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September 22nd, 2020:

Two more polls of Texas

Trump is up two in this one.

Florida and Texas remain tight battlegrounds in the presidential election, according to CBS News Battleground Tracker polls released Sunday.

The current margin in both states is 2 percentage points, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden up by 2 in Florida and President Donald Trump up by 2 in Texas. Trump won both states in 2016; no Democratic presidential candidate has won Texas since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

In both cases, the leads were within the margins of error for the polls (3.7 points in Florida, 3.5 points in Texas). The polls were conducted by YouGov from Sept. 15-18 of 1,220 registered voters in Florida and 1,161 in Texas.

The Texas poll showed an unexpectedly close Senate race, with Republican Sen. John Cornyn ahead of Democratic challenger Mary “MJ“ Hegar by a mere 5 points, 46 to 41. That seat has not been high on the lists of ones most likely to flip.

The CBS News story for this poll is here. It’s about 95% focused on Florida, so, you know. CBS News and YouGov had polled Texas in July, and found Trump up by one, 46-45. Full poll data for Texas is here; for what it’s worth, this poll has Biden up among Latino voters 61-30.

And then there’s this:

The press release for that is here. The poll is a month old (taken August 20-25), and it includes results from the other Gulf Coast states. The Texas summary is here, and the numbers of interest are as follows:

Presidential race: Biden 48, Trump 44
Senate race: Cornyn 44, Hegar 42
Trump approval: 45 approve, 49 disapprove
Cornyn approval: 35 approve, 33 disapprove
Ted Cruz approval: 45 approve, 43 disapprove
Greg Abbott approval: 54 approve, 38 disapprove

Not much beyond the very high-level summaries, but there you have it. There are similar summaries for other states polled (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida), but they’re all returning 404 errors now, even though they worked when I first clicked on them. The link above gives the poll results. Most of the questions involved were about people’s opinions on energy and offshore drilling, and some of the Presidential results seem a bit too good to be true (Trump up in Alabama by four? In Louisiana by six?), but that’s what they report. Take them for what they’re worth.

Still code red

We’ll turn it down a notch when the data says we should.

The counts of coronavirus patients in local hospitals have been falling for two months. Restaurant patios are packed. Houston’s symphony and pro soccer teams are resuming at limited capacity. The state is relaxing restrictions on many businesses next week.

So, why is Harris County still at its highest threat level, urging residents to stay home?

Simple, County Judge Lina Hidalgo says: The metrics her office compiled in forming the threat level system in June have not all been met.

Hospitalization trends met the county’s goals weeks ago. A change to the way new cases were tallied cleared that hurdle on Monday, as did the last hospital target — COVID-19 patients making up less than 15 percent of intensive care beds. The lone barrier to downgrading from red (“stay home”) to orange (“minimize ALL contacts”) is now the county’s test positivity rate, which, at 7.7 percent, exceeds the 5 percent target.

Hidalgo said she understands the public is tired of vigilance, but she loses no sleep over being a holdout.

“What I’m trying to do is have at least one level of government that’s offering research and numbers-based information and consistently refuses to be swayed by political one-liners,” she said. “That continues to be my commitment. When you have folks pretending we can just go back to normal, it puts the community at risk and it gives people false hope.”

[…]

Dr. James McDeavitt, senior vice president at Baylor College of Medicine, called the county’s 5 percent target reasonable and widely used, but said, broadly, COVID-19 indicators suggest this is an appropriate time to slowly reopen.

Setting goals and then ditching them when the public grows tired of the restrictions they support would be a mistake, McDeavitt said. When Abbott reopened the state in May, Texas had not hit the benchmarks his own advisors had set.

“On the other hand,” McDeavitt added, “if you set metrics and slavishly wait until every single one of those numbers is where it needs to be, that is also problematic. You need to look at the big picture — and I know from talking to the county that’s what they do. Everybody is trying to find the right balance.”

Hey, if Greg Abbott isn’t going to pay attention to his own metrics, someone has to. To be fair, other counties have lowered their threat levels, and Dr. McDeavitt’s point about where the metrics are is well-taken. Positivity rate is a key figure, but it’s also affected by the number of tests that are given, which in turn is affected by test availability. It may be that we need to have a discussion about this, and it may be that we need to reassess what our risks are these days. But still, the fact that Judge Hidalgo is consistent about the metrics we have set for Harris County is a good thing.

Texas Central gets federal approvals

A big step completed.

Federal officials have issued final approvals to backers of a Houston-to-Dallas high-speed rail line, clearing the way for construction of the proposed line, in a move almost certain to face challenges from opponents.

Texas Central Railroad, the company planning to operate trains from Houston to Dallas with a stop near College Station, said early Monday that the Federal Railroad Administration had issued both the Record of Decision that ends the environmental analysis and the Rule of Particular Applicability that governs the safety standards the Japanese-developed trains must use.

“This is the moment we have been working towards,” said Carlos Aguilar, CEO of Texas Central Railroad.

Railroad administration officials did not confirm the approvals, with the company saying the details and specifics of the rules will be released soon.

Company officials — who less than a decade ago expected construction to cost $10 billion, now say building it will cost “around $20 billion,” with construction possibly starting in the first half of next year.

[…]

With the two approvals in hand, Texas Central can begin final designs and construction of the project. A consortium of companies, including Italian construction giant Salini Impregilo, Central Japan Railway — builder of the Shinkansen bullet trains that will be the basis for the Texas trains — and Spanish rail operator Renfe, are all hired to handle various parts of the building and operations of the system.

