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The great state of Texas

The rest of the H-GAC region

As long as we’ve been talking about Waller County and Montgomery County, I thought I’d check in on the other members of the Houston-Galveston Area Council region. Harris County and six of its seven neighbors – Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Liberty, and Montgomery, but not Waller – have issued stay-at-home orders. What about the other five counties in the region?

Austin County says the following on its website:

UPDATE 02.24.2020

We have been advised by authorities of one confirmed Covid-19 case in Sealy. The family is self-quarantining and is complying with guidelines. Any potential exposure is being investigated. Our recommendations have not changed. Continue to practice good hygiene and social distancing. Stay home if you are sick. If you have symptoms, even if they are your usual allergies, flu, etc., call your doctor first. Only go to the doctor’s office or hospital if directed by the doctor. We need to isolate the virus. Stay home as much as possible. Limit your exposure. Tell this to your kids if they are running around on their extended spring break. Stay calm and be safe. As the governor says, we can defeat Covid 19 in Texas.

Here’s a news story from Brenham that basically recapitulates this information. One thing you find when you go looking for news about these smaller counties is that there ain’t much out there. For now, this is what we know.

Colorado County has a disaster declaration by its County Judge and the Mayors of three towns (Columbus, Eagle Lake, and Weimar) that “shall be read to comply” with the initial executive order from Greg Abbott, which closed bars and gyms and schools, limited public gatherings to a maximum of ten people, and limited restaurants to take-out only. The Colorado County order says it continues till March 27, but I presume there has been an extension since then; the Abbott order was through April 3, anyway. As of March 25, there were no confirmed cases in Colorado County.

Matagorda County has been under a disaster declaration since March 16, and has closed county parks, community centers, fairgrounds, and county beach access, in addition to restricting access to county government buildings. They reported eleven positive cases as of Saturday morning.

Walker County has a COVID-19 information page, where I learned that they have a midnight to five AM curfew as of March 23, and they report two confirmed cases as of Friday. Walker County is the home of Huntsville, and thus the Huntsville Correctional Unit, and I sure would like to know what their plan is for when the first inmate tests positive.

Finally, there’s Wharton County, which has this press release stating that there have been five positive COVID-19 tests for county residents (out of 50 total, with eight still pending as of Friday), and little else.

Far as I can tell, none of these counties has a stay-at-home order similar to what the big counties have been doing. These five counties combine to have nineteen confirmed positive cases, though given that test results are taking up to ten days to return, who knows what the actual number is. It’s surely higher now than when I drafted this post on Saturday. I have no idea what is informing Greg Abbott’s decision-making process, but at least now you know.

UPDATE: From the Trib, a note on the larger picture: “As of Friday, the Texas Department of State Health Services said 105 of the state’s 254 counties had reported cases. A week earlier, there were only 34.”

What’s up, Waller County?

Meet the lone holdout county in the Houston area.

Trey Duhon

Waller County Judge Trey Duhon says he expected to announce a stay-at-home order for his rural county this week, following the lead of other major counties in the region.

But then Duhon studied other localities’ orders and reflected on President Donald Trump’s message about how the country needs to start getting back to work in the coming weeks, a view not shared by many public health experts.

“It was just the notion that we can’t paralyzed by this event,” Duhon said by phone Wednesday, referring to Trump’s remarks. “America is about ingenuity, it’s about working, it’s about enterprise, it’s about free market. People get up, they go to work. They earn a living. They move up the ladder. That’s what we do. That’s what makes America successful. So, if we’re paralyzed and we do nothing, then everything will just collapse.”

On Wednesday, Duhon stopped short of issuing a stay-at-home order, reflecting a reluctance among some local leaders to adopt the most stringent rules available to them to slow the spread of COVID-19. While Democrat-led Harris and Fort Bend counties have issued stay-at-home orders, GOP-majority Montgomery County has not. Two other counties led by Republicans — Galveston and Brazoria — have opted for stay-at-home orders.

“This action is not being taken lightly,” said Brazoria County Judge Matt Sebesta, a Republican, during an address live-streamed on Facebook on Wednesday. “As cases rise, the advice across the board has been to take action (now) to slow the spread of this disease.”

[…]

Duhon wasn’t calling for restrictions to be lifted in his county of 51,000 residents, but he acknowledged struggling with how far to go in imposing them.

His order calls for residents and workers to stay 6 feet apart from one another and for restaurants to remain take-out, drive-thru and delivery only. It discourages gatherings of 10 or more and encourages residents to remain in their homes as much as possible, unless they’re going to work, for example. He advised that trips out of the house should be made for essential items only. Churches and other religious institutions should aim to provide services via video or teleconference. However, they are permitted to hold services outdoors if people are 6 feet apart.

If the number of coronavirus cases goes up in Waller County, he said, he would reassess. There were no confirmed cases in the county as of Wednesday afternoon.

The order would go into effect at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday and remain in effect until April 3.

In his Facebook post, Duhon said it bothered him “measures are being taken so easily and without regard to our basic constitutional freedoms.”

“This is NO QUESTION that this is a public health emergency, and there is no doubt about that, but at each and every step, we must always carefully balance the restrictions we put in place with a person’s ability to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’” Duhon wrote.

As we know, Montgomery County has since issued a stay-at-home order, despite its County Judge sounding a lot like Trey Duhon as of Wednesday. Also since then, the first case of COVID-19 in Waller County has been reported. I think we all know it’s just a matter of days before that number is a lot higher than that.

Waller County is one of seven counties that border Harris. It’s mostly rural and sparsely populated (about 53K people as of 2018). Liberty County (population circa 86K) and Chambers County (population circa 42K), both of which also border Harris, are similar in nature, yet they have both already issued stay-at-home orders, Liberty on Thursday and Chambers on Tuesday. Both were stronger for Trump in 2016 than Waller was – Chambers 79% for Trump, Liberty 78%, Waller 63% – but that did not factor into their decision-making process. What’s it going to take to get you to take this seriously, Waller County?

The coronavirus doesn’t care about your rugged individualism

Put a pin in this story, and let’s see how things are in a week, and in two weeks.

Reports of COVID-19 cases might not be as prevalent outside of the metropolitan areas, and official actions have been slower and less restrictive.

In Midland, many residents have continued their normal routines, shopping in grocery stores and at busy retail locations. The city hasn’t issued restrictive orders but has been talking about it. There’s a striking parallel between the places restricting social gathering and the political map, but that’s not what some politicians see.

“I don’t know if it’s a red versus blue thing; it’s a human nature thing,” said Jack Ladd Jr., a member of the Midland City Council. “A lot of people want to see something like this before they react.”

That visibility is increasing as cases pop up in Midland. And the county recorded its first death attributed to COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, this week, which has prompted more discussion from public leaders.

Midland had four known cases as of Wednesday, and they were up to six cases as of Thursday. They don’t know where people may have gotten the disease.

Lubbock stopped short of telling residents to stay at home, but it did put restrictions in place. Lubbock’s emergency order, Mayor Dan Pope said, “is like the stay-at-home orders elsewhere, without the panic in it.”

“You know West Texas,” he said. “We have a little more common sense … and a healthy sense of skepticism.

“I would say people are in two camps — those who have bought in and understand and are really staying home, and another group that’s harder to reach,” he said.

He said Lubbock’s two hospitals are well situated at the moment — they can open another 40 ICU beds if needed — and added that “we don’t have any stress on our health care system” at this time. As of Thursday, the city had a drive-through testing center, and he said it plans to have a total of four by Monday. Lubbock County had 19 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, he said.

You know what else the city of Lubbock has? A population density that’s roughly the same as the city of Houston:

Lubbock, population 255,885, area 123.6 square miles = 2,070 people per square mile.

Houston, population 2,325,502, area 1,062 square miles = 2,189 people per square mile.

Now sure, Houston is an international travel and business hub, with multiple central business districts, and it is surrounded by millions of other people, in Harris and other counties, while Lubbock is mostly in the middle of empty space. But you know, those 19 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Lubbock County (population 307K) represents one case per 16K residents. In Harris County, with 4.7 million people and 135 confirmed cases as of Friday afternoon, that ratio is one per 35K residents. I’m just saying.

Now of course the real numbers are higher, and even if I knew the exact totals right now they’d be obsolete by the time you read this. My point is, they’re going in one direction at this time, and their ultimate trajectory depends entirely on our actions, not our attitudes or innate qualities. I hope, I really hope, that the people of Lubbock and Midland and anyplace else where people are mostly moving about without much care about coronavirus don’t come to regret their actions later.

Montgomery County issues a stay-at-home order

It’s getting real, y’all.

After initially announcing he would not issue a stay-at-home order regarding the new coronavirus, Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough is following other area counties and a stay-at-home order will go into effect at midnight Friday.

The 19-page restrictive order will be in place through April 12.

Additionally, Keough is putting all residents under a curfew beginning each night at 11:59 p.m. through 6 a.m.

“Given the most recent information concerning the virus and the potential for loss of life for our county and our region, I am amending my original order to become the Montgomery County Stay at Home, Stop the Spread order,” Keough said in a statement. “Having surrounded myself with a team of experts, in health district, homeland security and emergency management, law enforcement, our district attorney, and many others, whose council I value, I have made decisions that have been patient and measured.”

Keough said all non-essential business must close at 11:15 p.m. Friday and remain closed through April 12. The order allows for businesses to remain open if employees can work from home.

Keough called his order “crystal clear” with information on what are essential businesses and services and confirming all grocery stores will remain open.

“Read this order,” he said. “We are not urging you; we are telling you; you must comply with CDC social distancing guidelines. Stay home if you don’t need to be out. This is not a time for vacation or social gatherings. Take this virus seriously.”

Keough initially issued a disaster declaration March 12 following the first COVID-19 case in Montgomery County. In the last week, the number of cases in the county increased to 41. The coronavirus, according to the Montgomery County Public Health Department, has spread to all parts of the county.

