them pass. Who’s fooling who here?

I believe that Todd Maclin is sincere in his desire to get some modest form of gun control legislation to President Biden’s desk, just as I believed in Bill Hammond’s desire to invest in public education and push for sensible immigration reform. The problem is that Hammond didn’t have, and I strongly suspect Maclin doesn’t have, a backup plan for when the legislators he has supported and to whom he is now appealing tell him “No”, or string him along with vague promises and then just drop it when the heat is off. Is Todd Maclin going to stop supporting the Republicans that do this to him, or is he just going to shrug it off and go on as if nothing bad had happened because we’re all friends here? Like I said, I’ve seen this movie and I know how it ends. I’ll be delighted to be proven wrong, but years and years of recent history suggest I won’t be.

Please don’t ever talk to me about “a good guy with a gun” or “hardening the schools” again

The police were there but did nothing.

A gunman who killed 19 children and two teachers at a South Texas elementary school walked unopposed onto school grounds, state law enforcement officials said Thursday — and once he was inside, it took police an hour to stop him.

In the days after the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, officials with the Texas Department of Public Safety said the shooter encountered a police officer employed by the school district before charging through a back door — and gave conflicting accounts about whether the officer fired at the gunman.

Agency officials now say there was no police officer on campus when the shooter first arrived — but did not explain why they first believed there was.

The gunman crashed a truck in a ditch near the school at 11:28 a.m., fired at two passersby on the street, then entered the school 12 minutes later through a back door before police arrived, DPS officials said Thursday.

“He was not confronted by anybody,” Victor Escalon, a DPS official, said during a press conference Thursday. The agency is leading the investigation into the shooting along with Uvalde police.

The law enforcement response to the active shooter call has drawn mounting scrutiny in the days since the massacre. State law enforcement officials have given vague and conflicting answers on what exactly happened after the gunman arrived at the school, and parents have criticized police for not acting quickly enough to stop the shooter.

At a Wednesday press conference in Uvalde, DPS Director Steve McCraw said that a school police officer “engaged” with the gunman before he entered the school but did not exchange gunfire with the gunman. Other DPS officials were quoted in media reports saying there was an exchange of gunfire at that moment.

That was Wednesday. By Friday, they had gotten the story straight, and the local PD screwed it all up.

The head of the Texas Department of Public Safety criticized the police chief of the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District on Friday, saying he acted too slowly in responding to the elementary school gunman who killed 21 people, including 19 children.

Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said the incident commander — identified by the San Antonio Express-News as Uvalde CISD police chief Pete Arredondo — believed the situation was no longer an active shooter, but that of a barricaded suspect.

But 911 calls, reviewed by Texas Rangers, reveal that at least two people inside the Robb Elementary School classroom called police and reported that there were children inside who were alive.

Meanwhile, the shooting continued periodically.

“With the benefit of hindsight, of course it was not the right decision,” McCraw said. “It was the wrong decision.”

He said once the shooting continued, the incident commander — who he did not identify directly — should have switched back to an active shooter response.

“We believe should have been an entry at that as soon as they (could),” McCraw added. “When there’s an active shooter, the rules change.”

Meanwhile, inside the classroom, children made terrified calls to 911, whispering and asking for help.

All of this has made Greg Abbott mad because he had been out there praising the Uvalde PD’s response before being clued in about how inept they were. He should maybe be mad that all of his party’s “solutions” for stopping mass shootings at schools just don’t work.

Four years after an armed 17-year-old opened fire inside a Texas high school, killing 10, Gov. Greg Abbott tried to tell another shell-shocked community that lost 19 children and two teachers to a teen gunman about his wins in what is now an ongoing effort against mass shootings.

“We consider what we did in 2019 to be one of the most profound legislative sessions not just in Texas but in any state to address school shootings,” Abbott said inside a Uvalde auditorium Wednesday as he sat flanked by state and local officials. “But to be clear, we understand our work is not done, our work must continue.”

Throughout the 60-minute news conference, he and other Republican leaders said a 2019 law allowed districts to “harden” schools from external threats after a deadly shooting inside an art classroom at Santa Fe High School near Houston the year before. After the Uvalde gunman was reportedly able to enter Robb Elementary School through a back door this week, their calls to secure buildings resurfaced yet again.

But a deeper dive into the 2019 law revealed many of its “hardening” elements have fallen short.

Schools didn’t receive enough state money to make the types of physical improvements lawmakers are touting publicly. Few school employees signed up to bring guns to work. And many school districts either don’t have an active shooting plan or produced insufficient ones.

In January 2020, the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District received $69,000 from a one-time, $100 million state grant to enhance physical security in Texas public schools, according to a dataset detailing the Texas Education Agency grants. The funds were comparable to what similarly sized districts received.

Even with more funds and better enforcement of policies, experts have said there is no indication that beefing up security in schools has prevented any violence. Plus, they said, it can be detrimental to children, especially children of color.

“This concept of hardening, the more it has been done, it’s not shown the results,” said Jagdish Khubchandani, a public health professor at New Mexico State University who studies school security practices and their effectiveness.

Khubchandani said the majority of public schools in the United States already implement the security measures most often promoted by public officials, including locked doors to the outside and in classrooms, active-shooter plans and security cameras.

After a review of 18 years of school security measures, Khubchandani and James Price from the University of Toledo did not find any evidence that such tactics or more armed teachers reduced gun violence in schools.

“It’s not just guns. It’s not just security,” Khubchandani said. “It’s a combination of issues, and if you have a piecemeal approach, then you’ll never succeed. You need a comprehensive approach.”

I was on the board of our elementary school’s PTA in 2012, when the Sandy Hook murders happened. Our school adopted the “only one entrance” idea then, so even though there were other entrances to the school, you had to go through this one, and be buzzed in, if you wanted to visit. That could easily be defeated by an attacker, of course, but it’s in line with the official Republican response. The other ideas, you know, about limiting access to extremely deadly automatic weapons that can fire dozens of rounds in a few seconds, we’re still waiting on that.

Again, there’s plenty of reporting and analysis out there. You don’t need me to regurgitate it all. What we need, all of us, is a change in political leadership in this state, plus at least two more Democratic Senators, to maybe have a chance to move this forward. (We’ll also have to deal with the radical Supreme Court, but with those two more Democratic Senators, bigger things are on the table.) We’re not going to get anything from the Greg Abbotts and Dan Patricks. We have to get them out of power to have a chance.

UPDATE: Here’s two more things for you to read if you haven’t had enough yet.

House committee passes Ike Dike bill

Another step forward.

A House committee on Wednesday approved legislation that gives the go-ahead to the so-called Ike Dike project, a massive $31 billion proposal that includes building giant gates across the mouth of Galveston Bay with the goal of stopping hurricane storm surge.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure voted to move the Water Resources Development Act of 2022 toward the full House for a floor vote. This follows a vote two weeks ago by a similar committee in the Senate, which also included language in its bill approving the project.

Getting the sign-off from key committees in both chambers of Congress marks a significant step forward for a plan that has been spiritedly debated since Hurricane Ike hit with devastating force in 2008. Both bills must be approved by their respective bodies, then merged for a final bicameral vote.

“The Water Resources Development Act is our legislative commitment to investing in and protecting our communities from flooding events, restoring our environment and ecosystems and keeping our nation’s competitiveness by supporting our ports and harbors,” said U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-California, chair of the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment.

Her comments prior to the vote addressed the big picture: “Through the biannual enactment of WRDA, this committee has addressed local, regional, national needs through the authorization of the new US Army Corps of Engineers projects, studies and policies that benefit every corner of the nation.”

The Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Feasibility Study, as the federal version of the Ike Dike plan is formally known, is the largest engineering recommendation of its kind that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has ever proposed. It was one of 16 finalized projects included in the House bill.

See here for the background. I still need to see it pass a cloture vote and not get doomed to procedural hell by the likes of Rand Paul, but for now it is moving forward. For now.

Treasury Department opens investigation into Abbott’s use of federal funds for border mission

Good, though I have a hard time believing there will be any real consequences.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s use of COVID-19 relief dollars to support his border security mission has come under scrutiny in Washington this week as questions grow about whether it’s the proper use of the federal funds.

The U.S. Treasury Department’s inspector general opened an inquiry into the spending on Tuesday, the Washington Post reported. The action came a day after a group of Texas Democrats in the U.S. House called on U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to investigate.

Those steps followed a Post analysis of money intended to combat the effects of the pandemic, showing that Texas “leaders rerouted public health and safety funds to their border operations, while relying on federal pandemic funds to replace some of the money.”

Those border operations included Operation Lone Star, a state border security program that Abbott launched in March 2021 to deal with increased border crossings. The initiative involves the deployment of the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Military Department to the border. Abbott has used state resources to patrol the border, build border barriers and arrest migrants for trespassing on private land and then turn them over to immigration authorities.

The state has spent around $4 billion on the operations; the Post has reported that around $1 billion in coronavirus aid was used.

The money came from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, better known as the CARES Act, which had a key provision to support the medical response to the pandemic.

“In exercise of that responsibility … we are currently conducting a review of Texas’s uses of [Coronavirus Relief Fund] monies,” Richard K. Delmar, the U.S. Treasury Department’s deputy inspector general, said to the Washington Post.

[…]

Texas Democratic U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio and Veronica Escobar of El Paso spearheaded the letter to Yellen asking for her department to investigate the matter.

“It is negligent and irresponsible for Governor [Abbott] to direct additional funding to Operation Lone Star, especially if the funding in question was intended to help Texans rebuild from the pandemic,” the Texas Democrats wrote.

U.S. Reps. Colin Allred of Dallas, Lloyd Doggett of Austin, Marc Veasey of Fort Worth and Sylvia R. Garcia, Al Green, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher and Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston joined in signing the letter.

“As you continue your oversight of the Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Funds, we urge you to ensure all states are using these crucial funds for the reasons they were meant to be used,” they continued. “Governor Abbott must not be allowed to use federal coronavirus relief funds to further his political theater at the expense of Texas families.”

