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The great state of Texas

Our property tax system is soooooooo awesome!

How awesome is it? So awesome you don’t even have to live here to get a tax break.

Herschel Walker, the former Dallas Cowboys running back and Republican candidate running for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia, is slated to get a tax break on his $3 million residence in a Dallas-Fort Worth suburb — potentially running afoul of Texas tax law.

According to Tarrant County property and tax records, Walker claimed a homestead exemption on his four-bedroom home in Westlake in 2021 and is expected to do so again this year — even after he registered to vote in Georgia last year. Walker has since voted in two elections there, CNN reported.

The exemption saved Walker more than $1,200 on his property tax bill last year, records from the Tarrant County tax assessor-collector show, and would net him more than $1,500 in savings this year.

Walker’s Texas homestead exemption might also raise questions about his Senate run in Georgia. He is in a runoff with U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, the Democratic incumbent, in a race to determine just how tightly Democrats will control the Senate for the next two years. The U.S. Constitution requires officeholders to live in the state in which they’re elected.

Under Texas law, homeowners can claim a homestead exemption — which exempts a certain amount of a home’s value from taxation — only on their primary residence. But homeowners may continue to claim the exemption if they “do not establish a principal residence elsewhere … intend to return to the home … [and] are away less than two years,” according to the state comptroller’s office.

Walker bought the house in Westlake in 2011, according to Tarrant County appraisal records. He has claimed the exemption on his Texas home since 2012, records show, allowing him to pay a lower tax bill toward the city of Westlake and Keller Independent School District. School districts make up the bulk of any given Texas homeowner’s tax bill.

So, um, anyone feel like filing a complaint? I can only imagine what a spectacle an attempt to enforce the law in this instance might turn into. The DMN has more.

The cryptomining surge in rural counties

Here’s one possible answer to that question I posed the other day.

Jacob Rodriguez was driving a John Deere tractor in a West Texas cotton field when he received a phone call that would change his life.

“I was pulling a 59-foot air seeder … and at the same time I was on the phone having my interview,” Rodriguez, 29, said.

On the other end of the phone early this year were representatives from a new business that was coming to Dickens County, a community of around 2,000 people an hour east of Lubbock.

By March, Rodriguez had quit farming cotton — something he called “just another job” — and began training to work in a cryptocurrency mine.

The county had exactly what London-based Argo Blockchain was looking for: plenty of open land and easy access to affordable power, thanks to a large wind farm built there more than a decade ago.

Texas political leaders have been promoting the state as a destination for companies producing bitcoin and other digital currencies, touting the state’s reputation for low taxes and cheap power. Around 30 have come in the past decade, and dozens more have expressed interest in moving to Texas.

But instead of moving to the state’s large urban areas — which have the extensive infrastructure and large workforce that attracts most relocating companies — cryptocurrency companies have largely done the opposite and located in rural areas, according to Lee Bratcher, president of the Texas Blockchain Council, a group promoting crypto growth and innovation.

Crypto companies have been welcomed by many small towns hungry for an economic boost. Argo Blockchain opened its 125,000-square-foot Helios facility in Dickens County in May and hired a couple dozen locals, including Rodriguez. It has also added $17 million to the local tax base, according to Kevin Brendle, the county judge. The county’s overall assessed property tax value is $283 million, he said.

That economic infusion has allowed Dickens County to cut county property taxes by around 1.5%, give small raises to county staff, and purchase new equipment for the sheriff’s office and for road and bridge improvements.

“The end result is enhanced services to the community,” Brendle said. “We’re going to be able to do a better job of serving them, and we’ll be able to be competitive in our wages.”

In Milam County, northeast of Austin, a large crypto facility owned by Riot Blockchain that opened in 2020 has added hundreds of new jobs and millions of dollars for the local tax base, according to County Judge Steve Young. He said the boost in taxes has allowed the county government to pay for basic services such as road improvements. When the crypto company needed to employ contractors for various projects, it hired locally, he added.

See here for my question. The article notes that the recent crackdown on crypto mining in China has led to opportunities in places like Texas to pick up the slack. The Republican obsession with cryptocurrency and the fact that these places are locating in rural areas makes a lot of sense politically. And of course, as always, there’s this:

Many rural counties are offering crypto companies tax breaks to lure them to their communities. Milam County, which lost its biggest employer — an Alcoa aluminum plant that employed nearly 1,000 people at its peak and closed in 2008 — offered Riot Blockchain a 45% discount on local taxes for 10 years, said Young, the county judge.

“Businesses are typically not going to come to your county unless you’re willing to give them a tax abatement,” Young said.

Crypto companies still add millions of dollars to the local tax base, Young said, and in Milam County, Riot Blockchain also helped rebuild the local animal shelter and installed new lights at local sports fields.

On the other side of the state, Brendle said Argo Blockchain has committed to refurbishing the county-owned public pool, which closed more than a decade ago.

Brendle and Young both said local residents didn’t oppose the new businesses but had lots of questions about cryptocurrency and whether outsiders would flock to their rural counties.

“When they first came here, people had no idea what it was — neither did I,” Young said. “As it’s gone forward, the county as a whole has started to get a grasp of what’s going on and clearly appreciates the fact that they’re out there providing jobs, enhancing county services, hiring local contractors for the most part and spending a ton of money here. It’s a huge benefit to the county.”

Dig down far enough, there’s always a tax break. Look, I hope this works out well for these communities. Rural Texas has been losing population for a variety of reasons, and they could use the economic boost. I remain skeptical of cryptocurrency as a long-term endeavor, and I remain very worried about the demand it puts on our power grid, but there’s not much I can do about that. All I can say is that the last Big Economic Thing that happened in rural Texas was the private prison industry, and I really hope this turns out better all around than that. You’ll forgive me, I hope, if I will need to see it to believe it.

NOTE: This is the time of year when I clear out some posts that have been sitting in my Drafts while other more important news items got blogged about. This one was from early October, well before the crash of FTX. I’ll have a separate post about that shortly; the news hook for that is what prompted me to finally publish this one.

Still rough times for oysters

Continuing from earlier in the year.

Tuesday marks the start of Texas’ commercial and recreational oyster season, but the bulk of the state’s oyster reefs are already closed for harvesting. This follows last year’s season during which the majority of reefs were closed by mid-December, leading to a clash between industry stakeholders and state wildlife officials over how to manage the resource.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) closes reefs if samples come back with too many small oysters or too few oysters overall. The idea is to give oysters time to recover and repopulate.

This year, 20 of the state’s 29 oyster harvesting areas are closed for the start of the season on November 1.

“What we as an agency have tried to do at the start of this season, with some of these thresholds, is to find a balance between understanding the economic hardship that this causes, but also doing what’s best to conserve the oyster population for the future,” said Christopher Steffen, a natural resource specialist with TPWD.

Oysters grow about one inch a year, and have to reach three inches before they can be legally harvested. Steffen said though there weren’t enough oysters above market size in their samples to open the reefs, the samples showed oysters have been recovering.

“We’re pretty fortunate in the sense that we do have quite a bit of undersized oysters, which is good for the future,” Steffen said. “We are seeing a lot of spat, which are the small oysters that settle on the substrate. And then some of the spat leftover from last year that’s grown into that two to three-inch size range.”

Oysters are extremely sensitive to changes in water quality, and Steffan said the drought in much of the state could put further pressure on them in the coming months.

In the past decade, Texas oysters have endured multiple hurricanes, drought, and heavy rainfall.

“It just takes time for those populations to rebound,” said Steffen, adding that they serve important ecological functions, such as preventing shoreline erosion and filtering water.

See here for some background. There are actually a few more harvesting areas open now than there were at the beginning of 2021, though that’s probably not much of a comfort to the fishers. Hope for better conditions, and remind the incoming Legislature that climate change is a problem we’re going to deal with one way or another whether they want to or not, I guess. The Chron and the Observer have more.

Our future doctor shortage

Putting a pin in this.

As reported by Jan Hoffman for The New York Times, in order to satisfy their prerequisites for specialty board certification, OB-GYN physicians in post-graduate medical residency programs must comply with national requirements, which include training in the performance of abortions. Such training is considered essential—and characterized as a  “core procedure”—for OB-GYN doctors, in order to properly treat common medical conditions such as miscarriage, infections, and other complications to pregnancy. And in order to receive accreditation, those medical residency programs—typically administered through schools of public health and occurring in hospitals or clinics—must provide that training.

But ever since a radical conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the right to abortion previously guaranteed by Roe v. Wade in June, several Republican-dominated states have passed laws prohibiting abortion and criminalizing its practice by physicians. As a direct result, residency programs that routinely provided their residents with training in abortion care are faced with a dilemma.

As Hoffman observes:

If they continue to provide abortion training in states where the procedure is now outlawed, they could be prosecuted. If they don’t offer it, they risk losing their accreditation, which in turn would render their residents ineligible to receive specialty board certification and imperil recruitment of faculty and medical students.

The absolute necessity of such training for OB-GYN doctors was recently reaffirmed by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME). There is no exception for states whose Republican legislatures and governors have seen fit to transform the procedure into a criminal offense, although, as Hoffman reports, the guidelines permit a medical resident to “opt out” of such training for “religious or moral reasons.” Under the Council’s guidelines, a physician may also complete such instruction by serving a clinical rotation in a facility located in a state that permits doctors to perform abortions, but both hospital program directors and medical residents interviewed for The Times report expressed the fear that broadly drafted forced-birth laws in Republican-dominated states could still subject them to criminal prosecution.

[…]

For physicians seeking to complete their residencies in states that have or will soon criminalize the performance of abortions, the allowance for “out-of-state” training comes with an array of practical obstacles, from varying licensing and malpractice insurance regulations to housing costs. Hoffman reports that as consequence, physicians have begun to avoid placements in states where abortion is or will soon be illegal. She cites one physician who had been “courted” to join a Wisconsin medical residence program’s faculty who ultimately turned them down, citing the state’s abortion ban.

But the more worrying trend for those who may need OB-GYN care in Republican states is the growing reluctance of medical students to practice in those states.

Hoffman reports:

That is among the reasons that many medical students have said they are applying only to programs where abortion is legal. Public health experts predict that in a few years, patients in abortion-prohibited states, where the ranks of obstetricians are already shrinking, will experience even greater barriers to reproductive health care.

The reasons for this are practical, at least in part: An aspiring OB-GYN resident has little incentive to apply to a program that is not accredited. As Hoffman reports, the ACMGE explored the option of using “simulation” techniques such as virtual instruction or performance of “mock” abortions on models (and even papayas) to provide such training and concluded they were insufficient.  Even those medical students who desire to treat patients in the poorest of these “red-state” areas have balked when they find their programs do not have sufficient resources to place them for out-of-state training.

The effects of all this are as predictable as they are ominous for anyone seeking OB-GYN care in Republican-led states: Because of the very real threat of potential criminal prosecution, many of the most qualified and talented medical students will naturally apply tor OB-GYN residency programs in states where abortion is legal; in turn, those programs become more selective, admitting only the top students.  Meanwhile, students who simply may wish to practice OB-GYN in a “red state” are disincentivized to do so, by barriers to accreditation or the simple expense and logistics of obtaining such training out of their chosen state.

Finally, as Hoffman notes, the prohibitions against abortion in “red” states have deterred medical students pursuing careers in those states even in fields other than OB-GYN. She cites a study of third- and fourth-year medical students conducted for The Lancet Americas which interviewed those students about their preferred career placements; 60% wouldn’t apply to programs in forced-birth states. And “more than three-quarters of 500 responses” were from students pursuing specialties that were NOT obstetrics and gynecology.