As recently as Tuesday, the day that Harris County shut down, Montgomery County Judge Keough was holding firm against a stay-at-home order, though he had taken some steps. Keough is a former State Rep who ousted the incumbent county judge in 2018 in the Republican primary with tea party backing. I wonder if anyone has asked Dan Patrick and Paul Bettencourt what they think about this obvious betrayal of their bedrock principles.

I kid, only slightly, but the reality is that Keough is a latecomer on this train:


And indeed, Jefferson and Smith and several other counties have joined in. To update:

In case you’re wondering, Ector County is Odessa, Taylor is Abilene, Potter is Amarillo, Tom Green is San Angelo. Guadalupe (Seguin) and Comal (New Braunfels) are neighbors of Bexar County. We’ll see how long they hold out. This also means that Lubbock County has one of these orders as well; that wasn’t clear from the earlier story I blogged about. In some sense, it will soon be irrelevant if Greg Abbott orders a statewide shutdown or not. You still mad, Dan?

The Republican death wish

It would be one thing if they were just putting their own lives at risk, but that’s not how viruses work.

After Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins became the first to announce a mandatory stay-at-home rule, conservative groups including Empower Texans began ringing alarms in opposition to Jenkins and to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who they say paved the way for the move.

Abbott had said he would applaud local leaders who felt they should issue stay-at-home orders for their communities.

“I’m extremely concerned about what Dallas Co just did, and Abbott’s apparent sanctioning of it,” Empower Texans president Ross Kecseg wrote on Twitter.

So far, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is the highest-ranking state official to echo those concerns.

“What I’m living in fear of is what is happening to this country,” Patrick said in a Fox News interview. “I don’t want the whole country to be sacrificed.”

Patrick, who turns 70 next week, went on to say he’d be willing to risk his own life and well-being to help preserve the way of life for other Americans — a statement that drew harsh rebukes on social media and inspired hashtags such as #DieForTheDow.

[…]

Critics of the stay-at-home orders are contradicting the advice of public health authorities at every level of government, from the World Health Organization to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to local health officials. Epidemiologists have stressed that keeping people apart is the best way to fight back against a new virus for which there is no vaccine, and that aggressive early steps are the only way to get ahead of COVID-19.

The discord in Texas mirrors what’s going on at the national level with Republican governors showing more reluctance than Democratic ones, like Cuomo, to shutting down their states, said Timothy Callaghan, assistant professor of health policy and politics at the Texas A&M School of Public Health.

“On the one hand, they certainly want to protect the public health, but they are also afraid about hindering the freedoms of their citizens and they’re also concerned about the economic impact of having society in many ways shut down,” Callaghan said. “It’s a tricky balancing act for many politicians on the conservative side.”

Not only does that send Texans a mixed message but Callaghan said it could also reduce the effectiveness of the orders.

“If you want to see a true impact of flattening the curve throughout the state of Texas, it’s important for it to be a statewide policy,” Callaghan said. “Certainly in those areas that choose to enact some sort of shelter in place policy, you’re going to see some effect, but we don’t know if it’s going to be a smaller effect than if the entire state had chosen to do something.”

See here for the background. It’s not actually clear that they want to protect public health, since everyone who knows anything about public health and epidemiology is practically shouting from the rooftops that these shutdowns are necessary and we risk having literally millions of people die without them. Indeed, rightwing magazines are touting the virtues of deliberately spreading coronavirus, in a ridiculous and dangerous belief that it’s preferable to social distancing. I suspect there’s a certain amount of cognitive dissonance going on, since the one thing that can mitigate the economic impact of the stay-at-home orders is massive government action to put money in people’s pockets to replace the income they’d be losing, and that would seem to be the thing that Dan Patrick fears more than his own death. It’s clear that they’re taking their direction from Donald Trump, because that’s what they do these days and Trump is getting tired of the whole pandemic thing. It will be interesting to see if actual elected Republicans turn on Greg Abbott if he however reluctantly orders a statewide shutdown. In the meantime, I don’t know what there is to say other than there’s one way to get through this without a lot of people dying, and what these Republicans are agitating about is not it.

Coronavirus and the Census

Oh, man, does this have the potential to be devastating.

In some corners of the state, the meticulous planning spanned more than two years.

Detailed maps of Texas communities were pored over. A ground game to knock on doors was worked out, and plans for educational meetings and seminars were set. It was all in service of getting the high-stakes, once-a-decade census of everyone living in the state right.

Then came the coronavirus.

Now, with the count already underway, the contingent of local government employees, service providers and volunteers who had been working to breach the gap left when state officials decided not to fund any census outreach work are scrambling to figure out how to urge Texans to respond to the census amid a pandemic that’s forcing everyone to keep their distance.

The constitutionally mandated count that began in Texas last week is supposed to wrap up by July. While the U.S. Census Bureau has said it’s monitoring the evolving coronavirus situation, it has not changed its deadlines so far, leaving communities to press forward with their efforts to get everyone counted by the summer.

But the pandemic is making what was already a hard-to-count state that much tougher to enumerate and further raising the stakes for the Texans — residents who don’t speak English, people living in poverty and immigrants, to name a few — who were already at the highest risk of being missed.

“From the beginning, we identified this as a ground game. The more people we could physically talk to, the better,” said Margaret Wallace Brown, a planning and development director for the city of Houston who has been leading the community’s census outreach efforts. “We were shaking hands and kissing babies. Well, those two things are not doable right now, so how do we replace that with another ‘high-touch’ circumstance that will convey the message as compelling as a face-to-face conversation?”

I don’t know the answer to that question, but it’s one of many that everyone who wants to get an accurate Census count must try to answer. But as the federal government is grappling with many coronavirus-related questions, it also needs to keep in mind that the currently-mandated deadlines may be meaningless, and adjust accordingly. If that means redistricting, and ultimately the 2022 primaries, need to get pushed back a few months, as they were in 2012 due to litigation, then so be it. Getting the count as accurate as we can is the top priority. Everything else is subservient to that. Mother Jones has more.

Go ahead and die, Dan

Just do it on your own time, and try not to take anyone with you.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, chiming in to support President Donald Trump’s new focus on the economy over fierce warnings from public health officials, suggested on Fox News on Monday night that he would rather die from the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus than see instability in the American economic system.

“No one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’ And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in,” he said. “And that doesn’t make me noble or brave or anything like that.

“I just think there are lots of grandparents out there in this country like me … that what we all care about and what we all love more than anything are those children,” he added. “And I want to, you know, live smart and see through this, but I don’t want to see the whole country to be sacrificed, and that’s what I see.”

[…]

At the end of the Fox interview, host Tucker Carlson repeated his interpretation of Patrick’s argument: “You’re basically saying that this disease could take your life, but that’s not the scariest thing to you, there’s something worse than dying?”

To which Patrick answered in the affirmative: “Yeah.”

I just can’t right now, so I’m going to outsource this. Here’s Kevin Drum, with some data:

President Trump would like us to “open the economy,” which for all practical purposes means doing nearly nothing. The [Imperial College] study suggests that in this scenario around 2 million people will die.

If we get as serious as Italy—shut down everything, close every school, get everyone off the streets, and aggressively trace every known case—and if we do it for the next three months or so—we could get the number of deaths down to 200,000 or so. That’s about 0.06 percent of the population, similar to what Italy is likely to suffer.

This is the difference we’re looking at: 200,000 vs. 2 million. The first case is bad but manageable, and the Senate rescue bill would keep most people whole and ensure that the economy can pop back to life quickly when the control measures are over. The second is a catastrophe, and even with the rescue bill in place it would most likely produce a deep recession that would last through the end of the year at least.

The control measures are no fun. No president wants to be the guy who has to enforce them. But without them 2 million people will die and we’ll probably suffer a deep recession. Why would anyone in their right mind choose that option?

And here’s Nonsequiteuse with a more direct response:

Viruses aren’t good ol’ boys swaddled in camo with Yeti coffee mugs and Ducks Unlimited decals on their rear windows, out to bag the daily limit.

Viruses are motherfucking spree killers pumped up on angel dust and Four Loko.

We can’t ask TxDOT to use those nifty signs to direct viruses which exit to take and which parking lot to use to go get the olds.

The more people exposed, the more who fall ill. That’s it. That’s the way this works. There’s no vaccine, and the treatment doesn’t always work even if you can access it. The outbreak will only run its course if we limit the number of people the virus can reach, which we can do by staying at home and avoiding other people who might be infected.

Now, let’s look at the second issue, Dan Patrick’s stunning lack of confidence in each and every one of us in this country, which is what leads me to say that

Dan Patrick is anti-American.

Dan Patrick and Donald Trump are making the same argument—equally ineloquently—letting the economy tank is worse than letting the virus kill a bunch of people, so we should go back to work and pretend it’s all good.

Why does Dan Patrick think a month or two of large numbers of people working from home and some people needing increased government assistance over the short-term will completely and totally wreck us?

Does he not believe in American ingenuity? In bootstraps? In our cultural obsession with reinvention? Doesn’t he know we’re the Timex Nation?

There are only two options here, and honestly, hard to say which paints Danny boy in the worse light.

What they both said. Political Animal, TPM, Daily Kos, Texas Monthly, Dahlia Lithwick, the Observer, and Paradise in Hell have more.

UPDATE: I’m just going to leave this here.

While Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick became the public face of the “let’s get back to work” contingent during the coronavirus pandemic, his son Ryan K. Patrick, U.S. Attorney in the Houston region, has asked his staff handling one of the busiest criminal dockets in the country to work from home and prioritize safety.

The younger Patrick declined to comment on his 69-year-old father’s statement to Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. The lieutenant governor spoke about sacrificing himself to salvage the economy and letting his grandchildren have “a shot at the American dream” after a short hiatus. The 41-year-old chief federal prosecutor asked workers and staff nearly two weeks ago to take computers home and come in only as needed. He has a skeleton crew operating at the courthouse each day, taking turns handling hearings for their colleagues.

“Our office is as fully teleworked as possible,” said the chief prosecutor in southeast Texas. “We learned a lot of good lessons after Hurricane Harvey,” he said. He noted that his office is still open and courts are still open.

