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Who wants to have their dinner delivered by a robot?

Here’s your chance.

Heads up, Houston: the robots are coming.

Coco, the Los Angeles-based business that offers a remotely piloted delivery service, has hit the streets of Houston with its food-delivery bots as part of its expansion to targeted markets. Fueled by a recent funding round that garnered the company $56 million, Coco has already launched in Austin; its expansion plans also include rolling out bots in the Dallas and Miami markets soon.

Here in Houston, locals can look forward to delivery at restaurants including Brookstreet BBQ, Rustika Cafe, Ruggles Black, and Trendy Dumpling, according to the company.

Here’s how it works: Customers place a restaurant order like usual, then a Coco bot — operated by a “trained pilot” — drives to the restaurant to pick it up. The restaurant staff loads the bot as soon as the food is ready, and Coco arrives at the customer’s door within 15 minutes. Each bot is locked until it reaches the customer, so no one can tamper with your pizza or egg rolls.

The company claims that compared with traditional food-delivery methods, its bots decrease the time it takes food to reach the customer by 30 percent, and that the service has an on-time delivery rate of 97 percent.

Of course, Coco bots won’t be zipping up I-10 for a long-haul delivery; they’re meant to work at shorter distances and on mostly pedestrian paths. As the company’s website notes, “A surprisingly large portion of deliveries are done within less than 2 miles. We believe there is no reason to have a 3,000-pound car deliver a burrito over short distances.”

That “trained pilot” is a person working from home, according to Engadget. You can see a little video on the Coco homepage, and there you can see why this is a thing that will be using sidewalks and bike trails and other pedestrian-friendly routes to make its deliveries. You can already get things like pizza and groceries and prescriptions delivered via automated vehicles, so the concept here isn’t novel, but the method is new. I’m the type of person who’d rather walk to the restaurant and eat the food there, at an outdoor table if possible, but I have never claimed to be representative of anything. We’ll see how well this works.

Appeals court upholds school district mask mandates

Maybe not the most timely ruling ever, but still nice.

An appellate court on Thursday sided with Texas school districts in their dispute with state officials over mask mandates, which numerous school systems have already lifted as pandemic conditions have eased.

The state’s the 3rd Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s orders that granted school districts temporary injunctive relief from the enforcement of an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott prohibiting mask mandates.

In its opinion Thursday, the appellate court pointed to its opinion in a similar challenge involving Harris County. In that case, the court considered whether a disaster act gave the governor the authority to stop local government entities from implementing COVID-19 safety measures viewed by the governor as “more restrictive than necessary,” according to the opinion.

“For the reasons previously set forth in our opinion in Harris County, we again conclude that the Governor does not possess absolute authority under the Texas Disaster Act to preempt orders issued by governmental entities and officials,” Thursday’s opinion read.

Many, if not all, school districts that defied Abbott’s order have lifted their mask mandates, including Houston, Dallas, Spring and Aldine ISDs, which were among the plaintiffs.

[…]

With the opinion, the court confirmed the state Education Code gave districts the authority to decide.

“We conclude that the Education Code provisions granting broad authority to local school districts and community college districts to govern and oversee public schools within their districts do not prescribe ‘the procedures for conduct of state business,’” the opinion stated. “In sum, the Texas Disaster Act does not grant the Governor absolute authority to preempt orders issued by local governmental entities, such as school districts, and the provisions of the Education Code relied on by the school districts in issuing their respective facecovering requirements are not subject to suspension under … the Act.”

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. As noted before, the Supreme Court has yet to take up this question, though at this point maybe they just won’t since it’s not currently at issue. (That could of course change.) Ken Paxton is never one to take an L so I suspect he’ll continue to pursue this. I also strongly suspect that a top item on the agenda for the 2023 Lege, assuming no changes in the power structure, will be to amend the Education Code to explicitly prohibit school districts from making this policy without the permission of the Governor first. Have I mentioned that this is an important election coming up? Just checking. The San Antonio Report has more.

More school districts dropping mask mandates

Unsurprising.

Some of Texas’ biggest school districts are lifting mask mandates for students just weeks before spring break.

Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest district, and Dallas ISD announced Monday that they would not require students to wear masks. Austin ISD announced Wednesday it would stop requiring masks.

The move comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that coronavirus infection rates were slowing.

“It does give people hope for this spring,” said Dallas ISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa.

All three districts enacted mask mandates in early August amid the delta variant surge and in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott’s May executive order that says Texas schools can’t require masks.

At the time, dozens of school districts went against the governor’s order, and some were sued.

[…]

Candice Castillo, executive officer of student support services in Houston ISD, said recent data points to a dramatic downturn. In a district with about 195,000 students, there are 46 active cases, a 90% decrease in cases from the peak of omicron.

The district’s decision comes after Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo lowered Harris County’s COVID-19 threat level from “severe” to “significant.”

“This is the right moment for us to make this decision,” Castillo said.

In Austin ISD, the district has seen a 97% decrease in cases over the last six weeks, and the current number of active cases represents less than 1% of the total student and staff population.

Stephanie Elizalde, Austin ISD superintendent, said Wednesday during an Austin ISD board meeting that the district is abiding by the CDC’s recommendations, but to keep in mind that the fluidity of the pandemic means that the mandate can come back when necessary.

See here for more on HISD lifting its mask mandate. You can feel however you want about this – I know a lot of people are still very apprehensive about easing off on precautions like masking, and I totally understand. I’m still masking in public indoor spaces, and likely will continue for the foreseeable future. But the point is, the districts got to make the decisions they thought were best, based on the status of the pandemic and the advice and guidance from the CDC. That more than anything is what we wanted and deserved. The fact that they managed to hold out in defiance of Abbott and Paxton for all this time is a victory. It could be a transient one – for sure, someone is going to file a bill next session to force school districts to bend the knee to the governor – but at least we have an election first that can affect that action. Again, that’s all we can reasonably ask for at this time.

On the matter of the still-unresolved litigation over the mandates and Abbott’s executive order banning them in the schools:

I Am Not A Lawyer, but my best guess is that SCOTx will eventually take this opportunity to decline to intervene on the grounds that there’s no longer a reason for them to get involved. I suppose they could order the lawsuits to be dismissed, but here’s where my non-lawyerness comes to the fore, because I don’t know if that’s a thing they normally do. Be that as it may, the stars have aligned for them the sidestep a politically charged case, and that I know is a thing they like to do.

Is it time to ditch At Large seats on Houston City Council?

Here’s one argument for it.

The lack of Latinos on the City Council undermines the legitimacy of Houston’s government, experts say, and is something that a prominent Hispanic organization is pushing to change with a lawsuit and ballot proposition.

The League of United Latin American Citizens, one of the largest Hispanic civil rights organizations in the country, is tackling what they characterize as a gross underrepresentation of Latinos in one of the most diverse cities in the U.S. by proposing that the five at-large positions on council elected citywide be replaced with four seats in heavily Hispanic districts.

Currently, just one Hispanic — Robert Gallegos — holds a seat on the 16-member body. By contrast, 45 percent of Houston residents are Hispanic.

“The most serious threat to the legitimacy of Houston city government is this idea that you can have half of the population of the city represented by 6 percent of the council,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “Imagine if we flipped things around and there’s only one African American on the Houston City Council, or there’s only one Anglo, or there’s only one woman … It would be seen as a national travesty of democracy; it would be the subject of constant outcry.”

The city is expected to look at redistricting prior to its 2023 election, and could redraw the 11 districts if they are deemed unbalanced at that point. But LULAC said replacing at-large seats with more single-district seats would reduce barriers that undercut Latino representation.

“If we had parity, half of this council would be Latino,” said local LULAC leader Sergio Lira, co-chair of a new Houston taskforce created under the direction of the organization’s national President, Domingo García, who launched the effort in a meeting with local leaders last week.

García, a lawyer with offices statewide, said the effort includes a push to bring a charter amendment with the proposition to citizens to vote on and to file a lawsuit against the city.

Houston has the worst Hispanic representation in city councils among all Texas cities with populations over 500,000, all of which have eliminated at-large positions in their governments, according to census and government data.

“Houston is the outlier in Texas when it comes to Latino representation and is the only large city with at-large seats,” García said.

Those cities — San Antonio, Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth, and El Paso — all have councils that look much more similar to their cities’ Hispanic populations. Dallas, which is 42 percent Hispanic, has the next-lowest Hispanic representation on council with 29 percent Hispanics.

It’s tough to get elected to Houston’s at-large seats, García said.

“They are very difficult for Latinos to win because of the amount of money, coalitions and logistics it takes to win,” he said. “It’s like running for mayor.”

There’s a lot to say here, and I’ll try to get to the main points, but let me start by saying it’s a little more complex than what Garcia and Lira are arguing. There are multiple districts that have are at least plurality Latino – H, J, F, and A. H, currently held by CM Karla Cisneros, had reliably elected Latinos before Cisneros and likely will again; none of the others have elected Latinos. There is of course a big difference between “population”, “voting-age population” and “citizen voting-age population”, and that’s before we take into account voter registration and who generally turns out to vote in our odd-year elections, where 20% turnout is on the higher end. We could elect more Latinos with the map we have now, at least in theory. It very much hasn’t worked out that way in practice, and I doubt you’d find anyone who would argue that the current map is conducive to having more than two Latinos get elected from the current districts.

It’s also true that Latinos have been shut out from the At Large seats since the days of Orlando Sanchez and Gracie Saenz twenty years ago. We also haven’t had a lot of strong Latino contenders for At Large seats lately. In 2015, no Latinos ran for At Large #3 or #5, and the only one in At Large #1 was perennial candidate James Partsch-Galvan. There were Latinos in all the At Large races in 2019, but none of them raised any money. That’s what Garcia and Lira are saying, and others have said it before them, but it just doesn’t take as much money to run a credible At Large campaign as it does to run for Mayor. Mayoral candidates need well over a million bucks, but the big money candidates for At Large raise in the $200-400K range. Not nothing, but not a huge pile of money either. It’s a bit of a vicious circle – people who might want to run are discouraged because it’s hard for them to raise money and the recent record of citywide Latino candidates is brutal, which leads to a paucity of such candidates for anyone to support.

I can’t leave this point without bringing up, once again, the 2007 At Large #5 runoff, in which Jolanda Jones defeated Joe Trevino in a race where about 25K total votes were cast. Jones had run citywide before (in At Large #3) and was better known, and the other runoffs on the ballot were City Council District D and HISD District II, both of which favored Jones’ candidacy. Trevino was a longshot no matter how you looked at it, but still. This was the clearest shot to get a Latino elected citywide, and he got bupkus in terms of financial support, including from the folks who had been threatening to sue to force City Council redistricting prior to the 2010 Census. Public support of campaigns and candidates is a complicated and nuanced thing that is more often solicited than given, I get that. I’m just saying, none of the folks who were lamenting the lack of Latino representation on Houston City Council were moved to write Joe Trevino a $100 check. Make of that what you will.

(There was also the Michael Kubosh-Roy Morales runoff of 2013. The politics of that one are different, for obvious reasons. I went back and looked, and Roy Morales actually raised about $50K for that runoff, which isn’t too shabby. There were only a couple of Latino names among his donors, though. Again, make of that what you will.)

Moving on. I have generally been supportive of having the hybrid district/At Large Council that we have. At least if you have a sub-par Council person in your district, you still have five At Large members you can turn to for support if you need it, and I think there’s value in having people who need to have a broader perspective. That said, I’d bet that most of the At Large members we have had over the past 20 or so years have come from a limited geographical distribution – this was very much the problem with Austin’s at large system, where nearly everyone on their Council came from the same part of town – and let’s just say that some of our At Large members are better than others and leave it at that. All in all, I don’t think it would be a great loss to change to an all-district system, and I would be inclined to support it if and when it comes to a vote. I’d like to see the proposal first – there are, as we well know, good and not-so-good ways to draw maps – but as a concept, I support it.

Knowing it is a long shot, LULAC decided to initiate a drive to collect 20,000 signatures in February in favor of their proposition, as the early voting for the state primaries begins. The number is the minimum needed to force the inclusion of a charter amendment in the ballot, bypassing the approval of City Council, which would only decide when it should be put for a citizens’ vote.

LULAC is simultaneously preparing a lawsuit it plans to file in court by March to eliminate all at-large positions in favor of single districts.

We’ll see how that goes. Petition drives have been pretty successful in recent years, even if they don’t always get their referenda on the next available ballot. There are already two items scheduled for the ballot in 2023, and with an open seat Mayoral race that will make it a very busy cycle. An item like this could get a bit lost in the noise, or it could be a big issue, as surely the various Mayoral candidates will need to weigh in on it. I’ll be very interested to see how the petition drive and the litigation go.

Austin aims for pot decriminalization

We’ll see how this goes. I suspect the measure will pass, but I’m not sure it will be allowed to take effect.

As greater numbers of Texas voters sour on harsh punishment for marijuana offenses, Austin voters will likely decide in May whether to effectively decriminalize the drug.

The ballot measure, pushed by the group Ground Game Texas, would forbid Austin police officers in most cases from ticketing or arresting people on low-level pot charges like possessing small amounts of the drug or related paraphernalia — unless the offenses are tied to more severe crimes. The city also would not pay to test substances suspected to be marijuana — a key step in substantiating drug charges.

Both practices have already been informally adopted in Austin, but advocates want to solidify them at the May ballot box.

“The primary effect is that it would make the decriminalization that exists in Austin today actually long term and would put the force of law behind it,” said Chris Harris, policy director at Austin Justice Coalition.

[…]

But the measure faces one big obstacle: Although marijuana laws in Texas have loosened somewhat in recent years, the drug remains illegal at the state level.

Public support for harsh marijuana laws and prosecutors’ willingness to bring charges for minor offenses has waned in recent years.

The number of new charges for misdemeanor marijuana possession fell by 59% from 2016 to 2020, according to figures from the Texas Office of Court Administration, as prosecutors in the state’s major urban areas have increasingly deprioritized marijuana prosecutions.

Most Texas voters support decriminalizing marijuana in some form. Three-fifths of Texas voters say at least a small amount of marijuana should be legal, according to a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll last year.