Maybe it doesn’t play out this way. Maybe between elections and societal pressure, we get enough relaxation of the current forced-birth legislation to mitigate this effect. Maybe the effect only really hits poor people, so it never becomes a “real” issue to the Legislature. Maybe we just wind up with more Republican doctors. Who knows? Like I said, I’m putting a pin in this so that if five years from now the news in Texas is about how hard it’s becoming to find doctors in parts of the state where that previously had not been a problem, or how the major medical centers in Texas are having a hard time getting new interns and residents, we’ll be able to say we saw it coming. At least, some of us saw it coming.

The surge in mail order abortion pills

We’ll see how long this lasts. We know the Lege is going to take aim at it.

Requests for mail-order abortion pills continued to spike in Texas, nearly doubling this summer after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, according to new research.

Texas saw the sixth highest jump in weekly requests among states reviewed, according to the study, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The state is among a handful that now prohibit abortions in almost all cases, following the court’s decision to roll back federal abortion protections.

Mail-order abortion requests were already rising dramatically in Texas amid the state’s six-week abortion ban, which took effect last September. The new research found that Aid Access, the Austrian nonprofit that ships abortion pills to consumers in the U.S., received an average of 5.5 requests per week, per 100,000 Texans of reproductive age through August, up from 2.9 between September and June. There are about seven million women of reproductive age in the state.

The study provides further evidence that Texans are finding ways to access abortion even under the state’s strict new laws. Moreover, Abigail Aiken, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Texas Austin and the paper’s lead author, said requests for abortion pills increased in states even where abortions remain legal, suggesting that people are also getting more comfortable in general with the idea of managing their own abortions.

“I think it’s an unintended and kind of ironic consequence of abortion bans,” Aiken said. “They often actually illuminate the idea of self-managed abortion for people because it gets talked about in the media and people hear about it through social media platforms.”

[…]

Mail-order abortion requests were already rising dramatically in Texas amid the state’s six-week abortion ban, which took effect last September. The new research found that Aid Access, the Austrian nonprofit that ships abortion pills to consumers in the U.S., received an average of 5.5 requests per week, per 100,000 Texans of reproductive age through August, up from 2.9 between September and June. There are about seven million women of reproductive age in the state.

The study provides further evidence that Texans are finding ways to access abortion even under the state’s strict new laws. Moreover, Abigail Aiken, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Texas Austin and the paper’s lead author, said requests for abortion pills increased in states even where abortions remain legal, suggesting that people are also getting more comfortable in general with the idea of managing their own abortions.

“I think it’s an unintended and kind of ironic consequence of abortion bans,” Aiken said. “They often actually illuminate the idea of self-managed abortion for people because it gets talked about in the media and people hear about it through social media platforms.”

I’m glad that people are finding ways, but as helpful as Aid Access is, it’s inherently fragile. Draconian measures may be required to damage its ability to provide its service, but I have no doubt that the forced birth contingent will be all in on such measures. It’s just a matter of when they hit on the right tactic, which they did with SB8 for doctor-provided abortions. And of course, while the medication can cover most of the early abortions, it’s the ones that come later in pregnancy, the ones that are the result of a pregnancy gone wrong and which threaten the health of the mother that remain. The accompanying horror stories – it’s also just a matter of time before some nice white suburban lady who already has a couple of kids dies as a result of being unable to get a medically necessary abortion in a timely manner – will stay with us for the longer term. The Trib and Texas Public Radio have more.

By the way, the grid is still not fixed

In case you were wondering.

A federal assessment indicates the Texas electricity grid remains almost as vulnerable to extreme winter weather as it was when it nearly collapsed during a prolonged deep freeze in February 2021 — although state utility regulators contend the analysis is flawed.

“The (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) report contained inaccuracies and ERCOT has called on the agency to correct the report,” said Rich Parsons, a spokesperson for the Public Utility Commission of Texas.

The Public Utility Commission oversees the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s power grid.

Mary O’Driscoll, a spokesperson for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, released an updated version of the agency’s assessment late Tuesday, but it drew the same conclusion as the original version dated Oct. 20 in terms of a potential shortfall during extreme winter conditions.

According to the document, the ability of the ERCOT grid to handle extreme winter weather along the lines of what hit the state in February 2021 appears to be only marginally better, despite more than 18 months of effort to make the grid more dependable — as well as assurances from state regulators, and from Gov. Greg Abbott, that it is significantly improved.

Consumer demand for electricity on the Texas grid could exceed available generation capacity by 18,100 megawatts under a winter scenario similar to what triggered the 2021 disaster, the report says.

[…]

The federal assessment indicates the ERCOT grid will have more than enough generating capacity this winter under typical weather conditions.

“Basically, what (the federal energy commission) is saying is if we get weather conditions like in February ’21, we would have close to a repeat of what happened,” said Doug Lewin, president of Austin-based energy consulting company Stoic Energy.

The federal agency “is sounding the alarm very clearly,” Lewin said. “The risk that existed (in February 2021), for all intents and purposes, is about the same heading into this winter.”

FERC had issued an initial report last November that criticized the lack of weatherization in the grid. I was unable to locate a copy of this report, but I’m sure it will turn up online. To be sure, we don’t expect weather conditions this winter to be like what we got in February 2021. But we didn’t really expect that either – at least, I’d say that while most of us knew it was going to be colder than usual, we were blithely unaware of the disaster potential – and we know from recent history that sooner or later another storm like that is going to pass through. As was the case following the 1989 and 2011 storms, it’s just a matter of whether we did anything about it. So far, not so much.

Drought is not good for pumpkins

Sorry, kids.

This year’s hot, dry weather has wreaked havoc on Texas agriculture, and the state’s pumpkin crop has not been spared. Farmers and agricultural experts say that drop in supply has translated into higher prices for pumpkins popular for display and jack-o’-lantern carving this fall.

“We didn’t have not even half as many pumpkins on the vine as we should have [this year],” pumpkin farmer Chris Hacker told KUT. “They’re not turning out as good as previous years.”

Hacker grows pumpkins on 150 acres in Knox County, between Dallas and Lubbock. He says his crop relies on irrigated water to thrive. But even with that supply, the extreme heat stopped pumpkins from growing.

Pumpkin flowers, he said, become difficult for insects to pollinate in extreme heat, so fewer of them grow into the beloved seasonal gourds.

“The pollen just wasn’t working the way it should,” Hacker said. “If you have too many days over 95 degrees consistently, then the pollen just goes stale. No matter how many bees you got out in the field working, it just doesn’t work.”

In Floyd County, the state’s top-pumpkin growing region, growers have also reported below average yields, according to the Texas Agrilife Crop and Weather Report.

“This year was a lot like 2011 in that we were starting to get 100 degree days early in May … and we had them all summer,” Jerry Coplen, an AgriLife Extension agent in Knox County, said.

Texas is not a big pumpkin producer compared to some other states. According to the Agrilife report, Illinois produces 90% of the nation’s pumpkin harvest, if you include pumpkins grown for food.

But when it comes to specialty “ornamental” pumpkins used for seasonal display, the drop in local or statewide production can still impact prices, Coplen said.

Any time the year 2011 is invoked in a weather-related story, it’s bad news. Hope things are better next year.

The Corpus Christi desalination plant fight

This ought to be interesting.

Texas regulators issued an environmental permit Thursday for the Port of Corpus Christi to build what could become the state’s first seawater desalination plant — but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may refuse to accept it.

The state permit for a desalination plant on Harbor Island represents the culmination of years of business strategy, political maneuvering and lawyering effort on behalf of the port, which wants to build a large-scale facility to convert seawater from the Gulf of Mexico into freshwater. The marine desalination plant is expected to cost at least half a billion dollars to construct; an estimate provided to the Texas Water Development Board puts the cost at more than $800 million.

Environmental groups have fought the project for four years on the grounds that wastewater from the plant could harm sensitive coastal ecosystems.

Now the port also will have to spar with the EPA, which can refuse to recognize the state permit on the grounds that it doesn’t comply with the Clean Water Act. The federal agency is concerned that Texas’ permit may not be sufficient to protect aquatic life and water quality, according to letters obtained by The Texas Tribune, and that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality did not send the permit to the EPA for federal review.

The dispute centers on what type of permit is required: The EPA believes the desalination plant needs a “major” environmental permit — which requires EPA review — while TCEQ says the facility should be considered a minor project, which does not require federal review.

“If the TCEQ issues [the permit] without responding to the EPA … the EPA’s position will be that it is not a validly issued [permit],” Earthea Nance, regional administrator for the EPA’s Dallas-based Region 6, wrote in a Sept. 2 letter to TCEQ Commissioner Jon Niermann. Some experts speculated that the EPA may sue the TCEQ to determine whether Texas is legally obligated to consult the EPA on such seawater desalination permits.

TCEQ commissioners on Thursday seemed to dismiss the EPA’s concerns. Commissioner Bobby Janecka said he considered the federal agency’s objections but called them “outside our window of decision” on whether to issue the permit.

The Harbor Island plant is one of five marine desalination facilities proposed for Corpus Christi Bay — all racing to be the first built in Texas. Two are proposed by the Port of Corpus Christi and two by the city of Corpus Christi. (The port and the city have soured on one another as partners on desalination.) The fifth plant was proposed by a now bankrupt plastics company, which has since been taken over by Corpus Christi Polymers.

Water demand in the Corpus Christi region’s water planning area — pushed by a growing population and a boom in manufacturing and petrochemical facilities that need water to cool their plants — is expected to outstrip supply by more than 31,000 acre-feet, or about 10 billion gallons, by the end of the decade if new water sources are not secured, according to the state’s water plan.

The water planning area — made up of 11 counties in South Texas’ Nueces River Basin along the coast — projects that 70% of its new water resources will have to come from desalination plants by 2030.

“The potential for water independence from these kinds of facilities is very big,” said Manish Kumar, an associate professor of environmental and chemical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, who has worked on and advised desalination projects. “The significance is huge, because we have the coastline, we have energy and in many places, we have a need for high-quality water.”

While Texas already has more than 50 plants that desalinate brackish groundwater into freshwater, according to a state database, seawater desalination is much more technically difficult, energy intensive and expensive to achieve on a large scale because ocean water is much saltier than brackish groundwater.

The seawater plants also give less bang for buck: Marine desalination plants are able to convert around 40% to 50% of seawater into freshwater, while groundwater desalination plants convert closer to 80%, Kumar said. The remaining water — made saltier by removing most of the now fresh water — is discharged as waste.

There’s a lot more, so read the rest. The environmental groups stress that they are not opposed to desalination, but they don’t think the TCEQ has done enough to ensure that the wastewater will be disposed of safely – basically, they want it dumped farther out into the Gulf of Mexico, where it can be more easily dispersed. I don’t know how much that might add to the cost of the project, or how big an effect it might have on future projects. I do know that the lawsuit that will result if the EPA decides this is a “major” project and requires their review will be another opportunity for the right-wing legal machine to attack the regulatory state, and I would rather that be avoided if possible. We’ll see how it goes.

UPDATE: I drafted this a couple of weeks ago, and more recently a lawsuit has been filed by residents of a historically Black neighborhood in Corpus Christi to stop this construction on the grounds that it violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We’ll see how that goes.

Is this just the calm before the next COVID wave?

Things look good now, at least in the Houston area, but COVID never sleeps.

As the U.S. heads into a third pandemic winter, the first hints are emerging that another possible surge of COVID-19 infections could be on its way.

So far, no national surge has started yet. The number of people getting infected, hospitalized and dying from COVID in the U.S. has been gently declining from a fairly high plateau.

But as the weather cools and people start spending more time inside, where the virus spreads more easily, the risks of a resurgence increase.

The first hint of what could be in store is what’s happening in Europe. Infections have been rising in many European countries, including the U.K., France, and Italy.

“In the past, what’s happened in Europe often has been a harbinger for what’s about to happen in the United States,” says Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “So I think the bottom line message for us in this country is: We have to be prepared for what they are beginning to see in Europe.”