I’m happy for this, but let’s be clear that there are no circumstances under which Greg Abbott will be chastened by the outcome of the investigation, and no circumstances under which he will admit to any wrongdoing or make any changes in his behavior, except for the worse. Voting him out is still the only real hope at this point. Daily Kos has more.

Federal funding for the Ike Dike

This would be a big step forward.

Congressional members this week are moving one step closer to authorizing a massive, $31-billion-dollar system to block storm surge along Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula and at the mouth of Galveston Bay.

A proposed draft of the Water Resources Development Act of 2022 released Friday suggests the U.S. should carry out the Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Feasibility Study, informally known as the “Ike Dike.”

If approved, the federal government would pick up $19.2 billion of the cost of the multifaceted project that would mean building dunes, flood walls and giant gates to try to protect the most populous stretch of the Texas Gulf Coast.

Texas legislators already created a local government district that is able to impose taxes to help pay for the non-federal share of the cost, which is $11.7 billion.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will review the text of the draft bill on Wednesday. Legislation for these types of projects is written at regular intervals so that work by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can get off the ground.

The U.S. House of Representatives version of the bill hasn’t been released. Both measures will need approval from their congressional chambers. Then they will be combined into one bill and put up for a final vote.

There are eight million ways for a bill to die in the Senate, so it’s best to think of this as vaporware up until it’s actually on President Biden’s desk. The reporting on this makes it sound routine, and maybe it would be in less stupid times than these, but we’re not fooled. Let me know how the cloture vote goes, and then we can talk.

A roundup of border and lawsuit stories

Too much news, not enough time…

New federal lawsuit seeks to halt Texas’ border trespassing arrests, give more than $5 million to illegally detained migrants.

In a new challenge to Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial border security crackdown, a lawsuit filed Wednesday is asking a federal court to shut down Texas’ system of arresting migrants en masse along the Texas-Mexico border, and make the state pay more than $5 million to men who were illegally imprisoned under the system.

The lawsuit comes nearly a year after Abbott first ordered Texas police to arrest men suspected of illegally crossing the border on misdemeanor trespassing charges. The practice skirts constitutional restrictions that bar states from enforcing federal immigration law, and the lawsuit claims it discriminatorily targets mostly Black and Latino migrant men, usurps federal authority and is carried out in a way that violates the detainees’ rights.

“Under the guise of state criminal trespass law but with the explicit, stated goal of punishing migrants based on their immigration status, Texas officials are targeting migrants,” the filing stated. “Hundreds of those arrested have waited in jail for weeks or months without a lawyer, or without charges, or without bond, or without a legitimate detention hold or without a court date.”

Abbott’s trespassing initiative has drawn numerous state and local court challenges since it began in July, but this appears to be the first time attorneys are opposing it in federal court and seeking compensation for migrants swept into the governor’s “catch-and-jail” system. State and federal Democratic lawmakers and civil rights groups have also called on the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene in the Republican governor’s operation, but the federal administration has not acted.

The lawsuit was filed in federal district court in Austin by three private attorneys on behalf of 15 individual migrants and is asking for a class certification to include everyone arrested under Abbott’s trespassing initiative. The migrants are suing Abbott, the directors of the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, as well as Kinney County, a rural border county which accounts for the large majority of trespassing arrests, and its sheriff.

The complaint asks the court to find that the operation violates federal law and order the state to stop the arrests. It also argues each migrant illegally detained so far should be given $18,000 for each day they were imprisoned beyond what is allowed by state law. The attorneys said it is a typical amount awarded by courts in cases of over-detention. They estimated the total cost would be around $5,400,000.

Previously, state district judges have found that hundreds of men were detained illegally after trespassing arrests, locked in prison for more than a month without any charges filed against them in violation of state law. Lawyers have argued the practice is still occurring. Wednesday’s filing also alleges men have been held for days or weeks after they post bond, their charge is dropped or their sentence is complete.

This is one possible way to get this heinous activity stopped. I don’t know if it’s the most likely way to succeed, but it is the most direct.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sues Biden administration over asylum plan.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed his 11th immigration-related lawsuit against the Biden administration Thursday, asking a judge to block a plan to let asylum officers, rather than immigration judges, decide whether to grant some migrants’ asylum claims at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The new plan, scheduled to take effect May 31, “upends the entire adjudicatory system to the benefit of aliens,” the lawsuit says.

Earlier this year, the Biden administration finalized its plan to overhaul the process for migrants seeking asylum. The plan is supposed to reduce the average wait time for asylum-seekers to receive a decision in their case from five years to six months. As of March, immigration judges had nearly 1.7 million pending cases — the largest backlog in the country’s history, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

Under the new process, asylum-seekers could be released into the country pending the outcome of their cases instead of being held in custody. If a migrant apprehended at the border claims they could be persecuted or tortured if they return to their home country, the asylum officer would decide if they have a credible claim. If the officer declines an asylum claim, migrants could appeal to an immigration judge.

“The current system for handling asylum claims at our borders has long needed repair,” Alejandro Mayorkas, the Department of Homeland Security secretary, said in a statement in March when the plan was finalized. “Through this rule, we are building a more functional and sensible asylum system to ensure that individuals who are eligible will receive protection more swiftly, while those who are not eligible will be rapidly removed.”

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Amarillo overseen by Judge Matthew J. Kacsmaryk, also argues that the new plan violates the Constitution’s appointments clause because asylum officers are members of the general civil services and are not appointed like judges are.

[…]

Texas has filed nearly two dozen lawsuits in Texas-based federal courts, most of them led by Paxton, against the Biden administration over everything from federal mask mandates to the administration’s decision to halt the long-disputed Keystone XL pipeline. Trump-appointed judges have heard 16 of the cases and ruled in favor of Texas in seven. The other nine are pending as of March 15.

The state’s favorite targets have been Biden’s immigration policies, which have sparked seven of the 20 lawsuits in Texas courts. Paxton’s office has also sued the administration in Washington, D.C., federal courts and joined lawsuits led by attorneys general from other states.

Another day, another Trump judge. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what is likely to come next. There’s plenty that the Biden administration could and should have done differently with immigration policy, but nearly everything he has tried to do has run into this kind of legal obstacle. It would be nice if Congress were to act, but that’s just not in the cards.

Judge orders Biden administration to send Central American migrants to Mexico rather than their home countries.

A federal judge in Louisiana on Wednesday temporarily blocked the Biden administration from increasing the number of deportations of some Central Americans back to their home countries and ordered the administration to instead send them to Mexico under an emergency health order used to expel migrants from the country, including asylum-seekers.

The judge also set a May 13 hearing to decide whether to block the administration from canceling the health order, known as Title 42. The judge indicated in the order that he plans to block the Biden administration from lifting Title 42 altogether.

During a phone call with reporters on Tuesday, a Biden administration immigration official was asked about the Louisiana judge’s impending order and said the administration plans to comply with it but remarked, “We really disagree with the basic premise.”

The Biden administration had announced that it will stop expelling migrants under Title 42 starting May 23 and instead go back to detaining and deporting migrants who don’t qualify to enter and remain in the U.S.

On April 3, Arizona, Missouri and 19 other states filed a lawsuit in the Western District of Louisiana, asking District Judge Robert R. Summerhays, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, to stop the Biden administration from ending Title 42.

Then on April 20, Fox News reported that the Biden administration had stopped using Title 42 for some migrants from certain Central American countries and instead was deporting them to their home countries. The next day, Arizona’s lawyers asked Summerhays to block the Biden administration from deporting those migrants and instead expel them to Mexico.

“A major media outlet reported that ‘Border Patrol is not using the Title 42 public health order to remove many migrants from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador,’” Arizona’s request to the judge says, quoting the Fox News article.

Immigration officials had stopped expelling some single adult migrants from those countries under Title 42 and instead processed them under Title 8, a law that allows agents to deport migrants to their home countries without a court hearing. Deportations to those countries had historically accounted for 5% of cases. After the move to process migrants under Title 8, those cases increased to 14%, and the judge has ordered the government to aim for a return to that lower historic rate.

“We’re in a strange world right now where Greg Abbott is giving free bus rides to migrants and [Arizona Attorney General] Mark Brnovich has forced [the Department of Homeland Security] to deport fewer people,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, an analyst with the American Immigration Council, a Washington, D.C., group that advocates for immigrants, referring to the Texas governor’s program that transports asylum-seeking migrants to the country’s capital.

See here for the background. I don’t even know what to say about this one. I do know that Texas filed its own lawsuit over Title 42. At least that makes sense to me.

U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments on whether Biden can toss Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday morning on whether the Biden administration can scrap a Trump-era policy that forces asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico as their cases make their way through U.S. immigration courts.

During two hours of arguments, the lawyers largely focused on a central question: Does the executive branch have the sole authority to set U.S. immigration policies?

The case reached the Supreme Court after a federal district judge in Texas last year ruled that the Biden administration violated immigration law by not detaining every immigrant attempting to enter the country. U.S. District Judge Matthew J. Kacsmaryk ordered the Biden administration to restart the Migrant Protections Protocols, also called “remain in Mexico,” which the Trump administration first implemented in January 2019 and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas canceled in June 2021.

That decision led Texas and Missouri to sue the Biden administration in April 2021, arguing that canceling MPP violated administrative law and that without the program, human trafficking would increase and force the states to expend resources on migrants — such as providing driver’s licenses, educating migrant children and providing hospital care.

The Biden administration argued it has the discretion to end the program and that it was not an effective way to deal with migrants seeking asylum.

[…]

The court’s liberal justices brought up the issue that the lower court’s decision has forced the White House to enter into a deal with Mexico — which has to agree to receive migrants sent over the border through MPP — when presidents historically have had broad authority on foreign policy issues.