That support cuts across partisan lines. Nearly three-fourths of Democrats and independents think marijuana should be legal. So do 43% of Republicans, a plurality of that group.

It’s against that backdrop that Ground Game Texas — a progressive group focused on issues of “workers, wages and weed” — plans to mount decriminalization campaigns in Killeen and Harker Heights.

As the story notes, there’s an effort by Ground Game Texas to put a similar measure on the ballot in San Marcos. The City Council in Denton recently voted down an ordinance to do the same there, a move that perhaps validates this approach. The Austin police union, which has been resistant to the earlier efforts to decriminalize pot, is staying out of this election, but who knows what they might do afterward.

So what happens if this passes, as I expect it will? One obvious possibility is legal action to require the enforcement of the state laws. I’m sure there’s someone who’d be willing to be the plaintiff in such a filing, and no one has to encourage Ken Paxton to swing a bat in Austin’s direction. Legislative action is also possible – again, there’s nothing a Republican likes more these days than filing a bill to stop a city from doing something that legislator doesn’t approve of. A complicating factor in all this is that Greg Abbott is mumbling a few words in favor of being less harsh about pot, likely in recognition of the polling on this issue and Beto’s stronger pro-pot stance. I don’t know how much that complicates things for the keep-pot-criminal crowd, but it’s another dimension. I don’t know which way this will go, but it all starts with the measure being passed, and I feel pretty confident about that.

The cities and the freeze

Well, at least some government entities are trying to learn from the February disaster, even if they’re having a rough go of it.

Ten months after the freeze, Texas cities have made some headway on storm preparedness, an oft-neglected area of local government. They have bolstered reserves of bottled water for residents in case of water outages, bought tire chains for city emergency vehicles, and implemented measures intended to shorten potential power outages for residents and keep electricity flowing to critical facilities.

But as winter approaches and the electrical grid remains vulnerable to blackouts, cities are still short on two key fronts: making sure their most vulnerable residents have the information they need to survive a similar calamity and that the water stays on. Many preparations cities are undertaking to protect residents against future disasters will take months, if not years, to put in place, city officials have said.

And worries abound that officials didn’t learn the lesson and will neglect to adopt new readiness measures — as they have after past disasters.

Austin officials failed to make emergency preparations before February that may have helped during the winter storm, despite past recommendations to do so, according to a recent report conducted by city auditors. Austin has adopted only a sliver of the recommendations made in the wake of other recent calamities, the report says.

“It’s extremely frustrating, and we need systems in place that don’t let that happen again,” Austin City Council member Alison Alter said during a meeting on the report’s findings last month.

Emergency officials say part of the reason those calls haven’t been entirely heeded is that large-scale disasters are becoming increasingly common as climate change worsens, making it more difficult to learn from the last one before the next one hits. On top of that, responding to the COVID-19 pandemic has stretched emergency responders thin.

“There hasn’t been enough time in between them to look at all those corrective actions,” Juan Ortiz, who heads Austin’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, told a council committee in November. “That really has caused the congestion in work that needed to be done.”

[…]

In San Antonio, city and utility officials are scheduled to deliver a joint emergency communications plan at the end of the month. An important question they are expected to address is how to communicate ahead of and during a storm with residents who don’t have internet access to begin with — like many residents on the city’s South Side.

Those residents can’t be left out in the cold, said council member Adriana Rocha Garcia.

“A preparation checklist should be on a door hanger for every vulnerable community to be able to just literally go out and get it from their doors so that they know exactly what to do, exactly who to call in case of an emergency during a winter storm,” Rocha Garcia said.

Now do the story about what Greg Abbott has learned from the experience and what he’s doing about it. Oh, wait…

Back to school, kids

It’ll probably be fine. And honestly, there’s no appetite for anything else.

Most of Texas’ roughly 1,200 school districts will welcome students and staff back within the next week, even as other states debate whether to mandate vaccines for teachers and staff or even return to remote learning. Almost 1 in 4 COVID tests in Texan are coming back positive for the virus, and hospitalizations have increased by 1,613 patients compared with a week ago. As of Dec. 28, 4,917 Texans were hospitalized for the coronavirus.

As of Wednesday, there were 220 Texans under the age of 18 hospitalized for COVID-19, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services. That number has been increasing since Christmas. Texas saw the highest number of people under the age of 18 hospitalized for COVID-19 in early September, when it was at 345.

The omicron variant has been surging across the United States. So far, it has generally been less severe and deadly than the earlier delta variant. However, the federal government recommends that all children 5 or older get the vaccine.

At Cook Children’s Health Care System in Tarrant County, positive cases among children have climbed sharply since Dec. 21 — going from a 5.7% positivity rate to 22.1%. “We are seeing upwards of 400 positive COVID-19 cases among children per day,” Dr. Mary Suzanne Whitworth said in a statement. “This is similar to where we were in early September when delta was spreading rapidly in our area.”

Despite those numbers, education leaders have largely urged a return to regular in-person instruction, with precautions in place.

Superintendent Millard House II of the Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest, announced Wednesday that it will maintain its mask mandate and will start to offer free COVID-19 testing for students and staff.

“We are looking forward to adding this layer of protection to our COVID-19 mitigation strategies,” House said in a statement. “We remain committed to keeping our students and staff safe and working toward implementing strategies that can help us continue offering safe and sustainable in-person instruction.”

In Austin, the school district will continue to require masks on campus and will offer testing to students and staff and vaccination clinics for anyone 5 and older.

In an email sent to Austin parents, district administrators said they were keeping schools open because they were confident that mitigation strategies were working and because vaccines are now widely available.

“Our layered protocols work! We have been here before. We can do this. Our kids need the schools to stay open,” Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde wrote in the email.

She added that the Austin ISD would continue social distancing, serving lunches outdoors and using its advanced air filtration system to slow the spread.

HISD’s mask mandate has been a big success, though it hasn’t really been tested by omicron yet. If people are properly wearing appropriate masks, they can protect themselves pretty well. Better ventilation and doing whatever possible outside is helpful. I’d feel a lot better if a whole lot more kids were getting vaccinated, but maybe getting them back into schools will nudge a few more in that direction. Some universities have pushed back the start of in person classes for their spring semester in favor of online learning, but I just don’t see that as viable for the independent school districts, at least not at this time. Mask, ventilate, vax, test, and isolate as needed, and we can get through this. I’m hoping for the best.

November 2021 election results

At 9:45 PM last night, this is what we had:

I think there was a power outage, and apparently a long line. This is why you test new equipment in lower-turnout elections. I guess the good news is there will be a May election next year, to give it one more test drive before a higher turnout election. But this wasn’t a great look.

All of the constitutional amendments appear to be on their way to passage. Austin’s divisive Proposition A is losing badly. The special election runoff in HD118 is close – Frank Ramirez had the early lead, which widened when the first seven voting centers reported, then John Lujan caught up when the next eight reported. There are nine centers to report as I type this, so who knows what to expect. The proposal to incorporate The Woodlands was losing.

And that’s all I’ve got. When there’s something on the HarrisVotes page, I’ll update this.

UPDATE:

Partial results are here. In HISD, Sue Deigaard and Myrna Guidry are above 50%, while Elizabeth Santos is in a runoff with Janette Garza Lindner, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca is in a runoff with Kendall Baker, and Anne Sung is in a runoff with Bridget Wade, if everything holds. In HCC, Adriana Tamez is leading, and Eva Loredo is in a runoff with Jharrett Bryantt. John Lujan held on to win the runoff in HD118.

UPDATE: A much larger batch of votes has come in, though it looks like there are still a handful to be counted. Sue Deigaard is now slightly below 50%, so add one more HISD runoff to the pile. Other results are the same.

UPDATE: In re: those last ballots:

Another look at I-35 expansion

From Slate:

Built on top of tree-lined East Avenue, the road opened in 1962, cutting off Black and Mexican-American East Austin from Downtown. Like urban renewal projects in other American cities, the road’s destructive legacy has recently been reconsidered in racial terms.

But unlike with similar projects in Syracuse and New Haven, the question in Austin is not how to tear down the highway but how to expand it. Those cities are not growing; Austin is. Just as the Texas capital embarks on its generational transit investment, the state is planning to spend almost $5 billion to expand eight miles of I-35 through Downtown to a whopping 20 lanes wide. Four new “managed lanes” (for high-occupancy vehicles or other restricted uses) will join the mainlanes and frontage roads, stretching the highway’s width to nearly 600 feet in places, and erasing almost 150 properties.

With their latticework of ramps, bypass lanes, and flyovers, the blueprints have the look of one of those historical timelines that shows warring empires dividing and combining in endless permutations. It’s a testament to America’s highway designers that this tangle, hard to follow with one finger, will one day be navigable at 70 miles per hour.

[…]

Last month, the mayor and nearly the entirety of the Austin City Council signed a letter addressed to the I-35 team at the Department of Transportation with some requests: Change the design to narrow the right-of-way. Build more crossings. Make frontage roads into pleasant local streets. Design, fund, and build highway decks—suspended parks over the road—to knit together neighborhoods that were severed in 1962. And delay the project until Austin can complete its transit lines.

“It’s something we have to do something about. It’s deadly, it’s dirty, it divides our community,” said Natasha Harper-Madison, a City Council member who has denounced the plan. “I-35 is the poster child for our car-choked congestion problems, and their solution is just to make it bigger. They tell us the life span is 75 years. That means 2100. When I think about 2100, I don’t see a sprawling Houston, but a city that helps people move around without cars.”

There are alternate proposals, such as the one drawn up by the Urban Land Institute at the behest of Downtown interests. That design proposes a narrower right-of-way, cantilevered frontage roads, highway decks to support green space, and new housing alongside it all. A similar highway cap, Klyde Warren Park, opened in Dallas to much fanfare in 2012.

A local group called Reconnect Austin wants to bury the highway entirely and build a surface-level boulevard, in the style of Boston’s Big Dig. Divert intercity traffic to State Highway 130, a road built east of Austin two decades ago for just this purpose. Give the city’s transit network a chance to make its mark, they argue, before you undermine its offerings with a brand new (free) highway.

See here for the background. I wanted to highlight this article for two reasons. One was because it referenced an Austin Politics report that showed how TxDOT’s predictions for future traffic on I-35 are basically the same as they were 20 years ago, and that the levels of traffic they were predicting then have not come close to being accurate. Makes me wonder what a bit of similar investigation into claims about traffic on I-45 would yield.

The other is for this diagram, taken from TxDOT’s renderings for the proposed expansion, and included in the piece:

I’d say I’ve never seen anything more ridiculous than that, but then I have seen TxDOT’s plans for I-45, so. Anyway, check it out.

Elections of interest elsewhere in Texas

Early voting has started for the special election runoff in HD118.

Frank Ramirez

Early voting began Monday in San Antonio to see who will replace former state Rep. Leo Pacheco, a two-term Democrat who resigned from Texas’ 118th district in August to teach public administration at San Antonio College.

The special election to replace Pacheco has produced two runoff candidates who continue to campaign against each other ahead of election day on Nov. 2, Democrat Frank Ramirez and Republican John Lujan.

Ramirez told the Signal he’s running to represent the community he grew up in and bring more infrastructure and education dollars to the region.

“I’m from the district through and through,” Ramirez said. “I grew up in the southside of San Antonio and I went to elementary, middle, and high school in the Harlandale Independent School District.”

After graduating from the University of Texas in 2016, Ramirez served as the chief of staff and legislative director to former state Rep. Tomas Uresti, a Democrat who briefly occupied the seat for one term during the 2017 session, the infamous bathroom bill session.

“Recognizing that our state has a lot of work to do to catch up educationally, to catch up in terms of business and property taxes and infrastructure. That was the motivating factor for me,” Ramirez said of running.

“And even though I saw a lot of bad things happen in the 2017 session, we also saw a number of good things happen,” Ramirez said. “85% of the bills that are filled in the Texas House of Representatives are bills that fit within the scope of an individual’s districts, and they’re doing good for as many Texans as possible.”

Ramirez then spent almost four years serving as the zoning and planning director of San Antonio City Councilwoman Ana Sandoval before departing in August to run for district 118.

The south San Antonio district has traditionally voted for Democrats. In 2020, Pacheco defeated his Republican opponent by almost 17 percentage points, a similar margin to Pacheco’s 2018 victory over Republican John Lujan.

I’ve covered this before, and there’s not much to add. It would be very nice to win this race, if only because the discourse that would follow a loss will be annoying as hell. It will still be the case that the outcome will have basically no effect on anything the Lege does at this point, even if there is another special session, and it will also be the case that the incumbent will have to run in a more normal environment next year in a district that still leans Democratic; it was made less Democratic by redistricting, but the trends remain in Dems’ favor. Frank Ramirez would become the youngest member of the House if he wins, and that’s cool.

Meanwhile, in Austin, there’s a contentious ballot proposition to deal with.

Early voting for the November 2021 election starts Monday and there are two Austin propositions on the ballot.

The most controversial is Proposition A. If approved by voters, it would increase Austin police staffing to two officers per 1,000 citizens, increase yearly training and increase minority hiring and community engagement.

The City said it would cost between $54.3 million and $119.8 million per year for the next five years, which is added on top of the department’s budget of $443 million city council approved for this fiscal year.

The Austin firefighter and Austin-Travis County EMS unions, as well as the local American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employee Voting are against Prop A.

“This unfunded mandate that is on the ballot will cause severe layoffs, and it will also put a burden on the taxpayers,” said AFSCME Business Manager Carol Guthrie.

On the other side, the driving force behind Prop A, Save Austin Now, said the city has enough money to implement the initiative without hurting other departments.

“We know we need 300 to 350 more,” said president of Save Austin Now Matt Mackowiak.” We don’t believe that will happen in one year, but we should try.”