Several computer models are projecting that COVID infections will continue to recede at least through the end of the year. But researchers stress there are many uncertainties that could change that, such as whether more infectious variants start to spread fast in the U.S.

In fact, scientists are watching a menagerie of new omicron subvariants that have emerged recently that appear to be even better at dodging immunity.

“We look around the world and see countries such as Germany and France are seeing increases as we speak,” says Lauren Ancel Meyers, director of the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin. “That gives me pause. It adds uncertainty about what we can expect in the coming weeks and the coming months.”

However, it’s not certain the U.S. experience will echo Europe’s, says Justin Lessler, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina who helps run the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub.

That’s because it’s not clear whether Europe’s rising cases are related to people’s greater susceptibility to new subvariants they’ve not yet been exposed to. In addition, different countries have different levels of immunity.

“If it is mostly just behavioral changes and climate, we might be able to avoid similar upticks if there is broad uptake of the bivalent vaccine,” Lessler says. “If it is immune escape across several variants with convergent evolution, the outlook for the U.S. may be more concerning.”

In fact, some researchers say the U.S. is already starting to see early signs of that. For example, the levels of virus being detected in wastewater are up in some parts of the country, such in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Vermont and other parts of the Northeast. That could an early-warning sign of what’s coming, though overall the virus is declining nationally.

“It’s really too early to say something big is happening, but it’s something that we’re keeping an eye on,” says Amy Kirby, national wastewater surveillance program lead at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But infections and even hospitalizations have started rising in some of the same parts of New England, as well as some other northern areas, such as the Pacific Northwest, according to Dr. David Rubin, the director of the PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which tracks the pandemic.

“We’re seeing the northern rim of the country beginning to show some evidence of increasing transmission,” Rubin says. “The winter resurgence is beginning.”

As the story notes, we’re overall in a much better place because there’s a lot more immunity thanks to vaccinations and our previous high rate of infections. The COVID levels in wastewater here is low now, and while we’re hardly a leader in vaccinations, we at least have warmer winters so there are still plenty of opportunities to be outside, and fewer times where you have to be congregated inside. But also, not nearly enough people have had their bivalent boosters yet, and there are concerns about the flu season. So, you know, remain appropriately cautious – masking in places where you used to have to mask is still an excellent idea – and get those shots.

The limitations of Plan B

A helpful and timely explainer from the Associated Press.

WHAT ARE EMERGENCY CONTRACEPTIVES?

Emergency contraceptives are used to prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex or if a method of birth control fails.

Two types of medications, sometimes referred to as “morning after pills,” are available: levonorgestrel, known by the popular brand name Plan B; and ulipristal acetate, known under the brand ella. They should be taken as soon as possible after unprotected sex.

The pills prevent ovulation, which is when an egg is released from an ovary, said Dr. Jonah Fleisher, director of the Center for Reproductive Health at the University of Illinois in Chicago. If an egg is not released, it cannot be fertilized.

ARE THEY THE SAME AS ABORTION PILLS?

No. Emergency contraceptives prevent a pregnancy. The abortion pill, mifepristone, ends a pregnancy after a fertilized egg has implanted in the lining of a woman’s uterus. It’s commonly administered with the drug misoprostol and can be taken up to 11 weeks after the first day of a woman’s last period.

DOES EMERGENCY CONTRACEPTION WORK?

Not 100% of the time. The pills’ effectiveness improves the sooner they are taken after unprotected sex, doctors said. The drugs won’t prevent pregnancies if they are taken before sex, Fleisher said.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved Plan B for use up to 72 hours, or three days, after unprotected sex. Ella is approved for up to 120 hours, or five days.

Timing is important because sperm can live inside a woman’s body for up to five days, so a woman can still get pregnant if ovulation occurs after intercourse, said Dr. Dana Stone, an OB-GYN in Oklahoma City. If a woman has ovulated prior to intercourse, the pills are unlikely to help.

“So that’s where the failure comes in. It’s based on the timing,” Stone said.

[…]

WHAT ABOUT RAPE VICTIMS?

Most rape victims don’t report the crime to law enforcement, according to Jude Foster, advocacy medical forensic and prevention programs director for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Many also may not go in for immediate medical care. Not everyone knows that emergency contraceptives are an option and part of a routine rape exam, or that such an exam is free.

“Why is sexual assault used as a political football when you are talking about access to reproductive care?” Foster said. “Please don’t. It just really frustrates me.”

Stone said the belief that a woman can just take Plan B if she is raped is misguided.

“We need all kinds of options for women because nothing is a one size fits all,” Stone said. “People have transportation problems, they have financial problems. There are always barriers to some percentage of women that will keep them from accessing this in the short time frame that they have.”

See here for the reason I’m blogging about this. Note also the mention of cost in that last section. Cost is a legitimate concern.

Plan B One-Step usually costs about $40-$50. Generics like Take Action, My Way, Option 2, Preventeza, My Choice, Aftera, and EContra generally cost less — about $11-$45. You can also order a generic brand called AfterPill online for $20 + $5 shipping. (AfterPill can’t be shipped quick enough to use if you need a morning-after pill right now, but you can buy it and put it in your medicine cabinet in case you need it in the future.)

The brand of EC you buy or how much you pay for it doesn’t matter — all brand-name and generic levonorgestrel morning-after pills work just as well.

You may be able to get the morning-after pill for free or low cost from a Planned Parenthood health center, your local health department, or another family planning clinic. Call your nearest Planned Parenthood to see if they can help you get emergency contraception that fits your budget.

If you have health insurance or Medicaid, there’s a good chance you can get Plan B for free — you just have to ask your nurse or doctor for a prescription so your health insurance will cover them (even though you don’t need a prescription to buy these types of morning-after pills over-the-counter). The staff at your local Planned Parenthood health center can also help you figure out if your health insurance will pay for your morning-after pill. Read more about using health insurance to pay for emergency contraception.

Boy, it sure is a good thing that everyone has either health insurance, or Medicaid, or easy access to a Planned Parenthood near them in Texas, isn’t it? This sure would be a much bigger problem, one that would require engagement and compassion from our state leaders to solve otherwise. So clearly, anyone who needs Plan B can get it any time they want, right?

The imminent Latino plurality

It may already be here, but it’s not quite officially official just yet.

A closely watched estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau released Thursday indicates that Texas may have passed a long-awaited milestone: the point where Hispanic residents make up more of the state’s population than white residents.

The new population figures, derived from the bureau’s American Community Survey, showed Hispanic Texans made up 40.2% of the state’s population in 2021 while non-Hispanic white Texans made up 39.4%. The estimates — based on comprehensive data collected over the 2021 calendar year — are not considered official.

The bureau’s official population estimates as of July 2021 showed the Hispanic and white populations virtually even in size. But in designating Hispanics as the state’s largest population group, the new estimates are the first to reflect the foreseeable culmination of decades of demographic shifts steadily transforming the state.

The incremental trend demographers have been tracking for years reflects the state’s profound cultural and demographic evolution. The state lost its white majority in 2004. However, the Hispanic population’s relative growth, through both migration and births, has not been reflected in many facets of the state’s economic and political landscape.

The 2020 census captured how close the state’s Hispanic and white populations had come, with just half a percentage point separating them at the time. By then, Texas had gained nearly 11 Hispanic residents for every additional white resident over the previous decade. And Hispanics had powered nearly half of the state’s overall growth of roughly 4 million residents since 2010.

Hispanic Texans are expected to make up a flat-out majority of the state’s population in the decades to come, but they are already on the precipice of a majority among children. The latest census estimates showed that 49.3% of Texans under the age of 18 are Hispanic.

Without corresponding political and economic gains, Hispanic residents’ economic and political reality is captured in the persistent disparities also reflected in the latest census data. Hispanic people living in Texas are disproportionately poor. They are also less likely to have reached the higher levels of education that often serve as pathways to social mobility and greater economic prosperity.

It was sometime during my first decade of blogging, maybe 2004 or 2005, when Anglos ceased to be the majority in Texas. The trends have kept on trending since then. As far as political representation goes, maybe we’ll get a shot at that in 2031 redistricting cycle – it ain’t happening this time around, not with this SCOTUS. But as Campos notes, we can at least do something about that locally this year. The Chron has more.

Our overall vax level is down

Not great!

The coverage rate for routine childhood vaccines – or the percentage of kids getting them – dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic and have yet to recover, according to statistics from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Health care providers said many families skipped doctor’s visits during the pandemic to avoid exposure to the virus. But the drop is also due to a rise in “conscientious exemptions,” or parents and guardians who refuse to get their children vaccinated for religious, moral or philosophical reasons.

While anti-vaccine movements have existed since the smallpox vaccine debuted in the early 1800s, some worry the pushback against the COVID-19 vaccine may have a detrimental effect on the uptake for routine childhood immunizations, too.

“I think that, certainly, [the pandemic] is a good explanation for this,” said Terri Burke, the executive director of the Houston nonprofit The Immunization Partnership. “But there is no question that the vaccine hesitancy, skepticism, misinformation [and] disinformation that circulates around the COVID vaccine has bled over into childhood vaccines.”

A study published in the journal Vaccine found that from 2019 to 2020, immunization rates fell 47 percent among 5-month-olds and 58 percent among 16-month-olds.

Texas did see a slight increase in vaccination rates earlier this year, but they still remain below pre-pandemic levels, said Tasmiah Nuzhath, a Texas A&M School of Public Health doctoral candidate who led the study. That’s a concern because regardless of the reason, a lower percentage of vaccinated children means heightened for outbreaks of a disease like the measles, she said.

“Even a few-percentage dip in vaccination rates will put children at risk of getting sick, and could affect community protections against serious diseases,” Nuzhath said.

[…]

In the Houston area, there are some signs that coverage rates may be slowly recovering from the pandemic. The HOPE Clinic, for example, had a large demand for the shots before students returned to school this fall, Clinical Director Kara Green said.

The Immunization Clinic in Stafford has also seen more children coming in for their vaccines this year, but coverage rates are “still not where [they] should be,” Nursing Director Yvette Cheeks said.

During the 2011-12 school year, coverage rates were at least 97.4 percent for each of the routine vaccines required for kindergarten students, and at least 96.6 percent for each required for seventh grade.  By 2021-22, rates fell to a range of 93.5 percent to 95.9 percent for kindergarten, and 91.9 percent to 98 percent for seventh grade.

Some of the decline can be attributed to children who haven’t gotten their shots yet, but may do so later. Those “delinquency” rates topped 3 percent for the chickenpox, polio and DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus and acellular pertussis) vaccines for kindergarten and around 6 percent for the meningitis and DTaP vaccines for seventh grade.

It’s also due to a rise in conscientious exemptions. Ten years ago, the chickenpox vaccine for kindergarten had the highest rate of conscientious objections at 0.8 percent. By last year, rates hit at least 2.1 percent for each kindergarten vaccine and at least 1 percent for each seventh grade vaccine.

Those percentages may not seem like a lot, but they represent an increase from 28,432 conscientious objections across Texas in 2011-12 to 85,726 last year, according to TDSHS statistics.

Green and Cheeks believe coverage rates could increase through better access to the vaccines. Both the HOPE Clinic and the Immunization Clinic offer vaccines to lower-income and uninsured patients.

However, Green noted that the HOPE Clinic sees families cancel their child’s vaccine appointment due to issues such as a lack of transportation, or not having child care for their other children. Pop-up vaccination clinics at Houston schools or other community sites could help increase uptake, she said.

“I think if we make it easier for families to get these things done, then we really open up a lot of opportunities,” she said.

We need to do everything we can to make sure that all needed vaccines are easily available to all that want them. That’s a bigger problem that can be solved locally, but we have to try. Anyone can claim to be “pro-life”, but unless you’re pro-getting-lifesaving-shots-into-kids-arms, you’re just full of hot air.

Your omicron booster will be ready this week

I’ll be getting mine.

