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Coronavirus and the Census

Oh, man, does this have the potential to be devastating.

In some corners of the state, the meticulous planning spanned more than two years.

Detailed maps of Texas communities were pored over. A ground game to knock on doors was worked out, and plans for educational meetings and seminars were set. It was all in service of getting the high-stakes, once-a-decade census of everyone living in the state right.

Then came the coronavirus.

Now, with the count already underway, the contingent of local government employees, service providers and volunteers who had been working to breach the gap left when state officials decided not to fund any census outreach work are scrambling to figure out how to urge Texans to respond to the census amid a pandemic that’s forcing everyone to keep their distance.

The constitutionally mandated count that began in Texas last week is supposed to wrap up by July. While the U.S. Census Bureau has said it’s monitoring the evolving coronavirus situation, it has not changed its deadlines so far, leaving communities to press forward with their efforts to get everyone counted by the summer.

But the pandemic is making what was already a hard-to-count state that much tougher to enumerate and further raising the stakes for the Texans — residents who don’t speak English, people living in poverty and immigrants, to name a few — who were already at the highest risk of being missed.

“From the beginning, we identified this as a ground game. The more people we could physically talk to, the better,” said Margaret Wallace Brown, a planning and development director for the city of Houston who has been leading the community’s census outreach efforts. “We were shaking hands and kissing babies. Well, those two things are not doable right now, so how do we replace that with another ‘high-touch’ circumstance that will convey the message as compelling as a face-to-face conversation?”

I don’t know the answer to that question, but it’s one of many that everyone who wants to get an accurate Census count must try to answer. But as the federal government is grappling with many coronavirus-related questions, it also needs to keep in mind that the currently-mandated deadlines may be meaningless, and adjust accordingly. If that means redistricting, and ultimately the 2022 primaries, need to get pushed back a few months, as they were in 2012 due to litigation, then so be it. Getting the count as accurate as we can is the top priority. Everything else is subservient to that. Mother Jones has more.

Here come the shelter-in-place orders

The shutdowns are getting shut-down-ier.

Be like Hank, except inside

Many of Texas’ biggest cities and counties are ordering residents to shelter in place whenever possible.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff on Monday evening ordered residents to stay in their homes as the state grapples with the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus. The move came one day after Dallas County issued a similar order. Meanwhile, the Austin City Council and Travis County will team up Tuesday to issue a stay-at-home decree, Austin Mayor Steve Adler told The Texas Tribune on Monday. And Fort Worth city officials said Mayor Betsy Price and Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley will do the same at a Tuesday morning press conference.

By lunchtime Tuesday, residents in at least four of the state’s five biggest cities are expected to be under such orders. The only possible holdout is Houston, the state’s most populous city, which hasn’t publicly announced any plans. But the Houston Chronicle has reported Harris County officials began drafting a shelter-in-place order over the weekend.

“Our message is simple: You must stay at home,” Nirenberg said at a press conference in San Antonio on Monday evening. “The best way to reduce the spread of the coronavirus is through strict social distancing.”

San Antonio’s “Stay Home, Work Safe” order is effective 11:59 p.m. Tuesday through 11:59 p.m. April 9.

You can add in Galveston County and some other places as well. If Greg Abbott isn’t going to do it, then it looks like everyone else will. As for Houston, here’s that Chron story:

Harris County officials over the weekend began drafting an order to place further restrictions on public activity in order to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, according to sources with direct knowledge of the discussions.

Doctors and health experts across the country have said such orders are necessary to prevent COVID-19 from spreading so rapidly that it overwhelms the nation’s health care system. Texas Medical Center president and CEO William McKeon said Monday morning the presidents of TMC hospitals and other institutions were “unanimous in our strong recommendation to move to shelter in place.”

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said at a news conference Monday morning “it may be that we issue a stay-at-home order or something of the sort.” She said county officials are still assessing whether to do so, and seeking the advice of other local leaders including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Judge Hidalgo and Mayor Turner are holding a joint press conference with local health leaders this morning “for a COVID-19 related announcement”, which sure sounds like the prelude to a shelter-in-place announcement, but we’ll see.

What this means is that most businesses are ordered to shutter, minus “essential services” like grocery stores, pharmacies, and of course health care facilities. You’re either working from home, or you’re on a break, likely for two weeks initially (what Bexar County ordered), though it could get extended. You can go outside to exercise as long as you maintain social distancing, and there may be civil enforcement for violations. I’m making some assumptions here – who knows, maybe Judge Hidalgo and Mayor Turner have something else to say, though I can hardly imagine what it could be – but this is what we have seen in cities that have already gone down this road. So, on the likelihood that this is what’s in store, get ready to hunker down a little harder. It’s what everyone thinks is our best hope right now.

UPDATE: The shelter in place order for Harris County is now in effect, effective tonight at midnight through April 3.

SXSW canceled

Wow.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler declared a local disaster Friday in response to the new coronavirus and issued an order canceling South by Southwest for the first time in its 34-year history. The 10-day event was scheduled to begin next Friday and expected hundreds of thousands of attendees to fly in from around the globe.

The decision was prompted by a recommendation from an expert advisory panel made up of 13 medical professionals. Major sponsors and companies had already pulled out of the event, including Facebook, Twitter, Netflix and Apple, and a petition to cancel the event had garnered over 50,000 signatures.

“We looked at the options for mitigation, we looked at other opportunities to decrease the threat to an acceptable level that would allow us to continue,” Dr. Mark Escott, Austin’s interim medical director and health authority, said at the press conference. “However, after careful deliberation, there was no acceptable path forward that would mitigate the risk enough to protect our community.”

There have been no known cases of the virus being spread through the community in Texas. By Friday afternoon, at least 17 people had tested positive for the virus, and all of them were exposed overseas. Eleven of those cases were among people who were repatriated and quarantined at the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. At least six more were people from the Houston area who had recently traveled to Egypt. Escott said there are no confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus in Austin, though there are tests pending.

SXSW organizers are “devastated,” but they “honor and respect the City of Austin’s decision,” according to a statement released on Twitter.

You can see the SXSW statement here. South By and the city of Austin will be fine, this will eventually be rescheduled, and while the short term effect will be devastating, they will recover. But please spare a thought for the folks who work in the hospitality industry – hotels, restaurants, bus and cab and rideshare drivers, and so on – who will really take it on the chin and may not have the capacity to recover. Go eat out for a few nights in the next couple of weeks, whether you live in Austin or anywhere else. Let’s not find that when things have returned to normal, so many of these places had to go out of business in the meantime.

Cable franchise fees lawsuit heard

Rooting for the cities, because this is a mess.

Lawyers representing 59 cities, including Austin, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, on Wednesday asked an Austin district court judge to temporarily block a Texas law passed last year that cuts government fees for telecommunications and cable companies.

Senate Bill 1152, which took effect Sept. 1 and started to apply to payments starting Jan. 1, allows companies that offer both cable and phone services over the same lines to only pay the lesser of the two charges to local governments for using their rights-of-way. No physical change is required to add new uses of a line.

C. Robert Heath, one of the attorneys who represents the cities, said the law amounts to an unconstitutional gift of public resources to private corporations and said estimates show it would cost cities at least $100 million a year.

The cities argue that the Texas Constitution forbids cities, counties and other political subdivisions from giving away public money or things of value to private groups or individuals. The companies are not required to pass on savings to consumers because the state can’t regulate cable rates.

“It’s like ‘buy one, get one free,’” Heath said. “So we’re saying, ‘No, no, you can’t do that. You’re giving away the use of the right-of-way.’”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner had pushed legislators to oppose the measure and has said it cost the city about $17 million in annual revenue this year and has hurt its ability to offer services to residents.

“Given the fee would fluctuate with the number of cable customers, what is not changing is the significant impact this has had on our city budget,” Bill Kelly, Houston’s director of government relations, said Wednesday. “Anyone asking the cable companies why no one has lowered their bills?”

[…]

Assistant attorney general Drew Harris, who represents the state, argued that the reduced fee is not the same as a gift, making the analogy of toll roads that charge per car, not per passenger. Harris added that Texas law says the state owns rights-of-way, meaning the cost of using them is a matter for the Legislature to decide.

See here and here for the background. I must have missed the actual filing of the lawsuit, but never mind. We all know this will get to the Supreme Court eventually, and we know they love to rule in favor of businesses. The question is whether they’ll be overturning a lower court verdict or not. The judge has promised a quick ruling after the state files a response to a late plaintiffs’ motion, so we won’t have to wait too long to see where we start out.

Another scooter injury study

Keep ’em coming.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

Electric scooter injuries have surged along with their popularity in the United States, nearly tripling over four years, researchers said in a study published Wednesday.

Nearly 40,000 broken bones, head injuries, cuts and bruises resulting from scooter accidents were treated in U.S. emergency rooms from 2014 through 2018, the research showed. The scooter injury rate among the general U.S. population climbed from 6 per 100,000 to 19 per 100,000. Most occurred in riders aged 18 to 34, and most injured riders weren’t hospitalized.

For the study published in JAMA Surgery, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, analyzed U.S. government data on nonfatal injuries treated in emergency rooms.

“Improved rider safety measures and regulation” are clearly needed, the researchers said.

See here, here, and here for previous studies, and here to see this one. Clearly, helmets are going to have to be mandated, and from there it’s going to be up to cities to figure out how to safely incorporate these things into their transportation infrastructure. Bikes have been around for a long time and we’ve mostly figured them out, but scooters are new and sexy and are being pushed by Silicon Valley startups, so there are a lot of bumps in the road still to come. Hopefully we can begin to bend the curve on this. And no, I have no idea what the status of scooters coming to Houston is. Maybe that will be on an upcoming Council agenda. Assuming that scooter expansion is still the plan for these companies, which may not necessarily be the case any more. Maybe that’s why we haven’t had any news lately. CNet has more.

Texas Central and Lone Star Rail

Noted for the record.

