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June 3rd, 2022:

The very least Greg Abbott could do

You can always count on him for that.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday called on the Texas Legislature to form special committees to make legislative recommendations in response to the Uvalde school shooting.

In a letter to House Speaker Dade Phelan and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the Senate’s presiding officer, Abbott told his fellow Republicans that the state “must reassess the twin issues of school safety and mass violence.” He said the committee process should start “immediately” and outlined five topics he would like the committees to take up.

Notably, the topics include “firearm safety.” Abbott last week essentially ruled out gun restrictions as a response to the massacre, in which a gunman killed 19 students and two adults last week at Robb Elementary School. He focused his attention on mental health care and school security in his public comments.

The other topics Abbott charged leadership with making recommendations on were school safety, mental health, social media and police training.

Phelan responded to Abbott’s call by saying in a statement that “conversations about the issues outlined by Gov. Abbott are already underway in the Texas House and will continue to be a top priority in the months leading up to the next school year and the legislative session.” He added that the House “will get to work immediately.”

[…]

Abbott’s critics quickly argued that the time for committees has passed. They pointed out that the Legislature also formed special committees after mass shootings in 2019, and those discussions did not prevent the Uvalde school shooting from happening.

Abbott’s Democratic challenger for reelection, Beto O’Rourke, panned Abbott’s push for legislative committees.

“Anyone can call for a committee. Only a governor can call a special session,” O’Rourke tweeted. “Do your job.”

The 2019 committees on gun violence followed the anti-Hispanic massacre at a Walmart in El Paso. A Democratic state senator from the area, César Blanco, sent Abbott a letter Wednesday saying that he appreciated the call for committees since the Uvalde shooting but noted “we have solutions ready now.” He cited nine bills he filed in the first session after the Walmart shooting, including a proposal to extend background checks to cover private gun sales. While Patrick initially showed interest in that idea — even suggesting he would stand up to the National Rifle Association to pass it — it was a short-lived crusade and the legislation never got a Senate committee hearing.

Those committees will also be stacked with pro-gun legislators, so adjust your already dismally low expectations accordingly. Despite all this, there’s a call for a special session, mostly from Dems, which I don’t expect to happen since Abbott clearly doesn’t want it to happen, no matter his “haven’t ruled it out” rhetoric. The sound you hear is Greg Abbott quietly waiting for this all to blow over.

I’m just going to leave this here:

Ask not what your Governor can do for you. Ask what your Governor can ask other people to do for him so he doesn’t have to do anything himself. The Current has more.

City passes its budget

Not too much drama.

Houston’s $5.7 billion budget for the next fiscal year includes a big jump in revenue from water bills, raises for all city employees and the largest unspent reserves in years.

City Council voted 15-2 to adopt Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed budget Wednesday after working through more than 100 amendments pitched by council members. Councilmembers Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh were the lone no votes. The budget takes effect when the new fiscal year begins July 1.

Dozens of amendments were ruled out of order after the mayor cracked down on proposals he said dealt with matters outside the budget. Only 16 amendments won approval, and just four actually moved money or enacted a practical change. The rest merely directed departments or the city to “study” or “explore” or “assess the opportunity” of new ideas, with no requirement to adopt or implement them.

“Over the last few years I’ve been very lenient. When I see that leniency being abused, I exercise my authority,” Turner said at the beginning of the meeting. “Now, I’m calling it as it should have been called…. I’m not going to be here all night on non-budgetary amendments.”

The approved budget relies on $130 million in federal COVID-19 relief money and a $100 million spike in sales tax revenue to close deficits and help the city pay for previously announced pay raises. It also reserves $311 million for the future, when the city may face larger deficits as the federal funding runs out.

The most notable consequence for residents will stem from water bill rate hikes previously passed by council last year. Revenue from water and wastewater bills increased by 9 and 20 percent from a September hike, and again by 7.5 and 11 percent from an increase in April.

The rates vary by customer type, meter size and usage, but the bill for a customer who uses 3,000 gallons of water went from $27.39 before the hikes to $37.18 after the April increase. The rates will continue to rise every April through 2026.

As a result, the budget passed Wednesday included a 23 percent increase in water revenue, from $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion. That $280 million accounts for much of the $487 million increase in this year’s overall budget. The bulk of Public Works’ budget comes from that water revenue, a so-called “dedicated fund” where the money must be spent on water infrastructure and service.

The $3 billion general fund, which is supported by property taxes and other fees and supports most core city services, marks a $240 million increase, or 9 percent, over last year. Most of that increase pays for raises for firefighters (6 percent), police officers (4 percent) and municipal employees (3 percent).

More than half of the general fund supports public safety, with the $989 million police budget taking the largest share of resources. The fire department’s budget is $559 million.

The budget does not include a property tax rate increase. Turner has said he also plans to increase the exemption for seniors and disabled residents, although such a measure has not yet reached City Council.

See here for the background. In regard to the water rates, I will remind you that the city is as of last year under a federal consent decree to “spend an estimated $2 billion over the next 15 years to upgrade its troubled sanitary sewer system”. The story doesn’t mention this, but the money is for that purpose, and if it’s not used for that purpose we’ll be dragged back into court. As for the rest, I’m glad we’re building the reserve back up, I suspect we will be needing it again soon.

Are we going to raise the COVID threat level again?

Maybe, but not yet.

Coronavirus infections are on the rise across Houston, wastewater tracking shows, even as fewer people seek testing two years into the pandemic.

Four months after the city saw record infection rates caused by the highly contagious omicron variant, new COVID-19 cases are once again climbing, according to data collected by Rice University and the Houston Health Department. The most recent sewage samples show increased viral loads at all but a few of the city’s three dozen wastewater treatment plants.