Most Texans will be eligible in the coming days for a second round of Covid-19 booster shots after updated vaccines got final federal approval this week.

The new doses, from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, are designed to fight off severe infection from the latest versions of the omicron variant, which have proven especially easy to spread. Federal health officials hope the new round of boosters can add a layer of immune protection heading into a potential uptick of infections this fall as people head back indoors.

The new boosters will be available to anyone 18 and older for Moderna’s, and anyone over the age of 12 for Pfizer-BioNTech’s. Older adults have been eligible for several months.

“If you are eligible, there is no bad time to get your COVID-19 booster and I strongly encourage you to receive it,” the Centers for Disease Control Director Rochelle Walensky said Thursday after endorsing an advisory committee’s recommendation to make the shots widely available.

The updated vaccines add spike protein components from the omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5, which helps restore protection that has waned since previous vaccine rounds. The CDC recommends waiting two months after your most recent COVID shot before getting the booster.

A spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services said the doses are expected to ship out in the next few days, so Texans should be able to make appointments next week. Like previous boosters, these will be available at pharmacies, standalone health clinics and through local health departments, the agency said.

Both CVS and Walgreens were allowing patients to schedule the updated boosters as of Friday.

As the story notes, while COVID deaths in Texas are way down – about 100 a month statewide at this time – people are still getting infected. Plenty of people I know have been sidelined for a week or two in recent months. Long COVID and other risks remain as well. I’m still pretty vigilant about masking in indoor spaces, which usually puts me in a distinct minority, but it’s just a numbers game, and sooner or later that catches up to you. I’ll add on another layer of defense for that, thanks very much.

Let’s protect Galveston’s red wolves

They’re one of the cooler things about Galveston.

Photo from the linked article

The coyotes that roam Galveston Island are quickly becoming famous.

The animals are the subject of dedicated social media pages and their silhouettes have been emblazoned on T-shirts. Earlier this year, they were the subject of a profile in the New York Times.

The coyotes in 2018 were found to be carrying genes matching American red wolves, a critically endangered species that today lives in one place in the wild, in a protected area of North Carolina. Galveston’s coyotes carry DNA from long-ago crossbreeding of red wolves and coyotes when the animals were both common in the American southeast. The genetic discovery could lead to ways to genetically preserve the red wolf from extinction, because Galveston’s coyotes could add to the genetic diversity needed to restore a small population.

But for now at least, there’s no laws protecting Galveston’s “ghost wolves” from humans or other threats. That’s why scientists hope they can keep attitudes towards the coyotes positive, in the name of preservation.

“They’ve heard that their coyotes are fancy and unique, and I don’t want there to be a divide in the community that lives with this and the people doing research,” said Bridgett vonHoldt, an associate professor of evolution and evolutionary biology at Princeton University, and one of the founders of the Gulf Coast Canine Project. “To put a face to science and scientists is so important.”

[…]

The coyotes are regularly seen hunting for rats in the dunes on Galveston beaches and also stay stay well fed by preying on the hundreds of feral cat colonies across the island, said animal service unit supervisor Josh Henderson. Since the beginning of 2021, there’s been no reports of the coyotes attacking humans, Henderson said. There have been reports of the coyotes attacking unattended pets, though those are rare compared to the number of sightings that ended without incident.

See here for some background. The story mentions a recent presentation on the red wolves at Moody Gardens, which I wish I could have attended. For now all is well with these beasts, but there ought to be some legal protections for them, just to ensure that they can continue to thrive. It took us a long time to figure out who they even were. Let’s not lose them now.

Beware the tasty invasive Aussie lobsters

Hopefully we can eat enough of them to mitigate their impact.

They may be delicious, but they’re also invasive.

Texas Parks and Wildlife announced Thursday that several Australian redclaw crawfish were recently discovered again at an apartment complex pond in the Brownsville area.

Labeled an invasive species by the EPA, redclaw crawfish can reproduce prolifically and grow to a significant size, comparable to a lobster, according to TPWD.

They also taste like lobster.

Redclaw crawfish were first detected in the South Texas pond in 2013, according to TPWD. The pond is connected to a nearby water channel.

Collectively, the discoveries are just the second instance of the species being found in the wild in the U.S. The other happened in California.

TPWD Aquatic Biologist Dr. Archis Grubh said he found three additional redclaw in July, two miles away from the apartment pond.

“We don’t know when these invasive crawfish were first introduced or how far they have spread, but we do know they can have a negative effect on local species and biodiversity,” Grubh said in a release.

The problem is that once these things get into the environment, they’re very hard to eradicate, and they wreak havoc on the native species. The main cause of their appearance is very likely people dumping their personal aquariums into a nearby body of water. Don’t do that, y’all. Anyway, I hope we put a lot of effort into catching these things and serving them up in restaurants, but in the meantime if you spot any of them in the wild, let the TPWD know at [email protected]

Texas will get a lot from the Inflation Reduction Act

Thanks, Biden!

Texas’s clean energy sector is expected to be one of the largest beneficiaries of the climate and health care legislation President Joe Biden has signed into law, according to estimates released by the White House Wednesday.

Over the next eight years, Texas is expected to see $66.5 billion in investment through the legislation, expanding wind and solar energy, advanced batteries and other sources of clean electricity — more than CaliforniaNew York or Florida.

Named the Inflation Reduction Act, the bill provides almost $370 billion in federal funding for the clean energy sector, with government officials hoping to spur far larger investment from the private sector.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan described the legislation in a press conference Wednesday as, “the linchpin to putting us on path to reach net zero (greenhouse gas emissions) no later than 2050.”

“It invests in American workers, the back bone of this country, by spurring supply chains for clean energy,” he said.

Texas has long led the nation in clean energy, with three times as many wind turbines as the next closest state. And while California still has the most solar energy capacity, Texas is beginning to catch up, with more installations last year than any other state, according to the Solar Energy Industry Association.

Here’s a quote of interest from Bloomberg: “Of the top 10 congressional districts in the country for operating and planned wind, solar and battery capacity, four are in Texas, more than in any other state and including the No. 1 district, Texas’ 19th.” So of course every Republican voted against it. Which won’t stop them from claiming credit for the good things that will happen. It’s the circle of life.

Fortunately, at least some of the goodness should go places that can honestly claim credit.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee wants environmental justice funds in the Inflation Reduction Act to flow into northeast Houston as freely as the concrete batch facilities that have come to plague the predominantly Black area.

Legislation passed Friday includes $60 billion for environmental justice programs that can help communities such as Trinity and Houston Gardens fight polluters and reduce emissions, the congresswoman said during a Sunday event at Trinity Gardens Church of Christ attended by around 25 community advocates and concerned residents.

Issues such as the illegal dumping of industrial trash, cancer clusters stemming from creosote used by rail companies and air and water contamination from a growing number of industrial sites make the city’s northeast corner “a fitting example” of communities the legislation aims to help, Jackson Lee said.

The bill also earmarks $3 billion for community centers that can “address disproportionate environmental and public health harms related to pollution.” Northeast Houston should have one such center, she said, describing the area as the new “concrete batch Mecca.”

The bill offers a hand to advocates in communities across Texas, where restraints on polluters are lax. Earlier this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it was investigating state environmental regulators accused of violating residents’ civil rights when Texas updated its standard permit for concrete batch plants.

The plants have become infamous in the community for billowing dust clouds and concrete-laced water seeping into neighboring properties. There are three schools within a half-mile of the plants, said Keith Downey, super neighborhood president representing Kashmere Gardens.

Jackson Lee told advocates the new federal funds can offer relief for a community fighting these fights largely by themselves.

That would be great. Rooting for this to happen.

We’re going to have a “colder than normal” winter

What could possibly go wrong?

Make your Cancun plans now

Savor the rest of the sweltering summer because this winter in Texas is going to be “colder than normal,” according to Farmers’ Almanac.

The Almanac, which has been predicting the weather outlook for farmers and gardeners for over 200 years, says to expect a “chilly” winter with “normal precipitation.” Cold temperatures are expected to arrive in the South in mid-to-late November, mid-to-late December, and early and late January.

The Farmers’ Almanac previously predicted Texas’ deadly winter storm in 2021, in which heavy snowfall, ice storms and bitter temperatures put an enormous strain on the state’s power grid, leaving millions without electricity. Over 200 people died.

For this year, North Texas could see the most potential for snow and ice storms throughout the season. The Almanac says that heavy snowfall is expected to reach North Texas by the first week of January, followed by “significant snows” from North and Central Texas by the second week.

While this winter “will be filled with plenty of shaking, shivering and shoveling,” most of the cold weather is expected to “rattle warm weather seekers in the Southeast and South Central states, but the real shivers might send people in the Great Lakes area, Northeast, and North Central regions hibernating.”

There are a lot of qualifiers to this: The Farmers Almanac forecasts are not necessarily accurate. Other forecasters have not yet made their predictions, so this one might be an outlier. That 2021 storm really was an unusual event. But look, we know that basically nothing was done to address the power grid failures from that year, and at this point we know how bad it can get. There’s every reason to feel anxiety about this, no matter what ends up happening. That’s as much a failure as the inaction on the grid itself is. And it’s on Greg Abbott.

Adoption is not a replacement for abortion

Anyone who tells you otherwise is at the very least misinformed. More likely, they’re just lying.

Since the overturn of Roe v. Wade and the loss of abortion access in many states, some conservative leaders have suggested abortion is unnecessary because of the option of adoption. They argue people do not need to terminate unwanted pregnancies because they can seek adoption placements after giving birth.

Before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to revoke the constitutional right to an abortion, U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston, tweeted, “Less abortion, more adoption. Why is that controversial?” In late June, Mike Pompeo, former U.S. secretary of state, tweeted, “Adoption, not abortion. With Roe overturned, we should find ways to make the adoption process in our country easier and safer.”

However, experts on adoption and abortion say offering adoption as a replacement for abortion access misrepresents the reality of the process. Lawmakers must work to provide financial and mental health support for the adoption triad — birth parents, adoptive parents and adoptees — before advocating for increased adoptions, they added.

But the most important point that often goes overlooked is that adoption and abortion are unrelated issues, said Malinda Seymore, a law professor at Texas A&M University School of Law who researches and teaches adoption law.

“Women are making decisions about pregnancy when they are considering abortion, and it’s only after they have made a decision to continue the pregnancy that they are making a parenting decision about whether to parent or place for adoption,” she said.

Adoption may relieve birth parents of parenting responsibilities, but it does not resolve the pregnancy, she added.

“Adoption doesn’t do what abortion does,” Seymore said. “It does not end a pregnancy, it does not relieve the burden of pregnancy, it does not avoid the health risks of pregnancy, it does not alleviate the psycho-social harm of relinquishing for adoption. It is not at all a substitute for abortion.”

Gretchen Sisson, ​​a research sociologist at the University of California, San Francisco, said people who are seeking abortions are rarely interested in the option of adoption. Proposing adoption as an alternative to abortion does not meaningfully address the reasons why people seek abortions in the first place: Many abort because they don’t want to be pregnant anymore, not just because they want to avoid parenting, Sisson said.

Pregnant people can experience a range of health conditions that can create complications, but even without the health risks, a pregnancy can make it difficult to keep a job or provide for already existing children in the family. Being forced to carry a pregnancy to term, even with the option of adoption, does not address those issues.

Kenna Hamm, assistant director of the Texas Adoption Center, said adoption agencies such as hers are ready to handle a potential influx of expectant parents seeking adoption placements now that abortions are mostly banned in the state. But she said most people who are unable to end their unintended pregnancies will choose to parent the child once they are born, as adoption is a difficult decision.

Seymore pointed to The Turnaway Study, a long-term study at the University of California, San Francisco, that examined the effects of unwanted pregnancies on women’s lives. The team followed about 1,000 women who sought abortions, and about 15% of those women were denied access to the procedure because of gestational limits. Only 9% of those women who were denied an abortion chose to seek an adoption placement; the rest decided to parent.