Ted Imperato, deputy chief of the national security and public corruption unit at the Houston headquarters, said his boss has been on top of it, following public health directives for social distancing and flattening the curve from the beginning.

“The safety of the people that work for him has been his primary focus,” Imperato said. “Every conference call and every email I’ve gotten has been to check on your people, make sure they’re OK and to provide us necessary updates on conducting our business during this period of crisis.”

We feel your pain, Ryan.

Here come the shelter-in-place orders

The shutdowns are getting shut-down-ier.

Be like Hank, except inside

Many of Texas’ biggest cities and counties are ordering residents to shelter in place whenever possible.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff on Monday evening ordered residents to stay in their homes as the state grapples with the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus. The move came one day after Dallas County issued a similar order. Meanwhile, the Austin City Council and Travis County will team up Tuesday to issue a stay-at-home decree, Austin Mayor Steve Adler told The Texas Tribune on Monday. And Fort Worth city officials said Mayor Betsy Price and Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley will do the same at a Tuesday morning press conference.

By lunchtime Tuesday, residents in at least four of the state’s five biggest cities are expected to be under such orders. The only possible holdout is Houston, the state’s most populous city, which hasn’t publicly announced any plans. But the Houston Chronicle has reported Harris County officials began drafting a shelter-in-place order over the weekend.

“Our message is simple: You must stay at home,” Nirenberg said at a press conference in San Antonio on Monday evening. “The best way to reduce the spread of the coronavirus is through strict social distancing.”

San Antonio’s “Stay Home, Work Safe” order is effective 11:59 p.m. Tuesday through 11:59 p.m. April 9.

You can add in Galveston County and some other places as well. If Greg Abbott isn’t going to do it, then it looks like everyone else will. As for Houston, here’s that Chron story:

Harris County officials over the weekend began drafting an order to place further restrictions on public activity in order to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, according to sources with direct knowledge of the discussions.

Doctors and health experts across the country have said such orders are necessary to prevent COVID-19 from spreading so rapidly that it overwhelms the nation’s health care system. Texas Medical Center president and CEO William McKeon said Monday morning the presidents of TMC hospitals and other institutions were “unanimous in our strong recommendation to move to shelter in place.”

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said at a news conference Monday morning “it may be that we issue a stay-at-home order or something of the sort.” She said county officials are still assessing whether to do so, and seeking the advice of other local leaders including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Judge Hidalgo and Mayor Turner are holding a joint press conference with local health leaders this morning “for a COVID-19 related announcement”, which sure sounds like the prelude to a shelter-in-place announcement, but we’ll see.

What this means is that most businesses are ordered to shutter, minus “essential services” like grocery stores, pharmacies, and of course health care facilities. You’re either working from home, or you’re on a break, likely for two weeks initially (what Bexar County ordered), though it could get extended. You can go outside to exercise as long as you maintain social distancing, and there may be civil enforcement for violations. I’m making some assumptions here – who knows, maybe Judge Hidalgo and Mayor Turner have something else to say, though I can hardly imagine what it could be – but this is what we have seen in cities that have already gone down this road. So, on the likelihood that this is what’s in store, get ready to hunker down a little harder. It’s what everyone thinks is our best hope right now.

UPDATE: The shelter in place order for Harris County is now in effect, effective tonight at midnight through April 3.

The looming unemployment insurance crisis

Can we please not make the same egregious mistakes as last time?

As businesses across the state close to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the mass layoffs that have followed could quickly drain the state fund that pays unemployment claims.

The state has less than six months of reserves to pay unemployment insurance at recession-level rates, according to U.S. Department of Labor data from the second quarter of 2019, the most recent available. That’s well below the federally recommended level of one year, and the seventh-lowest reserve level among states.

Between Sunday and Wednesday, Texas received more than 61,500 first-time unemployment insurance claims, according to the Texas Workforce Commission, more than four times the filings during a similar period in 2019. The avalanche of claims slowed and crashed the state’s unemployment benefits websites this week, before the workforce commission made upgrades deal with the spike in traffic.

Nearly 30 percent of the unemployment insurance applications, or nearly 18,000, were from the Houston region, according to the TWC data. Shutdowns have hit the local economy hard. People who work at local theaters and event venues were “99 percent unemployed in a matter of days,” said Hany Khalil, the executive director of the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, which works with unions across the Houston region.

[…]

The reason Texas has one of the lowest reserves in the nation to pay for unemployment benefits is because the program is funded through taxes on employers, which in Texas, are very low. Texas taxes the employer for the first $9,000 of an employee’s annual wages, compared to the national average of the first $18,900, according to Labor Department data.

“Texas loves their low taxes on employers, so it’s not surprising that the fund is in trouble,” said Maurice Emsellem, a program director at the National Employment Law Project. “A lot of states are not in great shape right now.”

We basically went through the same thing in 2009, during the height of the recession induced by the financial crisis. The cause was the same – nobody in charge, especially not then-Governor Rick Perry, wanted to increase the amount being collected for unemployment insurance. In fact, Perry suspended the collection of unemployment insurance payments as a way to help businesses, at the later expense of helping the workers who lost their jobs. To make matters worse, Perry later declined to take federal stimulus money to help with unemployment insurance, which of course meant that the unemployment insurance tax levied on businesses had to be jacked up later on. Someone should boil this down to a PowerPoint presentation, call it What Not To Do During A Big Unemployment Spike, and make sure Perry’s face is on every slide.

This time around, we have a Republican in the White House, so federal money to the state is not considered dirty by the Republicans in charge, so when we are offered money now to bolster our unemployment insurance program, we’ll probably take it. I’m sure it will still come with ridiculous and insulting strings attached, like drug testing – we can’t get tested for coronavirus, but there’s always room to pee in a cup to see if you’ve been smoking weed – but that will be a fight for another day. In the meantime, there’s still ten billion or so in the Rainy Day Fund, in case anyone thinks it might be a good idea to tap into that as a way to bridge the gap rather than make who knows how many people suffer. Crazy talk, I know. All I’m saying is, we’ve been through this sort of crappy time before. I’m old enough to remember it. Let’s see if we learned anything from the last time.

The state of the state’s response

I mean, it’s something.

Gov. Greg Abbott took multiple measures Sunday designed to expand hospital staffing and capacity in Texas, but declined to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order — even as calls for such an action increased as the new coronavirus continued to spread across the state.

In an effort to free up hospital beds in anticipation of an influx of patients sick with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, Abbott ordered health care professionals to postpone “all surgeries that are not medically necessary” and suspended regulations to allow hospitals to treat more than one patient in a room.

But he did not order all Texans to shelter in place, noting that there are still many counties in the state without confirmed cases and that he wants to see the full impact of an executive order he issued Thursday. In the meantime, he welcomed local officials to take more restrictive action than he has statewide.

During an afternoon news conference at the state Capitol in Austin, Abbott also announced the formation of a “strike force” to respond to the coronavirus and that the Texas National Guard, which he activated several days ago, would be deployed this week to help hospitals deal with the outbreak.

In the lead-up to Abbott’s news conference, though, attention centered most intensely on whether he would go beyond the executive order that he issued Thursday. That order urged all Texans to limit public gatherings to 10 people, prohibited eating in at restaurants and bars and temporarily closed schools. That order went into effect midnight Friday and goes through midnight April 3.

“We need to see the level of effectiveness of the executive order,” Abbott said. “What we may be right for places like the large urban areas may not be right at this particular point of time for the more than 200 counties that have zero cases of COVID-19.”

[…]

Abbott said that his decision not to issue a statewide order should not stop local officials from issuing such orders in their jurisdictions.

“Local officials have the authority to implement more strict standards than I as governor have implemented in the state of Texas, “Abbott said. “If they choose to do so I would applaud them for doing so, but at this time it is not the appropriate approach to mandate that same strict standard across every area of the state, especially at a time when we are yet to see the results coming out of my most recent executive order.”

See here for the background. I can see the reason for Abbott’s actions, or lack thereof. It’s not clear that this is necessary for rural areas, and for the most part the localities that have needed such action have taken it themselves. (Insert reminder about Abbott’s self-serving relationship with the concept of “local control” here.) Indeed, the next story the Trib ran is about Dallas County prepping a shelter-in-place order. (Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has said she is considering such an order but has not yet announced one.) At least some hospitals have already acted to limit or suspend elective procedures as well. What all of this does is mostly make me think that Abbott is behind the curve rather than ahead of it. You know I don’t think much of our Governor, but even for him this seems kind of limp. What could he be doing that isn’t already being done? That’s what I’d like to know.

Coronavirus and local control

From Politico, evidence that there are no small-government “conservatives” in pandemic self-isolation foxholes:

Texas is a big state with a proud small-government philosophy. And that’s being tested by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Strict bans on public gatherings to curtail the virus’ reach and widespread testing and treatment run counter to the politics of top Texas officials. Instead they’re calling on local officials to lead the response.

As governors in states including New York and California have imposed statewide measures such as closing schools and limiting commerce, Texas leaders have been reluctant to set restrictions conservative voters might consider draconian and business leaders oppose. They’ve also opposed steps to expand health insurance coverage.

Texas’ Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration Friday — after dozens of states already had done so — and activated the National Guard on Tuesday, after more than a dozen states already had. State officials have yet to impose statewide limits on public gatherings, close schools or beaches or issue a special open enrollment period for health insurance, as California, New York and other big states have. And some health providers say Texas has been slow to boost coronavirus testing capacity and help them meet equipment needs.

“In this instance, President Trump is right: Governors need to step up,” Clay Jenkins, a Democrat and Dallas County’s top elected official, said in an interview. “When it comes to stemming the tide of the loss of life that we’re staring at, the governor is in a unique position to act.”

Abbott is fully in charge of the state’s response, because as part of the small-government philosophy, the state’s Legislature meets only in odd years for 140 days. So far, more than 60 coronavirus cases and one death have been confirmed in the state. Abbott said he expects the number of cases to explode next week as more testing capacity comes online and more diagnoses are counted.

Abbott, who has been governor for five years, tends to shine in moments of crisis. He’s been relatively hands-off during legislative sessions, but has played an active role in managing during disaster. Abbott earned praise for providing a steady hand during Hurricane Harvey, which hit Houston in 2017.