In South Central Texas, 20 state legislators have revived talk of a San Antonio to Austin passenger rail line. Area lawmakers signed a letter in August asking Transportation Committee chair and state Rep. Terry Canales (D-Edinburg) to study the possibility of rail between the two cities.

On Wednesday, rail in Texas was the topic of a panel discussion that included [Holly Reed, the managing director of external affairs of Texas Central], State Rep. Ray Lopez (D-San Antonio), and Tyson Moeller, general director of network development for Union Pacific railroad, at a San Antonio Chamber of Commerce transportation committee meeting.

The discussion, which was closed to media, touched on passenger rail between Austin and San Antonio, freight rail, and the Houston-Dallas high-speed rail project, according to Jonathan Gurwitz, vice president of communications company KGBTexas and chair of the San Antonio Mobility Coalition who attended the meeting.

He was most struck by a few numbers that Union Pacific’s Moeller cited: Approximately 15,000 to 20,000 semi-trucks worth of goods are shipped on trains every day passing through San Antonio. That means 15,000 or so fewer trucks on Interstate 35.

“If you think of it in that way, what impact rail really has on San Antonio, the amount of goods and services that move in and out of our region by rail, it has an extraordinary impact on our economy,” Gurwitz said. “I think most people in San Antonio don’t realize the significance of rail.”

Union Pacific remains focused on moving freight and not people, said Raquel Espinoza, senior director of corporate communications and media relations at Union Pacific. The railroad company effectively killed an earlier Austin-San Antonio passenger rail project when it exited the Lone Star Rail District proposal in 2016.

Union Pacific has no plans to expand passenger rail access for other entities like Amtrak on its lines, Espinoza said.

“Our role is to move freight in an efficient, environmentally friendly way,” she said.

See here for the recent news that Lone Star Rail may rise from the dead again. I’m very much at a “believe it when I see it point”, especially with Union Pacific reiterating its long-held stance that they are not going to share their existing tracks for any passenger rail. A rail line between Austin and San Antonio – really, between Georgetown and the south side of San Antonio, as the original LSR envisioned – makes all kinds of sense, but it becomes a lot more expensive and problematic from a right-of-way perspective if a whole new set of tracks have to be laid down. Not impossible, one assumes, and certainly doable if the will is there. It’s just that there’s many years of evidence to show that it does not, at least not in sufficient quantities. But hope springs eternal, and I will always hope that somehow, some way, this gets built.

On Abbott, Austin, and homelessness

What Chris Hooks says.

On Wednesday, the governor plunged headfirst into a political controversy that has dominated discussion in the city since June. Back then, the city council partially neutered several ordinances that essentially made being homeless in the city a crime by allowing cops to ticket people for sitting or lying on sidewalks or camping in public places. As a result, homeless people became more visible on the city streets, to the consternation of downtown residents and business owners.

This has led to a tremendous improvement in the quality of life of many homeless people. The old rules meant they were pushed to unsafe places to sleep and live, where they were vulnerable to being raped, robbed, and assaulted. Many were ticketed or arrested dozens of times, inhibiting their ability to get off the streets. At the same time, it’s deeply unpleasant to bear witness to extreme poverty and desperation, and some downtown residents have spoken about dirty streets and feeling unsafe.

[…]

The letter is deeply strange. It consists of two parts: why Abbott is acting, and what he’ll do. The first bit contains a declaration that “as the Governor of Texas, I have the responsibility to protect the health and safety of all Texans, including Austin residents.” That’s a big responsibility, one that makes Abbott sound a bit like the All-father, and it might sound strange to you if you’ve come to think of the governorship as a traditionally ornamental sinecure where people earn a paycheck while they wait to run for president.

The line is footnoted, which looks good and proper, but when you follow the footnote it goes to the section of the Texas Constitution that basically just says there is a governor, and that he’s the head of the executive branch of state government. Presumably the fellows who wrote the 1876 constitution, ex-Confederates scalded by their hatred of Reconstruction-era activist governors, didn’t plan to give future governors the power to supervise “the health and safety of all Texans,” but who can say? They’re all dead and were mostly jerks anyway.

The second part lays out what the governor might do to Austin, and by what powers. The most alarming is the declaration that the Department of Public Safety “has the authority to act” to “enforce the state law prohibiting criminal trespassing. If necessary, DPS will add troops in Austin areas that pose greater threats.” It would be a significant overstatement to call this martial law, but the prospect of the governor deploying a surge of state troopers to Austin streets to selectively enforce laws is—well, bizarre, and a little unsettling. Other Texas cities should take note.

There’s more, so go read the rest, and see here for the origin story. It’s hard to see this as anything but a bit of chest-thumping in Austin’s direction, an easy target for Abbott and unlike the gun issue, one where his preferred way forward (at least rhetorically) is clear. And as Nancy LeTourneau notes, it’s a way for Abbott to hug Donald Trump, with liberal cities and homeless people as the victims. In other words, par for the course for our weak and feckless governor. Grits for Breakfast has more.

Other counties also considering property tax rate hikes

I have four things to say about this.

A statewide property tax relief plan that takes effect next year is prompting hefty tax increases this fall in many of the biggest cities and counties in Texas, even in places that have historically kept rates flat or decreased them.

Elected officials in some cities and counties say they have no choice but to raise taxes as high as they can this year to brace for the implementation of property tax reforms that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Legislature called historic earlier this summer. The average effective tax rate for single-family homes in Texas was 2.18 percent in 2018, third-highest in the nation, according to a study by ATTOM Data Solutions.

Starting next year, cities and counties will be barred from increasing property tax collections more than 3.5 percent in any year without a vote of the public. Currently, the state has an 8-percent limit, called the rollback rate, that state lawmakers say has allowed cities and counties to overtax homeowners. The lack of a state income tax makes Texas municipalities especially reliant on property tax revenue.

A look around the state shows many counties and cities are pushing rates to the 8-percent rollback rate this year to bank money or, in a few cases, even to fund pay raises for themselves, in reaction to the new law. El Paso, Harris, Tarrant, Webb and Travis counties are among those pushing to the current rollback rate, or near it. And cities including El Paso, Arlington, Corpus Christi and Austin are similarly considering rates at or near the 8-percent limit.

“I think a lot of cities and counties know that we are putting them on a diet and they are going on one last bender before it happens,” said State Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, who was a key player in crafting the property tax reforms as the leader of the House Ways and Means Committee.

[…]

In Harris County, which hasn’t raised the tax rate in decades, county officials say the state’s new restrictions are forcing them to react by raising the tax rate by 2.26 cents per $100 of assessed value. County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county needs to create a contingency fund to ensure it can pay for services, such as health care, transportation and flood control, once the state’s 3.5-percent cap goes into effect. The rate increase, if approved next month, would allow Harris County to collect more than $200 million extra in tax money than last year.

1. There are some extremely bitchy quotes in the story from Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who pushed the bill that led to this in the Senate. I may have rolled my eyes so hard that they will never unroll.

2. The counties and cities that are considering this are acting in what they believe is their best interest, and the best interest of their residents. Plenty of expenses that counties and cities face, from disaster relief to health care to salaries and pensions, aren’t subject to any kind of rate limit. HB3 radically changed their long term financial picture. They had no choice but to adjust.

3. Just as a reminder, there are plenty of things the Legislature could have done to improve our property tax system without putting the squeeze on local governments. The Lege could also greatly help counties on the expenditure side of the balance sheet by expanding Medicaid, which would do a lot to reduce the cost of health care on counties. The whining from the likes of Bettencourt on this is just beyond rich. All that is without even pointing out that having a property tax-based system, in which the main expense is completely disconnected from people’s annual incomes, instead of an income tax-based system, is always going to have problems like this.

4. The same voters who will be given the power to approve or reject future tax collection levels also have the power to approve or reject the local officials who may be raising tax rates now ahead of that. They also have that power over people like Paul Bettencourt and Dustin Burrows and Greg Abbott and so forth. Maybe some day that power will be exercised.

Will Lone Star Rail get resurrected?

Maybe!

A coalition of San Antonio and Austin state representatives has asked the House Transportation Committee chair to study the possibility of passenger rail between the two cities ahead of the 2021 legislative session.

Congestion between the two cities will only increase, the legislators wrote, costing drivers time and money.

“Improved transportation connectivity is critical for the Austin-San Antonio corridor,” 20 legislators said in an Aug. 16 letter. “We must not only look at how to utilize our current assets most effectively, but also find new and creative solutions for this corridor. As members of this region, we believe that it is imperative for the House Transportation Committee to explore new opportunities for our constituents to have frequent, safe, and dependable transportation.”

Officials from the Austin and San Antonio areas have been trying to connect the two cities by passenger rail for years. The Lone Star Rail District proposal stalled after Union Pacific pulled out of the project in 2016 over concerns about how passenger rail using its tracks would impact its freight operations. The Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) pulled its funding for the project later that year, leaving the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (AAMPO) few options for keeping the project alive.

The rail line proposed by the Lone Star Rail District would have had multiple stops, starting at the University of Texas A&M-San Antonio and ending in the north-of-Austin suburb Georgetown.

Rep. Ray Lopez (D-San Antonio) served on AAMPO’s board and as the city councilman for District 6 during passenger rail discussions. He said the corridor rail project took many blows but could be revived with proper action from the State.

“Texans have engaged in overviews and reviews, but what we need to do is have a strong directive from the state … and request or require or demand, indeed, that some action plan be created and presented to the Legislature for consideration and ultimately funding,” Lopez said.

[…]

San Antonians have rejected rail before, but as a local means of public transportation. Voters shot down light rail in 2000 and in 2015 approved a charter amendment requiring light rail proposals go to voters.

But if an intercity rail project starts up again, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said San Antonio would support it “if the state worked with us and we found a path forward for rail between Austin and San Antonio.”

“It has been a priority for this community for almost three decades,” he said. “And I’ve always said it will happen once the governor’s office makes it a priority.”