The outcomes for those families are not as strong as families who decided from the beginning to keep their pregnancies and raise their children, said Sisson, who helped conduct The Turnaway Study. People who were not intending or wanting to have a child are much more likely to live in poverty and to have a hard time bonding with their children, the study found. They are also more likely to stay in abusive relationships, which also keeps their children in situations where they may experience abuse.

“If the only thing that you’re trying to do is just deny access to an abortion and then impose parenting on [people seeking abortions], then mission accomplished,” Sisson said. “But if you’re actually wanting to support families and ensure that children are in loving homes that are capable of caring for them, we need to have a social safety net that is far, far more robust in these states that are limiting abortion access.”

[…]

When people tout adoption as a replacement for abortion access, they often don’t understand the emotional challenges that birth parents, adoptive parents and adoptees experience during an adoption, [Rory Hall, executive director of Adoption Advocates, Inc] said. The adoptive parents gain a child, but their joy comes from the birth parents’ pain, she said. As the adoptee grows up, they also may experience a sense of loss and identity crisis from not being raised by or knowing who their birth parents are.

“I just would like for [adoption] to not be talked about as an easy option,” Hall said.

Tell that to Dan Crenshaw. Remember also that a significant number of abortions are the result of wanted pregnancies that ended in miscarriage or a threat to the life or health of the mother. The alternative to legal abortion is more unsafe abortions and more maternal mortality and morbidity. If that’s what you want then congratulations, you’re getting it.

If your advocacy includes convincing children to carry their rapist’s baby to term, your advocacy is bad

Towards the end of this overall infuriating story about “crisis pregnancy centers” in Texas, we come to a quote that stunned me so hard I had to step away from the computer for a few minutes.

If they can get an “abortion-minded” woman to have a conversation, Pinson feels confident that the center’s staff can change her mind. In their counseling sessions, Pinson says, they “pour into girls,” persuading them that, no matter the obstacles in their lives, they can become successful mothers.

Pinson welcomes even the most devastating cases.

“I’ve seen a lot of 13-year-olds do phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a negative thing.”

She closely followed the case of the 10-year-old rape victim who was denied an abortion in Ohio last month. If that girl came into her center, Pinson would suggest she consider adoption, she said, adding that abortion would not fix the girl’s problems.

“That life is still a life and, even at 10, she knows a life is inside her.”

The level of disregard for the lives of these children utterly took my breath away. Let’s be clear that every one of these children has been raped, most likely by someone close to them – family member, friend, teacher, coach, clergyman, neighbor. Let’s also be clear that the health risks of carrying a pregnancy to term for young girls is significantly higher than it is for adult women, partly because these girls are smaller and less developed than adult women. Because, you know, they’re children. Let’s be clear that the trauma and adverse mental health effects on these children is something all of us who have not had any personal experience with is far greater than we think. To sweep all of that aside because your “values” tell you that an embryo is of greater value than that child and its interests must be put above those of that child, I struggle to form the words in response. I just know that I would never want to let you near any child I have ever known.

This is a long and detailed story about a phenomenon that has plagued us for a long time and is now going to get worse, with more and greater adverse health effects brought to more women and girls. You should read it, though I warn you it will make you very angry. Use that anger, and make more people like you angry in the same way, because this is what we’re fighting.

Don’t give these fools an inch, New Mexico

Defeat them at every turn.

For New Mexico state Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena, the arrival of a new abortion clinic in Las Cruces, the city she represents, is surreal. Over the years, there hasn’t been consistent access to the procedure as providers came and went.

But now — weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court revoked the constitutional right to an abortion — the clinic at the heart of that decision has relocated from Mississippi to the city just across the Texas border of El Paso. It’s one of several clinics to announce its move to New Mexico in recent weeks.

It has quickly become Texas’ only neighboring state to protect abortion access and one of the few “haven” states in the southwest. People there have been preparing for a deluge of abortion-seekers — and those who want to stop the state from offering the procedure at all.

“Now people are coming from across the country — at great stress, great exhaustion, great trauma — to arrive in our community, where likely they will be met by a handful of angry protesters, so that they can access health care,” Lara Cadena told The Texas Tribune.

Close behind those traveling to Las Cruces for care are activists like prominent anti-abortion advocate Mark Lee Dickson, who helped Texas towns ban abortion before Roe. v Wade was overturned. The ordinances he championed served as the model for Texas legislation that severely limited when an abortion could be performed, which the Supreme Court declined to block.

Now, Dickson hopes to eliminate some of the next closest options as he tries to expand city abortion bans to conservative-leaning New Mexico towns.

“Southeast New Mexico feels a lot like Texas,” Dickson told the Tribune.

Aware of the looming threat, local leaders and abortion clinics opening in New Mexico remain confident that protections in the state constitution will prevent Dickson from gaining ground.

“We don’t need any outsiders coming here to try to mess with our autonomy and our capacity to shape our own families,” Lara Cadena said. “So when I hear all these activists coming over, I say, ‘Bring it.’”

Dickson isn’t oblivious to the legal and political barriers he’ll face in a state that leans Democratic.

“No matter what state we’re looking at, there’s a way to do this. And sometimes it’s a matter of challenging laws. I mean, that’s how we’ve gotten where we’re at today,” he said.

[…]

In addition to the opening of Pink House West — the new iteration of the now-closed Jackson Women’s Health Organization — New Mexico communities along the Texas border likely will see another health care clinic providing abortions with the arrival of Whole Woman’s Health. The provider recently closed the doors to its four clinics in Texas. Whole Woman’s Health plans to open somewhere just across the border to serve Texans traveling for abortions.

Amy Hagstrom Miller, the organization’s president and CEO, told The Texas Tribune that the continued efforts to curtail abortion rights have provided her team with lots of experience on how to best combat anti-abortion regulations.

And she has some advice for New Mexicans who can anticipate the full force of Texas’ anti-abortion advocates: Do “not concede any small thing.”

She pointed to Texas’ previous six-week ban and 24-hour waiting period that Republican legislators once presented as compromises.

“It’s a strategy to make the next restriction they decide to introduce sound reasonable,” Hagstrom Miller said.

See here for some background. The rest of the story goes into some history and the lay of the law in New Mexico, which offers some firm protections for pregnant people, including a prohibition on cities passing their own anti-abortion laws. I’m nobody’s expert on New Mexico, but if the folks there are confident in their ability to maintain their current course, I have no grounds to disagree. That said, let the record show me in full agreement with Amy Hagstrom Miller: Don’t concede an inch to these bastards. Fight them every step of the way, and send them home losers. It’s the only way to be sure.

More on your forthcoming phone bill increase

The Chron gets on the story.

Texans who use a phone should expect to pay more for that service, thanks to a startling rate increase adopted by the Public Utility Commission of Texas last month.

Commissioners in July voted to increase a longstanding surcharge assessed on telecommunications providers’ receipts for voice services to 24 percent from 3.3 percent. The new rate, which took effect Aug. 1, will add couple of dollars a month for a consumer with a typical individual cell phone plan, and potentially several times that for customers with family plans, or those who pay for calls on a per-minute basis.

“It’s unprecedented,” said Rusty Moore, COO of BBT Telecom, a provider headquartered in Alpine, and board president of the Texas Telephone Association.

[…]

The PUC, in a statement, said the increased fees were imposed on the telecom companies, and they “are not required” to pass on the costs onto residential and business customers. But in practice, telecommunications providers typically choose to do so, the agency explains in a separate Universal Service Fund fact sheet.

T-Mobile, for example, has begun notifying customers that increased fees will show up on their bills starting this month. The exact increase will depend on the customer’s plan.

The change will remain in effect for months, if not longer. Rich Parsons, the agency’s spokesman, said the PUC plans to reduce the fee in about a year as the fund is replenished. But, he added, the rate may not drop back to its previous level of 3.3 percent unless the commissioners vote accordingly.

“It is too soon to know how much the rate will be reduced,” he said.

While the Texas Telephone Association heralded the initial court victory, Moore explained that the PUC’s approach to covering the gap is really not what the organization had in mind, or considers best. In 2021, TTA had backed legislation that would have extended the universal service fee to voice over internet protocol service providers — which allow users to make phone calls over the internet —as well as traditional providers. The bill passed the Texas Legislature with overwhelming support but was vetoed by Gov. Greg Abbott.

It would be better, Moore argued, to have “a much longer glide path” to restoring the funding with more modest rate increases over a longer period..

“This is not what we advocated for in any way, shape, or form,” he said.

Moore’s company, BBT, reckons higher cost residential consumers approximately $4.61 per month, and business customers $6.21.

See here for the background. This story puts some actual numbers on the increase – as noted, how much your bill will go up depends on your carrier and your plan – but just implies the connection to Greg Abbott. At least now this is known to more people. Feel free to help them understand where it came from.

At least you’re (probably) not giving birth in West Texas

This is a long story about the lack of prenatal and obstetric care in West Texas. It’s mostly set in Alpine, Presidio, and Big Bend, which are the “big cities” in the area that actually have doctors and medical facilities in them. The one hospital in the area is in Big Bend, and its labor and delivery unit is now closed much of the time, for a variety of reasons. This is a small taste of what it’s like to be pregnant in this part of the state.

Big Bend is the only hospital in a 12,000-square-mile area that delivers babies. If Billings’s patient goes into labor when the maternity ward is closed, she’ll have to make a difficult choice. She can drive to the next nearest hospital, in Fort Stockton, yet another hour away. Or, if her labor is too far along and she’s unlikely to make it, she can deliver in Big Bend’s emergency room. But the ER doesn’t have a fetal heart monitor or nurses who know how to use one. It also doesn’t keep patients overnight. When a woman gives birth there, she’s either transferred to Fort Stockton—enduring the long drive after having just had a baby—or discharged and sent home.

This situation is stressful and dangerous for pregnant women. Uterine hemorrhages, postpartum preeclampsia (a potentially deadly spike in blood pressure), and other life-threatening complications are most likely to occur in the first few days after childbirth. This is why hospitals usually keep new mothers under observation for 24 hours to 48 hours. “This is not the ‘standard of care’ that women should receive,” Billings says. “You’re not supposed to discharge patients and leave it up to chance.”

Big Bend doesn’t really have a choice. In the past two years, almost all its labor and delivery nurses quit. The hospital has tried to replace them, but the national nursing shortage caused by the pandemic has made that impossible. When Big Bend is too short-staffed to deliver a baby safely, its labor and delivery unit has to close.

[…]

Medicaid pays for 42 percent of all hospital births, but it doesn’t reimburse hospitals for the full cost of care. (In most states it pays between 50 cents and 70 cents on the dollar, which means a hospital loses money when it cares for someone on the program.) To offset its losses, a hospital often charges its privately insured patients significantly higher fees. But if it’s in a poor neighborhood and doesn’t have enough privately insured patients, it can’t recoup the money. So most pre-pandemic maternity ward closures were in low-income areas and disproportionately affected pregnant women of color. Pandemic-related nursing shortages have only made the situation worse. Nowhere is this problem more evident than in Texas.

The state is the national leader in maternity ward closures. In the past decade, more than twenty rural hospitals have stopped delivering babies. More than half the state’s rural counties don’t even have a gynecologist. Texas has some of the lowest income eligibility limits for Medicaid and has declined to expand them, as allowed by the Affordable Care Act. (Childless adults don’t qualify for the program unless they’re disabled.) As a result, more than 18 percent of Texans don’t have health insurance, the highest percentage of uninsured residents in the U.S. Income eligibility limits jump for pregnant women—$36,200 for single mothers, $45,600 for married ones—but the application process takes at least a month. According to the March of Dimes, a fifth of all pregnant women in Texas don’t get prenatal care until they’re five months along. In other words, when a poor woman gets pregnant in Texas, it’s hard for her to find a doctor or even a hospital.

