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January, 2023:

The next round of voter suppression bills are coming

Brace yourselves.

Texas Republicans spent most of the 2021 legislative session focusing on election security — and this year, it’s a top priority for them again.

GOP leaders are discussing a range of election security measures, from higher penalties for voter fraud to broader power for the attorney general to prosecute election crimes. Many of them target Harris County, which Republicans have spent the past two years chastising for back-to-back elections blunders.

“Harris County is the big problem,” said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican who plans to file close to a dozen election bills this legislative session. “You’ve got the nation’s third-largest county that has had multiple problems with multiple election officers, to the point where one had to resign, and the problem is that it’s too big a piece of the electorate to ignore.”

Harris County Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum did not respond directly to the criticism, but said the office supports any legislation that increases voter registration and access to voting.

“Right now, we are focused on implementing new systems to promote the efficiency with which our office runs elections,” Tatum said in a statement.

[…]

Bettencourt said he’s considering a bill that would raise the charges for some voting-related misdemeanors, such as failing to provide election supplies.

He also questioned the existence of — and the accountability measures for — the election administrator position in Harris County. [Isabel] Longoria was the first, appointed under a newly created office in late 2020; Tatum was named as her replacement last July.

“That’s somebody that’s supposed to have better acumen and better results than elected officials, but the reverse has been proven to be true in Harris County,” Bettencourt said. “One of the things we’re going to have to explore is: Why aren’t the elected tax assessor-collector and the elected county clerk — which are, quite frankly, both Democrats — why are they not running the election, where there’s some public accountability?”

I’ve said this multiple times before, but as a reminder for the slow kids in the class, many counties have election administrators, including many Republican counties like Tarrant and Lubbock. Ed Emmett first proposed the idea for Harris County. There were problems with elections back when the County Clerk – specifically, Stan Stanart – was in charge of running them. This is nothing but a pretext.

Beyond Harris County, lawmakers are looking at a slate of statewide elections reforms, starting with returning the penalty for illegal voting to a felony instead of a misdemeanor. The Legislature lowered the punishment when it passed Senate Bill 1, but top Republicans — including Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — have pushed to return it to the stiffer penalty.

Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan, whose chamber amended the bill to include the lower penalty, rejected the idea when it was first floated during a series of 2021 special sessions.

“This important legislation made its way through the House after several thoughtful amendments were adopted,” he said. “Now is not the time to re-litigate.”

[…]

State Rep. Jacey Jetton, a Richmond Republican, said he’s exploring legislation to facilitate [the mail ballot] process, such as enabling election officials to check all identification numbers associated with an individual at the Texas Department of Public Safety. He also wants to review the system’s new online mail ballot tracker and ensure it’s working properly.

Republicans have also introduced bills to further investigate election fraud, to limit the state’s early voting period from two weeks to one, and to set earlier deadlines for handing in mail ballots. And some of them are hoping to give Attorney General Ken Paxton stronger authority to prosecute election crimes, after the state’s highest criminal appeals court ruled in 2021 that he could not unilaterally take on such cases.

Currently, Paxton can only get involved if invited by a district or county attorney, according to the court’s ruling. The decision led to an outcry from top Republicans, including Abbott and Patrick, who called for the case to be reheared.

Paxton encouraged his supporters to launch a pressure campaign and flood the court with calls and emails demanding, unsuccessfully, that they reverse the decision. The move prompted a complaint to the State Bar accusing Paxton of professional misconduct for attempting to interfere in a pending case before the court.

Much of this is also covered in this Trib story. I don’t know if Speaker Phelan will be persuaded or arm-twisted into changing his mind about making whatever minor infractions into felonies, but I hope he holds out. I commend Rep. Jetton for his interest in reducing the number of mail ballot rejections, though I have a hard time believing anyone can get such a bill through the Lege. As for Paxton’s continued desire to be Supreme Prosecutor, the CCA’s ruling was made on constitutional grounds. I feel confident saying that a constitutional amendment to allow this will not pass.

Anything else, however, is fair game and just a matter of whether the Republicans want it to pass or not. They have the votes and they have the will, and there’s basically nothing Dems can do to stop them. They’ll fight and they’ll make noise and they’ll employ the rules and pick up the occasional small-bore victory, but in the end they have no power. You know the mantra: Nothing will change until that changes.

And yes, it really is all about voter suppression, even if Texas Republicans are better than their Wisconsin colleagues at keeping the quiet part to themselves. It’s certainly possible that these laws aren’t as good at actually suppressing the vote as they’re intended to, but that’s beside the point. If they keep making it harder to vote, and they keep making it costlier to make an honest mistake in voting, and that cost is almost entirely borne by Democratic-leaning voters of color, it’s suppressive. The debate is about the extent, not the existence.

Chron story on HCC redistricting

This focuses on one district, which seems to be the main and possibly only point of contention in the process. I’d like to know more than what was in this story.

Reagan Flowers

Houston Community College trustee Reagan Flowers had to receive special permission to hold a forum last week at Emancipation Park because it’s not in her district, but she and many other Third Ward community members think it should be.

Ten years after HCC last redistricted and divided Third Ward between two tracts, Flowers is trying to put the historic, majority-Black neighborhood squarely back into District 4. She faces an uphill battle, as other trustees would see changes to their own districts if Third Ward is pieced back together.

HCC’s District 4 currently represents the Medical Center, Museum District, Sunnyside and Third Ward’s south part. The northernmost part was absorbed into its eastern neighbor, District 3, in the last redistricting, Flowers said.

“It’s caused this divide where we can’t speak with one voice when it comes to Houston Community College,” she said. “That doesn’t necessarily support the culture, the history of Third Ward.”

District 3, which encompasses parts of east and southeast Houston, counted the lowest population among HCC districts in 2010 and 2020. Districts have to be redrawn when the population of the most populous district — now District 4, in west Houston — exceeds the population of the least populous district by more than 10 percent, based on the most recent major Census updates.

HCC’s first proposal for redistricting, based on the 2020 U.S. Census, mostly left District 4 alone. Still, community members hoping to regain the northern part of Third Ward face resistance because a change would cause them to shed another part of their district — and District 3 is already looking for more space to expand in order to balance the district populations.

[…]

Third Ward residents have long lamented a pattern of division in their neighborhood. The Museum District, Midtown and what is now East Downtown were formerly considered Third Ward.

HCC appears to be the only governing body that splits Third Ward — and in doing so excludes some of their most well-known spots, including Jack Yates High School, Emancipation Park, Cuney Homes and Project Row Houses.

While HISD, City Hall and Houston Super Neighborhoods currently keep Third Ward intact, some worry HCC’s current and proposed maps could set a precedent for others to follow their lead.

“It’s dangerous ground,” said Flowers, whose term expires at the end of the year. “What’s happening with HCC and District 3 is very disrespectful to the Black community and the Third Ward, and it doesn’t have to be.”

See here and here for the background. I wish the story had included comments from other Trustees as well, especially District 3 Trustee Adriana Tamez, since moving the Third Ward back into District 4 would have a big effect on her. If you look at all of the maps that have been proposed (downloadable PDF), any significant changes to Districts 3 and 4 would also affect District 9, and so it would have been nice for the story to have a comment from its Trustee, Pretta VanDible Stallworth, as well.

I had the chance to talk to Trustee Flowers about this. She told me that Plan 2C, which you can find on page 31 of that PDF, accomplishes what she is advocating, but she does not currently have the support to get it passed. Map 1, which is in that presentation and also viewable here, is the one that is set to pass. But there’s still time, and if this is something you care about, you can contact your Trustee and let them know it. The public hearing on the redistricting proposal will be February 15, as noted before.

As I said about HISD redistricting, I don’t think anyone is trying to screw the Third Ward here. The fact is that Harris County’s population is shifting westward you can see the demographic data in that PDF download – and District 3 is in need of more population. Moving the Third Ward out of 3 increases that need, and that has to come from somewhere, which affects more people. Redistricting is always nuanced and multi-dimensional, and in the end it’s zero-sum. All you can do is make your case and do your best to minimize the negative effects on everyone involved.

Egg smuggling

We live in strange times.

As the price of eggs continues to rise, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials are reporting a spike in people attempting to bring eggs into the country illegally from Mexico, where prices are lower.

The jump in sightings of the contraband product can be best explained by the high price of eggs in the U.S., which soared 60% in December over a year earlier. A combination of the deadliest bird flu outbreak in U.S. history, compounded by inflationary pressure and supply-chain snags, is to blame for the high prices shoppers are seeing at the supermarket.

It’s forcing some drastic measures: some grocery store chains are limiting how many cartons customers can buy.

And some people are going as far as smuggling eggs from out of the country, where prices are more affordable, and risking thousands of dollars in fines in the process.

A 30-count carton of eggs in Juárez, Mexico, according to Border Report, sells for $3.40. In some parts of the U.S., such as California, just a dozen eggs are now priced as high as $7.37.

Shoppers from El Paso, Texas, are buying eggs in Juárez because they are “significantly less expensive,” CPB spokesperson Gerrelaine Alcordo told NPR in a statement.

Most of those people arriving at international bridges are open about their purchase because they don’t realize eggs are prohibited.

“Generally, the items are being declared during the primary inspection and when that happens the person can abandon the product without consequence,” Alcordo said. “There have been a very small number of cases in the last weeks or so” were eggs weren’t declared, and then subsequently discovered during inspection, Alcordo added.

If the products are discovered, agriculture specialists confiscate and destroy them, which is routine for prohibited food. Those people are fined $300, but the penalty can be higher for repeat offenders of commercial size illegal imports.

There’s a joke in there somewhere involving Greg Abbott and the Texas National Guard, but I don’t quite feel up to the task. If you want to know more about why eggs are so expensive right now, it’s all about avian flu, as Your Local Epidemiologist explains. If you’re planning a visit to Mexico sometime in the near future, please be aware of what you can and cannot bring back with you. (If you’re planning a, um, unofficial trip to Mexico, you’re on your own.) In the meantime, know that this too shall pass. CNN and the Current have more.

New Mexico sues its “abortion sanctuary cities”

Good.

New Mexico’s top prosecutor on Monday asked the state’s highest court to overturn abortion bans imposed by conservative local governments in the Democratic-run state where the procedure remains legal after Roe v. Wade was struck down.

The move comes after the New Mexico cities of Hobbs, Clovis and two surrounding counties bordering Texas passed ordinances in recent months to restrict abortion clinics and access to abortion pills.

New Mexico Attorney General Raul Torrez filed an extraordinary writ in New Mexico Supreme Court to block the ordinances which he said were based on flawed interpretations of 19th century federal regulations on abortion medication.

“This is not Texas. Our State Constitution does not allow cities, counties or private citizens to restrict women’s reproductive rights,” Torrez said in a statement.

[…]

New Mexico’s largest cities of Las Cruces and Albuquerque have become regional destinations for women seeking abortions since the U.S. Supreme Court in June ended the nationwide constitutional right to the procedure.

Located on New Mexico’s eastern plains, Clovis and Hobbs do not have abortion clinics but approved ordinances to stop providers locating there to serve patients from Republican-controlled Texas, one of the first states to impose a near-total ban on abortion.

In direct response, New Mexico Democrats have drafted legislation to prevent cities from overriding state laws guaranteeing womens’ rights to reproductive healthcare. The legislation is due to be debated this month and has a strong chance of passing the Democratic-controlled state legislature.

See here for some background, and here for a reminder that New Mexico has been a regional access point for abortion for some time now.

More details here.

It’s not clear how soon the New Mexico Supreme Court could decide to take up the issue. Torrez said he hopes his petition to the Supreme Court will inspire a quick response within weeks or months — avoiding the potentially yearslong process of pursuing a civil lawsuit.

The filing targets Roosevelt and Lea counties and the cities of Hobbs and Clovis — all on the eastern edge of the state near Texas, where most abortion procedures are banned.

Clovis and Lea County officials declined to comment Monday, citing pending litigation. Officials could not immediately be reached in Hobbs and Roosevelt County.

Prosecutors say abortion ordinances approved in November by an all-male city council in Hobbs and in early January by Roosevelt County define “abortion clinic” in broad terms, encompassing any building or facility beyond a hospital where an abortion procedure is performed — or where an abortion-inducing drug is dispensed, distributed or ingested.

Torrez warned Roosevelt County’s abortion ordinance in particular gives private citizens the power to sue anyone they suspect of violated the ordinance and pursue damages of up to $100,000 per violation.

