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May 24th, 2022:

Republicans threaten businesses over abortion access

If you didn’t see stuff like this coming, you haven’t been paying attention.

With Texas poised to automatically ban abortion if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, some Republicans are already setting their sights on the next target to fight the procedure: businesses that say they’ll help employees get abortions outside the state.

Fourteen Republican members of the state House of Representatives have pledged to introduce bills in the coming legislative session that would bar corporations from doing business in Texas if they pay for abortions in states where the procedure is legal.

This would explicitly prevent firms from offering employees access to abortion-related care through health insurance benefits. It would also expose executives to criminal prosecution under pre-Roe anti-abortion laws the Legislature never repealed, the legislators say.

Their proposal highlights how the end of abortion would lead to a new phase in — not the end of — the fight in Texas over the procedure. The lawmakers pushing for the business rules have signaled that they plan to act aggressively in the next legislative session. But it remains to be seen if they’ll be able to get a majority on their side.

The members, led by Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, laid out their plans in a letter to Lyft CEO Logan Green that became public on Wednesday.

Green drew the lawmakers’ attention on April 29, when he said on Twitter that the ride-share company would help pregnant residents of Oklahoma and Texas seek abortion care in other states. Green also pledged to cover the legal costs of any Lyft driver sued under Senate Bill 8, the Texas law that empowers private citizens to file lawsuits against anyone who assists in the procurement of an abortion.

“The state of Texas will take swift and decisive action if you do not immediately rescind your recently announced policy to pay for the travel expenses of women who abort their unborn children,” the letter states.

The letter also lays out other legislative priorities, including allowing Texas shareholders of publicly traded companies to sue executives for paying for abortion care, as well as empowering district attorneys to prosecute abortion-related crimes outside of their home counties.

Six of the 14 signers, including Cain, are members of the far-right Texas Freedom Caucus. How much political support these proposals have in the Republican caucus is unclear. House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, declined to comment. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott did not respond.

Since the legislative session is more than seven months away, Cain said in an email that “a quickly drafted and sent letter can hardly be said to reflect the pulse of my Republican colleagues.” He was confident, however, that his ideas would find some support in the Senate.

“Knowing that chamber and its leadership, I’m willing to bet legislation targeting this issue will be promptly filed in January,” Cain said.

But doing so would likely mean targeting companies that the state has wooed as potential job creators. Tesla, for instance, announced this month that it would pay for employees’ travel costs when they leave the state to get an abortion. Abbott celebrated the electric car company’s move to Austin last year and this year urged its CEO, Elon Musk, to move Twitter’s headquarters to Texas, too, if he completes his purchase of the social media firm.

Joke all you want about how Republicans used to be the party of big business, because that hasn’t really been true for awhile. They’re the party of “give us your donations and keep your mouth shut about anything we don’t like regardless of what your employees and customers and stockholders say and maybe we’ll leave you alone and toss you a tax cut” now. You may say that it’s unthinkable that Republicans might actually chase large employers out of the state, but a lot of unthinkable things have been happening lately. Remember how the business community helped defeat the “bathroom bill” in 2017, and issued sternly-worded statements about voting rights and further anti-trans bills last year? How’s that been going?

We are living in Briscoe Cain’s Texas now. If he doesn’t get what he wants now – and mark my words, he wants to arrest people who have anything at all to do with abortion – he’ll get it next time, as long as his Republican Party is in charge. The business community needs to recognize that they are right in the crosshairs along with the rest of us. Daily Kos has more.

Is there any chance the GLO won’t screw Houston this time around?

I mean, maybe. Things can happen. I just wouldn’t count on it.

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday commended the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for ordering Texas to fix a Hurricane Harvey recovery plan that the federal agency concluded “disproportionately harmed Black and Hispanic residents.”

HUD told the state’s General Land Office in the letter, dated Monday, it had 10 calendar days to become compliant by coming to a resolution. The federal department had found GLO discriminated against minority residents when it denied flood mitigation aid last May to the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Harvey.

To date, Houston has not received any funds, Turner said, “despite the city and the county incurring 50 percent of the damages from Harvey.”

“This is a step in the right direction. I appreciate HUD for ordering the GLO to bring its Hurricane Harvey Recovery Plan into compliance within ten days, or HUD will refer the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice,” Turner said in a statement. “This is about equity and fairness. It is time for the GLO to allocate a fair (or proportional) share of the federal funds to allow our communities to have adequate climate change mitigation and resilience resources. I urge the GLO to do the right thing for our most vulnerable communities.”

See here for the background. I use the embedded GIF in these posts as a reminder to everyone, including Chron editorial writers, that what the GLO has been doing isn’t “bungling”, it isn’t “a mistake”, it isn’t a matter of the GLO “getting its act together”. It’s all been a deliberate choice by the GLO, which knows what it’s doing and why it’s doing it. The solution to that isn’t trying to get them to see the error of their ways, it’s to take the job away from them because they don’t have any interest in doing it correctly.

Along those lines, this is the right attitude to adopt.

