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December, 2022:

Saturday video break: The year of Olivia

By “Olivia” I mean Olivia Rodrigo, though it was my Olivia who first introduced me to the latter’s music. They share something in common besides their given name, and that’s a love of Billy Joel. My Olivia came back to Houston from college to see Billy Joel with us at Minute Maid Park in September, but she’s still a little salty about the fact that I didn’t take her to New York to see Billy Joel at one of his regular Madison Square Garden shows. When COVID first hit, I admit I feared, as did Olivia, that maybe there would never be another chance to do that. That remains to be seen, but at least we can say we saw him in concert together.

Anyway, whether we get to see him at MSG on some future date, we’ll likely not see a repeat of this from one of his shows in August:

I’ve watched this video at least 20 times since I first heard of its existence (via Twitter, as bittersweet as that is). I love everything about it – her joy and enthusiasm, the way the two of them play off each other, how she skips off the stage at the end. It’s everything you could want from a live musical performance, and that it came as a surprise to everyone in attendance just makes it that much sweeter.

And then, in November, Rodrigo took the stage to honor another legend by singing one of Carly Simon’s greatest hits at her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction:

Again, I love everything about this. The song is an all-timer, and it is just perfect for her voice. (There’s a great cover of it by Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet that I also recommend; this one is maybe a smidge better but both are total bangers.) The way the band feeds off her energy, and the way the crowd is into it – the shots of Brandi Carlile singing along, and (I believe) LL Cool J air-drumming are perfection. As with the Billy Joel video, this is an introduction of Olivia Rodrigo to folks who are of the Billy Joel/Carly Simon musical era, and they are suitably impressed. Several commented that she should do a cover album of classic rock and pop hits, and I would be so there for it. I already like her debut album Sour – give it a listen if you haven’t already.

Two other things. One, much as I love “You’re So Vain”, we realize that whoever Carly Simon was (figuratively or actually) singing it to would have heard it at some point, and thus would have been correct in assuming that the song was indeed about him, right? It’s a good mind-fuck either way, I just wanted to note that for the record.

And two, in regard to the first video:

Sigh. I’m old enough to remember when Twitter was fun. Maybe it will be again someday. Happy New Year!

The Uvalde bus driver who helped save shooting victims’ lives

Great reporting.

When Uvalde school bus driver Sylvia Uriegas got the call on May 24 to report to Robb Elementary, she had no idea about the horror she was approaching.

With nothing but a rudimentary first aid kit filled mostly with Band Aids, Uriegas had been called to the scene of one of the nation’s worst mass school shootings — with no training for the important role she would play as the chaotic scene unfolded.

When Uriegas and two other bus drivers, who were taking kids to a field trip at a nearby park, reached the school, the streets were swarmed with law enforcement and parents. The central office dispatcher who asked her to report to the school had warned of an “emergency” — but said no more.

With her normal path to the building blocked, Uriegas backed her bus up and found another route. The two other school buses followed. Another driver opened her door and asked a bystander what was happening. Only then did they learn that there was an active shooter inside Robb.

Ultimately, Uriegas’ bus became a makeshift ambulance that carried kids with gunshot wounds to the hospital.

“We’re not first responders,” Uriegas said. “But then we were.”

Her experience echoes many of the stories from Uvalde on that day. Chaos, unclear chains of command and confusion about protocol prevented an effective response that could have saved at least a few of the 19 children and two teachers slain by the lone gunman. Police waited 77 minutes after the shooter entered the school before they stormed the classroom where he was holed up with dying children and teachers.

Once the classroom was breached, officials lacked the resources and coordination needed to provide the proper medical response.

Though Uriegas did save lives, it made her aware of a glaring hole in the district’s school safety plan.

“I could have gone in knowing a little bit better,” Uriegas said. “But we’ve never been trained.”

Other than speaking at school board meetings asking for better training, she kept her thoughts and feelings to herself, knowing what she saw and experienced could not compare to the parents who had lost children, and the survivors themselves.

But when she ran into some of the family members of slain 9-year-old Jackie Cazares, they urged her to tell the story from the driver’s seat — the full scope of all that had gone wrong, of the mishandling and lack of preparedness needed to be made public, they said.

As the passage of time and the levity of the holidays pushes the tragedy from the headlines, Uriegas and the families don’t want complacency to set in, for Uvalde to forget just how unprepared it had been.

So Uriegas has decided to tell her story.

And you should read it. One infuriating detail is that neither Uriegas nor other bus drivers who helped ferry traumatized children to the reunification center after the shooting received any counseling provided by the school district. She got some for herself anyway, and is still very much dealing with her own post-traumatic stress. All I can say is God bless you, Sylvia Uriegas, and your fellow bus drivers. Please do keep telling your stories.

The ribbon is finally cut on the White Oak bike trail extension

I’d been waiting for this.

Hike and bike trail connectivity has just gotten better in the Houston Heights area now that work on a new connector is complete. The City of Houston held a ribbon cutting [last] Tuesday to celebrate the new MKT Spur Connector that connects the MKT and White Oak Bayou Greenway Trails.

The $1.2 million project is a 850 ft. long and 10 ft. wide trail that allows residents to travel from the MKT Hike and Bike Trail to Stude Park, connecting to what used to be a dead end under Studemont Street.

“The MKT Spur Connector fills a major gap for the city’s bike network,” said Houston Public Works Director of Transportation and Drainage Operations Veronica Davis. “This connection proves a safer and more equitable transportation network for all users.”

The connector was completed a few months ago and the city has since added additional safety railings and retaining walls and stormwater drainage to help prevent flooding along the trails.

District C city council member Abbie Kamin said the project creates safer transit for residents who use both trails.

“We are now connecting two of, in district C, our most popular trails where residents can be more comfortable walking, running, biking, and not being forced onto busy streets,” she said.

See here for my last post on the construction of this connector. In looking at those pictures, it occurred to me that I missed documenting all of the safety add-ons mentioned in the story. I couldn’t let that go, could I? Of course not.

HeightsTrailExtensionWithAddedGuardrails

You can see the two types of guardrail added at the three locations, including where the trail passes over the bayou culvert. That one was obviously needed. I’m not certain why the others were added where they were and not in different locations, but that’s all right. They do look good, and if someone decide that’s where they need to be, then so be it.

A side view:

HeightsTrailExtensionWithAddedGuardrailsFullView

I’ve now used the extension a couple of times myself, as both a pedestrian and a bicyclist. It’s great – I had no idea how much it was needed until it was there, as part of the overall network. The MKT Trail, which is on the far end of these pictures, allows for easy bike access to the shopping center where the Target is. I’d much rather bike there most days than drive, but prior to the existence of this extension it was either a much long ride or a ride that involved Watson Street over I-10 and onto Sawyer, which is just too much car traffic to feel safe. It’s now a shorter ride to get there via the trail, and that makes biking there much more convenient and attractive. What’s not to like? CultureMap has more.

Precinct analysis: The better statewide races

PREVIOUSLY
Beto versus Abbott
Beto versus the spread
Hidalgo versus Mealer

As noted before, Greg Abbott got 490K votes in Harris County, far less than the 559K he received in 2018 running against Lupe Valdez. Of the other six races for statewide executive offices, three were similar in nature to the Governor’s race and three were friendlier to Republicans. This post is about the first three, and those are the races for Lite Guv, Attorney General, and Ag Commissioner. For those of you whose memories stretch back as far as 2018, yes those were the three best races for Dems after the Beto-Cruz race for Senate as well. Let’s look at the numbers.

Lieutenant Governor


Dist  Patrick  Collier     Lib
==============================
HD126  35,244   23,460   1,482
HD127  38,578   26,405   1,691
HD128  31,548   13,748   1,148
HD129  36,347   26,966   1,802
HD130  44,307   20,934   1,434
HD131   5,886   24,670     933
HD132  34,417   25,498   1,374
HD133  31,931   27,421   1,396
HD134  28,262   51,502   1,828
HD135  16,373   23,514   1,050
HD137   7,690   13,164     650
HD138  30,328   25,534   1,383
HD139  11,536   31,304   1,246
HD140   5,850   12,681     647
HD141   4,494   20,290     851
HD142   8,641   25,030   1,043
HD143   8,469   15,270     804
HD144  11,551   14,029     854
HD145  12,368   32,031   1,449
HD146   8,285   33,018   1,148
HD147   8,809   36,618   1,383
HD148  15,383   20,840   1,065
HD149  11,923   19,315     824
HD150  33,548   22,898   1,431

CC1    65,573  204,223   7,632
CC2    94,272  105,549   6,218
CC3   214,555  146,441   8,815
CC4   107,368  129,927   6,251
							
JP1    58,698  126,202   5,083
JP2    21,608   29,498   1,599
JP3    34,975   41,776   2,126
JP4   166,204  128,604   7,578
JP5   137,161  147,432   7,185
JP6     4,941   17,062     885
JP7    11,370   65,643   2,250
JP8    46,811   29,923   2,210

Dist Patrick% Collier%    Lib%
==============================
HD126  58.56%   38.98%   2.46%
HD127  57.86%   39.60%   2.54%
HD128  67.93%   29.60%   2.47%
HD129  55.82%   41.41%   2.77%
HD130  66.45%   31.40%   2.15%
HD131  18.69%   78.34%   2.96%
HD132  56.16%   41.60%   2.24%
HD133  52.56%   45.14%   2.30%
HD134  34.64%   63.12%   2.24%
HD135  40.00%   57.44%   2.56%
HD137  35.76%   61.22%   3.02%
HD138  52.98%   44.60%   2.42%
HD139  26.17%   71.01%   2.83%
HD140  30.50%   66.12%   3.37%
HD141  17.53%   79.15%   3.32%
HD142  24.89%   72.10%   3.00%
HD143  34.51%   62.22%   3.28%
HD144  43.70%   53.07%   3.23%
HD145  26.98%   69.86%   3.16%
HD146  19.52%   77.78%   2.70%
HD147  18.82%   78.23%   2.95%
HD148  41.25%   55.89%   2.86%
HD149  37.19%   60.24%   2.57%
HD150  57.96%   39.56%   2.47%

CC1    23.64%   73.61%   2.75%
CC2    45.75%   51.23%   3.02%
CC3    58.02%   39.60%   2.38%
CC4    44.09%   53.35%   2.57%
			
JP1    30.90%   66.43%   2.68%
JP2    41.00%   55.97%   3.03%
JP3    44.34%   52.96%   2.70%
JP4    54.96%   42.53%   2.51%
JP5    47.01%   50.53%   2.46%
JP6    21.59%   74.55%   3.87%
JP7    14.34%   82.82%   2.84%
JP8    59.30%   37.90%   2.80%

Attorney General


Dist   Paxton    Garza     Lib
==============================
HD126  35,146   23,166   1,681
HD127  38,480   26,208   1,817
HD128  31,566   13,692   1,110
HD129  36,386   26,643   1,914
HD130  44,397   20,427   1,713
HD131   5,857   24,875     694
HD132  34,454   25,125   1,539
HD133  31,901   26,700   1,898
HD134  28,201   50,706   2,371
HD135  16,314   23,615     964
HD137   7,704   13,091     643
HD138  30,154   25,204   1,732
HD139  11,438   31,372   1,145
HD140   5,605   13,078     466
HD141   4,487   20,489     610
HD142   8,580   25,228     859
HD143   8,346   15,595     594
HD144  11,375   14,337     662
HD145  12,220   32,097   1,425
HD146   8,320   32,991     999
HD147   8,731   36,766   1,206
HD148  15,221   20,981   1,035
HD149  11,876   19,423     706
HD150  33,382   22,726   1,595
							
CC1    65,204  204,223   7,257
CC2    93,611  106,606   5,426
CC3   214,042  144,575  10,162
CC4   107,284  129,131   6,533
							
JP1    58,125  125,740   5,522
JP2    21,364   29,906   1,317
JP3    34,843   42,072   1,833
JP4   165,760  127,783   8,087
JP5   136,969  146,132   7,898
JP6     4,815   17,369     687
JP7    11,411   65,835   1,804
JP8    46,854   29,698   2,230

Dist  Paxton%   Garza%    Lib%
==============================
HD126  58.58%   38.61%   2.80%
HD127  57.86%   39.41%   2.73%
HD128  68.08%   29.53%   2.39%
HD129  56.03%   41.03%   2.95%
HD130  66.73%   30.70%   2.57%
HD131  18.64%   79.15%   2.21%
HD132  56.37%   41.11%   2.52%
HD133  52.73%   44.13%   3.14%
HD134  34.70%   62.39%   2.92%
HD135  39.89%   57.75%   2.36%
HD137  35.94%   61.06%   3.00%
HD138  52.82%   44.15%   3.03%
HD139  26.02%   71.37%   2.60%
HD140  29.27%   68.30%   2.43%
HD141  17.54%   80.08%   2.38%
HD142  24.75%   72.77%   2.48%
HD143  34.02%   63.56%   2.42%
HD144  43.13%   54.36%   2.51%
HD145  26.72%   70.17%   3.12%
HD146  19.66%   77.97%   2.36%
HD147  18.69%   78.72%   2.58%
HD148  40.88%   56.34%   2.78%
HD149  37.11%   60.69%   2.21%
HD150  57.85%   39.38%   2.76%
			
CC1    23.57%   73.81%   2.62%
CC2    45.52%   51.84%   2.64%
CC3    58.04%   39.20%   2.76%
CC4    44.16%   53.15%   2.69%
			
JP1    30.69%   66.39%   2.92%
JP2    40.63%   56.87%   2.50%
JP3    44.25%   53.43%   2.33%
JP4    54.95%   42.36%   2.68%
JP5    47.07%   50.22%   2.71%
JP6    21.05%   75.94%   3.00%
JP7    14.44%   83.28%   2.28%
JP8    59.47%   37.70%   2.83%

Dan Patrick (481K votes) and Ken Paxton (480K) were the two low scorers among Republicans. Mike Collier and Rochelle Garza both had leads against them of just over 100K votes, right in line with Beto’s lead against Abbott. That’s not as robust as what Dems did in 2018 as we know, but I can’t blame Collier and Garza for that. They were still top scorers, it was mostly that the environment wasn’t as good for them.