“The threat of ruinous liability under the law operates to chill New Mexicans from exercising their right to choose whether to terminate a pregnancy and health care providers from providing lawful medical services,” the attorney general wrote in his petition to the state Supreme Court.

In 2021, the Democrat-led Legislature passed a measure to repeal a dormant 1969 statute that outlawed most abortion procedures, ensuring access to abortion in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year that overturned Roe v. Wade.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she wants to see legislation that would codify the right to an abortion across the state.

Lawmakers have already proposed measures that would prohibit local governments from placing restrictions on abortion access — and call for putting in place protections for doctors and patients.

During her reelection campaign last year, Lujan Grisham cast herself as a staunch defender of access to abortion procedures. She has called a local abortion ordinance an “affront to the rights and personal autonomy of every woman in Hobbs and southeastern New Mexico.”

In June, the governor signed an executive order that prohibited cooperation with other states that might interfere with abortion access in New Mexico, declining to carry out any future arrest warrants from other states related to anti-abortion provisions.

The order also prohibited most New Mexico state employees from assisting other states in investigating or seeking sanctions against local abortion providers.

She followed up in August with another executive order that pledged $10 million to build a clinic that would provide abortion and other pregnancy care in Southern New Mexico.

Not much for me to add here other than I wish Attorney General Torrez good luck. This is clearly the right approach to take, and I hope the New Mexico legislature follows up as well. I look forward to the day when the state of Texas doesn’t make it necessary for them to do all this extra stuff. The Albuquerque Journal has more.

FDA suggests annual COVID booster

I like the idea of this, which is to make COVID shots simpler and thus hopefully more likely to be taken, but it seems to be more nuanced than that.

The US Food and Drug Administration wants to simplify the Covid-19 vaccine process to look more like what happens with the flu vaccine, according to documents posted online on Monday. That could include streamlining the vaccine composition, immunization schedules and periodic updates of Covid-19 vaccines.

The FDA said it expects to assess circulating strains of the coronavirus at least annually and decide in June which strains to select for the fall season, much like the process to update annual flu vaccines.

Moving forward, the agency said, most people may need only one dose of the latest Covid-19 shot to restore protection, regardless of how many shots they’ve gotten before. Two doses may be needed for people who are very young and haven’t been exposed, who are elderly or who have weakened immune systems, according to the FDA’s briefing document for its vaccine advisers.

The agency is urging a shift toward only one vaccine composition rather than a combination of monovalent vaccines – which are currently used for primary shots and target only one strain – and bivalent vaccines – which are currently used for booster doses and target more than one strain.

The FDA briefing documents do not say whether the annual shot would contain a single strain, two strains or more. The annual influenza vaccine immunizes against four strains.

“This simplification of vaccine composition should reduce complexity, decrease vaccine administration errors due to the complexity of the number of different vial presentations, and potentially increase vaccine compliance by allowing clearer communication,” the FDA said.

The agency’s independent vaccine advisers, the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee, are scheduled to meet Thursday to discuss the future of Covid-19 vaccine regimens and will be asked to vote on whether they recommend parts of the FDA’s plan.

Vaccine experts had mixed responses.

[…]

Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, said he sees the plan for an annual update as a balance between what science says is needed to fight the virus and what’s actually practical.

“I think it’s a balance, trying to do what the science says, which is the need for adaptability and flexibility. Yet the practicality that’s unlikely the companies can probably make that switch more than once a year,” he said.

But this plan also has some weaknesses, he notes. Annual updates are fine as long as the virus continues to evolve incrementally, based on previously circulating viruses. But he questions whether the world has enough genomic surveillance to catch a radically different variant that pops out of left field, as Omicron did.

“We don’t have the surveillance mechanisms in place globally. We don’t have the genomic sequencing in place globally. We don’t have the carefully orchestrated dance that took decades to build for influenza surveillance in place for coronavirus surveillance,” Hotez said.

The NYT has more from the scientists.

The proposal took some scientists by surprise, including a few of the F.D.A.’s own advisers. They are scheduled to meet on Thursday to discuss the country’s vaccine strategy, including which doses should be offered and on what schedule.

“I’m choosing to believe that they are open to advice, and that they haven’t already made up their minds as to exactly what they’re going to do,” Dr. Paul Offit, one of the advisers and director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said of F.D.A. officials.

There was little research to support the suggested plan, some advisers said.

“I’d like to see some data on the effect of dosing interval, at least observational data,” said Dr. Eric Rubin, one of the advisers and editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine. “And going forward, I’d like to see data collected to try to tell if we’re doing the right thing.”

Still, Dr. Rubin added, “I’d definitely be in favor of something simpler, as it would make it more likely that people might take it.”

Only about 40 percent of adults aged 65 and older, and only 16 percent of those 5 and older, have received the latest Covid booster shot. Many experts, including federal officials, have said that the doses are most important for Americans at high risk of severe disease and death from Covid: older adults, immunocompromised people, pregnant women and those with multiple underlying conditions.

In its briefing documents, the F.D.A. addressed the varying risks to people of different ages and health status.

“Most individuals may only need to receive one dose of an approved or authorized Covid-19 vaccine to restore protective immunity for a period of time,” the agency said. Very young children who may not already have been infected with the virus, as well as older adults and immunocompromised people, may need two shots, the documents said.

But some scientists said there was little to suggest that Americans at low risk needed even a single annual shot. The original vaccines continue to protect young and healthy people from severe disease, and the benefit of annual boosters is unclear.

Most people are “well protected against severe Covid disease with a primary series and without yearly boosters,” said Dr. Céline Gounder, an infectious disease physician and senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The F.D.A. advisers said they would like to see detailed information regarding who is most vulnerable to the virus and to make decisions about future vaccination strategy based on those data.

“How old are they? What are their comorbidities? When was the last dose of vaccine they got? Did they take antiviral medicines?” Dr. Offit said. At the moment, the national strategy seems to be, “‘OK, well, let’s just dose everybody all the time,’” he said. “And that’s just not a good reason.”

I am obviously not remotely qualified to weigh in on the merits. I like the idea of yearly boosters, because I already get a yearly flu shot and this is appealing as a neat and orderly risk-mitigation device. I’d like to think it might help increase the number of people who get boosted, but I’m not quite that optimistic. It would be nice to say that the science should prevail over the politics in this debate, but you can’t take the politics out of it, and you still need people to buy into whatever eventually gets recommended. Just try to make a good decision and don’t draw it out to the point where the only thing people hear about is the argument over the decision. StatNews has more.

Scott Rolen elected to the Hall of Fame

Well deserved.

Scott Rolen

The hot corner has historically had a high bar for National Baseball Hall of Fame entry. But in 2023, Scott Rolen made the cut and completed a meteoric rise in support in his time on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot.

Rolen was the only one of the 28 candidates on the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot to reach the necessary 75% support in results, which were revealed Tuesday night on MLB Network. Rolen will join first baseman Fred McGriff in the Class of 2023 after McGriff’s selection in December by the Contemporary Baseball Era Players Committee.

Induction ceremonies will be held July 23 in Cooperstown, N.Y.

“You don’t think about this,” Rolen said of his playing days. “You think about trying to do the best you can and play for your team and do the best you can. It’s such a long road, and I never thought the Hall of Fame would be the answer.”

It is now.

Though Rolen was the BBWAA’s only inductee for 2023, he was not the only one to continue a major surge. Todd Helton jumped from 52% in 2022 to 72.2% in his fifth of 10 possible appearances on the ballot, falling just 11 votes shy of what would have been one of the biggest final flourishes for an electee in history. Billy Wagner went from 51% to 68.1% in his eighth year, and Andruw Jones (58.1%), in his sixth year, and Gary Sheffield (55%), in his ninth, both made the important cross above the 50% threshold for the first time.

Carlos Beltrán had a solid 46.5% showing on his first ballot, (Francisco Rodríguez, at 10.8%, was the only other first-timer to receive the necessary 5% to remain on next year’s ballot), while Jeff Kent had the exact same percentage on his 10th and final try with the BBWAA. Kent’s case will go to the Historical Overview Committee for potential inclusion on the 2025 Contemporary Baseball Era ballot.

Rolen was definitely deserving, and as the article notes third basemen are under-represented in Cooperstown. Everyone else from Helton down to Beltran is also deserving and will hopefully have their time soon. Next year it gets a bit more crowded as Adrian Beltre, Joe Mauer, and Chase Utley join the ballot. Congrats to Rolen and better luck to the rest in 2024. ESPN and Fangraphs have more.

Texas blog roundup for the week of January 23

The Texas Progressive Alliance is ready for pitchers and catchers to report as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

More on the lawsuit against Paxton’s deranged ballot access opinion

There are actually three counties suing him, not just the one I had originally noted.

The only criminal involved

At least three Texas counties — Tarrant, Williamson, and Harris — have sued Attorney General Ken Paxton and are asking a judge to strike down a legal opinion he released last year that says anyone can access voted ballots right after an election. The lawsuits allege Paxton’s opinion violates state and federal law, contradicts his own previous direction on the issue, and exposes local election administrators to potential criminal charges.

For decades, the attorney general’s office advised counties that voted ballots were to be kept secure for 22 months after an election, a timeframe mandated by federal law and Texas state election code. But only months before the November 2022 general election, even though neither law had changed, Paxton released an opinion saying the documents could be released to anyone who requested them, almost right after the ballots were counted.

Now, counties and election officials across the state are stuck. They can follow Paxton’s new opinion — which is only a written interpretation of the law — and potentially open themselves up to criminal penalties for violating state law, or they can defy the state attorney general and open up themselves to costly lawsuits.

That’s why now the counties are asking a judge to step in and settle the question.

Paxton’s office did not respond to emails requesting comment. Paxton so far has filed a response only to Tarrant County’s lawsuit, which was filed in October and was the first of the three challenges. Paxton’s office denied the county’s claims.

Experts say the move by three different counties to challenge the Texas attorney general’s legal opinion speaks to the complicated position it has put local election officials in. His opinion, they say, has caused chaos, and has no basis in state law.

“These counties don’t have a choice. They have to worry about whether Ken Paxton is going to take action against them,” said Chad Dunn, an Austin-based attorney and an expert on Texas election law. Dunn said Paxton’s opinion “is laughable. The election code is clear. I’ll be just shocked if the state court system ends up agreeing with Ken Paxton and the ballots are public.”

[…]

The Texas attorney general’s office, including Paxton’s own administration, has affirmed this interpretation of the law since the 1980s. The practice of keeping the ballots preserved and confidential for 22 months, experts say, prevents the documents from being tampered with or compromised and protects the documents’ reliability in case there’s a request for recount or other election challenges.

Paxton released his opinion in August after a request from state Sen. Kelly Hancock and state Rep. Matt Krause, both Republicans, who said members of the public and legislators desired “to audit the outcome of Texas elections.” In a footnote, Paxton acknowledged that the attorney general’s office had issued a previous opinion in 1988, before he took office, saying unauthorized access to the ballots during the preservation period is prohibited. But the new opinion offers no clear explanation of his decision to change a decades-old precedent.

Paxton’s office “does not have the authority to make or change the law; that is a responsibility that solely rests with the Texas Legislature,” Tarrant County’s lawsuit says.

Paxton’s new opinion does not address the potential criminal exposure of election officials, who could be charged with a misdemeanor amounting to $4,000 in fines or up to a year in jail, or offer a clear timeframe of how quickly election clerks must provide the records to requesters.

“The Election Code provides a few limited circumstances where the custodian has express authority to access ballots prior to the 22-month expiration. Responding to [public information] requests is not one of those circumstances,” the Williamson County lawsuit says.

The three lawsuits are technically challenging Paxton’s Public Information Act decisions — which experts say is not an uncommon practice — and not his legal opinion directly. In order for counties to be able to challenge an attorney general’s opinion in court, the counties must have “standing and show a reason why it affects” them said Bob Heath, an Austin-based election and voting rights lawyer and a former chair of the opinions committee of the Texas attorney general’s office. The counties are doing so through the Public Information Act challenges that are based on Paxton’s decision, which Heath says is “wrong.”

“That’s a way to get to this opinion, and the opinion obviously poses a real problem for counties or for election administrators and county clerks,” Heath said.