“What we’re seeing in terms of health outcomes, it’s not good,” says John Henderson, chief executive officer and president of the Texas Organization of Rural & Community Hospitals. “We have lower birth weights, more preterm births. When it comes to caring for pregnant women and their babies, Texas does not compare favorably to other states.”

Like I said, this is a long story and it’s worth your time to read. I’m old enough to remember when tort “reform”, in particular putting a cap on damage awards that can be given in medical malpractice lawsuits, was supposed to usher in a new era of doctor abundance in Texas. I don’t think that has worked out in the way we were promised. Towards the end, one of the doctors the author spoke to for the story notes that since abortion was already impossible to get in their region, the new state ban on abortion likely won’t result in more babies being born there. These docs will still deal with miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies and other life-threatening situations – they tell some amazing stories – despite the threat to their own safety. Click over and read on for more.

EPA to investigate TCEQ over concrete plant permits

Well, this ought to be interesting.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is the subject of an investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency following complaints that the state agency violated civil rights laws in its permitting of concrete batch plants.

The Harris County Attorney and Lone Star Legal Aid, a nonprofit law group, alleged that the state environmental agency discriminated against racial and ethnic minorities and those with limited English proficiency through a revised permitting process to build new concrete batch plants.

Their complaints, filed with the EPA earlier this year, said TCEQ failed to provide information in Spanish and insufficiently protected communities of color who live in areas where concrete facilities are predominantly located.

The concrete plants are subject to permits that aim to limit pollution in the form of particulate matter and crystalline silica — which have been linked to respiratory diseases and cancer — but independent testing of concrete facilities by the complaint’s authors indicate that pollution levels exceed health-based limits.

Last year, TCEQ approved an amendment that included exemptions for emission limitations for concrete batch plants, in response to an application to construct a plant by a Fort Worth concrete company. Area residents had fought the company’s application, which was rejected on the grounds that it didn’t adequately study the impacts of pollutants. TCEQ later passed the amendment and approved the company’s application after what it called a “clerical error.”

The EPA’s civil rights compliance arm announced the investigation last Wednesday. The investigation will focus on whether the adoption of the amendment — and the permitting process — is discriminatory, and whether the state agency failed to seek meaningful public comment.

The Chron adds some more details.

County Attorney Christian Menefee and Lone Star lawyers alleged in separate complaints to the EPA earlier this year that the state agency discriminated against Black and Latino residents when they didn’t adequately ensure communities would be protected and didn’t appropriately seek input from people who aren’t fluent in English.

Local, state and federal leaders celebrated the EPA’s decision to look at the discrimination claims Tuesday. They saw it as a chance to win long-sought relief for people who have suffered from batch plants. Facility operators say the plants are safe and need to be close to construction sites. People near them, concerned for their health, plead for them to go far away.

“Time and again, the TCEQ has approved permits for additional plants in these very same neighborhoods, and failed to ensure that the pollution that comes out of these plants does not harm human health and the environment,” Menefee said. “We’re here today because the TCEQ failed to address these issues when it had the chance.”

[…]

Applications are frequently submitted to start up concrete batch plants in the Houston area. They elicit strong backlash from residents who often already know what it’s like to live by one. Residents in Aldine recently packed a room to tell TCEQ not to approve another new plant — only to find out that the deadline had already passed to ask the state agency to escalate the dispute to the next level.

EPA stepping in signaled a shift in that fight for residents who have little more than emotional appeals on their side, and what help they can get from frustrated government representatives.

“This is important to us,” said Huey German-Wilson, president of the Trinity and Houston Gardens Super Neighborhood, “and now we have someone to hear us loud and clear, for the small Black and brown voices in communities that have not been heard.”

Politicians at the news conference slammed the state environmental agency for valuing the needs of industry over the health of people. They said that it took President Joe Biden — a fellow Democrat — winning the White House for federal regulators to put pressure on this issue in the conservative Lone Star State. Recent bills proposed in the state legislature largely floundered.

Neighborhoods with batch plants lack deed restrictions and zoning to protect them, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee said. And facilities are often in communities of color — not wealthy, white River Oaks — making what has been happening clear environmental racism, state Sen. Borris Miles said.

Menefee’s office asked the EPA to stop any new standard concrete batch plant permits from being issued until the investigation is finished, he said. A public meeting has been scheduled later this month for residents to weigh in on a plant that’s been proposed in Simonton, a small city west of Houston in rural Fort Bend County.

This isn’t a lawsuit, it’s an investigation. I have no context to guess how long it may take, though I’d expect that if the state doesn’t like what the EPA says we’ll get a lawsuit afterwards. Until then, we wait. Here’s a Twitter thread from Chron reporter Emily Foxhall with more quotes.

Dallas passes its ordinance to protect abortion access

Good job.

Dallas City councilmembers almost unanimously passed the “Grace Act,” an ordinance aimed at deprioritizing investigations into abortions by local police departments.

[…]

This new resolution prevents city resources from being used to create records for a person seeking an abortion, or to provide governmental bodies or agencies about pregnancy outcomes or to conduct surveillance to determine if an abortion occurred.

Investigations or prosecutions of abortion allegations will also be the lowest priority for law enforcement under the “Grace Act.”

Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia was in attendance for the City Council meeting and was asked before the ordinance passed how the Dallas Police Department would enforce the resolution while complying with their sworn oath to enforce state law.

“We don’t know yet,” Garcia said plainly. “Myself and other chiefs in other cities don’t know exactly how this is going to look.”

Once DPD gets some direction from other cities or the state, Garcia said he would work with the city manager to figure out what standard operating procedures will be with the new resolution in mind.

“Having a policy that says you will not enforce a law on the books would be a violation of our police officer’s oath,” Garcia said. “Using discretion is different than saying you will not enforce a law in the State of Texas.”

See here for some background. As we know, Austin, Denton, and San Antonio have already taken similar action. We’re still waiting for Waco, and I have no idea if this is on the radar for Houston. Only Mayor Turner can put it on the Council agenda, and I have not seen any quotes from him about his thinking on the matter. I’ve no doubt such an ordinance would pass, but so far I don’t know if one will be introduced. If you have some insight on this, I’d love to hear it.

When we say “fix the grid”…

This is one of the obvious ways we could attempt to do that.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The state’s High Plains region, which covers 41 counties in the Texas Panhandle and West Texas, is home to more than 11,000 wind turbines — the most in any area of the state.

The region could generate enough wind energy to power at least 9 million homes. Experts say the additional energy could help provide much-needed stability to the electric grid during high energy-demand summers like this one, and even lower the power bills of Texans in other parts of the state.

But a significant portion of the electricity produced in the High Plains stays there for a simple reason: It can’t be moved elsewhere. Despite the growing development of wind energy production in Texas, the state’s transmission network would need significant infrastructure upgrades to ship out the energy produced in the region.

“We’re at a moment when wind is at its peak production profile, but we see a lot of wind energy being curtailed or congested and not able to flow through to some of the higher-population areas,” said John Hensley, vice president for research and analytics at the American Clean Power Association. “Which is a loss for ratepayers and a loss for those energy consumers that now have to either face conserving energy or paying more for the energy they do use because they don’t have access to that lower-cost wind resource.”

And when the rest of the state is asked to conserve energy to help stabilize the grid, the High Plains has to turn off turbines to limit wind production it doesn’t need.

“Because there’s not enough transmission to move it where it’s needed, ERCOT has to throttle back the [wind] generators,” energy lawyer Michael Jewell said. “They actually tell the wind generators to stop generating electricity. It gets to the point where [wind farm operators] literally have to disengage the generators entirely and stop them from doing anything.”

[…]

Wind energy is one of the lowest-priced energy sources because it is sold at fixed prices, turbines do not need fuel to run and the federal government provides subsidies. Texans who get their energy from wind farms in the High Plains region usually pay less for electricity than people in other areas of the state. But with the price of natural gas increasing from inflation, Jewell said areas where wind energy is not accessible have to depend on electricity that costs more.

“Other generation resources are more expensive than what [customers] would have gotten from the wind generators if they could move it,” Jewell said. “That is the definition of transmission congestion. Because you can’t move the cheaper electricity through the grid.”

A 2021 ERCOT report shows there have been increases in stability constraints for wind energy in recent years in both West and South Texas that have limited the long-distance transfer of power.

“The transmission constraints are such that energy can’t make it to the load centers. [High Plains wind power] might be able to make it to Lubbock, but it may not be able to make it to Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston or Austin,” Jewell said. “This is not an insignificant problem — it is costing Texans a lot of money.”

Some wind farms in the High Plains foresaw there would be a need for transmission. The Trent Wind Farm was one of the first in the region. Beginning operations in 2001, the wind farm is between Abilene and Sweetwater in West Texas and has about 100 wind turbines, which can supply power to 35,000 homes. Energy company American Electric Power built the site near a power transmission network and built a short transmission line, so the power generated there does go into the ERCOT system.

But Jewell said high energy demand and costs this summer show there’s a need to build additional transmission lines to move more wind energy produced in the High Plains to other areas of the state.

Jewell said the Public Utility Commission, which oversees the grid, is conducting tests to determine the economic benefits of adding transmission lines from the High Plains to the more than 52,000 miles of lines that already connect to the grid across the state. As of now, however, there is no official proposal to build new lines.

Sure would be nice to have such a proposal, wouldn’t it? That’s a thing that the Governor and the Legislature could make happen if they wanted to. Unfortunately, a lot of them don’t want to, and of course Greg Abbott is incapable of taking any positive action. So here we are, with those of us too far away from the existing turbines to benefit from them looking longingly at the Gulf of Mexico for some future relief. I don’t know how much it might cost to build out the transmission network (the story doesn’t say), or to invest in battery storage for solar energy (another thing we’re good at generating in this state, as noted in the story), but I’m sure we could find the money if we wanted to. First, though, we have to want to. And that means electing people who want to. Because we don’t have that now.

Yes, it’s been an especially hot summer

Record-breaking, in fact.

Average high temperatures in Houston so far this summer have outpaced previous historically hot summers on record, according to the National Weather Service.

In the months of May, June and July, temperatures in the city averaged 95.1 degrees, ranking first in average high temperature at this point of the year, NWS meteorologist Josh Lichter said.

Houston’s hottest summer on record — the summer of 2011 — registered an average temperature of 94.4 degrees in the same months, Lichter added. The data sets go back to 1889.

Weather experts predicted an above normal July and August after a historically hot June saw temperatures reach an average of 86.7 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. Those temperatures surpassed the previous record average of 86.2 degrees set in June 2011.

Although some thunderstorms have come to the region within the past week, the weather pattern right now above Houston is one which “suppresses” rain and exasperates droughts, he said.

“Once once you get that pattern going where we have, you know, a week of 100-plus degree temperatures and you only have a couple days where you get rain but then you go back another week or two of 90 to 100-degree temperatures with little rain again, you’re going to increase the risk of droughts.”

It’s not just Houston, it’s all over Texas. And there’s a lot of drought, with some Texas cities beginning to experience real water problems. Like 2011, only hotter. Anyone feel like defending the position that climate change isn’t real today?

UPDATE: San Antonio, too.

San Antonio passes its abortion access ordinance

Good.

With a 9-2 vote, San Antonio City Council approved a resolution on Tuesday that condemns Texas’ abortion ban and recommends that no local funds be used to investigate criminal charges related to abortions.

“By passing this resolution, the City of San Antonio is committing to not using any city funds or data to sell out persons seeking out a safe abortion,” said Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5), who spearheaded the resolution. “Furthermore, council is communicating to our governmental relations team that … protecting persons seeking an abortion is a priority heading into the state legislative session.”