The last we heard about this was in 2016 when the previous plan died, in part because of a failure to come to an agreement with Union Pacific to share its tracks. On the one hand, a passenger rail line between San Antonio and Austin makes all kinds of sense and would be a fantastic alternative to the money and traffic pit that is I-35. On the other hand, well, the past couple of decades trying to get this line even to a preliminary approval stage with no success doesn’t bode well. But maybe this time it’s different. I’m rooting for it, but my expectations are firmly under control. The Current has more.

It’s up to cities to make the Census work

The Lege shirked its duty, so this is what’s left.

Across the country, states are spending millions on making sure they get a better headcount of their residents. For example, California officials announced they are investing as much as $154 million in the 2020 census.

But not all states are making investments or even coming up with statewide plans to improve the count.

This year, Texas lawmakers failed to pass legislation that would have created a statewide effort aimed at making sure all Texans are counted. Measures that would have ensured millions of dollars in funding for the census in Texas also failed.

“California is eating our lunch on the census,” says Ann Beeson, the CEO of the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin. “And what’s that going to mean is more representation and more dollars for California than Texas.”

Beeson said this is particularly concerning because the state’s population has continued to explode. In fact, many of the country’s fastest growing cities are in the Lone Star State.

By some estimates, Texas is set to gain three to four congressional seats after the census. But that’s only if there’s an accurate count, Beeson says.

“Texas is already at a high risk of an undercount,” she says. “That is because we have a higher percentage of what are considered hard to count populations.”

[…]

In the absence of state action, though, local officials in Texas say it’s up to them now to make sure people are getting counted.

“So much in the state of Texas relies on local government stepping up,” says Bruce Elfant, the tax assessor and voter registrar for Travis County here in Austin.

Elfant is a member of the city’s Complete Count Committee, which is a city-led group focused just on improving the census in Austin.

“This is a time where local government is going to have to step up again and I am really proud of what we have here in Travis County,” he says.

Elfant says school districts and other municipal government — as well as local businesses — plan to pitch in. In fact, he says he the city plans to create a fund for the census. He says that fund will largely rely on money from the private sector.

And nonprofits say they are also gearing up to fill the gap left by state inaction, says Stephanie Swanson with the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Texas.

“We realized that basically is going to be up to us,” she says. “We will have to rely on our cities and it will also fall on the shoulders of nonprofits and the community to get out the count.”

See here for the background. You’d think with the way our state leaders hate California that they wouldn’t want to let the Golden State outshine us like this, but here we are. Don’t ask me to explain what Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick are thinking, that way madness lies. The city of Houston is doing its part. I just hope this collective effort is enough. The Chron has more.

UT’s new tuition policy

Nice.

Seeking to make college more affordable, the University of Texas will use some of its oil money to dramatically expand the financial aid it offers to low- and middle-income undergraduates on its flagship Austin campus.

The system’s governing board approved a special $160 million distribution from its endowment Tuesday, which school officials expect will fully cover the tuition and fees of students whose families earn up to $65,000 in adjusted gross income a year starting in 2020. The funding, which will be used to create a new financial aid endowment, will also let UT-Austin alleviate tuition costs for students whose families earn up to $125,000 annually, if they demonstrate financial need.

“Our main focus at the UT system is our students. That’s it, that’s what we’re in business for is to provide an affordable, accessible education for our students,” board Chair Kevin Eltife said in an interview after the vote. “We all know the struggles that hardworking families are having putting their kids through school. What we’ve done here is repurposed an endowment into another endowment that will provide tuition assistance to a lot of the working families in Texas.”

The funding marks a significant expansion for UT-Austin, which currently has a financial aid initiative that guarantees free tuition to students whose families earn up to $30,000 a year. The median household income in Texas was just over $59,200 in 2017, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

School officials estimate about a quarter of its undergraduates from Texas — 8,600 students — would have their tuition fully paid under the new plan, and an additional 5,700 would receive financial aid from it. The program will not pay for students’ living expenses, which were estimated to be around $17,000 for the 2019-20 academic year. Tuition and fees averaged $10,314 for Texas residents.

This is good, and a decent number of students will benefit from this policy. Remember, though, the main reason why tuition is as high as it is now, not just at UT but at all Texas public universities, is because the Republican-controlled Legislature deregulated tuition in 2003, as a way to help balance the budget by spending less on higher ed. You can see what happened next. It’s great that UT’s endowment allows them to take this step, but UT-Austin is just one school. If we really want to fix this, it’s going to take a lot more than this.

The real goal of SB2

Let’s take a look at the quotes from the supporters of SB2, the new law that will impose revenue caps on all Texas cities, to see what they say about it.

“They’re going to have to start looking at spending this money like it was their own and not somebody else’s money,” said the bill’s sponsor Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston. “And they’re going to have to look at priorities.”

[…]

But Ellen Troxclair, senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and former Austin City Council Member, said those dire warnings imply a city has no control over its spending.

The reason this bill was one of legislators’ top priorities this year, Troxclair said, is because Texans are frustrated by rising taxes, and if it forces cities to rethink their spending, that’s a positive.

“The bottom line of SB 2 is it brings the rate at which cities are spending money more in line with the people’s ability to pay,” Troxclair said. “I hope that what the cities do is hear the pleas from citizens who elected them to make more responsible decisions when it comes to spending.”

Troxclair added that the bill doesn’t stop cities from going to taxpayers and asking to raise their taxes above 3.5 percent if officials deem it necessary.

[…]

Austin and San Antonio, which both have the highest credit rating of AAA, are also concerned that the caps will have an effect on their ability to borrow. The nation’s three major credit rating agencies have warned that the caps could have a negative impact.

Bettencourt and Troxclair, however, dismissed those concerns, saying that as long as cities are being fiscally responsible, credit rating agencies will have no reason to dock their scores. Bettencourt added that SB 2 doesn’t affect the debt portion of the tax rate, which are set by bond elections.

SB2 was sold as a way of reining in property taxes, to provide savings to homeowners. (Renters are on their own, the Republicans don’t care about them.) But no honest broker actually believes there will be any real savings. Literally no one is going to review their household expenses at the end of a year and say “thank goodness for that revenue cap, it saved us so much money”. Just look at the Houston experience, in which the typical reduction in taxes is less than $100 per year, while the city has been starved of revenue. The whole point of this exercise to to constrain cities’ ability to prioritize its spending needs, because with a revenue cap property tax reduction, no matter how trivial, always comes first. Paul Bettencourt and his cronies want cities to spend less. If that means laying off employees, if it means deferring maintenance and repairs, if it means not offering new services to meet the needs of a changing and growing population, that’s too bad. Or not bad at all, from his perspective, because what does he care about any of that? He wants government at all levels to spend less – more specifically, to spend less on things he doesn’t like – and SB2 will help accomplish that goal. Mission accomplished.

Sometimes, bad bills do die

The calendar giveth, and the calendar taketh away.

One of the the biggest priorities for Texas Republicans this session appears to be on the verge of legislative death. A series of bills that would broadly prohibit local governments from regulating employee benefits in the private sector died quietly in the House this week.

The business lobby has long been used to getting what it wants from the Republican-controlled Legislature, but now it’s waving the white flag. “It is dead. … The discussion got completely derailed,” lamented Annie Spilman, lobbyist for the Texas chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, in an interview with the Observer. The group is one of the lead advocates for the preemption bills. “They really haven’t left us with any hope at all.”

Senate Bill 15 started as a straightforward measure to stomp out a broad swath of emerging local labor policies, like mandatory paid sick leave, in cities including Austin, San Antonio and Dallas. But it ended in the political gutter after Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick insisted on removing language that explicitly protected local nondiscrimination ordinances (NDOs) for LGBTQ Texans in several cities. Patrick’s move was reportedly made at the behest of Texas Values, the state’s leading social conservative pressure group.

With the high-profile failure of Patrick’s 2017 bathroom bill and now the fight over NDOs, Texas businesses are growing increasingly furious that the lieutenant governor appears unable to stop poisoning their political agenda with right-wing social warfare.

Spilman said she sees it as another example of Patrick putting the priorities of the religious right before businesses. “I don’t think the lieutenant governor has listened to the business community in quite a while,” she said. “Our No. 1 priority was this preemption legislation to stop cities from overreaching, and despite our efforts to compromise with everyone involved, at the end of the day we were ignored and set aside.”

[…]

The House calendars committee finalized the House’s remaining floor agenda Sunday evening, meaning anything that wasn’t placed on the calendar is all but certain to be dead. The preemption bills were not on the list.

It’s suspected that part of the reason the bills died is that Patrick refused to consider any sort of NDO protection language in a compromise bill, according to conversations with multiple sources. Patrick’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

“I think the lieutenant governor was holding a firm line against that,” state Representative Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, told the Observer. But Rodriguez also attributes the preemption bills’ procedural defeat to Democrats’ willingness to hold together. “One of the calculations was about is the juice worth the squeeze. What would happen on the floor? We Democrats were holding a firm line of opposition … and [willing to] do whatever to kill them.”

See here, here, and here for some background. The NFIB can go pound sand as far as I’m concerned; they’re a bunch of ideologues who deserve to taste some bitter defeat. The best thing they can do for the state of Texas is get into a fanatical pissing contest with Dan Patrick. They’re now lobbying Greg Abbott for a special session, which is something I’m a little worried about anyway, if some other Republican priorities like the vote suppression bill don’t get passes. I can’t control that, so I’m just going to enjoy this moment, and you should too.

Austin’s scooter study

Be careful riding these things, and for crying out loud wear a helmet.

A first-of-its-kind study on injuries related to dockless electric scooters found that most incidents were preventable, and now Austin city officials are hoping to use their findings to inform future policy.

The city’s health and transportation departments collaborated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to review 271 reports of possible scooter related injuries filed from Sept. 5 to Nov. 30, 2018. The study, however, only confirmed 190 cases involved scooter riders, one involved a pedestrian and one involved a cyclist. The rest were determined to be hurt while riding a gas-powered scooter, moped or device that uses three wheels, or didn’t involve a device at all, said Jeff Taylor, an Austin Public Health epidemiologist.