Overall, it looks like Collier and Garza did about as well percentage-wise as Beto did. Collier actually did a tiny bit better in HD133, and both did better in HD134. In some cases, like HD132 and HD138, Collier and Garza were about equal with Beto but Patrick and Paxton were a point or two behind Abbott. That looks to me to be the effect of the larger Libertarian vote in those races – there were about 29K Lib votes in these two races, while there were about 16K third party and write-in votes for Governor. At least in those cases, you can make the claim that the Libertarian received votes that might have otherwise gone to the Republican.

In the Ag Commissioner race, Sid Miller got 507K votes to top Abbott’s total, but he was aided by not having any third party candidates. Susan Hays did pretty well compared to the other Dems in that straight up two-way race:

Ag Commissioner


Dist   Miller     Hays
======================
HD126  36,872   22,678
HD127  40,060   25,992
HD128  32,447   13,641
HD129  38,091   26,236
HD130  46,273   19,792
HD131   6,091   25,170
HD132  36,189   24,576
HD133  34,548   25,581
HD134  31,793   48,687
HD135  17,174   23,491
HD137   8,207   13,090
HD138  32,276   24,389
HD139  12,291   31,372
HD140   5,904   13,079
HD141   4,667   20,779
HD142   9,047   25,391
HD143   8,631   15,710
HD144  11,849   14,344
HD145  13,871   31,301
HD146   8,922   33,114
HD147   9,761   36,482
HD148  16,238   20,657
HD149  12,270   19,513
HD150  34,895   22,408
						
CC1    71,746  202,649
CC2    97,753  106,167
CC3   224,670  141,583
CC4   114,198  127,074
						
JP1    64,850  122,675
JP2    22,256   29,898
JP3    35,923   42,332
JP4   173,381  126,119
JP5   145,619  143,496
JP6     5,243   17,412
JP7    12,266   66,242
JP8    48,829   29,299

Dist  Miller%    Hays% 
=======================
HD126  61.92%   38.08%
HD127  60.65%   39.35%
HD128  70.40%   29.60%
HD129  59.21%   40.79%
HD130  70.04%   29.96%
HD131  19.48%   80.52%
HD132  59.56%   40.44%
HD133  57.46%   42.54%
HD134  39.50%   60.50%
HD135  42.23%   57.77%
HD137  38.54%   61.46%
HD138  56.96%   43.04%
HD139  28.15%   71.85%
HD140  31.10%   68.90%
HD141  18.34%   81.66%
HD142  26.27%   73.73%
HD143  35.46%   64.54%
HD144  45.24%   54.76%
HD145  30.71%   69.29%
HD146  21.22%   78.78%
HD147  21.11%   78.89%
HD148  44.01%   55.99%
HD149  38.61%   61.39%
HD150  60.90%   39.10%
		
CC1    26.15%   73.85%
CC2    47.94%   52.06%
CC3    61.34%   38.66%
CC4    47.33%   52.67%
		
JP1    34.58%   65.42%
JP2    42.67%   57.33%
JP3    45.91%   54.09%
JP4    57.89%   42.11%
JP5    50.37%   49.63%
JP6    23.14%   76.86%
JP7    15.62%   84.38%
JP8    62.50%   37.50%

Miller was definitely a slight notch up from the first three. How much of that is the lack of a third choice versus some other consideration I couldn’t say, but you can see it in the numbers.

I’ll get into it a bit more in the next post when we look at the higher-scoring Republicans, but my sense is that these three Dems, plus Beto, received some crossovers. Beto and Collier and Garza had enough money to at least run some ads, while Hays was still running against perhaps the highest-profile (read: got the most negative news for his ridiculous actions) incumbent after those three. We have definitely seen races like this, certainly in elections going back to 2016 – Hillary versus Trump, Biden versus Trump, Beto and the Lite Guv/AG/Ag Commish triumvirate this year and 2018. We saw it with Bill White in 2010, too – as I’ve observed in the past, White received something like 300K votes from people who otherwise voted Republican. That’s a lot! Democrats can persuade at least some Republicans to vote for their statewide candidates, but only under some conditions. If we can get the baseline vote to be closer, that could be enough to push some people over the top. We’re still working on the first part of that equation.

Like I said, I’ll get into that a bit more in the next post. Looking at what I’ve written here, I need to do a post about third party votes, too. Let me know what you think.

More guns found at domestic violence incidents

Not great.

The 2021 State of the State report from the Texas Council on Family Violence (TCFV) outlines key domestic violence statistics from the past two years. The report shows the number of domestic violence calls law enforcement responded to that involved a gun increased by 92.4%.

Texas law prohibits someone subject to a protective order for abuse from possessing a firearm except for law enforcement officers. But Breall Baccus from TCFV said that people with protective orders don’t always have their firearms taken away.

“A lot of counties don’t have a process in place to remove those firearms,” Baccus said.

Kathryn Jacob is the president and CEO at SafeHaven, the state-designated family violence center in Tarrant County. She said guns play a major role in domestic violence homicides.

“As far as intimate partners are concerned, year after year, the vast majority die by guns,” Jacob said.

The presence of a firearm increases a woman’s risk of being killed as much as 500%, according to the report. It also shows that women are almost four times more likely to be killed when attempting to leave their abuser than at any other point in the relationship.

The report in question is here; it’s a nine-page PDF with charts and easy to read so take a minute and give it a look. You know who else would very much like for there to be fewer guns present at domestic violence incidents? Every member of your local law enforcement office. The Lege is not inclined to do anything about that, and even they felt some pressure to do so they would point to the recent deranged court ruling from Texas that claims it would be unconstitutional. So here we are, and you can expect that number to continue to rise.

Precinct analysis: Hidalgo versus Mealer

PREVIOUSLY
Beto versus Abbott
Beto versus the spread

We’ve looked at the Governor’s race, in which Beto was the top Democratic performer. Now we’ll look at the next highest profile race, in which the result was a surprise to some people who didn’t connect Democratic performance at the top of the ticket with the other local races. Here’s the data for the County Judge race, in which Judge Lina Hidalgo won re-election by a close margin, though on a percentage basis it was slightly wider than her initial win in 2018. As with the first Beto post, I’m just going to dump all the data and will add my comments at the end.


Dist   Mealer  Hidalgo    W-I
=============================
CD02   77,665   46,669     21
CD07   53,108   77,625     29
CD08   46,156   45,668     17
CD09   23,451   71,374     29
CD18   46,492  107,792     46
CD22   13,292    8,076      2
CD29   33,392   66,220     27
CD36   70,392   41,817     24
CD38  170,772   87,662     46

CD02   62.45%   37.53%  0.02%
CD07   40.61%   59.36%  0.02%
CD08   50.26%   49.73%  0.02%
CD09   24.72%   75.25%  0.03%
CD18   30.13%   69.85%  0.03%
CD22   62.20%   37.79%  0.01%
CD29   33.51%   66.46%  0.03%
CD36   62.72%   37.26%  0.02%
CD38   66.07%   33.91%  0.02%

Dist   Mealer  Hidalgo    W-I
=============================
SD04   58,925   34,135     14
SD06   45,259   81,877     39
SD07  163,993   97,075     50
SD11   60,351   32,991     17
SD13   25,998   96,440     45
SD15   97,303  146,861     50
SD17   64,692   46,518     22
SD18   18,199   17,006      4

SD04   63.31%   36.68%  0.02%
SD06   35.59%   64.38%  0.03%
SD07   62.80%   37.18%  0.02%
SD11   64.64%   35.34%  0.02%
SD13   21.23%   78.74%  0.04%
SD15   39.84%   60.14%  0.02%
SD17   58.16%   41.82%  0.02%
SD18   51.69%   48.30%  0.01%

Dist   Mealer  Hidalgo    W-I
=============================
HD126  38,281   21,401     17
HD127  41,603   24,533      5
HD128  33,175   12,968     12
HD129  39,519   24,982     11
HD130  47,660   18,606     13
HD131   6,519   24,611     13
HD132  37,180   23,721      7
HD133  36,909   23,379     11
HD134  35,653   45,142     16
HD135  17,620   22,982      7
HD137   8,600   12,670      9
HD138  33,875   22,977      9
HD139  13,492   30,143     11
HD140   6,238   12,885      5
HD141   5,209   20,104     17
HD142   9,939   24,454      7
HD143   9,087   15,412      6
HD144  12,242   14,069      9
HD145  15,445   30,141     11
HD146   9,975   31,981     11
HD147  10,964   35,240     12
HD148  16,934   20,004      8
HD149  12,496   19,196      4
HD150  36,105   21,302     10

HD126  64.12%   35.85%  0.03%
HD127  62.90%   37.09%  0.01%
HD128  71.88%   28.10%  0.03%
HD129  61.26%   38.72%  0.02%
HD130  71.91%   28.07%  0.02%
HD131  20.93%   79.03%  0.04%
HD132  61.04%   38.95%  0.01%
HD133  61.21%   38.77%  0.02%
HD134  44.12%   55.86%  0.02%
HD135  43.39%   56.59%  0.02%
HD137  40.42%   59.54%  0.04%
HD138  59.58%   40.41%  0.02%
HD139  30.91%   69.06%  0.03%
HD140  32.61%   67.36%  0.03%
HD141  20.56%   79.37%  0.07%
HD142  28.89%   71.09%  0.02%
HD143  37.08%   62.89%  0.02%
HD144  46.51%   53.45%  0.03%
HD145  33.87%   66.10%  0.02%
HD146  23.77%   76.21%  0.03%
HD147  23.72%   76.25%  0.03%
HD148  45.83%   54.14%  0.02%
HD149  39.42%   60.56%  0.01%
HD150  62.88%   37.10%  0.02%

Dist   Mealer  Hidalgo    W-I
=============================
CC1    80,014  194,272     79
CC2   101,745  103,117     48
CC3   233,567  133,554     63
CC4   119,394  121,960     51

CC1    29.16%   70.81%  0.03%
CC2    49.65%   50.32%  0.02%
CC3    63.61%   36.37%  0.02%
CC4    49.46%   50.52%  0.02%

Dist   Mealer  Hidalgo    W-I
=============================
JP1    71,793  116,463     40
JP2    23,249   29,149     10
JP3    37,340   40,840     31
JP4   180,017  119,979     60
JP5   152,130  137,293     52
JP6     5,840   17,018      5
JP7    13,972   64,220     27
JP8    50,379   27,941     16

JP1    38.13%   61.85%  0.02%
JP2    44.36%   55.62%  0.02%
JP3    47.74%   52.22%  0.04%
JP4    59.99%   39.99%  0.02%
JP5    52.55%   47.43%  0.02%
JP6    25.54%   74.43%  0.02%
JP7    17.86%   82.10%  0.03%
JP8    64.31%   35.67%  0.02%

Hidalgo got 50.78% of the vote, which is 3.25 points less than Beto. She got 553K votes, which is 42K less than Beto. Mealer got 534K votes, 44K more than Abbott. Third party candidates accounted for over 16K votes in the Governor’s race, while the write-in candidate for County Judge got 241 total votes. I do not and never will understand anyone who thinks that writing in a candidate for County Judge could possibly be productive, but that’s not important right now.