But the swift-spreading coronavirus public health crisis is catching Texas unprepared. The state, which didn’t expand Medicaid, has the highest uninsured rate in the country meaning millions of people don’t have doctors to call if they show symptoms. And Abbott has opposed local paid sick leave ordinances, which could encourage sick people to stay home and keep from spreading the virus, saying they hamper business growth.

[…]

Abbott’s office says the governor believes in taking a decentralized approach letting local officials take the lead in imposing restrictions and relying on private companies to help boost testing capacity.

Several Texas cities and counties have already closed schools and limited public gatherings. That includes Austin, which issued an order Tuesday banning gatherings of more than 10 people and shutting down restaurants and bars through early May.

“County judges and mayors have done a very good job in listening to local health officials,” Abbott’s spokesman John Wittman said in an interview. “What is best in Dallas may not be best for Amarillo or Abilene.”

Those of you who are old enough to remember the last couple of legislative sessions have likely done a spit-take to the sound of a record scratch upon hearing those words. But they’re not the first time they have been uttered. From the Trib, plowing a similar furrow three days earlier:

Abbott’s office, asked about the local protocols, said Monday that cities and counties “have done a very good job of doing what is right for their municipalities” and nodded to how helpful local decision-making can be in a state as large as Texas. That approach is in stark contrast to Abbott’s recent attitude toward local control. In the past few years, he has routinely sparred with mayors and backed several laws that chipped away at the power of cities and counties.

“Texas is so diverse that what is right in Houston and Harris County and Dallas and San Antonio may not be the best approach in Amarillo,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said. “These cities and counties are following the proper protocol and guidance that they are receiving from their local health departments.”

Abbott’s push for local decision-making comes as the nation’s top infectious disease expert said the most effective way to stop spread of COVID-19 may be a 14-day nationwide shutdown.

So, local control is best when tough decisions that Greg Abbott doesn’t want to have to make need to be made. Otherwise, cities and counties need to stop thinking and acting in their own best interests and let Greg Abbott and the Republican Party do all of that for them. Could someone please make sure to have multiple large multi-colored printouts of those John Wittman quotes plastered all around the Capitol next year? Thanks. The Observer, which goes into a lot more detail, has more.

Statewide restrictions on public gatherings

This was expected.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday took sweeping action to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus across Texas, issuing an executive order that will close restaurants and schools, among other things.

During a news conference at the state Capitol, Abbott announced an executive order that will limit social gatherings to 10 people, prohibit eating and drinking at restaurants and bars while still allowing takeout, close gyms, ban people from visiting nursing homes except for critical care and temporarily close schools. The executive order is effective midnight Friday through midnight April 3, Abbott said.

The executive order reflects federal guidance that came out earlier this week.

[…]

Abbott also announced that state health commissioner John Hellerstedt declared a public health disaster earlier Thursday. Abbott said it is his understanding that the last time such a declaration was made in Texas was 1901.

Not much to add here. Cities and counties have been taking action along these lines, though there have been holdouts. (Harris County is considering further action as well.) That makes state action the appropriate solution, so good for Abbott though we can certainly debate what took so long. Be that as it may, here we are. The Chron has more.

Preserving Texas’ film history

Cool story.

Click play on the grainy, black-and-white image titled simply “Houston Time Service” on the website of the Texas Archive of the Moving Image and you’re treated to a 110-second Houston love story.

The film, from the 1940s, is about a phone number Houstonians could call to get the correct time. Ruth McClain Graham owned the service, according to an Oct. 24, 1947, Houston Chronicle story. Two years earlier she had married Shadrack E. “Shad” Graham, an itinerant filmmaker, who, apparently taken with the proprietor, produced the film promoting the business.

But film, like love, can be short-lived, and that’s what has driven Caroline Frick’s race against time. The role of film preservationists like Frick, an associate professor of film at the University of Texas’ Moody College of Communication in Austin, becomes ever more crucial as moving images depicting life and history become unplayable.

As the years play on, the decay of aging motion picture film accelerates, as does the quality of magnetic tape on which video is recorded. Video projectors and old-format tape machines break, are not repaired and discarded. The race to get these recordings into a digital format – also unlikely to survive forever – becomes more crucial with each passing year.

“This is what we are trying to prevent,” says Frick, who founded and is executive director of the Texas Archive of the Moving Image, or TAMI, in 2003, opening a plastic bag filled with what looks at first glance to be beef jerky. It’s actually decomposing celluloid, curled and blackened. The smell from the bag is a pungent, vinegary rot, and in TAMI’s crowded offices near downtown Austin, you can catch a whiff if you stand next to stacks of boxes filled with 8-, 16- and 35-millimeter film.

Another threat is in the shrinking universe of ways to watch these historic movies, a dwindling number of obsolete devices available for playback. Frick points to a Sony reel-to-reel videotape machine on the floor that once was the pride of a television station editing room. It was designed to work with a now-abandoned, 1-inch tape format.

“We were able to play something once on that after we got it, and then it broke,” she says, sighing. “We’re still looking for parts.”

A staff of five — all part-timers — are in the office on this chilly January day. Some work on physical restoration of film, others scan it into computers for digitization. Another crew catalogs and curates, putting context to the images that, ultimately, stream across the internet to computers, phones and tablets.

It is a daunting task, hampered by a lack of funding — TAMI’s annual budget is in the $300,000 range — and made overwhelming by the sheer amount of content that flows in. So far, TAMI has digitized about 58 terabytes of film and video, but only 10 percent of that is available for viewing at its website, texasarchive.org.

“The number one reason for the disconnect between what we have digitized vs. what is streaming is budget – the human labor of researching and contextualizing the content,” Frick says. “Everyone is excited about what AI will be able to do some day (for automated curation) but, as of yet, nothing is as reliable or useful as the human eye and brain.”

I’m old enough to remember calling a phone number to get the correct time. Crazy to think about now, but here we are. In any event, preserving old film is a much more challenging task than preserving old books because of the technological barriers. Look at it this way: Most of us have obsolete technology from recent years that has information on it that is now unreadable to us, like various forms of portable storage from computers. The TAMI folks have to deal with machines from decades ago, where there may literally be nothing else like them in existence. Once these old films are gone, that’s it, they’re completely lost to history. Whatever the value of any individual piece of celluloid may be, it sure is a shame to lose something like that. Read the rest of the story and check out the Texas Archive of the Moving Image. Maybe you have something that would interest them.

Abbott declares a state of emergency

Seems like it’s called for.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday declared that the new coronavirus is a statewide public health disaster and said that Texas is on the verge of being able to significantly ramp up its testing capacity.

At the same time he announced that he was directing day cares, nursing homes and prisons to limit visitations.

He said San Antonio is opening on Friday the first state drive-through with testing capabilities that will initially prioritize health care workers and high-risk patients.

Abbott also finally clarified the state’s testing history so far and current capabilities. In total, he said there have been 220 Texans tested by either a state public lab or by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are another 75 Texans being tested currently.

On Friday, the state’s testing capacity was roughly 270 people per day, but he said next week that capacity will expand into the thousands as private labs come online.

The Chron adds some more details.

The governor didn’t provide details on where and when the lab would open. But he credited Mayor Ron Nirenberg and his team for leading the way on the issue.

The facility will initially be only for first responders, health care workers, operators of critical infrastructure and key resources and certain high-risk patients, Abbott said.

He said the state has tested 220 Texans so far for the virus and he expects public and private labs to exponentially increase the capacity next week. The labs will be able to test several thousand people a week.

It’s a good and necessary start, but there’s a lot more that can be said and done. What about paid sick leave, which the state is fighting tooth and nail in court, for one? What about the millions of people with no health insurance, including all those who would have benefited from an expansion of Medicaid? It may seem crass and opportunistic to bring up heated political points like these right now, but we’d be in a much stronger position now if Abbott and his fellow Republicans hadn’t so fiercely opposed these things. Policy and politics matter. We shouldn’t let Abbott off the hook for these things just because he did his job today. WFAA and the DMN have more.

Please fill out the Census

I mean, come on. If you’re a reader of this blog, you know damn well it’s your civic duty.

Texas loses more than $2,300 per year for every person who doesn’t get counted in the U.S. Census, according to a recent study by George Washington University.

With stakes in the billions for the once-in-a-decade event, Houston and Harris County officials Monday announced a vigorous joint effort to get an accurate headcount of every person in the region. The “Yes! To Census 2020” campaign, fueled by $4 million in county funds and $2 million from the city, includes outreach through community groups, key influencers and public art along with real-time data collection on responses from historically undercounted communities so that outreach workers can be deployed strategically.

Census forms will be mailed on March 12 and participants may respond online for the first time, or complete the form in writing or by phone, with assistance available in multiple languages. For those who don’t respond, the Census will send out enumerators later this year to attempt door-to-door data collection in some portions of the country, but many people will be missed, Census officials say.

[…]

Texas’ biggest counties and cities, including Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, are shouldering that burden on their own, officials said during a launch event at the Children’s Museum Monday.

“We are doing everything we can to make sure that folks participate, said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo. She called Census 2020 a crucial moment “to live up to that right that we have…to be counted.”

Amid heightened tensions for immigrants under the Trump administration, Hidalgo made an impassioned plea, in the Spanish version of her remarks, to prospective participants to set aside any fears about filling out the form.

“The Census is very safe, I want to make that very clear, that under penalty of prison or fine, nobody can share your personal information from the Census — not ICE, the FBI, no organization or federal agency can access your personal information about the Census,” she said in Spanish.

As we know, the state shirked its responsibility and left the heavy lifting to the cities and counties, who will definitely feel the brunt of any undercount. It’s not just the big urban and suburban areas that are scrambling to do the work that the state refused to do – plenty of rural counties are doing their best, too. So please make it a little easier on them and fill out your damn form when you get it. It’s the least you can do.

SXSW canceled

Wow.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler declared a local disaster Friday in response to the new coronavirus and issued an order canceling South by Southwest for the first time in its 34-year history. The 10-day event was scheduled to begin next Friday and expected hundreds of thousands of attendees to fly in from around the globe.