Mackowiak is either the current or a recent past Chair of the Travis County Republican Party (I can’t remember and I’m too lazy to look it up), and if you follow Scott Braddock on Twitter, you know he’s also a thin-skinned twerp. Prop A is yet another response to the recent actions by the Austin City Council to try to effect some modest reforms on policing and their police budget, and as with the Legislature it’s over the top and would hamstring the city’s budget for the foreseeable future. See these posts from Grits for Breakfast and this one from Keep Austin Wonky that cast doubt on the pro-Prop A cost estimates. I probably don’t have to tell those of you who live in Austin and read this blog to vote against Prop A, but I’m going to anyway. KUT has more.

The fight over widening I-35

Hold tough, Austin. We feel your pain here.

In May 2019, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) unveiled a $7.5 billion plan to expand the abhorred stretch of I-35 that snakes through the center of Austin. Dubbed the Capital Express Project, the proposal’s potential changes were drastic: In addition to adding two levels of tunnels, it would widen the highway on each side by several lanes and significantly increase the interstate’s footprint. State officials proclaimed the proposition, still in its infancy, as the long-awaited answer to the capital city’s notorious traffic woes.

“This is a huge choke point for the entire state of Texas,” Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Bruce Bugg said of the plan. “We now have a solution on the table. The time for talk is over. The time for action is now.”

On its face, the proposal seemed like a promising offer for Austinites who spend countless hours idling on the most congested stretch of road in all of Texas. But in reality, it was the blueprint for an ineffective, outdated strategy that would only spur sprawl, transportation advocates argued. In fact, they pointed out, studies show that roadway buildout actually increases congestion because it fuels the need for car-centric transit.

All of this was on the mind of Austin Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison as she drove up to Dallas later that fall. Born and raised on the capital city’s East Side, she knew the impacts of highway expansion all too well. The place where Black residents had been subjected to decades of systemic racism and financial redlining after being forcibly moved to in 1928, East Austin was effectively cut off from the rest of town by I-35. As a result, the interstate wasn’t just a hulking mass of concrete and asphalt, she said: It was oftentimes the dividing line between the haves and the have-nots.

Given these experiences, Harper-Madison was eager to explore alternative transportation solutions when she first learned about TxDOT’s proposal. Enter Klyde Warren Park, a 5.2-acre public space that was established atop a downtown stretch of Dallas’ Woodall Rodgers Freeway in 2012. Witnessing the vibrant, tree-lined area was nothing short of revelatory, Harper-Madison said. The complex, once consumed by concrete and traffic congestion, had been converted into a natural gathering ground for people from all walks of life.

[…]

That trip couldn’t be more pertinent for Harper-Madison and her fellow Austin officials these days. That’s because TxDOT is now on the verge of pushing forward plans to expand I-35 — a painstaking endeavor that leaders worry could result in a big-money boondoggle if not handled correctly. For context, there are three community-drawn proposals that would limit the highway’s existing footprint, downsize it to an urban boulevard, or even incorporate Klyde Warren–inspired green spaces, but the state has shown little interest in entertaining them. Instead, TxDOT has prioritized two “build alternatives” that would simply demolish the I-35’s upper decks and widen the thoroughfare considerably.

Such proposals (which are eerily similar to those being contested in Houston) run in direct opposition to the town’s long-term transportation plans because they double down on a car-centric model less than two years after Austin voters approved a $7 billion mass transit bond. Residents don’t want bigger highways, Harper-Madison said. They want smarter, forward-thinking ways to get around their city.

If allowed to move forward, TxDOT’s proposed expansion will engulf nearly 150 homes and businesses along the interstate. Many of these, like the Stars Cafe and the Austin Chronicle building, are local institutions. Others, such as the Escuelita del Alma day care center, Taqueria Los Altos, and Hector the Barber, are popular utilities whose erasure would leave a glaring absence in nearby communities. With Austin already struggling to combat skyrocketing costs of living and growing suburban sprawl, now isn’t the time to push people out, Council Member Greg Casar said.

I don’t live in Austin, and I don’t have to deal with I-35, which by any definition is a mess and a hellhole. But when I hear about a $7.5 billion plan to widen and add capacity to I-35, I don’t see a solution, I see an even bigger nightmare of construction-induced worse traffic, neighborhoods and existing businesses being displaced and destroyed, and an even bigger traffic problem a few years down the line. I wonder what a $7.5 billion investment in mass transit might look like. And if you do live in Austin and have similar thoughts about this, I say raise hell and fight it with all you’ve got, because they will steamroll you otherwise. Good luck, you’re going to need it.

Four House members to step down

In order of announcement…

Rep. Scott Sanford.

Rep. Scott Sanford

State Rep. Scott Sanford, a Republican from McKinney, announced Sunday he is not running for reelection, citing his family, especially his grandchildren.

“As the legislature embarks on its third special session, I’m reminded of the seasonality of government. It ebbs and flows as it follows its constitutional guidelines, the needs of the citizens and the reality of political processes,” he said in a news release.

“Life also has its season, and Shelly and I are thrilled to now be in a new season as grandparents. Even more exciting, our second grandchild is expected to arrive soon. In the midst of changing life seasons and a personal evaluation of priorities, I have made the prayerful decision to not file for re-election,” he added.

Sanford represented the 70th District in the House since 2013. The 57-year-old also serves as a pastor at Cottonwood Creek Church in Allen.

I have no clear impression of Rep. Sanford, he’s basically a generic Republican to me. His HD70 in Collin County is on the far outer fringes of competitiveness after moving moderately left over the decade. It’ll be interesting to see if the Republicans try to shore up a district like that or leave it more or less as is while they triage higher priority areas of need.

Rep. Celia Israel.

Rep. Celia Israel

State Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, announced Wednesday she will not seek reelection and instead explore a run for Austin mayor next year.

“The heartbeat of a city is people from all walks of life working together and learning from each other,” Israel wrote on social media. “That’s why I’m proud that the founding core of my exploratory committee is diverse, with a broad array of lived experiences.”

Israel has represented House District 50 since 2014. The Austin-based district is safely Democratic, though its boundaries are likely to change before the 2022 election due to the redistricting process that is currently underway in the Legislature.

Israel has been an advocate for the LGBT community in the lower chamber, helping start the Texas House LGBTQ Caucus in 2019. She has also been outspoken about abortion rights, and she was one of the House Democrats who left the state in July to protest the Republican elections bill.

The Austin Chronicle had the news earlier. I’m a big fan of Rep. Israel, and if I lived in Austin she’d be high on my list for Mayoral candidates. If she wins I hope she sees that as a potential step towards a future statewide run, because we could definitely use someone like her in the executive wing of the Capitol.

Rep. Chris Paddie.

Rep. Chris Paddie

State Rep. Chris Paddie, a Marshall Republican who chairs the powerful House State Affairs Committee, said Wednesday he will not seek another term in the lower chamber.

The news comes less than a month after Paddie, who has represented House District 9 since 2013, announced he would run for reelection.

In a statement, Paddie said that as the Legislature undergoes the redistricting process, he had “decided that the timing is right to spend more time with my family and allow my East Texas colleagues to spend time fighting for our values instead of having to make some of the tough choices required.”

“Serving in the Legislature is not a career, but a way to serve your neighbors,” Paddie said. “I remain fully committed to advocating for good public policy and will continue do so in non-elected avenues of public service.”

Rep. Paddie, like Rep. Sanford, is one term away from being vested in the generous legislative pension system. He must really be done. I know that the local wingnuts have had it in for him, so maybe this was just enough. He was certainly conservative, but he had policy chops and took the job seriously, and I give him credit for that much. The default Republican these days is Briscoe Cain, and Paddie’s successor will very likely be a Cain clone, so in that sense his retirement is a loss to the Lege.

Rep. Jim Murphy.

Rep. Jim Murphy

State Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston, announced Thursday he will not seek another term to the Texas House.

Murphy, who represented House District 133 from 2007-09 and again since 2011, chairs the House GOP Caucus and the House Higher Education Committee.

He announced in June his intention to seek reelection, saying in a news release that while the Legislature “accomplished a lot” during the regular legislative session that ended in May, “unfinished business still remains.”

On Thursday, though, Murphy said he is “just looking forward to life’s next great opportunity” and that it had been “an honor and privilege” to serve the constituents of HD-133.

Maybe he reads my blog. Murphy is also in a fringe-competitive district, one that may be a bigger challenge to stay as red given the trends in Harris County and the need of Republicans to shore up some other districts. He was very helpful in getting pension reform passed a couple of years ago, and like Rep. Paddie more about doing things than posturing and complaining. We’ll see if his replacement, if Republicans hold the seat, is like that or not. I’d bet on “not”.

Finally, on a semi-related note, there are five candidates in the special election to replace former Rep. Leo Pacheco in HD118, three Dems and two Republicans. Early voting starts for it on Monday. It’s highly unlikely that anyone will get seated while the Lege is still in session, but for symbolic reasons if nothing else it would be nice for the Dems to not fumble this one.

More injunctions against the mask mandate bans

Keep ’em coming.

Concluding that Gov. Greg Abbott exceeded his authority by banning mask mandates in Texas, an Austin judge ruled Friday that school districts in Travis County can enforce face coverings as a COVID-19 precaution.

State District Judge Catherine Mauzy’s order also applied to 19 school districts that represent about 1 million students — including Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth and Houston — as well as Austin Community College, which also sued Abbott.

However, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton quickly appealed, automatically blocking enforcement of Mauzy’s temporary injunction — though the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals can be asked to reinstate the judge’s order while Paxton’s challenge proceeds.

In her ruling, Mauzy concluded Abbott’s ban on mandatory masks — contained in a July 29 executive order — was unlawful and exceeded his authority in violation of the Texas Constitution.

Mauzy found that the school officials and parents who challenged Abbott’s order made “a sufficient showing” to establish that Abbott was not authorized to declare “by executive fiat” that school districts are prohibited from requiring masks to be worn.

Without court intervention, Mauzy added, Abbott’s ban leaves school officials unable to mandate masks to control the spread of COVID-19, “which threatens to overwhelm public schools and could result in more extreme measures such as the school closures that have already begun in several Texas school districts.”

In a separate ruling, Mauzy also granted an injunction sought by Harris County to allow a mask mandate to continue for Houston-area school districts, said Christian Menefee, county attorney.

“Gov. Abbott is misusing the Texas Disaster Act to make this pandemic worse,” Menefee said, calling the ruling an important step in reining in the governor.

But in a third challenge, the judge declined to issue a statewide injunction, requested by the Southern Center for Child Advocacy, that would have allowed mask mandates in all Texas school districts. Mauzy’s one-page order gave no reason for the denial.

It’s hard to keep track of all of these, but see here for the original ruling in the Harris County case, and here for the original ruling in the SCCA case; the filing of their lawsuit was noted here. I have so many of these posts, some of which combine stories from multiple lawsuits, so I can’t find (and may not have) a post about the original Austin lawsuit, but the famous SCOTx demurral of the emergency request by Paxton and Abbott to block a TRO was related to the Austin/Travis County lawsuit. I note that the Harris County case and the SCCA case were originally in Judge Jan Soifer’s courtroom, so I am assuming that a bunch of similar lawsuits were combined into one and that’s how they all wound up before Judge Mauzy.

The injunction may be on hold because of the appeal (there’s some fancy legal term for this that I have encountered before but forgotten by now), but the plaintiffs can and surely will ask for it to be reinstated by the Third Court of Appeals. That will force another reckoning with the Supreme Court, thanks to the recent order in the Bexar County case. In a sense all of this is just sound and fury since Abbott and Paxton can’t enforce the mask mandate bans anyway, but the ritual must be observed. I feel like I should get a CLE credit for all of this blogging. HISD Superintendent Millard House’s statement about the ruling is here, and KXAN and the Trib have more.

Driverless Lyft service coming to Austin

We’ll see what the demand is.

People in Austin who use the ride-hailing service Lyft will have the option of selecting a self-driving car starting in 2022. But, at least initially, two humans will sit in the front as “test specialists” in case anything goes wrong.

Ford’s self-driving vehicles, including the Escape Hybrid SUV, are powered by technology from Argo AI, a Pittsburgh-based company that includes Ford and Volkswagen as major investors.

The vehicles will launch first in Miami later this year. They’re scheduled to arrive in Austin in the first half of 2022.

The number of self-driving Lyft vehicles operating on Austin streets will be relatively small at first. Ford, Lyft and Argo AI are giving themselves five years to get “at least 1,000 autonomous vehicles on the Lyft network” across multiple cites, they said in a joint press release. More details about the size of the fleet in Austin will be revealed closer to launch, a Lyft spokesperson said.

“This is a technology that is going to roll out in pockets,” said Jody Kelman, who leads product management for the consumer arm of Lyft’s self-driving division. “We always see that there will be a huge place for [human] drivers on our network.”

Ford started testing self-driving cars in Austin three years ago. The auto-maker had initially planned to launch its commercial self-driving service in 2021, but last year pushed the date back to 2022, citing the pandemic.

Driverless cars have long been seen as a key part of the Uber/Lyft future, since it eliminates the expense of drivers for them. It would also mean that the companies would have to own, maintain, and store the vehicles they’d use, which is a much more significant expense than the drivers are. As such, I have no idea how big a piece of that future this is, or how it would change their basic business model.

Here in the present day, I wonder how appealing the driverless Lyft service is for their customers versus the standard person-driven automobile. If you’re the type that prefers never having to interact with the driver, then this would have appeal. I’m the type that would be more worried about what happens if something unexpected comes up – car trouble, the programmed route becoming unavailable for some reason, an accident, whatever. Maybe I get a call while I’m in the ride and my plans have changed and now I need to go someplace else. Who do I tell to make that happen? Am I stuck there until I get to my destination and then have to call for another ride? Low-probability events, to be sure, but I’m certain there are plenty of other folks who would think this way.

One other potential factor in the not-yet-post-COVID world is that not being in the car with a complete stranger has more value now, even if you might be giving up some level of service assurance. I pondered this issue with the rise of automated grocery and pizza delivery services, and the same considerations apply here. There’s more room in the marketplace for these kinds of services than I would have originally thought, but it’s still all a bit puzzling to me. What do you think? There’s a longer version of this story in the Statesman, if you can get past their paywall (it was in a print version of the Chronicle a couple of weeks back, in the business section), and The Verge has more.