“It puts the United States essentially at the mercy of Mexico,” Justice Elena Kagan said. “Mexico has all the leverage in the world to say, ‘Well, you want to do that, you want to comply with the court’s order? Here are 20 things that you need to do for us.’ Or maybe Mexico says, ‘No, we’d like to see you squirm and not be able to comply with the court’s order.’”

Elora Mukherjee, director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School, said the justices will have to wrestle with the fact that at any point Mexico could change its mind on whether it wants to continue to accept migrants expelled from the U.S. through the program.

“How can a court require the secretary for the Department of Homeland Security to dump busloads of people into Mexico if Mexico doesn’t comply?” she said.

Note that this is the same judge as in the second story. Do we let federal district court judges dictate foreign policy, which is what this is, or is that something Presidents are still allowed to do? I guess we’ll find out.

Gov. Greg Abbott asks for private donations to bus migrants to D.C. after criticism for using taxpayer money.

On Sunday, Gov. Greg Abbott appeared on Fox News touting a program he’s been pushing for weeks — sending migrants who enter into Texas to Washington, D.C., by charter bus.

But this time, Abbott asked Texans to personally contribute their own money to pay for the trips.

The decision to crowdfund the free bus trips for migrants is a new development from when he initially announced on April 6 that it would be paid for by Texas taxpayers. At the time, Abbott proudly presented the trips as a tough-on-immigration act of defiance against the Biden administration.

But the shift to ask private donors to pay for the charter buses comes as his plan has been increasingly praised as an act of generosity by Democrats, immigration rights groups and even the migrants who rode the buses, while those further to Abbott’s right politically have panned it as a misuse of taxpayer dollars that incentivizes migrants to cross into Texas.

“Congratulations to Governor Abbott,” Texas Rep. Gene Wu said Tuesday in a tweet. “Word will be passed from community to community that if you can just get to Texas, the Governor there will pay for your transportation anywhere in the USA.”

[…]

Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said the governor may be trying to escape blowback.

“I think it’s a quiet way of protecting himself from criticism that he’s using taxpayer dollars to provide free transport for undocumented immigrants,” Jones said. “Many conservatives pounced on him as all hat and no cattle, in that he was talking tough but in the end all his busing was going to do was provide a free trip for undocumented migrants to the East Coast that they otherwise would have had to pay for or that liberal nonprofits would have had to pay for.”

Abbott’s office has said at least 10 buses have arrived in the nation’s capital, but his office has not provided costs for the trips or the total number of migrants who have been transported.

During the 30-some-hour coach bus ride, passengers were provided with meals, the migrants said. Many of the buses’ passengers said they had saved up thousands of dollars just to arrive at the border and had little money left by the time they arrived in Texas.

“We are very thankful for all the help that has been given to us,” Ordalis Heras, a 26-year-old Venezuelan asylum-seeker, said earlier this month to the Tribune, hours after arriving in Washington on Abbott’s first bus from Del Rio. Heras, like many other passengers, had intended to travel north of Texas anyway.

“Frankly, we did not have the money to get here otherwise, so we are very thankful for the help,” she said.

A picture is worth a thousand words.

And finally:

With the approval of Republican state leaders, Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday pulled nearly half a billion dollars from various state agency budgets to fund the swelling cost of deploying thousands of National Guard troops to the southern border.

The $495 million transfer comes weeks after Texas military leaders warned they would soon run out of money to fund the 10,000-member deployment under Abbott’s border initiative, known as Operation Lone Star. More than 6,000 National Guard soldiers are stationed along the border to help state troopers apprehend and jail migrants suspected of trespassing on private property.

State lawmakers last year allotted more than $400 million for the Texas Military Department to participate in the operation over the current two-year budget period, part of a $1.8 billion spending package that is also paying for a surge in Department of Public Safety troopers to the border region.

But in late January, facing funding shortfalls just several months into the fiscal year, Abbott and GOP state leaders shifted about $480 million from three state agencies to fund the National Guard deployment. The additional transfer Friday means it will cost Texas more than $1.3 billion to keep National Guard soldiers stationed along the border through the end of the fiscal year in August, more than triple the amount originally budgeted.

In all, Texas’ border security budget now stands at about $4 billion for the current two-year cycle, roughly five times the amount spent in 2019-2020. State leaders will need to drum up additional funds to keep National Guard soldiers stationed at the border beyond August.

Your tax dollars at work. You can do something about that this November.

What has Texas done to deserve ARPA-H?

Good question.

Texas’ top medical institutions are vying to become home to a new federal research institution that would distribute billions of dollars to help discover cures and treatments for the world’s most intractable diseases.

From MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston to Southwestern Hospital in Dallas, the state’s leading medical institutions are making the case that Texas and its booming health care sector are a better choice than more established research centers such as Boston and New York to house President Joe Biden’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Health, or ARPA-H.

The headquarters would direct the spending of billions of dollars a year toward what the Biden administration describes as, “transformative high-risk, high-reward research,” with the aim of finding cures to cancer, Alzheimer’s and a variety of infectious diseases.

“Naturally people think about the East and West coast because of the size,” said Bill McKeon, president of Texas Medical Center in Houston. “But twice a week I get a call from VIPs who can go anywhere, and they’re trying to find a way to get into MD Anderson, Baylor or Methodist.”

The Biden administration already has $1 billion in appropriations to launch ARPA-H and set up a new headquarters, while awaiting action from Congress on an additional $5 billion funding request. If that funding is approved, a decision on the location is expected within the next six months.

So far, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra has only said ARPA-H will not be located at the National Institutes of Health headquarters, the government’s largest research agency with a budget of more than $45 billion, which is located outside Washington.

McKeon along with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner are making the case for Houston, which claims the world’s largest medical complex in Texas Medical Center, housing not only MD Anderson, Houston Methodist, Memorial Hermann and the Baylor College of Medicine, but also 18 other hospitals.

Their counterparts in Dallas, Austin and San Antonio are each making the case for their cities and medical facilities, including the University of Texas-Austin and the San Antonio Military Medical Center, the Defense Department’s largest health care institution.

But wherever it lands, the priority is getting ARPA-H in Texas, said Thomas Graham, spokesman for the Coalition for Health Advancement and Research in Texas, through which the four cities are working together.

Whether Biden would be willing to locate a major federal institution in a Republican-controlled state with a reputation for challenging federal laws and regulation — including the landmark Affordable Care Act — remains to be seen. The Texas coalition is already making its case to the Office of Science and Technology Policy, with assistance from Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn’s office.

“Our staff has engaged on their behalf with OSTP and asked that the process for selecting a site be fair and transparent,” a spokesman for Cornyn’s office said.

That’s the same John Cornyn who just spent a week asking why the queers should be allowed to get married while his junior colleague drooled and babbled about child predators, right? I mean look, we just got out from under the thumb of a “president” who “governed” by the motto of enriching your friends and punishing your enemies. That’s a bad way to be, and I don’t want that model to be emulated. All things being equal, the state of Texas has a good case, as one of several strong competitors, for this new facility. But all things are not equal, we don’t operate in a vacuum, and it grinds my gears more than a little to see this kind of “bipartisanship” from the likes of Cornyn when it’s over a prize he’s vying for, and never anything else. The list of grievances goes way beyond legal challenges to the ACA and other Biden initiatives – you know, abortion and voting rights and library books and “don’t say gay” and so on and so forth. How many potential ARPA-H employees do you think would reject out of hand right now the opportunity to work there if it meant having to live here? Maybe if Cornyn and his co-conspirators did a little work to make the state a better place, and maybe if they spent less time wrecking the country for the rest of us, I’d feel unconflicted about rooting for us to get this gem. Not right now, not as things stand, no way. I hate that I feel this way but here we are. You can learn more about ARPA-H here if you want.

Air Force aims to care for its families with LGBTQ members

Good for them, but…

The Air Force has issued a reminder to service members that it can help protect them from anti-LGBTQ state initiatives, such as the one in Texas that raised the possibility of child welfare investigations against parents with transgender children.

The guidance, issued by Air Force Undersecretary Gina Ortiz Jones, said the service would use medical, legal and other resources to support its personnel who run into such problems.

“We are closely tracking state laws and legislation to ensure we prepare for and mitigate effects to our airmen, guardians and their families,” Jones said, using “guardians” as the official shorthand for members of the U.S. Space Force. “Medical, legal resources, and various assistance are available for those who need them.”

“The health, care and resilience of our personnel and their families is not just our top priority — it’s essential to our ability to accomplish the mission,” she said, according to a news release.

Jones is a San Antonio native and Air Force veteran who is gay and served in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era. Her message seemed at least partly a response to this year’s order by Gov. Greg Abbott that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services investigate parents providing gender-affirming care to their transgender children.

[…]

Jones said troops could use the Exceptional Family Member Program to help with medical, legal, and educational support for dependents as they move to new jobs and bases.

“As is the case with all of our family members, if the support a family member needs becomes unavailable, commanders can work to get the service member to an assignment where their loved ones can receive the care they need,” she said.

Base legal offices are another source of help navigating new and existing state laws, the Air Force statement said, adding, “While installation legal personnel cannot represent airmen, guardians or their families in court, they can provide vital advice and counsel.”

Personnel can seek additional support through their local Airman and Family Readiness Center, the Military and Family Life Counseling Program, or Military OneSource, which can be contacted day or night at (800) 342-9647.

First and foremost, good for the Air Force. It is very much their responsibility to take care of and do right by their employees and those employees’ families, and it’s good to see them step up and do so in this way. Having someone in charge who gets it no doubt helps. Of course, it’s an absolute travesty that they feel the need to do this, to protect their employees like this from a threat from state governments. I cannot wrap my head around how quickly and effortlessly we’ve arrived at this place, and I keep waiting for there to be a more substantive resistance to it. Along those lines, it would be nice for the rest of the armed forces to follow the leadership of the Air Force here. If the Army, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard were speaking with the same voice as the Air Force, maybe we could get some traction against these evil efforts to demonize children and their parents. We really need everyone to do their part.

Feds warn about lawsuits to come over anti-trans legislation

Bring it.