“If anything, this study also helped prove out that, that we need to be more precise in our language when we’re recording data that a scooter is not just a scooter. We mean something very specific,” Austin Transportation Department Director Robert Spillar said Thursday.

The CDC said the study found “a high proportion of e-scooter related injuries involved potentially preventable risk factors, such as lack of helmet use or motor vehicle interaction.” City officials also said almost half the head injuries documented could have been prevented.

The study drew data from Austin-Travis County EMS incident reports and information from nine area hospitals, as well as from interviews with some who were injured. Taylor said it was important to interview the injured so the data could be more specific.

Among the findings:

• 20 people for every 100,000 scooter trips taken were injured, and most were first-time riders.

• 48% were between 18 and 29 years old. Researchers recommend targeting educational materials to that age group going forward.

• 39% of injuries happened between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.

• 29% told researchers they had been drinking before they rode.

• Only one person of the 190 riders hurt was wearing a helmet.

• More than half of the riders were injured in the street and a third were hurt while riding on the sidewalk.

• More than a third said speed contributed to them crashing.

Having more accurate data about the scooters and how they’re affecting Austin residents could help inform policy discussions in the future, said Dr. Christopher Ziebell, emergency department medical director for Dell Seton Medical Center. The hospital does not have a uniform way to record the number and type of scooter injuries coming into the emergency room, he said.

[…]

During a period comparable to the one the CDC studied — four months in 2018, between May 7 and Sept. 6 — the Texas Department of Transportation found that in Austin 1,945 people were injured in a vehicle and eight were killed; 105 were injured on motorcycles and five were killed; 60 were hurt using bicycles. Scooter injuries during that time tallied 28, according to the city of Austin.

Lessening the number of injuries related to scooters could start with messaging and education, Ziebell said. Patients have told him they thought hopping on a scooter would be a quick, fun thing, but they end up hitting a pebble and crashing.

“I still hear patients who come in and say, ‘I had no idea,’ ” he said. His patients range in age from their 20s to 70s.

See here for the background. I don’t know why there’s such a wide disparity between the CDC and TxDOT studies in terms of the number of scooter-related injuries over similar time spans. My guess is that only a fraction of scooter injuries in the latter period were reported to TxDOT. Be that as it may, while the scooters caused their share of (I daresay mostly preventable) mayhem, they’re a drop in the bucket next to motor vehicles. Let’s do what we can to make scooters safer, but let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture. Mother Jones has more.

Senate passes all of its SB15 alternatives

When one big bill won’t do but four smaller bills will.

Sen. Brandon Creighton

The Texas Senate on Tuesday preliminarily approved the last two bills in a package of splintered legislation aimed at limiting the ability of cities to regulate private companies’ employment policies.

The bills from state Sen. Brandon Creighton, a Conroe Republican, would preempt local rules that disallow employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal history and bar cities from enacting rules on how businesses schedule their employees’ shifts.

In 2016, Austin passed an ordinance — known as “ban the box” — preventing private employers with 15 or more employees from asking potential job candidates’ criminal history before extending a conditional job offer. At the time of passage, city officials said one of the goals was to reduce unemployment and lower the chances that people with criminal histories would reoffend. But more recently, some have slammed the city’s proposal for lacking teeth since it wasn’t being enforced.

If passed, Creighton’s bill would ensure local governments couldn’t implement such laws in the first place.

“I don’t dispute that many people are deserving of a second chance, but I do want private employers to make that decision and not the government,” Creighton told other senators. “It’s a lose-lose for both the applicant and the employer to go through a lengthy process just to learn that a felony may disqualify the applicant.”

Senate Bill 2488’s initial passage came in a party-line vote of 19-12, with only Republicans in support. It will need to get final approval from the Senate before it can head to the House.

According to the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group that works to strengthen protections for low-income or unemployed workers, 34 states and more than 150 cities and counties have adopted “ban the box” ordinances. Some business owners and Republicans, however, have said that such laws potentially make an employer liable to their workers’ actions — should they go on to commit a crime.

See here and here for some background. Look, I can understand the argument for having a uniform set of rules under which businesses operate. I disagree with the proposed remedy – the undergirding force of all this was the Austin ordinance mandating sick leave, and if it were up to me there’d be a federal law mandating it for all businesses, because it’s a fricking stupid and harmful idea to make sick people go to work – but the principle makes sense.

In this case, though, the “such laws potentially make an employer liable to their workers’ actions” argument is totally specious. I mean, in the very sentence before that one, we learn that 34 states and more than 150 cities and counties have these “ban the box” laws in place. That’s more than enough actual experience to draw real, fact-based conclusions about the effect of these laws. Have any employers in any of those locations been successfully sued for hiring someone with a criminal record who was subsequently convicted of a crime? Either the data supports your hypothetical or it doesn’t, so which is it? The fact that bill proponents relied on a hypothetical suggests what the answer to that is.

Instagram in space!

Far out. Like, literally.

Internet service can sometimes be spotty here on Earth. Just imagine checking email from the moon or searching Google from Mars.

A Houston satellite and artificial intelligence company wants to make that possible through an “interplanetary internet” that someday could connect Earth to mining companies on the moon and human colonies on Mars and other planets. It ultimately would require a network of satellites stretching for hundreds of millions of miles and technology compensating for the movement of planets to prevent the interruption of data streaming at the speed of light.

But you’ve got to start somewhere.

“I fundamentally believe that we will be an interplanetary species,” Ben Lamm, chief executive of the parent company of Hypergiant Galactic Systems, the Houston firm aiming to build out the worlds-wide-web. “We need to start building the core infrastructure for the interplanetary internet now.”

Hypergiant Galactic, a subsidiary of Hypergiant Industries of Austin, is launching its effort as NASA talks about returning to the moon and sending humans to Mars. Hypergiant Galactic expects to begin building the outer-space internet next year by launching a series of small satellites that would be positioned at different points in space to create a network to relay signals from Earth until reaching the end destination, such as the moon, another planet or a space ship. (Kirk to Enterprise?)

Phase one, which includes connecting Earth to the moon and Mars over the next decade, would cost tens of millions of dollars, according to Hypergiant. Once the project moves beyond Mars, costs vault into the hundreds of millions.

The satellites also would store a 30-million page archive of human knowledge that will act as a scaled-down version of the internet so, for example, colonists on Mars could access it quickly, without having to wait long periods for pages to load as signals move from Mars to Earth and back. The archive would be updated frequently, and ultimately built out into a more robust subset of the internet.

The archive also aims to preserve and protect the legacy of the human race by placing it in off-world storage should cataclysm strike the planet. The archive, assembled by the nonprofit Arch Mission Foundation and stored on long-lasting metal disks as a backup to the version that can be updated from Earth, includes everything from Wikipedia to the Harry Potter series to the world’s many languages and mathematical equations.

I don’t really have anything to add to this. It caught my eye and I thought it was cool. Plus, it gave me a reason to embed this video:

Give the aliens all our best, Janet.

World’s worst pastors drop Austin equal rights lawsuit

Good.

A conservative Christian organization has dropped a federal lawsuitthat sought to overturn an Austin anti-discrimination ordinance that offers employment protection based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Dave Welch, head of the Houston-based U.S. Pastor Council, said the decision was based on the advice of the group’s lawyer but might not be the last word on the matter.

“Our position has not changed. We’re just going to revisit how we approach the suit, and we’re hoping there’s still a possibility at some point of refiling it,” Welch said.

The council’s lawsuit, filed in October, argued that Austin’s ordinance is unconstitutional and invalid because it does not include a religious exemption for 25 member churches in Austin that refuse to hire gay or transgender people as employees or clergy.

Austin asked U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman of Austin to dismiss the lawsuit last month, arguing that the city ordinance does not apply to a church’s hiring of clergy and that no church expressed a problem with the city’s employment protections.

In addition, the city argued, the lawsuit failed to list the 25 member churches or show how any of them had been harmed by the anti-discrimination protections.

“There is no allegation the ordinance has been enforced, or is about to be enforced, against any of the unnamed Austin churches, and no allegation that any of them have in fact been restricted in their hiring decisions,” the motion to dismiss stated.

See here for the background. Makes you wonder why their lawyers didn’t give them this advice before they wasted their time and money on the lawsuit, but whatever. Rational explanations don’t mean much to these guys. Dropping this lawsuit doesn’t mean these idiots are giving up, of course. As the story notes, there are various anti-equality bills in the Lege that would accomplish their goals. One is HB1035, which would provide a “freedom of conscious” exemption for religious organizations so they could discriminate in hiring or whatever else as they saw fit. That bill’s author is Rep. Bill Zedler, who by the way is also one of the leading anti-vaxxers in the Lege. Beating him in 2020 – he had a close win in 2018 – would go a long way towards making the Lege a better place.

Is the anti-sick leave bill also anti-equality?

Could be. Whose word do you take for it?

Sen. Brandon Creighton

What started as seemingly simple state legislation hailed as good for Texas businesses is drawing skepticism from legal experts and outrage from advocates worried it would strike employment protections and benefits for LGBTQ workers.

As originally filed, Senate Bill 15 by state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, would have prohibited cities from requiring that private companies offer paid sick leave and other benefits to their employees. It also created a statewide mandate preventing individual cities and counties from adopting local ordinances related to employment leave and paid days off for holidays. But it made clear that the bill wouldn’t override local regulations that prohibit employers from discriminating against their workers.

Yet, when Creighton presented SB 15 to the Senate State Affairs Committee, he introduced a reworked version — a last-minute move, some lawmakers said, that shocked many in the Capitol.

Among its changes: A provision was added to clarify that while local governments couldn’t force companies to offer certain benefits, business could do so voluntarily. But most notably, gone was the language that explicitly said the potential state law wouldn’t supersede local non-discrimination ordinances.