SCOTx demurs

Very interesting:

This was for the Harris County litigation, which included Austin and several South Texas school districts. As such, Harris County’s mask mandate is still in effect. This is a procedural ruling, just telling Ken Paxton he needs to follow the law and go through the appellate courts first, and as such it buys some time. Given how accommodating SCOTx has generally been, it’s nice that they’re not fast-tracking any of this. I doubt it makes much difference in the end, but it matters now.

By the way, if you heard that Greg Abbott was dropping enforcement of school mask mandate bans, that simply isn’t so. Abbott and Paxton can go via the appellate courts as before and as they should have here, and the case will eventually make its way back to SCOTx, where they will likely give the state what it wants. Everything is temporary and in a state of flux right now.

Speaking of the appellate courts:

After Gov. Greg Abbott appealed a temporary order that allowed for mask mandates in schools and city- and county-owned buildings, the 4th Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that the order still stands.

On Monday, Judge Antonia “Toni” Arteaga of the 57th Civil District Court granted San Antonio and Bexar County a temporary injunction, allowing the mask mandates in city- and county-owned buildings and in schools to continue until a trial is held. The city and county sued the governor earlier this month over the ability to issue mask mandates.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed the district court’s ruling on behalf of Abbott, arguing that his appeal automatically blocked the San Antonio and Bexar County mask mandate. While city attorneys disagreed, they still asked the 4th Court of Appeals on Tuesday to officially uphold the temporary injunction.

In an order issued Thursday, the 4th Court of Appeals reasoned that allowing local governments to have policies to protect public health maintained the status quo, while Abbott actually changed it with his July executive order prohibiting governmental entities from mandating masks.

The court also cited testimony given during the Monday hearing from Dr. Junda Woo, the medical director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, and San Antonio City Manager Erik Walsh. Both said that requiring masks will help slow the spread of the delta variant, which is much more transmissible than previous coronavirus strains. They also pointed to the vulnerability of schoolchildren under the age of 12 who are not yet eligible for the coronavirus vaccine.

“Based on the temporary injunction order and the evidence attached to the emergency motion, the City and County have demonstrated that reinstating the trial court’s temporary injunction is necessary to prevent irreparable harm and preserve their rights during the pendency of this accelerated appeal,” the appellate judges wrote. “The circumstances of this case are unique and, quite frankly, unprecedented.”

See here for the background. This ruling means that the Bexar County mandate can remain in place until the hearing for the temporary injunction, which will be December 13. Except, of course, that Abbott and Paxton can appeal this ruling to SCOTx, and having gone through the proper channels this time, the same reason to reject the other TRO will not be in effect. Expect this to get a ruling from SCOTx in the next couple of days.

In the meantime:

A Fort Bend County district judge on Thursday granted the county’s application for a temporary injunction, siding with local officials in their fight against Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates.

Judge J. Christian Becerra of the 434th District Court approved the county’s application for the temporary injunction following a day’s worth of testimony in his courtroom.

The Fort Bend County public health director and a local hospital administrator testified to the healthcare emergency currently facing the Southeast Texas region. Both said they believe mask mandates would help mitigate the spread.

Fort Bend ISD had not gone along with implementing a mask mandate initially. This may change that, we’ll see. This was a late-breaking story, there will be more details to come.

And finally, just to show that you can’t keep Ken Paxton down:

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the San Antonio Independent School District Thursday after its superintendent said he’ll require all staff to get vaccinated against COVID-19 before an October 15 deadline.

The suit, filed in Bexar County District Court and shared by Courthouse News Service, argues that a July 29 order by Gov. Greg Abbott bars any public entity in the state from mandating that people take the vaccine. That order supersedes SAISD’s ability to require inoculations of its staff, the state claims.

“Defendants challenge the policy choices made by the state’s commander in chief during times of disaster,” according to the petition.

SAISD is believed to be the first large Texas school district to make vaccines mandatory. Superintendent Pedro Martinez’s demand comes during a statewide surge of COVID-19 cases as children too young to be vaccinated head back for a new school year.

“For us, it is about safety and stability in our classrooms,” Martinez told the Express-News this week. “We cannot afford to have threats to those two goals.”

Martinez also told the daily that the legal implications of his order weren’t a consideration.

A mask mandate is one thing, a vaccine mandate is another, at least in terms of waving a red flag in front of Abbott and Paxton. I expect Paxton to prevail, though we’ll see if he gets his restraining order from the district court judge or if he has to go up the ladder.

UPDATE: Here’s the Trib story about that SCOTx refusal to put a stay on the Travis County judge’s rulings, and here’s the Chron story. There’s so much damn news these days I just go with what’s in front of me when I’m ready to start writing, and circle back as needed.

Using the dress code to skirt the ban on mask mandates

Brilliant!

The Paris school district found a loophole in Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order preventing mask mandates across the state.

Paris ISD’s board of trustees voted to alter the district’s dress code to include masks, according to its website.

The school district, which is located about 100 miles northeast of Dallas, has nearly 4,000 students across eight campuses, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“The Texas Governor does not have the authority to usurp the Board of Trustees’ exclusive power and duty to govern and oversee the management of the public schools of the district,” Paris ISD said in a release posted on its website. “Nothing in the Governor’s Executive Order 38 states he has suspended Chapter 11 of the Texas Education Code, and therefore the Board has elected to amend its dress code consistent with its statutory authority.”

[…]

“The Board of Trustees is concerned about the health and safety of its students and employees,” the Paris ISD release says. “The Board believes the dress code can be used to mitigate communicable health issues, and therefore has amended the PISD dress code to protect our students and employees.”

Pretty damn clever, if you ask me. I’m sure Ken Paxton will file a writ of mandamus with the Supreme Court to stop them, and who knows what happens after that, but I hope other school districts are looking at this and thinking about it. By the way, Paris TX is in Lamar County, which voted about 80% for Trump in 2020. Not exactly a big liberal city taking this action here, is what I’m saying.

And sigh speaking of Paxton:

Paxton asked the Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday to overrule a Travis County judge who over the weekend allowed mask mandates to proceed in any school district in the state.

State District Judge Jan Soifer issued temporary restraining orders against Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates, clearing the way for Harris County and eight school districts to enact their own mask-wearing rules. Soifer also barred Abbott from enforcing his order “against Texas independent school districts.”

[…]

“The ongoing disregard of the law by certain local officials is causing mass confusion in Texas, necessitating intervention by this Court to provide clarity and statewide uniformity,” Paxton’s office wrote to Supreme Court justices Tuesday.

Abbott and Paxton have had some legal victories — albeit short-lived ones. The high court sided with Abbott and Paxton on Sunday and temporarily shut down mask mandates in Bexar and Dallas counties. But the court allowed legal challenges to continue playing out.

If I’m reading this correctly, this filing goes after both the Harris County temporary restraining order and the Southern Center for Child Advocacy TRO, both of which were handed down by Judge Soifer. As the story notes, while SCOTx has obliged the request to stay the TROs, it has not as yet put a halt to any of the lawsuits that have been filed, which Paxton has been asking for. As such, with one exception in Fort Worth no school district that has put forth a mask mandate has been barred from doing so, at least so far.

In the meantime, school districts are doing what they can do to keep the kids safe, which means keeping masks on.

Houston ISD is among those taking a hardline approach to enforcing their mask mandates, with threats of being sent home and disciplinary action for students who refuse to cover their faces. Other districts said they have no such plans and are hopeful that all students and staff members will abide by the face covering requirement without stirring up drama.

Keyhla Calderon-Lugo, a spokeswoman for Edgewood ISD in San Antonio, said the only students who showed up on campus without masks on Monday, the first day of school, did so by accident.

“We have surveyed our parents and have been in continuous communication with them,” Calderon-Lugo said. “For us, our community has been cooperating greatly with the guidelines and safety protocols established by the district.”

\Many school administrators think mask-reluctant children may just need a nudge. Almost across the board, districts with mandates in place have provided schools with extra masks and instructed staff to offer them to students who show up on campus without a face covering.

“We’re assuming that they didn’t have one, not that they don’t want to wear one,” said Sheleah Reed, a spokeswoman for Aldine ISD. “Our hope is that we keep students in class. Our goal is not to send them home. We’ve worked really hard to get all 67,000 of our students back to in-person learning.”

Where school districts diverge is when students refuse to wear masks after being offered one.

North of Austin, Pflugerville ISD is “certainly not denying any student access to school,” said spokeswoman Tamra Spence, who added that she was “not aware of any specific instances where a resolution hasn’t been reached” with children who have arrived unmasked since classes resumed Monday.

Some districts say they will segregate the unmasked students from those with masks.

At Houston ISD schools, students who refuse to wear masks will be “placed in a separate area” and their parents or guardians contacted. Those who continue to refuse will be told to stay home, marked absent and offered temporary online learning, according to district guidance.

Dallas ISD, meanwhile, is working with its schools to provide separate rooms where students who decline to follow the mask mandate will continue to receive instruction, Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said Sunday. He described Dallas ISD’s approach to enforcing its mask requirement as “nice but firm,” and noted that the district had not had any problems since its mandate took effect Aug. 10.

“We’re going to be benevolent. We’re going to work with people. We’re going to offer masks,” Hinojosa said. “But we’re going to be firm. We have to protect the health and safety of our students.”

This could all be a lot simpler, and we could genuinely be doing our best to keep kids and teachers and staffers safe, if Greg Abbott would allow it. He is the reason for the confusion, and he deserves all of the defiance he is getting.

There actually is still a court order that allows for mask mandates in place

Hey, remember that other lawsuit filed against Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates, by the Southern Center for Child Advocacy? I noted it in passing in this post, and then like you I forgot about it. And then on Sunday afternoon, this happened:

As of Monday morning, I had not seen any news coverage of this. As discussed before, that Supreme Court ruling only applied to Dallas and Bexar counties, and the affected school districts in those counties appeared to be interpreting it in a way that said it didn’t apply to them. Other jurisdictions like Harris County and Austin were not covered, so their mandates were also not affected.

Later in the day, there was this story:

After the Texas Supreme Court’s decision, several Dallas County school districts started backtracking, making masks optional once again, though Dallas ISD held firm.

But that same evening, a Travis County judge granted a new restraining order that temporarily blocks Gov. Greg Abbott from prohibiting mask mandates in Texas public schools.

The restraining order was granted in a case involving The Southern Center for Child Advocacy. Officials from the center did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Monday but noted on the group’s Facebook page that the restraining order — issued by Judge Jan Soifer in the 345th Judicial District — was in effect statewide.

“It was not one of the TROs blocked by the Texas Supreme Court yesterday afternoon,” the group wrote.

Richardson [ISD] Superintendent Jeannie Stone said the order allowed her district to keep a mask mandate in place as the school year is set to start on Tuesday.

“This ruling, at least temporarily, puts this decision where it should be — at the local level,” Stone said in a video announcement. In an interview with The Dallas Morning News, Stone said Richardson is committed to following the law and would adapt its decision making if the law changes.

The restraining order essentially allows individual districts the leeway to set their own mandates independent from their counties. Officials with the attorney general’s office asked the Supreme Court of Texas to block this order as well. The Texas Supreme Court did not grant the attorney general’s request on Monday for an immediate block based on the day before’s decision.

Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote to the Southern Center for Child Advocacy on Monday, asking the group to acknowledge on Monday that their temporary restraining order is “void and of no effect” because of the Texas Supreme Court decision.

Henry Green Bostwick II, an attorney representing the center, countered that he would withdraw the lawsuit against the state if Gov. Abbott altered his order to allow school districts to enforce mask mandates.

Paxton has vowed to take all school districts that violate Abbott’s mask mandate ban to court. Paxton falsely claimed Sunday evening that the Supreme Court’s decision ordered Dallas County and Dallas ISD to follow the governor’s order.

However, the decision did not mention Dallas ISD. A spokesman for Paxton did not return a request for comment on whether the attorney general planned to sue DISD over its mask requirement.

“Until there’s an official order of the court that applies to the Dallas Independent School District, we will continue to have the mask mandate,” Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said late Sunday.

[…]

Other school districts are signaling their intentions to jump into the legal fray, too.

DeSoto ISD trustees are scheduled to meet tonight to discuss authorizing their legal counsel to file a lawsuit against Abbott in order to allow the districts “to make local decisions regarding the health and safety of its students and employees,” according to the board’s agenda. Arlington ISD is expected to take up a similar vote later this week.

So, safe to say that for now, as of Monday afternoon, school districts that wanted to keep a mask mandate in place could do so. And then there’s this:

Here’s the DMN story if you can read it. Again I ask: Who is actually bound by that Supreme Court order? Far as I can tell, no one is paying it any heed, and now there’s the second court order that would seem to invalidate it, or at least contradict it. I can’t see this as anything but a temporary situation, and yet here we are. Until something else happens, it’s what the counties and school districts are saying that is in effect. I for one prefer it that way.

SCOTx does what SCOTx does

Room service, as always.

The Texas Supreme Court on Sunday temporarily blocked mask mandates in Dallas and Bexar counties, marking a pivotal moment in the showdown between state and local government as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations surge in Texas.

The ruling comes after several school districts and a handful of counties across the state defied Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order that restricted local entities from instituting mask mandates. On Friday, the 4th Court of Appeals in San Antonio upheld a lower court ruling that permitted Bexar County to require mask-wearing in public schools. Shortly after, the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas upheld a more far-reaching order from Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins that required masks in public schools, universities and businesses.

In a petition for a writ of mandamus to the Texas Supreme Court, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office said the Texas Disaster Act of 1975 gives the governor power to act as the “‘commander in chief’ of the state’s response to a disaster. Attorneys representing cities and counties that have sued Abbott over his executive order have argued that his orders should not supersede local orders.

“Let this ruling serve as a reminder to all ISDs and Local officials that the Governor’s order stands,” Paxton said in a tweet on Sunday after the ruling.

Abbott’s response to the decision was less pointed, specifying that his executive order does not prohibit mask-wearing.

“Anyone who wants to wear a masks can do so,” Abbott said in a tweet.