The decision was prompted by a recommendation from an expert advisory panel made up of 13 medical professionals. Major sponsors and companies had already pulled out of the event, including Facebook, Twitter, Netflix and Apple, and a petition to cancel the event had garnered over 50,000 signatures.

“We looked at the options for mitigation, we looked at other opportunities to decrease the threat to an acceptable level that would allow us to continue,” Dr. Mark Escott, Austin’s interim medical director and health authority, said at the press conference. “However, after careful deliberation, there was no acceptable path forward that would mitigate the risk enough to protect our community.”

There have been no known cases of the virus being spread through the community in Texas. By Friday afternoon, at least 17 people had tested positive for the virus, and all of them were exposed overseas. Eleven of those cases were among people who were repatriated and quarantined at the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. At least six more were people from the Houston area who had recently traveled to Egypt. Escott said there are no confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus in Austin, though there are tests pending.

SXSW organizers are “devastated,” but they “honor and respect the City of Austin’s decision,” according to a statement released on Twitter.

You can see the SXSW statement here. South By and the city of Austin will be fine, this will eventually be rescheduled, and while the short term effect will be devastating, they will recover. But please spare a thought for the folks who work in the hospitality industry – hotels, restaurants, bus and cab and rideshare drivers, and so on – who will really take it on the chin and may not have the capacity to recover. Go eat out for a few nights in the next couple of weeks, whether you live in Austin or anywhere else. Let’s not find that when things have returned to normal, so many of these places had to go out of business in the meantime.

The state responds to coronavirus

Like it or not, we need to be prepared.

Texas officials are scrambling to remain prepared for a major outbreak of a pneumonia-like disease whose global spread one expert says is now moving into “the next phase.”

From the governor’s office to hospitals to state agencies, Texas officials are intensifying efforts to plan for scenarios that could unfold now that the coronavirus is no longer relatively contained to China and surrounding countries and the number of cases is soaring in countries in Europe and the Middle East.

“I think we need to call an audible,” said Peter Hotez, an infectious disease specialist at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. “We need to refresh the algorithms about who’s at risk and when we should suspect someone has the virus. We’re not calling it an epidemic yet, but we should start operating as if it were.”

Hotez said the disease’s spread — the number of cases in Italy and Iran, now about 900, more than doubled in two days, for instance — has made basing screening on the individual’s travel history less relevant. He also noted some recent cases have been characterized by gastrointestinal symptoms rather than respiratory symptoms.

[…]

There are 10 patients with the coronavirus in Texas, including six confirmed by the CDC and four who tested positively in Japan but whose results have not yet been confirmed by the U.S. agency. Of the 10, two came from Wuhan on a State Department-chartered flight and eight came from the Diamond Princess cruise.

There are 15 cases in the U.S. — none in Texas — that weren’t imported.

But CDC officials warned this week that it’s a matter of “when, not if” the virus arrives in the U.S. in larger numbers. The officials said people should start preparing for significant disruptions to daily life.

Noting the alarm that caused in some people who rushed out to buy water or face masks, Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of the Harris County Public Health Authority, said the remarks glossed over the timeline at which the U.S. cases are likely to significantly ramp up. He said that likely won’t be soon.

“The containment strategy in China was effective for giving everyone more time to prepare for the virus,” said Shah, noting the realistic hope was always to delay the virus’ spread, not stop it. “Governments were able to get information out and alert people to be on guard, just as they should be for the everyday flu.”

Three basic things: One, don’t panic. Two, be extra careful about what you read and especially what you share regarding coronavirus. Don’t be one of those idiots who passes along rumors and lies because you couldn’t be bothered to do a little vetting first. And three, practice good hygiene. Cough and sneeze into your elbow, wash your hands frequently, and if you do get sick, stay home. We can all do our part to make a difference.

Medicaid and hospitals

I have three things to say about this.

A proposed change in Medicaid rules could cost Texas hospitals billions of dollars, forcing many to cut services and some rural hospitals to close their doors, health care industry officials said.

The change, aimed at increasing the transparency of how the program’s money is spent, narrows the definition of state and local funds that can be used to determine federal matching funds. That, in turn, would reduce federal funding and cost Texas hospitals an estimated $11 billion a year, industry officials said.

Houston hospitals would lose an estimated $500 million a year, said Tim Ottinger, director of governmental relations at CHI St. Luke’s Health.

A drop in funding would mean extreme hardship for many of Texas’ rural hospitals, which stand to lose some $900 million a year. The Texas Organization for Rural and Community Hospitals (TORCH) found that 46 percent of the state’s rural hospitals operate at a loss. Over the last decade, 26 rural hospitals have closed in Texas, the highest rate in the nation.

It’s unclear how many more rural hospitals could close if the proposed rule goes into effect as written, but it would be devastating to pull so much money from their budgets, said John Henderson, president of TORCH.

“A business can’t survive,” Henderson said. “But this isn’t just a business, it’s a service.”

1. I mean, you’d think that a policy that would cost the state billions of dollars and would have such a negative impact on rural areas, where access to health care is already severely lacking, would call for some kind of response from our state government. Turns out they like it, because they say it would let them cut costs. Just in the state budget, though. Counties and hospitals and the rest are on their own.

2. That said, some of those rural communities don’t seem to be too concerned about their hospitals. So maybe I shouldn’t be all that concerned on their behalf.

3. Of course, this proposed change will not survive the end of the Trump administration. None of the Democratic Presidential candidates, whatever their health care plans are, will allow this to stand. So, you know, make sure you vote for one of them this November.

From South Texas to the moon

That’s the plan, anyway.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk expects to one day launch people from South Texas to the moon, Mars or beyond — with an update late Saturday that confirmed the company’s long-term presence in a remote area outside of Brownsville where SpaceX this year started testing a prototype of its Starship vehicle.

Founder Elon Musk said SpaceX is planning to launch its latest prototype 12 miles into the sky within the next month or two. And, ultimately, the Starship vehicle would be paired with the Super Heavy Rocket to escape Earth’s gravity and help make humans a multi-planetary species, Musk said.

“This is the most inspiring thing that I’ve ever seen,” Musk said, standing by the 165-foot-tall Starship prototype that was just assembled Friday.

[…]

To better watch the tests and launches in Texas, Cameron County officials built a new amphitheater on the southernmost tip of South Padre Island. The venue, which will also host concerts and other events, was slated to have a ribbon-cutting ceremony Saturday, though that was delayed by the SpaceX event, said Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr.

The county thought SpaceX would bring tourism dollars as people came to watch its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rocket launches. But now that SpaceX has switched its focus, Treviño is waiting to see what the economic impact could be for the region. He’s hopeful that SpaceX can attract other space companies and help develop a local aerospace workforce.

Musk on Saturday said he expects the area will be built up more by the time SpaceX is launching people into space. He would also like to see local propellant production.

“I grew up here,” Treviño said. “I don’t think anybody in their wildest dreams would have thought we’d have potential rocket launches taking place in our backyard. So the fact we’ve gotten to this point … it’s really a heck of an opportunity for us.”

See here for some background. This is a post I’d drafted some time ago, so please overlook the references to recent dates. The relationship between SpaceX and South Texas has been a bit strained at times, but perhaps now things are better. It’s always reasonable to be a bit skeptical of Elon Musk, but we’ll see how this goes. KUT has more.

The extraordinary danger of being pregnant and uninsured in Texas

So utterly appalling.

Right there with them

From 2012 through 2015, at least 382 pregnant women and new mothers died in Texas from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, according to the most recent data available from the Department of State Health Services; since then, hundreds more have likely perished. While their cases reflect the problems that contribute to maternal mortality across the United States — gross medical errors, deeply entrenched racism, structural deficiencies in how care is delivered — another Texas-size factor often plays a significant role: the state’s vast, and growing, problem with health insurance access.

About one in six Texans — just over 5 million people — had no health insurance last year. That’s almost a sixth of all uninsured Americans, more than the entire population of neighboring Louisiana. After trending lower for several years, the Texas rate has been rising again — to 17.7% in 2018, or about twice the national average.

The numbers for women are even worse. Texas has the highest rate of uninsured women of reproductive age in the country; a third were without health coverage in 2018, according to a DSHS survey. In some counties, mainly along the Mexico border, that estimate approaches 40%.

Public health experts have long warned that such gaps can have profound consequences for women’s health across their lifespans and are a critical factor in why the U.S. has the highest rate of maternal deaths in the developed world. Texas’ maternal mortality numbers have been notably troubling, even as errors in key data have complicated efforts to understand what’s going on and led skeptics, including the governorto question whether there’s really a crisis.

Hardly anyone outside the policy world has taken a deep look at how these insurance gaps play out for women in the second-largest state in the U.S. — at how, in the worst-case scenarios, lack of access to medical care endangers the lives of pregnant women, new mothers and babies.

ProPublica and Vox have spent the last eight months doing just that — combing through government data and reports, medical records and research studies, and talking with scores of women, health care providers, policymakers and families of lost mothers around the state. We learned about Rosa Diaz and dozens of others, mostly women of color, by scouring medical examiner’s databases for sudden, “natural” deaths, then inspecting investigator and autopsy reports for clues about what went wrong.

The picture that emerges is of a system of staggering complexity, riddled with obstacles and cracks, that prioritizes babies over mothers, thwarts women at every turn, frustrates doctors and midwives, and incentivizes substandard care. It’s “the extreme example of a fragmented system that cares about women much more in the context of delivering a healthy baby than the mother’s health in and of itself,” said Eugene Declercq, professor of community health sciences at Boston University School of Public Health.

Most of the mothers whose cases we examined were covered by Medicaid for low-income pregnant women, a state-federal health insurance program that pays for 53% of the births in Texas, more than 200,000 a year, and 43% of all births nationwide. In Texas, the program covers OB-GYN visits, medications, testing and nonobstetric care, from endocrinologists to eye exams.