Citywide, the amount of virus particles detected in wastewater is up 242 percent above baseline, with an overall positivity rate of 14 percent. Both metrics increased by about a third over the previous samples, taken in early May. At the 69th street plant, serving much of the Inner Loop, officials said virus levels are 123 percent above baseline, with a 22 percent positivity rate.

Despite the uptick, health officials do not anticipate raising Harris County’s threat level to the highest level. The county’s threat level is currently set at moderate, signally a controlled level of COVID spread.

“Even though we see positivity rates going up, our hospital rates continue to remain low, said Dr. Erika Brown of the Harris County Health Department.

[…]

New of the rise in viral levels in the wastewater comes days after researchers at Houston Methodist reported new insight into how the omicron variant is mutating in Houston and across Texas.

Researchers demonstrated that two dominant sublineages of omicron have developed “unprecedented numbers” of spike protein mutations, leading to increased transmissibility. The mutations also enhance its ability to evade vaccines and the immune system.

This is a press release about the study in question; it’s from late April, which I’d classify as more than “days” ago, but whatever. The COVID levels in our wastewater continue to rise, but if the hospitals are still not seeing an increase in patients, then the threat level will stay where it is. I don’t know how long we can maintain this balance, but I sure hope it continues.

That press release is worth a read:

“One of the surprising findings in this study was that many mutations with critical roles in immune escape in previous variants of SARS-CoV-2 do not play the same roles in immune escape in omicron, and, in some cases, the effects of these mutations are completely reversed,” said Gollihar, who is the head of antibody discovery and accelerated protein therapeutics in Houston Methodist’s Center for Infectious Diseases. “The virus also appears to be stabilizing itself to allow for more mutations to evade our immune systems.”

He said this study is the first to systematically dissect each of the omicron mutations across the entirety of the spike protein. Previous studies miss contextual and long-range interactions across the protein.

“We developed a comprehensive map showing various mechanisms of immune escape by omicron that allows us to identify which antibodies retain neutralization activity against the virus,” Gollihar said. “This and future work will enable clinicians to make informed decisions about the use of monoclonal antibody therapy and aid in the development of next-generation vaccines.”

Having this new information about key features of omicron’s spike protein mutations and how they synergize, Gollihar and his team say it’s possible that the continuing accumulation of mutations may set the stage for greatly altering the equilibrium and stability of the spike protein in a way that allows for new, more virulent strains to develop. Understanding this evolution is critical, they say, to better inform future therapeutic targets and vaccine formulations, as the SARS-CoV-2 virus will continue to evolve with new variants inevitably arising and spreading.

Looking forward, they add, the strategy used in this study also will be applicable to future zoonotic outbreaks and other microbial pathogens, providing a powerful platform for investigating evolutionary trajectories of infectious agents and engineering appropriate and adaptable vaccines.

“We will continue to monitor the virus for changes in the spike protein and add new antibodies to test as they are discovered. Continuing to do so will allow us to design better probes for antibody discovery in hopes of engineering new therapeutics by finding potent neutralizing antibodies across all variants,” Gollihar said. “We have also recently expanded the platform to other pathogens where we hope to stay ahead of other potential outbreaks.”

I’m in awe of the work these folks have done and continue to do – I’m speaking of the researchers worldwide, not just these specific ones. We’re in a constant race with this virus, and so far we’ve been able to keep up. As above, I sure hope that continues, too. Stace has more.

What does the Army Corps of Engineers owe reservoir flooding victims?

We’ll soon find out.

Christina Micu sat on the witness stand and tearfully explained how she’d made a list of everything she lost when Hurricane Harvey flooded her four-bedroom home. Her son’s toys. Her kitchen stove. A rocking chair her mom had given her.

She threw it all away — and wants to be paid back for it.

“A lot of things were taken from me when we were flooded,” Micu said. “A lot of them are irreplaceable. I’ll never have them back, from heirloom items to baby pictures.”

Micu gave her testimony in Houston Tuesday as the long-awaited trial kicked off before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to determine what the government owes her and her neighbors for flooding their homes.

Senior Judge Charles F. Lettow, who is presiding at this week’s hearing, found the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers liable following a previous proceeding three years ago. The Corps held water behind two dams west of town to lessen flooding in central Houston when days of rain drenched the region in 2017. The vast majority of residents behind these massive earthen dams did not know they lived in the reservoirs.

After delays caused by the pandemic, the judge will consider what is owed to Harvey victims by examining a handful of individual flooding cases as examples. The outcomes will set criteria for what happens for thousands of others.

“Plaintiffs suffered at the hands of the government in order to save downtown Houston,” said attorney Daniel Charest, as photos of the flooding flashed on computer screens. “They only want to be made whole.”

This was the residents’ only chance to be paid back for their lost private property rights, Charest argued. And not only had they lost property, the value of the homes would drop as a result of the flooding the government inflicted, he said.

Representing the U.S. government, attorney Laura Duncan said the neighborhoods where homes flooded are still desirable. The real estate market wasn’t impacted, she argued.

There were two lawsuits filed over this. In 2019, the judge ruled that the Army Corps was liable – it’s not clear to me whether this is the outcome of one of those suits or if they were combined – and we are now at the damages portion of the trial. I don’t know what to expect at this point, but it seems likely to me that the homeowners will get something. It’s a question of how much.

UPDATE: This Chron story from Thursday afternoon, in a fortuitous bit of timing, answers my question about which lawsuit this is about. Tune in tomorrow for the thrilling conclusion!