For the most part, Hidalgo’s performance in each district is about what you’d expect in comparison to Beto. Generally speaking, she did a couple of points worse. The two glaring exceptions to this are HDs 133 and 134, both wealthy, well-educated, predominantly white districts that, in keeping with recent trends, are a lot more Democratic than they used to be. Hidalgo trailed Beto by six points in HD133 and seven in HD134. If I were the New York Times, I’d spend the next six months visiting brunch counters in those districts to talk to more-in-sadness-than-in-anger Mealer voters, who will turn out to have been almost uniformly Ed Emmett voters in 2018 but who will insist that they really wanted to support Hidalgo, they largely agreed with her on how she handled the pandemic and all, but for reasons they can’t quite articulate they just couldn’t. I’m sure it would be compelling reading, but I don’t have the staff or the budget for that. Plus, the idea of it makes me gag, so it’s just as well.

Anyway. The other notable thing is that with the lone exception of JP/Constable Precinct 5, Hidalgo still carried every district Beto carried. (I’m not concerning myself with fractional districts like CD08.) I was worried that if Hidalgo lost, there was a real chance Dems could lose not one but both of the Commissioners Court races as well. Looking at the numbers, it’s not an irrational fear. I’ll have more to say about those Commissioners Court precincts later, so let’s put a pin in that for now.

We have to talk about the many millions of dollars spent by various wealthy wingnuts against Judge Hidalgo and Democratic criminal court judges. We can’t say for certain how much all that spending affected the final outcomes, but it’s impossible to think it had no effect. What I wonder about is whether there will be much appetite for that kind of spending in future races. For sure, it’s hard to imagine much money spent on Republicans locally in 2024. Democrats haven’t lost a judicial race in a Presidential year since 2012, and haven’t lost a majority of judicial races in a Presidential year since 2004. In 2020, eleven Democratic judicial candidates were unopposed. I won’t be surprised if that number is matched or exceeded in 2024. I won’t speculate about 2026 – at the very least, Republicans will have four incumbents to try to defend, so they’ll want to do something – but I don’t see them having a $25 million budget. Maybe Judge Hidalgo will have an easier time of it as well.

I’ll have more to say about judicial races later. In the meantime, let me know what you think.

A closer look at the maternal mortality report

I take no joy in predicting that the Legislature will take no action on this.

Nakeenya Wilson was at a meeting of Texas’ maternal mortality review committee when she got the call: Her sister, who had recently had a baby, was having a stroke.

Wilson raced to the hospital, leaving behind a stack of files documenting the stories of women who had died from pregnancy and childbirth complications. Many of the women in those files were Black, just like Wilson, who experienced a traumatic delivery herself.

“The whole thing just reminded me, if you change the name on those files, it could be me. It could be my sister,” said Wilson, who serves as the committee’s community representative.

A decade ago, when Texas first formed the Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Review Committee, Black women were twice as likely as white women, and four times as likely as Hispanic women, to die from pregnancy and childbirth.

Those disparities haven’t improved, according to the committee’s latest report, published Thursday.

In 2020, pregnant Black women were twice as likely to experience critical health issues like hemorrhage, preeclampsia and sepsis. While complications from obstetric hemorrhage declined overall in Texas in recent years, Black women saw an increase of nearly 10%.

Wilson said these statistics show the impact of a health care system that is biased against Black women.

“We’re still dying and being disproportionately impacted by hemorrhage when everybody else is getting better,” Wilson said. “Not only did it not improve, it didn’t stay the same — it got worse.”

The causes of these disparities aren’t always simple to identify, and they’re even harder to fix. It’s a combination of diminished health care access, systemic racism, and the impact of “social determinants of health” — the conditions in which someone is born, lives, works and grows up.

Wilson said she and her sister are prime examples. They grew up in poverty, without health insurance, routine doctor’s visits or consistent access to healthy food.

“We started behind the ball,” she said. “We’ve had so many hard things happen to us that have contributed to our health by the time we’re of childbearing age.”

Maternal health advocates in Texas say addressing these disparities will take more than fixing labor and delivery practices. It will require building a comprehensive health care system that addresses a community’s needs across the board, starting long before pregnancy.

In the end, Wilson’s sister survived her postpartum health scare. But the experience reminded Wilson why she volunteers her time to read, review and analyze stories of women who have died from pregnancy and childbirth.

“When you look at the work marginalized people do, they do it because they don’t feel like they have any choice,” she said. “If we want to see things change, and we want to be safe, we have to advocate for our own safety.”

See here for some background. There’s way too much for me to try to capture in an excerpt, so go read the whole thing. Rep. Shawn Thierry, who experienced some of these problems herself a few years ago when she was giving birth, is and has been working on getting legislation passed to address the issues, which includes things like expanding health care access, gathering better information, and strengthening the maternal mortality review process. See above for my assessment of the likelihood of passage. Rep. Thierry will need a lot more like-minded colleagues to make that happen, and we are very much not there yet. But the work is happening, and will continue to happen.

Texas blog roundup for the week of December 26

The Texas Progressive Alliance wishes everyone a Happy Boxing Day as it brings you the last blog roundup of 2022.

(more…)

Will we finally close the “dead suspect” loophole?

The short answer is no we won’t, but it will be worth the effort anyway.

Rep. Joe Moody

In November, state Representative Joe Moody, an El Paso Democrat who served on a committee that investigated the Uvalde killings, filed House Bill 30, a multifaceted measure that would close what’s called the “dead suspect loophole.” Under current law, Texas cops and prosecutors may withhold from the public many records stemming from investigations that did not result in a conviction. This statute arguably protects the reputations of innocent Texans, but it also casts a veil of secrecy over cases where there’s no conviction because the suspect is deceased—including when cops kill someone during an arrest, or a person dies in jail, or a school shooter’s rampage ends, as happened at Robb Elementary, with his own demise. Moody’s bill would specifically open up many cases where the lack of a conviction resulted from a suspect’s death.

Since May, state police have withheld records such as video and audio recordings from the Uvalde scene on the premise that the local district attorney is still investigating—a standard reason that agencies hold back much detailed information. Under the dead suspect loophole, however, those records can plausibly be kept secret forever. HB 30 would head this off.

“I certainly respect the investigatory process, but at some point you turn the corner and the public deserves to scrutinize the records, and that is at the heart of the Public Information Act,” Moody told the Observer. “The government doesn’t get to decide what is good for us to know and what is bad for us to know.”

In June, GOP Speaker of the House Dade Phelan tweeted support for closing the dead suspect loophole in Uvalde’s wake, and a spokesperson confirmed in early December that the speaker continues to support such a policy though he is “not yet familiar with the specifics of legislation that has been filed.”

In its present form, HB 30 would also expand public access to information about police misconduct in general and to videos of jail deaths or shootings by police, along with creating a public database of reports related to such shootings, among other provisions.

Next year’s legislative session, to begin in January, will mark the fourth time that Moody has tried to close the dead suspect loophole. In past sessions, discussion of his bills centered on prominent cases in which Texans were shot on their porches, tased in the back of squad cars, or left to perish in jails. Moody nearly succeeded in closing the loophole in 2019—with help from a contingent of small-government Republicans open to criminal justice reform—but he was derailed by a last-minute, scorched-earth campaign from the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT), the state’s largest police union, in a fight that left the El Paso lawmaker and the lobbying powerhouse as bitter adversaries.

Transparency advocates hope that Uvalde will make the difference this time around, but they won’t be getting any help from CLEAT. “Just like it has been in the past, this is a George Soros-funded fishing expedition that seeks to tear down our profession by false innuendo,” said CLEAT spokesperson Jennifer Szimanski, homing in on parts of the bill dealing with police personnel files. “We’ll definitely be fighting this piece of legislation.”

Szimanski—who also said of the bill: “This is ‘defund the police’”—added that there was likely no path for her group and Moody to discuss any compromise because “the author of this bill has not contacted us since 2019.”

Moody countered that his bill is “properly tailored” to only target information in police personnel files necessary to shed light on misconduct and specific incidents including ones involving dead suspects. “This is a serious policy. It’s not political grandstanding, but the people of that organization are completely disingenuous,” he said of CLEAT, adding that he has not received backing from George Soros, the Hungarian-American billionaire—often used as a bogeyman by the political right—who’s funded criminal justice reform efforts in recent years.

In addition to overcoming CLEAT, Moody would also need acquiescence from archconservative Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who controls the state Senate, and freshly reelected Governor Greg Abbott, who wields the veto pen and may harbor presidential ambitions. Neither responded to requests for comment for this article.

See here and here for some background. As I’ve said before on things like marijuana reform and expanded gambling, nothing will happen unless Dan Patrick changes his mind. We had our chance to do something about that, but we failed. Rep. Moody may be able to get a bill through the House again, but it will never make it through the Senate. It’s still worth the effort because of the stakes involved, but this is a long-term project. There’s no other way.

The rest of the story is about the history of this loophole, which has only existed since the late 90s – things were actually much better before then. Worth your time to read, I had no idea about it. For what it’s worth, Rep. Moody will surely have at least one cranky and pissed off ally in the Senate, and maybe that will have some effect.

Texas state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde, lambasted the emergency response to the Robb Elementary School shooting as “the worst response to a mass shooting in our nation’s history” during a congressional hearing Thursday.

“It was system failure, it was cowardice,” Gutierrez said. He joined family members and supporters of the victims in calling for stronger federal action to prevent gun violence.

Gutierrez, a Democrat, made the remarks during a hearing of the U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security that was focused on bipartisan legislative solutions to gun violence. But bipartisanship was hardly present as Democrats continued to point out what they called common-sense gun policy and Republicans accused them of trying to take away constitutional gun rights.

[…]

Congress passed a bipartisan law spearheaded by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in the aftermath of the Uvalde shooting — the first major gun safety law in decades. The law increased funding for mental health resources, barred convicted violent domestic partners from buying guns, created grants for states implementing red flag laws and set money for state crisis intervention programs.

But Gutierrez criticized the bipartisan gun law as lacking basic provisions that would have stopped the massacre. He was angered that the Senate stripped a provision raising the minimum age to buy assault weapons to 21.

“The fact is in Texas you got to be 21 to buy a handgun, 21 to buy a beer, 21 to buy a pack of cigarettes, but you can be 18 and buy an AR-15, and that’s what happened here because this governor allowed it,” Gutierrez told reporters during a recess in the hearing. “It’s time for change, not just in Texas but throughout this country.”

As we know, Sen. Gutierrez plans to be a pain in the Senate’s ass about Uvalde and gun control. I’m sure he’d be persuaded to add this item to his list.

You are now free to busk in Houston

Houston’s anti-busking law has been struck down in federal court.

Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

An obscure, decades-old ordinance that restricted where buskers — musicians who performs in public places — can play for tips in Houston has been deemed unconstitutional and struck down by a federal judge.

The decision this week by U.S. District Judge Alfred H. Bennett strikes down the burdensome permitting process that confined musicians vying for cash gratuity to the Theater District. While performers could play elsewhere, soliciting tips while doing so made them liable to a fine.

Now, anyone can play any instrument, anywhere and without a permit as long as noise restrictions are not violated, Pacific Legal Foundation lawyer Joshua Polk said.

Houston accordionist Anthony Barilla, who in January 2020 lodged the lawsuit, tested the ordinance prior to suing the city and found the eight-block zone void of pedestrians. Fewer people means fewer tips, he argued.

“It wasn’t financially worth it,” said Barilla, a member of the accordion band Houston’s A-S-S and a composer whose work has been heard on the radio program “This American Life.”

Barilla believes stretches of Westheimer in Montrose or along Main Street are better suited for sidewalk performances than the downtown Theater District. He recouped the cost of his $50 permit when he tested the busking waters. When his permit expired, he did not renew it. The application process required musicians to obtain written permission from “the abutting property owners” where they wish to play. Barilla was rejected thrice.

[…]

The judge’s ruling took exception to the busking ordinance as a First Amendment violation. Arturo Michel, who represented the city against the federal litigation, said the court, however, found no issue in how the ordinance regulated pedestrian traffic and safety.

The city has no plan to appeal the ruling and Mayor Sylvester Turner would rather have the ordinance amended as needed, city officials said.

See here and here for the background. I agree with this ruling and am glad that the city will not appeal. I said they should have settled the lawsuit and amended the ordinance as needed at the beginning, but for whatever the reason they went and defended the law. Kudos to Anthony Barilla for taking up this fight.

Department of Education investigating removal of LGBTQ books from Texas school library

Good.

The U.S. Education Department’s civil rights enforcement arm has launched an investigation into a North Texas school district whose superintendent was secretly recorded ordering librarians to remove LGBTQ-themed library books.