There’s widespread debate about what the revised language for the bill means. And the new version has left some legal experts and LGBTQ advocates concerned. Axing that language, they say, could undermine the enforceability of local anti-discrimination laws and allow businesses to selectively pick and choose which of its employees are eligible to receive benefits that go beyond monetary compensation.

“You could see an instance where an employer wanted to discriminate against employees who are in same-sex marriages and say, ‘Well, I will offer extra vacation time or sick leave to opposite sex couples, but I won’t offer those benefits if it’s for a same sex couple,” said Anthony Kreis, a visiting assistant professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

A spokesperson for Creighton said SB 15 was filed strictly as a response to local governments — like Austin and San Antonio — imposing “burdensome, costly regulations on Texas private businesses.”

“The bill is limited to sick leave, predictive scheduling and benefit policies,” Erin Daly Wilson, a spokesperson for the senator, said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “The pro-business climate in Texas is something we have worked hard to promote, and need to protect.”

The anti-sick leave stuff is a bunch of BS to begin with, but it doesn’t address the core question. Does the wording of this bill undermine protection for LGBTQ employees that have been granted via local ordinances? Equality advocates think it may be interpreted that way.

“Millions of people are covered by nondiscrimination protections at the local level (and) stand to have those protections dramatically cut back,” said Cathryn Oakley, the state legislative director and senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign.

[…]

When touting the legislation at business events, Abbott has focused on the paid sick leave aspect, saying such policies should be discretionary and not mandated by local government.

David Welch, a Houston resident and leader of the Texas Pastor Council, says the bill would create a uniform standard for businesses across the state.

“SB 15 is one step in reversing the continued march toward unequal rights with a hodgepodge of laws throughout hundreds of cities and counties having different laws, language and enforcement,” Welch said in a statement.

The council — which was a backer of the so-called bathroom bill last session — sued the city of Austin over its anti-discrimination ordinance in 2018.

Jessica Shortall, with the business coalition Texas Competes, said the group is still trying to understand the revised bill’s potential effect on cities’ anti-discrimination ordinances. Early analysis of the changes, Shortall said, suggest the “best case scenario is confusion, and worst case is opening a door” to eroding the local ordinances.

Equality Texas has highlighted SB15 as a threat. Who are you going to believe, the people on the sharp end of bills like this, or the people who have made it their life’s work to discriminate against LGBTQ people but are now trying to pretend that this bill they support has nothing to do with their ongoing crusade? If SB15 passes, how long do you think it will take the likes of Welch to file lawsuits to overturn other cities’ non-discrimination ordinances on the grounds that they are in conflict with it? Just look at the never-ending Pidgeon lawsuit for an example. These guys will never quit, and they will take every opening given to them. SB15 sure looks like an opening to me.

One more thing:

Creighton doesn’t intend to add the disclaimer back in at this time. But Rep. Craig Goldman, the Fort Worth Republican who is carrying the House’s companion bill, said he has no intention of stripping the clause reassuring cities their LGBT protections won’t be axed.

Fine by me if this is a point of dispute. Erica Greider has more.

Another scooter casualty study

To be done in Austin.

As many as 14,000 dockless electric scooters are on the streets of Austin, whose 326 square miles are home to almost 1 million people. That likely makes Austin one of the cities with the highest scooter-to-citizen ratio in the nation — though the electric vehicles are also rapidly multiplying on the streets and sidewalks of Atlanta, San Diego, Nashville and Washington. At least 1,200 more are poised to appear in Austin whenever already-licensed operators deploy them. Ten companies have licenses to operate now.

Austin city leaders, worried about injuries for both users and pedestrians, asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate scooter-related crashes and injuries. The first-ever CDC scooter study will also look at how accidents could be prevented.

“We’re totally paranoid,” said Forrest Preece, a retired advertising executive who lives in a downtown condo and leads a largely pedestrian life.

“I’m 72 and my wife is 70. It would be easy to knock us over,” he said. “My wife actually went online and found a little mirror to attach to her wrist to look behind her so she’s not constantly turning around. We go single file so she can see that mirror and see what’s behind us.”

These scooters are everywhere — speeding by or strewn on sidewalks — and are likely to overwhelm the city this spring as Austin readies for an onslaught of scooter-riding visitors during the annual SXSW Conference & Festivals, running March 8-17. Last year’s SXSW drew 432,500 people.

The scooter study was launched in December when three CDC epidemiologists spent two weeks in Austin reviewing incidents and scooter-related injuries during a 60-day period from September to November. They began contacting the 258 individuals identified through EMS calls or who visited emergency rooms with a scooter-related injury. Findings from this study will likely be released in March and could have far-reaching effects as cities across the country grapple with reports of injuries from these e-scooters.

“We don’t know if there’s something unique about Austin or the population there that may be different from other parts of the United States or globally,” said Eric Pevzner, chief of the Atlanta-based CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service, which is conducting the probe. “The rate of scooter injuries in Austin may be consistent with what’s being noticed in other places, or it may be much higher.”

[…]

The CDC Austin study will calculate injuries per number of scooters ridden and per mile traveled. As researchers speak with those hurt, they’ll ask about road conditions, street types, weather, helmet use and behaviors, including alcohol use while riding.

While the study continues, Austin’s transportation department announced a “pause” in issuing new licenses to dockless mobility operators to assess the level of demand for those currently licensed and to ensure safety. The city is also reviewing its current rules and expects to revise the scooter rider ordinance this spring.

This story references the earlier study that was done in California, whose methodology was slightly different. The city of Austin just witnessed its first fatality involving a scooter, which would make it the third nationally. I look forward to seeing the results, and even more the recommendations for how cities should try to make these things safer to operate.

The down side of scooters

Watch out for that tree. And that pedestrian, and that street light, and that strange bump in the sidewalk, and that abandoned scooter someone just left lying there…

Photo: Richard A. Marini, San Antonio Express-News

In September 2017, Tarak Trivedi, an emergency room doctor, and Catherine Lerer, a personal injury attorney, started seeing electric scooters everywhere. Santa Monica, California, where they live, was the first city where the scooter company Bird rolled out its rechargeable two-wheelers, which could be rented with a smartphone app and dropped off anywhere. Lime and other scooter companies soon followed. As riders zipped down the street, reaching speeds of 15 miles per hour without helmets, both Trivedi and Lerer thought of the inevitable injuries.

Soon enough, victims of e-scooter accidents, both riders and pedestrians, began to show up in the ER. “I started seeing patients who had significant injuries,” Trivedi recalls. Calls about scooter-related injures poured into Lerer’s office. She says she now gets at least one new call a day. “We recognized that this is a very important technological innovation that has a significant public health impact,” Trivedi says.

More than a year after the Birds landed, Trivedi and researchers at the University of California-Los Angeles have authored the first study to quantify the public health impact of e-scooters. Their peer-reviewed study, published in JAMA Network Open, details 365 days of scooter crashes, collisions, and wipeouts. Digging through records from two Los Angeles-area emergency rooms, the researchers found 249 patients with injuries serious enough to warrant a trip to the ER. In comparison, they found 195 bicyclists with injuries and 181 pedestrians with similar injuries during the same period.

The goal of the study was to characterize how people were getting hurt, as well as who was getting hurt. Of the 249 cases the study looked at, 228 were riders, most of whom were brought to the ER after falling, colliding with an object, or being hit by a moving vehicle. The other patients were injured after being hit by a rider, tripping over a scooter in the street, or getting hurt while attempting to move a parked scooter. About 31 percent of patients had fractures, and around 40 percent suffered from head injuries. Most were between the ages of 18 and 40; the youngest was eight and the oldest was 89. While many of the injuries were minor, severe and costly injuries like bleeding in the skull and spinal fractures were also documented. Fifteen people were admitted to the hospital.

Trivedi thinks that the actual number of scooter injuries was likely higher, since the study took a conservative approach to tallying up patients, focusing only on standing electric scooters and dropping many ambiguous cases. (It also eliminated instances where riding a scooter was not the cause of a scooter-related injury—such as assaults where a scooter was used as a weapon, or injuries during attempts to steal a scooter.)

That’s from California, and it’s a partial picture of what has been observed in Los Angeles, based on two emergency rooms. The authors didn’t extrapolate from there, but it’s clear there would be a lot more than just what they focused on. That’s the first study of its kind of scooter injuries, but we do have some anecdotal evidence from Texas cities where the scooters have invaded, including San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas, where there has also been one reported fatality, though it is not clear if that person (the victim of a hit-and-run) had been using the scooter at the time of his death.

Let’s be clear, cars cause vastly more havoc every day than scooters do. The magnitude of injury and death resulting from our automobile-centric culture just dwarfs anything even an onslaught of electric scooters can do. In the long run, more scooters may lead to less vehicular damage, if it means more people rely on them in conjunction with transit to take fewer trips by car. That doesn’t mean we should ignore or minimize the potential for injury that scooters represent. It’s up to cities and states to figure out how to regulate these things in a way that maximizes their benefit and minimizes their risk. That means we need good data about the real-world effect of scooter usage, and we need to avoid being unduly influenced by the scooter companies and the venture capital behind them. Let’s pay attention to this stuff and be responsible about what we learn.

Take a Tesla to Austin

Because sure, why not?

Want to ride in a Tesla? For $250, you can be chauffeured on a one-way trip between Houston and Austin.

Dallas is just $400 away.

Austin-based ElecTrip is billed as an energy-efficient alternative to private flights or high-end buses. Ride with colleagues or friends, and the per-seat cost — the $250 and $400 price tags are for the entire car, with prices varying based on the Tesla model and membership in a subscription plan — becomes more comparable to commercial flights or high-end bus service Vonlane.

“A lot of people haven’t necessarily ridden in a Tesla yet,” said Eliott Lee, co-founder of ElecTrip, “so it’s a pretty neat experience for them.”

[…]

The trip comes with Wi-Fi, drinks and snacks. Riders are picked up from their door and then dropped off at their destination. ElecTrip uses the Tesla Model X SUV, Model S and Model 3. The $250 and $400 prices are typical for riding in a Model X.