Though development involves global companies, Texas Central and supporters, including elected officials in Houston and Dallas, note the company is based in Texas and the companies will hire thousands of locals to build and operate it. Some, such as Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, said new travel modes will define how the metro areas grow and cooperate.

“The construction of high-speed rail will have a generational impact, creating thousands of jobs right here in Houston and injecting billions of dollars into our local businesses,” Turner said.

Texas Central had previously hoped to start construction by the end of this year. I presume, though the story doesn’t indicate, that the COVID situation may have slowed things down a bit.

Most of the rest of the story is given to Texas Central opponents, and I think we can recite most of what they have to say by heart. I don’t expect the opposition to ease up any time soon, but the opponents are beginning to run out of tools in their bag, especially after a favorable court ruling on the “are they really a railroad” question. I’ve said repeatedly that the best thing TCR can do for their own future is to get those shovels in the ground and start constructing before the Lege has the chance to take any further action. They’ll be at the very beginning stages of that during the session this spring, so maybe this is the end of the line for serious peril.

Of course, we don’t know how demand for this kind of travel will change in a post-COVID world. One could argue that with fast boarding and roomier passenger spaces, TCR will be better placed than before to compete with the airlines. They may have a harder time competing with people driving themselves, however. All this assumes there will be the same kind of demand for mostly business travel going forward. We just don’t know what that effect will be in the longer term, but any argument that the Zoom-and-Teams world we’re in now obviates the need for big rail projects like TCR would apply to big road projects as well. We may very well make some inaccurate guesses about this. We’re going to have to live with that until we do know better. The Trib has more.

Endorsement watch: No Briscoe

The Chron follows the basic principle that bad acts should not be rewarded, and bad actors do not belong in positions of trust and power.

Mary Williams

In his two terms representing House District 128, Rep. Briscoe Cain has quickly acquired a reputation well beyond being the most conservative lawmaker in the House. He’s an elected official whose offensive posts earned him a suspension on Twitter. He was Texas Monthly’s Worst Legislator of 2017.

As a member of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, Cain has tweeted a threat to former El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke with the warning “My AR is ready for you Robert Francis.” He trolled Stephen Hawking shortly after news of the acclaimed physicist’s death.

He introduced legislation to defund a state council that promotes palliative care for the terminally ill, conflating the specialized end-of-life services for dying patients with so-called “death panels.” He wastes his colleagues’ time on the House floor pushing severe abortion restrictions he knows won’t pass constitutional muster. He posed for the cameras while getting an illegal haircut as a stunt to pressure Gov. Greg Abbott to reopen hair salons and barbershops.

That kind of grandstanding in the chamber or social media chatter does nothing to benefit the people of House District 128, which straddles the Houston Ship Channel and includes Pasadena, Deer Park, Baytown and Crosby.

They deserve better. They deserve a state representative who cares about the issues important to the district — air quality, chemical plant safety, education.

That is why we are recommending his challenger, Democrat Mary Williams, in the House District 128 race.

I mean, look, HD128 is the most Republican House district in Harris County, and the people of HD128 are represented by Briscoe Cain because they voted for Briscoe Cain. It’s free and fair to call him out on his bullshit – he has a level of entitlement that would put any trust fund boarding school scion to shame – but he’s not in office because of some anti-democratic shenanigans. The world is always a better place when the likes of Briscoe Cain are sitting on the sidelines, but let’s not fool ourselves about why he’s not.

The Chron also takes a stance against bad ethics.

Sandra Moore

Voters in state House District 133 returned Rep. Jim Murphy for a sixth term in the Legislature in 2018, even after news broke about a business arrangement that raised serious questions about possible conflicts of interest.

Murphy was paid a yearly salary for more than $312,000 as the general manager of the Westchase Management District, which is also within the boundaries of HD 133. He also served as chairman of the House Committee on Special Purpose Districts.

The situation got even murkier when reporters revealed that Murphy’s contracts included incentive payments for delivering state funds from the Legislature. For example, Murphy would receive a $6,000 bonus if he secured “$1 million or more in new TxDOT funding for highway projects” for Westchase.

Murphy has not been accused of a crime or cited for an ethics violation, but this is a violation of public trust in an issue involving taxpayers’ money.

Still, Murphy won re-election with 58 percent of the vote in 2018 and can expect a similar margin this fall in the solidly Republican district.

But if you believe Murphy’s arrangement to be disqualifying, and we do, there are two other candidates on the ballot for consideration: Democrat Sandra Moore and Libertarian James Harren.

The Chron endorsed Moore, who ran for HD133 in 2018 but lost in the primary runoff. I find Briscoe Cain to be by far the more egregious of the two – Murphy has redeeming qualities as a legislator who can do productive work – but oddly enough this sort of sin seems like the more probable cause for a voter to turn on him. Briscoe Cain can do what he does because enough people in his district like him for what he does. Murphy may find that his actions may cost him friends, or at least the support of some voters. That has something to do with the district in question as well, but self-dealing drawing a stink eye is more universal. (Unless your name is Donald Trump, of course.) Also, this district is like a more Republican version of HD134, and as such I’d bet the under on that 58% mark for Murphy. He had no opponent in 2016, but HD133 performed as a 62-63% Republican district that year. It won’t surprise me to see a couple more points shaved off of that this year.