The Department of Justice is warning states like Texas that policies meant to block transgender children from receiving gender-affirming care violate their constitutional rights.

“Intentionally erecting discriminatory barriers to prevent individuals from receiving gender-affirming care implicates a number of federal legal guarantees,” DOJ officials wrote in a letter sent Thursday to state attorney generals.

The letter comes after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton authored a nonbinding legal opinion that some gender-affirming care may constitute child abuse and Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the state’s child welfare agency to investigate parents who get such care for their children.

[…]

The DOJ says additional lawsuits may follow.

“State laws and policies that prevent parents or guardians from following the advice of a health care professional regarding what may be medically necessary or otherwise appropriate care for transgender minors may infringe on rights protected by both the equal protection and the due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment,” said the DOJ letter, which was sent on Trans Day of Visibility.

Not much to add here. I don’t have a whole lot of faith in the courts, but I also don’t know what else there is to be done right now. A better Senate is really what’s needed to move the ball forward, and the odds of that happening in this election aren’t great. But again, what else is there to be done? The 19th has more.

Of course Ted Cruz supported sedition

None of this is surprising. And I’m certain there will be more, that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Not Ted Cruz

Sen. Ted Cruz was dining near the Capitol on the evening of Dec. 8, 2020, when he received an urgent call from President Donald Trump. A lawsuit had just been filed at the Supreme Court designed to overturn the election Trump had lost, and the president wanted help from the Texas Republican.

“Would you be willing to argue the case?” Trump asked Cruz, as the senator later recalled it.

“Sure, I’d be happy to” if the court granted a hearing, Cruz said he responded.

The call was just one step in a collaboration that for two months turned the once-bitter political enemies into close allies in the effort to keep Trump in the White House based on the president’s false claims about a stolen election. By Cruz’s own account, he was “leading the charge” to prevent the certification of Joe Biden as president.

An examination by The Washington Post of Cruz’s actions between Election Day and Jan. 6, 2021, shows just how deeply he was involved, working directly with Trump to concoct a plan that came closer than widely realized to keeping him in power. As Cruz went to extraordinary lengths to court Trump’s base and lay the groundwork for his own potential 2024 presidential bid, he also alienated close allies and longtime friends who accused him of abandoning his principles.

Now, Cruz’s efforts are of interest to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, in particular whether Cruz was in contact with Trump lawyer John Eastman, a conservative attorney who has been his friend for decades and who wrote key legal memos aimed at denying Biden’s victory.

As Eastman outlined a scenario in which Vice President Mike Pence could deny certifying Biden’s election, Cruz crafted a complementary plan in the Senate. He proposed objecting to the results in six swing states and delaying accepting the Electoral College results on Jan. 6 in favor of a 10-day “audit” — thus potentially enabling GOP state legislatures to overturn the result. Ten other senators backed his proposal, which Cruz continued to advocate on the day rioters attacked the Capitol.

The committee’s interest in Cruz is notable as investigators zero in on how closely Trump’s allies coordinated with members of Congress in the attempt to block or delay certifying Biden’s victory. If Cruz’s plan worked, it could have created enough chaos for Trump to remain in power.

“It was a very dangerous proposal, and, you know, could very easily have put us into territory where we got to the inauguration and there was not a president,” Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), a Jan. 6 committee member, said earlier this year on the podcast “Honestly. And I think that Senator Cruz knew exactly what he was doing. I think that Senator Cruz is somebody who knows what the Constitution calls for, knows what his duties and obligations are, and was willing, frankly, to set that aside.”

It’s a long story, from the WaPo and reprinted in the Trib, and it just gets worse from there. I believe that Cruz knew exactly what he was doing and that he had no legal leg to stand on, and also that he didn’t care. Maybe he’d get lucky with the judges, who can say. It was all about winning and power anyway. Of course, it’s a fine line between that kind of blase nihilism and Ginni Thomas’ full-on Qanon ravings. For that, they both richly deserve an in depth investigation from the January 6 committee, and a criminal contempt citation if they refuse.

One more thing:

In the weeks that followed, as Trump allies lost a string of election cases, Cruz began suggesting he could lead a more effective legal strategy. He talked about his success in helping Bush’s legal team and how he had argued a total of nine cases before the Supreme Court, mostly as the Texas solicitor general. Two days later, he announced he had agreed to represent Pennsylvania Republicans in their effort to block certification of that state’s presidential results. The Supreme Court rejected that request, though, a near-fatal blow to efforts to overturn the election in the courts.

But the next day, Trump and Cruz focused on another avenue to put the matter before the Supreme Court: a case filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who argued his state had standing to ask the court to throw out election results in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

When Trump called on Dec. 8 as Cruz dined out, the president asked whether he was surprised about the loss of the Pennsylvania case, Cruz later recalled on his podcast, “Verdict with Ted Cruz.” Cruz said he was unhappy but “not shocked” that the federal court did not take a case about state law: “That was a challenging hurdle.”

When Cruz agreed to Trump’s request to argue the Texas case, it shocked some who knew him best. One adviser said he called Cruz to express dismay, telling the senator it went against the principles on which he built his political brand.

“If you’re a conservative federalist, the idea that one state can tell another state how to run their elections is outrageous, but he somehow contorted in his mind that it would be okay for him to argue that case,” said the adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private conversation.

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.), who had served as Cruz’s chief of staff and was a former first assistant attorney general in Paxton’s office, tweeted that the case “represents a dangerous violation of federalism” that “will almost certainly fail.” He did not respond to a request for comment.

Cruz’s spokeswoman said that he agreed to Trump’s request because “he believed Texas deserved to have effective advocacy” but said that “he told President Trump at the time that he believed the Court was unlikely to take the Texas case.”

Just as a reminder, this ridiculous lawsuit was the basis for two State Bar of Texas complaints against Ken Paxton (and another against Sidney Powell) that in a just world will result in their disbarments. Surely a similar complaint against Cruz might be warranted. The Texas Signal has more.

Oklahoma preps to ban abortion

This was just a matter of time.

Oklahoma’s state House on Tuesday voted 78-19 to pass a near complete ban on abortions, legislation that far surpasses Texas’ six-week ban. The bill is now headed to the Senate and, if passed, will be the strictest anti-abortion bill in the country.

The legislation — known as House Bill 4327 — bars a physician from performing or inducing an abortion at any point in the pregnancy unless it is “to save the life” of the pregnant person. Similar to Texas’ six-week abortion ban, the new legislation would allow private citizens to pursue civil actions of up to $10,000 against anyone who performs or “aids and abets in the provision of such an abortion.” An “emergency clause” adopted means that, if the bill is signed into law, it would take effect immediately.

“Abortion rights activists have been warning of this nightmare for months: These bounty hunter laws will have a domino effect across the country, as more and more states ban abortion entirely while Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land,” Elisabeth Smith, director of state policy and advocacy for the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement.

[…]

Oklahoma’s lawmakers relied heavily on Texas as an example for their bill, with the Republican sponsor of HB 4327, Rep. Wendi Stearman, repeatedly citing the leading role that Jonathan Mitchell, a former Texas solicitor general, played in drafting Oklahoma’s legislation.

Abortion restrictions in states like Oklahoma, which has become a critical access point, would cause a ripple effect across the region. Oklahoma was one of several surrounding states that reported a massive influx of people crossing state lines after Texas’ law went into effect last September.

According to Planned Parenthood data collected between September and December, health centers in Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado and Missouri saw a nearly 800 percent increase in abortion patients from Texas when compared to the same period one year prior. Some providers in Oklahoma have even reported a 2,500-percent increase in the last six months, and more than half of the total number of abortion patients had a Texas ZIP code.

Lots of people had been travelling to Oklahoma from Texas for abortion care, but it was obvious that was not going to last for long. We’ll have to see if this has the effect of reducing the number of abortions, or if it causes an equivalent increase in demand for abortion pills. Oh, and while I doubt anyone from Texas or anywhere else had been going to Idaho for an abortion, they just passed their version of SB8. It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets any better. Daily Kos has more.

We may get year-round Daylight Saving Time

Apparently, there’s at least one issue that can unite the Senate.

The Senate unanimously approved a measure Tuesday that would make daylight saving time permanent across the United States next year.

The bipartisan bill, named the Sunshine Protection Act, would ensure Americans would no longer have to change their clocks twice a year. But the bill still needs approval from the House, and the signature of President Joe Biden, to become law.

“No more switching clocks, more daylight hours to spend outside after school and after work, and more smiles — that is what we get with permanent Daylight Saving Time,” Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, the original cosponsor of the legislation, said in a statement.

Markey was joined on the chamber floor by senators from both parties as they made the case for how making daylight saving time permanent would have positive effects on public health and the economy and even cut energy consumption.

“Changing the clock twice a year is outdated and unnecessary,” Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida said.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Americans want more sunshine and less depression — people in this country, all the way from Seattle to Miami, want the Sunshine Protection Act,” Sen. Patty Murray of Washington added.

[…]

The proposal will now go to the House, where the Energy and Commerce Committee had a hearing to discuss possible legislation last week.

Rep. Frank Pallone, the chairman of the committee, agreed in his opening statement at the hearing that it is “time we stop changing our clocks.” But he said he was undecided about whether daylight saving time or standard time is the way to go.

As you know, I’m a fan of Daylight Saving Time, and have opposed efforts to kill it in Texas. I’ve always known that way more people hate DST than like it (or at least are vocal about hating it than liking it), so I’ve always figured it would end eventually. If that happens, then doing it nationally and doing it by shifting everything to the hour-ahead time is the way I’d prefer it. I’d almost rather Congress do it now so I don’t have to worry about the Lege doing it in a dumber way. We’ll see what the House does. CNN and Mother Jones have more.

How the 2030 Census could be different

A very early preview of some possibilities, which may or may not come to fruition.

Beyond the reports of undercounts and overcounts in population totals, there is another takeaway from the post-mortem of 2020 census data issued on Thursday: This could be the last census of its kind.