The company has provided more than 150 rides since May 2018. ElecTrip owns one Tesla, and it pays other Tesla owners to use their vehicles. The chauffeurs are selected from highly rated Uber drivers that provide the Uber Black service, described as luxury rides with professional drivers, and Uber Select service, described as premium rides in high-end cars.

I mean, I guess I can see the appeal. If you’re not the prone-to-motion-sickness type, you could read or watch a movie or surf the web in comfort, for a price comparable to flying. (They cite a $550 roundtrip fare for flying from Houston to Austin. I checked Southwest, and that’s fairly accurate. Megabus is still way, way cheaper, though.) I just have to wonder what the size of the market for this is. (I had the same thought about Hitch, which this story references.) They’re averaging fewer than 20 rides per month so far. How many do you think they’d need to do to be financially viable? Is the lure of riding in a Tesla that strong? Color me skeptical.

We’re already on the next generation of scooters

And of course, they’re coming to Austin.

Already home to thousands of electric scooters, many of them crowding downtown sidewalks, the Central Texas city will be the first to experience a new generation of shareable electric scooters from an Oxnard, California-based company called Ojo Electric. Unlike well-known scooter companies such as Bird and Lime, Ojo’s models are bulkier and include a seat.

Referred to as a “light electric vehicle,” the scooters can travel 50 miles on a single charge and have a top speed of 20 mph, in compliance with city regulations, the company said in a news release. The company says their vehicles are designed for bike lanes and streets.

On its website, the company says that riders can sit or stand, as well as play music or listen to podcasts over the vehicle’s built-in Bluetooth speakers. Ojo says those speakers will also allow the company to communicate traffic, construction zone and speed reduction alerts to riders.

The devices launch in Austin on Feb. 1 and cost $1.25 to start and 18 cents per minute of riding time.

“You can go a little bit faster than the kick scooters that we see on the street,” Elliott McFadden, executive director of Bike Share of Austin, which is working closely with Ojo, told NBC affiliate KXAN, noting that the scooters allow riders to carry things in a basket on the back.

[…]

Promising durability and regular checkups by company employees, Ojo is marketing itself as an alternative to companies such as Bird and Lime, which have been accused of placing unsafe vehicles on city streets, where they’re used by unsuspecting riders who are later injured.

While many Austinites have embraced the electric-scooter phenomenon, especially during the hot summer months, social media is filled with examples of infuriated locals ranting about the number of devices crowding city streets and weaving through traffic.

Basically, these are Vespas, not souped-up Razors. They might be fine for bike lanes, but if they were in Houston they’d be illegal on bike trails. As far as that goes, I’m honestly not sure if I’m relieved or a little insulted that none of these new companies promising mobility miracles have taken their chances in our fair city just yet. I suppose I’m glad to let other cities be the beta testers, but one way or another these things are going to get here, and they will be part of the transit landscape. Given the big Metro election this fall, I’d prefer we get some idea of how well they fit in and what we need to do to take optimal advantage of them before we plot that course. In the meantime, do let us know what you think of these things, Austin. Curbed and Culture Map have more.

Hitch-ing a ride

I’m kind of fascinated by this story about another ridesharing app/service.

High-tech hitchhiking has arrived in Texas.

Austin startup Hitch offers a ride-sharing service connecting people driving between Houston and Austin with people needing rides.

“Over 10,000 cars make trips every day just between Austin and Houston, and 90 percent of them have just one occupant — the driver,” CEO Kush Singh said in a news release.

Here’s how it works: Someone with a 2003-or-newer vehicle who is planning to drive between Houston and Austin downloads the “Hitch – Regional Ridesharing” app and registers as a driver. After a background and driving record check, which can take up to 24 hours, the drivers are authorized to pick up passengers.

Those needing a ride will enter a virtual queue and then proceed to a physical Hitch pickup location, which will be a public place like a coffee shop along the route. Riders are ID verified using scanned driver licenses and facial recognition,  and they must have a valid credit card on file with Hitch.

Drivers simply pull over at a Hitch pickup location and then collect the next person in line. They can pick up multiple riders — with each person allowed one typical-sized suitcase and a small personal item — and the middle seat is never occupied.

The concept is simple enough, and I can see some appeal for both drivers and riders. I have no idea if there’s enough demand on either side of that equation to sustain this, but that’s not my problem. If you want to try this for yourself, be careful about how you search for it, as there are other apps called Hitch out there. I found this particular app in the Google Play store on my Android phone. It had a 2.6 average rating, with five one-star reviews out of eight total. Megabus tickets are pretty cheap, y’all. I’m just saying.

MLS comes to Austin

Welcome to the big leagues.

After a long and often rocky courtship, Austin and Major League Soccer became a match.

The league formally welcomed Austin as its 27th franchise with a raucous downtown party Tuesday full of chanting and flag-waving, and Commissioner Don Garber calling the Texas capital a “perfect fit.” MLS said Austin will begin play in the 2021 season.

“We think of us being a league for a new America,” Garber said. “Austin is diverse. It has enormous energy. It has people who really believe in the city. … We need to be here.”

The move has been long expected as Austin became the target destination for efforts last year to move the Columbus Crew. The Crew instead will stay in Ohio under a new ownership group.

Austin recently signed a lease with Austin majority owner Anthony Precourt, a California-based investor, to provide land for a privately-funded $225 million stadium. The Austin venue will be an open-air facility with a grass playing field on land that has been vacant for 25 years.

“We’re going to unite this city. We’re going to fight for this city. We’re going to make you proud,” Precourt said.

Precourt’s attempts to move the Crew, a bedrock MLS franchise, drew fierce resistance in Columbus as fans rallied to save their team and state and local officials filed lawsuits attempting to block the move.

In Austin, a divided city council argued for months over the stadium deal before it was approved on a narrow vote. Instead of moving the Crew, MLS and Precourt agreed that team would be placed under a new ownership group that includes Cleveland Browns Dee and Jimmy Haslem.

MLS has long eyed Austin — although quietly until 2018 — as an expansion opportunity. Precourt’s initial purchase deal for the Crew included a promise to keep the team in Columbus for at least 10 years, but it also had a clause that would let him move to Austin. And before Precourt announced his desire to move, MLS had trademarked Austin FC and Austin Athletic as possible names for a franchise even though the city had not applied for expansion.

Here’s the official MLS story. I’m happy for Austin, but it turns out that not everyone else is.

Austin FC won’t join MLS until 2021, but it is already the league’s most-hated team.

[…]

So, why does everyone hate Austin FC? The answer is simple: Anthony Precourt.

Precourt owned the Columbus Crew, and announced in 2017 that he planned to relocate the club to Austin because Columbus would not provide a publicly funded stadium. By threatening the move to Austin, Precourt essentially held the club hostage until Jimmy and Dee Haslam partnered with Pete Edwards to save the Crew.

MLS saw the massive public outcry against Precourt’s ownership tactics and still rewarded him with a shiny, new franchise in the city of his choice — all while deserving cities like Sacramento, St. Louis and Phoenix are still vying for the last remaining spot.

Austin has a $225 million, 20,000-seat stadium slated for completion by 2021. Precourt Sports Ventures is funding that project after an agreement with the city.

We already know that Columbus will root viciously against Austin FC. It’s personal for Crew fans. But if MLS decides to stay firm on that 28-team figure, soccer fans from the left-out cities will be rooting against Austin as well.

Click over to see a sample of Twitter reactions. You can add soccer fans in San Antonio to that list, too. Well, it never hurts to have a rivalry in sports. I can’t wait to see how that plays out.

It’s bill-filing season

Here are some highlights from Day One:

  • House Bill 49, by Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, would get rid of daylight saving time in Texas. Some lawmakers have tried to do this in past sessions.
  • House Bill 63, by Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, would make it a civil offense — not a crime — to be caught with less than one ounce of marijuana. Moody’s bill was one of several filed Monday aiming to loosen marijuana laws in Texas.
  • House Bill 84, also by Moody, would repeal the section of the Texas penal code that lists “homosexual conduct” as a crime. The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that the section is unenforceable, but it remains on the books.
  • House Bill 222, by Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, would prohibit Texas cities from adopting or enforcing ordinances that would require employers to offer their employees paid sick leave. San Antonio and Austin have passed paid sick leave ordinances this year. Soon after Austin passed its ordinance, state Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, announced that he would file legislation banning the ordinances, but Workman was defeated in Tuesday’s election.
  • House Joint Resolution 24, by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, would propose a constitutional amendment requiring the state to fund at least half of the cost of funding public schools. If the amendment were approved by voters, local property tax collections would not apply to the state’s share.
  • Senate Bill 66, by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, would reduce and eventually eliminate the state’s franchise tax.

My reaction, in order: Oppose, favor, favor, oppose, favor, neutral. It makes me happy that the pro-sick employees faction had to find a new lackey after their original sponsor got tossed. I’ll be following this stuff as usual as we morph into the legislative season.

World’s worst pastors file suit against Austin’s equal rights ordinance

Exactly what you’d expect from these jerks.

A Houston-based religious nonprofit behind the so-called bathroom bill is suing the City of Austin over its anti-discrimination hiring ordinance. The U.S. Pastor Council filed suit in a federal district court late last week, alleging the city rule’s lack of exemptions for churches or other religiously affiliated groups violates state and federal law.

The suit asks the court to block the enforcement of the ordinance on behalf of its 25 member churches in the Austin area “because these member churches rely on the Bible rather than modern-day cultural fads for religious and moral guidance, they will not hire practicing homosexuals or transgendered people as clergy.”

In a June letter to the Austin City Council, Executive Director David Welch reasoned that the ordinance didn’t provide wide enough berth for religious exemption – and that Catholic churches refusing to hire women as priests or “homosexuals as clergy” would be violating the city law.

“These are the stingiest religious exemptions we have ever seen in an anti-discrimination law,” Welch wrote. “It is inexcusable that you would purport to subject a church’s hiring decisions to your city’s antidiscrimination ordinance.”