See here, here, and here for the background. I don’t have much to add to what I’ve already said, I’m just waiting to see when the court will issue a ruling. After that, it’s a matter of what the Supreme Court will do. I have some hope, but these days that always has to be tempered with extreme anxiety. Stay tuned.

The “True The Vote Freedom Hospital of Ukraine”

This story has broken my brain.

Gregg Phillips and Catherine Engelbrecht are best known as the election deniers behind True the Vote, a Texas-based nonprofit responsible for amplifying conspiracies that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

But soon after Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, they shifted some of their focus to the war effort, jumping into the fray with an inspiring idea — to bring a mobile hospital to the region to care for victims of the conflict.

They called it The Freedom Hospital.

Phillips solicited donations on conservative media platforms, linked up with American veterans working in Ukraine and traveled to the region in March to meet with local officials. The Freedom Hospital’s website announced it was halfway to its goal of raising $25 million.

“Our recent project, The Freedom Hospital, in Ukraine helps old folks, women and kids near the fight receive healthcare,” Phillips wrote on the conservative social media site Truth Social on June 5.

But that was one of a series of misrepresentations from Phillips and The Freedom Hospital about the operation’s donations and accomplishments, according to a joint investigation by ProPublica and The Dallas Morning News. The Freedom Hospital never got off the ground, and, through their lawyers, Phillips and Engelbrecht now say they never raised significant amounts of money for the project.

They never brought the mobile hospital to the region.

Both Phillips and Engelbrecht declined to answer questions. According to their lawyers, who spoke to ProPublica and the News, the pair’s Ukraine project was a good-faith effort that was unsuccessful.

They said Phillips realized during his March trip to the region that the mission wasn’t feasible because local officials weren’t interested, because potential donors felt the U.S. government was already funneling enough money into the war effort, and because he was worried about the potential for local corruption.

“They pretty much abandoned it all as of, like, April,” Cameron Powell, a partner at Gregor, Wynne, Arney who’s one of the pair’s attorneys, said during a December interview. “Pretty much during his trip, he was deciding it’s probably not going to be feasible.”

Phillips continued to seek donations for months after that and gave the impression that the project was still in the works. The lawyers now say that is because the pair kept pushing forward “with their due diligence for a while longer” and declined to clarify exactly when the project was abandoned.

Asked about Phillips’ statements that The Freedom Hospital had raised half of its $25 million goal, the lawyers said that amount was an in-kind donation from the mobile hospital manufacturer, not cash. The manufacturer’s CEO disputed that account, saying it never pledged to make such a donation.

As noted, this story also appears on ProPublica and The Dallas Morning News. I trust we are all familiar with the main characters of this story. They’re the reason this is a story, after all.

I look at it this way: If there were a couple of people who did not have the history of Catherine Engelbrecht and Gregg Phillips that had allegedly done these things, one might reasonably conclude that they were well-intentioned but in over their heads, and they made things worse in their good-faith-but-doomed efforts to get out of the hole they were in. But because they are Catherine Engelbrecht and Gregg Phillips and they have a long history of lying and grifting, you can’t believe a word they say and you should not ever give them the benefit of the doubt. The burden of proof is on them. Just add this mess to their karmic tab, which one hopes some day will come due. Now go read the rest of this story and try not to obsess about it too much.

A new proposal for adding sidewalks

I’d like to hear more about this.

Some homeowners and developers soon may be able to opt out of requirements to build sidewalks and instead pay a fee into a new fund the city would use to build sidewalks across Houston.

City Council on Wednesday is scheduled to consider a proposal to create a “sidewalk-in-lieu fee” to give developers another way to comply with the sidewalk ordinance.

Under current regulations, property owners and developers are required to build a sidewalk in front of a property unless the project meets certain exemptions. This approach, however, has led to disconnected segments, known as “sidewalks to nowhere,” that do not contribute to a network needed by pedestrians, according to David Fields, chief transportation planner at the Houston Planning and Development Department.

With the new measure, applicants can choose to pay a fee of $12 per square foot if the required sidewalk construction is unsuitable or unfeasible. The fees would go into a new fund, which is expected to generate $1.7 million a year for the city to build sidewalks in a cohesive manner. That would be in addition to the existing sidewalk program’s $3.3 million annual budget.

The plan also would divide Houston into 17 service areas; 70 percent of the sidewalk fees collected in each area would be spent within its boundaries and 30 percent would be used citywide. The idea, Fields said, is to balance the need for sidewalk projects throughout Houston.

“The objective is a citywide pedestrian network to help the city grow sustainably and responsibly,” Fields said. “The in-lieu fee is one additional option for how we get there.”

The basic idea makes sense, and from reading the rest of the article it sounds like there’s a consensus for this. CM Robert Gallegos notes that it doesn’t address the need to fix existing sidewalks, though he still appears to favor the idea. Lack of sidewalks, and lack of good sidewalks, is a longstanding problem in this city, one that greatly limits non-car options for people, especially people with mobility challenges. Any tangible step we can take towards making that situation better is one I’d like to see happen.

HISD in TEA limbo

No one knows how long this might take.

Houston ISD is in limbo as the Texas Education Agency weighs how to proceed with a possible takeover of the state’s largest school system allowed under a recent Texas Supreme Court ruling.

The court lifted an injunction on Jan. 13 that had halted Education Commissioner Mike Morath’s 2019 move to take over the HISD school board, after allegations of trustee misconduct and repeated failing accountability ratings at Phillis Wheatley High School.

The state agency is now tight-lipped about the possible next steps, saying only that the “TEA continues to review the Supreme Court’s decision in order to determine next steps that best support the students, teachers, parents, and school community of the Houston Independent School District.”

While the state Supreme Court kicked the decision back to the lower courts, the Texas Education Agency could take action independent of the court. Experts say a few possibilities could play out: the TEA could appoint a conservator, replace the elected board with a board of managers, or allow the district to remain autonomous.

Even when well-intended, takeover efforts cause a great deal of chaos for parents, students and teachers, said Cathy Mincberg, president and CEO for the Center for the Reform of School Systems, a Houston-based nonprofit that provides consulting services for school boards.

“My impression when you look at takeovers across the country, they have not yielded the results that people wanted,” Mincberg said. “They swoop in trying to make a huge change in the system, and sometimes that’s just not possible.”

Mincberg, who has worked with school districts during takeovers, describes them as resulting in “highly confusing times.”

[…]

Attorney Christopher L. Tritico has represented three Houston-area districts — North Forest, Beaumont and La Marque — through their takeovers and due process hearings, which he described as “not a winning proposition.”

HISD will have a right to due process hearings, per state code, a move Tritico anticipates it will take. However, that hearing will be held by the TEA and overseen by a hearing officer the commissioner selects, making it difficult for school districts to get a ruling in their favor, he said.

Action may come soon, Tritico said.

“The time they are trying to buy is over,” he said. “I expect to move forward fairly soon now. There is nothing really standing in the way of (the TEA) moving forward in what the commissioner wants to do.”

[…]

In Houston ISD’s case, some legal and education experts raised the question of whether its still appropriate for the state to attempt a takeover. They say the issues that triggered a takeover — Wheatley’s failing accountability grades and board dysfunction — are now dated after the case has been deliberated in the courts for the last four years.

Since the initial announcement of a takeover, and the following lawsuits, Wheatley has increased its accountability grades to a passing score, and most of the board has been replaced.

Mincberg, president and CEO for The Center for the Reform of School Systems, said the threat of takeover gave the issues the public attention they deserved, and resulted in the board members being voted out.

“To me the Houston (ISD) problem got fixed,” Mincberg said. “The board members who were doing things that the TEA had trouble with were turned out and the district has become a lot more stable.”

See here for the background. As you know, I am of the same mind as Cathy Mincberg. I’m not even sure what the TEA would try to accomplish with a takeover. It seems very unlikely that they would be able to achieve any measurable improvement that wouldn’t have happened anyway. That’s assuming that the takeover would be about tangible results and not political aims. It’s hard to say at this point, and won’t be any clearer until the TEA says or does something. Until then, we wait.

More on the collegiate TikTok bans

An interesting perspective from a professor in Texas.

The bans have come in states where governors, like Texas’s Greg Abbott, have blocked TikTok from state-issued computers and phones. Employers can generally exercise control over how employees use the equipment they issue to them. The move to block TikTok on public university networks, however, crosses a line. It represents a different type of government regulation, one that hinders these institutions’ missions.

The bans limit university researchers’ abilities to learn more about TikTok’s powerful algorithm and data-collection efforts, the very problems officials have cited. Professors will struggle to find ways to educate students about the app as well.

Many, as my students suggested, will simply shift from the campus Wi-Fi to their data plans and resume using TikTok on campus. In this regard, the network bans create inequality, allowing those who can afford better data plans more free expression protections, while failing to address the original problem.

Crucially, TikTok isn’t just a place to learn how to do the griddy. It has more than 200 million users in the U.S., and many of them are exercising free-speech rights to protest and communicate ideas about matters of public concern. When the government singles out one app and blocks it on public university networks, it is picking and choosing who can speak and how they do so. The esteem and perceived value of the speech tool should not factor into whether the government can limit access to it.

The Supreme Court has generally found these types of restrictions unconstitutional. Justices struck down a North Carolina law in 2017 that banned registered sex offenders from using social media. They reasoned, “The Court must exercise extreme caution before suggesting that the First Amendment provides scant protection for access to vast networks in that medium.” Years earlier, the court struck down a law that criminalized digital child pornography. It reasoned lawmakers “may not suppress lawful speech as the means to suppress unlawful speech.”

Nearly a century ago, the first instance in which the Supreme Court struck down a law because it conflicted with the First Amendment came in a case that involved a blanket ban by government officials on a single newspaper. The newspaper was a scourge to its community. It printed falsehoods and damaged people’s reputations. Still, justices reasoned the First Amendment generally does not allow the government to block an information outlet because it threatens the “morals, peace, and good order” of the community.

Each of these laws, while put in place by well-meaning government officials, limited protected expression in their efforts to halt dangerous content. The First Amendment, however, generally doesn’t allow government officials to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Any limitation on expression must only address a clearly stated government interest and nothing else.

So, what is the government interest in blocking TikTok? Perhaps the most coherent statement of TikTok’s perceived national-security threat came from FBI Director Chris Wray in December. He emphasized, because of China’s practice of maintaining influence in the workings of private firms who do business in the country, Chinese officials might manipulate the app’s powerful recommendation algorithm in ways that distort the ideas Americans encounter. American TikTok users might see pro-China messages, for example, while negative information might be blocked. He also averred to TikTok’s ability to collect data on users and create access to information on users’ phones.

The University of Texas’s news release from earlier this week parroted these concerns, noting, “TikTok harvests vast amounts of data from its users’ devices—including when, where and how they conduct internet activity—and offers this trove of potentially sensitive information to the Chinese government.”

These are valid concerns, but apps such as Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and YouTube also harvest vast amounts of data about users. Their algorithms do far more than simply supply information. Facebook’s and YouTube’s algorithms, for example, have both been found to encourage right-wing extremism. They are, as Wray and Texas’ news release lamented regarding TikTok, distorting the ideas Americans encounter. Why aren’t we blocking them, too? The obvious answer is that none of these companies are owned by a Chinese firm. But can’t firms such as Meta, Twitter, and Google execute the same harms officials have listed from within the U.S.?

See here and here for the background. The author didn’t say where he teaches, but Google suggests he’s a journalism prof at SMU, which has no compunction to follow suit as it’s a private school. The main thing I took away from this is the possibility that someone at one of these schools, or multiple someones aiming for a class action, could file a First Amendment lawsuit to overturn the bans. The distinction between enacting a workplace ban on (basically) company-owned devices and a more general ban at a university seems clear to me. Whether anyone will take this up or not I couldn’t say – filing a federal lawsuit is no small thing. But it could happen, so we’ll keep an eye out for that.

Spring Branch ISD to discuss a book ban today

I don’t post stuff like this often – it’s not really my remit, and timeliness usually works against me – but this one really annoyed me, so here it is. Via Facebook:

PLEASE CONSIDER SPEAKING ON TUESDAY @ 1PM! (If you cannot make Tuesday, consider speaking to the topic at tonight’s board meeting instead)

This is the first book complaint that has been elevated to a level-3 for consideration under our new school board. This book complaint was reviewed by a committee of 7 (1 middle school librarian, 1 middle school teacher, 1 high school librarian, 1 high school teacher, 1 secondary campus administrator, 1 parent that has both a middle & high school students, and 1 district admin. The committee voted unanimously that the age recommendation and content were appropriate and recommended retaining the book at SBISD libraries in both middle and high school.