The next census will be taken in a nation where Amazon may have a better handle on where many people live than the Census Bureau itself. For some advocates of a more accurate count, the era in which census-takers knock on millions of doors to persuade people to fill out forms should give way in 2030 to a sleeker approach: data mining, surveys, sophisticated statistical projections and, if politics allows, even help from the nation’s tech giants and their endless petabytes of personal information.

The Census Bureau itself has yet to leap very far into that new era. But it has hinted recently at a “blended” approach in which official census figures could be supplemented with reliable data from government records and other sources.

[…]

It is an article of faith among data experts and the Census Bureau itself that data obtained directly from people are more reliable than secondhand or thirdhand data from other sources. And experts are wary that other data can raise privacy issues or allegations that it was cherry picked to fit an agenda.

The bureau itself considered tapping secondhand sources like state records to fine-tune its 2020 portraits of the population, but it often shied away unless it could find corroborating information elsewhere, according to Amy O’Hara, a former Census Bureau official who is now the executive director of the Federal Statistical Research Data Center at Georgetown University.

Professor O’Hara said the gusher of public and available data opens new avenues to a far more accurate census, but only if the numbers can be proven accurate and the Census Bureau can navigate the tricky boundary between tapping private research and issuing public statistics.

“There is no significant buy-in yet” to major changes in the census, Terri Ann Lowenthal, a longtime census expert and consultant to governments, businesses and other census “customers,” said in an email. “Too early without research, testing and transparency on those sorts of questions. And there probably will be even greater caution about using third-party commercial data.”

That said, she added, many users of census data agree that better use of outside records, conducted in a way that preserves privacy and credibility, could increase the accuracy of the head count and reduce its staggering cost — $14.2 billion, or about $117 per household counted in the 2020 census.

[…]

Mr. Prewitt and other experts say some solutions are obvious. For decades, the Census Bureau has undercounted some groups, including poorer residents and children, in part because they can be harder to find — they move more frequently, for example — and because census forms can be more confusing to people with less education or poorer language skills.

But state governments maintain accurate birth and death records and manage a range of federal programs aimed at the poor and children, such as Medicaid; the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC; and the SNAP program once known as food stamps. None shares data with the bureau, but an agreement to do so “could probably put a bigger dent in the problem than putting more enumerators on the street,” Mr. Jost said.

There are countless other ways to improve census results. Public and private utility records, for example, assiduously track which residences are occupied or vacant, potentially making it easier for the Census Bureau to compile a more complete and accurate list of households to survey.

Consider this to be a response to the issues raised here. One thing I hadn’t realized in reading this story is that the Census first mailed forms to households in 1960, and first did online forms in 2020, and yet the non-response rate has remained at about one third over the decades. That’s what the Census workers knocking on doors are there to deal with. Obstacles to this kind of data mining plan include the questions about accuracy as noted above, questions about legality considering the 1999 SCOTUS ruling, and of course the political blowback from the revanchist wingnuts who are perfectly happy to undercount communities of color. I fully expect we’ll still be having these fights in 2030, so we may as well know what they’re going to be about.

Of course the Census undercounted people of color

This was the Trump administration’s goal from the beginning.

The 2020 census continued a longstanding trend of undercounting Black people, Latinos and Native Americans, while overcounting people who identified as white and not Latino, according to estimates from a report the U.S. Census Bureau released Thursday.

Latinos — with a net undercount rate of 4.99% — were left out of the 2020 census at more than three times the rate of a decade earlier.

Among Native Americans living on reservations (5.64%) and Black people (3.30%), the net undercount rates were numerically higher but not statistically different from the 2010 rates.

People who identified as white and not Latino were overcounted at a net rate of 1.64%, almost double the rate in 2010. Asian Americans were also overcounted (2.62%). The bureau said based on its estimates, it’s unclear how well the 2020 tally counted Pacific Islanders.

The long-awaited findings came from a follow-up survey the bureau conducted to measure the accuracy of the latest head count of people living in the U.S., which is used to redistribute political representation and federal funding across the country for the next 10 years.

Other estimates the bureau released on Thursday revealed that the most recent census followed another long-running trend of undercounting young children under age 5.

While the bureau’s stated goal is to “count everyone once, only once, and in the right place,” miscounts have come with every census. Some people are counted more than once at different addresses, driving overcounts, while U.S. residents missing from the census fuel undercounting.

Disruptions from the coronavirus pandemic and interference by former President Donald Trump’s administration raised alarms about the increased risk of the once-a-decade tally missing swaths of the country’s population. COVID-19 also caused multiple delays to the bureau’s Post-Enumeration Survey that’s used to determine how accurate the census results are and inform planning for the next national count in 2030.

During the news conference announcing the follow-up survey results, Census Bureau Director Robert Santos — who, before becoming the agency’s head, told Bloomberg CityLab that he believed the census was “being sabotaged” during the Trump administration to produce results that benefit Republicans — acknowledged “an unprecedented set of challenges” facing the bureau over the last couple of years.

“Many of you, including myself, voiced concerns. How could anyone not be concerned? These findings will put some of those concerns to rest and leave others for further exploration,” Santos, a Biden administration appointee, said during the news conference announcing the follow-up survey results.

The bureau said previously that it believes the census results are “fit to use” for reallocating each state’s share of congressional seats and Electoral College votes, as well as redrawing voting districts.

[…]

In response to the bureau reporting that American Indians and Alaska Natives living on reservations continued to have the highest net undercount rate among racial and ethnic groups, Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said the results “confirm our worst fears.”

“Every undercounted household and individual in our communities means lost funding and resources that are desperately needed to address the significant disparities we face,” added Sharp, who is also the vice president of the Quinault Indian Nation in Taholah, Wash., in a statement.

Marc Morial, the president and CEO of the National Urban League, which led a federal lawsuit in 2020 to try to stop Trump officials from cutting counting efforts short, said the group’s lawyers are considering returning to court to try to secure a remedy.

“We’ve talked about voter suppression. Now we see population suppression,” Morial said on a call with reporters. “And when you tie them together, it is the poisonous tree of seeking to diminish the distribution of power in this nation on a fair and equitable basis.”

Other longtime census watchers see this moment as a chance to reimagine what the next count in 2030 could look like.

We’ve talked about this before, and we’ve noted that Texas Republicans did their part to help suppress the count, even at the cost of adding more Congressional districts to the state. Obviously the 2020 Census had a couple of unprecedented obstacles, from the pandemic to the extremely racist presidential administration, but there are ways to do this better next time. A more functional Congress could update federal law to allow statistical sampling in the Census process, to address the 1999 SCOTUS ruling that prevented it from being used, though I would not count on the current SCOTUS being warm to the idea. Throwing more money at it is also an option. All I know is we did worse in 2020 than we did in 2010, and that cannot be allowed to continue. MOther Jones and TPM have more.

Oklahoma’s experience with medical marijuana

A good read.

Inside an old metal building off a quiet stretch of U.S. 77, Josh Blevins walked among rows of fragrant marijuana plants basking below carefully calibrated light. Blevins, a former construction engineer from Texas, bought this former scrap yard just north of the farming town of Lexington, population 2,200, after a statewide ballot initiative legalized medical marijuana about four years ago.

Since then, dispensaries have become as ubiquitous as gas stations and churches in much of Oklahoma, where state officials have licensed more than 12,000 marijuana-related businesses and about 1 in 10 people now own medical marijuana cards.

Blevins, 36, has capitalized on the boom, building another 10,000-square-foot warehouse and brand new office space just down the road from the former scrap yard. Like many commercial growers, he created his own supply chain from seed to sale, stocking the shelves of his two dispensaries — both named Twister Roo — in Moore and Noble. It has proven to be both profitable and a learning opportunity, Blevins said, as he eyes expansion to other states with upcoming marijuana ballot initiatives.

“What we’re doing here is kind of building the picture that we want to duplicate in other states,” Blevins said. “Just copy and paste.”

But while Oklahoma has become a kind of nirvana for growers and producers, who enjoy a relatively low startup cost in comparison to other states, it has some lawmakers leery because of lax regulation. Officials with the overwhelmed Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority said they’ve been able to inspect only a quarter of licensed marijuana businesses so far.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, said during his State of the State address on Tuesday that voters were misled by the language on the 2018 ballot initiative and it has “tied our hands as we regulate the industry.”

“This is causing major problems in our communities,” he added, “and we must get it under control.”

Stitt said the relatively low cost of getting a business license and the lack of a cap on the number of growers has fueled a black market in Oklahoma that may require legislation to reform.

“While we can’t change the past, we can learn from it and improve our future,” Stitt said. “We’re getting the right leaders in place and untying their hands to enforce the laws.”

[…]

The state presented a rare opportunity for legalization in 2018, when medical marijuana backers garnered enough signatures to put one of the most accessible medical marijuana initiatives in the country on the ballot, bypassing the conservative Legislature. The result: It costs $2,500 to apply for a business, cultivation or transportation license in Oklahoma — compared to $100,000 or more in neighboring Arkansas.

“This is a system that is set up to basically create opportunities for small businesses,” said Morgan Fox, the political director of NORML, a national cannabis advocacy organization. “There’s a lot of room for people to start up businesses without a tremendous amount of capital.”

Lured by the state’s low fees and relative lack of regulation, Paulie Wood, a former California grower and the CEO of Kannabiz Monkeeyz, said he decided to close his West Coast operations about two years ago because of the “insane overtaxation” hampering his business.

In California, he paid more than $100,000 a year in state and local taxes to operate two cultivation sites even after one outdoor crop was destroyed by smoke and ash following the Oak Fire in Mendocino County in September 2020. He pays a fraction of that cost in Oklahoma.

“In Oklahoma you can literally start a grow for under $10,000, where in California you’re going to be out hundreds of thousands of dollars to just get started,” Wood said. “They call it the wild, wild west of cannabis in a good way. As a whole, it’s the nicest, friendliest state we could ever want to be in.”