But the application process is so cumbersome that women in the state have the latest entry to prenatal care in the country, ProPublica and Vox found. It can take months to be seen by regular providers and even longer to access specialists. This poses the greatest danger for high-risk mothers-to-be — as many women on Medicaid are, having had no medical care for significant parts of their lives. Then, roughly two months after delivery, pregnancy Medicaid comes to an end, and the safety net gives way to a cliff. For many new mothers, the result is a medical, emotional and financial disaster.

More than half of all maternal deaths in the U.S. now occur following delivery, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with as many as 24% happening six or more weeks after a woman gives birth. In Texas, the proportion of late-postpartum deaths is closer to 40%, with black women bearing the greatest risk. “To lose health care coverage really has a tremendous potential to worsen outcomes,” said Dr. Lisa Hollier, chief medical officer for obstetrics and gynecology for Texas Children’s Health Plan and chair of the state’s maternal mortality review committee.

This is a long excerpt, but there’s a lot more to the story, so please read the whole thing. There are numerous policy decisions at fault here – not expanding Medicaid, low Medicaid reimbursements, cutting off Planned Parenthood and substituting in wholly inadequate alternatives, and more – and all of them can be laid at the feet of the state’s Republican leadership. Whoever runs against Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton in 2022 should loudly and repeatedly assert that every maternal death in Texas is their fault. I keep saying this, and it keeps being true: Nothing will change until we have different, and better, government in this state. There’s no other way to do it.

The aoudad story

Did you know before reading this post what an aoudad is, other than a potentially useful word to know the next time you play Scrabble? I admit that I had never heard of them, but the state is Texas has loads of them.

Froylan Hernandez has spent the better part of the last two months counting sheep from a helicopter. That’s not a metaphor or a kind of experimental sleep study; it’s his job.

“Oh, that’s a pretty good-sized group,” Hernandez says, looking down from the helicopter.

Hernandez is the desert bighorn sheep program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. He rides in the helicopter each summer for a bighorn census. It’s the most effective method out in the West Texas mountains. But even though he’s looking for bighorns, he mostly finds another kind of sheep.

“Alright, so 32 aoudads? Yeah, 32 aoudads, copy,” Hernandez says.

Aoudads – also known as Barbary sheep – are all over West Texas, but they’re originally from North Africa. They have a long set of horns that curl back into a crescent shape, and a distinctive strip of long, shaggy hair on their neck and chest. They were brought to Texas in the 1950s as exotic game. Since then, wild populations have flourished in the dry, rocky terrain. In fact, from Hernandez’s point of view, they’ve been too successful.

“It’s not uncommon for us, when we’re flying, to see groups of two and three hundred,” he says.

Hernandez’s job is to support Texas’ population of desert bighorn sheep, not aoudads. Desert bighorns are native to Texas, but died out here in the 1960s due to overhunting and disease spread from domestic sheep. The state has worked to bring them back for the better part of three decades now, nurturing small populations in various mountain ranges. Now, there are about 1,500 desert bighorns in Texas, and Hernandez is working to increase their numbers even more. And that’s where the problem with aoudads comes in.

“They can pose a great threat to bighorns, not just [from] a competition-for-resource standpoint but also from a disease-threat standpoint,” he says.

Aoudads and desert bighorns compete for the same resources. And since there are already so many aoudads, they’re a speed bump on the desert bighorns’ road to population growth. Plus, Hernandez says that several West Texas aoudads tested positive last fall for a species of bacteria that’s caused fatal respiratory disease in desert bighorn populations elsewhere.

“And it’s not uncommon to have localized population extinctions because of this Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae,” he says.

So, while Hernandez is hovering over West Texas counting desert bighorns, he’s also keeping an eye out for aoudads, and shooting them whenever possible. Wherever he does an aerial survey, he asks the landowner’s permission to cull aoudads.

“And we try to do a total removal of any aoudad that we encounter,” Hernandez says.

Turns out that hunting aoudads is a nice piece of business for ranchers in Texas, in part because there are no limits on how many one can shoot due to their non-native invasive species designation. Do an image search for aoudad, and you’ll find a lot of places where you can get your hunt on for them. They’re going to be around, making life a little harder for the native desert bighorns, for a long time. And now we both know about the aoudads.

The Muscovy ducks of Pearland

The things you learn.

The bird sanctuary city of Pearland is encouraging residents to take matters into their own hands to address the growing problem of Muscovy ducks that have reportedly taken residence in the city.

Known for their red, warty-spotted faces and black, white, and brown plumage, Muscovy ducks are often considered a “problem duck.” Feral populations of Muscovy ducks are known to be aggressive and can cause property damage, transmit disease and create problems through competition with native species, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

According to the city of Pearland, the ducks have been spotted throughout the city, often frequenting the neighborhoods of West Oaks and Westwood Village. In response to the growing population, the city has advised residents they can lawfully shoot or dispose of the animals themselves.

“The general public has the legal authority to address the ducks—including Muscovy duck nests, eggs, and hybrids—on their property, without the requirement of a permit,” the city stated in a Nov. 1 release.

Residents are allowed to shoot and kill the ducks on their own property if: they are allowed permission by their respective homeowner’s association or landowner; if they are located outside of city limits; and if they use a nontoxic shot or nontoxic bullets, according to the release. The discharge of a firearm is “generally illegal” inside city limits.

If a resident destroys a duck within the city’s legal parameters, they must dispose of the animal through burial or incineration. Residents are not allowed to keep, consume, sell, offer to sell the duck or release the duck in another location.

Instead of shooting, residents can capture and transport the animals to Hidalgo, Starr, or Zapata County. A 2010 law deemed Muscovies an invasive species in the U.S. with the exception of these counties, where they are considered native and can be released, according to the Texas Wildlife Rehabilitation Coalition (TWRC.)

Turns out Muscovy ducks have been a problem for a few years now, and not just in Texas. And now it’s pitting neighbor against neighbor, as some just want to be kind to their web-footed friends while others…do not. I literally had no idea about any of this. Thanks to Mary Flood for flagging this.

The future of the Texas Renaissance Festival

More specifically, what is the future of the town of Todd Mission, where the RenFest was founded and takes place, as its founder prepares to step down?

At a city council meeting earlier this month in Todd Mission, council members discussed re-doing street signs, and Mayor George Coulam doodled.

Coulam, 82, otherwise known as “King George,” pushed to incorporate this stretch of woodsy land 37 years ago. He had one goal: Protecting the Texas Renaissance Festival he founded here eight years before that.

Houston’s growth attracted Coulam to the area, and he knew better than to leave his life’s work vulnerable to it. The result is a quirky city intimately tied to his creation and under his control. He didn’t want someone else writing the rules.

Now that city is entering a new phase. Coulam is planning for what will happen to his creations after he dies — he’s already built a mausoleum across from his house — and officials in Todd Mission, 50 miles northwest of downtown Houston, are grappling with coming development.

A four-lane tollway is being built on the edge of town, a change they expect to transform this rural city in the pines, which attracted creative types and those who preferred to be somewhere remote.

It’s a scenario repeating across greater Houston, as roadways expand and push farther out — in this case, with a Renaissance twist.

“The city wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the festival,” said City Manager Neal Wendele. Renaissance lettering adorns city signs in Todd Mission. Festival sales tax and business license fees make up most of the $525,000 annual city budget.

Coulam remains a central figure, very much involved in festival operations. He has been the city’s only mayor.

But the municipality he formed is emerging from the festival’s shadow. Wendele was hired last year to fill the city manager position full-time, and the city secretary this year stopped working at the festival.

“We’re working on separating things a little,” said Council Member Heather Moon-Whinnery, who owns a festival shop. “For the longest time, Todd Mission was just the Renaissance Festival.”

There’s more, and it’s partly about the history of the RenFest, partly about founder Coulam, and partly about the landscape Todd Mission faces today. Like Father Time, urban sprawl comes for us all. Go read the rest.

The Democratic Club of The Woodlands

Yes, there are Democrats in The Woodlands. That should not come as a surprise to anyone.

Residents of The Woodlands who identify as Democrats often say they feel out of place or unwelcome in Republican-dominated Montgomery County. Some have relayed stories of not expressing their political views in public to others to avoid unpleasant encounters. Others claim their election-year yard signs touting Democratic candidates have been vandalized or obscured by dozens of signs for Republican candidates.

Those experiences were one reason that a group of local women and mothers formed the Democratic Club of The Woodlands in June of 2018, said Robin Fulford, the club’s president and co-founder. Fulford said she helped form the club with Jennifer Blackman as a way to empower local residents to be politically active, as a way to educate people on issues and candidates and to do voter outreach in a county that rarely sees a Democratic candidate challenge for local or state offices.

[…]

The club has members from both Harris and Montgomery counties, due in part to The Woodlands being located in both counties. Entering into the 2020 presidential election year, the club is stepping up their efforts on many fronts, said Teresa Kenney, the media director for the club.

“We have heard a lot of stories from (Democratic) residents of not feeling welcome,” Kenney said. “When I first moved here, there was a lot of whispering about politics. We are no longer whispering. I think Robin is giving people a voice.”

Fulford said the club wants to be a place for Democrats to meet and learn about Democratic candidates outside of an “echo chamber,” but also to do things in their community to show others of different political persuasions that Democrats are not the enemy and are regular people who work, raise families and care about the community like others do.

“First and foremost, we want to serve as a place for voter education. We do not want our voters to be uneducated. That is number one, and we’ve done it successfully. At our very first meeting, we had (2018 Lt. Governor candidate) Mike Collier speak,” Fulford said. “We also wanted to be a place for Democrats to connect with each other. A lot of times when we talk to people, they say, ‘we feel alone here.’ It is important they know they are not (alone). We do have meetings, we do volunteer work in our community, and we do different things in the community so people don’t just see Democrats as these people you have a fictional picture of. We are your neighbors; we work, we play, we worship here with you. We’re part of the fabric of the community.”