Education and legal experts say the federal probe of the Granbury Independent School District — which stemmed from a complaint by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and reporting by NBC NewsProPublica and The Texas Tribune — appears to be the first such investigation explicitly tied to the nationwide movement to ban school library books dealing with sexuality and gender.

The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights notified Granbury school officials on Dec. 6 that it had opened the investigation following a July complaint by the ACLU, which accused the district of violating a federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender. The ACLU complaint was based largely on an investigation published in March by NBC News, ProPublica and the Tribune that revealed that Granbury’s superintendent, Jeremy Glenn, instructed librarians to remove books dealing with sexual orientation and people who are transgender.

“I acknowledge that there are men that think they’re women and there are women that think they’re men,” Glenn told librarians in January, according to a leaked recording of the meeting obtained, verified and published exclusively by the news outlets. “I don’t have any issues with what people want to believe, but there’s no place for it in our libraries.”

Later in the meeting, Glenn clarified that he was specifically focused on removing books geared toward queer students: “It’s the transgender, LGBTQ and the sex — sexuality — in books,” he said, according to the recording.

The comments, combined with the district’s subsequent decision to remove dozens of library books pending a review, fostered a “pervasively hostile” environment for LGBTQ students, the ACLU wrote in its complaint. Chloe Kempf, an ACLU attorney, said the Education Department’s decision to open the investigation into Granbury ISD signals that the agency is concerned about what she described as “a wave” of anti-LGBTQ policies and book removals nationally.

“In this case it was made very clear, because the superintendent kind of said the quiet part out loud,” Kempf said in an interview. “It’s pretty clear that that kind of motivation is animating a lot of these policies nationwide.”

An Education Department spokesperson confirmed the investigation and said it was related to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits schools from discriminating on the basis of sex, gender and sexual orientation. The Office for Civil Rights doesn’t comment on pending investigations, the spokesperson said.

If the investigation confirms violations of students’ rights in Granbury schools, the agency can require the district to make policy changes and submit to federal monitoring.

[…]

Education and legal experts said the Education Department’s decision to open an investigation in Granbury is significant because it sets up a test of a somewhat novel legal argument by the ACLU: the idea that book removals themselves can create a hostile environment for certain classes of students.

“It’s certainly the first investigation I’ve seen by the agency testing that argument in this way,” said W. Scott Lewis, a managing partner at TNG, a consulting firm that advises school districts on complying with federal civil rights laws.

The ACLU of Texas made similar legal arguments in another civil rights complaint filed last month against the Keller Independent School District in North Texas in response to a policy banning any books that mention “gender fluidity.” The Education Department has yet to decide whether to open an investigation in Keller, Kempf said.

Jonathan Friedman, the director of free expression and education at the nonprofit PEN America, which has tracked thousands of school book bans since last year, said the same legal argument could be made in districts across the country where parents, school board members and administrators have expressed anti-LGBTQ motivations.

“It’s not uncommon to see people explicitly saying that they want to remove LGBTQ books because they believe they are indoctrinating students,” said Friedman, who cited a case in Florida in which a teacher called for the removal of a children’s picture book about two male penguins because, she said, it promoted the “LGBTQ agenda.”

Granbury isn’t the only North Texas school district facing federal scrutiny.

The Office for Civil Rights over the past year has opened five investigations into allegations of discrimination at the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake, a wealthy Fort Worth suburb that has been at the center of the national political fight over the ways schools address racism, gender and sexuality. If the Education Department finds Carroll students’ rights have been violated, experts said, the federal agency could require the district to implement the same types of diversity and inclusion training programs that conservative activists have fought to block in Southlake.

Part of the problem here is that Granbury ISD just elected a couple of self-righteous censors to its Board of Trustees, which makes this a bigger political issue. Maybe the voters there will get tired of this fight, or at least of the expense of fighting it, and start to fix their mistakes in the next election. That’s far from a guarantee, of course – it could easily get worse instead. Ultimately, changing hearts and minds is the best long-term solution, but in the meantime doing whatever it takes to protect the rights of the marginalized kids is paramount.

I’m glad to see this, and I absolutely hope these investigations will happen in the other named districts and more, but I fear that the penalties that the DOE is able to impose will be inadequate. Part of that problem is that often the biggest stick that the feds can wield is the threat of withholding funding, but doing that ultimately just hurts the people who most need the help, and doesn’t really affect the politicians in question. There are already plenty of local and state officials who are happy to defy the feds on all kinds of civil rights matters, which they can do because they have voter support and no fear of the potential consequences. The days when officials could be shamed into compliance, or at least into reverting to normative behavior, are over. We need to have a conversation about better and more effective ways to get the modern day segregationists to comply with federal law.

Ike Dike authorization officially passed

Took a roundabout route to get there, but here we are.

With the stroke of a pen, President Joe Biden authorized a $34 billion proposal to build a massive storm surge protection system on the Texas coast and around Galveston Bay.

Biden on Friday signed the National Defense Authorization Act, a $858 billion spending package that includes raises for troops and aid to Ukraine.

Buried deep in the bill was a single line that opens the door for one of the largest public infrastructure projects in U.S. history to be built in Texas. The defense act authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Texas Coastal Protection and Restoration project, which has locally become better known as the Ike Dike.

The $34 billion plan is a proposal to build a system of seagate, levees and dunes in an around Galveston Bay to block storm surge from rushing in from the Gulf of Mexico and into the bay and Houston Ship Channel.

[…]

Once fully constructed, the Army Corps estimates the project will save $2.2 billion in storm damages every year, though how useful the gates will be when they are complete — or over the half-century or more that the structure is expected to operate — remains to be seen. Like any other levees or dams, the barrier could fall short or fail to hold back the biggest storm surges. The project doesn’t address the kind of the rain-caused flooding that happened during Hurricane Harvey.

The defense bill doesn’t authorize funding of the project. Congress will need to separately authorize $21.4 billion for the project sometime in the future, while a new state-created taxing entity, the Gulf Coast Protection District, will have to contribute about $13 billion to the project, according to estimates published in the defense act.

“Federal authorization of the Coastal Texas Program represents a momentous step forward for this critical effort, over a decade in the making, to protect the communities, economy, and vital ecosystems of the Texas coast from the devastating effects of coastal storm surge,” said Michel Bechtel, president of the protection district’s board of directors.

As noted in an earlier story, a standalone version of the Ike Dike bill had passed both the House and the Senate earlier in the year, but there were differences between the two that were not reconciled in time for that bill to pass. So this is what we get, basically the same thing just done in a weird way. I feel confident that funding will follow – the state has already created one funding mechanism, but federal dollars will be needed – and from there it’s just a matter of how long it takes to actually build something. Which, to be clear, is probably on a 20-year timeline even if everything goes more or less as planned. So while one door is finally closed, there’s still a long way to go.

It’s time to recycle your Christmas tree

If you’re in the city of Houston and you want your tree to get mulched, here’s how to do it.

Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department (SWMD) encourages residents to recycle live Christmas trees after the holidays. The holiday season is filled with the purchase of live Christmas trees by families which can be repurposed for mulch or other landscape materials.

On Tuesday, December 27, 2022, SWMD will open 24 residential Christmas tree drop-off recycling locations throughout Houston through Tuesday, January 31, 2023. Please find the locations listed below.

To recycle a live Christmas tree, residents must remove all lights, wire, tinsel, ornaments, nails, stands, and other non-organic decorative materials. Trees that are flocked, artificial, or painted will NOT be recycled. Your scheduled junk waste collection day can be used to dispose of any artificial trees.

Additionally, recycling is also available for live Christmas trees through the city’s yard waste curbside collection program.

Recycling trees will result in rich mulch that will be available in bags or bulk directly from Living Earth and other local area retailers.

Save the Date: Friday, January 6, 2023, and join Mayor Sylvester Turner, Council Members, SWMD, along with representatives from Reliant Energy, Living Earth, and the Houston Parks & Recreation Department for the 32nd Annual Christmas Tree Mulching event, at City Hall Reflection Pool, 11:30 a.m.

Locations and times are listed at the link. There’s almost certainly one not far from you. The regular neighborhood depositories and the Westpark consumer recycling center are included. Don’t throw your tree out, take it in to be mulched instead.

ERCOT makes it through, with an assist from the feds

In case you were wondering.

A day after ERCOT asked the U.S. Department of Energy for an emergency order allowing its generators to bypass emissions standards to stave off potential outages, Texas’ electric grid met demand with ease on Saturday.

The grid operator’s worst-case-scenario did not come to pass, and with weather continuing to warm over the weekend, it seems unlikely the system will experience issues.

Temperatures rose to 39 degrees in Houston on Saturday, nearly 10 degrees higher than Friday. Demand reached a high of about 65,753 megawatts at 7:50 a.m., and at the same time, about 74,252 megawatts of power were available. One megawatt is enough to power about 200 homes during severe temperature events.

By 4 p.m. ERCOT officials said there was 27,876 more megawatts committed by generators than the forecasted demand.

The forecasted demand was much more accurate Saturday than it was Thursday night and Friday, when ERCOT’s demand forecast was at times more than 10,000 megawatts — or 2 million homes’ worth of power — less than what actual demand came onto the grid. Friday morning, demand reached 74,000 megawatts, a new winter record.

That unexpected and record-seasonal-high demand, along with a series of generation failures, led ERCOT officials to ask the U.S. Department of Energy on Friday to issue an emergency order that would allow natural-gas and coal-powered generators to bypass federal emissions standards in order to generate as much power as possible.

ERCOT CEO Pablo Vegas wrote to the agency that there were about 11,000 megawatts of outages among thermal generators that use coal and natural gas as fuel, 4,000 megawatts among wind generators and 1,700 megawatts of solar units that were “outaged or derated” due to the freezing weather. One megawatt is

“Most of these units are expected to return to service over the next 24 hours. However, if these units do not return to service, or if ERCOT experiences additional generating unit outages, it is possible that ERCOT may need to curtail some amount of firm load this evening, tomorrow morning, or possibly tomorrow evening or Sunday morning, in order to maintain the security of the ERCOT system,” Vegas wrote.

In plainer language, that meant if those units stay offline, and if other units trip offline, ERCOT might have ordered local utility providers to rotate power outages Friday evening, Saturday morning, Saturday evening or Sunday morning.

[…]

In a statement, ERCOT officials said the request for emergency powers was taken as a precautionary measure and “would allow generators to promptly respond if conditions warranted.”

“ERCOT has sufficient generation to meet demand. Every available on-demand generation resource is contributing electricity to the grid during this extreme cold weather event,” ERCOT officials wrote.

However, thanks to warming weather and seemingly stable generation, those emergency measures will likely be avoided this weekend.

The issue was not of insufficient power being generated or power suppliers being knocked offline because of the cold, but that the electricity retailers underestimated the demand for power, and would have had to buy more at much higher prices. Reporter Shelby Webb explained that in this Twitter thread from December 23. It’s great that we made it through without widespread power outages, and it’s even better that we made it through without having to pollute more to do it, but this was not a success of the current setup. It was luck. Anyone who points at this freeze and claims a victory for “fixing the grid” is at best misinformed.

The Christmas Bird Count

If you’re looking for a little holiday project

For the 123rd year in a row, the Christmas Bird Count is happening all over the country. Bird enthusiasts and nature lovers head outside, take a census of birds in their area and report what they’ve found to the National Audubon Society, a nonprofit conservation organization.

Always planned around the holidays, the count has been called the longest running citizen science project in the world.

Recently, though, the project has shown a drop in some bird populations. Last year’s Christmas counts in Texas showed the biggest rate of decline in bird numbers in 14 years, according to a report from the Audubon Society.

Texas bird counts now “have had five years in a row where declining species out-numbered increasing species,” the study says. “Ninety-one species (24%) were at their lowest level for the decade.”

[…]

But there may also be reasons unique to Texas that explain a sudden drop in numbers.

“The lack of birds has become readily apparent and left many wondering the same thing – ‘Where Have All the Birds Gone?'” writes birder Noreen Baker as part of Travis Audubon’s Ask-a-Birder project.

Baker was responding to a question from Wes Renick, manager of Wild Birds Unlimited, who says people are noticing fewer birds at their backyard feeders and bird baths.

The reasons, Baker speculates, could include recent drought and the 2021 winter storm, which “did kill birds over a large area.”

Less troubling reasons for this year’s decline in Texas bird sightings could be that there has been more food available in other states that has postponed or slowed bird migrations through Texas.

The point is that we need more data, and that’s where you can come in. You can help your local Audubon group do its count for the year – go here for the Houston area and here for Central Texas to learn more. Links for other areas are there as well. The counting goes through January 5, so go click now if you want to participate.