In a written statement today, the city defended its anti-discrimination ordinance.

“The ordinance reflects our values and culture respecting the dignity and rights of every individual,” said city spokesperson David Green. “We are prepared to vigorously defend the City against this challenge to the City’s civil rights protections.”

There’s a copy of the lawsuit embedded in the story. This is all transparent bullshit, but that’s par for the course with these clowns. The good news is that the good guys aren’t worried about this, or the accompanying state lawsuit that was also filed.

Texas Values, another conservative Christian organization, filed a separate, broader lawsuit in state district court, also on Saturday, seeking to invalidate the ordinance as it applies to both employment and housing decisions.

[…]

Texas Values’ lawsuit also invokes the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says that, in general, governments cannot “substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion.”

“The city of Austin’s so-called anti-discrimination laws violate the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act by punishing individuals, private businesses and religious nonprofits, including churches, for their religious beliefs on sexuality and marriage,” Jonathan Saenz, the president of Texas Values, said in a statement to The Texas Tribune.

[…]

“These lawsuits certainly highlight a coordinated effort among people who want to target LGBTQ people in court,” said Paul Castillo, a senior attorney at Lambda Legal, an advocacy firm for LGBTQ rights.

Castillo said he has not examined Texas Values’ suit but that the city of Austin “is on solid legal ground” in the U.S. Pastor Council lawsuit.

“In order to walk into court, you have to demonstrate some sort of injury,” Castillo said. “It doesn’t appear that the city of Austin is enforcing or has enforced its anti-discrimination laws in a way that would infringe upon these religions.”

He added that the timing of the lawsuits is “certainly suspect” as groups attempt to politicize LGBTQ issues ahead of the upcoming legislative session.

Jason Smith, a Fort Worth employment lawyer, said he expects both lawsuits to “go nowhere.” He points to former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which Smith said made it clear that religious beliefs do not justify discrimination.

Still, he said people should be “worried by the repeated attempts to limit the Supreme Court’s announcement that the Constitution protects gays and lesbians.”

There is currently no statewide law that protects LGBTQ employees from discrimination, but San Antonio, Dallas and Fort Worth have nondiscrimination ordinances similar to Austin’s. Smith said the other cities will be watching how the lawsuits in Austin unfold and that some cities may even file briefs to make the court aware of their positions.

Good to know, but as always it all comes down to what the judges make of it. I guess I have more faith in the federal courts at this point than our state courts, at least at the higher levels, but we’ll see. ThinkProgress has more.

The firefighter pay parity referendum won’t be decided by the voters

it will be decided by the courts. Here’s a story out of Austin to illustrate.

Former Travis County judge Bill Aleshire has sued the city of Austin in the Texas Supreme Court, challenging the ballot language of a proposition up for a local vote in November.

The lawsuit filed Monday challenges ballot language related to Proposition K, which calls for an outside audit of government efficiency at City HallThe Austin City Council approved the ballot wording last week.

At that council meeting, some supporters of the proposition bristled at the language, which includes a cost estimate for the audit of between $1 million and $5 million. Proposition backers complain the inclusion of the cost estimate will bias voters against the measure because the wording does not mention any possible savings that could result from an audit.

You can follow the links and read the writ, which is embedded in that Statesman. I don’t care about any of that. My point here is that while Council has voted to put the measure on the ballot, we don’t have ballot language yet. Does anyone think for even a minute that the language that Mayor Turner will provide and Council will approve will be satisfactory to all of the stakeholders in this fight? Does anyone think it is possible for this referendum to be a) simple enough for everyone to be clear on what they’re voting on, and b) thorough enough for it to adequately cover all the relevant details? These were the points of contention in the lawsuits over the term limits referendum, and the Renew Houston referendum. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: The losing side in this vote, whichever side it is, will file a lawsuit arguing that the ballot language was inadequate, inaccurate, unintelligible, whatever else. Given the lifespan of the Renew Houston battle – which as you know is still not over – we’ll be handing this fight off to the next Mayor, and that is very much assuming a second term for Mayor Turner. On top of all of the other reasons why this is a bad idea, this is why this is a bad idea.

Austin drops its bag ban

What choice did they have?

The City of Austin says it will no longer enforce a ban on single-use plastic bags at most retail outlets, following a state Supreme Court ruling last month that struck down Laredo’s bag ban.

The court ruled Laredo’s ban was at odds with state law, but urged the Legislature to pass more specific laws to allow similar bans in the future.

The Texas Health and Safety Code says that local governments in Texas may not “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.” Opponents of bag bans argued that language makes the bans illegal, and the court agreed, saying state lawmakers haven’t effectively defined how plastic bags fit into that regulatory framework.

[…]

“Following the recent ruling from the Texas Supreme Court, the City will not enforce our current rules,” a city spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “While it’s disappointing that the City is losing a tool to help protect the environment, we are also confident that the Austin community will continue to do their best to minimize plastic bag waste. Meanwhile, the City of Austin will continue to educate Austinites about the benefits of bringing reuseable bags with them every time they shop.”

Austin officials say prohibiting retailers from giving away disposable plastic bags helped reduce litter, save wildlife and stop bags from clogging up storm drains.

“The people of Austin have gotten used to this. Not a single job was lost. Not a single business was harmed,” said Andrew Dobbs with Texas Campaign for the Environment. “We hope businesses and residents of this city will continue to do what works, regardless of what the Texas Supreme Court says.”

See here for the background. AG Ken Paxton has sent a letter to the other cities that had similar ordinances warning them they need to do the same, and I’m sure they will. The good news here, if you want to be optimistic, is that this was a statutory ruling, not a constitutional one. Which is to say, the Lege could fix this by amending the law in question. That’s not going to happen without a massive change in the type of legislator we elect, but it is possible, and something we can work towards.

More on flood tunnels

They’re a thing, I swear.

Japanese flood tunnel

While it’s far from clear whether it will ever happen, the concept almost immediately generated widespread response when it was announced earlier this spring. Local officials told the Houston Chronicle it’s outside-the-box thinking with benefits that could outweigh the heavy price tag. Residents reading about the project on social media have expressed fears of sinkholes from the underground construction. Even entrepreneur Elon Musk, who owns tunnel construction company The Boring Company, jumped into the conversation on Twitter.

So would such a tunnel system really be a logical solution for Houston’s flood woes?

Drilled 100 to 200 feet underground, the underground channels act as temporary storage for floodwater during intense rainstorms, said Larry Larson, a senior policy adviser at the Association of State Floodplain Managers. Once the rain has stopped, the stormwater can be used for a variety of purposes. It can be pumped back to the surface into a river or wetlands or even used to recharge aquifers.

If cities have a section of river that regularly overflows, a tunnel can convey extra water underground and help reduce the amount of water that flows onto land during storms, said Christof Spieler, project manager of the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium. Large-scale tunnels can also act as an additional set of waterways, taking pressure off undersized drainage networks, he said.

But Larson and Spieler said it’s hard to tell if such a system would make sense for Houston — a low-lying coastal city that’s experienced three 500-year floods in the past three years.

[…]

Flood control tunnels are nothing new to Texas — San Antonio built the San Pedro Creek Tunnel in 1991 and completed the longer San Antonio River Tunnel in 1997. Austin continues to put the finishing touches on the Waller Creek Tunnel and a tunnel in East Dallas received the long-awaited go-ahead in February.

Should the district choose to pursue the project, tunnels could cost up to $100 million per mile, Steve Costello, the city’s chief resilience officer, told the Houston Chronicle.

See here for the background. There’s a longish and very wonky conversation with Larson and Spieler about flood control, which if you read it you will know is basically an oxymoron, so do read the full article. There wasn’t any mention of other Texas flood tunnels in the earlier article, so I appreciate the Trib bringing those examples. I have a hard time imagining that this will happen here, but as noted the cost of the study is negligible, so why not at least examine the possibility? The worst that can happen is you wind up crossing it off the list.

I got those “too many traffic lights between Houston and Austin” blues

But maybe not for long. Depending on which route you drive.

[T]he Texas Department of Transportation is in the final stages of a decadeslong effort to at least make that 170-mile trip from Austin to Houston free of traffic lights.

Right now, there are just five traffic signals left on Texas 71 between Interstate 35 in South Austin and I-10 in Columbus, all of them between Austin and Bastrop. And TxDOT has engineering plans and money set aside to eliminate four of those lights by adding overpasses over the next four years. The fifth one — at FM 1209 just west of Bastrop — is in the cross hairs as well, but the timing of its removal is less certain, TxDOT Austin district engineer Terry McCoy told me.

[…]

Texas 71, other than in Austin and through Bastrop’s commercial district, has no frontage roads. And it has scads of roads and private drives entering it throughout the other, more rural sections. So to turn it into interstate now would require TxDOT not only to acquire a lot of right of way for what would be a wider highway in many places, but also to pay some property owners for lost access to the road.

Or, more likely, to build many, many miles of frontage roads. Either way, the cost would be enormous. This isn’t a project that’s going to happen in the foreseeable future.

What TxDOT is doing instead — trying to eliminate traffic lights little by little — is the next best thing.

During my youth in Austin, through the mid-1970s, a trip to Houston included going through Bastrop, Smithville, La Grange and Columbus, including a few lights in each town and the odd right or left turn. The towns broke up the trip and were interesting to look at out the window, but going through them added a lot of time to the trip. By the early 1990s, TxDOT had completed loops around all those towns and few traffic lights remained east of FM 973 in Del Valle.

But little by little, as development stretched southeast of Austin, traffic lights were added first to that Bastrop bypass and then to several other spots along the way. About 15 years ago, TxDOT began to take those on, building overpasses and associated frontage lanes at several spots in Bastrop and major roads along the way like Texas 21. More recently, TxDOT installed a deep underpass on Texas 71 at Riverside Drive and a short tollway to bypass traffic signals at Texas 130’s frontage roads.