Level 2 Review: Denise Thompson Bell appealed the decision made by the reconsideration committee so the book was escalated for review by upper administration. Dr. Kristin Craft reviewed the comments and work of the review committee and upheld the decision that the content and age recommendation were appropriate and retained the book in SBISD libraries.

Denise Thompson Bell has since appealed the decision again, escalating this to a level 3 complaint to be heard by the board for final decision. There will be a public comment period and I ask that if you can participate at all, that would be incredibly helpful!

We know that the right to have access to books that are meaningful to a student support literacy efforts and have shown increased rates of reading. Being able to read books on different subject matters refines a student’s critical thinking skills. Parents have always had the right to restrict the reading of their own children, but this personal parenting choice should not be imposed upon the general public.

In most cases, school board meetings should be restricted to those who live in district. In this case, however, it would be beneficial for the board to hear why and how this book is important literature that should remain available to our students, regardless of the district residency of the speaker. If you or anyone you know have been affected by the more subtle aspects of racism that are described in the book, either as the target of racism, or as an individual who has actively worked to educate themselves on anti-racism, then there is benefit to you speaking up. The board needs to know that limiting books on racism and other helpful topics will cause students to feel alienated from their own school district, which will have a deleterious effect on their education and mental well being.

Speakers will need to arrive at 12:30 in order to fill out paperwork and have it submitted PRIOR TO 1pm. Public comment opportunity will be at the beginning of the meeting. Then, the board will sit with their attorney and hear the grievance as presented by Denise Thompson Bell and deliberate. After deliberation, and hopefully consideration of public comment, the decision will be made to either retain the book in SBISD libraries as has been recommended by the specialists that review books and the specialists in our district, place the book on their newly enacted restricted shelf, or ban the book from district libraries altogether.

Spread the word, far and wide! We need speakers to stand up. This will not stop at one book on racism. A book complaint for a book that has a wedding with two brides has already been escalated to level 2, and likely will be appealed again (as John Perez requested). This affects all people, whether or not they have experienced any form of bigotry or not.

I have included information regarding the board meeting in the pics attached, as well as supporting documentation of the complaint and appeal process. Documents acquired via public information request. Hope to see you then!

That’s from a closed Facebook group, so I’m omitting the link since many of you would not be able to see it anyway. The book is called The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person. Here are the pictures mentioned, which include some information about the meeting:

Here’s the public notice and agenda for this meeting; general info about SBISD meetings is here. I said this annoyed me because SBISD normally holds meetings at 6 PM, a time when many working people can attend. This one is for 1 PM, in the middle of many people’s work days, and it was called on Friday afternoon for this Tuesday, so there was very little time for anyone to even hear about it. You probably can’t be there, if you even see this in time, but if you do and you can, you can show up and push back. Good luck to those who do.

January 2023 campaign finance reports: City of Houston

It’s late January, so you know what that means: It’s campaign finance report time again. The reports of the greatest interest will be for the city of Houston, but I’ll be checking in on HISD, HCC, and Harris County as well. The July 2022 reports are here, the January 2022 reports are here, and the July 2021 reports are here.


Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
====================================================
Hollins      547,027    469,141        0   1,062,754
Edwards      567,005    195,257        0   1,044,338
Whitmire   1,148,015    249,142        0  10,100,086
Kaplan       465,180    177,578  200,000   1,164,527

Peck          10,750     13,940        0      20,729
Jackson        2,500     14,965        0      14,971
Kamin         52,080     12,255        0     238,337
 Scarbrough        0          0        0      14,810   
E-Shabazz     
L Dixon            0        254      100         254
Thomas        43,996     11,310        0      89,042
Huffman        5,850      3,624        0      35,012
Castillo      37,448      1,037   10,000      41,935
G Lindner      4,503          0        0       4,503
Martinez      78,605      6,130        0      52,187
Pollard       17,350     15,412   40,000     718,379
 Sanchez      30,140      4,201   20,000      25,938
C-Tatum       14,250     13,687        0     155,691

Hellyar       65,854      6,772        0      44,710
Coryat         5,626      4,063        0       1,562
Bess               0          0        0           0
Carter        85,926      9,456    4,000      78,768
Cooper        23,977     17,631        0       9,189
Plummer        4,125     10,309        0      24,741
 Morales      12,900        417    5,534      18,016
Alcorn       155,301     28,187        0     306,273

Martin         8,250     12,493        0     161,851
Kubosh        22,900      3,612  196,000      54,289

Wolfthal      43,812     16,683        0      24,953
Flickinger         0      1,933   50,000           0

Turner       228,862    186,942        0     842,484

Cisneros         250      7,215        0      31,128
Gallegos      21,787     13,500        0     133,471

Knox          16,175     20,914        0      14,231
Robinson      44,894     27,296        0     271,624

Brown              0      5,404   75,000      29,316

Laster             0      3,254        0     147,138

I have collected all of the reports for the people listed above, and you can find them in this Google Drive folder. I decided not to link to all of them individually just because it was more work than I felt like doing. Omitting that means I don’t have a complete listing, with full names and the office they are seeking, of all the candidates. I’ll be sure to at least mention everyone of interest later in the post.

I’ve grouped everyone in the table above as follows: First are the Mayoral candidates, then the candidates for district Council offices, listed in alphabetical order by office – Amy Peck is District A, Tarsha Jackson is District B, and so on. The open offices are Districts E, H, and I. There are so far two challengers to incumbent Council members, and I have indented their names to indicate them – Daphne Scarbrough (yeah, the same person who was a leading opponent of light rail on Richmond Avenue, here to scourge us again) is running against CM Abbie Kamin in C, and Ivan Sanchez, who was a Democratic candidate for CD07 in 2018, is running against CM Ed Pollard in District J. Martina Lemond Dixon is running in E, Mario Castillo and Janette Garza Lindner (2021 candidate for HISD district I) are running in H (my district), and Joaquin Martinez is running in I. The one person that did not have a report filed as of Friday was District D incumbent Carolyn Evans-Shabazz.

The next group is for the At Large seats, of which #s 1, 2, and 3 are open. Nick Hellyar, who ran for At Large #4 in 2019, is running for #2, as are Marina Coryat and Danielle Bess (former candidate for HD147 in 2022), and Twila Carter and Dannell Cooper are running for #3. No one has yet filed a finance report saying they plan to run for At Large #1. You can be sure that will change, and that all of these fields will be much larger by the time the filing deadline rolls around. Indeed, they may already be larger, as there are two candidates who didn’t specify an office in their reports; I’ll get to them in a minute. As above, a candidate opposing an incumbent is indented. Yes, that’s our old buddy Roy Morales running against CM Letitia Plummer in At Large #4.

Next we have the two term-limited Council members who are now running for City Controller, and following them are two candidates who did not specify an office on their report, Leah Wolfthal and Fred Flickinger. I met Leah Wolfthal at the January CEC meeting for HCDP precinct chairs, and I thought she told me she is running in At Large #2. Her website just says “for At Large City Council”, so better not to make any assumptions. I’ve put her in this group for that reason.

Everyone after that is not running for anything, from Mayor Turner to the four CMs to Controller Chris Brown. Former CM Mike Laster, who termed out in 2019, still has a decent amount of cash on hand. I assume the four people in this grouping who remain with over $100K on hand have some plan, perhaps vague and unformed but still existent, to do something with it. What that may be is not known to me, and possibly to them, at this time.

The Chron picks a few highlights from the Mayoral portion of the reports. The one thing I will add to that is that I must have missed Lee Kaplan’s July 2022 report, because I was surprised by his cash on hand total. Kaplan raised about $850K in the last period, which combined with a small amount of spending gives him the cash on hand total he has now. I have included Kaplan’s July 2022 finance report in that Google Drive folder as well.

There are candidates now who have not yet filed a finance report, and there are people who will be candidates that have not yet formally announced their candidacies. The July finance reports will tell us a much more complete story, though even then there will be room for more, as the filing deadline is not until August. This is what we know now. If you have anything to add, by all means please do so.

Pushing the panic button

This feels like security theater to me, but it’s what passes for progress these days.

All school districts in Montgomery County will soon be using panic alert technology during emergencies, including an active shooter situation, a security measure Texas education officials have proposed to in the wake of the deadly Robb Elementary shooting in Uvalde.

Conroe, Willis, Magnolia, New Caney, Montgomery and Splendora school districts will roll out the Rave Panic Button that will allow users to summon police, medical or fire personnel with the touch of one button on their cell phone.

The Montgomery County Emergency Communication District is partnering with the school districts to fund part of the $170,000 cost for three years.

Andrea Shepard, associate director at the emergency district, said the technology allows a faculty or staff member to push a button for help in an emergency and immediately be connected with 911 dispatchers. The app alerts other faculty and staff on the campus of the threat as well.

“The safety and wellbeing of our students and staff is and will always be our No. 1 priority,” Shepard said. “Our school community should be focused on learning, not worrying about their safety.

[…]

The partnership comes after the Texas Education Agency released more details in November regarding panic button technology to beef up school safety after the shooting deaths of 19 children and two adults in May at Robb Elementary.

Currently, districts in 46 states are using the panic button technology, including several in Texas.

I can understand why schools and school districts find this kind of solution appealing. It feels like you’re doing something, which in an environment where not much is in your control has to provide some comfort. It’s not clear to me what the practical advantage of using this app is over just calling 911, especially if you still have to describe the reason for pushing the button. I’m sure some academic is currently collecting data to try to find the effect of one of these apps – there are several options, apparently, with Montgomery schools choosing a product called Rave – so we’ll eventually see a study or two to tell us. The bigger issue – well, one of them, since the root cause problem is only mentioned at the end of this story – is what happens once the button is pushed.

Uvalde had a similar panic system in place when the gunfire erupted in May. State Sen. Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio) told KHOU that panic buttons work to a degree but won’t solve the gun violence in schools.

“It did work to a certain degree. It warned people and law enforcement there was an intruder,” said Gutierrez, whose districts represents the Uvalde area.

He said the technologies are just a band-aid to the real problem.

“There are remedies on both sides of the aisle but they are not really addressing the real core of the problem, which is we are putting assault rifles in the hands of 18-year-olds,” said Gutierrez.

Calling law enforcement in a more efficient manner is only an advantage if law enforcement’s response is up to the challenge. The example from Uvalde is not promising. Maybe Montgomery County is up to the task. I’m sure Uvalde would have said they were up to it as well, and we haven’t even mentioned DPS and their manifest failures. I mean, I dunno, maybe putting in some effort on the prevention part of the equation might be worthwhile? Just a thought.

“I bless the drains down in Africa”

Whoever came up with the Adopt A Drain program is a damn genius.

When it comes to naming storm drains, it seems Houstonians have a hard time keeping their minds out of the gutter.

In 2018, the city of Houston launched the Adopt-A-Drain program as a flood-mitigation effort in partnership with Keep Houston Beautiful. The premise was simple: Houston residents adopt a local storm drain through the Adopt-A-Drain website, give the drain a nickname, and commit to cleaning debris such as leaves and trash from the drain four times a year.

But without any clear oversight, what started as a fun, drain-related pun-off in naming the drains has morphed into a grab-bag of explicit jokes and politically-charged messages on a government website.

About 1,900 of the 80,000 storm drains in the Houston area have been adopted as of January, and about 1,750 of those adopted drains have been given nicknames by users. Though the majority of users chose harmless names for their drains – many of the names include puns – in our review of the program’s website, the Houston Chronicle found about 50 drains with explicit references in their names and 50 that had politically-charged messages in their names.

You can read on, and you can visit the Adopt-A-Drain website to see an active map. The guy who named a drain after his CashApp handle and the sex toy shop that adopted 200 drains to help promote their business are cited as some of the more cautionary examples, but the Chron didn’t print any of what they claimed to be the more salacious names, so we’ll just have to use our imaginations. The pun list at the end was funny – the one in the headline is my favorite – but I have to say, if no one took the opportunity to name a storm sewer after Ted Cruz, then what are we even doing here? Feel free to correct that oversight if you are so inclined.

Weekend link dump for January 22

“I’m a Criminology Professor. I’ve Seen Students Like the Idaho Suspect Before.”