Weekend link dump for December 25

It may be Christmas but it’s also Sunday, and on Sunday we dump links. You needed something to read after the chaos subsided a little, right?

“Which Streamer Was the Biggest A-Hole About Cancellations in 2022?” (Spoiler alert: It was HBOMax, and it wasn’t close.)

“A researcher found more plotlines around and more mentions of abortion on TV this year — though wealthy White characters are still overrepresented.”

“No One Is Happier About Sam Bankman-Fried’s Downfall Than the Bitcoin People”.

“The federal charging documents, obtained by the Globe, outline a plot pulled straight from “The Americans” TV series, about KGB agents raising a family near Washington, D.C.”

“It’s time to change our minds about the cause of our current bout of inflation”.

Can you in fact cook a steak by dropping it from space? Science finally tells us.

“So: A small but not negligible minority of people say they won’t go back to pre-pandemic life. A plurality say they will continue at least some precautions. And there’s reason to believe that covid worries are having an effect on labor force participation. But the who of people with these concerns is where the stereotypes take serious damage.”

RIP, Gabrielle Beaumont, prolific and pioneering TV director, who may have directed more primetime hours of television than any other women in history.

“James Cameron aims to finally put that ‘Titanic’ door debate to rest, 25 years later”.

“At the core of every Musk company is a big, world-changing promise — they sell the idea that their products and services are saving humanity from some intractable problem, whether it’s climate crisis or traffic. But Musk’s promises track more with religion — he has been sent to save us from our earthly sins of waste and pollution — than with science. Think about it a bit and the idea that a luxury sports car can save us from global warming or that the answer for the Earth’s toxification is to move everyone to Mars falls apart, but that isn’t the point. The goal of all this mythmaking is to turn investors, employees, and customers into evangelists.”

Lock them up.

RIP, Tom Browning, former pitcher who won a World Series with the Cincinnati Reds and threw a perfect game in 1988.

“On Monday, the House Select Committee investigating the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol released an executive summary of its final report, which focuses primarily on former President Donald Trump’s alleged criminal efforts to overturn the 2020 election. The committee, however, also presented new evidence of criminal efforts to interfere with its investigation – on the part of some witnesses, their attorneys, and others associated with the former president. It is the kind of evidence that may have far-reaching implications including bolstering Special Counsel Jack Smith’s January 6th and Mar-a-Lago investigations.”

“Whale-sized shonisaurs dominated the ocean 230 million years ago. A fossil cluster offers a fascinating glimpse at how they lived—based on where they died.”

RIP, Franco Harris, Hall of Fame running back who won four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers and caught the iconic Immaculate Reception.

“But while it’s hard to ignore the warning signs, there are plenty of reasons to still have hope for our planet’s future — starting with what happened at COP15.”

“But it’s also gutting because I’ve seen that look before. I’ve seen that same heartbroken and heart-breaking expression on my own father’s face.”

RIP, Rudi Valentino, oldest male orangutan in North America, lifelong resident of the Houston Zoo.

“A New York State metropolis recently rocked by a racist mass shooting filed a groundbreaking lawsuit Tuesday against multiple gun manufacturers, including Smith & Wesson, Glock, Remington, Sig Sauer, and Beretta.”

“Hotels say goodbye to daily room cleanings and hello to robots as workers stay scarce”.

I did not believe it for a second.”

Say goodbye to 2022, Mel Torme

We have our traditions at this here weblog, and this is one of them. Enjoy, as I know you will, my favorite Christmas story. And may 2023 be better than 2022. Stay safe and warm and be well, y’all.

Christmas Eve video break: The luster of midday

Hope you’re staying warm and that your pipes haven’t frozen. To celebrate, or to commiserate as the case may be, here once again is my favorite rendition of “A Visit From Saint Nicholas”, as performed by cartoon and voice actors:

As noted before, I’ve been posting this for over a decade, I watch it every year, and it remains one of my favorite things. Happy Christmas Eve to all who celebrate.

The Winter Street Studios fire

This is so awful.

A fire that broke out Tuesday morning at Winter Street Studios has damaged countless works of art and left many Houston artists without workspaces or gallery space. The fire, which began around 6:30 a.m., is being investigated as arson, according to the Houston Fire Department and numerous accounts from artists who work at the building.

The fire started on the first floor, in the studio for Bohemian Photography, a commercial photography business owned by Jack Potts. A GoFundMe for Potts states that someone broke into the studio, stole thousands of dollars worth of camera and production equipment, then set the fire. Per another artist at the studio, Potts is in the middle of switching insurance policies and is currently uninsured.

The Houston Arts Alliance has activated its Emergency Relief Fund, first created in 2020 to support artists during the COVID-19 pandemic, to help those whose studios were damaged. Donors can contribute to the fund at HAA’s websiteFreshArts has also created a list of resources, including emergency grants, for those affected.

The 100-year-old building, which was once a furniture factory, was converted to artist studios in 2005. There are 77 studios in the building, many of them shared between two or more artists.

On Instagram, the hashtag #winterstreetstudios was filled with photos and posts from artists detailing the damage to their workspaces. That includes water damage from the sprinklers and hoses, ash, smoke damage, and structural issues with the building that may require it to be demolished.

[…]

Renters at the studios were supposed to carry liability insurance, [painter Erika] Alonso said, and many of them did not have coverage beyond that. Aside from the countless, irreplaceable works of art that have been damaged or destroyed—some of which had already been sold but not yet delivered to their new owners—artists have also lost computers, materials, tools, paperwork, and other essential business items.

“There’s all these little personal investments artists make over the years,” she said. “But all the artists are helping each other, which is a beautiful thing.” Alonso said she had additional insurance, and hopes it can help recoup the cost of replacing her supplies and cleaning up her studio.

Just terrible. Winter Street Studios is a great place, a vibrant part of the community in an area where it’s often too expensive for creative types to hang their shingles. They have had regular Saturday art markets that are always fun to visit, and our elementary school used their space in the past for fundraisers. I’d really hate for this to be the end for them. The link in the story for HAA’s website is where you can make a donation to help these folks out if you’re so inclined. Thanks very much. CultureMap, ABC13, KHOU, and the Chron have more.

Grassroots pollution monitoring

Great story about a problem that deserves mush more attention from the state.

One by one, the residents filtered into the small community center and found seats in the rows of plastic chairs. Some were teenagers wearing yellow-and-black Galena Park High School letter jackets. Others were parents and grandparents juggling children. Many wore white headphones to hear the Spanish translator standing nearby. Everyone looked worried.

They had gathered on that chilly November night to learn what two new, high-tech monitors had found in the air in Galena Park and Jacinto City, neighboring towns in eastern Harris County, the epicenter of North America’s petrochemical industry. They were prepared for grim news.

“Everyone here knows pollution is a big problem,” said Maricela Serna, a former Galena Park commissioner who has one of the monitors on the roof of her tax preparation office. “But we want to know just how bad things really are. We deserve to know. And those in power, especially at the state level, need to know.”

Serna, 66, has lived in Galena Park since 1988 and the stench of chemicals is part of her everyday life. The odor inside her home was so bad one day that a visitor from outside the community thought there was a gas leak and called the fire department. Still, Serna held out hope that the news that night might be positive — that maybe, just maybe, the pollution wasn’t as bad as the odors let on.

But the data from the monitors confirmed her worst fears.

Nitrogen oxides, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has linked to asthma in children and lower birth weight in newborns, were consistently above the agency’s one-hour limit. Ozone, which can aggravate lung diseases including asthma and emphysema, was well above the EPA’s eight-hour limit. Particulate matter, which increases the risk for strokes and heart disease by settling deep into lungs and seeping into bloodstreams, hovered above the EPA’s annual limit.

The readings from Serna’s office, located a block from a thoroughfare lined with petrochemical plants, were especially high. Monthly levels of nitrogen oxides, for example, averaged 170 parts per billion from June through August — nearly double what the EPA says is safe for just one hour.

The data was presented by Juan Flores, a lifelong Galena Park resident and clean-air advocate. He oversees community air monitoring programs for Air Alliance Houston, the nonprofit he works for, and Environmental Community Advocates of Galena Park, a smaller group he helped create and where he is vice president. Over the past few years, the two groups have built a network of air monitors that gives residents basic information about the dangers they are living with.

Regulators and scientists are often skeptical of community-gathered data, because it’s usually less sophisticated than the data state and federal agencies collect. But the community data is still important, because it can be used to rally residents and prod elected officials to acknowledge a neighborhood’s plight. It can also complement the ongoing work of researchers by providing hyperlocal information about wind patterns and chemical readings of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, a diverse group of chemicals that includes some carcinogens.

“This lower-level monitoring … warrants further investigation, but it supports what we’re seeing at the city level,” said Loren Hopkins, the chief environmental science officer for the Houston Health Department. “There’s a huge educational component, too. Instead of just using traditional advocacy, they’re actually using science to support their claims.”

It’s great and necessary work being done by these residents, but they shouldn’t have to. This is what the TCEQ is for, except that it’s been neutered and corrupted to the point of uselessness. And unfortunately, that’s not going to change any time soon. In the meantime, folks like these will have to keep telling and documenting their story, so at least we can know what’s happening to them. Go read the rest.

Wingnut Trump judge issues his anti-birth control ruling

And from here it goes to the Fifth Circuit. Isn’t this fun?

A federal court ruling Tuesday may make it nearly impossible for Texas teens to access birth control without their parents’ permission.

U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk ruled that Title X, a federal program that provides free, confidential contraception to anyone, regardless of age, income or immigration status, violates parents’ rights and state and federal law.

Kacsmaryk, appointed by President Donald Trump in 2019, is a former religious liberty lawyer who helped litigate cases seeking to overturn protections for contraception. Tuesday’s ruling is expected to be appealed.

Kacsmaryk did not grant an injunction, which would have immediately prohibited Title X clinics from providing contraception to minors without parental consent. Every Body Texas, the Title X administrator in Texas, said in a statement that it is awaiting additional guidance from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on how to proceed.

The case was brought by Jonathan Mitchell, the former Texas solicitor general who designed the novel law that banned most abortions in Texas after about six weeks of pregnancy. Mitchell has also brought a lawsuit to block requirements in the Affordable Care Act that require employers to cover HIV prevention medications.

Mitchell is representing Alexander Deanda, a father of three who is “raising each of his daughters in accordance with Christian teaching on matters of sexuality, which requires unmarried children to practice abstinence and refrain from sexual intercourse until marriage,” according to the complaint.

Deanda does not want his daughters to be able to access contraception or family planning services without his permission, arguing that Title X’s confidentiality clause subverts parental authority and the Texas Family Code, which gives parents the “right to consent to … medical and dental care” for their children.

Kacsmaryk agreed, ruling Tuesday that Title X violates Deanda’s rights under the Texas Family Code and the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, denying him the “fundamental right to control and direct the upbringing of his minor children.”

Minors in Texas almost always have to get their parents’ permission to get on birth control. Even Texas teens who have already had a baby cannot consent to getting on birth control; the state has the highest repeat teen birth rate in the nation. Texas is also one of just two states that does not cover contraception at all as part of its state-run Children’s Health Insurance Program.

But Title X, a federal program dating back to the 1970s, is the exception to the rule. While federal regulations say Title X clinics should “encourage family participation … to the extent practical,” they are not allowed to require parental consent or notify parents that a minor has requested or received services.

Kacsmaryk’s ruling “holds unlawful” and “sets aside” that piece of the federal regulation.

See here for the background. As this Vox article observes, wingnut lawyers like Mitchell can file a suit that will almost always be heard by Kacsmaryk, who will pretty much always give them the ruling they want. And because the Fifth Circuit is also full of wingnuts and SCOTUS doesn’t care about wingnut judicial activism, whatever rulings he hands down tend to stay in place even if they later get overturned. What a system, eh? Bloomberg Law, which notes that “HHS had argued that the court’s remedy should be limited to an injunction requiring service providers to notify Deanda should one of his daughters request birth control in contravention of Christian teachings against sex outside of marriage”, has more.

Senate committee makes small Uvalde recommendations

Par for the course.

A special Texas Senate committee that convened in the wake of the Uvalde school shooting made a series of policy recommendations Wednesday regarding school and gun safety, mental health, social media and police training.

In an 88-page report, the Special Committee to Protect All Texans acknowledged “more must be done to ensure the safety of Texas school children” in the wake of the May massacre, which killed 19 students and two teachers. The report was based in part on two days of testimony from police, mental health and education professionals, and gun safety advocates in June.