See here and here for the background. Abbott’s tweet is pathetic in its misrepresentation of the issue. Masking only works if the people who are sick – whether they know it or not – are in compliance. That means that the people who are most likely to be sick – unvaccinated adults and unvaccinated children, which is all children under the age of 12 – especially need to be masked, and as we very well know, that first group and their children are not ever going to do that voluntarily. My mask doesn’t protect me from you (unless I’m wearing an N-95), it protects you from me. If you’re not reciprocating, it’s not doing us any good. The problem with Greg Abbott is not that he doesn’t understand this, it’s that he values the opinion of the largely unvaccinated and completely indifferent Republican primary voters more than anything else. And so here we are.

As for Paxton, he’s wrong in two ways. First:

And second:

Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown last week required face coverings to be worn inside public schools and government buildings to deal with a surge in local COVID-19 infections. Both insisted the orders remained in effect because Sunday’s court action did not involve local rules.

“While we await a final decision, we believe local rules are the rules,” Adler said on Twitter. “Regardless of what eventually happens in the courts, if you’re a parent, please keep fighting to have everyone in schools masked. We stand with you.”

[…]

A number of other mask mandates rely on trial court orders not yet before the Supreme Court, including restraining orders issued Friday in Travis County for Harris County and a half-dozen South Texas school districts.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said Sunday’s Supreme Court action did not affect his county, and he plans to move forward toward an expected injunction hearing like Dallas and San Antonio.

The Chron story makes the same point. To be sure, Paxton can pursue the same kind of writ against Harris and Austin and those other school districts – several others that have as far as I know not been involved in litigation yet have implemented mask mandates – and when SCOTx issues a final ruling it can and likely will encompass all of the other jurisdictions in its order. But until then, no one other than Dallas and Bexar Counties are directly affected. And for what it’s worth, it’s not clear to me what would happen if they just decide to tell Abbott and Paxton and SCOTx to go pound sand. They haven’t yet, and they may never, but don’t throw out the possibility. The San Antonio Report has more.

UPDATE: Interesting:

I mean, he’s not wrong. And this is what I’m saying about the state’s ability to enforce this. As above, Paxton could go after DISD and make them comply. But until and unless he does, what’s stopping them from continuing on as they had planned?

UPDATE: This too:

At this point it’s not clear to me that anyone truly feels bound by this SCOTx order.

Dallas ISD to require masks

Good for them.

Starting Tuesday, Dallas ISD will require students and teachers to wear masks at its campuses, defying Gov. Greg Abbott’s order that bars districts from issuing mask mandates.

Superintendent Michael Hinojosa announced the change during a Monday morning press conference, saying that it was within his discretion to ensure the health and safety of his employees and the district’s students.

“We’re in a situation that has gotten significantly more urgent,” Hinojosa said.

Dallas is the first district in the state to flout the governor’s order; Houston — the state’s largest district — is considering such a move. Its new superintendent, Millard House II, announced last week that he would bring a mask mandate in front of Houston trustees at their next board meeting, Aug. 12.

School officials say it’s necessary in the face of the highly contagious delta variant. The youngest students remain ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

In a statement, Ben Mackey, Dallas’ board president, said he was fully supportive of Hinojosa’s stance.

“The superintendent is the educational leader and chief executive officer of our school district tasked with the day-to-day operations of the district, which includes implementing safety protocols,” Mackey said. “Requiring masks for staff and students while on district property is a reasonable and necessary safety protocol to protect against the spread of COVID-19 and the new delta variant.

“Towards the end of last school year, we saw very low transmissions rates on campuses, thanks in part to masks being worn consistently by educators and students.”

Abbott’s executive order, issued in May, bars public schools and the Texas Education Agency from issuing any requirements on mask usage. Those who defy Abbott’s order could be subject to a fine of up to $1,000. It’s unclear how such a penalty could be applied to school districts.

Asked about a potential fine, Hinojosa responded: “Who knows?”

“All this is going to play itself out, and we’re not going to be the only ones taking this action,” Hinojosa said.

That certainly seems to be the case, as we have discussed before. HISD will vote on whether or not to follow through on Thursday, while Austin ISD may have made a decision by now as well. There’s also this:

Meanwhile, the Southern Center for Child Advocacy, a nonprofit education group, filed a lawsuit Sunday night in Travis County against Abbott and his executive order prohibiting school districts, governmental bodies or any public or private entity that is receiving or will receive public funds from requiring masks.

In the absence of a statewide mask mandate, the group seeks to give the power to enforce mask wearing back to local school districts, said Hank Bostwick, volunteer center coordinator and lawyer.

[…]

The lawsuit claims that Abbott is overreaching his authority and that his emergency powers should be used to take proactive steps and “not to advance an anti-mask political agenda that has no discernible basis in the data regarding the COVID-19 contagion rate.”

“This is purely political gamesmanship, and has nothing to do with the health and safety of Texas children or their teachers,” Bostwick said.

The lawsuit highlights that people of color are still lagging behind in vaccination rates and getting these families back in schools without proper protection makes them vulnerable to an increased rate of infection.

“The threat to the health and safety of Texas public school students and teachers is imminent and real,” the lawsuit states.

The group also claims that the governor is in violation of Texas education code because children with disabilities “are entitled to learn and interact with their non-disabled or typical peers in a safe and healthy educational environment.” The order not allowing masks means some of these students may be unable to attend school in-person if masking is not required, the lawsuit claims.

I looked around but was unable to find anything else about this lawsuit. From the Trib story, it seems they are making a couple of statutory claims – the Governor does not have the legal authority under the law to forbid school districts (and presumably other local governmental entities) from forbidding them from adopting mask mandates, and the lack of a mask mandate violates state law about providing an equal educational opportunity to all students. This Chron story suggests that these plaintiffs are not alone in that position.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee contends Abbott is misusing the Disaster Act. He cautioned that the governor’s power “is not absolute.”

“While he acknowledges that COVID is a health crisis that needs addressing, he then bars measures that would help mitigate this disaster,” the county attorney said in a statement. “The Disaster Act doesn’t allow him to do that, and local county and city officials should be able to take actions needed to stop the spread of COVID — including issuing a mask mandate.”

It would be fine by me if the Harris County Attorney were to take more direct action on that point. It may well be that this legal argument fails in court, but I see no harm in making that argument, as forcefully as possible. Maybe it’s Greg Abbott who is wrong in his interpretation of the law. Wouldn’t it be nice to know? Only one way to find out.

UPDATE: The Chron writes about the SCCA suit but has no further details.

UPDATE: Austin ISD will require masks as well.

Mayor Turner tells city employees to mask up

We’ll see how it goes.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner told city employees Monday that they again must wear masks when they are at work and unable to socially distance, a requirement that could run afoul of Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest executive order.

Turner’s memo mentioned the recent uptick in cases because of the delta variant of the coronavirus and the importance of remaining vigilant against the spread of the virus.

“Therefore, effective Wednesday, August 4, 2021, all city employees able to medically tolerate a face covering shall wear a face covering that fully covers the individual’s nose and mouth upon entering the city premises and while on city premises in an area where social distance measures are difficult to maintain,” Turner wrote.

That includes bathrooms, elevators, meeting rooms and offices where people cannot sit at least 6 feet apart, Turner said.

The governor’s order, signed last week, appeared to bar such mandates. Abbott’s office Thursday evening did not respond to a request for comment.

“No governmental entity, including a county, city, school district and public health authority, and no governmental official may require any person to wear a face covering or to mandate that another person wear a face covering,” the order stated.

Mary Benton, the mayor’s communications director, said the city was within its rights to take the action, despite the governor’s order.

“The mayor has a right and responsibility to ask city employees to wear face coverings indoors to help stop the virus from spreading,” Benton said. “With the rise in the delta variant cases and high numbers of unvaccinated individuals, Mayor Turner is doing what is necessary to keep (city) employees healthy, so they can provide for their families and the city can ensure that government services are provided to the public without interruption.”

I mean, we’ll see. Not only has Abbott refused to consider any state action to fight COVID, he’s issued an executive order banning localities from taking any action, which includes school districts and also includes mask mandates. I have a hard time believing that neither he nor Ken Paxton will respond, though to be fair the last time Paxton tried to block a city from doing a mask mandate, he was largely unsuccessful. Sure seems like it can’t hurt to try at this point, though I hesitate to suggest that there’s not a next level Abbott could take this to.

The Chron story notes that Dallas County courts have put out their own mask mandate as well. I would like to see Harris County follow suit on that. If nothing else, flood the zone a little. Fort Bend County has raised its threat level, which comes with a blanket call for everyone to mask up, while retail outlets are starting to move in that direction as well, because they kind of have to. The more everyone actively works to limit the spread of COVID, the worse and more out of touch the actions of Greg Abbott will appear.

One more thing:

Today would be an excellent day for the Supreme Court to rule that Abbott’s veto of legislative funding was unconstitutional.

UPDATE: This is also good.

President Joe Biden directly called out Gov. Greg Abbott’s order banning mask mandates in a speech Tuesday in which he begged Republican governors to “please help” curtail a rapidly growing fourth wave of COVID infections.

Biden condemned states that have banned public schools and universities from requiring workers and students to wear masks or get vaccinated, saying “the most extreme of those measures is like the one in Texas that say state universities or community colleges can be fined if it allows a teacher to ask her un-vaccinated students to wear a mask.”

“What are we doing?” Biden said. “COVID 19 is a national challenge and … we have to come together, all of us together, as a country to solve it.”

“If some governors aren’t willing to do the right thing to beat this pandemic, then they should allow businesses and universities who want to do the right thing to be able to do it,” he said. “I say to these governors: Please help. If you aren’t going to help, at least get out of the way of people who are trying to do the right thing. Use your power to save lives.”

“Lead, follow, or get out of the way” can apply to many situations. This is one of them. As above I’m sure Abbott will have something to say in response, but maybe this time he will find it a challenge to defend the indefensible. One can hope, anyway.

The Austin Bills?

Noted for the record.

Maybe they’re negotiating. But in any negotiation, the negotiators need to be willing to act in order to have any credibility.

As to the negotiation between the Bills and Buffalo that has begun with the Bills wanting taxpayer funding to pay the full price of a new stadium, an impasse could lead the Bills threatening to move — and potentially moving — elsewhere.

Citing an unnamed ownership source, Seth Wickersham of ESPN.com reports that Austin is a possible destination — or threat — as one of the cities to which Bills ownership was referring when telling government negotiators that “there are other cities elsewhere that desire an NFL franchise and would pay handsomely for it.”

San Antonio was one of the leverage destinations for the Raiders before they moved to Las Vegas, and the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans weren’t believed to be thrilled about the possibility of a third team coming to Texas. Presumably, they wouldn’t want a team in Austin, either.

Hard to know how seriously to take this. I suppose the reason Austin is being dangled as an alternate for the Bills and not San Antonio is that Austin doesn’t have an NFL-ready stadium at hand and would have to build one, which is clearly what the Bills’ owners want. San Antonio has the Alamodome, which was used by the Saints in 2005, but is presumably not up to date with the latest luxury items that a typically avaricious NFL owner desires, so it would not do. San Antonio, which has in recent years spent a bunch of money on Alamodome-related projects, may be less interested in financing a brand new playpen. Who knows? Anyway, if this particular item gains traction in the coming months, you’ll know that this is where it all started. CBS Sports, KXAN, Reform Austin, and the Statesman have more.

More masking

In Travis County.

Public health officials in Austin and Travis County are now encouraging vaccinated people to wear masks both indoors and outdoors, and for those unvaccinated to stay at home except for essential needs — the first major city in Texas to take such a step.

This comes as the highly contagious delta variant continues to spread across the state, pushing the county’s seven-day average of new hospitalizations to 35 — the threshold for Stage 4 of the area’s COVID-19 risk-based guidelines.

County officials made the announcement in a virtual news conference Friday morning. Under Stage 4, officials want residents — vaccinated and unvaccinated — to wear masks at all times in public, and for unvaccinated people to only leave their homes for essential trips.

The city can’t enforce the restrictions, however, because Gov. Greg Abbott banned all local pandemic-related mandates in May. The recommendations differ from those of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says it safe for people who are fully vaccinated to “resume activities that you did before the pandemic without wearing a mask or physically distancing.”

It was just last week that Austin had gone to Stage 3. Of course as noted they can’t make anyone do any of this. They can just ask nicely and recommend as hard as they can.

Fort Bend is doing likewise.

Fort Bend County officials highly encourage people to wear masks indoors and get vaccinated as the highly contagious Delta variant spreads through the community.

A month after confirming the presence of the Delta variant in Fort Bend, health officials have detected an increase in the COVID-19 test positivity rate and in the number of cases, hospitalizations and ICU admissions, said Dr. Jacquelyn Minter, director of the county’s health and human services department.

In the past week, roughly 77 percent of the reported cases were the Delta variant, Minter said. The vast majority of cases of severe illness involve people who are unvaccinated. There has been a spike in the number of infected young adults.

“We are finding that this variant is especially adept at spreading in close groups of unvaccinated people,” Minter said.

Officials recommend that people who are vaccinated and unvaccinated wear masks indoors, practice physical distancing and wash their hands. County staff will post signs recommending that people mask up.

“This is a preventive action that is being asked,” said County Judge KP George. “This is not a mandate. But it is strongly advised to reduce the number of infected people.”

Harris County has gone up a notch as well, and it won’t surprise me if they take the next step. Just as a reminder, masking and social distancing did a pretty good job of keeping things under control when there was no vaccine. If we could at least do that, we could get this back under control pretty quickly. I think we all know that the overlap between “won’t get vaxxed” and “won’t wear a mask” is pretty high, so keep your expectations in check. If only there were some way to do more than encourage and recommend…

What will Harris County do about rising case numbers?

I’m afraid we’ll find out soon enough.

The Harris Health System’s COVID-19 ward was down to just one patient at the beginning of July.

Anxious to hit zero COVID-19 patients, Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, the hospital system’s CEO, purchased and stored a bottle of Martinelli’s sparkling grape juice — “fake champagne” — in his refrigerator. If the COVID ward emptied out, he would drive to Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital, one of the system’s two medical centers, to celebrate with doctors and nurses.