More than 100 people signed up to speak during the raucous, nearly five-hour meeting. The speakers offered impassioned, often emotional testimony in favor and opposed to the resolution and the right to choose. Mayor Ron Nirenberg paused the meeting briefly after shouting erupted during testimony.

“While the legal authority over reproductive health policy lies with the state and federal governments, we do refuse to stand idly by and watch an important constitutional right, be taken away without speaking on behalf of our constituents,” Nirenberg said. “As federal and state law changes in the future, we must do all we can to support and gain ground for reproductive freedom.”

The resolution makes exceptions for investigations into instances where “coercion or force is used against the pregnant person, or in cases involving conduct criminally negligent to the health of the pregnant person seeking care.”

Several proponents of the resolution asked that more specific language be added to direct police to “deprioritize” abortion investigations.

The resolution does not prevent local law enforcement from investigating criminal cases of abortion, because the council cannot tell police departments how or whether to investigate criminal cases, according to state law and the city’s charter. Council can only make recommendations.

The resolution “does not decriminalize” abortion, City Attorney Andy Segovia said. “It does articulate a policy recommendation from the council.”

Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales has said he doesn’t plan on prosecuting abortion providers under the ban.

See here for the background. As we know, Dallas and Waco are also in the queue for similar action. As yet, I haven’t seen any response to ordinances like this one and the one passed by Austin from the likes of Abbott or Patrick or Paxton; they may just be talking on their channels and it hasn’t gotten to the regular news yet, or maybe they’re just keeping their powder dry for now. It’s just a matter of time, I’m sure. The Current has more.

Dallas joins the abortion decriminalization queue

Good for them.

The Dallas City Council could consider a resolution in August aimed at blunting the impact of the Texas Legislature’s trigger law that will go into effect following the Supreme Court’s decision that overturned Roe vs. Wade.

Dallas’ measure would direct city staff—which includes the Dallas Police Department—to make investigating and prosecuting accusations of abortion “the lowest priority for enforcement” and instructs City Manager T.C. Broadnax to not use “city resources, including … funds, personnel, or hardware” to create records regarding individual pregnancy outcomes, provide information about pregnancy outcomes to any agency, or to investigate whether an abortion has occurred, a draft copy of the resolution obtained by D reads.

“I would say that it technically really does accomplish the decriminalization here locally,” said Dallas City Councilman Adam Bazaldua, who worked on the resolution and chairs the committee that will consider the matter before it goes to the full Council. “Being the lowest priority, … there’s not much of an investigation that could be done if there’s no resources that are able to be allocated.”

The measure does not apply to instances where law enforcement officials might need to investigate cases of criminal negligence by a practitioner in the care of a pregnant person, or where force or coercion is used against a pregnant person.

The resolution will be introduced in a special-called meeting of the council’s Quality of Life, Arts, and Culture Committee Tuesday. If approved by the committee, he aims to have it before the full Council at its Aug. 10 meeting. If it passes, Dallas would join many cities that have sought restrictions with similar resolutions, including Denton, Waco, and Austin. The San Antonio City Council will vote on its resolution Tuesday.

Yes, Denton and Waco. You knew about San Antonio and Austin, now you can add these three to the list.

Bazaldua said he knows the city can do little about the law itself, but he hopes this resolution would provide a measure of protection for healthcare providers who could face felony charges if suspected of providing an abortion. Pregnant people would also have similar protections, he said.

“There’s only so much that can be done at the local level and this is about as much as we can get,” he said, adding that after the resolution is passed, ideally the city would begin working with nonprofit and private-sector partners to help people locate resources if they need to travel to another state for an abortion.

He also doesn’t see this resolution endangering the city when it comes to another recently passed law that would penalize cities that “defund” their police departments. He argues that funding isn’t being reduced.

“What can they do? Punish a city for saying this should not be a priority of ours?” he said. “When we have violent crime that’s going on, that we should be focusing our resources and funding on?”

I mean, I wouldn’t put anything past Ken Paxton or the forced-birth fanatics in the Lege, but on its face that’s a strong argument. It’s also consistent with the earlier advice we saw about what cities can do on their end. I don’t know how this will play out – I cannot overemphasize how much effect the November elections could have in blunting the worst possible effects of the new anti-abortion laws and preventing the creation of new ones – but it feels good to do something, even if it may be transient. One has to wonder when there will be some action in Houston on this front. Is there a campaign going on about this that I haven’t seen yet?

San Antonio will make its statement for abortion rights

More symbolic than anything, but it still has meaning.

Five San Antonio City Council members and the mayor stood in support of a largely symbolic measure Wednesday that would attempt to “decriminalize” abortion locally.

Council is expected to approve a resolution during a special meeting called for Tuesday that would essentially condemn Texas’ abortion ban and recommend that no local funds be used to investigate criminal charges related to the ban.

“Women and individuals who are seeking access to abortion need to know that their elected officials are standing by them and will not allow city resources to be used to collect any data to potentially criminalize or prosecute them,” Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5), who drafted the resolution and held the press conference outside City Hall, told the San Antonio Report after the event.

The resolution cannot prevent local enforcement from investigating criminal cases of abortion, Castillo acknowledged, because the council cannot tell police departments how or whether to investigate criminal cases, according to the city’s charter.

“But it’s a step in the right direction and it’s a step to build upon and implement additional policy,” she said.

Castillo didn’t elaborate on what additional policies council might consider, but said she was looking forward to hearing ideas from the community and her colleagues.

Castillo and Mayor Ron Nirenberg were joined by council members Mario Bravo (D1), Phyllis Viagran (D3), Melissa Cabello-Havrda (D6) and John Courage (D9); together, the six represent a majority of council.

The resolution is similar to the GRACE Act that the Austin City Council approved this week. That, too, was a symbolic policy recommendation, as Austin’s charter has similar rules around the direction of law enforcement.

See here for some background on Austin’s actions, about which you know what I think. I’m curious at this point to see how many other Texas cities follow in these footsteps. If it’s still relevant next year, – if there hasn’t been a federal law passed to reinstate abortion rights, and if the Lege hasn’t passed some crazy law to shut this down, and if this cause hasn’t been taken up yet here – I’ll be asking every candidate for Mayor and City Council that I interview what they think about doing the same thing in Houston. Texas Public Radio and the Current have more.

The porkchopping experience

Ever wonder what it’s like to hunt feral hogs with a machine gun from a helicopter? Well, here you go.

Feral hogs have terrorized Houston neighborhoods for years, tearing up grass and causing property damage in search of food. But did you know there’s a way you can fight back against those pesky pigs?

It involves a helicopter and machine guns.

Because Texas classifies feral hogs as unprotected, exotic, non-game animals, they can be hunted by anyone using any method at any time of year. Private businesses take advantage, charging customers thousands for the opportunity to hunt hogs from the sky.

“We get quite a bit of clientele from places like New York, California (and) Chicago, where the firearm laws are extremely restrictive,” said Chris Britt, co-founder of Helibacon in Bryan. “They come to Texas and the idea that you can shoot a machine gun in a helicopter is just mind-blowing to them. They think of it as the Wild West.”

While hunting hogs via helicopter may sound outlandish, it’s actually one of the most effective ways to eliminate the animals, if done correctly.

Once in the air, the sound of a helicopter will start to get a group of hogs, or a sounder, running. The pilot pushes the sounder to an area where they can work and the gunners can start firing.

“It’s very safe and very controlled,” Britt said. “But it sounds so outlandish and exciting that it’s a really big draw. People enjoy the experience.”

Booking a helicopter hog hunting trip is usually straightforward.

Normal packages cost between $2,000 and $8,000, depending on party size, and usually include weapons, ammo, and at least a few hours of flight time. Helibacon outfits customer with semi-automatic AR-15s, with the option of upgrading to fully automatic machine guns at extra cost.

Some bookings even include meals and lodging. In San Angelo, Helicopter Pig Hunting and Divided Find Lodge & Ranch offer corporate events that make an entire weekend retreat out of the experience.

[…]

When done right, shooting from helicopters is one of the best ways to eliminate large groups of feral hogs at once, according to Michael J. Bodenchuk, state director of Texas Wildlife Services (TWS).

By regularly culling the population of hogs in an area, Britt said they can reduce their numbers by a noticeable amount, resulting in less crop damage and fewer overall problems on ranch lands.

Bodenchuk has doubts about how much the commercial trips are actually helping. “Anybody who kills a pig is a friend of mine, but they may not be getting rid of them.”

For one, private businesses have a financial incentive to not eliminate the hogs entirely.

The Texas Parks & Wildlife page on feral hogs is a bit more sanguine, saying that while “aerial gunning” (as they call it) is “a highly effective means of quickly reducing wild pig populations”, it’s really only effective in “areas with sparse tree canopy and high wild pig densities”. It may also become less effective over time, as “there is also some debate as to whether or not this method alters behavior in wild pig populations causing them to increase home ranges and learn to avoid aircraft, making them more difficult to find via helicopter”. You pay your money, you take your chances, I guess. Porkchopping, which is what those wags at the Lege called it when they first legalized this practice, has been with us for more than a decade now, so the proprietors of these businesses haven’t made themselves obsolete yet. I suspect it will be viable for the foreseeable future. Go ahead and make those corporate retreat plans now, while the weather is good.

(This is another one that I drafted awhile ago but hadn’t gotten around to publishing yet. You’re welcome.)

More on the seafaring abortion clinic

There were a couple of stories on that proposed abortion clinic on a ship in the Gulf of Mexico, which will operate in federal waters and thus be outside state jurisdiction. The clinic is intended to serve women in the Gulf Coast states, all of whom are living in states that are hostile to abortion rights (though it is still legal in Florida for now), and as Dr. Meg Autry, the creator of the idea who is now busy fundraising for it, it would be a lot closer geographically for a lot of these women than other states with legal clinics would be.

All of that is in the two stories. I want to focus on what I fixated on in my original post, which is the security and legal threats to this idea. I’m just going to pull from those sections of the stories. We’ll start with NPR:

Autry and her nonprofit are also hesitant to provide too much detail about how people will be able to access the vessel, citing safety concerns. Without elaborating, she says she anticipates that her group will be a part of the many existing networks trying to coordinate abortion care for people who can’t get it in their state.

People seeking or providing an abortion could face prosecution or, Autry fears, violence. She calls security her group’s top concern.

And she says that while their team is secure in their understanding of the law, it’s bracing for potential legal challenges “along the way, all the time.” That’s in part because of ever-changing laws and lawsuits unfolding in restrictive states.

Amanda Allen, senior counsel and director at the Lawyering Project — which represents PRROWESS — tells NPR over email that there’s no doubt about the legality of providing abortions at sea, because states don’t have jurisdiction over the care provided in federal or international waters. She compares it to the way that an abortion provider in New York would care for a patient traveling from a restrictive state.

Still, she says their team is exploring the same questions that they would look at in the case of a provider looking to open a clinic in a state where abortions are not banned.

Those include whether there are rules governing the facility where the care is provided, and what kind of licensure and staffing is required. They’re also looking at the threats that could face abortion providers — floating or otherwise — who treat patients traveling from restrictive states.

“Given the climate of abortion access post-Dobbs, nothing is zero-risk,” Allen writes. “Because of that we are concerned about the same types of extraterritorial questions that are already creating chaos and legal uncertainty onshore. While a state’s criminal laws should not reach a provider at sea, a rogue prosecutor could choose to target PRROWESS, or a hostile state authority could open an investigation.”

And here’s Yahoo News.

So what does maritime law say about abortions at sea? “Maritime law, by its own force, doesn’t speak to abortions provided at sea,” Matthew Steffey, a professor of law at Mississippi College specializing in maritime law, tells Yahoo Life. “In theory, a maritime treaty could cover the subject, but I don’t know of one that would. Assuming the vessel is outside state territorial waters, a state’s laws would not apply. Outside of waters controlled by a state or nation, the ship’s flag determines the source of law. So the ship’s home country’s laws apply.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t risks. While Steffey adds that it’s “entirely possible” an “aggressive” district attorney could “seek to bring charges to someone who travels from their jurisdiction to an offshore abortion provider,” he points out that “there is a very good chance that those charges would be ultimately dismissed as violating the U.S. Constitution. Otherwise, a local DA could prosecute anyone for conduct legal in the state where the conduct occurred — such as consuming cannabis, gambling, etc. — once they returned home.”