The committee made a single recommendation related to guns: Make purchasing a gun for someone who is barred from owning one a state-level felony. Straw purchases of firearms — when a person stands in to buy a gun for someone who is prohibited from having one — are illegal under federal law, though the committee expressed concern that U.S. attorneys too seldom prosecute offenders.

Gov. Greg Abbott in 2019 recommended banning straw purchases under state law in a report his office produced after the El Paso Walmart mass shooting. But the Legislature failed to pass it.

Such a law would not have prevented the Uvalde shooter from purchasing guns. He legally purchased two semiautomatic rifles in the days before the shooting.

On school safety, the committee proposed the creation of review teams to conduct on-site vulnerability assessments of school campuses and share the results with school leaders. It also suggested additional funding for grants to improve security at individual campuses based on needs.

It called for adding training centers for the school marshal program, through which teachers and staff can become certified to carry guns on campus. Since the program debuted in 2013, just 84 of the state’s more than 1,200 districts have joined.

On mental health care, the committee recommended expanding access to the state’s telemedicine system for mental health to all school districts within a “reasonable time frame.” It also implored lawmakers to look for ways to increase the number of mental health professionals to support this expansion, such as allowing practitioners to volunteer; offering loan repayment benefits for professionals, especially in rural areas; offering paid fellowship and internships; and streamlining licensure requirements.

There are more recommendations, but none that will make you say “yeah, that will definitely help”. Certainly, there’s nothing to try to keep high-risk people from getting guns, and nothing to prevent people under the age of 21 from buying them. Most of these recommendations are reactive in nature; one of the few that are proactive is the vulnerability assessment plan, which will expose problems that may or may not be able to be remediated. Why would we expect anything different? Oh, and as a reminder, the single biggest and most effective thing the state of Texas could do to improve access mental health care is to expand Medicaid. Yeah, yeah, I know. Reform Austin has more.

More on the post-marijuana decriminalization referendum conflict

The Trib takes a long look.

The fight in several Texas cities to decriminalize marijuana has entered a new phase, as some city leaders have rebuffed voter-approved rules that largely end criminal enforcement against having small amounts of the substance.

Last month, residents in Denton, San Marcos, Killeen, Elgin and Harker Heights overwhelmingly approved ballot measures that sought to ban arrests and citations for carrying less than 4 ounces of marijuana in most instances. They also approved new rules blocking cities from funding THC concentration tests, plus removing marijuana smell as a probable cause for search and seizure in most cases.

Winning over voters was just half the battle.

Since then, organizers behind the ballot questions in some cities have clashed with their city and county leaders who are tasked with putting the new laws in place, as well as law enforcement. Those officials have said the effort violates state law and hinders police officers.

The battle has been the toughest in Harker Heights, a town of 33,000 about 55 miles southwest of Waco. Despite the proposition winning more than 60% of the votes, the City Council decided to repeal the ordinance just two weeks later. City Manager David Mitchell said in a subsequent letter that the decision to decriminalize should be left to the state.

For Harker Heights residents who supported decriminalizing marijuana, the repeal is a stinging show of disrespect for their exercise of democracy.

“I don’t do any kind of drugs nor does my wife, but we’re here for the vote,” said Brian Burt, who casted his ballot for the proposition.

“A vote is a vote,” Alexandra Burt chimed in. “We are also aware that minorities disproportionately take the brunt of the law, so it is time for that proposition to go through.”

To force the City Council’s hand, the Burts and hundreds of other residents backed a new petition by Ground Game Texas, a progressive group that co-led the decriminalization campaign, to put the council’s decision to repeal on the May ballot and revive the ordinance in the meantime.

Julie Oliver, the group’s executive director, said the council’s decision to revoke a popular choice by voters has backfired.

“Shutting down someone’s vote is ill-advised, so this has really brought the community together,” she said.

Organizers across the state facing similar pushback also say they would prefer the Texas Legislature to pass laws that would decriminalize or even legalize marijuana — though they acknowledge how unlikely that is given the state’s conservative power structure.

“We can all see the way that this country is heading, state by state, but it looks like Texas is going to be one of the last,” said Deb Armintor, a Decriminalize Denton organizer and a former City Council member who championed decriminalization during her two terms. “There’s no point in cities waiting.”

[…]

Several cities and towns have since followed. Elgin, a city of about 10,500 people that sits just east of Austin, voted to decriminalize by almost 75%. Its council has made the least amount of noise in putting the ordinance in place.

Other city and county officials, however, have raised concerns about a statute from the Texas Local Government Code that says municipal bodies like city councils and police departments “may not adopt a policy under which the entity will not fully enforce laws relating to drugs.”

Last month, Republican Bell County District Attorney Henry Garza cited it when asking the police chief of Killeen, where close to 70% of voters favored decriminalization, to reverse his order telling officers to follow the vote. Following a pause, Killeen City Council approved the ordinance on Dec. 6 after removing the section banning officers from using marijuana smell as probable cause for search and seizure.

“The amendment was not preferable but now our residents do not have to fear an arrest that will affect their employment opportunities, education opportunities and housing opportunities,” said Louie Minor, a Bell County commissioner-elect who worked on both the Killeen and Harker Heights campaigns.

More recently, Republican Hays County Criminal District Attorney Wes Mau requested an attorney general opinion about the ordinance’s enforceability over similar questions. Mano Amiga — the group co-leading the effort in San Marcos — immediately pushed back, as voters had passed the proposition by almost 82% and the City Council already approved it in November.

Mau said he has “no plans to file a lawsuit” in his last month of office. His Democratic successor Kelly Higgins supports decriminalization.

“The Attorney General cannot overturn the referendum, nor am I asking him to,” Mau said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “But an opinion as to whether the ordinance is enforceable may be helpful to the City moving forward.”

In the North Texas suburb of Denton, where voters approved decriminalization by more than 70%, the City Council has also certified the initiative, thus enacting the ordinance. But organizers worry about its enforcement because City Manager Sara Hensley has opposed implementing parts of it due to similar issues. Organizers responded in November with a memo arguing that Hensley doesn’t have policymaking authority and that the city has discretion to enact policies conserving scarce resources.

See here and here for some background. I take the concerns of the opponents seriously, even as I would have voted for these measures myself. I expect the Legislature will respond, most likely in a disproportionate matter, to these referenda if they are not at least modified by those city councils. I also think this is a fight worth having, in the courts as well as at the ballot box. There really is a significant disconnect between public opinion and legislative action on this matter. So far, too many people who disagree with the Republicans in general and the Lege/Greg Abbott/Dan Patrick in particular have nonetheless voted for them, or not shown up to vote against them. The point here is to try to change some minds of the former and motivate more of the latter. At the very least, that means seeing this through, whatever happens along the way. I do think the pro-decriminalization side will eventually prevail, but who knows how long that may take. Letting up won’t make it happen any sooner.

Texas drops appeal of ruling that forbade banning the sale of handguns to people under 21

Least surprising headline of the week. And month, and year, and pretty much any other arbitrary timeline you choose.

Texas will no longer fight to ban 18- to 20-year-olds from carrying handguns in public. A judge ruled earlier this year that a state law banning the practice was unconstitutional, and Texas initially filed a notice that it would appeal. But Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw withdrew the appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this week.

U.S. District Judge Mark Pittman’s ruling was the first major decision about Texas gun laws since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that the Second Amendment protected individuals who carry weapons for self-defense.

In September, the state filed a notice of appeal, which angered gun rights activists.

“Once again, government officials in the state of Texas are proven to be anti-gun stooges,” Dudley Brown, the president of the National Association for Gun Rights, said in a news release at the time.

Neither the notice of appeal nor the withdrawal listed legal arguments or reasons for doing so; DPS and the Texas attorney general’s office could not immediately be reached for comment.

See here and here for the background. I’m quite certain that the legal reasoning behind this is “we never wanted to appeal this in the first place but there was an election coming up and we wanted to tread carefully, and now that everyone has been safely re-elected we can drop the pretense”. This was predictable enough to be visible from orbit. My question for the lawyers is, could some other group pick up the appeal in place of the state, the way the then-Republican Congress took up the defense of DOMA after the Obama administration dropped out? I don’t know what the conditions are for that.

It’s winter surge time again

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, though I think you already suspected this.


COVID-19 cases are rising across Texas two weeks after the Thanksgiving holiday, echoing last year’s surge of the omicron variant.

There are more than 18,000 positive cases across the state this week, up from a little over 7,000 the week of Thanksgiving.

“Thanksgiving this year was kind of like PTSD,” said epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina, author of Your Local Epidemiologist. “I think all of us epidemiologists were holding our breath, just to make sure this was going to be a regular Thanksgiving.”

While hospitalizations and deaths are still low thanks to COVID-19 vaccinations and the updated bivalent booster that targets omicron, cases have been steadily climbing since November.

The change this year, Jetelina said, is the combination of flu, RSV, and now COVID. The Texas Department of State Health Services reports the intensity of influenza-like illness has remained “very high” in the past few weeks, with an increase in the number of influenza outbreaks and more than 28,000 positive flu tests in the week ending in Dec. 3.

“RSV and flu are just back with vengeance,” she said. “We’re starting to get a sneak peek of what this new normal is.”

Other states, like New York, have issued a health advisory to encourage people to mask indoors while cases are high. Jetelina said it’s important to think about protecting the most vulnerable members of the community, like the elderly and folks who are immunocompromised.

“I’m going to have 90-year-old people at my house for Christmas this year,” she said. “That, to me, means I am wearing an N-95 mask in public everywhere I go the week before Christmas. It helps ensure I don’t miss the event because I’m sick, but it also helps break that transmission chain so I don’t bring it to my grandparents.”

She says it’s not too late to get vaccinated to protect against COVID and the flu.

“I’m tired, everyone’s tired, [but] the virus isn’t tired of us,” she said.

We saw this coming in October, and we know what a “tripledemic” is. The virus levels in the wastewater are high. You know what I’m going to tell you: Get your bivalent booster and your flu shot. Wear that mask in crowded indoor spaces. Isolate yourself if you feel sick. Think about the high-risk people in your life. We’re not in 2020 any more, and the current dominant strains are thankfully not as virulent as delta was. You really can do a lot to maximize your safety while giving up very little. But you have to actually do it.

No, really, are we emotionally prepared for this freeze?

Ready or not, here it comes.

State officials warned residents Wednesday to prepare their homes and vehicles for the coming freeze while trying to reassure on-edge Texans that the electric grid will stay online.

Temperatures are expected to plummet Thursday into single digits — with even lower wind chills. Leaders urged residents to check their car tires and batteries to be sure no one gets stranded on the road, to burn wood or gas inside only if there’s proper ventilation, and to insulate pipes.

“This is a dangerous storm coming our way,” said Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management. “The temperatures will be extremely cold and the winds will be high, which will generate some very dangerous wind chills.”

Forecasters predicted life-threatening minus-10-degree wind chills in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and wind chills as low as minus 30 degrees in the Panhandle, Kidd said. Aside from light precipitation in the Panhandle, the state was expected to stay dry.

The lack of concerns over icy roads and infrastructure makes this a different threat than the 2021 Winter Storm Uri, which overwhelmed the state’s main electric grid and killed hundreds of people. Officials are promising that, this time, the power will stay on.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the grid that powers most of Texas, and the Public Utility Council made improvements after Uri, such as ensuring natural gas-fired plants have additional sources of fuel on site and improving communications among electricity regulators, oil and gas regulators, and the Texas Division of Emergency Management.

“The grid is ready and reliable,” said Peter Lake, chair of the Public Utility Commission, which regulates grid operators, on Wednesday. “We expect to have sufficient generation to meet demand throughout this entire winter weather event.”

ERCOT officials expected power demand to be highest from Thursday night through Saturday morning. The peak — near 70,000 megawatts — was predicted Friday morning, when grid operators expected to have nearly 85,000 megawatts of supply if all goes as planned.

“We do expect to have sufficient generation supply to meet the forecasted demands,” said Pablo Vegas, ERCOT’s president and CEO.

Of course, in an extreme scenario, the grid could still face rolling blackouts or tight conditions, and ERCOT could still issue a conservation notice. There may also be local power outages that have nothing to do with the viability of the power grid, caused by things such as wind knocking trees onto power lines.

See here for the background. We’ll find out soon enough. You’ll forgive me, and millions of other Texans, if we remain skeptical. I hope you all stay warm and safe, and that we have a good long time before we have to worry like this again.

Texas blog roundup for the week of December 19

The Texas Progressive Alliance has some chestnuts and an open fire ready to go as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

Now is a great time to buy a Christmas tree

Procrastinators rejoice.

When it came to buying a Christmas tree in Houston it paid off to procrastinate.