“After being fired by Disney for transphobic and antisemitic statements, Gina Carano’s new movie has epically flopped”. I should note that what is reported there is not entirely accurate, but the real story is pretty hilarious.

Only 47 percent of nursing home residents were fully up-to-date and had received the bivalent COVID booster in the four weeks preceding December 18, according to AARP. Less than a quarter of staff, 22 percent, are fully up-to-date on their COVID vaccinations. This is despite relatively high rates of infection and transmission. Over the same time period, one in 17 nursing home residents tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 1,100 nursing home residents died. In all, 64 percent of nursing homes had at least one resident case. COVID is the third leading cause of death for Americans over 65.”

“In the country which we live in, about 60 percent of the population identifies as white, and you take Latinx people who identify as Caucasian, it’s maybe closer to 70 percent if you’re going for the biggest meat of the audience … you tend to program for white men, because women watch a lot more drama and comedy than men, so if you get a scripted program that appeals to men, that’s automatically a boom. You worry, when there’s narrowing prospects, who’s losing opportunity.”

“The Pentagon’s new office for investigating potential UFO sightings received hundreds of new reports in 2022, and while it can explain more than half of those events, a sizable chunk remains a mystery.”

“The cycle has some experts wondering about how useful these discussions are. We aren’t, after all, obsessing about which strain of H3N2 flu has been causing most of the illness that has cycled through the United States in this abnormally early flu season. That’s because new strains of existing flu viruses may make us more vulnerable to infection, but they don’t render us defenseless against influenza. The same is true with SARS-2 subvariants — but that sometimes gets lost in the back and forth.”

RIP, Gina Lollobrigida, iconic Italian movie star.

“CNET Has Been Quietly Publishing AI-Written Articles for Months”.

“Roomba testers feel misled after intimate images ended up on Facebook”.

“The Taliban have started using Twitter’s paid-for verification feature, meaning some now have blue ticks on their accounts.”

“To be fair, there are not a large number of Bible verses that directly address the subject of oral sex. The practice is enthusiastically celebrated in several places in the Song of Solomon, but that book is a tricky thing to cite if you’re also intent on blanket condemnations of all extramarital sex.”

RIP, Chris Ford, former NBA player and coach mostly for the Boston Celtics, credited with scoring the first 3-point basket in NBA history.

“Here are some fun numbers. Toyota did not sell a single all-electric product until 2020, flagging far behind both rivals like Mitsubishi, Nissan, and BMW, all of which were selling EV models years before Toyota even established an electric car office. And that electrified product (a version of its C-HR SUV) was initially exclusive to Chinese consumers. The company’s first globally available zero-emission vehicle, the bZ4x, had a limited production run, went on sale in the U.S. only last year, faced an alarming safety recall, and ultimately sold just a couple hundred models here, a paltry portion of the 800,000 total EVs sold stateside throughout 2022.”

We’re all trying to find the guy that did this, SCOTUS edition.

“They said that my husband Don Lewis is alive and well in Costa Rica. And yet all of this hay has been made about me having something to do with his disappearance when Homeland Security has known where he is at least since back then.” The Internet reacts.

RIP, David Crosby, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and co-founder of The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

Lock him up.

RIP, Sal Bando, three-time World Series champion third baseman with the Oakland A’s.

Will Metro take over B-Cycle?

I like the idea and hope Metro can really run with it.

The Houston area’s biggest bus operator is considering getting in the bike business, infusing up to $500,000 into the city’s network of docked two-wheelers.

Under the proposal, scheduled for a vote by the Metropolitan Transit Authority board next week, Metro would take over bike sharing in the area and integrate it into its own plans for encouraging bus and train riders to access stops.

“Anything that is engaged in moving people, we need to be part of that,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said Wednesday.

The proposed partnership is welcomed by Houston Bike Share, the nonprofit created in 2012 to develop the bike sharing system in Houston, using BCycle’s kiosk-based bikes.

“Metro recognizes the value of bike share as a safe, affordable and logical element in the city’s mobility plan,” said Maya Ford, chairwoman of the nonprofit, in a statement. “They’re exploring ways to help us sustain an operating network by providing us with more transit-oriented and business resources.”

What remains unclear, as officials sort out how to absorb bike sharing into the transit agency, is what the system will look like under Metro. Half of the local BCycle stations closed in November as part of a “temporary cost-saving measure,” and Lambert said the next few months will be used to transition the system into Metro and evaluate what provides the best options for travelers.

“There might be some locations we do not bring back,” Lambert said.

[…]

Starting in 2012 with only three stations and fewer than 20 bikes, the BCycle system ballooned in the past decade to 153 stations spread around neighborhoods within Loop 610 and nearly 1,000 bikes, some with electric motors. Houston, Harris County and others poured money into the system to add stations and support operations. 

That growth has meant explosive use of the bikes, but also has posed a challenge for the nonprofit to maintain the costly and growing system. George Fotinos, Metro’s chief financial officer, said the current system, when fully operational, costs about $80,000 a month, with only a fraction of that coming from the rental costs or annual memberships.

To trim costs, 75 of the 153 kiosks were turned off in November, largely reducing the system to its core around downtown, Midtown and Montrose.

[…]

Transit taking more oversight of bike sharing in cities is not uncommon. Austin’s Capitol Metro operates bike sharing around transit stops, while systems in Los Angeles and New York also fall under the authority of transit or municipal transportation departments. In each of those cities, however, multiple bike sharing or scooter sharing systems exist, unlike Houston, which only has BCycle.

Whatever form the system takes will include some shift in its focus. The existing system is used mostly recreationally, bike sharing officials have said, with locations such as Herman Park and Buffalo Bayou Park along Sabine Street as the most heavily-used stations. Those in areas outside downtown and away from popular local biking trails are some of the least-used.

Metro officials, meanwhile, said their aim is for a bike sharing system that helps people make local trips or connect them to buses and trains.

“Metro’s role is a lot broader,” Metro Chairman Sanjay Ramabhadran said. “Our job is to provide mobility and this is a form of getting us that.”

Known as “first-mile/last-mile,” the distance someone has to travel to a bus stop or train station can be some of the most vexing challenges for transit agencies, leading some to partner or absorb bike sharing systems so people can easily find bikes, drop them off nearby transit stops and then hop a train or bus.

I hadn’t heard about the cutback in B-Cycle kiosks; I assume this is another bit of fallout from the pandemic, though the story doesn’t say. I made my heaviest use of B-Cycle when I worked downtown, where it was great for trips that are a bit too long to walk and too much hassle to get the car out of the garage. Now that I work from home and an office park off I-10, I just had no need for it.

I have been an advocate for better integration of our bicycle infrastructure in general and B-Cycle in particular with Metro for a long time. I hadn’t considered this possibility before, but it makes all kinds of sense. I agree that the focus of B-Cycle would need to shift a bit from being primarily for recreational use to more transit-oriented use. That doesn’t mean that recreational use should go away, just that kiosk access to bus and rail stops would be more of a priority. The good news is that there’s a lot more bike-friendly passage around town now, so that should help. Assuming the Metro board votes for this, which I think it will, they will have six to nine months to figure out how to best make this work. I’m confident they can, and I’m sure they will be able to get plenty of input from the local bike community. I look forward to seeing how this plays out.

COVID rates tick down again in Houston

Always a good headline to read.

COVID-19 data from the Texas Medical Center this week suggests the current wave may be subsiding, though experts urge caution as a new, highly infectious variant continues to circulate.

The average number of daily hospitalizations in the medical center had been rising steadily for a month, but dropped last week by about 20 percent, from 182 to 146. Regional COVID hospitalizations also have dropped from a five-month high of 1,002 on Jan. 5 to 836 on Monday, according to the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council.

Most significantly, the viral load in the city’s wastewater — the most reliable indicator of future virus spread — dropped by about 34 percent last week, according to data published Tuesday.

“I would be very surprised if we saw this (trend) reverse at this point,” said Dr. James McDeavitt, senior vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine.

Even with a hopeful outlook, researchers cautiously are eyeing the progress of XBB.1.5, which public health officials say is the most transmissible form of COVID yet. It quickly has become the dominant strain nationwide. The variant accounts for 80 percent of cases in the Northeast, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though it has yet to beat out other infectious strains in Houston and much of the South.

Here’s that wastewater dashboard again. We’re still at a very high level compared to the July 2020 baseline, but at least we’re going in the right direction now. Hospitalization rate is the bigger concern, but again as long as we’re now trending downward, the overall picture is improving. There’s an argument to be made that we shouldn’t obsessively track each new alphabet-soup variant, at least not while they’re all about the same level of lethality. The fact that successive versions are more transmissible than their predecessors are just how viruses work. I’m not sophisticated enough to make a judgment about that, but I have limited my worry to the prospect of a deadlier strain.

There are still other things to worry about:

The United States has faced a triple threat of respiratory viruses over the past few months, with COVID-19, the flu and RSV driving infections and hospitalizations in the Houston area and elsewhere.

Each of the three are capable of causing mild to severe illness by themselves. But it’s also possible to contract more than one virus at a time — and a new study suggests a coinfection may lead to more severe illness in young children.

The term “flurona” became popular on social media last year as a surge in COVID-19 and the re-emergence of the flu caused a wave of infections. However, doctors were seeing patients — particularly young children — with coinfections before the pandemic, said Dr. Amy Arrington, medical director of the Special Isolation Unit at Texas Children’s Hospital.

“It’s not uncommon that we see younger kids getting co-infected,” she said. “I think a lot of parents today in Houston can say they feel like their child’s been sick for the past few months straight.”

Younger children might be more susceptible to coinfections because they haven’t been exposed to a respiratory virus before, Arrington said. They may be getting infected at daycare, or from an older sibling who picked up the virus at school.

Coinfections are uncommon, but doctors might be seeing them more frequently this fall and winter for a few reasons, said Dr. Luis Ostrosky, chief of infectious diseases at UTHealth Houston and Memorial Hermann Hospital.

The collision of COVID-19, the flu and RSV, as well as other respiratory viruses like rhinovirus and enterovirus, has created more opportunity for infection, he said.

“Tripledemic” was the word I heard. Fortunately, RSV and flu rates have been dropping as well. You can still get a flu shot, and for sure you can and should get your bivalent booster. Hell, I’m ready for whatever the next generation COVID booster is now. I’ll be among the first in line when that becomes available. You are your only real defense here, so do what you need to do.

A new Adickes statue is on the way

Been too long since there was some Giant Presidential Head news.

Where to start with all the David Adickes sculptures dotting Houston landscape? Perhaps his 44 gigantic heads paying homage to our U.S. presidents (still no Trump)? His giant cello downtown, a local landmark? His oft-photographed/Instagram fave We Love Houston sign? His 36-foot Beatles statues at 8th Wonder Brewery? Or the apropos Mount Rush Hour located at a notorious Houston bottleneck?

Indeed, the 95-year-old (yes, really) creator of iconic, white artworks (take his 67-foot, cement-and-steel statue of Sam Houston, which serves as a welcome off I-45 to his hometown of Huntsville) has become Houston’s resident artist of giant works. Apropos, his latest pays tribute to a worldwide giant.

Adickes will soon install a giant, 5-ton bust of the late President John F. Kennedy, the nation’s 35th president, on JFK Boulevard. Aside from a fitting nod and locale for the global figure who spent his final full day of life in Houston, the statue will also serve as a “welcome mat” to those visiting Houston and nearby George Bush Intercontinental Airport, the artist notes.

The JFK bust, which is hollow on the inside, is composed of two pieces; the head and shoulders are separate and will be welded together and then covered in plaster, according to Carlos Silva, chairman of the East Aldine Management District and its East Aldine Arts Coalition.

Heralding the famed speech given in1962 at Rice University, the statue memorializes the great declaration JFK made to a crowd of 30,000 at Rice Stadium — and to the world — marking his goals for the U.S. space program’s mission to land a man on the moon:

We choose to go to the moon, in this decade, and do other things — not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Silva hopes to see the statue lit at night as a beacon for all who drive by and fly over. An opening ceremony is in the works, upon completion of the statue.

There will soon be a ceremony to celebrate the official installation of the statue, which Silva said he hopes to see lighted at night for people who drive by.

As you know, I’m a longtime fan of Adickes’ work. I just had a trip to IAH but the new statue wasn’t in place yet. I can’t wait to see it. The Chron has more.

PUC makes an attempt to fix the grid

People are skeptical.