Oklahoma is also friendly toward people trying to get medical marijuana cards, which cost only $120 for the application fee, plus a doctor’s visit. While some states have very specific and restrictive lists of conditions that qualify for a card, such as AIDS and cancer, Oklahoma’s list is relatively expansive and includes less severe medical issues, including anxiety, insomnia and muscle spasms.

But now, a battle is brewing in Oklahoma between advocates who want to expand the industry and opponents who are trying to rein it in. In the legislative session starting next month, state lawmakers hope to play catch-up and introduce new restrictions on growers and processors amid renewed efforts by groups hoping to pass another ballot initiative, this time for full legalization.

Oklahoma’s growing medical marijuana market has been lucrative for the state, generating nearly $150 million in revenue in 2021, up from nearly $128 million in 2020, according to state data.

The Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority, which has almost doubled its staff in the past year, is still struggling to get inspectors to all of the licensees, said Adria Berry, the agency’s executive director. “We have not been able to keep up with the demand, but we are getting to the place where we’re able to get many more people out inspecting those places on a day-to-day basis.”

The Oklahoma law says medical card holders must be in-state residents, but Blevins and other growers said much of the demand for their product is coming from out of state, in places like Texas — where possession of marijuana largely remains illegal — and Kansas, another deeply conservative state that is in line to legalize medical marijuana. That high demand has driven down prices, Blevins said, to about a third of what they were when he started in 2018.

“Now they’re so much cheaper than the black market, and they can be bought and sold for profit,” he said.

A few thoughts…

1. The fact that the medical marijuana regime approved by Oklahoma’s voters is extremely appealing to both growers and users because of low costs and lax regulation, and also kind of a nightmare for the state government because of those lax regulations, is probably the most Oklahoma thing about this.

2. That $150 million in revenue generated for the state by the new marijuana industry may sound like a lot, but it would represent less than 0.1% of Texas’ annual revenue, which is to say a rounding error. Texas’ economy is a lot larger than Oklahoma’s, but even then that $150 million would represent about 1% of that state’s annual revenue. (Here’s a more recent number, which isn’t much different.) Adding legal pot to the economy may do a lot of beneficial things, but it’s not going to help fund the state government in any substantial way.

3. Along those lines, this is a reminder that Oklahoma also has casinos. Which also would not generate much revenue for the state of Texas if we had them, though legalizing them here would shift some funds that currently go out of state back to here. You can support or oppose casinos and marijuana as you see fit – I’m strongly for marijuana legalization, and at best ambivalent about casinos – the economic arguments just aren’t that compelling.

4. The article contains the standard bit of optimism about the future potential for expanding access to marijuana in Texas, citing public opinion polls and some recent mumblings by Greg Abbott that are sort of vaguely in favor of something. It therefore makes the classic error of completely ignoring (or being unaware of) Dan Patrick’s implacable opposition to loosening marijuana laws, which renders those two items useless. When Dan Patrick is no longer Lt. Governor, we can talk about how expanded access to marijuana might play out. Until then, it’s a dead letter.

That’s all I got. Link via the Current.

Using the Texas model to protect voting rights

Some blue state needs to do this.

In the midst of the ongoing debate over Republicans’ siege on voting rights in states they control, here’s an unconventional suggestion: Democratic state legislators should take a page from the Republican playbook and empower private citizens to sue people who are “aiding and abetting” voter suppression efforts.

After all, that’s exactly what the Texas GOP has done with the abortion bill it enacted last year, which effectively bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, despite the fact that our Supreme Court has ruled that women have a constitutional right to abortion until a fetus is viable, which is generally about 24 weeks into pregnancy. As the Supreme Court declared in 1992 in its ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, there’s a “constitutionally protected liberty of the woman to decide to have an abortion before the fetus attains viability and to obtain it without undo interference from the State.”

[…]

While personally I believe this law is atrocious, if the GOP is going to use that legal model to infringe on the rights of women, why can’t Democrats use that same tactic to accomplish a monumental goal of their own: protecting voting rights? Democrats cannot simply roll over and let the GOP suppress the vote — and potentially rig elections — because new federal voting rights legislation was recently blocked by way of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate. Democrats need to be tenacious fighters on this all-important issue — and that means using every single tool available.

One way to show that commitment would be for states with Democratic governors and legislatures to enact laws that enable private citizens to sue anyone who is found “aiding and abetting” making it more challenging to vote. And if the person wins, they would be rewarded with $10,000 plus the cost of their legal fees from the defendant for each action they took that “aided and abetted” in restricting voting.

For example, New York could enact a law that enables people to sue any person in the state who is found “aiding and abetting” the GOP’s voter suppression efforts. This arguably would include elected New York Republican officials, such as Rep. Elise Stefanik, who championed former President Donald Trump’s election lies that have been used to justify the voter suppression laws in other states. That includes Stefanik claiming that President Joe Biden’s win in Georgia was because “more than 140,000 votes came from underage, deceased, and otherwise unauthorized voters — in Fulton County alone.” And in May, she was on Steve Bannon’s podcast, where she continued to further Trump’s “big lie.”

Lawsuits could also be potentially filed against GOP donors living in New York who give to organizations like the Republican National Committee, which has been vocally opposing federal laws to protect voting rights and continues to recognize Trump as its standard-bearer. This could all arguably be considered “aiding and abetting” the GOP’s voter restriction efforts.

The law could even be crafted so that Republicans in other states who engage in “aiding and abetting” the restriction of voting and do “business” in New York can be sued in the Empire State since it would arguably fulfill jurisdictional requirements. For example, when Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis — who touted and signed into law sweeping voting restrictions in his state — traveled to New York in September for a political fundraiser, he was in effect “doing business” in New York by targeting New Yorkers for their donations. And he would be fair game to catch a lawsuit under this hypothetical anti-voting restriction law.

Further justifying this law is that voter restrictions in any state ultimately affect those in blue states since they impact races for federal office, and those federal officeholders in turn can enact laws that impact the entire nation — such as on climate change and gun safety.

I get that this sounds unconstitutional and insane — but it’s built in the exact image of the Texas abortion law. A women’s right to abortion in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy is a constitutional right — just like freedom of speech. Given that the GOP-controlled Supreme Court didn’t swiftly strike down the Texas abortion law, it would be hard-pressed to strike down these “protect the vote” laws without exposing itself as being nothing more than an arm of the Republican Party.

I have no doubt that this Supreme Court is up to the challenge of justifying the Texas abortion law while knocking down this hypothetical statute, but having the fight and making them do it would definitely be worth the effort. I also agree that it’s all ridiculous, but given all that’s happened it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this is the most feasible path available at this time. New York and California, y’all are the best bets for this. Someone please get the ball rolling on it.

Speaking of cryptocurrency and electricity usage…

Congress has a few questions.

From wind farms in West Texas to an old aluminum refining operation outside Austin, crypto miners are flooding into Texas take advantage of some of the cheapest power in the country and positioning the state to become the state’s crypto mining leader. But the accompanying surge in energy consumption is drawing scrutiny from Congress when the world is trying to not only clean up its energy system but also reduce demand to fight climate change.

At a hearing this month before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the chairman. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., questioned the sustainability of crypto mining’s business model.

“One estimate found that the energy required to process (one) transaction on the bitcoin network could power a home for more than 70 days,” Pallone said. “Last year, there were hundreds of thousands of transactions on this network. Just imagine the climate implications.”

recent study by scientists at Cambridge University found crypto mining operations globally consume 135 terawatt hours of electricity per year, more than the entire country of Argentina.

The majority of that electricity comes from hydroelectric dams and coal and natural gas plants, the scientists found. In New York, for instance, one firm has restarted an old coal-fired power plant to provide energy for its crypto mining operations.

[…]

In Texas, so far, crypto miners are being met with open arms. The Texas Legislature last year passed a bill creating a task force to aid the development of the cryptocurrency industry in Texas, with Governor Greg Abbott writing on Twitter, “It’s happening. Texas will be the crypto leader.”

That along with the state’s cheap power prices are attracting crypto mining firms from around the world, most of which were forced to look for new homes after the Chinese government banned cryptocurrency last year.

EZ Blockchain, a Chicago firm, has proposed setting up mobile computer rigs in Texas’s oil and gas fields, powering their mining operations with natural gas that would otherwise be flared.

Marathon Digital, based in Las Vegas, announced last month it was installing more than 100,000 bitcoin mining computers around Texas, primarily adjacent to wind and solar farms in West Texas.

“This industry has transformed over the last year since China shut down mining,” said Charlie Schumacher, director of corporate communications at Marathon. “The U.S. is unique because we have excess power here and we have a friendly regulatory environment. But we’ve gone through this transition so quickly it’s raised a lot of questions.”

Even as some crypto companies make strides to employ clean energy for their operations and reduce their energy consumption by using more efficient equipment, the sheer scale of their energy demand is giving many pause.

And as new miners flood the industry, there’s little sign of a slowdown. Electricity consumption for mining bitcoin, the most popular crypto currency, has almost doubled over the last two years, according to the Cambridge scientists.

“We’re making all these great strides to decarbonize and reduce our energy use and now were promoting this incredibly energy intensive new industry and wiping out any climate gains were struggling to make,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, an activist group. “It seems very wasteful and not what we need right now.”

Concerns about the environment, as well as concerns that all this demand for electricity could have negative effects on the consumer market, seem eminently reasonable to me. It’s nice that coin miners were willing to power down during this cold front, but what assurance do we have they will do so next time? Some regulation is needed, and I’d like to see some exploration of a way to tax high energy use by crypto companies, as a way to ensure that they won’t distort the market. The one thing I am sure of is that doing nothing and hoping it all turns out for the best is unlikely to work. Put some guardrails in place, and enforce violations. We can debate over what that looks like, but that needs to be the goal.

Ambassador Patman

This was a pleasant surprise.