That said, Steffey notes that “someone who operates a tender vessel to take patients from shore to ship would be taking a great legal risk, as they’d be operating inside the state.”

Autry isn’t willing to share the details on how exactly patients would be ferried from shore to ship for security purposes, but she says, “What we’re most worried about are the patients. Our plan is that our vessel and the provider and the crew will never touch a restricted state. But obviously, the patients have to get there.”

It is one of the many logistical issues that abortion providers and abortion rights advocates are facing right now. “Abortion providers, policymakers and so many others across the country are dedicated to finding ways to ensure people can get the care they need,” Gretchen Borchelt, vice president for reproductive rights and health at the National Women’s Law Center, tells Yahoo Life. “But the court’s decision has unleashed legal chaos, and as more and more states ban abortion, we face a host of unknown questions about criminal liability, surveillance and potential prosecution.”

Borchelt adds: “We are all navigating a dangerous, appalling and rapidly evolving landscape to help people get care that should be legal, affordable and available but instead is criminalized.”

Slate had an interview with Dr. Autry a few days before those stories; it didn’t have anything to say about the security and legal stuff, so I hadn’t linked to it before now. That line about “the patients have to get there” is as I’ve said the single biggest point of vulnerability for this clinic and its patients. We’ve seen what Republican and other forced-birth fanatics in Texas are willing and planning to do. I believe they will push the legal envelope on this as far as they can, secure in the knowledge that even if SCOTUS eventually trims them back a bit, the Fifth Circuit will ensure that there won’t be an injunction against whatever crazy laws they pass while the matter is being litigated. I guarantee that SB8, the bounty hunter law, will be fully utilized. It’s going to be super duper ugly and expensive.

I don’t say any of this to be a bummer, but to be a realist. This is what we’re up against, and it will remain that way until we get 1) a federal law that can block at least some of this bullshit; 2) a different (which in any near-term context means “expanded”) SCOTUS that re-reverses itself; or 3) a Texas government that is able to undo all of this legislative harm. Of those three, that last one is guaranteed to not be in the cards in the near term. We can elect Beto and prevent further damage, but until we can also flip both the House and the Senate, we’re stuck with the laws we have. Maybe flipping the State Supreme Court might help as well, but that’s a minimum of two cycles at least. If we’re very lucky, we can get that federal law in 2023. Until then and otherwise, this is where we are.

We need more monkeypox vaccines

We have a chance to get on top of this. Let’s try to take it.

Houston-area leaders on Monday evening called for more vaccines to combat the small but growing number of local monkeypox infections.

There are 57 reported cases in the Houston area, including 10 in unincorporated Harris County. The Houston area recently received just over 5,000 doses of the JYNNEOS monkeypox vaccine from the state, but demand still far exceeds supply, health officials say. A two-dose series, administered four weeks apart, is required for full vaccination.

“What we learned from COVID is when the demand is high and supply is limited, people are very, very frustrated,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a news conference at Houston TranStar headquarters. “Now with monkeypox, with all the attention that’s been brought to it, the demand is very high.”

The World Health Organization over the weekend declared monkeypox a global health emergency. Monkeypox for years has been endemic in certain parts of Africa but has spread worldwide in recent weeks, with most cases among men who have sex with men.

[…]

The risk to the general public is low, health officials say. There have been no reported deaths among the roughly 2,800 cases in the U.S., and hospitalizations are mostly for pain management. There is at least one hospitalized monkeypox patient in Houston.

Even so, cases continue to rise around the world, and Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo suggested at the press conference that a more preventative approach is needed in Houston.

“We have an opportunity to leap frog ahead of this virus to try to mitigate it in a way we couldn’t do with covid,” Hidalgo said.

Before the latest shipment, Houston and Harris County health departments have been making due with a few hundred monkeypox vaccines, prioritizing those suspected of coming into contact with a confirmed case.

There was a similar story from Dallas the day before this one came out. The monkeypox vaccine has been around for years, the issue was that it wasn’t readily available around the country. That is starting to change, and a broader group of people are eligible to receive it now, so as I said in the title, maybe we can get ahead of this before it gets to be too big. The good news is that this isn’t an easily transmitted virus, but it is very much out there now and the number of people who are infected with it will grow in the absence of action. Mayor Turner and Judge Hidalgo are on the right page here. They just need some support from the feds.

UPDATE: Followup story, Harris County has received more vaccines, a few hours after having to suspend vaccination appointments.

Your phone bill is about to go up

Surprise!

Attention all Texans who use a cell phone or landline: The Watchdog has bad news.

Starting with September’s phone bill, your bill is going up.

I can’t provide a specific number for you except to say that all Texas phone users are about to contribute to a $210 million fund to pay a backlog of debt owed to rural telephone companies and phone co-ops.

Although I can’t be specific about your increase, I can show you below how to get an estimate of your particular price jump.

In my case, the increase for this surcharge — called the Texas Universal Service Fund — will boost the USF fee on my bill from $2 a month to $14.

Who to blame for this fiasco? Our old friends who previously ran the (Public) Utility Commission before they were bounced out for incompetence after the February 2021 freezeout disaster. (Remember I took away the “P” away until the UC shows greater care for the public.)

Another culprit here is Gov. Greg Abbott.

Both had a chance to fix this, but both backed out. I’ll show you why.

If you get a sense of déjà vu that you’ve heard this before, it is similar to the electricity crisis.

Just like with the electricity crisis, Abbott and his previous slate of (p)UC commissioners abandoned us by the side of the road, drove off and left us paying the bills.

Every month, Texas phone users pay toward the Universal Service Fund so that dozens of rural telephone companies can provide phone service to several million Texans who live in remote areas. The cost of wiring is too expensive.

In the past several years the (p)UC fell behind in making the payments mandated by the Texas Legislature. The rate was 3.3% of the basic service cost on your phone bill.

In June 2020, the (p)UC staff recommended that the fee increase to 6%, but commissioner Arthur D’Andrea blocked it, saying “This is not a time when we should be raising taxes on people.”

The (p)UC chair, DeAnn Walker, said to “leave the fund as it is.”

When the Texas Legislature tried to fix the backlog last year, Abbott vetoed the bill, saying “It would have imposed a new fee on millions of Texans.”

Well, I’m all for blocking fees, but in this case, by avoiding the problem, the new rate jumps from 3.3% to a whopping 24%.

“We have been baffled by this from the beginning,” says Mark Seale of the Texas Telephone Association about state leaders’ avoidance of this growing debt. “If they’d raised the rate two years ago at 6% they would have avoided this entire thing.”

Annoying! The reason this is happening now is because the Texas Telephone Association filed a lawsuit against the PUC and won in court, with the ruling upheld by the appeals court. The PUC responded with the fee hike, which goes into effect on August 1. I think the reason why Abbott acted as he did is simple enough: He got to claim the credit for blocking the more modest fee increase, with the chance that it would end there. Now that that has blown up, it’s more complicated to pin on him, since generally speaking one doesn’t associate the governor with one’s phone bills. It’s also a typical case of the followup story being of a far lower profile than the initial one. As craven as Greg Abbott is, it’s hard to see this landing on him. But at least now you know.

Offshore wind farm proposed

Let’s do it.

The Gulf of Mexico’s first offshore wind farms will be developed off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana, the Biden administration announced Wednesday, and together they’re projected to produce enough energy to power around 3 million homes.

The wind farms likely will not be up and running for years, energy analysts and the state’s grid operator said, but the announcement from the U.S. Interior Department is the first step in ramping up offshore wind energy in the United States, which has lagged behind that of Europe and China. The only two operating offshore wind energy farms in the U.S. are off the coasts of Rhode Island and Virginia, which together produce 42 megawatts of electricity — enough to power fewer than 2,500 homes.

One of the new wind projects announced Wednesday will be developed 24 nautical miles off the coast of Galveston, covering a total of 546,645 acres — bigger than the city of Houston — with the potential to power 2.3 million homes, according to the U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The other project will be developed near Port Arthur, about 56 nautical miles off the coast of Lake Charles, Louisiana, covering 188,023 acres with the potential to power 799,000 homes.

“It’s exciting to see offshore wind in the Gulf getting closer to reality,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, an environmental protection group. “With strong winds in the evenings when we need energy the most, offshore wind in the Gulf of Mexico would greatly complement Texas’ onshore renewable energy resources, help bolster our shaky electric grid and help our environment.”

[…]

“Offshore wind has a great potential in Texas,” Brad Jones, president of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages Texas’ main power grid, told The Texas Tribune on Thursday. “It will take some time to develop, and that time will be based on how quickly we can put together port facilities, the specialized ships that are necessary and train our labor force to achieve this type of development. It is new for the U.S.”

I suppose it’s a sign of the times that when I read stories like this I go looking for the bit where Ken Paxton threatens to file a lawsuit to stop it. I may need therapy. No mention of any such action in this story, or in the Chron story that has a few more details.

The wind energy area proposal is still just a draft, the bureau said. Visitors to its website can comment on the plans, and the bureau will hold online public meetings Aug. 9 and 11 to discuss the proposals.

“Once the final wind energy area or areas have been identified, the next step is to propose a lease sale for public comment either later this year or early next year,” said John Filostrat, a spokesman for BOEM’s Gulf of Mexico office.

The bureau said state officials and wind developers would determine if electricity generated in the areas’ boundaries would flow to the Texas power grid or the neighboring East Coast grid system. The Coast Guard would determine if commercial or recreational boats — including commercial fishing and shrimping operations — could enter the waters near the wind turbines, bureau officials said, adding that they have held several meetings with fishing groups and associations this year.

As a result, they said they have already carved out parcels from the lease area to leave bare for shrimping operations to continue.

[…]

Wind power along the Gulf Coast tends to be strongest south of Corpus Christi, tapering off by the time it reaches Florida, according to a bureau study.

Even so, the Gulf of Mexico has a leg up on the competition, said Josh Kaplowitz, vice president of offshore wind for the American Clean Power Association. The region is home to an entire supply chain dedicated to offshore energy and a trained workforce. Already, he said, a massive wind turbine installation vessel is being built in Brownsville.

“The Gulf of Mexico has a head start, and we should be leveraging that,” he said. “Wind turbine technology is getting better. They’re getting larger, and as they get larger they can be built in a more economical way at lower wind speeds.”

One issue more pressing for Gulf turbines than those in other offshore areas is the potential for strong hurricanes. Kaplowitz said the turbines off Rhode Island and those designed for off the coast of North Carolina have been engineered to withstand hurricane-force winds. He said those built off the Texas coast would likely be designed to withstand winds of the strongest storms projected to hit that part of the coast.

Offshore wind turbines have yet to be tested in such a ferocious storm, Andy Swift, associate director of education with Texas Tech’s National Wind Institute, told the Chronicle in October. Turbines onshore have suffered catastrophic damage in tornadoes, he said, requiring companies to take out large insurance policies on them. That could also be the case in the Gulf, he said.

“The storm issue — it’s a big one. I think people are looking at building more hurricane-resistant turbines as much as they can to stand against the high winds continually buffering of equipment, with waves and winds gusting against it,” Swift said in October. “I think that’s a challenge for offshore.”

The BOEM’s press release about this is here, and it points you to this page for info about public meetings and providing feedback. This is likely the start of a ten-year process, so settle in and make yourself comfortable. Assuming there isn’t already a national injunction against it issued by some cretinous Trump judge in Lubbock or something. Did I mention that I need help?