Prices, already high last year, jumped further this year as retailers sought to lock in supplies despite increases spurred by skyrocketing fertilizer and fuel costs. But that strategy appears to have overestimated demand, leaving many tree sellers with stock they are now hustling to sell down before the holiday passes and glorious trees become plain old mulch.

In a survey of wholesale Christmas tree growers across the U.S., every grower surveyed said that the cost of growing and selling Christmas trees has gone up from last year, according to the Real Christmas Tree Board, an industry research group. As a result, more than 70 percent said they increased their prices from 5 percent to 15 percent, and another 16 percent said price increases would be even higher.

That held true in Texas, where Stan Reed, executive secretary of the Texas Christmas Tree Growers Association, said fuel and fertilizer fed the increases. There are only about 150 farms in Texas that can grow varieties of pines, cypress and red cedar that are used as Christmas trees, according to Reed. Other popular trees, such as fir and spruce, are imported from North Carolina, Michigan, Oregon and Wisconsin.

Reed said a seller importing 600 trees from Oregon paid $10,000 this year, compared to about $6,000 last year, making each tree just under $7 more expensive to import.

Buying from farms or lots that source from within the state may be cheaper, but even at those locations the increased price of fertilizer has tacked on an additional costs to be passed on to consumers. Global fertilizer costs have soared over the past year, rising 80 percent in 2021 and another 30 percent in the first half of 2022, according to the World Bank.

But while those higher prices were passed along to shoppers earlier in the season, many Houston tree sellers have launched deep discounts in the past week or so. At Houston Garden Centers, which has more than 20 locations around Houston, Christmas trees are half off. And Buchanan’s Native Plants in the Heights started giving away trees Monday.

Those free trees are first-come, first-served, so don’t wait too much longer. There were some drought-related issues last year that also contributed to a tight tree supply and more incentive to stock up for this year. However we got here, if you’ve been holding out to wait for a bargain, this is your time. I hope your kids forgive you for making them wait.

Yep, still no voter fraud found

So says the official 2020 election audit.

Despite challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, there was neither widespread voter fraud nor other serious issues in Texas’ 2020 elections, according to an audit of four of Texas’ largest counties released Monday evening by Secretary of State John Scott’s office.

While the 359-page report did find some “irregularities,” it nonetheless reinforced what election experts and monitors — including Scott, the state’s chief election official — have routinely said: that the 2020 contest was not riddled with widespread fraud, and Texans should be confident that future elections will be similarly secure.

“When the Texas Election Code and local procedures are followed, Texas voters should have a very high level of confidence in the accuracy of the outcome of Texas elections,” the report stated. “When procedures are followed, results of the election are trustworthy. Indeed, in most cases, the audit found that the counties followed their procedures and clearly documented their activities.”

[…]

The report found that “many of the irregularities observed” in 2020 were likely caused by the “extraordinary challenges” posed by the pandemic and ensuing staffing shortages. And, auditors said, such problems are even less likely to occur in future contests because of legislative changes, including those in Senate Bill 1.

Of the four counties the report analyzed, the Harris County general election had the most issues, including improper chain of custody of mobile ballot boxes at 14 polling locations. Auditors also found thousands of discrepancies between electronic pollbook records and audit logs.

See here for a bit of background. No one who doesn’t have to is going to read the entire 359 page report, but you can get a high level summary at the beginning of it. I have two points to add. One comes from the Chron story, which addresses some of the items raised in the audit about Harris County:

Harris County did not properly handle certain electronic voting records during the 2020 election, according to an audit from the Texas secretary of state’s office that uncovered numerous administrative mishaps but no evidence of widespread voter fraud in four of the state’s largest counties.

In a report released Monday evening, the state elections office found that Harris County failed to properly document the “chain of custody” — a required step-by-step accounting of voting records — for thousands of ballots across at least 14 polling locations. The finding was among those mentioned by state elections officials last month in a letter to the Harris County elections administrator, delivered days before the November midterms.

The report outlined a number of slip-ups across the four audited counties, which included Republican-controlled Collin and Tarrant counties and Democratic-run Dallas and Harris counties. It concluded that Texas voters “should have a very high level of confidence in the accuracy of the outcome of Texas elections” when counties follow the state election code and their own local procedures.

“Each of the four counties has detailed procedures and detailed forms to document compliance with the code and ensure that only lawful ballots are cast and counted,” the report reads. “When procedures are followed, results of the election are trustworthy. Indeed, in most cases, the audit found that the counties followed their procedures and clearly documented their activities. In some cases, however, they did not.”

When counties did not properly follow state law and local procedures, “discrepancies and irregularities ranging from small to large ensued,” the report said.

State officials singled out Harris County for “very serious issues in the handling of electronic media,” finding that the county lacked records to explain the origin of 17 “mobile ballot boxes” — the pieces of hardware that store vote tallies and transmit the data to and from polling places. The report also identified disparities between electronic records from the polls and “tally audit logs” at numerous locations.

Since the 2020 election, Harris County has switched to a new system that stores voting records on vDrives — a type of USB thumb drive — with “procedures in place to document proper chain of custody … in the event a vDrive fails,” the report reads.

[…]

Harris County Elections Administrator Cliff Tatum has pledged a complete assessment of the issues that arose during the midterm while warning the county is in “dire need” of improvements to the way it conducts elections.

Last month, Tatum penned a letter to state officials seeking to address the audit’s preliminary findings, including the chain-of-custody problems.

Writing to Chad Ennis, director of the secretary of state’s forensic audit division, Tatum said the issue with the 14 locations cited in the report arose when votes were “stranded” on devices used at Harris County’s drive-thru voting and other locations.

To read the “stranded” results, Tatum wrote, county officials had to create 30 “replacement” mobile ballot boxes.

“The number of cast votes on those 30 MBBs align with the expected number from the voting sites,” Tatum wrote to Ennis. “This explains why there were more than 14 MBBs created to read the results and why those initial 14 were not read into the tabulator.”

The poll book disparities, meanwhile, were the result of voting machines being moved from one location to another during the election.

“While this may have been done to address long lines at any of the vote centers during the 2020 election, this is a practice that our office no longer follows,” said Tatum, who was appointed elections administrator in July.

We have the joy of being “randomly” audited again for this November’s election, so we’ll see what they have to complain about this time.

The other point I would raise, which was mentioned in passing in that Chron story, was that this audit was released on Monday night (the Trib story published at 8 PM) during Christmas week. I don’t know about you, but I think that if they had something juicy to report, they’d have dropped it at a time when people would be actually paying attention. This has all the hallmarks of a “nothing to see here” report.

The medical response also failed at Uvalde

This is a very hard story to read, with graphic descriptions of injuries suffered by the shooting victims at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. Click over very carefully, but whether you read or not know that the failures at the site of this shooting were not limited to law enforcement’s response.

The chaotic scene exemplified the flawed medical response — captured in video footage, investigative documents, interviews and radio traffic — that experts said undermined the chances of survival for some victims of the May 24 massacre. Two teachers and 19 students died.

Law enforcement’s well-documented failure to confront the shooter who terrorized the school for 77 minutes was the most serious problem in getting victims timely care, experts said. But previously unreleased records obtained by ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and The Washington Post for the first time show that communication lapses and muddled lines of authority among medical responders further hampered treatment.

Three victims who emerged from the school with a pulse later died. In the case of two of those victims, critical resources were not available when medics expected they would be, delaying hospital treatment for [teacher Eva] Mireles, 44, and student Xavier Lopez, 10, records show.

Another student, Jacklyn “Jackie” Cazares, 9, likely survived for more than an hour after being shot and was promptly placed in an ambulance after medics finally gained access to her classroom. She died in transport.

The disjointed medical response frustrated medics while delaying efforts to get ambulances, air transport and other emergency services to victims. Medical helicopters with critical supplies of blood tried to land at the school, but an unidentified fire department official told them to wait at an airport 3 miles away. Dozens of parked police vehicles blocked the paths of ambulances trying to reach victims.

Multiple cameras worn by officers and one on the dashboard of a police car showed just two ambulances positioned outside the school when the shooter was killed. That was not nearly enough for the 10 or more gunshot victims then still alive, though additional ambulances began arriving 10 minutes later. Six students, including one who was seriously wounded, were taken to a hospital in a school bus with no trained medics on board, according to Texas EMS records.

[…]

Although helicopters were available, none were used to carry victims directly from the school. At least four patients who survived were flown by helicopter to a more fully equipped trauma center in San Antonio after first being driven by ambulance to a nearby hospital or airport.

In public statements made since May, law enforcement officials have defended their officers’ actions as reasonable under difficult circumstances. Federal, state and local agencies that responded to the shooting have not directly addressed the medical response, nor did they answer detailed questions from the news organizations that worked jointly on this investigation.

Eric Epley, executive director of the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council, a nonprofit that helps coordinate trauma care in Southwest Texas during mass-casualty events, said medics encountered challenges, including a faulty radio system.

“These scenes are inherently confusing, challenging, and chaotic,” Epley said in an email. He later added, “We remain steadfast that the decisions by the on-scene medical leadership were sound and appropriate.”

The Texas Rangers, an arm of the state Department of Public Safety, are investigating what went wrong in Uvalde, including whether any victims might have survived if they had received prompt medical care. The local district attorney has said she will use that investigation to determine whether to charge anyone with a crime, including law enforcement officers.

[…]

It’s difficult to know whether Mireles or anyone else who died that day might have survived their wounds, in part because local officials have refused to release autopsy reports. But footage shows that Mireles was conscious and responsive when she was pulled from the classroom, an indicator that she probably had survivable wounds, according to medical experts.

“Had medics gotten to her quickly, there’s a good chance she would’ve survived,” said Babak Sarani, director of critical care at George Washington University Hospital.

The flawed coordination among police and medical crews echoes missteps during other mass shootings, despite the development of recommended practices after the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School. In several of those cases, the communication problems resulted in delays in getting medical care for victims.

Medics on helicopters and in ambulances who responded to the Uvalde shooting told investigators they were confused about who was in charge, where they should be stationed and how many victims to expect. Some of them pleaded to be allowed closer to the scene. In the absence of clear guidance, experts said medics did the best they could while trying to save lives.

“They were told, essentially, to go to the airport and wait,” according to an interview the Texas Rangers conducted with Julie Lewis, the regional manager for AirLIFE, an air medical transport service that sent three helicopters from the greater San Antonio area. “They couldn’t figure out who was in command.”

There’s a lot more. The bottom line is, as we have learned before, that there was no clear command structure, so those who were trying to help didn’t know who to talk or listen to and didn’t know what they needed to know to proceed. It remains the case that a lot of official information about what happened is still closely guarded and not available to reporters or the public. More infuriating is that we have learned what the best practices are to respond to one of these tragedies, as there have been so many to learn from, and yet the same type of failures keep happening. Given the regularity with which they occur in Texas and the certainty that the next one is a matter of when and not if, that failure is owned not just by local officials but also by our state “leaders”. We know that failure will continue, because they have no interest in doing anything about it. Go read the rest of the story if you can stand it.

New Land Commissioner, same screw job for Houston and Harris County

I didn’t expect any different. I’m still mad about it.

(Probably) Not Dawn Buckingham

When akewayLakeway Republican Dawn Buckingham jumps from the Texas Senate to the helm of the state General Land Office next month, she will inherit control of the state’s Hurricane Harvey recovery, a slow-moving multibillion-dollar effort to help Southeast Texas recover from the 2017 storm and prepare for future ones.

With two weeks left in his term, outgoing Land Commissioner George P. Bush remains at odds with Houston and Harris County officials over two key issues: the state agency’s efforts to seize funds from the city’s beleaguered housing recovery programs, and the distribution of billions in federal aid meant to protect storm-vulnerable areas against future damage — none of which is going to Houston, thus far.

In an interview this week, Buckingham, who easily defeated Democrat Jay Kleberg in last month’s midterm election, made clear she will continue steering the Harvey recovery in much the same manner as Bush, with no plans to redistribute the mitigation aid so Houston and Harris County receive a bigger slice, as local officials had hoped.

Buckingham said the agency also would continue its ongoing efforts to recoup from the city nearly $141 million earmarked for housing recovery, small business grants and various nonprofit services, a move spurred by the city’s failure to meet key spending benchmarks over the summer. The GLO plans to put the money into its own program focused on rebuilding Harvey-damaged single-family homes in Houston, which previously was run by the city before it ceded control to the state agency last year.

“What we’re seeing is, they haven’t been able to meet their own metrics,” Buckingham said. “And so, I think with the limited amount of time that these resources are available, and the limited amount of recovery that’s happened at this point, we’re anticipating that there’s going to be a redirection of funds.”