“We intended for the people who were suffering to get the money. But if you decide that you’re going to take it from the poor and the people of color and send it to areas where you don’t have a lot of people of color, then I think there’s reason for HUD to continue with this and I think HUD will,” said [US Rep. Al] Green. “That money was not sent to Texas so that it could be distributed to people who were not impacted by the hurricane.”

[…]

Green says he has talked to the General Land Office. And he’s held hearings where GLO representatives testified.

The Democrat says problems arise after the federal government sends money to the states, because once distributed, the states ultimately decide how it’s spent. And he says Texas has had problems in the past with diverting federal funds away from the intended purpose.

“And this is not just peculiar to this circumstance. It’s happened with money that was for education, not spent as we assumed it would be,” he said.

Green says lawmakers and HUD are waiting to see specific guidelines for the next round of funding distribution. He says it is possible for HUD to step in and take action against the state.

Meantime, the Houston Democrat says he’s looking into ways to “overhaul” the system. And he says lawmakers will consider adding a “clawback provision” to any future legislation.

“If a state declines to adhere to the intentionality of Congress, we can claw that back, claw the funds back and hold onto those funds. We should not allow states to receive funds and then disregard what Congress intended,” Green said.

That’s at least providing the proper incentives. We’ll see what happens next.

The editorial notes that bypassing the GLO and allocating the federal funds directly to the affected localities is an option and that the city is prepared for it, but that the city’s past track record with distributing Harvey funds isn’t good, either. That was the GLO’s rationale for stepping in as the middleman, though the city claims it was existing GLO bureaucracy that caused their problems in the first place. Be that as it may, I’d rather take my chances with the city than the GLO because at least I know the city will try to do right by Harvey victims. I can’t say that for the GLO, not as it is currently governed. Give me a different Land Commissioner and then we can talk, though really it would be nice to have made more progress by then. The bottom line is, George P. Bush cannot be trusted with this. Once that is accepted as the reality, we can figure out what the best way forward is.

The STAAR is back

Missed this last week.

For the first time since the pandemic began, Texas public schools will be rated based on how students score on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness — more commonly known as the annual STAAR test.

It’s the latest big step toward normalcy for the state’s 8,866 public schools — which includes 782 charter schools — since the COVID-19 pandemic forced school closures in early 2020.

But this year’s ratings come with a few changes. For this year only, schools will receive an A-C rating. Districts and schools that score D or F will receive a “Not Rated” label instead. Schools who fall in those bottom tiers will also evade possible sanctions from the Texas Education Agency during the 2022-2023 school year.

The news comes as thousands of students in grades 3 through 12 are taking the exam this spring. Last year, students had the option to take the STAAR test and results were not held against them or the district.

The ratings, those letter grades affixed on school buildings across the state, are typically released by the Texas Education Agency in August. But when the coronavirus began appearing in the United States more than two years ago, schools were shut down and as a result, standardized testing school testing was canceled for the year.

The new A-C rating this year will allow districts that still have a D or F from 2019 to have a shot of getting a better grade.

[…]

Last year, STAAR results showed that the pandemic had a significant impact on student learning with far lower scores than before the pandemic, especially when it came to math. Also, schools that relied more heavily on online class instruction had students who scored significantly lower than those school that were able to open and offer in-person instruction.

There’s fear that this year’s test scores may be impacted again because of pandemic-related school closures and teacher absences that occurred during surges in infection caused by the delta and omicron variants of the coronavirus.

Even though the rating system has been changed this year, not everyone is a fan of the school rating system to begin with.

Matthew Gutierrez, superintendent of the Seguin Independent School District, near San Antonio, believes the STAAR will be helpful to gauge students’ academic level, but the letter grades should’ve been postponed this school year as well because of the continued COVID-19 disruptions. Seguin, along with other districts, had teachers and substitutes out with COVID-19 during the omicron surge this past winter.

“We had students who went days without support from their certified teacher,” he said. “You had situations where you were combining classrooms and having really creative staffing, so it’s not optimal for learning.”

Gutierrez is also concerned about the “Not Rated” label. He said if a district scored an F in 2019 and then a D this school year, that district won’t get credit for that progress.

Yeah, last year’s STAAR results weren’t great. They might be better this year, but as a whole we’re likely still pulling ourselves out of the ditch caused by the pandemic. We could just do like last year and skip the grades, since we’re essentially giving the schools that don’t get good results a break. I’m not sure what the point of this halfway-accountable system is, and I’m also not sure that we missed anything by not going through this rigmarole the past couple of years. It’s been a hard year for everyone. Let’s accept that and make it a little easier on ourselves.

The national media discovers Skeet Jones

Here’s NBC News with a nice, juicy story.

Lawmen came to remote Loving County, Texas, on Friday to arrest the county judge, a former sheriff’s deputy and two ranch hands on one of Texas’ oldest crimes — cattle theft.

Judge Skeet Jones, 71, the top elected official since 2007 in the least populated county in the continental United States, is facing three felony counts of livestock theft and one count of engaging in criminal activity, accused of gathering up and selling stray cattle, authorities said.