Instead, the numbers went the opposite direction. As of Friday morning, nurses were treating 14 COVID patients at LBJ Hospital.

“We really had the opportunity to have this darn thing beaten,” Porsa said.

COVID-19 infections are climbing upward again in Houston and Texas as vaccine rates lag, the delta variant spreads and people return to their normal lives.

Most of the patients admitted to hospitals for COVID-19 are unvaccinated or have received just one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, Porsa said. None of the 119 people who have died from COVID-19 at Harris Health since January were fully vaccinated.

“If that is not reason enough for us to change our attitudes toward a simple, accessible, proven safe and proven effective prevention … I’m just losing my mind,” Porsa said.

Hospitalizations across the state have increased by more than 75 percent in recent weeks: On June 27, 1,428 hospital beds were filled; by July 15, the number had reached 2,519.

According to KHOU, “Almost every county in the area is seeing an increase in new cases”, and “Daily new cases in the Greater Houston area have jumped about 65% in the last two weeks”. (Cases and hospitalizations are rising nationally, too.) They show data from Harris and its surrounding counties except for Liberty and Waller. Harris has the lowest percentage increase, but it’s the biggest county so its sheer numbers are the highest.

We know how Travis County is responding to its increase in cases. Harris County had dropped its threat level to Yellow in May. Are we looking at a step up again?

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has yet to announce any rollbacks for the region.

“There is no conceivable reason why a single additional hospital bed in our healthcare system should be filled with someone who is sick from COVID-19 when vaccines are readily available and free,” said Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesperson for Hidalgo’s office.

Vaccination rates plateaued in late April amid high hesitancy rates and difficulty accessing immunization sites. In recent months, health officials piloted financial incentives such as scholarships to encourage younger people to sign up for an appointment.

Stay tuned on that. Maybe there’s some headway to be made with younger people, whose vax rates are the lowest among age groups. Better happen quickly, that’s all I can say.

Austin tries to slow down the Delta spike

Not really much they can do, though.

Austin city and public health officials on Thursday raised the city’s coronavirus risk-based guidelines for the first time since the winter surge, urging unvaccinated people to avoid non-essential travel and take other precautions after seeing a dramatic increase in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in recent days.

Officials placed at least part of the blame on the dangerous and highly transmissible Delta variant of the virus, which has contributed to similar spikes in more populous areas across Texas recently.

“We cannot pretend that we are done with a virus that is not done with us,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said during a Thursday news conference.

But the city’s move to Stage 3 guidelines has no weight of law behind it because Gov. Greg Abbott banned pandemic mandates in May. It also only applies to the city’s unvaccinated population; the guidelines recommend that vaccinated people only need to take precautions while traveling.

The move marks the first time a major Texas city has reinstated increased health protocols since dropping mask mandates, dialing back business restrictions and allowing large events to resume in the spring and summer as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations plummeted.

Stage 3 guidelines mean unvaccinated or partially-vaccinated residents should avoid gatherings, travel, shopping and dining out altogether unless it’s essential, and mask up when they leave their homes. Officials say they are weighing further precautionary recommendations in case these measures don’t reduce the numbers.

[…]

Among the alarming trends cited by Austin and Travis County health officials on Thursday: The average number of daily new cases has tripled, COVID-19-related hospital admissions are on the rise, cases of COVID-19 in children are rising, and 20% of the more than 100 people with COVID-19 in area hospitals are on ventilators, while 41 are in the ICU.

Almost all of the hospitalized patients are unvaccinated, said Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County Health Authority.

“This has to stop, and we know how to make that happen,” Walkes said. “We are hoping that this self-correction that we’re doing with the change to the stage three status will help bring us back to a place where our cases are again declining.”

At least 60% of Austin residents are fully vaccinated, and Travis County, where Austin is located, has the third highest vaccination rate among the state’s urban counties, which are also beginning to report increasing cases and hospitalizations.

Note that this is happening in one of the most-vaccinated counties in Texas. It’s much, much worse in other parts of the state, but we all know the politics of this. What might end up happening is for Austin and/or Travis County to encourage businesses to re-impose mask requirements, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they mostly go along with that. I’m sure Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is keeping a close eye on things here, and on how they go in Travis, and may take similar steps. It’s deeply annoying as a vaccinated person, because we all know why this is happening, but here we are anyway. All you can do is try to protect yourself, because Greg Abbott sure as hell doesn’t care. The city of Austin’s news release is here, and the Austin Chronicle has more.

Will MLB come to Central Texas?

Drayton McLane thinks it might.

Drayton McLane, who knows a thing or two about the subject, believes Central Texas is closing in on being able to support its own Major League Baseball team. That pronouncement might lead you to wonder what we’ll call our new team—Lone Star Hipsters? Canyon Lake Coyotes?—and to look forward to summer evenings sipping a cold one at the ballpark as the sun sets on the San Marcos River.

Anyway, McLane has precisely the kind of can-do spirit Texas is going to need to land a third MLB franchise. No one thought he’d succeed in purchasing the Astros in 1993, and certainly no one thought he’d persuade Houston voters to approve, in 1996, the construction of Minute Maid Park. He breathed life into a franchise that had never won much of anything and led them to six postseason appearances during a nine-year stretch from 1997 to 2005. That run culminated with a National League pennant, which at the time was close to the sweetest moment Houston sports fans had ever experienced.

Now 84, McLane makes it clear he’s not going to lead this effort. That’s where Nolan Ryan comes in, but more on him later. In fact, McLane admits it’s a tad early to begin putting down a deposit on season tickets.

“Ten years from now, it’s a possibility,” he told me.

[…]

One thing that never came up in our conversation: the availability of a team. That’s the easy part. The Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays are something akin to free agents, with both unable to land new ballpark deals in their host cities. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has given the A’s permission to shop around for better options, and team officials were to visit Las Vegas this week. The Rays, apparently desperate for leverage, have come up with the  far-fetched idea of playing half their games in Montreal and half in Tampa or St. Petersburg. Almost no one who follows the sport believes a split-city format is workable, and it seems only a matter of time before the Rays begin shopping for a new full-time home.

Plus, Manfred has said MLB will expand—by at least two teams—once the A’s and Rays are settled. While Portland may have a big head start on Central Texas, are there really four better North American markets than the Austin–San Antonio corridor? Think of San Marcos as perhaps the perfect accessible-to-both-cities spot for a ballpark. And McLane might be underestimating the market’s viability. The Interstate 35 corridor between Austin and San Antonio is booming, and a ballpark accessible to both cities would make the are more appealing than several current MLB cities.

Austin’s economy was the twelfth-fastest-growing among major metropolitan areas in 2019, according to the Austin Chamber of Commerce.  A sleepy government and university town no more, Austin now hosts some of the largest and most profitable companies in in the world, from Apple and Amazon to Tesla and Oracle.

There are plenty of TV sets, too. San Antonio is the nation’s thirty-first-largest television market, according to Nielsen, while Austin checks in at number 38. Together, the cities deliver 1.65 million television households, more than a long list of major-league cities, including St. Louis, San Diego, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore.

We’ve discussed the possibility of a second team in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, but I tend to agree with McLane. Central Texas is the more likely location, with enough population between Austin and San Antonio to support an MLB team. For a variety of reasons, MLB owners are not looking to expand now, but I expect that it will be on the table in the not too distant future, maybe some time after the next CBA. One possible obstacle to this dream is the nightmare that is I-35, which I guarantee will be overly congested no matter how much it gets expanded. Maybe this could be the fulcrum to finally get the Lone Star Rail line built. If I’m gonna dream, I may as well dream big.

The non-high speed rail option

Here comes Amtrak.

Amtrak is all aboard the Texas Triangle, but there is a long way to go before more trains roll into Houston, headed for San Antonio and Dallas.

The national rail system’s new plan for expanding service, released Thursday, identifies potential routes to create or expand nationwide by 2035. The Texas Triangle, involving Houston, Dallas and San Antonio — and including Austin and Fort Worth — receives significant attention. Three daily round-trip trains are planned between Houston and Dallas, in addition to three between Houston and San Antonio.

For Houston travelers, Austin would be accessible via San Antonio.

Amtrak also identified potential stops along the routes where new passenger stations could be added, including Rosenberg on the way to San Antonio and College Station on the way to Dallas.

[…]

Amtrak trains along the Sunset Limited roll into Houston three days a week. As a result, use of the Houston Amtrak station — often mocked for being a single platform for the nation’s fifth-largest metro area — is low. In 2017, fewer than 20,000 people boarded Amtrak in Houston, a yearly total that is less than hopped aboard Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Red Line light rail on the typical workday.

The last time the Houston Amtrak station saw a large crowd, it was to welcome the world’s largest steam train, during a 2019 stop by Union Pacific.

Many argue that is because Amtrak trains to and from Houston only come every other day and often not on time. The Northeast corridor, where Amtrak is a common way to move between cities, offers more than 100 weekday trains.

That is in part because of the dominance of Amtrak in owning railroad tracks in the Northeast, compared with the rest of the nation, where most major lines are controlled by freight railroads. In many cases, including Texas, adding the service is likely to come with federal investment in projects aimed at improving reliability or speed of service.

Even then, with various stops, the trains would lag behind air travel or most car trips. Both Houston-to-Dallas and Houston-to-San Antonio would take more than 4½ hours.

The appeal is a more predictable trip than driving, with fewer hassles than air travel, said James Llamas, a principal planner at Houston-based Traffic Engineers Inc. Llamas, who recreationally and professionally travels by train often, said that where Amtrak or officials have invested in frequent train service, riders have embraced it. He noted investments in California, which historically suffered from a lack of passenger rail options until the state opted to develop them, have increased ridership to where it is the most-used lines in Amtrak outside the Northeast.

Though Amtrak can seek federal funding to start service, it is likely Texas would have to support the service or agree to some funding to continue it beyond the first few years. Texas has supported rail lines in the Dallas area but has not made any commitments to Houston services.

Increased train service also is likely to change if a planned high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas happens. Texas Central Railroad continues development of its proposed 220-mile line between the metro areas, though the plan continues to face stiff opposition.

This has come up before, as part of the Infrastructure Not-Yet-A-Bill discussion. You can see the national rail line map Amtrak proposed at that time, which includes the Houston/Dallas/San Antonio triangle. I’m all in favor of more passenger rail service in Texas, but I don’t know how competitive this would be versus Texas Central and its high speed option, which if things go as they have planned would be up and running well before a Houston-Dallas Amtrak train would be. There have also been other high speed rail lines proposed, which would cover more of Texas than what is currently planned for Texas Central, but at this point I think we can consider them to be vaporware, at least until and unless something tangible gets put forward.

If Amtrak can get up and running in between Austin and San Antonio, that would serve as a version of the long-song Lone Star Rail line. Note that the issue there has long been availability of the existing freight rail tracks – without being able to share them, new track would have to be built, which is far more expensive and time-consuming and runs into the same kind of eminent domain issues that Texas Central has had to deal with (though one presumes that no one would get any traction claiming that Amtrak is not really a railroad). All of this is to say that while the idea is sound, there are many obstacles. I would sadly bet against anything like this being fully operational by 2035, assuming we’re all still here to see for ourselves.

Here come the young people

I’m just sitting here waiting for the Census data.

Garima Vyas always wanted to live in a big city. She thought about New York, long the destination for 20-something strivers, but was wary of the cost and complicated subway lines.

So Vyas picked another metropolis that’s increasingly become young people’s next-best option — Houston.

Now 34, Vyas, a tech worker, has lived in Houston since 2013. “I knew I didn’t like New York, so this was the next best thing,” Vyas said. “There are a lot of things you want to try when you are younger — you want to try new things. Houston gives you that, whether it’s food, people or dating. And it’s cheap to live in.”

The choices by Vyas and other members of the millennial generation of where to live have reshaped the country’s political geography over the past decade. They’ve left New York and California and settled in places less likely to be settings for TV sitcoms about 20-something urbanites, including Denver, Houston and Orlando, Florida. Drawn by jobs and overlooked cultural amenities, they’ve helped add new craft breweries, condominiums and liberal voters to these once more-conservative places.

The U.S. Census Bureau this coming week is expected to formally tally this change by releasing its count of population shifts in the once-a-decade reallocation of congressional seats. It’s is expected to lead to the Sun Belt gaining seats at the expense of states in the north.

Most projections have Texas gaining three seats, Florida two and Arizona, Colorado, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon one each. Expected to lose seats are Alabama, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, West Virginia — and California.

The relocations have reshuffled politics. Once solidly conservative places such as Texas have seen increasingly large islands of liberalism sprout in their cities, driven by the migration of younger adults, who lean Democratic. Since 2010, the 20-34-year-old population has increased by 24% in San Antonio, 22% in Austin and 19% in Houston, according to an Associated Press analysis of American Community Survey data. In November’s election, two states that also saw sharp growth in young people in their largest cities — Arizona and Georgia — flipped Democratic in the presidential contest.

These demographic winners are almost all in the Sun Belt, but climate is not the only thing they have in common.

“These places are growing not just because they’re warmer, it’s because that’s where the jobs are and young people are moving there,” said Ryan Wiechelt, a geography professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Welcome to Houston, but I have to ask – you thought the subway system was confusing? I figured it out as a high school freshman, but to each their own. It’s an interesting read, and there’s a lot to think about in terms of how voting patterns have changed and what the near-term future trends look like, but let’s keep a couple of things in mind. One is that a big part of the shift in 2018 and 2020 was higher-income college-educated white people who had been living here changing their votes. You don’t see the kind of dramatic and fast shift in CD07 and HD134 without that. Indeed, there was polling evidence following the 2018 election to suggest that native Texans voted for Beto O’Rourke at a higher rate than people who moved to Texas did. That’s just one data point, and it doesn’t negate the observation that young newcomers have greatly shifted the center of political gravity in the big urban areas like greater Houston. Two, for what it’s worth home prices in Texas in general and in the Houston area in particular have been rising sharply of late. We’re still a cheaper place to live than New York or California, but there are no inexpensive homes to be had in a lot of neighborhoods.