The Public Utility Commission voted Thursday to make a substantial change to the state’s electricity market in a controversial effort to get the whole system to be more reliable. The agency said it will let the Legislature review its plan before moving forward with putting it in place.

The idea, known as the “performance credit mechanism,” is a first-of-its-kind proposal. It’s meant to help produce enough power when extreme heat or cold drives up demand and electricity production drops for various reasons — such as a lack of sun or wind to produce renewable energy or equipment breakdowns at gas- or coal-fired power plants.

Under the new concept, which still has many details to work out, companies such as NRG would commit to being available to produce more energy during those tight times. The companies would sell credits to electricity retailers such as Gexa Energy, municipal utilities and co-ops that sell power to homes and businesses.

The credits are designed to give power generators an added income stream and make building new power plants worthwhile.

Theoretically, the credits help retailers and customers by smoothing out volatile price spikes when demand is high — but there’s wide disagreement over whether this will happen in practice. Some electricity providers filed for bankruptcy after the 2021 winter storm because they had to pay so much for power.

Critics of the plan say the idea is risky because it wasn’t properly analyzed and has never been tested in another place. Members of the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce wrote to the PUC in December that they had “significant concern” about whether the proposal would work.

[…]

Experts disagree on whether the performance credits will actually convince power companies to build more natural gas plants, which are dirtier than wind and solar energy but can be turned on at any time. Some say new plants will be built anyway. Others say companies can simply use the credits to make more money from their existing plants without building more.

Michele Richmond, executive director of Texas Competitive Power Advocates, wrote in her comments to the commission that the group’s members were “ready to bring more than 4,500 [megawatts] of additional generation” to the state grid if the new system were adopted. That would be enough to power 900,000 homes. The group’s members include Calpine, Luminant and NRG.

If the PUC doesn’t change the market, there won’t be enough reason to invest in building new power generation facilities and keep operating existing facilities, she wrote.

The Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club was among groups that asked the PUC to spend more time considering whether the new credits are the best solution “before making fundamental changes to our market that would increase costs to consumers,” as Conservation Director Cyrus Reed wrote.

The independent market monitor, Potomac Economics, which is paid by the PUC to watch the market for manipulation and look for potential improvements, does not support the idea. The group believes enough corrections have been made already to make sure the grid is reliable.

Still others, such as Alison Silverstein, a former senior adviser at the PUC and the Texas Public Power Association, which is made up of municipal-owned utilities, cautioned that there wasn’t enough reliable information and analysis about the proposed credits to make such a significant decision.

The grid’s reliability must improve, Silverstein wrote to the PUC, but “we cannot do so at any cost, and we cannot do so using poorly understood, poorly-analyzed, or unproven market mechanisms to address unclear problem definitions and goals.”

Silverstein added: “If the commission makes a bad decision on … market reform due to haste, erroneous problem definition, sloppy analysis or misguided rationalizations, all Texans will bear the consequences for years through higher electric costs, lower reliability, and a slower economy, and millions of lower income Texans will suffer degraded health and comfort as they sacrifice to pay their electric bills.”

See here for some background. The PUC unanimously approved the plan, which was spearheaded by Greg Abbott’s appointed Chair. I sure don’t know enough to say whether this will work or not. It sounds like it could, but there’s more than enough uncertainty to make it a risky proposition. I get the argument against waiting for more data, but I have to wonder if there were some other ideas with greater certainty that could have been used in the meantime. Not much to do but hope for the best now, and maybe take the idea of “accountability” more seriously in the next election. The Chron, whose headline says that electricity prices are likely to rise under this plan, has more.

So is Henry Cuellar still being investigated by the FBI?

It’s been a year since his home was raided. Is there another shoe to drop?

Rep. Henry Cuellar

Last January, FBI agents raided U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar’s home and office in Laredo, emerging with a computer and plastic bins and bags containing personal items in a stunning spectacle that occurred just weeks before a tough primary election.

The raid cast a shadow over a competitive election year for the longtime Democratic congressman who defended his seat from a progressive in the March primary and then a well-funded and coordinated effort to flip his seat by Republicans in November. Cuellar emerged largely unscathed — soundly winning his November reelection for a 10th term in office.

One year later, there have been no arrests or charges filed related to the case. Cuellar maintains that he was never the target of the investigation and will ultimately be cleared of wrongdoing. And the public remains largely in the dark about what set off the investigation.

“There has been no wrongdoing on my part,” Cuellar said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “My focus remains the same from my very first day in office: delivering results for Texans across my district.”

Cuellar declined to be interviewed. The FBI declined comment for this story.

Legal experts say the lack of answers or information a year later by federal authorities shouldn’t be construed as either an exoneration or a reflection of guilt of anyone associated in the case.

Experts cited myriad reasons for the continued silence around the case: The FBI search may have yielded no evidence, indictments could be sealed, the case could still be developing or there may have been delays because law enforcement did not want to interfere with the recent November elections.

“The government moved forward at that point, but it’s not necessarily surprising that we haven’t seen any other announcements or any other information that’s gone public,” said Edward Loya Jr., a Dallas-based attorney and former federal prosecutor.

“It’s too early to draw any firm conclusions one way or another,” Loya said. “What we can glean from this is that the investigation appears to be ongoing, and the government hasn’t reached a resolution one way or another as to how it plans to proceed.”

John Bash, a defense attorney who previously worked at the U.S. Department of Justice and served as a U.S. attorney in Texas, said that the DOJ is under no obligation to publicly announce that a case is closed or that a subject related to the case is not a target.

“If they got new information that caused them to reopen the investigation, they wouldn’t want to convey to anybody that ‘No, we will never look at this again,’” Bash said. “But oftentimes, they’ll tell the defense they’ve been communicating with, ‘Hey, this is over.’”

I didn’t blog about the raid at the time, mostly because I prefer not to think too much about Henry Cuellar. Be that as it may, however one may choose to interpret the lack of news about this situation, I feel compelled to note that the FBI has been investigating Ken Paxton since November of 2020, and served subpoeanas to his office in December that year. A lot has happened since then, all related to the ongoing whistleblower lawsuit, but if we were expecting to see Paxton get frog-marched by the FBI one fine day, we’re still waiting. Make of that what you will.

Tesla to build a factory in Brookshire

Good luck, Brookshire.

Tesla appears to be preparing a large new industrial facility west of Houston in a project that further deepens the electric vehicle-maker’s investments in Texas about a year after billionaire Elon Musk moved its headquarters to Austin.

Little is known about Tesla’s plans, but the Fortune 500 company signed a lease late last year for about 1.03 million square feet at 111 Empire West, part of the 300-acre Empire West Business Park in Brookshire, according to research reports from real estate brokerages Cushman & Wakefield and Savills. The landlord and developer of the park, Dallas-based Stream Realty Partners, declined to comment. Tesla officials did not respond to a request for comment.

A certificate of occupancy issued by the city of Brookshire in October names Tesla in Building 9 at Empire West, about 6 miles west of Katy and 36 miles west of downtown Houston.

Mike Barnes, Brookshire’s interim city administrator, said he didn’t know details about a lease, but added that Tesla officials have been in communication with the city’s permitting office. Permits are being processed for a portion of the building but haven’t been issued, city officials said.

“We’re familiar with the Tesla project primarily from a permitting perspective. Some of their engineering-construction folks have come in with regards to initiating some dialogue,” Barnes said Tuesday.

Although Austin is the focal point of Tesla’s manufacturing presence in Texas, with its roughly 4.3 million-square-foot, $1.1 billion Gigafactory there, opening a large industrial facility in Brookshire would raise the small city’s profile among industrial developers and auto manufacturers.

“If that indeed comes to fruition, that will give us bragging rights,” Barnes said. “A company of international renown like Tesla choosing Brookshire, Texas, really helps us diversify and enhances greater Houston’s standing in the global marketplace.”

I’ll be honest, Brookshire is far enough west of here that I don’t think of it as “greater Houston”. Maybe that’s just me being narrow-minded, I’ll leave that to you. Assuming this actually happens, the effect on a sleepy little town like Brooskshire is certain to be enormous, for good and for bad. I wonder how many future employees of that place will live in the actual Brookshire area, and how many will be driving in from 20+ miles away. File this away under “things to look at again in another ten years or so”.

The Chron drops a big Hotze story

Despite the headline, I didn’t find a whole lot of new details of interest here. Most of the new stuff consists of the various unhinged things that Hotze has been saying about elections and how everyone is covering up massive fraud and are out to get him. I don’t need a big story to know that he’s a paranoid power-hungry sociopath, but maybe some other people did; this assumes that most people will read what he claims and correctly conclude that he’s a liar and a grifter, which is at best an iffy proposition. Be that as it may, there are a couple of points of interest here.

More than two years after Steven Hotze bankrolled a private voter fraud investigation that led to an armed confrontation with an innocent repairman, the Houston doctor was back in court earlier this month reiterating claims that Harris County Democrats are engaged in a massive election conspiracy.

Hotze, a Republican megadonor and fierce supporter of the debunked theory that Democrats stole the 2020 presidential election, faces felony charges related to the episode and separately is being sued by the repairman. His lawyers this month accused the Democrat-led District Attorney’s office of retaliating against him for exposing the election-rigging, even though no substantive evidence of such a scheme has ever emerged.

The criminal case against Hotze, who runs a lucrative health clinic in Katy and a vitamin retail business, isn’t likely to go to trial anytime soon in the county’s overburdened court system; Hotze faces charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and unlawful restraint, as does Mark Aguirre, the investigator Hotze hired.

But a Houston Chronicle examination of documents in the civil proceeding reveals new details about the bizarre October 2020 attack – one that became a nationally known example of how an election fraud theory could put an unsuspecting civilian in danger.

The documents include extensive comments from that civilian, a Mexican immigrant named David Lopez who has worked fixing air conditioning systems in Houston for more than five years. He said he continues to fear for his life ever since Aguirre allegedly crashed his SUV into his box truck and pointed a gun at him, all under the false pretense that Lopez’s truck contained hundreds of thousands of fraudulent ballots.

“I am afraid because the people who did this to me are very powerful. I have no power,” Lopez said. “I do not know why they attacked me. These people did not find what they were looking for so I am afraid they will attack me again. I don’t know what they are looking for.”

The documents also show that Hotze and his attorneys continue to insist that Lopez could have been a main perpetrator of voter fraud and that he received payments from Harris County Democratic officials. “We’ve got the goods,” Hotze said in a 2022 deposition. “It’s so complicated I can’t – I can’t comment on it right now, but we do.”

[…]

Ever since news of the attack on Lopez became public in December 2020, the details of its origins have been murky. In a news conference around the same time, Hotze claimed that he had paid 20 to 30 investigators a “proprietary” amount of money to look into claims of voter fraud in Harris County and that he knew nothing of their specific activities. He said he paid them through the Liberty Center for God and Country – but for years his lawyers refused to disclose the group’s financials.

Now, the documents made available as part of the civil lawsuit against Hotze, including a tax return for the Liberty Center and a deposition that forced him to answer questions under oath, offer more clues.

According to the Liberty Center’s 2020 tax documents, the nonprofit collected more than $800,000 that year and spent it on “lawsuits to defend the constitutionally protected right of individuals to attend religious worship services, to protect the right of all businesses to stay open, and to ensure that elections in Texas were and are conducted in accordance with the Texas Election Code.”

The first two activities likely refer to Hotze’s lawsuits against mask mandates and other COVID-19 pandemic public health measures. The document also specifies that $379,000 went to “legal services,” while $342,000 went to “investigation services.”

In the deposition, Hotze said he decided to start funding investigations into voter fraud when Aguirre, a former Houston police officer, approached him in 2020. He said he only paid Aguirre, but knew of two other investigators who participated in the probe – Charles Marler, a former FBI agent, and Mark Stephens, also a former Houston cop.

Aguirre received more than $250,000 from the Liberty Center for his efforts, court records show. But Hotze said he never sought much information about how Aguirre used the money. “He would contact me periodically and say, we have got people looking around, seeing what’s going on,” Hotze said in the deposition. “You know, it was somewhat nebulous.”

All Hotze knew, he said, was that Aguirre had apparently discovered that undocumented Hispanic children were filling out hundreds of thousands of phony ballots in locations across the county to swing the 2020 election results in favor of the Democrats.

“From what he told me, it appeared that he was on a hot trail,” Hotze said of Aguirre, who had been fired from the Houston Police Department in 2003 before he became a private investigator.