Jones, the scion of a powerful ranching family that settled in Loving County in the 1950s, was booked into Winkler County Jail on Friday and released on $20,000 bond, records show. He did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Authorities also arrested former Loving County deputy Leroy Medlin Jr., 35, on one count of engaging in criminal activity — a second-degree felony that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years. Medlin did not return phone calls, but his wife sent an email that questioned the motives behind the arrests. “We are being targeted,” she wrote, “at full force.”

Officials with the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, the lead agency on the case, offered few specifics about the alleged crime. Commissioned through the Texas Department of Public Safety, the association has “special rangers” — certified peace officers — who investigate livestock theft and other agriculture crimes.

Jeremy Fuchs, a spokesman for the association, said the yearlong investigation is ongoing and more charges are possible.

The idea that the judge — who is paid $133,294 annually — would get picked up for cattle rustling was just too much for Susan Hays, a Texas election lawyer who’s wrangled with the Joneses in the past.

“You can’t make this shit up,” she said. “It’s a pain in the ass to round up cattle and take them to market. And then to risk real trouble for it? It’s just asinine to me.”

See here for the background. As a reminder, Susan Hays is also the Democratic candidate for Ag Commissioner.

For decades, a handful of prominent families in Loving County have feuded bitterly for control of the local government, with the Joneses finally largely coming out ahead. Skeet Jones has served as the judge for more than 15 years. His sister is the county clerk. His cousin’s husband is the county attorney. His nephew is the constable.

But some recently elected county officials have been butting heads with the Joneses and their allies, making for colorful commissioner’s court meetings and a much-anticipated November election.

And blood is no longer holding the Jones family together.

“He’s had free reign for the entire time since he’s been the judge,” said Skeet Jones’ nephew, Constable Brandon Jones, who was elected in 2016. “That’s given him a sense of power and impunity that he can do whatever he wants whenever he wants. Even the feeling of self-righteousness. That he can do no wrong.”

When Skeet Jones was sworn in as judge in 2007, most of the caliche roads were rutted like washboards and residents still had to line up to get potable water dispensed from a community tank.

But he presided over a period of unprecedented growth, as fracking boomed in the Permian Basin, feeding money into the county’s coffers. The parched landscape is dotted with massive gas plants, water plants and salt water disposal systems. Many of the surviving working ranches have “frac pads” for horizontally drilled wells that cut through the caliche and bedrock to free up the lifeblood for Loving County’s economy: oil and gas.

The tax base hovers around $7 billion to $9 billion. And the county’s budget has grown from about $2 million in 2008 to more than $28 million.

The salaries for many of the top officials in town — the judge, auditor, treasurer, clerk, justice of the peace, county attorney, constable and sheriff — are $100,000 or higher.

To give you some idea of how insane a budget of $28 million for a county with 57 people in it, that’s about $491,000 per person. The fiscal year 2022 budget for Harris County had an estimated general fund of $2 billion, for 4.8 million people, or $415 per person. That’s less than 0.1% of the per capita allocations for Loving. If Harris had the same resources as Loving, it would have over $2.3 trillion in its general revenue fund; in other words, in the ballpark of what the US as a whole spends in a non-COVID year. As for the family dynamics and the concentration of power like that, well, I suspect we’re just beginning to delve into the plot.

One more thing:

Medlin previously worked as a detective for the San Antonio Police Department, where records show he was issued indefinite suspensions — the department’s equivalent of being fired — three times.

In 2015, he was placed on indefinite suspension for a 100-plus mph pursuit of a driver who had a toddler in the back seat, records show. Medlin was reinstated after an appeal.

Then in 2018, Medlin engaged in another high-speed pursuit after telling dispatchers the driver “almost ran me over,” records show. But body and dash camera footage contradicted Medlin’s account, according to internal affairs reports. He appealed again, telling supervisors he felt threatened, even if it wasn’t evident from the videos.

He was later issued another indefinite suspension after supervisors determined he issued tickets for violations he didn’t witness, records show.

Medlin joined the Loving County Sheriff’s Office in January 2019 and “separated” from the agency less than two years later, records show. (Sheriff Chris Busse declined to say why.)

Medlin also worked on Jones’ ranch before being hired by Loving County as a janitor and groundskeeper.

Forget the Yellowstone-meets-Game of Thrones as directed by early-career Coen Brothers aspect of this, it’s Leroy Medlin that’s the tale as old as time here. The inability of law enforcement agencies to fire corrupt and/or inept cops, combined with said cops’ ability to easily hire on with some other law enforcement agency in the state (there are nearly 2,000 law enforcement agencies in the state of Texas, including as we now know the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, which was responsible for this particular bust) makes for a plethora of opportunities. I feel very confident there’s more to the story of why Leroy Medlin did not stay with the Loving County Sheriff’s Office longer than he did than what we now know.

The AP had a much shorter story on this, which the Chron picked up. I’m sure other outlets, including the Texas papers, will join in, and I can’t wait. Hell, I can’t wait for the eight-part true crime podcast and hopefully HBO miniseries on the life and times of the Jones family of Loving County. Susan Hays is right, you cannot make this stuff up. But you sure can ride it to the end when it happens anyway.