The feud between the General Land Office and city of Houston erupted in April 2020, when Bush informed Mayor Sylvester Turner he planned to take over the city’s entire $1.3 billion recovery program, arguing his agency could pick up the pace. After a legal skirmish, the two sides struck a deal in early 2021, with Turner relinquishing control of Houston’s sluggish single-family housing program, leaving the city with some $835 million to continue its other initiatives, including a more successful effort to build affordable multifamily housing.

As part of the deal, the city and GLO agreed on spending benchmarks to measure the city’s progress on each of its remaining programs. This summer, the GLO notified the city it had missed the mark on seven of its nine programs, spending nearly $100 million less than it should have, according to a July letter from Deputy Land Commissioner Mark Havens. As a result, the agency in October laid out its plan to recover about $141 million from the city, pending approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Houston officials long have accused the Land Office of providing opaque oversight that has obstructed their recovery progress, a charge the GLO denies. City leaders also say their programs prioritize low-income, disabled and senior residents, which they say is harder and slower but necessary to ensure the most vulnerable storm victims are not left behind.

In the latest $141 million dispute, the city’s housing director, Keith Bynam, has said the Land Office is painting a misleading picture by overlooking factors beyond the city’s control, such as adverse economic conditions and the city’s inability to spend money on three of its programs for about eight months while it was under a GLO audit.

[…]

A Chronicle investigation found the GLO’s initial $1 billion distribution went disproportionately to inland counties that, by the state’s own measure, are less vulnerable to natural disasters than coastal counties that received little or no funding.

HUD also found the Land Office discriminated against communities of color when it denied aid to Houston and Harris County, with scoring criteria that steered funds away from diverse urban centers and toward projects in whiter, more rural counties, according to the federal agency.

GLO officials have disputed the finding and rejected calls from federal housing officials to negotiate a settlement with Houston-area officials. The agency has also ignored an initial HUD deadline to come into compliance with civil rights protections, along with a subsequent letter over the summer from HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge, who said she may refer the matter to the Department of Justice if Texas did not reach a voluntary agreement within 60 days.

Havens said the Land Office has not heard from HUD or the Justice Department since. Turner spokeswoman Mary Benton said the city also had yet to hear from the Biden administration, though the mayor on Thursday sent Fudge a follow-up letter urging her to step in.

“More than 9 months have passed since HUD issued the (discrimination finding) and yet GLO and the State of Texas, to our knowledge, have taken no steps to come into compliance,” Turner wrote. “…It is imperative, now, more than ever, that HUD immediately exercise its enforcement authority and compel GLO to come into compliance with” the findings.

I don’t have the energy to catalog the entire Story So Far, but the two most recent entries are here and here. While I can believe that the city may have performed poorly with the housing recovery program, the GLO has no credibility with me and doesn’t deserve anyone’s benefit of the doubt. I would be delighted to see HUD hand their files over to the Justice Department for a full on investigation of their discriminatory practices; indeed, I will be deeply annoyed if that doesn’t happen given their continued non-responsiveness to HUD’s demands. In the meantime, I continue to fantasize about a time when Harris County and the city of Houston are not targeted for harm by our state government. I hope to live long enough to see it.

Electoral Count Act included in must-pass budget bill

It’s not nearly enough to shore up voting rights, but it’s still vitally necessary and clearly the best we could do.

After months of negotiations, it now appears to be official: The Electoral Count Reform Act has hitched a ride on the much-anticipated 2023 omnibus funding package that was released Monday night, setting up a path for the legislation to pass the Senate.

“My two-word reaction is thank God,” said Matthew Seligman, a lawyer and fellow at Stanford Law School’s Constitutional Law Center who has tracked the reform effort closely. “I think this means that it’s virtually certain that it will be included in the final bill and the Electoral Count Reform Act will become law.”

Democrats and a handful of Republicans have been negotiating over how to reform the outdated 1887 law — which lays out how presidential electors are counted in Congress — for the past year. The effort to do so was prompted by vagaries in the text that former President Donald Trump and lawyer John Eastman sought to exploit to subvert the 2020 election.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) announced they’d come to an agreement this summer, but it has been unclear for some time whether the legislation would garner the 60 Republican votes needed to clear a filibuster, and whether it would pass before Republicans take over control of the House next year.

But the end game is coming into focus: The Friday government funding deadline is coming up, lawmakers are aiming to pass the massive $1.66 trillion spending bill — and the ECA reform included in it — before then.

“We must finish passing this omnibus before the deadline on Friday when government funding runs out, but we hope to do it much sooner than that,” Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said on Tuesday morning. He added the first procedural votes in the Senate could happen as soon as today.

The ECA reform bill would clarify that the vice president’s role in certifying a presidential election is purely ceremonial and make it clear that they do not have the sole power to address disputes over electors. It would also raise the threshold for Congress to invalidate legitimate electors and for state legislatures to override the popular vote in their states.

This reform is “​​a critical step to strengthen the guardrails for our democracy and ensure that the will of the voters is upheld following a presidential election,” said Holly Idelson, a counsel with Protect Democracy.

It really is a shame that a much more robust reform package that included a renewed Voting Rights Act, redistricting restrictions, requirements for early voting, voting by mail, same-day voter registration, and more was not able to pass. I’ve ranted about that before, and all I can do at this point is hope that another opportunity comes up in the foreseeable future. At least this will make it harder for a bad actor to try to steal the next Presidential election. You take the wins where you can.

Agreement reached on I-45 expansion plans

I remain skeptical, but we’ll see.

The bottleneck of design differences that has divided officials about remaking Interstate 45 north of downtown Houston is easing, officials said Monday, clearing the way for construction on the $10 billion project, perhaps in less than two years.

“There is no perfect design,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “On balance, with the improvements … I think you have an excellent project that will move forward and move the greater good.”

The agreement outlines plans for widening the freeway by adding two managed lanes in each direction from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8, along with various frontage road and interchange alterations.

“We are ready to move forward together,” said Texas Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan.

After spending months at loggerheads, but working on some consensus, the Texas Department of Transportation committed to a handful of concessions, such as increasing the money it will pay the Houston Housing Authority for relocation and development of affordable housing, and assurances to design the project as much within the current freeway footprint as possible. The project also connects to trails for running and biking, adds air monitoring in certain areas, adds features aimed at encouraging transit use and commits to stormwater design changes sought by the Harris County Flood Control District.

“Not all the things we wanted materialized, but that is compromise,” said Harris County Pct. 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

The agreement announced Monday does not remove the pause the Federal Highway Administration placed on the project in March 2021. But with blessing of local, state and federal elected officials, it is likely TxDOT and the FHWA could come to a separate agreement and work could proceed, people involved in the deal said.

[…]

The agreements are a rare case of a major Texas highway project receiving major changes, prompted by community opposition, after officials had essentially greenlit its construction. The deals, however, also give TxDOT room to consider alternatives that reduce the number of homes and businesses displaced, but also do not hold them to any specific reductions.

“We expect TxDOT to uphold its end of this historic agreement, and not only to evaluate the impacts over the next year but to agree to and fund real solutions that address concerns about displacement, pollution, flooding and impacts on the public transportation network,” said Harris County Pct. 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

The difference in visions has dogged the project for more than two years, but progress on remaking the freeway hit two large potholes in March 2021, after critics of the widening convinced some local officials to step in and federal highway officials paused work. Around the same time, Harris County sued TxDOT, saying the designs did not adequately address the impacts of noise and pollution in some communities, notably the North Side and Independence Heights.

In the roughly 20 months since, officials chipped away at the differences, postponing action on the county’s lawsuit and awaiting the federal review, while exploring what changes TxDOT could make to appease concerns. In the interim, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Garcia, who both were outspoken about the need for changes to the design, were reelected.

The two new agreements, one between TxDOT and the city and another between TxDOT and Harris County, specify the commitments both sides are making. Turner signed the city’s agreement Monday, after it was signed by TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams. The county’s agreement can only be approved after a Commissioners’ Court meeting, scheduled for Thursday. Approval of the deal would automatically trigger a request by county officials drop the lawsuit against TxDOT.

Most of the new details are similar to requests Turner made in August 2021, and correspond with requests county officials raised more than a year ago, which state highway officials said they could not approve because they locked TxDOT into commitments on side ventures that were not included in the project.

Opponents of TxDOT’s design, finalized in 2019, said they needed to review specifics of the two agreements, but remained opposed to some of the fundamental features included in the plans.

“TxDOT has yet to adequately respond to community concerns about induced demand — the phenomenon by which wider highways make traffic worse,” the group Stop TxDOT I-45 said in a statement.

“We want a project that does not displace, and we know that wide freeways do not relieve traffic,” the group said. “We are excited to remain an active partner in this planning and development process.”

The city’s press release is here. On the one hand, I have faith that local political leaders who have been vocal in their opposition to TxDOT’s previous plans have done their best to get as good a deal as they can. They couldn’t hold out forever – there’s a lot of pressure to make I-45 renovation and expansion happen – and no one gets everything they want in a negotiation. If I trusted them before I have no reason not to trust them now. That doesn’t mean I’ll agree with every decision they made, but I start out with the belief that they did their best to act in our interest.

On the other hand, I and others who live close to I-45 and will be directly affected by whatever does happen in some way – and let’s be clear, lots of people will be much more directly affected than I will – are under no obligation to like this agreement, no matter how reasonable it may be and no matter how unprecedented it may be for TxDOT to bend as much as they apparently did. I don’t care how long it takes some dude to drive into town from The Woodlands. I’m perfectly happy telling them all to take one of the commuter buses in, and if the service for that is inadequate to push for it to be improved. I have no interest in prioritizing those needs over anyone else’s. I appreciate that Mayor Turner, Congresswoman Jackson Lee, Judge Hidalgo, Commissioners Ellis and Garcia, County Attorney Menefee, and everyone I’m forgetting eventually had to say Yes to a sincere and meaningful counteroffer. I really do believe they did the best they could and that we’re overall in a much better place than when we started and that we worked hard for it. But I still don’t have to like it. I’ll try to learn to live with it. That’s the best I can do. CultureMap has more.

Are we emotionally prepared for the oncoming freeze?

That’s the real question at this point.

ERCOT on Friday notified power generators in Texas that they need to be online and ready to provide power during an expected wave of cold air that could drop overnight temperatures into the 20s late next week.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s nonprofit grid operator, issued the notice effective Dec. 22-26, though officials said they expect there will be enough power to meet demand.

The state’s power grid has been bolstered since a February 2021 winter storm knocked out power to large parts of Texas for several days and was linked to about 200 deaths. During that storm, demand for power soared while power generation equipment froze, knocking several producers offline.

“As we monitor weather conditions, we want to assure Texans that the grid is resilient and reliable,” said Pablo Vegas, ERCOT President and CEO. “We will keep the public informed as weather conditions change throughout the coming week.”

The coming burst of cold isn’t expected to be as strong as what was seen during the 2021 freeze, according to Space City Weather.

“While we will continue to watch this forecast very closely, we do not believe that the intensity, duration, or impacts of the cold will rival what we saw in 2021, which saw mid or low teens for lows,” wrote Space City Weather meteorologist Matt Lanza.

In the wake of the historic storm almost two years ago, state officials forced ERCOT to improve the power grid and make it less likely to falter in severe weather.

[…]

Ed Hirs, an energy fellow with the University of Houston, said those changes still fall short of larger market concepts he said could strengthen the grid’s reliability. The Public Utility Commission, which oversees ERCOT, is reviewing proposals for doing that and is expected to vote on a proposal recommendation at its Jan. 12 meeting. The Texas Legislature will debate the recommendation and other options during the 2023 legislative session.

“It takes more than 20 months to fix something broken over 12 years of underinvestment,” he said. “We’ll find out if the Band-Aids the PUC put in place will hold.”

That’s where I am right now, as I remember the forty-plus hours that we went without power in February of 2021. My family was pretty well equipped to handle the cold – not “fuck off to Cancun” privileged, but we were never in any real danger. Even with that, it was very unpleasant. We had our pipes bust in 13 places – thankfully, we were able to get a plumber out quickly to fix that – we lost a Meyer lemon tree that had produced a lot of fruit over the years, and it was just damn traumatic on the girls. I’m a little in denial about this freeze coming in, for reasons I can’t quite grasp other than I’m an idiot and this is how I cope with stuff like this. If the grid does fail in spectacular fashion again, the one thing we have learned is that there won’t be any political consequences for it. There’s never an election around when you really need one. Anyway, I hope we all manage to stay warm this time, with the exception of Greg Abbott and everyone on his campaign staff. The rest of you, bundle up and hope for the best. TPR, Reform Austin, and the Trib have more.