Aguirre and the other investigators approached the Houston police and local prosecutors with their findings, but law enforcement agencies were skeptical. The investigators took the lack of interest as a sign that authorities were in on the scheme.

“Election fraud is seemingly the only crime whose very existence is denied because of the difficulty and refusal to investigate the allegations,” Stephens wrote in a document obtained by the Chronicle. “In Harris County, it may well be that political expediency is valued far greater than public pressure to prosecute election fraud.”

That 84-page report alleged that a witness overheard a Democratic political staffer bragging about the ability to “harvest 700,000 illegal ballots” in 2019. Another witness later told the private investigators that she’d been approached at a grocery store and offered $50 gift cards to fill out the ballots, the report said.

It’s still unclear how the investigators decided that Lopez could have been involved. His name does not come up in Stephens’ report, which is dated October 16, 2020 – just days before the confrontation between Aguirre and Lopez. Hotze also said in the deposition and in previous public statements that he’d never heard of Lopez or Aguirre’s plans to target him.

See here and here for some background. I truly don’t know how anyone can read these claims and not conclude that this guy is a raving loon, but we live in strange times. He ranges from wildly implausible to literally impossible, with a generous helping of racism and paranoia for extra flavor. Further down in the story you see how utterly indifferent he is to the effect the attack had on David Lopez. All I can say from that is that if Steven Hotze is an example of what a dominant strain of Christianity is today, it’s no wonder so many people are calling themselves “unaffiliated” these days.

The main bummer in all this is that Hotze’s criminal trial is not likely to happen anytime soon, a consequence of the backlog in the criminal courts. There’s an irony there, since the same DA that Hotze claims is out to get him is given a lot of the blame for that backlog. And of course one of Hotze’s assertions in the civil case against him is that it should wait until the criminal case is resolved, so that delay serves him well. That said, the judge in the civil case doesn’t seem too inclined to cut him any slack, so maybe we’ll see some action in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, always remember that Steven Hotze is one of the worst people in Houston, and he’s been that way for decades. If, and hopefully when, he finally pays a price for that, it will have been a very long time coming.

Poncho Nevárez’s recovery

Good story.

State Rep. Poncho Nevárez felt the sudden urge to fall back on old tendencies when the state’s top law enforcement officer gave him a call in the fall of 2019.

An envelope, with his official letterhead, containing about 2 grams of cocaine had been found by authorities on the floor of the Austin airport weeks earlier, Texas’ Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw told him.

Nevárez was tempted to cover it up with more of the lies, omissions and deceit that had marked the last several years of his life.

A personal injury lawyer who’d been representing his Eagle Pass district for about six years at the time, he now likens the addict’s mentality to that of a mouse constantly searching for a way to escape traps and still somehow keep the cheese.

It was the same way of thinking that led him to make a choice that any sober person would find superbly dense: taking drugs to a federally secured airport in a receptacle with his own name on it.

“It doesn’t even seem like a choice,” he recalls, adding he didn’t even realize at the time where he’d lost it. “There’s a part of you that’s dominated by the disease that tells you that whatever the risk is, it’s worth it.”

This time, though, there was no room for deception: Police had video of him dropping the drugs.

Weeks later, as a meeting with prosecutors approached, he drank and used again. The next morning, weary and hungover, as he dropped off his son, Ponchito, at school, the reality of how his actions had been affecting others stirred something in him.

“You look sad, papi,” his 9-year-old told him from the backseat, stretching his small arm toward his father, offering him a pouch of Welch’s fruit snacks. “I like these because they make me happy because they’re good.”

“It broke me,” Nevárez said. “I didn’t just need to change — now I wanted to… I just kind of intuitively felt that If I tried to defend it, or if I tried to make it go away, I wasn’t going to survive it, and I’m not talking about the fallout. I’m talking about living.”

At the meeting with law enforcement, he came clean and learned he was eligible for pretrial diversion, an alternative to prosecution for offenders who stay out of trouble and comply with other terms, such as mandated counseling or community service.

That was Oct. 14, 2019. Ever since, Nevárez says he has maintained not just abstinence, as he likes to stress, but the conscious everyday choice of sobriety.

See here for a bit of background. I hadn’t thought much of former Rep. Nevárez since then, though I’d occasionally see him on Twitter, often in the replies to political and Texas media types that I follow, usually making a wisecrack. He’s making music now, and seems to have had some success at it. The impression I came away with from this piece, which includes quotes from several of his former Lege colleagues, is that he is in a better place now, and I’m glad to see it. I hope that continues. Go read the rest and see what you think.

Why are people mad about R’Bonney Gabriel?

I don’t know why this story fascinates me so much, but it does. Please indulge me just a little longer.

R’Bonney Gabirel

Just days after Houston native R’Bonney Gabriel was crowned the 71st Miss Universe at the first Filipina American winner, the Miss Universe Organization has issued statement calling social-media rigging claims “absurd,” according to Today.com.

On Saturday, Gabriel became the first Miss USA to win Miss Universe in 10 years. She beat out first runner-up Amanda Dudmel from Venezuela and second runner-up Andreína Martínez from the Dominican Republic in the contest in New Orleans.

Social media followers complained during the broadcast that the competition was manipulated in Gabriel’s favor. They called it a “fraud” and used the hashtag #rigged in Twitter replies. Multiple competitors complained about alleged rigging, too.

In an interview with E! online in October after similar rigging claims by competitors, Gabriel said, “I would never enter any pageant or any competition that I know I would win. I have a lot of integrity.”

See here and here for the background. The Today.com story contains the more relevant info:

The Miss Universe Organization called accusations that it rigged this year’s pageant in favor of the winner “absurd” after crowning its first Filipina American champion over the weekend.

The organization issued a statement on Jan. 16 denying the allegations, two days after Houston native R’Bonney Gabriel was crowned the 71st Miss Universe.

“The false rigging allegations are absurd and distract from the incredible milestones our organization and the delegates experienced this weekend,” the Miss Universe Organization said. “Instead of focusing on unfounded statements, we will continue to shine a light on global women’s empowerment, inclusiveness, diversity, and transformational leadership.”

The controversy came in the wake of multiple competitors alleging similar rigging during Gabriel’s win in the Miss USA pageant in October.

[…]

The Miss Universe Organization suspended the head of the Miss USA pageant and opened an investigation in October after more than a dozen contestants alleged the contest was prearranged in Gabriel’s favor.

One contestant told NBC News that Gabriel “was allowed to do different walking patterns on stage, when we were all told to strictly follow the walking pattern that we were given to by the choreographer.”

I mean, I know basically nothing about beauty pageants, so I have no idea if those allegations represent legitimate concerns or are basically Mealer-esque whining from people who were beaten fair and square. It doesn’t sound like there are new concerns about the Miss Universe pageant, just a re-airing of the Miss USA complaints. I don’t suppose I can stop myself from keeping an eye on this, so if and when there are further developments, I’ll post an update.

You can donate to Ted Cruz’s 2024 opponent now

Kudos to Daily Kos for being out ahead of the curve.

Not Ted Cruz

We’re not gonna lie: Holding the Senate in 2024 is going to be hard. Democrats are defending 23 seats to just 11 for Republicans, and three of those are in states Trump won. Several more are in swing states.

But Democrats have defied political gravity before. In 2020, against all odds, we flipped not one but two seats in Georgia in those epic runoffs, enough to retake the majority. And in 2022, we gained a seat by flipping Pennsylvania, despite the fact that the party in power almost always loses ground in midterm years.

That means only one thing’s for sure: You can’t draw any foregone conclusions about what the coming election cycle may hold.

What’s more, there are two races where we can go on offense in ’24, targeting two of the most odious Republican senators who escaped with just narrow wins when they were last on the ballot: Ted Cruz in Texas and Rick Scott in Florida.

We also have a plan that’ll allow us to start preparing for battle right now—we don’t need to wait. Thanks to ActBlue’s nominee funds, we can donate funds to all of the top races immediately.

Those funds hold all donations in escrow and then give them to the winner of each Democratic primary. That gives our nominees a huge boost just when they’ll need it most, ensuring they can hit the ground running and make the strongest possible case to voters.

Right now, we’re starting with Texas and Florida as well as the open Democratic seat in Michigan, but we’ll be adding more races as the election develops.

Please donate $10 or even $20 apiece to each of these races to help Democrats keep the Senate blue in 2024!

We need to find an opponent, or at least start talking about one, soon. As noted, Rep. Colin Allred’s name is out there, but you know the rules: Until we hear those words from his lips or keyboard, it’s all just rumor. But at least it’s a start. And look, Texas and Florida are the two best, and possibly only even remotely plausible, Democratic pickups in 2024. To say the least, there’s a lot of work to be done. May as well get started.

Emergency miscarriage care

Here’s another thing most of us have not had to think much about in the past when abortion was generally legal.

[A uterine aspiration (also commonly known as a D&C) or the removal of tissue from the uterus via suction] is a standard method for treatment of miscarriage and can be a life-saving intervention if a woman is hemorrhaging. But uterine aspiration is also routinely used to perform early abortions, and that’s one reason many emergency departments have historically resisted efforts to make the option available to patients who come in for miscarriage-related care.

That care already accounts for more than 900,000 emergency room visits every year, according to the most recent estimates. Now, as states move to restrict access to abortion in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn Roe v. Wade, experts say that number is likely to surge even higher.

Fewer abortions will mean more pregnancies, and more pregnancies will mean more miscarriages,” said Dr. Sarah Prager, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Washington and a co-author of the guidelines on miscarriage management for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Around 15% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, and the first medical professional many of those patients see will be in an emergency room. Yet, by and large, she says, “emergency medicine physicians aren’t trained in managing miscarriage and don’t see it as something they should own.”

For more than a decade, Prager has been trying to change that through her work with the TEAMM Project, the nonprofit she co-founded on the premise that “many people experience miscarriage before they’re established with an OB-GYN.” Short for Training, Education and Advocacy in Miscarriage Management, TEAMM has conducted in-person workshops for clinicians at more than 100 sites in 19 states on all aspects of miscarriage care — everything from the use of ultrasound to diagnose fetal death to the three treatment options miscarrying patients should be offered when they come in for care.

A uterine aspiration is recommended when patients are bleeding heavily, are anemic, or are medically fragile, and many patients prefer the procedure because it can resolve a miscarriage most quickly. Another option is medication — usually mifepristone followed by misoprostol — which can help the body expel pregnancy tissue in a matter of hours. And the third is “expectant management”: waiting for the tissue to pass on its own. The latter can take several weeks and is unsuccessful for about 20% of patients, who remain at risk for hemorrhage and have to return to the hospital for surgery or medication.

In many emergency departments, expectant management has long been the only option made available. But now, amid the legal uncertainty unleashed by the fall of Roe, Prager and colleagues say they’ve been inundated with inquiries from emergency departments across the country. Doctors in states that have since criminalized abortion face stiff penalties, including felony charges, prison time, and the loss of their medical license and livelihoods.

“I think they’re scared,” says Prager. “They want to be able to know, with 100% certainty, that a pregnancy is no longer viable.”

This is why I say it’s just a matter of time before some nice white suburban lady who already has kids dies because she isn’t treated for a pregnancy-related emergency in a timely fashion. The corollary to this is that some doctor who performs a life-saving D&C on a patient will be arrested and charged with murder for it. I don’t want to see these things happen. It’s just that the conditions in our state, and in too many other states, are absolutely ripe for it. I really hope I’m wrong.

Hydrogen hub Houston?

It could happen.

Houston-area leaders seeking to make the city one of the nation’s designated hydrogen hubs have received a push from the U.S. Energy Department.

The department’s Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations received 79 “concept papers” from groups seeking to host one of the six to 10 hubs and 33, including Houston’s, have been officially encouraged to follow through with complete applications.

Full applications are due in April, and if Houston is selected, it would receive some of the $7 billion set aside by the Biden administration to spur hydrogen development. The hubs would be in places with abundant natural gas reserves and would test ways to produce and use hydrogen.

Already, Houston sets itself apart from other applicants with its existing hydrogen production and infrastructure. The region produces about a third of all hydrogen made in the United States, with about 3.5 million metric tons annually, and is home to more than half the country’s dedicated hydrogen pipelines.

Most of that gas is used in the Houston area’s refining and petrochemical industries, but a coalition of private and public groups — including the University of Texas at Austin, French gas supplier Air Liquide, California oil major Chevron, the nonprofit Center for Houston’s Future and GTI Energy, a research and development company based in the Chicago area — are hoping a federal designation and funding will help expand the industry.