Carrin Patman

President Joe Biden on Friday nominated Houston lawyer and Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman as the nation’s next ambassador to Iceland, according to a White House statement.

“I am presuming nothing. It is up to the Senate,” Patman said, referring questions to the State Department.

In the meantime, Patman, 65, said she has picked up some basic Icelandic.

“Just a little,” she said.

In the statement, Patman said she hoped to “strengthen our cooperation and understanding between the governments of the United States and Iceland.”

[…]

All ambassadorial nominations require Senate confirmation, which for Patman would begin in the Foreign Relations Committee. No timetable has been announced for her confirmation.

Some Biden administration nominees from mid-2021 still are awaiting any movement on their appointments, including Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who was renominated last month to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement after his nomination last year lapsed.

Patman has done a fine job as Metro chair, and Iceland’s gain will be our loss if she is confirmed. I was thinking I should do an exit interview with her, to follow up with the one I did in 2019, to see where we are now that some of those big Metro projects are finally moving, and where we might go from here, but according to an email I got from TAG Houston on Thursday, Mayor Turner has appointed current Board member Sanjay Ramabhadran to be the new Chair. Guess I should be asking him those questions then. Anyway, congrats to Carrin Patman, and best of luck with the confirmation process.

The CDC gets in on the “track COVID in the wastewater” project

Good to see.

U.S. public health officials are expanding their monitoring of Covid-19 in sewage, which has become a crucial early warning for surges of new cases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week began sharing virus wastewater trends on its public-facing Covid data website. And the agency is in the midst of expanding the number of places from which raw sewage gets monitored for rising or falling waves of disease, adding hundreds of new sites in the coming months.

The U.S. struggle to track Covid in real-time has been one of the biggest frustrations of the pandemic. Early on, testing capabilities were only a fraction of what was needed. At-home tests, now more plentiful, mostly don’t get reported to health authorities. And even when local health departments and health care providers do get data, consolidating it for real-time analysis has been a challenge.

But with wastewater, the sewage – and the data it contains – keeps flowing.

Paying attention to that data can alert health officials to prepare medical surge teams, send out mobile testing units and to arrange for adequate supplies. It’s also a useful tool for health officials to help confirm what they’re seeing from other sources.

“The advantage wastewater surveillance has is that it’s not dependent on human behavior, beyond using the bathroom,” said Amy Kirby, program lead for CDC’s National Wastewater Surveillance System. “As the dynamics of the pandemic change, it remains an accurate measure.”

[…]

State and local health departments have been using, and publishing, the data since relatively early in the pandemic. The CDC has been monitoring it as well with Kirby’s program watching for SARS-CoV-2 signs in wastewater since 2020. Many cities track and publish the data on their own: Boston, Miami and dozens of others all make at least some data available.

To help get more places watching their wastewater, the CDC has convened working groups with state and local health officials who already use wastewater to track Covid levels. And they’re offering guidance and information sharing to help bring new sites online. As of Friday, the agency has begun posting wastewater data from 255 towns, cities, municipalities and other places.

The CDC has also contracted with a company called LuminUltra to collect wastewater data from 500 sites; about 200 are online so far. Kirby said the agency has identified hundreds more sites that it wants to enroll.

See here for another national tracking project. I also came across another dashboard, the Biobot Network of Wastewater Treatment Plants, which includes two Texas counties (Kaufman and Travis), though neither was up to date at the time. The CDC’s tracker is here. As the story notes, this is a macro view that can’t tell you how many people are sick, and it doesn’t cover all of the country, just places that are connected to sewer systems. But it’s a useful look at the data, which can tell you where the virus is going ahead of testing regimes, and we can use all the data we can get.

“Unprecedented” meddling in the Census

They weren’t subtle about it.

A newly disclosed memorandum citing “unprecedented” meddling by the Trump administration in the 2020 census and circulated among top Census Bureau officials indicates how strongly they sought to resist efforts by the administration to manipulate the count for Republican political gain.

The document was shared among three senior executives including Ron S. Jarmin, a deputy director and the agency’s day-to-day head. It was written in September 2020 as the administration was pressing the bureau to end the count weeks early so that if President Donald J. Trump lost the election in November, he could receive population estimates used to reapportion the House of Representatives before leaving office.

The memo laid out a string of instances of political interference that senior census officials planned to raise with Wilbur Ross, who was then the secretary of the Commerce Department, which oversees the bureau. The issues involved crucial technical aspects of the count, including the privacy of census respondents, the use of estimates to fill in missing population data, pressure to take shortcuts to produce population totals quickly and political pressure on a crash program that was seeking to identify and count unauthorized immigrants.

Most of those issues directly affected the population estimates used for reapportionment. In particular, the administration was adamant that — for the first time ever — the bureau separately tally the number of undocumented immigrants in each state. Mr. Trump had ordered the tally in a July 2020 presidential memorandum, saying he wanted to subtract them from House reapportionment population estimates.

The census officials’ memorandum pushed back especially forcefully, complaining of “direct engagement” by political appointees with the methods that experts were using to find and count unauthorized noncitizens.

“While the presidential memorandum may be a statement of the administration’s policy,” the memo stated, “the Census Bureau views the development of the methodology and processes as its responsibility as an independent statistical agency.”

[…]

Kenneth Prewitt, a Columbia University public-affairs scholar who ran the Census Bureau from 1998 to 2001, said in an interview that the careful bureaucratic language belied an extraordinary pushback against political interference.

“This was a very, very strong commitment to independence on their part,” he said. “They said, ‘We’re going to run the technical matters in the way we think we ought to.’”

The officials’ objections, he said, only underscored the need for legislation to shield the Census Bureau from political interference well before the 2030 census gets underway. “I’m very worried about that,” he said.

See here and here for some background; I wrote about Census-related topics and shenanigans a lot while it was happening. We got lucky this time around, but there’s no reason to believe our luck will hold. My advice would be to put some criminal penalties in for the various forms of interference and intimidation that the Trump thugs used, and don’t require proof of intent for the crime to have occurred. My advice would also be to prioritize democracy and good governance over ant-democratic Senate trivia, but what do I know? Texas Public Radio and Mother Jones have more.

Sheriff Gonzalez re-nominated for ICE

Take two.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez is still President Joe Biden’s pick to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, even after the Senate failed to confirm him last year.

Biden renominated Gonzalez for the ICE director on Tuesday. His initial nomination, from April, expired earlier this week.

Gonzalez still faces an uphill battle in the Senate, which is evenly split and has been moving through Biden’s nominees at a glacial pace amid Republican opposition. ICE — a particularly polarizing agency — has been without a permanent director for five years.

“He’s likely to face the same result in 2022 that he has in 2021,” said Rice University political science professor Mark Jones. “He’s received quite a bit of flak from the left and the right. The right has attacked him because of his because of his past criticism of ICE, but the left has attacked him because of his support for border security and the rule of law at the border.”

Gonzalez is one of many Biden nominees who Democrats have struggled to get confirmed, reflecting shifting norms in the Senate and the growing difficulty of confirming political appointees in recent years, said Max Stier, CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan organization that promotes effective government.

See here for the background. With all due respect to Professor Jones, if Gonzalez lacked support from even one Democratic Senator, he’d be toast. There are progressive critics of his, though I’d say that criticism is more about ICE as an agency, but if that had been enough to sway any votes in the Senate, someone else would be getting nominated. As both this story and the previous one note, the main issue here is the extreme slowness in getting presidential nominees approved by the Senate, for a variety of reasons in that profoundly broken institution. Either Leader Schumer is able to get a floor vote for him on the calendar, without negatively affecting any higher priorities, or we face the same situation next year, possibly with a Republican-controlled Senate that will make the matter entirely moot. Good luck.

What does “race blind” redistricting even mean?

Good question.

In states like Texas and North Carolina, Republican lawmakers in charge of redrawing the political maps for the next decade say that the new plans are “race blind.” Their opponents in court say that the claim is implausible and one that, in some situations, is at odds with the Voting Rights Act.

Several lawsuits, including from the Justice Department, allege that the maps drawn after the 2020 census discriminate against voters of color.

Between a 2013 Supreme Court decision that scaled back the federal government’s role in monitoring redistricting and a 2019 ruling that said partisan gerrymanders could not be challenged in federal court, voting rights advocates have been left with fewer tools to address what they say are unfair and illegal redistricting plans.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in the states where the redistricting legal fights have been most pitched have adopted an approach that claims that racial data played no role as they drew the maps for the next 10 years. Legislators say they’re avoiding the use of race data after decades of litigation where they’ve been accused of unconstitutionally relying on race to gerrymander.

“I don’t view this as a serious legal defense, but more of a PR defense,” said Thomas Saenz, the president and general counsel of Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is suing Texas lawmakers over their new maps.

Challengers to the maps say that such an assertion of “race blind” maps is dubious as well as a betrayal of states’ obligations under the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in redistricting. The law requires that in some circumstances, map-makers must draw plans in a way that creates minority-majority districts where voters can elect the candidates of their choice. In lawsuits alleging a failure to comply with the law, states like Texas have been accused of drawing maps that instead dilute the votes of communities of color.

Legislators may be trying to “immunize” themselves from most of the claims that are used in court to strike down redistricting maps, according to Nate Persily, a Stanford Law School professor and redistricting expert.

“By saying race was not in the minds of the people who drew the lines, you potentially get out of those constitutional causes action that you are intentionally diluting the vote of racial minorities or that race was the predominant factor in the construction of a district,” Persily told CNN, adding that such an approach doesn’t shield map-drawers from cases alleging Voting Rights Act violations.

Lawmakers’ description of maps as “race blind” is both “political rhetoric” and “test case rhetoric,” said Ben Ginsberg, a former Republican redistricting lawyer who is not involved in the current lawsuits. “But still, the standard is you can’t dilute minority voting power and minority opportunity to vote for their candidates of choice. And by not using race data they run the risk of being found to have diluted minority voting strength from what’s in the current map.”