The story also touches on the state politics in places like Texas and Florida, which are well out of step not just with younger people in general, but on some key issues with the public as a whole. I don’t know if that might make Texas in particular less attractive to these folks, but this is one big reason why there’s been a lot of corporate pushback to voter suppression and anti-trans legislation – the companies want to make sure they can get the workers they want, and those workers don’t want to live places that they see as backwards and repressive. There’s a lot in tension, and something will have to give sooner or later. I know what outcome I’m hoping for, but it’s not going to happen by itself.

(Note: This is an older story that I had in my drafts and hadn’t gotten around to publishing just yet. We of course now have the apportionment data. Doesn’t change the thesis of this article, but since the timing was mentioned, I wanted to clarify.)

Better cut your police budget now while you still can

That’s one possible takeaway from this.

The Texas House on Friday passed a bill to financially penalize the state’s largest cities if they cut their police budgets. The measure was sent to the Senate after two days of heated debate and emotional speeches, with the bill authors calling to “back the blue” and the opposition decrying the bill as political propaganda.

House Bill 1900 comes after a year of civil rights advocates calling on cities to reduce what they spend on policing and to reform police behavior. Those calls were spurred by high-profile deaths at the hands of police like George Floyd’s in Minneapolis and Mike Ramos’ in Austin.

Among Texas’ largest cities, only Austin cut its law enforcement funding last year, though almost all of that decrease came from an accounting shift of money that still allows traditional police duties to remain funded, but potentially in different city departments. Still, the city’s response to some activists’ calls to “defund the police” prompted harsh and immediate backlash from Republican state leaders, who have pointed to fast-rising homicide rates throughout the state and country as a reason to maintain police funding levels.

Gov. Greg Abbott became laser-focused on Austin’s budget and “backing the blue,” making legislation to punish cities that decrease police funding one of his emergency items this year.

After initial passage Thursday, HB 1900 was finally approved on a 90-49 vote Friday and sent to the upper chamber. The Senate’s related bill, which would require an election before cities could decrease police funding, passed out of the upper chamber last month. It’s unclear how either chamber will react to their counterpart’s proposal.

HB 1900 was authored by Republican state Reps. Craig Goldman, Will Metcalf, Greg Bonnen and Angie Chen Button and Democrat Richard Peña Raymond. If a city with more than 250,000 residents was determined by the governor’s office to have cut police funding, the bill would allow the state to appropriate part of a city’s sales taxes and use that money to pay expenses for the Texas Department of Public Safety. Such cities would also be banned from increasing property taxes or utility rates, which could have been used to compensate for the reapportioned sales taxes.

The bill does allow cities to cut police department budgets if such a decrease is proportionally equal to an overall city budget decrease. Cities can also get approval to cut police budgets if expenses for one year were higher because of capital expenditures or disaster response. The bill would also let neighborhoods annexed in the last 30 years to vote to deannex themselves from a city that has decreased funding to its police department.

[…]

Several other Democrats offered amendments Thursday to add exceptions for when a city could cut police department funding. State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio offered leniency so city council members wouldn’t opt against a necessary increase in police funding for fear they could not turn it back the next year. And state Rep. Jarvis Johnson of Houston filed multiple amendments, including one to not punish cities for cutting civilian positions within law enforcement agencies. He said the Houston Police Department has more than 1,200 civilian jobs, including janitors and other positions he listed off.

“At any given time that Houston Police Department decides we no longer need a car attendant, we no longer need a car attendant supervisor, we no longer need a truck driver, we no longer need a typist, that does not mean that the city of Houston has decided to defund the police,” he said.

The amendments failed, as the Democrats denounced what they called partisan rhetoric and a move for state control over large cities.

On Friday, state Rep. Gene Wu, a Houston Democrat, offered up amendments to first eliminate the 250,000 population cap which Democrats argued only punished larger, more liberal cities. When that failed, he attempted to set the population cap at 50,000, then 200,000. Both amendments failed. His argument that the 250,000 limit was an arbitrary number and goes against the legislative intent of public safety for all Texans could buttress potential legal challenges if the bill is signed into law.

“If we’re true to our word to say why we are doing this … then we should accept this amendment to apply to all 30 million Texans,” he said.

Well, the real reason they’re doing this is because Greg Abbott was mad at Austin, but it’s not polite to bring that up. And not having a significant minimum population requirement means the law might have to apply to places that Republicans represent (*), and we can’t have that. So here we are. By the way, law enforcement agencies from the cities that this bill targets opposed it, and got the same result they got in opposing permitless carry. We have a strange definition of “backing the blue”, it seems.

Anyway. My suggestion in the title is not original to me, I got it from Grits for Breakfast post.

The Legislature gets to write the laws, but even they are not immune from the Law of Unintended Consequences. I don’t think legislators have considered the incentives they’re putting in place in HB 1900 punishing cities that “defund” police department (by which in Austin’s case they mean delaying cadet classes by one year). Going forward, cities that increase police spending can never again lower it. But they often need to do so. Now, cities will decline to spend more, knowing they won’t be allowed to spend less. Bill authors even rejected amendments so that overtime for one-off special events – like a Super Bowl weekend in Houston – would be counted against them the following year. If I’m right about the new incentives facing city councils under this legislation, the result will be to suppress police spending instead of bolster it. I predict that if HB 1900 becomes law, when we look back five years from now the growth rate in police budgets will have flattened, not rallied.

Indeed, the most delicious irony may well come if HB 1900 ends up itself defunding the police!

Note that this is the same logic that led to Harris County Commissioner’s Court proposing a property tax rate increase in 2019 as a way to hedge against the revenue cap law that the Lege passed that year, which would essentially prevent them from ever raising rates in the future regardless of situation or need. (This was only defeated because of an anti-majoritarian quirk in the law that allowed a minority of Commissioners to prevent the vote by breaking quorum.) I don’t actually think any city will take this action for the simple reason that it turns the heat on them in an uncomfortable way, but the incentive is there. I do think Grits is correct that the future effect will be to introduce extreme reluctance to approve any increase in police budgets, because it’s a one-way ratchet that can only have negative effects elsewhere. Indeed, it’s likely just a matter of time before city controllers and city managers start releasing five-year budget projections that warn of various consequences from this bill. Among other things – and I expect this is why the big city police departments opposed this – this will put downward pressure on wages and benefits for police officers, as well as a strong disincentive to approve overtime. Cities are going to do what they need to do. If you don’t like it, go yell at Greg Abbott.

(*) – Technically not true, though the large majority of State Reps from the cities this will apply to are Democrats. That may change in the near future, as places outside the big urban counties like Frisco, Grand Prairie, and McKinney become covered by HB1900. Maybe that will make their Republican representatives more receptive to the idea of modifying or repealing that law in the future, or maybe these cities will follow in the footsteps of places like Garland and Irving and just become Democratic cities themselves. The list on unintended consequences here could wind up being very long indeed.

Other May election results

Roundup style, mostly.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg easily wins a fourth term.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg

Mayor Ron Nirenberg vanquished the ghost of repeat challenger Greg Brockhouse in Saturday’s City election and secured his third term in office with a win of historic proportion.

Nirenberg is now on course to become the city’s first four-term mayor since his mentor, former Mayor Phil Hardberger, led a successful campaign in 2009 to relax term limits from two, two-year terms to four, two-year terms.

That longevity in office should give Nirenberg the time and space to forge the kind of legacy established by Hardberger and Julián Castro before him.

Hardberger can point to completion of the San Antonio River’s Museum Reach, acquisition of Hardberger Park, redevelopment of Main Plaza, and jump starting the transformation of Hemisfair Park after it lay idle for 50 years. He recruited Sheryl Sculley to become city manager. Her long tenure led to the modernization of the city’s financial practices, ambitious five-year bond cycles to address critical infrastructure needs, and a new level of professional standards for city staff.

Castro, then the youngest mayor of a Top 50 city, led efforts to bring early childhood education to the forefront, well in advance of national trends, with successful passage of Pre-K 4 SA. He launched SA2020 and with it, the Decade of Downtown. Castro joined forces with Sculley to take on the powerful police union and address runaway health care costs. His growing national profile earned him a cabinet seat as Housing and Urban Development Secretary in the Obama administration.

Nirenberg is poised to establish his own legacy. Voters chose him by a 31-point margin, 62% to 31%, over Brockhouse, with the remainder going to a dozen other names on the ballot, a definitive verdict on Nirenberg’s second-term record. A Bexar Facts poll conducted with the San Antonio Report and KSAT-TV in late March accurately predicted as much. The reason: Nirenberg’s strong leadership through the pandemic.

Nirenberg won by a much wider margin against Brockhouse this time. When I look around at current Mayors for future statewide potential, Nirenberg certainly belongs on the list, but for whatever the reason I haven’t heard his name bandied about. Maybe that will change now.

San Antonio had a high-profile ballot proposition, which would have stripped the city’s police union of it collective bargaining power. It was narrowly defeated, but its proponents are encouraged they did as well as they did, and expect to continue that fight.

Austin had its own slew of ballot propositions, with a particularly contentious one that would outlaw the public camps that homeless people are now using. That one passed, and we’ll see what happens next.

The folks behind Proposition B, the citizen initiative to re-criminalize public camping in Downtown Austin and near the UT Campus, got the victory they sought for the more than $1 million they spent. With all votes counted Saturday night, the measure backed by Save Austin Now prevailed by 14 points, 57.1%-42.9%.

That’s a slightly weaker showing than was predicted before polls closed by SAN co-founder Matt Mackowiak, also chair of the Travis County Republican Party, but a win’s a win:

Those who have been paying attention will note that Mayor Steve Adler and much of Council have already decided that the June 2019 vote that Prop B reverses was a failed experiment, and have moved on to other strategies to house Austin’s unsheltered poor. Perhaps SAN will catch up soon. Whatever its merits as policy, the campaign for Prop B did almost certainly boost turnout, which all told was 22.55% countywide (just under 90% of that was city voters). That’s the highest Austin’s seen in a May election since 1994.

Even CM Greg Casar, the politician most directly rebuked by tonight’s results, is looking ahead: “I do not believe Austin is as divided as this election makes it seem. The overwhelming majority of Austinites share a common goal, no matter how folks voted on Prop B. We all want to get people out of tents and into homes,” Casar said in a statement. “Our community must come together after this election & house 3,000 more people.”

I’ll leave it to the Austin folks to figure this out from here, but from my vantage point one obvious issue here is the ridiculously high housing prices in Austin, which is fueled in part by way more demand for housing than supply. I hope the city can find a way forward on that.

Fort Worth will have a new Mayor, after a June runoff.

Fort Worth voters will chose a new mayor for the first time in a decade in June with Mattie Parker and Deborah Peoples apparently headed to the runoff.

Mayor Betsy Price’s decision not to seek an unprecedented sixth term sparked 10 candidates to run, including two council members, the Tarrant County Democratic Party chairwoman and a slew of political newcomers.

According unofficial results in Tarrant County, Peoples, a former AT&T vice president, led with 33.60% of the vote Saturday night while Parker, a former Price chief of staff, had 30.82%, with all 176 vote centers reporting. Council member Brian Byrd was in third place with 14.75%.

Parker and Peoples maintained the upper hand with results for Denton County. There, Parker took 35.17% of the vote compared to 16% for Peoples. In Parker County, Parker had 42% of the vote followed by Byrd’s 23.3%. Peoples had 12.5%.

The runoff will be June 5.

Here are the Tarrant County results – scroll down to page 21 to see the Fort Worth Mayor’s race. There were 1,106 votes cast in total in this race in Denton County, and 176 total votes cast in Parker County, so Tarrant is really all you need to know. In 2019, Peoples lost to Mayor Betsy Price by a 56-42 margin. Adding up the votes this time, counting Ann Zadeh as progressive and Brian Byrn and Steve Penate as conservative, the vote was roughly a 55-42 margin for the Republican-aligned candidates. We’ll see how it goes in the runoff.

And then there was Lubbock.

Lubbock voters on Saturday backed a “sanctuary city for the unborn” ordinance that tries to outlaw abortions in the city’s limits, likely prompting a lawsuit over what opponents say is an unconstitutional ban on the procedure.

The unofficial vote, 62% for and 38% against the measure, comes less than a year after Planned Parenthood opened a clinic in Lubbock and months after the City Council rejected the ordinance on legal grounds and warned it could tee up a costly court fight.

The passage of the ordinance makes Lubbock one of some two dozen cities that have declared themselves a “sanctuary … for the unborn” and tried to prohibit abortions from being performed locally. But none of the cities in the movement — which started in the East Texas town of Waskom in 2019 — has been as big as Lubbock and none of them have been home to an abortion provider.

It’s unclear when the ordinance will go into effect, and if it will be challenged in court.

The push to declare Lubbock a “sanctuary city for the unborn” began in the last two years and was galvanized by the arrival of a Planned Parenthood clinic in 2020. Anti-abortion activists gathered enough signatures to bring the ordinance to the City Council — where it was voted down for conflicting with state law and Supreme Court rulings — and to then put it to a citywide vote.

Ardent supporters of the measure, who liken abortion to murder, say it reflects the views held by many in conservative Lubbock. They believe the ordinance would stand up in court and say they have an attorney who will defend the city free of charge if it is challenged.

But the strategy of bringing the abortion fight to the local level has divided even staunch anti-abortion activists, and Texas towns like Omaha and Mineral Wells have voted down similar ordinances or walked them back under advice from city attorneys.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, which previously sued seven East Texas towns that passed similar ordinances, has said they were watching the vote closely and hinted at a lawsuit in a statement Saturday.

Drucilla Tigner, a policy and advocacy strategist with the organization, said the “ACLU has a long history of challenging unconstitutional abortion bans and will continue to fight to protect the fundamental rights of the people of Lubbock.”

[…]

The Lubbock ordinance outlaws abortions within the city, and allows family members of a person who has an abortion to sue the provider and anyone who assists someone getting an abortion, like by driving them to a clinic.

There isn’t an exception for women pregnant as a result of rape or incest.

The ordinance would not be enforced by the government unless the Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, or made other changes to abortion laws.