But lights remain at Ross Road and Kellam Road in Del Valle, at Tucker Hill Lane and Pope Bend Road about halfway to Bastrop, and at FM 1209.

TxDOT has set aside $48 million to build overpasses at Ross and Kellam — work set to begin as soon as fall 2019 and be done by summer 2021 — and $52.6 million for overpasses at Tucker Hill and Pope Bend. That second set of projects, TxDOT hopes, will start in fall 2020 and be done by summer 2022. All of this, TxDOT officials caution, could be delayed somewhat by environmental clearance work and acquisition of right of way.

The FM 1209 overpass, TxDOT estimates, would cost an additional $35 million. That money has not been nailed down.

McCoy, by the way, said he would like to make similar progress on U.S. 290, the northern route to Houston, but it has far more traffic signals standing in the way.

So, something like five years from now, a driver might be able to get to and from Houston on Texas 71 without hitting a red light.

So good news if you take the I-10/SH71 route between Houston and Austin, which puts you into (or takes you out of) the southern end of Austin. If you’re coming to or from the northern side via US290, hang in there. That may be a more interesting challenge, since there are traffic lights far away from both endpoints, in places like Chappell Hill and Brenham. And like SH71, the story of how US290 has evolved over time is similar. It used to wend its way through lots of small towns – I still remember a McDonald’s in Hempstead that was the best available bathroom for miles in either direction – but has now ruthlessly bypassed them all, making the drive faster and more efficient but much less scenic. We’ll see what comes of this. In the meantime, if you’re wondering why I-10 doesn’t connect Houston directly to Austin instead of San Antonio – look at a map, if you drew a more-or-less straight line from Houston to El Paso, you’d go through Austin – click over and read the answer.

“Families Belong Together”

Make some noise, then make sure everyone you know gets out and votes.

As the temperature inched to the triple digits and sweating crowds swarmed the south lawn of the Texas State Capitol, speakers declared with grief, hope, indignation and determination that the Trump administration’s immigration policies do not reflect their values.

Parents brought their children. Grandparents brought their grandchildren. College friends and church groups all stood and cheered as, one after another, immigrants, activists, doctors and religious leaders took to the stage and called for the unification of the thousands of immigrant children who were separated from their parents by the federal government when crossing into the United States. The “Families Belong Together” rally in Austin was just one of many held across the state and nation, from Houston and El Paso to Washington, D.C. and New York to Dodge City, Kansas and Missoula, Montana.

“While our president and his supporters have sought to divide us, we are here in defiance,” said Michelle Castillo of the Children’s Defense Fund of Texas, to a cheering crowd of thousands in Austin. “To see each other’s humanity. Across race, across party lines.”

[…]

Bishop Joel Martinez of the United Methodist Church told the crowd he was hopeful seeing so many people in attendance. But, he said, nothing will get accomplished unless they go out and vote.

“Those who legislate and govern must answer at the polls for their acts,” he said.

That’s exactly right, and we cannot forget it. As a child of the 70s and 80s, I grew up on horror stories about life on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. So many times we were told about the horrible things that those repressive totalitarian governments did to the people who lived there. Well, the things we’re hearing right now, in our own country, about children being taken by force and deception, parents being told they can only get them back if they agree to be deported, preschoolers appearing by themselves in court – all of them would have been totally plausible if they’d been told about the Soviet Union by Ronald Reagan. I can’t adequately express what a fucking disgrace, embarrassment, travesty this is.

So get angry. Get inspired by the pictures of the protesters. And get fired up to vote in November. ThinkProgress and Daily Kos have more.

Where the anti-vaxxers are

A lot of them are right here.

Four Texas cities, including Houston, rank among the 15 metropolitan “hotspots” of vaccine exemptions, more than any other state, according to a new study.

The study found Austin, Fort Worth and Plano also are among the nation’s cities with the highest number of kindergartners not getting vaccinated for non-medical reasons. Since 2009, the proportion of children opting out of such recommended vaccines increased in Texas and 11 other states, the study showed.

“There are some scary trends we were able to identify,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, a Houston vaccine scientist and one of the study authors. “They’re a sign that anti-vaccine groups, such as Texans for Vaccine Choice, have been very successful at lobbying efforts – both of the Texas legislature and through social media and other advocacy — to convince parents not to vaccinate their kids.”

[…]

The overall number of people invoking non-medical exemptions isn’t yet high enough to threaten herd immunity, the idea that vaccination of most of the population provides protection for those individuals without immunity to a contagious disease. But public health officials fear clusters of “anti-vaxxers” could leave some children vulnerable.

Texas’ increasing exemptions have been well documented. Though the number is still small, they have spiked from less than 3,000 in 2003 to more than 45,000 of the state’s roughly 5.5 million schoolchildren today, a 19-fold increase.

Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital said he undertook the study because of the Texas increase. He said wanted to look at whether it was a phenomenon unique to the state or mirrored elsewhere. National vaccination rates haven’t changed much in recent years.

You can see the study here. Dr. Hotez is correct to identify the political problem as being a key aspect to this. One clear pathway to getting more kids vaccinated is to take away or at least tighten up the so-called “conscience” objections to vaccines. If the law says you have to vaccinate your kids, the odds are pretty good that you will. But first you have to pass such a law, and right now we have a legislature that’s not inclined to do that.

Scooters come to San Antonio

Beware, y’all.

Scooter!

Electric scooters started popping up on the streets of San Antonio early Friday morning as part of an initiative by Los Angeles-based scooter-sharing company Bird to provide an alternative mode of transportation, mostly for those downtown.

The scooters, or “Birds” as the company calls them, are reserved through a mobile app that charges a base fee of $1 per ride with an additional 15 cents charged per minute of use. A map on the application shows the location of available scooters, which are typically clustered with others in a “Nest.” They may, however, be picked up and dropped off almost anywhere.

“As San Antonio rapidly grows and develops, it’s clear there’s an urgent need for additional transit options that are accessible, affordable, and reliable for all residents and local communities,” according to a statement released by Bird to the Rivard Report on Friday morning. “Birds are a great solution for short “last-mile” trips that are too long to walk, but too short to drive.”

[…]

“Right now, more than one-third of cars trips in the U.S. are less than two miles long,” according to Bird. “Bird’s mission is to replace these trips — get people out of their cars, reduce traffic and congestion, and cut carbon emissions.”

While the idea might seem like an environmentally friendly mode of transportation for San Antonians, City officials aren’t quite on board — yet. The City had hoped to delay local operations until rules could be established for dockless transportation options.

Releases of similar vehicles around the country have surprised city officials, prompting some, such as those in Austin, to temporarily impound the scooters.

John Jacks, director of the Center City Development and Operations (CCDO) department, told the Rivard Report on Thursday that while the City hopes to coordinate with companies to keep their scooters on the street, it has the right to remove obstructing vehicles left in places such as public right of ways like sidewalks, streets, or trails.

The department first considered regulating dockless bikes in January, before the scooters became a widespread and highly-funded phenomenon. Jacks said his department would likely pitch a more comprehensive pilot ordinance to the City Council’s Transportation Committee in August.

“We’ve asked them to hold off until we at least have a briefing or some kind of pilot program for Council committee,” Jacks told the Rivard Report earlier this month. “There’s currently not any specific ordinance that prohibits it. … We may do nothing, it just depends [on the circumstances].”

Other scooter companies have expressed interest in entering the San Antonio market. Blue Duck Scooters, LimeBike, and Spin all have communicated with City officials in recent months.

See here for some background. Unlike Austin, San Antonio appears to have had some warning about the impending arrival of these thing, so maybe it will be a bit less disruptive. I guess the scooters are positioning themselves not just as an alternative to cars for those short trips, but also to bikes. I can’t speak to the San Antonio experience, but when I was working downtown and I needed to get somewhere that was too far to walk, I used BCycle. To be fair, that was dependent on the kiosk locations – there was one about a block from my office, so I just needed to pick my destination carefully – which is an advantage the scooters have, at least until dockless bike sharing gets implemented. Whether people will give up car travel for these short trips is likely more a function of how safe people think scooter travel is, and how inconvenient driving is. I’m skeptical, but I’m also old and cranky and not the target demographic here, so pay me no mind.

Too many people don’t get sick leave

From the CPPP:

All Texans should be able to care for themselves or a loved one if they get sick, regardless of what kind of job they do or how much they earn. Approximately 4.3 million Texas workers – or 40 percent of the total workforce – lack access to paid sick days, and it’s estimated that between 39 and 44 percent of private sector workers in the U.S. are not able to earn paid sick days.

Paid sick days are also a public health issue. When people are forced to go to work sick, everyone—employers, coworkers, and customers—is worse off. Children also face the consequences when their classmates come to school sick because their parents can’t afford to take the day off to care for them. Texas public employers, cities, and our state should work to implement paid sick days policies, which will improve the financial stability and health of all Texans.

Our new policy brief examines the inadequate access to paid sick days in Texas and highlights how businesses and families can thrive when workers are able to earn paid sick days. Across the country, there is growing momentum and support for city, county, and statewide paid sick days policies, which require employers to provide a certain number of paid sick days to workers each year based on the number of hours worked. To date, 44 cities, counties, states, and Washington, D.C. have passed paid sick days policies.

Everyone gets sick, and everyone should have the ability to earn paid sick days. A multi-city or statewide policy would ensure a high-quality standard so that all workers are able to care for themselves or a family member.

You can read the report here. I agree with this of course, as a matter of public health and of basic humanity, but as we know we live in a state where the business interests and Republican elected officials vehemently oppose the idea. The city of Austin has passed an ordinance to require sick leave, and the city of Dallas is poised to vote on a similar measure, but neither of those will matter if the current lawsuit or the sure-to-come legislation to preempt such ordinances succeed. You know what I’m going to say before I say it, but I’m going to say it anyway: Nothing will change until we change who we elect. If you’re fine with being surrounded by sick people in the course of your daily life, then keep doing what you’re doing. Otherwise, you might consider fighting for something better.