[…]

In tension with legislators’ obligations under the Voting Rights Act are the limits the Constitution — under Supreme Court precedent — put on the use of race in redistricting.

The Supreme Court has said, via the 1993 decision in Shaw v. Reno, that use of race as a sole factor in drawing districts unconstitutional in most circumstances. However, the Voting Rights Act presents the sort of compelling government interest that allows for race to be considered.

Jason Torchinsky — a Republican election lawyer who has defended North Carolina legislators in redistricting cases in the past, but is not involved in the current cases in North Carolina or Texas– told CNN that map-drawers have to walk the line between their VRA obligations and not running afoul of the Constitution.

“Legislatures have to use very localized data to determine if they are required to draw [Voting Rights Act] Section 2 districts,” Torchinsky said. “If they are, then they have to consider race in those parts of the states because they’re required to under the Voting Rights Act.” But when states aren’t required to draw VRA districts, Torchinsky said, the use of race could pose a potential Constitutional problem.

I mean, if SCOTUS hadn’t killed preclearance back in 2013, we wouldn’t be having most of this debate right now, because none of these extreme maps would have seen the light of day. The claim at the time that we didn’t need preclearance any more because racial discrimination was a thing of the past was ludicrous then and is beyond obscene now. The 2019 ruling that said SCOTUS was unable to deal with partisan gerrymandering claims, even as the lower courts had no trouble adjudicating them, was cowardly and shameful. Of course, we do have what could be a pretty good answer to all that sitting on the Senate agenda, if we can somehow manage to convince two loathsome Senators that American democracy is a bigger concern than arcane and anti-democratic Senate rules. Until then, the only thing you can count on is that something is legal if SCOTUS says it is, no more and no less. And down the rabbit hole we go.

Sheriff Gonzalez’s status

Two words: In limbo.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

The Senate has yet to confirm Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez as director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, meaning he will likely need to be nominated again and will face an uphill battle to be confirmed in that role.

The Senate must agree unanimously before Jan. 3 to hold over the nomination of Gonzalez or nominate him during the 2022 legislative session.

Even if Gonzalez is held over — or nominated a second time — a number of political obstacles remain in the way of confirmation.

“The prospects for the confirmation of Sheriff Gonzalez in 2022 would not be very auspicious were Biden to nominate him again,” said Rice University political science professor Mark Jones, who noted the confirmation process would essentially start over from scratch in that case.

“The fact that there was a hold that remained now suggests that if Biden nominates Gonzalez again, he’s likely to face the same result in 2022 that he has in 2021,” Jones said.

The struggle to confirm Gonzalez reflects shifting norms in the Senate and increasing difficulty to confirm political appointees in recent years, aid Max Stier, CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan nonprofit that promotes more effective government.

“Everything is becoming harder and slower, and you have even fewer people actually being confirmed for very important positions,” said Stier.

As of Dec. 30, just 266 of Biden’s political appointees had been confirmed, according to the Partnership for Public Service and the Washington Post, compared to 383 during the Obama administration.

The position of ICE director is especially challenging to confirm, considering the polarizing beliefs on immigration law enforcement and the 50-50 split of party control in the Senate.

“The position itself in this instance, ICE director, is one that’s become a bigger lightning rod, a more controversial position,” said Stier.

Trump failed to secure someone in that role during his entire term.

Mark Jones said he doesn’t believe the Senate’s failure to confirm Gonzalez has much to do with his ability to lead the agency, but much more to do with how Republicans are likely to utilize the hot-button issue of immigration during the 2022 midterm elections.

Gonzalez “still has a long track record of criticizing ICE, which means that during a time when Republicans realize that immigration policy is an advantageous one for them, they’re unlikely to support his confirmation. Even though from a policy perspective, his position is not nearly as far from their position,” Jones said.

Republicans have questioned the Democratic sheriff’s commitment to immigration enforcement since he was tapped for the role in April.

As a reminder, Sheriff Gonzalez was nominated in late April, and was approved by the Senate committee in early August. It’s not clear what the actual holdup is here, as Gonzalez would get through if he has full Democratic support. It may be that one or more Democratic Senators are not on board with him, or just don’t want to confirm anyone to this position without some action on immigration in general or ICE in particular, or it may be that this was just another thing moved to the back burner while everyone was chasing Joe Manchin to get his vote on Build Back Better. If it’s the latter, then I think there’s a decent chance Sheriff Gonzalez eventually gets confirmed next year. If not, then we’ll know when he eventually withdraws his name from consideration.

Congressional committee has some questions for Live Nation

Interesting.

A congressional committee is investigating the promoter of the Astroworld music festival, where 10 people were killed in a crowd surge as rapper Travis Scott performed last month.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee sent a letter Wednesday to Live Nation Entertainment Inc. President and CEO Michael Rapino requesting information on preparation and safety measures for the Nov. 5 event.

[…]

“Recent reports raise serious concerns about whether your company took adequate steps to ensure the safety of the 50,000 concertgoers who attended Astroworld Festival,” the top Democrat and Republican on the committee wrote in a letter also signed by U.S. Reps. Al Green, D-Houston, and Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands.

“For instance, reports indicate that security and medical staff were inexperienced or ill-equipped to deal with mass injuries,” they wrote. “Some attendees stated that the placement of barricades made it difficult to escape. Experts have stated that Astroworld Festival organizers failed to heed warning signs.”

[…]

The committee is requesting information about venue security, crowd control, mass casualty planning, emergency communications and medical care. The panel also wants to know at what time Live Nation Entertainment was first made aware of casualties, and what steps were taken in response.

The letter says the committee is also looking into reports that Live Nation withheld pay until part-time employees who worked the festival signed a revised employment contract that includes a broad provision releasing the company from liability in the 2021 festival.

The committee wants Rapino to address members during a briefing on the issue on Jan. 12, the letter says.

Hard to know how to evaluate this right now. This kind of action can often be more of an opportunity to grandstand than to uncover truth. Even with that in mind, we may learn things that might have stayed hidden or unnoticed otherwise. Let’s see what they can find out.

FDA lifts restrictions on medical abortion

Long overdue

The Biden administration on Thursday ended a long-standing restriction on a medication used to terminate early stage pregnancies, even as politicians across the United States intensified efforts that represent the most serious challenge to abortion rights in decades.

The elimination of the rule by the Food and Drug Administration means abortion pills can be prescribed through telehealth consultations with providers and mailed to patients in states where permitted by law. Previously, the pills could not be mailed, though that regulation had been temporarily suspended by the FDA.

In large swaths of the nation, however, strict state rules will dampen the impact. Several states ban sending abortion pills by mail and impose other restrictions.

The medication, mifepristone, was approved by the FDA in 2000 for what’s known as medication abortion. It is used with a second drug, misoprostol. The FDA required patients to pick up mifepristone in person at a hospital, clinic or medical office. There is no FDA requirement that the medication, also known as RU-486, be taken in a clinical setting, and most patients take it at home.

In April, the FDA waived the in-person dispensing requirement during the pandemic, saying research showed the action did not raise “serious safety concerns.” It then launched a scientific review to see whether restrictions on mifepristone should be lifted permanently, with Thursday as the deadline.

The agency, writing to a medical group that had sued the FDA over the rule, said it was dropping the in-person dispensing requirement “to minimize the burden on the health care delivery system” and “to ensure that the benefits of the drug outweigh the risks.” The FDA did not give an effective date for the change.

[…]

Loosening the federal restrictions will not change abortion access in many states with stricter regulations on the pills. Nineteen states have banned receiving the drugs through telehealth appointments, making the relaxed FDA rules irrelevant in places including Alabama, Arizona and Missouri. Some states impose other limitations on medication abortion, including allowing only physicians to prescribe the drug and mandating that patients take the pills under a doctor’s supervision rather than at home.

As federal officials have moved to ease restrictions on the drug, many states have tightened access. At least 16 states have proposed new restrictions on medication abortions this year, said Elizabeth Nash, state policy analyst for the Guttmacher Institute.

“State legislatures have been watching very carefully what happens at the federal level,” Nash said.

The highest-profile limitations were enacted in Texas, where lawmakers made it a felony to provide abortion pills after seven weeks of pregnancy and outlawed sending the drugs through the mail. Texas also banned nearly all abortion within the state by making any form of abortion illegal after about six weeks of pregnancy, though that law is being challenged in the courts.

The differing rules have the potential to widen disparities in abortion access, Nash said.

“Access looks very different depending on where you live,” Nash said. “Abortion access will continue to be very limited in states in the South, in the Plains and in the Midwest, and more accessible in states along the West Coast and the Northeast. … That’s problematic in and of itself, and could become an even bigger divide.”

Yeah, it sure is an issue here in Texas. The main question I have is how effectively will Texas be able to enforce its restrictions. It seems to me that there will be a lot of effort put into avoidance, and as such the only way to really make that law work as intended is to be pretty darned invasive. I don’t know how that will work.

Restrictive state laws are spurring an increase in some areas of what’s known as “self-managed abortions” in which patients buy illegal medication on the Internet and terminate pregnancies without interacting with the health-care system.

While some see this as a dangerous trend, others say the situation is sharply improved from decades earlier — because of the abortion pills.

Abigail Aiken, assistant professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, said she is often asked whether the country is headed to “back-alley abortions and infections” if Roe v. Wade is struck down.

“One of the things we have that we didn’t have in the ’60s and ’70s is access to abortion pills that are very safe, very effective if you have the right instructions,” Aiken said. “Self management is a safety net. And it’s also an ability to take your health care into your own hands when the state legislature is trying to block access.”

That sounds logical to me. And it should be known, this way around the law has been in use for some time. Again, the question to me is how vigorously Texas will try to crack down on that, and how heavy-handed such enforcement will be. I feel very confident saying that the zealots who pushed the bounty hunter law will not be satisfied by anything other than an all-out crackdown, whatever the consequences. If you think I’m being alarmist, look at where we are now and tell me honestly it’s not far worse than you thought it would be. The 19th and Mother Jones have more.