It instead relies on private citizens filing lawsuits.

Richard D. Rosen, a constitutional law professor at Texas Tech University, expects someone would sue Planned Parenthood and the legal fight would go from there.

“As long as Roe is good law I think these suits will ultimately fail, but it [could make] abortion providers … expend money for attorneys fees and it takes time,” he said.

See here and here for the background. The lawsuit that was filed against those seven towns was later dropped after the ordinances to remove language that declared the Lilith Fund and the Texas Equal Access Fund “criminal entities”. The language banning abortions in those towns remains, however. Lubbock is in a much different position than those tiny little towns, and I have no idea what happens from here. It can’t be long before someone files a lawsuit for something.

Finally, I’m sorry to report that Virginia Elizondo lost her race for Spring Branch ISD. I wish her all the best in the future.

The best time to buy a house in Houston was last year

Or the year before that, or the year before that

The O’Neals are part of a nationwide real estate frenzy playing out in Houston that is propelling prices to new highs. Houses are frequently drawing multiple offers, often above the asking price and can sell in a matter of days if they’re in good condition, according to local real estate agents.

The median price of a single-family home reached $260,212 in 2020, up 6.2 percent from 2019, according to an analysis of home sales and prices compiled by the Houston Association of Realtors for the Houston Chronicle. The increase in the median sales price was nearly twice the 3.2 percent year-over-year gain in 2019, according to HAR.

The increase came amid demand fueled by continued low interest rates, an extreme shortage of houses on the market and a rekindled desire for homes in the suburbs stemming from the pandemic as people spend more time at home. At the same time, despite the rising prices, the pandemic forced people to cancel vacations, stop eating out and allowed them to pay down debt, giving them more buying power than ever. Some of that may carry over to the future.

“We have a new habit of spending a lot of time at home,” said Ted C. Jones, chief economist with Stewart Title. “We’ll definitely eat out more, but maybe not as much as we did 24 months ago.”

Meantime, said Frank Lucco, an appraiser with Accurity Qualified Analytics, “Houses are flying off the shelves.”

Lucco said he has never seen Houston home prices rise this quickly in his 43 years as an appraiser. Traditionally, home prices have risen 3 percent to 4 percent annually over the last two decades. The veteran appraiser has been constantly adjusting his appraisals upward to reflect Houston’s fast rising prices.

“There’s multiple contracts on houses,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for houses to sell in the same day it’s listed.”

In March, 2,165 houses in the Houston area — 23.2 percent of the month’s sales — sold for above asking price, according to HAR. That’s nearly three times the 8 percent that sold for more than asking a year ago.

Everyone reading this in Austin and its environs is no doubt nodding their head grimly. You want crazy home prices and bidding wars, that’s the place for it. The same is going on in the greater D/FW area as well. As this story notes, there’s a lot of demand out in the burbs, with their bigger houses and spacious yards that have been a blessing for many in the pandemic, but there’s also a lot of demand for the urban core, especially among younger buyers. There’s plenty of construction in my neighborhood, and I can’t think of any lots that have been on the market for more than a couple of weeks. Whatever else you might say, it’s better to be a place where people want to live.

More on the Capitol date rape drug allegation

Good for Speaker Dade Phelan for forthrightly calling this out, but the underlying issue is a matter of culture, it’s been this way for a long, long time, and it’s going to be a slog to change it.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan in a speech to colleagues Monday called for reforms to some of the chamber’s policies relating to sexual harassment training and reporting, days after an allegation came to light that a lobbyist used a date rape drug on a Capitol staffer.

“These allegations shake our Capitol family to its core,” the first-term Republican speaker said soon after the House gaveled in, “and I am disgusted that this sort of predatory behavior is still taking place in and around our Capitol.”

On Saturday, the Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed it had opened an investigation into a complaint made recently by a Capitol staffer. Officials though have so far declined to comment on further details, including the names of anyone allegedly involved. The news was first reported by the Austin American-Statesman.

News of the allegation prompted state lawmakers, staffers and other Capitol observers to denounce the alleged incident, with some House members declaring on social media they were banning from their Capitol offices any lobbyist or lobby firm associated with the accusation.

By Sunday, HillCo Partners, a prominent Austin-based lobby firm, told state lawmakers in an email that it had launched an internal investigation into the matter, with one co-founder of the firm later telling The Texas Tribune that HillCo had been “tipped off” that one of its employees “is a person of interest” in the investigation.

Phelan said he was directing the House General Investigating Committee to establish an email hotline for staffers in House offices to submit reports or complaints of harassment in the workplace.

The speaker also said he had directed the House Administration Committee to change the chamber’s required sexual harassment prevention training to be completed in-person rather than virtually.

See here for the background. Again, I commend Speaker Phelan for taking this seriously – we’ve all seen plenty of examples of people in similar positions of leadership who have done much worse. But let’s be honest, there’s only so much that an email hotline and in-person sexual harassment prevention training can do. The problem is cultural, it’s deeply rooted, it’s not tied to a party or ideology, and it adapts to changing circumstances. It’s going to take the collective action of the entire Capitol community to make this stop – not just not tolerating the behaviors that have existed for decades, but calling them out and imposing consequences, even on friends and ideological allies. I don’t have to tell you that this won’t be easy – just look at how the “Me Too” movement has played out in society at large – and it won’t be quick. It’s just that there’s no other choice.

I’m going to end with a few more tweets, and the hope that the staffer who was victimized by this predator finds the justice she deserves. There’s video of Rep. Phelan’s speech at KVUE, and the Chron and Reform Austin have more.

UPDATE: Welp…

Whoever was at the center of this was always going to defend himself. This tells me that his defense will be quite vigorous. It could get a lot more contentious from here.

DPS investigating allegation that a lobbyist drugged a female Capitol staffer

That’s the headline on this story, and it’s disturbing.

Texas Department of Public Safety investigators are looking into an allegation from at least one female Capitol staffer who believes a lobbyist used a date-rape drug on her during a meeting downtown, an agency spokesman told the American-Statesman Saturday.

Officials recently received a complaint from an alleged victim, prompting the investigation, DPS spokesman Travis Considine said. He would not identify the lobbyist and was unable to say when and where the incident happened.

No charges have been filed and no arrests have been made.

Authorities also said they were not prepared to disclose where in the Capitol the alleged victim worked or for which member to protect her identity.

[…]

The allegation is reminiscent of 2017 media reports of sexual misconduct in the Capitol that went back years and led to lawmakers overhauling procedures for sexual harassment reporting in 2019.

The rules, which do not apply to lobbyists, require House members and staffers to take training on identifying and responding to such misconduct, and made the chamber’s general investigating committee the main body to vet allegations.

Obviously, there’s a lot we don’t know. There’s a good chance this won’t ever lead to an arrest, in which case we may never know any more than what we know now. What we do know is that the state Capitol has long been a hostile and dangerous place for women. (I presume that is also the case for nonbinary and gender non-conforming people, we just have less reporting on it.) A lot of the focus has been on the alleged behavior of some legislators, but it’s clear that lobbyists are a big part of the problem, too. Maybe this will lead to some names being named, or for the harassment rules to be extended to include lobbyists. For sure, there is much that needs to be done to make the Capitol environment safer, and all of it starts with regulating, punishing, and just generally not tolerating the offensive, harassing, dangerous behavior – committed overwhelmingly by men – that has been excused and ignored for so long. But even before that, we have to own up to the fact that there’s a problem first.

I’m going to end with a few words from the women who feel the threat of all this every session. We must do better.

UPDATE:

Make of that what you will.

UPDATE: Here’s the Trib story, with further comment from HillCo Partners.

Austin mask mandate somehow still in effect

I admit, I did not expect this.

Best mugshot ever

Austin and Travis County can keep requiring masks for at least a bit longer after a district judge denied Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request for a temporary block of the local mandate.

Paxton sued the local officials for refusing to end the mandate after Gov. Greg Abbott lifted state restrictions earlier this month. Paxton will likely appeal the decision.

District Judge Lora Livingston has yet to issue a final ruling on the merits of the case, meaning Austin and Travis officials may later be told to comply with state officials.

But in the meantime, County Judge Andy Brown said Friday’s ruling at least prolongs the amount of time masks are required in their communities — which gives them more time to vaccinate their residents.

“I’ve been doing everything that I can to protect the health and safety of people in Travis County,” Brown said in an interview. “And Judge Livingston’s ruling today allows us to keep doing that.”

[…]

The final outcome of the case could have implications for other Texas cities and counties on how local governments can enforce their own public health mandates, even after the state ordered them to end.

During Friday’s hearing, discussion broadly centered around the question: What powers do local public health departments have, and how do the governor’s emergency powers affect them?

Austin and Travis attorneys said public health officials have the authority to implement health measures — like mask mandates — outside of the context of the pandemic, and therefore should not be affected by Texas’ latest order.

State attorneys argued that Abbott’s emergency powers because of the pandemic trump any local orders.

Livingston pushed back on some of the state attorney’s arguments that not requiring masks allows for individual freedom.

“I’m trying to understand why the person with the deadly virus should have more power than the person trying to stay alive and not catch the deadly virus,” Livingston said.

See here and here for the background. Note that the judge still has not issued a ruling, she just hasn’t granted the state’s motion for an injunction while she makes her decision. The usual trajectory in this sort of thing has been for the good guys (i.e., whoever is on the opposite side of Ken Paxton, whether as plaintiff or defendant) to win in round one and sometimes in round two, but to ultimately lose. Since the legal question at hand in these matters is the imposition of a restraining order or injunction, and since Paxton loves filing emergency appeals, the outcome that matters in the short term – that is, whether or not the good guys get to do what they want to do or force their opponents to do or not do something – is decided quickly, and often renders the actual litigation moot. In this case, the judge has taken her sweet time issuing a decision, so there’s been nothing for Paxton to appeal. Plus, even if all they get out of it is a couple of weeks’ extra time, that extra time is consequential in terms of slowing the spread of COVID. I just did not see it playing out this way. So, whatever happens in the end, good for Austin and Travis County for finding a way to do something in the short term. I don’t know how replicable this is, but it worked this time and that did matter.

Houston’s scooter problem

Wait, when did we get scooters?

A plan in Houston to prohibit vendors from renting motorized scooters on city sidewalks has suppliers of the two-wheel contraptions revved up, and city officials holding the line to have scooters clear the way.

To address what it says are growing issues along sidewalks, especially in the central business district, Houston’s administration and regulatory affairs department plans to ask City Council to amend three codes that would push vendors off public spaces around parks and other gathering spots and move scooters off downtown sidewalks into the streets.

“These vendors at times become a nuisance or even a threat to public safety,” said Maria Irshad, deputy director of the regulatory affairs department and head of ParkHouston, which operates the city’s paid parking and parking enforcement systems.

Rental companies said they have tried to work with the city to develop rules that would allow them to stay, but the city has scooted past that to an outright ban.

“Instead of coming up with a permit for us, like they did with ice cream trucks or the (Houston B-Cycle) bikes, they say we are blocking the right of way,” said Juan Valentine, owner of Glyderz, which started setting up by Discovery Green in May.

The rule changes would outlaw parking a vehicle or trailer on public property for the purposes of renting a good or service, ban the parking of motor-assisted scooters on sidewalks, streets and any rights of way, and outlaw the blocking of any part of a sidewalk that makes it impassable.

“The sidewalk exists for pedestrian use,” Irshad said. “It is not set up for a business.”

Separately, Irshad said officials want to tweak the rule that applies only in the central business district related to sidewalks so scooter riders would have to use the street. Bicycles are banned from downtown sidewalks and only may operate legally in the streets — the proposed change would add language putting scooters on an equal footing and out in the road.

[…]

Customers rent scooters and return them to the same location. Scooters are powered by a small electric motor, with many models capable of speeds around 20 mph. Valentine said most scooters have a range of around 40 miles before running out of power.

Not all vendors, however, opposed the city rules while reacting cautiously to the city code changes. Randy McCoy, owner of ScootsTx that operates in Midtown and Galveston, told city officials in a letter that he only set up near Discovery Green when other vendors appeared on the street.

“I would not want to limit my scooters just to give street vendors a competitive advantage over me,” McCoy wrote.

Others say they went where the customers wanted them. In less than a year, Glyderz has gone from 20 scooters operating out of a trailer to 100. Valentine is preparing to open a permanent location, but said staying on the street is smart business, especially at his location just off Discovery Green.

“You swing by here at 9 or 10 at night and we have a bunch of people renting scooters,” he said.

He questioned why officials allowed Houston B-Cycle to install kiosks on sidewalks, but will not allow him to park a trailer at nights and operate off the sidewalk.

A variety of businesses can obtain permits for street vending, including food trucks, ice cream vendors and sellers during special events.

Irshad said there are no plans to establish permits for scooter companies.

I’ve been following scooters for awhile. There seemed to be a brief moment for bringing scooters to Houston in 2019, but that never went anywhere. Other cities have had a more extensive relationship with them. San Antonio banned them from sidewalks, while Dallas has banned them entirely. The Chron article for that story, from last September, had no mention of Glyderz or ScootsTx, so I haven’t missed much. These things may be here now, but they haven’t been here for long.

For what it’s worth, I favor banning them from the sidewalks, and not just downtown – anyplace these things are going to be viable as a rental business, there will be a high concentration of pedestrians. I would either ban them from hike and bike trails or require them to cap the top speed for trail-use scooters at 15 MPH, which is about the speed of a pedal-powered bike being driven by a normal person. There should be some kind of enforced mechanism to ensure the scooters are picked up quickly and not left scattered on sidewalks, which is a hazard to all but especially to people with disabilities. With all of those caveats in place, I’d find a way to establish permits for these companies, and let them park a trailer in the same way that a food truck vendor can. We’re lucky we didn’t have to serve as the beta testers like other cities (Austin very much included), but now that we have their experience, let’s try to make them happen in a way that prioritizes safety but still lets them operate. If you have any thought about this, the city was soliciting feedback from the public here, though it’s past their stated deadline now. You can also reach out to your Council member and the At Large members. What would you prefer to see happen with scooters in Houston?