The connection part, the ability to feel that you’re not alone in this seemingly hostile environment, is the key. It’s something that happens all around the country, and it’s important both for the locals who are able to connect, and for the outsiders who otherwise wouldn’t know those folks are there. There’s a reason why the “Austin is a blue dot in a sea of red” trope has been pushed for so long by state Republicans. It not only marginalizes Democrats as a whole, it serves to isolate and demoralize Dems in other parts of the state where it turns out they actually weren’t outnumbered at all. It also serves to dismiss the significant presence of Democrats in Texas to the rest of the world, which is why it has always grated my nerves when I have seen fellow Dems elsewhere echo the idea.

So let’s celebrate groups like the Democratic Club of The Woodlands, for giving people in that area a place to congregate and know that they are not alone, for reminding the rest of us that we exist everywhere and should be taken seriously everywhere, and for doing their part to make Texas blue. I do believe that there is a turnout boost effect from knowing you’re not alone and that your vote matters even if there’s no local representative that really represents you. A blue Montgomery County may be a long way off, but a somewhat less red Montgomery County is already happening, and an important piece of the puzzle going forward. If you live in or near The Woodlands, check these folks out.

Our slowing population growth

Noted for the record.

Texas remains one of the fastest growing states in the U.S., but a report published by the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank showed a significant reduction in the number of people moving to Texas since 2015. That’s left employers — who are already having a difficult time finding workers amid historically low unemployment rates — in an even tougher position.

Since 2016, the share of population growth in Texas from people moving to the state is half of what it was previously. Each of Texas’ four largest metro areas — Houston, San Antonio, Austin and Dallas — has experienced a reduction in domestic migration and overall population growth.

“We’ve seen really good growth, and yet we’re seeing slowing of migration — and that’s not because we’re less attractive. It’s because outside of Texas, things are also very good,” said Keith Phillips, senior economist at the San Antonio branch of the Dallas Federal Reserve.

In other words, the so-called Texas Miracle — the state’s unrivaled ability to create jobs and economic opportunity — now has rivals. Nationwide, most workers can find jobs if they want them, making a cross-country move to Texas in search of a paycheck less appealing.

In the five years from July 1, 2010, through July 1, 2015, Texas saw more than 138,000 people on average move to the state each year from elsewhere in the country. But from July 2015 to July 2018, Texas added just under 96,000 people each year from domestic migration — a 31 percent annual drop, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

[…]

Some industries — such as information technology — have a harder time finding workers than others.

David Heard, CEO of TechBloc, the San Antonio technology industry group, said the city has had difficulty standing out to potential workers among cities across the nation with promising tech industries, such as Nashville, Tenn., or Columbus, Ohio.

With tech workers in demand in metro areas across the nation, the decision often comes down to which city offers the best quality of life, Heard said.

“These people tend to get paid well,” he said. “Wherever they go, they’re in demand, so the issue is about how being competitive on salary and having job availability often aren’t what charge their decision. It really comes down to lifestyle issues.”

Most cities looking to attract tech workers and other “creatives” have been following the same gospel — investing in public and cultural amenities such as lush parks and concert halls to lure talent — for nearly two decades. The slowdown in migration to Texas makes the challenges for tech companies even more daunting.

The Dallas Fed projects that around 90,500 Americans will migrate to Texas from elsewhere in the country in 2019. That tops the 82,500 people who migrated to Texas last year, but it’s down from the years following the Great Recession, when 123,000 people on average came to the state annually.

“Domestic migration is usually an indication of employment opportunities or a lack thereof,” Lloyd Potter, Texas’ state demographer, said. “Essentially, it’s an indicator of a slowdown of at least one sector of the economy … The confusing aspect of it is that we have very low unemployment.”

Potter said the decline in people moving to Texas is difficult to parse because of the differing regional economies across the state.

We’ve talked about some of this before, in the context of Houston’s slowing population growth and the Latino population growth engine that keeps our state moving forward. I think it’s unlikely that these trends will continue over the longer term, but it’s always worth keeping an eye on this stuff and thinking about what underlying causes there may be. And it’s another reminder that a complete and accurate Census count is vital, because otherwise we’re just guessing. Sure would be a bad idea to let the Trump administration screw that up.

The disappearing Pecos cantaloupe

A very Texas story.

Beto Mandujano jabbed his kitchen knife through the rough, yellow rind of the Pecos cantaloupe he had scooped from the ground. The melon’s dense flesh glistened with juice, its color a deep orange.

Many Texans swear these cantaloupes are the best anyone can find. But today, Pecos cantaloupes are on the verge of extinction. Mandujano and his two brothers are the last farmers selling them on a large scale.

A number of factors explain this decline. The most recent, obvious culprit is oil.

Pecos, a city of roughly 10,000 on the eastern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, feels like a middle-of-nowhere boomtown. People see unfamiliar faces in Walmart. They steer cautiously among big trucks barreling down their small country roads.

Industry is redefining this place, as it has many Texas towns before it. Oil and gas equipment stands on hot, dusty, empty fields. Farming and ranching once central to the Pecos region now seem to have faded into the background.

Texas farmers harvested nearly 10,000 acres of cantaloupe in 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That fell to 1,300 acres in 2017.

Around Pecos, harvested acreage plummeted from more than 2,000 in 1969 to roughly a tenth of that amount in 2017. The Mandujanos planted 260 acres of the crop this year, along with other produce.

For a century, farmers planted cantaloupes around Pecos. Like Fredericksburg peaches, or East Texas tomatoes, their reputation was linked to the land.

“It’s a part of Pecos,” 86-year-old resident Carolyn McNeil said. “Pecos cantaloupes.”

It’s an interesting story, and among other things you will learn that cantaloupes are categorized as vegetables. We like cantaloupe at our house, though I can’t honestly say that we’ve had Pecos cantaloupes. Be that as it may, I hope this family and their crop find a way to keep going.

The children will count us

Great idea for something that shouldn’t have to be the case.

Teresa Flores knows the costs of a census undercount as well as anyone.

As the executive director of the Hidalgo County Head Start Program, one of the area’s most underfunded services, she watched low funding after a 2010 undercount cap the program’s maximum enrollment around 3,600 students.

More than 14,000 other children could qualify for the program, Flores estimates, but she barely has enough money to maintain the current level of enrollment — even with additional state grants.

Many of her students come from immigrant and non-English speaking households, two groups that are among the hardest to count in Texas. Though the efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census form failed, she’s spoken with families who still fear inquires into their citizenship. But as someone with a long-established role in the community, Flores said she’s been able to relieve anxieties about sending information to the government and correct misinformation. By herself though, she can’t do that for everyone.

In looking for new approaches to census engagement — ones that residents can trust — the Hidalgo County committee focused on getting a complete count of the area’s population is increasingly targeting its outreach toward an unconventional group of residents: children and teenagers.

“When parents come and sign their children in and out, we’re able to speak with them about their participation,” Flores said. “Children could be the best people to continue those conversations all night long once they get home, and ease those concerns on a long-term basis.”

[…]

Victoria Le isn’t sure whether her parents filled out census forms in 2010. But after working on a complete count campaign at her school, the 18-year-old said she’s making sure they do this time.

Le is a recent graduate of Alief Early College High School in southwest Houston, where she and 15 other students spent months researching new approaches to fighting an undercount and marketing those plans to hard to count residents. Their work was initially regarded by other students as nothing more than a minor passion project, Le said.

Then the group threw its first major event last spring, where students competed for prizes as they learned more about the census and ways to get their families engaged.

“It was just an insane success,” said Jordan Carswell, the program’s director. “When people see half the student body showing up and going completely crazy over census games, they start asking questions. They knew how to get their peers energized, and when you see how passionate they are about it, it’s hard to not to feel the same way.”

Carswell said the campaign came together when Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner asked him to get students involved with census engagement. Alief ISD is part of Houston and Harris County’s joint $4 million effort to achieve an accurate count. There’s also a coalition of more than 50 local nonprofits and organizations working with them to mobilize communities.

I think this is both great and awful. It’s great that there’s such creativity and commitment to getting as full and accurate a Census count as possible. It’s awful that our Legislature refused to offer any help to cities to achieve that. That has left cities like Houston and others to their own devices, because what else can they do? There was a time when everyone agreed that the Census was important, and getting it right was vital to all of our interests. The only way forward from here is to elect more people who still think that way.

Big Bend yields a new dinosaur species

Cool.

A new, more primitive species of dinosaur was discovered at Big Bend National Park this week.

The fossil of the new specials, Aquilarhinus palimentus, was unearthed in the 1980s by Texas Tech University Professor Tom Lehman. But because the bones were so “badly weathered and stuck together,” it was not until recently that researchers could analyze it, according to a release from the park.

Earlier research concluded the fossil was related to the Gryposaurus genus, or duck-billed dinosaurs. New research shows the fossil is linked to a more primitive species that is helping researchers draw conclusions about how this species of dinosaurs evolved over time, according to the release.

“Its existence adds another piece of evidence to the growing hypothesis, still up in the air, that the group began in the southwestern area of the U.S.,” lead author Dr. Albert Prieto-Márquez from the Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont, near Barcelona, said in the release.

The full report is here, with a more readable summary here and here. As we know, Texas is a rich source of fossils, from various paleontological eras. May it ever serve as a fruitful source of discovery.

How anti-choicers have won even as they’ve lost

The number of clinics that provide abortion care in Texas will never be what it was before HB2 was passed, despite the SCOTUS ruling that struck it down.

Right there with them

It’s been three years since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down parts of Texas’ controversial abortion law – and yet, most of the clinics forced to close after it first passed haven’t reopened.

The law, known as House Bill 2, was seen as one of the most restrictive crackdowns on abortion clinics in the country. It required clinics to operate like surgical centers and that doctors performing abortions have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.

Like many other clinics across the state, the Planned Parenthood in San Angelo found the new requirements almost impossible to comply with. Shortly after the law passed, the clinic closed its doors.

“I really do miss it,” said Susanne Fernandez, who managed the clinic for more than two decades. “[We] were helping women be seen for their needs.”

The former clinic looks a lot like it used to, Fernandez said on a visit to the building earlier this month. The only difference is it’s been painted gray.

“Even the blocks in front of the building that have inscriptions on them, they are all still there,” she said. “They are just covered up.”