They’ve come together under the moniker HyVelocity Hub, and its leaders hope that by expanding the hydrogen industry in Houston and across Texas, the region could rake in a larger share of capital associated with the transition to lower-carbon energy sources.

There’s more about the competition here and about HyVelocity Hub here. Hydrogen is a promising alternative fuel for buses and trucks, which can be too big and heavy to reliably use electric-powered batteries. That’s not its primary use now – indeed, the generation of hydrogen is quite carbon-intensive, though that can be mitigated in some ways – but the goal is to make it a low/no-carbon energy source, and there’s a lot of research going on for that. If some of that can be done in Houston, so much the better.

Texas blog roundup for the week of January 16

The Texas Progressive Alliance has already started the countdown clock to sine die as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

So how much money does Whitmire have available for his mayoral campaign?

It’s already a lot, and it could be a whole lot more.

Sen. John Whitmire

State Sen. John Whitmire is kicking off his mayoral campaign with a $10 million war chest, most of it drawn from the money he has amassed over decades in the Legislature.

The campaign balance dwarfs the resources of his opponents, but it could renew debate about how much of that money the city’s campaign finance laws allow him to use.

Whitmire’s first mayoral campaign finance report, filed Tuesday, shows $1.1 million in new donations between his formal campaign launch in November and the end of the year. The report’s staggering number, though, is the amount of cash he reports having on hand: about $10.1 million.

The sum makes him the overwhelming financial heavyweight in the race — no other candidate had more than $1 million on hand as of last summer. Other candidates, including former county clerk Chris Hollins, former city councilmember Amanda Edwards, and attorney Lee Kaplan, are expected to share more current numbers Tuesday, as well.

It is not yet clear how much of that money Whitmire will seek to spend. Sue Davis, a consultant for Whitmire, said the report shows the full balance of his campaign account, filed with both the state and the city. The campaign started earmarking money raised for the mayor’s race at the end of last year — the $1.1 million — which “has more than enough to start this year,” Davis said.

The move, though, may test the enforcement of an ordinance that was intended to limit how much money raised for non-city accounts can be used for city campaigns. The council members who introduced and passed the law in 2005 said it was meant to cap that amount at $10,000. It was intended to treat non-city accounts like any other political entity that seeks to support a city campaign: subject to a $10,000 cap on donations.

Former councilmember Gordon Quan, who spearheaded the ordinance, confirmed the intent behind the law in an email to the Chronicle last week. The law says candidates can use money raised for a non-city public office “in an amount not to exceed the maximum contribution that the candidate may accept from a single donor,” which is $5,000 for individuals and $10,000 for political groups.

In practice, though, the city has not enforced the ordinance that stringently. A decade later, in 2015, then-City Attorney Dave Feldman told candidates they could use the amount of money under the cap from each individual donor, rather than from the account as a whole.

That allowed then-State Rep. Sylvester Turner to use $900,000 from his legislative account to start his mayoral bid, which ultimately proved successful.

City Attorney Arturo Michel, who returned to City Hall in December 2020, was serving his first stint as the city’s top lawyer in 2005, when Council first passed the law. The legal department, under his leadership at the time, helped craft the ordinance.

Michel, though, suggested Tuesday that Feldman’s interpretation was sound in its reading of the law’s actual language.

Feldman’s “determination reflected the language used in the code when adopted and as exists now,” Michel said. That language is less supportive of the more stringent interpretation, he added.

“Texas law is clear that statements made by members of a legislative governing body are not evidence of collective intent of the body and do not override the language used in the law,” Michel said.

The law has not been thoroughly tested in court, and it is possible another candidate could seek a ruling limiting what Whitmire can spend from his Senate funds. No candidate publicly has suggested they will do so.

See here for the July finance reports; Whitmire had not yet filed a city report. There are as of Tuesday night a number of January reports available on the city’s campaign finance webpage – you know I’m looking for them – but none of the Mayoral candidates had them up there yet.

The story references a lawsuit filed by Chris Bell, who was a Mayoral candidate in 2015, to challenge the cash on hand total that Turner claimed. There was a separate federal lawsuit filed to challenge the city’s blackout period for fundraising – in those days, you couldn’t fundraise outside of an election year – and after the plaintiff won an injunction the city basically agreed with his position to strengthen their case against Bell, who eventually dropped his suit.

I think the city should enforce its laws, though I can’t say with complete confidence that they’d win in court if there is a challenge over this limitation. I don’t know if someone will file a complaint to stop Whitmire from using his entire treasury, but if I were advising Whitmire I’d suggest he go through the last five or ten years’ worth of reports, claim the money that would clearly be under the limit, and then dare anyone to sue him. He’d still end up with a ton of cash and a plausible claim to already be in compliance. We’ll see what happens.

UT bans TikTok on campus WiFi

This feels like a bit of an overreaction to me, but we’ll see if others follow suit.

The University of Texas at Austin has blocked access to the video-sharing app TikTok on its Wi-Fi and wired networks in response to Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent directive requiring all state agencies to remove the app from government-issued devices, according to an email sent to students Tuesday.

“The university is taking these important steps to eliminate risks to information contained in the university’s network and to our critical infrastructure,” UT-Austin technology adviser Jeff Neyland wrote in the email. “As outlined in the governor’s directive, TikTok harvests vast amounts of data from its users’ devices — including when, where and how they conduct internet activity — and offers this trove of potentially sensitive information to the Chinese government.”

[…]

Abbott’s Dec. 7 directive stated that all state agencies must ban employees from downloading or using the app on government-issued devices, including cellphones, laptops and desktops, with exceptions for law enforcement agencies. He also directed the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Department of Information Resources to create a plan to guide state agencies on how to handle the use of TikTok on personal devices, including those that have access to a state employee’s email account or connect to a state agency network. That plan was to be distributed to state agencies by Jan. 15.

Each state agency is expected to create its own policy regarding the use of TikTok on personal devices by Feb. 15.

The ban could have broad impacts particularly at universities serving college-age students, a key demographic that uses the app. University admissions departments have used it to connect with prospective students, and many athletics departments have used TikTok to promote sporting events and teams. It’s also unclear how the ban will impact faculty who research the app or professors who teach in areas such as communications or public relations, in which TikTok is a heavily used medium.

See here for the background. As the Chron notes, students will still be able to access TikTok off campus, but I’m sure this will cause a whole lot of complaining. It’s not clear to me that this is necessary to comply with Abbott’s previous directive, but I presume UT’s lawyers have given the matter some consideration and I’d take their conclusions over mine. Other big public universities have not yet announced anything, though on my earlier post a commenter who works at a Texas public university said that their school has done something similar. This will be very interesting to see.

There are a couple of big questions here. One is whether the TEA will weigh in on the matter for Texas public schools, or if it will be left up to individual districts. Far as I know, HISD has not taken any such action, and as it happens they have their own TikTok account. The other thing is how this might affect the ability of athletes to make NIL (name, image, likeness) money for themselves. NCAA athletes with a significant social media presence can earn a ton of money for themselves. If this starts to affect recruiting, you can be sure that people will hear about it. Even if the TEA takes action in the public schools, it’s not likely to have much effect since the UIL still bans athletes from making NIL money, but if this really does cause a ripple then anything can happen. Like I said, very much worth keeping an eye on this.

UPDATE: As of later in the day, Texas A&M and TSU have followed suit and implemented similar bans. That certainly lends credence to the “no it wasn’t an overreaction” thesis. UH had not taken any action as of this publication.

UPDATE: The University of North Texas joins in, as do all of the other schools in the UT system.

HCC redistricting update

I got this email from HCC Trustee Reagan Flowers, which has prompted me to remind you that HCC redistricting is also happening, and per the Redistricting Info page, there are community events going on right now to help you understand what is being proposed and how you can give feedback. These events are also being livestreamed, and you can submit comments or propose your own map here. Trustee Flowers prefers the current map option 2, which she says will keep the Third Ward in the same district.

I previously mentioned the HCC redistricting process here, in an earlier post about HISD redistricting. The next regular public Trustee meeting on February 15 will be the public hearing on redistricting, and the deadline to submit comments and proposed maps is February 28. The final map will be voted on at the April 19 meeting. Make your voice heard!

Precinct analysis: Inside and out of the city

Most years we don’t get the data to differentiate between votes cast by residents of Houston and votes cast by Harris County non-Houston residents. There needs to be a citywide referendum of the ballot in order to get at this data. Fortunately, we had that this year, so we can take a look at how the races of interest shaped up. The usual caveat applies here, which is that this data is not exact. There are multiple precincts that are partially in Houston and partially not in Houston. Many of them have a tiny number of Houston-specific votes in them, with a much larger contingent of non-Houston votes. Counting these as Houston precincts means you wind up with a lot more total votes in Houston than were cast in the referenda elections, and gives you a distorted picture of the candidate percentages. I filter out precincts with ten or fewer votes cast in the Houston proposition elections, which is arbitrary and still yields more total votes than in the prop races themselves, but it’s close enough for these purposes. So with all that preamble, here’s the data:


Candidates    Houston   Not Hou    Hou%    Not%
===============================================
Beto          317,736   277,917  63.43%  46.22%
Abbott        175,533   314,728  35.04%  52.34%

Collier       312,803   273,337  62.81%  45.64%
Patrick       171,319   312,803  34.40%  51.84%

Garza         312,022   272,513  62.83%  45.61%
Paxton        170,642   309,499  34.36%  51.80%

Dudding       294,958   255,993  59.69%  43.03%
Hegar         185,671   324,329  37.58%  54.52%

Kleberg       296,878   257,563  60.34%  43.45%
Buckingham    184,006   323,967  37.41%  54.65%

Hays          308,304   269,169  62.61%  45.36%
Miller        184,139   324,228  37.39%  54.64%

Warford       290,364   251,323  59.02%  42.41%
Christian     181,355   319,465  36.86%  53.91%

To be clear about what this data shows, Beto won the city of Houston by a margin of 317,736 to 175,533, or 63.43% to 35.04%, while Greg Abbott carried the non-Houston parts of the county 314,728 to 277,917. This is about 493K ballots cast for those two candidates, which doesn’t count third party and write-in candidates or undervotes; I didn’t tally them all up but we’d be at around 510K total ballots defined as being “Houston”. In actuality, there were 486K total ballots cast, including undervotes, in the city prop races. Like I said, this is plenty good enough for these purposes.

As noted, I don’t have a whole lot of data for this from previous elections, but what I do have can be found in these posts:

2008
2012
2018

There were city propositions in 2010, for red light cameras and ReNew Houston, but I didn’t do the same city-versus-not-city comparisons that year, almost certainly because 2010 was such a miserable year and I just didn’t want to spend any more time thinking about it than I had to.

Looking back at those earlier years, Beto fell short of the top performers in Houston, which in 2008 and 2012 was Adrian Garcia and which in 2018 was himself, but he did better in non-Houston Harris County. That’s consistent with what I’ve said before about how Democrats have overall grown their vote in the former strong Republican areas, while falling short on turnout – this year, at least – in the strong Democratic areas. Note how even the lowest scorers this year exceeded Obama’s performance in non-Houston by three or four points in 2008 and four or five points in 2012, while doing about as well in Houston. As I’ve said, Harris County is more Democratic now. This is another way of illustrating that.

Here’s the same breakdown for the countywide races:


Candidates    Houston   Not Hou    Hou%    Not%
===============================================
Hidalgo       294,968   257,935  59.79%  43.39%
Mealer        198,286   336,434  40.19%  56.59%

Burgess       290,267   255,860  60.14%  43.81%
Daniel        192,368   328,119  39.86%  56.19%

Hudspeth      293,030   256,624  60.84%  44.00%
Stanart       188,573   326,633  39.16%  56.00%

Wyatt         293,352   256,862  60.86%  44.00%
Scott         188,623   326,849  39.14%  56.00%

No third party candidates here, just a write-in who got a handful of votes for County Judge, so the percentages mostly add up to 100. More or less the same story here, with the distinction between Houston and not-Houston being smaller than in prior years. There won’t be any citywide propositions in 2024, not if we have them this coming November, but I’ll try to use the precinct data I have here to analyze that election. In what should be a stronger Democratic year, I’ll be very interested to see how things change. As always, let me know if you have any questions.