The clinic was the last abortion provider in that part of West Texas, a mostly rural, expansive part of the state, hundreds of miles away from any major city.

Fernandez said she knew many of the women the clinic served – who were largely low-income – would be greatly affected by its closure.

“The last day was sad; it was somber,” she said. “We did a lot of cleaning up. We all knew that was it.”

Fernandez said she still runs into women who used to come to the clinic.

“There is that thing in the back of your mind – where did these women go?” she said. “Where do they go now? I don’t believe a lot of them found any other health care afterward.”

I guarantee you, the legislators who voted for HB2 have never given that a single thought, and neither have the “pro-life” zealots who enable them. The unsung villain in all this is, as is so often the case, the Fifth Circuit, which not only overruled the district court that had sided with the plaintiffs, they also removed the temporary restraining order, thus allowing HB2 to be enforced while the case was being litigated. The upshot of that was that Texas got to put a lot of clinics out of business with what in the end was an unconstitutional law. See what I mean about winning even as they lose? There will never be a just remedy for this wrong.

UT’s new tuition policy

Nice.

Seeking to make college more affordable, the University of Texas will use some of its oil money to dramatically expand the financial aid it offers to low- and middle-income undergraduates on its flagship Austin campus.

The system’s governing board approved a special $160 million distribution from its endowment Tuesday, which school officials expect will fully cover the tuition and fees of students whose families earn up to $65,000 in adjusted gross income a year starting in 2020. The funding, which will be used to create a new financial aid endowment, will also let UT-Austin alleviate tuition costs for students whose families earn up to $125,000 annually, if they demonstrate financial need.

“Our main focus at the UT system is our students. That’s it, that’s what we’re in business for is to provide an affordable, accessible education for our students,” board Chair Kevin Eltife said in an interview after the vote. “We all know the struggles that hardworking families are having putting their kids through school. What we’ve done here is repurposed an endowment into another endowment that will provide tuition assistance to a lot of the working families in Texas.”

The funding marks a significant expansion for UT-Austin, which currently has a financial aid initiative that guarantees free tuition to students whose families earn up to $30,000 a year. The median household income in Texas was just over $59,200 in 2017, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

School officials estimate about a quarter of its undergraduates from Texas — 8,600 students — would have their tuition fully paid under the new plan, and an additional 5,700 would receive financial aid from it. The program will not pay for students’ living expenses, which were estimated to be around $17,000 for the 2019-20 academic year. Tuition and fees averaged $10,314 for Texas residents.

This is good, and a decent number of students will benefit from this policy. Remember, though, the main reason why tuition is as high as it is now, not just at UT but at all Texas public universities, is because the Republican-controlled Legislature deregulated tuition in 2003, as a way to help balance the budget by spending less on higher ed. You can see what happened next. It’s great that UT’s endowment allows them to take this step, but UT-Austin is just one school. If we really want to fix this, it’s going to take a lot more than this.

If it weren’t for Latino population growth…

Texas would have a lot less growth overall.

The gap between Texas’ Hispanic and white populations continued to narrow last year when the state gained almost nine Hispanic residents for every additional white resident.

With Hispanics expected to become the largest population group in Texas as soon as 2022, new population estimates released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau showed the Hispanic population climbed to nearly 11.4 million — an annual gain of 214,736 through July 2018 and an increase of 1.9 million since 2010.

The white population, meanwhile, grew by just 24,075 last year. Texas still has a bigger white population — up to 11.9 million last year — but it has only grown by roughly 484,000 since 2010. The white population’s growth has been so sluggish this decade that it barely surpassed total growth among Asian Texans, who make up a tiny share of the total population, in the same time period.

The estimates come as lawmakers begin to sharpen their focus on the 2021 redistricting cycle, when they’ll have to redraw the state’s congressional and legislative maps to account for population growth. And they highlight the extent to which the demographics of the state continue to shift against the Republican Party.

The African-American and Asian-American populations grew by a bit more, and a bit less, than the white population, respectively. The Latino growth was more than half of the entire total. On the plus side, if you rig the Census n a way that allows for a large undercount of the Latino population, you can mostly pretend none of this is happening. So there’s that.

Maybe rural counties don’t want hospitals

That’s what the evidence says.

The voters of Fayette County have spoken, and they’ve said that they don’t need a hospital in this rural community of 322,000 people, one hour southeast of Austin — or at least not enough to pay for it. In a landslide vote Thursday night, county residents overwhelmingly rejected a proposition to create a taxing district for St. Mark’s Medical Center in La Grange, which would have kept the deeply indebted hospital open for the foreseeable future. As the polls closed, it was clear that the idea of propping up the institution with public money didn’t have a snowball’s chance in Central Texas. The final tally was 1,360 for, 5,600 against.

“I’m very proud of the grassroots effort that stood against the taxes,” Deborah Frank, the chair of Fayette County’s Republican Party and a member of Concerned Taxpayers of Fayette County PAC, told the Observer Friday. Her group swiftly mobilized an opposition campaign against the proposition after it was put on the ballot in April, holding public meetings and distributing yard signs reading “NO NEW TAXES.” Their message: People here are already taxed enough and shouldn’t be forced to bail out a private institution simply because it’s made what they see as bad financial decisions.

Voters apparently took the message to heart.

The resounding loss is expected to push the 65-bed hospital, which is at least $14 million in debt, even closer to financial collapse. And it comes at a time when the headwinds against rural hospitals in Texas are especially strong.

Across the state, roughly 20 rural hospitals have shuttered since 2013 — casualties of low patient volumes, stingy Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement rates, and the burden of operating in Texas, which has more uninsured people than any other state. Seventy-five more are at risk of closing down.

One point to note: I have no idea where that “rural community of 322,000 people” figure comes from. Fayette County had 24,554 people as of the 2010 Census, and while it’s been growing over the past few decades, I’m pretty sure it hasn’t grown that much since then. I don’t live in La Grange and I don’t know anything about St. Mark’s Medical Center, so maybe it was a fiscally sound decision to not try to prop it up with a taxing district. I do know that if I lived in La Grange and faced the prospect having to travel 20 miles to Smithville or 26 miles the other direction to Columbus to find an emergency room, I’d be a little concerned about the risks to my health going forward. But hey, at least their taxes won’t go up.

Schlitterbahn sold

End of an era, as another iconic family-owned Texas business is sold to a non-Texas firm.

Schlitterbahn Waterparks and Resorts — which has dealt with a gruesome death, indictments and financial troubles in recent years — is selling a chunk of its holdings.

Ohio-based Cedar Fair Entertainment Co. has an agreement with the owners of Schlitterbahn to purchase the company’s New Braunfels park and resort property as well as their Galveston park for $261 million, subject to certain adjustments.

“It’s important to know that Cedar Fair values Schlitterbahn’s character and brand promise,” the Henry family — Schlitterbahn’s owners — said in a statement. “They have committed to not only keeping Schlitterbahn awesome but helping us grow!”

Richard Zimmerman, Cedar Fair’s president and CEO, said the company is “very excited about the opportunity to bring these two award-winning Texas water parks into the Cedar Fair family.”

“These properties represent new markets for us with attractive demographics in the growing Central Texas region, and they align with our strategy to identify compelling opportunities to accelerate our growth and profitability,” he said in a statement.

That’s Schlitterbahn and Whataburger all in the same week, y’all. As we know, the Schlitterbahn has had some trouble in recent years, though at least the criminal charges that were filed have been dismissed. It sounds like the family had been looking to sell for awhile, as they were having cash flow problems that caused some planned new parks to not happen. They are retaining the South Padre park, which will be rebranded. I hope the new owners can get everything back to its old glory, and I hope the Henry family can get themselves back on their feet. The Current has more.

Well, now we’ve all heard of Waskom

Congratulations, I guess.

Five Old Dudes In Search Of An Audience

Five men this week declared a small town in East Texas a “sanctuary city for the unborn,” commandeering the language of the movement for immigrant rights to counter the reproductive freedom of women.

There are no abortion clinics in Waskom, a city of about 2,200, which lies on the border with Louisiana. But the all-male, all-white City Council decided unanimously Tuesday that prohibiting abortion was necessary as a preventive measure.

The municipal prohibition, which plainly contradicts the judgments of the U.S. Supreme Court, joins statewide bans on abortion sweeping the country in the wake of the solidification of a conservative majority on the nation’s top court. In Texas, abortion already is banned after 20 weeks. Now, a bill awaiting the governor’s signature would require doctors in the state to treat “a child born alive after an abortion,” which happens rarely.

Supporters of the city ordinance say it is the first of its kind in the Lone Star State.

The legislation was modeled on a measure embraced 7 to 1 in March by the City Council of Roswell, New Mexico, which is best known as the site of a purported UFO crash in 1947. Roswell’s move to declare its support for “fetal life” was accompanied by a measure characterizing it as a “Second Amendment Sanctuary City,” in opposition to legislation advanced by the state legislature that expands background checks for private gun sales.

Waskom residents said they were unconcerned by the prospect of a costly legal fight over the abortion measure because, according to local media, “they say God will take care of them.”

[…]

Before the Tuesday vote, Waskom’s mayor told council members that the city lacked the resources to engage in a lengthy legal battle over the legislation, the instigation of which is the professed aim of the ordinance.

“Most likely we will wind up getting sued if this is passed,” the mayor, Jesse Moore, said. “It could go to the Supreme Court.”

That prospect would present fiscal challenges for the city, lawmakers acknowledged.

“We don’t have the possible millions of dollars that it would take to take it to that level,” said alderman Jimmy Dale Moore, who nevertheless voted for the ordinance. “We can’t pay those kind of attorney’s fees. The city don’t have the money.”

Pointing to a member of the crowd gathered to watch the proceedings, the mayor advised, “Save your nickels and pennies,” eliciting chuckles from the public.

“We may need them,” he said.

Maybe you could ask the people of Farmers Branch about their experiences paying for round after round of costly litigation after passing a blatantly illegal ordinance. But, as I say to my own kids, some lessons just need to be learned the hard way. Think Progress has more.